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The solitude index

Posted: August 25, 2011 - 9:35pm

One of the determining factors in a wilderness designation is that there be solitude. I have known this at some level but was interested to read in the Juneau Empire on July 21 that it was being monitored on Admiralty island by SEACC and the Forest Service. I began to monitor the “solitude index” of some places in Southeast Alaska where I spent time this summer.

I began right here at home. Now I realize that Juneau is not a designated wilderness area. However, it is surrounded by miles of wilderness. And sometimes, on those rainy low level cloud days when the helicopters are unable to fly it is downright quiet. It was on one of those days that I donned rain gear and headed out on the Mendenhall river trail. At first the only sound was of the river and the rain. But as I walked into the woods I heard a deafening sound coming from just around the bend. I thought, “maybe it’s a pump in the river due to the recent flooding.” As I got closer I thought with horror, “it can’t be a leaf blower!” Sure enough, up ahead a guy wearing ear covers with a gas powered engine on his back was attempting to blow soaking wet needles off the asphalt.

I stopped in front of him. He turned off the machine and lifted up the corner of one ear cover. “Mornin.” “Hi, what are you doing?” “I’m cleaning the trail, the needles can be slippery for runners and bikers.” I was completely speechless. I walked fast to get away from the noise past the city Parks and Rec truck and past the second guy up ahead trying to clear the path from wet needles.

The only other place where I have been stunned by the futility of leaf blowers is in Hawaii. The workers show up Monday morning and blow the plumeria leaves, the hibiscus petals, the many varieties of leaves to one side of the road. The next day the wind has blown them back so it is a guaranteed job forever. Paradise is full of non-paradise elements a friend once reminded me. But here? Wet spruce needles that will mulch happily by the side of the trail?

A few weeks later, my daughter and I escaped the urban summer scene in J-town to a small alpine lake on Chichagof Island. We lay down on the gravel and listened. There was one sound. The lapping of the waves. She turned to me and whispered, “Solitude index, 10.” We all long for solitude. On a trail beside a field of fireweed along a rushing river, we should be able to find it.

• Buckley is a retired teacher, musician, writer, hiker, skier and nature lover. Oh, and tree hugger!

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