Introduction, by Tim Billo (Instructor)

This year’s group:  Back L-R: Amy Lin, Autumn Forespring, Zachariah Fincher, Hanna Lester, Katie Keil (Teaching Assistant extraordinaire–thank you Katie!), Zhewen Zheng, Nick Tritt, Jonathan Hong. Front: Tim Billo, Katie Spires, Diana Kawczynski, Aisling Doyle Wade. Photo Credit: Sally Jewell. The clouds in the background are the remnants of some of the strongest and wettest July storms in history, dubbed JAWS1 and JAWS2, by a local weather expert. The weather couldn’t get this group down, however; in fact it only fortified our camaraderie!

This year’s group again with guest instructor Sally Jewell, front row, blue jacket. It was a huge privilege to work with and learn from Sally again this year. Once again she inspired us with her wisdom and vision, as well as stories from her work as Secretary of the Interior under the Obama Administration.  Sally is not one to rest on her laurels however. We were lucky that she was able to take two days away from her new position as CEO of the Nature Conservancy. We thank her for her service to our course and country, and wish her luck in her new position!

It was truly a pleasure to spend 9 days in the wilderness with the inspirational group of people you see above, on the 7th annual offering (click here for last year’s blog) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day wilderness backpacking trip (July 6-14, 2019) in the northeast corner of Olympic National Park (which includes the homelands of the S’Klallam, Suquamish, and other Coast Salish people), explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. Using wilderness as a baseline, it also challenges the idea of wilderness itself: how the concept of wilderness came to be, who it serves and who it doesn’t, and what value it offers society in the Anthropocene, this critical juncture in Earth’s history.

Each student on the course led an evening discussion around a topic he or she was interested in, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) the use of technology in wilderness, 2) ethics around management of the northern spotted owl and mountain goats in Olympic National Park, 3) changing concepts of wilderness in the 21st Century, 4) the historic and present place of Native Americans in wilderness, and the connection between decimation of indigenous peoples with the development of wilderness philosophy, 5) exploring work and recreation in nature, and ensuing dichotomies in environmental philosophy, 6) what wilderness can or can’t teach us about sustainability, 7)  what wilderness can teach us about environmental activism and an evaluation of activism in general as part of the environmentalist toolkit, 9) balancing wilderness protection with the encouragement of increased visitation and equitable access for all people, and 10) visions of “ecotopia” and contrasting views on conservation in eastern vs. western philosophy. As in previous years, we also discussed the known effects of spending time in nature (and time away from technology) on human health, while feeling its positive effects on our own health as the trip progressed.

We were also able to study the effects of previous climate change events on range shifts of forest species up and down mountain sides. Large Douglas firs at high elevations are the remnants of a warm dry period 7-800 years ago, and silver firs at lower elevations seeded in during the Little Ice Age which ended only 200 years ago. Many alpine glaciers that expanded during the Little Ice Age have now massively contracted, leaving in their wake characteristic glacial deposits and a unique succession of species colonizing the bare soil. Nowhere was this more apparent than in our views of the upper Lillian Valley from Grand Peak, which we compared with a 1905 view of the now melted Lillian Glacier taken from the same location (pictures and further description in the Day 8 blog post). Along with the loss of ice and snow also comes a decline in a unique suite of species tied to this ecosystem, including ice worms and snow beetles, and a number of bird species that tie their existence to scavenging invertebrates that die on the surface of summer snow. We encountered an average, to slightly below average, snowpack this year. Relatively poor weather made encounters with other hikers infrequent (I think we saw only 2 hikers in the middle 5 days of the trip). At least 6 black bears were seen by our course this year (a record number for us), and we saw or heard nearly every species of bird we have encountered in the past on this route, with the exception of evening grosbeaks and Clark’s nutcracker (which is typically rare anyway). Some of our most rewarding bird sightings included a pair of golden eagles that soared with us in Thousand Acre Meadows, and gracing us again the following day as we hiked over Lost Pass.

The Olympic Mountains and its many historical alpine glaciers were connected to the continental ice sheets that flowed through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!). Despite the intrusion of ice from the north, as well as the growth of alpine glaciers down valleys in the Olympics, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free during the last ice age, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations (we found rare populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper at Deer Park, expanding their foliage relative to photos taken 100 years ago), and some of them have evolved into forms unique to the Olympic Mountains (including alpine plant species such as the Piper’s bellflower and Flett’s violet, which we discovered in several ridgetop locations. Piper’s bellflower was just beginning to bloom, and Flett’s violet was all but done blooming for the year. Other endemics of note, include the Olympic flightless grasshopper, which we found at Grand Pass. Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and it will be up to humans to decide whether to help these species out by moving them to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves), or to let them go extinct one by one. Whether we have a moral imperative to save species is a bigger question, which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which we have traditionally thought of as places where nature should be left to take care of itself, where man is only a “visitor” who does not meddle.

Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, in some cases irrevocably. It was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century, that Olympic National Park and other areas like it were saved from the ax and/or development (although with the unfortunate consequence of denying native people sovereignty over their homelands, and access to key resources). In only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a roadless area of over 1 million acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), not to mention similar areas in the Cascade Range. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that also makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene.

As with every year I teach this course, I relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many values our wilderness spaces offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world), to connect with our past, and to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era.

In this blog, each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on the importance of wilderness, a commodity whose value has recently been questioned in some conservation circles, as we enter the Anthropocene. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.

Below, I will add my personal reflection, as each student has done at the end of their post:

The wilderness of Olympic National Park has deep personal meaning for me. Having spent over 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, I always enjoy getting to know the landscape more intimately (especially as I notice small, and occasionally large, changes in the landscape along our route on a year to year basis). Teaching others to see the landscape through my eyes, as well as learning through their eyes, only heightens my awareness of place. I am always struck by the diversity of life one experiences on our 50 mile trek, a walking pace being more in tune with the pace in which our senses evolved to operate. Every day of the trip we pass through different habitats and life zones, and while forests, meadows, and alpine fellfields may occur in each drainage we pass through, each valley has a distinctive feel and a slightly different assemblage of species. In this national park, the details of each ecosystem are intact and relatively undisturbed by man. Each ecosystem merges seamlessly into the next, and natural disturbances heal themselves, because they are embedded in a healthy landscape (this is particularly evident to me as I also study urban forests and the pressures that urban forests face as tiny fragments of a once intact landscape). Relatively pristine nature is everywhere in Olympic, but at the same time it is not to be taken for granted. When we slow down, we begin to notice what usually goes unnoticed; something more than ourselves, something beautiful, something fragile, yet strong through its adaptations and interdependencies. A lark’s nest hidden behind a rock in alpine tundra, antlion larvae hiding in dry sand pits at the base of a yellow cedar, ice worms emerging on the surface of glaciers at night, pipits gleaning insects off of snow fields, an enormous bear entirely focused on gorging itself on ants, marmots huddling at the entrance to city-like networks of burrows, a tailed frog struggling across a soft carpet of moss to a stream, an emphemeral rainbow after a break in the rain, the ethereal call of a varied thrush coming through the fog, or a hatch of mayflies dancing in a (what was for us) a rare forest sun beam. Nine days in the cold and sometimes driving mountain rain and wind, teaches us about fragility. We are reduced to the same tasks and joys as the nature I just described.  Our day is boiled down to the essentials of survival: getting enough food in us–occasionally gathering additional food from the ecosystem around us (this year we supplemented our diet with Olympic onion and puffball mushrooms), water (often carried great distances from streams), shelter (thinking about hard-to-come-by flat, sheltered, dry, and low-impact spots), group cooperation, and the occasional opportunity to revel in a rare beam of sunlight coming through the clouds. We engage our minds and bodies as evolution intended them to be engaged. And we recognize in our own fragility, the fragility of nature around us.  But we also recognize the resilience of nature, as something real that all beings, including ourselves, are inextricably a part of. There is strength in our interconnectedness. As we work together to carry only what we need for 9 days, and become very aware of our own waste (as we pack it all out), we are deeply in tune with the essentials of life, and our impact on the web of life. A last crumb or a drop of water (even if that water is dish water) is not to be left unconsumed. Our bodies are tired, but our spirits are uplifted and calmed in a way that I believe only wilderness can teach.  We realize our full potential as human beings. And we realize a certain humility, as we walk through spaces that are far older than our civilization. Spaces in which animals and plants have co-existed for eons relatively undisturbed by people, uniquely adapted to survival in the habitats they call home.

I am not a religious person, but my thoughts become spiritual when we make our annual pilgrimage to Thousand Acre Meadow, a giant mountain heath meadow that cannot be accessed by any trail. We immediately fall silent when we reach the first overlook of the meadow. We sit and stare, stunned as our minds open and overflow with the expanse of the landscape in front of us. More often than not, we spot bears simply being bears (as we did this year), totally unaware of us, meandering about in the meadow. Or again, this year, golden eagles soaring out of the mist along the ridges, or a merlin streaking down from a nearby peak as pipits disperse in all directions. Once we finally decide to enter the meadow, we each split away from each other to maintain our silence and solitude, and that sense of the sacred, letting our feet travel the trails created by marmots over centuries, as the curious animals calmly watch us from the entrances of their burrows; or simply letting our feet forge their own path as our minds, bodies, and senses engage fully with a three-dimensional space, forging unique paths as our curiosity draws us to different corners of the landscape. We gather again some 30 minutes or 120 minutes (depending) later on the lower end of the meadow, each having had a spiritual experience of our own, which is perhaps impossible to put into words. But we give each other knowing looks. We don’t break our silence until we find our way back to the trail, our souls having been enlightened in the presence of something utterly sacred. And this inexplicable “something”, we will take back with us as we re-enter our urbanized every-day existence. It is something humbling, it is something that feels right, and it is something that is missing in our fast-paced, hyper-technological lives in the Anthropocene. Sitting here writing this now, it is comforting to know that such a place exists, a space left intentionally without trails, where nature still does what nature has always done.

We crave these rare wilderness experiences all that they offer; real connections with our fellow human beings; a slower pace of life; fresh air, and engagement of mind and body. Yet, in our fast paced lives, we fail sometimes to even recognize these cravings for what they are. And sadly, for a variety of reasons, these experiences are not accessible to everyone, even those who recognize personal need. When we cannot access wilderness, we must try to preserve and access wild nature and “real” experience within our urban landscapes, so that we can experience even momentary reprieve from societal pressures that stress us in unnatural ways. It is up to all of us to advocate for and preserve the last remaining wild spaces, rural or urban, even if they are not spaces we will visit often, or even at all. In some cases it is just enough knowing that there are still spaces on earth where nature survives untrammeled, without interference from humans; where our mind expands and relaxes across a daydreamed landscape. But even these spaces, for all of the resilience built into them, are increasingly impacted by forces from the outside. Their persistence as functioning ecosystems is not at all a given, as climate warms, weather patterns change, and the landscape becomes more fragmented.

For those of us privileged to have experienced wilderness, we can work to bring similar experiences to others, and we can all take on the mantle of stewards, advocates, educators, and custodians. Sally Jewell was an important guest and mentor for us in this regard this year. As she repeatedly told her staff as Secretary of the Interior, “We are in the ‘forever’ business,” and, an inspirational saying whose origin is unknown, but to which Sally often refers, “We have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.” We owe a debt of gratitude to a relatively few brave politicians and activists who had the vision to set aside wilderness landscapes, and to promote conservation even against the powerful financial forces of industry. We owe an even bigger debt of gratitude to the first peoples of our country, who have stewarded the resources of our lands since time immemorial.  We have much to learn from their ancient cultures; a reflection of the long view, an arc of time that extends backwards and forwards, a true understanding of the deep past, as well as the concept of “borrowing from our children.” To them, the idea of wilderness is not even necessary. All of nature is sacred, and it is understood that humans are a part of the natural web. Nature feeds us physically, mentally, and spiritually, and must be respected. We are but a small part of it. Tragically, the Euro-American conception of wilderness preservation excluded indigenous peoples and cultures by inventing a false physical and metaphorical separation of man from “nature” with its focus on imagined “pristine” spaces.  The Euro-American wilderness concept arose as a necessary and strong counterpoint to wasteful and exploitative industrial factions of the same Euro-American culture. Whether we arrive at a sense of respect for nature through the wilderness concept or through a Native American value system, it is time we all recognized with humility, the inextricable ecological and spiritual ties we have with the natural world, encoded deep within the DNA of all humans. And it is time we learned from indigenous cultures, expanding that respect for the natural world, even to the non-wilderness and less “pristine” facets of our landscape, being conscious about taking only what is necessary for our survival, while securing and restoring the resiliency of the natural ecosystems. Only then can there be a sustainable path forward for humans in the Anthropocene.

Day 1, Seattle to Three Forks, by Katie Spires

Getting to know each other on the ferry, as the hustle and bustle of downtown Seattle fades away behind us. Crossing the Salish Sea, we contemplated the legacy of the recent ice age, reflected on the channeling of the Duwamish, and acknowledged the Duwamish people whose homeland was forever changed when they hosted the Denny Party at Alki Beach just 170 years ago. Schmitz Park and rugged Alki Point are the few remaining reminders of the original ecosystems of West Seattle. Our next stop would be the Jamestown S’Klallam Reservation, were we would acknowledge the S’Klallam people as the original stewards of the northern Olympic Peninsula where the bulk of our course would take place.

A new sign graces the entrance of Olympic National Park in Port Angeles, featuring the the Coast Salish language as a nod to the first peoples of this land.

At first glance, the first day of this epic trip doesn’t look like much: We hiked four miles downhill. But if you only look at mileage and difficulty as indicators of accomplishment, as I have been guilty of in the past, then you overlook the fact that 11 nervous strangers met each other for the first time, navigated a few hours of traffic, ferries, and awkward small-talk, arrived at an overwhelmingly bustling National Park visitor’s center, met the 12thstranger of the group, acquired passes and bear canisters, repacked all the food and gear, freaked out when they realized how heavy the packs were, squished back into the cars, drove up a windy road too quickly to a trailhead, slowly walked down the four miles, supported an unfortunate knee injury and redistributed pack weight, made camp for the first time, and began a transformative journey together. That’s a lot to overlook.

Day one of nine in the wilderness was packed with logistics, nerves, travel, and weight. These things seem annoying, but they are the foundation of a good adventure: proper planning prevents poor performance. We had also been primed by many readings discussing the normative conceptualizations of wilderness, its history, critiques, and calls to action. These ideas were bouncing around a little aimlessly, waiting for refinement. Though the logistics and planning and preparation of mind and body is essential, they are boring to read so I will spare you and tell only of the hike. We began the hike from the Deer Park Trailhead into the Gray Wolf Valley, walking through misty subalpine habitat. There were spindly subalpine firs scattered around the lupine-filled meadows – though there were many other types of wildflowers as well. We immediately encountered cougar scat, inferred because scat was located in a large scratch in the ground (pictured below).

Cougar scat, deposited in a scrape at the side of the trail.

The trail meandered through an old burn, where one could see fire scars on the thick bark of douglas-firs at the edge of their range. The presence of lodgepole pine also indicated fire, because their cones are covered by a resin that melts in the heat of a fire, allowing the seeds to be dispersed. This is the first hint that though possibly dangerous and destructive, fire does indeed play a natural and necessary role in our ecosystems.

We briefly stopped to listen to the low “whomp whomp whomp” of a blue grouse’s mating call, and then quickly descended into a mossy forest in a state of competitive exclusion. We noticed various mycoheterotrophs, such as candystick, (pictured below) because of the lack of light in the understory. Mycoheterotrophs are super cool because they are organisms that lack chlorophyll and the ability to photosynthesize. Instead they get sugars from the mycorrhizal mats that connect under the soil surface. The young dark forest quickly gave way to a doug fir and salal-dominated forest.

A large Douglas-fir in an otherwise younger forest. Perhaps a legacy of fire, or a legacy of climate fluctuations in the last 800 years. Douglas firs dispersed up slope around 800 years ago in a warm dry period. Cooling in the last 500 years caused more cold-tolerant species to disperse downwards amongst these giant Doug-firs.

Candy stick, a mycoheterotroph.

When we were almost down to our first campsite, Three Forks, Katie came running down the trail to tell us our teammate Hanna had injured her knee. We dropped our packs, sent up a rescue mission to get her and her pack while everyone began to cook dinner. We ate our first meal together improvised at the trail side. When Hanna caught up and she had eaten, we split up any extra weight we could carry from her for the last mile to the camp. Our sense of security was rattled and any idea of certainty in the plan was lost. This was the first challenge of the trip and set the tone for being flexible, compassionate, and team-oriented; with darkness settling in, and being too far down the trail to retreat, a sense of self-sufficiency and teamwork that perhaps only wilderness can afford began to envelope us.  We 12 strangers immediately bonded to dedicate ourselves to helping Hanna continue the trek. Setting up camp in the dark at Three Forks concluded an eventful Day One.

Cameron Creek from our campsite at the confluence of the Cameron and Grand Creeks.

After this incredible experience, I can see that the cooperation, resilience, and flexibility we demonstrated on the first day is essential to all endeavors, especially building more sustainable, equitable societies and navigating the surprises of life.

Living in the time we do now, in a geologic epoch named the Anthropocene to signal the intense effects humans have on Earth’s biogeochemical systems, wilderness spaces are important. That is not to say they are untouched. Wilderness is as much a construction of our minds as well as management choices. Wilderness is important because it reminds us that life is both resilient and fragile at the same time, and that we are so human; small, yet so influential together, subject to nature’s abiotic processes, and part of an ecosystem rather than separate. We need to be reminded that there is a lot of life out there worth saving, and that we are capable of using our collective force and collaboration to be good stewards to the earth – whether one’s motivation is for yourself, your kids, it’s own sake, or for all of humanity. This trip was particularly special because in a group you are constantly reminded of the importance of collaboration, compromise, and flexibility to complete similar goals. Building a more sustainable future will take facing challenges with courage and collaborative support – something I believe wilderness can teach all of us.

Descending through a 1980s burn. Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine are regenerating here, both fire adapted in different ways.

And last but not least, here are a couple of my sketches from the trip:

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Day 2, Three Forks to Camp Ellis, by Zhewen Zheng

On the second day, we had to say goodbye to our privy – who knows whether we would have that in the latter days. Putting up our gears, heavy just as before, it was hard to say if people were gaining or losing strength. The excitement, however, was never as encouraging as now. Nature was calling us, speaking of its mysteries and hymns.


Everybody got across!

Autumn crossing Gray Wolf River on another bridge

Diana crossing the same bridge

Aisling follows across

Amy crossing the same bridge

The trail meandered along the Gray Wolf River, and we walked in the opposite direction of the current. We had to cross the river many times, often relying on chiseled paths on fallen snags across the stream. As we stroll along the trail, following the pace of Tim the Bird (sometimes panting a lot), I found myself unable to pay attention to things around other than the ground. Even after exchanging backpack with Jonathan, it was still a demanding load for me. Though, I appreciated the sudden stops “provided” by Zachariah, as he often found fungi along the hike and would stop to take photos. There was one particular stop that knocked me into attentiveness; Zachariah, the fantastic fungi spotter, spoke fervently without a pause: “Look, there are bones! What kind of bones are those? Let’s ask Tim…”

A snowbank false morel.

Flower of the wild ginger.

Then, Tim came by and confirmed that the bone seemed fresh and belonged to a deer. I could almost feel a cold shiver zap across my spinal cord, sensing danger and excitement. Indeed, a feast of the beasts probably happened not so long ago here, but what it implied was a lively ecosystem with life and death. The trees told us a similar story. Walking through the mossy lowland-forests, we see nurse logs and snags scattered between living trees. Those who fall would decompose into nutrients while providing desirable cover or conditions for other species, a telltale sign of nature working with nothing curated by humans.

Fallen logs covering the stream

A burned Douglas fir with a young forest regenerating around it. The Douglas fir survived the fire and is a legacy of the original forest. The younger forest is going through “stem exclusion.”  Some trees are losing the competition for light and are beginning to die. The forest is thinning itself naturally as it enters the next stage of regeneration.

Another scene from the same regenerating forest.

The group hiking through the young lowland forest.

Our group moving through a mossy lowland forest

Things started to settle down after we arrived at Camp Ellis in the afternoon. The rain had already been spitting puffs on us now and then for a period. The sky was gloomy, the ground slippery, and everybody was ready for either the sun to be parading tomorrow or the ever-so-delighted existence of a campfire. A group of girls went for a dip in the stream, and soon we began our first discussion for the trip, led by Katie Spires and Nick Tritt. We were revisiting the current problem of Mountain Goats while sipping hot cocoa. The goats were non native species, brought here by some early settlers who were fond of those goats as sporting targets. Now, those goats were roaming on the mountains, seeking salt, and trampling the native plants. Some of those plants existed only in the Olympic Peninsula in the world. There were a few available resolutions. The one that was in operation was the “helicopter capture-transport” method, explaining the roaring sound of machines we heard earlier in the day. The wilderness does not seem to be so pristine and untrammeled by men, for an ideal space like that would not have helicopters going around picking up goats. We shared our opinions about what could be done to ease the removal process, and Autumn brought up tribal intervention as a rescue. This suggestion certainly widened my perspective, because as an international student, I was not so familiar with viewpoints coming from native tribes who once walked the land of America themselves.

Without a conclusive ending, we went on to start the campfire; it was such a blessing. At that time, I understood some feeling of the earliest European settlers, that the kindle of civilization and fire were curing for those dark, moody nights. I was so cold that I would not want to move away from it, even when the smoke from wood irritated my eyes, driving me to tears. Circling the campfire, Autumn also had her discussion about the relationship between the tribes and the Olympic National Park. It was an emotional moment. As the fire danced in the pit, we carefully held our ears up. A voice was speaking from a background with a past of living sustainably and harmoniously with nature. The stars glittered and stirred the night sky, and the fire slowly faded into the embers, dimming with warmth, we stuff ourselves into sleeping bags. Heart soften and mind open, our second day came to an end.

This nine-day journey is what I would call an introductory philosophical quest to answer the question of existence. The physical strain on the body and mental break-free was indeed provocative. We hesitate with fear when we face it; we roar with euphoria when we peak it; we cease to exist when we destroy it. It is nature, whether viewed as emotion, or knowledge, or divine, or science, it is something we must study to understand the world, and ourselves. As the rain pours, the snow falls, the sun shines, and the landscape unravels before us, solitude knocks on the door of your mind, asking for a conversation. Fire dreams in ember and ashes, providing heat and I question: what do we seek? Wind blows and thousands of acres of meadows unfold, capturing a fabled photo and I wonder: where does our goal lead? Questioning, and relieved, I genuinely believe that a concept of wilderness is a necessity, for all the questions it has raised, and all the wonders it has offered. Without pondering these questions, it is difficult to change the mindset to establish a sustainable future; any perceivable future becomes less predictable. Through this trip, I was able to meet Jonathan, and never before I found a deep-minded person who was into philosophy like him. Nature brings us together, sharing differences and similarities. Urban or rural, young or old, Europe or Asia, all of these do not matter. We are here to find the answers to our questions, and the answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask.

Embers of the campfire

Day 3, Camp Ellis to Falls Camp, by Amy Lin

I am slowly growing accustomed to this rhythm of life. Brush teeth, fetch water, cook oatmeal, blow nose with a leaf, then stow away the tent. I am starting to get more familiar with where my things are stored in my pack that houses a gazillion zippers and secret pockets. Re-packing everything into my backpack is like playing Tetris (wilderness-mode) because I try to fit each item into the right spaces. Diana is the best tent buddy, ever! She packs up at a crazy speed and is always ready-to-go. My favorite vegan cook group (shout out to Zhewen and Hanna!) happens to be the group that sleeps in the most, so I do my best to get myself ready as efficiently as possible with the remaining time.

Diana and Amy folding up their tent and getting their bags ready for the hike. This tent sheltered two people. Photography by Zachariah Fincher. 

Group did some pre-hike yoga stretches, with poses representing different species of trees in the forest around us. We got a good laugh but also stretched our limbs quite a bit. Not pictured: Tim and Katie K. giggling at how ridiculous we looked with our yoga poses. Photography by Katie Keil.

We started our day with a quote and a quick yoga stretch, led by “Bird-bath” Tim. Still standing in a circle, we discussed how to identify different plant species. Jonathan, as instructed by Tim, presented the leaves and lichens he gathered from the area: Dragon skin lichen – Lobaria pulmonaria (a Nitrogen fixer), Silver Fir – Abies alba, and Western redcedar – Thuja plicata. It was a warm but breezy day filled with Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) singing in harmony with itself. About 1 mile into the old growth forest, we paused our hike and dropped our bags aside. It was time to journal in solitude. We are all passionate about hiking, but there is great value in stopping where we are and appreciating our surroundings instead of constantly getting crazy miles in. We took this time to reflect our experience in the wilderness thus far, and what wisdom we might glean from these centuries-old trees. In the dense forest, sunrays seeped through the gaps and laid a shadow on my notebook. The shadow outlined a Western Redcedar leaf. I could hear the stream water rolling in the distance and the superficial roar of the airplane that was passing by ahead. I reflected on the simplicity in the forest in contrast to the complexity of urban life back home. Back home, there is constant stress involving job security, social anxiety, and school. In the forest, trees grow as much as they can, and if other trees surpass them, they are out-competed and accept it. How do these two seemingly different entities, civilization and forest, exist together at peace? I wrote a haiku to reflect my thoughts:

A varied thrush sings

As I ponder to myself

Humans and nature

Can live harmoniously

Like varied thrush sings?

Everyone chose their own spot (or tree for companion) during this 20-minute period of solitude and quiet reflection. Photography by Katie Keil.

It was time to continue our hike towards Falls Camp, when Autumn announced that she lost her notebook. In the spirit of a team, everyone willingly traced her steps and searched for the lost notebook. Good news, she found it! Soon after rejoining the group, Katie or Jonathan found a rare tailed frog along the trail. It looked like a Coastal Tailed Frog.

Katie smooches the tailed frog in hopes of turning it into a prince. *spoiler alert: the frog remained a frog. Photography by Hanna Lester. 

Tailed Frog. The tail is a copulatory organ. These frogs have internal fertilization otherwise their spawn would be washed away in the swift streams where they breed. Tadpoles suck onto rocks with sucker mouths to survive in the streams. Photography by Zachariah Fincher.

A coastal tailed frog in Katie’s hands.  Photography by Tim Billo.

Yellow-tipped Coral Fungus (Ramaria formosa). Its coral shape is composed of pinkish branched parts. Eating this will make you feel sick. Photography by Tim Billo.

Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla). Easily, the best natural tissue paper to use in the wilderness. Soft on the nose, highly recommend. Photography by Tim Billo.

At Falls Camp, we set up our tents and prepared supper. The dip-a-day crew hopped into the cold river nearby for a quick ice bath. Note that this is where Tim’s “Bird-bath” trail name was born. After dinner, Aisling and Hanna held their discussions. Aisling covered conceptions of wilderness in the modern day and ways in which this conception may be outdated and exclusive. We discussed ways in which wilderness and natural spaces are or could be involved in the human civilization equally, like National Park versus the city park. Hanna discussed how consumption and economic growth may impact wilderness. From the variety of questions raised, I could tell that both discussions led us to think deeply about what wilderness should be like and how our lives can be intertwined with it (or not be).

Everyone huddling by the campfire to dry our wet clothing and participate in Hanna’s discussion on the impact of consumption and economic growth on national parks. Photography by Tim Billo.

Challenges to National Parks:

Climate change is real and reshaping the regularities on Earth as quickly as ever. Humans are the catalysts to climate change. A series of events may occur: overpopulation, worldwide hunger, lack of agricultural land, then expansion into preserved parks. In the next century, national parks would still be facing controversial issues like whether lands should be “left untrammeled” or resourced to its maximum efficiency to support the economy and better people’s lives (in the short run). Also, the issue of global financial disparity will draw audiences to national parks apart. With the current laws in place, the audience gap is only getting wider and wider where the parks are reserved for only the wealthy. But there is hope at the end of the tunnel. Environmental educational programs and supportive governments may help increase awareness of the importance of nature’s role in our past, present, and future generations. That may help preserve national parks. But who knows, perhaps parks may not even exist because Eco-Topia may takeover the world and more peacefully(?) integrate natural areas into civilization.


Overall Reflection:

Despite the fresh blisters, bug bites, sore neck, and bruises, hiking in the backcountry was absolutely refreshing. Although I hiked alongside 12 other people, this 9-day trip was my period of solitude. It was a brief pause from the honking and clanging of urban life ordeals. I had headspace to appreciate and feel my surroundings with all my senses. What mattered in the moment was to survive. The entire time I was hiking, I had the chorus from Adele’s song on replay in my mind: “Should I give up, or should I just keep chasing pavements”. The UW classes I took with Tim were taught in natural areas on or near campus. Then, that was the extent of what I understood as “learning outside of the classroom”. But wow, I was naive. The amount of physical and mental effort I put into this past week was overwhelming. Never have I ever been backpacking. I felt uncomfortable being out in the wilderness and outside the comforts of my apartment. I literally voluntarily signed up to be uncomfortable. Not only did I have to be physically strong, but also mentally capable to keep pushing forward to survive. Without self-motivation and overflowing support from my team, my success would have been doubtful.

Amy crossing the bridge that allows passage through the stream. Just one of the many obstacles during the hikes. Photography by Tim Billo.

I gained different perspectives from the discussions we had each night. People from different backgrounds voiced their thoughts into the safe circle we created. Having lived in the outdoors (a stark contrast to my life in Seattle) for a few days, I learned that keeping parts of the wilderness in the Anthropocene as “untrammeled” as possible teaches us the value of humility. There is that humbling feeling when you are brushing your teeth while looking out into the grand alpine mountains. Humans are truly fragile against the powers of nature. Tim constantly reinforced this idea throughout the hikes. Tim led us on trails that appeared quite frightening and deathly-impossible to cross. One fall probably was not going to kill any of us, but it was thanks to these feelings of unease and the overcoming of that uneasiness that I learned to have more faith in myself. “Trust your feet”, Tim would remind us when crossing difficult paths. I feel like this faith in oneself can be applied to not only our lives in the wilderness, but also our lives in the city.

From left to right: Amy, Diana, Zachariah, Jonathan. Students using a trail carved out by Tim. This part was really scary because it was a new path carved out by Tim himself using an ice axe, so it was not as established. But it felt good to have gone over a not-so-sturdy path without any injuries. Photography by Tim Billo.

Towards the last stretch of the trip towards obstruction point, my eyes watered. Looking ahead, vans were parked neatly atop the hill. Looking back, snowy mountains and evergreen trees filled my visual frame. At that point, I finally understood the main reason I wanted to go on this trip. The reason was not that I had extra summertime to spare, but rather, to challenge myself – both body and soul – to complete a task I had never undertaken before. My completion of the trip proved to myself that I am more capable than I think I am. I am capable. I am strong. I can achieve results if I set my heart to it. This is a valuable lesson that no classroom experience can ever teach.

The best backpacking group ever! Post-backpacking trip and post-food binge picture session. Photography by Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior under the Obama Administration. 

Downtime on Day 4! Photography session taking place. Nearby the icy pool where we filled our water bottles. Photography by Amy Lin.

Day 4, Falls Camp to Gray Wolf Basin, by Diana Kawczynski


Today we embarked on our first alpine hike up to the lake at Gray Wolf Pass. Following a breakfast of oatmeal and our group’s signature late morning start, we set off from Falls Camp. Our hike was unique compared to the previous few days. This time we started in the forest but slowly made our way up above the tree line – little did we know this was the first of many challenging climbs to come. Throughout the day we observed how the species composition changed at various elevations, and (thankfully) mosquitoes were no longer bothering us once we got up to the high elevation camp. Sometimes it felt as if we were being eaten alive! We crossed many thin, un-railed, wooden bridges that tested our balance. Katie and Tim taught us that it’s best practice to unbuckle our backpack waist belts when we cross in case we fall off. Luckily, none of us did.

Autumn crossing one of the narrow bridges

As we climbed higher, subalpine firs replaced hemlocks and Douglas firs. At the camp, even subalpine firs became scarce. The area experiences very short growing seasons, so many of the trees up there were extremely old despite their small size. We learned to be careful not to step on the vegetation in these areas.

Unfortunately, the sun we started the day off with didn’t stay. A large storm came through right around the time we arrived at the camp and it rained all day and night, with wind howling across the pass above us. This was no drizzle – the wind shook around our tents and our stuff got soaked. Although the weather was rough, the site was stunning and I enjoyed a few moments by the lake when I felt strong enough to brave cold.

The alpine lake nearby where we camped


Hiding under the tarp enjoying dinner

After the rain started, we managed to put up the tarp and all huddled close together to fight the cold for mine and Amy’s discussions. As can be seen in the photo, we somehow remained in high spirits and big smiles. My cook group warmed up with pesto tortellini (yum) and hot drinks and I started my discussion. I talked about financial barriers to accessing the wilderness, such as the entrance costs to parks and how this affects low income families. We talked about rising costs, how much parks costs in maintenance, and the pros and cons of free access to national parks. As this moved to a broader subject of wilderness accessibility, Amy jumped in and talked about POC in the wilderness. It was powerful to hear that when she saw someone who looked like her similarly backpack, she felt that meant she could do it too. National parks are dominated by white people, so we discussed how to encourage more POC to use the parks and what barriers POC face when they choose to use them. She shared an interesting magazine article about an African-American woman that hiked the Appalachian Trail who had received comments such as “black people don’t hike.”

Finally, we were too cold to bear it any longer so we took an early night in. I slept with 4 layers on and listened to the storm continue overnight. Luckily, mine and Amy’s tent managed to stay dry and mostly warm!

Looking up to Gray Wolf Pass. JAWS1 is beginning to literally roar over the pass. Later in the week, the strongest summer jet stream ever was recorded moving right over the Olympic Peninsula.

Overall, this trip was well summarized in Day 4 as it was throughout – impossible without each other. The storm of the day (and the following days) really showed me what optimistic, friendly, and persistent people I was surrounded by! Not only was everyone great, but they were intelligent and led thought provoking discussions that continued to amaze me in their depth and interest.

Wilderness in the Anthropocene is interesting to reflect on with increasing climate change and debatable definitions of ‘wilderness.’ Prior to this class, I had never thought about what wilderness should be defined as and if it needs to change. Although I haven’t totally formed a solid opinion on the answer yet, it has been interesting to hear some point of views that feel preserving national parks as “untouched” undermines protecting the environment everywhere else. Sometimes it feels as if we try to justify or offset our environmentally damaging choices by setting aside sections of environmental utopias that reflect a picture of the past. I think we have a habit of distancing ourselves from the wilderness (or at least ‘wildness’) in an everyday sense as it’s something you need to go far away to get to. Although I still support maintaining protected areas such as Olympic National Park, I feel strongly that environmental protection and prioritization should be emphasized within cities and human spaces. For example, maybe there should be more focus on creating “wild” areas in cities, doing native plant restoration in neighborhoods, etc. What I am not sure on is whether more effort/funds/protection should be placed in preserving existing wilderness spaces or restoring and helping damaged areas recover.

The impact the discussions we led and readings we did continue to surprise me! I’ve questioned my definition of wilderness, became significantly more aware of the complex dimensions of Native American rights in the wilderness, and “Ecotopia” continually made me wonder how our environment in 100 years will look.

To conclude, what an epic trip.

Day 5, Gray Wolf Basin to Bear Camp, by Hanna Lester

Day 5 was a day of overcoming challenges and maintaining high spirits through the toughest conditions. If this group had one super power, it was warming each other with laughs even through the biting cold and lifting each other up when everything else was pushing us down. This day was certainly a challenge for me personally; I started the day by waking up and realizing my right eye was entirely swollen shut. The day before we had ventured into some mosquito-dense areas, and while we killed a good about of those annoying little nuisances, one had managed to get a good bite out of my right eyelid and prompted an allergic reaction that sealed the entire eye shut. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of an issue, but I am completely blind without my contacts in, and I was unable to get my eye open enough to put the contact in. I resorted to wearing my glasses and stepped outside of my tent, hoping my group wouldn’t shun me for looking like a one-eyed monster.

After being somewhat consoled from my group that my eye didn’t look that bad, we started breakfast and prepared for our journey up Gray Wolf Pass. It was one of the coldest, rainiest, and windiest mornings of the entire trip, but that didn’t stop us from laughing and goofing around together. We huddled for warmth and sang sun-related songs in the hopes to bring about nicer weather (think “Here Comes the Sun” and “Tomorrow” from Annie). With camp packed up and breakfast finished, we started the treacherous journey up Gray Wolf Pass.

The climb up Gray Wolf Pass. Above is a glacier formed by the deposition of avalanche snow from the peak above. This small glacier still holds ice worms. Tim is in the distance looking for some of the worms, which are typically nocturnal. We had hoped to find some on this dark stormy day.

Our group ready to go!

At this point in the day, I started to get seriously anxious. The night before, our fearless leaders Tim and Katie talked to me about the decisions we needed to make regarding the trip and my injured knee. I had told them that I felt ready to continue with the planned itinerary regardless of my knee, which was true, but I was still nervous about making it up the pass with my injury. That, in addition to my hideously swollen eye, made me start to think that I might be cursed. This belief only got worse when we started trekking up the snowy pass and the rain and fog made it impossible to see through my glasses. The slippery terrain, steep uphill, lack of vision, injured knee, and already not-so-great balance and coordination made this journey one of the most terrifying moments of my life. There was no part of me that thought I could make it to the top. Luckily, our TA Katie (who was my guardian angel the entire trip) stuck by me and helped me get to a spot where I could put in my contact lenses (the swelling had gone down quite a bit by then). Once I had regained my vision, I slowly made it up to the rest of the group and climbed up the snow and to the top of the pass. Getting to the top was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced, and it was made better by all of my peers cheering me on. If I had not been surrounded by such amazingly positive, supportive, and patient people who were quite literally willing to carry my weight, I might not have had the confidence to keep going. Even though I faced some hardships, I always felt like I was with people who would not give up on me. They never made me feel bad for being slower and were always willing to help me out. Even though I felt cursed on that rainy morning and at one point even said to myself, “I can’t do this,” I never once wished I was anywhere else.

Once we made it to the top of the pass, we took some time to enjoy the view and reflect on the fact that we had made it. We all howled like wolves (Gray Wolf Pass, get it?), took vlogs (see below), and posed for some group shots. But what goes up must come down, so after a while we started to descend down the pass on the other side. I was sure to go extra slowly because the downhills really wore on my injured knee, and the slippery trail meant a higher risk for another fall. The downhill proved to be a challenge of its own with several fallen trees on the trail that forced us to make the eternal choice of over, under, or around, but we kept our spirits high (this was made easier by improving weather).

Our fearless group at the top of Gray Wolf Pass! We were slammed by successive storms, dubbed JAWS1 and 2, by a weather expert.


We continued our trek to the next campsite, stopping briefly for lunch in the rain. We continued forward alternating between meadow and stunning groves of silver fir, to our next temporary home, Bear Camp. As the name suggests, this location is a popular spot for bear sightings. We saw several signs of bears (lots of fresh droppings and even scratch marks on a tree), but sadly did not see a bear that day. Once we made it to the campsite we got to work setting up our tents.

Fresh bear territorial scratch markings on a tree.

Bear Camp!

Once we were all settled in, we relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. I was sitting by the stream by some other people and chatting when we noticed a rainbow across the valley. It was beautiful, and a nice reminder that the rainiest days often end with rainbows. We joked around, journaled, and hung out until it was time for dinner.

Bear Camp Rainbow

My cook group decided to indulge in some Phad Thai. My cook group teammate Amy had the genius idea to put the excess water from cooking the noodles into an empty peanut butter jar. We shook up the water in the jar and cleaned off the sides, and then put the water back into the noodles to create a peanut sauce. This stroke of genius led to what was my favorite meal of the trip!

Gourmet Thai food backcountry-style


After dinner, we gathered around for Zachariah’s discussion about eco-terrorism and environmental activism. This topic was very interesting because it allowed us to consider the extremes of environmentalism, and what each of us consider to be “radical.” We all had different beliefs about what forms of protests and activism is most effective, and it made me think about how groups of people with the same values could approach advocacy differently. Zachariah did a great job pulling in different examples that pushed our assumptions, including examples surrounding UW itself. It was a stimulating discussion that left us ready for bed!

Zachariah’s discussion about eco-terrorism

Overall, I cannot even begin to describe what this experience has meant to me. I feel so much more connected to both nature and myself. Spending nine days outdoors with total strangers was terrifying at first, but before long those strangers became family and the wilderness became home. A lasting lesson I have taken away from this trip was how our relationships with wilderness (both individually and as a society) is exactly that: a relationship. For a long time I feel that we have viewed the earth and its resources as something we own, something we can continue to exploit without consequences. Spending time outside and becoming so connected to the environment surrounding me allowed me to gain a better sense of how we must treat nature as our equal. It has been here long before and and will remain long after we are gone. I remember one day we had solo time in an old growth forest and Tim told us to listen to what the trees had to tell us. When I was sitting among the trees, I was so caught on just how old and wise they were. They loomed over me and made me feel small, but in a good way. I felt like the trees and the wilderness around me had so much to offer, beyond physical resources. This feeling has stuck with me even as I have returned to my normal life. There was so much I took for granted and did not consider before. One thing that we kept discussing was the idea of living “deliberately.” I felt that for those nine days, I lived deliberately; every second of the day was full, and I went to bed proud of what I had accomplished. We had to work for water, food, and shelter in a way that we don’t have to in normal society. We were more in tune with how our actions impacted the space around us. These are parts of the trip that I want to carry with me for the rest of my life.

The most overwhelming feeling I am left with is gratitude. I am grateful to the people who allowed this trip to happen, I am grateful to those who have protected the land on which we explored, and I am grateful to the land itself. I am acutely aware that this trip is not something everyone gets to experience; the financial cost, the time away, and the expertise needed makes something like this available to very few. This saddens me, as I wish everyone could experience something even close to what I did. I am now even more aware of the importance of access to and the protection of National Parks. These spaces can teach everyone something about the earth and about themselves, and I hope that we can limit the barriers that prevent so many people from accessing the land which their money helps fund. I will continue to be an advocate for protecting our wilderness and allowing everyone to become as inspired as I was over those nine days in Olympic National Park.

Day 6, Bear Camp to Dose Meadows and 1000 Acre Meadow, by Zachariah Fincher


It was one of the good days on the trip where we woke up with the sun already in the sky (albeit behind soon-to-be drizzling clouds). As per usual, Tim made his way around the tents practicing his call and response.

Tim: Alrighty, time to get up.

Everyone: *groan*

On the sixth day, I have grown accustomed to this routine and jolted out of my sleeping back. It was going to be a short day today, just under two miles to the next camp; we might even make it before lunch. I compressed my sleeping back, rolled my sleeping pad, and crawled over Zhewen because he always slept directly next to the tent flap. The night before was cold and the morning before that was rainy, so it was a nice change of pace to have a few brief rays of sunshine come through the trees we all slept under. Everyone was cheery this morning, it’s impressive to see what just a little bit of sun can do.


The mornings took pretty long to get going. It took a while for Zhewen to wake up, for a dysfunctional cook group (you know who you are), and for Aisling to find her sleeping pad strap (it was in her backpack). I gathered all of my clothes that I had left to dry in the shelter, which was filled with mouse feces, possibly containing hantavirus. After all of the formalities and informalities, we started trekking towards our next destination, Dose Meadows.

The hike took us along the Dosewallips River, which drains down into Hood Canal. This short walk took about two hours because we took a leisurely pace, but there was a bit of difficulty in avoiding some of the overgrown plants. We came across a bunch of Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum), which has a light-sensitive toxin on its stem that can cause burns and rashes. And as a pleasant surprise, as we approached the Dose Meadows, we were astonished to find a marmot resting on a rock directly in front of the camp.

A thicc marmot (Marmota olympus) taunting us

We spent a long time taking photos while Jonathan took out his film camera. After we all got our fair share of good shots, we set up our tents and brought out our bear canisters for lunch. This late in the trip everyone was running low on food, except for one group (you also know who you are). We decided to make pasta for lunch, and we also all ate a garlic clove that “hurt but felt good.” Like clockwork, Tim jumped up with his post-lunch energy and got ready for the day hike he had planned to thousand-acre meadows. While we were eating, Jonathan started crawling around on the ground near the rock the marmot was on. Jonathan had lost his lens cap and was scavenging around looking for it.


After cleaning up my lunch, I collected what I needed to go on this hike. Tim, Zhewen, Diana, Aisling, both Katies, and I ventured out shortly after. And Jonathan was still looking for his cap.

Tim told us that this little excursion would take no more than 4 hours, but this statement would prove to be false. We took the path we would take tomorrow up to a creek. On one cliffside, there were fantastic looking switchbacks that made the mountains look like a zipper stitched them together. After a quick rest, we went off trail for the pass just within view. Katie and I intermittently ran up the hill and scared a few marmots on the way. Tim found a Western Toad near a brook as he walked up and took an adorable photo.

Tim holding a Cascades Frog (Rana cascadae) [PC: Katie Keil]

As we got to the pass, I walked an alternative path up to pass and met the rest there. Tim then took out the map and told us to find out where in the world we were. After reorienting the map to match the mountains that surrounded us, we realized that we needed to go into the valley and go out the other pass. We started crawling around the side of the mountainside and then up a river towards the second pass.

The view was breathtaking. From the pass, all of the hills were diminutive, and the river was pencil-thin. On the far left of the meadow, we spotted a black bear foraging in the ground, presumably looking for roots. We watched its tiny black figure mull around a patch of trees, and eventually disappear inside it. We all brought out our journals and started to jot down our thoughts and draw the landscape laid before us. Katie Spires thought it would be fun to climb the mountain that we went around, so she started walking up the cliff face. No one else noticed she began her ascent until I pointed out she made it to the top.

Panorama of 1000 Acre Meadow.

Stopping to silently capture thoughts and feelings in words and visual art.


Katie Spires as a speck on the top of this mountain

We collectively decided to then venture down into the meadow and walk alone for a bit to take in the magnificence of the place. The hills were taller than I thought they were, and the valley was livelier. The river was roaring, and wildflowers covered the ground. I found some fresh puffball mushrooms, and I took a bite out of the creamy bulb; it was delicious and melted in my mouth, but I spit it out because I didn’t want to risk getting sick (that wouldn’t stop us later though). We all reconvened and decided to wrap around the mountain and head down the face to reconnect with the trail. Tim took a tiny Timmy tumble; thought the trip traumatized Tim; Tim toughed the tumble. While we were walking, we came across a gorgeous patch of snowmelt flowers.

Katie sitting with Avalanche Lilly (Erythronium montanum)

We eventually all made it back to the path, and we started on our journey back. As we got a little closer to the campsite, I spotted a black bear on our right side only 20 meters away from us. We immediately hushed and told the others of the great news. The bear caught on pretty quickly and bolted in the other direction and towards the forest. It bounded over a stream and leaped up on the other side, showing its fully extended body before it disappeared within the forest. Now full of adrenaline, we went back to camp to tell the others what we saw. Fortunately, the other campers had a similar experience. A black bear went across the open space near our campsite and walked in the direction where we just came from, so it was probably the same bear! Also, the day-hike was more like 5 and a half hours.

Blueberry the Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

Having all settled back into our camp and changed into some dry clothes, we quickly ate dinner so we could move on to the dissection for tonight. Zhewen had previously prepared a thoughtful discussion on the work of Ernest Callenbach: “Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston.” This utopian novel lays out a world in which the pacific northwest has fully integrated nature into their society and cities. A world in which we live in harmony, food is in surplus, and work isn’t what gets you up in the morning; sounds pretty lovely. Throughout this discussion, we all looked at different aspects of how this world functions and whether it could be feasible to have such a thing in the future. (insert photo) We ended out dissection like how we ended most of our discussions, on a tangent that got everyone engaged. Ecotopia seemed to have solved many of the problems that are caused by overpopulation. Jonathan posed the question: “would you sacrifice having children (tubes tied or vasectomy) to ensure we reach an ecotopia.” This conversation got a little heated but ended with the conclusion that half of the men in the world should get mandatory vasectomies (not actually, this is satirical). This discussion brought us into the cold darkness that the Olympics love. With our headlamps on and our sleeping pads fully inflated, we retreated into our tents and called it a night.

Zhewen reading from Ecotopia [PC Katie Keil]



Throughout this adventure, I learned a lot from my friends and mother nature. A few architecture classes ago, I came to realize that our lives and psyche revolve around the physical space we occupy. Within a city, you can’t look in any direction without your view being obstructed by a metal spire or a billboard. Your thoughts are contained within the concrete structures we built to keep us safe, but what have we sacrificed in the process. Standing upon the pass overlooking Thousand Acre Meadows, I didn’t have thoughts that could fill that space. Wilderness is so much more than a place to reflect; it opens up the space to think about the big ideas and let our minds wrap around the mountains and pool in the valleys.

Lastly, I reflected upon my decisions that led me to my dance major. I used to dance without purpose. That is not to say I didn’t master the choreography or have fun, but that was its fullest extent. The dance was superficial, something to do but not something I would do anything for. This changed as I grew older, and I cascaded into a love for dance when I was read a poem at a “planetary dance” event. One specific line from the poem, We Should Dance by Jahan Khaleghi, resonated within me while I was in the wilderness: “We should dance… As if the earth below were actually the night sky of another world and our scurrying were their shining stars”. Our actions live out our existence and leave a path for others to follow in the sky. Throughout this trip, we did a lot of walking. Walking and hiking and more walking. In the beginning, the first five miles were the hardest, slowest, and most nerve-racking. We were not sure of our direction, only that the camp was the next destination. However, as we accrued more miles under our belt our heading was less cloudy and our direction more clear. We now hiked with purpose, a purpose deeper than making it to the next campsite. We hiked in the direction for a better future. Every step we took got us closer to the ecotopia, a symbiosis, and an appreciation of the wilderness and nature wherever that may be. The lasting effect of this class goes way beyond the scope of the summer; we learned how to bushwack our way to a better future.

I can’t help but think that our walking lit up stars, and I doubt they will ever go out. I hope that whoever is reading this can see the trail we left and walks alongside us on this journey we must go on together.

Day 7, Dose Meadows to Cameron Basin, by Nick Tritt

I’m up early again. 5:30 am? Without a clock, watch, or phone; it’s hard to say. It will be probably 2 hours before official wake up call. I find that these mornings of solace between dawn and breakfast are where my introvert batteries get recharged, and when I’m most prolific with my notepad. The stars were completely out last night, and that clearness has held on in the early morning, though overcast will start breaking in by the time we leave our camp here at Dose Meadows.

Dose Meadows


Dose Meadows


Dose Meadows – Marmot!


I feel like I got to know a bit about marmots just by pure solo observation. I’ve noticed that out in the meadow they dig many of their burrows next to the large rocks. They like to sun themselves on the rocks but have a quick escape route right down under the rock when a threat gets too close. I miss their back and forth calls, echoing off the mountain slopes. The quiet early morning provided a lot of time to wander out in their meadow and just stand on different rocks, observe the several levels scenery change as I adjusted my gaze near, middle, and far. Yesterday was our first black bear siting, so my eyes never diverted too far away from the little islands of trees in the meadow, wondering if a bear will come out for a stroll. Another mammal sighting was anticipated on this trip, which around 7 am by my guess, a false alarm sighting appeared from behind the mountain beyond the meadow. A single helicopter crossed close by overhead in a swift straight line. Mountain goats were scheduled to be airlifted by helicopter from the Olympics to the Cascades during most of our trip. I shared my observation with the group as we wondered if a dangling mountain goat would make an appearance on this day. Now that the gang and my cook group is up, time for another batch of oatmeal. I prefer savory oats, but the parmesan is running low. Sweet breakfast it is. After camp is packed away and the morning quote is read, time to head up to Lost Pass.

Leaving Dose Meadows, and arriving at Lost Pass (1000 feet of elevation in 1 mile)


Lost Pass


Me up on Lost Pass


Lunch on Lost Pass, bear in the distance on the peak behind us.

A good ascent requires a good snack. We get some great views of the 1,000 Acres feature, which is then described by our professor as “maybe 300 acres… mmm, maybe 100,” which I received as incredibly funny. My cook group and I consume the last of our precious cheese and tortillas with bittersweet delight. At this point, I still don’t know that my favorite part of the park is coming in just a few hours. Rested, fed, and recharged from some rare sun; we head onward to Cameron Pass.

Heading to Cameron Pass

Taking a break on the way to the pass. We all sat silently. The only sounds were the wind, a far off stream in the valley, and the occasional buzzing of flies and bees visiting the flowers.

Looking down into the cirque of Cameron Basin, from Cameron Pass

Now here we are atop Cameron Pass and ready to head down into the Cameron Basin. We’ll be heading down what is a new term for me, a cirque, which is like a natural amphitheater basin-shaped by a glacier, and in our case still has snowpack in July which we’ll be crossing over. I was quite nervous about crossing over a seemingly steeply graded snowpack where down was to my left and up was to my right. Our professor, Tim Billo, provided us with the confidence and on-the-fly skill to make it safely across one by one. Once it came time for my turn, I heeded the instructions, taking borrowed trekking pole in my uphill hand and walking with a heel jamming down step by step. With minimal sliding, a grin started to appear. My adrenaline was going, but I felt so alive. We talked a lot about different types of fun and how a bit of low-level risk or sense of fear, when overcome, has such a fulfilling after effect. Once I crossed the snowpack, I was ready for anything. The next part down had the downhill on my right side. It was like walking on another planet, a grey Mars perhaps. We were basically walking on what sounded like rubble, the kind of sounds I’ve only heard in movies made by bricks rubbing each other in the aftermath of a building explosion or dilapidated over time. My grin turned to giggles as I did some micro surfing with my feet over the rocks, about half the size of my foot or so. I’m not a thrill-seeker, but by the time we made it all the way down to the bottom of the basin, I wondered how true that tag really is for me. I’m certainly not ready for skydiving, but a little snow trekking or glissading seems much more attainable now.

Prepping for Snow Crossing in Cameron Basin


Snow Crossing in Cameron Basin


Descending Down Cameron Basin. This cirque retains snow late into the year. Although the large glacier melted away in the last 100 to 150 years, several small glaciers remain in parts of the basin.

Down, down, down with the shifting rock under our feet.

Olympic Mountain groundsel, one of the flowers endemic to the Olympic Mountain alpine zone.

Alpine collomia, another alpine flower, common in the talus of Cameron Basin.

Cameron Basin Camp Set-Up


Cameron Basin Camp

Maybe it was the buzz of descending a not-so-risky, yet heart-rate increasing basin, but my cook group and I were absolutely slap happy after putting up tents and making dinner. At this point, the cold and some rain sprinkles returned, but this has become a daily occurrence, so I suppose we were in a mood to laugh it off. Our rambunctious dinner session resulted in a few botches, but we certainly entertained ourselves, and I know some other groups gravitated over to see just what new gourmet camping concoction we came up with on dwindling food supplies. I laughed harder than I had in some time. Given some personal life changes I’m going through back home, I just was so grateful for that dinner especially.

I quite enjoyed the more open alpine rockiness of Cameron Basin. Judging by pictures of the overall park before the trip, I would have guessed that the lushest and vegetation dense areas would have been my favorite. But something about the empty space, the sparseness, the contrast to that lushness was appealing. Sometimes the forest can seem a bit boxed in when immersed for a long time. I guess I just like seeing more sky and am fascinated about lichens and shrubs growing on the edges of habitable terrain.

In the evening we had to set up a makeshift shelter with trekking poles and a tarp. The rains picked up, and our vast open space left us no cover for a group discussion. Jonathan Hong led the night’s discussion, talking about the coexistence of modern life and the environment which ended up being one of the more heated talks when things turned towards economics, wages, and rent rates. We took on if modern life really can coexist with wilderness and to what degree, how much overlap should there be. There was a bit of distraction from an amazing foggy moon and glow coming from the top of Cameron Pass. I knew the night to come would be the coldest for me yet, so I decided to turn in on the earlier side while a few of the gang went out to find ice worms in the snow on the lower part of the basin. Their trek was a success and made for some of the most interesting pictures; the glow of headlamps reflecting off of the ice while the moon and some starlight peaked through the patchy cover sky above.

Cameron Basin Tent Discussion


Moon Over Cameron Basin


Ice Worm Hunting in Cameron Basin


Ice Worms found! On a glacier high in Cameron Basin


The nocturnal ice worm in ice! These creatures need year-round ice. The ice worms here are isolated on a small glacier that was once part of a contiguous glacier that was in contact with the Puget lobe of the Vashon ice sheet. DNA studies have shown that ice worms in the eastern Olympics are more akin to Alaskan ice worms, and probably rafted southward on a giant glacier some 16000 years ago.


Ice Worm in Hand!

This course was named Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, and after this trip, I truly saw more landscape change each day than I ever imagined I would. From the rainforest-like dense woods, to the streams, waterfalls, alpine lakes, valleys, peaks, meadows, glacial zones, basins, sub-alpine zone, and full alpine tundra; things often changed even throughout a day’s hike. The importance of this varied landscape hit a new high after seeing just how much diversity not only of landscape, but vegetation and animals. It was an incredible journey and a test of endurance through 50 miles of up and down, dampness and cold. In the Anthropocene, as the Earth heats up, the cooler zones that many alpine inhabitants take up residence will start to shrink as cooler habitat found further up the mountain will have less surface area. In general, the loss of snowpack over the next hundred years due to a warming climate will decrease the thaw and water that feeds the many streams, falls an lakes in the Olympic region. Even if this area is protected and humans leave no trace within the park borders, the climate changing cannot be removed from the peninsula. I have certainly been challenged and changed by 9 days in the backcountry. The cold and damp weather that we encountered most of the time is hard on my body. The appreciation I have for shelter to be dry and warm, just for those two reasons alone leaves me feeling lucky for what I have. In a setting like the wilderness, it became natural to be kind, share and encourage each other. I wouldn’t have made it the 9 days by myself in the wild. Sure, I would survive but without people to depend on for just comfort and company, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fulfilling to me personally. I do think that wilderness can be shared with people, but in places like National Parks, I believe that visitors should be roughing it and leave absolutely no trace, not use vehicles and generally try not to disturb anything. These wild places are becoming fewer and fewer. The only way to hold onto the wilderness we have is to let it exist with minimal influence from humans.

Day 8, Cameron Basin to Grand Valley, by Autumn Forespring

Cameron Basin was a good hostess. After the rain we weathered briefly the previous night during Jonathon’s discussion, the clear star-studded skies had me worried about shivering through the night. Never have I jumped around so vigorously right before bed. That night was actually quite warm, though, and when I opened my eyes to Tim’s familiar, “time to get up” I felt rested, but reluctant to leave the delicious warmth of my sleeping bag. Fortunately, I was in a food group with Tim, so I think I tended to get away with sleeping a little longer than everyone else. Tim always got water for breakfast going before I even had my socks on, the early riser that he is. Shout out to Tim! 

During a breakfast of what I remember to be oatmeal and almond butter, I asked Tim to rate the difficulty of the day ahead of us. The previous day had been, for me, quite a challenge; I was hoping for a slight respite today. I think Tim knew this… because he told me that today would be challenging, but that yesterday had been the worst of it. My confidence boosted, I enjoyed the company and antics of our group as I loaded up my pack for the day ahead. Hanna and Aisling, ever the jokesters, made an ice-ax safety video which cannot go unwatched–if anyone out there is reading this with the intention of taking this course, please consider Aisling’s pro tips to decide whether ENVIR 495 is the right challenge for you!

Despite the bugginess, the first half of our trip was such a pleasure. Meandering up and down little hills along a charming moss-bordered stream fed by the gently melting icepacks, and a bear casually roaming the meadows above, it was a pretty enough picture to put climate change out of my mind for a moment, although evidence of the threats to the global ecosystems as we know them were abundant in our views of the Olympics each day. Below is a picture I took as we left Cameron Basin, with the fabulous and determined Hanna Lester and Katie Keil bringing up the rear.

We stopped for lunch at a small campsite near the water. I should have taken Tim’s suggestion of a large lunch as a warning of what was to come… we combined two different kinds of thai noodles to make a giant pot of soup. We added peanut butter to the mix at Aisling’s suggestion, and it was *absolutely fantastic*.
About 10 minutes after lunch, we were back on the trail and the path began to steepen. With the skies clear for the first time since the rains began back on the second or third day of our hike, I was inwardly telling myself to be grateful for the sun, even as I began to sweat in my long sleeves. But we just kept going, and the path got steeper and steeper! I kept telling myself that this must only be a small section of the trail, that of course Tim wouldn’t LIE to me about how hard the day would be, but no… he still denies it, but I think he told us it would be easier so that we would stay hopeful through this toughest of hikes. And if that is the case, I am grateful. While my calves burned with the exertion, my appreciation for the majesty of the mountains burned deeper. I took this next picture perhaps 3/4 of the way up the trail. Our group had dispersed as the gung-ho athletes pulled ahead, and I took my time along with Amy Lin because I just couldn’t quite keep pace. But look how far up we were! The air was cool despite the warm sun, and the mists cleared more and more as we climbed higher. As tired as we were, Amy and I continued to find motivation in the reward of looking back down at all the elevation we had gained. 

Me ascending Grand Pass.

The wonderful thing about hiking in a group, especially the group we had, is the camaraderie. Amy and I could see up to the pass, where a few of the quickest of us had already stopped to wait, and they kept yelling and whooping encouragement as we trudged the last quarter of the way up. I can still conjure up that feeling, such sweet relief I felt when I finally reached the top of that pass and dropped my pack to the ground. And the views! I wish that everyone had the privilege that I had to take a whole week and see this beautiful place. When confronted with the mountains, right there in your face, and the plunging valleys rich in evergreens, and the stark white snowpacks contrasting brilliantly with the dark mountains, it’s easy to understand how the indigenous people of this place developed their religion around the land. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was moved to tears multiple times during our time in the Olympics, but especially today. Not just because of the gorgeous surroundings–but because I couldn’t help thinking about the danger that this place is in. I think I see now, after this trip, why access to these places can help preserve the National Parks. I wonder where our solution to climate change lies… and in the conclusion of our journey, I’m starting to see that collaboration is key. It’s hard, coming from the native community, to approach environmental issues from a place other than anger and deep feelings of betrayal, which I think leads to a distaste for working together with residual colonial powers and people. But our little group is an excellent metaphor for this–we all came from different places, different families, with varied perspectives and skills. But we worked as one across the 50 miles of our journey, sharing the burdens and the joys. I wish the simplicity of our bond as a group could be translated to bringing communities together to protect this planet.

From the top of Grand Pass, we could see a snow patch beginning to melt into a brilliant blue lake. Once we had all reconvened at the top, Tim lead the way up to the summit of Grand Peak, where we came across a few beautiful mountain flowers, pictured below:

Douglasia flower. Small leaves and low profile reduce exposure and moisture loss to wind; large investment in roots; mat-forming growth which facilitates soil buildup and allows stems to protect each other; clusters of showy flowers to attract pollinators, such as hummingbirds, which can spot them from across the valley.


Flett’s violet on Grand Peak. This flower is endemic to the Olympic Mountains and grows on the highest ridges in the eastern part of the range. How will this species disperse to hospitable locations as climate continues to warm, assuming it already is growing in some of the coldest places in the range? And what will the National Park Service need to do about it if it becomes endangered? One of the quandaries posed by the Wilderness Act of 1964 is whether or not humans even should intervene with nature in “untrammeled” landscapes, although the Endangered Species Act would presumably take priority in this case. The solutions would be limited, however–would it be ethical, for example, to transplant the species into mountain ranges further north?

It was with excitement and surprising levels of energy that we donned our packs and began the trek down into Grand Valley. Hanna, ever determined and optimistic in spite of the knee injury, elected to slide down a snowpack rather than hike down the steep, and slightly treacherous trail. Tim loped across the ice effortlessly, reminding me of a bounding antelope as he gave quick lessons to Hanna and a few others on how to glissade (what a word!) safely. Katie S. and Z went first, and I nearly had a heart attack as I watched Z narrowly miss crashing into Katie, limbs and ice-ax flailing in the wind as he caught himself in the nick of time. My favorite was Hanna, though-she slid so slowly, holding the ice-ax in a death grip so hard that I could see her white knuckles from yards away, but the way she was screaming would have made you think she was going 100 miles an hour. The glee we all felt was infectious, and prolonged by our meeting with Sally Jewell, former Secretary of Interior and now one of my favorite people in the world. Bless her soul, she hiked all the way in to meet us with a giant bag of chips, guacamole, and cherries. The fresh fruit was heavenly, and we fell upon the spread like a swarm of flies on day-old roadkill. With cherry juice staining my lips, and my pack once again discarded off onto the path, I closed my eyes and took a moment to try to burn in my memory how appreciative I was feeling over something so simple… I see why people are so changed by experiencing wilderness in this way. It helps us connect to the animal in us, which is so satiated in modern life that we forget what a blessing something like fresh fruit is. Meeting Sally was by far one of the best parts of the trip. She was so welcoming and generous with her time. She took time to talk to each of us individually, and told stories about her achievements in the public and private sectors. It was refreshing, and inspiring, to be listened to by someone with as much experience as Sally. Her allyship and work with indigenous people across the United States gives me hope for a future administration that might take native people’s perspectives into consideration in the future of environmental conservation.

Hanna glissading down from Grand Pass.

Piper’s bell flower, one of the endemic species of the Olympic alpine zone, encountered just below Grand Pass. This species faces some of the same quandaries as the Flett’s violet. It has also been impacted by non-native mountain goats, although presumably the threat of goats will be permanently alleviated in the next few years.

Can you spot the Olympic wingless grasshopper, encountered at Grand Pass, in this photo? This is one of the species endemic to the Olympics.

The group on top of Grand Peak. Skies are still moody, but we are stoked!

Hanna in her signature pose, having just conquered Grand Pass.

Wilderness TA, Katie, taking a look at the incredible terrain we had traveled that day.

Taking a breather at Grand Pass

As we approached our campsite, Moose Lake came in to view. Huge, clear, surrounded by massive trees, it’s hard to believe the place was trashed by frequent camping in the 70’s. It’s a testament to the potential success of future restoration. The deer were bold and abundant down in the valley. They came closer and closer to us, seeking out our salty clothes.



1905 historical photo of Lillian Glacier from Grand Peak. Compare with the photo we too this year, from Grand Peak. To line up the two photos, look for the moraine, annotated in red in this photo, in the photo we took, shown below.

View of Lillian Glacier Valley from Grand Peak. You can line this up with the historical photo above.

Amy sharing inspirational thoughts and quotes for the day, as we prepare to leave Cameron Basin.

Chatting with Sally Jewell in the Grand Valley.

Impressive snowbank below Cameron Basin. Zachariah, in photo, is 6’4″ tall.

The Olympic Marmot is still abundant in Grand Valley, but closer to the edges of the mountain range, it is threatened by encroaching coyotes. Coyotes, while native, would have been historically suppressed by the now extinct Gray Wolf.

The somewhat uncommon (in the Olympic alpine zone) western spring beauty, found on the way up Grand Pass.

Ants tending aphids on the cornstalk lily. We saw this interaction on the cornstalk lily several times throughout the trip.

Antlion larvae in sand pits under a dry tree on the way up Grand Pass.

A very large bolete (not an edible one) on the way up Grand Pass.

Amy hugs a giant yellow cedar in the upper Cameron Valley. This species can get up to 3000 years old, although this tree, though large, is much younger than that.

Day 9, Grand Valley to Obstruction Point, by Aisling Doyle Wade

Ah, day 9 – July 14th. The very final leg of our epic journey through the Olympic wilderness followed swiftly by an overwhelming reentry into civilization. The tone among the group was emotional and reflective, everyone wanted to soak up the last of this once-in-a-lifetime experience we had just shared. All day my peers and I reflected on the duality of our feelings; we were all excited for some aspects of reentry but dreading others. Zacharia and I discussed on our final hike – as we traced the curves of shimmering blue Moose lake and headed north west towards the snow patched rock faces of Lilian ridge – how we were dreading returning to cell phone service and experiencing the bombardment of messages and technology dragging us back to our everyday realities.

Moose Lake, the location of our last campsite on night 8 and the body of water in which the final dip occurred

My day began very early in the morning – I was awoken by Tim attempting to wake Katie Spires from outside our tent. Tim and Katie (the true MVPs of the day) were tasked with leaving camp well before the rest of us had even awoken. They hiked to obstruction point (where we would all eventually meet up) around 5:30 am. From there, these champions of the trail ran 8 miles west back to Deer Park, where our journey had begun. Here they retrieved the cars and drove them out of the park, through Port Angeles and back around to Obstruction Point. The night before, Katie S., Hanna and I had had our final party tent before bedtime rumpus chat. We snuggled in our sleeping bags for the 8th night in a row, now completely comfortable with sleeping in the outdoors. We commented on each others’ “mountain women” odors and said some very silly things before realizing that our loud voices were surely within earshot of every other tent, especially Sally Jewell’s which was right beside ours. Alas, the wilderness had gotten inside our souls and made us completely giddy. We talked about the stern and religious demeanor of John Muir and other founding white male conservationists – Katie said, “that nature is so serious is a male construct”. After sharing so many belly shaking laughs in and outside that tent in the past days, Hanna and I agreed. When Tim whispered Katie’s name from outside our tent that morning, all three of us woke up – Hanna and I enthusiastically mumbled some final words of encouragement to Katie. Then Tim and Katie were off and the rest of us slumbered a few more hours.

some abstract shots of my fellow tent partners

The rest of the group’s day began with Katie Keil’s voice welcoming us all to wake up. Hanna and I, in our classic sleepy head fashions snoozed for at least 15 more minutes. But getting up and out of the tent turned out to be a blessing. After so many days of rain, fog or partial cloud cover – the beginnings of a gorgeous day shinned upon us. The clouds were clearing, and rays of sun were warming our weathered skin and drying out our still soggy socks and boots. I, like many others, laid out all my gear in patches of sunshine around camp – incredibly, most of it dried out nicely. Rain flies came off tents and hiking boots were scattered about. Our final group breakfast was a funny affair. Most of us were quite tired of oatmeal and granola. Tim had commandeered our cook groups brown sugar on accident, other groups were out of brown sugar, Zacharia sweetened his oatmeal with hot cocoa powder, Diana abstained from eating anything at all and Katie Keil came to her wits end with a bowl of mush. Another bowl of thick tasteless goo was just about more than she could handle and not even Zacharia was willing to finish what Katie didn’t want to. Sally sympathized saying that she’d lost her appetite for oatmeal pretty quickly after getting into backpacking.

Seated around the stone slab we all chatted over our last breakfast. Sally shared some stories of her early inroads into mountaineering and experiencing wilderness. Growing up in Renton, she explored many of Washington’s iconic wilderness from a young age, including her first summit of Rainer – accomplished at age 15. It became clear from Sally’s stories that her time in wilderness has shaped her soul and attitude and why she values conservation and environmental work so highly – a bond with the wild lies at the base of her motivation. Story after story revealed that Sally has also guided many novices through their first experiences in wilderness. She has been enriched by witnessing these people open up to the power and beauty of nature. This has clearly been a part of Sally’s deep commitment to service throughout her lifetime – a generosity of self which extends to her outdoor expertise and her desire that others have the chance to experience the joy she has felt in the wild.

The view from which we entered the lake for our dip-a-day

This same attitude of joyful appreciation for wilderness shone through from Sally Jewell after breakfast, when a group of us (Diana, Autumn, Jonathan, Zacharia and I) decided to go for one final dip-of-the -day. Talk of skinny dipping got around and far from disapproving, Sally seemed to quietly encourage this particular enjoyment of nature. She kept distance from the lake when we went to dip but she smiled and spoke positively when we left and came back, as if she had an innate understanding of being young and wanting to feel wild in the wilderness. I know skinny dipping might seem like a silly and frivolous thing to focus on, but to me these particular moments of the trip were deeply meaningful. As we all made our way down to Moose lake, avoiding some aggressive deer, we giddily smiled at each other blushing and laughing. The emerald green lake opened up the terrain ahead, pushing aside stands of sub-alpine fir. Looking any direction yielded views of patchwork snow on rolling grey peaks. In this free and scarcely human populated place we could all be free. Trusting each other completely none of us felt judged and our self-conscious inhibitions were dampened. For me personally, I know I was less obsessed with body image than I had been in a while. Free from mirrors for days, I just felt like a human in the wild, no concerns about specific unlikable parts of my body were on my mind. We all entered into the vulnerable state of nakedness together and waded into the icy water up to our necks. The splashing green water revived and rejuvenated sending freezing jolts of energy through my body. We were quickly in and out and back into our clothes but now feeling refreshed and free (of both societal constraint and the layer of sweat and grim that previously caked our skin). Thank goodness for my dip-a-day pals – the feeling of dampened self-consciousness is something that has continued with me in the days since.

Soon enough our time at Moose lake ended. We needed to set out for our hike to Obstruction Point in order to meet Tim and Katie in a timely fashion. We were on the trail by 10:15 am. The trail curved around Moose lake and then took us gradually higher towards the north east. We switch-backed up to Lilian ridge as our last great elevation gain of the trip. We were far from being in a rush– we had given ourselves plenty of time to make the journey and we were all content to slow down and soak up the last drops of wilderness. As we ascended the vegetation transformed, subalpine fir and yellow cedar forest faded slowly as we emerged into rocky slopes sparse with brush and subalpine wildflowers. Hanna was in the lead for this hike, 9 days on her untreated knee and she was still climbing slow and steady with every bit of positivity inherent in her character. No one was eager to go faster than Hanna’s pace for each time we stopped for a break we turned to face the valley and far peaks which we were slowly rising above. Each stop along the trail offered a new and more spectacular view over where we had come from. Moose lake faded in the distance. The very final leg of the ascent was a long steadily graded dirt trail through a field of lose rock. We could see the pass not so far in the distance and our sore (yet now well trained) legs brought us ever closer. For many of us, this was the final big physical challenge of a trip that pushed our boundaries both physically and mentally. For me this climb symbolized the peak of the accomplishment – the final reminder that I am always capable of more than I think.


As we climbed higher…


We lost site of Moose Lake as the thick forest of subalpine fir engulfed us…


And then we emerged above the tree line into the rocky alpine terrain.

Once on top of Lilian Ridge any annoyance at the physical challenge of hiking up a thousand feet of elevation with a 50 lbs pack vaporized and vanished in wake of the sparkling prize – the views both the west and east were impeccable. To the west Olympus shone white on crystal blue with her glaciated peaks piercing the clouds and around her the whole majesty of the range meandering on. And to the east our view dropped thousands of feet down into rich green valleys, the slopes on either side of which obscured by a thick cover of puffy white clouds. We stopped here for a break. We took in the views and took snapshots, many us took commemorative photos with Sally – Mount Olympus as our backdrop. The wonderful weather had continued. I think we all felt a little giddy about actually having a whole day of sun, blue skies and white clouds that didn’t threaten rain. The stunning mountain wilderness still very much gripped us, although we were starting to see more and more signs of civilization approaching. We’d been passed on the trail by a Washington Conservation Corps trail crew of about 15. And up on the pass several people hiked through on their way from Obstruction Point. We all realized we were close to the end.

Hanna posing with the last leg of the ascent to Lillian Ridge.

Mount Olympus as seen from the top of Lillian Ridge.

Zachariah and Olympus

Sally Jewell and I and Mount Olympus

Looking west into the valley

Oval-leaf buckwheat thriving in the desert-like conditions of Lillian Ridge. Tiny leaves, covered with hair, prevent moisture loss from the wind and sun.

The final leg of the hike took us from Lillian pass North along Lillian ridge. Walking the top of the ridge offered continual beautiful views to the east and west. Many of noticed on the slopes of Lillian ridge the phenomenon of stripes of vegetation and rocks organized by size which Tim had mentioned to us on Cameron pass. We even got to hike through a couple more patches of snow fields, practicing our heal digging technique a few last times and stopping to taste a few more patches of watermelon snow. The stretch from Lillian pass to Obstruction point was only a couple more miles and as we went, we encountered more and more folks hiking in the opposite direction – signs that cars were near. And sure enough, before too long Z and I (who were in the front) saw the unnatural sheen of large motorized machines organized into neat parking strips in the distance. It was a strange way to be introduced to civilization, all these giant cars designed to bring you miles and miles after we had come from miles and miles on just our feet. Zachariah and I arrived in the Obstruction Point parking lot very nearly at 2 pm and the rest of the group trickled steadily down the last slop of Lillian ridge to join us. For the last time we cheered on members of our group as they neared the finish line, except this was really the finish line of our hike.

The last snow field to cross.


Views walking along Lillian ridge


Z and I spot the parking lot ahead

We draw closer to obstruction point and those motorized machines


ZW and Jonathan reach Obstruction Point, where trail meets road. Obstruction Point marks the the defeat (by terrain and money) of an effort by the CCC to connect a road across high ridges to Deer Park. While roads are a unique feature of many of our national parks, and an accessible way for many to experience wilderness views, they are controversial for their effects on ecosystems and backcountry recreation. After 9 powerful days in the backcountry we are deeply thankful that Olympic is still a place where one can hike for weeks on end without crossing a road.

Soon enough Katie and Tim arrived, remarkably timely were they for the much longer journey they had that day. We were soon engulfed by the chaos of getting organized – emptying packs of borrowed gear, collecting all our garbage and hauling things into the vans. But wonderfully, Katie and Tim had made the executive decision to buy a potluck lunch for us to share rather than have us eat lunch in town. We made sandwiches and gorged ourselves on fruit, guacamole and ginger beer, all while getting to experience the epic view of Mount Olympus and the company of deer and chipmunks for a little longer. When we had all had our fill of wonderful non-backpacking food, we gathered for a final group discussion with Sally Jewel. Standing in a circle on the side of the road with Olympus to our south west we all shared some reflective thoughts on the journey. Tim asked us all to consider a favorite moment or moments and to share something we learned. Many of shared touching, personal and extremely thoughtful reflections, there were more than a few tears as people thanked the group for the energy of positivity, support and inclusion. But there was an especially special moment when Sally touched us all by breaking into tears as she shared her reflections. She spoke of the planetary tragedies that our generation is being passed down to fix, but her tears seemed more inspired by hope. Sally brought many of us to tears ourselves by expressing her faith in us, in the passion and thoughtfulness that we had brought to the course. Later, when we were writing a card for Sally in the Olympic ranger station parking lot, I told her how she had made me feel in that moment – “adults like you who have led such extraordinary and successful lives yet still care so deeply about doing good by people and the world remind me that a fulfilling life is bigger than self and to have a purpose is to fight for good”.


To conclude my reflection on this day and on the trip, I’d like to share a version of my response to Tim’s question:

Some of my favorite moments of the trip were from camping below Grey Wolf Pass and going up and over the pass the next day. This snowy rugged landscape was intensified during our visit by almost constant high winds, swirling fog and incessant sheets of rain. Although the views from this alpine area were obscured by the weather, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced wilderness quite so wild, epic and beautiful as that. The entire time we were there was like a long drawn out reminder of mother natures power and majesty. Here, our human bodies were vulnerable to the harsh reality of the wild and with no human society near, our place as simply one among many species surviving on a bountiful yet unforgiving planet became real. I was absolutely energized by this feeling. I lost the wondering thoughts of worry from my “real” life and I was so totally focused on the present moment and place. Hiking up to the pass the rain and wind, across fields of snow and up rocky slopes, that was probably one of the most freeing moments of my life. I had to focus on the hike, the weather and landscape offered risk and fear but not too much and my mind was overwhelmed by the epic-ness of it all. I truly felt like a human, an individual free in the wild world.

I think these intense moments have inspired a lot of my learning from the trip. What’s the value in everyone getting the chance to experience wildness – humility. How can human beings with built civilizations which give the illusion of dominance over nature understand the true power and beauty of wilderness without the opportunity to be humbled by mother nature’s unforgiving yet stunning beauty? I really believe now that it would be hard for someone to experience our journey and not come out the other end with an inherent sense that such wildness needs to be protected. Spaces like Olympic national park offer us this experience of wildness and also a comparison – to see what we are making of the world from what it was (roughly). Without such a comparison we may lose sight of the true nature of planet and forget that everything we have built is on the back of the natural resources and systems we were gifted. Its all a way to gain a little perspective, humble ourselves and learn to respect our maker so that we do not destroy ourselves fighting against her flow.

The alpine lake below Grey Wolf Pass.


Mother nature gave us one last show of mystery, beauty and dominance as we drove down the road to leave the park. A thick and massive cloud of fog came over our vehicles and the ridge around us, for several minutes we could only see a few feet ahead of the car. It was as if the world was reminding us one last time of the power it holds while simultaneously nature was telling us not to leave, wanting to hold us all in the wild for a little longer, hear out laughs and feel our awe.


Sunrise on Mount Olympus. Breakfast on the ridge for Katie and Tim on the quest to shuttle the vans.

View from Lillian Ridge east to the Salish Sea, shimmering in the distance.

The carnivorous butterwort, seen growing in a seep at the side of the trail out of Grand Valley. Note the flies stuck to the leaves.

The late blooming gentian will soon open its overlapping “pinwheeled” petals.

A snowshoe hare on the east side of Maiden Peak, one of several encountered by Katie and Tim on the quest for the vans.

Amazing rock stripes near Obstruction Point, caused by freezing and thawing in the surface of this scree field.

Rock polygons on this alpine tundra are gradually being claimed by vegetation.

Rock polygons in active formation.

American pipits gleaning insects off of a small snow field. Snowfields are a critical piece of habitat for many alpine bird species. The shrinking of snowfields is negatively impacting birds of the alpine, not to mention snow-melt flowers and scavenging insects associated with snowfields.

Alpine vegetation following the rock stripes on Lillian Ridge.

Lakes lying in small bowls carved by small glaciers that formed and persisted on this ridge after the Little Ice Age. Is there still ice buried under the scree? The tourquoise blue of these lakes suggests this as a possibility. Note the clonal islands of subalpine fir on the hillside, spreading “skirts” around the mother tree.

In the dry northeast corner of the Olympics, lodgepole pine out-competes subalpine fir on open south facing slopes.