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Backpacker Magazine – October 2011

A Piece of Quiet

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

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Grant Ordelheide)
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Grant Ordelheide)
Gordon Hempton in Olympic National Park (Isaac Hernandez)
Gordon Hempton in Olympic National Park (Isaac Hernandez)
Palisades Lakes Trail, Rainier National Park (Alan Bauer)
Palisades Lakes Trail, Rainier National Park (Alan Bauer)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest (Steven Mcbride)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest (Steven Mcbride)
City of Rock National Reserve (Matt Leidecker)
City of Rock National Reserve (Matt Leidecker)

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.




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READERS COMMENTS

Cynthia
Nov 02, 2012

Guadalupe Mountains (going in the back side, NOT Pine Spring campground where there are actually boom boxes in play!) in west Texas is full of solitude, but there's a jet overhead about every 30 minutes. Very discouraging. You can get away from humans, but not their noise.

Edward
Nov 01, 2012

Want silence go to Craters of the Moon and overnight(s) a few miles into the Monument quiet and the Milky Way.

Jason W.
Oct 24, 2011

City of Rocks is a wonderful place to climb, hike & camp. But I wouldn't call it quiet- especially on weekends. Good luck trying to find a campsite, be sure and use the reservation system.

Frank
Oct 23, 2011

Just did the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon. In the morning about every 45 minutes, 3 or 4 choppers cross the canyon hugging the no-fly zone. Didn't ruin an awesome hike, but I will admit I was annoyed. Did the trail on a Saturday, so maybe weekdays are less noisy.

JCclimber
Oct 23, 2011

Surprised that the Eastern Sierras didn't make this list. Once you get in past the foothills, it is almost completely free of humans, and the lower mountains (8,000-11,000 feet) block any noise from Highway 395. Once every hour or so, I notice a jet flying at 35,000 feet overhead, but never hear a peep from them.

Of course around Mt Whitney and Mammoth Mountain, this doesn't apply...

Michael
Oct 21, 2011

Great information about flight rules in Grand Canyon. I am glad you clarified this I have hiked in and crossed the canyon many times and I only saw one helicopter in all of those trips. So I was wondering if the author was referring to some other Grand Canyon.

Lostfalls
Oct 20, 2011

Thank You Jonathan,

Very useful information.

Steve C.
Oct 20, 2011

This reminds me of the words of an old favorite song. Ken Burns used the music in his documentary on the National Parks. There is a line that goes, "This is my Father's world and to my listening ears all nature sings, around me rings the music of the spheres.



Linda Carter
Oct 20, 2011

Don't forget Haleakala National Park on Maui. Total silence, no wind, no trees rustling, no water running, complete silence all the time. Amazing place.

Jonathan
Oct 20, 2011

Having lived for a year and a half in the Grand Canyon working for one of the concessionaires, I'd like to clarify that 'tourist flyovers' over the Grand Canyon are prohibited over National Park lands. Tour flights and copters have to follow a path around the touristy sections of the Canyon (basically Desert View to the North Rim to a little past Hermits Rest) and they have to stay at a certain level above the Canyon. Tours typically fly over Hualapai land. NPS copters will fly into the Canyon at designated times for supplies to Phantom Ranch, not including search and rescues or medevacs. The spanse of the Canyon that stretches between Hermits to Desert View have many backcountry sites available for only $10/night/person that have NO visitors. And for a true spiritual experience, try out the Navajo lands not controlled by the NPS, available at http://www.navajonationparks.org. You'd be giving to a nation that desperately needs your funding.

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