West of Port Angeles 25 miles, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca coast, lies a 280 acre preserve established by the North Olympic Land Trust which is just beautiful. A half mile walk through lovely cedar second growth forest brings you to the Lyre Creek outlet, a half mile beach, a meadow, and beauty. I was out there yesterday, spitting rain, wandering, and as I came down the last little switchback from the forest onto the coastal meadow I heard an eagle cry, twice, three times, and then saw before me this herd of elk, who even as I saw them and tried to photograph them were sliding into the forest. Then two enormous eagles dropped from some trees, close to me, maybe 30 feet, swooping low over the meadow then rising, crying again. There was still lots of snow in the forest, the creek was chattering and surging, waves curling and breaking, and out on the cobble beach a big heron, motionless. See the elk, there, behind the reforestation efforts? They were within a hundred yards of the shore. That view of the reflection and the peaks beyond is looking back toward the interior Olympic ranges. If you’re ever out that way, go west on Route 112 through Joyce and look for Randolph Road on the right, just before Lyre Creek. It’s a trip worth taking.
Have you ever been lost in the woods? These days most of us, when we become lost, are more likely than not wandering an airport or big public parking garage looking for our vehicle. Right?
I’ve never been really lost out there. There are stages of lost-ness, I think. There is the “lost the trail” lost, which means wandering off a trail without realizing and then trying to find one’s way back. This is how most people get truly lost, this way, I think. I met a guy in my writing class in 2013 who went into the Olympics and started up the Three Lakes Trail toward Skyline ridge in the southwest Olympics, off the Quinault, and somehow missed a turn and ended up lost for five days. He got out OK, chilled, but that’s a long time to be missing. So he went from “lost the trail” to being really lost, but of course knowing the general area he was in. Then there is the totally lost condition, not even knowing the general area, this coming when say a plane crashes in the wilderness somewhere and you survive.
But, three times, I wandered off trail and was for a time “lost.” I wasn’t lost for long the first time. I was hiking up to Dodger Point and, low down, the trail jogs sharp left and up to start up the ridge after crossing the Elwha (I think that’s where it was, it was 25 years ago) and I kept going ahead, on the open forest floor, until say thirty yards in I realized I wasn’t on the trail any more. That was startling. An interesting thing happens to you when you lose a trail, or to me, anyway. Everything shifts. That first time I backtracked and sure enough found the jog right away.
The second time I was lost could have been more serious. I was alone, up on the Skyline Trail, July Fourth weekend a year with little snow, absolutely alone, my second day in, way up high past Kimta Peak, the next pass, maybe Hee Haw Pass? Anyway its rocky and bare up there, cairns, but enough snow to cover the cairns, and the trail there wanders down this rocky defile a ways then also jogs left over a little deep creek, but the ground is open and well trod and so I missed that jog and wandered this way, then that, and always the trail petered out. I am way in, it has just started to rain, and it then rained for three days, never been up there before, and now cannot find where the trail goes. That time it took me a half hour to find the jog and the trail. I knew enough to know that when you lose the trail you backtrack, first, and second you don’t go wandering off without a real clear idea of how go get back, because it’s rough country up there and if you get off far enough, down say a steep side hill, then you can get turned around and then you are lost, like my classmate got lost.
The third time is embarrassing. I had a new pair of boots, and hoped they were broken in. I had walked in them and gone up and down gravel sidehills with them, but they were new and I knew they were not yet ready, but it was a nice day, sunny, dead clear, I had the day off, and the Brothers beckoned, so I drove to the trailhead to Lena Lake, was on the trail by 6am, and tried to climb the Brothers. This, like the two events above, was the first or second year I was out here, maybe 25 years ago. I was younger than now and felt strong and was really stupid because right away I knew the boots weren’t ready but, dammit, the day was FINE, so on I went. The climber’s path to some campsites in the Valley of Silent Men is pretty easy to follow, and then you get above trees and I climbed up and up and up, in the hot sun, feet starting to burn, now, but dammit I was close! I reached the final summit block, where it gets a little exposed, and by now I know my feet are gonna be a big problem. I turned around maybe 200 feet below the summit and worked my way down to the campsites off the rock, which took a damn long time, several hours, and when I got down there I got all turned around. I stopped and thought, I should take my boots off, but knew if I did I’d never get them on again. But somehow I got turned around and could not find the path down to Lena Lake. This took me two hours, wandering and looking. I was in a lot of pain and feeling stupid and not too rational, probably seriously dehydrated, nobody else around all day, afraid to remove my boots. That time, for a half hour, I was afraid I was really lost, wandering the woods, maybe getting further and further from the trail, and that was scary and sobering. I stopped and sat and took some breaths and relaxed, drank water, and checked the sun, the slopes, and found the trail.
I got back to my car at 7pm, 6000 vertical feet up and 6000 vertical feet down later, and when I took off those boots the skin on my feet up to my ankles came off too.
This was the first of several embarrassing boot stories, but (hopefully) the last of my lost stories, all of which were many years ago. But, still, that shift, that change, when you realize you don’t know where you are – that gets your attention.
In 2006 I went with two friends off into the back country of the Olympics and the link below gives a good flavor of the terrain and the country. It was a great trip. It was a gnarly trip.
This doesn’t look like much but it is astounding. This is a piece of bone found about 40 years ago in Sequim, Washington – a mastodon skeleton was discovered when Mr. Manis was digging out a pond on his field on the Olympic Peninsula. A mastodon is sort of like an elephant but a little smaller. The little lighter thing in the middle is actually a spear point, stuck in the bone, also of mastodon bone. There is a sweet but tiny exhibit in Sequim that displays the bones and this point and I took the picture when I visited few weeks ago. Here’s the thing. This bone, and spear point in it, have been dated to 13,800 years old. It is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, proven evidence of early humans in North America, right here on the Olympic Peninsula in the shadow of Olympic National Park. People used to think the great ice covered this area that long ago, but apparently not. Apparently parts of the peninsula were a refuge from the ice, and maybe the hunters who took this animal lived there.
In the Olympics when you get to the high country the main trails cross high meadows, sometimes rutted deep into the dirt, a combination of boot wear, erosion, and flowing water. Off trail tracks are sometimes well worn, also gouged into the earth, plain to see. It doesn’t take much to make a path, because the vegetation up high is sensitive, and passing feet soon wear through grasses, sedges and thin roots to dirt. Once a track is worn, it remains, for a long long time. Up high the ground lies under snow for eight to nine months a year, sheltered and protected, with only the short growing season for roots to bind into the soil, so a worn track, once made, may remain for years, even if untraveled. Now imagine a path traveled every year or every other year by a few people, enough to make the trail, keep the grasses low, but not so many people as to dig a ditch for water and erosion. Those paths up in the high country, maybe they were made by early trappers or Boy Scouts in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, but maybe they were worn much, much earlier. Somehow it has become the general feeling that native tribes avoided the high country, which makes absolutely no sense to me, because up high the elk gather, the berries ripen, and the basins are lovely. People are people, and what would appear a logical route to cross a pass today would seem the same a century ago, a hundred centuries ago, or even longer. So how old are those paths? A century or less, if you agree the high country was avoided, or a hundred centuries or more, if you believe people went wandering as soon as they became people? So, those trails and paths we trod, sweating under our packs, cursing the deerflies, among acres of flowers and heather, could we be walking in the footsteps of people who lived and died back when the ice ruled the earth, or even before? I like to think so. No. I know so.