When Svalbard was young and verdant, he left his home below the equator to go explore the northern seas. He made his way past other floating continents, and then he met Greenland, and things did not go well. He left a piece of his heart with her, and she a particularly jagged, pointy piece of hers with him. He subsequently traveled almost as far north as a continent could get, but his youth and lush beauty didn’t last. The leafy ferns and trees that had thrived in his hometown began to wither in the cold, and eventually they turned to stone, covered with blankets of silt and soil and then ice and snow, until they were hidden from view. Then the icy chill receded, as did the snow, and the rocky remnants began tumbling down the mountainside, just south of Longyearbyen.
From the top of Platåberget, Longyearbyen looks small. In the late summer evening fog, a few lights are on, but the sun won’t “set” for at least a few more hours. The bare, greenish hills and mountains close in around the village, and we can hear the ships horns and a helicopter somewhere, but the only vehicles we can spot are a few trucks and beater cars far below us.
I’ve often heard iterations of the phrase “the more you learn, the less you know” — if you’re human and you speak English, you’ve probably heard it, too.
I suppose there are as many ways to interpret the phrase as there are letters comprising it, but the way I see it is that one who is completely ignorant cannot even have a grasp on the scope of any particular base of knowledge. The further you sail away from the embankment of ignorance, the more connections you make, and you realize that everything is more more intricate and complicated than you could have imagined.
I am reminded of this thought with every new plant I commit to memory in my newfound appreciation for botany and plant identification. While I do surprise myself with how much I retained, trailing my dad (who is a real biologist) through countless woods as a kid, for the most part I stepped into the forest for a hike and thought in terms of “trees, ferns, and moss.” But the more I discover about the latin names of each plant, the groups of species and families, the more I come to the conclusion that there is a hopelessly oppressive number of unknown entities that I walk past with each step on a walk in the woods.
Yet I am certain that I will never exhaust the wealth of this knowledge, and this thought comforts me. For as certain as I am that there is no end to my education in plants, I am just as sure that my curiosity is endless, too, and that makes for a lifetime of interest.
clockwise: Columbine, unknown mushroom, Athyrium filix-femina (Lady Fern), Vaccinium deliciosum (Cascade blueberry), unknown white flower, Vaccinium membranaceum (Tall Huckleberry), Dicentra formosa (Pacific Bleeding Heart), Rubus spectabilis (Salmonberry), Trillium ovatum, Maianthemum stellatum (star-flowered Solomon’s Seal).
For example of crazy intricate, complicated knowledge: the common plants salal, blueberry, huckleberry, manzanita, and kinnikinnick all have maddeningly similar flowers and leaves (and berries), so if you think you know one (like I did), then you constantly misidentify all of them. As I probably have done, above.
Question: Why do people love backpacking so much? And why haven’t I done it yet? Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, it’s more than a little silly that I haven’t gone backpacking before. I’ve tent-camped a hundred places, hiked a hundred more, but never the two together.
My encounters with backpacking have been purely anecdotal. My friend Danielle goes backpacking all the time, and even met her boyfriend on the trail. Half of the people I follow on Instagram go backpacking, or at least take photos of themselves with backpacks, outdoors. I read Wild. You know.
It seemed like such a hassle. You have to get a special backpacking backpack, and a tiny cooking set, a special lightweight tent and sleep pad, and a compression sack for your sleeping bag, among other things. After the fourth visit I figured that REI pretty much invented backpacking to keep themselves in business. I am definitely looking forward to that dividend next year.
Once we’d stuffed everything into our bags, we weighed in — me at roughly 30 lbs, my boyfriend, Jim, at almost 70. We both had our cameras and telephoto lenses, plus he had other lenses, and a tripod. I think he was taking Wild a little bit too much to heart. I told him he had to choose a different name for his pack – Monster was already taken.
Then there were the logistics of getting there. Jim decided he wanted to hike at Shi Shi Beach, his reasoning being that it’s one of the most photographed places on the WA coastline. That seems like the opposite of a good reason to me, but I agreed anyway. So we sailed across the Puget Sound on the ferry, and stayed at a trusty Super 8 in Port Angeles.
On the way, we discovered that we had to get a bear canister for our food (bears? at the beach?), an Olympic National Park hiking permit, and a Makah Tribe Recreation Pass. At the Wilderness Information Center, we learned how to pronounce Shi Shi Beach (she? shih? shy? you guess!*), found out that our bear canister was actually just for raccoons (disappointing), and got our permit and tidal charts. Then we were on our way to Neah Bay, where we’d get our recreation pass.
Neah Bay is always a depressing little town, to me. I feel like it’s caught in between its two cultures: there are majestic carved poles, and signs in native languages, right next to scrappy trailer parks with faded American flags in the windows. People probably wouldn’t pay it any attention if they didn’t have to get recreational passes to visit the beaches.
Now we were done with logistics, it was time. With nothing left to do but to put our packs on and walk, we headed into the forest. How far was four miles, anyway?
Far enough. My favorite part was watching everyone trying to pick their way through the vast swaths of trail mud without getting muddy. You could tell some people had been resourceful — a flat-ish log bridge here, a mat of sawdust there. Some people tip toed around the very edge of the mire, some went well off the beaten path to avoid it completely. And others (like Jim) had clearly just marched right through the middle of it. “F*ck it,” I think was the term used to explain this type of decision.
But easily the most difficult obstacle for us was the steep path leading down to Shi Shi beach – we had to almost rappel ourselves down, using the handy ropes tied to the trail. We met several lovely people at that very spot who commended us on our choice to backpack in. In that moment, I didn’t appreciate it.
We had finally arrived! After a short break, in which I found at least six hermit crabs in beautiful shells, we continued on. We still had almost two miles to go along the beach to get to where we wanted to camp, but somehow having the ocean on your right makes it easier to trudge with a 30-lb bag on your back. Picking up shells with said backpack, however, was very awkward – I think I have plenty of practice now for when I am old, or pregnant. We did not regret bringing our heavy telephoto lenses, though, as we got some whale-watching in. We counted at least seven whales in the area.
Our camp spot was perfect – the far end of Shi Shi, just before the Point of Arches. We were alone with the sea. We pitched our tent just under the tree cover and explored the tide pools and took pictures of the rock formations at Point of Arches; like so many rows of typewriter keys among the reflections of the sky. After nightfall we burned damp logs until they ran out.
In the end, I learned that probably what had kept me away from backpacking all these years (hard work, planning, and determination) was exactly why people love it so much, and why I am going to do it again and again. If that is what it takes to get me at the end of a beach with a glorious tide pool at my front door, I’m in.
In case you have never yet heard of Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey/Fidalgo island in NW Washington, let me enlighten you. It is one of the most engaging hikes I have ever been on, and I’ve now been there twice in a month! It’s not difficult, only reaching about 500 or so feet of climbing, and the mossy, forested trail overlooks the Puget Sound most of the time.
The first time we went, I had Jim and my sister, Mary, with me. We forgot our Discover Pass, and in answer to whether or not we should purchase a $10 day pass, Jim said, “Nah. We can just dispute the ticket by putting our pass number on it. I did that at such-and-such a place and it was fine.”
So we just parked and hiked. Here is what we saw:
It was a perfect day: overcast, recently rained, cool but not blustery. There were plenty of overlook spots, and places that went down to the water. We explored (or tried, anyway) a sea cave, but the tide was coming in, so we couldn’t get there.
One of my favorite things about this hike is that you’re free to wander. There were very few railings, and you could get right up to the cliffs and look over. I’ve lived near the Pacific coast my whole life and I’ve never seen live bull kelp – still attached to the bottom, not washed up on shore like so many gullwhackers in Mariel of Redwall. It seemed like Ireland (or what I imagine Ireland to be in my head) up top, green and grassy, misty and rather morose (in a good way).
There are also a lot of madrone trees up here. It was pretty surreal – we are used to seeing them in hot, sunny, (mostly) dry Southern Oregon, and they don’t grow up past Eugene area, really. And then all the sudden, they pop back up in the rainy, cold, mossy Northernmost tip of Washington!
There were also tide pools on the north side of the hike – we hiked south first, then looped back to the parking lot and went north. I collected a ridiculous amount of rocks and shells, and poked a number of sea anemones. One tiny, iridescent shell caught my fancy, and I tucked it in my palm with the others and headed up to show my sister, when I felt a little tickle, shrieked, and flung the lot of it onto the beach. After gathering them back up, I discovered this coveted little shell was already taken!
You may be wondering how our “Nah we’ll just dispute it” ended up. Let’s just say this was a very expensive hike, and bring your fricking Discover Pass or pay the extra $10.
Anyway. On our second trip, Jim and I took his parents, and my mom (and our Discover Pass!) on this hike the day after my birthday. It was a lot windier, and pretty rainy that time around, but still beautiful! I tried to take some different photos. The tide was low, so we made it to the cave! This is my mom at the cave. We saw at least four banana slugs out, some pretty flowers, and more tiny crabs!
This is a beautiful hike, a quintessential NW trip, and I encourage people to go there. Just not too many people, ’cause I wanna hike there with no crowds. 🙂
We woke up fairly early this morning again – I gotta admit, I’m tired. I have not slept hardly at all on this trip, and I am really looking forward to our real bed again.
But anyway, back to reality: it snowed!! The first real, real snow. I was very excited. It was a light, feathery snowfall, & it clung to most of the chilly morning and afternoon. We saw some beautiful Trumpeter swans & geese on the national elk refuge. Supposedly there are over 40,000 Trumpeters now, but in the 30’s there were only 70 of them in the lower 48, until they discovered thousands in Alaska, and repopulated the Yellowstone/Teton/Jackson area. So they’re still technically endangered, but they’re making a comeback!
We saw these moose in the frosty morn. I didn’t realize until I was editing this photo that there were actually two moose out there! Do you see #2?
We went back to Cunningham Cabin to get some better shots, maybe even a Christmas photo. We worked SO hard to get this stupid Christmas card photo, so if you receive one, cherish it for life, even in its mediocrity.
I didn’t want to mess up the pristine snow in front of the cabin, so we had to set up the tripod, then cut around the back, giving a wide berth, climb in through the broken back wall of the cabin, and edge along under the eaves. Then the phone remote clicker disconnected. Dah! So I had to go back through the broken wall, give the property a wide berth, reset the camera, retrace my steps around the cabin, squeeze under the eaves, after which it disconnected AGAIN.
It was pretty cool that we were the first people there that day – no one messed up the snow but us!
Sooo, after we finally left the cabin, we checked out Cattleman’s Bridge (where it used to be) which was a pleasant little area with only the swans to keep us company. We’ve seen hardly *anyone* here (and the one dude we *did* see may very well be trampled in a field near Moose Junction). We drove to Colter Bay campground to check out the winter camping situation. We didn’t see any info posted, so we checked with a park ranger, and it turns out we can’t camp there until the winter camping opens up in December. The best option he had was to pull off the side of the BLM road and camp, where he said no one would bother us. We’re going to motel it again. The poor motel clerk is going to think we’re crazy.
In the early afternoon, we took a hike. We wanted to do Jenny Lake, but guess what? That part of the park is closed – the story of our life on this trip. We could only do Taggart Lake, which actually turned out to be pretty awesome.
It was about four miles, a little bit of climbing (enough to shed our coats) through snowy forests, with wintry creeks, lots of hills with Snowbrush, a shiny mountain lake, lots of fresh powdery snow to eat, and hardly any people! It was cold, the air was fresh, we saw all sorts of animal tracks – deer, moose, rabbit, squirrel… and we think, a dog. A tiny one. Definitely more our style than the crowded Emerald Lake hike at Rocky Mountain.
So now our time here is drawing to a close. We are going to wake up really early tomorrow to try for some more bird photos at the elk refuge before we head to Idaho & Oregon.
Anna & Jim
So this weekend, Jim and I stayed at a cabin in the YMCA of the Rockies, of all places. Jim’s old business partner and his family live in Denver, and arranged the whole thing. It was a bit of an odd experience, but fun! I’d never have thought to stay someplace like that, but the kids had fun doing crafts and roller skating and renting games to play.
We grownups had fun making fires in the fireplace, drinking whiskey and coffee, and going on a couple hikes. We did a very tiny hike with the kids around Bear Lake – man was it crowded! Jim and I waited about 20 minutes just for a parking spot to open up. It was more of a stroll, really, about .7 miles around this little lake. After puddle-jumping around the lake, the kids’ feet were wet and cold, so they went back to the cabin, and Jim and I continued up from Bear Lake past Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. That was more of a climb – 3 miles and about 1000 feet in elevation (already at 7,000 or so) through plenty of packed snow. There were still a lot of people there. At the top of our climb I got about two minutes to myself while Jim went to take photos somewhere up further, and it seemed quiet… at first. But then I could hear jets up above, cars in the distance, and people talking and laughing, faintly, at the other lakes. Not quite serenity. But still very pretty.
We got someone to take our photo at Dream Lake. It seemed to be the code that someone took your photo, then you took the next person’s, then they took the next person’s… and this all took place just past the “please stay off the restoration area” sign. Go figure. We saw plenty of birds up here – the grey jays in particular were not very shy at all. Some people were eating a snack, and the jays were hovering just above them, waiting for a crumb.
The way back down was quite a rush! I didn’t slip much, since I kept one foot planted in the snow bank on the side the whole way down, but Jim did some ice surfing, and plenty of other people were swept off their feet. I guess the temperature dropped enough in the late afternoon to turn the slushy downhills into icy slip n’ slides.
So today we left. The road Jim was planning on taking out of the park to the Grand Tetons was – surprise, surprise – closed! So we had to take a long way around. The interstate wasn’t going to be any faster, so we took the scenic route, back east to Fort Collins, then west again, on 14 out past Steamboat Springs and on up to Wyoming, again. I never thought I would be in Wyoming so much!
Our roadtrip playlist is evolving – here’s some of what we listened to across Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming:
Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits
Larkin Poe – Kin
The Essential John Denver
John Doyle & Liz Carroll – Double Play
Mark O’Connor – Heroes
Fleetwood Mac – Greatest Hits
Gypsy Kings – Greatest Hits
Chris Stapleton – Traveller
Gillian Welch – Revival
We had lunch at a scenic overlook at the end of the Rockies. It took the grey jays all of about 2 minutes to figure out where we were. Oh, yeah, and Jim continued his smoking across America.
So now we are in the Grand Tetons. More later.
This is a pretty short one. We took a day trip with Jim’s mom, Sylvia, around Governor Dodge State Park, which is about 50 miles west of Madison. It was a brilliantly sunny day, which was good for (some of) us, but not great for photos. We hiked a bit around Cox Hollow Lake. I guess it goes to show that 1. Going from sea-level up any sort of hill pretty much kills us and 2. The fact that we live at sea-level in Seattle does nothing to undermine our assumption that everything in the Midwest is flat as a pancake compared to what we have in the Cascades. Basically, this hike was unexpectedly hilly, as well. We had some great views of the lake over piney granite cliffs, though. And we saw a toad!
We also walked through another part of the park, where I am pretty sure my cousin Suzy and I would have been extremely happy traipsing through in our childhood, meaning that it was the perfect place in which to pretend to be an elf. Little creeks babbling under wooden bridges, and ever-falling leaves in a quiet wood, carpeting the ground in stony-brown foliage.
Since we didn’t end up going to Door County, Jim and I decided to go to Devil’s Lake, instead. We were here last December when we came for Christmas, but we only did the east side of the lake. That one was pretty tough, with lots of granite boulders to clamber over. The west side that we did today was still tough (and again, we dressed way too warmly – thank you, climate change).
Devil’s Lake is a glacial lake on the terminal moraine near the Baraboo Hills, about 35 miles from Madison. Our hike was only like 1.3 miles each way, but we were not expecting the climb! The views were worth the effort, though.
The trail itself was also really cool – lots of little twists and turns, and different terrains – asphalt, granite, etc.
And we did end up seeing some rather pretty foliage!
Wanna know what our roadtrip playlist is?
I will tell you! We’ve been doing a lot of driving (an accumulative 22-ish hours so far, and 5-ish more today), which is a lot of time to occupy your mind.
Eli West & Cahalen Morrison – Our Lady of the Tall Trees
Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott – Memories & Moments
The Duhks – Beyond the Blue
Rainlanders – Another Shore
Gordon Lightfoot – Sundown
Paul Simon – Rhythm of the Saints
Chris Thile & Mike Marshall – Into the Cauldron
Yesterday’s drive took us from Missoula to Glacier, past the Mission Mountain Range, and Flathead Lake. I didn’t know that there were two Salish tribes – the Coastal Salish that you hear about in Seattle, and the other Salish, the Flathead, in Montana, etc. Anyway, that’s where flathead comes from.
Today we are leaving Glacier National Park. Our plan was to spend the day here and go to Yellowstone tomorrow, but we didn’t realize just how much of glacier would be closed this time of year. The road is closed up past Avalanche Creek, so most of the hikes we had thought of doing were inaccessible. We did a quick little one called Trail of the Cedars, which was very northwest-y — lots of moss!
We also walked around Lake McDonald, including the lodge (which is closed for the season) and McDonald Creek. There were some pretty neat fall colors. I want to go again sometime, just so I can huddle up in the “Creekside Reading Room,” which looked lovely, from the outside.
We had some crow friends, Larry and Curly, who came to visit us on our sandwich break. They were the biggest crows I have ever seen! Guess they’ve had a lot of sandwiches. Speaking of food, later that night Jim and I tested out a fancy-dancy freeze-dried meal we got at REI. It was not too bad, actually! Jim got to use his new pocket rocket stove, so he was happy.
After our freeze-dried pasta primavera, we packed back up and headed to McDonald Lake again for some nighttime photos. It was fairly cloudy, so we weren’t sure we would get anything good, but I think the clouds made for some neat effects. The one with the moon and scraggly branches is pretty spooky! Just in time for Halloween. All I need is to photoshop a witch on a broomstick in there…
Let me know if you want a postcard. firstname.lastname@example.org