OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

A Journey Towards Home, By Gabrielle Haber

Barely 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already climbing, steeply moving up the switchbacks towards a ridgeline we couldn’t see, moving away from the crowded lakeside campsites, climbing farther into the wilderness. We hoisted our heavy packs over downed logs, the trail on either side of them matted with trampled fir branches.

At 4600 feet we stopped to catch our breaths and turned to look behind us. Upslope, the morning sun streamed through the Pacific silver firs, and ahead of us the sunlight caught the white undersides of fir needles, turning them bluish-silver, almost spruce-like. We breathed in the fir air and continued upwards.

The experience of backpacking is achingly visceral and meditatively zen-like at the same time. Your legs and hips adjust to the rhythm of the hike, settle in to the weight of your pack. Your bare skin quickly takes on layers of trail dust, smudges of tree resin from climbing over logs. Your monkey mind quiets down and focuses on the immediate--how many miles to go, how far over this ridge, what’s around that bend.

But for me, at its core backpacking is about building an intimate relationship with the natural world. A backpacking trip is a romance writ small. I want to travel straight through the flash-bang period of fresh love and walk all the way into the comfortable closeness of someone I’ve taken the time to get to know.

And, believe it or not, that’s why I joined the OSU Oregon Master Naturalist program. Delving deep into Oregon’s ecology is like spending the time to talk with your loved one’s closest friends and family--finding out what they like, hearing old stories, seeing their baby photos. You still need to put in the work, but the stories give you a way in.

At the start of this trip, the trailhead sat across from a marshy wetland that seemed incongruous in the hot sun and elevation. We were headed to a series of lake basins without a topographic map, blissfully uncertain of the terrain ahead. The trail began in subalpine scrub on an exposed slope facing due east. Only a couple hundred feet in, a pine tree reached out to brush the side of the trail. I plucked a bundle--five needles. A long slender cone lay on the slope below. Western white pine.

Scanning the slope above us, I already knew what I was likely to see--and found it. Mountain hemlock, their cones like grown-up versions of their lower-elevation cousins. Farther up, the blue-tinted needles of an Engelmann spruce. I didn’t need to look at a map to know we were above 4000 feet.

We dropped down to the first lake basin, and before I noticed it my friend pointed to a large tree by the lake with stringy, gray bark. I could ID it from a distance, but we got up close and I flipped the scaly leaves over to show her the distinct pattern of the white bloom underneath--Alaska yellow cedar.

We were only a mile into our 2-day, 14-mile trek, but already I felt that kinship, that glow of familiarity. I knew this forest intimately, though I’d never been there. Like any good relationship, it still knew how to surprise me--with a beargrass bloom perfectly centered in a shaft of sunlight, an owl silently swooping away from the trail at our approach, or a sudden view of the Cascade peaks from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Hood.

I’ve come to believe that I’ll never be an Oregon Master Naturalist; but rather, I’ll always be on the path to becoming one. It’s a journey that began with an online course and continues with every experience outdoors, whether taking a conifer ID class at Hoyt Arboretum or traveling on my own deep in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Becoming an Oregon Master Naturalist is about getting intimate with Oregon’s ecology, and for me it’s meant falling in love with every aspect of this land. Fittingly, the word “ecology” comes from a Greek root: oikos, meaning house. Getting to know this place, developing a relationship with it--learning how to be in relation to it--is a journey towards home.