I set out last Thursday morning nearly on schedule for the SW corner of Olympic National Park. My plan was to escape my tiny apartment, backpack into a more remote wilderness than I had been able to yet access this year, refresh myself from an intense Voiceover auditioning schedule for the prior month. I had not been able to carry a pack this summer since my dislocated right shoulder had not yet healed sufficiently. The dislocation had activated painful muscle constriction patterns from an earlier spinal injury. With frayed wiring around the neck and shoulder region, my body sensed greater injury and shut me down for the second half of the summer to repair itself. Unable to access acupuncture coverage for months now with my health plan and unable to afford out of pocket modalities, I had plenty of time, if not resources, to lend to another protracted recovery whereby I was mainly required to do as little as possible. Having begrudgingly embraced another modified physical therapy regimen for the last month and having sat still far longer than ever before, I decided to test my progress with a little journey into the woods.
Nervously excited to get on the trail, I hardly stopped during the 4 hour ride from Portland to Quinault. And it was fortunate that I pushed through since I still arrived at the trailhead after 3 pm. I did have to stop for a few pictures:) Losing the light more quickly this time of year and even more quickly in the depths of a river gorge, I would need to cover 6.5 miles in less than 3 hours if I wished to make camp before dark. I had designated the Elip Creek Junction in my permit for the first night’s rest. Not even hungry for lunch and with one smoothie in my belly, I shoved some olives, cheese and peppered salami in my gullet to put some fats on my stomach that might be too smelly to carry with me without attracting unwanted notice from furry friends. Another couple stood outside of their automobile either winding up for or down from their own adventure. The dude eyed me suspiciously a few times without waving, and I mostly ignored him as he performed his Jesus-like pelvic stretches (think Big Lebowski) while intermittently glowering my direction. Amused by his affectation of gravity, I wondered how far he had actually made it down the trail.
Thankfully, a far more friendly father and son combo had offered pertinent information about the route as I stopped them near the end of the dirt road leading up the North Fork road to the trailhead. So, ignoring the chauncey fool down the lot, I continued to check and double check my gear until I was satisfied that I had enough of what I needed to embark upon the river route. Amazing autumn light shone through the moss covered limbs of enormous big leaf maples as I stepped on the trail. Having witnessed no atmosphere so moisture laden, mystified at ground level since my time in the redwoods, I felt again the welcome embrace of the climax temperate rainforest.
My hat, bandana, and wool shirt already soaked through at mile 2, the trail rather muddy and sticky at lower elevation, I was pleased that I had chosen wool rather than cotton and hiking boots rather than shoes. I could not determine whether I was sweating excessively through exertion, nervousness over a new route and the mention of bears, or simply because of the quick condensation of excess moisture in the air upon meeting my elevated body temperature.
Mesmerized by cedars, firs, hemlocks and even maples that rivaled some redwoods in size, I hit a long stride through the flats but not too long to miss the wonder around me. It was not lost on me that this was the only other comparable old growth climax forest I had encountered really outside of the island of old growth forest (<2% of initial acreage) still preserved in Redwood National Park. As I walked, I found again myself wondering why and how humans could be so short sighted and ignorant to let so much beauty and potential for discovery go almost completely to the saw. Hardly a percentage spared by the insatiable hunger of the black hole maw of progress, lies perpetuated by robber barons to keep the ignorant in local communities dependent on a livelihood with planned obsolescence. But here I am now, in this moment, in one of the finest forests I am likely to visit still during my short life. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I choose the hope of remaining possibility over loss in order to embrace this vision of wildness before me now. And I am rewarded by moment after moment of silent wonder, or not so silent in the case of the pheasant I disturbed.
The light dimmed and darkened as I went deeper into the woods. The sun had set mostly behind the steep ridge of the N. Fork canyon halfway into my walk. By the time I reached Wolf Bar around 5 pm, most of the direct light was already gone. The campsites here and at Halfway House (mile 5) up were flat, well spaced and mostly dry, set up alongside of the river with ample light and easy water access. Mouth agape and trying not to wander off of the trail, I wove through the old growth floodplain noticing many enormous trees. Yet as I gazed up to trace the lengths of their trunks, most of these giants were missing their tops beyond a hundred feet or so. Apparently they had been knocked off by what must have been some pretty high winds coming off of the Pacific Ocean just a few miles away. As I scanned the forest floor I witnessed the homes and new saplings generated by this seeming waste.
I passed multiple waterfalls, likely just refueled by the recent return of the first fall rains. Despite the challenges that low light and misty atmosphere presented to photography, I joyfully revisited the wonder I had first experienced when arriving on the California coast from Alabama 20 years ago to the redwoods. How had I forgotten to visit this part of the Olympic Peninsula for most of my Portland residence? Here I was fairly back in another old growth climax forest that rivaled my initial welcome to the West coast. I was home again.
I reached Elip Creek around 7 pm after stopping to snack, drink water, appreciate my surrounds and to take in a little herb to ease the soreness around my shoulder straps. I had promised myself that I would take my time even if I felt the pressure of passing daylight, the fear of the unknown, the frustration and or insecurity of body pains. Initially I could not make out a camp though I had just seen an outhouse up the hill 100 yards from the creek crossing. The dim dusk light allowed little resolution, and I picked my way through a rocky washout very carefully hoping to avoid a twisted ankle at the end of the first day. Searching up and down what appeared to be a large landslide in the creek bed, I found an easy place to cross. The water here as everywhere so far was ice cold, clear green grey, and very inviting after the long walk despite the quickly waning daylight. On the other side of the creek, I saw bear wire and a few spaces cleared for sleeping. Even though the temperature was dropping already with the setting of the sun, I promised to return for a dip after I had set up a quick camp.
Poking around the immediate vicinity, I saw that the bear wire had been ripped from its roost and that most spots were damp with moisture already. Although I carried a tarp footprint for my tent, I thought it advisable to find the driest place available since what even looked damp now would surely be quite wet by morning. The condensation sweat that I had experienced in this relatively easy leg of the hike reminded me of the extreme dampness of the area. So I decided to camp on packed stone and sand, a sort of beachhead upon which the Elip Creek junction camp had been situated. After I had begun my setup, I noticed another tent 50 yards down the washout, but I was able to conceal my campsite behind a rise and underneath a growing maple so as not to intrude. Setting up my tent, mat and bag quickly, I returned to the creek for a full immersion that felt amazingly refreshing. Pulling on a down hoody quickly after patting myself dry, I stayed plenty warm in my towel as I prepared a salty, dehydrated meal of chicken and rice while taking intermittent sips from the Manhattan in a flask I had prepared for the trip.
Dehydrated dinner at least satisfied my need for nourishment if nothing more, and more than-replaced the salts I had lost along the first leg of the trail. Even with a packet of Cholula, I struggled to finish the entire meal, taking bites every few minutes, as I situated clothes from my pack into my tent and my pack under the rainfly. Scouting in the near darkness after my dip in the creek, I could make out mostly larger trees in the vicinity without any branches low enough for me to access. After a few minutes I discovered a cedar branch with potential to hang a bear bag both 20 feet from the ground and 12 feet from the base of the tree. This far into the backcountry, hanging a bear bag well away from camp seemed essential to avoid drawing the attention of the many animals who likely come to drink and or hunt at night down by the water’s edge.
Out of practice with the finesse of the throw, I made a half a dozen attempts to loop the rope around the limb before I had success. Attaching the other end of the line to the base of the tree and wrapping the excess line around the trunk repeatedly, I cursed under my breath as I next made multiple attempts to gather excess line and tie it off well enough to keep the bag suspended high enough before the line slackened at all. All finally accomplished in the relative darkness of a modest headlamp, I found myself giggling at the picture I must have presented here in the dark cursing and trying to throw a very thin line 20 feet over a tree limb that barely held the weight of my food for the next 3 days.
My primary safety task of removing alluring food smells from camp finally accomplished, I was honestly ready to lay down for the evening. Although I did turn in about 9 o’clock, I did not sleep for quite some time. My survival instinct responding to my first night in the woods alone in a while, my ears perked up at nearly every new, uncharacteristic sound for a little while. Having experienced this phenomenon before, I lay back enjoying my newly horizontal status waiting calmly for sleep, reassuring myself that there was nothing out there that really cared to get me tonight. Moreover, a pleasant fatigue muted the odd voices I frequently hear along the surface of rushing water. Before I realized it, I had drifted off.
I awoke a few hours later to soreness in my back and a little too warm in my sleeping bag. Early in the evening, the moisture laden air seemed to have held on to the day’s warmth. Hardly ever wishing to exit the warmth of my bag at night unless I really, really have to urinate, I stepped out into the moonlight for a midnight smoke to calm the aches, put me back down for a bit. Both stars and moon were radiant, and I thanked them for the opportunity to witness this beauty so freely. I even forgave the pain since it afforded me the opportunity to rise and bear witness to this that I would have otherwise missed. Calmed thoroughly both by the herb and the solace of my illuminated tree tops and boulders, I lay back down and listened to the sound of the steam and of light footfall around me in the night until I drifted off again to awaken in sunshine hours later.
Awaking in the customary manner of a sudden reckoning of sunlight and temperature threshold, I rose eager to escape my sleeping bag into the cool morning air. Refreshed and warmer overnight than I had anticipated, I vacated the tent quickly, threw on my down pullover and retrieved my bear bag. Looking at the time on my phone, I determined how much time I might spend in camp enjoying the sunshine before I needed to begin the uphill climb of somewhere near 4000 feet for the day. I sipped coffee and ate bites of oatmeal with almond butter as I found sunny spots to dry my clothes from the day before. The night had further saturated the soaking wool top, lightweight hiking pants, hat and bandana. Luckily they wicked themselves dry in the sunshine surprisingly quickly. I smoked, sat in the sun against different logs, stretched out my legs and shoulders in preparation for the climb.
I was pleased to note that the approximately 35 pounds of the pack had presented no real challenge on level ground for the first 7 miles. Arranging and rearranging my gear in the sun after my morning wake up in chilly Elip Creek, I was actually ready to begin my ascent. In my chilly water exuberance, I smashed my left knee on a boulder as my left foot snagged under a stone while trying to reach a particularly good looking pool. Only a little shaken by the fall, I felt no serious damage to knee or ankle and hoped that the misstep would not haunt my day. The cold, cold water would hopefully quash any immediate inflammation. Fortunately I had located the trail junction the night before as I set up my bear bag, noticing in the dark what I had failed to see a few times passing in the daylight:)
The initial climb through old growth cedar, spruce and fir was very steep indeed, like straight up an escalator. I had prepared myself for this by scrutinizing the map fairly well before arriving. Instead of focusing on the time or effort involved, I slowed my pace to inspect more closely the layers of a temperate rainforest at much higher elevation (up to nearly 2500 ft) than I would have expected. Departing from my earlier modus operandi to charge the early climb as hard as possible, I took plenty of time with my ascent, pausing frequently for pictures, water breaks and deep breaths (as instructed by my friend Josh).
I felt so grateful for the way my body had responded to the exertion the day before that I wanted to do whatever I might to help it maintain this momentum on a more challenging portion of the trail. The trail leveled a bit as I reached the spine of the ridge after a couple of miles, and I was allowed a few switchback breathers as I continued the climb. I plodded uphill for longer than I should have in hopes of landing off the slant and into a meadow for a snack. Unable to find one before I found myself in serious need of recharge, I plopped down in a sunny spot in the middle of the trail for a few minutes gnawing on a cliff bar, sipping water, wringing and airing out my clothes.
A few minutes after beginning again, I met a couple with rather wild-eyed gazes. I could not decide whether they had ingested psilocybin (quite common in the backcountry) or whether their slightly alarmed gazes reflected something different. After breathy greetings, they informed me that I might be surprised at the turning of a corner of the trail to find myself face-to-face with a bear perhaps foraging for blueberries, as they had just a little earlier. Having happened upon them as I was in fact calling out to alert any bears in the vicinity to my presence, I had felt kind of foolish when I had rounded the corner to face them. We laughed about it, and I thanked them for the warning and heightened my vigilance for bear sightings.
I understood clearly the probability a mile later as the land flattened in plateaus covered by gorgeous purple, dark red, orange and yellowed leaves of blueberry bushes so thick that I could often not see the trail below my feet for all the encroachment of the bushes upon the trail. Beginning in more shaded forest, I had pushed through a few mostly unripened bushes at lower elevation. However, approaching 3000 feet now, and out of the deep shaded nooks of intermittent streams draining the recent rains and often through the trail itself, the fall cornucopia had ripened to maximum pitch inviting any and all to feast on the plethora of sweet, tart and even winey fruit. If I were a bear preparing to hibernate, I too would be all over this business.
And just like that, less than a mile after I had surprised the couple with my bear calls, I turned a corner into one of the first open meadows to note a large black, furry head rise above the bushes. Surprised as I was, the bear acknowledged my presence and then beat it uphill (or so I imagined from the grunting breaths I heard 25 feet away). For a terrifying moment, I did not know whether to interpret the grunting as escape or preparation for confrontation. Unable to see around the bend in the trail, I waited 5 minutes more while calling out ridiculously to the bear so that it might be annoyed enough to clear the area for my passing.
Turning the corner with no small amount of trepidation, I was relieved to find only a field of blueberry bushes shimmering in the breeze (or perhaps in the whoosh of big body movement:) Unable to find much flat or dry ground even in the meadows flecking the next few miles of the trail, I finally plopped my gear next to one of many intermittent streams meandering through the meadowlands. Scarfing down some dry tuna and crackers for a protein boost to energize the remainder of my ascent while I swatted the flies that always find one at water, my head stayed on a swivel as I ate and drank in order to watch for my bear friend should it have decided to follow me up trail and/or to reconvene with other family members for berry harvest.
Looking again at my map, I found by mile 6 on my pedometer that I had not even met the junction for the Skyline trail when I had supposed I might meet it a little after mile 4. There not being a designated loop for the route I traveled, I had misinterpreted a shorter route from the map of Olympic National Park, one that would have me arriving at 3 Lakes in around 7 miles. Beginning to question the accuracy of the trail map and also my interpretation of its mileage key, I discovered the Skyline trail junction a few minutes later around 6.5 miles, and with it another ascent to reach the pass over Elip and 3 Prune Valleys just east of Tshletshy Ridge at around 4000 feet, a little after mile 7.
From there, my reassessment of the route suggested that I had another 2.5 miles to cover. However, I discovered that most of it was thankfully downhill through late-afternoon, golden, gorgeous autumn sunlight. Exhausted from a far more challenging day of travel and consequently at higher risk of injury from false steps on the rocks and roots covering the trail, I allowed myself many pauses to view the mountain tops of ranges immediately to the north and beyond. Encouraged by amazing views of Kimta Peak, Mt. Noyes, Mt. Seattle and others in the 6000 foot elevation range, I could hardly keep my eyes on the ground though I recognized that caution dictated more attention to the placement of my feet. With the wrong footing, I felt that I might easily tumble to the bottom while looking up when I should be looking down. Mt. Olympus, Mt. Tom and Mt. Mathias at nearly 8000 feet and with a light dusting of snow already again contrasted the deep reds and greens of the high country meadows at every other turn for a mile. A vision of paradise to me.
Arriving later to 3 Lakes camp than intended but earlier than the day before and with another couple of hours to take in my immediate surroundings, I scouted different sites around 2 of the lakes to discover the driest one. Despite the harsh PNW drought this year, the area appeared to have absorbed a great deal of precipitation already with just a few days of rains prior to my arrival. Departing from my strategy of the previous night of camping under cover to deflect some of the precipitation, I opted for the most open spot I noticed, slightly distanced and elevated from the closest lake. Though I spotted a site directly on the lake, the topography consisted of grassy, marshy ponds which were too easily compromised by footfall for me to wish to contribute to the erosion I already saw. Moreover, closer proximity to one of the likely sources of water from which descended the countless intermittent streams on my hike upslope counseled a greater likelihood of moisture soaking through my tent bottom, even with a tarp for ground cover.
Unpacking my gear in phases as I stretched, smoked and nipped from my flask, I could not deny the soreness and exhaustion I felt after 9.5 miles of climbing some 4000 feet. It took most of my remaining strength not to disturb the peace with my muttered curses, as I perfunctorily completed tent set up, sleeping mat inflation, cooking gear orchestration, gear compartmentalization. Wishing to rest even in this movement, I could hardly locate a stone large enough to shield my ass from immediate dampness. Having spent most of the last 2 days soaked through from perspiration and condensation, at this point in the day I wanted a dry spot only. Already burdened with nearly 40 pounds in my backpack at the start of the trip (water weight and all), I had not brought a camp seat or sitting pad, though it might have been a better idea than the hammock I had no time to use, until now. Ironically, the trees in the immediate vicinity were nearly without exception limbless and scrubby. Only the following morning did I notice a couple of trees to which I might have attached the hammock straps, but by then I had tarried too long already in rising from sleep to afford myself any hammock time. For tonight, I found the largest stone at my site (still half the size of my back end) and perched uneasily upon it, extending from a crouch to stretch my knees every few minutes while taking a sip from the flask.
Once the rye and herbs had benumbed me to the soreness of my feet and hips, and slightly elevated my mood, I explored the lake nearest my site more closely. The water was brackish, opaque, uninviting really. Yet, I was so sticky with multiple layers of sweat, sunscreen and plant detritus that I gave myself a splash bath at the lake’s edge. Wishing no more to enter a body of water with a bottom I could not see clearly (for the tannins in the water, cedars?) and with such a fragile soft edge, I stood naked in the grass as I scooped the water over my body feeling a slippery coolness remove at least a few layers of nasty so that I might sleep more comfortably. Having no water with which to cook this evening without either risking the brackish water or returning down the trail to a creek originating from the same place, I decided to embrace my circumstances. The water was amazingly soft, unscented, refreshing, and tasted a bit of pine. Surprised, I gathered more to UV filter and boil for dinner and tea.
As I dried myself and transitioned into wool underwear, I was surprised that I was not more chilled after dipping in the cool water this night either, and I felt some pride in having finally cultivated a heartier northwest skin. A gulf coast kid, it took years for me, even longer I am sure with the vulnerability caused by my neck injury, to weather myself to the damp and cold of the rainy seasons here. For years the 40 degree rains had me hunched, bitter and claiming that I had to move every winter. However, right now the chill further soothed my aching joints; I felt no inclination to shiver at all. Although I had thought it overkill for the temperatures I would likely encounter on the trip, the down puffy as my primary top layer had been a strong choice.
Clearly blessed by an electrifying sunset of little bright pink fluffy clouds, I perched atop my stone to boil water for an honestly delicious beef stew spiked with siracha and parmesan. A welcome revisitation, I felt more completely relaxed in extreme fatigue than I had in months, the endorphin rush I crave still, 25 years after my competitive swimming days have ended. As I sat enjoying the view, the autumn sunset fading more quickly than the layers of frustration I had felt through a summer denied the opportunity to swim and hike freely, I thanked the universe that I had walked now 16 miles into a wilderness that still existed somewhere, that I had seen a bear in the wild, that I had survived it. Furthermore, I was thankful that tonight I camped across a small lake from an elk herd whose increasingly loud bugling would likely discourage this bear or any other from investigating me too closely. These elk were in rut…and making a lot of noise bellowing, moaning, testing one another, showing off of for the harem. Intrigued as I was, I had not intention of disturbing that game.
And this noise continued…throughout the entire evening. Sleep did not come easily at all despite my overwhelming fatigue. Still I had to chuckle as I imagined the scenarios taking place behind the curtain of forest. As usual and in spite of comparatively comfortable high tech sleeping mats and multiple clothing cushions, I rotated sleeping position every hour or so. Just when I had found a position where neither my lower back, hip, shoulder or neck throbbed, an elk would bugle or, as it sounded from the shifting stones just outside my tent, would wander away from the contest in defeat and perhaps to the water in search of a cool drink following the match.
Regrettably too weary to explore in the moonlight this evening, I left tent flaps well open in the rather temperate, clear night to observe the milky way, stars brighter even than the night before, the moon making its appearance a little later. Luckily, the bear wire at this campsite remained intact, and I had been relieved not to have to search for an appropriate tree or to test the progress of my branch toss. Instead I had time to speculate about a decimated outhouse about 25 yards upslope. Though the seat remained intact and upright, it appeared as if the wooden structure around it had experienced an implosion either from high wind or more likely from the investigative prods of a bear or an elk. But I never saw signs of one, nor a single elk.
The elk continued their ritual into the wee hours of morning, and I responded a few times myself in humorous imitation. Yet, I neither saw one of the creatures nor thought it advisable to encroach upon their ceremony. Even as I listened in the early pre-dawn, I believe that one of the contenders may have bedded down in a glade only a few yards away from my tent. The elevated volume of a couple of the calls supported this hypothesis: It sounded as if the Elk had been standing only a few feet away.
Somehow I drifted off in the early hours of the morning to rest until 10 am, well after I had intended to rise. Appreciative of at least some continuous rest, I was still unprepared to meet the bright sunshine. I endeavored with difficulty to find my wings through coffee or an impromptu dessert-for-breakfast meal of coconut mango sticky rice. I needed the fat, the calories, anything to get me what I hoped to be mostly downhill today. I choked the overly sweet mush down without the anticipated relish, my body struggling to accept the fuel it needed. I could feel and see clearly that today I would have to take my time.
I continued to dawdle around camp enjoying the peace and quiet and the beautiful fall colors, the elk having finally retired for a spell in the daylight. The sun shone brightly, the gradient reds of the blueberry bushes contrasting the evergreen, the golden dried grass along the lake’s edge, the electric blue of the sky above. I did not want to leave, and I didn’t until nearly noon. I wished to lay down again in the sun once I had packed my gear, but further exposure after I had warmed and dried my person and gear would sap some of the limited reserves of energy I needed still, especially if today’s travel leg was longer than demarcated upon the map also. Nor was I any too certain that there wouldn’t be more uphill travel at some point in the day. Saying a heartfelt thank you to the cosmos and goodbye to 2 of the 3 lakes, perhaps the other behind the trees from where the elk sounds emanated, I hoisted my pack and began again down the trail, excited to be exactly where I was.
A mile and a half down the trail I encountered a group of 4 younger adults walking up with packs and extra gear in hand. I had been surprised not to have seen any other arrivals at the 3 Lakes camp before I left since I had remained there so long. Usually most packers vacate camp pretty early. Sweaty and happy for the pause that our conversation gave them, they inquired about the trail up ahead and the camp, asked if I had seen people or bears. Happy to exchange some reconnaissance about the trail ahead for myself, I cautioned them about the dampness of the sites and brackishness of the lake water, the constant sounds of elk party and also the bear that I had seen in the meadows the day before. Trying to allay any fears I saw take hold in their gazes, I simply repeated what I had done and assured them that they would likely have no problem either as long they remembered to make a lot of noise when trekking through the highland meadows. Thankful myself for the foreknowledge of another ascent beyond the creek below, I continued downhill, surprised that I covered another mile before meeting it when I had heard the rush of water for a couple of miles from above.
Winding down the steepest , slipperiest switchbacks yet, I fell once just before making the creek, sliding on wet roots criss-crossing the trail. I cursed the rooty, rocky path as I gathered myself, suffering no real damage or lost gear, simply wounded pride. The close call reminded me again of the relative grace of movement and also safety afforded by my 3rd and 4th legs, my trekking poles. A couple of years after surgery, an old friend Hayes had put me back on the trail with my first pair. And though I had been self-conscious by the inference of a crutch for my faltering strength in my 20’s, trekking poles have been an indispensable accoutrement to longer treks in the forest ever since. I don’t leave home without them.
Stepping more gently now down the unstable slope at the bottom of the canyon, I picked my way cautiously up the streambed and over a series of rocks that were dry enough not to tumble me into the water. Though proving themselves quite comfortable for extended hikes, my Sorel hikers lacked much of a grip tread for slippery conditions as just demonstrated uphill. And my legs were a bit shaky after the fall and over 20 miles. Only about 2.5 miles from last night’s camp, I nonetheless stripped down to enjoy the cool green waters of a 10 foot waterfall created by a large fallen cedar, to dry my clothes and to gather fresher water for the remainder of my trip. Soaking up the sun like just another animal of the forest, I stretched out over another portion of the fallen cedar to stretch my shoulders out and dry out the growing swell of chafing along my left bicep. Accepting that I had many more miles to contend with, I reluctantly arose while simultaneously committing to long term memory the paradisal scene before me for future solace. I repacked my gear slowly, adding a few more calories and drinking enough water to hydrate but not nauseate.
Literally climbing out of the ravine with a 35 pound pack, I feared what the rest of the ascent held for me. Luckily it soon leveled out into some of the most amazing stretches of old growth maple, cedar and then fir of the whole trail route. I warmed up quickly as I made my way out of the river canyon, and was only about half a mile out of it when I stumbled on another bear! Surprised as I turned a corner to face a large, adult black bear from about 25 feet away, I stumbled backward a little more quickly than slowly, desperately attempting to compose myself, my response as I backed away up the trail. This one was far larger (400+ lbs) and apparently unconcerned with the noise I had been making down the trail.
Perhaps it had been unable to hear me for the din of the crashing waterfall? Backing away still while also talking very loudly to the bear about the scare it had just given me, I heard no sound of movement around the corner of the trail for some time. I waited another minute more, hoping that my day was not about to change for the drastically worse. As I carefully rounded the corner, I noticed again an adult bear casually making its way down the trail. When I called out again, it paused briefly, gave me a nonchalant over the shoulder snort and continued down the trail. I apologize here that in my surprise I lacked the wherewithal to snap a shot in the moment. I promise not to let the bear grow in size too much with each retelling:)
After a few miles of constant chanting, whistling, whooping and tenuously peaking around corners in the trail at suspicious looking tree stumps, I felt kind of embarrassed for the noise I made to ensure my safety. I felt like a jackass disturbing the peace of the forest and hoped that I would meet someone soon along the trail to confirm the absence of the bear. I proceeded very slowly down the trail, taking more time than ever before to appreciate my surroundings as I carefully situated my pepper spray, buck knife and whistle within easy reach in the outer pockets of my pack. The meager gewgaws I had at my disposal to meet a potential conflict with an animal twice my size gave me little confidence. I imagined myself crouching behind a snag, waiting for the surprise strike that would either free me or ensure a gruesome Revenant-style demise.
A golden autumn light fluttered through the foliage, consecrating the environs undeniably. The incongruence, irreverence of my “What, What Bear Butt!” calls in this cathedral of old growth cedar, fir and spruce was not lost on me, but what choice did I have since every time I thought that the bear had left the trail, I would see an unmistakably large, furry black behind a hundred yards or so ahead? Spotting the bear from the 50-100 yard lead I gave it every 10-15 minutes for quite a few miles, I had no choice but to take my time along the trail and accept the lengthening of my day. Truthfully, this closer encounter with a 2nd bear in 2 days had jolted me with enough adrenaline to aid my completion of what turned out to be another 9.5 mile day.
My fear of death enforced pace actually allowed me a far greater awareness of the forest than I would have otherwise experienced in my weariness from sustained exertion. Unlike any trip I had undertaken in a few years now, the heightened awareness generated by a natural fear perked up my senses noticeably despite my considerable fatigue. Appreciating the continued descent, I noticed Irely Lake through the trees, and the land began to level enough that I believed the bear had most likely ceded the trail to me. I did not see it again. Throat sore after 4 to 5 miles of chanting, I continued to pipe on a whistle for the remaining 2.5 miles back through a meandering maple forest along a soggy stream leading back to the North fork of the Quinault and giving way finally to the forest road and the last remnants of autumn light.
Leaning into the last mile and half on the road with nearly the conviction of one in battle, I nonetheless paused many times to notice the glory of a few old growth giants reminiscent of those in Stout Grove along the free Smith River, my first home in the West. Treading silently and alone through the immense shadows of these trees, noting the shimmering gold slanting through just a few openings in the canopy, I felt myself in repetition of archetype, come home again. After stuffing my face with whatever I found in the cooler, I followed the North Bank Road back to Highway 101 catching glimpses of a forest that restored me to the childlike wonder of my first days out West along the Howland Hill Road out of Hiouchi. I remember the hope I felt for my life in seeing, immersing myself in a place so new and different. Even though I left the forest far too late to secure a room or even dinner nearby that evening, I did not in the least mind the time my long drive home afforded me to digest the affirmation of my strength and peace in wilderness. I am rejuvenated with gratitude for the capability I am still allowed to enjoy the magic I can still find. And I am stronger than I thought. May we all be.