Hiking in the rain

A sound investment

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

Unfortunately, I'm a slow lesson learner. For example, how many times have I sat inside looking out at the rain and thinking, "It's too wet to go for a hike!"

The other day, hopefully proving I can still learn, I looked out the window at the rain ... and went hiking anyway. Since this was a pretty quick decision, I didn't call anyone to join me. Anyway, they probably would have looked out the window also and said, "No thanks. It's raining too hard."

I drove to north Douglas and a favorite semi-trail that provides a nice two-hour loop through the woods and along the shoreline. The rough route requires climbing over, and under, fallen trees, balancing on logs across a creek, busting through thigh-high blueberry bushes, avoiding the devil's club at the same level, dancing along a few sloping moss ledges 30 feet above the beach, avoiding roots, and so on.

Because of the uncertain footing, when I do this hike my eyes usually are focused on the bare ground just ahead rather than on the beautiful forest all around.

On this most recent hike, perhaps because of the wet conditions, I went slower than usual and had plenty of time to take in the sights. The great forest gleamed green. The flat light filtering through the canopy made the wet vegetation shine, as if a fresh coat of shellac had just been painted on each leaf.

I stopped to absorb and enjoy the brightness. Perhaps it was that extra time I took to look that made me also start to listen. Perhaps it was walking into a clearing just as a shower let loose big raindrops. They slammed onto broad skunk cabbage leaves sounding like hundreds of tiny stones falling on little drums.

Regardless of the cause, the effect was that once I opened my ears, I entered a wonderfully rich new world. Although I'd walked this ground many times, I'd never once listened to it.

It felt like I'd stumbled into an audio version of Alice's wonderland. Like the emotion of a glorious first date. Like a child's excitement opening birthday presents. Like walking into a familiar room and for the first time noticing the beautiful art on the walls. Like enjoying a sunset, and then realizing a beautiful symphony also was playing in the background.

With little effort, as I started paying attention, my listening skills improved dramatically. Soon I could differentiate between, and enjoy, the nuances. The broad skunk cabbage leaves produced a bass' deep thud. The water falling on devil's club leaves was higher pitched. More subtle was the soft, harp-like sounds from rain hitting tiny blueberry leaves.

Eventually, I came to a cliff above the shoreline, and even on a calm day the subtle symphony of forest sounds were overpowered by a single, repetitive slap of small waves breaking on the rocky beach. When I left the beach I was pleased to return to the more complicated forest notes.

Like a forever expanding universe, the more I listened the more I heard. When hit by raindrops, my parka hood produced loud pings because the noise was so close to my ears. The nylon of my parka and pants brushing against branches was a longer silky sound.

My boots made sucking slushes when I slogged through muddy sinkholes. Sharp intrusive snaps, like cymbals, erupted when a small branch cracked beneath my feet.

As I continued to listen, I detected more subtle sounds. Such as the deeper humph when my heel dug into moss and mud while going down a slope and the softer slither while going up a little rise on the ball of my foot.

A single helicopter flying overhead sounded louder and more shrill than normal. I think that was because my noise sensitivity selector was turned up high. I felt the same surprise at the volume from the sharp call of an unseen raven and from the unexpected splash of still-spawning salmon in the small creek.

While walking next to that creek, I saw large splatters from big drops hitting the water. I'd have noticed them on any hike, but on this one I also listened to the sound. I did the same with my own breath and with my canvas pack as it brushed against brush.

I returned from this wet hike pleased that I had gone, despite the rain. I now had good reinforcement to learn my lesson and not stay inside just because of bad weather outside. This rainy day hike had turned into a sound investment.

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