How Ancient Are Alpine Trails?

In the Olympics when you get to the high country the main trails cross high meadows, sometimes rutted deep into the dirt, a combination of boot wear, erosion, and flowing water. Off trail tracks are sometimes well worn, also gouged into the earth, plain to see. It doesn’t take much to make a path, because the vegetation up high is sensitive, and passing feet soon wear through grasses, sedges and thin roots to dirt. Once a track is worn, it remains, for a long long time. Up high the ground lies under snow for eight to nine months a year, sheltered and protected, with only the short growing season for roots to bind into the soil, so a worn track, once made, may remain for years, even if untraveled. Now imagine a path traveled every year or every other year by a few people, enough to make the trail, keep the grasses low, but not so many people as to dig a ditch for water and erosion. Those paths up in the high country, maybe they were made by early trappers or Boy Scouts in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, but maybe they were worn much, much earlier. Somehow it has become the general feeling that native tribes avoided the high country, which makes absolutely no sense to me, because up high the elk gather, the berries ripen, and the basins are lovely. People are people, and what would appear a logical route to cross a pass today would seem the same a century ago, a hundred centuries ago, or even longer. So how old are those paths? A century or less, if you agree the high country was avoided, or a hundred centuries or more, if you believe people went wandering as soon as they became people? So, those trails and paths we trod, sweating under our packs, cursing the deerflies, among acres of flowers and heather, could we be walking in the footsteps of people who lived and died back when the ice ruled the earth, or even before? I like to think so. No. I know so.

Even here, way in the back country, we found a trail, made by elk, crossing from one basin to another. Made by elk? Or by human visitors?
Even here, way in the back country, we found a trail, made by elk, crossing from one basin to another. Made by elk? Or by human visitors?

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