Backpacking the Olympic Coast Days 4, 5 and 6: Whirlwind

Day 4: Hung out on Shi Shi Beach and did the loop hike up on the rim, which felt like a Tough Mudder course. Highlight was the well appointed pit toilet and foot pump handwash station at the parking lot. Wearing dish gloves all day and wiping your butt with cold river rocks makes you appreciate these two commonplace amenities. You’re own reservation land and the way the natives build a bridge and boardwalk out of rough hewn planks is pretty impressive too, as is the amount of frost and ice they can hold. Oh, and of course there’s the green and magenta sand that covers Shi Shi beach, and the epic orange sunset through Point of the Arches, if you’re into that sort of natural wonder stuff.
I collected a handful of delicious looking mussels (they grow in abundance here) and boiled and almost ate them but remembered there is a marine biotoxin ban on all shellfish here. Considered eating them anyway because I was down to quinoa and lentils but paralysis or amnesia was more risk than I could stomach, pun intended.
Ultimately, Shi Shi Beach is cool but I’d rather be on my own private beach, which would be any of the innumerable beaches to the south. Even now in the off season there was a dozen camera toting tourists and the item that ultimately makes or breaks a backpacking destination – the ├╝ber-epic campsite – was conspicuously missing from Shi Shi Beach. (For the Olympic Coast’s best campsite go to the Yellow Banks just a few miles south.) By 4:30 p.m. the tide was receding (so was any semblance of usable daylight) and I made up my mind to get a jump on the 32 mile trek back, or, to put it bluntly, if there was any way in hell I could make it back to the box of Triscuits in my trunk in two days instead of three I was going to do it. I hiked 2.5 miles in the dark, killed all of my batteries, got lost in the woods*, and had to camp on a cliff when the last 4% of my phone wasn’t enough to run the light. Moral of the story: The inland trail due west of Willoughby Lake is easy to lose. Mice danced on me now and then but somehow four hikers pasted me early in the morning without waking me.

Day 5: Got started at first light (like you would do anything else when you’re laying on a decaying precipice) and covered 15 miles by lunch time. Passed a killer whale carcass that had washed up south of Sand Point. “Vertebrae as large as my pelvis,” Chris, a dayhiker remarked, which was basically true. A little further south I was fluffed for a permit and a bear canister by the friendly year round Ozette ranger and his surly apprentice. I told him the bear can was back at camp, which it was, and he said he’d take my word for it. I didn’t mention I’d left it and it alone there three days prior.

This is the easiest walking section, lots of flat, hard sand. Decided to knock off at the epic elevated campsite on the Yellow Banks and spend the afternoon eating (I had cached two packages of Oriental flavor Ramen and half a loaf of stale baguette under the deck planks here) and collecting buoys which I laboriously gathered on a length of rope and dragged down the beach and up the bank to the campsite. I strung the rope between three trees with the buoys on it, my own take on exterior decorating, after they failed to make a viable tree swing. The sunset was the best yet, quilted white clouds against a deep blue that swirled as it neared the horizon in a way that would challenge the most imaginative watercolorist. I laid back and sank into strange apocalyptic dreams where gravity failed and I gorged on chocolate to console my fears of floating off into space.

Day 6: Should have set an alarm and started earlier, and that feeling nagged me right up until I squeezed through the last obstacle, Hole in the Wall, with what must have been a 6.5′ tide. Hole in the wall needs a 5′ tide or lower to be passable according to the Custom Correct map I took a picture of at the Visitor Center instread of buying, so I did it as a climbing route, clinging to crimps with my fingers through the 15-foot-long tunnel while my feet danced above lapping waves on barnacles while my overloaded pack threatened to peel me right off the wall.
This was a rough 15 mile day which I did without eating because I was constantly outrunning the tide. I wasn’t interested in quinoa and lentils anyway and just like the day before I spent hours dreaming of the flavors of ice cream, steak, breads, cookies and cakes that I would eat when I got back to civilization. I treated water one litter at a time and then drank the whole thing so as not to carry any extra weight.

There are countless capes, points, and headlands to be rounded or climbed over between Yellow Banks and Rialto Beach (which is decided for you by whether there is a rope and a four-quadrant disc signaling an impassable section) and only short sections of sand or pebble beach in between. Much of it is on green- or red- algae coated bed rock that is literally slicker than ice. Along the way I picked up a very nice neoprene immersion suit that had washed ashore. Needing to keep my hands free to climb and to stabilize myself on the wet rocks, I rolled it tightly and shoved it into my tiny pack on top of my bear canister. My 1.5 lbs carbon fiber and ripstop nylon pack was now carrying over 25 lbs. My back ached and my feet sank deeply into the mounds of seaweed and pebbles that I had to cross but my heart rose each time I outran the tide. I immediately recognized when I came to the rocky point that had confounded me on Day 1 and was thrilled to skirt it with less than a foot of leeway – a difference of a mere 45 minutes or so! A mile later I came Hole in the Wall, which a prudent trekker would have bypassed (this is the only place that I noticed where the bypass route is optional,) but I defied the tied and my safer side and when I hopped down onto Rialto Beach I had only to walk a mile through pebbles to my Triscuits, a small challenge by this week’s standards.

*Getting lost up on top of the cliffs was a really eery experience. There is a certain point where the trail enters a sort of clearing of decaying undergrowth. I came back to this point several times, slowly watching my phone battery drain as I searched the clearing methodically (59%), then desperately(28%), then frantically(9%). I eventually found a distinct trail and gleefully descended it defying the growing sick feeling that it was too familiar. I clambered under a down tree and a few minutes later found myself back at the muddy ropes I had used to gain the ridge less than an hour before. Rushing back and forth and counting out loud ‘eight percent, ‘seven percent’, ‘six percent’… I came out on the cliff several times before finally ducking under a stand of salal bushes to find the continuation I had sought, a bent up orange trail marker on a dead tree, just as my phone died. I rolled out my pad and slept there.