Chapter 3: Finally Home

By November 30th, 2019

I woke up from my sleep to the pitter-patter of rain on my tarp and the light of day. I had slept clear through to noon, snug as a bug in my sleeping bag and hammock, between the trees. When I finally peeked out of the confines of my hammock, I spy a pair of deer among the trees on the gravel bar across the river. They seemed to not mind me being there. I suppose I was not snoring loud enough to scare the wildlife away.

Why hello, neighbors!
Living room, kitchen, bedroom all in one.

I began my day by washing the sleep from my face and freshening up before making myself a hot cup of oatmeal. Thankfully, I had a pretty good-sized tarp over my hammock. I had enough room to stretch out and cook my meal without getting wet in the rain or setting my tent on fire. I even decided to have some “breakfast in bed”.

Mornings are for oatmeal and contemplation.

I spent a good hour just chilling in my hammock, listening to the falling rain on my tarp and staring out at the river. Soon enough, I realized something: I get bored very easily. True, I was relishing the solitude, being surrounded by nature. However, I felt restless. My mind began to wander. Thoughts of home began to creep into my consciousness. Also, I missed my cat.

I debated whether to take another nap and maybe explore a bit around camp if the rain let up before it got too dark. My brain was too awake, however. Despite wiggling around in my sleeping bag, trying to get comfy for some shut-eye for a half hour, it was just not in the cards.

I finally and metaphorically put my foot down. I’m going to try making it back to the trail head. It was barely 2 in the afternoon. I figured I had at least 6 hours of light to make the 11 miles or so back to the car, or at least close to it. Last night’s fiasco only proved to me that I was capable of hiking in the dark. So, I packed up my stuff, did a final sweep of my camp, hoisted my pack on and started to walk.

Solitude and silence can only entertain a hyperactive brain for so long. Then I began to feel that the miles are so many and my pace too slow. I tried to pass the time by playing the army game. I looked around the trail for wildlife but it seems the rain had driven most of them into hiding. I did find a lot of slugs, however.

I ran into a deer on the trail that did not seem to care that I was (slowly) barreling down the muddy trail towards it. Making noise with my hiking sticks barely fazed it. I finally resorted to loudly asking it to let me through. Thankfully, when it saw that I was determined to walk the trail, it bounded off into the woods.

(Photo) shoot first, ask questions later.

When I got to the Guard Station, I noted the distance to the trail head: 10 more miles to go. I must have been farther away than I thought. I felt like I had been walking over an hour. I should be at least 2-3 miles closer by now. Perhaps my boredom was just making time feel so much slower.

There was some funky looking math going on
The now familiar Guard Station

I saw a few more deer resting on the meadow just past the Guard Station. I also ran into a young couple headed in the other direction. We exchanged pleasantries. They were planning on heading up to Elk Lake and maybe the Glacier Meadow in the morning. I told them about the blow-downs near Martin Creek and wished them luck.

The monotony of the hike began to get to me. Soon I was starting to feel every achy step, hear every muddy squish of my boot. I began to count the slugs I saw on the ground. Before long, I was beginning to realize that it was getting dark. My yearning for home was getting stronger. I needed to quicken my pace.

Excuse me, sir. Which way to the Entmoot?

The rain was also doing little to improve my quickly fading patience. I was beginning to feel frustrated: at myself for being such a slow hiker, at my pack for being so heavy, at my hiking boots for offering next to no cushion from the rocks on the trail. I was becoming a very unhappy camper.

Thankfully, before it got dark enough to need a headlamp, I was able to reach the Visitor Center and my parked car. All the literal and figurative weight finally lifted off my back as I unloaded my heavy pack on the back of my car, kicked off my boots, and peeled the damp socks from my sore feet. I spent a good few minutes just sitting in my car, scarfing down fig bars and gulping the rest of my water before settling in for the 4-hour drive home.

The morning after: contemplating the 4+ hour drive back, in heavy fog, almost running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, and finally making it back to I-5 where I could finally go 80 miles per hour and still be the slowest car on the road and get home at 1 in the morning. Also, the cat cheerfully sunning on the balcony.

The Hoh River Trail Chapter 2: A day of bad decisions

By September 17th, 2019

The trail along the Hoh River meanders pleasantly under a canopy of trees. Occasionally, it winds across a clearing covered with ferns and moss. There are a few creeks along the way. Some of them are easily crossed by hopping on rocks. One or two require balancing on a skinny log bridge – not an easy thing to do for someone who trips on a flat surface (even harder when you have a >25 lbs pack on your back). I could occasionally see horseshoe tracks on the mud, probably from travelers who have brought horses with them to the upper camps.

Day 2 of my first multi-day backpacking trip. I woke up to the sun barely rising past the horizon. Usually, I wake up earlier than that when sleeping outdoors. I suppose being swaddled in my hammock kept me warm and cozy throughout the night. I started my day on a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal. I changed out of my sleep clothes, packed my gear, and got back on the trail. My goal was to make it to Martin Creek and camp there for the night.

I found myself at the Olympus Ranger Station close to lunch time so I decided to take a break. I rested my heavy pack on one of the benches by the station and had some lunch. I spent a few moments taking in the solitude. The ranger station was still closed and there were no other campers in sight. As I was taking a sip of water from my pack, I realized that my water bag was somehow empty. I was pretty sure I had refilled it before leaving camp. It did not seem like a particularly hot day. I couldn’t have possibly drank all my water already, or have I? When I looked down, I noticed the ground by my feet was soaked. I had laid my pack on top of my water hose and had squeezed the bite valve open. It ended up dumping all my water into the ground!

I managed to choke down the rest of my lunch. After I took a few calming breaths, I paused to think. I checked my location on my phone and saw that there was a stream just ahead of me on the trail. I wasn’t sure how far the water was from the camping area at the Ranger Station, or if the river was accessible there at all. I decided to go for the sure thing and got back on the trail to go towards the creek. Luckily, it was not too far from the Ranger Station. It was also a decent sized creek. I was able to refill my water bag before crossing the creek and continuing on my way.

Lesson #1: pay attention to your equipment.

I trudged along the trail as it went steadily upward. I reached the High Hoh Bridge in the early afternoon. The bridge looked pretty impressive. The raging river hundreds of feet below, even more so. I knew the bridge was pretty sturdy. If it could support the weight of a horse, I’m sure it could support mine, heavy backpack and all. However, I was reminded of how afraid I was of heights. It took all of my willpower to fight down the rising panic as I walked across to the other side. That was probably the fastest I had ever walked across the bridge in my life.

As I continued on up the trail, the slopes became noticeably steeper. The trail turned into a narrow ledge on the side of a heavily forested mountain. There were signs of fallen trees around me, as well. Being this early into the hiking season, and the snowy winter not that long ago, I suppose it is to be expected. There were a few blow-downs across the trail that I had to maneuver around and over. Being on a narrow ledge high up a mountain slope did little to help. Neither did being terrified of heights and carrying a heavy backpack. After a few grueling hours of trudging, I found myself at the creek. The trail looked washed out and I could not find a place to cross. There were also a pile of fallen logs across the creek and I was not sure how I would make it through that and up and over the steep bank to the campsite.

I paused by the creek and weighed my options. I was by myself, unsure of my skills, hours (or even days) away from help. I did not see any other hikers pass me on the way up so I did not know if there would be anyone coming down. I decided to forgo the risk and turn around. I remembered seeing a few nice camping spots near the bridge. I headed back towards it. I made it back to the bridge in less than an hour and still had perhaps 2 more hours of daylight. I set up camp and began to get ready to make my supper. As I was finishing up my supper, something niggled at me. For some reason, I decided to pack up camp and head back down. I did not know what possessed me to do so. Something in my lizard-brain told me I should hike down and stay at Lewis Camp instead. It was about 3 miles from the bridge and I was sure I could make it by night fall. That turned out to be the second big mistake of the day.

The sun seemed to have magically disappeared a few minutes into my hike. I did not anticipate it to get dark so quickly. I spent the next hour or so walking as fast as my poor, tired legs could carry me down the trail. The last few hundred feet to the meadow, I had to put on my headlamp just to see where I was going. Luckily, I was able to find the meadow and the sign pointing towards Lewis Meadow campsites.

Lesson #2: Better safe and early than tired in the dark.

I found a nice little spot to camp and began to gather some firewood. Perhaps a campfire would cheer me up. I also decided to get some water. I still had a fair bit left in my pack but I figured I might want to make some soup or hot cocoa before turning in. Also, the forecast was predicting rain early the next day. I wouldn’t want to be trying to find water in the middle of a downpour when snuggling under a tarp in my hammock would sound like a better idea. I put on my headlamp and pocketed my bear spray and water bag and set off towards the river.

Getting to the river from my camp meant crossing a rock field filled with loose rocks and the occasional stranded fallen tree. This also meant that a straight path from point A to point B may not always be possible. I found myself having to walk around logs, up one hilly pile of rock and down another. It took me about 20 minutes of careful stepping and meandering to get to the river and fill up. It took significantly longer to find my way back to camp… Much, much longer.

As I was heading back to camp, I realized that all the meandering got me turned this way and that. I barely recognized where I was. It was too dark to see anything other than silhouettes of trees that looked exactly like every one next to it. I tried to find landmarks that would look familiar. At one point, I decided to make straight for the trees. Perhaps if I walk along the embankment in one direction I would end up in camp. I was wrong. I ended up crashing through the bushes until I gave up and decided to walk back towards the rock field. I spent the next hour or so trying to find my way back to camp. I was tired, hungry, scared, and as close to tears as I ever want to be out in the wild. I have been lost in the city before. This is much worse. Also, did I mention it was going to rain soon?

I decided to retrace my steps back to the river. I was able to find the exact spot where I had filled my water bag. I turned around, and slowly and calmly attempted to recreate my path. I double-checked every turn and closely inspected every fallen tree, every rocky hill. Slowly, things became more familiar and I found myself scrambling up the embankment back to my camp.

Lesson #3: Don’t go wandering about in the dark.

After spending the next 10 minutes admonishing myself for my foolhardiness, I finished setting up camp and sat down for some hot cocoa and a snack. After changing into my sleep clothes, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep. It was almost 2 am. That was more than enough adventuring for the day.

The Hoh River Trail: My first multi-day hike, chapter 1

By September 4th, 2019

I am all for long leisurely walks most of the time. It helps to clear my head. Being around lush greeneries and catching glimpses of wildlife, big and small, never ceases to fill me with wonder.

I have only ever done an overnight camping trip until now. One night away from the creature comforts I am used to was often enough to make me appreciate the small things. There are only so many things in civilized life I can do without for so long.

I wanted to try my hand at sleeping out in the woods for longer than a night. Perhaps if I can walk a bit farther, linger on the trail a bit longer, I would appreciate nature more and set my inner wild child free.

The Hoh River Trail seemed to be a nice “beginner” trip for me. The slopes are gentle, the camps are plentiful, and hiking along a reliable water source feels reassuring. I did some research and asked people in the know for advice before packing my gear. I opted to sleep in a hammock instead of on the ground so I gave my tent up for a hammock, underquilt, and rain tarp. Forgoing the bear canister, I thought I might work on my bear bag skills instead. If there is one thing rainforests have plenty of, it’s trees.

Driving through the Olympic National Park road under a canopy of mossy trees was a treat in itself. It was like being transported to another time and place, somewhere far away, and long ago. There were plenty of people in the visitor center. Groups of young folk just hanging out, families out for a day of picnicking. There were also quite a few cars in the overnight parking area. It felt reassuring to me. As much as I do cherish solitude in the woods, I would want other people in camp especially on my first multi-day trip. At least I would have someone else to ask should I find myself lacking any essential backcountry skills.

The first few miles of the trail was still full of day hikers despite the time of the day. My pack was heavy but my pace was leisurely. Even early on there is already the promise of ancient stands of trees bearded with moss. The afternoon was humid but not too hot to feel oppressive. The uphill slopes were not so steep and the greenery along the way made even the climb a bit enjoyable.

I arrived at my first camp at about 5 pm. There were 2 or 3 other people in the campsite but I had plenty of space for myself. I picked two promising trees for my hammock, and set up camp. My first attempt at hammock camping and it only took me a few minutes. It was a pleasantly breezy day but the wind did no favors for me while I was tying down my tarp.

No friends to take your pictures? Use the shutter timer, run really fast, and make it look easy. Or use a shutter remote.

I still had plenty of time before sundown so I scouted around for a good place to take night pictures later. I also went and looked for the bear wire to hang my bag of food. After scarfing down my dinner and getting a water refill from the nearby river, I snuggled in for a quick nap and rest my weary feet. I wanted to wake up at full dark, spend an hour or so taking pictures of stars, watch out for nocturnal foragers across the river, and maybe sneak in one more hot cup of cocoa before snuggling back into my sleeping bag.

The night sky over 5 Mile Island. No luck with the wildlife sightings.

I had found the perfect little spot to set up my camera just a few paces away from camp with a clear view of the river and the woods across as well as a decent amount of open space to see the sky. I spent at least an hour taking long exposure shots, hoping I had dialed in the right camera settings and spent a few more minutes listening for wildlife. I was going for another cup of hot cocoa but the constant rumbling of the river was starting to lull me to sleep so I climbed back into my hammock instead. I have a long walk ahead of me in the morning.