Our planet is a magical living being with beauty all around. Modern urban living – in a bitterly polarized presidential election year no less – can easily blind us of this truth, driving a wedge of separation between ourselves and the life giving mother which nurtures us all – the ground we stand on, the trees which breathe to us, our animal brothers and sisters who remind us of our larger family, the water which refreshes, cools, and replenishes us. Do we walk over the earth as a separate being, or move through it as an inseparable part of the landscape, our heart-spirit blending with the mysteries swirling between the rocks, trees and water?
Something keeps bringing me back to the Elwha and the Bailey Range, within Olympic National Park. In the mid-1980s, my friend Sprague Ackley and I dragged our kayaks from Whiskey Bend to Elkhorn and put on the river, becoming the first to boat down the Grand Canyon of the Elwha. Ever since, I have felt drawn to return again and again.
It is probably a combination of factors. Nature in its wildness is energetically whole. The vitality of an untouched ecosystem is intrinsically pure, allowing our cellular DNA to recharge at the source of life. We drink this energy in through the soles of our feet, every pore in our body, and our subtle energy field. Life in an urban environment is a harsh battle for survival – constantly bombarded by electrosmog, air, noise, water, and visual pollution. Most of the time we aren’t even in contact with the soil, but high above ground in elevated structures, or on man made surfaces – concrete, asphalt. When we touch the ground, breathe the scent of pine needles, flowers, plants, hear the rushing river, a bird singing, a deer tip toeing nearby – these calm and soothe us, giving us strength to return to harsh places and live with greater ease.
But this is only part of the story. We live in a stressful time, pushed back and forth by competing views on politics, or for many, just struggling to survive, dealing with the many challenges of modern life. Wilderness solitude offers us an opportunity to listen deeply to our spirit, to remember our true nature, to gather inner strength to face problems rationally, to contemplate our deeper purpose in life: How can I live a more meaningful life in service of others? What intentions shall I cultivate more diligently with the remainder of my life? I hold these questions gently, while cultivating an alert state of inner quiet – not waiting expectantly for answers to appear, but simply observing and noticing whatever arises unbidden.
I arrive at the gate at the Madison Creek Parking lot at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, July 25, 2016. The road had been closed due to a washout for several months to all vehicles – but not to bicycles or pedestrians. I noted that there was a park service employee standing at the gate, but thought nothing of it. I rolled my bicycle over, intending to ride to the trailhead at Whiskey Bend, seven miles further and a few hundred feet of elevation gain. I asked what was happening and she told me told me the road was closed – not only to cars, but to bicycles and pedestrians too – for the next 8 weeks due to road construction. I was flabbergasted.
In fact, the Park Service employee told me she had only been notified a few days ago. I pondered my options: Drive ninety minutes back to Hurricane Ridge and hike the 8 miles down from there via the Wolf Creek trail. I had done that route and felt extremely reluctant to add a 4000 foot ascent at the end of my journey. I knew that I did not have either the time or the energy to add this extra leg to my originally planned route.
We conversed some more. I told her that I had spent a year planning the trip, had notified all my patients that I was taking this time off, had been in touch with the WIC. It was around 4pm at this point. I went back and sat in the shade of a large tree out of view. She had hinted that she would be gone at 5pm. But then there was another uniformed man there.
As I pedaled past the ranger station, I contemplating stopping to fill out a backcountry permit, required as per 36 CFR 2.10(b)(8), but seeing the Ranger’s truck parked there, I kept pedaling without slowing down. Certainly if I was spotted, he would tell me to turn around, informing me that the road was closed to everyone even though I had passed the “hazard”, an improvised bridge over a side channel of the main river. Furthermore, there were no trucks or heavy equipment being operated as it was after the end of the work day.
I had already filed a detailed trip itinerary with a friend, was carrying a Spot satellite tracking device, and planned to do multiple check-ins a day. I’ve been hiking in the backcountry all my life and am intimately familiar with the Elwha River valley. I state this not in arrogance of being immune from mishaps, but with deep humility for the inherent dangers (and joys) of traveling solo in far flung wild places. I would deal with the karmic consequences later, but at the time, to quote John Muir – “the mountains are calling and I must go”.
I camped at Humes Ranch beneath some giant trees next to a 20 foot high flood bank. River sounds lulled me to sleep. Up at 5am to clear skies, quick pot of oatmeal, hiking by 6am.
The hike up the Long Ridge trail is 10 miles and 4200′ of elevation gain from the bridge over the Elwha to the trail junction at the Dodger Point ridge. There is one small spring about 5 minutes beyond the Dodger Point bridge (elevation 900 feet), and then no water until ~3800 feet. This would be the only time I carried a full liter of water.
The low slanting morning sun shimmered through the tall colonnades of fir trees. It was cool in the shade as I zigged and zagged back across the ridge, steadily ascending on a gentle grade. Just beyond the second or third in a series of switchbacks on the east side of the ridge (approx. 2500 elevation), there is a log across the trail. Ten feet beyond the log, there is a bee (or wasp) hive on the ground, right next to the trail.
I reached Dodger Point campground around noon – about 6 hours of steady hiking from Humes Ranch. Waving off the flies with my hat, I had a quick lunch stop at a stream flowing off Dodger Point. As I ate lunch, I studied Ludden Peak, still deciding whether to go up and over the summit, or out the CCC trail and descend down to the Ludden-Scott saddle before regaining the ridge.
2:54 p.m. The unmistakable afterburner roar of a Navy growler jet ripped open the sky for twenty seconds, injecting the reality of human beings at war with each other and the planet. I was twelve miles inside the boundary of a national wilderness area.
A level spot on the ridge beckoned and I dropped my pack and set up camp. The mosquitoes immediately swarmed. I set up my tarp/bug tent in the wind and crawled inside to rest for a couple of hours before cooking dinner.
Ahead of me on the southern Bailey range were miles of snowfields and a couple of small glaciers – a few of them steep, under a beating sun. I was beginning to lose my appetite. It’s a big ask for my tummy to survive for multiple days on freeze dried food and energy bars.
The smoke in the upper Elwha wasn’t as noticeable, but I felt uneasy about the possibility of hiking another day and a half and then encountering hazardous air quality – or worse, fire. I could hike west out the Hoh and retrace my trip from last year, but that would mean a lot more mileage and about 15 miles of dirt roads.
The logical course of action was to turn back, rejoice that I had made it this far with only a few scratches. Down climbing from Ferry ridge delivered a few adrenaline rushes for the first few steps.
At the low point in the ridge between Mount Ferry and Ludden Peak, I met the party of six men. We figured out that I passed them going over Ludden while they got lost in the gullies northeast of the Scott-Ludden saddle.
Route finding is a bit like surfing a wave. You must stay focused in the present moment in order to keep the ride going. “Do I turn left and head for that group of bushes over there?” No, it looks like it opens up a bit more to the right. Reading the ground – the subtle imprints of animals and people beaten into the side of the mountain over time and integrating that information with more distant visual cues and past memory are the rules of the game. What took them half a day, took me an hour and a half. The first time it took me half a day also. This portion deserves careful study and research.
Arrived at Dodger Point trail junction at 1:20 p.m. Nonstop downhill hiking in cruise mode until 4:50 p.m. brought me to the bridge over the Elwha. Arrived at Whiskey Bend at 6:00 p.m. 19 mile day – not bad for an old geezer. It took 30 minutes to coast downhill on my bicycle to the gate, arriving at 6:30p.m.
A ranger had just pulled up at the gate and opened it. The first thing I notice about any government employee is whether they are wearing a gun strapped to their side. He was. It looked large and deadly. I felt intensely aware of my white privilege, knowing that I was less likely to die in a an encounter with law enforcement than a person of color. Why do employees of the national park system need to wear hand guns?
Immediately, I felt his criminal interrogation come upon me. “So…where are you coming from?” with a beady stare that told me this guy has spent far too long behind a desk, too long wearing a gun, and not enough time in nature.
It took me a few minutes to switch to his brain frequency. My mind was in a very non-verbal state. “Umm – I was at the Ferry-Pulitzer saddle this morning.”
“Did you know that the road is closed?”
I explained that a government employee had let me pass.
“Do you have a permit?”
Okay, go over there and wait by your car and I’ll talk to you in a minute.
Long story short: He ended up citing me for failure to fill out a wilderness backcountry permit ($50 + $30 processing fee) = $80. Small price to pay considering that my experience over the three days in the wilderness was priceless, and, if I had stopped at the ranger station on Monday, he likely would have turned me around.
He lectured me about safety, telling me that completing a backcountry permit can make the difference between life and death. Normally, I would have simply filled out the required paperwork, as I have always done (and would recommend that you do as well), but this time I chose not to because it seemed clear that if I had stopped, I would have been told to turn around. And in the end, I do not depend upon the state to save me from anything.
I patiently and calmly explained my circumstances to him: I had filed a detailed trip itinerary with a friend, was sending GPS updates multiple times a day, had been backcountry hiking and kayaking in this area for over three decades, was in good physical condition, and was keenly aware of my capabilities and limits. Logically, my preparations would be far more useful in the event of an emergency than merely having a piece of paper on file in his office. I could not easily change my trip itinerary after having made arrangements with my patients to take this time off and was caught by surprise by the sudden road closure to all traffic with very little notification. I felt like the WIC could have done a better job of alerting me given the fact that I had been writing to them with my intentions for many months. He would hear none of it.
I was not surprised or angry that he gave me a federal citation and told me I could contest it in court in Tacoma. Mostly I felt compassion for him. I was blissed out after three days in the wilderness and was speaking to him in a friendly, open-hearted manner, inviting him into the energy space of connecting as one human to another – instead of enforcer versus criminal, but he couldn’t see that opening for a moment.
I sensed that he was irritated that I had somehow slipped past him and just didn’t like my happy go-lucky attitude that failed to unquestionably worship his set of rules, which made me wonder about the overreach of the “nanny state”. Are we safer for having filled out a piece of paper and dropping it in a box, giving a brief description of a planned itinerary? I imagine lots of people think so and then get into trouble because they over-estimate their abilities or haven’t done their homework. I have no such delusion that the government is going to save me from every situation. They might, they might not, but in the end, we are all responsible for our own actions, and I prefer to be accountable to myself, self-reliant, rather than pretend the government will save me – which of course is an attitude that is inherently threatening to the legitimacy of the state.
I recall the Navy jet noise twelve miles deep in the park the day before. Did the Navy get a permit to enter the backcountry with their war toy assault on the senses and the planet, in clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the Wilderness Act? Of course not. But we are supposed to fill out little pieces of paper and be grateful for the veneer of protection under a system of government which too often resorts to military action against any group that gets in the way of American exceptionalism. Safe indeed.
But rather than bemoan the hypocrisy, I will keep searching for the path. Pause, go left or right, straight ahead, or turn around? These are always the choices in the present moment. Pay the fine, let it go, work for a better world, and keep walking.
*To learn more about the threat posed by the Navy’s expanded training flights using high decibel Growler aircraft, the dangerous electromagnetic war games to be conducted over the Olympic peninsula, visit this website: http://www.savetheolympicpeninsula.org/.