I watch the sun slip beneath the horizon in this rain hiatus. The beach below is ragged and rough, and the few walkers look back to see their footprints already beginning to be washed away in the tide. You would think it would be cold but no, these salt breezes are somewhat warm even in the dusk, even in the thick air and impending return of rain. But the jagged peninsula felt as still as it could be with such forces swirling around, coated in natural noises not found near concrete, and all I could do was try to stand still enough so as not to disturb the moment.
That was almost two years ago: my first National Park in Washington. For my first few years living up here, I had nibbled on the edge of the North Cascades National Park; skiing in the Baker-Snoqualmie backcountry wilderness and creek boating on the rivers just kissing the border of the park boundaries. But, in a surprise to myself, my first National Park in my Northwest life was not in the mountains, but rather a weekend camping along the Olympic Peninsula. And it rained. A lot.
But when the sun crept through, I was shocked to find that beaches like this (read: bluffs and boulders, the industrial-strength coastline) existed outside of the few northern California hide-aways I grew up near. That this - this - is a National Park in our own backyard.
I suppose looking west from a Chuckanut viewpoint like Oyster Dome on clear day, the Olympics rear their summit heads and remind us there is an entire mountain range between us and the ocean. That though it feels as if we could not be any more isolated than we are in this upper corner, we are literally flanked by National Parks to both our left and right.
And National Parks are pretty damn cool.
This last weekend, our National Parks Service turned 100 and celebrated its Centennial Birthday party by waiving all entrance fees for a long weekend where required. While the organic Act of 1916 is what actually created the National Park system, a few were dedicated as such beforehand, including one of our own. The aura Mount Rainier was dedicated as a park incredibly early, in 1899. Hell, it’s a volcano so gnarly they named a classic beer in its honor. And the two parks flanking Bellingham to the west and east, the Olympics and the North Cascades, were declared parks in 1938 and 1968, respectively.
Bellingham’s front lawn and backyard, as I describe it to my friends back home.
I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have been too young to remember which National Park I visited first - it was either Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, two pillars of our National Park System - but I remember the exact moment I fully understood the gravity of National Parks. Admittedly, it was embarrassingly late in life, despite having previously visited and seen a good handful of National Parks.
In the first few months of my senior year at Western Washington University, I was prepping for a last-minute permit down the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River over spring break. I was given the book The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko. While it is primarily a story about the (old) speed record down the Colorado River in the canyon stretch, and the incredible storm year that created such high water, it details the efforts and struggle to declare the Grand Canyon a National Park. And wow, it was a struggle.
But I finished the book (sidenote: required reading for all) and then gripped the oars through the exact same canyon walls and rapids: my head strained upwards in awe, silenced by the weight of what could have been. Of how lucky we are that it is still as raw as it is. Of how important the protection of these hallowed places throughout the country is to our identity, to our ability to escape to another world. I know, it’s cliche, but that’s what the National Parks are: another world.
So Happy Birthday, National Parks. And thank you. From the Olympics in our front lawn and the North Cascades in our backyard, and every other park inside the country. You’ve shaped my life - and you’ve shaped millions of others. 100 damn good years, let’s make the next 100 even better.
And to Crystal Rapid in the heart of Colorado River stretch of the Grand Canyon National Park - you and I have some business to settle. I’ll see you this December...birthday drinks on me.