9 days, 50+ miles, and the time of my life

Written by: Katie Keil

Although my summer was already comically overbooked with a month-long summer course at Friday Harbor Labs, two nine day research cruises for my thesis, and a trip back home, when Dr. Tim Billo invited me to join him in teaching a backpacking course, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. I rescheduled my flight home, and started preparations for ENVIR 495C, Landscape Changes in the Pacific Northwest – an interdisciplinary ecology and environmental philosophy course taught through the lens of a 9-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park.

Before we knew it, the weeks of trainings and preparations came to a close, and we were hiking downhill into the woods, away from all the sights, sounds, and stresses of civilization. We were tasked with hiking over 50 miles from Deer Park through Gray Wolf Pass to Dose Meadows, up to Cameron Pass and back out to Deer Park. Our first day was full of challenges, including the sole of a student’s hiking boot breaking off, but we quickly got into a routine and knocked out the miles. We crossed over log bridges, walked through expansive meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies, and climbed peaks with 360-degree views of the valley. We jumped into the freezing waters of Cedar Lake, only to have to run back over the snowy ground barefoot to rescue our camp from the encroaching deer. We traversed a snow-covered mountain pass without a trail, utilizing the ice axe training Tim and I had administered on the slopes just moments before. We navigated a mountainside at midnight by only the light from our headlamps and the stars overhead to find ice worms in a glacier. Four bear sightings, a visit from an endangered northern spotted owl, and cowboy camping under the stunningly visible Milky Way are some of the countless highlights of the trip.

Although the views were spectacular, my favorite times were the evening thought provoking, student-led discussions about our wild lands around a fire (including some ghost stories).  We explored topics of wilderness preservation, minority access to national parks, and the impacts of changing environments in the Anthropocene.

Overall, this was my favorite teaching experience to date because I was able to utilize my Leave No Trace training to instruct on proper outdoor ethics and etiquette, and my background in environmental science to teach plant and animal identification skills. Although we’ve since returned to civilization and all the grades are inputted, I still find myself reliving the trip by perusing the blog post the students created. Supporting students who had never even been camping before conquer mountain passes and successfully build a fire was a fulfilling experience that I’m certain will remain a highlight of my time here at SMEA.