Welcome to our new Intimacy With Place interview series, TOPOPHILIA! In this series, we explore relationships with place through a variety of different perspectives, as well as issues surrounding outdoor recreation.
Our first guest is canyoning athlete Ryan Ernst. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the outdoor community more invested or knowledgeable than Ryan when it comes to access issues surrounding recreation on public lands.
Below, we discuss how he got into canyoneering and off trail travel, ongoing restrictions at Opal Creek, and what he wishes more people would do to stay safe in the outdoors. Finally, we asked him to tell us what he REALLY thinks of the new permit systems being enacted locally and he did not hold back at all. Ha!
NORTHER EMILY: So… The theme of this series is topophilia, which is a kind of affection for place. In my work, we call it relationship with place or intimacy with place… but, I feel like it’s a rather flowery term to describe what I think is a pretty universal experience.
Is that a concept that would resonate for you at all? I was wondering if you have your own way of talking about building relationships with the places that you visit?
RYAN ERNST: I would say that… It’s really hard for me to be connected in a way. I don’t really know my family history, so, that whole culture of being connected to the land wasn’t as rich or strong for me growing up.
I view my “outdoor escapades” like… I’m a visitor. I’m here to be somewhat of a caretaker, and do everything in my will to protect it; as well as educate others to why individual places are special and unique, and why they are deserving of our utmost respect. You know, enjoy it, but be mindful of what’s already taken place.
Whether that’s rain hitting, moss growing, ferns growing, or even the hated devil’s club…. those things have been happening for a long time.
I use to bring a machete with me, right? “I’m gonna blaze a trail, make it easy.” I don’t even think about that anymore. The only time I will pull out a handsaw is to make sure the anchor that we build doesn’t get jammed up, because that can create a big problem.
I do think of myself as a visitor and… It’s as if I’m going to some sort of musical performance and I’m just part of the audience.
I am not the the main attraction to that place. I’m not an actor. I’m just there to take it in. Afterwards, I feel like… wow. I feel better as human for seeing or engaging with it.
NORTHER EMILY: That’s a great answer. What do you think changed for you, from being the machete wielding guy to… having different priorities?
RYAN ERNST: I think that everything plays a role, whether I put value in it or not. In society, we assign value to everything, right? Everything’s connected, right?
Talking about trees, what nature took a hundred years to grow, a man can ruin in a swing of an axe, right? Just honor the land, and every little thing that is connected to it…
I think I just realized that everything has a role and just because I don’t think it’s a great thing, doesn’t mean it’s not a great thing.
You know, maybe because of the fires, I probably felt more of a connectedness with the land than I ever have. Because when they take something away I realize… I’m like my four year old… “I have to have it”!
And maybe, I need to listen to the forest, to be able to be a proponent of different aspects of it.
The other day I saw that the organization that runs Opal Creek made a statement that they didn’t know when they would be reopening to the public. It’s been two years, and I don’t know what else needs to be done. When is enough? Then you say it’s for habitat restoration… restoration began the day after the fires. Nature doesn’t just stop, there’s no pause, nature reacts.
If a burn happens, it reacts, if a rain happens, it reacts- in ways that we don’t always appreciate, like landslides, right? But they also play an important role.
I’m not a post burn PhD [laughs] but I think that after two years, thoughtful, limited access should be achievable. I bet if you go out into Opal Creek right now, you’re going to see a bunch of thorny plants everywhere, right? Same as Estacada, same as Molalla, same as Clackamas, same as the Holiday Farm fire and all these other fires that happened in 2020. I don’t love that the fire happened… But putting my foot on the ground in that forest is much lower impact than driving my car through the same forest, if you ask me.
NORTHER EMILY: You know, I guide in the Tillamook, right? So, one of my more advanced level research techniques for obscure areas involves reading old books, biographies, local history about the area and kind of combing them for beta.
I have read many books about the Tillamook Burn, and one of the things about the Burn that is really striking to me… is that the language at that time was all about productivity and what the land could do for you. How to make it as productive and profitable as possible.
The Tillamook was replanted, partly because there was a lot of concern that… because the land had burned so hot, it could never be productive again. But the vine maples came back right away. The deer came back, too.
Even when Saint Helens erupted there were elk in the blast zone a week after the eruption.
RYAN ERNST: Right.
NORTHER EMILY: Do you want to talk a little bit about how you got into canyoneering? I know you’re not from the Northwest originally…
RYAN ERNST: When I moved out here, I was an avid cyclist. It took me a while to find a job, and I was just cycling everywhere. I eventually did find one, in construction. I kinda injured myself lifting something heavy. So, that’s when I started hiking. There were already a lot of people on the trails- and that was ten years ago, you know? Now, it’s even worse. So, I was like, let’s try this off trail thing.
I saw this episode of Oregon Field Guide, with my now-buddy, showing a couple waterfalls he documented… You know, now documenting is kind of a slippery slope, depending on where the documentation is going… but anyway, I reached out to him on Facebook.
He would make me buy the beer and chicken, I would come over to his house once a week, and we would look at Google earth, different Topo maps, Lidar.
His partner was doing things like you, but she was going in to Oregon state archives, and pulling a lot of beta from there. Which can be good and not so good. Back in the day, they named things differently, and now things have different names. Like, “where is ‘oh my god’ hot springs?” Oh, well, that’s just like Bagby or whatever.
So, we just started hitting it hard. I brought the technological aspect, with downloading maps for offline use. We had been doing that since back in 2015, which doesn’t sound like that long ago, but people still don’t even download maps and they get lost all the time. Which is why you have this fear mongering about off trail hikers getting lost.
Like yesterday, I’m on this crazy hike, right? I used my phone with downloaded maps and I was fine. I had a great ass kicker of a hike. There was one small point where I was like, “uhh… this trail does something else.” But I picked the trail back up again and I was fine, because I had the map downloaded.
If there’s one thing I could tell people, it’s have the maps downloaded, have some key areas on that map where you’re like, I kinda want to be in this area, around this elevation. Have a plan.
So, we started doing a lot of off trail, and started getting into places where it would have been much more suitable to have a rope.
Then it was a question of, “Alright, so do we wanna up the ante here?” And we did.
And… I went through some friendships in that process. You kinda get bummed out when things don’t work out, but you just figure it out.
Eventually I’ve kind of lined myself up with some like minded folks, who I appreciate and they appreciate me.
I’ve always kinda liked doing things that other people don’t like to do, because I appreciate nature more than social constructs and things.
NORTHER EMILY: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I feel that.
You kinda just touched on this, but what advice would you like to give the masses about outdoor recreation and how to show up better in the woods?
RYAN ERNST: I would say, people need to realize that wherever they want to go, it has an impact. They’re going to show a picture, they’re going to tell their friends.
I would tell folks, and what I actually miss, is people using things like Washington Trails Association or Oregon Hikers blog, not AllTrails, but these smaller write ups, where you could go on a website and they can tell you every single thing you need to know about it. They just lay out the facts.
Maybe even a William Sullivan book, I used that early on. We would go places like Oh My God falls, and didn’t really see anybody when we went there, but you don’t have to go too far to end up on the Siouxon trail, and see everybody.
That’s gonna be part of the permit system in some aspect, it’s definitely getting permitted in some way.
I’d like it if people would spread out on their own accord, and not make Uncle Sam do it for you with regulations, because that’s just ridiculous. The general public just wants to cry and not engage with the forest service or the land management.
Public feedback is what I’d like to see people do. I’d like to see them have something that mimics the ten essentials, downloaded maps, and spread out of their own accord. Like, “Oh, I don’t need to go to God’s Thumb if it’s crowded, there are other places that we can go check out.”
If you were to look on a Facebook group or some influencer page, you’d think there’s only like ten hikes.
There’s literally like ten million places that you can go. People find safety in this idea that other people are around, so I’m going to be safe. Which doesn’t always play out that way, right?
Like, I just saw that Multnomah County is doing all kinds of rescues recently at very common places. It is what it is, but going outside is not going to the mall. You have to be ready, you have to be prepared, and if the parking lot is full, you need a plan B or a plan C. You can’t just pull off on the side of the road and park your hot ass truck on the dry grass.
But anyway, Those are some things that I would say are essentials and maybe a little deeper than you would have asked.
NORTHER EMILY: I completely agree with you. I don’t know if you remember when I found some lost hikers in Indian Heaven earlier this summer.
RYAN ERNST: Oh yeah.
NORTHER EMILY: To their credit, they did a lot of things right, but they got into that situation the same way so many people do, which is that they only have one way to navigate and it’s on their phone. the map is not saved. I don’t even know if they had a GPS app. I wish I could make everybody buy one.
RYAN ERNST: Google is free! And you may not be able to do the GPS tracking, but you can save points, that can be helpful and it’s free!
Gaia was great until I got the subscription, and then it got worse! How?! I’m paying money!
NORTHER EMILY: I have them all right now. I justify it because I’m a guide.
RYAN ERNST: Caltopo does almost-current snow levels and river gauges and stuff, I would probably go that direction next time.
NORTHER EMILY: Yeah, you know the snow level thing is helpful when you’re looking at an area where they actually collect data, but I have been burned by that shit in the Tillamook so many times. They don’t know what’s happening out there, they just look at nearby places and then estimate the snow level. So, I have learned not to trust it.
So, what do you think about all the permit systems that are being enacted in the gorge, on the Lewis river, etc.?
RYAN ERNST: Yeah, so the newest permits that we’ve had in the last two years are, Ape Cave, and now they want to put one on Hood at I think the 9500’ mark. The lower Lewis one.. That’s why I would say willfully choosing not to go to busy places during the highest times, is a good idea. Because you know, once they enact these permits they won’t take them away again.
I could probably break down each one of these, but that would be crazy.
Punchbowl fall has been my big thing lately. They say there’s all these accidents, Hood River sheriffs are telling them that they need to do something… So I pulled the records, because I know it’s a $400 ticket to jump the falls, they should probably have over fifty tickets, right? They were averaging ten tickets between 2010 to 2014, and then it went up to crazy numbers of the next four years, like 15, 16, 17, 18.
Well, there were only two tickets.
NORTHER EMILY: Woah.
RYAN ERNST: The craziest one- the south climb trailhead at Adam’s- they’re trying to tell you they it’s an improvement what they are doing, and they’re not telling anyone that the improvement includes less parking spots.
NORTHER EMILY: Oh, what?!
RYAN ERNST:You literally are telling me that you’re doing all these different things, but you’re not telling me about the parking?! I’m not one of these crazy anti-government people, but like, you need to be honest. If they think there’s too many people on Adams, there’s a bunch of different ways they can go about it, but one of them isn’t, “we’re gonna deal with the bathroom situation, we’re gonna do all these things, but we’re also going to limit the parking”.
I say, if parking is the issue, then why aren’t you creating a shuttle service of some sort, permitting someone else to create that service?
And they didn’t have an answer for that.
NORTHER EMILY: Wow.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. This was really great. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge about access and recreation issues.
RYAN ERNST: Thanks!
Ryan Ernst is a great many things but mostly a husband, father, and adventurer. He spends his days trying to make a difference in Portland’s houselessness crisis and uses his weekend to explore and locate unique places like large trees, slot canyons, waterfalls, and most importantly, solitude