SKI HUTS AND WILDLANDS MANAGEMENT
Or, Why Olympic National Park’s Waterhole Ski Hut is Missing
By Eric Burr, Mazama WA
Snow country boreal forests and skiing (especially ski touring) there, on natural
ungroomed snow, are foreign to mainstream experience. Boreal, means cold in winter
and buggy in summer, which suits our migratory birds perfectly, but not most people.
Unfortunately boreal forests are our largest forest ecosystem, and the resulting
ignorance is hastening their demise.
The recent removal of the Hurricane Ridge ski touring hut, out at Waterhole,
four miles east of the lodge, is symptomatic of this situation. The snowed in
Obstruction Point road is one of only three ski touring options usually having enough
snow, up on Hurricane Ridge. As such, it inevitably attracts use, and will continue to
be the site for both safety issues and sanitary impact, in that small sheltered location.
Waterhole has been a storm refuge campsite long before the park was established.
As a retired national park ranger/naturalist, with more backcountry time than most,
because I chose to be a professional seasonal, I’m uniquely aware of these problems.
Most environmentalists and national park managers, have little intimate experience with
either winter storms, casualty evacuation, or cleaning up frozen toilet paper flowers. National
park managers however, are unavoidably aware of the tremendous attraction national parks
have for visitors of all types, and the unique crowding that results. Inadequate park budgets
select for managers good at dealing with the high priority front country summertime tourist
season situations, not skiing.
Ski touring therefore is a tiny exotic blip on their radar screens. Mainstream skiing with its
lifts and groomed trails, not allowed in most American national parks, is itself usually a very
small part of their experience. “Let them use tents.” is the popular dismissive response I often
hear from both less experienced environmentalists and park rangers or managers. Europeans
and Canadians know better, because they’ve decades more experience with the kind of
heavy winter use which is only beginning in America. They’re not necessarily smarter;
they’ve just had their noses rubbed in it longer.
My hope is, that widespread disappointment over the removal of the ski hut at Waterhole
will generate enough interest in snow country restoration that readers will pick up more books
exploring this problem. Chic Scott’s book from Canada: Powder Pioneers-Ski Stories from
the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains, is one of many in the 2008 bibliography at
the back of my Ski Trails and Wildlife book. My chapters on avalanches, huts, rangers, and
Hurricane Ridge, include details about Waterhole. Tropher Donahue’s book: Bugaboo
Dreams- A Story of Skiers, Helicopters, and Mountains, came out too late in 2008 to make
my bibliography, and Chic Scott also has at least one new book. Ski Trails and Wildlife is
now out on Kindle.
David Brower, author John McFee’s “Archdruid,” and himself the author of, The Manual
of Ski Mountaineering, is the best example of the disproportionate influence ski tourers have.
They are few and far between, but because they know the boreal first hand, they have been,
the movers and shapers of snow country politics. For instance, Mineral King’s proposed ski
resort, started Earthjustice, the pro-bono legal firm that takes on the highest profile cases.
Their legendary trip to the Supreme Court was skiing’s unintended gift to conservation, and it
changed the entire environmental legal landscape. Should Trees Have Standing, the book by
Christopher Stone tells the legal part of that story, but there’s more - including avalanches
and a host of colorful characters like Walt Disney and David Brower.
The powerfully influential signatures on the sign in sheet at Waterhole saved the hut for
almost forty years. It was a tiny, but powerful, way to encourage intimacy with the boreal. It
allowed overnight stays, up on the Ridge, possible no other way. The northern boreal forest
encircles the arctic, and its montane extensions bring it far enough south to be accessible to
parks and commercial skiing in southern Canada and the northern United States. Snow sports
are how most people experience the boreal forest. The more ways we can help them
experience, and understand, this snowy world surrounding their ski resorts and national parks,
the better chance we have to conserve and restore the largest forest on earth.