By Jason Heaton
on 8.16.11
Photo by Gishani

Starting a campfire in a rainforest is no easy chore. I summoned up some backcountry knowledge gleaned from watching the Discovery Channel and gathered a handful of “old man’s beard,” the moss that droops Dr. Seuss-like from the limbs of trees. “Good tinder,” I remembered Bear Grylls saying, as I laid a healthy bed of it on some damp rocks. Forgoing a flint and steel, I opted for waterproof matches and after the third try, got a small smolder going, onto which I laced some collected twigs. It wasn’t a roaring fire but it added some warmth to our chilly campsite beside the roaring Quinault River. After nine miles of hiking, my wife and I levered off our boots and dug into our freeze-dried dinner as the sun dipped behind the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains in the distance.

The fact of the matter is, Olympic National Park was not our first choice. After booking a July trip to Seattle, we had started making plans to hike and camp for three days in Mount Rainier National Park. But when I checked with a ranger a week before our trip, I learned that our planned route was still under several feet of snow. Plan B was Olympic. Like an appendage ready to break off of the state of Washington, the Olympic Peninsula is a wild and lush place, an ecosystem that creates its own climate. Averaging 150 inches of rain annually, it is home to the only rainforest in the continental U.S. The snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains, the lush cedar and fern forests and the roaring glacier-fed rivers give this wilderness a primeval feel and a wonderful place to get lost for a few days.

Our plan was to hike a 26-mile trail to and from the Enchanted Valley over three days, camping at primitive sites along the way. The trail follows the East Fork of the Quinault River which meant that water would always be nearby. Fingering along a topographical map, I figured that following the river would make for flatter hiking and we set out to make the Enchanted Valley in one-day push leaving days two and three for a more relaxed pace. I was wrong. Though the elevation gain over the 13-mile one way hike is only 1,500 feet, it doesn’t take into account the amount of up and down the sadistic trail planners had built in. Clearly we were too ambitious.

Our four hour drive from Seattle to the Graves Creek trailhead was through mist and drizzle, but the sun broke through as we shouldered our 35-pound packs and miraculously, we never once had to pull out our rain gear. Still the trail was tacky and damp and in some places muddy. Despite the 65 degree temperature, it felt like, well, a rainforest and I sweated profusely as I hiked. The scenery was out of a fairytale – every surface covered with green moss, huge evergreen trees – spruce and cedar – dwarfing the surrounding landscape and the ever-present Quinault River sluicing its way through steep canyons.

The Olympic Peninsula, and particularly the Enchanted Valley, is bear country. Black bears, fortunately, but large predators nonetheless. The National Park insists that any food and scented items hiker carry be contained in bear canisters to keep bears from associating people with food and becoming a nuisance or worse, a danger. The canisters are small plastic barrels with lids that lock shut using a knife blade or coin. Smooth sides prevent bears or raccoons from getting a grip. The canister added an extra couple of pounds to my pack but was outweighed by my peace of mind.

The snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains, the lush cedar and fern forests and the roaring glacier-fed rivers give this wilderness a primeval feel and a wonderful place to get lost for a few days

We were on constant lookout for bears, expecting to see one around every downed tree or clump of ferns. We both wore cowbells clipped to our packs so we wouldn’t surprise a bear as we hiked. We sounded like a pair of Swiss cows clanging through the silent woods. As the first day wore on, we had just about given up on seeing a bear when I spotted a black lump 20 yards off trail, near the river. Sure enough, it was a black bear, grazing in the undergrowth. He raised his head and looked right at us and then went back to his dinner. It was a small bear but being on foot, in the forest, it was impressive nonetheless. We hiked on, no longer feeling our aching feet.

We didn’t make the Enchanted Valley on the first day, our feet crying for mercy, and ended up setting up camp on a gravel bar at a bend in the river. From our site, we could see up and down the river in both directions, the top of snowy Mt Anderson catching the last rays of sun. A smoky fire and freeze-dried beef stew was all we could muster before falling to sleep while the late summer dusk still lingered. I fell into a fitful sleep, the roaring river feet away, imagining a black bear prowling outside our thin tent.

After a breakfast of powdered eggs and jerky, we left camp with only a daypack, water and a camera to make the remaining hike to the Enchanted Valley. The going was much easier without a heavy pack on and the trail leveled off as it neared its terminus. We crossed over the foamy river on a high, exposed bridge made from one long tree trunk and found ourselves finally in the Enchanted Valley. It lived up to its name, a cirque of steep snow-capped mountains spilling countless waterfalls down hundreds of feet on all sides. Straight ahead, across a meadow and past some scrubby trees, the trail continues up to the Anderson Glacier, which crawls down from Mt. Anderson, still brilliant in snow even in early July.

The Enchanted Valley has been a hiker’s destination since the 1930s. At that time, an enterprising tour company built a wooden chalet in the valley as an enticement and respite for intrepid hikers. All materials for the chalet were hauled in on horseback on the same trail we had just hiked. It is a rustic but charming structure, reminiscent of those you see in the Swiss Alps. After World War II, the chalet lay unused and after years of neglect, the chalet was repaired by the Park Service and now serves as a backcountry ranger station in the summer. When we arrived in the valley, no one was there so we sat on its porch and rested our feet.

We lingered in the valley for an hour or so, soaking up the majestic views, taking photos and looking for wildlife. A lone bear high on a hillside was our only company and with a last look, we turned back on the trail to head back to camp. When we arrived at our tent, we cooled our heels (literally) in the icy river before wolfing down a lunch of the best freeze-dried sweet and sour pork I’ve ever eaten. Reluctantly, we decided to pack up camp and put in some miles back to the trailhead to save us time and distance the next day. Three hours later found me hunched over my forlorn smoldering campfire, popping Advil and swatting mosquitoes. After another hearty meal, we both were asleep before dark again, the river’s white noise providing a lullaby.

Something about the way campfire coffee tastes as you’re watching the mist rise over a river, or how you can make a perfect pillow out of a pile of clothes. It’s the simplicity and the richness of experience that makes you feel more alive somehow.

On the third morning, we were happy we had put in the extra miles the day before. It left us only five miles to hike out to clean clothes and cold beer. We made good time, much of the trail downhill and by 1pm, we crossed Graves Creek and saw our dusty rental car parked under a tree. I fumbled for the unfamiliar car keys in the bottom of my pack and with a modern chirp, the car unlocked and officially ended our adventure. Backpacking can be painful and uncomfortable – the dirt, the bugs, the food, the sore feet. But the moment I take off my pack, I miss it immediately. Something about the way campfire coffee tastes as you’re watching the mist rise over a river, or how you can make a perfect pillow out of a pile of clothes. It’s the simplicity and the richness of experience that makes you feel more alive somehow.

An hour later, after a well-needed stint in a coin-operated shower, we were sitting on the porch at the Lake Quinault Lodge watching parents shepherd their kids to the dock for a boat cruise on the shimmering lake. My mind hadn’t grown accustomed to civilization yet and it took a moment to realize that a woman standing over me was asking me a question.

“Sir, what kind of beer would you like?”

Sweeter words have never been spoken.

Photos by Gishani