Offbeat

We spent the better part of last weekend tramping around in the woods, ostensibly to look for mushrooms, but mostly just to be outside.

On Saturday morning, we loaded up the backpacks and headed south, then east, then north again, winding our way to the rich forests south of Mount Baker. This area has some of my favorite spots in all of Cascadia, as well as some of the most glorious of the region’s glory hikes, places like the Park Butte and Scott Paul trails, for example, or Watson and Anderson Lakes. They’re worth it, but that’s not where we were headed on this most recent outing.

There was a time when we spent our hiking days chasing views of Baker and its surrounding peaks.

Places like Artist Point and the Ptarmigan Ridge trail that leaves from that parking lot or Lake Ann, also along that paved road, offer the chance to get up close and personal with some really spectacular scenery. With a little more driving effort, places like Skyline Divide and High Pass/Low Pass put you smack dab in the center of sweeping vistas, forested slopes and snowy peaks falling away on either side of the ridges these trails follow. With a lot more hiking effort, Welcome Pass provides direct, nearly vertical access to the High Divide and its views.

I still love all of those hikes, but they’ve become more dessert fare and less the main dish these days.

Partly it was because we had, until recently, a hiking buddy who had little patience with leashes and no use for humans not closely associated with her pack. And then too there’s the fact that most of those hikes are snowed in for a good part of most years–and in high snowfall years, they might not melt out at all.

In searching out places for our weekly adventures, we slowly fell in love with the so-called working lands of the Pacific Northwest, the places that human activity has left less than Instagram-ready (unless of course you follow me!) but that constitute a significant portion of our region’s ecological–and economic–reality.

We aren’t the only ones who love these places–we regularly run into hunters and fishermen, or mountain bikers and climbers using those roads to access places like the Twin Sisters range.

And then there are also those who, sadly, use these lands less responsibly, as dumping grounds. The entrance to one of our favorite places, affectionately dubbed Soggy Saddle, is strewn with beer cans and bullet casings and guarded by an overturned boat, its fiberglass hull caved and sunken in the mossy woods.

And yet there are often animals in these working lands–the scat is usually abundant–and mushrooms and wild plants, if you’re looking for them. It is heartening to see that natural processes continue even outside the boundaries we’ve created for them–the parks and preserves, the designated wilderness areas, as if humans were the ones to decide where nature gets to exist.

This seems of a piece to me with the kind of necessary relationship of humans to land that Wendell Berry describes in his essay “Farmland without Farmers.” He borrows the phrase “eyes-to-acres ratio” from Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, saying basically that stewardship of the land is something that belongs to all of us. The people out hunting and fishing and foraging and otherwise enjoying the country are, in fact, necessary to a region’s ecological health because they know the land across seasons and care about its continued abundance. In short, they are a part of the system.

We need national parks and wilderness areas–and god knows that we should all be fighting to maintain those protections in the current political climate–but they’ve always seemed to me something of an admission of failure, of our inability to control our impulses. Better, perhaps, to cultivate a relationship based on deep understanding of the land and its rhythms over time–and to recognize that we are part of nature rather than apart from it.

As we shouldered our packs last Saturday in the empty parking lot of a lightly used trail, another couple pulled up beside us, lost. They’d been looking for the Park Butte trailhead, and their faces fell when we told them that this trail led only to groves of old-growth hemlock and yellow cedar.

I recognized myself in them, and as we went our separate ways, I wished them well.

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