In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.
— John Muir
A blue Western sky opens for us as we leave Spokane, heading west. I met Sean and Brigette while working at a Boy Scout camp in Northern Idaho, and I was staying in the Spokane area ever since camp ended. Sean and Brigette are a couple of months pregnant, but are a young and active couple. Both are genuinely good people.
We make our way across the state of Washington to Brigette’s family home southeast of the Seattle-Tacoma area. For a few days I help her family with some menial tasks and Sean and I try to heave an old construction Cat from its resting place in the nearby forest (which is also where I discover that the Northwest does have large deciduous trees.) The large yellow machine sits in the rich, moist soil of decomposed leaves from a bigleaf maple, an aptly named tree. Leaves from this tree are typically six inches to one foot across, the limbs are massive and the trunk is wide and sturdy, and these maples can grow to one hundred feet tall with an even wider crown–the trees look super-sized. Being the first large deciduous tree I’ve seen in more than six months, I am very impressed. And nearly every night there I sleep beneath one of these trees (I chose to sleep in the backyard.) Late at night I walk around on the streets before falling asleep. Hearing bugling elk and barking coyotes at night gives me the impression of being deep in the wilderness somewhere.
We spend some time in the city and out on the Sound as well. Seattle is a beautiful city and the Puget Sound is a beautiful waterway. The boat owner is the father of a friend of Brigette’s and a fisherman in the Sound. As we zip across the water and munch on smoked salmon, he tells us about fishing here. He is angry that the fishing is tough and regulations make it even tougher to fish in here. Many of the fishermen take their anger out on the native seals–shooting them with rubber bullets, whacking them with oars, some even poison them and kill them intentionally. I’m in no position to argue ethics with him as we motor on the cold water, and I even understand his frustration with the regulations and the threat to his livelihood. However, the seals are not to blame and they are misunderstood. In the complexity of the marine ecosystem, seals help keep predatory fish numbers low and while seals and fishermen do compete, there is no evidence that culling seals will increase fish stocks. We spot one adult seal and chase it for a bit until we lose sight of it, then we spot a juvenile seal, but leave it alone.
The following day, Sean, Brigette, and I head for the Olympic Peninsula. With the Quinault Indian Reservation and a few small towns, the peninsula is mostly Olympic National Park and Forest land. The park is a jumbled mass of mountain and within the mountains are gems of ecological beauty. Several glaciers rest here, various streams cut down the nooks of mountains, alpine meadows and flower gardens, and there’s even a rainforest. Our first stop is Hurricane Ridge. A steep and windy road slithers to the open and scenic ridge. This is the ideal tourist spot–mountain meadows filled with blooming purple lupine, views across a valley to ridges and glaciers, and a short paved trail where docile and endangered black-tailed deer browse lazily. I would have flung open my arms and danced across the meadow singing “The Sound of Music” if there weren’t signs requesting that I stay off the meadow grass.
Our second stop is at one of the mountain streams. We heard at the visitor center that it is the right time of the year to see salmon. In my head I always had visions of a stream filled with more salmon than water, the classic nature documentary scene of salmon leaping up a waterfall. We drive on a road parallel to the Elwha River and stop twice to look for salmon. We see nothing. A road closure ends our journey and we continue elsewhere, disappointed. It turns out our visit coincides with a dam removal project on the Elwha River intended to benefit salmon in the river. Salmon and man have a complicated relationship. The fish have been a great source of food for man for centuries with some Native American tribes along this very coast fishing salmon runs and subsisting on their catch for months every year. Then a hunger of a different kind took over and we built dams for hydro-electric energy and reservoirs to irrigate drier land for crops. Salmon failed to adapt to the conditions of a dam and a reservoir and barely survived with only limited help. Dam removal projects now help restore salmon runs to their prior resilience by opening miles of streams and rivers to spawning sites that were unused for decades.
We spend the night in the first campsite we can find and then promptly leave in the morning. We head toward the mountains, stopping at one of a few particularly large Sitka Spruce that are hugged and photographed often.
The road runs parallel to the Hoh River (pronounced like hoe but with a slight “h” sound at the end) into the Hoh Rain Forest. Summer fog and 12 to 14 feet of precipitation every year make life in this temperate rainforest always wet. Tall spruce trees dangle with beard-like lichen on every branch and every rock and log is covered with wet mosses and lichens. The leaves of trees drip nonstop and water seeps from the ground with every step. The forest mascot seems to be the common and peculiarly attractive banana slug. Walking along a trail in this area of the park rendered scenes that cast every hue of natural green from the forest floor to the canopy above. The rainforest satisfies some primal desire that I did not know I had.
We drive to the Western side of the peninsula bordering the Pacific Ocean and stop at one of the dark-sanded beaches here to enjoy a misty afternoon. Sea stacks stand out in the mist and fade from view the farther away they are. Walking along the beach reveals hidden stacks and surprising views. This beach is natural–there are no hot dog shops or beach bums or brightly colored sunbathing tourists, instead massive pine logs lie stranded along the shore and only the sound of waves fills the air. Only a few people explore the beach and one elderly couple tells me that I came at the right time on the right day.
On our way back to Spokane we stop briefly at Mt. Rainier. The stop, in my opinion, was too brief. The mountain stands in front of me beckoning. Its summit hides in clouds which often linger at the mountain. It’s September, but patches of snow line a road that takes us partway up. I got out of the car and simply stared at the shroud of clouds above. The challenge is too tempting to simply shrug off, “This won’t be the last time I see this mountain.”
Now, years later, I feel I have left something there in those mountains, a state of mind and being, a part of myself that will always remain there until I return but that will not ever leave its place.