Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Six Days and Fifty Miles Across The Olympic National Park

   Day One – Sunday, July 25th 2010

   I set out early Sunday morning from the Whiskey Bend Trailhead near Lake Mills on the north side of the National Park. I would not normally even be out of bed or even awake at this hour, but my wife had an appointment in town some hours in the opposite direction so it was this or leave a vehicle at the trailhead and have to come back later to get it. Just as well, I thought, I’ll have time to adjust to my hiking itinerary. 

   I had planned my itinerary to break the hike into not-too-difficult distances each day. Sunday I would hike along the Elwha Valley to Mary’s Falls – about eight miles. Monday I would hike to Hayes River – maybe nine miles. Tuesday -- eight or nine miles to Chicago Camp. Wednesday I figured would be only four or five miles, but it would be the steepest part of the hike up to Low Divide. Thursday I planned to hike five or six miles down into the North Fork Quinault River Valley to Twelvemile Camp and then Friday I would hike the eleven and a half miles out to the North Fork Trailhead. Not too bad. 

   The first part of Sunday along the Geyser Valley Complex and down to Lillian Camp along the Lillian River I had hiked about six weeks earlier with my son. It was a bit hotter on this day in July than it had been when my son and I came through, so that slowed me down some. I knew that there was a climb after Lillian, but what I didn’t know was that following the steeper switchbacks up from the river was a mild but steady climb where the trail was much more exposed to the afternoon sun. It was here that I began to question this idea to hike all the way across the park.

   It was also here that I came across an older couple in Park Ranger uniforms clearing overgrowth along the trail. They assured me the summit of my current hill was not too far ahead and gave me some information about Mary’s Falls where I planned to camp that night. Soon the trail descended down into the Grand Canyon of the Elwha and I found the sign for Mary’s Falls. 

   I have to wonder if there is some hikers or backpackers code somewhere to which I am not privy that outlines why it is important to give other hikers misleading information or omit important details when giving information. Let me cite an example. When my son and I got our permit for the aforementioned Geyser Valley trip, the ranger told us on our way out we should take one of the side trails down to the river and out to Goblin’s Gate because it was worth seeing. Indeed, it was a spectacular sight, but what the ranger failed to mention was that hiking out from Goblin’s Gate is a hard, steep climb up AND if we had instead hiked down to Goblin’s Gate on our way in, the trail from there is a nice, flat path along the river that comes out – get this -- right where we were camping the first night! That evil bastard deliberately instructed us to take the most difficult route.

   I bring this up here because the wonderful couple who were maintaining the trail on my way to Mary’s Falls had told me, when I get there, to hike out along the river and check out the falls which had been washed away some time ago but were only now starting to come back. When I got there I realized that I did not know which way I was supposed to go and, after walking through brush up and down the river, I realized that there were no falls anywhere near here. Evil, lying bastard.

   It was late afternoon, I was hot and tired, and the mosquitoes were tenacious, so I set up my tent and got inside. My hips looked like I had been the party favorite at a violent orgy and my right side was so sore that I found I was walking with a limp. I made a note to adjust my pack before setting out the next day. After having some dinner and hanging my sweaty clothes on a line to dry, the bugs had not relented so I decided to call it a day. It was a warm night and I can’t say that I slept well.  

   Day Two – Monday, July 26th 2010

   I woke up early, still sore. I limped to the river to filter some water and found a young deer grazing in my camp. I grabbed the camera to take some pictures and the deer seemed uninterested in me as long as I didn’t get too close. After filtering my water I went up to the bear wire to fetch my food bag. Back at camp I made coffee, ate breakfast, adjusted my pack, and began to take down camp. I took a naproxen for my hip, hoisted my pack onto my back, and set back out on the main trail. 

   The ranger couple were making their way back out to continue their work on the trail and we crossed paths early that morning. I was planning to trip them with my trekking poles as we passed for sending me on a wild goose chase looking for an imaginary waterfall, but they stepped aside and let me pass. It was obvious they see enough hikers every day that they didn’t even remember me so I decided to let it go. 

   Around 11am I arrived at Elkhorn Ranger Station and Camp where I decided to have lunch. I set my pack down on a bench under a tall fir tree. The weather was hot again and I realized I was going to have to filter more water before moving on. I snacked on trail mix, dried fruit, pepperoni, and a powerbar while wandering around and taking pictures of the ranger station, shelter, and horse shed. As I turned back toward my pack from the shelter and shed a deer was crossing the meadow and I was able to get a few good pictures. When I finished lunch I walked out to the river, filled up my water bottles, then got everything packed back up and continued on the trail. 

   That afternoon the trail passed by Remann’s Cabin.

   From "Historic Building Inventory Olympic National Park Washington" by Gail E. H. Evans:

   “An ardent fishing enthusiast from Tacoma, Washington, Frederick Gordon Remann commissioned Elwha River settler Grant Humes to erect this cabin in 1926. Remann christened his personal cabin Elk Lick Lodge. Long known as one of the best trout fishing rivers in the Olympics, Remann began making annual pilgrimages to the Elwha to fish, even before the construction of his cabin. Alone, or with friends or family, Frederick Remann continued his vacation fishing expeditions to the Elwha River nearly until the time of his death in 1949. Known locally for his prowess as an angler, Frederick G. Remann was among the more prominent regular visitors to the Elwha River Valley. As a resident of Tacoma, Remann gained acclaim and stature in local and state politics. He began his career as the Pierce County prosecuting attorney (1915-1919) and ascended to superior court judge (1926-1948). Judge Remann's Elk Lick Lodge is one of five known private vacation cabins built on the Elwha, all of which were constructed in the 1920s. Originally erected on a low bank adjoining the Elwha, the Elk Lick Lodge was disassembled and relocated using the same logs, to higher ground around 1939 when the flooding Elwha threatened to destroy the cabin. The cabin has stood at its present location since then. In 1984 Remann's Elk Lick Lodge is one of only two extant private fishing/hunting cabins on the Elwha and in Olympic National Park (the other being the H. H. Botten, or Wilder Cabin). Rectangular in shape; measures 12' x 16' with 6' x 12' porch; 1 story; log wall construction with dovetail corner joints; shakes in gable ends; gable roof with cedar shakes; exposed rafters and purlins; log foundation; fixed, multi-light windows (some windows gone), wood door; interior wood flooring. Alterations: structure moved and rebuilt (using same logs) in 1939. Sitting: approx. 10' from bluff overlooking Elwha River in stand of hemlock trees.”

   From Remman’s Cabin, I followed the trail down into Press Valley, named for the Seattle Press Expedition, the first five explorers to cross the Olympic interior. They left in December of 1889 and took five and a half months to complete roughly the same route I was now hiking. 

   The next camping area along the trail was Chateau, maybe half a mile from Hayes River Camp, my destination for the day. I was watching for Chateau when I came to a sign that said “Hayes River Guard Station 0.1”. Apparently I had missed Chateau entirely and had already reached Hayes. 

   I set my pack down near the guard station and set out to explore the area. There were already people camped at the first site I found, so I walked along the river to find a second spot. The second spot, it turned out, had it’s own path to and from the guard house, toilet, and bear wire so I grabbed my pack and set up camp. Again the mosquitoes abounded so I decided to build a small campfire to try to ward them off. After what was to become my regular evening routine of hanging clothes on a line, filtering water, and making dinner, I decided my campfire was not doing a good enough job keeping the bugs away, and I retired to my tent where I read for a bit before going to sleep.

   Day Three – Tuesday, July 27th 2010

   The easiest hike so far. And the hardest.

   I woke up feeling much better than I had the day before – my limp was gone and the pain in my hips was a fraction of what it had been 24 hours earlier. Instead I was dealing with what felt to be the beginning of blisters on my right, little toe and inside my left heel. I dug into the first aid kit and taped up the toe and heel. The other camp was packed and gone so I had the place to myself as I had breakfast and took down camp. I decided to just take an ibuprofen to deal with my various aches and pains, put on my pack, and made my way up to the Hayes River Bridge. 

   My destination this day was Chicago Camp near the base of Low Divide. Between Chicago Camp and Hayes River is only one camp, Camp Wilder, about halfway between Hayes and Chicago. This part of the trail turned out to be incredibly flat. I was estimating about an hour and a half to two hours before I reached Camp Wilder when I turned a corner and saw a sign. The sign marked the spur trail for Camp Wilder to my right. I was making great time! 

   Another couple miles or so beyond Wilder I knew the trail would cross the Elwha and I would have to ford the river. When I passed a pair of hikers going in the other direction I asked them about the ford and they said it was coming up very soon, but that I would not have to ford the river! Only the day before, I was told, a crew had put up a log bridge to cross the river, complete with a handrail on one side. As an aside they mentioned the bridge was upstream a little, not right on the trail, and it’s “a bit of a scramble” along the bank to get to the bridge, but there were already signs up and it would be easy to find. One would think that I would have learned by now, but no…

   I arrived at the river, saw the sign for the new bridge, and could even see the bridge up the river a ways. I began to make my way along what appeared to maybe have been an animal path along the bank which seemed to go straight up 20-30 feet and then straight back down a couple times. Brush and tree braches grabbed at my pack and kept trying to toss me down into the river. Eventually I came to the top of another peak where the path was now blocked by what appeared to be a deliberate pile of cut or fallen limbs. I could see that I was only halfway to the bridge from where this sadistic side path began and decided that I had once again fallen victim to the evil hikers joke. Bastards. I crawled back to the main trail, traded my hiking boots for river sandals, and forded the river without incident. 

   It was still early afternoon as I was closing in on Chicago Camp and I began to flirt with the idea of pushing through to Low Divide a day early. I decided it was silly to even consider the idea before knowing what time I actually got to Chicago Camp and exactly how far it would be to Low Divide from there. Still, the idea would not leave my head. 

   The decision to press on was pretty quick when I arrived at Chicago Camp. For one, the camp was little more than a wide spot in the trail. The mosquitoes were thick here and it was hot, even in the trees. I knew the altitude would provide some relief from the heat, if not the bugs. On top of it all, the sign at Chicago said “Low Divide 2.6” and it was only 3pm. I figured, even if I averaged less than a mile an hour up the grade I could still make it by 6pm, well before dark. I filled up my water bottles, crossed the river again, and made my way up to Low Divide. 

   Low Divide is basically a saddle between Mt. Seattle and Mt. Christie, about 1400 feet above Chicago Camp. The bulk of this climb takes place over about a mile and a half. About halfway up I came across "Bobby" sitting on a rock next to his frame pack. Bobby did not possess the build of a hiker and was breathing heavily. He informed me that his “friends” were experienced backpackers and were going to go to the top, drop their gear, and one of them was coming back down to haul Bobby’s pack and walk him the rest of the way up. He assured me he was fine and told me his friend’s name was "Lewis" and I said I would keep an eye out for him. A short while later I ran into Lewis coming back down to retrieve his buddy. I told him Bobby was doing fine about a quarter mile back and asked what to expect ahead. Lewis told me the trail from here only got worse, forded another stream, and soon goes straight up with no switchbacks. Just dandy. I began chanting a quote from Lethal Weapon 4, “I’m not too old for this shit… I’m not too old for this shit…” I was really feeling that toe on my right foot. Of course, immediately up the trail were switchbacks and there was no fording to be done. Another bastard. 

   I arrived at Low Divide right around 6pm looking, I imagine, like Chicken John in Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. I stopped at a stream that runs right down the middle of the Low Divide camping area to ask two guys who were filtering water where the ranger station was. They directed me down the trail to the station, but there had been no one there for several days if the weather posting was any indication. I checked out the map at the station and set out to find a camp. The campers at Hayes River the night before turned out to be Bobby, Lewis, and Lewis’s dad who I only ever heard referred to as “Pops” and they were camped at the east end of Low Divide. On the west end were the two guys who had directed me to the ranger station and a young couple who were just setting up their tent. They said there were several other spots to pitch a tent in the trees there and invited me to join them. I took them up on it, set up my tent, and joined the group at the campfire.

   The younger couple, I learned, were doing the same hike I was, in the opposite direction, in four days. The two guys – I’ll call them Billy and Wyatt -- had done the hike the year before and decided this year to hike to Low Divide, set up a base camp, and take advantage of the various features of the area. Billy and Wyatt were co-workers who worked for the state. Jackals, I immediately thought, but they turned out to be Good People and we bonded over the next couple days over campfires, dried hiking food, and talk of Good Beer. That night the temperature dropped and I slept well into the morning.

   Day Four – Wednesday, July 28th 2010

   So, what’s a guy do after hiking almost 30 miles in three days and then finding he has an entire day without having to move camp anywhere?


   My hosts Billy and Wyatt had convinced me that the ranger who sold me my permit for this trip (Pablo McCloud – I swear, I didn’t make that one up) was not another lying bastard when he suggested I take the trail up to Martins Park while at Low Divide. Billy and Wyatt had just done the hike the day before and assured me it was worth it. So I taped up my heel and toe, which were still sore but not blistered, and made my way up to Martins Park.

   On my way I encountered Lewis and his Pops who were also heading to Martins Park. I let them go by but soon caught up when they had lost the trail. I scouted past them, found the trail, and let them go by again when I stopped to take some pictures. This process repeated itself several times on the way up, so I should have known better than to continue following them when we got up into the snow. Still, I was thinking “safety in numbers” and since I was otherwise alone working my way up a glacier in July I figured it would be best to at least stay within sight of Lewis and his Pops. I knew the trail to Martins Lake hooked back north, which was to our left, but Pops insisted that the lake had to be “right over the ridge to the right”. It was not. Still, it was a spectacular view from the top of the ridge and I did not go away feeling cheated that I missed the lake. I was able to quasi-ski part of the way back down on my boots and using my trekking poles to help keep control. 

   Back at camp that afternoon, Billy and Wyatt convinced me to go swimming with them at Lake Margaret. I was in need any kind of bathing available and on several occasions over the past few days made firm plans to dunk myself in the river, however, I was never able to get in above my knees. The problem being that the Elwha River is fed entirely from snow and glacier melt from only moments ago so the water is right around 32.5 degrees. Lake Margaret, it turns out, has no streams running into it and is exclusively rainwater fed, making it downright warm by comparison. It was a much needed rinse and I came away feeling like a whole new person. 

   That night, Billy and Wyatt introduced me to a dice game called Catan.

   Day Five – Thursday, July 29th 2010

   When I woke up this morning Billy and Wyatt had already left camp. They had talked the night before on just sticking around the Low Divide and not doing any hiking on this day, so after breakfast I headed to the lake to look for them. On the way I noticed Bobby, Lewis, and Pops had already packed up camp and moved on. Finding no one at the lake I took a quick, shallow dip and returned to camp. There I found Billy and Wyatt getting stuff together for lunch. They had spent the morning at The Big Rock in The Meadow just west of our camp. They had talked about The Big Rock the night before, but the martinis I enjoyed during the discussion had obscured the memory for me. I agreed to have lunch with them before packing up my camp and moving on.

   The Big Rock in The Meadow was everything my hosts said it was and more. It was a scene right out of a fantasy story – a lush green field with patches of brightly colored wild flowers, crystal clear water trickling through the middle, with trees at either end and towering, snow-capped mountains to either side, with a silver, 700-foot waterfall cascading down the terraced crease between two peaks. In the midst of it all was a lone rock, about 12 feet high and maybe 18 feet across, like a small stage in the middle of a giant amphitheater. The Big Rock was, in reality, the perfect seat for the show that was happening all around it. 

   The night before, Billy and Wyatt had convinced me that I should stay longer at Low Divide and hike out past Twelvemile when I did leave. I knew Twelvemile had recently been wiped out by flooding, so that wasn’t a hard sell. They tried to convince me to stay another night at Low Divide and just hike all the way out from there on Friday, but I was more interested in getting out earlier on Friday since there would still be a three and a half hour drive home from there. The next camp beyond Twelvemile is Trapper and Billy and Wyatt were adamant that Trapper was no good and that the best place to camp was Elip Creek, about ten miles from Low Divide. I was hesitant, but they assured me the trail was downhill and/or fairly easy going and that an average 2 miles an hour was a perfectly reasonable expectation, making it a five-hour, low-stress hike and giving me plenty of time to hang out on this day. I thought back to the evil bastards I had encountered previously, but decided to trust Billy and Wyatt. After lunch I packed my stuff and inspected my feet. My left heel seemed to be doing fine being taped up, but the little toe on my right foot was beginning to blister. I wrapped it up the best I could and slapped shoes on my feet.

   I bid farewell to my very gracious hosts and headed off for Elip Creek. It was difficult to not think of this part of the journey as the beginning of the end as Low Divide had proved to be such a great destination. I had to remind myself that I still had two days and the journey was not over

   Past The Meadow with The Big Rock, the trail began its gradual descent into the North Fork Quinault River valley. The drop ends right around Sixteenmile Camp where the trail fords the river. Twelvemile Camp is only another mile along the trail (don't take the camp names too literally) and it really had been devastated by the recent flood. I continued on as the thick canopy of forest began to shade the trail.

   It was getting into late afternoon as I came to Trapper Camp and discovered Bobby, Lewis, and Pops had settled here for the night. There was a shelter along side the trail where they had put their shoes and socks on the roof to dry and set up their tent just behind. One thing that stood out to me was the notable difference in park management from the Elwha Valley compared to the North Fork Quinault valley. Along the Elwha every camp and landmark was well marked with signs and distance markers. Here in the North Fork Quinault valley I had yet to see a single sign, so I wandered into my fellow hikers’ camp to compare notes. Only Lewis came out from the tent and he confirmed that they too believed this to be Trapper. He then said they had been there since noon and had not come out from the tent as the mosquitoes were overwhelming. As he spoke he appeared to be doing some epileptic Michael Jackson motions with his arms. He then added that there wasn’t any room for another tent, perhaps in an effort to ward me away, but the effort was not required. I continued on toward Elip Creek.

   It was almost 7pm when I found a sign after crossing a bridge that read, “Three Prune Creek”. Shortly after I came across a sign pointing toward Skyline Trail and another saying Low Divide was 9.9 miles behind me and the North Fork Trailhead was 6.5 miles ahead. I knew I was close and found what I could only assume was Elip Creek Camp just a few hundred feet below.

   My hosts at Low Divide had not steered me wrong. Other than the two camp sites being small, one too close to the toilet, and the other too close to the bear wire, it was a perfect place to spend my last night in the wilderness. I set up camp, built a small fire, had Alfredo Pasta and martinis, put my feet up, and watched the sky go dark.

   Day Six – Friday, July 30th 2010

   My last day.

   I woke up early knowing that, while the hike would be relatively short, the drive home was going to be long. I began getting my stuff together as I ate breakfast. Before too long I heard voices coming down the hill behind me. It was Bobby, Lewis, and Pops. They seemed to be arguing and one of them had a map out. When they finally noticed me Bobby called down, “Hey! Is this Elip Creek?”


   “There you go.” Bobby said as he turned to Lewis and Pops. This did not appear to completely solve whatever dilemma they were grappling with, but Bobby marched forward… right off the trail and into the brush. Lewis and Pops, of course, followed.

   Eventually they found their way back to the trail and down to the camp and I pointed them in the direction of the creek crossing and trail beyond. Lewis informed me they were planning to stay at Wolf Bar that night. Then he informed Pops that he wasn’t staying at Wolf Bar if the mosquitoes were bad. Pops asked if camping was allowed at the North Fork Trailhead and I told him I did not believe it was. Pops then informed Lewis and Bobby that they were staying at Wolf Bar that night, like it or not.

   That was not the last I heard of Bobby, Lewis, and Pops, but that was the last I saw of them.

   At 8:30am I sent the message saying that I was ready to be picked up. I still had some packing left to do and over six miles between me and the North Fork Trailhead, but I knew it was a three and a half hour drive to come get me and I was expecting to be at the trailhead at noon. Around 9am I crossed Elip Creek and made my way out of the woods.

   The North Fork Quinault River Valley is not that different from the Elwha River Valley to the untrained outdoorsman. Since I fall squarely into that category I’m going to say that, much like the Elwha Valley, this part of the trip was more of the same around each corner – gorgeous and stunning and worth every step. Since I lack the understanding to adequately explain just how beautiful it all is, instead I’ll take this moment to talk about something I’ve only recently come to understand: trekking poles.

   When I first saw people hiking with trekking poles I thought, “Chumps”. Who would spend money on walking sticks that can be picked up along almost any trail (in the NW U.S., anyway)? Then, on our first venture up Mt. Ellinor my wife and I saw a hiker coming down the mountain with poles and making really good time. We had stopped to play in the snow and were not equipped to go further and here this person was cruising past from above our ceiling with purpose. It made me think. Until I looked up the price of trekking poles. Sweet Boneless Goodness, I thought! The idea of paying over $100 for walking sticks seemed ridiculous! Then as I started really backpacking the idea of a lightweight walking stick began to really appeal to me. My wife and I discussed it and realized we were both beginning to think the same thing, happened upon a combination of fortunate circumstances, and each acquired a pair of trekking poles for about a third of their retail price. After a single backpacking trip with trekking pole I don’t think either of us will venture out again without them. Besides helping to balance on the trail, over obstacles, across river fords, in mud and snow, etc., they shift some of the work to your upper body (or off a blistered toe) helping to create a more balanced and aerobic workout. Plus, they saved my ass several times over the course of this trip!
    As I passed Wolf Bar I heard guys hollering at each other and assumed it to be Bobby, Lewis, and Pops. I passed by quietly.

   Around 11am I crossed paths with a ranger who was headed for Low Divide and ultimately Skyline Trail. We exchanged info, he checked my permit, and informed me that the trailhead was less than an hour away. I was making good time.

   Shortly after chatting up the ranger I came to an opening in the trees where I could see the valley to the south. Hanging low in the sky, far to the south between the hills was the only cloud I had seen the entire trip.

   I came to the North Fork Trailhead right around noon on Friday. I had time to change my clothes, have a snack, and sit for a bit before my ride arrived. I had hiked fifty miles across the Olympic National Park and I was ready to go home.

   I’ve only been home a few days. My toe has recovered but I still have not unpacked everything. Instead I am already looking over maps, looking through hiking books, and surfing satellite maps online.

   I’m ready to go out again.


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