Monday, August 1, 2005 - 12:00 AM
By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Off a backcountry trail, much used by elk, a small red rock rests on a moss-swaddled log.
To Gordon Hempton, who put it there on Earth Day, this rock marks a sanctuary: One square inch of silence he wants to defend against all comers.
In claiming one small inch for the sounds of the natural world, without intrusion from the racket of man, Hempton, 52, hopes to preserve the quiet of miles of wilderness backcountry in Olympic National Park.
An Emmy-award winning sound recordist, Hempton for 25 years has made his living recording everything from aspens in the Methow to the dawn chorus on six continents. He sells his recordings of nature, and he's also paid by companies to record sounds for them.
He recorded 21 places in Washington state in 1985 where natural quiet was unbroken by noise intrusions for 15 minutes or more during the daytime.
By 1989, there were only three. "And the only one I'm willing to make public is Olympic National Park. Because I want it preserved," Hempton said.
"I've not heard a quieter park, and I've been to them all."
As park officials put together a draft management plan, Hempton wants commercial-airlines flights over the park reduced and tourist air tours banned to protect one of Olympic's precious gifts: quiet.
Uninterrupted natural quiet is so rare Hempton thinks many people under the age of 30 have never heard it. "Whenever someone tells me they know a quiet place, I figure they have an undiagnosed hearing impairment, or they weren't really listening. Most people believe they know what natural quiet is, but they have not had the experience; it is not the same thing as sitting in an empty theater, a church, a library.
"We spend our lives in containers. Cars. Buildings. Planes. Natural quiet is in open, living space. It's alive."
One of a kind
It's quiet enough in this corner of the Hoh Valley to hear the one-note song of varied thrush; the drumming of grouse; the steady applause of wind. These and only these, for an hour, more. Here, amid this music, in nature's own concert hall, slowly, the mind lets go of time.
Then it comes, a pervasive, low rumble, filling the Hoh Valley, disruptive as a knock at the bedroom door.
Hempton, until then in cross-legged reverie on a carpet of trillium and moss, snaps to, and makes a note of the time the jetliner first appears overhead. He records the sound level on a handheld meter he packed into the woods. Checks his watch, counts off the duration of the noise of the plane.
"It still looks the same, but that changes the experience of this whole valley," Hempton says, watching the levels move on the meter. "In a classroom, a church, a concert hall, that would be totally unacceptable."
One more "noise intrusion" for the log Hempton has been keeping on periodic monitoring visits to the inch since Earth Day on April 22.
Later, back home in nearby Joyce, Clallam County, Hempton will go online. Check flights scheduled over the area. Fire off a note to the airline, requesting a voluntary change in flight pattern to avoid flying over the park.
Hempton had his first success with American Airlines, asking it to join in his effort to preserve natural quiet by not flying over the park.
The airline agreed in a 2001 letter, but it was an easy give: American does not fly over Olympic, or plan to.
Now Hempton has upped the ante, with an online campaign to publicize and protect his inch of quiet.
His next request, made April 15 to Alaska Airlines, so far has met with a commitment only to steer clear of the park for nonroutine flights, such as maintenance and training flights, when the airline has discretion to do so.
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates airspace 18,000 feet and above and works with airlines to accommodate requests for alternative routes, provided there aren't weather or air-traffic reasons not to, said Mike Fergus, spokesman for the FAA Northwest Mountain Region in Renton.
Some of Alaska's routes take it over a portion of the park. To change them "might require us to burn more fuel, which could lead to more emissions," said Peggy Willingham, director of environmental affairs for the airline. "The impact on sound may be minimized, but at a cost of increased emissions."
And money: Any time the airline flies a less efficient flight pattern, it increases cost because of the increased use of fuel.
Alaska, the largest single carrier out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, flies 37 times a day over portions of the park during its busiest days in the summer season.
Across the country, national parks are besieged by noise. Air tours at Grand Canyon. Snowmobiles at Yellowstone. Cars at Yosemite.
The natural quiet at Olympic is exceptional and needs to be protected, agreed park Superintendent Bill Laitner.
It's partly an accident of geography: The park has no roads, navigable rivers, or utility rights of way that cross it. And it sits in a corner of the country, west of the heaviest cross-country air-travel routes.
"We have what lots of people want, and we need to make sure that we keep it," Laitner said. "It's definitely a priority to maintain that natural quiet.
"I think a way to do that is to contact airlines for some voluntary route changes. As more and more of us live in cities we forget there are places where it is quiet, and we want quiet. Maintaining the natural soundscape is important. But I want it to be cooperative, not confrontational."
Olympic is completing a draft management plan, due out for public review in December, that will include a policy to protect the natural soundscape, Laitner said.
In addition to supporting voluntary avoidance of the park by commercial airlines, Laitner said he opposes development of air tourism over the park.
"I am not in favor of air tours, either helicopter or fixed wing, because of the noise. The soundscape of Olympic also benefits the economy. People spend money to come here, they relocate here and live here because of the quiet. They wouldn't do that if there are noisy air tours."
Drawn to quiet
Drawn to quiet
Hempton remembers exactly when he fell in love with the sounds of nature. Sleeping in a field, overtaken by a Midwest thunderstorm, enraptured by the roar and rumble, "I realized I had never really heard anything before."
Hooked, he quit graduate school in Wisconsin, returned to Washington and became a bike messenger in Seattle to pay for tape for a professional-quality sound recorder. At first he was drawn to documentary work, recording hobos he met on the train tracks in the yards at Wenatchee. But the sounds of nature lured him.
He made his first recording of natural sound at Olympic's Rialto Beach and says he has returned there some 700 times, gathering the majesty of its booming tide; the beach cobble rattled like bones as the tide sucks out, and the sound of its ancient beach logs, played by the wind "like uncut violins."
By now Hempton has circled the globe three times and recorded sound on every continent except Antarctica. But he has still rarely heard anything like the quiet of Olympic. So quiet Hempton says he has heard the wings of a butterfly rustle. A toad wake up from a winter's nap in the forest duff. A slug take a bite from a leaf.
"At Olympic, thank God we don't have to restore it," Hempton said. "We still have something to protect.
"Quiet places are the think tank of the soul."
Approximate location of Gordon Hempton's inch of solitude: Hoh River Valley, just above Mount Tom Creek Meadow, about three miles from the visitors center.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company