Thursday, July 23, 2015

Camping in greatness

The fluid songs of the Swainson’s thrushes rain down on me as I sit at a picnic table in Ft. Stevens State Park.  The tops of the dominant Sitka spruce and the prosperous Western Hemlocks generously provide shade for our shiny black truck and trailer.   Lynne and I are camping  in these coastal headlands of Oregon, where the mighty Columbia River drains into the Pacific Ocean.

Our home among the Sitka Spruce
We follow other humans, invading the space of this often fog shrouded maritime forest, trampling its seedlings with our feet, pulverizing the small flowers until we leave behind a bare sandy path.  Yet with the size of these master trees and the expansiveness of the preserve, this maritime forest withstands the impact of our human encroachment.

Flocks of sparrows, chickadees and bushtits flutter above us and perch in the low shrubs around us.  Green and grey lichen fall from the branches to refresh the carpet of needles under our feet.  A few mosquitoes buzz me as I walk alone in this cathedral of trees, so much bigger than I yet benign. I feel neither noticed nor rejected.

When Lynne and I saddle up our bicycles and pedal through the park on narrow paved trails, we pass teals, mallards and herons in the wetlands and a roost of ravens at the shallow end of freshwater Coffenbury Lake.   Following the out-of-date map, we end up surprised on an abandoned back road bringing us towards the dunes.  We turn around and soundlessly retrace our path through the woods, air on our faces and legs pedaling easily back to camp.

Later, we drive the truck on the paved roads which allow us easy access to the beaches as well as the 127 year old south jetty stretching into the mouth of the Columbia River. Climbing on the rubble mounded jetty is difficult, so we observe the engineering feat from the windy lookout. To the north lies the mouth of the Columbia made treacherous by shifting sandbars. To the west, the unceasing cresting of the waves marks the edge of the Pacific ocean spread out before us.  We quickly retreat to a lower, balmier setting to the south.

Near the mouth of the Columbia River
I smell the ocean before we crest the dunes that outline the coast. I witness miles of beach in both directions, north and south, and sand, some mounded in sandy hills, some styled into patterns, some hard and wet, some so soft that we spontaneously sink into it and lie down on its warmth, oblivious to time and pressure, soaking in a sense of undefined unlimited acceptance.

Heading back to camp, we pass Roosevelt elk browsing at the roadside, their light colored circular rump patches and tails and their larger size distinguishing them from the deer we see so often at home. A pair of elk grabs at the new growth of the low hanging maple leaves and shrubs, seemingly unconcerned as we watch them from the truck. Sand flows over the road we drive on in some places, and the pavement is uneven where the power of frost heaves have overcome the human attempts to smooth the surface of the earth.

In the middle of the night, nestled in flannel, I hear coyotes yipping.  Their outburst is short.  I nudge Lynne awake but too quickly the forest regains its silence.  There, when sound from humans, wind, animals and birds have subsided, I lie enthralled by the sound of the ocean waves breaking on the beach, a never ending drama: no intermission, no finale, no encore.  No beginning, no end. My spirit lifts; I fall back to sleep.

Woodpecker dining hall
The lightening of the sky at daybreak wakes me to a quiet campground, and then I hear a raucous wave of bird song sweeping high in the canopy through the forest. The start of the day for the birds, a time to proclaim their presence and stake out their territory, comes early in human time.

I treasure being a small visitor to a vast space, me, a human, occupying only a fraction of the space of one potato-chip-barked Sitka Spruce. The giant evergreen has no voice, yet it catches the wind and I drink in the sound of the air ruffling its needles and branches.  The trunk is unmoving, yet my eyes delight as the extremities dance with the wind.  At its base the green Salal and Sword ferns reflect dappled light.   The trees' roots reach into sandy soil, the same soil that outlines the park's freshwater lakes and brown tannin-stained streams wandering by. Around me are tens, hundreds, thousands of trees, vital in their interactions with air and wind and sun and rain and snow and fog, for now protected from logging by their presence on state park land.

When we leave this place, I will remember it. It will not remember us.  It will continue to  evolve.  I may have changed its course by the pathway I made with my feet, or the water I dumped in the brush, or by the emissions of our tail pipe.  But protected as a state park, this one robust piece of land at the junction of two powerful bodies of water has the momentum to continue its natural path.  I reflect on the power of nature, the intricate design and infinite beauty that I hope will survive humanity's presence.


  1. Beautiful. Thank you Sky. I feel a little bit as if I was there with you.