Saturday, August 13, 2011

Olympic National Park

This Blog Is Long

On Monday, Dad and I set out for a 4-day, 3-night backpack into Olympic National Park, with one day camping near the Pacific shore so we could get an early start on the trail.

Kalalock/Pacific Coast
I always got the impression that Seattle was on the west coast, and that Puget Sound was just an inlet off the ocean, like San Francisco Bay. But Seattle is actually miles and miles inland; Puget Sound comes down from the north and cuts off an enormous tab of land called the Olympic Peninsula. It's mountainous, remote, and nearly unpopulated. It contains some of the last old-growth temperate rain forest in the lower 48. Olympic National Park is the Pacific Northwest of your imagination, with towering, moss-draped trees and fern-covered gullies.

The park preserves a large chunk of the interior of the peninsula. Good thing, because a lot of the land surrounding it looks like this:
Well done.

Luckily, they saved the best trees for the park.
Uh, okay...
Well, I guess that is big. Note self on right for scale.
From my long series, Interesting Wood: "Eyepatch Witch"
"Sneezing Dragon"
I'd called ahead to Kalaloch campground, located in a narrow band of the park that runs along the coast. The campground was full, but the woman told me they set aside sites for walk-ins.

What I've found about camping in national parks is that campsites are what I think of as camping: a flat spot on the ground, maybe a log to sit on, and a privy if you're lucky. Campgrounds are parking lots where people set up temporary suburban developments in what would otherwise be pristine wilderness areas. This was the latter. We had to drive around forever to find the few unoccupied sites, and at each full site, we were astonished by the amount of crap people bring "camping" with them. It seemed like the size of their RVs was matched only by the size of their butts. They bring furniture and game systems and extra tents that go over the picnic table and a garage's worth of kids' bicycles. Some of them even bring along those "SLOW: CHILDREN AT PLAY" signs and set them up in the road that leads through the campground. The road with the 5 mph speed limit.

I was in the bathroom when a girl walked in wearing Uggs, cutoff jean shorts, an Abercrombie sweatshirt, and so much mascara that her eyelids must be hyper-developed to lift the weight of it. You know, if you saw me at Chuck E. Cheese or the Gathering of the Juggalos, you'd think to yourself, Why is that girl here? Not necessarily in a snotty way, but you'd wonder why someone like me would make the effort to travel to an event she will certainly never enjoy. Why, exactly, was this chick out in a national park, a place that even if you come in an RV is meant to showcase nature, provide opportunities for outdoor activities, and has limited plumbing? Clearly this girl hates nature, never goes outside, and spends a disproportionate amount of time in bathrooms. So why come so far just to be out of place and miserable?

Then again, the RV-ers outnumber me 50-to-1, so who is really out of place here?

Anyway, after setting up our senses of superiority, Dad and I scooted up the coast to Ruby Beach.

Sea stacks

Muppety sea anemones
Most of the sea life was at the base of the rocks and sea stacks. Can you imagine a starfish's existence? Weird...

These anemones were pink and yellow, though not as intense as the green ones.
A narrow river fed into the beach, creating a wide channel up into the trees. It made a landing point for driftwood of astonishing proportions; it looked like a whale boneyard.

Gloomy Atmospheric #1
The Hoh River/Olympus Guard Station

The next morning, we packed up early and drove inland to the Hoh Ranger station, the head of our trail. On both the way in and the way out, impressive stag elk were hangin' out right by the road. They were so used to cars and gawkers that they didn't even bother to keep an eye on us while they grazed.

We got there before the station even opened (having grabbed our permits the previous day), and we set right off. The first day was 9.1 miles.  I'd assumed that with full packs, it would take most of a day.

The trail follows the Hoh River, which is a gem-like aquamarine color. Glaciers grind rock into powder; this invisibly-fine powder is suspended in the runoff, giving it a bright opacity.
Ur such a hoh.
We powered through the 9 miles by about 1:30 p.m. We had our choice of campsites at the Olympus Ranger Station right along the river, giving us time to lounge and explore.

The colors of the Hoh River
We kept finding these adorable succulents growing in the unlikeliest of places.
Deer came through the campsite around dinnertime. They, too, were pretty unconcerned with humanity. I think it's a good sign that the animals we saw all seemed used to humans, but not looking for handouts.

The Hike to Glacier Meadows

The next day, we started to climb. The trail led us through the northwestern forests of my imagination.

A bridge crossed a 150-foot gorge over the Hoh.

Mt. Olympus, the tallest of the Olympics
Toward the end (after we'd dumped our packs at that night's camp lower down), heavy snowmelts had washed out a substantial portion of the trail around an alpine stream. The park replaced the trail with a fixed-rope ladder down the unstable, washed-out hillside. It ended at a snow bridge, where a couple feet of compressed snow were all that held you up over a deep, roaring stream gulley. The sun was bright and hot that day. We heard a chunk of the snow bridge slump off into the gully while Dad navigated the fixed ropes. We skittered across as lightly and quickly as we could.

Dad descending the fixed-rope ladder.

A U-shaped "hanging valley," where a glacial valley lies above the main valley. These are the headwaters of the Hoh.
Blue Glacier

To get to the goal of the trail, an overlook of Blue Glacier, we had to climb an extraordinarily steep snow field. Normally, the trail would have been steep but entirely doable. But the hot sun had turned the snow the texture of wet sand, and it wouldn't hold a foothold. You lost about 6 inches sliding backward for every step you took forward. It was exhausting.

Then when we were about halfway up, some shirtless British marathoner skipped past us in tiny running shoes, skimming over the surface like fucking Legolas. Fuck that guy.

The trail ends at the glacier's terminal moraine, a pile of jagged rubble dug up bulldozer-style by the glacier and dumped. The moraine is on the right; the peaks opposite Olympus rise to the left. We spotted mother and kid mountain goat up on the high peaks to the left, but they were too far away to get a decent photo without serious technology.

Atop the moraine
Blue Glacier. The scale was difficult to comprehend, even in person. Just before we left, two mountaineers appeared at the base of the large rock mass to the right. The mountain looked close by, but the people were about as big as the specks visible in the lower center. You needed binoculars to identify them as human.
The way down was a lot easier. Dad and I chose to snowboard-style it, on our feet. Others had the foresight to bring garbage bags and do it on their butts. This was probably the most people we saw on the trail at once; luckily, the difficulty of the hike selects for cheerful, enthusiastic company. This was one of the most fun parts, like a sledding party after a big snowstorm in Boston.

And then, back in the trees, we found this guy grazing on vegetation.
We camped that night at Elk Lake, really a pond-sized body of water.

Grabbing water
On the way out, we covered most of the trail back, leaving just a short morning's walk to the trail entrance, so we wouldn't have to combine a long hike with the long drive home. This was maybe the most tiring day of walking, even though our packs were light and the trail was mostly downhill or flat. We were just footsore and tired. But again, we were early into camp, allowing time to explore and take photos.

Camp at Five Mile Island
The exact moment when I completely ceased to give a shit how I looked
Here comes the wood again.

Funny story: Dad and I wandered onto the wide riverbed to get a view of the mountains toward sunset.

On our way downstream, we passed a camp that looked like mostly teenagers with a young supervisor/counselor. One teenage girl was washing dishes in the river, dumping Ajax suds right in the stream. This is a huge no-no. Not only are you polluting pristine water, but that's what the rest of us have to drink. Yeah, we treat the river water (my Steripen seems to work... I guess... we'll see if I crap my guts out a few weeks from now), but you can't treat away dish soap. It's a basic backcountry rule.

Anyway, just beyond the camps was an enormous, precarious log jam. Dad and I navigated over it to get downstream for some photos. Just as we passed it, we heard a dismayed shout an the surprisingly musical GLUNG, GLUNG of a cooking pot floating away down the stony river. We sprinted after it, sighting it just out of reach of every place we got to. Finally, we came to a point where another stream joined the river, and we were stuck, watching the pot tumble away in the fast current.

We'd both really, really wanted the satisfaction of returning the pot and smugly saying, "Don't wash your dishes in the river!" Instead, on our way back, we heard the counselor say, "First one who finds the pot gets an extra marshmallow!" and half the kids took off.

I don't know who puts people in charge of these trips. I mentioned it was sunset when we set out, right? The night's stressful entertainment consisted of watching a tiny little flashlight leading each kid over the log jam and back, which was dangerous in daylight, in search of a nonexistent pot. Dad was just about to get my high-powered head lamp to go rescue them when it appeared that everyone made it over and headed back to camp.

Serendipitously, after we'd failed to snag the runaway pot, we stood to catch our breath for a moment. Just then, a herd of elk appeared across the river.

Shooting wildlife requires a lens I'm not willing to use.
A short final hike made for a leisurely morning in camp.
Not this wildlife!
Liquorice slugs are all over the northwest. I like them. Unfortunately, they're also frequent trail roadkill.
Things my hair could do by day 4: Fix a squeaky hinge. Fry an egg. Dress a salad.
The 5-mile hop to the trailhead was a breeze. I did almost the entire distance in my Vibram Uglyfingers, and they performed beautifully, even with a fully loaded pack. Unfortunately, I had to haul my heavy-ass boots over the entire trail just for the two miles of snow at the end, which others capably handled in sturdy hiking sneakers. I've realized that I need to invest in some light-but-tough trail runners or very light boots for gravely ground or snow, because while those leather things are durable, they're just way more boot than I want, except in very rare situations. They were the heaviest single thing in my pack. I have great balance and tough joints; I don't need boots that make me clumsy in the process of giving me protection that I don't need.

So I learned that, and I had a blast. An excellent kickoff all around.

End of the trail

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful pics of the wild, Kate! And also of the natural world. Particularly like your driftwood and wildlife shots.