Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A day on Mt. Marcy

Who’s ready to leap free of the world’s traces: 
come sit with me among white clouds?” 
-- Han Shan, translated by J. P. Seaton

Mt. Marcy as seen from Skylight, Adirondack High Peaks, summer solstice

Join me for a day on Mt. Marcy, New York's highest peak.

Have you ever stayed on a mountain all day? Not just for an hour or two, and especially not to simply tap the top and turn back down. All day -- from the quiet dew-bright morning through the dull glare and noisy chatter of noon; as the afternoon clouds cast shadows across the landscape and the ravens swoop by on rising thermals; until the dusky blues of early evening start to swallow each distant ridge and the call of the white-throated sparrow rings out in the softening air. Or from an exhausting, muggy morning climb through an even hotter, muggier midday; as late morning puffs visibly expand and begin to thicken, darken, tower; until curtains of hail-laced rain begin to swallow neighboring ranges and the mountain reverberates with rumbles of thunder. (In this case, it is no longer wise to stay on the summit.)

Before I started working as a summit steward, I'd never stayed on a mountain all day, and I'm not sure that I'd climbed many prominences more than once. Now I spend all day, every day, on one or another of the Adirondack High Peaks -- Wright, Algonquin, Cascade, Marcy.

Join me.

First, the ascent. To get to the top of the state, you have to earn your way up -- up a long, steep, bouldery trail, made even muddier in an especially rainy summer. [See previous post / rant.] Camping out cuts a couple of miles off the trip, but it's still a long climb. (No, it never gets easier. It just becomes more familiar -- after a few dozen repetitions, you learn exactly which rocks you want to step on, which maneuvers to make, how long the steep sections last and where you'll need to pause to catch your breath.)

On this day, mid-July, the air is humid but cool, mist wafting through the forest. As you gain elevation, you leave behind the mixed stands of maple and beech and transition into a magical world of lichen-draped fir and spruce. After rock-hopping across Marcy Brook and navigating an especially steep, boulder-strewn section, the trail levels off and winds through lush carpets of moss. Normally, you'd have your first peek out to the northeast -- the shoulder of Tabletop, profile of Big Slide -- but today you only have a blank wall of white. Pause to breathe. Onward.

Trail en route to Marcy (on a slightly nicer day)
Turning at the Hopkins junction, you automatically look up, expecting your first view of the summit, but, of course, it too is obscured. Same thing with Marcy Plateau, a from your destination -- nice open vista of the inside of a cloud. By now, you begin to suspect that your day is going to be long, wet, and featureless -- instead of the arc of sun across the sky, you'll again lose track of time and space. ("Again" because the previous day had also been entirely fogged-in. In fact, mist had begun to swallow the landscape two days earlier -- everything to the north was gone by mid-afternoon, and the world to the west had mostly disappeared by the time you began your descent.) Sure enough, when you pop up above treeline, you can barely see the first cairn, much less the neighboring peaks and valleys. Pause to breathe.

You know the rest of the route to the top, winding through pockets of stunted, gnarled krummholz and past lush alpine bogs and snowbank communities, over steep outcrops and up a slight chimney, cairns standing silent guards. Although the air is calm during the climb, you should have remembered how the wind had shifted yesterday afternoon -- you're on the leeward side of the mountain. Rising over the final crest, you're caught off-guard by a gust that nearly sends you slipping backward. Catch your balance, breathe.


Two cairns later, you're at the base of the summit rock. Had you not already been there before, you'd know you'd arrived by the presence of a large plaque celebrating the centennial of the first [European-American] ascent in 1837 of "Tahawus", supposedly the Algonquin name for Marcy. (Though "cloud-splitter" would certainly have been an apt name for the peak, historians believe this is more of a wishful 19th century invention.) (Not that it's any more reasonable to name a peak after a politician who likely never saw much less climbed it, Governor William Learned Marcy.) Usually, you would spend a few minutes looking around, then settling in for the day -- changing from hiking boots into sandals, layering on coats and hats, eating second breakfast -- but the featureless sky has begun spitting rain, so you merely tuck into your raingear and poncho and huddle out of the wind, below the plaque.


Mist swirls. Cairns appear and disappear. Peaceful. Grateful, just to feel warm under your poncho.

A half hour-ish later, the patter of droplets on your hood gives way to an almost imperceptible silence. Finally, you can change out of your wet hiking clothes and into warm, dry layers. Thus cosily attired, you bring your thermos of tea and second breakfast up with you to the very top, where the USGS benchmark used to be. In the wind, the rock and your rain gear dry rapidly. A lonely little red eft is clambering over the top. You're not quite sure where he came from or where he's going, but you appreciate the bright splash of color against the greyness. Red eft, green lichen, white sandwort, grey sky, mist still swirls.

Red eft (juvenile stage of the eastern / red-spotted newt)

You pull out your sketchbook and work on adding details to previous rough sketches -- shading to the skies, shadows on the land. A half hour? an hour? later, you're beginning to get cold, so stash your gear and begin to do trail work, using small rocks to delineate the trail and help hold down soil. Although that focuses your attention, it gets repetitive after a while, so you return to the summit and pull out your dog-eared, scribbled-in, weather-beaten copy of Arctic Dreams. Just as you do so, the sky begins to spit again -- back into the poncho, out of the wind. Mist swirls. Cairns come and go.

Around 11 a.m., it stops raining and even begins to glow a little. Imperceptibly, at first -- you find yourself squinting; you cast a slight shadow. Then there's visible cloud definition -- you find yourself perched between a thick but breaking carpet of altostratus and an ocean of fog filling the valleys and cresting over the peaks. Is that the sun you see, almost visible through a sheen of cirrus?  Is that the shoulder of Skylight, the edge of Haystack? Is Algonquin surfacing off to the west? You spin around on the summit, laughing with joy, trying to see everything at once.

Skylight? Is that Skylight?
Skylight! (Sort of.)
The WORLD!

But the clouds close in again, darken. The wind picks up, bringing more sprinkles with it. Back on with the poncho.

At 11:30 a.m. -- the latest you can ever recall -- the first hiker arrives. He's obviously startled to see you, wrapped in ghostly white plastic, doing your best to melt into the mountain. Your short conversation consists mostly of comments about the weather and general bewilderment that either of you are there. As soon as he disappears into the mist, another hiker arrives, then another up the south side. Both seem happy enough to be there -- one local who'd been inspired by Heaven Up-H'isted-ness to start climbing the 46 High Peaks, another from Maine on a quest to do each "high point" in every state. While you're explaining the summit steward program to them, another hiker arrives and joins the discussion. Just as suddenly as they'd come, they all leave the summit, begin their hikes back. Mist swirls.

The rain's stopped but the wind continues to gust, so you tuck down behind the plaque again, pull out your sketchbook and nibble on first lunch. A small group arrives -- brothers/uncles, and their nieces and nephew. They stay for a while, keeping up a lively chatter (and sharing food with you!) Momentarily, it seems like the sky might glow again, but there aren't any glimpses of ridges, peaks, or the outside world. Just mist.

After the family group leaves, another 2 come and go, then the summit is once again eerily empty for a long stretch. No rain, no sun. You alternate reading, sketching, and getting up to wander aimlessly around, figuring out what plants are getting ready to bloom. This lull makes it seem like even more of an outrage when a noisy horde of 14 arrive. You can hear them coming long before you can see them. There they come, in groups of 2-3, then gathering to celebrate one person's completion of the 46. You want to be happy for them, you really do, but they sprawl out in the narrow patch of rock below the plaque to cook (yes, cook?!) lunch, leaving no room for 3 hikers who appear from up the south side, disturbing the peace for a solo hiker who shrugs and joins you behind another little outcrop, and blocking access for another large group of 10 who arrive soon thereafter. In their attempts to stay out of the wind and avoid the 14, the groups of 3 and 10 tromp all over the sandwort and alpine goldenrod growing nearby; you keep having to go up and around to try to speak with them. You can feel your anger and desperation rising: So many people on the summit, you think, are they learning anything from this mountain? Do they care at all about this place? Why are they here? [See previous post/rant.]

You know you shouldn't be so judgmental and jealous; you know you shouldn't be hoping for rain so they'll leave; you know you shouldn't feel so relieved when they finally pack up and go. But you are and you do. More than ever, you want to protect this mountaintop -- the few dozen square meters that are your whole world for the day.

Arctic-Alpine meadows, looking lush.

Quiet again on the summit, serenity. Mist swirls. The vegetation happily drinks in the dew, the red eft has continued on his way. You gradually calm down, relax, nestle back into the rock.

Another hour or so and it's time for you to begin your descent. Cairn by cairn in the fog, down from the Alpine zone, through the boreal forest, still all in the clouds. You turn at the junctions, pausing to look back. It's been a good day. You'll do it all over again tomorrow.

(What you don't know at this time is that the next day will also be spent in a cloud and in the rain, though forecasts had promised it would break open and/or storm in the afternoon. Nearly 200 hikers will be frustrated by the cold, damp, nothingness; your response -- to smile and shrug and say you haven't seen anything for three days; aren't the flowers lovely? -- won't help. Around 4 p.m., after you've already left the top but before you've tucked back into the trees, the sky will break open in a matter of minutes -- sunshine, color, a sea of wilderness; a gift, a celebration, pure joy.)



Not a typical day on a mountain, perhaps, but then again there aren't any typical days. Each season, each week, each hour different. Sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes frustrating, sometimes far too busy, nearly always beautiful. Stay a while. Observe. Learn.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Of mountains and [too many] men

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." -- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

The mist briefly parts, revealing a world beyond the summit of Wright Peak

[Warning: It's been raining for a week, and I'm angry. Not at the rain, which is quite enchanting -- mist swirling up from the valleys, droplets pattering on my poncho, sparrows singing merrily away, the whole forest reeking with life -- but at the people. Hordes of hikers in the Adirondack High Peaks who hadn't thought to check the weather forecast, who refuse to believe the trails are flooded, who don't want to get their feet muddy and/or are afraid of wet rock, so who walk around the edges of puddles and cling on to vegetation at the edges of slabs, leaving the puddles wider and slabs ever more exposed, thus creating torrents of eroded mud that course down the trails and making the human imprint a bigger gash on the mountainsides. I'm angry. Expect a rant.]

Yes, those ARE thunderstorms over the Santanonis, soon to swallow up the MacIntyres, and not long thereafter hitting Marcy. Everyone on the mountain: stop trying to check your email and/or the weather app on your phone, put on your rain gear, and get OFF the darn summit!
Why do you go to the wild places -- the mountains, the forests, the deserts, the plains? What is it you seek there? What do you learn?

Why ever you go, whatever you find, is it worth the impact you have on the place? Do you leave a tattered trail of granola bar wrappers, stacked-rock "sculptures", footprints ripped into the soft mud or moss? Even if you practice proper Leave No Trace principles (kudos!), do you absorb any of the wildness, or do you return more self-impressed than -aware? Do you become any wiser, any more attuned to the beauty, the ferocity, the reality of the non-human world?

If you want exercise, that's great, but please don't treat the mountains as an outdoor gym. If you want to spend time with friends, that's great, too, but please don't equate the forest with your local bar. If you want to challenge yourself to complete an impressive task, that's noble, but please don't approach the desert as the setting for your ambition. If you want to witness beauty, that's meaningful, but please don't view the plains as pretty scenery -- flat, small, and static. Please don't dismiss any big, wild place as merely the backdrop for your small personal exploits and desires.

Typical hikers on Cascade, photographing themselves. Staying on the durable rock surfaces, at least.

I don't mean to judge, I really don't. Everyone has their own reasons for hiking, backpacking, paddling, climbing, skiing, etc., and of course they're all valid when they add meaning and joy to life. When individuals let their interests and ambitions supersede the integrity of the wilderness, though -- when people damage ecological stability and pilfer natural beauty in the process of ill-informed or poorly-practiced "recreation" -- that's when I judge. Harshly.

My job is to try to protect the wilderness, specifically the rare and fragile Arctic-Alpine ecosystems found on just a handful of the highest peaks in upstate New York's Adirondacks (also in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and southeastern Canadian provinces.) Every day, I hike up to the summits to speak with people about the importance of watching where they put their feet (and their packs and their trekking poles), so as not to squish the plants, which are perfectly capable of tolerating high winds, intense sunlight, freezing temperatures, accumulations of rime ice, acidic soils, and short growing seasons, but not at all adapted to withstand any sort of trompling. Every day, I witness all sorts of reactions to the place -- praise for the mountain-top views, pride in accomplishing the hike, dismay for the weather, enthusiasm, regret, sheer exhaustion. Why are you here?, I want to ask everyone (particularly those who step on or attempt to picnic in the vegetation and those who go despite acute risk of lightning or dehydration), What is it you're hoping to find here?

Diapensia: one of our classic Arctic-Alpine species, in full bloom. DON'T STEP ON IT!
Mountains. In the Himalaya, pilgrims circumambulate sacred peaks. Ancient Incans used to perform sacrifices to appease the mountain gods. To the Dine (Navajo) people of the American Southwest, mountains anchor the edges of the world. Those practicing the Shugendo sect of Buddhism in Japan climb skyward in an attempt to achieve enlightenment. From Uluru to Olympus, Kailash to Mauna Kea, Denali to Bear Butte, prominences worldwide are viewed with reverence, awe, belongingness, transcendence.

With the emergence and rise of the sport of mountaineering in the mid-19th century, when Europeans set out to conquer the taunting, treacherous, and pristine Alps and Euro-Americans set forth to measure, map, name, and extract resources from "unexplored" Western ranges, and especially since the increase in outdoor recreation in the early- to mid-20th century, when more and more people have had the ability and desire to go "back to the woods" -- to hike, paddle, climb, and hunt not out of necessity but for the sheer joy of it -- views of wilderness have flipped. "Mountains" "canyons" and "deserts" are no longer seen as dismal places to fear and avoid, but rather as precious places to preserve and [safely, comfortably] enjoy -- places to set aside as parks and pleasuring grounds.

Pleasuring grounds. What sort of pleasure? Why do we go to these places? What do we find here? More importantly and conflictingly: in the course of our personal quests into wildernesses, how much damage are we doing to the wildness?

Algonquin Peak, more cloud than mountain
Unanswerable, indeterminable. But worth pondering / ranting about.

"...you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not." -- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Morning mist on Marcy
Specifically for mountains, these are my favorite books, which delve much more deeply into the history, psychology, and ecology of hiking:

Sacred Mountains of the World, Edwin Bernbaum (1990)
Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane (2004) (And anything/everything by Macfarlane)
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978)
Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton (2012)
Backwoods Ethics and Wilderness Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman (1979, 1993)

Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, too. Essays by Arne Naess. I'll toss in Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams just because I reread it every year, up on the mountains, deep in the canyons, out in the desert.
Why is there only one female author on this list? Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust and Arlene Blum's Annapurna: A Woman's Place don't yet speak to me. I keep meaning to read Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain. Recommendations are welcome.

Lush bog on Algonquin

Enough for now. It's stopped raining; patches of blue sky are visible between the clouds. Time to turn off the computer and go for a hike.




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Misty Fiords Wilderness, Southeast Alaska

"...An area of wilderness is further defined to mean... [an area] retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." -- Wilderness Act of 1964

Punchbowl Cove, Rudyerd Bay, Misty Fiords Wilderness, Alaska

According to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, "There are two ways to experience 'the Mistys'" [Misty Fiords National Monument -- a 2.3 million acre swath of snow-capped mountains, lush rainforest, deep freshwater lakes, salmon-full streams, colorful kelpy and sea-starry shoreline, and trademark soaring fjords and swirling mist located in the southeastern-most corner of Alaska]: "...from a floatplane, where you get a true eagle’s eye view; and on a cruise tour, where you can actually feel the vibration of nature."

As spectacular as it must be to see the monument from far above -- to peer through the windows of a small floatplane, marveling at how steeply the fjords' walls rise out of the sea, how tenaciously the forest fills every semi-flat spot, how brightly the lakes nestle into hanging valleys, and how hungrily the mist swallows it all -- that's not the only way to get an "eagle's eye view". The dozens of eagles I encountered in Misty Fiords were perched in trees or soaring low over the shoreline, scouring shallow inlets for salmon and other possible prey. Their squawks and squeaks would hardly be audible over the roar of a plane's engine, their fierce presence hardly apparent from thousands of feet up.

And as enchanting and informative as it must be to see the monument via cruise tour -- to stand on the observation deck of a fast, powerful boat, listening to the interpretive guide's explanation of the area's natural and cultural history while seeing firsthand how high the cliffs loom, how far the silvery waterfalls tumble, how lush and green the forest is, and how thoroughly the damp chill soaks into everything -- that's not the only way to "feel the vibration of nature". During the week I spent at Misty Fiords, I felt waves rising and falling, raindrops pattering down, loons wailing. I shivered, swimming in one of the freshwater lakes. I laughed, watching the antics of seals. I touched a waterfall, held a jellyfish, hiked up and canoed out to see an island in a lake in an island in a lake at what felt like the far, foggy edge of the ordinary world. Nature didn't so much vibrate as it hummed and thrummed with mystery and wildness.

Loons, Nooya Lake
Low tide, outlet of Nooya

Old-growth temperate rainforest, Winstanley

Island in a lake on an island in a lake, Punchbowl

"Wilderness", more properly. I made the brief trip to Ketchikan last August to explore the Misty Fiords Wilderness Area, which makes up 2.1 million acres of the monument (all but a 152,000-acre tract reserved for potential molybdenum mining.) Usually, motorized traffic is prohibited in designated Wilderness Areas, but the planes and boats are technically in the air and saltwater, not on land (though a limited number of floatplanes are permitted to land on the freshwater lakes.) I'll save the rants about noise pollution for another day (briefly: think of the sound of a small plane engine, then imagine it reverberating between the walls of a deep, narrow fjord, cacophanous within the natural ampitheatre) and don't mean to belittle the experience of visitors who only have a few hours to zoom out to the monument between stops on a cruise through Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage (surely, briefly glimpsing the place is better than never knowing it exists at all?) (?) But to truly see and feel the wildness of the wilderness -- of any wild place -- takes weeks, if not months, years. It takes time, effort, and humility to shed the anxieties and banalities of "civilized" life and remember the rhythms and realities of the natural world.

Rhythms: paddle in the water, wavelets on the shore. Setting up the tent, taking down the tent. Day, night, day.

Realities: rain, wind, whitecaps, bears. Soreness, coldness, exhaustion, hunger, fear. Freedom. Day, night, day.

Campsite, Punchbowl Cove
As a "Voice of the Wilderness" Artist-in-Residence, I had the rare opportunity and great fortune to join two U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers on their kayak patrol of Rudyerd Bay, arguably the most scenic and certainly the most-visited area within the monument. Although that meant that I didn't have to navigate unknown terrain -- the rangers already knew the best spots to camp, the worst stretches to cross, the locations of interesting features (a pictograph! a skookum chuck!), and the conditions of the few short USFS-maintained trails (very primitive, but worth every step to reach the scenic destinations) -- I still had to pull my weight, quite literally.

Having spent most of my time in wilderness areas traveling alone and on foot, the first few days took some getting used to -- kayaking felt awkward and uncomfortable; the cookstoves were hard to light; conversations consisted mostly of me saying "Wow!" (As in: "Wow! Look at the clouds!" "Wow! Look at the waterfall!" "Wow! Look at the moss/seals/eagles/cedars/sea stars...") But by the fifth day, when we took an afternoon off to rest and watch the mist swirl around the cliffs of Punchbowl Cove, I finally felt at peace. I sat by the salty, kelpy shoreline, studying the landscape and experimenting with sketch styles, then retreated to the lush green forest, to scrawl letters on soggy rite-in-the-rain paper. Over dinner -- the same food I'd eaten each previous night, yet somehow more delicious -- the rangers and I discussed wilderness management, mused about wilderness, then ultimately sat in silence, letting the wildness soak in. That was what I'd come for.







The next day, though, we were reminded that wilderness is not all serenity and joy, but also rawness and power; wind, water, and rock. Waking to a world thick with fog, we packed our kayaks and paddled out of a glassy-calm Punchbowl Cove, only to find the main channel of Rudyerd Bay roiling with whitecaps. I promised that I felt strong and capable enough to venture forth, into the Bay then out into the unprotected waters of Behm Canal, but was well beyond what I'd bargained for -- on edge, exhausted, exhilarated, for the next several hours. Although not comparable to Thoreau's epiphany on Ktaadn or Muir's tree-top storm in the Sierras, this stretch of kayaking afforded a touch of the sublime. Forget conceptions and preconceptions, definitions and desires; I lost track of what what sky and what was sea. I knew only to dig my paddle in again and again, if only to prevent being blown backward or overturned. Long, slow, hard-earned progress; long, slow, well-earned joy.


Rough day on the Behm Canal

By the time the patrol was over -- a few more glassy days, sunny days, mist lifting to reveal the true height of the fjords -- I was thoroughly enchanted by the place. Even more enticing: to know that I'd only been to one small sliver of the 2.1 million acres of shoreline, forest, mountains, fjords. It would take a lifetime to see it all, especially considering that the interior is inaccessible to floatplanes and tourboats. To amend the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau's exhortation: "to experience 'the Mistys', travel by kayak, where you get a true eagle's eye view, and on foot, where you can actually feel the vibration of nature."


Sigurd Olson: "There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe [or kayak], a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace."

[Addendum: Part of me hopes that most of that 2.1 million acres remains unseen, protected not just for kayakers, hikers, and human visitors desperately seeking beautiful scenery and/or a sense of the sublime, but for the sake of the loons and the bears, the seals and salmon, the grand old cedars and soft old moss. Can it be enough to know that the wilderness is there, mist swirling around rock?]

“Tourists, beware, go back.  There is nothing to see here, only mud and insects and large biting mammals…rain and snow and sleet and wind.  This is a place of the spirit, no place for the flesh, and a place of the imagination, but no place for a real life. Believe in this place, and pray for it, but turn back, do not come here…” -- Rick Bass, The Wild Marsh











Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Return to Wetterhorn (Reflecting on the Summer and Revising Thoughts of the "Wilderness Experience")

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in”

—Wallace Stegner, 
the “Wilderness Letter” for the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission / The Sound of Mountain Water

View of Painted Wall from the North Rim

On the second day of orientation for new seasonal employees, having already learned about safety, personnel, management, and the overall NPS mission, we were briefed on park-specific resources and founding purposes: water, ecosystems, history. Wilderness.

“This is the closest many people will ever come to wilderness,” the ranger said of the scenic overlooks at Black Canyon, “Anyone can just drive up and see it, right there.”

I involuntarily gasped and must have grimaced.

She turned to me and, acknowledging my look of incredulity, proceeded to explain: those who are physically incapable of trekking through rugged terrain, unequipped to navigate great distances, and/or prefer not to experience the tiredness, soreness, and inherent danger that accompany long hikes into distant places have at Black Canyon a unique opportunity to drive right to the edge of the deep, narrow chasm and gaze down into the heart of a capital-W Wilderness. They can see it up close.  They can feel the heat rising from the rocks, the coolness emanating from shadows. They can smell the sage after rain, juniper baking in hot sun.  They can hear birdcalls echoing, wind rustling, and, of course, the river—the river roaring, rushing, tumbling on down between the rock walls, several thousand feet away but ever so close, ever so wild.

View of the canyon from the North Rim, colors sharp after a rainstorm

True. And yet…

Not knowing whether the ranger’s original statement had used a generic term or proper noun—“the closest they’ll ever come to [a federally-designated] Wilderness [Area]”?—I continued to wince, writhe, wring my hands as she continued to describe the park's attributes.  Even if her points were technically right—yes, most park landscapes still have some trace of man (trails, if not roads and buildings); yes, many Wilderness Areas are seen from too far away to be understood and appreciated; and yes, individuals all have different perceptions of wildness—something in me protested that standing at a pull-out ogling a place doesn’t count as truly experiencing it.  “What of the humility, the fear?” I wanted to ask, “What of awe? Do visitors feel vulnerable, exposed? Small, self-reliant, fully alive out alone in a big, wild place?” 

I barely managed to keep my mouth shut—it wasn't the appropriate time or place for a debate. Instead of arguing (Ed Abbey [The Monkey Wrench Gang]: “Challenge that statement.  I challenge that statement. With what? I don’t know”), I scribbled fiercely in a notebook.

Now, three months later, I’m looking at my notes and still wondering if and how to challenge that statement. Assuming that experience nurtures appreciation and informs preservation, can muted experience still inspire strong appreciation? Does flattened or dulled appreciation lead to weakened preservation?  Does the “wilderness idea” need more preachers or more defenders?  What experiences are visitors to Black Canyon absorbing, learning, taking away?

How to tell whether you're in a park service wilderness or on BLM rangeland
****

For that matter, what did I see, do, and learn this summer?  

U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Areas (Sneffels, Weminuche, Wetternhorn): Snow, rock, flowers; dogs, tents, people. Steep, challenging, breathtakingly beautiful—cool blue pools nestled in the alpine tundra, reflecting rocky ridges—but trails are not wilderness. I saw more wooden signs than signs of wildlife, met more people than wild deors, never quite felt free to wander. Plus, I felt guilty for having to drive so far to hike.

Pool near Upper Ice Lake (technically not a Wilderness, but pretty.)

 Wilderness Areas in Black Canyon (Red Rocks, Green Mountain, Grizzly Ridge) and backcountry Curecanti: steep sandstone ridges and incised mudstone ravines. Prickly pear, sagebrush, darn thick scrub oak and serviceberry. Fossils! Although the far-flung corners of the parks—remote, rugged places few people were ever likely to go—seemed wild (especially when great murders of ravens would start circling, as if to craw, “what are you? What are you doing on our cliff?”) and I was acutely aware of being alone—my muscles weak, skin thin, and bones breakable—I was also quite conscious of the facts that I was carrying a radio, GPS, maps, rock hammer, first aid kit, water, etc., and that I was there to work, not sit and absorb the landscape.
 
Folds of fossil-filled sandstones and mudstones

The park road: stars, solitude, surely mountain lions watching from the brush. Striding along through the early morning darkness with the Milky Way arcing overhead, solid pavement underfoot, and susurrations of the river rising up from the impossibly deep canyon, I came close to feeling untrammeled, but also felt safe and secure enough to be walking alone before dawn, wearing sandals and carrying no emergency supplies (aside from a thermos of coffee).

Sunrise, softly bringing the world into focus

Rock Point: sanity, serenity, wingbeats of wrens. I didn’t sit out there enough.

Rock Point. Yes, wildness, if not wilderness.

****

My final weekend in Colorado, I decided to return to the Uncompahgre Wilderness—the same route I’d attempted in early July, up the West Fork of the Cimarron aiming for Wetterhorn Basin, hopefully with less snow and far less snowmelt by mid-August.

This time, I knew to get an earlier start, carry a lighter pack, and follow the trail. My goal wasn’t to have a “wilderness experience,” but rather to make it over the pass into the basin, enjoying the fresh air and the picturesque views along the way.  I hiked at a fast but not grueling pace, pausing to marvel at the wildflower-filled meadows and stopping repeatedly to put on and take off rain gear. It took about an hour to get to the waterfalls (the spot that had taken nearly 4 hours to reach in July), then another hour-ish to weave up the mostly-snowfree center of the cirque. 

View down the West Fork valley, with less snow
Flowers!
So many flowers!
I kept telling myself to slow down and appreciate the day—bright sunshine breaking through as clouds began to clear; patches of blue sky appearing over rusty ridges; fat, golden marmots whistling from the rocks—but the pass drew me onward, upward. After a final push, I came over a crest of rock and moss and felt the landscape open out underneath me: a swoop of tundra and rock slid into a forested drainage; barren ridges rose back up on the far side. Beyond the basin: mountains, and mountains, and mountains.  I didn’t recognize any of their profiles or know any of their names, but I was awfully happy to see them.

Pass into Wetterhorn Basin

Intending to sit and soak in the scenery for a while, I left the trail and began rock-hopping in search for the perfect spot. I was concentrating so much on where to put my feet that I lost awareness of the larger landscape. It wasn’t until I’d dropped my pack and turned to sit that I realized, with a gasp, that I could see Wetterhorn Peak itself dominating the far horizon.

Some landmarks—Pilot Rock (Petrified Forest National Park), Fang Mountain (Denali National Park), Algonquin Peak, as seen rising up over Wright (the Adirondacks)—have a certain ineffable prominence or presence that draws attention and commands respect. Their size or height or aloneness makes them physical manifestations of awe.  Seeing them, it’s easy to understand why cultures worldwide have believed mountains to be the homes of gods.

Wetterhorn is one of those peaks.

Wetterhorn Peak -- the jagged tooth to the left

****

On the way back down (I didn’t stay long—feared the feeling of sacrosanctity would fade), I crossed paths with the first people I’d seen all day: two older women, friends who said they try to hike the trail (their favorite) together every year.  They were positively glowing, delighted to be out there and just as surprised and delighted to meet me—a lone girl from New York (New York!) who was also delighted to be out there, learning the trail’s twists and turns, celebrating its secrets, its marvels. We chatted briefly, then parted with wishes for lifetimes of “happy hiking!”

Grove of elephant flower (Pedicularis groenlandica)

Continuing down, I saw only one other group—a family of four, strung out.  The son, who was far in the lead, greeted me with a gasp of, “Did you do Wetterhorn?”

Rather than getting annoyed with the idea of peak-bagging or defensive of the fact that I’d “only” gone to the pass, I surprised myself by automatically and honestly replying: “Oh, no, thank you! I only wanted to see it.”  

It was enough to hike to the edge of the wilderness and look in, to know it's there.

Black Canyon Wilderness as seen from a bushwhack to the foot of Hound's Tooth.
Even if you never go there, you can, as Wallace Stegner wrote in the Wilderness Letter, "simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there." 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Empty mind in misty, rain-pocked pools (Weminuche Wilderness)

Wherever I am, the world comes after me. 
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe 
that I do not want it. Now I understand 
why the old poets of China went so far and high 
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist 
-- Mary Oliver, The Old Poets of China (in Why I Wake Early)

Highland Mary Lake, Weminuche Wilderness
It has become a weekly pattern: hike Friday, walk Saturday, sit Sunday. San Juans, park road, Rock Point; adventure, rhythm, pause.

During a late July “Adventure,” though, I made the mistake of simultaneously seeking “Pause,” or at least a day of restoration and touch of inspiration. After spending the work week clambering around hot, shrubby ridges and taking an informative but long trip to Florissant Fossil Beds, I wanted to escape to a place with cool air, open tundra, and, preferably, a calm, bright pool holding pockets of mirrored sky.  (Mountain lakes are both soothing and profound: according to David Hinton [Hunger Mountain], “ancient [Chinese poets and philosophers] recognized their most essential nature in such pools, for they saw empty mind in still water… an identity expansive as the mountain distances and bottomless skies it mirrors.”)
Island Lake, San Juan National Forest
Friends and guidebooks recommended Ice Lakes Trail, a popular route in the San Juan National Forest that leads hikers up to several of the area’s “most beautiful” blue lakes, nestled in the “most scenic” of tundra-carpeted and waterfall-ringed basins. ( http://www.hikingwalking.com/destinations/co/co_sw/silverton/ice_lakes )  Hoping to avoid crowds (and road construction), I left home at dawn and was at the trailhead by 8 a.m.  Although the parking area was, at that point, nearly full, as were the nearby South Mineral Campground and the “dispersed camping” sites alongside the access road, only three couples had signed the trail register ahead of me that morning.  (It turns out that the sign-in sheet is not an accurate count of actual use—I met 13 people in 6 groups on my way up.) Eager to be by the shores of a lake (and needing to warm up a little—the temperature in the shade was an unexpectedly chilly 39 degrees), I zipped right on up a series of forested switchbacks, across a few sunny meadows, and past those other hikers without stopping to chat, appreciate any of the scenic vistas, or contemplate the experience of the climb. Destination-bound: Lower Ice Lake!
Lower Ice Lake Basin

Nearing Upper Ice Lake
Um, I never saw Lower Ice Lake, though.  Sometime after I’d emerged into a wide, calendar-photo-style meadow bursting with wildflowers and ringed with waterfalls, I saw a spot of unnatural color out of the corner of my eye—a tent. A bunch of tents. They drew my attention to a small grove near a small stream that fed into a large, dark pond that I think was the lake, well behind and below.  Rather than backtrack and tromp through those people’s campsites to get to the water, I continued on, following the trail through the lush meadow, across a tumbling brook, and to the base of the falls-forming cliff, catching sight of several more tents along the way. Uncomfortably aware of how visible I was to all the campers in the basin, I hustled and huffed up the next set of switchbacks toward Upper Ice Lake.

I guess I’d presumed that this hike would be similar to Blue Lakes—busy at the lower lake but nearly deserted at the upper. As the trail led me away from the tent-filled meadow and steep, shrubby switchbacks toward a crest of Alpine tundra, I felt a warm mix of relief and anticipation—relief that I'd finally have some solitude and eagerness to see Upper Ice Lake, maybe nestle into a quiet seat for a few hours, watch the clouds and wait for marmots.
Upper Ice Lake
Anticipation and, worse yet, expectation can be ruinous. The lake was undeniably beautiful—turquoise-blue glacial water reflecting moss-carpeted hills, a bowl of rock-and-snow ridges, and, beyond them, a few happy cumulus in a deep summer-blue sky.  The weather was perfect, the day still young, I felt alive, beaming with mountain joy. But a sploosh broke the serenity. A kid had thrown a big rock into the lake, sending out ripples that broke the reflection. Then a dog jumped in after the rock. Then a dad yelled at the kid, another child’s voice chimed in...

I meant to skirt their campsite and find a quiet place to sit, but ran into a couple cooking breakfast outside their tent. Another tent was perched high above the opposite shore—was there nowhere left to go?

Without really knowing where I was heading, I followed a herd path to the south, crossing swells of open tundra and a few small snow patches to what turned out to be Fuller Lake. It was more rugged than serene--chunks of ice floated on its surface; snow and rock were sliding down from sharp peaks; what looked like a deserted miner's cabin sat rusting on its shore.  I should have just stayed there, watched the ravens and hoped for pikas. Instead, though, I got greedy. After spending just a few minutes rock-hopping around for better views, I decided to hit another lake before lunch. (Four in one day! Instead of peak-bagging, I was bent on pond-bagging!) 
Abandoned shack on Fuller Lake
Skim of ice on Fuller Lake
I returned to Upper Ice Lake (already busier) intending to hop the outlet stream and catch the trail to Island Lake.  When I saw a group of 5 begin the climb ahead of me, I was so disappointed that I almost left. 

I can't explain why I don't enjoy wild places when there are other people there. Selfishness? Jealousy? Pride?  Why does the Wilderness Act specifically mention "outstanding opportunities for solitude" as one of the critical components of the wilderness experience; why do wilderness managers focus on "solitude" as one of their key criteria? What is so fundamentally different about enjoying a lake or a mountain or a canyon alone vs. with hordes of other visitors, or even just a few?

Maybe it's that the presence of other people breaks an individual's connection with a place. Instead of getting to dissolve into a landscape, giving undivided attention to the rocks, the water, the brush, the birds, we can't help but be conscious of other humans, losing a little bit of our environmental awareness and getting distracted by a heightened sense of self-consciousness. It's not the same.

In the end, I did decide to go see Island Lake, and it was, hands-down, the most stunning place I’ve seen all summer: a single mound of solid grey rock breaching out of clear, almost-otherworldly blue water; symmetrical snowfields sweeping down to touch the edge of the pool; green moss; grey cliffs; blue blue sky.  I found a nice sunny rock to sit on out of view of the other hikers, took my shoes off and ate my lunch while watching light and shadow bring the scenery to life.
Island Lake
That said, sheer beauty wasn't enough for me.  I did my best to appreciate the place--to recognize if not absorb some of its magic--but those other hikers were hovering at the edge of my mind; I couldn't find a sense of a calm. Didn’t stay long.

On the way down to Upper Ice Lake, I saw dozens of people clustered at its shore. Onward.  I crossed paths with several dozen on the way to Lower Ice Lake. Onward. I must have seen more than a hundred people that day--all friendly, all happy to be there, all of us out looking for a little bit of fresh air, a little bit of adventure. “Beautiful day!” we’d nod to one another. (Strangely, whenever anyone stopped to ask, “how much farther? Is it worth it?,” I advised them to take the extra spur to Island Lake. Even though I’d wanted it all to myself when I was there, I was still eager to share it, maybe hope that someone else would find meaning in its calm waters, its mirrored mountains.)

Crowds on Upper Ice Lake
Now for an unexpected "Pause" that same weekend:

After the thoroughly disappointing day at Ice Lakes, I continued on with my plans to hike a shorter, less scenic and thus less popular trail—Highland Mary Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness. Finding the access road busy and campsites all full, I nearly just went home. (In fact, I did turn around and drive away, then, sigh, turned back around again and stayed, figuring I'd better at least give Colorado a chance to redeem itself.)  After pitching my tent in a quiet corner of the wilderness and packing up at daybreak, I followed the trail through trees and brush alongside a steep, rocky stream up to mossy tundra, meeting no other people en route. I reached the first of the cool, quiet Highland Mary Lakes just in time to see the low blanket of clouds mirrored in the perfectly smooth water before raindrops began to pock and ripple the reflection. I sat for a while, soaking in the muted brilliance of the greens and greys, the quietude, the lonely calm, before continuing onward--more Highland Mary Lakes; Verde Lakes; the Continental Divide Trail--saturated, sated.

Highland Mary Lakes
Tundra before Verde Lakes