Friday, October 1, 2010

Olympic National Park

The National Park Service makes much of the fact that Olympic National Park contains three distinct ecosystems in one park; sort of a "buy two, get one free" special package. And that's true, the alpine environment in the north, the rain forests in the south, and the littoral of the west are all completely different from one another. All three are beautiful, mostly wilderness areas, and all three are impressive. 

Olympic is a gigantic national park, perfect for people who are really into wilderness stuff like hiking and camping. Me, not so much. I like a nice hour-long hike on flat ground, and even that can test my aching joints (currently the left ankle on even days, the right knee on odd days, the left elbow on most days). So the single day trip we took was just about right, though I will admit that I kind of wished I had more desire for the outdoorsy thing, especially on the beach. It would have been nice to take a week to hike from one end to the other, although I know that, after a few hours, it would've been like my last visit to the driving range: I'd be thinking, "Why was it that I thought this might be fun?" I haven't hit a golf ball since, and that's more than four years ago. I also recall making a resolution, some years before that, never to sleep on the ground again, the last time I went camping with my son. Oh, sure, sometimes I weaken and think it would be fun, but I always manage to get hold of myself before giving in to that particular temptation.

For our trip, we took the route suggested by the Park Service on their website for a full-day visit. We set out early --- well, sort of early --- from Port T, going first to the Visitors' Center south of Port Angeles for that all-important passport stamp. From there it was a scenic drive of 45 minutes or so up to Hurricane Ridge, where there's another visitors' center and an alpine view. A short accessible hiking trail was nearby, and we decided to take the time for that; but most of it was closed for some unspecified reason. So after taking just the time to enjoy the view, we drove on to Hoh Rain Forest.

Hoh is the largest of the three rain forests contained in the park. Three hours' drive from Hurricane Ridge, it sits near the base of Mount Olympus, which we didn't see because of fog, I suppose; I'm not sure it would have been visible from where we were anyway, but in that part of the country you're always safe in blaming fog. Back in the 1880s, when Washington was looking to become a state, the territorial legislature considered choosing "Semper Fog" as the state motto, but it was rejected in favour of something conventionally grandiose and meaningless. Anyway, the visitors' center at the rain forest is the starting point for a number of hiking trails, including one that goes up Mt Olympus. We opted instead for the more do-able "Hall of Mosses" loop tour. My first thought was, You're kidding, right? Moss? But it was short enough, and reasonably flat, and I didn't feel like sitting in the visitors' center with the guy from Newport, Oregon who, when he learned I was from South Texas, insisted on telling me Mexican jokes.

It actually turned out to be a very nice walk, about two hours if I remember right, through a forest of tall Sitka spruce and hemlock and Douglas fir, and more moss than the Louisiana bayous. Lush, verdant, all those synonyms. Beyond the cool darkness of the forest floor, the giant shaggy trees stretched up and up to a clear blue sky, bright in the afternoon sun. Below them, ferns and fungi grew amid roots that poured and slithered over each other, creating on every side an other-worldly sense of promiscuous abandon. 

From the rain forest, we drove out to the beach. This part of the park was added on as an afterthought, against, it seems, the wishes of the local indians. And in truth it seems, from the small taste of it that I've had, not to be a part of the same park at all. The alpine scenery of Hurricane Ridge and the mountainous rain-forests are enough of a piece that, while different, one from the other, they seem to belong together. This long tongue of beach, miles away from the rest of the park and stretching for miles along the shore, seems completely different.

It's almost a spooky place. The beach is narrow, maybe twenty yards wide; the loud, restless Pacific Ocean on the west takes giant trees from the still, dark forest on the east, and tosses their carcasses about on the beach. There seems to be no life here, no crabs scuttling about on the shore, no birds overhead, no seals or fish in the water. The remains of the trees, lying haphazard on the rocks, are like one of those warnings that teenaged girls are always ignoring in horror films: go back! Stay away! Don't go into the barn!

But like those teenaged girls, we couldn't help ourselves: we had to wander along the beach until it got dark and cold and we discovered that we didn't know the way back to the car. Then one of us observed a metal sign, a red cross and circle on a black background, nailed high to a tree trunk, and that turned out to be the sign showing where the path back began. By then, someone down the beach had started what looked like a bonfire. I thought that would be a good way to end our visit to the park, but instead we went back to Forks, the nearest town, for gas and dinner. By the time we were ready to head back to Port T, the fog had settled in. That made for a long, slow trip back to home base.