Learning the word, Shinrin-yoku

Cathy’s preamble:

My first hike, age 4. On Mt. Hood above Timberline Lodge.

I started hiking when I was a young girl. There are pictures of a day when I walked partially up Mt. Hood with my father. I was 4 years old and I remember the day well for a variety of reasons: I was in my favorite dress and was sporting my beloved red leather shoes with buckles. I was confident I sparkled in the eyes of other hikers. I also remember my mother walking away, to wait in the lodge, and I had to decide who I should accompany.

I decided to stay with my father and head up the mountain. He wasn’t much interested that I was tagging behind (maybe there were some good-looking women ahead?) but no matter I had a spectacular time. I wandered off the trail at will chasing after little things that caught my eye, which were mostly patches of snow that had managed to self-preserve in the Doug Fir shadows. When I caught up to my father at a resting rock he scolded lightly about lagging behind, but his words didn’t faze me. I was bursting with the thrill (edged with terror) of having been in the woods for those brief moments, on the side of the mountain, all alone.

After moving to the Midwest, I didn’t hike much. After years of feeling lovingly enveloped and cooled in the forests of Doug Firs, cedars, and hemlock I found the open prairie scared me.  The prairie landscape felt over-exposed and made me feel inexplicitly vulnerable.

It took some time but I eventually came to see the beauty of the Midwestern vistas (although there is still nothing that I fear more than driving at night in the prairie). I reset my eye and mind, and as Mike says I finally “found the beauty in the open spaces”.  (Cue Miles Davis music now, as it certainly is the music of the plains). Nonetheless there was always a place in me that longed for the sensation I had as a 4-year-old, alone and enveloped by a still and deep green forest magnificence.

Nebraska – The vistas are expansive and beautiful. Photo by R.Bruhn.

The Hike:

  • Old Salmon River Trail in the Mt.Hood National Forest.
  • Hike Type: Out and back
  • Distance: 5.0 miles round-trip
  • Elevation gain: 200 feet
  • High Point: 1,640 feet

I drove to Welches, Oregon on an early Sunday morning in June when Andy was out of town.  Welches is a village in the Mt. Hood corridor, less than 40 miles southeast of our house. Welches’ neighbors include the villages of ZigZag and Wemme. All three places are just spots in the road that support passing traffic and supply goods to the hermits and millionaires alike living in the surrounding mossy forest.

I wanted an easy hike and the Old Salmon River trail is referenced as a ‘family’ trail (translation: if kids can hike it so can you).

The Toll Gate Inn Bakery in Sandy, Oregon. Must have pastry and coffee to start a hike.

I took my time getting to the trail-head. I stopped in Sandy Oregon, a small town that caters to outdoorsy folks. I sipped a cup of dark steaming coffee on a bakery’s wide front porch and exchanged smiles with people bundled up in ski jackets and stocking caps in mid-June. There was a tangible buzz on that porch, seems we were all looking forward to a big day outdoors.

I could see my breath but also feel the warm sun on my cheek. The sky was vibrant blue. I felt my body downshift as I relaxed into the porch chair and hot coffee. I promised myself I would hike the trail exactly as I wanted.

The Old Salmon River trail used to be the main byway into the upper canyon of the Salmon River but just after WWII a road was built to make the access easier. Some of the trail was lost then but the Forest Service has recently restored a major section and this trail is a beauty.

Sections of The Old Salmon River trail run very close to the new road but a few steps in and the forest is upon you and the road is easily forgotten. The old growth cedar and Doug Fir that populate the forest in this area are some of the most stunning specimens of nature you will ever see. And then a few steps further on the trail, you come upon the Salmon River.

The Salmon River is just over 30 miles long and it drains a sizable portion of Mt. Hood’s southwestern section. The Salmon River dumps into the Sandy River which in turn feeds into the mighty Columbia. The entire length of the Salmon River is a protected National Wild and Scenic River and many sections are also protected wilderness. The lower section I hiked supports a variety of inhabitants including black bears, cougars, deer, badgers, fishers, and martens. There are warning signs posted for the bears and cougars with very clear instructions on what to do if paths cross.

The Salmon River as it runs along the Old Salmon River Trail.

The Forest Service has added wooden bridges over small streams and side trails that lead hikers to enticing pools on the river. Small swaths of sandy beach have been added at the wider river bends and I imagine are crowded during Portland heat waves.

One of the footbridges on the trail leading off to the river.

I took my time on the trail and along the way I tried to name all the trees, plants, and flowers I could. (I didn’t do well but next time I vow to be better studied).  I also stopped whenever I spied an alluring resting rock along the river and I pulled out my book on…martens.  (Book report soon).

The trail was not crowded at the beginning of my hike but traffic picked up as the day progressed. However, there are so many side trails and resting rocks and sandy river beaches that I never felt more people than nature. Most people like me were taking their time and wandering off on the multiple offshoot trails.

Shinrin-yoku is a term I recently learned, it means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It sounds crunchy but Asian researchers insist that there are tangible health benefits from spending time under the canopy of a living forest. I love the notion that a simple stroll through the woods can improve health.

I will never be able to adequately express how rested and invigorated I felt as I drove home after my day on the Old Salmon Trail. I was so happy and satisfied. I could not quit smiling. I felt connected to my earliest days of wide-eyed wonder at the forest. I am delighted that sense of awe is alive and thriving within me and I will nurture that spark until I am pushing up daisies (hopefully from the forest floor).

One of the plants I was able to name, Skunk Cabbage. It’s cheating really, as the smell gives the name away.









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *