For most of August and the first half of September most of my conversations with friends and family mimicked this great scene:
They saw me as a little hobbit getting into something way over my head for I wanted to hike alone in the North Cascades' wilderness for four days.
- were some of the more colorful quotes I received. Yes, all last year I was living and learning at the North Cascades Institute, fully immersed in the mountain landscape. I even kicked it up a notch and spent the summer in Stehekin; somehow even more remote than NCI!
But this trip would be different. I wouldn't be working or in class. And I wasn't trying to boost my self esteem by being a 'Bear Grylls' knockoff. By hiking alone for four days I had the time to reflect and thank the literal and figurative earth, fire, air, and water that have made me into the person I am today.
The morning of any trip can be more stressful and hectic than the actual trip itself. I found myself triple checking everything to make sure I was prepared. After convincing myself that my map had not walked away from when I checked it five minutes before, I headed to Colonial Creek.
My plan was to park my Companion Cube at the Colonial Creek campground, have Hannah from C16 pick me up and take me to the trail head. We both would then hike up to the top of the pass, have a great lunch, and then part ways. She would go back to civilization where I would continue onto Fisher for the first night, Cosho for the second, Tricouni the third, ending at Colonial, and drive home.
One of the many reasons why I love Google Earth is it makes maps so much more dynamic. From the above picture Hannah and I were not facing anything too challenging. Just 3.5 miles with a few thousand feet in elevation gain. How hard could it be?
Even at the trailhead we couldn't fully see what we were getting ourselves into. Only by taking a satalite view of the whole mountain range does the scope of our little day hike begin to take fold:
It is incredibly hard to see in this picture, but in the upper left there is a little yellow pin. That is where we were going. The first two miles are completely covered in forest. It was not until we reached the meadow (lighter green section) that we could really see the pass.
Unlike most in my cohort, I am a typical hiker through the wilderness. No trail running here; just your estimated National Park average of two miles per hour. This allows you to move but also not stress yourself out. Add to that two huge factors of steep elevation gain and a 50 pound pack and I felt like I was crawling. Fortunately for me Hannah patiently assured me that "We are almost there!" for at least 45 minutes.
There are a ton of fantastic aspects about backpacking, but this climb was not one of them. The quotes from my family and friends telling me all of the reasons why I shouldn't do this kept sounding better and better with each step.
All of those ideas (and my pain) faded when I looked behind me:
Even though I had seen mountains all last year and was loving "Big City Life," gazing at these 'charismatic mega-rocks' never gets old. (This was near the top of the pass looking west. To see what it looked like going east refer to the cover photo of the EARTH section). After a great lunch and some 'barefoot' time, Hannah started her decent back to the trail head.
When I was planning this hike in July and looking at the entire North Cascades Wilderness map, this trail jumped out to me for two reasons. 1) It has 'Easy' in the title, how hard could it be? 2) After climbing up to the pass, it is literally all downhill. Even though I have done much more challenging hikes those had always been with others. For my first time alone in the wilderness I literally grabbed for the 'easy' low hanging fruit.
The rest of my day consisted of going 2.1 miles into the Fisher Creek Valley, where I was to spend the first night.
Earth is a very stubborn element. There is no finesse when dealing with this on a large scale. You are given two choices: go up or go home. The relationship can become 'human vs nature' and by climbing it I have conquered! Or the relationship can become one of support. Just as these mountains support entire ecosystems within them they also push humanity to become better.
My first mountain that I climbed and understood this was in New Hampshire: Mt. Monadnock. For most climbers and hikers it is nothing to write home about but for me, someone who spent the majority of his childhood inside, it was as if I was flying. Yeah, I had done outdoor stuff with various camps, but this was the first time I could look down at where I was beforehand and could see the change that I have been through. It became one of my core philosophies: Climb to your summit. Mountains support humans to let us push ourselves past what we thought we could do. The reward is seeing farther both into our ecosystems and the human experience.
My family out east has been the bedrock of my life: Their love and support has become the foundation for how I live as part of this planet. But all of my teachers here on the west coast, from the instructors to my classmates, have been mountains. They have challenged, inspired, and supported me to become the person I am today. They have made this little hobbit into someone who can, and wants, to spend four days in the wilderness by himself. JP, LM, C14, C16, and especially C15 all have become my 'west coast family.'
To all of the earth that has challenged and molded me into who I am today, thank you.
Day two started at exactly 1:34 am to the sound of rain pelting my tent. Even though I had wanted to sleep under the stars, Adam's quote from earlier that year rang through my head: it always rains in Washington. And even though the sky was clear and there was only a 30% chance of rain, I had dutifully put my tent fly on the night before. Now all snuggled in my dry sleeping bag I said "Thanks Adam" and fell back asleep.
The nice thing about camping alone is you can make your own schedule. So when I awoke at seven and it was still raining, I promptly went back to sleep to wait out the rain. Around nineish the pelting had become nothing more than a spitting, which was exactly what I needed to quickly dart from the tent to the bear canister under the canopy that kept my breakfast safe. As I was quietly mulling over each bite, my eyes roamed around the landscape.
Even though I have been living in this ecosystem for an entire year, this still makes no sense to me. Mentally I understand elevation gain and temperature change, but in my heart I'm still amazed that within a half mile it can rain in one section and snow in another. IN FREAKING SEPTEMBER! After packing up camp I headed to Cosho.
When I was planning this trip, I thought that the first day would really kick my butt. Even though it was only 5.6 miles, I thought to incorporate some rest time for the next day. From Fisher to Cosho it is only 4.1 miles and downhill. Even though I felt like I could hike much further when I hit the trail that day, it turned out to be just the perfect amount.
The rain had stopped but all of the low vegetation was drenched from the night before. The trail that day was entirely in meadows and shrub so even after just 4.1 miles I was completely soaked from the knees down.
Once arriving at Cosho I set everything in the sun to dry and built myself a fire. After many hours of rotating the tent fly, shoes, and socks with the sun and keeping the fire alive, I went to sleep with my shoes and tent just 'lightly moist' that evening.
Fire is the most extreme element. At a moment's notice it can change from something small like a campfire to a roaring forest fire. But it is also the element that gives life. When I was drying out everything I had the gift of fire in two forms: the sun and a campfire. These are the two types of fires that environmental educators need.
The sun is our own passion. Even after the world tries to drench us emotionally with headlines like "Arctic sea ice continues to shrink" and "Tanzania quake leaves thousands homeless" it is our passion that dries us out. Without the warmth of our passions the 'doom and gloom' of the world would make us unable to take action. We would much rather just stay inside our tents until someone else deals with it, thank you very much. But passion is what clears the skies and allows us to move forward.
Building and maintaining a fire is much like caring for a living thing. Give it too much or little, and it dies. Constant attention and care are needed to maintain the flame. The passion and intellect of our students are the fires that we have to maintain. Pre-elementary school environmental educators ignite tinder in their students. "Look at that bird! What kind of bird is it?" After years of being handed to other educators, the fire should be a strong and roaring pile of passion and intellect. But our students also give us a purpose in life, for without them we would have no-one to educate about this wonderful world we live on.
To all of the fire that has kept me warm amidst the gloom and given me purpose, thank you.
It is hard to explain the joy of having a cat to non-cat people. "What do you mean it scratches at you when you pick it up?! And you willingly give up your seat if the cat wants it? And it constantly is wanting both in and out? Does your cat even love you?"
Describing some aspects of the back country can be the same way. It can be hard to describe the joy of collecting water or carrying a 50 pound pack. What is especially hard to describe is the joy of pooping in the woods.
Here me out! You crawl out of your tent and grab your toiletries kit containing toilet paper and hand sanitizer (being in the wilderness is no excuse for poor hygiene). Still in your PJ's you hike about 50 yards out of your campsite and to the pit toilet. At the Cosho campsite it was in a completely forested area up a hill. After your short hike you find a wooden box (with a footrest!). As you do your business you really start to see how wonderful the wilderness is. Most people's experience on the porcelain throne has them staring at a white wall. Entire books are made to entertain humans while they do their business! But imagine the beauty of the wilderness to meet you first thing in the morning. You truly can't understand the joy of wall-less pit toilets until you have done it.
My third stretch was one of my longer days; 7.6ish miles. Still in the heart of the Fisher Creek Basin, I walked with the creek into the Thunder Creek Basin.
Now I do have to make a confession: I wasn't completely unplugged in the wilderness. During my trip I actually finished the 40 hours worth of podcasts that I had and listened to about 10 of the audio book for Game of Thrones. Wilderness, to me, doesn't mean a separation from civilization. Wilderness means freedom.
Before getting into the technicalities of regulations in the legal definition of wilderness, imagine a playground. Students are given many choices of what they want to do. Monkey bars or swings? But during recess you will also find those students that are playing card games next to the building. Those 'gamer' students needed to recharge by casting spells and managing their resources, not running around.
This solo hike was a way for my 'natural, physical' side to recharge by hiking, hugging trees, and playing in water while my 'technological, mental' side was recharging with podcasts, books, and music. Two drastically different experiences happening at the same time. After a full day of crossing streams and listening to podcasts, I arrived at Tricouni.
Air is often a forgotten element. Always around and in us, we forget how much it is needed until we are in short supply. The first time I felt like I could not breathe, but not know why, was last fall.
My very dear friend was having his wedding in Ohio. At this point I had been living in Washington for a few months. When I boarded the plane in Seattle the cabin was pressurized with clean, NW air. Once our plane touched down and the doors opened, I started to feel light headed. It wasn't until I was outside getting into the car that breathing hurt. My body had become so used to the excellent air of the Pacific NW that the Ohio air seemed thin...I couldn't get enough oxygen per breath. Of course my body adjusted after a few hours and we handled the wedding just fine.
Environmental Generational Amnesia is a grim tale for us as a species. Basically, the environmental degradation you are born into is your baseline. You don't remember when birds blocked out the sky, or the air was as crisp. You might see it gradually degrade but it is not enough to raise any alarms about. Because this has been happening since the founding of this nation. Our country's natural places hurt, and we as a whole are not aware of the extent of that pain. Nature does have its own inherit value but humans need the trees, streams, and mountains for our own well-being. Even the 'less sexy' ecosystems of wetlands and deserts need to be preserved before the generations forget their role.
The National Park Service was made 100 years ago as a commitment to not forget these natural places, and yet we forget their work so often. I crossed countless streams using hand made bridges (see cover photo of AIR section) and hiked for miles without getting lost once. From the trail signs to pit toilets, we cannot forget the work that is done to protect and preserve our natural places for generations to come.
To all of the air that constantly surrounds and yet is easily forgotten, thank you.
Just as the first day of any trip can be stressful, the last is the 'adjustment' day. I found myself thinking about travel times on the road, when I was going to have dinner, and all the e-mails that were sure to have piled up. This anticipation had me waking up at 5:14 without an alarm, and hitting the trail by 6:20.
The longest day of the trip still wasn't very far by back country standards: only 8ish miles. I now just had to head north along Thunder Creek and meet the southern end of Lake Diablo.
Another reason why I picked this hike in particular was so I could end where I had lived the entire past year; on lake Diablo. It was our natural 'home base.' Searching for any hike on the map started with finding Diablo first and going from there.
About two hours in I found two creatures that were completely unexpected and yet fully belonged; my graduate instructors Joshua and Lindsey! Of course it wasn't in the city that I bumped into people that I knew, but yet instead on the trail. After catching up they continued to climb Mt. Logan and I to finish my hike.
Water is the element of slow, constant change. Hiking within spiting distance of glaciers down to the lake allowed me to see how the water changes with each yard. From the small trickles to mighty currents, it amazed me how this water was connected to both place and time. The water I was pushing through my filter had been clouds, snow, and glaciers before my drinking it. Just what was it before?
The people of the upper Skagit that have been living here since time immemorial are that for us as a culture. They remember when the water was glaciers across the land. With each step in time they have been with and in this valley, seeing the ecosystem change with their own eyes. They have constantly been changing with the landscape and know its story. As someone who did not come from this valley, I am constantly seeking the wisdom of those who came before and have seen.
To all of the water that has been slowly changing since time immemorial, thank you.
You wouldn't think it, but the end of the trail jumped out of nowhere. I was traveling fast when the dirt became pavement. Colonial Creek campground is still heavily forested, so from above you wouldn't be able to notice a sudden change.
Before taking that last step back into 'civilization,' I paused to think what I had just done. While nothing to record in the history books, it was a turning point for me. Because of the care of thousands of organisms, human and otherwise, I was able to take this trip into the wilderness with nothing more than the items in my pack, the water in the stream, and the clean, crisp mountain air.
As this little hobbit started returning to the Shire, he couldn't wait to go on his next solo adventure.