All Our Senses

Offline on the Olympic Peninsula

Photos and words by Gale Straub

Sponsored by Columbia Sportswear

I used to think there was such a thing as quiet.

I believe in stillness and tranquility and every romantic notion tied therein, but I’m a better listener now. Sound has layers: a desert wind may carry a car’s engine for miles, a city is filled with pots and pans clattering, casual chatter, the shutting of doors. Typically, when I visit somewhere new, I am overwhelmed by sight. Sound is an invisible blanket.

Last August, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, I had the opportunity to challenge my senses with Columbia Sportswear. After a year producing She Explores as a podcast, it was the first time, remarkably, that I’d taken my recorder outside to capture ambient sound: rain falling from trees, the ocean crashing in the distance, a campfire’s crackle. What a place to exercise my hearing: a corner of the Northwest so remote as to be often out of reception, yet layered with sound. I got to put my ear to the ground in an area I’d never been.

Heidi and Megan

And I wasn’t alone. I was joined by two women: Heidi Annalise and Megan McDuffie. Their art revolves around sight and touch, taste and smell, respectively. I was eager to get to know them better in a place that was new to them, too. I’ve found camping and hiking to be a wonderful way to build bonds.

Heidi by the campfire

Heidi is a tiny landscape painter. She oil paints “en plain air” using a small canvas placed in the back of a mint tin. These miniature scenes are captivating, especially when photographed with the original location. The bold oil paints on the tin palette call out the main colors of a place: green, blue, white, black. It’s almost like you could reach out and touch them.

A painting by Heidi Annalise, made on the Olympic Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Columbia Sportswear.

Megan, co-founder of Fresh Off the Grid, is a camp chef of sorts. She conceptualizes healthy meals that are meant to be eaten in open air. Her dishes are often sourced locally and influenced by the landscape and its history. In Washington, she made a one-pot soba noodle dish. She brought in dried mushrooms but foraged greens at the coast line.

Megan cooking on the beach
With fresh smoked salmon

Over a few days, we got more comfortable with each other. It turned out we had more in common than a love of spending time outside and the pull to create: we learned that we are all introverts with entrepreneurial streaks. As we tromped down the trail, we talked about our struggles to find balance. We talked about what keeps us going when we feel like we can’t possibly do enough.

A byproduct of spending time outside is the effect it has on our undistracted senses. This kind of openness for input, or sensation, cultivates a direct output, expression.

Sensation -> Expression

I’ve found that artistic pursuits and outdoor endeavors parallel each other: both can be incredibly intimidating. We see famous artists and athletes and, if we’re just getting started or don’t have a keen drive to perform at that level, it’s down right discouraging. It’s easy to feel like oil painting or culinary art or backcountry skiing or climbing or ______ isn’t something that you should pursue. Really, you could insert most artistic or outdoor activities in that blank. I’ve said (too many times), “I wish I could draw.”

Yet there we were. Heidi has only been oil painting for a few years. Megan’s “Fresh Off the Grid” isn’t much older than that and I was listening to water filter through mussels and crabs for the very first time, wondering if I’d ever heard a subtler sound. It was a reminder that we need not always look up to others, it’s worth meeting each other at eye level to better picture what’s possible for ourselves.

Collecting field sound for the She Explores podcast, careful not to step on mussels

This Wednesday, I’m excited to present a podcast episode that shares how place inspired Heidi, Megan, and me, as newcomers and non-experts, to create. And I also call up a native of the area, Lorraine Greene, a member of the Makah Tribe, who knows this landscape and its history better than our senses ever could.

In the meantime, head over to Columbia.com/testedtough to watch a short video of our experience and to learn more about Heidi and Megan’s work.

Note: This post is sponsored by Columbia Sportswear but all opinions are that of the author.

Gale Straub is the founder of She Explores and the host of the She Explores podcast. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

How do the outdoors inspire you to create?