MADE SMALLER BY NATURE’S EXPANSE
A trip deep into Olympic National Park provides perspective
As I sit gazing at a million stars against a pitch-black sky at the edge of a thousand-yearold 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 constant 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 could hardly care less 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 three-hour 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-hundred-foot 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 washedup 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.
The Sol Duc Falls in Washington’s Olympic National Park.
TOP: Sunset over the Pacific Ocean as seen from the deck of Kalaloch Lodge in Washington’s Olympic National Park. ABOVE: A deer (and friends) frolic at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort.