Thursday, April 22, 2010

Olympic Peninsula, April 2010

We woke up Sunday morning with a handful of loosely-defined goals: go out and explore as much of the Olympic Peninsula as possible (in three days), do some camping, try out some new camping gear, and test our preparedness to do some hike-in camping later this season. The chickens had been moved to a benign spot at the back of the yard, loaded up with food scraps, and we arranged for the neighbors to check on their food and water in exchange for eggs. In the days prior we had packed and re-packed our packs until we were satisfied, poured over maps, hiking books, camping books, and the internet, and decided our two nights would be spent at Kalalock Beach and the Hoh Rainforest.

Car packed and family fed, we got out only a little later than we had hoped and made our way to Shelton where we made a quick stop for gas. Onto highway 12 we drove west to Aberdeen, birthplace of Kurt Cobain (as you drive into town the big sign says, “Welcome to Aberdeen Washington “Come As You Are’”). We had not planned a stop in Aberdeen, but we were on the sort of adventure that allows for unplanned stops and The Star Wars Store was just too big a temptation. Imagine the biggest Star Wars geek you have ever met decided to set up shop and sell off his collection. Multiply it by ten and add more geeks driving hours in some cases to hang out at the store in costume and you get an idea. We had fun poking around and meeting people. My son bought a Lego speeder bike. Eventually we said goodbye and started north up highway 101.

The forecast had been for rain, but we all agreed that the weather would be nice instead and so far it was working. As we approached Lake Quinault the sky was almost cloud-free and the mercury was pushing 70. My wife had visited Lake Quinault as a kid, so we decided to drive up the south shore and take a look. On the south side of the lake is a small resort area called Rain Forest Resort Village built around the Lake Quinault Lodge built in 1926. April is still the off-season since many destinations around the peninsula don’t open or really pick up until sometime in May, so it was pretty quiet. We walked around a bit, picked up some information, went down to the lake, and agreed that we should plan to make this a destination in the near future. Besides the lodge and other hotel-type bungalows, the Village does offer camping and there are many hiking trails around the lake and surrounding area.

The Quinault Indian Reservation along highway 101 from Lake Quinault to the coast is more or less undisturbed. I was hoping to come across a Native American interpretive center or something along those lines, but if it was there I missed it.

After crossing into Jefferson County and going over the Queets River, highway 101 reaches the coast and enters a section of the Olympic National Park. A few more miles up the road is Kalalock Campground where we settled at the end of day one. The campground is situated on a narrow strip between the highway and a bluff overlooking the beach. Only half of the campground was open, but it was pretty busy for the season. None of the campsites offered any real privacy and all of the beachside spots were occupied. We settled on a spot away from the highway and other campers but not too far from the beach access, of which there was one for the three camping loops that were open.

I should probably do an aside here and talk a bit about how I think of camping. I grew up camping mostly with my grandparents who, as they got older, tended toward small RV camping in places with some amenities. As a young adult, I often camped alone or with a small group and looked for isolated wilderness near a stream, creek or river. Married with child, we gravitated to camping out of our VW bus and somehow more frequently began going back to “designated camping areas”. By this time, however, I was working weekends so we usually camped on weekdays when the campgrounds are slow or empty. While I will confess to having become used to more creature comforts when camping, what I realize I am looking for is a chance to reconnect with nature that just doesn’t happen alongside a paved loop. The trip we were doing this time out was more about seeing as much of the area as possible, so back to Kalaloch Campground…

Once we were settled, we went down and walked along the beach for a while. It’s been almost two years since moving back to the Northwest and this was our first time back to the beach. The sky was typically gray and overcast, but there was little or no wind and the temperature was pleasant. After our walk, we returned to our campsite for the first big test: hiking food. In preparation to do some hike-in camping this summer, we have begun to acquire gear to that end and decided to try some of the freeze-dried meals offered for such an endeavor. A small leap of faith was necessary here as I have issues with a lot of processed food. I had been pleasantly surprised (though in hindsight it makes perfect sense) to find that organics had hit the freeze-dried industry and that the options were more socially responsible than I anticipated. We decided to try the chicken and stuffing with mashed potatoes while our son opted for Alfredo pasta. The backpacking stove got the water boiling quickly and we had dinner ready in minutes. We were all impressed with the quality and flavor of our dinners, though my son found the pasta to have a little too much garlic for his taste (his mother and I liked it, though!).

The next big test was the sleeping pads and sleeping bags. We scored a deal on the pads and found some inexpensive fleece bags we thought would work fine for summer camping. My wife and son wisely chose to stick with our old, bulky bags for this trip. I had a feeling that if I kept my wool layers on in the fleece bag it would be enough to keep me comfortable through the night. I was mistaken. On hindsight, I should have at least brought my old, bulky bag into the tent for the night just in case. I ended up toughing it out and did not get much sleep that night. I got up early and made coffee to warm back up.

Before we left we took one more walk on the beach and then headed northeast to Hoh Rain Forest. The drive is only about a half hour and we made a couple stops along the way in search of a few minor items we realized we had forgotten or misjudged our usage. If Kalaloch and Hoh are any indication, the National Park campgrounds are not designed with privacy in mind. Fortunately, we only saw two other groups while we were there. We picked a spot and decided to go for a hike since it was still early and the weather was nice before setting up camp. As we set out toward the visitor center and trailheads, we found our path blocked by a couple of elk. Signs on the way in had indicated that local elk had recently become aggressive and to avoid getting too close. As we looked for a way around we found there were actually six elk among the trees and brush. We tried to get pictures without getting too close. Leaving the elk to their lunch, we hiked around the area while trying to get the wife’s pack adjusted properly. The area is gorgeous and we intend to come back later to take advantage of hike-in spots along the Hoh Rover. On our way back to camp we sidestepped the elk, which had not moved much, and encountered three deer about thirty yards from our camping spot.

The deer and elk more or less ignored us as we set up camp. We spent the afternoon by the river and then gathered firewood (usually they sell it onsite, but not this day), started a fire, and got to work on dinner. When we had first arrived we discovered that all of the water had been shut off because the sewer system had been overtaxed. (It is a rain forest, after all. I also noticed a conspicuous lack of notification to make sure fires are completely out. The place is wet.) This provided us with an opportunity to test the next bit of new gear: the water filter. The preliminary rinse we had done at home had not completely flushed out the weird filter taste, but it didn’t take long at all to finish the rinse and we were able to fill several water bottles from the river. That evening we tried freeze-dried corn and three-cheese chicken pasta and both were pretty good. As we ate our dinner it began to rain.

It wasn’t a hard rain or even a down pour, no it was more like a falling mist that just seeped into everything. It was difficult to keep the fire going at all. Soon it was wet and dark and time for bed. This is where we faced the most critical failure in our testing. We realized the first night that our tent was too small for the three of us plus any gear to speak of. As it was the two on the outside were up against the sides of the tent, which, of course, soaked right through, when wet. I opted for my old, bulky sleeping bag and, still dressed in wool from head to toe, kept warm and dry throughout the night despite my bag sopping up water like a sponge. The tricky bit here is that the wife is allergic to wool. While we were able to acquire some water resistant clothing for her, it was not enough against the rain forest. By the time morning came my wife and son were ready to leave. We packed up as quickly as possible and headed to Forks for breakfast.

At this point I was a little disappointed feeling we had been defeated by the weather, but I reminded myself that this trip was about exploration for future adventures. In hindsight, the early departure to escape the weather gave us much more opportunity toward that goal. As we drove through Forks we chose The In Place for breakfast. It was a slow Tuesday morning in Forks and that was fine with us. We warmed up with coffee and hot chocolate while we waited for our food and read the local ads, detailing just how much the Twilight books and films had impacted this small town. After breakfast we made one more stop for gas and continued along highway 101.

It was agreed that it would be a shame to be this close to the northwestern most tip of the lower forty-eight states and actually go, so we headed north up highway 113 toward Neah Bay. Here we entered the Makah Indian Reservation (which did have an interpretive center) and drove to Cape Flattery. A half-mile hike from the road brought us to the edge of the country, looking out over the Pacific and Tatooish Island. The hike and the views were beautiful.

Backtrack to 101; we drove past Lake Crescent and signs for Sol Duc Campground and Hot Springs. A quick look at the camping and hiking references we had brought along bumped Sol Duc up the list of destinations for this summer.

Not finding anything in Port Angeles that caught our eye, we continued on to Sequim. Here we got off the highway and drove out to the Dungeness Spit and through town, stopping for snacks and a little local vibe.

By now it was starting to get late into the afternoon and we decided it was time to get home. We crossed over the Hood Canal Bridge and drove south on highway 3 toward home. We arrive home with plenty of daylight to unpack, say hello to the chickens and thank the neighbors for taking care of them, and check on the progress of the garden.

That evening we discussed our adventure and agreed that our tent must be the next upgrade and that sleeping bags may take priority over a hiking lantern. It’s going to be a good season.

(map image by Google Maps)

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