Evidence of a Wild Winter
As I drive west today, away from the source of the smoke that is blanketing the Pacific Northwest, if not away from smoke itself, I recall my promise to myself early in August to get to my beloved Ruby Beach before I hang up my adventure shoes for the season. I needed to redeem the disappointment of Oregon’s Cannon Beach. (I’ll get back to “not my mountains” tomorrow, the other Oregon disappointment.)
Plan A for today had been Paradise, but it is not paradise there today. I don’t have a Plan B at 5:30am. All dressed up and nowhere to go. There’s no point in going anywhere in the Cascades or the Gifford Pinchot; while Texas floods, we’re on fire in this corner. That leaves the Olympics. Such a wealth of options in these parts.
I check “My Backpack”—saved-for-later hikes—on the Washington Trails Association website (big shout out to that organization). Marmot Pass is a possible, but I decide it needs 1) flowers, and 2) no smoke. Next summer for that one.
The beach! The beach. Have I mentioned I’m not really a beach person? It occurs to me that I could stay home and make applesauce. But I’m committed to my weekly adventures; soon the rains will start—I hope. A friend is staying in a cabin at Lake Quinault, I could stop and see her on the way back. Okay. I repack my knapsack for the new plan and take off for the coffee kiosk. I’m almost to the coast when I remember my earlier promise for beach redemption.
I know it isn’t going to be a blue sky day, in spite of a forecast of 90 degrees (which is ridiculous at a far north beach). The sun glows red through the haze that completely obliterates the sky and the mountain tops, but keeps the temperature pleasant.
I whiz past Kalaloch, my parents’ favorite beach, and stop at Fourth Beach to see if I can get to the pools in the rocks and their sea life before the incoming tide covers them. I rarely get here at low tide, the problem with day trips. Though I find only one sea star (perhaps they are already submerged), there are many green, yellow, and pink anemone. I love the rocks and patterns at this beach. Each beach along the upper coast of the Peninsula holds a different gift.
I drive the last few miles to Ruby Beach, my favorite on this wild coast line. I take only ONE photo from the iconic overlook at the edge of the parking lot (and another from half way down the trail). There is no shortage in this house and on my computer of photos of this view taken by multiple photographers and featuring multiple family members and guests over the decades.
I note the bumper crop of drift logs this year. A bridge across the fresh water creek in which both I and my sisters and my children have floated on logs (looking forward to my grandchildren continuing the fun), is the most elaborate I have ever seen in my decades of visiting this beach. I don’t use it, it looks a little sketchy. There are so many logs in the creek, it’s the easiest ever crossing.
And the most amazing fort I have ever seen! An architect and pals must have been here earlier in the summer. I want to move in.
I walk the beach in both directions—sometimes on the logs, remembering our childhood game of seeing how far we could go without stepping off a log—photographing the sea stacks, watching waves break against the rocks, and making cairns (inukshuks) on a log, I wonder why, in all the searches at this beach for perfect round stones in my childhood, we never engaged in this art form! Or do I just not remember?
I love this beach. Given all there is to do here, I don’t wonder at how I never cared to go to Atlantic beaches (or the one I visited in Oregon). And still, my beach attention span is short here too. After an hour, I’m ready to head inland.
As I drive back to Lake Quinault, I marvel as I do every time I’m here at this unique place where the forest meets the sea, and 45 minutes inland is the rain forest. A few gravel miles from the end of the lake are the trail heads into the mountains. Is there any other place like this on the planet? And how is it that I get to live here? I am beyond lucky.
Okay. Done that. Check it off my list for this century. I’m a mountain girl, not an ocean girl; but it’s been so hot, the beach seemed the place for my adventure this week. I do try to go once a summer. I love the Olympic Peninsula beaches with their drift logs, stone beaches, tidal pools: Ruby (my favorite), Kalaloch (my parents’ favorite), Rialto and LaPush (farther afield); but since I’m camping at Oregon’s Mt. Hood at the end of the month, I decided to explore the Oregon beach too.
Here’s the thing: Oregon beaches have beach towns. Beach towns have people. I am not a fan of either. What was I thinking?
Cannon Beach was still socked in with fog when I arrived at noon, and crawling with tourists from full-up motels and rental condos, no parking. I figured I would find lunch, check out the beach access, drive farther down the coast if it didn’t look interesting there. Short version: Getting lunch took much longer than anticipated, beach was boring and crowded, drove on.
I parked in a nearly full state park lot and headed to the wide, sandy beach, fog still hovering just above the water. Why is it that people congregate at beach access points? It was swarming with beach umbrellas and towels, kite flyers and sand castle architects, dogs and coolers, a not-in-use volleyball net. Not many in the water: frigid, no doubt. These people would love the southern beaches on either coast. But in the PNW you don’t wait for appropriate weather, especially if you’ve forked out the bucks for a condo vacation.
I walked down the beach and was quickly beyond the hoards. There was no wind—unusual at the beach in this corner of the country—so not uncomfortably cool in spite of the lack of sun, and that I left home in a hurry, forgetting a jacket.
It was a black and white photo day, even without adjusting the setting on the camera. I loved it in the end; and I’m not a fun-in-the-sun beach person anyway. It’s the kind of undistracting weather that gets me into myself. Here’s where this tale gets interesting.
I walked until I got to the “haystacks” and to where the headland stretched out into the sea. I hadn’t checked the tide table, and the fog-shrouded haystacks and the secrets their tide pools hold were out of reach.
Clambering over the rocks, I found a private beach, save for the gulls. Though it’s true that I saw only a half dozen people since I left the crowd at the access, from here I could see no one nor be seen. Sadly I saw no puffins; maybe if I’d had binoculars, or been looking harder.
I didn’t stay long; I wasn’t sure if the tide was coming or going and I didn’t want to get stuck. But it was long enough to get my heart going in love for this wild paradise I have come home to. The waves rose and broke as they crashed against the rocks off shore. The gulls shrieked. The trees high on the cliffs above me, permanently bent in the direction of the relentless prevailing winter winds, are evidence of who is in charge here. And it’s not the humans.
A friend asks me over and over what it is that brought me back here. “It’s home,” I tell her, “it’s where my soul needs to be.” “But what about it?” she persists, urging me to get to the bottom of it. She’s not satisfied with my vague response: the mountains, the trees, the hills, the valleys.
I love it here because I grew up here. Like other people love Texas or Kansas. She tells me she is from here—well, from the other side of the mountains, which is not the same—but she doesn’t yearn for “home.” She most feels home in England, where she has never lived. She tells me she loves England because of its history, she felt it in her bones and in her breath from the moment she arrived on its soil at her first visit.
Finally, walking on this beach, I got her question; and she’s been hinting at the answer all along. It’s not that my answers were vague or untrue, but they were the “what,” even I wasn’t feeling the “why,” other than it’s home.
I love this land because of its history too; but because of its natural history. I love it because it’s “new.” I love it because it’s not ancient ruins and because—except for the Indian Wars, a horrific exception that can’t be overlooked—it isn’t built on a long history of generations of spilled blood. It was built from nothing, on the backs of hard-working, courageous men and women. There is no history other than the giant ancient trees that fall in the rain forest and become mother logs to new trees; the trees that fall into the ocean and move in and out with the tides, until they are tumbled bare and finally thrown up onto the shore where children play on them for a few seasons until they are washed back out in the next massive storm; the mounds in the earth from ancient volcanic eruptions; the mountains that still erupt. No one has tried to tame anything, beyond what they need to survive.
On “my” beaches farther north, there are no beach towns, no condos. In my mountains, there are no Gatlinburgs or Dollywoods. If people want to visit these places, they have to be okay with inconvenience and the whims of nature, maybe crappy roads. They have to be content with entertainment in the form of hiking and walking on drift logs. No one owns the land, other than the American people, and maybe some timber companies; at most some mom and pop cabins for rent.
Visitors come because they love the mountains and the sea. There’s no Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, no putt putt golf, no Waves beach stores. Even restaurants are hard to find at the Washington beaches and mountains.
My mother loved the Appalachian mountains of her youth because you can touch them, be one with them, climb them in a skirt. I love my northwest mountains because they hold all the power and we humans are small and insignificant. These wild places are impervious to and untamed by humankind.
It’s not because I grew up here, I realized as I walked down the beach, back to the crowd a few safe yards from their beach town. I am my parents’ daughter. My father grew up in the mid-west and as a boy, dreamed of moving west “until he was stopped by the ocean.” He’d never been west. My mother, at the beginning of America’s entry into WWII, put in for a civil service transfer to the Territory of Alaska. She’d never been west. (She only got to Spokane that time.) She was participant with my father, as they dreamed through the mail during the long years of war separation, that they would settle in the far west.
Love for this wild, nearly untouched land is in my DNA. No wonder I felt like a stranger in a strange land those 36 years in the southeast. I’m home now. My heart beats strong again, my lungs fully expand. My soul hums.
This is why I adventure, to access what I know. It’s never wasted time, even at an unfamiliar beach in the fog. Still, I’m sticking with the wild coast of the Olympic Peninsula and the not-to-be restrained mountains. Sayonara, beautiful tame Oregon.
It wasn’t much of an adventure: I sat in my tent and worked on my writing project. I had to come home for the quiet and to hear the owls and coyotes: a logging truck rumbled and groaned down Hwy 101 about every 2.4 minutes, starting at 4:30am. Still, the lake was beautiful, especially when the sun came up, and sparkled out my tent window the rest of the day. And I love to camp. If only someone would bring me food, I could live in my tent, writing at the little table that is part of CuRVy’s standard equipment. (I’m keeping the table when she is replaced.)
So this is a pictorial log. I did walk to Marymere Falls, a flip-flop friendly, well-populated hike. And watched the sun come up over the ridge each morning. Of course there are other hikes: I checked out trip logs for Storm King Mountain (“A very strenuous and monotonous ascent.”) and Pyramid Mountain (“The trail is washed out in one place, but don’t look down and you’ll be fine. You can hold onto rocks in the outcropping, but be careful, some are loose. Wished we had gloves for the ropes at the top,”) and decided my tent and writing and campfire were just fine for this trip.
Tomorrow I’m hiking Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Rainier NP. See you on the other side! (That would be with salmon burger and beer at Base Camp in Ashford at the end!)
Trip latte in hand, I left town at 6:30 Friday morning and turned CuRVy toward the Olympic Peninsula. The day had dawned with blue sky, but as I ate my homemade granola and yogurt breakfast, fog had sneaked into the valley and hung out up I-5 toward Olympia. I knew it was going to be a beautiful day, so I welcomed the fog. I thrill to leaving on an adventure closed into CuRVy’s womb and at some point breaking into sunshine and blue.
I was heading up Hwy 101 when the fog dissipated, and I drove along the sun sparkling water of Hood Canal. I crossed the Duckabush and Dosewalips rivers, curved around Lilliwaup Bay, and turned onto the Hamma Hamma River Road. Fourteen miles of paved road was a treat; few of my adventures are without bone-jarring potholed dusty gravel surfaces.
I was on the trail at 8:30, six cars in the parking lot. I know this hike is a popular one—partly due to easy access, and it’s an easy 7-mile RT hike—but it was Friday, so I was hopeful it wouldn’t be too crowded. One man and young boy passed me about halfway up, followed shortly after by a ranger. I saw no one else until I arrived at the lake at 10:30.
The trail broke out of the second-growth forest to a broad rock outcrop above the blue, blue lake. The rock was occupied by a chatty couple a bit older than I, so I didn’t dally there. I should have. I headed down the steep trail with them right behind me. When I stopped to let them pass—hoping to get the noise ahead of me—the man stopped to tighten his shoes laces. I pressed on with a sigh. Where is it written that where there are two or more people there must be talking?
At the lake I passed some of the 28 campsites, a few occupied. I decided to continue on the trail along Lena Creek a ways to see where it went. I knew there was a bridge out—a casualty of the wettest fall in Washington history—cutting off access to the north end of the lake. I thought I would check it out. The trail forked, one direction to the inaccessible Brothers Wilderness Area. A large log spanned the tumbling creek, a few feet above the water. There was no sign of a bridge. I was confused. The report I reread when I got home was posted in November. Maybe the bridge parts rolled on down the river and were among the many logs in the lake. (The couple at the outcropping did say to one another they had never seen so many logs in the lake.) Or maybe the not-a-bridge was somewhere else.
A hiker crossed on the log while I stood there debating. Well, I wasn’t really debating. I think I could have done it, it was a wide log and I had my poles, but while I am not afraid of hiking alone, I am always aware of the limits to my risk-taking. If I traverse a rocky or root-filled spot, I plant my poles and move with deliberate care. If I twist my ankle, there is no one there to help. I didn’t think I would fall off the log, but that I would get to the middle and panic. I could have sat down and scooted, but a man and young boy were setting up camp several yards down the creek and would have observed me. I have my pride.
I continued up another fork of the trail that turned out to be a spur meeting the main trail to Upper Lena Lake. I was tempted to keep going, but I had read in a trail guide that it’s a hike for masochists, and that I am not. And I hadn’t read anything else. (As I write this I read a trip report that there is still snow. Reading on, though I would love to go there, I know I will not. That one needs a back country permit is probably a clue that I am too old for some adventures.)
I turned back toward the lake and went down into a campsite that made me wish I was spending the night. Sweet! Sitting on a log by the lake, my feet in the chilly water, I ate my lunch, defending it from the camp robbers (grey jays). A bat made some lazy circles, I heard a toad. My mother warned me the day before not to get eaten by a bear. She was light-hearted, but I know she worries when I am out alone. Kudos to her for five years of mostly keeping her fear to herself. I could tell her I saw nothing larger than a single squirrel, and astoundingly only two slugs.
By 12:30, the campsites were filling up. I dried my feet, put my shoes back on, and headed up the hill, hoping to spend a few minutes at the outcrop. Now, I know there are people who like to hike in large groups—community, camaraderie, meet new people and all that, you know who you are. I am not one of them. A group of twenty-some people around my age, give or take 10 years, covered the rock, along with three dogs and, I kid you not, a parrot. (What is the line between eccentric and weird?)
They seemed to be getting ready to move on, so I stuck around snapping some photos. I caught some snatches of conversation. They weren’t going down to lake level, they were going my way. I stuffed my camera into my pocket, snatched my poles, and took off, just ahead of two dads and their two young boys, who had camped the night before. The seven-year-old was getting whiny, he missed his mom. I walked faster. The dads started playing movie trivia with them to distract them, calling out questions, answers, discussion. I was nearly flying down the trail. (All told I saw six groups of dads and sons. Did any of them have daughters at home? If they had a daughter, would they bring her? It irritated me.)
I came up short behind a young couple stopped in the middle of the trail in wild-animal-observation stance. “Goat and baby” the woman mouthed. I caught a glimpse then hustled back up the trail until I had the movie trivials in sight and put my finger to my lips, indicating that they should shut the f*** up. “Goats,” I said quietly. The dad in the rear must have gone back to the mega group with the message, they got quiet though the dogs were having none of it.
Now this was a bigger-than-a squirrel thrill. I’ve seen a mountain goat close up just one other time, and it was lying down. They were not much interesting in the thirty people behind them, most of whom couldn’t see them and had started talking again. They grazed, moved down the trail a bit, grazed, drank from water trickling across the trail.
A hiker came around the corner from the other direction and stopped dead, then retraced his steps. Trapping them was probably not a great idea. In front now, and ready to move on, I started walking slowly toward them. The young boys pulled up beside me in a wide spot, definitely distracted now. We waited again then moved on, forcing them around the corner where the man and his party, holding a dog, were pressed up against the bank at the edge of the trail.
Suddenly aware of stranger danger, Mama dashed passed them, her baby bounding behind her. They hurtled down the shortcuts between the switchbacks and found more intimate dining on a rock outcrop away from the trail.
And I was back to hiking with a crowd. The young couple galloped past me and I took off too, eventually putting distance behind me, only hearing the chatty boys and dads above me when there were switchbacks.
I was back in my car at 2:30—the parking lot was nearly full—ice cream in Hoodsport was calling my name.
June 4, 2017
Dry Creek, Olympic National Forest, Lake Cushman
8.4 miles RT
I finally got out of town for an adventure. Between elder care and baby care and really crappy weather, it’s been a long time. Of course there have been other distractions as well: my garden in the meadow, my mother’s gardens at the house, my sister’s garden at the house is still unweeded (damn creeping Jenny), tree trimming, trail clearing, Airbnb (which has been quite successful, meaning lots of laundry and muffin-baking). But today, hiking.