Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Shipwreck Coast II - The Harder They Fall

Spirits were high Friday morning as we awoke to the songs of sea birds and the ever present breathing of the mighty Pacific. We set out expecting an easier road, one devoid of ankle-spraining rocks and sock-soaking tide pools, but it was not to be. The terrain only worsened. As we continued north the already narrow strip of beach was replaced by vertical cliffs and huge boulders that forced us further out the rocky sea bed, now exposed because of the low tide.

A half-hour into our walk the gray overcast sky above opened up and started to rain. We were prepared of course. The winter months spent with weekly visits to REI produced a wealth of rain gear for me, Luke, and Uncle Steve. Stevie on the other hand wasn’t as well prepared. His rain gear consisted of a cheap plastic red poncho, and a black garbage bag for his pack cover. I was worried about his rain gear leading up to the trip. Any time I brought it up however, brought a confident “I’m not worried about the rain” reply. Now, as the rain pelted us from above I was worried about Stevie. “I should have brought an extra rain jacket just in case,” I told myself. Stevie though is from a hardy breed. Mixed Cherokee and Irish, he is one of the toughest men I’ve ever known, and true to form he never even flinched at the downpour, or showed the slightest bit of concern for himself.

The rain didn’t let up, and an hour later the rocks we had to walk across were slicker then a freshly waxed gym floor. We had to move carefully or risk spraining an ankle, or falling and breaking a bone. Despite our caution we all fell down periodically. It was amazing that none of us were hurt. We walked for hours this way; plodding along, eyes darting left and right searching for the best place to step, gingerly testing each surface with our toes before committing our full weight. Our heads were down most of the day as sightseeing gave way to path finding.

It’s said that an average hiker walks 2 miles per hour over flat ground. We were probably doing half that speed or less. As morning became afternoon we searched for a place to get out of the rain, take our packs off for a while, and have some lunch. Our only respite a small cave near a headland covered in rocks and tide pools. Only three of us would fit in the cave at a time, so we rotated.

I wanted to move. I was worried about Stevie. Under his poncho his clothes were already wet, and I could see spots of moisture on his sleeping bag. Hypothermia is the biggest killer of humans in the wild, and even though we were far from that point, I couldn’t help but feel like we needed urgently to get Stevie out of the rain before his gear was soaked, and the only way to do that was to find our camp, set up our tents, and build a fire.

After a short snack we were back at it, now however, I was on a mission. The map said our camp was close. On a large beach a couple miles ahead at a place called “Yellow Banks”, after the yellow colored cliffs on the beach head. Luke and I, rounding a small cape, came in sight of our beach, and one of the most glorious sights of our trip. The beach, to me, looked like it was straight out of King Kong or The Lost World. It was sand, mostly, with the usual piles of large deadfalls scattered about. What made this beach different were two things. First the waves were much higher than we had previously seen. They came roaring into the small bay creating tunnels like the ones you see in the surfer movies, and then exploded like a bomb when they hit the beach. The second thing was this beach had high cliffs surrounded by thick jungle. The coastal forest of the Olympic peninsula is a rainforest after all, and at the Yellow Banks is where it really lived up to that billing. The word that best comes to mind to describe the scene is “savage.”

While Luke hung back to wait for the two Steve’s, I scouted on ahead to try and locate our camp. Immediately I noticed the sky was filled with huge birds, five or six at a time flying and circling overhead. The Bald Eagle was the easy one to pick out, but there were others, at least one, and perhaps two. I am not a bird guy so it was hard to tell the species, but I think now there were the Peregrine Falcon, and maybe the Osprey or some type of hawk. Anyways, they were magnificent, and much of the time spent at Yellow Banks I watched and took pictures.

Eventually after much recon, and almost stumbling over a large seal carcass with exposed ribs, rotted flesh and bulging eyes, I discovered a nearly vertical mud trail ascending a 15 foot embankment with a rope hanging down. I grabbed the rope and hauled myself up and found a camp. It was far from ideal, but we made it work. Uncle Steve had a fire going in no time despite the utter lack of anything dry. Not long after the rain stopped, and we proceeded with the business of pitching our tents and trying to find a water source, which we found in a beautiful saddle tucked away between two steep hills…

Later that night, just before dark, Stevie decided to try his luck at Army Ranger. Grabbing the rope that led to camp he tried to repel down the embankment… Now Stevie has taken some classic tumbles in his day. I have personally witnessed Stevie take some falls that would maim and injure a normal man, and pop right up. This has to take the cake. Steve jumps backwards with rope in his hands, and the steak that the rope is tied to comes out of the ground. Head over heels backwards down the hill he goes. When he hits the bottom he rolls over rocks and deadfalls, and then jumps right up as if nothing happened. He is so lucky he wasn’t hurt. Of course, once I realized he wasn’t hurt, I laughed my ass off.

to be continued...

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Shipwreck Coast

Part I – The End of the World

I don’t know how to write such a long trip report as the one I am currently filing. I figure it would be best to break it up into parts so that the reader isn’t intimidated or bored by its length. As I post each “part” of the story I will also upload the corresponding pictures into my photo album…

The Olympic coast is called the “Shipwreck Coast” for good reason; over 180 wrecks have been documented there. With such a powerful tide, and the numerous offshore rocks and islands, it’s easy to see why. The tide seems at a never-ending war with the rocks, and the sea stacks, and the islands, and the cliffs, which are battered by the relentless waves day and night. But they stubbornly hold their ground. Despite the constant barrage, they endure, and though it may seem like a stalemate, we know that the waves are slowly winning, and over time the rocks will fall and the cliffs will crumble... It is the sound of this endless war that dominates the coast.

The coastal cannonade echoed down the shore, over Rialto Beach, and into the parking lot where we lucky four, me, Luke, his dad Steve (henceforth called Uncle Steve) and Steve Keller (henceforth called Stevie) prepared for our journey. As I watched our shuttle driver John Nelson (brother of Willie Nelson) speed away, one of my long time best friends Stevie walked up after a peek at the beach and announced, “It looks like the end of the world out there boys.” We had to raise our voices to be heard over the thunderous waves. I walked up over the hill that separated the parking lot from the beach to see for myself. The first thing I noticed was the sea. Huge and mighty and limitless, the high tide crashed against the beach and against the islands just offshore. To my left was the regal James Island standing guard over the Quileute village of La Push, where werewolves supposedly live. The other thing I noticed immediately was the trees. Apparently the Olympic coast isn’t just a graveyard for ships, as deadfalls are stacked like cordwood by the hundreds along its beaches.

We started out on foot headed north from Rialto beach. Our plan for the first day was to go 8.8 miles to our first camp at Cedar Creek. Along the way we would negotiate five points that would be impassable at high tide. The tide turned out not to be too much of a problem for us. With a custom correct map and a tide chart we could accurately predict when the tide would be low enough, and any time limits we had for passing certain points along our route. The problem was that none of us brought any type of instrument to tell the time. But even telling time was relatively simple. Using the tide chart we knew what times corresponded with the changing levels of the tide. So by physically watching the tide change in conjunction with the chart, and backed by the position and movement of the sun through the sky, we could tell the time fairly accurately, and that is exactly how we did it the entire trip.

Rialto beach is covered in sand and gravel, and trees. The deadfalls were huge and we wondered where they all came from. Some of them looked like they were 10 or 20 feet in diameter. We speculated that they could be Sequoias carried north from California a long time ago. Now I think they were giant Western Red Cedars that have fallen down on the beach from years and years of erosion. Of course, I’m no expert, that is just my guess based off of what it looked like to me, because the trees that were still standing on the forest edge were huge too, and some looked on the verge of falling over.

We started passing large sea stacks at the water’s edge. The incredible thing about these sea stacks is that these giant rocks sometimes have trees growing out of them. I don’t know how the roots take hold, but they do. Eventually we made our way to Hole in the Wall, where we were introduced to the treacherous terrain that would make this trek really difficult at times. Miles and miles of rock, covered by slime and seaweed and who-knows what else, that slowed our progress at every turn.

Crossing over these rocks at low tide, we discovered dozens of tide pools, in which we found some interesting and colorful sea life, like green sea urchins and purple starfish. Crab was the most common. I don’t know what kind they were but we saw them almost the whole way. I was surprised to see the beach was also littered with all sorts of manmade objects that must have washed ashore. We saw tires, and gas cans, and shoes, and Styrofoam containers, and fishing nets, and water bottles, and probably hundreds of buoys, which someone had tied to the roots of deadfalls in some places. It was actually quite bizarre to see so many signs of humans in a place so removed from civilization.

That first day was long and hard, but beautiful. We had eyes on the sea the whole day. Only once did we have to take an overland route because of an impassible headland. By the time we got to Cedar Creek we were all in need of a meal and good night sleep. The camp, it turned out, was the sweetest camp this side of heaven. Nestled on a hill overlooking a beautiful sand beach, it was picturesque, and we all agreed as far as camping goes, it didn’t get much better. After we made camp and had dinner, we sat on some fallen trees on the beach and watched our first sunset. They would only get better.

We all dozed off in our tents to the rhythmic sound of the waves, and dreams of an easy tomorrow… But we were mistaken. Tomorrow had its own plans, and we weren’t consulted about them.

Training with Ticks: Coeur d'Alene National Recreation Trail


This was supposed to be a training hike for the Olympic coast. Test our gear, test our legs, no problem, in and out. The original plan was to take two vehicles, and leave one at the most northern trailhead of the Ceour D Alene National Recreation Trail, come in from the south and hike its entire 14 mile length, with an overnight in between at Jordan camp. This was not to be however, as a Forrest Ranger explained to me the day before we left, "All the trail heads are snowed in, 'cept one!"

Okay, new plan, no problem. We would do it the old fashion way, in and out. The place is beautiful, an hour away from Spokane, and deep in the Idaho panhandle. Wildlife viewing was plentiful right from the start. How lucky can we be? Two Bald Eagles perched on leafless trees less than 50 feet from the road. Five minutes later a couple of young bull elk fraternizing in the middle of the street. I exited the truck to take some shots with the Nikon, and as I crept in closer all I could think about were all the stupid tourists that get mauled by buffalo in Yellowstone every year and wind up on “When Animals Attack!” on TBS. I think I need a more powerful zoom lens because the 18-55 mm doesn’t cut the mustard for the wildlife shots.
We hit the trail around 10am, and after a quarter-mile dropped down into a gorgeous river valley. Spring was still in its infancy at these headwaters and the colors were those of the cold, but I could imagine that when the flowers bloom, and the leaves of the sleeping trees awaken, and the sounds of birds and bugs join in the rushing rivers song, then it is an even more beautiful place. 

 Another quarter-mile on the valley floor and we began to climb, probably the steepest of the trip. Finally we reached a hilltop at the base of the mountain that provided our best view so far. The meandering Coeur d’ Alene swerved determinedly through a plane of dull yellow brush, and around towering dark-brown rock formations full of mysterious caves and crevices. The riverside was a sheer rock cliff, dropping down perhaps 150 feet to the river below, whose currents caused a never ending cycle of waves crashing against its base. It was a spectacular view.

We were spoiled by the views for the next 4 or 5 miles, as the trail wound around the mountain sides dipping into saddles and forcing us to make several stream crossings. These streams, I imagine, are nearing full strength as the snows melt from the mountain tops. With such a mild winter, I wonder how far into the summer they will last…?

Jordan camp came too soon. It turned out to be an actual campground, but this early in the season it was deserted. Well, it wasn't totally deserted. The April residents of Jordan camp are ticks. Steve found one first crawling on his neck. Luke found one on his pants heading for his crotch. All-in-all between Steve, Luke, Michael, and me, we found around 25 ticks on our bodies by trips end. Most were picked up on the trail, some in the camp. Only two were actually “attached”, one on my shoulder, and one in Luke’s belly button. Luckily I had my trusty first aid kit that my mom bought me for Christmas, and I promptly removed them with tweezers.

The act of tick removal, high up on a cliff overlooking the river, started the funniest moment of the trip. Please, picture this scene in your mind’s eye. We were all standing around, shirts off, pants down, inspecting our bodies for ticks. My Uncle Steve mentioned that he “loathed” ticks and described them as the most “vile” of all creatures. He then got the quote of the day after I pulled a squirming tick from his right butt cheek, “Death is too good for a tick,” he said. This launched the talk into a competition over who could think of the most creative way to torture a tick. Not surprisingly Steve won the contest with this delightful technique. “You pin the tick to a board and pull its legs off, then prick your finger and let a drop of blood fall just a quarter-inch away.” The creative names we gave the ticks were funnier still; hitchhiker, squatter, freeloader, socialist, etc.

When all was said-and-done it was a great “training” hike. Luke unfortunately though got sick. He came down with some type of flu, exhibiting a fever, chills, upset stomach, and aches and pains in his legs and feet. I tried to give him some drugs but he refused, citing his infamous philosophy, “embrace the pain." He busted his ass for seven long hard miles, in what he described as one of the hardest experiences of his life, never once complaining or asking for help. He soldiered on.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Swamp Frog Symphony: Liberty Lake Loop

I wen't on a hike last Saturday with Roby up at Liberty Lake. I brought my new REI Flash 30 pack, and of course my camera. 5 minutes into the hike we come to the marsh at the end of the lake. I know when it's just around the bend because the frogs are always going crazy. A frog symphony if you will, and yet I cannot ever seem to spot a single performer.

I peruse the waters edge squinty-eyed and diligent in my quest, and even though there must be hundreds of the little Kermits croaking the day away mere feet from myself, I can't find a one. But the early Spring scenery is a breath of fresh air from the cold gray winter, and momentarily inspired I pull my camera from its case and line up the perfect shot. Well, maybe not perfect. This Saturday happens to be the prettiest day we've had for weeks. The rains have taken a break, and the sun has resumed its rightful place as king of the sky and provider of beautiful Spring days. As such the trail is busy today. I don't have time to take the perfect shot because the two cute college girls in Gonzaga shirts and North Face soft shells are closing in fast, and behind them an army of Boy Scouts are on the march. Quickly, but carefully, I find the shot I want, and when I press the shutter button all the way down I get a flashing message in bold red letters reading, "No SD Card Inserted". Damn. So much for that plan.

Of course, this happens to be the day that Roby and I notice a dozen other "perfect" shots. A woman on horseback crossing Liberty Creek, the last vestiges of ice holding on to the bottom of a fallen fir tree, a mushroom so gargantuan that people have actually signed it, a huge stump of burlwood that looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie. I took a couple shots with the phone but it's not the same. The only one that turned out okay was Roby wringing out his socks after I led him through a swamp and his feet got soaked. I couldn't help but cracking up laughing the entire time. I felt bad, but it was just so damn funny!

Next week is our big trip to the Olympic coast. I am beside myself with excitement. I have been
obsessing about backpacking since the Fall and am anxious to finally hit the trail. I have found someone to shuttle us for $150.00 big ones. His name is Willie Nelson, and yes, he looks just like Willie Nelson the country singer. Luke's knee is feeling better, which is really good news. This weekend we are going backpacking at the headwaters of the Coeur d' Alene River to test out Luke's knee, and some of our new gear. If he can do this 14 miles he can do 23 on the coast. I am keeping my fingers crossed.