Last week I backpacked into the Elwha Basin in Olympic National Park to see the place before it undergoes profound change next year. You see, in 2011 the process of undamming the Elwha
will begin in earnest and five species of Pacific salmon will have a chance to re-colonize a river that historically supported large fish runs. Since most of the watershed is within the boundaries the park, the habitat remains in good shape and there are great expectations for filling the river once again with fish.
With this in mind, I decided a trip into the Elwha to see the place before the dams come down would be a good thing, a way to compare the before and after. My timing looked bad, though. Local weather guru Cliff Mass was telling his blog readers that this was a week to stay out of the mountains. A dreaded marine layer was headed our way from the Pacific with a forecast of rain every day for a week. Pigheaded as usual, I hoisted my pack anyway and walked directly into the teeth of the storm.
The rain held off and that first evening I made it as far as the Lillian River, a major tributary, and a dark, dank foreboding place to make camp. Rodents pestered my tent all night but fortunately, with my food bags hung safely from a bear wire, nothing larger. The next day I got deeper into the valley, leaving behind the popular destination Elkhorn Camp at the 10-mile mark to penetrate another six miles up-valley to where the Hayes River meets the Elwha. It was around Hayes that I felt civilization’s shackles start to loosen—and here is an important lesson known to serious backpackers: go deep. Your destination may be labeled wilderness or national park, but the essence of the wild doesn’t kick in until you’re suitably removed from the trappings of town. In this case I was 16 miles up a trail and another dozen or so miles inside a national park boundary before the magic of the back-country began to percolate.
And percolate it did. Beyond Hayes the trees got bigger and the forest took on an enchanted quality. A lush carpet of moss covered everything. Winds whistled down from surrounding peaks carrying with them the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting. The river brawled through steep canyons. A fallen tree across the trail was as tall as me in its prone position; someone had counted the rings and noted them on the cut: 560 years old, this tree was a sapling here a generation before Columbus set sail for the New World.
On Day 3 I left base camp to hike another 11 miles into the valley, making for a 22-mile day. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the headwaters but the weather finally caught up to me. It rained all day and the mountains remained mostly hidden, socked in with fog. I had to settle for close-in views of the Elwha Basin and a look at a tumbling, roaring river that gouged out its banks and stacked enormous logjams of old-growth Douglas-fir like cordwood. In this way the river looked nearly perfect on the surface. But I knew that deep within those dark blue pools behind the logjams—ideal shelter for salmon fry—the currents were empty of anadromous fish. For now.
At Happy Hollow, the last shelter on the trail before it becomes a climbing route, I ran into three trekkers who had just come down from the Bailey Traverse, a famous bushwhack through a remote range in the Olympics that has never seen a designated trail. The trekkers had a fire going to dry their gear and seemed both exhilarated from their multi-day expedition and glad to be found. They had spent a full day lost in the hills and told me they were two days behind schedule and worried that a search party might be sent after them. I agreed to notify a ranger of their whereabouts on my way out.
The mushrooms were just starting to pop and they seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, the shiny red caps of Russulas emerging where there had been only moss just a few hours earlier, and hedgehogs clustering in the darkest patches of forest. I made dinner with a medley of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, lobsters, and hedgehogs. I also caught rainbow trout and released them back into the river where they will seed the future stocks of steelhead that will hopefully reclaim the river once the dams are gone.
Trips like this got me foraging in the first place and when I reemerged on Day 5 to find my car in the parking lot, the spell of the wild was still on me. I drove back to Seattle in a daze, blissfully unaware of the traffic, neon signs, and hurly-burly of the city, at least for a little while.