Walk close to me. I’ll shelter you.William Barnes
I was eight years old when I went on my first backpacking trip with my family. We hiked just a short distance up the Skokomish River in Olympic National Park to a well named site called Camp Pleasant, about three to four miles from the trailhead but long enough for a young family and with just the right degree of isolation, which meant we didn’t see any other hikers for several days.
I carried a canvas knapsack my father had purchased for me at an Army Surplus store, the 1950’s equivalent of an REI, and it was loaded with exactly eight pounds, one pound for every year. My father and mother also carried canvas knapsacks. They were mounted on a wooden frame modeled after the old Trapper Nelson design, and my brother had his Boy Scout pack. None of these packs had hip belts. There were no shoulder straps nor carefully adjusted load straps. We did not have a tent. In its place we carried heavy canvases, which formed a ground cover beneath our sleeping bags and a lean to against the rain should it be needed. The sleeping bags were made of dacron lined with flannel and were warm and comfortable, like putting on a pair of flannel pajamas at night when crawling into bed.
Despite our heavy packs, our stay at Camp Pleasant was comfortable and the days were filled with dappled sunlight under a spreading canopy of vine maple, western hemlock, and Douglas fir. Our canvases were laid out next to an old trail shelter, a three sided structure with bunks and a slab of a table that opened out to a fire circle. Shelters like this were located every few miles on trails throughout the park, making it possible to traverse the park on foot and find shelter every night. My brother and I waded in the river, caught tiny minnows in our cupped hands, and in the evening my father would return from his hike upriver with fresh trout for dinner. I could have remained at Camp Pleasant for the rest of my life.
Instead I would return home and then to school, where I would be required to wear buckled shoes with white ankle socks and sit at a desk to learn long division. That year the school district initiated a new drill, called air raid practice, Three loud bells would sound and we would leave our chairs to crawl under our desks, crouching with our hands over our heads until three more bells rang out marking the end of the drill.
Even at eight years old I questioned the value of this practice and reasoned that crouching under a school desk was not going to provide much protection should Russia decided to bomb the city of Tacoma. I knew nothing at all about the hydrogen bomb, but I’d glanced at enough war movies as my brother and father watched them to be pretty certain that crouching under my school desk wasn’t such a great idea.
It was a relief then when the next instructions were given: Seek shelter. This is a topic I knew something about. I even knew how to get there. Trips to the campgrounds in the mountains were exciting enough for me that I paid close attention as soon as we got into the car. I could walk anywhere. I could walk to Camp Pleasant on the Skokomish River, where all would be well, where there was a shelter.
And so it was I walked there many years later as a young woman, returning to the mountain trails and seeking out those sites that had remained so precious in my memory. My pack was a good deal lighter. I carried a two-and-a-half pound goose down sleeping bag and freeze dried food. I was on the first day of a trek over the First Divide, solo backpacking on my days off during the week, when the trails were less crowded.
I knew what hydrogen bombs did by then, but there were other things on my mind in in the early seventies that seemed more pressing and much closer to home. The environmental movement was new, the first Earth Day having taken place while I was in college a couple of years earlier. The EPA had recently been created and had brought my home town nationwide notoriety by publishing photos of it with a toxin spewing smoke stack silhouetted against the backdrop of Mt. Rainier.
I was a young self-righteous environmentalist, eager to preserve the places where I had always found shelter from the harsh realities of the world. I was disappointed then to find the Camp Pleasant shelter no longer standing. In its place was a pile of logs and shingles. The Park Service at that time was in the process of removing the trail shelters throughout the park, citing the expense of maintenance and the liability presented by falling down structures.
That fall I joined a small group of activists called Friends of Olympic Park Shelters, or FOOPS, that advocated for the shelters. Most of them had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. We argued that they held historic significance. I attended a hearing in Port Angeles and gave an impassioned plea that the shelters be left in place. The Park Service did reverse its original proposal to remove all of the shelters. Some were allowed to stand and remain to this day, but over the years more and more have come down, and alder trees have grown up by the rivers where the shelters once stood.
The next summer of hiking I came to understand why the Park Service had taken this unpopular stand. With the new crowds of hikers coming into the wilderness, many of the shelters had been badly vandalized. Cedar shingles had been ripped off to be used as firewood. In some cases, walls had been opened up like windows. That anyone would go to the trouble of carrying a heavy pack into the wilderness and then set about destroying it was incomprehensible to me, but the destruction became more prevalent each year as more people took up hiking and went into the backcountry. It was not uncommon to find badly littered campsites with piles of human feces scattered here and there.
On that first solo trip I left Camp Pleasant and crossed the First Divide the next day, descending to another well named site, Home Sweet Home Basin. A sturdy shelter sat in the middle of a meadow, while melting snowfields created rivulets of water surrounded by marsh marigolds. There was even a well constructed chair next to the fire circle, where I sat and took in the view of Mt. Steel and Mt. Duckabush to the east. There I heated a pot of water on my little stove and sipped tea from the same green plastic cup I still carry in my pack decades later. I had a book in my lap, a cup of tea in my hands, and wildflowers blooming at my feet. That night I laid out my sleeping bag on one of the bunks. I didn’t want a single layer of rip stop nylon between me and that view when I awakened the next morning.
The last time I returned to that site the shelter was gone. I was not surprised. Over the years many more of them have been taken down. Those that remain often bear a sign that reads
FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY
I wonder what kind of emergency. Nuclear holocaust? Divorce? Pandemic? A rain shower perhaps? Whatever it might be, we will get through it. We have shelter. Trust me on this.