Up the Elwha

Posted by Ken Campbell August 4, 2009 1 Comment 1259 views

From the time I first arrived in Washington to stay, back in the misty memory of the mid 1980’s, I have been drawn to the Olympic Peninsula. The way it sits there, close – but not too close, attached – but distinctly different… its tantalizing and unique solitude appealed to me instantly.
There used to be a store on Pine Street in Tacoma, Base Camp Supply. I remember walking down the aisles there, looking through the assortment of climbing and paddling gear, backpacks, stoves and technical clothing. And books, lots of books. I would spend an hour in the book section alone, and it wasn’t a very big part of the shop.
The first book I bought there was Across the Olympic Mountains: The Press Expedition, 1889-90, by Robert Woods. The story of those six men, four dogs, two mules and 1500 pounds of supplies is a classic tale, at once humorous and tragic. I was sucked into the narrative in an instant, and have been ever since. The Press Party, for all its faults and ill fortune, ended up making the first journey across the mountains, opening up the last major white spot on the U.S. map. Since the moment I picked up that book, I have wanted to go to the places it describes, to see the same things that these men saw.

I left from the Whiskey Bend trailhead on Saturday evening, just before dark. Mike, my shuttle driver, stayed long enough to make sure I had everything I needed, and then he was gone. I climbed into my pack (slightly heavier pack than I had hoped – 35.5 pounds, with water and food), and got on the trail immediately. I had been to this area before and the trail is a very good one, so I had few misgivings about starting out with a night hike. The sunset glowed reds and oranges from the west, lighting the evening sky on fire, throwing enough ambient light on the path that I did not need to turn on my headlamp.

And then the rain started. Slowly at first, big drops plunking on my head and shoulders. I tried to move as quickly as I could between the areas covered by the canopy of fir and cedar that shielded much of the trail. Under the protecting branches, the rain could not find me. It was not a downpour, and it didn’t slow me down, but it was raining hard enough that, when I got to Michael’s cabin, about 2 miles in, I had to stop for the night. (I know it’s not an official camp site, but at 10 pm, with the rain getting heavier by the minute, I made my decision.) I set up on the porch of that old log house, out of the weather, grateful for the cover.

I don’t know when the rain stopped, but I awoke shortly after 4 am to a star-spangled sky. The forest still had the smell of the rain to it, but it was obvious that the weather had changed. I packed my things in the beam of the headlamp and was on the trail by 5 am, on the way to Lillian Camp for breakfast. The steps came easy and I felt good as the miles passed. In less than an hour, I was brewing up coffee by the banks of the Lillian River, and the heat had already begun.

I had been expecting the weather to be somewhere past warm. The forecast had been calling for temps in the 90’s when I left, so I was prepared to sweat. Good thing. Not far past Lillian Camp was where I really started to perspire, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop for three or four days. What I hadn’t counted on were the bugs. I knew there would be mosquitoes and black flies, but what I hadn’t been prepared for was the aggressiveness of the larger deer flies, the yellowish-black birds of prey from hell that circled my head constantly. I thought enviously about the Press Expedition… with all their hardships, they never had to contend with these bastards.

I made it to the Elkhorn Ranger Station by 10 am and stopped to talk a while with Vicki, the ranger-in-residence. She has been working here for the past nine summers and before that, she had been a frequent visitor. She lives in nearby Port Angeles, and along with her husband, she watches over this segment of the trail each summer, meeting with the transient hikers and making sure they know where they’re going. “There used to be more,” she said. “Back in the 70’s, when backpacking was cool, there was a lot more traffic. This valley used to be filled with tents,” she said, as she pointed to the grassy meadows around the log cabin where we were standing. “Now a busy day is maybe 30 hikers and some days I don’t see anyone at all.”

Not long after leaving Vicki, I began the climb up to the Semple Plateau, where my route would split from that of the Press Expedition’s. They went to the west, a couple of ridgelines over, before coming back to this path near Low Divide. I passed Remann’s Cabin, an elegant log shelter built by the Humes brothers back in the early days. Judge Remann, a Tacoma barrister, had been an ardent trout fisherman and had used the place as his own private escape. He has been gone a long time now, and apparently willed his earthly estate to the biting insects. I kept going until I got to the Hayes River Camp, where I put my bag down for the last time that day and set up the bug net for the night. (I used the Black Diamond Beta Bug shelter for this trip and cannot say enough good things about it. More on that later.)

I’d made it nearly seventeen miles since I started, not a bad day’s work. Especially considering that it had taken the men of the Press Party almost 5 months to get this far into the mountains. With the sound of Hayes River gurgling contentedly nearby, I slept well.

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