Thursday, June 13, 2019

Backpacking in the Pacific Northwest: A Sweet Nature Fix

"As you're hiking," says Ashley, "try to notice smells, what you hear and see. And don't feel the need to push yourself. Just take it all in."

We're at the Ingalls Creek trailhead in north-central Washington, about to head on up the trail for what is my first backpack of the yearand for a couple women, their first backpack trip ever.

I might have paraphrased what Ashley said a bit, but it's the gist of our overnight trip this weekend with the Alpine Trails Book Club. We're thinking about this month's book, The Nature Fix.

Author Florence Williams makes a compelling case that nature is not just beautiful but also good for us in terms of health, happiness, and creativity. (See my recent post on forest bathing.) 

On this late spring weekend before the heat of summer, our group quickly spreads out along the trail. I lapse into my old "motor mouse" mode, charging ahead, and have to remind myself to slow down. 

Essentially we're walking up a creek drainage through both burned and intact forest. Here on the eastern crest of the Cascades, we see a mix of ponderosa pine and common regional trees such as Douglas fir and western redcedar.

What I notice quickly is the dramatic difference between the burned parts of the drainage versus areas that haven't burned for decades. Initially we walk through forest that was engulfed in 1994 by the massive Rat Creek Fire.

As the trail meanders above mountain fresh Ingalls Creek, we first cross through fairly open areas. Here some trees are still scorched black, while others show green growth higher up. Since the last major fire, the underbrush and shrubs have come back vigorously.

And the wildflowers! Lush patches of purple lupine, occasional Nootka rose, brilliant red-orange Indian paintbrush, delicate columbine, and much more line the trail. Tiny purple and big multi-colored butterflies flit from flower to flower, eluding capture in a photo.

Red columbine

Nootka rose
After an hour of tramping,  I stop at a big flat rock for a snack break and am soon joined by the others. I'm feeling previously "silent" leg and hip muscles from the weight of my pack. But overall I'm pleased that I've settled into a steady pace, despite the heavy load.

I think we're all buoyed by the refreshing sound and views of the adjacent creek, still swollen with snowmelt. As it dances and courses downward over big boulders, downed logs, and cobbled riffles, we continue gradually upward, sometimes crossing small tributary streams.

When we've hiked a couple hours upstream, we decide to make camp at a spacious campsite next to the creek, a little under 5 miles from the trailhead. There's plenty of room to pitch multiple tents, with sounds muffled by the insistent rush of Ingalls Creek.

But before I give in to the urge to relax, three of us continue another mile+ up the trail in search of more expansive views. Ultimately this trail leads to gorgeous alpine Ingalls Lake 14 miles from the trailhead. But today we're content with taking in the forest, abundant fresh air, and the sounds of nature.

Looking back down valley.
Back at camp, with my tent set up and pack discarded, I head to the creek and liberate my feet for a soak in the icy cold water. I think fondly of my late father as I do this. On warm summer days after work, he would sit on the foot bridge over the stream that ran through our front yard, roll up his pants above his ankles, take off his shoes and socks, and dangle his feet in the cool water.

Despite a sizeable group, later in the afternoon we spread out, nap in the sun, read, sketch, whatever. We're just enjoying being unplugged and tuned in to our surroundings. After a good discussion of the book, where Ashley encourages us to feel the dirt with our bare feet and hands, we cook our dinners and drift to our tents before it's completely dark.

For me, sleep comes quickly. I'm always lulled to sleep by the sound of nearby water. 

I awaken cozy warm and refreshed around 5:30 a.m. I'm up and out before anyone else, and take a few moments to silently express my gratitude for this gift of a night in the woods with a fun and supportive group of cross-generational women (and one husband).

While I love my morning tea, and especially enjoy drinking it out of delicate china, I've never thought of bringing a fancy cup along on a camping trip. So I'm charmed when Brenda pulls out her cup and saucer, which she does camping and hiking as a whimsical ritual.

Getting ready for tea al fresco.
Late morning we're off back down trail, and too soon we're back at the trailhead. I'm just hitting my stride and could continue for several more miles.

Motor Mouse, a few years on.
Photo by Mala Giri.
Our goal wasn't the destination, it was the journey and experiencing fully where we were without an agenda other than to just be present and aware with all our senses. I came away refreshed, despite some achy muscles. 

And as I sit here in my office typing, I close my eyes and imagine myself out there again, seeing the morning light filtering through the forest, with the soundtrack of a mountain stream. It's calming, and studies show a nature fix can lower your blood pressure, among other health benefits. 

I highly recommend that you, too, think about getting a nature fix as often as you can.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 
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