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Thursday, March 11, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Majesty Of The Mountain -- Ruth Kirk Chronicles 100 Years Of Wonder And Woes At Mount Rainier National Park

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park" Ruth Kirk will present a slide show and discuss her new book, "Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park," at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kane Hall at the University of Washington, Seattle. Sponsored by the University Bookstore and KUOW-FM (94.9). For more information, call 206-545-4365. ------------------------------- "Sunrise to Paradise" is also the companion to an exhibit by the same title at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. The Museum exhibit runs through Jan. 9, 2000. Call toll-free 888-238-4373 for hours and admission prices. The book is also a companion to a television documentary, "Rainier the Mountain," produced by Jean Walkinshaw, which will premiere on KCTS-TV on April 10 at 8 p.m. -------------------------------

At last week's centennial celebration of Mount Rainier National Park, even the cake was shaped and frosted in the likeness of the spectacular volcanic peak. The party was a success but for one item: the guest of honor never put in an appearance.

"The dear Mountain refused to show itself," acknowledged one of those in attendance, author Ruth Kirk, in an interview a few days later. But on the lower slopes, she added loyally, "the snow on the trees was just exquisite."

Kirk has a longstanding acquaintance with the vagaries and charms of Mount Rainier. She lived inside the park for five years in the 1950s with her husband, a naturalist and National Park Service ranger. She has climbed to the summit five times (once to install a new benchmark certifying the height of the mountain) as well as circumambulated the peak via the famous 93-mile-long Wonderland Trail. Her years at Mount Rainier undoubtedly helped inspire her 1977 book, "Snow" - a gem that is part natural history, part social history.

When plans began to take shape at University of Washington Press not long ago to produce a book as part of the commemoration of 100 years of Mount Rainier National Park, Kirk was tapped as the obvious choice for author. The result, "Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park," (University of Washington Press, $40 cloth, $22.50 paper) is a pleasurable ramble across time.

"I want this to be a something-for-everybody book," Kirk announces in her preface. To a large degree, she succeeds, and that's due in part to the fact that this is also a something-by-everybody book. Kirk enlisted friends she has made over her half-century of her experience with the Mountain - park rangers, climbers, naturalists - to write of their memories and experiences within the park. The inclusion of these sidebars gives a nice personal dimension to this book. "That way it isn't an outsider's report of the Mountain, but insiders' evocations of the Mountain," Kirk said.

There are sections on geology, glaciers, "snorting poles," flying saucers, wildflowers and wild animals. Kirk also traces the history of human interaction with the mountain - from Native American legends of the place to white folks' get-rich-quick schemes involving the import of tourists and the export of timber and glacier ice. One error intrudes - the book marks the death of noted local mountaineer Willi Unsoeld 15 years earlier than the actual date of his death, 1979.

The whole idiosyncratic mix is generously illustrated with maps, sketches, paintings and photographs. Most revealing are the historical photos - the tent cities and car caravans give an interesting glimpse of how differently the park once was conceived. Back when President William McKinley signed the Mount Rainier National Park Bill a century ago, the protection afforded the landscape was a nebulous thing.

As Kirk points out in the book, "The first five park superintendents at Rainier had backgrounds in engineering or road-building rather than natural history." In fact, Mount Rainier was the first national park to allow entry of motorized vehicles. The resulting Pandora's box of congestion and negative environmental impact could have been even worse, had gung-ho engineers had their way. It's hard to believe today, but at one point there was a proposal to pave a road all the way to the summit!

On the other hand, Mount Rainier was also the first national park to develop a long-range master plan, and the Park Service's role as conservator of the Mountain's natural ecosystem has evolved over time. Today the park has a dozen scientists on staff. Their task is daunting: imagine trying to mitigate the impact of some two million people who pass through the park's log portals every year.

"Sunrise to Paradise" captures the genuine fondness and propriety that people feel for this volcano, often referred to simply as The Mountain. But the book is right in suggesting that the Park's greatest challenge in the next century will be to prevent Mount Rainier from being loved to death.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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