|July 13, 2004.
Today, I leave the Sol Duc River behind, and enter the headwaters of the Bogachiel River.
After a short scramble up to the ridge above Mink Lake, I spot my first views of the Olympus Mons, a range of remote peaks (including the park's namesake mountain) that I'll know well in the following weeks. I yell out loud as I soak in the sight before me: miles of untouched forest valleys and countless snowcapped peaks on the horizon. The glacier-strewn slopes of Olympus beckon me onward.
Once the trail descends into the North Fork Bogachiel valley,
the dry subalpine forest quickly changes into proper rainforest. I stop at the former
Twentyone Mile Shelter for lunch, sitting on a rotten stump, next to a pile of rotting lumber that used to be an emergency shelter. The campsite is small and ragged, quickly being reclaimed by the forest (these are among the fastest-growing trees in the world) in the absence of Park Service maintenance crews.
Continuing down the valley, the path quickly changes from a dirt pathway to an overgrown muddy thicket. The route is never hard to find, but plowing through miles of chest-high brush and stepping in constant mudholes slows me up significantly. The path ain't much to speak of, but the forest is MAGNIFICENT.
Everywhere I look, I see 300-foot champion conifers towering over a blanket of sweet-smelling clovers and sword ferns. The tracks of large Roosevelt Elk (rightful keepers of this forest) follow the trail frequently. Banana slugs plaster the moist forest floor, keeping the forest in a constant cycle of decay and growth.
After a few more miles, I take a brief brake at Hyak Shelter, where a solid shelter, an open blooming meadow, and shade-covered grassy campsites overlook the pristine river. This is an ideal spot to spend the night. I almost do. But it's still early in the day, so I pack up and trek several miles further to Fifteen Mile. Hopefully it'll be just as nice there!
After crossing a large bridge several miles later, the trail heads uphill to a weedy boggy stretch of forest, where a dingy little shelter sits to the side. There's no view, no open area to camp from the trail, and no water source nearby. I am not gonna stay here. So, I'll try to scout a route down to the river.
Heading off-trail, the river is easy to find.
Getting down there isn't. After finding a 60-foot overlook above the river canyon, I scout upriver and stumble upon an unexpected view. I see a magnificent 3-tiered, 50-foot waterfall in the valley. Just below me is a weed-choked steep gully leading to the foot of the falls... if I can get there, that's
where I'll camp. So I shed my pack and crawl on my belly over the ledge to scout a route down. I gain footholds on secure branches & rocks for about 10 feet downward. From there, I shuffle over to a small outcrop, where it appears I might climb down thirty feet through a steep bed of ferns to a gentler grade below. For a moment, my heart races, but it works. Then, suddenly, my right foot slides three feet down and nearly takes me with it.
I instantly realize that this "bed" of ferns rests on a single inch of loose soil, with nothing but slick, wet, nearly-vertical rock beneath it. I try grabbing handholds, but every bush, root, and branch I can reach only slides away and makes my position more precarious. I take a deep breath, recompose, and slowly scramble back up over the ledge to safety. If I'm going to find a way down to the river, it won't be this
So I grab my pack and find another way. A quarter-mile past the shelter I scramble over uneven rocks down a nearly-dry streamlet that flows in a general 45° grade to the river's edge. Within 20 minutes, I lay my bag out on a small bed of pebbles along the river's edge. It won't be my cushiest camp, but it's beautiful, and makes a fine bed for one.
After dinner, I slip on my Tevas, snag my camera and head upriver, looking for those falls I saw before, which are unmarked on any of my maps. With a knee-deep wade and a couple of boulder scrambles, I reach a deep, clear pool lined on either side by vertical or overhanging rocks for 20 feet. The falls are only 100 yards upriver, cascading over a large log and into a deep pool at the bottom. There's no way I'll get any further without swimming. It's almost dark tonight, and the clear water is frigid... I'll have to wait until tomorrow. I look at the falls, sigh with a slight smile, and head back to camp. Clear skies tonight... no need for the tarp.
July 14, 2004.
The air is cold in the river valley this morning, and I sleep in. The falls I saw last night aren't marked on any maps (I've since confirmed this on all levels of USGS Topos and Green Trails&tm; maps), so I took the liberty of naming the waterfall after my wife. "Hear ye, hear ye, from this day hence, the 3-tiered falls found at UTM10, 423755E 5305944N, below Fifteen Mile on the North Fork Bogachiel River, will hitherto be known as 'Traci Falls.'
" There, that's done! I hope my wife appreciates this.
Once the sunlight peeks over the valley walls and warms the air, I shed any unnecessary clothing (which pretty-much means everything but the sandals), zip my camera in a plastic bag, and head up the river. I quickly find myself back at the edge of the deep clear pool, starting 20 feet upriver at a rock, where I must swim. "Twenty little feet... that's it... you could do this in your sleep... let's go... twenty feet." I stare at the cold water, which gently churns and stares back. After several minutes of balking, I jump. My lungs instantly hyperventilate as I frantically swim to the rocks beyond. Good God, this water is cold!
Less than ten seconds later, I'm standing on the other side, feeling alive (and fully refreshed!), drying in the crisp morning sun.
Five minutes later, I'm at another pool, directly in-front of the falls. This one's deeper, and longer, and has nowhere to swim to, so I conclude this is as close to Traci Falls as I'm gonna get without killing myself from hypothermia. Taking the camera out of its bag, I snap a few pictures, take a moment to soak it in as I smile broadly, and turn back to camp. I hesitate again at the pool, eventually jumping back in and hyperventillating my way back to camp. Ahh... it's good to be alive!
After a good bout of procrastination, I'm off again, scrambling up the rocks to the trail. Thousands of tiny salamanders and banana slugs slither over the wet rocks below me... full-time denizens of the moist, at home among the sword ferns and lichens. Once back in the forest, I finally break out my pocket-field-guide and begin feasting on the wide array of berries growing throughout the forest. Fresh Huckleberries, Salmonberries, Western Thimbleberries, Blackberries, Elderberries, and many more I don't bother identifying. All so sweet (except the waxy-red Elderberries, which are inedible)... a man could get used to this!
At one point, while ambling quietly down the trail, I hear a distant "skweek!" from the bushes ahead, stopping me in my tracks. Fifteen feet in front of me, a small ferret-like rodent, approximately 10 inches long with a beautiful shiny brown coat of fur, ambles out of the brush towards me. Seemingly unafraid, and a little curious (it's probably never seen a human before), I watch as it walks up to me, sniffs the toe on my right boot for a moment, looks up at me, turns around, and wanders away down the trail, out of sight. I'm dumbfounded, and when I pull out my pocket field guide, I realize just how lucky I am. I just met an Olympic Ermine*, a rare, beautiful subspecies of a short-tailed weasel, endemic (found here and nowhere else) to Olympic National Park. Very few people (even those who visit often) ever see this tiny treasure. Rejoicing in my luck, I stare around me, agape in awe of the forest, wondering what secrets it'll reveal to me next.
A possible answer comes shortly. Among the elk tracks left in the muddy shallows of trail, I see a remarkable track that stops me cold. Fresh in the mud lies a 3"print, unmistakable, revealing the recent passing of a medium-sized cougar. It can't be more than a day old... probably within the past 12 hours. It's heading my way. Despite my looking, I never see any further sign of it, but it stirs my blood and awakens my soul (especially when travelling alone) just to know it's there, and not far off.
By late-afternoon I spot a wide, shallow ford in the river... this is where a spur-trail crosses the river and heads south over the opposite ridge and into the Hoh Valley. On the other side of the river is a wide, shallow, rocky sandbar. Realizing I probably won't find a better place to camp tonight, I ford the river (watching the tiny salmon-fry and Mud Minnows camoflauged in the current) and roll out camp under the evening sky. print, unmistakable, revealing the recent passing of a medium-sized cougar. It can't be more than a day old... probably within the past 12 hours. It's heading my way. Despite my looking, I never see any further sign of it, but it stirs my blood and awakens my soul (especially when travelling alone) just to know it's there, and not far off.
This sandbar is a popular watering-hole for elk... hundreds of their tracks criss-cross the small island, and I imagine for a moment that a giant thundering herd will burst from the forest to meet me here at any insant. Alas, it's not meant to be, and I don't see a single one of the resident elk tonight. I saw no other people today, either. I fall asleep, content with that compromise, listening to the river gurgle into a deep turquoise pool beside me, under a deepening sky.
* As described in the field guide: Olympic ermine (Mustela erminea olympica) - A subspecies of the short tailed weasel, the Olympic ermine is the smallest of all the subspecies. Seldom seen by humans, the Olympic ermine is seven to eight inches long, with rich brown fur on its back, a creamy white belly and a black-tipped tail.