Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 8.19.10

Depending & Defending
Three generations go backpacking
by Mary O’Brien

We seven adults were looking at the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, wondering whether any kayak could make one particular waterfall drop, not because of the height of the waterfall or power of the river, but because a huge, jagged boulder at the base appeared to leave no room for maneuvering on either side.

Four-year-old grandson Linus thought it no problem, however.  “Actually,” he said, and I quote him exactly, “in the 1960s some Netherlands Army people came down this river in kayaks, and they made it down this waterfall.”

How had seven adults missed that piece of history?

What we did know was that backpacking five days and 29 miles with Linus and his long-time best friend, 5-year-old Abby, was just about the best thing we could imagine doing.  The day before we had passed by a meadow stuffed with tall wildflowers. 

“That’s a classic Sierra meadow,” I had remarked to my son Josh, Linus’ dad.  

As we scanned the meadow for deep orange leopard lilies, I saw two brown ears and the top of a brown head about flower height. A yearling bear was foraging for roots 40 feet from us. It was the first time Abby had seen a bear, and the first time Linus had seen one since he was 2. We watched for a long time.

What else, that week?  Listening to rain and thunder inside our tents.  Throwing at least a thousand rocks: down glacier-polished granite domes, toward a stump upended in a stream, over cliffs, into ponds. Launching pine-needle “lightning strikes.”  Abby trying to catch a garter snake swimming by her legs. Linus learning the word  “bushwhacking” and its meaning as we clambered through manzanita and oak after I predictably got us both off trail on a return from sitting on a perch high above a river. Building sand dams and miniature houses. Making drumsticks of pitch on sticks. Watching ants tend aphids on a “mule’s ear” sunflower and a dragonfly go after the mosquitos.

On April 16 this year, President Obama signed a memorandum for an America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, engaging the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Council on Environmental Quality. The intent is to reconnect Americans, especially children to the outdoors; promote community-based recreation and conservation; advance job and volunteer opportunities related to conservation and outdoor recreation; create corridors and connectivity across outdoor spaces; enhance neighborhood parks; engage the federal government in partnerships for conservation; and use science-based management practices to restore and protect our lands and waters. The agencies are organizing “listening sessions” around the country and are to prepare a report by Nov. 15 reviewing what works and proposing strategies and an action plan to meet the Initiative’s goals.

As I ponder the initiative and the two families of that Sierra trip, I am struck by how deeply we believe in the initiative’s goals. Abby’s father is the staff person for one of Oregon’s watershed councils. Linus’ father had just completed a contract to model the distance native bighorn sheep need to be from domestic sheep to avoid die-offs as a result of contracting pneumonia from domestic sheep grazing on the Idaho side of the Hells Canyon region, in Payette National Forest. He once spent five and a half months walking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail with two friends. They walked the length of the Sierra Nevadas in that year’s historic snow, never seeing another person. Linus’ mother teaches high school science in Lebanon, Ore.  I work on conservation and restoration of wildlife and native plants on the national forests of southern and central Utah.  

I hope the listening sessions of the Obama Administration reveal how deeply the volunteer and conservation ethic of Americans runs — in watershed councils; volunteer “Friends of …” thousands of local places; natural resources committees; conservation organizations; city, county, and state governments.  And how many millions of Americans depend on and defend neighborhood, county, state, and national parks; seashores, mountains, lakes, streams, birds, flowers, beavers, wolves, elk, butterflies, and simply open landscapes for feeling whole in the universe.  

Abby and Linus had no trouble connecting to America’s Great Outdoors.  It just takes five days, a 29-mile walk, and a lot of Americans conserving great outdoors places. 

Mary O’Brien, Ph.D. has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.