Trekking the Old-Growth Forest on the Olympic Peninsula
You quickly disappear within the temperate rain forest. Tendrils of moss loom over the trails to segregate you, lines of sight vanishing within the taut maze of Douglas firs, western hemlocks and western red cedars.
Late fall and winter are lovely times to visit the Quinault Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, especially if you subscribe to the Pacific Northwest maxim: “no bad weather, only bad gear.” Mist rises from Lake Quinault and the light naturally refracts to create gorgeous portraits in every direction. The “off season” is also free of summer crowds, making it often possible to walk the trails in the company of your inner thoughts. Far from feeling abandoned however, winter visitors will find cafés, saloons and most shops open in Pacific Beach and other shoreline hamlets.
Returning to the Rainforest
I’ve always been drawn to Life in the Woods, as Thoreau subtitled Walden, his treatise describing the two years, two months and two days he lived alone near Walden Pond. When I was 10 years old I took what would become the seminal trip of my life, camping with my family in Eastern Canada. Smitten, I’d uprooted a maidenhair fern in Québec and hid it in our trailer’s bathroom as we crossed over the Peace Bridge back into the U.S.
Some 15 years later, I moved to Olympia to attend Evergreen State College in the heart of the temperate rainforest. I soon swapped a housing co-op for what was called the Hobbitat, an 8-by-8-foot cabin capped with a pyramidal roof.
Located along an overgrown lane on a wooded property, the cabin lacked running water and electricity. It seemed the perfect setting for an idealistic 20-something studying avian ecology. I dutifully brought my dog-eared copy of Walden with me, ready to excavate wisdom from “Chapter 5: Solitude.”
It turned out that reading by a kerosene lantern wasn’t that romantic, nor was cleaning dishes in water that was either scalding or frigid. But it was the lack of regular company that finally grew unbearable. Six months later I packed up and moved into a nearby commune, a pendulum swing from solitude to social symbiosis in the extreme.
Thirty-five years on I step out of Lake Quinault Lodge, the historic hotel where I’m staying for the weekend. Constructed in 1926, the lodge once hosted Franklin Roosevelt for lunch when presidents still thought touring national parks was time well spent. A lone couple is settled within the overstuffed sofas, pushing cribbage pegs around the board. I cross the lobby and head out the door into the forest, where the crackle of burning logs in the famously grand fireplace is replaced by the dangling 220-note song of the Pacific wren.
The Quinault National Recreation Trail System showcases the coastal rainforest without too much visitor effort, a series of loops that, when laced together, create about a 6-mile trek across cedar bogs, pungent as scented candles. This walk passes several small waterfalls and over many creeks pulsing through the old-growth hemlock forest. Europe may have its cathedrals, but the Pacific Northwest offers root structures, exposed when an ancient Douglas fir topples. Their construction to me seems every bit as complex as apse arches and flying buttresses.
Everyone walks these paths with different intentions, propelled or stalled by their own fascinations. My personal fixation is a waterfall with drippings that trickle more than tumble. The dripping fills a groove on a moss-laden snag then drops onto a river stone. I can easily spend an hour among these drips, not because I have any Zen leanings but because, as a natural-born fidget, I can ceaselessly tinker with my camera settings in hopes of solving that precise equation of movement and exposure.
If you think that’s a tad obsessive, I’ve also walked these trails with mycologist friends who endlessly search for clues to identify fungal species, or geologists who endlessly comb through the scarred strata exposed by those aforementioned ripped-out roots. Don’t get me started on the entomologists, turning over every pebble in search of this creepy or that crawly.
Standing on a Moss Carpet
Stopping creates other discomforts when walking on an Olympic rainforest trail. When I’m sprawled across the moss carpet angling my lens and adjusting my shutter speed I forget that the ubiquitous moisture (The Quinault Rainforest receives 120 to 180 inches of annual precipitation) and subsequent chill has bound my body in a tight embrace.
This incessant chill remains a persistent reminder that the sun rarely shines here, to the fecund ecstasy of the basal vegetation. You won’t find fungi, liverworts and myriad moss species growing in exposed clear cuts just south of Lake Quinault. Fortunately, I’m settled in old growth where I now hunch alone trying to capture a particular dewdrop suspended from cat-tail moss that clings to a fallen branch poised in a glorious state of decay. In the Olympics, decomposition’s sensuality is undeniable.
The rainforest is also home to beautiful examples of symbiosis. Here, lichen cohabitates with green algae, the former providing the structure upon which the latter attaches. The algae conduct photosynthesis that nourishes both inhabitants. Tangled together, they form the distinctive “old man’s beard” that enshrouds seemingly every limb. Alone, they wouldn’t exist.
Treading upon these trails in the Quinault Rainforest, I find myself envying this symbiosis. Huddled within an arboreal embrace one quarter century on from my initial steps here, I am still torn by conflicting desires: solitude versus society. Nonetheless, after a couple days chasing raindrops and chilled to the bone, I realize that my feeling of isolation is about to propel me back into the world of people, of community. And so, the pendulum arcs like a cedar bough, freed of dew by glimpse of the sun, swaying in the wind.
—Written by Crai S. Bower
—Top photo by Crai S. Bower