Weaving together Stardust in Basin

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A red and yellow sunset through mountains and a weaving project that echoes the scene.

A few weeks ago, after Robin of Birch Hollow Fibers chose an inspiration photo for her installment of Knitting Our National Parks, I contacted the photographer to get permission to use the photo and send a use fee.

Through my text thread with Nina Mayer Ritchie — her husband, Eric, was the photographer for the Great Basin National Park photo that Robin picked, but they both take the stunning photos in her feed — I learned that there was a deeper connection to the fiber arts — and a fascinating story that the reporter in me had to tell.

Nina has been taking Navajo weaving lessons from Emily Malone of the Spider Rock Girls, a family that has been weaving rugs for four generations. Emily’s mother, Rose Yazzie, owns a Hogan, a traditional dwelling of the Navajo people, and has a flock of sheep that provides the wool for their pieces, which they sell (I’m planning to post an interview with Emily as well). Above is an in-progress rug that Nina is weaving inspired by a photo she took of sunset through the “Window” at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Nina and Eric also have an impressive track record in the national parks, having visited 48 out of 62, some with their two young children. Both Nina and Eric are MedsPeds physicians (dual board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics), and they have been working over the last several months in Chinle, Arizona, the geographic center of the Navajo Nation, which for a period of time had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country. Eric is the chief medical officer of the Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital there and Nina works with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health as a public health doctor.

I spoke with Nina about learning Navajo weaving, her family’s parks visits and about the public health response to the coronavirus in the Navajo Nation. In addition to supporting the parks, 10% from the sales of Robin’s colorway will be donated to the NDN Collective COVID-19 Response Project.

Weaving with raw fleece.

Emily Malone of the Spinder Rock Girls uses raw fleece for a weaving project.

Tell me about your weaving lessons. Have you done any other fiber crafts (knitting, crochet or spinning)?

I started taking weaving lessons from a local weaver in March 2018. She is part of a family of weavers called the Spider Rock Girls. Her mother weaves and taught her, and then she taught her daughters. They live near Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. According to Navajo teachings, Spider Woman lives atop Spider Rock and bestowed the gift of weaving to the Navajo. The Spider Rock Girls keep their own herd of sheep and sheer them to spin the wool into yarn for weaving.

This weaver has been offering weaving lessons to a small group of us over the last few years. She made looms for all of us, and we would typically meet one to two times per month to weave and learn together. Now with COVID, that has been put on hold, but we each have our own loom at home and weave individually. I learned how to crochet with my Yiayia (grandmother) when I was a little girl, but weaving in the traditional Navajo way with a loom is completely different!

A Native American woman spinning cream-colored yarn.

Emily spinning yarn from her sheep before weaving.

It sounds like you and Eric are longtime hikers! When did you start visiting national parks?

We actually didn’t start “seriously” hiking until our honeymoon to Kauai in June 2008. After that, we immediately moved to Boston to start our residency training and found that during our off-time – without having access to a car – we would walk/hike the entire Boston area pretty regularly… roughly 11-12 miles on an average weekend day.

The first national park we visited together was the Grand Canyon, where we hiked North Rim to South Rim with my father during the last week of June 2009. It was the first time we had ever visited the Southwest, during record high temps, and we were smitten. It was one of the most formative experiences of our lives and we truly became enchanted with this part of the country. After that, we kept seeking ways to return to the Southwest to visit more national parks and to complete clinical rotations with the Indian Health Service.

We had always felt strongly about providing medical care to underserved populations and the Indian Health Service seemed like the best fit for us. As we visited more and more national parks, both out West and back East, we realized that our time spent in the parks was incredibly restorative and balancing especially while juxtaposed to our hectic schedules as medical doctors. We have visited 48 out of 62 national parks so far and it is our bucket list to visit them all together. As we started having children, our little boys visited the Grand Canyon as their first national park when they were each 2 weeks old. They have visited over 25 national parks each.

A mom and dad, each with a child on their back, pose in front of red rocks.

The Ritchies at Arches National Park in Utah.

Do you have a favorite national park?

This is the toughest question for us, and we get asked this all the time! I think we love different national parks for different reasons, and each could be considered a favorite in their own way. We are also very lucky to live close to so many of them, and we get to revisit these ones (roughly 15 of them) over and over again. Before spikes in visitation over recent years, I think we would easily say that Zion, Yosemite and Glacier were our top three, as these parks truly fill you with awe and wonder when you are immersed in them. However, as those parks have become more and more crowded, even during the “off season,” we have a new appreciation for the parks that are either off the beaten path or have enough space to really spread out. These include Death Valley and Big Bend.

A boy in front of a large tree.

James, the couple’s youngest son, in front of a Bristlecone Pine in Great Basin National Park.

What’s the story behind your photo of the tree at Great Basin?

This photo is from an incredible camping trip we took a few years ago to celebrate our youngest son’s first birthday… with the oldest living things on the planet: Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park! This was his 17th national park visited during his first 12 months of life.

We had the coolest campsite up on Wheeler Peak, and spent an entire afternoon hiking around the impressive Bristlecone Pines, scouting out a favorable one to photograph later that night… My husband then hiked back out over a mile in the dark (while I stayed back, cozy with the kiddos in our camper) to reach this awesome tree and photograph it with the night sky. Such a fun memory!

How did you and Eric begin working for Native American healthcare organizations?

During our first year of residency, we attended a Grand Rounds held by two other married physicians that had completed our same residency program a few years prior. They had been working with the Indian Health Service in the middle of the Navajo Nation and everything they shared with us about their experiences truly spoke to us. We arranged to have two clinical rotations with the IHS, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, and fell in love with the communities we served. We decided to join the IHS in Chinle, AZ (the geographic center of the Navajo Nation) after completing our residencies in 2012 and have been here ever since. I transitioned into public health in 2014 with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health and Eric is still with the IHS.

Can you talk about how the COVID-19 crisis has hit the Navajo Nation and Native Americans particularly hard and what kind of work have you and your colleagues been doing to address this?

As many have probably seen in the news, the Navajo Nation had the highest rate of cases per capita in the country for a period of time. Contributing factors include remote and impoverished living conditions (difficulty accessing resources, such as medical care, grocery stores, etc.), lack of running water and electricity, multigenerational/overcrowded households where the virus can easily spread throughout the family, higher incidences of underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and lung disease, limited access to broadband/internet, as well as difficulties with “staying home” when folks have to travel long distances to obtain supplies. With strict and comprehensive public health measures, such as universal masking, social distancing, limiting capacity in essential businesses, and curfews, the Navajo Nation decreased their case counts and have been flattening the curve. The mortality rate among Navajo is still the highest of any ethnic/racial group. Through our work, and collaborations with other philanthropic groups, we have been integrally involved in the public health responses here: increasing testing, increasing hospital capacity, increasing resources and securing PPE, developing and distributing educational materials, expanding contact tracing, supporting communities through delivery of goods and water to households, etc.

A snow-covered mountain reflected in water at sunset.

Oxbow Bend at Grant Teton National Park in Wyoming.

How has the pandemic impacted your travels? As physicians, do you have any advice for people looking to safely explore the country?

The biggest way the pandemic impacted our travels is that it prevented us from taking previously scheduled time off. With Navajo Nation weekend curfews and the increased workload, we needed to stay put and work. No more weekend camping trips for around three months straight, which is very atypical for us (we usually camp almost every weekend). As things have slowly improved on the Navajo Nation, we have been able to venture out a little more, but we are sticking to dispersed/boondock camping in more remote areas to remain physically distanced from others. We are now discovering some hidden gems.

I think the advice we would offer folks looking to safely travel during pandemic times is to think about their own risk tolerance and how that (and their actions) may affect others. Getting through this is going to take a “team” effort and we all need to do our part.

Outdoor spaces are generally the safest option for recreating, and getting there by personal vehicle is preferred. Identifying places that are not crowded is ideal.
I know we all love to visit our iconic national parks but these spaces are at risk of being “loved to death,” especially during these challenging times when everyone is looking to get outdoors and away from others. It’s getting harder to achieve this as our national parks get more and more congested. I would encourage travelers to look for hidden gems closer to home in other public lands that don’t normally get as much attention as our national parks.

Knitting Olympic National Park: From a crafty park ranger’s view

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A beach alongside mountains on a clear day.

Second Beach at La Push, Washington, Olympic National Park

[Ed.’s note: This post coincides with the release of the Knitting Our National Parks colorway from McMullin Fiber Co., inspired by Olympic National Park. It’s available to preorder through May 1, 2020.]

There’s nothing quite like knitting in peace and quiet. And it’s a tough thing to find in our bustling world. But at Olympic National Park, it exists. And it’s not just any peace and quiet.

It’s complete silence.

In fact, some would argue the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park takes the cake as the quietest place in the United States — in one square inch of rainforest.

The summer I worked as a park ranger, I was told about this One Square Inch (and instructed to warn people to stay on trail if they were headed to find it). So naturally, I sought it out as a prime knitting spot.

The park is, without a doubt, the epitome of peace. Walking through the Hall of Mosses feels like sneaking through an empty home. And yet, there’s a buzz around you. A feeling of abundant life just beyond the boundaries of your senses.

And it’s a gorgeous destination for knitting. Later, I’ll list my favorite knitting spots around the park. But the one I visited most was just alongside the Hoh River. This was my chosen sanctuary for elk-watching, solitude, simply being — and of course, sneaking in a little crafting.

A tree arches over a forest trail.

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park. Photo by Amira Umphres

Living and Working as a Crafty Park Ranger

Working as a ranger came with feelings of great responsibility, pride and passion for untamed wilderness. It also came with a lot of time alone in a very small entrance booth facing the same two trees for hours at a time.

Eventually, I got to know and love those two trees (which turned out to be red alders). I started to notice little details, like their adorably tiny pine cones. Soon, I was reading about them. Apparently, after a wildfire, red alder trees are among the first to courageously repopulate the area, making way for new life. And the knitter in me was excited to learn that their bark could be used to create a natural, rusty red dye.

Suddenly, my nameless tree companions became a life form I was emotionally invested in.

This mirrored my experience as I got to know the park. Every lichen, wasp, bird and stone became a source of fascination until this place I called my “office” took root inside of me. And though I no longer work and live on the Olympic Peninsula, it’s part of who I am.

And it continues to inspire the patterns, colors and textures I choose for knitting.

A green handknit sweater and hat.

I often choose deep greens as I did for this Tin Can Knits Flax Sweater (left), or forest motifs like this Boyland Knitworks’ Faller’s Cap (right). Photos by Amira Umphres

The first time I saw Olympic National Park was the summer of 2013. It got under my skin and never left. Its enchanting landscape has a habit of taking hold of your heart. I dreamed of being a part of it.

I’d volunteered for the San Antonio Missions National Park, majored in anthropology as an undergraduate and worked for UT Austin’s computed-tomography lab in the Geosciences school. You could say I was a little obsessed with science, history and natural heritage.

But it wasn’t until I saw a documentary on national parks where an African American park ranger was interviewed that I actually felt I could take the leap. Seeing someone who looked like me in ranger uniform somehow melted away a lot of the doubts I’d had about becoming a ranger myself.

With this thought floating in the back of my head, and some helpful tips from a friend who’d worked as a park ranger, in the spring of 2015, I sent out applications to almost every national park in the U.S.

I only got one reply.

It was from Olympic. They had a spot for me at the Hoh Rainforest.

I said yes immediately and drove 1,900 miles from my home in Iowa with my family in tow. We rented a one-bedroom house connected to an old surf shop in Forks (the town of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books fame) and settled in for the summer.

Snow-covered mountains, an African American woman in a park ranger uniform holds a baby, purple flowers by a body of water.

From left to right: Hurricane Ridge, My daughter, Nora and I, Flowers in the park. Photos by Amira Umphres

Olympic National Park is an unparalleled protected wilderness. Not a single road crosses through the park. To get from one end of the peninsula to the other, you have to go the long way around (or, I suppose, you could hike!).

The peninsula has a population of around 378,000, spread out over 3,600 square miles. My fellow rangers were a tight-knit bunch. There’s not much choice when you’re living in such a remote place.

Though I was stationed at the Hoh, part of my job was to explore the rest of the park. We had work days dedicated to getting up close and personal with as many areas of the park as we could. It’s a very, very big park.

Life on the Olympic Peninsula

Not only is the park large in size, it’s large in biodiversity.

Olympic shelters an impressive range of flora and fauna. There’s a swift elevation change between the snowy mountain peaks and the sweeping coastal forests and beaches. These changes create precious and varied habitats. Olympic also houses the last stand of old growth temperate rainforest in the lower 48 states.

Like the landscape, the weather varies wildly. Olympic’s intense beauty is carved out by landslides, floods, wind storms, avalanches, heavy snows and wildfires.

Black bears, beaver, salmon, cougars, mink, whales, deer, marmots and otters (among many others) call the park home. And so does the largest herd of wild Roosevelt elk in the country.

Actually, the Roosevelt elk were the first to greet me on my first day at work. The Upper Hoh Road stretches roughly 18 miles from the main highway to the park entrance. It curves and bumps through towering hemlock, spruce and cedar trees, taking you around blind corners and sharp curves.

It was around one of these corners that I was welcomed — and stopped — by a herd of elk that had chosen the road as a spot for a nap.

I honked my horn. Nothing. Honked again. Got a few stares.

So I waited. No one was coming or going on the road that time of morning. I had no cell service.

After a couple of lazy minutes, they decided to move on. Slowly. I was late to work. And I learned to live a little more slowly in this place. Slowly, and far more connected to (and at the mercy of) nature than I’d ever been.

A Place of Connection

Knitting so often comes from a place of love and connection to the things we deeply care for. And Olympic is a living, breathing reminder of connection. I’ll share just one, small piece of that connection here.

Large tree roots.

A fallen tree showing its roots, Olympic National Park. Photo by Amira Umphres.

During one of those quiet times working the entrance booth, I came across a brief paragraph in a book. It was about the shallow roots of the rainforest’s trees.

With approximately 140 inches of annual rainfall, they have no reason to go far, which made sense to me. But I hadn’t thought about how these shallow roots played a role in the grand scheme of things.

Washington’s wind storms are notorious for blowing down massive trees, and the trees fall easily because of their shallow roots. And when they fall across a river, they create shelters — shelters where salmon can safely spawn, and where their tiny fry can grow and flourish. Once they’re old enough, after living in the safety of the fallen tree, they swim downriver, following it to the distant ocean, where they remain for several years.

But once they’re ready, they remember. They find their river. And not just any river — their home river. They swim with all their strength to get back. They jump as they go, fighting against the currents.

They don’t just return to the same river — they return to the exact place, the shelter, where they were born. And there they spawn… and die.

Their bodies become part of the soil, bringing rich nutrients from the ocean. Nutrients needed by — you guessed it — the trees that helped bring them safely into the world. They give back to the trees with their lives.

I’d sit alongside these rivers, watching the trees and, later in the fall, watching the salmon return. It was my favorite place to knit, because knitting for me is a way to connect, to make something I could use to give back to those who nurtured me with their love and kindness. Like trees and salmon.

A beach and a lake in clouds and fog.

Second Beach on a cloudy day (left) and Lake Crescent in fog (right). Photos by Amira Umphres

5 favorite knitting spots in Olympic

Second Beach at La Push: Second Beach doesn’t require a ton of hiking to get to the coast — which meant I could haul plenty of yarn. The beach is breathtaking and rarely overwhelmed with people. Driftwood from massive trees make perfect natural seating for crafting.

Lake Crescent: Lake Crescent is downright dreamy with crystal waters encased by mountains. One of my favorite knitting moments on Lake Crescent was watching a bald eagle float through the sky, then dive for fish.

Hoh River: It’s no surprise that the Hoh River was one of my favorite knitting spots. There was silence, beauty and serenity beyond compare.

Kalaloch Lodge: Kalaloch’s Creekside Restaurant — there’s no better place to catch a sunset. And no place better for public knitting than while watching the Pacific do its thing from an elegant dining room.

Ruby Beach: Low tide at Ruby Beach is an absolute must-see. And tide pools were the perfect place to have my kiddo entertained, searching for starfish and sea urchins while I kicked back on a beach blanket with my latest WIP.

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Olympic National Park is a stunning palette of colors — from pristine snow to blue glaciers, brilliant emeralds and deep mossy greens, dusky sand beaches and steely ocean skies, purple starfish and white foamy waves, slick black sea stacks and peach sunsets. I can’t think of a better place to knit — and to reflect on the people, places and moments that inspire us to keep creating.

What to stash this week: The Great American Knitting Road Trip

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Indie Untangled is going on a road trip across the USA, helping our national parks along the way. For Knitting Our National Parks, several indie dyers will create exclusive colorways inspired by photos from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Instagram feed, with 10% of sales donated to the National Park Foundation. The trip starts today with the above yarn from Backyard Fiberworks. Dyer Alice takes her inspiration from this photo of North Cascades National Park in her native Washington State. Preorders will run through June 30 and the yarn will ship at the end of July.

If you want another souvenir from your trip through the national parks this year, Vicki has you covered. She is launching a collection of yarny accessories to coincide with the release of each Knitting Our National Parks colorway in 2017, using this super fun fabric from Amy Peppler Adams’s Soda Nation collection. This zipper wristlet is available to preorder for two weeks starting today.

If you’re looking to do more than just stare at and admire the yarns in the Pandia’s Jewels Regency Collection, inspired by the world of Jane Austen, knit and wrap yourself in Afternoons at Longbourn. Inspired by the residence of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, is a triangle shawl with fringe that allows you to use the various colors from the collection, which is available to purchase through Sunday, June 18.

Speaking of strong women, Slipped Stitch Studios has the ultimate girl power fabrics, available for a limited time. This week, you can preorder project bags with tattoos and a knitting mermaid and Doctor Who Companions. AND, starting today at 9 a.m. Pacific Time, Laura will open preorders for Wonder Woman project bags! There is even an exclusive matching colorway from Inner Yarn Zen. Act fast — all preorders close Monday, June 19.

Indie Untangled newcomer Knits4Comfort has an Etsy shop stocked with goodies to help you bring comfort to others — or yourself.

Introducing: Knitting Our National Parks (plus a giveaway)

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Last fall at the Indie Untangled trunk show at Woolyn in Brooklyn, I was chatting with Alice of Backyard Fiberworks about collaborating with dyers on exclusive colorways and doing something to raise money for a good cause. This was a few weeks after the election and just before the holidays, so many of my knitting and non-knitting friends were feeling compelled to give back.

Alice asked me if I followed the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Instagram feed, which features gorgeous images captured by park employees and both amateur and professional photographers. She then came up with a brilliant idea: have dyers create colorways based on photos from the feed and donate a percentage of the profits to the parks.

I’m excited to finally debut this latest project, Knitting Our National Parks. Over the next year, several indies will get inspiration from the natural beauty found across the U.S. Dyers who have signed on for this year include Pigeonroof Studios, Jill Draper Makes Stuff and Duck Duck Wool, with others to participate in 2018. Vicki of That Clever Clementine will also be creating project bags with fun national parks-themed fabric. 10% of all yarn sales will be donated to the National Park Foundation.

Since this was Alice’s suggestion, she has kicked off the project with a colorway based on the above photo of North Cascades National Park in her native Washington State (fittingly, her father once worked in the park through the Youth Conservation Corps). The yarn is available to preorder now through June 30.

Another exciting part of this project was getting to work with the talented Erin Kate Archer, a fellow Brooklynite, on the Knitting Our National Parks illustration. I discovered Erin’s work while I was browsing knitting art on Etsy. Erin creates both travel watercolors and knitted landscapes, and I knew right away that her work would be perfect for this.

Erin has made prints of the illustration, inspired by Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State, available for sale. She has also generously donated a couple of her 8×10 prints as prizes, so I will be hosting a giveaway on the blog. To enter, comment here with your favorite U.S. national park, either that you’ve visited or hope to visit. The giveaway will run through midnight EDT on Friday, June 30 (which is also when preorders for Alice’s colorway close). A winner will be chosen via random number generator.

This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to winner Marie!

I hope you enjoy coming along with us on this fun journey through the parks!