The National Park Service commemorates its 100th anniversary as University of Washington students and their instructor head into the backcountry to consider the meaning of the wild in a changing world.
GRAND PASS, Olympic National Park — First came the sound of hiking poles scritch-scratching on rocks. Then, distant laughter. And suddenly, they emerged out of the fog, coming straight uphill.
Finally at the top of this more than 6,000-foot-high pass, 10 University of Washington students — eight women and two men — jubilantly flopped on the rocky scree and ripped into their packs, scavenging lunch.
“Oh, you have to peel the rind off this,” said their instructor, Tim Billo, giving a salami in his hand a second look — but not for long. “It doesn’t matter to me at this point,” he said, sinking his teeth into the fatty meat.
This was, after all, their eighth of nine days backpacking some 45 miles from Deer Park to Obstruction Point, with side trips along the way. They negotiated ice and snow fields with ice axes, endured rain, cold nights and climbing 16,636 feet of elevation (with lots of up and down, for a net gain of 730 feet).
Along the way, these students learned something no book can teach: just how strong they really are. They reflected, too, as the National Park Service commemorates its 100th anniversary, on the meaning of the wild in a rapidly changing world.
For many people, the parks are still what they have always been: “They are a refuge from the stress of society, a place to get grounded, to hang out with the family, unplug, get back with nature,” said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director based in Seattle for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “They are places to be awe-struck with the scenery, to see the wildlife that we have heard about, but so few people get to actually experience.”
But the National Park Service also is working to make the parks relevant to new audiences. Today, parks also are an outdoor classroom, offering everything from urban national historic sites and monuments to distance learning lectures on geology via Skype from Grand Canyon National Park. “We are America’s largest campus system, with 412 sites,” said Chip Jenkins, deputy regional director for the Pacific West Region, based in Seattle. “These are real, authentic places where people can go to learn about our country.”
The park service’s challenges heading into a second century also include managing record use at more than 307 million visits last year, and likely even more this year, even as the agency struggles with a more than $12 billion backlog in maintenance needs across 84 million acres.
The agency also needs to keep up with the times, to serve a more urban, diverse nation.
Half the U.S. population lived in cities when the park service was founded; today more than 80 percent do. And while about 36 percent of the population are people of color, the park-service staff is more than 80 percent white. Recent visitors also are disproportionately white, and millennials are less likely than previous generations to value spending time outdoors.
“When your audience is aging out, you go to that next generation; we relied on the big wave created 50 years ago and just kind of rode that wave,” said Jeffrey Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. “For the next 50 to 100 years visitation has to look like the face of America and employees have to look like the face of America.”
Today, rangers are offering Pokémon Go interpretive talks, and the agency is waging a privately funded Madison Avenue-styled marketing campaign — Find Your Park — to sell the parks to millennials.
Connecting with nature
The students on the recent backcountry trek in the Olympics needed no sales pitch. To them, the park offered a reconnection to humility in a noisy, grandiose age.
“There is all this pressure as a millennial to make yourself big. To be heard, with all this social media,” said Emi Schwartz, 22, of Seattle. “Here, there is something more animal and realistic and grounded, instead of being worried about checking your cellphone or Tinder profile.”
There also was something really nice about feeling small next to a big tree, she said. “A 400-year-old Douglas fir is a reset for the human spirit.”
Amid blisters under blisters, scratches, bug bites galore, footsore miles and at least one sun-roasted ear, the students carrying 40- to 60-pound packs said they earned the joy of the mountains, and of accomplishment. Nature was a patient teacher, allowing them to see they could do more than they thought.
“We’d be climbing mountains in snow, using ice axes, and I would just look at my steps, and have a steady breath, and a good attitude,” said Kelly Bounxayavong, 21, of Everett.
“I just wanted to challenge myself. I figured I would be clawing my way, but I kept up.” For the smallest of the group, at just 103 pounds, this was her first-ever backcountry backpacking trip. “When we sit here and it’s quiet and there is no noise, I’ve never heard that before,” Bounxayavong said. “Seeing all these amazing views, it calms me, and gives me peace.”
Day after day, the trail wound through sweeps of mountains and ridges, the valleys and cirques with no roads, clear cuts, houses or sound except the whistling of marmots or streams threading down from high peaks.
Theirs was an old-school adventure, with aluminum cooking pots swinging from their packs, two students to a rental tent, and nine days’ worth of food at $50 each: Mostly, that’s a whole lot of rice, beans and pasta. A jar of peanut or almond butter each. Crackers. Cheddar. Oatmeal. Iodine pills for the water.
The luxuries were fresh garlic, butter, salami and chocolate. No fancy freeze-dried meals; the students scratch-cooked, and were so hungry they made two dinners a night. Wild-foraged treats included wild ginger and onions to spice up dinner, stinging nettles for a vitamin C boost, and fir tips for tea.
For many, this was the first time they had ever undertaken a multiday backpacking trip, or actually experienced the wild country inside the Olympics. Jacob Wessel, 21, of Camas, had seen these mountains for years out the car window, driving up I-5 to Seattle for soccer. “I had no idea what was out here,” he said. “To see how grand and vast it is. I like to consider myself a zealous patriot. And today I got to see a bald eagle.”
“I will get there eventually”
Madison Smith, 20, from Bellingham, said in the backcountry success was refreshingly real: She could see for herself, looking back over the landscape, the ridge she had just ascended. “The summit is far away, but the mindset this past week has been: As I keep my steps going forward, I will get there eventually,” Smith said. “I can apply that to a lot of situations in life. I achieved so much.”
They hiked off-trail to appreciate the toughness of it. Spent an afternoon in solo reflection, each choosing a tree for a companion, and hiking alone for a time, to experience the difference from their group treks.
“It’s physical, it’s mental, you think, ‘There is no way I can cross that ice patch,’ ” Schwartz said. “Then you do it, and then you realize how much your mental state determines what we can and can’t do. It’s really good to be tested like that; I couldn’t believe my strength.”
They scrambled up a narrow, rocky path to the 6,701-foot-high top of Grandview Peak. From there, they looked out at a landscape changing fast in their lifetime.
At the top of the peak a tiny purple Flett’s violet, clinging to cracks in the rocks, offered a study in endurance. This survivor of the last ice age possibly faces yet another challenge as climate change brings a warming world, Billo said. “It is already as high up as it can go,” Billo noted. “It has nowhere else to go.”
This was the fourth time Billo has taught this class in landscape change in the Pacific Northwest, in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Washington. For him, wilderness itself is the best instructor.
He packed a photo of the Lillian Glacier, replete with ice in 1905. Yet there it was today, just below them as they stood on Grandview Peak, shrunk to just a remnant. No classroom lecture could have been as vivid.
Abby von Hagel, at just 19, said she knew, at her age, she was preserving within her something that might not last. “You are a receptacle for an image that may not be there anymore. My eyes are seeing things that will change.”
It’s a future that by the end of the trip she decided she wants to be involved with. “We can’t just leave it up to a bunch of old white dudes in Congress,” von Hagel said. “I want to have some influence.”
Doing just five or so miles a day, they often took time to study and savor their outdoor classroom, practicing old-style natural history.
“We are not doing crazy high mileage,” Billo said on day eight. “Part of the point is to stop and appreciate where you are.”
Packing a mobile library of field guides and natural-history texts, they logged more than 14 species of trees, 27 birds, three mammals, two frogs and 112 plants and flowers, several unique to the Olympics.
For Minji Jung, 22, of Seattle, the wild was not only a place to learn, but also to forget a rat race of stress she is already feeling at her tender age.
“This has really shifted my mindset,” said Jung. This was her last class before graduation, and to her, a good, bracing send off. “Get dirty. Get beat up a little bit. Live life like we are supposed to,” Jung said.
“Wilderness reminds us as humans how lucky we are to have this Earth. We are not separate from it. We are really of it.”