There was a snowy silence when I arrived in Jawbone Flats. Now the audible hum of spring has set in as school groups, cabin renters, and hikers filter through camp. Everything is new; the season, the staff, the creek have all shifted to a new rhythm and I am no exception. My mind is constantly racing as I absorb everything around me. From the scientific name of the Pacific Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus) to the difference between mosses and liverworts, the Opal Creek Wilderness makes you want to know, to be curious. So I rifled around in boxes looking for old college textbooks and exhausted the google machine only to realize that the people here are my best resource. Some of them have been here several seasons, others are brand new but they are all brilliant educators, cooks, and carpenters. All I can think is, “I have so much to learn.” From grad school to guiding rafts I have never encountered in myself this strong a drive to seek knowledge. I believe this is because at Opal Creek I am engulfed in the forest, the creek, and the wildlife as both my life and my job.
Before I moved here people asked, “Won’t you feel claustrophobic? Won’t you be bored? What if you want to leave?” The truth is, for most of us here, Jawbone Flats is civilization, (population 12 including pets) and in our free time we seek solitude in even more remote places. As for the city… Lyons, Oregon population 1,161… well that’s just plain scary. It’s a hard thing to explain why so many people flee to the wilderness, maybe it’s different for every person, but I have come to understand that wilderness is knowledge.
This becomes especially apparent to me with our school programs. You just can’t help but learn when you walk past the gate that divides Opal Creek from the rest of the world. And as an instructor here at Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center that makes my job pretty easy. Now don’t get me wrong, there are kids that try to resist it. Some nearly revolt when we reach the Gold Creek Bridge and they find out we are still 2.5 miles from camp. But guaranteed by the end of their stay they will know the main components of an old growth forest, they might even know the names of a few lichens, and they were probably pretty excited when they caught a rough skinned newt at the newt pools. It’s not their fault though, they had good intentions coming in; to only mess around with their friends and boycott learning because they were on a field trip and that meant one thing, NO SCHOOL, but those good intentions fell by the wayside when they stepped into the Opal Creek Wilderness.
Now we can hope that all the kids go home telling their parents about indicator species and spotted owl habitat, but my guess is they might lead with, “We got dessert every night!” and, “After I used the toilet I had to put sawdust in it!” Either way it’s a win because I know they won’t forget their time here. And neither will I, because every school group that rolls in and out of here in a cloud of dust reminds me that wilderness is knowledge, it’s just a giant classroom where instead of a computer screen there is a living plant that you can touch and smell, and then take a picture of with your iPhone! All kidding aside though, I am so lucky to get to live here in this place and with these people, getting to share in moments of curiosity and discovery, ridiculousness and profound depth.