Over and out

Posted by Ken Campbell August 5, 2009 0 Comment 702 views

Up before dawn once again, that blessed twilight time before the bugs have found their wings. I figured I had until dawn, at the latest, before the huns could get their squadrons in the air and I intended to cover some miles before then. The heat would rise with the dawn as well, making this short, pre-daylight time seem all that much more valuable.

I had slept well, however, and the miles did indeed fall quickly. I stopped for a coffee and a bite of breakfast in Camp Wilder, then continued on up the hillside toward Camp Chicago. The trail here rides a series of stepped plateaus – climb a while, then stroll on level ground. The river comes and goes, but other creeks enter from the east from time to time, and the sound of running water is never far away.

At one point, I saw a herd of elk, about 25 or so, crossing the river below me. Cows and yearlings, mostly, hard to be sure from that far away. I had seen a few deer along the way already and I had been hoping to catch a glimpse of their larger cousins. The animals moved effortlessly across the riverbed, from the gravel bar on one side, through the fast-flowing water, and up the dirty steeps of the other bank.

The heat was on now, turned up high. Even more insufferable, the humidity made the air feel viscous, sticky, thick. Deep breaths that should have felt refreshing brought on a low-grade nausea instead. My water stops grew more frequent and lasted longer as the hours progressed. I made it to Chicago Camp just before noon.

This was where I had originally planned to part ways with the Elwha River trail, at least for a couple days of climbing. There’s another trail here that leads west up to Happy Hollow Camp and the Elwha Basin, but I’d heard that it was in rough shape with fallen trees and avalanche damage. And, what is more, my desire to exert myself any more than absolutely necessary had wilted in the heat. I lay in the shade of the giant cedars near the river there at Chicago Camp, zipped inside the Beta Bug, and had a sweaty siesta.

Plans change. I packed up after my nap and pushed on, up the steepest part of the the trail, the final 3-mile push to Low Divide. Even though I was now in the shade, the heat was still profound in its effect. Each step hurt. Just when I thought I’d be at it all night, the trail began to level out and Lake Mary came into view. Choked with lilies and calm as zen, the little lake seemed like a jewel in a most beautiful setting. The mountains rose behind as I went further on.

And then, Lake Margaret. Vicki, the Ranger I’d met back at Elkhorn the day before had told me that, if I got up to Lake Margaret, to take a swim for her. “I’ve got my knee surgery scheduled for this fall,” she had told me. “I don’t make that trip as often as I used to.” I turned onto a side trail that circled the lake and came to the water’s edge at a rocky outcropping. I dropped my bag, shucked my sweaty clothes, and dove in. The initial blast of cool water past my ears almost stunned me. I came up 20 feet from shore, out where the cool water turned colder and the bugs disappeared. I was a comfortable man for as long as I could tread water. After a brisk half-hour I came back to the rocks, got dressed, and headed off to find a camp site.

Shortly after passing the trailside sign at the top of Low Divide, I came to a small camping area in a grove of huge cedar and spruce. I had dinner on the bank of the nearby creek and slept under the boughs of the ancient, swaying giants. In the morning, my decision to push on having been finally made, I began the downhill phase of the journey. Past the Ranger Station at Low Divide, the neat cabin perched on the site of the resort that once stood here. People have been coming here for years.

The trail on the Elwha side had been in very good shape. Things were different here on the Quinault. In several places, trees had been blasted across the trail, obscuring the route. In other places, avalanches had obliterated the original trail, although there had been enough foot traffic since then that new paths were beginning to form. I came across several frogs in the creeks and seeps that I passed, stoic creatures, with expressive eyes that caught every move. We shared the same watering holes, the frogs and I, and they seemed to tolerate me.

I walked through a couple of different trail crews along the way, college kids, for the most part, doing some of the hardest work going in a tough environment. It is a beautiful place to work, but those folks earn every nickel they get, and I know they don’t get that many. Building bridges across the gullies, restoring sections of trail that have been eroded, the work that they do makes it possible for a hike like mine to go as smoothly as it did.

Down the hills, moving from an alpine forest to one that looks more like a rainforest, moss in the trees, a sandier trail. I kept on trucking (as the old t-shirt used to say), and by dusk I had reached the road end at the North Fork Ranger Station. I looked briefly at staying in the drive-in campground nearby, but the assortment of dogs and beer cans had me looking elsewhere fairly quickly. I ended up on a sand bar next to the river, and as it got dark, I tried to think about the Press Party.

By the time they’d gotten here they knew they were essentially done. Lake Quinault, just a few miles to the west, had been settled for some time and there were homesteads that had worked their way up the river already. What had been Terra Incognita was behind them and spring was in the air. It rained almost constantly and it must have seemed as though they would never be dry again, but at least they were out of the snow. Think of them what you will (and some have questioned their abilities and judgement), but they were the first, and that had to feel amazing.

I kept hiking the next morning, hoping for a ride. It didn’t come for almost 7 miles, and then a trucker named Don took me aboard for the last 5 or 6 miles into Lake Quinault. He was hauling rock for the project on the Graves Creek portion of the road, bringing in two loads a day all the way from McCleary. “Government project,” he said. “The rock around here doesn’t meet specs.” He dropped me off in front of the Quinault store, where I went and had some breakfast.

With temps of 100 degrees and more, the only place to be was in the lake. I blew up my new Neoair pad and took it for a test paddle. Liked it so much that I stayed there for the rest of the day, until Chris got there to pick me up. A bottle of Dead Guy Ale and a floating Thermarest pad… Ah, wilderness.

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