Trip Reporter Q&A: The Joy of Hiking One Area Over and Over
Trip reporter Birb has hiked nearly all of the trails in the Issaquah Alps — and found beauty and peace along the way.
Robin McCurdy (trail name Birb) is not afraid to set audacious goals. Having projects adds a feeling of exploration, novelty and adventure to their hikes, says the WTA member and trip reporter. In the fall of 2020, Birb set their sights on hiking every trail in the Issaquah Alps — a “small” part of a larger lifetime project to hike every trail in Washington.
“I wanted to get to know the place more deeply,” they said.
As Birb began to venture out from their front door, they discovered plenty of opportunities for solitude as well as a layered richness in the many, many miles of forest hikes in the Issaquah Alps, a cluster of foothills below Snoqualmie Pass.
WTA: Can you describe your project, and why you decided to tackle it?
Birb: Hiking every trail in the Issaquah Alps is a smaller and more doable part of a larger project to hike every trail in Washington state. The overall goal is probably a bit of a pipe dream — we have so many trails here that it could take a lifetime to hike them all! But it's a fun project that adds a feeling of exploration, novelty and adventure to my hiking. I decided to narrow down that goal to focus on Issaquah for the 20/21 winter season.
WTA: How have you been keeping track of the trail sections you've covered?
Birb: I collect paper maps (mostly Green Trails Maps) and use a highlighter or marker to mark where I've been. The walls of my bedroom are covered in hiking maps! I also have a Word document that I use to keep track of my hikes, calculate my mileage (I also have monthly and yearly mileage goals), and write down my impressions. Also, in the past year I discovered the Gaia app, which in addition to being a very useful navigation tool in the field, also makes a nice colored line on the map as you hike, so I can easily see what trails I've been on. It's very satisfying to look at my maps and see how much ground I've covered.
WTA: What do you think someone can learn from covering every inch of a trail system?
Birb: You learn to appreciate the subtleties and variations of ecosystems in each park. The types of trees and other plants actually vary widely depending on elevation, and over time you'll see how the ecosystems change with the seasons. Gradually you'll build a map in your mind and find favorite spots — the places you can find solitude, the places with the best views, areas where particular animals seem to live, places where you can find flowers in the spring and mushrooms in the fall.
WTA: Has this project made you feel differently about these close-in trails?
Birb: I've become very attuned to small changes in the forest that I might have blazed by previously, especially in the spots I visit the most frequently. If a tree falls, a mushroom pops up or there are new buds, I notice immediately. Doing so many hikes in the forest with no "end goal" of a dramatic viewpoint at the end has taught me to be much more mindful and appreciative of all the intricate details of the forest. On a micro and macro level, there is so much happening in every ecosystem, and if you have the patience to really look, you'll see so much more than you thought possible.
WTA: Has anything surprised you about the project or the place?
Birb: I've realized that sometimes it's actually pretty nice to revisit the same trails to see how they change with the seasons and how my own perception also changes.
WTA: What was your best day on trail?
Birb: It's honestly too hard to decide! Any time I'm in the forest when it's foggy, or in the early morning when sunbeams are glowing through the tree branches fills me with peace and happiness. Also, any wildlife sighting is immensely exciting to me. I've seen deer, bear, squirrels, birds, frogs. ... But I think the most exciting wildlife encounter I've had locally was meeting a porcupine at Squak Mountain. I had never seen one in person before and he allowed me to quietly observe him (from a safe distance!) while he went about his business, munching plants and periodically standing up to shake water from his quills.
WTA: What was your worst day on trail?
Birb: I've definitely had my share of hiking mishaps, but hiking around Issaquah is generally fairly easy and relaxing compared to other adventures that I engage in. I live with mental illness and hiking is one of the most important tools I use for self care and regulating my brain chemistry. Forests in particular are my happy place, and walking for hours is incredibly soothing. There are times when I walk into the forest battling negative thoughts, or dwelling on life's issues, which can make those steep hills all the harder to climb. But I generally end the hike with a feeling of calmness and resolution. In that way, hiking becomes almost a metaphor for tackling life's obstacles. Sometimes fighting my way up a hill is a battle, but I always make it through, hopefully a little stronger.