June 11th, 2015
The first day of hiking was easy, until it wasn’t. I had planned it to take two days of walking to get to the NFCCDL (Owl Camp), but the early part of the day had been so easy that we’d gotten optimistic that we could make it in one day of walking. That turned out to not be the case. It started getting bad when we realized that my map was out of date and that the terrain would be somewhat different than we’d expected. At the end of the day, we had hiked 7 miles and still just ended up completely exhausted and camped on the side of a waterfall. It really was for the best that we stopped though. If we’d kept going, we wouldn’t have made it to basecamp before nightfall, and there’s no way Andy and I would have recognized it in the dark.
The second day of walking started out only moderately difficult, at least compared to the end of the first day, and it just got easier. Andy had scouted ahead and found the place we had eaten lunch on our scouting hike a few weeks before and had reported that the trail went downhill a lot and that it flattened out as it got closer to the creek bed. But when the group got down towards the creek, we never passed any landmarks that we recognized.
As I walked along the creek, I got more and more concerned that we had either missed our target or that it was much farther away than we thought it was. I didn’t see our lunch spot, and I didn’t even recognize the trail. We weren’t passing terrain that seemed familiar at all, and I didn’t remember walking on a raised spot in between two branches of the creek.
I’m getting more and more skeptical when Andy runs back up the trail and says that he thinks he’s found the campsite but that he needs me to come take a look, because he’s been having the same problem. He didn’t remember passing our lunch site today, and the campsite looks quite a bit different.
I followed him down the trail and took a look at the site. It looked similar, but I didn’t think it was the same place. Something seemed off, and I still didn’t think we were on a part of the trail that we’d seen before. But there was a nice fire ring, and a little knoll next to the creek with a couple trees that were just right for a hammock. Whether it was the right site or not, it would make a good site, and people were getting a bit restless (and maybe doubting my navigation and planning abilities). Each hiker who trickled in to this perfectly acceptable, yet possibly unknown place, asked a version of the question, “Is this it?” I had to answer that it seemed like maybe but that I wasn’t sure (not a very good answer).
We decided to eat lunch there regardless and to take a little break. While others ate, Andy and I walked down the trail a bit looking for anything we recognized, but all I saw were obvious landmarks that I definitely did not recognize. I was certain we’d never hiked this section of trail before and couldn’t reconcile the fact that that campsite looked so familiar even though nothing else did. There was a tree nearby that had been struck by lightning, which I knew could have happened since we’d last been there, and I was willing to accept that things may have changed, but I needed at least one more landmark to be certain.
Andy finally spotted it: the beaver dam. It’s probably not a real beaver dam, and it didn’t look the same anyway, but sure enough, there was a bunch of sticks blocking a branch of the creek where the trail crossed it, and you could either cross in the deep end or the shallow end over a kind of weird drop in some rocks. Andy wasn’t convinced it was the same, but I was.
We walked back to the quizzical looks from the crew eating lunch at the basecamp. Andy said he was like 75% sure it was the site. I said 90%. We hemmed and hawed until I saw the stick Andy had stuck in a hole in a tree, exactly where’d he’d left it on our scouting trip. This tipped the scales for me. There was no way we weren’t there, although Andy played the skeptic for a few more minutes. The thing that convinced Andy was me getting a GPS reading on my phone that showed us pretty much exactly where we thought we should be (that’s a discussion for another post though).
This experience had a pretty profound effect on me. It had only been three weeks, but so much had changed. Different plants were blooming, some severe weather had knocked down some trees, and we eventually figured out that there had been some really significant trail maintenance that changed things. Even a place established to minimize the impact of people can change with the blink of an eye, and when you aren’t accustomed to the landmarks and signs that do stay relatively constant, you can stand in the exact same place and think you’ve never been there. It’s very disorienting, and it made me want to learn or develop techniques for avoiding it. How can you observe and annotate the important landmarks in the wilderness? What even are the important landmarks in the wilderness? And if they change, how do they
change and how can you learn to see what was there before? Creeks rise and fall; flowers bloom and wilt; trees fall and crush other trees, and people clear the brush from the trail. Maybe environmental consistency is a human construction and requires concrete and alphabets to establish and maintain. Change may be the only constant, and when you’re confronted with it, how do you relate it to the things that you are actually certain of?
I don’t know, but we camped in a wonderful location for several nights. It began to feel very familiar, and each day I began to notice little things that had changed from the day before. Even though I felt comfortable, the forest seemed new and different every time I woke up. By normally living in an environment that is so severely controlled, maybe we forget that one of the things that makes the wilderness wild is the fact that we aren’t the thing that has control over the environment. And maybe, for me, that’s the thing that bothers me (in a very mild, non-confrontational way) about the core concept of the hiking hack. Are we going to the wilderness to tame it, or are we going there to observe it, and where is the line between the two?