Friday, August 21, 2009

A Walk in the Park

Timeless seems to be the best word to my experience on my trip to Olympic National Park a couple weeks ago. So timeless that I don’t even have photographs (we forgot the camera, another story entirely). All I have are the memories of a small campground on the North Fork of the Quinault River, the quiet rush of the river and mist playing up and down the steep, forested ridges defining this remote valley. Except for the campground and the second growth forest, the scene probably looked little different in past centuries. Certainly, compared to much of North America, this area is The Last Wilderness.

Even a limited three days there had a timeless feel. Once Maggie and I found a campsite, we had little inclination or need to move. Everything we required was close at hand. Time didn’t stand still but it did progress gently as we leisurely explored the area around our campsite. We were only about 10 meters from the riverbed but the water was maybe another 90 meters across rocky, gravelly channel interspersed with wooded brushy islands and great masses of logs piled against the brushy, rocky restrictions to a high flow. The immense log jams and wide channel tell me that this is a waterway of some considerable consequence when running full.

The campground is the smallest in the park—nine sites—and not recommended for RVs. It also has no potable water. I figured the restrictions and lack of amenities would keep most visitors away. Still, I was heading out to a national park on an August weekend so I made plans to arrive early. The plan worked. We found six open sites at 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon and were quickly and comfortably set up. A few adjacent sites were occupied later on but were mostly out of sight and sound. But even on Saturday morning only half the sites filled and one remained open through the entire weekend.

Maybe the forecast discouraged people from coming out. Predictions were for light rain and drizzle all weekend. Nothing out of the ordinary for a Northwest summer and particularly welcome after the previous week’s record-breaking heat. The forecast was true. Skies were overcast the entire time. Occasionally the clouds lightened up, giving a hint of sunshine but that’s about all we got. Mostly just an all encompassing gray entwined with all that green.

About the only disappointment, such as it was, was the absence of any large wildlife—no deer, elk, bears or cougars. Lots of micro fauna, though. On the first afternoon we stumbled on a large garter snake that immediately bolted into a log jam. The next day I came upon the same spot and found two garter snakes, each a couple of feet long. This time I froze immediately. They did also and we watched each other for maybe 20 minutes or so. One was a deep coopery red with muted stripes along the length of its back. The other was earth tone brown-green with somewhat more vivid stripes. After a while the latter moved around a bit before coiling up. The other remained stretched lengthwise on the log where I first saw it.

Snakes are amazing creatures; they seem to flow rather than move and are fascinating to watch. What looked like a large ant was scampering in the area, moving ever closer to one of the snakes. I half expected it to strike when the ant walked within a centimeter of the snake’s snout. It did not and the ant continued its journey, which took it over, across and down the snake’s back before it flew away. I guess it was not an ant after all. Then a third snake came out from under the log jam. It was a deep emerald green with two vivid yellow stripes down its back. The differing colors almost made me wonder if they were all the same species but a ranger later assured me that garter snakes are the only snakes in Olympic National Park.

Maggie and I hiked up the trail that parallels the North Fork, through moss-covered trees, rock and fallen timber of the rain forest and crossed several small side streams. We spotted any number of banana slugs along the way and the occasional hiker. Earlier in the day we helped two young hikers shuttle between trail heads. They were out for a 17 day hike and found part of their route closed due to a wildfire. I don’t know how they came to ask us for a ride but they came to the right people—I was happy to return the same favor that so many others had so generously extended me during my long distance hikes.

A second hike took us a few miles to Irely Lake which is not really a lake at all these days. It used to be. These days it’s mostly a grass covered field interspersed with the trunks of trees drowned by the water when it was actually a lake. The water marks on the trunks were easily above six weeks. The area is now home to thousands of tiny frogs that swept away from us in waves as we walked. We also found crawfish on the mud flats, which surprised me since I did not think they could live out of the water. But these guys were certainly alive; they immediately went into full defensive mode with pincers up and open at the touch of my hiking stick. We spotted a salamander intently contemplating what looked like a dead dragonfly but it never moved and we weren’t about to disturb it. Later that afternoon we lounged in camp enjoying the quiet as the clouds wafted ever lower into the valley. A shrew dashed across an open area. It looked mostly like a small tuft of black fur.

The mist throughout the weekend was wonderful to behold, enough to give the area soft, gentle feel but not enough to get us wet for much of our time there. Still, the cumulative effect of three days’ mist had finally soaked in the canopy so that by our last morning pretty much everything around us was wet even though it never actually rained. What had been a dry site in Sunday morning’s mist was pretty wet by the time we pulled out on Monday.

That’s okay with me. I live in the Northwest. It’s supposed to be wet.



Blogger Lisa said...

Sounds like a great trip.

10:22 AM  

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