A lake is earth’s eye looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own soul.Henry David Thoroeau
On a Saturday afternoon in late June my husband, Stan, and I left our home on the Olympic Peninsula and drove south along Hood Canal, turning inland when we reached the Hamma Hamma River. Not far up the road we parked our car in the crowded parking lot of the Lena Lakes Trailhead.
Stan and I had moved to the Olympic Peninsula the previous winter after I retired. I had spent the last many years of my career living and working in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, but however much I loved Wyoming, I knew that when I retired I wanted to be near my family. As a young woman some of my first solo hiking experiences took place in these mountains, and it felt very much like I was going home. What I did not remember is that I stopped hiking in the Olympics in the early eighties because they had become too crowded.
For whatever reason the earlier part of the week had been busy, so we put off the hike until Saturday. I knew that the trail would be crowded, but my memories of beautiful places I have visited earlier in life are always skewed by a romantic desire to repeat the experience. “Just like I remember it,” I would say to myself. Only it never was.
It was only a four mile gentle ascent through western Washington lowland forest, a mixture of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar with an understory of salal and rhododendron on this drier eastern side of the mountains. I had selected this route because I knew that the rhododendrons would be in bloom, and we were not disappointed. They appeared as large flashes of pink beneath the heavy canopy of dark green.
More day hikers appeared and passed us, then several parties of backpackers, along with their dogs. . .lots of them. Big ones, little ones, little bitty skinny ones, big dogs that snarled and little dogs that growled. Almost none of them were on leash, and some of them wore packs. A golden retriever jumped up and placed his big paws on my shoulders, wagging his tail. I did not mind. I like dogs.
Our own dog, Willie, was getting old by then and was home most likely sleeping in a patch of sunlight on the living room floor and would probably be in that same spot when we returned at the end of the day. I had hiked with him and other canine companions over the years, and I do still, my latest companion a happy standard poodle named Lulu who loves to hike as much a I do.
But I had never seen so many dogs on the trail before. I remembered that this particular trail fell outside the boundary of the National Park, where dogs are not allowed on the trails, so I assumed that this was the place to be if you wanted to hike with your dog in the Olympics.
Along with the dogs came thier piles of poop. Big piles, little piles, little bitty skinny. . .well, you get the idea. It was hard to step off trail and not step in it, along with the piles that two-legged hikers leave behind, graced on top by a wad of toilet paper. This was crowding at its very worst. A wilderness trail had become a dog park.
When we got to the lake I counted some fifty tents pitched along the shore, where most of the level ground could be found. There likely were more away from the lake under the trees. Campers had pitched their tents wherever there was a bare spot on the ground, often on a considerable slope. There was a single out house near the outlet of the lake. It was some distance removed from the crowded lakeshore, and I wondered if anyone ever used it.
Stan and I scrambled around the opposite side of the lake from where all the tents were pitched. It was not an easy trek, as the shore was quite steep and heavily wooded, but we were glad to get away from the dogs and people. When we completed the loop we made our way down the trail as quickly as possible to our waiting vehicle, passing still more hikers and dogs who were headed to the lake to join the crowd.
There is more to this strange story. The following morning I sat down in the rocking chair by the window, my journal in my lap, and wrote about the painful experience of seeing Lower Lena Lake overrun by such hordes. I have kept a journal of some kind since I was twelve years old, and I usually keep an old volume next to the rocking chair so that I can read a little bit from the past each day and give myself some perspective on the day and on my life. I picked up the three-ring binder, filled with the beautiful script of a young woman who learned to write in cursive as we all did so many years ago. I turned to this heading:
Lower Lena Lake, Olympic National Forest, July 7, 1973. I have found this log jutting out from shore into the lake. It is wide enough for me to sit here, and the breeze keeps the mosquitoes from bothering me. I have a beautiful campsite, right next to the lake. There is nobody else here. I simply sit here quietly with my journal, my thoughts, this breeze. Someday I will be an old woman, and I will remember moments like these, all alone with the sun and the breeze.
If you are someone who believes in miracles you might want to ask yourself what are the odds? What is the mathematical probability of picking up and reading that particular entry from that particular journal that had been written forty years earlier, a description of a perfect day on Lower Lena Lake the day after a painful one many years later?
But then the next question would have to be, “Why?” I cannot say that reading about a perfect day by a beautiful lake I loved in 1973 made me less unhappy about seeing the place trashed in 2013. If anything it heightened my sadness to see that difference and remember the way it used to be.
It would be another eight years before I would be able to assign some degree of meaning to that strange coincidence. It happened this morning as I began to hammer out the piece that would turn into this post, a post about grief and remembering the beautiful places that are no longer so. It would take place after a week of record breaking temperatures in the mountains I now call my home, with smoke filling the valley and obscuring the ridge tops as it blows south from a fire in British Columbia.
You must do this. Write about the places you love. Or paint them, if that suits you. Grab your smart phone and take photographs, lots of them, from many different angles, under different qualities of light. Or maybe just tell someone about a place you love, about the sound of the leaves crunching under your feet in the fall or the way the rainbow spans the width of the waterfall. We are perhaps the first generation that is charged with the task of bearing witness. We all need to remember the pink fire of rhododendrons in bloom, the smell of cedar, the way the lake looks back at you when you stare into its depths, when you measure the depths of your own soul.