Trip Journal: Olympic Glory (2000, Olympic National Park, Washington)

Saturday, July 22, 2000

Chicago, Illinois, to Tacoma, Washington

We were bound for a backpacking trip in the Olympic National Forest on the rainy coast of Washington state, though the view out the airplane window was a hazy Georgia midday, long-needle pines speeding past and away, and patches of raw Georgia earth hurtling hundreds of feet below us.

Tangled greenery flutters by as the plane climbed higher, the lawns in the Atlanta suburbs seeming lumpy, as if the people living there were fighting a losing battle with the encroaching shrubs in that hot, humid Southern summer. Then the haze closed in, subtracting the landscape shade by shade until all that was visible on the ground was tiny spots of orangish light reflecting off the scattering of sub-Appalachian streams and ponds. They shimmered until they, too, were swallowed by the low, gossamer stratum of damp summer heat.

Now we were in the clouds, heading at last for Seattle and the Olympics. Mind you, we left from Chicago—three hours of traveling already, counting our layover in Atlanta. (In trying to find the cheapest airfare on Priceline, we’d agreed to one layover.)

Only after committing to buy the tickets did Priceline tell us our layover from Chicago to Seattle would be in Atlanta. Rarely do you get to see the entire United States in a single day.

What a bargain.

I am sitting next to Matt Cassidy, and he looks taller than when I saw him last week. He did so much paperwork to coordinate the travel plans of nine people – on different flights, leaving from different cities at different times – that he called me at work a few days earlier to tell me he refused to organize anything more complicated than making his own peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the rest of the week.

“I’m done, dude.”


“Once I get to the airport, I’m just along for the ride.”


Lifting the weight from his shoulders must have felt good; Matt actually looked relaxed, a rarity.

Across the aisle sat Al Smith, Matt’s boss in the realm of their day-to-day work, which for Al and Matt meant coding software for financial institutions on LaSalle Street. Al is a jolly type – picture a black Willard Scott, and you have the idea – and says he has never done something like this before in his life. I’ve been troubled by such statements before, but coming from Al, the cheerful admission just seems like I’ve being let in on a good joke. All of us were eagerly looking forward to sharing in his discoveries. The man could find the humor in watching his dog getting run over; I couldn’t conceive of a situation in which tired feet would send him over the edge.

Beside Al was my sister Jessica, a regular on such excursions, though we’re seldom on the same trips. The day after we return, she’s leaving for Memphis to start graduate studies there in psychology. She’s pissed at me right now for getting the window seat. Perhaps, I think, because she wants to spot Memphis out the window of the plane as we fly over it. Jammed in the center seat of the center aisle, however, she’s making a valiant effort to sleep through the flight. The alternative seemed to be thinking about moving to a new city. The flight from Chicago to Atlanta was two hours, though; if she caught any more sleep, she wouldn’t need another nap until after her dissertation was drafted. I promised myself I would trade with her as soon as we got to cruising altitude. I then intentionally forgot.

On Jessica’s other side was Dave Gummersall. He’s already wearing the lopsided smile and furrowed brow that means he’s having fun. As opposed to the lopsided frown and furrowed brow that means he’s figuring out an intellectual quandary or is irritated by the haphazard way the world works.

Truly, here is a man who loves order. Where Matt left off on scheduling matters, Dave seems to have informally picked up. It’s in his nature. We tolerate him because he’s also outrageously funny; an impression he did in the airport bar in Atlanta and some uncanny timing were good enough to have me spraying beer out my nose.

Dave’s insidious like that. It’s also in his nature.

Two-thousand, seven-hundred and some miles from Atlanta stands the Olympic peninsula. It juts like a hammerhead towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca, guarding Seattle and the Puget Sound from the North Pacific Ocean. It was formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, a crash that formed the upthrust mountains in the center of the peninsula. On all but the highest of those craggy peaks, a carpet of two-hundred-foot Douglas firs dominates the landscape. On ocean-facing slopes are a smattering of redwoods; near the coast and along rivers grow enormous cedars. Though the plant geni in the Olympics are essentially the same as in the Northwoods of Central Canada, in coastal Washington, the species grow bigger.

The Doug firs have an average diameter of four feet. The cedars are as wide as a commercial van is long. Even the dwarf dogwoods along the trails wound up looking larger than I remembered them in Northern Minnesota. This, I would imagine, is what the Northwoods must have looked like before they were logged. Once, these enormous forests would have stretched from Maine, across the northern expanses of the Great Plaines, and back down the spines of the Canadian Rockies. Now, the really big trees huddle against the North Pacific coast.

But the woods here are not ancient, at least not by geologic or even biological standards. The glaciers retreated from this rocky ground only six thousand years ago. This forest has really just reached its prime.

Another important note about the Olympic peninsula: It hosts the only rain forest in North America. Every year, prevailing Westerlies suck cool moisture out of the Pacific and drop it on the Olympics to the tune of 216 inches or so a year. That’s an average of just over a half-inch a day, or roughly the amount in a day as you’d get in a typical mid-summer cloudburst in the upper Midwest. Every day, spread out all day in a monotonous drizzle that recharges the greenery here so much that walking ten feet off a well-used trail to take a leak is extending an invitation to becoming lost.

We landed in the rain just after 10 p.m., Seattle time, the kind of rain that isn’t sure if it’s a dense fog or a light downpour. It left streaks across the airplane windows and coated the landing strip and taxiways. Lights from Seatac International were mirrored in fuzzy reflections on the ground.

At this hour, the airport was nearly empty, and spotting our hosts was easy. Taking great loping strides over the floor mosaics was Tom Janega, Jess’s and my uncle, and a resident of Tacoma. His lanky frame is well over six feet though he has a tall man’s stoop that takes a good inch off him. Below his proud Czech nose is nothing but elbows and knees, wrapped up in a raffish Palestinian keffiyeh, finished off with size-14 hiking boots. He smells, at 45 or so, of patchouli oil. Beside him is a quiet, 13-year-old, toe-headed miniature of him, my cousin Alex, his shoulders shrugged up to his ears and a shy smile defeating his best efforts to coolly acknowledge our arrival. They promise us a pitcher of vodka-tonics at their house.

“I love it,” Al was saying, relentlessly cheery. “I love it. Ha ha.”

Behind him, two enormous backpacks were shouldering their way through the fellow travelers from our plane. Underneath the packs were the remaining two members of our group, Scott Steiner and Valerie Harder. Steiner’s long hair is stuffed under a ball cap, and a weak smile was peeking out from under a full beard. Val looked similarly travel-wilted; her typical mischievous grin now a thin line. They had flown in yesterday, overnighted with a friend and done the food shopping earlier today. God knows how long they’d been waiting in Seatac for us to land. My guess, from looking at Val’s face, was hours.

“Hey you guys.” Scott set down the duffel bag he’d been carrying, and the group’s food clunked heavily to the ground.

“Vodka-tonics. Vodka-tonics coming up,” Al was telling them. They’d never met, but Al was instantly intimate with everyone, it seemed. “Gonna be all right. Gonna be great!”

Who could argue with that?

While people were inside the Janega house, the doors were always open. After dropping our gear in the graying cedar garage and crossing the aging house’s wrap-around porch with heavy booted steps, we squeezed past the half-dozen teens and twenty-something hipsters who were my cousin Nora’s self-described “posse.”

We lounged together in the cozy living room, sipping the promised vodka-tonics and trading happy stories. A litter of kittens and two enormous dogs shuttled between us. After Nora and her posse went out for the night, talk turned to the Olympic peninsula, our route along the Hoh River trail, and the numerous Sasquatch sightings in the chilly jungles nearby.

“I didn’t believe it at first myself,” Tom argued. He was a carpenter, and had himself seen a suspicious track while building a National Park Service station on the Pacific coast at Kalaloch, just below the Hoh Indian Reservation.

“I thought the other guys I was working with were having me on,” he continued. So, he said he mentioned to the Park Service ranger overseeing the area instead of the rest of his crew.

“The guy went diving for his shed and came out with a bucket full of plaster-of-paris. Dead serious. He said he wanted a cast of the thing for their census. That’s right, their census, Jack. There are so many sightings on that coast that the Park Service tracks their population. By the distinguishing footprints, he says they follow the movements of at least three juvenile males nearby.”

I never checked this with the local Park Service people—the story is too good.

“When I said I doubted it,” Tom was swirling his lime around the last of his vodka-tonic and leaning back on a couch, “you know what he told me?”

“‘Wouldn’t it be strange if the Olympic peninsula was the only rain forest in the world without a large primate that was native to it?'”

We pondered the suggestion and the next day’s hike as we soaked in the wood-fired hot tub in Tom’s backyard. A blanket hung from a clothesline for privacy protected the neighbors from the sight of our pasty, tired forms. In the garage, the food and group equipment had been divvied up among our packs. The bench seats in the crowded rental van had been taken out to make more room in the morning, and the last of our travel aches were melting off into the scalding heat of the chin-deep water.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a Sasquatch,” said Scott. Val looked at her hairy boyfriend stewing in the redwood hot tub.

“You are a Sasquatch,” she said.

Sunday, July 23, 2000

Tacoma to the Hoh River Trail

The hot tub was too inviting to pass up on a lonely early morning. A steady, chilly mizzle was falling as people began to stir, and before long, Tom was pouring hot tea for the group of people clunking around his porch.

Al was leaning thoughtfully on the porch railing, peering off into the distance. All I could see in that direction was the street and the side of a neighbor’s house, so I asked what he was thinking about.

“My kids,” he said with a smile. It is impossible not to like Al immensely. He started talking about what they did for a living, their spouses, and their lives. I was surprised he had children as old as I was.

“So do you think you’ll be a grandparent, soon?” It was meant as a jest, a prod in case he was fretting about time passing too quickly, or something.

“I am a grandfather,” he said with another beatific smile.

By this point, Tom’s dogs happily marauded the portions of the neighborhood within view, though always seemed underfoot somehow when you had a pastry in hand. Alex was the last up, and sleepily threw his lanky form into the gear-crowded mini-van. That was the signal to go, I suppose.

We left around 8:30 a.m., tracing the southern reaches of the Puget Sound in the gray morning. We were still chatting as we passed the state capital building in Olympia, were growing quiet by the time we passed Aberdeen and turned north onto U.S. 101, and had slunk into an uncomfortable torpor by the time we reached the improbably-named Humptulips just south of the Quinault Indian Reservation. Not even the unlikely sight of crudely made, plywood roadside espresso stands could cheer us up, and our legs were as sound asleep as most of us wished we could be. Only Alex slumbered.

By 1 p.m., we pulled into the crowded parking lot at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center. Low clouds obscured the heights that surrounded us, but we were back in good spirits after a recent stop at a roadside sign luring us to pause with the simple boast: “Big Cedar.”

Inland about a half mile, the dirt road stopped and a trail picked up. We stumbled out of the van and along the short trail to what I have to say was the most enormous cedar tree I’d ever seen in my life. It was 30 feet across at its twisting, root-and-vine-covered base, and stretched up and away from us for at least 150 feet, its crown lost in the dense growth overhead. Alex immediately began climbing, and got a good 20 feet up the thing before he couldn’t go any higher. We all looked at the ancient, gnarled tree in stunned silence.

“Huh,” Matt finally said. “Big cedar.”

There didn’t seem to be much more to say.

At any rate, we were back into the swing of things by the time we lurched into the visitor center parking lot and poured out in a chattering mass. I can’t explain why it always takes ten minutes to put on backpacks and get going, but after several false starts and a few entreaties to passers-by to take our pictures as we posed goofily by the trailhead, we finally stepped off.

My copy of the Outdoor Family Guide to Washington’s National Parks and Monuments has a lot to say about the forest at the beginning of this trail.

“The Hoh,” it says, “is one of the two wettest areas in the continental United States. (The Verlot area, also in Western Washington, is the other.) Rainfall averages 148 inches a year.”

Some of it was falling now. Huh.

The sun, even in July, was a rarity on this trip, not that there was much sky to see beneath the enormous Doug firs towering on either side of the trail. Everything was hushed by a thick carpet of moss that slunk along the ground, ascended the trunks of trees and even sheathed the tiniest overhanging twigs. The Guide told me I was also looking at “a beautiful understory of ferns, lichens, moss, and oxalis.”

“Excellent examples of nurse logs,” it further assured me, “are seen, supporting trees that vary in age from seedling to stately colonnades of mature trees.”

All true. It took me a moment to put my finger on why everything seemed so odd though, and then I realized what was missing: birds. I couldn’t hear a single one. The forest near the trailhead was spacious and dim, the trees widely spaced by their enormous crowns hundreds of feet above us. They blocked out direct sunlight, rain and wind noises, and surrendered only the merest glimpses of tree-covered, far-off peaks—and those only when a fallen tree left a gap in the foliage and the clouds hanging in the Hoh River valley agreed to part long enough to provide a view.

It was a majestic forest, primeval and jumbled, misty and silent.

Except for the muttered curses of our group as we endlessly adjusted pack straps, or our cheerful banter as we walked along the smooth trail. We ambled and paused often, making way for returning backpackers and rock climbers. Day hikers were still frequent, and everyone nodded in a friendly fashion as we squeezed past on the narrow path.

We had begun to come alongside the Hoh River, a turgid, gray-green torrent tumbling out of the inland mountains ahead of us. It came and went to our right, like a happily disobedient dog on a woodland hike. Every few hundred yards or so, we would step around a pile of mossy Roosevelt elk droppings, or point out their fleeting tracks. Huge ferns rose above the moss, and huckleberry bushes were starting to come into season.

“Watch for bears,” Tom suggested.

We got quieter as we buckled down to the actual task of covering distance. I half-heartedly peered into the thickening forest for a glimpse of curious Sasquatch juvenile males, and miles ticked by until five had passed.

We detoured onto a side trail that led towards the river. Packs hit the ground with a satisfying thud as we rejected the notion of going farther. The next campsite’s view couldn’t be much better than this. The terrain was much drier and now supported deciduous trees. On the whole, the immediately surrounding foliage was reminiscent of shrubby, Mississippi River bottomland.

We found a sunny site at a gurgling bend in the river, and here it looked like Alaska: The lonely river churned between rounded blue-gray rocks, and the clouds had parted to reveal a beautiful view of distant snow-covered peaks. Gaps in the dark green mountains nearby revealed yellow-green hills beyond, fading to distant gray-green ridges beyond.

Shoes came off and we plunged our feet in the freezing water. Yesterday, it occurred to us, this water was a glacier. The diversion didn’t last long.

We were actually camped on an island—Five Mile Island, it said on our semi-rubberized topographic map. Ahead of us and to our right was bare-headed Mount Olympus, invisible behind the ridge just south of the Hoh River. The patch of glacier visible from our campsite was Bogachiel Peak, ahead to our left. It looked like an hour’s hike from our campsite, but was in fact several miles away. That realization inspired Matt to check the distance from our campsite to the nearest mountain ridge: Two miles. That looked like a stone’s throw. The tufts of the trees along the ridge were clearly distinguishable.

“How big are those trees?” I asked. Alex shrugged.

“The same as the other ones.” He gestured to the grove of Doug fir giants we’d passed earlier. A few had fallen across the trail, which required a team of rangers to attack them with chain saws. Each tree looked like a solid afternoon’s work for them. Each one seemed to be nine or ten feet across. Redwoods were mixed sporadically in with the Doug firs, and both were so big it often wasn’t easy to tell them apart. I peered back across the river with newfound respect for the scale and distance of things. The row of hills I thought was on the far bank suddenly became a respectable mountain range. Row after row of giants covered the ridge, dwarfed by the mountains they covered. We’d have to climb that ridge tomorrow afternoon to reach camp on Elk Lake, which meant ascending about 2,000 feet, most of that in the last mile-and-a-half of hiking.

Not that any of us were dwelling on that. Things so far had gone smoothly, and our campsite was rapidly becoming a comfortable home-away-from-home. Val sat on the river bank watching the blue sky chase away the clouds in the valley to our east. Scott swatted absent-mindedly at the island’s strangely slow flies. Dave was remarking on the huge, glistening black slugs in the grass on the way to the campsite’s outhouse. Someone found a millipede, and a single raven squawked from somewhere downstream, perhaps the first bird I’d heard all day.

Tom and Alex were sitting on a ground cloth while Tom rummaged through his pack to begin making—I’m absolutely serious—cucumber maki rolls. Jess watched in fascination and the rest of us, who were looking at a comparatively pedestrian meal of spaghetti, eyed him with undisguised jealousy.

He shoveled steaming rice from the pot on his camp stove. From the depths of his enormous green pack came fish sauce and cucumbers, the peels of which he used to wrap the rice. It was the first of many culinary surprises he would produce all week.

As the sun set, we banked our cooking fire and gathered around for tea and cocoa. The woods chilled with the dark, and before long, the mosquitoes disappeared.

The Hoh River, we learned from Tom, was a sort of No Man’s Land between the local Quilayute and Makah Indians. Like nearby Kalaloch (the name means “lots of clams”), it belonged to both tribes and neither. The Makah, however, being adept boatsmen, paddled here each fall when the salmon were running. When they fished at such times, there was no fooling with hooks or even nets. No, salmon ran so thick on these rivers that fishing was done from shore with a pitchfork. So many could be caught that the tribes subsisted on a nearly exclusive seafood diet.

You could tell the salmon were coming, by the way, by watching the tiny red berries on the plants along the shores, called salmonberries in deference to their predictive properties. They ripened late in the summer, about when the big fish would heave themselves upstream to spawn. Eventually, the fire died down and the cold drove us into our tents. The boiling river became a lullaby, singing its story of salmon runs and native berry harvests.

No Sasquatch showed themselves.

Monday, July 24, 2000

Hoh River Trail, Five Mile Island to Elk Lake

It was after 10 a.m. when we woke up. The day was sunny and warm, with only a few puffy clouds skudding across an azure sky. The highest mountain peaks remained swathed in cloud cover, but the valley was dry. The change in apparent precipitation from the first portion of our hike was remarkable.

Though our breakfast of oatmeal packets was less than luxuriant, we gave ourselves an extravagant amount of time to eat it and break camp. It must have been noon when we trailed off behind Alex through grassy bottomland, back across a dry river channel and onto the crushed stone that made up the Hoh River Trail.

Just as the greenery had changed somewhat, there was beginning to be a barely perceptible rise to our hike. We were only 50 meters higher today than we were when we left the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center. In the next half-mile we crossed another brown contour line on our map, another 50 meters of elevation gained.

This was like a beautiful day in the Northwoods, only more vertical. All the plant species we saw looked familiar, save for their still-jarring sizes. The river remained in view, now, foaming to our right and below us in its rocky bed. The mountains stood out from each other in detailed relief, the views spectacular even at our low altitude. We marched in pairs, quiet conversations rumbling swiftly through a silent forest of firs and moss.

Alex, whose general confidence suggested he’d been to every hikeable trail in Western Washington, surprised me when he told me he’d never been here. The nearby Cascade Range, he assured me, was absolutely his turf, though.

“What’s the difference?” I asked. The Cacades run north to south just east of the Pacific coast. One of it’s highest peaks, stately Mount Ranier, is visible from Seattle. You can see it from Tom’s kitchen window. I couldn’t see how different it would be from this.

“The Cascades are at a higher altitude. Mount Hood, Mount Adams, all those are up there. Mount St. Helens. It’s drier,” he summed up. “It’s pretty cool.”

With his family, Alex has been trekking around Washington’s wilderness areas since he was 20 months old. He proudly points to his bony shoulders.

“I was made for backpacking,” he said. “See? The pack straps are right on my collar bones. My whole skeleton supports the weight of the pack.” He sped off jauntily, thumbs hooked farmer-like under his pack straps.

Sweating way more than I would admit to Alex, I looked back. Tom and Al were chatting comfortably, plodding along steadily. Scott was still grabbing a fistful of bearberries from every ripe bush he passed, which was many, and Dave and Jess were laughing about something philosophical.

Matt passed by and we agreed that, whether our bodies were made for backpacking or not, life was pretty good.

It got exciting shortly after we crossed our first rock slide of the trip. The water trickling along its path had just dried from our boots when there was a light breeze from the west and then a sudden POP!

We all stopped and looked behind us for the source of the noise. There was a sound of rushing branches, and then a crashing thud you could feel through the ground. Nobody saw the tree that had given way, but it was obvious what had caused the racket. Inadvertently, our eyes appraised the enormous trunks around us.

“If a ten-foot-wide tree falls in the woods…” Val started saying.

“Wow,” said Dave.

“…and no one is directly underneath it …”


“…does anyone have to die?”

“I love it,” Al was saying. “I love it.”

Just before reaching the Olympus ranger station, the steep and winding Hoh Lake trail climbs up and to the left, back and forth across the face of Green Peak to the Seven Lakes Basin. It’s apparently a popular trip, and the area around the Olympus station is a busy crossroads. Groups are coming down the river trail and camping in the sites nearby.

The single-room ranger station has an inviting porch, and we ate sloppy peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches there with a California woman. She was waiting for her friends to return from the High Hoh Bridge, about five miles up the trail.

I was embarrassed to discover that this group had camped on Five Mile Island with us the night before. With an early start, they were already returning from a landmark just two miles shy of our campsite. Their arrival spurred us into action. High Hoh, High Hoh, it’s up the trail we go. (No one could resist the pun, but nobody could make it sound as funny as it should have been, either.)

Within the hour, we met up with the rangers, two young women, one of them walking with ski poles and a bandaged knee. They’d been checking the trail, and reported we were close to the High Hoh, save for “a few little rises,” followed by a “steady incline” on the south end of the bridge up to our camp at Elk Lake.

We thanked them, and soon realized that “a few little rises” depended on your definition of “little.” And possibly “rise.”

But they were right. The few mountain ribs we crossed north of the bridge were nothing compared to the two-hour-long uphill monotony that faced us on the other side. The group became so widely spaced apart that Matt and I communicated by radio from the two ends of the train.

It seemed so easy looking at the map, and frankly, doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect, but my thoughts on the climb when through a steady retrogression from a prosaic “The mountain is lifting me, all it asks in return is that I put one foot ahead of the other,” to the mathematical “One foot vertical for every five feet horizontal. No problem,” to the numb “There is a mountain. I must walk.” And then came “It’s relentless. It’s trying to kill me.” Followed by “Life is a meaningless existence of suffering.”

The sun bored through the gaps in the branches and sucked the sweat out of scalps and backs. I struggled to keep my breathing regular and worried at the lack of water in my canteen. Thighs burned as the trail climbed and wound its switchback path up the mountain. Now Glacier Creek was ahead of us; now behind us. We ascended into cloud level, a welcome relief from the heat, though the fact that we could never see the top of the relatively small mountain we were climbing became something of a torment. People in the group were simultaneously above and below, ahead and behind. The only cheerful person was Alex and possibly, far ahead, Tom.

Just when I was about to call the whole thing off, I looked down and to my right and saw a tiny Scott and tiny Val standing on the near side of a deceptively precarious-looking log bridge. We had just risen above a tumbling, 100-foot waterfall on Glacier Creek, and at this distance, the bark-stripped tree looked like a toothpick.

“You’re going to love this,” I called into the radio for Matt. Judging from his periodic reports, he and Al were perhaps a half-mile behind us but moving steadily. “At least we’re near the top,” I added for thin comfort.

I descended to the log bridge, where Tom and Alex were also waiting. Up close, of course, it was enormous. You could have walked horses across the broad trunk. Some kind soul with a chain saw had even flattened the top into a foot-wide pathway. A second giant tree had been felled within leaning distance to the right. Below us, the creek raged out of the mountains and hurled itself off a cliff just out of view. Upstream, pointy, tree-covered peaks watched our progress.

“This was worth it,” Scott said. Tom was waxing poetic about the purity and grandeur of the alpine wilderness when Al and Matt came around the bend above us.

“Oh, hell no,” Matt reported Al saying when he saw the bridge. “Uh-uh.”

It was a springy but uneventful crossing, and a level trip to the surprisingly crowded Elk Lake campground. In the end, we doubled back almost to the bridge to a spacious site. A sign said it was the highest point where you could camp with horses (“Horses?” shrieked Dave. “You mean we could have done it with horses?!”), but more importantly, it was also the highest campsite where we could have a wood fire. Any higher and we’d have to cook on stoves and tell stories in our tents.

We made a hurried camp in the fading light. We had left rain forest sometime yesterday afternoon, crossed a relatively dry but still lush northern forest, and then ascended in the last hour or so into the realm of cloud forest. It never rained but was never dry. Cool, dense moisture drifted through the trees, became trapped in the fir needles and drummed out and endless tap…tap…tap onto the eager ground below. Verdant moss was again a common fixture, carpeting everything. Our campfire sizzled to life and water was drawn from the river. We settled into a lazy evening.

It’s surprising how recent geological and human activity in this part of the world is. The United States as a whole has an extraordinarily brief human history, compared to European countries, and it’s weird to think that places like Astoria, Oregon, and Seattle didn’t really get settled until the early-1800s, and even then existed mostly as coastal fishing and logging operations.

The first white people into our immediate region, however, weren’t Americans, or even British. They were Russian traders. The first white woman into the area, Tom told us, was the wife of a shipwrecked Russian captain. They found their way ashore, where the husband made his way back to coastal settlements to try to find help. The wife became a slave of the local tribe and then the bride of one of its members. The husband never managed to return to get her. Pleasant, eh?

Actually it was, compared with other tales of ritual cannibalism that marked the time and place. But the favorite stories around the fire were about Sasquatch incidents.

The juvenile males are believed to be the ones most seen. Like any teens, I suppose, they seem to be attracted to construction and logging sites. Whether it’s because they’re shocked by the wholesale leveling of timber or think the big yellow construction machines are awfully cool, I don’t know. But their outsize footprints apparently show up a lot, if you believe the stories.

Some time ago, a group of local hunters didn’t think there was much to the rumors. That is, they didn’t until they spotted one of the unfortunate creatures on one weekend foray. Being four or five grown men emboldened by strong drink and high-powered rifles, they did what comes naturally: They shot the Bigfoot and dragged him back to their hunting cabin, convinced they were about to collect some serious prize money. One can almost imagine their discussions about amusement park rights.

At any rate, their giddy ruminations that night were interrupted by the sudden arrival of a 200-pound boulder as it came crashing through the roof. Diving under beds and tables, the local meteor shower continued for an hour, medicine-ball-sized stones being the average projectile weight as they hurtled through the roof and smashed to the floor. Outside, a continuous and chilling chorus of howling accompanied the bombardment.

At some point, the door crashed open and a small number of enraged yetis burst into the cabin, seized their fallen family member and exited rapidly. The rock pelting subsided and silence returned. The shaken hunters returned to town the next day with a good story but nothing else; their cabin was clearly destroyed by a hail of large rocks, but no sign of a dead Sasquatch could be found.

And here you begin to see Tom’s point from the other night: Anything could be out there in those woods. Trying to walk even a few feet off the trail quickly becomes a tiring exercise. White people haven’t been there very long, and don’t much venture into the deepest and darkest of forests, the margins of which provide the steadiest and most inexplicable supply of Sasquatch encounters. Local Indians, by the way, throw up their hands, look quickly away, and refuse to talk about the “hairy people” that live in the woods. Talking about them, they say, brings them down out of the hills.

Fair enough. We drifted off to sleep, water droplets falling from the trees in a steady pat-pat-pat on our tents, our feet throbbing in a noiseless echo.

Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Elk Lake to Blue Glacier

How breakfasts on this trip didn’t start until lunchtime is beyond me. All of us were staying up late and sleeping in, though. Especially after yesterday’s uphill slog, most of the group didn’t want to consider too seriously the possibility of breaking camp and going farther uphill.

So the decision all of sudden, around 1 p.m. or so, to day trip up to the foot of Mount Olympus came as a surprise to everyone, even me, and I may have suggested it. There was a slow-motion scurry for jackets and day packs, and a half-hour later, we limped up the trail, past lilypad-choked Elk Lake, and up into the high mountains.

Matt alone stayed behind, nursing a sore ankle and making us promise to keep in touch by radio. The hiking actually became quite pleasant without the added fifty pounds or so of the packs.

“We gotta eat more PB&J’s,” Dave said at one point in the conversation. “I’ve got about ten pounds of peanut butter in my pack, and I’m not carrying all that again tomorrow.”

“I’m not hungry enough,” Alex started to say. “Well … how much? Ten pounds? I could do that.”

“Please do.”

“I want to be 14,” Al said.

“So eating ten pounds of peanut butter wouldn’t matter?” Val asked.

We’d started calling Alex “The Rage” because of the band t-shirt he wore the whole trip. He’s kind of a taciturn youth, not at all Rage-like, so the name instantly took. The 13-year-old was also becoming the group mascot, and we were all looking forward to his birthday the next day.

Tom said he had something special in his backpack, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it was a chocolate birthday cake. Last night, he’d pulled out a package full of smoked oysters to eat around the fire, and today he was sharing a plastic box full of salty homemade beef jerky. My Inner Stomach was at peace. At no point on this trip did anyone complain about being hungry.

Dave was still trying to talk people into a trailside peanut butter snack and I was still getting over the woozy dehydrated feeling I’d woke up with when the first stunning views presented themselves.

We were still well below the treeline, though the Doug firs here were a paltry two feet wide at the base. Making our way across a scrubby hillside covered in what appeared to be witch hazel, we could see Elk Lake two hundred feet below us, as well as the slopes of the mountain on the other side of the valley before rushing clouds again swallowed the view. Above us, the mountain, actually a rib of Mount Olympus, stretched steeply out of sight into more clouds.

We are moving on a narrow trail around the edge of the mountainside. Every now and again, a vein of exposed rock would poke through the understory on our left, while to the right, the valley dropped steeply away, nine hundred feet down to the mist-veiled main stream of Glacier Creek. Soon, even it’s rushing presence was silenced by vertical distance. Our crunching footfalls became the only sound.

The valley here is still wide, a mile to the cloud-hugged mountain slope on the far side. The whole of it is never glimpsed at once.

A mile or two up the trail, it rises suddenly and turns sharply to the left, and looks as though a hiker could simply walk off into space. The valley below is partly visible now, at least the portion immediately below us. The corner ahead was filled with gray light, not at all like the comforting overcast of the forest.

Around the corner is a narrow rock slide, perhaps 30 feet across, which now doubles as a stream. The trail on the other side of the slide is thinner, maybe eight inches wide. It slopes precariously downhill and is muddy from the stream nearby and constant cloudy mizzle. After another 20 feet or so, it widens out and gets drier but, what with the 700-foot drop inches away to the right, it was enough to get hearts pounding for awhile.

We move through some more woods, tracing a contour line around another of the mountain’s ribs. Behind the next blind corner is a broad mudslide, dry crumbling dirt that is the same color as the trail, suggesting things have moved recently. We wonder whether the tenuous, sandy footpath traversing it will support our passing. The slide is about 40 yards wide here, the incline very steep, maybe 50 degrees. It’s a terrifying sight, looking as though the whole thing will slide again under your weight. We cross one at a time, each step mushing into yeilding sand, sending a shower of the stuff and a few gravelly rocks on a bouncing trip into the clouds below. We can watch the rocks jumbling beneath us for perhaps 200 yards, and then hear them keep going for a ways after that.

After that, we were back on a wider trail that moved us away from the edge and up a gentle slope into the trees. The woods here are chillier, darker and grayer than the verdant jungle near camp and below. We are also back in the clouds, which trace like ghosts through the forest, dampening everything they pass.

Soon we pass our first muddy snow patch, which provides grist for a foggy snowball fight. We slog through a chill mist to a damp wooden shelter in the trees just below Glacier Meadows. There is a snowy camp behind the shelter, and its occupants are returning from the trail above. We eat sausage and beef jerky and talk to them as they unbuckle brightly-colored gaiters and shuck snow pants from their legs. One of the men stabs his ski poles into the ground and tells how they were repulsed on a summit attempt on Olympus, which he says is completely socked in by clouds.

Up the foggy trail to an empty ranger’s yurt—the circular pre-fab cabins common in the Northwest. Just feet from its front steps is a bear-scratched tree; beyond that, a flower-studded meadow. Above it were the bare tops of the mountains, streaks of snow and vertical meadows stretching down old avalanche slopes on its face.

The clouds were thinner here, revealing jagged, rocky peaks all around. A terminal moraine formed a looming, slate-gray rocky hill, covered at its base by a carpet of mountain flowers in a pink, purple, yellow, blue and red—a startling contrast against the brown rocks and gray skies. Below, all was green, in bright and dark shades and every one in between.

And most dramatic: An azure sky beamed benevolently above.

We scrambled up a rocky esker to the base of the nearest snowfields, and refilled our canteens under the dripping snow—the source of Glacier Creek, which in turn feeds the Hoh River. Here it is a thousand leaky faucets beneath a sheet of ice overhanging bare rocky ground.

I do mean rocky: There were big rocks the size of Volkswagen bugs. A few boulders were bus-sized, and there were thousands that looked like petrified 30-pound frozen turkeys. Some were round, others jagged, some both. There were ankle-turners, knee-knockers, thigh-straining chunks that looked like part of the mountain.

Alex called to us from the top of the moraine. As we hustled up to meet him in a saddle between two buttresses, we were greeted by an impossible view of the Blue Glacier to the south. It was a mile-and-a-half wide though it didn’t look it. Far and away were the east and west peaks of Olympus, neither of them visible in the scudding clouds at that altitude. From its shoulders, the Blue Glacier poured down the valley, turned sharply beneath the ridge we were on and dove in an icefall into the alpine fastnesses below. Wide, yawning blue crevasses criss-crossed it, ruled out walking onto it.

As if to illustrate its geological power, it cleaved a van-sized chunk of rock from the buttress to our left with a pop and sent it crashing and rattling across its surface. Those of us standing in the saddle watched all of this in silence.

After some time, we scrambled to the top of the right-hand buttress for a better look. Wind whistled around us and daylight was becoming an issue, but we stayed atop the pinnacle for another half-hour anyway. As a reward, for one fleeting space between clouds, we saw the snow-capped peaks first of Mount Matthias, then Olympus’s east and west peaks. Reluctantly, we descended and returned the way we had come.

An hour from camp, I radioed Matt and, bless him, he had a steaming pot of jank ready for us by the time we arrived. It was obscenely rib-sticking, starchy and warm, and made a satisfying plop-gubble-bloop sound as it boiled away. On another day, it might have been nauseating, but we ate it gratefully, even Dave, who hates it on the best of occasions.

Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Elk Lake to Sequim, Washington

A bear came into our campsite last night.

We had a pretty good idea it might happen, given the bold thrashing a bear gave the tree just outside the Glacier Meadows ranger station door. With all the summertime human traffic down in the valley, the bears have been forced into the highlands, where competition for berries likely sends quite a few foraging into campsites.

Not that our visitor found anything last night, mind you; all week long, we’d been using the steel cable bear bag pulleys installed at each campsite by the National Park Service. Still, Tom and I, in our tent closest to the campfire and drying dinner dishes, heard him shuffle into camp in the dark of night.

“Holy shit!” Tom whispered, more excited than worried, I thought. “You hear that?”

Since there aren’t many metallic clanking noises in the woods, the racket just outside the tent had attracted my attention, I said.

This fellow had to be a black bear—there weren’t any Grizzlies on the Olympic peninsula—and judging from the height of the scratched up trees along the trail nearby, he couldn’t be all that big.

“Let’s scare him off,” I suggested. I was thrilled that for once, I wasn’t the only light sleeper to hear a foraging animal outside.

What happened next was a comedy of clumsiness.

Intent on startling this poor bear by bursting with affected fury out of the tent, we nonetheless made a bigger clamor unzipping ourselves from out sleeping bags, grabbing flashlights and “easing open” the velcro door flap than that big clumsy critter was making outside.

The key to the element of surprise is not to give it away. All we saw or heard of the bear was its heavy gullomph-gullumphing away and off into the woods as we unzipped the tent. Nothing much had been disturbed, and the bear bags were still unharmed, dangling from a steel cable twenty feet off the ground.

Scott joined us as we shone our flashlights into the trees, hoping to see some eyes reflecting back at us. Nothing.

“Shit,” I said softly.

I had the confidence of a camper who knew his site to be bear-proofed. Just to be on the safe side though, Scott and I lowered the bear bags to be sure a squirrel hadn’t climbed into them. Then, with nothing more to do on a damp night, we all went back to bed.

This morning, Tom said he was dreaming about carpenters when he woke up to a sound not unlike a two-man saw being worked.

Scott found the evidence, about fifty yards uphill from camp. One tree had already shown signs of bear scratches, but this morning, the two adjacent trees bore fresh claw marks, sheets of raw pine bark littering their trunks. There was Tom’s early-morning sawing: We scared that bear off, but he came back when it was safe to show us who was who’s guest in the woods. I’d never gotten the finger from a bear before, but the gesture was unmistakable.

There was another distraction this morning: Alex turned 14. We serenaded him with a cacophonous rendition of Happy Birthday and Tom produced a packaged chocolate cake product for him out of his bottomless pack.

In return, The Rage told his tent mates to “get off my dirt-farm” when they crossed his sleeping bag to reach the door. (Alex likes his sleep.) He threatened either Al, Dave or Matt—maybe all three—with “I’ll cut you, man” when they persisted.

This earned him Rock Star status.

The weather was different than yesterday. Then, camped at cloud level, we had been drenched by passing mists. Today, it out-and-out rained.

We slowly packed up a soggy camp. Despite our best efforts to leave early for Five Mile Island, we didn’t leave until noon. Alex, laughing this morning, was sullen and wanted to go. To tell the truth, most of the rest of us couldn’t see what else we’d do along the Hoh River Trail, either.

What followed was a marathon descent reminiscent of the retreat from Moscow. By the time we’d reached the Olympus ranger station halfway down, someone had suggested we make a bee-line for the car, camp somewhere on the coast and get pizza that night. The idea caught fire, especially with The Rage, and aside for a stop every five miles or so to soothe aching feet, blisters and joints, we backtracked all the way to the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, a total of 1,800 feet and 15.1 miles in six-and-a-half hours.

The return trip was a blur of stabbing footfalls and fading light. We arrived in the parking lot at dusk, shunning the concrete trail that made up the last few hundred feet because it shot jolts of pain through our tired joints. To add insult to injury, we had to change a flat tire before we could drive off, but once we did, we applauded our decision to leave rather than camp again in places we’d been before.

We had pizza in Forks, an old logging town which may be the only town in the world where we could have limped in looking like a shipwrecked crew, smelling like firefighters who just extinguished a blaze in a high school locker room after the big game. Instead of being treated like lepers, the owners and sparse assembly of diners welcomed us, stopping often at our table to ask about our trip and where we’d been.

Feeling pretty good, we toasted Alex with micro-brewed beer as he sipped his Pepsi.

I’d have been happy to call that a day, but what ended up happening was a four-hour van ride from hell. Hoping to find an open campsite on the coast, we ended up on the peninsula’s north shore, turned away from campgrounds near Lake Crescent, Port Angeles and Dungeness.

Not that good conversations didn’t happen along the way. After just a few days in the wilderness, looking at civilization is a rude shock; we lamented that for most, this was the “real world.”

Among all our fantasies of moving out to the Pacific Northwest, we were surprised to hear Al joining in. And of all of us, he was the only one capable of actually going through with it. Having never been in the woods before, Seattle was now on his short list, he said, of places he’d consider to move.

In retrospect, it seemed he had been spending more and more time by himself watching the far-off mountains. Similarly entranced by the area’s lure, I felt a great kinship with him for that, as well as a great deal of respect—I was already a camp-head; Al was a lifelong city person, and we had watched him fall in love with the wilderness in front of us. All along, we had fed off Al’s unremitting positive energy, I now realized, had seen it all with his fresh eyes.

The flip side is that we were now finding it hard in the land of civilization to be civil. A turned ankle on the trail would have been easily dismissed yesterday; tonight, not finding an open campground was beyond irritating. We became edgy on our backpack benches. Humor took on a sarcastic bent, and in the end we relented and pulled into a chain hotel in Sequim around 1 a.m.

Aside from its inexplicable, lifesize mural reproduction of Michaelangelo’s The Last Supper in the hotel parking lot, and the picture we took in front of it, there were few bright spots that night.

Our non-smoking room reeked of cigarettes, and Val sent Scott to the front desk to ask fruitlessly for a new one. (We smelled far worse.) I might have joined in had I not been so bone-weary. There was one tiny briquette of soap to share between the one woman and four rangy men in our room, and only one towel besides. The guys in the other room had similar crucial shortages. Scott returned at least with more towels. By that time, most of us were snoring. He quickly joined in.

Thursday, July 27, 2000

Sequim to Dungeness Spit

We had seen the Northwest. Now came the Pacific. A short drive brought us to the now-open state park campsite on the famed Dungeness Spit. Along the way, Tom bought a proper cake and candles for Alex’s birthday, which we all conspired to hide in the van.

Shortly after making camp, we hiked two miles out onto the spit, a thirty-yard filament of sand that juts for three or so miles out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca before recurving back towards the peninsula. Across the strait’s numbingly cold expanse, we could see the mountainous shore of Vancouver Island, twenty miles away in British Columbia.

We were vigorously hunting for Dungeness crabs, which had to be against the law, particularly since the shallow side of the spit was a National Wildlife Refuge. I can honestly report we caught nothing worth eating, though we saw a harbor seal raiding crab baskets just offshore. We watched jealously, but the water was too cold for swimming without a wet suit. We had similar luck digging for clams, which was allowed, but which required a heavy garden spade to get beneath the quickly-burrowing shellfish.

On the other hand, the view south down the spit gave a dramatic view of the Olympic Range, including towering Mount Olympus and the rest.

Sequim (pronounced “Squim”), where we stayed last night, is in the rain shadow of the Olympics. Just 16 inches of rain fall there in a year, compared to the daily deluge at Hoh River. Sequim is largely a retirement community, as well as a popular local rain-free getaway, as evidenced by the crowded campgrounds and hotels in the area.

The scenery on the Dungeness Spit was lovely, but we were clearly back in the world of mankind. As we ascended the bluff over the spit, Scott spotted a nuclear submarine, surfaced and bound for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

Dinner that night was the fresh seafood we had all looked forward to. But Scott, Tom and I bought it at Safeway, despite telling the rest of the group we were going crabbing at a pier opposite the HHHhboat landing.

Nobody believed the story, but everyone ate the food.

Friday, July 28, 2000

Dungeness Spit to Tacoma

Back in the van, but for the last time. We are quiet as we drive towards Bremerton, the Navy town where you can catch a ferry across the Puget Sound to Seattle. Classic rock plays loudly on the radio, which seems in keeping with the edgy, blue-collar feel to Bremerton, which looks for all the world like a Massachusetts fishing port.

We have reservations that night at a highly recommended sushi restaurant in Tacoma (my cousin Nora worked there) and are looking forward to the hot tub in our hotel. The cool breeze feels good in our faces as the ferry starts chugging across the inky Puget Sound, and we get our first view of Seattle from the water, Jessica jumping up and down as she spots the Space Needle.

We are all on the upper deck, standing forward. Before we round the point, Dave and I look back at the Olympics.

There, towering above us as always, is Mount Olympus.

It is wreathed in clouds.

written by James Janega

One Comment

Al Smith

January 20th, 2012

Hello James. Al here. I read this and it brings back such wonderful memories. Has it really been 12 years!!!! Wow. I still credit you with so much and getting me past my moment of Zen as I call it when you got me to cross that ridge when I felt I could not do it. That has given me so much confidence in myself I cannot tell you.

Stay in touch

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