Living in the Clouds: The Olympic Wilderness

The newest of the national parks, Olympic Park was established primarily to preserve for future generations a substantial section of the primeval “rain forest" unique to our Northwest. Encompassing a variety of country, from snow-capped mountains to Pacific beach, it is easily reached by the main highway up the West Coast or by car, bus, or plane, from Seattle, PAUL BROOKS,who last wrote in these pages of a canoe trip with his wife in the Border Lakes country of Minnesota, is editor-in-chief of Houghton Mifflin Company.

by PAUL BROOKS

1

THE trouble with this country is that it’s a damned paradise,” I read in The Last Wilderness, a recent book about the Olympic Peninsula. “It’s a standing invitation for people to go out and do something healthy and get deep into trouble.”The Bow Paddle (a name well earned in the front end of a canoe) and I had crossed the continent to be on this spot. It was raining, but all our best camping trips have started in the rain — even the last one in the Arizona desert, where a drop hadn’t fallen for the previous nine months. Before us lay the interior of Olympic National Park, a largely roadless area the size of Rhode Island, to be explored this time not by canoe, since the rivers are torrents of ice water, but on foot along the open slopes and shadowed trails.

Between showers we pitched our tent on a carpet of moss, embroidered with wild strawberries. A few yards from the opening rushed a milky, grayblue river; we could hear the eerie groan of rocks grinding together under water. Behind us, silent and incredibly tall, stood the rain forest. Though this term suggests the tropics, we were actually in the northwestern most corner of the United States; our river was glacier-born, fed by melting snows.

The Olympic Peninsula, at the core of which lies the Park, has been fairly called America’s last frontier. Seattle is separated from it by Puget Sound; northward lie the Juan de Fuca Strait and Vancouver Island; westward lie the Pacific Ocean and, five thousand miles beyond, the islands of Japan. Why did the Olympic wilderness so long hold its own; long enough for this splendid remnant to have survived commercial exploitation, to be saved at last as a national treasure? Partly isolation; but even more a matter of geography and climate. The coast is treacherous and the harbors few. The lowlands presented early explorers with apparently impenetrable jungle, the highlands with rugged snow-crowned peaks. The first white men settled here only a hundred-odd years ago, and before that oven the Indians had kept pretty close to the coastal fringe. The lush forests are a gift from the sea. Warm, moisture-laden air drifting in from the Pacific quickly rises and cools as it strikes the western slopes of the Olympic range, causing the greatest annual rainfall on the North American continent —over twelve feet in the lowlands, an estimated twenty on certain spots in the interior! This, in turn, has two unique and dramatic effects: snow fields and permanent glaciers at relatively low altitudes and a forest growth that has been appropriately described as a “temperate jungle”— how appropriately, the Bow Paddle and I could not have imagined until we left the comforts of our tent among the strawberries and took the trail.

During the night the loud patter of rain on our cotton roof had faded till the river’s sleady roar again took over. The sky was clear and the woods were steaming by the time we were ready to start. On entering the average woodland one has a sense of the landscape closing in; whereas when you step into virgin forest it seems almost to open out, with long vistas between widely set columns which disappear into a vague green roof far overhead. We had been struck by this in the great hardwood stands of the Smokies, and the redwood groves of California, yet never more forcibly than on plunging into the dimly radiant world of the rain forest. The very scale of this world strikes one with awe. Trees that, sliced through, could make a diningroom table, rise to the height of a twenty-story building, swollen at the base with massive, mosscovered buttresses. Ferns grow at their feet and out of their elbows; what looks like a vertical branch turns out to be an independent tree that has taken root in a crotch, high in the air. From lower limbs hang great beards of gray club moss. Broad leaves, contrasting with the feathery needles above them, make a horizontal pattern of green platters hungry for light. Not here the cathedral-like symmetry of the Coast redwoods: rather a sense of vast columns standing amid ruins, of fallen shafts and shattered pediments, of cosmos struggling out of chaos.

The chaos, of course, was only in our heads. Each member of the forest community has its own personality and highly specialized way of life, from the slimy banana slug at our feet to the topmost twig lighting for its share of the sun. Man, who changes what he touches, had touched nothing here. As we set out, avoiding the roots and mudholes, along the narrow trail that was the only sign of man’s presence, we felt strange yet somehow at home. It was a foreign country, but not a hostile one. The language was different, but an occasional word was familiar. Soon we learned to recognize the four great conifers: Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock.

The Douglas fir, dominant tree of the whole Northwest, stood out with its scarcely tapering, branch-free trunk and deeply furrowed bark, suggesting what the “King’s pines" of New England, marked with the broad arrow for man-of-war masts, must have looked like to our forebears. Individually, the Sitka spruces were still more imposing, with their massive buttressed bases and huge unfurrowed boles. Found only on the coastal strip, north to Alaska, they reach their greatest size here on the Olympic Peninsula. Later that morning we saw the world’s largest, over sixteen feet in diameter. The canoe or western red cedars were even easier to recognize, with their stringy bark, downswept limbs, and trunks like clustered cathedral columns. These are the source of the Indians’ dugouts and their totem poles. The ranger station we had just left was shingled with them, weathered a soft gray, and that evening, when we built fires of wet wood, we blessed their kindling qualities. Most familiar to us was the hemlock, whose shadetolerant seedlings crowded each rotting log, at one spot making a fabulous tree-grown bridge where the parent trunk had fallen across a gorge.

Below the big trees was a tangled understory, broadleaf maple above and vine maple beneath, the latter arching in every direction and rerooting where a branch strikes the ground. Below them in turn grew the sharp-pointed sword ferns and the deer ferns with their antler-like fertile fronds, the sweet-smelling vanillaleaf and the clover-like oxalis. And everywhere, of course, the mosses and lichens and fungi that thrive on rotten wood and make the whole cycle possible.

Apparently there exists no standard definition of a rain forest, but this is the one used by Franklin Roosevelt when the Park was created in 1938: “The conspicuous rooting of trees on fallen trees and stumps and a heavy growth of tree moss.” Hence the huge buttresses, the trees standing on fantastic stilts where the seed germinated on top of an old stump and the roots crawled slowly down to solid earth; hence the arrow-straight colonnades, incongruous in this random jungle, showing where centuries ago a row of seedlings sprang from one fallen giant. And here too the answer to the lumberman’s claim that over-age and rotting trees are wasted: in the true rain forest they are the only seedbed; seldom if ever will you find a seedling springing directly from the soil.

Mile after mile we followed the gently rising trail, snaking between the great trunks, fording swift streams where harlequin ducks bobbed in the rapids leading their ducklings and where we found our first water ouzel. We flushed whole families of ruffed grouse — much redder than their cousins in our New England woods — and marveled at the tameness of the blue grouse or “fool hen,”which has probably saved many a lost and unarmed man from starvation. But we almost missed the tiny saw-whet owl, motionless on a dead limb just out of arm’s reach. As the owl and I looked each other over, I thought of E. B. While’s classic reply on being asked if he watched birds: “Yes,” he said, “and they watch me.”

Five hours and twelve miles later the trail began suddenly to rise in sharp switchbacks from the valley floor. Hitherto the dense jungle had been broken only by grassy meadows where the elk had foraged. Now we had occasional glimpses of snowcapped peaks. On our left rose sheer rock cliffs, carpeted at the base with maidenhair, most delicate of ferns; to the right the slope dropped off so steeply that we had a literal bird’s-eye view of the Douglas firs, looking straight downward from the top branches, like a sailor at the masthead. The path leveled off, dipped slightly. Something deeper than sky-blue sparkled among the tall trunks. A few more steps and we could make out ripples running over the surface. At the darkest spot, a circle grew and vanished. The lake: and the trout were rising.

2

HEAVEN comes in many shapes and sizes. The heaven of the Eskimos, they say, is hot; the Arabs’ is cool, with dancing girls; the Persians’ is an ever green garden. But give me a blue mountain lake at the end of a long climb. Frame it with timber untouched by the axe; fill it with brook trout, deepkeeled, orange-bellied, ready to the fly. Let the sun be warm after swimming and let the nights be cold under the stars. If there must be mosquitoes, let them settle down at nightfall. Let the winter wren sing at midday and the olive-backed thrush at dusk. Let the first ray of morning light strike the snow fields of the western peaks; let the long, clear note of the varied thrush announce the day.

A damned paradise. A standing invitation to go out and get into trouble. Next morning, however, we didn’t gel into anything except some ten-inch trout, which rejected the salmon eggs I had been told they adored and went for standard flies such as the Cahill and Montreal, last wetted in the Adirondacks. With enough fish to eat, we swam, loafed, sketched. Not till the following day did the invitation of those sunlit snow fields become a sort of Olympian command. No mountaineer, I am unstrung by a high ladder or the sight of a child in a treetop; I would sooner sweep a brick chimney than climb a rock one. The Bow Paddle, on the other hand, is a steeplejack manque, so between us we strike an average. We knew that a trail from our tent led directly to a glacier on the shoulder of Mount Olympus. This far at least we would go.

Mountaineers would call it a walk. Recent rockslides had made a few tricky spots; oddly enough, wild columbine always grew there, a red flag of warning. Patches of dirty, needle-strewn snow became more frequent as we gained altitude. Banks of bright yellow violets gave place to delicate white avalanche lilies. Now the trail became wholly snowcovered. In two hours the woods had fallen behind. We had reached timberline; before us rose a slope of dazzling unsullied white, broken only by scattered rocks and ragged lines of gnarled Alpine fir. Taking off our shirts and digging in our toes, we started to climb, now and then sinking thigh-deep in rotten snow. On every side we could see rivers of melting ice and, with slight qualms, hear them roar deep under the snow we walked on. We stopped often to breathe hard and look back at the peaks which slowly rose as the forest retreated; we had seen all this from a distance, but how different — how strangely detached and peaceful — to feel a part of it!

One last steep climb and we were on the edge of the glacier, looking across at a new world of snow and ice, down into a dirty steel-blue crevasse — all quite enough like the pictures in the books to satisfy two armchair Alpinists. Reluctant to move, but chilled by the wind from the valley below, we considered how to get down. We should, I suppose, have slid on our bottoms, but we had no ice axes for brakes and there were scattered rocks to dodge. An invitation to trouble. I recalled a favorite passage in that classic of British mountaineering, Unsuccessful But Not Wholly Irrelevant Attempts to Scale Mt. Everest, in which, on the third and last attempt, “the Leader being at the bottom of a crevasse, Sir Roland Throckmorton suffering from a broken leg, and a native porter having frozen his buttocks waiting for the sahibs to proceed, the situation began to look slightly embarrassing. . . .” So we took the safer way of just leaning back and loping along, our heels dug in.

If we had gone faster, we might not have noticed a sparrow-like bird, with black head and pinkishbrown body, that dashed ahead of us from rock to rock, much like the slate-colored juncos that frequent the bare hilltops of New England. It was Hepburn’s rosy finch, “the mountaineer’s friend.”He was the capstone of our day; if we ever meet him again we’ll be back, for a moment, on Mount Olympus. Unless it be Proust’s famous madeleines, I know nothing so evocative of time and place as the sight — still more the song — of some particular bird. Here in the Olympics, the winter wren’s trill conjured up Vermont’s Green Mountains. For me the loon’s laughter will always be the Border Lakes country; the mountain quail is a remote spot above Kern River valley in the Sierra Nevada. ‘That emerald arrow, the European kingfisher, is an old mill on the River Lsk; while the yellowleg’s “ Whew! Whew! Whew!" brings back a Long Island salt marsh of my boyhood, when shorebirds were still fair game. And even now when I hear the robin’s song for the first time in the spring I am momentarily in a suburban garden where, at the age of ten, I began a bird list, proudly headed ROBIN.

3

SPRING comes late to the mountain meadows. July was almost over when we moved our “base camp" up to a ridge overlooking the whole Olympic range. At five thousand feet, snow still lay on the northern slopes, and the massed wild flowers were just, reaching their peak of bloom. As the big trees in the lowlands stagger you with their scale, the mountain wild flowers overwhelm you with sheer color. Acres of it — deep blue of lupines, covering whole hillsides; soft red of Douglasia against dark juniper; flame-red and magenta of Indian paintbrush; bold yellow of wallflower and diffused yellow of glacier lily, pushing its way through the snow; purple of mountain daisy and white of avalanche lily, growing in carpets that obliterate the trail. In the rain forest, colors are muted; there is an oceanic vastness and sameness and sense of hidden life; the great trees seem ageless and time stands still. In the high country everything is on display and happening at once in a frantic rush to get through the life cycle during the few weeks of summer. Within a dozen square yards I found glacier lilies just emerging from a snowbank, in bud, in full flower, and already fading.

Among the trees near timberline another struggle is apparent: not, as in the forest, for light, but for shelter. Groves of seedlings grow up in the protection of one old tree; I counted over a hundred fir and cedar in a single clump — so dense that, as the fog swept up the ridge, we felt a cone of warm dry air in its lee. Individual Alpine firs, worn to a scraggy point, spread at the base in wide “skirts” where deep snow protects new growth from winter winds.

The trees must stand and take it; the animals have more choice. With the onset of cold weather, the elk move down from the high country to their winter range in the valleys; the bear we spotted in a grassy swale was already fattened after his whitesleep; the marmots — heavier, hoarier versions of our woodchuck — hibernate for no less than seven and a half months. Now in the warm sunshine they stood at the entrance of their complex burrows and whistled a danger signal as we approached. Easiest to see, particularly in ihe earlv morning and at dusk, wore the graceful blackI ailed deer.

For a week we lived in anti out of the clouds. Just as we felt that moss must surely be growing onour north sides, the sun would burst out and the nearest bushes would bloom with our steaming socks. At night, snug and warm in our mummy bags, we took comfort in the thought that to appreciate the weather you should live where it is being hatched.

After the forest and the glacier and the mountain meadows, we felt as did the couple in Robert Frost ‘s poem: —

This, then, is all. What more is there to ask?
But no, not yet . . .”

There was still the strip of wild Pacific beach, recently acquired by the Park, another wholly different environment in this world of contrasts. With the Park Naturalist we drove the ninety miles to the coastal area, took a boat down a long lake, and finally followed the world’s slipperiest trail among great hemlocks and head-high bracken and huckleberry and salal (the stuff the florists use) to a roadless strip of coast, where we pitched our tent beneath a spreading fir a few yards from the sand. Again we felt that blend of familiarity and strangeness. Rocky headlands, white gulls against dark evergreens, were suggestive of the coast of Maine. But imagine a beach where the flotsam above high-tide line is a jackstraw tangle of huge logs bleached white and worn satiny smooth; where the sand is crisscrossed with tracks of deer and bear, of skunk and raccoon; and where the ebb tide reveals kelp-covered rocks for a quarter of a mile out to sea. Offshore, instead of low-lying islands, were fantastic towers crowned with trees and sharp needle rocks, shaped like the mesas and pinnacles of a desert canyon — sculptured by the sea, as the desert is sculptured by wind and sand.

Particularly odd to anyone brought up on the eastern seaboard — but wonderfully convenient for camping — were the streams of fresh water flowing from the forest straight across the sand. Firewood was stacked in all sizes from matchsticks to Yule logs. Here and there one saw a huge disk a few inches thick cut from the butt of a big tree and branded with the original owner’s code number — evidence that timber rustlers had been at work. And wit h luck one might spot a ball of colored glass that had once floated a Japanese fisherman’s net, crossed the Pacific on the Japan Current, and ended its long journey on this beach.

At low water early in the morning the B.P. went off beachcombing by herself while I groped my way seaward through ihe fog to explore the tide pools, in rocky basins pink-walled with coralline algae, I found starfish ranging from ocher to purplishbrown, flower-like sea anemones and cone-shaped “turban-shells,”clinging limpets and bright orange worms; feathery weeds and light green sea lettuce and iridescent ribbons of wrack. Standing on the outermost rocks, the land lost in fog, I might have been alone in the world; only the murmur of surf indicated which way lay our tent, which way Japan.

As the fog burned off under a hot sun, the shrill cries I had heard since dawn materialized into a flock of oyster catchers, their red legs handsome against the dark wet rocks. Inshore a pair of bald eagles were swooping and diving in perfect unison just over ihe treetops, like a pair of fighter pilots practicing maneuvers. A striped skunk, indifferent to my presence, nosed among the kelp.

That afternoon, leg-weary, I was ensconced on the warm sand with a sketchbook. The B.P. came up and suggested a brisk walk. I yawned.

“Why don’t you go and he Anne Lindbergh?”

“But I’ve been Anne Lindbergh all morning.”

So we joined forces again. There were few enough hours left for walking and hireling, for squeezing into caves in the rock and exploring around the next headland.

Two nights later we scoured our aluminum plates and watched the sun sink in the Pacific for the last time. We had slept in our tent for almost a month. We hadn’t been “deep into trouble.” But we had learned afresh the uses of solitude. And we had learned much beside. When not alone we had shared a campfire with men to whom the wilderness is a joy as well as a profession. These members of the Park Service are themselves a striking testimonial to the values they work for: men with whom John Muir would gladly have climbed the. High Sierra or Henry Thoreau walked the Old Marlborough Road, whom the Northwest’s own David Douglas would be proud to see among the great trees that bear his name. They represent America’s growing awareness that there are times and places in which even a fine timber tree is worth more alive than dead; that, as the late Aldo Leopold put it, “the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”