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April 23, 2018
Evan and I went out to the Olympics last week for a brief stay in a cabin with friends and then an overnight in the Enchanted Valley. Neither of us had been to the Olympic Peninsula before, and this would be our first overnight of the year. A good chance to try out our new gear!
We looked at the various trails near the cabin on Lake Quinault but didn’t make our decision until we were there and could see the conditions. We chose the East Fork trail to the Enchanted Valley because it didn’t go as high in elevation as the North Fork (our other choice), and it looked like the snow line was still fairly low. This ended up being a very wise decision.
Around 11 am we were dropped off at the trailhead, 2 hours later than I wanted but we needed to stop by the general store first and I underestimated the amount of time it would take to drive the back country road. We only had 13.5 miles planned for the day, so I estimated about 7 hours of hiking, accounting for breaks here and there. It was cloudy with the occasional sprinkle.
The trail was pretty gentle, albeit in need of maintenance. April is still the offseason in these parts, and we saw very few other hikers on the trail. Little waterfalls rolled over the hills and onto the trail, I’d say a good 15% of the trail was underwater, either as a waterfall, a stream, or just standing. In one section I figured out how to divert the water to the drainage where it was supposed to go and the water drained from the path almost immediately. The following day I’d find a dry trail.
We hiked and hiked as the rain struggled to make up its mind. Sometimes we saw our shadows, and it was exciting! The trail followed the Quinault River as it steadily rose into the mountains, we found the incline to be reasonable and very seldom did I need to catch my breath. I need to get to my doctor and refill my inhaler. For shame.
The landscape around us was so foreign. We’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for a few years now, seeing the mountains, the coast, the forests in between, but the Olympic Peninsula is a special ecosystem created by constant wet air brought in by the Pacific, and the mountains trapping it here. If it’s a surface, there’s moss on it. Short fuzzy moss and long beard-like moss. Entire trees were swaddled in the stuff, and I often wonder about their relationship. The trees are unaffected by the stuff–no benefits or disadvantages–while the moss gets a home.
I counted our miles by the creeks we crossed. Some simple, some harder. No Name Creek (uhh?), Fire Creek, and Pyrites Creek both had bridges built out of trees that fell nearby. But the smaller, unnamed creeks had no bridges. I imagine in the warmer months these streams are dried up and there is no use for a bridge, but this early in the year they require some craftiness and a bit of courage to cross. Sometimes we’d go up or downstream looking for where the banks were closer or a jumping-rock, other times we tried to make paths by throwing in rocks and logs.
Eventually, we gave up and trudged through the water. Wet feet, oh well!
While we were hiking we didn’t notice how cold it was, or at least I didn’t. I get so hot when I hike that strip layers within 5 minutes of starting. I could be surrounded by snow and I’ll be wearing shorts and a T-shirt, sweating.
Late in the afternoon, maybe 10 miles in, we came into a large clearing. In the distance, we spotted a herd of elk. Wanting to be quiet and not spook them, we whispered and walked softly down the trail. The trail went over and around a small hill, and I glanced to my right.
Why hello there, 400lb black bear. You’re barely a stone’s throw away. Are you enjoying your dinner? The dinner that’s not me or my food?
Spooked, we carried on. The bear paid us no mind and continued eating ferns. The elk were spooked and we made noise to scare off any more bears. Two more were hanging out farther down the trail but ran off when they heard me clicking my trekking poles and Evan hollering.
Sure am glad we have bear canisters (they are required here, after all).
By this point I’m exhausted. I’ve hiked farther today than I have in months, and I am clearly out of shape. I’m grateful that my pack is barely 25lb, and I sweat a little harder thinking about the 40lb carries waiting for me when I hit the Sierra in a few months. I sit on a wet long and shove food in my mouth. Fruit snacks, Snickers bar, sesame sticks. Oh sweet calories, get IN me.
The scenery is slowly changing; the trees are becoming farther and farther apart, and there are fewer ferns carpeting the forest floor. We turn a bend and find patches of snow clinging in the shadows. We have what, 2 miles left? Still going uphill? Oh boy…
We hike a while longer, avoiding mud pits and puddles until the patches of snow become mounds on the trail. And the mounds become fields. It’s late in the day and the snow is soft and melted. No use getting the microspikes out, they won’t do us much good.
We hike hike hike, post-hole a few times (that’s when you take a step in snow, but your foot goes right through it and you end up knee deep or more in snow), sit and eat some more food. Unlike me, Evan struggles to keep warm, which is why he prefers hiking the desert. He’s cold-blooded, probably. His socks are wet and he can’t feel his toes.
Soon I spot what I’ve been looking for: the last bridge. I know that over this bridge and around another bend is the abandoned ranger station (the ‘chalet’)where we plan to camp. But first we have another snowfield to navigate, and the bridge is covered in snow and ice, suspended 15 feet above the Quinault River. The footprints we see in the snow must be at least a week old. We’re the first ones here in a while.
Crossing the bridge wasn’t as hard as I expected, but now my hands are freezing from holding onto the single rail and pushing the ice off it. Evan soon follows, and we hike the little bit of trail remaining to the valley.
We see the chalet and the expansive valley, but in between there and us, the trail has been washed out by the river and we don’t see a way to cross.
We collect big rocks and hurl them into the river, eventually building a meager crossing of stepping stones. But this doesn’t lead us to the trail. Following the riverbed makes more sense and we bushwhack to where we need to be. The whole valley is covered in snow, save for a few exposed spots. We’re only at 2,100 feet, right?? The chalet is boarded up and a few neglected privies dot the landscape.
The light is getting dim and it’s getting colder, so we pick what looks like the only open area around to pitch our tents. We’re close to the river and generally exposed. It’s cold. Cold cold cold. This is my first time setting up my new tent–a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1–on a trip, and it takes longer to pitch than what I hoped. The ground is full of rocks so our stakes don’t go in, but there aren’t many rocks available to stack on the guylines. I make due with what I have and am grateful my tent is freestanding.
Evan and I have separate tents, and I really prefer it this way. Cuddling is for at home, in the backcountry you really don’t want to sleep next to me. I move too much you’ll likely get elbowed in the face. Evan decides not to have a hot supper and presumably eats most of his snacks; I’m not sure as he zipped up his tent to stay warm. I throw together some tasty 3-cheese tortellini and inhale it. I’m much too cold to go wash my pot, so I take a gamble and put the dirty pot (closed) into my bear canister and set it down 200 feet away from my tent.
Finally, I can get out of my wet clothes and into my sleeping clothes! I bask in the warmth of my base layers and thick wool socks as I snuggle deeper into my 10F down quilt, but bliss is short-lived.
Very quickly the cold seeped into my tent and my quilt. What the heck? I figured it was a draft and I tightened my straps, pulling the quilt closer to me. Nope, that didn’t help much. I toss and turn, trying to stay warm. My torso is fine in my down puffy, but my legs and feet feel exposed and are chilled.
After hopelessly trying to sleep in the cold, I pull the trash compactor bag liner out of my pack and pull it over my feet. I lay my raincoat over my waist, trying to block the cold. The bag helps, but the coat falls off. Crap. Another hour later, I pull on another pair of socks, put my skirt on over my leggings, as well as my wet hiking pants, and zip my raincoat up around my waist. I’ve run out of options at this point, and I’ve also lost my pillow.
With the extra layers, I warm up slightly and am able to get a little sleep. I slip in and out of consciousness until I realize it’s getting light outside. I deliberate for a moment before deciding my best option to warm up is to hike. So I get up.
I noisily gather my things and put my soaking wet shoes on. I’m thankful that they’re not frozen, but the layer of frost on the rainfly of my tent says it could have been different. I pee and gather our bear canisters. Much to my dismay, our bear canisters are frozen shut. All my food! My medication! MY COFFEE!! I beat the lit with my trekking pole, hoping to loosen it up, but nothing works. Augh.
Evan is up now, agreeing that hiking out is our best bet. He apparently slept through the night. I think his tent was better ventilated than mine and the moisture didn’t accumulate. His sleeping quilt is nearly dry. Lucky.
By now we’ve realized that our campsite selection was part of my trouble. We should have looked for a less-exposed area, farther from the water. This is what we get for being lazy.
We pack our things up and leave camp at approximately 6 am when we had actually planned to wake up. The hike out of the snow-covered valley is difficult in my unfed state, though I get hot quickly. We can’t figure out how we got to the river and overshoot it. Too tired and frustrated to retrace our steps, we climb the hillside, over bushes, trees, and rocks, and slide down to the trail.
It’s all downhill from here.
In no time at all, we manage to hike the 3 miles down to Pyrites Creek, where we unpacked and found our canisters to be thawed. Oh, thank the heavens. I mix up a Carnation Instant Breakfast with a can of Starbucks Salted Caramel Espresso Double Shot. We eat as much as we can. Evan has a big bag of fruit loops. I have peanut butter covered pretzels.
I’m freezing again by the time we’re packing up to go. Had my pot been clean I would have made some hot coffee but last night’s dinner was caked on.
The rest of the hike was rather uneventful, but not forgettable. Going downhill is always so much easier even when you’re sore. The sun came out and warmed us. I listened to music as I consumed the trees, the moss, the ferns, everything. I splashed through creeks and climbed over logs. Nature was filling me up, my heart, my soul, my mind. I thought very little about the outside world, even if I was on my way there.
My thoughts wandered and I found myself thinking about my upcoming Sierra hike. While I worry about being cold, I know I won’t have to worry too much about this wet cold. I hope I’ll be strong enough when we start that I can do good miles with such a heavy pack. I compare my current mindset to what it may be when I’m there. An overnight trip is much different from a multi-day trip, especially a 30+ day trip. On an overnight, you’re constantly aware that you’re just here today, and tomorrow night you’ll be back in your bed checking Facebook. On a multi-day, you at least have day 2 or 3 to worry only about your destination for the night, but you know you’ll be home soon enough.
On a much longer trip, all of this fades away. You find your mind unburdened by the thoughts of the front country. Gone is the weight of updating your social media status, gone is the worry of feeding your cats and scooping their litter. Your mind is free to think about so much more, and it’s here that you begin to contemplate the universe and your place in it. It’s in nature where I find my religion, where I find magic in a loud, crazy world.
No sooner do we arrive at the trailhead does our ride arrive to take us home. We were a half hour early, and so were they. Funny how that works out. I am refreshed and rejuvenated.
But now the only thing weighing me down is my hunger for more.