Across the Olympics (and Back), 3: All the Way Up the Elwha
Posted: November 16th, 2017, 4:18 pm
Opening picture: Martin's Park, near the headwaters of the Elwha.
This is the third of probably five trip reports I’ll be writing about my long-ish hike across Olympic National Park and back this past summer. For an overview of the trip and the first report, from Lake Cushman through the Skokomish and Dosewallips, go here. For the second, from the Dosewallips headwaters to Port Angeles, go here. As always, you can read slightly longer and seriously more self-indulgent versions of these at my blog, though, also as always, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.
August 4, 2017
Port Angeles to Lillian River
A Whole Bunch of Roads, Elwha River Trail
So, before leaving Portland, I had this idea of following the Elwha from where it pours into the Strait of Juan de Fuca to its source, high up in the Olympic Mountains. Leaving this morning, the reality of it dawns on me: 25 miles of roadwalking today, doing my best to follow the river through the neighborhoods north of the Park, then whatever it takes to get to a place to camp on the Elwha River Trail.
That’s doable, but it’s a lot of asphalt, especially in this heat. So I leave the hotel at sunrise and walk through the empty town until the houses fade out again to fields and farms.
There’s a baffling tangle of roads between the town and river, and eventually I’m reduced to using my compass, just hoping that I’m headed in something like the right direction. But after only a couple dozen wrong turns, I find it hiding behind the brush, a broad band of blue snaking nonchalantly through the suburban streets.
The river starts nearly 50 miles south of here, in a rarely visited basin at almost the exact center of the National Park. But here, its journey—from snow, down rocks and rapids, through old growth and grand canyons, past two decommissioned dams that stood for a century—is invisible, and the river seems ordinary, just another unremarkable aspect of the scenery.
I follow it south as best I can to the site of the old Olympic Power Plant and Elwha Dam. Until 2012, the dam here stopped the river, creating Lake Aldwell upstream, and stopping traffic in both directions. It stopped sand and silt and sediment from flowing into the Strait, and thus impoverished its historic estuaries. And it stopped salmon from returning upriver to spawn. Before the dam, nearly half a million swam against the current every year. But after, it was only four thousand, all below here.
The dam’s gone now, and with it the lake. The estuary’s back, and so are the salmon, making it all the way into the Park. Looking down, you’d never know there was anything here, but for a nondescript boat floating in the river, fishing out the last of the twisted metal scraps.
From the old lake, I follow the river south, finally back into the Park. The commuters and locals are replaced by tourists, and the river takes center stage, twisting its way through the flat bottomlands, followed closely by the road.
I stop at Madison Falls for lunch, and sit among a dozen kids in swimsuits, all frolicking in the falls’ shallow pool. Then up to Whiskey Bend Road, high above what used to be Lake Millls.
I stop again at the old Glines Canyon Dam site, which, like the Elwha Dam, was just decommissioned, this one more recently, in 2014. The National Park’s made a monument of the dam’s old skeleton: viewpoints on either side, with the river rushing several hundred feet below.
There’s a semi-official trail down the old lake, which I follow through thick underbrush until it dead ends on a steep bank, overlooking the river’s new braided channels.
Looking back, the decommissioned dam already looms like ancient history.
The road ends a few miles beyond the old lake, replaced by a trail nearly as wide and, improbably, perhaps better traveled. I meet a dozen people in the first mile: dayhikers heading home, backpackers heading out, and Hiker Bros carrying cases of beer.
Still beautiful, though.
It’s five miles to my planned camp for the night, near where the Lillian River meets the Elwha. But it passes quickly as the day’s heat fades into a pleasantly warm evening, and soon I’m making dinner in a tiny clearing on the banks of the Lillian, watching fish wander upstream.
August 5, 2017
Lillian River to Camp Wilder
Elwha River Trail
I wake up to the Lillian River’s rushing roar, then stumble out to find a world much richer than I realized last night, all ancient cedars and sword ferns, all green in every imaginable shade. Wood calls the camp “dark, damp, and gloomy,” but after so much time on smoky streets yesterday, it feels like an oasis.
I eat breakfast on a moldering old log in camp, watching the water rush by, then pack up and head toward the delightfully named “Difficulty Hill”—a small rise named by the Press Expedition when their mules had some trouble.
It’s really not so bad, though, at least for human legs, and the morning passes pleasantly, making easy miles through thin woods. The trail here climbs high above the Elwha’s “Grand Canyon,” but one can still hear the rumble of rapids, several hundred feet down, echoing up the river’s steep stone walls.
After a mile or two, the trail starts a long, easy descent to the river, through increasingly rich stands of old growth fir.
The river’s rumble is gone, replaced by the companionable trickles of several small streams, weaving their ways down from Windfall Ridge. I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the Lilian—I won’t see another person, it turns out, for nearly five days, until I reach the Quinault—and something about the solitude makes the sounds seem wilder: the low misty murmur of water through moss; the slow aching of trees in subtle wind; the steady, dampered beat of my feet…
I eventually reach the banks of the Elwha, and stop for a snack at a small riverside camp.
I’m halfway through my Snickers before I notice two eagles high above, almost stopped in the wind. For ten minutes they soar over the trees, like statues suspended in air, and I watch, rapt, with a stillness that matches their own. But then, as if on cue, both suddenly dive down to the water, faster than falling, and splash in. I guess they’re hunting?
As one flies back up to the trees, I can just hear its wings against air. It sounds like a heartbeat.
For the next many miles, the trail is a flat, bottomland path through ancient stands of cedar and fir, bordered by maple and alder and fern. It’s easy and beautiful, and the afternoon passes effortlessly to the shifting sound of the river, rushing through rapids then slowing to deep, still pools.
I feel like I’m sleepwalking, or anyway time seems suspended, and I find myself gently humming through the gentle hills, as echoes of the river resound through the trees into a single, sustained chord, which carries me through miles of woods and into the evening’s fading light.
August 6, 2017
Camp Wilder to Martin’s Park
Elwha River, Low Divide, and Martin’s Park Trails
I wake in the hazy still-grey morning to the strange feeling of being surrounded—not watched, exactly, and certainly not claustrophobic, but as though the world is closer to me than usual.
I look out the open netting of my tent to see maybe thirty elk, all around me on the broad sandy bar along the river, where I slept last night. A few see me stir, but don’t seem afraid. They just seem to regard me as another aspect of the scenery, no more threatening than the rocks or river rubble.
We often see groups of animals all dong the same thing: grazing or running or resting, all as one. It makes it easy to view them as groups, not as collections of individuals. But here, all the elk are up to different things: some amble listlessly around the edges, some nibble on the occasional tuft of grass, and some sit with their legs folded underneath, like giant cats. It’s impossible to see them as a monolithic group. They’re a set of particulars, all with their own directions. It’s too much to take in all at once. I watch one sniff at the side of the river before dunking its snout and drinking massively. Another looks lackadaisically at the treetops, and seems to imagine being a bird. Still another pokes at the bushes, taking little bites here and there.
My friends eventually drift away, casually, up into the wooded banks above, then across the river and into the hills. I watch the last of them go, then pack up and set out, finally, to the Elwha’s upper reaches.
There are two crossings of the river before one reaches the headwaters, and I’ve been nervous—I am, after all, much less nimble than an elk—but both have bridges, and I spend the morning happily wandering up, and watching the river revert to a series of small streams.
The trail degrades a bit toward the end of the drainage—this is rarely visited country, near the center of the park—but it’s all still passable with a bit of care, and soon I’m at Low Divide, walking along the lily ponds from which one fork of the Elwha springs.
It’s still early, so I decide to head up to Martin’s Park—a collection of tiny lakes, set improbably in the center of a small ridge that reaches from Mt. Christie north, toward the beginning, or end, of the Elwha.
The trail ascends steeply at first, through a marshy basin where it’s often indistinguishable from the countless snowmelt streams that run down through overgrown grass. Then it runs up an old riverbed ravine, climbing through boulders and blowdown to a heather-filled meadow, still half covered by an old avalanche.
Past the first meadow, the trail climbs along a minor tributary of the Elwha to another clearing, this one just under the Christie Glacier, from which several waterfalls fall down a snow-polished cliff into basins littered with trees.
The last climb, into Martin’s Park proper, is an easy, switchbacked affair. I lose the trail for a little—there are several paths, none of which are primarily human—but map and compass it up the right way to the park, and setup camp. It’s so rarely visited here that even the “official” campsites—or, at least, the ones mentioned in all the guidebooks—are still overgrown with grass and heather.
It’s early still—only three or four—so I go for a swim in the larger of the two lakes, wearing all my clothes. I swim out to the center, float on my back. The sky is smoky, but the water smells like melting snow, like winter gloves at the end of a day sledding.
I climb out, and lie down to dry at the edge of a cliff that overlooks the Elwha and its divide. Across the way, the Elwha Snowfinger crumbles down, a slow-motion cascade between alpine ice and old growth. The Bailey Range beyond could be confused for a cloud, but for the rare, rust-black rock between shock-white snow. And closer at hand, I’m circled by a seemingly unbroken band of peaks: Seattle and Christie and half a dozen spires that someone surely must have named.
Two hawks circle above the lower basin, but otherwise the scene is wholly still. There’s no one for miles.
Slowly the light and heat fade, and I take an evening walk around the shore of the smaller lake. There are frogs everywhere: in the water, on the shore, leaping in the grass.