Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wanderings: Rockport State Park

Moss and sunlight. Had I only two words to describe last Saturday's hike at Rockport State Park, those would be the ones I'd choose!

Moss, moss everywhere! Lainey Piland photo

Tucked among the breathtakingly steep, thickly-forested slopes of the Cascade foothills north of Darrington, Rockport State Park is a true gem, and a rarity in our region.  Its 670 acres of forest have never been logged, thus allowing visitors the opportunity to experience an ancient ecosystem left completely intact. Let me tell you: if you're looking for some big trees... and I mean BIG trees... Rockport State Park is the place to go!

Did I mention the big trees? Lainey Piland photo

Wanting to make the most of a rare Saturday completely free of obligations, my husband and I piled our gear in the car and headed north to go explore this state park which neither of us had previously visited. And can I just say, once you exit I-5 and jump onto highway 530... wow.  The scenery is jaw-droppingly spectacular, with vistas of snow-capped peaks sharp against the not-so-distant eastern horizon, and velvet green hillsides ascending sharply from the valley through which you're driving. I can understand why people choose to live there!

We arrived at Rockport State Park shortly after 11:00 on that crisp, brilliantly sunny morning, joining four other vehicles in the relatively small, quiet parking lot. It appeared as though this park doesn't see a high volume of visitors. After eating a quick lunch, we set out for the Evergreen Trail, an easy three-mile hike that loops around the perimeter of the park.

Boardwalk along a muddy section of the Evergreen Trail. Lainey Piland photo

The things you notice right away along the narrow dirt trail meandering through the forest are that firstly, there is moss everywhere, and secondly, these are some truly giant, truly magnificent old growth trees - mostly Douglas fir with a few cedars, bigleaf maples, and hemlock here and there. The forest is characteristically decadent old growth with downed trees, fungi-covered nurse logs, and thick sword fern groves covering the forest floor. Long-dead trees still stand upright, their dessicated trunks bearing thousands of small holes chipped out by woodpeckers. Moss blankets many of the tree trunks and hangs from branches in thick curtains. Where errant rays of sunlight shine through the canopy, the whole mossy forest is flooded with glowing gold.

Sword fern grove - Lainey Piland photo
Lainey Piland photo

Lainey Piland photo

In the beginning, the trail follows the base of a hill, then turns slightly uphill along the eastern boundary of the park.  It is easy to see where the park boundary ends: the big trees suddenly disappear. The trail quickly veers back westward, deep into the forest. We passed by an old, twisted Doug fir stump dating back to the mid 1600's.  Boardwalks cover particularly muddy sections of the trail, and simple plank bridges allow you to keep your feet dry while crossing the many creeks and streams running down the hillside from Sauk Mountain high above.

One of the many streams running through the forest - Lainey Piland photo

A little less than halfway in, the trail follows the steep edge of a fern-covered ravine uphill (there is a whopping 250 foot elevation gain on this hike, after all), and crosses a roaring creek whose noise seems amplified by the overwhelming quiet of the forest.  At a few points, my husband and I just stood still on the trail and listened. A hidden bird warbled the most beautiful song overhead. A woodpecker's beak tapped out a dull percussion in the distance. The melodious and throaty call of a raven sounded through the quiet. An airplane flew overhead and my husband commented how loud, how out of place it sounded.

The bridge over Fern Creek - Lainey Piland photo

Another short jaunt uphill from the bridge, we found ourselves in what appeared to be a completely different forest. It was drier, more open, and with a different collection of plant species. There were still big trees, but half of them had fallen over. There they lay in the world's largest game of pick-up sticks on the forest floor, enormous root systems peeled up and exposed to the bright sun blazing through the wide open canopy. We could only surmise that, being somewhat on top of a hill, these trees had been subjected to strong winds that blew them over. Since they were huge trees growing in close quarters, it looked as though when one tree fell over, it took its neighbors down with it. There were dozens of toppled trees along the whole length of the trail. Too many to count!

Two more uprooted trees! Lainey Piland photo

Lainey Piland photo

The dry, open forest was the highest point on the trail.  From there, we wound back down into the damp, shady forest, and the trail met up with another robust creek, running cold and clear over its pebbled streambed. The trail crossed back and forth over this creek several times. We even spotted a few skunk cabbage blooming in the water. Signs of spring approaching, for sure!

Brave skunk cabbage holding on in the current! Lainey Piland photo

Near the end of the trail, the landscape began to look peculiar.  There were sticks sticking up out of the ground, hundreds of them everywhere.  My husband took a closer look and recognized a familiar foe: devil's club.  Neither of us had seen this plant in its leafless winter dress before, but there was no mistaking those needle-like spines that make you flinch just looking at them.

Now this looks odd. -Lainey Piland photo

The aptly named devil's club.  Don't touch! -Lainey Piland photo

The remainder of the trail was flat and pleasant, allowing us to pay less attention to where our feet were stepping and more to admiring the Doug firs and thick, moss-covered maples that towered overhead. Bizarrely long, thin strands of moss trailed from some of the tree branches, wafting in a gentle breeze like seaweed in an ocean current.

Big Doug fir tree... moss, moss everywhere! -Lainey Piland photo

And all too soon, it was over.  We arrived back at the parking area and bade farewell to the massive trees that stood guard over it.  I would have loved to explore the park's other trails [map] (including the short Fern Creek trail, which purportedly takes you past some of the biggest trees in the park), but at that point, we were well into afternoon and needed to depart on the long, pleasant, beautiful drive back home.

So is Rockport State Park worth a visit? Absolutely! If you're looking for a long, challenging hike, or if you prefer in-and-out hikes with an end destination, this place may not be for you.  But if you love old growth, need an easier hike, or just want to spend time in the forest, this park is a must-visit.  Really, the old growth forest here is amazing. Did I mention the big trees?

Ancient Doug fir tree.  -Lainey Piland photo

As a side note: our drive to Rockport State Park did take us past the site of the landslide that occurred in Oso nearly a year ago.  The magnitude of the destruction is even more terrible and expansive in person than in the photos we've all seen in the media. It is difficult to fathom. I didn't take any photos because doing so just didn't feel right. As we drove past and tried to take it all in, my heart broke for the many lives lost and for the community devastated by this tragedy. That gaping scar on the hillside and those barren acres of mud and debris cannot be cleaned up and are not going away; they are permanent, awful reminders which the residents of this community still have to pass by every day. There is no doubt that this is a strong and resilient community, but I have a feeling they could still use all of the good thoughts and prayers we can send their way.

Friday, February 20, 2015

In The News: Let's Get Every Kid in a Park

Yesterday, while designating three new National Monuments, President Obama also unveiled the new Every Kid in a Park initiative, which will grant all 4th graders in the United States a free one-year pass so they and their families can visit National Parks and public lands free of charge. The program kicks off this fall, so all you parents of current 3rd grade students... start planning now how you're going to take advantage of that free pass!

Yellowstone Falls, photographed by my eight year old self.

The Every Kid in a Park initiative aims to make America's National Parks and public lands more accessible by waiving entrance fees for 4th grade children and their families.  In addition to the free entrance pass, the initiative will also offer grants to cover transportation costs for school field trips and students for whom those costs are prohibitive.

Like me, you may be wondering... why were 4th graders chosen to receive the passes? As it turns out, 9 and 10 year old children are at just the right age to form a life-long affinity for, and interest in, the great outdoors. According to this ABC News article, the age of 11 is generally seen as the "last chance" to build a child's relationship with nature that will last into adulthood.

Children are spending more and more time in front of screens (7 hours per day), and any program that brings down barriers and encourages them to adventure into the outdoors is a great thing, especially for those children who don't have access to parks and nature near their homes.

Yellowstone - behind my finger you might see a few elk...
I was so excited when I heard about this program, because I have some pretty great memories of my own involving visits to National Parks as a kid. When I was around the age of eight, my Dad starting taking my sister and me on annual roadtrips to visit nearly every National Park in the Western US. I loved seeing all the sights in the parks and have albums stuffed with photos (half of them with my chubby child fingers covering the lens) to prove it. Although it took me awhile to warm up to the hiking part - I started whining when the hikes got difficult or long (read: longer than a mile), and I was probably more eager to hit the gift shops than the trail - this is now an activity that I enjoy in adulthood. And because of those early experiences, I now care about the protection and preservation of our National Parks and wilderness (see my recent post on development in the Grand Canyon).

Even though my memory of these annual road trips is a little fuzzy on the details now, I still remember that I was there. I visited this park, and this park, and this park... and now that those memories are a little too fuzzy for my liking, I want to go back.  I want to take more photos (without the finger on the lens), and hike all of the trails I wasn't able (or willing) to hike the first time around.  I want to go back and appreciate a grown-up view of the places I visited and marveled at as a kid.

Visiting our National Parks is an experience that should be available and accessible to all, and the newly unveiled Every Kid in a Park initiative will open doors and help to make these visits possible for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity. As a result, these kids can grow up feeling that same pull of adventure and ethic of stewardship that has drawn so many of us to discover, enjoy, and protect our National Parks and the ecosystems of which they are a part.

My toothless eight year old self somewhere in Yellowstone...

Related Posts:

Musings: Development, Gondolas, and Tourism in National Parks

Musings: Memories to be Thankful For

Friday, February 13, 2015

Musings: Development, Gondolas, and Tourism in National Parks

Grand Canyon, taken on my trip there in 1999. (Does anyone else remember having those disposable panoramic cameras??)

Cliffs of red sandstone carve and contort the landscape, their steep faces bearing horizontal striations that repeat down, down, down - a mile down - to the shores of the mighty Colorado River, which slowly ground this canyon out of the landscape over eons. It is a breathtaking sight to behold; the play of stark light and shadow over the canyon walls, the dry red dustiness of it all. Looking out across the expanse, you're captured by the immensity of the deep and winding abyss. The Grand Canyon is a truly unique place unlike any other on earth.

According to the National Park Service, five million visitors flock to the Grand Canyon each year. They come to marvel at the magnificent canyon, to hike around, across, and into it. But there is a proposed development project in the works seeking to "enhance" visitors' experience of the canyon.

That thin brown ribbon waaay down there is the Colorado River.

Just imagine... an IMAX theater, shopping center, and hotels to make your Grand Canyon visit more luxurious, exciting, and interesting.  I mean, a big hole in the ground can only hold your attention for so long, you know? And the cherry on top... a gondola ride to the bottom of the canyon! Forget the long hours of trudging down (and back up) a dusty trail. You can now bypass all that hard, sweaty, and satisfying exercise, the lifelong memories, and up-close experience with nature for a breezy 10-minute gondola ride that will deliver you 1.6 miles down to the shores of the Colorado, without having gotten a speck of that red dust on your shoes. And if you get hungry while you're down there, they've got you covered with a "food pavilion," and if you feel like getting some exercise after all, you can take a stroll along the elevated walkways of the "Riverwalk" - whatever that is.

Oh, and never mind that this sprawling tourism complex will be plunked down on 420 acres of ecologically fragile and culturally/spiritually significant landscape.

This project - the so-called Grand Canyon Escalade - is being touted by developers and the Navajo Nation president as an economic opportunity for the Navajo people. However, many members of the Navajo Nation, as well as the nearby Hopi Nation, argue that the project will intrude on some of their most sacred sites, and is not consistent with their ethic of acting as good stewards of the land.

This entire project just feels wrong.  When did the Grand Canyon itself become not enough to hold our attention or fascinate us?  Since when do those red canyon walls need to be framed from the window of an (air-conditioned?) gondola rather than from our own wide-open eyes drinking in the heat-seared expanse?

If a project like this goes through in the Grand Canyon, what's to stop similar projects in our other National Parks?  Could we see a monorail built in Yellowstone?  A gondola to the top of Mount Rainier? A shopping center sprout up in the Olympic rainforest? The thought is abhorrent. These intrusions would not only mar the scenery, but those who partake in their offerings would lose out on an authentic experience with the natural landscape: feet on the ground, sweat on the brow, lungs full of fresh air, and eyes exploring the sky overhead, earth underfoot, and scenery all around.

I read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in college, and just finished reading it for a second time a few days ago. When I heard about the proposed development project in the Grand Canyon, I immediately thought of Abbey.  He would have some choice (and not-so-nice) words to say about this insult to one of the world's iconic natural features. Abbey loathed what he called "industrial tourism," that is, the development of National Parks to allow ease of access and increased tourist traffic, which in turn leads to money in the pockets of developers and businesses. He despised paved roads into the parks in particular, arguing:
"What does accessibility mean? Is there any spot on earth that men have not proved accessible by the simplest means - feet and legs and heart?" 
He continues on:
"A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles."
If Abbey felt so strongly about cars, I can only imagine what he would think of a gondola.

What do our National Parks really mean to us? What do we want to see there?  Do we want to see the natural features, the very landscape for which the place was designated a National Park in the first place... or do we want to sit in an air-conditioned IMAX theatre, watch a movie, and then stroll through the shopping center afterward, possibly hazarding a casual glance over our shoulder at the unique, world-renowned, ecologically fragile and culturally significant natural scenery standing silent and half-forgotten in the background? 

What do we want to experience?  Do we want to feel the ground beneath our feet and enjoy every difficult, beautiful, memorable step carrying us from trailhead to destination, or do we want to be ferried quickly to the end goal, snap a few pictures, be ferried back to our vehicles in the parking lot and be on our way?

Which experience most benefits us as individuals? Which is respectful of peoples' cultural and spiritual ties to the land? Which protects the environment and the integrity of the landscape?

Things to think about.

For more information on the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade development, check out this recently-aired NBC news story.

For more information on those trying to save the land from this development and how you can help, check out the Save the Confluence website.