OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASH. — I'd always lived close to the ocean before moving to Colorado, and it's the landscape - or seascape - I miss most. So on a recent trip home to the Northwest, I decided to backpack along the wilderness beaches in Olympic National Park for about 24 miles in three days.
More than 57 miles of wilderness beaches are in the park, which is on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula of Washington.
I had to park more than a mile from the trail head, because the pounding waves at Rialto Beach had broken through a berm and washed away half of a large parking lot; later I saw asphalt that had been chewed up and spit out by the Pacific like a stick of stale chewing gum.
Since I grew up on the West Coast, I'm rarely intimidated by its landscapes and seascapes, but walking through the mist and seeing large logs that had been washed up beyond the parking lot and restroom, I was a little in awe. Rialto Beach generates large waves, and as I left what remained of the parking lot I could not only hear their roar, but actually feel them pounding the beach.
Watching out for logs
One of the most important things to carry on this trip is a tide table, and the tide was high, meaning I had to walk along the thousands of immense logs the sea had hurled onto the beach. Some of the logs were well over my height, not just in length, but in thickness, and all drift logs are extremely dangerous to waders when propelled by waves.
So when the waves began darting around certain beached logs that protruded toward the water, I played the game with great care.
There's a natural hole the size of a train tunnel through the first headland, but, as with many places along the hike, you can cross only through the appropriately named Hole-in-the-Wall when the tide is halfway or lower.
Here, as with many other areas, a trail with steep steps (sometimes they have ropes or cables) has been built over the protruding headland, and I climbed to the other side.
Instead of one beach, the coast here has dozens. They're crescent-shaped with headlands on either end that are large rocky ridges jutting out into the ocean. These headlands present the most challenge.
I was out on Cape Johnson, where, as with much of the hike, every step is a small chore because you're scrambling over rocks. Some rocks are as big as refrigerators, some are the size of canned hams, which means they might treacherously shift when stepped on.
I got to a beautiful beach at sunset, but here the drift logs actually hit the base of high cliffs, meaning there's no place to camp without possibly becoming a drift log myself.
The setting sun over the ocean was spectacular, something I'd seen hundreds of times but rarely - make that never - in Colorado. This part of the coast has countless sea stacks - huge pillars of stone that jut out from the ocean - remnants of rocky ridges that have long since eroded away.
As soon as the sun set (I can never hear the hiss my father assured me you could hear) I went back to worrying.
My plan was to camp at the same place two consecutive nights and do a day-hike with a much lighter pack in between. So I wanted to find a special place, and one that wouldn't be bothered by backpackers, animals, or especially the ocean.
I had borrowed a friend's freestanding tent, and didn't want to find it bobbing among the sea stacks, especially when I was inside. I tried to quiet my anxiety by singing "There's a Place for Us," from "West Side Story," but instead kept coming back to "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," from "South Pacific." Or maybe it was the ocean singing the latter.
Finally I came to a headland when there was still a hint of light though it was well after 10 p.m. That's what being so far north and so far west in the time zone so close to the summer solstice will do for you.
The headland had cliffs 100 feet high on every side, and was perfectly round like a large wedding cake.
On the grassy ridge leading from the endless forests to the headland, I could barely make out in the fading light the most wonderful campsite, complete with firewood.
My new campsite was about 60 feet above the ocean. When a dream about becoming a drift log woke me during the night, I looked out of the tent and the ocean was glowing in moonlight.
Low tide makes it easier
The next day was more relaxing. I just walked as far as I felt like up the beaches, which was much easier at low tide.
Along the headlands low tide doesn't mean much faster going, but it gives one the option of walking among hundreds of tide pools.
Lilliputian crabs scampered into cracks at my Gulliver-like appearance, and starfish and sea anemones clung to rocks.
Many man-made objects washed down from Canada, Alaska, a passing freighter, or even the Orient including an automobile tire (was someone changing a flat on a distant beach when a big wave hit?), a basketball; softball and volleyball; and many different bottles, including one with Japanese writing.
I'd find a place just out of the waves' reach and sit in contemplation. Sometimes I'd doze off, and sometimes I'd try to hit rocks and logs by throwing rocks.
The next morning while breaking camp, I saw two bald eagles frolicking in the air. The sun came out most of the three days, which it occasionally does in the summer and early fall, and which it rarely does the rest of the year. (The coast here averages 145 inches of rain a year, meaning the sun remains a rumor through most of the winter.)
The next day I hiked back out to civilization. Before leaving I walked down to the sea, stuck my hand in the cool ocean, and said a warm good-bye until next year. As walked away toward my mountain home, it seemed to me as if my salty good friend was shouting and waving goodbye.