The day was unusually clear, a bite to the air and bare deciduous limbs the only reminders of the season. We stood at the mouth of the Elwa River, watching the sanguine sunrise over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island disappearing into ocean mists. I thought of what came before. Of the strong Coast Salish tribes, striking off into the strait in dugout canoes made of cedar. Captain George Vancouver sailing in, charting the coastline, naming prominent landmarks after his benefactors and friends. The time before when vast glaciers would have dredged the land that would become the strait itself as well as scouring the Olympic Mountains to my back.
My friend Tyler and I were on a day trip, to one of the most Northwesterly points in the lower 48, Cape Flattery.
A few miles before the Makah tribe’s reservation and Neah Bay, we hit a Bobcat. Driving around a corner, speeding through a twenty year old Douglas Fir plantation, the cat ran right in front of the car. No chance to avoid or brake. It hit hard, with two jarring thumps. Screeching to a halt, we wanted to find the animal we presumed was either fatally maimed or soundly dead. All we could do was curse. Tyler had seen the body go flying, dislodged fur in airborne puffs. Scouring the roadside, there was no evidence of any vehicular violence. Perplexed, we stood as cars sped by mere feet away, buffeting us with their wind and threatening to throw us the way of cat. No one seem confused or interested in why we were standing on a lonely stretch of highway looking glum. Cutting through our silent mourning and confusion a Hutton’s Vireo scolded from the other side of the road. I stifled an urge to start laughing uncontrollably and chuckled quietly, only to keep from getting teary. Who knows what happened to that poor cat.
We kept pushing on, stopping to look at birds on the shore occasionally, hoping to discover something rare. Our decision to drive all the way out to this point meant too much sitting in the car but because it was so far away from where most people birded regularly, we might have gotten lucky. Ultimately it was just a long drive. Somehow though, when we’d walked the three quarter mile trail to the end of the state, looking out at Tatoosh Island in winter sun, I couldn’t diminish a feeling of accomplishment. The sun was already descending, casting rainbows through spray dashing against the dilapidated coastline and towering sea stacks.
The next week I was on the other side of the Cascade mountains, snowshoeing alone above Cle Ellum Lake. Besides the distant, anxious whine of snowmobile engines in the snowpark at Salmon La Sac, I was alone. Ill fitting boots held back a more serious hike, yet I also felt accomplished with my meager ascent of crusty snow in the open coniferous forest of the east slope. On the way down I found Mountain Lion tracks, old, yet recent enough. The hair on my neck rose and things felt wilder than before.
Weeks later I was in the Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier, again on snowshoes but in fresh, deep powder and guiding a group for work. One of the clients turned to me as the eight of us stood viewing the partially obscured Nisqually Glacier a thousand feet below.
“Do people normally get here? Because I’m feeling quite accomplished right now.”
What exactly is adventure these days? Is what I might call an adventure anything to be proud of these days? REI and The North Face sure as hell make it seem like everyone goes trail running in uncharted wilderness and dozens of companies will happily sell you canned experiences deemed “adventure travel.” I am not criticizing this market (for one I am employed by it), more musing on it. Do our adventures seem less noteworthy, dull even, because now they are available to the masses?
People have always been pushing the limits. With so fringe seeking these days (and more people), I occasionally feel I’m worthless if I don’t risk my neck to achieve some feat of endurance. Like a few of my friends, part of me wants to be an adventurer like the old days. You know, the misanthropic, gun-toting, racist white male, blazing an unknown path to conquer nature. Well. Not exactly. However I do pine for days when more of the world was uncharted than today. I’ve done a lot that most would consider adventurous but I have a hard time calling it much beyond work or fun. I tend to question the point of the adrenaline and travel propaganda I hungrily gobble up in Outside Magazine, (which I hope to contribute to someday). Are these people pushing boundaries just to be seen doing it? Again, does it lessen the experiences available to us?
Slowly, I’m discussing a feeling I get from time to time: that there is nothing left to explore. I’ve spent a greater part of my life romanticizing naturalists like Alfred Russel Wallace, David Douglas, and modern equivalents like Jared Diamond or even E.O. Wilson and Bernd Heinrich. As absurd as it sounds, when I envision the intellectual and natural historical adventures I aspire to, I can’t help but think that it’s all been done. That my life is mundane and soft (the latter is true in relative terms).
That is an absolutely absurd and negative viewpoint. Downright ignorant really. We don’t know everything, we haven’t seen it all, and we never will. So I can rest easy knowing that just because I likely won’t get a bird species named after me, doesn’t mean I won’t have an opportunity to contribute to the world. Contribute to knowledge or appreciation or preservation and conservation. Adventure is grounded in questing after something and can be equally in your backyard watching insect behavior through a hand lens or jumping into the Congo blindly. My epics will always be reliant on the same imagination and excitement I’ve had since childhood. The locale doesn’t matter. (Read: has pen and camera, binoculars, and a bag too full of field guides. Will travel.)
And that reminds me. I am not alone in being an adventurer, seeking lofty and humbling moments with nature across the globe. Over the course of the next year I intend to touch base with people I consider contemporaries in their thirst to explore. These are the people I can almost promise you’ll be hearing about as the years pass (and in other places far more noteworthy than Wingtrip). Writers, photographers, scientists, they are all doing interesting and important things. So stay tuned for the first up, my friend Zachary Shane Orion Lough of Sail Panache.