Despite an endless flow of gorgeous, taunting, tempting images and trip reports in my pandemic social feeds, I’ve mostly limited my pandemic fitness activities to what I can do from the front door. Even under non-pandemic conditions, trailhead parking lots and pit toilets are pushed to overflowing during the summer months. But, under coronavirus conditions this level of activity seems downright disrespectful.
Regardless, the need to get into the mountains is strong and we decided on a Monday trek to Summerland and beyond in Mt Rainier National Park (MRNP). Thankfully, MRNP trailheads are tidy, and visitors seem to be more aware of their impacts in the wilderness.
One of the most remarkable aspects of hiking on the west side of the Cascades are the ecological changes you can observe as you move up and down in elevation. The changes are especially dramatic at MRNP.
One by-product of the pandemic is increased interest in the Japanese concept of “Shinrin-yoku,” forest bathing. Forest bathing is a way to a way to de-stress by simply going for a walk in the woods, and savoring your sensory experiences–the sights, smells, and auditory qualities.
Often when I hike, I practice a little of both: I notice the ecological changes as well as the different sensory qualities in each ecological zone. In all, I have a hypothesis that the sights and smells and sensations of the wilderness have antibiotic, therapeutic effects on us humans.
Deep in an old-growth forest during the summer, there is a characteristic smell: Warm deteriorating soil and evergreen pitch.
Deep in an old-growth forest there are characteristic auditory qualities: the thick tall trees and complex soil dampen sounds. As you walk or run, contact between your feet and the earth makes a hollow thud. It’s easy to envision the complex network of roots, rhizomes, burrows, and invertebrates underfoot.
Deep in an old-growth forest there is a characteristic feeling. For me the feeling is dense, grounded, secure.
When you move above treeline the sensory experiences change.
Above treeline the forest smell is gone. Instead, there is often a slight stinging sensation in the nose because the air can be drier.
Above treeline the auditory qualities are sharp and crisp. If it’s windy, the air whistling past your ears makes it hard to hear your companions. As you walk over meadow soils you can notice a dampened sound similar to forest soils. Above treeline there is more bare rock, and rock that has eroded into pebbles and sand. The bare rock is almost silent as you walk over it, while the sand makes a loud crunching sound.
Above treeline the feeling is light, airy, and free. This feeling can be awe, magnitude, and vastness, combined with a feeling of miniscule-ness.
If you are new to hiking or the backcountry be patient and take time to learn how to minimize risk, and how to be self-sufficient if you run into trouble. In the Pacific Northwest we have great resources for learning how to safely travel in the backcountry. Check out The Mountaineers.
This summer, the King County Sheriff Search and Rescue team have rescued record numbers of people who aren’t prepared or taking risks beyond their skill level.
Whether you like to move fast and light or slow and deliberate, the next time you are in the mountains, notice what you feel and sense as you move through the environment’s different ecological zones.