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Adventure in the Olympic Wilderness

I stare across at the mountains often; seeing adventure, seeing wilderness, seeing an escape from traffic. The jagged horizon of the high places, seen from the East, looks pasted up, a green screen across the water. Crossing the inland see between us, the surreal aspect doesn’t abate, instead intensifying the further you go. I don’t know every parkland nor stretch of coastline, but I know the Olympic Peninsula holds untold treasures. If I’m so lucky as to spend the rest of my life in Washington, I plan to see a great deal more.

My girlfriend, Caitlin, and I made a bucket list about a year ago. A haphazard list jotted in one of my many simultaneously running notebooks. I added permanence by recreating it on nicer paper, inked with illustrations of the modest goals we set for exploration as a couple. She framed it, and it sits by the windowsill in our bedroom, with the Olympics and their nearly permanent layer of clouds floating in the background.Brendan_McGarry_160209_00003

I’m very familiar with bucket lists; mine mostly involve birds or nature. I’ve been making them all my life, as I assume most other birders, naturalists, and outdoors people do. Some are grandiose. Some are simplistic. Very rarely do you get to simultaneously plunk several in the proverbial bucket. By heading to the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula on an opportunistically rain free weekend, we kicked a few of these coupled goals off the list.

In many ways the Olympics are a wilderness surrounded by enemies. Humanity gobbles greedily from all angles, while the elements fling off anything not properly secured. In David Moskowitz’s book Wolves in the Land of Salmon, he describes what it would take for wolves to reestablish in the Olympics. Unlike other of the wild spaces they’ve found their way back into, welcomed or not, the Olympics are distinctly shut off. Water, major highways, and miles and miles of quiet, but not empty rural farmland and stagnant factory forests stand in the way. It seems essentially impossible and was a reminder for me how isolated the Olympics are, no matter their size.

This is also what makes them so special, that we didn’t stride up into the mountains and cut everything. The Olympics, of scraped together marine rock, pushed up by colliding plates, and mangled together by time and pressure, have stood against many a test. When I look across at the Olympics, I not only see National Forest, but a National Park which is 95% designated Wilderness, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a United Nation’s Biosphere Reserve. Glaciation, the sculptor that has further chiseled the Olympics, also molded its flora and fauna. Thousands of years in isolation, a sky island above water and ice, the Olympics had species that held on that in evolutionarily short, but strikingly cold isolation. They became endemic, stranded from relatives across on Vancouver Island and in the Cascades.

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A dark grey day on the coast.

Not every one of my trips has to be about endemic species though; we merely wanted to visit the park and camp by the beach away from people. A pretty short order, considering it was April in the wettest place in the Lower 48. If we saw gray whales or sea otters or the odd seabird, great. If we saw few people, even better.

The journey to Third Beach from Seattle was made by car, the only way we could make full use of a three day weekend. Driving there, you curve through endless Douglas firs, monocropping interspersed with former resource towns being revitalized by tourism and a renewed urban interest in rural traditions. Regardless, the trees and water are beautiful and by the time you slip through the rainshadow land of Sequim and Port Angeles, you’re used to beauty paired with destruction. Almost enough to stomach the former clear-cuts on publicly owned forest land between you and the coast. Until the very last moment, regardless of the signs directing you there, there’s few clues of your adjacency from virgin old-growth forest and National Park land.

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A Pacific trillium along the trail.

Trotting down to Third Beach doesn’t feel like you’re entering a wilderness area, which you are. Nor does it feel like an epic adventure waits at the other end, which I blame on the digital world. There you would be led to understand that adventure is only for gopro adorned athletes screaming through chartreuse rainforest or climbing vast peaks. The Sitka spruce and Western hemlock forest is beautiful, if slightly unremarkable from the perspective of a mossybacked local. We walked past lots of banana slugs, all an off-putting yellow, the color you’ve had to pull out of grass with an inside out plastic bag after a dog. We stopped to admire trilliums, brilliant white blooms against a backdrop of brown and green. We plodded down the gentle trail to until we could first hear, and then smell the ocean. This was a quiet weekend adventure, and indeed we were entering the wilderness.

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Our first camp site at Third Beach.

I really wanted to see gray whales. As the first wild cetacean I remember seeing, they hold a special place in my heart. Setting up camp at Third Beach, crowded in with other people above the high tide line, I kept glancing out to sea. The number of people around, both day hikers and campers, made it feel like we were car camping with a gaggle of idiots in a state park; everyone seemed ill-prepared and had garbage strewn about their spots. Trying to ignore this by looking out to sea, I spotted sea otters and a Steller sea lion, and thankfully the constant noise of the waves drowned out our neighbors. Settling into our little camp, we snuggled down for an evening of the restless ocean crashing against the sand and the tree tops brushing together in the breeze.

According to the Wilderness Act, the definition of said designated areas is as follows:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

I bring this up because Olympic National Park has 1369.9 square miles of Wilderness Area. Mt. Rainier National Park has 357. The North Cascades, second largest in Washington has 991.5. Many Wilderness Areas abut one another, so in reality, the complex of various lands in the North Cascades really is the largest spread. But Olympic, with six other such spaces abutting it, makes up one of the largest wild spaces left in the state, including the only significant marine wilderness as well. Where we camped, we looked from Olympic Wilderness, here a narrow band along the coast, roughly between the Makah and the Hoh Reservations, into the Washington Islands Wilderness, which spans from Cape Flattery South to Kalaloch.

Part of me wondered how much we were fooling ourselves with this designation here on the coast, or anywhere else. Largely inaccessible, of course it makes sense that we’d put it aside as such. I’m not arguing against Wilderness Areas. Instead, considering where these places are and why. We were in one of the few that didn’t begin after climbing several thousand feet into the mountains. The Olympics, with their constant rain meant that the land wasn’t gobbled quite as quickly by civilization, so one can hike large swathes of river bed, like along the Queets to the South and not be constantly reminded of people. However, things are missing and that makes me wonder about our definition of wilderness, it’s not completely wild. The gray wolf is gone. Other predators are much diminished. We introduced mountain goats. Countless invasive plants are here. The lakes are stocked with non-native trout, which diminish riparian diversity. The big trees aren’t as widespread as they should be.

When we woke up, it was to a gray morning with a lot of campers nearby. At 10pm, a group had stumbled mere feet from us and set up shop, talking loudly and clinking beer bottles. These neighbors and others had even more trash from the previous revelries strewn about the shoreline. This didn’t feel much like adventure, nor much like wilderness. It was time to get going.

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“You said there wasn’t much elevation gain.”

Heading South we had to first summit Taylor Point, which involved a series of rope ladders and steep steps. We felt fortunate to find ourselves here on a dry weekend, because the climb wouldn’t have been nearly as pleasant in the mud. At the top, we found ourselves in a pleasant Sitka spruce forest, glowing green, sprinkled with the songs of elfin Pacific Wrens. We didn’t see another soul until we reached the other side and descended to beach once more.

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Heading toward Strawberry Point.

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This purple ochre sea star looked like it was taking a dip in a hot tub.

Being a Sunday, we expected to see people mostly leaving and after jumping about slippery rocks, looking at the low tide’s offerings, people started trickling by. By the time we’d crossed several more beaches, crawled around a boulder strewn cape barely above the tide line, and made it to Strawberry Point, the movement had slowed. Everyone wanted out at low tide, and we expected to see almost no one else.

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The typical view of the coast here.

This section of coast is rugged. Hundreds of craggy islands with tufts of vegetation and barely exposed reefs span the shoreline. As a result, there’s always something catching your eye out in the water, and I continued to think I was seeing something other than a wash rock below the surface. As we hiked, my head was constantly on swivel for exciting developments.

Bird life was surprisingly sparse. Only a few gulls, cormorants, and the odd scoter or grebe were off shore. This was a bit of a birding shoulder season, before the Pacific Flyway heats up with travelers, and after many wintering seabirds have sped off to breed elsewhere. I am always listening for birds, so the constant din of the ocean made that difficult. American Robins were the only species not in short supply, and they seemed to have the beach divided in territories, foraging for tasty marine invertebrates in the tide wracks. Northwestern Crows (or American, I’m not here to argue), in small family groups were also busily flipping things about and hopping away from objects of uncertainty.

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Hauling garbage around.

The notion of being in wilderness was again challenged by the amount of garbage. I know this has little to do with the visitors, and much more to do with the way the Northern Pacific currents work, but it still felt a bit strange when the beach is half covered in fishing floats and other boating refuse. Being a bit of a hoarder and a hound for free stuff, I had picked my way down the coast, wondering what bits were from Japan and what were merely from irresponsible locals.

Where we ended up stopping for the night was a camp that seemed to have been built by various visitors over the years. Leaving no trace was a distant concet, with various amenities fashioned from beach detritus and drift wood. We walked up a promenade from the beach to the woods, which was lined with with logs stuck vertically in the sand and adorned with floats. In the forest, a series of benches surrounded a fire pit. Every camp site was like this, so there was no point in seeking a spot that seemed untouched. Besides, this one had a large cutting board that obviously had come from a fishing boat.

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Entry to our campsite the second night.

After a nice lunch in a sun break, I sat looking out to sea, watching for animals, and thinking about what this place really was. Two hundred years ago, the only immediately obvious difference would been the lack of garbage on the beach. The trees and islands would have been about the same. I could imagine a duggout war canoe cruising the coastline filled with Quileutte or Makah Warriors. I wondered if there would have been more animals, perhaps wolves walking the beach in search of food, or many more whales migrating the coastline. Looking around again, the future seemed to be inheriting nothing but plastic, between the garbage on the beach and the outdoor gear we’d hauled out for our “adventure.”

Adventure is a funny thing, and like wilderness, I tend to question it. My personal idea of adventure, like wilderness, isn’t bound by strict definitions. I think people can have adventures within the bounds of their imagination or at a local park. I think adventure isn’t always about extreme athletes, hokey Instagram photos bragging about distant locales, nor about brands trying convince you their objects will breed new experiences in their purchase. The concept and the simple word are used far too often and they make me cringe sometimes, especially after working in the world of tourism. Adventure is getting dirty, its immersive, and most of all, it’s about learning place. People leave their homes, their local ecosystems, to fly off to distant lands to find adventure, when it’s really right there in front of them. At the forefront of any adventure should be a goal to come away with a better understanding of the world and your place in it, which is why I tend to gag when it’s used as a sales pitch or in branding. Adventures are also about respect for what encounter and bringing that home with you.

As we sat, enjoying the solitude, Caitlin saw a lone kayak out on the water. The boat looked cumbersome, the user inexperienced. They also looked to be taking a b-line for our camp. I grumbled something about hoping they weren’t coming to camp nearby and we both agreed this seemed almost laughable. There were miles of empty camp sites nearby. Besides, this was probably someone out for the day from elsewhere.

As I read my book, the boat edged closer, until it met the shore and a soggy figure hauled out of the cockpit. Pulling his boat just out of the waves, he rushed to the bushes to relieve himself. I figured this was reason for stopping, but was horror struck when he started unloading his boat. Now, I don’t hate people, but I just couldn’t believe that this fellow was aiming to camp next to the only other people for miles around. I know a kayaker getting ready to stay awhile, so I ambled down to have a chat, wishing I had the gall to tell him to go somewhere else.

His name was Lief, and he immediately told me he was kayaking to Costa Rica. I took this in stride, despite his lack of a PFD, an extra paddle, his all cotton clothing, and no marine radio. However I was flabbergasted when he told me he was taking it slow because this was his first day kayaking, ever. In my astonishment, I didn’t even think to tell him to turn around, I just nodded dumbly as he said:

“It’ll be an adventure. I figure if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it big.”

I helped Lief haul his boat above the tideline and left him to his unpacking. He had no dry bags, so all his gear was soaked. His boat was enormously heavy, which I later realized was because it was weighed down with a pulaski, a machete, two liters of lighter fluid, and a lot of water from improperly secured hatches. Leaving him to set up his camp, which was fifty feet from where we’d set up on a previously deserted beach, I walked back and related the story to Caitlin. A good portion of our evening involved watching Lief pull sodden garments from his boat and wondering aloud if he’d be a body washed up on shore in the next few weeks. He didn’t attempt to socialize that evening, which was even more strange, but we were fine with this facade of solitude.

My second night of sleep was fitful, unlike most second nights under the stars; peaceful slumbers of acclimatization. Sometime before bed I’d realized that Leif could be out of his mind, and I imagined waking up with a pulaski blade lodged in my skull. Adding to my paranoid nocturnal starts was the wind changing direction and blowing into our shelter from the North. When dawn finally broke, I was excited and happy to find Caitlin and I unharmed.

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Heading back to Third Beach we noticed the lines of thousands of dead Velella or By the Wind Sailors.

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Climbing back down off Taylor Point.

We left early, making breakfast to the songs of Varied Thrushes. Our spot on the beach had transitioned from beach paradise to an oddly distopic slum, the new day showed us the undug feces of previous visitors, and still more garbage tucked into the salal behind camp. While squatting by the camp-stove, I looked into a bucket of seawater I’d collected for dishes and found a deer mouse floating dead. I left it for the crows, who were having breakfast on the beach. We wrote a quick note to Leif with a piece of charcoal on a piece of wood, wishing him the best of luck, but also quietly wondering how far he’d get before he faced his mortality in the Pacific. Then we booked it.

Who were we to judge Leif? I felt a bit guilty for thinking that his lack of skill or proper equipment made him ineligible for adventure. He could have been better prepared, because he was bound to capsize, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make an adventurous undertaking and be proud of it. The rich and elite who can afford gear aren’t the only ones who can have adventures; this was exactly what I’d railed against earlier here. As we slogged up the beach, peering around at the wilderness and poking at rocks and other beach detritus we found on the shore, I silently wished him luck and vowed to tell the park rangers.

Back at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles, stinking of woodsmoke and perspiration, I mentioned Leif to a ranger. While she seemed concerned, I could also tell there was little to be done. Still, I felt I was washing my hands of responsibility by telling someone.

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What the rain brings.

If I could wish anything on Leif in his personal adventure, besides his bodily safety, it’s that he learns something along the way. He’ll pass through wilderness, but he’ll likely find his learning or experiences have little to do with who owns the land or how it’s governed. This being the Centennial of the National Parks system, I hope everyone remembers our impermanence as species and individuals, our impact on the landscape, and in turn appreciate what we’ve got no matter what we call it.  Best of luck Leif, and happy adventuring.

4 Comments

  1. That is quite the story, and I’m conflicted about Leif. ‘Humanity gobbles greedily from all angles, while the elements fling off anything not properly secured.’ This could be said about many natural spaces today.

    I salivate over the sound of Varied Thrushes, song that reminds me of another temperate rain forest west of Glacier NP. Trash and plastic aside, did you get to see any Gray Whales?

    PS – You would enjoy the book ‘Paradise Found’ by S. Nicholls.

    • Brendan McGarry

      I’ve read it! Great stuff. People have done crazier things than Leif. Some died. I definitely feel he shouldn’t have been out there still.

  2. Good stuff Brendan , remember how woody woodpecker opened a door to you like a quantum leap , that was in the the olympics a magic place for you…… keep writing you always open doors for me

  3. Susan Berry

    Brendan, I enjoyed your article,and share your thoughts about the Pacific Coast… I also have hiked along the coast in that area, and was overwhelmed and saddened by the crowds… One wonders how far you have to travel to be alone. It was a great pleasure to be under your tutelage for an afternoon at Bioblitz 2016…wonderful to meet you, and I will follow your blog! Susan

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