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 über-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.


Backpacking the Olympic Coast Day 3: Running the Gauntlet


My feet are nasty white and waterlogged. The bottoms of my pants are wet and sandy, the uppers are flecked with dried mud. My fleece is damp with sweat inside my raincoat. Temperatures are well into the 30’s by 4:00 p.m. and soon I will be in bed, raincoat and all. The sunset is spectacular though. This is the first day I’ve had camp made before sunset. Dinner’s ready too. So I wrap myself in my sleeping bag and forget about my aching feet for a minute and just watch the waves calmly roll in on Shi Shi Beach from the door of my tent. White frost from this morning still sheaths the driftwood here despite the sunny day. I have reached my destination. It was a gauntlet getting here but the natural wonders grew more spectacular with every passing step and now that I’m 32 miles north of where I started I can safely say it was worth the effort.


I set out before my alarm even went off this morning, well before sunrise and even before twilight. I was cold and moved quickly but carefully on the frozen beach and frosty driftwood and rocks. I was naked and fording the steaming Ozette River by 9:00 a.m. and relaxing on a most spectacular overlook south of Point of the Arches eating a bag of almond granola that I’m going to regret. I took pictures and sent friends a Snapchat video from a precarious rock 200′ above the encroaching sea. By the time I realized I had not completely rounded Point of the Arches it was too late; I hiked down and a mile further along the beach to discover it was impassable already. I’d have to wait until low tide around 9:00 p.m. and worse this whole beach would be submerged. I had no choice but to climb back up the ropes to the ridge I had just left.
Once I was on the ridge I really wanted to keep moving. After all, it was only 2 o’clock. On my GPS I could see something called ‘Foot Trail’ half a mile back in the woods. Little did I know it would take an hour and a half of bushwhacking to cover that half mile or that the for trail would be disused and overgrown, only slightly better than the bushwalking that had gotten me to it. But I did find it, and it lead me to Shi Shi Beach via Petroleum Creek just in time for sunset. And when I walked down to point of rocks I I thought I could see where I had been standing and had decided to turn back three hours prior. I met Nathan, and he took a fantastic picture of me ‘from the Dutch angle’, whatever that means.


Backpacking the Olympic Coast Day 2: Olympic National Park’s Titanic Garbage Problem

78 miles of remote coastline untouched by human development. That’s what I drove to the continental United States’ westernmost peninsula to see. 4 days hiking alongside water bottles, gas cans, bleach jugs, PVC pipes, ship bouies, Styrofoam beads and discarded fishing nets is what I got instead.

I love traveling, and some nights I’m just too excited to sleep. I can play harmonica until my lips are exhausted and this usually puts me to sleep – but not on these nights. So my new trick is to take a benadryl on nights when I just have to sleep. Benadryl puts me to sleep within an hour and keeps me asleep through strong winds or high surf.

My alarm went off in the morning twilight. I pressed snooze a couple of times before lazily packing and hitting the beach around 7:30. All of the driftwood had grown a fur of 1/2″ tall white snow crystals in the night, and sheets of ice cracked underfoot where water ran across the sand from seeps in the cliff. I made good time on open stretches of hard packed sand before being stopped by high water at Yellow Banks. I took lots of photos and I found 3 cold water immersion suits along the way, almost as if 3 shipwreck survivors had washed up there. The suits are really nice neoprene, so I may try to take one home on the way back. Its only 15 miles with an extra 10 lbs or so.

There is an amazing campsite at the north end of the Yellow Banks that overlooks the bay. Using a combination of rock climbing skills and mechanical engineering I added a tree swing from rope and a heavy plastic panel which I found washed up on the shore below. I swung and relaxed on the sunny driftwood deck while listening to oldies, and I did a little nude yoga when it was warm enough. Highs are in the 40’s this week. I also stashed my bear canister under the decking with two days of food and my dead headlamp inside. At least those canisters are good for something.

Shortly after leaving yellow banks I slipped again, this time whacking my knee and soaking my clothes in a tide pool as I struggled like a bug stuck on its back. I stripped down to my cheetah pajamas, dumped out my purple Playtex dish gloves and put them back on, dawned my tattered sky blue raincoat and put in my headphones. And as the sun set in a cold, cloudless sky I danced along light and free raving to trance and looking crazy as a jaybird. Not a lot of people would be in to this, I thought to myself, but I sure am. After all, its cold and this is pretty strenuous. Twilight had passed and I was setting up camp again by the time I realized I had forgotten to pull out my tent stakes and pack them this morning. I had also left the cord I use to support the roof tied to a tree I had used the night before. I staked the tent with pine twigs and guyed out the roof with discarded fishing rope. It was calm and clear, and with the rest of my dry gear on inside my 15 degree down sleeping bag I was mostly warm enough. I watched Venus slowly sink toward it’s seafaring reflection as satellites and a couple of meteors streamed by through the tall pines.

Backpacking the Olympic Coast Day 1: Rough Start… Really Rough

Its 2:00p.m. and I’m stuck. My pack is heavier than it should be and I’ve covered a scant 3 miles. My sleeping bag is still damp from last night’s fiasco: My tent stakes ripped out and when I got back to camp my sleeping bag had a puddle of water in the middle. I restaked the tent, dumped off the water, and climbed in raincoat and all. To my surprise I wasn’t cold and I went right to sleep. High winds and blowing rain pummeled my tent and woke me twice but I slept well. This was my first time camping in heavy rain in my homemade 8oz. shelter and I was quite pleased with it’s performance.
In the morning I dried everything out and began to pack, quickly realizing the disproportionate amount of relatively heavy bread and fruit I had to the single bag of relatively light quinoa. I packed the quinoa, 3 loaves of bread and 6 apples and hit the trail around noon, less than an hour before high tide. My shoes got soaked by a roge wave near hole in the rock and I spent an hour bushwalking to no avail in hopes of bypassing the submerged point just north of there. The tides are extreme right now because it is a full moon and we are nearing the solstice. I layed down behind a sun bleached log on the stony beach and covered up with my damp sleeping bag to wait for low tide. An avid if quirky hiker named Gary stopped to talk and told me about some great hikes in Oregon and Wyoming. “And I thought ‘You know what? These are two of the finest days I’ve ever experienced, and they’re back to back!'” He said, remembering a trip in Wyomings Wind River. We chatted for a while and at once I noticed the water was low enough to keep hiking. I bayed Gary goodbye and started packing.

From Bad to Worse
The sunset behind me was a beautiful fiery orange as I glanced back and then shifted my vision to the shadowy ground in front of me. I spotted the plummeting white head of a bald eagle starting into a headlong dive over the bay in front of me. It swooped to the waters surface and snatched a shiny fish, then pumping it’s wings it climbed toward the ridge beyond the bay. And as I walked along awe-stricken, I slipped on an algae coated rock and smacked my head on another. My teeth slammed together and I lay in the wet rocks moaning, my inadequate arms folded beneath me. I thought how lucky I was to still be conscious and to have been wearing a thick wool beanie to help lessen the blow. I stood up rubbing my head and instantly I had a throbbing headache. A giant knot slowly took shape and blood began to leave it’s tingly trickle in my eyebrow. I hiked on shakily in the cold wind, Venus’s reflection following me on the vast, wet sand, wishing very much that I had ibuprofen and a cold compress.

The Perfect Life

I’ve been on 3 big adventures in the last 3 months. August saw me in the Nevada desert for the annual Burning Man festival. I took a little break for love after that, and from the love I took a break to spend 10 days trekking California’s Lost Coast. That was September and the combined experience taught me a lot about urushiol rashes (vis-à-vis poison ivy) and Santa Cruz girls (they’re the friendliest I’ve met yet, but don’t blame them if they change their mind at the drop off a hat!) Adventure number 3 spanned Halloween like my Sykes trip last year and found me floating around Willet Hot Spring on my Thermarest in the drought-stricken Sespe Wilderness where I had my clothes stolen and again had a urushiol encounter, this time in a ravine full of dormant poison oak. Do you know what dead poison oak looks like? Me neither.Dormant plants are no less ‘poisonous’ however, and in fact this encounter was far more severe in part because it was so closely timed with the previous exposure.

Now, rain patters away on the thin  vinyl top of my convertible. This is the beginning of a fourth big adventure. I am on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. I sit tucked away in the tiny passenger compartment, cozily planning my lonely trek along 78 miles of the country’s most remote coastline. For the next few days I will base my life around the tides, sleeping at high rise and hiking, day or night, when the tide is low. I practiced this on the Lost Coast. Hiking on packed low tide sand to a setting full moon is an amazing thing, on par with the desert sunrise over Black Rock or a commune with the Earth in Hot Springs Canyon. For me, this is the perfect life. Just the right balance of raw danger, logistical uncertainty, and quiet comfort that maximizes excitement and relaxation.
This trek will be more demanding than any of the last three adventures. Unlike the Lost Coast, the beach here is rock, not sand, so it doesn’t pack down hard like sand, requiring more exertion and showing travel considerably. The drift wood is larger and plentiful to the point of being a slippery nuisance at best and a deadly ocean-powered projectile at worst. There are also more ‘tricky’ spots (terrain traps is what I would call them) that if improperly timed can leave a hiker trapped by the rising tide. There are also ladders, ropes and stairs that must be used to gain the benchland in places where the coast is entirely impassable. To top it all off I will have wet November weather to endure. My goal is to make it 25 miles north to the westernmost point in the continental United States, then turn around and hike south 50 miles or so to the other end of this remote coastline, resupplying along the way. My tour of the harrowed hinterland complete I will turn around and hike back to my car and go find a hot spring that isn’t snowed it. Sheesh, its only November.
The rain lets up, on and off as you’d expect in the Pacific Northwest, and I sneak out to setup my tent on the stoney beach. I can’t do another night in the passenger seat no matter how many benadryl I take. I am praying that this tent is waterproof, unlike the one I made for the Lost Coast. Actually, I bet on it by moving my sleeping bag inside and returning to my car to write. The rain doesn’t let up when I need to pee and in 60 seconds I’m doused, reminding me of the importance of staying dry in an environment where things get wet and stay wet.
My theme song for this adventure is a Moby track that I just discovered, The Perfect Life. I know I’ve heard it before but listening to it today is when I realized how really perfect this all is. Close your eyes. In the perfect life, life is all you need.