Olympic National Park’s High Divide-Seven Lakes Basin – Untrammeled?

A “look but don’t touch” Wilderness

Wilderness character is … the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguish wilderness from all other lands.
Landres, et al., Monitoring Selected Conditions Related to Wilderness Character:A National Framework
Once designated, wilderness is to be allowed to express its own will.
Doug Scott, “Untrammeled,” “Wilderness Character” and the Challenges of Wilderness Preservation

horizontal white spaceI backpacked this week in Olympic National Park’s alpine gem, the trail following the High Divide between the the Seven Lakes Basin and Hoh Valley, looking across to Mt. Olympus. The place is both very attractive to hikers and in congressionally designated Wilderness. The Park Service handles the potential for crowds by issuing a limited number of permits for camping in specified areas. Each small area, more or less a few hundred yards across, contains between six and eleven campsites, marked with numbered posts. Camping outside these sites is illegal, and hikers are asked not to leave the trails. The trails are mindfully located and constructed, with stone steps and retaining walls, crafted logwork bridges, and hewn log slab boardwalks in wet spots.

The stonework on the upper trail, but also the entire trail system that I saw on this trip was at a particular aesthetic design standard, a human construction quite something in itself, really beautiful and in my view appropriate in this location, but hardly untrammeled. Even with budget cuts, the Park Service is keeping it maintained. I came across boardwalk reconstruction.

Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高) Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 193.8 x 98.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Note trail switchbacks overlooking the waterfall.
Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高) Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 193.8 x 98.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Note trail switchbacks overlooking the waterfall.

The design aesthetic is a combo of traditional Chinese (refined, meditative) with American West frontier materials. Maybe we could call it “Sunset Magazine/National Park Service” style. Layout fits principles taught in landscape architecture school and appreciated in the Ming Dynasty.

Among hikers and park staff I met, there’s a general expectation that hikers’ behavior would fit with the values this style embodies. The permit process, requiring advance planning, going to a park office, filling out forms and interacting with officials, likely serves an effective filter, screening out those whose values don’t fit. Wild people aren’t welcomed.

Is it wilderness? For sure, the land beyond the borders of the trails and campsites fits the criteria. What you see from the trail is wild. But you don’t go there. It’s a “look, don’t touch” wilderness, viewed from quite permanent human constructions within which you are required to stay, a willful manipulation of experience done with art, craft and skill. Even though the whole area is legally capital-W “Wilderness,” the trail and campsites are  not wild, with the the wild extending from the edge of these developments.

To me the design is really quite stunning. Though not commonly done in this part of the world, the design philosphy could be carried further to include backcountry cabins, lodges, meditative buildings in the same style and intent, presumably not in this location, but somewhere. Wilderness designation is so extensive in the Pacific Northwest mountains that it pretty much precludes this opportunity. Where there is development, outside of Wilderness, it’s almost always road-accessible and car/car-campground oriented. Absence of the European-type trail-accessible hut is a void, I think. Little constituency for it here? Instead, I was hiking with $1000+ of high-tech gear on my back.

___________

The Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 2(c), Definition of Wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…”

___________

from Landres, et al.,Monitoring Selected Conditions Related to Wilderness Character:A National Framework:

wilderness character is … the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguish wilderness from all other lands.

…These ideals form a complex set of relationships between the land, its management, and the meanings people associate with wilderness. … All wildernesses, regardless of size, location, or any other feature, are unified by this statutory definition of wilderness. These four qualities of wilderness are:

• Untrammeled – wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from modern human control or manipulation.
• Natural – wilderness ecological systems are substantially free  from the effects of modern civilization.
• Undeveloped – wilderness is essentially without permanent improvements or modern human occupation.
• Outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation – Wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for people to experience solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, including the values of inspiration and physical and mental challenge.

Bristlecone pine, Lost Creek Wilderness Area, Colorado, scratchboard by Evan Cantor
Evan Cantor’s illustration for Doug Scott’s article about “untrammeled wilderness character” in Wild Earth, the magazine of the Wildlands Project, showing a landscape aesthetic similar to Ming Dynasty art. To what extent is American understanding of wilderness sourced in this tradition of Chinese culture, as well as Thoreau, Muir and Robert Marshall? What ambiguities and conflicts does that imply?

Olympic National Park designated Wilderness map

Olympic National Park campsite map showing areas with entry quotas

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