Desperately seeking silence: Quest for quiet leads to Hoh Rain Forest

It’s getting tougher all the time to find refuge from human-made noise. One man is trying to preserve a place of quiet in Olympic National Park.

Staff writerMay 18, 2014 

Our world is a noisy one. Indoors or out, the racket from appliances, vehicles and airplanes is nearly constant. But within a few hours of the South Sound sits one of the contiguous United States’ last respites from noise pollution, a place where one can experience true quiet.

Visitors can count on periodic freedom from noise in Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest, a valley blessed with copious rainfall and remote geography. But if one reinvigorated activist gets his wish, the Hoh will become a permanent sanctuary from the man-made noise that persistently encroaches on wilderness.

ON ONE MARCH MORNING, Gordon Hempton is ecstatic; he woke up to birdsong. Two years ago, Hempton was despondent; he was going deaf.

He could hear a passing car, a television, a human voice, but none of these sounds matter to him. For Hempton to feel alive, he must hear what humans evolved to hear — such as birdsong. For two years, chirps eluded him. But now, allergy treatments have restored his hearing, and with it his organization’s audacious cause.

“We want to see in the year 2016, when we celebrate the centennial of our National Park Service, Olympic National Park be declared the world’s first no-flight zone for environmental reasons,” Hempton says. “Think of it as a renewal of vows, getting back to the basic environmental values, why our parks were created.”

Hempton lives through his ears. The sound recordist has spent four decades chasing pristine soundscapes, work that has taken him to locations such as the Amazon rain forest and the Kalahari desert. Multiple documentaries, one an Emmy Award winner, and a book have chronicled Hempton’s quest.

As Hempton traveled the globe to record places unmolested by humankind’s noise, he noticed a trend — the quantity of his subjects was diminishing. This realization birthed Hempton’s activism career.

He began documenting the number of quiet places — defined by Hempton as locations free from human-made noise for consistent 15-minute intervals — within the U.S. In 1984, there were 21 locations in Washington Hempton considered quiet. In 2007, there were just 12 locations in the contiguous U.S., and only three in Washington. Today, Hempton doubts there are even 10 spots in the country that offer 15 minutes of quiet.

The most placid location he came across wasn’t far from his home in Joyce on the Olympic Peninsula. On Earth Day 2005, in the hopes of building awareness for America’s quiet crisis, he publicly designated One Square Inch of Silence – in the Hoh Rain Forest – the quietest place in the lower 48.

Sound-deadening moss covers nearly all flora in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park. That feature and the remote geography of the park create an ideal acoustical environment.Sound-deadening moss covers nearly all flora in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park. That feature and the remote geography of the park create an ideal acoustical environment. (Drew Perine, staff photographer.)

ONE SQUARE INCH isn’t a tourist destination. The park doesn’t officially acknowledge its existence, and rangers aren’t supposed to guide you to the location 3.2 miles up the Hoh River trail. It’s not more spectacular than Sol Duc Falls, Hurricane Ridge or any of the park’s other scenic vistas. Visitors are surrounded by the same flora and fauna as the rest of the rain forest, so its acoustic profile is no different than anywhere else in the Hoh.

But the rest of the Hoh doesn’t have the rock. When Hempton designated the location in 2005, he marked it with a small red stone given to him by a Quileute Nation elder. The original stone has since been replaced, but its meaning remains: This is a place of reverence. You come here to sit, be patient and immerse yourself in the soundscape around you.

No signs mark One Square Inch’s entrance — park staff has made sure of that so passers-by aren’t tempted to venture off trail. Instead, one must watch for the spot’s subtle but fitting door, an arched sitka spruce trunk on the north side of the trail. Say what you must now, Hempton instructs, because once you step through the arch, verbal communication ends.

Beyond the spruce, a game trail winds roughly 30 yards into the forest. When you find the tiny red stone resting on a mossy log, the next step is simple: sit and listen.

By Hempton’s standards, you will listen poorly at first. You will focus on individual sounds and identify them in your thoughts — river, leaf, bee. But one doesn’t listen to an orchestra only to single out the violin, and before long, the Hoh’s myriad sounds come together as a composition.

“Every sound has a feeling,” Hempton says. “If you think every sound has a thought, or words form in your mind, I don’t think you’re listening. True listening is worship. It’s where you’re completely open and you’ve completely let go of outcome.”

The Hoh’s symphony is made possible by its geography and ecology. Thirteen feet of annual precipitation coats the forest in moss, which insulates the area like foam on recording studio walls. The abundant foliage attracts wrens, owls, elk and squirrels whose chatter flutes through trunks of sitka spruce, Western hemlock and broadleaf maple.

A lack of transportation infrastructure aids the all-important quiet. Olympic is one of few national parks without a bisecting road, and the Olympic Peninsula isn’t a popular flight corridor. The result is stretches of 20 minutes or more where the Hoh sounds exactly as it did thousands of years ago.

BUT BEFORE LONG, the deep rumble of a plane yanks listeners back into the 21st century. At a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, a jetliner will register anywhere from 40-60 decibels, Hempton says. Military and propeller-driven planes are much louder, often reaching 75 decibels.

In a location such as the One Square Inch, where the ambient sound level is typically 27 decibels (40 in a heavy rain), an airplane commands the ear’s attention. Even if a plane is technically quieter than the ambient landscape, it can often be heard because its low-frequency drone cuts through sound waves that would otherwise mask it.

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On a recent visit, planes dominated the soundscape no fewer than 15 times during an hour of walking. Traffic like this is a new development. Hempton says in 2007, when he began writing “One Square Inch of Silence,” the noise-free interval in the Hoh was usually an hour or more, despite an overall decrease in airline traffic over the past seven years.

Noise pollution, particularly from airplanes, is pervasive across the continent. Wilderness overflights are so common that backpackers in multiple national parks alerted rangers when all commercial traffic was grounded after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

On the ground, the nation’s roadways are plenty noisy. A Park Service study found 83 percent of U.S. land is within 3,500 feet of a road, a distance from which an automobile is usually louder than the listener’s immediate surroundings.

Animals have noticed the noise. Studies show birds have reacted to noise pollution by altering the pitch of their calls or avoiding loud locations altogether.

According to Kurt Fristrup, science and technology chief of the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds division, the biggest issue is when consistent noise forces animals to adapt to a new sonic landscape.

“Wildlife species have evolved hearing thresholds that are low enough to take advantage of the quietest conditions that ever occur,” Fristrup says. “If we chronically elevate those sound levels, and thereby render those very low hearing thresholds moot, we are countering hundreds of thousands of generations of evolution.”

Boise State University researchers, with Fristrup’s help, are working on a project that aims to single out noise pollution’s effect on wildlife. In an otherwise pristine area of Boise National Forest, researchers have hung speakers that play highway noise, creating a kilometer-long phantom road that can be flipped on and off to isolate sonic effects.

The first year of the study saw migratory bird density and diversity drop during noisy periods, and the birds that did stick around exhibited symptoms that surprised researchers.

“When the noise is on,” Fristrup says, “the birds that do manage to stop in the noisy corridor tend to lose weight, even though there is less competition for food. When other birds land in the same place when the noise is off, they gain weight. For migratory birds trying to tank up for the next flight, this weight loss is a significant issue.”

Gordon Hempton records nature sounds in a Hoh Rain Forest location he has designated as One Square Inch of Silence, the quietest place in the contiguous United States.Gordon Hempton records nature sounds in a Hoh Rain Forest location he has designated as One Square Inch of Silence, the quietest place in the contiguous United States. (Drew Perine, staff photographer.)

NOISE POLLUTION IN THE HOH is relatively sparse, but Hempton wants it gone. The no-fly goal of the One Square Inch Foundation, the nonprofit he established to promote natural quiet, would both preserve the soundscape and, he says, boost the area’s economy.

“This is not resource preservation versus aviation at all,” Hempton says. “This would, I think, create a tremendous boom in Olympic tourism. And not just local tourism — this would be the world’s first quiet place, and people are going to fly to Sea-Tac to visit.”

Hempton says planes cast a noise shadow of 1,000 square miles. By this logic, keeping planes away from One Square Inch would preserve the soundscape in nearly all of Olympic’s 1,441 square miles.

An ambitious goal, yes. One likely to succeed by 2016, no.

Efficiency and safety are the main criteria the Federal Aviation Administration uses to draw up flight paths, says spokesman Hank Price. Environmental effects are factored in, but the agency doesn’t consider the noise from cruising-altitude planes detrimental. The power to alter flight corridors is wielded solely by the FAA. The Park Service has only the authority to seek voluntary overflight mitigation.

“It’s an area of active research, but not an area of active regulation,” says Fristrup. “Given the very limited success the Park Service has had in managing air tours, which are far more specific to parks, any attempt to modify the national air space would be, at least in today’s sociopolitical environment, fruitless.”

There have been small-scale victories in the fight against overflights. One case study is Rocky Mountain National Park, which has the most comprehensive noise-mitigation policies in the national park system.

In 2000, Congress banned sightseeing tours at Rocky Mountain after a successful campaign by the local League of Women Voters chapter. Even the FAA has gotten in on the act. Last year, a trio of flight paths over the park were consolidated into one path over a heavily traveled road, reducing park overflights to an area where car noise could mask the sound of planes.

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Similar movements aren’t in the works at Olympic, but the park is paying more attention to noise. All three alternatives in the park’s draft wilderness stewardship plan address noise pollution through methods that include “formalizing partnerships to reduce overflights.”

“We would be looking to meet with the FAA and commercial airlines, along with military and local tour operators, to discuss voluntary agreements where the operators might be able to modify what parts of the park they fly over,” says Olympic spokeswoman Barb Maynes. “The quiet and the ability to really listen to natural sounds is so outstanding at Olympic, and it’s something we strive to protect.”

HEMPTON THINKS SAVING THE QUIET at One Square Inch of Silence comes down to building awareness. As the nation’s population flocks to urban areas, more people adapt to the constant whine of electricity and internal combustion engines. Hempton says the key to preserving quiet is to avoid being conditioned to our noisy surroundings and learning to appreciate and understand what little natural quiet remains.

“Unless we create preserves of quiet,” Hempton says, “unless we take legislative action to create quiet places and protect them from noise pollution, we will lose all quiet during daylight hours everywhere in the United States.”

Jake Bullinger: 253-597-8627


Kopackuck State Park. Kopackuck State Park (file photo).

No place in the South Sound is as quiet as the Hoh Rain Forest, but there are plenty of spots to escape the din of Tacoma and Olympia. The trick is to find places with few (or no) roads and a physical barrier between you and Sea-Tac International Airport. Thick vegetation also helps dissipate noise. Here are some easy-to-access spots for peace and quiet:

  • Mount Rainier National Park: This national park has its own quiet spots, too. Hit the Carbon River area for a hushed temperate rain forest. Another good bet is the park’s southeast corner, which is shielded from Sea-Tac noise by the 14,411-foot mountain. Try the Owyhigh Lakes and Cowlitz Divide trails.
  • Kopachuck State Park: Forested trails help buffer car noise, and Carr Inlet gets less boat traffic than the Gig Harbor side of the peninsula. When fishing boats aren’t revving their motors, Kopachuck’s a good bet for solitude.
  • The Evergreen State College trails: The school has trails snaking through 1,000 acres of forest and along 3,000 feet of shoreline, making this arguably the quietest spot within Olympia city limits.
  • Andy’s Park: Wetlands, a tidal estuary, plenty of wildlife and few people make this Anderson Island gem not only a quiet spot, but one of the better parks in the South Sound.
  • Key Peninsula: The entire peninsula has a good recipe for quiet: few people and few roads. The communities are some of the more placid in the area, while Joemma Beach and Penrose Point state parks offer hiking for visitors.

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