A Piece of Quiet

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Piece of Quiet—Backpacking with a leading natural sounds activist

America’s leading advocate of wilderness silence shows the way to Mt. Rainier National Park’s quietest corner. Plus: 9 more campsites with life-list listening.

by: Molly Loomis

As the Seattle skyline grows closer through the plane’s oval  window, I wonder if Gordon Hempton is listening. If he is, I’m sure he’s annoyed. Hempton, part natural sounds recording artist and part silence activist,  regards it as his personal mission to protect our parks from noise. Airplanes, like the 737 I’m on, are the biggest offenders. It’s an ironic start to my quest. For the next three days, I will join Hempton on a backpacking trip into Mt. Rainier National Park in search of quiet fewer than 200 miles away from a major city. Looking down on the expanse of concrete and asphalt stretching in every direction, I feel skeptical. But Hempton has a plan. 

He has chosen our destination of Palisades Lakes strategically. By targeting the park’s northeastern corner, the Rainier massif should block noise from Seattle and Tacoma. On a micro level, a series of small ridges running east to west should deflect sound from the nearby town of Enumclaw. Plus, Dicks Lake, where we’ll make camp, is situated in a naturally muffled cirque whose walls will further insulate us from traffic and park sounds. 

At the trailhead, as rain drizzles in air cold enough that we can see our breath, Hempton advises me to keep an open mind about what we won’t—and will—be hearing. Most hikers don’t know what kind of “music” is out there until they really start listening, he says.  

At Hempton’s request, we walk the first mile without speaking, allowing us to “shed the baggage of daily life.” I’m  bursting with questions, but I keep it zipped. It feels strangely liberating. 

Hempton has dedicated his life to recording the natural world. He sells his work to galleries, musicians, and corporate clients like Microsoft and the Smithsonian, and you can buy his clips on iTunes. He won an Emmy for a PBS documentary in which he literally chased dawn, capturing its sounds on six continents. A stickler for quality and authenticity, Hempton does not alter his recordings—if a plane buzzes by, the integrity of the audio is ruined. Over the course of the last 15 years, Hempton has found it increasingly difficult to locate places where he can record for more than a few minutes without man-made interruptions, which led to his work as an environmental activist.

On Earth Day, 2005, he launched the One Square Inch of Silence campaign. OSI is a one-inch by one-inch speck in Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest that Hempton has spent the last six years lobbying to keep devoid of unnatural sounds. If he can protect one tiny area from human noise, his theory goes, an exponentially larger area will benefit. In the case of Olympic, which Hempton calls “the listener’s Yosemite” for its diversity of sound, he estimates a 20-mile radius would be freed from human-made noise if we preserve that single square inch. 

Hempton stops at a creek just off the Palisades Lakes Trail, and explains how the highest sound frequencies are the first to fade, while the lower ones carry farther. Sure enough, the stream’s tone brightens as we approach, tinkling high sounds joining the initial baritone rumble. He points to rocks lodged in the water’s path, refers to them as notes, and explains how the stream will “tune” itself, or change pitch as rocks move. I nod, pretending to understand, but I’m lost somewhere between the real and the real esoteric. Clearly, I’m not the first to straddle this fine line. He reaches into his bag to fish out his equipment. 

“I use these microphones to demonstrate what is possible to hear,” he says. “It’s a dichotomy of the modern world. We’re biologically prepared to listen, but we’re not hearing anything meaningful because there’s so much din in our lives.” I put on the headphones, and it’s like I’m hearing the woods for the first time. The forest swells with a symphony of subtleties like the flap and buzz of birds and insects. 

My ears feel newly calibrated as we hike-listen-hike our way to Dicks Lake. We pause so often that it takes us four hours to cover the three miles to our basecamp, even though Hempton, 57, has the stamina and physique of someone half his age. He has backpacked much of his life, tackling long, challenging routes, but his discovery of sound changed all that. 

“As soon as the microphone went on, I was like a five year old, ‘Why must we go so soon? Everything is so fascinating right here,’” he says. 

After dinner beside the small tree-lined lake, I scurry to my tent, dodging raindrops. Lying in my sleeping bag, I recall one of Hempton’s favorite facts—that humans have eyelids, not ear lids. I listen intently to rain pattering on my tent fly—interrupted by Hempton’s snoring, the loudest sound he’s made all day. 

A clear morning at dawn is typically when natural sounds travel best—the air is cool and less humid, and the world hasn’t woken up yet. This is when Hempton determines whether or not a place is quiet. How does he define it? Fifteen-minute periods without any intrusions of man-made noise. In 1984, Hempton identified 21 places in Washington with consistent noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer. By 2007, just three of those places were still quiet. Today, Hempton says, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas and national parks has shriveled to less than five minutes during the daytime. 

“We should ask ourselves not how much noise we’ll tolerate in our national parks, but does that noise have to be there at all? Does somebody flying from China to Los Angeles have to fly over Olympic National Park? No, they definitely do not,” says Hempton, who has calculated a detour that he claims would add less than one minute to the flight time and one dollar to the ticket price. “If you could go to Kayak.com and see that an airline is going to help keep our parks quiet, how could you not choose that airline?” he asks, as a mid-morning drizzle adds percussion to our soundtrack. 

Hempton wakes me from an afternoon nap later that day, noting that the birds and insects have gotten louder. “I think we might have a break in the weather,” he says, smiling from under his red and white umbrella. We hike up the trail to a small creek running into Upper Palisades Lake, which Hempton noted as having remarkable tuning. 

He equips me with a set of earphones and two microphones on a portable stand, positioned to mimic the distance between my two ears. 

“Have fun,” he says. “Just experiment.” I head off to create my own sound portrait—the audio equivalent of a photo essay. 

The scrape of my raingear screams in my ears as I walk toward the small creek, and I immediately understand why Hempton—dressed in a pair of brown canvas pants, an army-green cotton vest, and cotton layers—wears all natural fibers, no matter the weather. Even his equipment bag and backpack are heavy cotton canvas. 

Carefully, I poke the microphones into crevices and hollows between mossy rocks. I am transfixed by all of the intricacies I’ve never heard. Every inch of the creek carries its own distinct sounds: whooshing, flushing, crisp rat-a-tats, hollow plunkings. I continue downhill, and the creek grows louder, losing some of its delicate finesse as the angle steepens. I stop, muddy and smiling, at the lake. As a professional mountain guide and climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, I spend more than half of my year in the backcountry. I’ve appreciated the thrumming of a sage grouse and the tinkle of aspen leaves shaken by the breeze. But this is an awakening.

“How long do you think that took?” asks Hempton. 

“Thirty minutes?” I guess. 

“More than an hour,” he says. Losing sense of time is one of the reasons Hempton always records alone, not tied to anyone else’s schedule.

“If you’ve only got two hours, forget it,” he says. “That’s like saying, ‘Honey, I’ve got two minutes, let’s make love.’”

Back at camp, over tea, we recount some of the creek sounds (and the frequent interruption of airplanes). The gurgling water and rustling wind I recorded today are obviously anything but silent. “You’re right,” Hempton says. There is no such thing as true silence. The whole world vibrates.”  

But the absence of sound isn’t really the goal. While “silence” makes a great buzzword, what Hempton really wants might best be described as sound preserves, places where you can listen to nature’s vibrations without interruption. 

“Man-made noise is an emission that’s being dumped into the most sensitive areas in the country,” he says.

For Hempton, the solution is simply a matter of getting people to tune into the wilderness and recognize that what they hear should be treated like endangered species. “Hikers know the serenity this brings better than anybody,” he says.

The sky clears on our last night, and before going to bed, Hempton predicts, “Dawn should bring a wonderful listening opportunity. It’ll be clear, and the birds will have a pent-up need to reestablish territories.” That’s a need Hempton can appreciate. 

Trip Planner

Visit Mt. Rainier’s silent side.

>> Get there From Enumclaw, take WA 40 33 miles southeast to the White River Entrance Station. Go 10.5 miles up the winding road to the parking lot for Sunrise Point. 

>> Permit Required (free for walk-ups, $20 reserved). Pick up at the White River Entrance Station or Sunrise Visitor Center. Make reservations from March 15 through September 30 (see contact). 

>> Guidebook and map Day Hiking Mount Rainier, by Dan A. Nelson and Alan L. Bauer ($17, mountaineersbooks.org); Trails Illustrated Mount Rainer National Park #217 ($12, natgeomaps.com)

>> Access On October 14, the road closes at the junction with WA 410. It typically reopens by July 1.

>> Bears Pack bear-bag gear and hang food 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the tree.

>> Contact (360) 569-6575nps.gov/mora


9 more hikes where natural sounds rule

(North Carolina)

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest

Trek into the white noise capital of the East.

If the sounds of babbling water and wind through the leaves soothe a frazzled mind, then the 13.3-mile Slickrock Trail might just be the country’s most relaxing hike. You’ll cross Slickrock Creek 12 times in the first six miles and pass three named waterfalls on your way to a breezy campsite at Naked Ground Gap, a tree-covered pass at 4,000 feet. From the Slickrock Creek trailhead at 1,060 feet, wind along the creek, heading upstream along a gentle grade. Seven miles in, listen to the crash of 30-foot Wildcat Falls and its four separate drops. At camp, perk your ears for great horned, barred, and screech owls. Hike out the way you came. 

>> Map Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Citico Creek Wilderness ($10, fs.fed.us

>> Info (828) 479-6431joycekilmerslickrock.org


Boundary Waters 

Canoe Area Wilderness  

Hike beneath airplane-free skies.

Along with the White House and Area 51, the Boundary Waters prohibits planes—even float, bush, and fire-detection flights—from flying below 4,000 feet. Result: no drone. Take the Angleworm Trail on a 14-mile short-handled lollipop loop that gradually wends 500 feet up a granite ridge, through groves of red and white pines. Angleworm, Home, and Whiskey Jack Lakes each have a symphony of loons, geese, and occasional wolves. One of our scouts even heard canis lupus devouring a kill near here. Can you handle -30°F nights? Snowshoe this route to hear whines, gurgling, and gunshot cracks as ice forms across these narrow lakes. One ranger says it sounds like whale song. Typically, this annual sonorous event occurs in December or early January. Camp on the eastern bank of Angleworm, near mile seven at a site overlooking the water.

>> Map Boundary Waters Canoe Area West ($12, natgeomaps.com) 

>> Info (218)-365-7600bwca.com


Navajo National Monument

Hike through the Southwest’s best-preserved ancestral pueblo. 

Northern Arizona’s celebrity attraction, the Grand Canyon, hogs hikers’ attention—but it is also plagued with tourist flyovers. Navajo National Monument’s 17-mile (round-trip) Keet Seel Trail is reliably empty and quiet. It’s more than two hours from Flagstaff, the nearest city larger than 10,000 people; the trailhead is literally at the end of the road (AZ 564) in Navajo Nation; and strict permitting limits access to 20 daily. From the Keet Seel trailhead, drop 1,000 feet through sandstone rubble and dunes to the canyon floor, where you’ll cross Keet Seel Creek. The only hubbub is the wind in the junipers. 

>> Map Provided at orientation 

>> Info (928) 672-2700nps.gov/nava


City of Rocks National Reserve

Camp in a Martian landscape with noise-canceling formations.  

Marooned on a high desert plain of sagebrush, just outside of Almo (population 150), City of Rocks’ granite domes and spires once served as a crucial landmark for pioneers traveling west to California. Today, the surreal surroundings are a stomping ground for rock climbers, hikers, and solitude-seekers. Spend a night in one of the City’s campsites tucked into the aspen groves, then dayhike. From Pinnacle Pass, head north cross-country, using the west side of the formation as a handrail to reach the least-visited pocket of the park. Next day, hike seven miles from Circle Creek Overlook trailhead to the Indian Grove campsite. From here, scramble 8,867-foot Graham Peak. Listen for red-tailed hawks, scurrying rabbits—and ghosts. Some hikers say they have heard train robbers hiding gold amongst the rocks. 

>> Map Sawtooth National Forest Map ($10, fs.fed.us

>> Info (208) 824-5910nps.gov/ciro 


Kings Canyon National Park 

Follow the footsteps of John Muir, one of our country’s first natural-sounds enthusiasts.

Although Muir trod through the West’s wilderness long before the era of microphones and digital recorders, his writing captures the sounds of nature in thoughtful and captivating prose. (Hempton once spent an entire summer searching out the sounds of Muir’s writing in Yosemite’s backcountry.) But instead of battling the crowds and tour buses clogging Yosemite Valley, head to Tehipite Dome, 1.7 miles inside Kings Canyon’s western boundary, which Muir argued rivaled its famous neighbor in splendor. Start at the Sierra National Forest’s Rancheria trailhead, and as you hike the 13.5 miles to its base, see if you can hear the difference between Jeffery, fox tail, and lodgepole pine. Really. Camp creekside near Deer Meadow or Crown Creek. 

>> Map Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks ($12, natgeomaps.com) 

>> Info (559) 565-3766nps.gov/seki


Death Valley National Park 

Let your ears ring in Nevada’s Funeral Mountains. 

Proof that the best things in life are never easy? Hiking into Death Valley’s Red Amphitheater area in the Funeral Range. There are no trails, it is brutally hot for much of the year, and backpackers must carry in all of their water. But the silence is absolute. Rangers say that the air can be so still that the predominate sound is your own heartbeat. Drive to the end of Hole in the Wall Road (4WD required) and hike up the obvious drainage. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure-area ripe for exploration. A ring of 7,000-foot peaks encircle the drainage. Situated in Death Valley’s eastern sector, this area escapes the bulk of the military overflights which boom through the rest of the park. However, if you’re lucky, you may hear grasshoppers, crickets, bees, or tarantula hawks flying through the air. Bigger birds include Merlin, peregrine, and prairie falcons. 

>> Map Death Valley National Park ($12, natgeomaps.com) 

>> Info (760) 786-3200nps.gov/deva


Great Sand Dunes National Park 

and Preserve Camp in the country’s biggest sandbox.  

Sand dampens sound waves—some recording studios even use it. So it’s safe to say that any peep in this 30-square-mile dune field doesn’t stand a chance. There are no trails either—hike more than 1.5 miles into it, and you can camp anywhere. Target Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at nearly 1,000 feet high, and listen as the sand vibrates beneath your boots, alternately sighing, whistling, grunting, groaning, and barking. Then head north out of the dunes to link the Sand Ramp and Sand Creek Trails. Go north up the Sand Creek drainage to alpine terrain housing the turquoise waters of Sand Creek Lakes (13 miles). Listen for the bugles of the resident elk herd. 

>> Map Sangre de Cristo Mountains ($12, natgeomaps.com) 

>> Info (719) 378-6399nps.gov/grsa


Susquehannock State Forest  

Find deep silence in the state’s largest roadless area.

North-central Pennsylvania is a world away from Pittsburgh and Philly: It’s home to the state’s largest roadless area and darkest skies. It’s perfect then, that the Susquehannock Trail System, an 85-mile loop, is right in the middle of its deepest reaches. Start from East Fork Road, near the hamlet of Cross Fork and hike five miles to The Pool, a deep 30-foot diameter pond (a local astronomy group’s favorite tent site). Camp, or continue three miles gaining 1,100 feet to a plateau covered in mountain laurel. Then drop 800 feet to the waters of Cross Forks. Keep your ears alert for the slap of beaver tails in dammed areas. Shuttle, retrace your steps, or finish the whole circuit to join the 1,000-plus strong Circuit Hiker Club. 

>> Map Guide to the Susquehannock Trail System ($8, see Info) 

>> Info (814) 435-2966stc-hike.org


Isle Royale National Park

Mingle with moose in one of the country’s quietest parks. 

This rugged island is one of our least-frequented national parks. Add to that its location 75 miles from the mainland—in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes—and it’s no wonder that this 571,790-acre park is also one of the five quietest, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Leave the chug of the ferry to access the 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the island’s craggy backbone. Spend your trail days listening to the soft rustling of white spruce, balsam fir, and, on the island’s western end, maple, aspen, and birch. Pass your evenings on the shore of small inland lakes, with water lapping around your toes. Lucky listening: The splash of a moose’s hooves as it snacks on vegetation in the shallows or as it thunders away from hungry wolves. 

>> Map Isle Royale National Park ($12, natgeomaps.com) 

>> Info (906) 482-0984nps.gov/isro