Just a few days here is enough to replenish one’s mind, body and soul. Overlooking the Elwha River, its glacial waters on their way to Lake Crescent, I am again taken aback by such pristine beauty.
Yesterday I started the five mile hike to the trail head around 4:30PM, much later than anticipated. I had nearly 12 miles left that day and it was already dusk by the time I reached the first camp near the Lillian River. I decided to keep going calculating I could reach Elk Horn before midnight. I had never backpacked on my own at night before or in such wilderness. As soon as I left camp, I had to start a climb uphill and saw a bear on my left. He saw me as well and left but I was terrified. There was talk of bear unrest throughout the valley and here I was on the trail at night by myself, significantly increasing the odds of startling a bear. I must have been moving at my fastest pace yet. The sun had gone down a little after nine and all light was fading. I was descending and could see another climb. I actually picked up pace determined to get to camp as soon as I could. Then it happened. I looked to my right out to the sky in a canopy clearing. Endless pines graced the mountains, some nearly 10,000 feet high. The half moon was chiseled into the dark blue sky spreading its wings as the backdrop for the light blue of the Elwha running down below. I had not seen or heard anyone else on trail. It was just me here in this wilderness. The river sounded so much like a mountain lion growling that during my first hour or two I jumped at the sound. I savored the moment, the sky, the green, the rushing river down below. It was overwhelming to know I had made it this far and that a place like this existed, so wild and remote. The valley of Olympic National Park is one I see myself returning to.
A "beary" friendly encounter. Seriously, he even offered me to dip into his jar of honey!
I overslept. Instead of being up by 7AM as I had planned, I am up nearly a quarter after 10AM. In a mad rush to beat the rising tide I skip breakfast and break down camp at speed I never knew I was capable of. I made it to Yellow Banks beach and was forced to wait for the tide to retreat. I missed the tide by just about a half hour and wasn’t able to round the last cove. I am headed to Sand Point and should have just enough time to get there and set up camp before the sky darkens.
Norwegian Memorial where I camped. You can walk up to that island on the left when the tide is low.
I made tea and looked into the far off clouds, coming closer. It was suddenly cold and I did my best to starve off any paranoia with my steaming cup. I will confess – I fear the ocean. Ever since I nearly drowned on a remote island in Costa Rica, the waves bring me to my knees. The tides on this wild coast are so powerful and crash with such force that simply seeing the tide come in filled me fear the first few days. Risks are part of any journey, but when you are at nature’s mercy, all bets are off.
I round the cove which at first seemed like the most treacherous one so far and pick up speed on the sandy banks to Sand Point. I can see the warning sign for headland trails and swell with joy and calm. The tide is low and I can walk out at least 50 feet on the ocean floor. I had the perfect reason to do – a Bald Eagle. I breathed quietly in awe of this bird’s patience with me. I would come a few feet and stop. I was less than 10 feet away when I simply stopped to marvel. The brown of his wings highlighted the white of his chest. His feathers wet and his claws gripping the rough edges of a boulder I wondered how it was all happening. I wondered if it would ever happen again.
I am leaning back on a trunk that is at least five feet wide. What kind of a storm washed up this kind of driftwood? Then again, this is the Pacific coast of Washington. After all, my trail passes several memorials, Norwegian and Chilean, in honor of ships wrecked in the early 1900’s. But really there is no trail. I am backpacking along the coast with enough food for at least six days. The terrain varies. The first few miles were pebbles that sink your feet and make every step feel like three making the brief stretch of unstable sand feel like heaven. Exposed tide pools at low tide are full of life and fun to walk through in boots – you’ll be sure to lose a toe or two on the jagged reef like rocks. When the tide is up, you jump from one knee high boulder to another. I actually really enjoyed the jumping, unless they were wet and slippery.
A rocky beach
It is hard to believe I am a witness to this sunset. The sun slowly disappearing behind the blue sea and islands far away is mystical. And just like that, the sun is gone.
Islands in the sunset
The sky is cold and gray with only the unwieldy fire stinging my eyes and keeping me warm. To tell the truth, I wish I had someone to share this moment with.
A grey, majestic sky - surreal
The tide has been coming in for a few hours and is now just about ten feet from my tent. I decided to move to higher ground but had very few options. My only option really was a sand perch full of rock. I undid all my effort to stake out the tent with rocks and tying it to branches and lifted the tent with all of my equipment inside. I was grateful my sleeping pad could hold up to the rocky bottom. I do my best to promote my cheap, foam Thermarest! The whole scene was like a tent sandwich, think Philly cheesesteak with meat and cheese falling all over the place once you unwrap it. The tide was just a few feet from my fire as I could now calmly gaze at it. I probably would have been spared by the tide by just a few feet, but I wouldn’t take the chance of being swept out into the Pacific Ocean.
My blue tent is to the left amidst driftwood.
The sky is clear and the stars like snowflakes dot the Earth’s canopy. I can smell the wood burning and give my full attention to the constellations.
I’ve never turned around before. Even on those snowy peaks in the Adirondacks, long bare with the wind nudging you with nearly 5,000 feet to fall, I was never afraid. But at the top of Storm King mountain on a calm and sunny afternoon, I turned around. The official trail ended a mile ago, now I was just using ropes to walk myself up the side of the mountain, rocks and dirt tumbling with every step. I couldn’t even write from the top. I had to descend a few hundred feet and still, it took a while to maneuver into a position where I could stop myself from sliding. The view of Lake Crescent, a nine mile long lake was well worth it. A bird approached and chirped, then landed on a branch in front of me. The bird seemed cute enough but what if he was to attack? Any sudden movement and I’d be cartwheeling down a cliff. His friend flew over as well. They just looked at me and chirped. I wonder what they were talking about.
Lake Crescent from the top of Storm King mountain
Tips for climbing Storm King mountain after the trail ends:
1. Ignore the warning sign.
2. Don’t look down.
3. While evolution may prompt you otherwise, I recommend crawling.
4. Trust the mountain. Any mountain.
5. Grasp both ropes.
6. Don’t look down.
7. When it looks like the only way down is to slide – it is.
I escaped the mid-afternoon sloth inducing sunshine by finding my way to a log on the pebbled shore of Lake Crescent. I look to my left and I see mountains in front of mountains, layered on either side of the blue lake, formed by water running from the glaciers of Mount Olympus. To my right the mountains line the lake’s curves and in front of me, you guessed it – there’s another mountain. This is bliss. The sun is strong but the air from the forest is cool and fresh. I stretch out on the hot pebbles. I can see where the idea for hot stone massage came from. The water is clear, I can see to the bottom and the waves gently rock the pebbles making the most soothing sound on earth.
Lake Crescent at sunset, I know, I couldn't believe my eyes either!