Tag Archives: national parks

Who Speaks for the Trees?

Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park is always a quieting experience. The park marks its 100th anniversary as protected land next year, and although we like to think of our national parks as “timeless treasures,” Rocky Mountain National Park and others like it across America are beginning to show their age. It’s like seeing a friend who’s just gone through a very stressful period; you can see the fatigue around her eyes, a few new lines that weren’t there before. The stress of climate change has done just that to our national parks.

Yesterday, a few not-so-vertical, light hikes in the “family-friendly” areas of Rocky Mountain National Park revealed quite a bit. I was shocked to see the number of fallen trees, and many, though still standing, appeared ashen-faced, ready to fall over with the slightest wind. I last hiked this park in 2011, and didn’t recall seeing so many downed trees. Some had fallen into the water, many crisscrossed one another over the ground. The dead trees looked like vertebrae, backbones of once mighty creatures now growing pale under Colorado’s intense sun. What I was seeing was the impact of the mountain pine beetle, which I had read about in Michael Lanza’s wonderful book “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks”. Warming temperatures have led to less brutally cold winters in Colorado, giving the gluttonous mountain pine beetle more time to feed on trees. National parks shouldn’t feel like cemeteries.

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For the past year, I’ve been working on a novel manuscript, which features travel through forested areas of North America and references climate change and the effects of the mountain pine beetle on the landscape. As we all know, it’s one thing to read about what’s going on in the world; it’s another thing entirely to see it. You don’t have to go far into the Rocky Mountains to literally trip over the impact of climate change. Politicians can debate science until their next election, but in the meantime, the trees are in desperate need of some Seussian protection; someone needs to speak for (and act on behalf of) the trees sooner rather than later.

To get ideas for my book-in-progress, I started taking pictures of the fallen trees in color, but then switched to black and white because black and white better captured the starkness of what I was seeing. I started thinking of how I would revise certain passages in my book to more effectively entice the reader to follow in my own footsteps, and while I felt excited for firsthand inspiration, I felt saddened that I was seeing it at all. Again, hiking the Rockies is always a quieting experience, but this was different than past hikes. The majestic mountains still make a hike through Colorado feel like you’re walking through a postcard, but the countenance of the mountains has changed, and why wouldn’t it? Below them, trees continue to fall. Above them, skies continue to warm. So much is changing, yet little is being done.

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Summer of the Wee Beasties

In three weeks, I’ve been on two different antibiotics for two different infections. After avoiding antibiotics for years, believing my green smoothies and regular jogging protected me from almost everything, my summer embracing the outdoors has led to two trips to the doctor’s office and an afternoon cracking jokes in the emergency room. It was a wet June followed by a hot July in the Northeastern United States. Nature got prolific. And then nature found me.

The first infection was a urinary tract infection that I *know* occurred after I went swimming in Saranac Lake. Other people were swimming in Saranac Lake during that super-hot, global-climate-change inferno week in mid-July when temperatures reached the upper 90s. I eased into the water and one of my first thoughts was “I wonder if I’ll get a urinary tract infection” because the lake felt, well, um, alive. Very alive. Mike went swimming with me and immediately remarked on the thriving biodiversity that invisibly circled us like hungry sharks. By then I was neck-deep in water trying to cool off, so I decided not to be a diva about things and paddle about. Two days later symptoms started. A few days after that, I was on Macrobid. Can I *prove* E. Coli in Saranac Lake found my private parts? No, but I’ve swam in many lakes (including Lake George also in the Adirondacks) and didn’t towel off afterward with an infection. This time, as I toweled off, I just knew I had brought something back with me.

Fast forward two weeks, and we’re back up in the Adirondacks yurting at Falls Brook Yurts, which is just lovely and not for sedentary folks because it’s a two-thirds mile hike uphill just to access the yurt. Your only water source is a nearby brook and whatever bottled water you bring with you. Along the hike to the yurt is a giant Adirondacks style chair made of old skis.

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(Commuting Adirondacks style)

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(A church converted into a canoe and ski shop; very Adirondacks)

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I can’t say we truly camped there because we didn’t prepare any meals there or even build a fire. It poured both nights we slept at the yurt, and the ground was soaked even upon our arrival. The word that kept going through my mind as I looked at all the different fungi sprouting from the ground was “fecundity.” Forests are dark, damp and fertile. Like lakes. Perfect for more wee beasties. Considering my recent urinary tract infection, I “showered” outdoors Saturday morning by standing naked on the yurt porch and pouring two liters of Poland Spring bottled water over my head with 50-degree air to cool me off…quickly. No brook water for me, even if it was boiled.

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My second infection was just bad luck. I know the rules of the forest and have written enough about Lyme disease to know you enter the forest as if going to a job interview, dress conservatively, fully-covered, and show no skin except face and hands. Instead of perfume wear bug spray. I need to give a shout out to Burts Bees here, for it was quite buggy during our hikes to and from the yurt, yet all that castor oil and peppermint shielded me.

Until Sunday morning.

What could be more vulnerable than lying in bed half-awake listening to the forest wake up? Mike was up making coffee, I rolled over in bed, I was wearing long-sleeved everything but my lower back was slightly exposed and I felt a pinch. And then a second pinch. I sat up and saw this large fly on the sheet. Inside the yurt, this critter was the only other living organism with a central nervous system besides me and my husband. It wasn’t buzzing around like a house fly but just lying on the sheet dazed. I swatted it away. If I had to take a guess at what had just happened, I was likely just bitten in bed by a deer fly. And it was barely morning.

We leave the Adirondacks Sunday, drive home, nothing happens Monday, and then yesterday around lunch, my back starts to feel hot, I’m breaking out in hives, and I’ve got two big red welts where I had felt the pinches. I try to diagnose myself via Google but nothing seems to match. I call the doctor’s office and it’s booked solid. My back is getting redder, my skin is getting hotter, and I’m starting to look blotchy and feel a little itchy. Off to the ER I go. The diagnosis? Allergic reaction to an insect bite (that’s a first for me) and cephalexin for cellulitis (say that five times, fast). Oh, and prednisone for swelling and inflammation and Benadryl for itching. Pop all those drugs at night and watch an episode of Game of Thrones. You’re numb and less spooked by all the gore and darkness.

While getting my vitals checked, I said to the ER nurse “I am done with nature!” and she responds “Oh, no, it’s the best thing for you. I’ve had chiggers and all kinds of things. Just get back out there.”

And I probably will, but not until next year. Over the years, I’ve camped on and off. I get pumped up to go native, head out into the wild, something happens, and I retreat to four-star hotels. In 1993, I camped in the Adirondacks and had no problems, so perhaps my false sense of security began then. Mike loves to tell the story of how in May 1999, we went camping in Orick, California. We had invested in all this REI equipment. We were living in Seattle and trying to embrace Pacific Northwest crunchy ways. All of our colleagues camped. Co-workers’ kids were little Lewises and Clarks. People hiked Mount Rainier the way I ran out for groceries. Everyone seemed to have fantastic outdoor survival skills except us. So we went super-rustic and pitched a tent along the California coast, not too far from brown bear territory.

Sand blew into our eyes and noses and I ended up locking myself in Mike’s 1987 Dodge Aries reading The New Yorker magazine while he tried to keep the mood alive by fussing with a cold dinner over a weak campfire. I hated every moment of that weekend. We drove back to Seattle, and that Monday, I sold our brand new REI tent to a co-worker.

Fast forward to October 2002. We’re camping on the opposite side of the United States now, in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The leaves have turned and the colors are truly spectacular. I figured a fall camping trip would mean no summer storms or summer bugs. However, since I had sold our tent, we borrowed from a friend a giant tent that slept eight. It’s too spacious and we froze. As I shivered during the night, I saw a silhouette of two deer on the tent wall. They appeared at ease, nibbling grass. Those are the moments that make camping worth it. I dozed off. A few hours later the sun rose. We packed up and thawed out at a Friendly’s restaurant.

Fast forward to July 2003 and we’re camping at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, another beach camping experience. Wild ponies roam there. And so do hordes of mosquitoes. Our tent blew down during a thunderstorm and we were eaten alive. Mosquitoes kamikazed into my coffee cup. We drove back to Washington, D.C. the following morning and shopped for calamine lotion.

After this past weekend of hauling and boiling water, of wondering what was lurking out in the forest (only to learn it was in my yurt bed waiting to bite me) I empathized with our ancestors’ struggles. Running water, electricity, Lysol wipes and quick access to antibiotics have made us (or me) soft. We still don’t own a tent. I’m not ready. I’m only on day two of cephalexin and am looking forward to next week when I can return to being probiotic instead of antibiotic. I don’t want to hike wearing biohazard suits, but I’m paranoid enough that I might. The outdoors brings out conflicted feelings for me when I write. I love it and hate it the way I love and hate New York City. Travel writing is often broken down into writing about destinations (this beach is so beautiful!), process (are airport full-body scanners safe?), or service (this hotel is rife with bed bugs!). Travel writing can lack nuance. Ma Nature makes travel writing more challenging. Outdoor destinations are beautiful and sometimes dangerous. The process of hiking, hauling, being prepared for beasties big and small isn’t easy, and is really only for the physically fit. And the service? There isn’t any. There’s no camping concierge to answer questions. At most, you might find a wooly, weird guy who can tell you if the bear tracks are fresh, somewhat recent, or nothing to worry about. Or the only service possible is a faint signal on your smartphone, if you’re lucky. I love the Adirondacks and the Great Outdoors, despite its beasties, which lurk everywhere in this world. But I need a reprieve, so while in California these next two weeks, you’ll find me indoors or at very manicured, pesticide-treated places. And that’s ok, too.

Lentil Soup and a Hike

Last week, newspapers reported that the National Park Service wasn’t doing away with summer staples such as hot dogs and ice cream, but was adding healthier options, such as lentil soup and fish tacos, apparently because Americans love having multiple choices to satisfy their individuality. The news sounded doused with corn syrup and wrapped in bacon, as if Americans wouldn’t visit their national treasures without a carrot, um, hot dog, dangling at the end of a walking stick.

This news comes after I ate a disgusting falafel sandwich a week ago at a state park. As someone who tries to eat healthy and avoid gluten and red meat, this was my only option on the menu that wasn’t fried or soaked in mayonnaise or grease. The American diet sucks, and as much as I try to pack our own food for road trips and airport delays, I still get stuck having to order what’s around. I wanted to feel relieved by NPS’s news, that it was a small, hesitant step in the right direction, but it reminded me of my former employer’s smoking policy; there was a big announcement that the organization had gone tobacco-free, yet plenty of employees continued to smoke on benches branded with no-smoking signs, often right in front of the executive offices. It really wasn’t a smoking ban. It was an announcement about a smoking ban that would never be enforced. What’s the point of a smoking ban that’s not enforced? What’s the point of offering lentil soup if you can get a pink sludge dog?

Maybe I need to not be so pessimistic, but I’ve been writing about health for 15 years, and during that time, America’s waistline got bigger. A third of us are clinically obese. There are fat kids huffing and puffing down the street holding 32-ounce sodas. In 1980, seven percent of kids ages six to 11 were fat; by 2010 that number had jumped to 18 percent. You don’t need the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tell you that; just walk into any grocery store.

NPS serves more than 23 million people each year from its 250 food and beverage facilities located in 75 parks. That’s a lot of ice cream to scoop and pink sludge to grill. I’m encouraged that many of the parks will begin offering vegetarian options, but it doesn’t look like the hot dogs and junk will get phased out. I’m not anti-ice cream (but I am anti-pink sludge; we don’t eat red meat at home). However, travel is an opportunity to educate, and food is a big part of any travel experience. Our national parks educate tourists both from within the US and from abroad about the diverse North American landscape; we could send a similar message about food. What we serve makes an impression. Handing a foreign tourist a 16-ounce gulp because that’s the smallest beverage size available makes an impression.

I’m reading Michael Lanza’s “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.” The book is an interesting personal odyssey mixed with sobering facts about climate change and how the warming world is eroding our national parks. At the same time, a corrosive American diet is reducing the gains we’ve made in life expectancy. My daughter’s generation may not enjoy a longer lifespan due to the burden of obesity. Being fat is a serious public health problem. It’s not about not looking good or squeezing into a bathing suit. Obesity is about taxing your body’s biological and cellular processes to the maximum. Obesity is about hauling around what you don’t need. Obesity contributes to excessive healthcare costs.

I applaud NPS’s efforts, but wish the park service would adopt a more leadership role in this issue since enjoying the outdoors is linked with physical fitness. NPS can distinguish itself more from what’s being served at the typical American mall. NPS could stand to represent what’s worth preserving in America: the health of our land as well as ourselves.

More Thoughts on Camping

Memorial Day weekend approaches, which for some strange reason signals the beginning of the barbecue season, the pool season, and the pitch-a-tent-outdoors season. When we lived in Seattle, people went camping the way I run to the grocery store for milk. You packed up your gear, drove in some direction and within less than an hour you were pitching a tent in God’s country and telling stories by a campfire. That’s harder to do here in metropolitan New York City, and even once you drive two hours in any direction from the Big Apple, you’ve barely reached the border between retail-centric suburbia and dying mom-and-pop shop smalltown.

We’ve always liked to mix it up, from five-star amenities (which we did in Quito and Quebec) to sleeping on the earth. Before my suburban mom life in metro New York City, I camped in several national and state parks. My national park list is not as impressive as I’d like it to be, but it will grow, and so far includes repeat stays at: Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland where wild horses strut across the sand past RVs; Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, where I saw this very haunting and lovely shadow of a deer nibbling grass near our tent; and Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, where I went whale watching and ate blueberry pie.

Just the words “national park” imply something sacred and shielded from the rest of the world. The parks are as unique as faces and have their own distinct rhythms and stories to tell. Assateague is a real treat if you time it right; June is a gorgeous time of year in the salt marshes with hot sunny days and clear, chilly, though comfortable evenings (if you’re dressed warm enough and have thermal sleeping bags–it does get brisk by the ocean). However, July is a completely different story at Assateague; it’s humidity at its worse, and when we visited, we battled thunderstorms and mosquitoes. The bugs were so bad that even when I stood by the campfire to eat breakfast thinking the smoke would deter them, the mosquitoes would kamikaze into my orange juice or coffee. Despite that negative experience, I did not sell our gear when we got home (you’ll see why that’s significant in a moment). Other national parks on my list include Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon, but I only visited there, and did not get a chance to camp. Later this summer, we’ll visit Redwood National and State Park in California. I have yet to visit our first national park Yellowstone, which predates the creation of the National Park Service by more than 40 years.

My most memorable camping experience occurred in Orick, California, where we camped on the beach and feared the state icon–the brown bear–sniffing out our S’mores and mauling us to death. Aside from the bears, the weather was a bit rough. We tried to cook pasta and enjoy it with red wine, but it was so cold and windy on the beach that our food chilled the second it was removed from the campfire and our tent was blown down repeatedly. Sand constantly blew into my eyes, nose and mouth. After a few hours of this, I was hoping a giant bear would find us just so we could have an excuse to leave. I got so fed up with the whole trip that I sat in Mike’s 1987 Dodge Aries reading the The New Yorker while Mike being Mike tried to salvage the weekend. Once we were back home in Seattle, I immediately sold all our camping equipment to a colleague. A few years later, missing the land and wanting to sleep under the stars again, we went back out and bought new gear.

Families frequently use camping and escapes to Mother Nature as a way to switch off and reconnect. You don’t need to wait for summer vacation to do unplug. Last weekend, I went to our local nature center and sat listening to the birds while my iphone sat idly by. I felt like I was listening to the soundtrack at the spa. Just a few minutes of tuning into the breezes and the birds and not compulsively checking email was fantastic! My daughter seems to be a budding conservationist and she’s at a great age to learn more about our national parks and transition from occasional participant, which is what I am, to active advocate.

That said, if we want to continue to have quiet green spaces to enjoy, we need to protect them. Modern development, political interests and greed constantly encroach on the borders of lands sworn to public protection. Visit the National Parks Conservation Association website and there’s a laundry list of rules looking to be made unofficial by our officials, with everything from allowing the hunting of wolves to the building of coal plants. If you care about sharing national parks with future generations, I hope you will support the National Park Foundation’s efforts to salvage what’s left. In some ways, I suppose we’re lucky to have what we have. It can feel wonderous and depressing to imagine what the United States looked like before Interstate 90 connected the East Coast to the West Coast, when Lewis and Clark had to find their way through thickets of lush forest and national parks weren’t “national parks” but simply land that stretched on to the heavens.