Across the Olympics (and Back), 2: Lost Pass to Port Angeles
Posted: November 12th, 2017, 2:05 am
Opening picture: Upper Cameron Basin
This is the second of… several trip reports I’ll be writing about my long-ish hike across Olympic National Park and back this past summer. For the first, and an overview of the trip, go here. As before, you can read slightly longer and seriously more self-indulgent versions of these at my blog, though, again, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.
August 1, 2017
Deception Creek to Grand Valley
Dosewallips, Lost Pass, Cameron Creek, and Grand Pass Trails
At dawn, I wake to a family of deer just outside my tent. I didn’t notice last night, but there’s a thin tunnel of broken branches above camp, which I guess must be their trail, and they're sluggishly brushing through on the way to the creek. I nod in what I hope is a neighborly fashion, and fall back asleep.
My trail’s easy this morning: a set of rolling curves through the broad shaded valley between Cameron Ridge and Thousand Acre Meadows. Ancient stands of silver fur slope into shining fields of flowers, waist high and wild, tangled towers of columbine and lily.
I stop for breakfast at the old Bear Camp shelter: oatmeal in the shade, then coffee in the sun, on a foot-smoothed log across Butler Creek, staring back at the deep green meadows below Mt. Deception.
Then… The Climb. Or: Climbs.
The Lost Pass Trail leaves the Dosewallips at an overgrown intersection in the northeast corner of Dose Meadows. The National Park calls this a “Primitive Trail,” which I quickly realize means that it’s actually a creek. Or, more charitably: a series of creeks, connected by braided deer paths.
The going’s actually sort of fun though. The “trail” switches back steeply through thin forest and sandstone outcrops, studded with purple-red penstemon. And it’s short: just under a mile to Lost Pass, where everything changes. I’m climbing over crumbling rock, then suddenly I’m in the middle of endless, overflowing fields of flowers, all full of snowgrass and too much else to even begin naming.
To the west is the Lost River’s trailless canyon, surrounded on all sides by snowy, jagged peaks. Olympus and the Bailey Range loom further, marking the middle point between here and the sea.
It’s maybe the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
I stop at Three Sons Camp for a Snickers, and to take a quick bath in Deet. There’s a rockslide here, running all the way from Lost Peak, and two creeks, which babble companionably on either side.
I wish I could just camp here, and spend the night exploring the basin. But there are miles to make. It makes me think again about something I often think about out here: how this constant moving forward means that I’m always only ever passing through; how so much has to be seen only for an instant, then left behind; how maybe the price of seeing the world is never fully stopping to be at home in it.
From Three Sons, the trail climbs toward Cameron Pass, and the blooming meadows are slowly replaced by barren rock, which seems to stretch to the horizon.
At the pass, I meet the first people I’ve seen all day: a father and two twenty-something daughters, dipping tortillas in a bucket of peanut butter, out on a mountaineering trip I can’t quite comprehend: over this ridge, then across that, then finally, somehow, down to the ocean.
Also, they’re wearing crampons. Although I haven’t seen meaningful snow since Anderson Glacier, here the north side is completely covered with a steep, slick sheet.
The dad smiles like they’ve all just been waiting for me, and in a thick, rural accent, offers help. “So, do you have crampons on you?” I don’t. He doesn’t pause. “So what we might want to do”—apparently I’m now part of this “we”—“is go down together.” He smiles, and I instantly fall in love with all of them. “You can borrow a pair of crampons, and I’ll walk them back up when you’re down to dirt.”
It takes me a second to even realize what he’s saying. One of the women mistakes my surprise for hesitation: “I’d come too!” She smiles in a way that seems to spread to her whole body, then tilts her head to the right and dips the last of her tortilla.
I tear up in a way that surprises me. Why are these people being so good to me? Is everyone this good, if you find them alone on a ridge. I look down and try to think about non-cry-y things. After what I’m sure is an outlandishly long time, I look up and try to sound casual, which never, ever works for me.
“I…” I look down at the ice. “I think I can make it as is.”
The old man’s smile doesn’t break. “Good man! I think you can too.” He pauses to think. “The best thing would be to cut east, then make your way down that rock face.” He points. “After that, should be smooth going.”
I thank them all profusely, but I worry not profusely enough, and feel myself touching my heart. As I walk off east, one of the women yells after me. “Hey, what’s your name?” I tell her, but fumblingly forget to ask any of theirs. Undeterred, she yells back: “Have a great trip Robin! It was good to meet you!”
The pass, it turns out, isn’t actually so bad: it’s all snow and washed-out switchbacks, but I pick my way down carefully, mostly on my butt, doing a slow-motion glissade over scree.
I lose track of time—it feels like hours, when it’s only been minutes—but eventually the grade mellows, and I follow an eroded but stable trail down, into Upper Cameron Basin.
Upper Cameron Basin is another green world: a long glacial cirque, cut by dozens of small creeks that draw steep channels through snow-smoothed silt and shallow grass. It feels as though the landscape here is just being made now, for the first time.
The trail fades in and out among the new spring growth, but becomes more pronounced as it leaves the scree for a gradual slope down, first into subalpine meadows full of lupine and snowgrass, then into a thick forest of slide alder, salmonberry, and cedar.
Once in the forest, the trail becomes little more than a slight indent in an otherwise tight thicket of brush. I’m not so much walking as wading through thorns. And there are bugs—mosquitoes and tiny flies—everywhere, roughly the size and density of whiteout snow, flying in a dizzy cloud just above the canopy.
I think of something from Carrot Quinn: We tend to use the word “bushwhacking” to describe any trail-less travel, but this is, well, literally bushwhacking: I’m using my poles to push away brush, but it just comes back, and I end up fighting my way through, slowly and painfully, fantasizing about even small clearings. It’s one of those moments when you just have to laugh, because the alternative is an Apocalypse Now level of horror.
I feel a little like Colonel Kurtz by the time the thicket thins, but then the “Primitive Trail” is over, and I turn west, up the better beaten path to Grand Pass. And the trail’s actually really nice! And views open to the southeast, on a jumble of peaks that, like the gardens around Lost Pass, I can’t even begin to name.
As the trail climbs, the forest thins again, and eventually cedes entirely to open meadow, thick again with flowers.
Just below Grand Pass, the trail enters a magnificent cirque, much smaller than Upper Cameron, but fuller: of flowers and flowing streams and families of marmots, whistling in the afternoon heat.
The only trouble is that, in the last few hours, a thick layer of smoke has ascended from somewhere—I hope not too close—and enveloped the peaks and valleys, making everything look like an old picture from the 70s.
I’m a little—okay: a lot—scared. What if there’s a new fire in my way? But I guess all I can do is keep moving forward, and so I do, with something of a renewed vigor, up to Grand Pass.
From the pass, it’s an easy descent into Grand Valley: a glissade—on snow this time!—and some gentle switchbacks to Gladys Lake.
Camp tonight’s a small clearing in the trees, which I’m sharing with a very, very friendly deer, who seems more intent than one might hope on sharing dinner.
The sun sets and my deer friend retires, and I’m left with just the sound of Grand Creek, splashing convivially down the valley floor. There’s smoke here, but not so thick. Maybe the fire’s close, but at least it’s not in this valley. And so I drift off to bed.
The stars are just visible, hazy shadows in a vaseline sky, and I watch their muted flickers through the mesh of my tent, thinking about my friends from Cameron Pass. I wonder where they are right now, what their evenings are like out here. I wonder what they do in the world out there; if they can keep their impossible kindness.
August 2, 2017
Grand Valley to Lake Angeles
Grand Pass Trail, Obstruction Point Road, Mount Angeles, and Klahhane Ridge Trails
I wake up in the indeterminate morning to a metallic sound just outside my tent. Huh? I scramble around, half awake, looking for my glasses, finally find them smartly stored inside my (very dirty) socks (!?), and look out. My deer friend’s back! And… it’s got the handle of one of my trekking poles in its mouth.
I flounder out of my tent to begin negotiations, but the deer runs instead, dragging my trekking pole along. Without thinking, I run after, first through some brambles, then into open, early morning meadow, still wet with dew.
I’ve been going for a minute or two when I realize that, right, I slept completely naked last night because of the heat. And, right, I’m still naked. Running across an open meadow. After a deer. In one of the most crowded corners of the park.
I wonder how this would look to an impartial observer. Would they see the deer first, put two-and-two together? Or would they just see me, naked but for untied shoes, running across the meadow? And what would they say? I imagine that father and his daughters from yesterday. I bet they’d be unfazed. “Nice day for it!” But what could I say back? “Yea, uh, sure is. You should try it some time?”
No time to rethink now, though, so I keep going, perilously close to a couple (occupied!) camps. Eventually the deer drops my trekking pole—was this all an elaborate ruse to pay me back for not sharing dinner last night?—and I retrieve it, then shamble back to camp with as much dignity as I can muster. (Read: very little.)
Not much chance of going back to sleep after that, so I pack up, eat breakfast, and head out early, first down the rest of Grand Valley, then up toward Obstruction Point.
It’s early enough that the animals are still out, not yet replaced by people: marmots and a dozen more deer, all utterly unafraid and maybe just a little smug about their colleague’s Trekking Pole Triumph.
The first person I see all day is ranger, rambling down from Obstruction Point. He checks my permit, and I ask awkwardly about the smoke. “Ah, it’s been blowing in from the fires in Canada.” Canada! Not here! I’m obviously relieved, and he asks if that’s good news. “Yea, I thought that maybe one of the drainages here was on fire.” He nods his head sagely. “No, your route is still fine.” Then a short pause. “Apart from being very ambitious.” I smile. “But no new problems, then?” He smiles back. “Nope. Nothing new.”
The climb up to Obstruction Point is neither terribly long nor terribly steep, but it drags a little as more smoke blows in.
After the climb, the trail follows Grand and Hurricane Ridges in a surreal saunter through snow and grass that sways in the gentle, smoky wind. I imagine this is what tundra feels like.
Closer to Obstruction Point, dayhikers start streaming in. The usual conversations: Where are you coming from? How’s your trip? What the hell is that smell?
And then the road. I’ve got a lot of dry roadwalking today: maybe eight miles, from here to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, where I’ll pick up the Mt. Angeles Trail. But it’s really not so bad. The grade is even and easy. Nearly every car headed my way pauses to ask if I want a ride, but for some reason that seems silly in retrospect—something about wanting a continuous footpath—I always decline.
As morning turns to afternoon, the day gets hot. Nearly 90. And the smoke’s just getting worse. I’m on the edge of accepting one of those rides when finally the Visitor Center comes into view: an improbably welcoming wooden box, and an improbably large parking lot, full of rented cars.
Inside, it’s all international tourists and languages I don’t understand. I buy a ridiculously large Dr. Pepper (free refills!) and sit for a while in the air conditioning, looking at a wall-sized picture of the mountains I just walked through.
After a liter and a half, I shamble outside, find some shade, and eat my usual lunch: sausage and a tortilla, the latter now considerably worse for five days of wear.
A woman in her late 70s approaches, looks down at me, and asks, almost accusingly: “You hiking?” I tell her, in an apologetic tone that seems to surprise us both, that I am. She points down at my map. “Well, let’s see what you did, then.”
I take her through the route, worrying the whole time that I’m being boring, but she just nods. And she keeps nodding when I’m done. “My husband and I, we did almost the same thing, 30 years ago.” I ask her to show me. It’s not the same thing, exactly: up the Dosewallips, over Hayden Pass, and out the Elwha. But it’s close, and we talk for a while about the trails.
She sounds wistful. “It was real wilderness back then.” And she keeps referring to her husband in past tense: he loved this place, and tried to make her love it too; he thought they’d be much faster than they were; he didn’t bring enough food—the bastard never brought enough food—but he did take her out to a fancy dinner in Port Angeles when they were done; he made her love this place after all.
I’m trying to find a kind way to ask what happened to him, when a man about her age comes doddering up on a walker, precariously balancing a large soda. My new friend calls him over. “This one”—she points at me conspiratorially—“is hiking!” He looks at me appraisingly. “Is that right?” Then he sees my map, and asks me, in an almost exact echo of his wife a few minutes ago, to show him. I do, a little faster this time, and he tells me that the two of them took the same trip, “Oh, what is it now? 20 years?” The woman corrects him: “30. And I was just telling this young man how you nearly starved us to death.” He waves it away like a bad smell. “Ahh, we always had enough to eat.”
From the Visitor Center, I follow the Mt. Angeles Trail north, steeply up and down Sunrise Ridge, then around Mt. Angeles to Victor Pass.
The crowds disappear in the first half mile, and I’m in wilderness again. There are goats on the rocky crags above, and friendlier fellas closer at hand.
After passing a faint climber’s path to Mt. Angeles, the trail traverses high above Heather Park, then follows Klahhane Ridge’s narrow spine west, through flower gardens and rocky spires.
The trail disintegrates a bit on the way down to Lake Angeles, becoming more a braided and frayed set of paths than a proper trail. But after only a little confusion (and more than a little butt scooting), I make it down.
There’s a massive series of obviously well-used campsites, but the whole place is empty and I have my pick. I set up in a luxurious space that could easily accommodate six more tents, then strip and jump into the water.
It feels like paradise after such a hot, dusty day. I scrub off the thick layer of dust and sweat that’s gathered on my legs, then swim out to a tiny island in the center of the lake. The sun’s just beginning to set behind Klahhane Ridge, and the day’s heat is just beginning to fade. All of the usual birds flock down from the cliffs and trees in turn. Then bats, swirling in the evening air. I swim back to camp and watch this wonderful world in motion until it’s too dark to see.
August 3, 2017
Lake Angeles to Port Angeles
Klahanne Ridge Trail, Mt. Angeles Road
I wake up early, ready to go. Resupply day!
The walk down from Lake Angeles goes fast, the trail switchbacking through thin, second-growth forest and a few recent burns. This trail obviously gets used a lot. The surface is smooth, and as broad as a boulevard. But there’s no one here this morning, not yet, and so I feel almost like I’m walking through an abandoned city.
The trail crosses a couple forks of Ennis Creek, then enters a small wetland above Lake Dawn. Then roads. There’s a big group of runners at the trailhead, all clean neon, but it’s otherwise quiet.
Well, quiet except for cars.
I cross the Hurricane Ridge Highway in a rare lull between speeding sedans, then find the old Mt. Angeles Road, once the only way up here, but now decommissioned, after the National Park built the highway.
I follow it for a mile or two, as it grows from a crowded path to a one lane road, and finally to painted city street, lined with old farmhouses, trampolines in the yard. The city’s waking up, and cars speed by, almost all slow down to wave or give a thumbs up.
The houses get thicker and the cars faster until I’m in the city proper, at the Wilderness Information Center, looking in a mirror for the first time in a week. Ooooff.
I find a shaded spot in the front lawn, and call Krista. So much news! I guess it’s been above 100 nearly the whole time I’ve been gone. That explains some things. And she tells me about the fires in Canada. They’re huge, and I guess the smoke’s made it all the way to Portland, and the whole place has been enveloped for days. Seattle’s apocalyptic.
Port Angeles proper is totally overwhelming. I walk into the first fast food place I see, and order a truly obscene amount of food. I eat it all way too fast, then the manager comes out to bring me a free desert—a massive chocolate thing with as many calories as I’ve been eating a day. He’s a big guy who looks like he’s seen some stuff, but he smiles, guilelessly at my obvious joy. “You look like you could use it.”
Then to the Post Office. I’ve sent myself food for the next week, and Krista sent a surprise letter, and a picture of us from years ago. I send all my warm clothes home: it’s supposed to be above 90 for the rest of my trip.
Then to my motel: an ancient 50s thing, that seems not to have changed in the intervening decades. The air conditioning’s out, but there’s an industrial fan in the room, and a bathtub, which I fill with cold water and sit in until I’m shivering.
The afternoon passes quickly. I wash my clothes in the bathtub. It takes twenty minutes for the water to run clear. Then I lay them out on the balcony to dry, and lie on the bed, marathoning The Trail Show and watching trashy TV.
Eventually it’s dark and my clothes are (sort of) dry, and I wander out to find some dinner. There’s a Chinese takeout place down the way. I order way too much food, then walk across the street to a tiny bodega, and buy some bad beer.
I am so excited for all this.
Back in the motel, I eat and drink for an hour, using an ice bucket for the beer, feeling preposterously regal, particularly for a dude eating spicy oyster sauce beef with a pilfered plastic spork.