Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Martin Luther King day. My son Thor and his wife Sarah head out to go mountain biking, so Sarah's mother, Cathy, invites me to take a hike in Capitol State Forest, a Washington State Park near Olympia. The persistent rain of what Washingtonians call winter has abated, and blue skies have emerged for a day. We stop at a coffee stand where the barrista, a lovely local woman, tells us her favorite trail in the park and gives us a map. Cathy's Australian shepherd, Annie, is our third companion. The Wadlington loop starts at a campground where construction tape across the trail warns us it is closed for bridge rebuilding. Alaskans, we ignore the sign.

Cathy and Annie ready to roll

Having climbed mountains all my life, I'm sure of foot. So I immediately roll my ankle on a piece of bark and fall down on the flat pavement, holding my coffee which shoots everywhere. Embarrassment rules; I'm red and mocha.

The trail is beautiful, wet, muddy, and a little gem near the heart of the city; hardly a sign of another person. The creek is liquid crystal, even after a week of rain; I think fish. After a short distance, trail signs point the way. We meet small country roads and more trail signs. It's impossible to get lost in this dense coastal rain forest. Cathy and I talk constantly, of food, always a favorite subject; our kids, whether they are planning a family, again a favorite subject; hiking and biking, our mutual passions.

Yours Truly at the summit...480 feet high

The trail moves gradually up a hill. A sign indicates we are at the summit; I can't resist a photo. I've been several times to the top of Mount McKinley, so we need a record of this one, too! The trees reach skyward, blocking most of the sunlight, and the cool, damp air keeps my jacket on. These temperate rain forests are among the rarest ecosystems in the world; almost half of them have been cut down. In North America, these forests originally spread from California to Alaska; all but 5 per cent have been cut in California, Oregon and Washington. I think of my beloved Tongass National Forest in the Alaska panhandle. These temperate rain forests produce the highest biomass in any terrestrial ecosystem, growing the massive coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, coast redwood or sequoia, the coast Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. I stand under a huge hemlock and marvel.

We drop down a hill into a swamp where the emerald green beauty of the scene compels me to stop and look for a while. I think of W.H. Hudson's "Green Mansions", one of the great books in my father's library; all his children read it, and one of us still has his copy. The epiphytes, like moss and other parasitic plants hang from the branches of the giant limbs like lace on a bride's gown.

The moss covered limbs

I see droplets of water glistening in the filtered sunlight from a drooping fern leaf. A photo cannot do it justice and bring in the height of the trees, the delicacy of the water drop all at once as our eyes do.

Sunlight pours into the forest

The conversation continues: Cathy is currently living with her mother, acting as her caregiver. She spent over 30 years in Alaska, but now that Thor and Sarah live in Portland, and her daughter Anna might move to the West Coast, she is considering a new home in Oregon. Bend? We discuss the pros and cons. It's a very active outdoor community, and Cathy is a biking-hiking animal. Portland? The kids live there; dinner on the weekends...grandkids? Hmmm?? I've been 30 years in Alaska and now spend nearly half my time traveling through the West visiting family. For me? Colorado? It's tempting. My daughter, Daphne, lives in Boulder, the mountains are huge, scads of friends there... But, Alaska has been home for so long, twice as long as anywhere else. I've moved 58 time in my life; I love having a stable home. It's so hard to decide to leave.

Cathy smiles

Life feels good right now; we can't hear another sound but our own voices. Then a hawk screeches and we look up through the tangle to find it soaring above us. It circles once and alights again on the tallest Douglas fir. The water looks still, like a slough, but as I kneel and gaze beyond the surface, it is moving right along. Too cool for the nasty bugs of summertime; we hit it perfectly!

The brook and moss

I grew up in the arid desert of Salt Lake, but I spent my free time in the mountains above the city. Later I moved to the Tetons where for 16 years I was a park ranger. The pine forests with their unique odor and dryness are the scents of my youth. I could smell the rain hours before it came. Here my nose is full of green, life, rotting vegetation, moisture, and decay; it's a different world. I'm afraid to touch for fear of disturbing a whole ecosystem, like the layers of algae in a Yellowstone hot spring.

Sunlight and stream

We stand awhile and look into the water at the brilliant weeds swimming with the current. I wonder what animals swim in the water: mink, otter, beaver, muskrat? Do bears frequent these woods like they do in my Alaska back yard? We're so near the city, and it is the "Lower 48" where so much has been altered.

Even the water is alive

The four-mile hike is over too quickly. Civilization appears instantly as we drive out of the forest. Olympia, home to my great friend Pete Sinclair is just minutes away. We stop to see if he and Connie are at home, but learn they are in Hawaii. So we decide on a late lunch at the harbor. I suggest Anthony's, mostly because it is so close to where Cathy parks. We have muddy feet, and I'm the mocha man, still. Anthony's sports white linen tablecloths; but I'm undeterred, focusing on clam chowder and beer.

The harbor at Olympia

The great conversation continues... I am sad thinking of leaving in the morning, but like Odysseus after his 10-year absence from Ithaca, am also eager to see my home again.


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