Donnerstag, 15. September 2011

A rainforest, but no rain! (Week 22)

After Aaron & i got geared up at Adam's garage & REI's Flagship Store in Seattle, we were ready for an ambitious backpacking trip to Olympic National Park, tucked away in the most northwestern corner of the Pacific Northwest! Originally i had planned to do the trip on my own, but after my Rattlesnake encounter in Saguaro National Park i had become a little cautious and i was also happy to have a fellow yogi on board for company. Aaron himself had never done any backpacking before, but having completed Bikram Yoga Teacher Training i knew he was fireproof, bulletproof & hopefully also bear-proof! I had remembered him as one of the more friendly & outgoing individuals at Teacher Training, and knew these characteristics could become crucial on a multiday-hike in America's rainiest corner. Olympic National Park is a true wilderness area and - contrary to many other US National Parks - there are no roads leading through the park, you can only circumnavigate it via US Hwy 101. The park consists of 3 different & distinct ecosystems: alpine meadows with snow-capped glaciers in the heart of the park, about 60 miles of wild coastline along the Western edge, and one of the few Northern American examples of a temperate rainforest inbetween. I had chosen what many consider the quintessential hike in Olympic NP: the Hoh River Trail, a 35-mile "in & out" trek through the Hoh Rainforest, along the River of the same name, up to Glacier Meadows, usually a mountaineer's base camp to climb the park's highest peak, Mount Olympus (7.980 ft).

The trail starts at the Hoh Visitor Center, about 15 miles inside the park boundaries, and getting there without a car was in itself an adventure. While preparing the whole trip back home, i had discovered a website that encouraged hikers to use public buses to get to the peninsula - certainly not the fastest, but definitely the cheapest & most sustainable way! The man behind that website is Dave McBee, a Seattleite with plenty of backpacking experience in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to his efforts, i was saved the arduous task of deciphering 3 county buslines' timetables to "assemble" my itinerary to the Olympic Peninsula - it's all delivered on his website, readymade in a nice little tab that you can just print out! And here's how it went down: first we had to take a morning ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island (Michael Douglas' home in the movie "Disclosure"), then connect to 2 Kitsap Transit bus lines, then (at a bus station in the middle of nowhere) connect to a Jefferson Transit bus line, and finally - in the one-horse-town of Sequim, WA - connect to a westbound commuter bus by Clallam Transit, which arrived in Port Angeles, the main gateway north of Olympic National Park, in the early afternoon. There, we walked up the hill to the Park Headquarters, obtained our backcountry permit, and walked down again to spend a night at Thor's Town Hostel and continue our journey the following day. In other words, the 1st day had been entirely consumed with the approach and preparation for the actual hike, and we were still quite a ways from the trailhead... but it proved to be a very scenic, relaxing and entertaining way to start the journey, meeting many nice locals along the way!

On Day 2, we took another 1-hour-20-minute Clallam Transit Shuttle ride to Forks, Washington - a little town that serves as the gateway to the Western entrance of the park, and stars in the Twilight Series (simply on grounds of being the most precipitious place in the US). This has resulted in a fair amount of "Twilight Tourism", with several shops in the area selling Twilight T-Shirts and other gimmicks, helping the town's struggling economy (which doesn't make me a Twilight fan, however). Still, we weren't on the trail...

In Forks i had to hitchhike for the first time in the US and after travelling by plane, car, campervan, train, boat & bus so far, i can now say i've covered pretty much every means of transportation! Standing next to a mall & parking lot on Hwy 101, it took us a while to get a ride, though. In the end we were picked up by a female local who "had nothing better to do"! She had just gone out to buy some toilet paper, and noticed us sticking our thumbs out in the parking lot, but she was wondering where our backpacks were or if we were backpackers at all. When she got home with her toilet paper, she felt sorry for us and decided to go back (!) and check if we were still there... Aaron had meanwhile suggested we put our backpacks on to increase our chances for a ride, and probably that's what did the trick! She eventually took us all the way to the Park Entrance, and from there we were only 6 miles away from the Hoh Visitor Center. A small "traffic jam" had developed at the Park Entrance, and that's when i had the brillant idea of bribing an entering car with my America the Beautiful Pass (which gets you into all National Parks for free - thus saving them the entrance fee and us a 6-mile-walk, a classic win/win situation).

We took a quick look around the Visitor Center, and while Aaron was surprised to see that Seattle has the same amount of precipitation as Chicago, the real surprise for me was that the Hoh Rainforest (which receives an annual average of 142 inches of rainfall) would probably spare us of any rain on the entire hike. The forecast predicted dry & sunny weather throughout, and while most people would consider this very fortunate timing, i was almost a little disappointed. I had chosen the Olympic Rain Forest for a reason - whereas staying hydrated was the biggest challenge in the Saguaro Desert, staying dry was what i assumed to be the biggest challenge in the Olympic Rainforest. But ironically, while i got surprised by a morning monsoon shower in Saguaro National Park, i did not see a single drop of rain on the entire Olympic Peninsula in 6 days! I guess the lesson to be learned from that is to never rely on statistics...

At 1 pm on Day 2 we were finally ready to hit the trail, and our first stage was a 9-mile hike to Olympus Guard Station without significant elevation changes. Piece of Cake, as Bikram would say. We camped out on a gravel bar of the Hoh River, and set up our gravity water filter to be able to use the Hoh's glacier-fed waters. While i had only been using Iodine tablets to treat the scarce water in Saguaro, i had meanwhile learned about the risk of inheriting Giardia in the US (an organism that settles down in your digestive tract, causing serious diarrhea, and liking it so much in your guts that it decides never to leave again), and therefore decided to use a water filter this time. Aaron didn't trust the system at first, but in the end he also couldn't be bothered to boil water for 5 minutes all the time.

On Day 2 we walked another 6 miles into the park, including a spectacular crossing of a gorge on a wooden bridge suspended about 150 feet above one of the Hoh's tributaries, and a long sunbath at the Hoh River itself:

After that, it became an uphill battle, with the trail gaining elevation and providing us with a challenging last couple of miles before we arrived at Elk Lake, still 2 miles short of our destination at Glacier Meadows. We were hungry & thirsty, and it seemed too late to proceed - the remaining 2 miles were supposedly very steep and had partially been wiped out by avalanches earlier this year - so we decided to camp at the beautiful Martin's Creek campsite just below Elk Lake. While Aaron had hoped for some company in other backpackers, (preferrably female, black-haired & Asian) i had fallen in love at first sight with the solitude of that campsite, and it was also the last one that allowed campfires, another strong argument to stop & camp there.

With bear wires installed at the campsite, Aaron soon realized that the only black-haired company he might get out there were black bears, and he wasn't exactly turned on by the prospect. He also learned to appreciate the value of a headlamp (which he had deemed unnecessary when i recommended him to get one at REI the other day). The idea of putting our cozy fire out and retreating into our tents also seemed a little uncanny to me, especially after our Salmon Pasta Dinner had filled the whole campsite with the delicious smell of smoked salmon. Of course we had put all our food & garbage into the bear-proof container, but still: if even i could smell salmon, a black bear sure would! So i suggested that while one of us would sleep, the other should stay awake and keep the fire going to scare off any potential intruders. We agreed upon two 4-hour-shifts, with me taking the first shift from 10 pm to 2 am and Aaron taking over from 2 am to 6 am. It probably wasn't necessary; but i thoroughly enjoyed sitting alone at the campfire and staring into the flames - it's still one of the most archaic experiences a human being can have!

On Day 4, we had to hike out the entire 15 miles we had covered on Day 2 + 3, but it was mostly downhill terrain. However, since we had to give ourselves a good chance of catching a ride back to Forks (where Aaron had to catch a bus to Port Angeles the next morning) we hiked at a fast pace, and took no breaks except for 1 hour at noon, where we took a short nap and filtered some more water. Back at the Hoh Visitor Center, our tactics paid off, as i approached an elderly British couple who took us to Pacific Pizza in Forks, where we treated ourselves with pizza, beer & cake (not necessarily in that order) for dinner and took a cheap hostel room nearby for a hot shower and a warm bed afterwards.

The next morning, we had to part ways, as Aaron had to get back to Seattle, while i wanted to complete the Olympic experience with a trip to the Coastal Strip, knowing that it would be my last chance to see the Pacific Ocean while in the US. I took a bus to La Push in the Quilleute Indian Reservation, had a coffee, wrote some postcards, bought some more supplies (most importantly red wine) and took a short hike to beautiful Second Beach where i set up camp next to 2 nice girls from Vancouver Island who camped here for a few days. I also went for a short swim, but the Washington Coast proved to be only marginally warmer than the Hoh River. For most of the day, I felt like Robinson Crusoe on his small island, going about my duties (setting up camp, filtering drinking water, gathering firewood, cooking dinner) but contrary to the poor guy, i even had some female company in Lenka & Marlene who let me teach 'em some Yoga postures and later joined me for a bottle of wine at my campfire!

Day 6 was again solely a travel day, where i retraced my steps to Seattle, starting at 8.30 in the morning, taking all the bus lines in reverse order, stopping in the charming seaside town of Port Townsend for - according to Lonely Planet - "quite simply the best pizza in the entire State" (Waterfront Pizza). And yes, they were right, i had 3 slices and a nice chat with 2 ladies from Everett:

Inspired by the whole trip, i also purchased a copy of the mountaineering bible "Freedom of the Hills" at a local outdoor shop. I returned to Seattle in the early evening and got back to Kent around 10 pm, after a total of 8 (!) busrides and 1 ferry ride for the day. Unfortunately, Aaron was not around to have our free drinks at the Central Saloon together, so i had to drink it all by myself! ;-)

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