Monday, June 4, 2018

Trip planning (a.k.a. place-dreaming)

This is how it begins: with the name of a place, boxed off on a map. A distant place, a wild place, a place that seems more mythical than real. “Gates of the Arctic,” this place is called, as if a portal to another world.

Then the idea—impossible! Absurd!—to visit that place. To see the mountains, to ford the rivers, to fight the tussocks. (To stay far, far away from the bears.)

Wholly impossible? Entirely absurd?

The dream begins to take shape. You study the maps more carefully. There are airports, roads, your own two feet. Oolah Pass, Peregrine Pass, Ernie Pass. Anaktuvuk, Naqsraq, a pass, a river, a “place with no mountain” nestled in the heart of the Brooks Range, opening to the vast North Slope. You can envision yourself climbing the ridges and camping by the creeks. Mile after mile of tundra and rocks; day after day of rain, snow, ice. Mosquitoes. That glorious midsummer light.

Before long, it doesn’t just seem possible, but necessary. Yes, you must visit this place, you need to feel the cold pull of the rivers, the cold push of the rain. You need to spend a week or more alone with the caribou and the wolves. More than anything, you need the 7.2 million acres of wilderness through which they roam.

A different sub-Arctic wilderness--the Alaska Range, Denali National Park

You’re not sure why you need this place—what is it you seek there? What is it you’ll find? It’s a pilgrimage without a destination, a quest without a task. It’s a Snow Leopard without a Crystal Monastery. And without a snow leopard, for that matter. (“Have you seen the snow leopard?” asks Peter Matthiessen, “No! Isn’t that wonderful?”) It’s a Mount Analogue without a ship or a crew. (“And you, what are you looking for?” was to be the last chapter of Rene Daumal’s allegory.) It’s not at all an Into the Wild. (Dangerous, yes, but not foolhardy, not reckless. You’ll bring maps and food; you'll follow all Leave No Trace principles; you’ve backpacked in Alaska before, just not this far north, this big, alone.)

Maybe you're just trying to escape from your daily routine, to find something more pressing and real than your life of quiet desperation. Rather than sitting here comfortably under a sturdy roof, you'd prefer to be out there, packing up a tent in the pouring rain. You'd rather be crossing a river vs. crossing the street. Facing bears vs. watching squirrels. Eating oatmeal, more oatmeal, only oatmeal vs. frying eggs and bacon. You know you’ll later regret saying it, but--you claim now--you’d rather be walking over tussocks than skipping down sidewalks. (You've never fared well in places with sidewalks.)

Or maybe you're searching for something bigger, wilder, more meaningful. Something you've glimpsed in other wilderness areas--a sense of a world that is, for all of its cities and farms, dams and fences, still dominated by non-human forces. In his thrilling account of his first trip up the North Fork of the Koyukuk, Bob Marshall--the man who put "Gates of the Arctic" and more than a hundred other toponyms on the map (and who was the first to explore the area and draw the maps, for that matter); also a "peripatetic ecologist" who devoted his life to exploring and fighting to preserve big, wild places; co-founder of the Wilderness Society; author of Arctic Village and Arctic Wilderness; eponym of the Adirondacks' Mt. Marshall and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness; and, it seems, an all-around adventurous, indefatigable guy--wrote of the landforms and the landscape, the wildlife and the weather, the experience of being in such a truly wild place. Perhaps his most important discovery / realization: "Man may be taming nature, but no one standing on the bank of the North Fork of the Koyukuk on this gray morning would have claimed that nature is conquered."

McKinley River, Denali National Park

Now it's your turn to see this, to remember this. Your turn to splash your way across the Koyukuk (hopefully under more favorable conditions), your turn to (try to? maybe?) clamber up to the summit of Alapah, for what Marshall promises is a glorious view of "fog, and, for an instant, two barren, snow-clad peaks in the shifting mist." Finally, after years and years of perusing a now very tattered, scribbled-in and dog-eared old copy of Barry Lopez's Arctic DreamsImagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, you're going to go “walk...slowly over the land with an appreciation of its immediacy to the senses and in anticipation of what lies hidden in it.” You'll “listen…to what the land is saying.” You'll experience a “beauty you feel in your flesh," even if or perhaps because "it is sometimes terrifying to approach.” 

If all goes well, you may just find yourself sitting high on a ridge one day, far from the sea, in miserable weather, amid swarms of mosquitoes, with miles of tussock ahead, and you'll think to yourself: ahh, Gates of the Arctic. This place is real. With that knowledge comes “the familiar sense of expansiveness, of deep exhilaration…quviannikumut, ‘to feel deeply happy.’”

Caribou, Primrose Ridge, Denali National Park

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Living Mountain

"All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird -- all are one... 
part of the mountain's wholeness"

-- Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Standing on rock, swallowed by sky (edge of Alqonquin peeking through, hinting at another, more solid world)
My penultimate day in the Adirondacks this season, I shared the partial solar eclipse with a few dozen thoroughly-awed hikers atop Algonquin Peak, New York's second-tallest mountain. The sky was unusually clear (for this summer, at least); the landscape became noticeably dusky. As the moonshadow started to creep across the sun, we passed around a pair of eclipse glasses and gasped "wow!" in turn. I think all of us felt a touch of the sublime. But a full 25% of the hikers that day, including the eclipse-watchers with whom I felt such special kinship, had unknowingly or unseeingly walked right on through patches of rare and fragile Arctic-Alpine vegetation.

Air somewhat duller, mountains bluer, at the height of the eclipse

My final day was much more typical, but no less spectacular -- wind, mist, brief glimpses of sunglow, and long stretches of solitude. The first hikers didn't arrive until mid-morning. I was huddling behind a boulder, trying to stay out of the damp mist that was racing by on 40 mph winds, when a boisterous college orientation group emerged out of the opaque greyness, surprised and delighted to find themselves on Algonquin. (They'd been aiming for Iroquois, the neighboring peak.) They took photos, ate snacks, and watched one of the leader's glacial geomorphology interpretive dance before disappearing back into the mist and wind, hopefully to find the proper trail. I relocated to a spot on the leeward side of the summit. After a few hours spent squinting into the swirling vapor, watching deers hair sedge ripple, celebrating occasional moments of sunglow, and trying to self-ration my supply of m&ms, five more hikers showed up. I spoke (or rather, shouted over the roar of wind) with them, sharing weather forecasts, issuing trail closure alerts, and pointing out some of our more unique Alpine plant species for one interested and enthusiastic individual. As they left, a father and two sons arrived and immediately settled into a patch of vegetation below the summit outcrop. When I explained how unique and vulnerable the plants were and asked the group to please relocate to a solid rock surface, pointing out a few options that were out of the wind, they begrudgingly complied, but continued to tromple all over the plants in the process. Later, as they passed by me on the start of their descent, the father deliberately stepped outside the stone path to walk on the vegetation. I want to believe it was out of ignorance or inattentiveness, not malice, but his intent matters little to the squished sandwort, flattened deers hair, and broken-stalked Bigelows sedge.

Lonely summit. Lonely, that is, but for the boulders, the sedges, the wind, and the mist.

Once again, those old questions, the ones that I've been marveling at, chewing on, ruminating about, and sometimes fuming over throughout the season and for many years beforehand: Why do people climb mountains? Why go to any wild place? What is it we seek there, what is it we find? Is it -- whatever it is we seek, whatever it is we find -- worth the impact we have? The biogeophysical damage, the social, psychological, and/or spiritual intrusion -- do we learn something about ourselves or the world that overrides, outranks, forgives, and/or heals the wounds we leave on the wilderness?

Old questions, rustling, flaring, wholly unanswerable.

Cloud-dragons writhing over Wright Peak


Or, so I thought, unanswerable. Then I finally read Nan Shepherd's short but rich, whole book, The Living Mountain. Before finishing the first paragraph, I realized that she knew. Shepherd understood. During her lifetime of wandering around Northeast Scotland's Cairngorm Mountains, which British writer and fellow mountain-wanderer Robert Macfarlane describes as a "low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs", the novelist and poet found what it is I seek: Beauty, Mystery, Awe, Adventure, and some mist-shrouded, rain-drenched, rock-solid edge of Truth.

Best of all, she knew that "one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it." Though substantial and well-earned, all of her observations, her memories, her knowledge, and her love were weak, small, and fleetingly human, incomparable to "the mountain itself, its substance, its strength, its structure, its weathers."

Algonquin, rising above Wright Peak

The mountain. In The Living Mountain, which she completed in the 1940s but didn't publish until 1977, Shepherd begins not with geography or history, personal or intellectual, but with The Plateau, its "essential nature".  The Plateau, then the Recesses, the Group ("peaks piled on peaks"), Water, Frost and Snow, Air and Light, Plants, and Animals, only arriving at Man (classified as merely a subset under "Life") in the ninth chapter, three-quarters of the way through. Man's desires, joys, losses, and loneliness are part of -- but only a part of -- the landscape.

From there, Shepherd builds to meditations on Sleep, Senses, and, ultimately, Being. That's what she discovered, what she shares; in describing the Cairngorms, she illuminates the process of learning "most nearly what it is to be," how she "walked out of the body and into the mountain."

Along the way, she learned that water has strength and that "the air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil." Realizing that "the mountain gives itself most completely when [she had] no destination, when [she reached] nowhere in particular, but [went] out merely to be with the mountain," she found herself constantly "out on the plateau again," walking into the lakes, feeling the clouds, watching the birds and studying the saxifrage. Speaking with the people, feeling companionship with those "whose identity is for the time being merged in that of the mountain." Her excursions weren't about conquering, taming, or scratching resources or riches out of the wilderness, nor were they for glory or esteem. Although her words are filled with admiration and adulation, she didn't seem to have any clear purpose in writing -- to celebrate the mountains, yes, but not to convince others that "this is the most beautiful place on earth" (as did Ed Abbey) and definitely not to encourage people to come visit. (In the introduction, she bemoans "the very heather tatty from the scrape of boots (too many boots, too much commotion...")). (("...but then"), she continues, ("how much uplift for how many hearts.")) She simply shares her experiences, her observations, her process of discovery. Discovery not of herself or the mountain, but of herself-in-the-mountain, how to become a living part of a wild place.


Stormy days on the summits start out uncomfortably, then become boring. I do trailwork for a while, but usually need to tuck in under my poncho. Rain pattering, wind flapping, air cooling, I can't read or sketch. Sing to myself for a while. Shiver. Settle in to watch. Walls of mist. A junco here, a sparrow there, I lose track of time. Lose sense of place. Lose idea of self.


"[A]t first," Shepherd admitted, "I was seeking only sensuous gratification -- the sensation of height, the sensation of movement, the sensation of speed, the sensation of distance, the sensation of effort, the sensation of ease: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life. I was not interested in the mountain for itself, but for its effect on me."

"But as I grew older," she continued, "...I began to discover the mountain in itself... [A]s I penetrate more deeply into the mountain's life, I penetrate also into my own."  She knew, she understood. How well she understood -- why climb mountains, why go to any wild place.

Sun breaking through, briefly illuminating a world of rock, sky, sedges, ravens, and one awe-struck summit steward

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.)

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.

"’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
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."