Empathizing with Torger Peterson

by Charly Kearns, September 2015


As the Land Steward for the Nisqually Land Trust, I have the distinct pleasure of monitoring our 5,000+ acres of protected land, assessing habitat conditions, and addressing potential problems.  This is the part of my job that I love more than anything else.  I am truly happiest when I have the chance to wander around in the woods by myself.  This blog is a way for me to share some of those stories with our membership and greater community, and for you to get a better picture of the land we care for.

Given that I spend a lot of time by myself in the woods, I tend to find myself in situations begging for an audience.  This has never felt more apparent than the comedy of errors that was my recent trip to the Upper Ohop Valley.  The Land Trust acquired 202 acres of floodplain and upland forest habitat at the upstream end of Ohop Lake in April of this year, protecting almost a half mile of Ohop Lake shoreline, and 1.2 miles of Ohop Creek.  My first visit to the property boundaries left me wanting to explore more, but I knew it would be a challenge.  Much of the floodplain is covered in thick native shrubs and reed canary grass, making walking difficult.  I came up with what I considered to be an ingenious idea – I would put on my waders and use the creek bed as a trail to access the interior of the property.  First rule of being a Land Steward – don’t get too cocky.

The site visit started out easy enough, and I was able to slowly make my way downstream on a nice gravel creek bed.  I watched a number of young lampreys swimming and moving small gravel.  But it was not long before I came to the first of many deep, mucky pools.  Traveling along the bank at a snail’s pace, I decided to cross one of these pools on a downed log, the structural integrity of which was questionable at best. Bad idea. About halfway across the pool the log snapped, throwing me, my waders, GPS, camera, and lunch headlong into the water.  Soaked, I crawled up the bank and found a sunny spot to try to dry out while I ate my soggy lunch.

After some time in the sun, I started to feel better and I decided to continue onwards, into the heart of the property.  Everywhere I turned, there was evidence of wildlife – several beaver dams crossing the creek, muddy raccoon tracks on the banks, and elk trails are so frequent that I half expected to startle a sleeping bull.  I also began to notice the creek narrowing, and the shrub layer getting thicker.  Before long, the open creek became a shrubby tunnel, and I couldn’t stand upright anymore.  At one point, I had to belly crawl in the mud in order to get through.  Trying my luck on dry land, I soon became so entangled in vegetation that I physically couldn’t move in any direction.  I could tell I was really in trouble when the elk trails stopped, indicating that it was too thick even for them.  All of the sudden, I fell up to my waist in a hole obscured by grass.  It felt like I was the only actor in a dark comedy.

I started to think about old Torger Peterson, and the journals of his settlement of the Ohop Valley in the late 1800’s.  He described the valley as “The worst wilderness that it was possible to find.”  He goes on to say “I remember friends of ours told my wife that I had gone crazy, and for her not to go out there.”  According to his records, it took Torger two full days to travel six miles of the Ohop Valley.  I love reading these old reports, and imagining what this landscape might have looked like in those days. On that challenging day, during my trip to the Upper Ohop, I could really empathize with Torger and the adversity he must have faced.

By the end of that very long day I had made it through the web of wild vegetation, a little wiser and a lot muddier.