TRAVEL: A re­mote rain for­est in the Pa­cific North­west

Ex­plor­ing one of the most re­mote ar­eas of the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., Washington’s Olympic Na­tional Park

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Reid Wil­son

As I sit gaz­ing at a million stars against a pitch-black sky at the edge of a thou­sand-year-old for­est, lis­ten­ing to the pound­ing waves of the North Pa­cific, a re­mark­able feel­ing of in­signif­i­cance washes over me. Hud­dled un­der a heavy blan­ket against a howl­ing wind on this cold April night, I ex­pe­ri­ence a feel­ing of pow­er­less­ness that is strangely com­fort­ing.

The same thought oc­curred to me a few days ear­lier, dur­ing an early-morn­ing stroll through the chilly mist that hung over a moun­tain re­sort in the foothills of Olympic Na­tional Park in Washington. As blue jays flit­ted be­tween gi­ant cedars, I took a seat on a rock, watch­ing four deer graz­ing un­hur­riedly be­tween cab­ins. One of the an­i­mals am­bled to the edge of a nar­row service road that sep­a­rated us, stop­ping no more than 10 feet from me. As it ate, it was no more per­turbed by my pres­ence than by the sud­den ap­pear­ance of a robin alight­ing on a nearby rock.

Over the course of five days hik­ing through the myriad land­scapes of the state’s ver­dant and wild Olympic Penin­sula, it seemed as if na­ture was in­tent on send­ing me a mes­sage: I was here only tem­po­rar­ily; this en­vi­ron­ment, full of gi­ant ev­er­greens bor­der­ing a rag­ing ocean, would be here for eons to come. In the midst of a break from the con- stant dead­lines of my ev­ery­day life as a re­porter, that mes­sage served as an im­por­tant re­minder of the joy and plea­sure of los­ing my­self in a place that doesn’t care about that.

I grew up in Washington state, and my oc­ca­sional child­hood for­ays into Olympic Na­tional Park stand out for the un­touched beauty of the land­scape. Now, re­turn­ing with my wife for the first time in two decades, I ven­tured far­ther into the park than I ever had be­fore, to a moun­tain hot spring and an ocean­side lodge, base camps we would use to ex­plore one of the most re­mote re­gions left in the con­ti­nen­tal United States. Cell­phone service was spotty on oc­ca­sion, and nonex­is­tent most of the time.

Our trip be­gan with a three­hour drive from Sea-tac Air­port, south into Ta­coma and across

Puget Sound and Hood Canal, through log­ging towns, past the U.S. Navy’s sub­ma­rine base at Ban­gor and east onto High­way 101. The traf­fic jams of the Seat­tle area slowly gave way to a two-lane high­way, the chaos of civ­i­liza­tion grad­u­ally bleed­ing away into signs that warned of few ser­vices in the com­ing 10, 20 or 30 miles.

We paused for din­ner in Port An­ge­les, a small city of mas­sive ships that the rail­roads long ago by­passed. The lights of Van­cou­ver Is­land were vis­i­ble in the dis­tance across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As the night dark­ened, we con­tin­ued west, past Lake Cres­cent, then south up a wind­ing moun­tain road to Sol Duc Hot Springs. The re­sort was first founded in the early 20th cen­tury for wealthy Wash­ing­to­ni­ans look­ing to take the sup­pos­edly re­ju­ve­nat­ing wa­ters of what, for cen­turies, had been a Na­tive Amer­i­can re­doubt.

Re­built after a fire 50 years ago, the re­sort to­day is rus­tic, a col­lec­tion of 30 or so one-bed­room wooden cab­ins sit­u­ated in a glen along the Sol Duc River in the shadow of the Olympic moun­tain range. The cab­ins have no phones, no tele­vi­sions. The re­sort makes clear that it does not pro­vide Wifi. As I watch the sun’s rays slowly il­lu­mi­nate the moun­tain that looms over me, the mist clears, and my lack of con­nec­tion to the out­side world be­comes a ben­e­fit, not a draw­back.

We spend our first day hik­ing the Sol Duc River, re­minded at ev­ery turn that there are el­e­ments of na­ture more pow­er­ful than we. On its face, the only rain for­est in the con­ti­nen­tal United States is a peace­ful and serene place. But un­der­neath the canopy are con­stant re­minders of the vi­o­lence nec­es­sary to sus­tain this for­est. Two-hun­dred­foot nurse logs, the rem­nants of mas­sive trees felled by storms, pro­vide nu­tri­ents for the next gen­er­a­tion of gi­ants. The Sol Duc wa­ter­fall, trans­fix­ing from a bridge that puts a hiker just feet away from the top of the cas­cad­ing tu­mult, has chipped away at the bedrock for mil­len­nia.

Speak­ing of vi­o­lence, my wife re­minds me of the pro­to­col for deal­ing with bears that roam the woods: Griz­zlies will be sur­prised at your pres­ence, so do not make eye con­tact and back away slowly. Black bears are much more likely to have spot­ted you first, so stand tall, wave your arms and make loud noises to scare them away. My heart skips a beat mo­ments later when I see a head of black hair through the trees; for­tu­nately, the owner of that black hair turned out to be a fel­low hiker, wear­ing a bright yel­low rain­coat that had been ob­scured by some branches.

Back at the re­sort, the smells of wood smoke, sul­fur from the baths and a par­tic­u­larly clean scent I as­so­ciate with the freez­ing glacier wa­ter that flows into the river re­laxes me. So does a soak in one of the four pools, where I hear an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of lan­guages from my fel­low bathers. Per­haps be­cause soak­ing in hot springs is more com­mon out­side the United States, most guests are from else­where: Some speak French, some Korean, some Rus­sian and an­other Slavic lan­guage I can’t iden­tify. The 107-de­gree pool is a bit too hot; the 55-de­gree, nat­u­rally heated swim­ming pool is de­cid­edly too cold. The 103-de­gree in­ter­me­di­ate pool is just right.

The next day, we drive west and south, fol­low­ing the edge of Olympic Na­tional Park into Forks, the log­ging town where the “Twi­light” nov­els are set. We re­tain a Swiss-like neu­tral­ity on the ques­tion of Team Ed­ward or Team Ja­cob, though sev­eral tour com­pa­nies around town prom­ise theme ex­cur­sions for true fans. In­stead, we set­tle for break­fast at a greasy spoon with taxi­dermy elk heads and mas­sive salmon fes­tooned on the walls.

In the late af­ter­noon, we ar­rive at our sec­ond des­ti­na­tion, the Kalaloch Lodge. Kalaloch is as re­mote as Sol Duc, though it sits on a high cliff over­look­ing the Pa­cific. Though Washington has a rep­u­ta­tion for rainy weather, and though the rain for­est it­self gets in­un­dated with more than 12 feet of rain in an av­er­age year, our luck has come through: It is 74 de­grees and crys­tal clear on this early April day, warm enough for a long bare­foot stroll at the wa­ter’s edge.

Here, too, there are signs of vi­o­lence, of a power far more sig­nif­i­cant than any one per­son could wield. The beach logs washed ashore by the mighty Pa­cific form a bar­rier 50 or so feet thick be­tween the cliff and the sand. I pace off one par­tic­u­larly mas­sive trunk at 50 steps, or about 150 feet. Later, as I watch the tide sweep into the river be­neath the lodge’s res­tau­rant, a log at least twice my size is tossed around in the surf like a Nerf foot­ball.

The next day, we back­track to La Push, head­quar­ters of the Quileute Tribe, a small un­in­cor­po­rated town known for its rocky shore and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of gray whales, which mi­grate north along the coast from March to May. Al­most ev­ery beach re­quires a short hike through pine for­est, then a dex­ter­ous hop over washed-up beach logs. De­spite our best ef­forts to watch whales, they elude us this day.

On our fi­nal day, as we be­gan a slow drive back to Seat­tle, we take one more side trip, de­ter­mined to pack in as much time in the for­est as pos­si­ble. We take break­fast at Lake Quin­ault Lodge, pur­port­edly in the same room where Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt dined dur­ing a 1937 visit out west, where he de­cided to es­tab­lish the Olympic Na­tional Park. Our win­dow ta­ble pro­vides a vista of a crys­tal clear moun­tain lake and a swarm of hum­ming­birds din­ing on sugar wa­ter from a feeder sep­a­rated from our ta­ble by a pane of glass and a mat­ter of inches. The res­tau­rant pro­vided a handy field guide to the birds we might see as we ate, from Stel­lar’s jays to robins.

Quin­ault pro­vided one last ex­am­ple of the power of the wilder­ness. The amount of rain­fall and per­fect eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions con­spire to cre­ate some of the largest trees in the world, out­side of the red­woods of Cal­i­for­nia. We stop to visit and ad­mire the largest West­ern red cedar and, just a few miles away, the largest Sitka spruce. Both are just short hikes away from car parks; both make the word gi­ant seem some­how lack­ing in scope. These are trees that will be here for a hun­dred, maybe a thou­sand, years after I am gone.

We drive south, then east, through a soft driz­zle and towns like Ho­quiam, Aberdeen (Kurt Cobain’s home­town) and Mon­te­sano. Slowly, cell­phone re­cep­tion re­turns; Seat­tle ra­dio sta­tions be­gin to cut through. On our re­turn to civ­i­liza­tion, we re­turn to our busy lives, but with the some­how sat­is­fy­ing knowl­edge that in the re­mote cor­ners of the con­ti­nent lies a re­minder that we are but cogs in a more pow­er­ful world.

Photo by Reid Wil­son for The Washington Post

A stream bur­bles by the trail to Sol Duc Falls, emp­ty­ing into the Sol Duc River.

The Washington Post

Photo by Reid Wil­son for The Washington Post

Sun­set over the Pa­cific Ocean as seen from the deck of Kalaloch Lodge in Washington’s Olympic Na­tional Park.

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