Backpacking in the middle of winter requires some extra consideration, especially in the Pacific Northwest. The days are short, the mountains are locked in snow, and the low elevations are swamped with rain almost daily. With some preparation, however, it can be a rewarding and unique experience. A mid-January trip along the Oregon Coast gave two friends and myself rain, mud, wonderful ocean scenery, and a greatly appreciated campfire. We walked from Manzanita to Seaside along the Oregon Coast Trail. We passed over beautiful bluffs covered in windswept trees and crossed long stretches of lovely, wide beaches. This could not properly be called a wilderness trip, as towns and roads were never far away, however the scenery was striking and the trails largely empty. Just after Manzanita, we crossed Oswald West State Park, with views towards the foreboding Tillamook Head Lighthouse, understandably known as Terrible Tilly, isolated on a rock 1.2 miles off the shore. The lighthouse was operated from 1881 to 1957 by four keepers at a time who often spent months straight on this small rock in the violent Pacific Ocean.

Terrible Tilly on Oregon coast

Terrible Tilly

The coast of Cascadia is typically less populated than coastlines elsewhere in the lower-48 states. A major factor has got to be the weather—there’s about a week of nonconsecutive days suitable for sunbathing every year. Additionally, the Oregon Beach Bill, passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Tom McCall in 1967 after a grand showing of public support, guaranteed public ownership of Oregon’s beaches. It was the first of its kind in the nation and let the beaches stay in public hands instead of opening them up to developers, allowing them to remain in a relatively natural state. Today, wild coastlines are quite rare. The prospects for development are often too alluring to be ignored. One exception is the stretch of wild coast on the Olympic Peninsula, now protected by Olympic National Park; an incredibly important piece of this region’s wild heritage that remains on my hiking to-do-list. The scenery on that stretch of Oregon coast between Manzanita and Seaside, however, was quite beautiful as well, even if homes and towns occasionally dotted the lands above the sand. The offshore rocks functioning as seabird colonies, including iconic Haystack Rock, seemed to appear randomly, demonstrating the power of the ocean to erode. Then there was the rhythmic crashing of ocean waves with their meditative quality. Like watching the flickering of a campfire or the cascades of a waterfall, they are mesmerizing and seem to lead people to internal places. There is deep mystery out there—a vast and largely unexplored expansive of our planet lies just beyond those waves, just below the ocean’s desert-like surface. Perhaps, then, watching ocean waves is closer to the feeling of gazing up at the stars on a clear, moonless night, away from the city lights, when the Milky Way itself can be seen as a dense swath across the sky. Its vastness and mystery and the unanswerable questions it raises lends to the meditative feeling. The grandness of nature, as it so often does, turns us inside ourselves.

Oregon coast fog

As the fog rolls in at Oswold West.

As we enter the forest, salal, Gaultheria shallon, provides much of the ground cover, with huckleberry bushes dotting the forest floor. It is too early for flowers and the maples and other deciduous trees have not yet leafed out, but the forest is a vibrant green. This is largely due to three conifers which dominate the forests that hang above the beaches here in the Northwest. The first, Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis, is found close to the Pacific Ocean from Southwestern Alaska to Northern California. It typically does not reach over the Coast Range. It can grow to be quite large, and the largest, by volume, is purported to exist in Washington, near Lake Quinault, reaching over 190 ft tall and almost 55.5 ft in circumference, though other skinnier specimens can be much taller. It has sharp needles, painful to the touch, which differentiates it from other local conifers. Those needles lie on top of distinct woody pegs protruding from its branches and twigs. Its cones are a couple inches long and papery in texture.

Growing near these spruce trees is Pinus contorta, known here as shore pine. These pines, with needles in bunches of two, often grow in wind-twisted and stunted forms—hence the specific epithet contorta. This species can also be found far to the east, on the dry side of the Cascades and out to the Rocky Mountains, though in a very different form. Pinus contorta is the tree that dominates Yellowstone National Park, though there and in central Oregon it is known as lodgepole pine. It grows straight and tall, often occurring in monocultures that look very different from the stunted and contorted pines growing in those mixed coastal forests. In the east it is referred to as the subspecies P. contorta latifolia, while the coastal variety is P. contorta contorta. This fascinating tree leads to an interesting question on what constitutes a species: why do lodgepole and shore pine share the latin name Pinus contorta? One way to frame this question is to look at how genetics and environment plays into the growth form of these trees, effectively nature vs. nurture. If the two growth habits are due mostly to the environment, then the genetic differences between the two trees must be minimal, lending credence to the argument these are actually the same species. This can be done with a simple experiment known as reciprocal transplant. Seeds from the east are planted on the coast, and seeds from the coast are planted in the east. If the trees match their neighbors, that strongly suggests that the differences are created by the environment while if they retain the characteristics of their origin, then genetics must be responsible for the differences. These experiments, as far as I can tell, often end up somewhere in the middle. Unsurprisingly, nature and nurture play important roles.

While in this case the consensus is that the physical and genetic differences between these two populations are great enough to be considered subspecies but not enough to be separate species, this leads to a larger debate in the world of systematics. That is, should our phylogenies, evolutionary histories and relationships of groups of organisms, include more or less species? Should similar taxa, such as species or genera, be lumped together or split apart? This debate between lumpers and splitters is ongoing. The definition of species most used today is the biological species concept. Not surprisingly, it relies heavily on the foundation of modern biology—evolution. If two populations can freely and successfully interbreed, then when those two populations meet the differences between them will fade. Their distinctiveness will eventually be leveled and the two groups will consist of one species. If, however, these two populations cannot successfully interbreed, either because no offspring is formed or the offspring cannot reproduce or survive, then they will remain distinct groups and are likely to continue to evolve apart. Therefore, the inability of two populations to create viable offspring is what defines a species. As evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr framed it: “species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other groups.” In the case of these two subspecies of pine, for example, they could potentially produce viable offspring, yet they will not interbreed as their populations are divided by hundreds of miles and at least one mountain range. They are reproductively isolated geographically, and not interbreeding. A dedicated splitter, therefore, could argue that these are separate species due to their isolation. However, the two populations’ ability to form viable hybrids if the geographic barrier were to vanish lends credibility to the notion that they are both still P. contorta.

Oregon coast haystack rock

Haystack Rock

One thing that is certain, however, is that the longer these populations remain reproductively isolated, the more likely they are to evolve into distinct species, unable to interbreed at all. The two environments they live in are very different. The coast has mild weather, more than sufficient rain, and salty air. The interior is much drier, and must deal with very cold winters and frequent wildfires in the summer. This means the selective pressures on each group are vastly different and as they continue to evolve to better exploit these environments, they will continue to move apart. Additionally, genetic drift, the random change in allele frequency occurring only by chance, dictates that they will differentiate themselves regardless of selection, simply by being isolated. For example, one form of a gene, let’s call it allele A, in the coast population might become ubiquitous not because it is important for survival, but simply because of chance. Likewise, the B allele form of the same gene might become ubiquitous in the inland population also because of random chance. In this way isolated populations will diverge genetically simple because they are isolated. Both of these factors are very important in the process of speciation.

The third conifer is Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. Doug-fir dominates the skies of the Northwest. It is pervasive in most of our forests and to many has become the symbol of Cascadia. In its common name is a bit of a misnomer as it is actually not a true fir, the genus Abies, but instead it is in its own genus Pseudotsuga. Additionally, the latin name honors the Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies who first described the tree in 1790, while the common name honors his fellow Scottish botanist David Douglas who was the first Westerner to recognize its importance as a timber commodity and to send seeds back to be grown in Europe. Both of these Scots must have been amazed by the sheer size this tree reaches. It is the second tallest tree on earth, only surpassed by the coast redwood of Northern California. The tallest known surviving specimen is in Coos County, Oregon and is 327 ft tall! Reports of past giants reach well over 400 ft tall, rivaling and possibly even equaling the redwood. These reports are very likely true, though unconfirmed, as most of the largest trees were felled by loggers in the early 20th century.

Oregon coast

Giant Douglas-fir logged in B.C. 1895 Source

There is a limit to the height of these trees, however, determined by the fascinating process used to bring water from deep within the earth up to 400 or more feet in the air. This process, used by all vascular plants, is known as the cohesion-adhesion or cohesion-tension theory and it allows these giant trees to transport water up to their highest leaves without needing to expend any energy. It is a passive process relying only on the chemical properties of water. In vascular plants, the conductive tissue known as xylem, what we call wood in trees, functions basically as a giant straw, or a bundle of many small straws, made of cells called tracheids; elongated, dead cells into which water enters from the roots and is pulled all the way to the highest leaves. This pulling force is created in the leaves, where small holes on the leaf surface called stomata are opened to allow for gas exchange. This allows in CO2 which is needed for photosynthesis. Inevitable, some water is also lost in this process due to evaporation. Because water is a polar molecule it can readily form hydrogen bonds. These bonds allow water to stick together, as in a drop of water on a table. Because of this stickiness, as water evaporates through the leaf it also pulls on its closest molecular neighbor, and so on down the column of straws. This chain of water molecules reaches all the way down to the soil. At a certain point though, the pressure becomes strong enough to break these bonds. This is likely what determines the height limits of trees which seems to be around 450 feet for Douglas-fir. I love this process, the idea of these trees exploiting the molecular qualities of water to achieve their aim, beautifully illustrates how evolution can create solutions to truly difficult problems.

To look up at an ancient and massive Doug-fir in a moment of quiet and reflection is to grasp an idea of the age of these ecosystems. This tree was born centuries before me and will endure for centuries after my death. It lets one feel small in the grandest sense of the word. Like looking up at a sky full of stars or the vast expanse of the ocean, it is hard to feel self-important or entitled when surrounded by old-growth Douglas-firs. One cannot help but feel humbled. There are people who find this upsetting or even frightening, yet most lovers of nature find a comfort in it. It illustrates so clearly how foolish our perceived dominance over nature truly is. There is no better way to feel like a part of nature than to look up as it reaches, its greatest heights. The illusion society creates that we are in fact distinct from nature, that ecosystems happen out there, away from our civilization, vanishes in these moments and thus a strange paradox emerges: in being humbled by nature we can realize our own strength to defend it. As John Muir said of nature, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” He found himself deeply moved by the interconnectedness of nature, saw clearly our part in it, and dedicated his life to protecting wild places. He brought people, most famously Teddy Roosevelt, into the Yosemite Valley and Sierra forests in the hope of sparking this feeling in others. Many have found this same drive in ancient forests. Losing the notion of human dominance over and separation from the wild things on our planet is an opportunity to embrace a much more rewarding, not to mention accurate, view of humanity as a part of the cycles and the interconnected webs that make life on Earth so diverse and complicated and endlessly fascinating. So take the time to visit an old-growth forest. Bring a friend. Look up and consider the time and resources it took to create this wonderful organism—the carbon fixed from the air, the water taken from the ground, the nitrogen released by bacteria constantly decomposing the organic material falling to the forest floor. Let yourself feel humbled. It is in this feeling that so many conservationists are born; and we will need conservationists to ensure these rare forests remain and new ones continue to grow and inspire generations to come.

Oregon coast hug point

Sunset near Hug Point

Down from the forests, and after a night at beautiful Hug Point State Park, where we enjoyed a campfire more than any summer backpacker ever could, we continued hiking a long stretch of wide beaches on our way to Seaside. We were lucky enough to find dry patches in the day when we could take off our ponchos and jackets. This was a luxury not afforded to the first European-Americans to spend the winter camping on this coast: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. At Fort Clatsop, just up the beach near present-day Astoria, the group found themselves thoroughly depressed by over three months of near-constant rain. After navigating the rapids of the untamed and wild Columbia River (what I wouldn’t give to see that river!) and spotting the Pacific Ocean in early November 1805, two and a half years after they began their journey, the Corps decided to make camp up the modern Lewis and Clark River from Astoria. Using grand fir, Abies grandis, another local conifer, they built a simple fort and settled in until spring when the Bitterroot Mountains could again be crossed. The Fort consisted of two building with seven rooms, three for enlisted men’s quarters, one for the two captains, one for Sacagawea and her family, one as an orderly room, and a smokehouse. A replica of the Fort is maintained by the National Park Service. They built their temporary home in weather described by Clark with his typically colorful drama and creative spellings: “The winds violent. Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day. Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!” (Lewis and Clark sources: The Lewis and Clark Journals edited by Gary E. Moulton and Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.)

After the Fort was completed on December 30th, a team made their way to a site just south of modern Seaside, OR to start boiling ocean water to create salt. We passed this site near the end of our trip. In addition to salt, the Corps also took elk and deer—a lot of elk and deer. In over three months they killed 131 elk and 20 deer, effectively all the animals in the surrounding area, and so they had to continue to expand their hunts farther and farther from the Fort (Ambrose, 329). Of course they were not alone, American Indians lived here in relatively high numbers, even though smallpox epidemics from earlier European ships stopping at the mouth of the Columbia had been tragically devastating. Throughout their journey, the Lewis and Clark expedition relied on the kindness of the native peoples for their survival. They surely would have starved on multiple occasions without this help. At Fort Clatsop they traded for roots and fish to supplement their diet and break the monotony of elk. The fish consisted of smoked or dried salmon and the Pacific eulachon which began running at the end of February. The eulachon, or candlefish, which Lewis proclaimed to be “superior to any fish I ever tasted,” is a species of smelt which lives, like salmon, in the ocean for several years before returning to its natal stream to spawn and die. It ranges from Northern California to Alaska. While once an important supplement to the diets of the tribes along the Pacific coast, it has declined greatly in recent years and was recently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Though larger runs do still sporadically occur, such as several in 2013, the fish is undoubtedly in danger.

Oregon coast camp

Our camp near Hug Point State Park.

During the rainy winter, the captains also traded for cedar bark rain hats. Designed to shed rain they were conic in shape and even had chinstraps. The captains bought hats for themselves and every member of the Corps to help them through. Additionally, Lewis was very impressed by the canoes the locals made, “I have seen the natives near the coast riding waves in these canoes with safety and apparently without concern where I should have thought it impossible for any vessel of the same size to live a minute.” The technologies and knowledge these locals had allowed them to thrive in this environment. As Stephen E. Ambrose puts it, “They had mastered the environment far better than the men of the expedition managed to do. The resources they drew on were renewable, whereas the Americans had shot out all the elk in the vicinity in just three months. With the coming of the spring, the Corps of Discovery had no choice but to move on. The natives stayed, living prosperous lives on the riches of the Pacific northwest, until the white man’s diseases got them.” (Ambrose 341). Twenty years after Lewis and Clark left, an outbreak of malaria did indeed get them, decimating their already depleted populations. By the time white settlers showed up decades later, much of this amazing culture had already been lost, making the detailed observations and ethnographic studies of these people conducted by Meriwether Lewis even more valuable. When not conducting interviews with and observing the native peoples, Lewis spent much of his time at the Fort pursuing his work as a naturalist. Before he left, Thomas Jefferson made sure Lewis spent time with leading zoologists and botanists, so that he could properly record what he found on his journey. During this winter, he discovered and described ten new plant species including the Sitka spruce, which he said, “grows to immense size; very commonly 27 feet in girth six feet above the surface of the earth, and in several instances we have found them as much as 36 feet in the girth or 12 feet diameter perfectly solid and entire. they frequently rise to the height of 230 feet, and one hundred and twenty or 30 of that height without a limb” (February 4, 1806). He also described eleven bird, eleven mammal, and two fish species new to science.

I cannot help but feel a little melancholy reading the journals of Lewis and Clark. They describe a wonderful lost world where salmon ran thick across the free-flowing Columbia, where bison herds of tens of thousands were pursued across the plains by huge packs of wolves. This wild land, untouched by European-American “progress,” is gone forever. Still, we can push to keep what remains, and maybe even to bring some of it back. This does happen—wolves have returned to parts of the west, we do protect some wild places—but we can always do more. By finding pieces of wilderness, like the old-growth forests that still stand tall, we can get a taste for the splendor and vastness of this continent as Lewis and Clark experienced it. Reading about the expedition, makes me long for their world while simultaneously inspiring me to rescue and reconstruct what we can. We’ve lost much since the winter of 1805-6. We cannot afford to lose any more. As the Corps of Discovery left the Pacific coast in late March, Lewis wrote, “the leafing out of the huckleberry reminds us of spring.” On our hike, I knew that in only a couple months, those huckleberries would leaf out again, just as they had each spring for the 209 years since Lewis and Clark left. We must ensure that every future spring is marked by the leafing of huckleberry. And hopefully we are approaching another spring, an awakening when society will realize its deep and inescapable connection to the natural world and when protecting wild places will become a cause we can fight for side by side.

Oregon coast

Approaching Seaside.