Whether the skies are clear and bright with sunshine or grey and pouring rain, Barbara Powell and her dog and hiking partner, Echo, take to the trails for their twice-daily walk.
Their destinations vary, though Powell most often chooses Greenbank Farm or South Whidbey State Park.
On Monday morning, the pair elected to traverse the Hobbit Trail at South Whidbey State Park, one of Powell’s favorites.
“It’s short but it’s got a wonderful surprise at the end,” Powell said.
The surprise, a stunning ocean vista, has been a favorite of many South Whidbey State Park visitors.
“I love to be outdoors, I love the woods. …I was nearly born in the woods,” said Powell with a laugh. “My mother was camping when she said, ‘Oops, gotta go.’ ”
Powell is one of several South Whidbey residents who regularly treks the island’s numerous parks, beaches and trail systems.
She is also one of many working to preserve these natural resources as a member of the group Friends of South Whidbey State Park. The group was founded about two years ago and regularly leads work parties to clear trails after storms, remove noxious weeds and clean up campsites. The group also hosts educational presentations and concerts in the park.
Marianne Edain and partner Steve Erickson are fellow members of the Friends of South Whidbey State Park who make a living as restoration ecologists.
They are also founders of Whidbey Environmental Action Network (commonly known as WEAN), a government watchdog organization.
Both spend much of their time in the woods and on beaches of South Whidbey. Erickson takes their husky, Tacoma, for a two to six-mile walk every day.
Erickson grew up in Maryland and said he spent much of his childhood exploring the outdoors. At 17, he began backpacking throughout the United States, often spending extended periods of time isolated in the wilderness in such locations as the mountains of Colorado.
One of the benefits of hiking, said Erickson, is that a hiker needs little more than a solid pair of shoes.
“It’s real low budget, about as low budget as you can get,” he said, adding that it is also far more appealing to him than joining a fitness club and “walking on a treadmill, looking at a screen.”
“I have to take her out every day or she’d go insane,” he said. “I would too.”
For Edain, nature conservation and appreciation is in her blood. Her grandmother was the founding member of the Nature Friends, a group which originated in Vienna, Austria as a socialist organization whose purpose was to ensure working people would have the ability to spend time outdoors.
In the United States, the Nature Friends built cabins in the mountains of California in which working-class people could stay at no cost.
Unfortunately, she said, she grew up in the “slummier side” of downtown Los Angeles, where going outside was much more difficult.
Edain said she and her family spent plenty of time at Yosemite, in the Nature Friends cabins and another cabin in the woods outside of San Francisco. She also attended summer camp as often as possible, and sold homemade potholders to pay for it.
“I was the kid who cried on the way home instead of on the way to camp,” she said with a laugh. “I recall coming home from Yosemite and saying ‘Why can’t we live here?’ ”
After moving to Whidbey Island in 1973, Edain became a founding member of the group Save the Trees, which was responsible for preventing loggers from cutting down the old growth forest of South Whidbey State Park in 1977 and for filing a lawsuit (Noel v. Cole) which eventually led to the preservation of the forest by the state.
“The war is not over,” said Erickson, adding that the battle currently being fought is over ancient grasslands and prairies. Most of the ancient forest of the lower 48 United States, he said, is gone.
South Whidbey State Park’s old growth forest — which contains huge cedars and Douglas firs — is rumored to be the only old growth forest on the island, according to Michael Moch, also a member of Friends of South Whidbey State Park and regular hiker. The forest is over 250 years old.
Moch moved to the island about two years ago and has since become heavily involved with the Friends of South Whidbey State Park. He and his wife, also a regular hiker, are members of the Washington Trails Association as well.
“I just love it,” said Moch, adding that he still has plenty of places left to explore on the island. “There are just exquisite places, and I discover new ones all the time.”
Double Bluff, Ebey’s Landing, the Saratoga Woods and South Whidbey State Park are his regular favorites.
Walking up the entrance to Wilbur Trail on Tuesday afternoon, Moch pointed out the uniqueness of South Whidbey’s old growth. He explained that for him, spending time in the woods amongst centuries-old trees, and working to clean up the forests, is therapeutic.
“These trees are our precious friends,” he said. “We co-evolved with them, and they with us.”
Edain and Erickson echoed Moch’s sentiment, and referred to both South Whidbey State Park and the Putney Woods as not only ideal hiking spots, but feats of important ecological preservation.
Through several years of preservation efforts, the Putney Woods, Saratoga Woods and Goss Lake have been connected through the trail system. Some of the trails interconnect with others located on adjacent private property, which the owners opened to the public. It is also connected to 60 acres of Metcalf Trust Land.
That much preserved land, said Edain, is significant. It is more than a space to hike, ride a horse or walk a dog. It is about having natural space that will remain undeveloped in order to ensure habitat for a variety of flora and fauna.
For Erickson, these trails are essential in their ability to connect what he sees as a human population increasingly disconnected with nature.
“I think appreciation has increased, I think connection is decreased,” he said of citizens’ regard for natural spaces over the past few decades.
“This is what we evolved with, is nature. We got separated from that,” he added. “The times in my life that I felt the most connected have been the most transcendent times.”