Hoh River Valley Trail
Time for our biggest backpacking adventure yet. The Hoh River trail runs 18 miles from 578 feet at the Visitor Centre to 5,000 feet on top of the Blue Glacier's terminal moraine. In the meantime you pass from temperate rain forest, to lowland, to montane, to subalpine forest. Then, up onto the moraine amid snow and crevasses.
Needless to say we did all this at our normal pace, which involved four nights under canvas at various points. The blow-by-blow account follows. Excuse the length but this was a definite high spot for us.
Day one: set off from the vistor centre on the dot at 3pm, to hike up to the picuresquely named '7.8 mile camp'. The trip was reasonably uneventful, apart from one river crossing which necessitated moving from boots to sandals for a quick wade. The campsite itself turned out to be much prettier than its name suggested, but our late start and gigantic packs meant that we arrived a little later than we'd hoped.
A word about the packs: too big. We packed in a hurry and ended up with fourteen days' rations of porridge, enough bread for a platoon and cutlery for all of them. We packed in haste and repented for four days.
Then, once we'd made camp and had yet another splendid dehydrated meal, we were faced with local park regulations about food and bears. Basically, the idea is that you hang your food and other smelly stuff like toothpaste from a string, twenty feet up and ten feet from the nearest tree trunk, so that bears don't get used to collecting goodies from campsites.
We'd selected some high quality and highly stretchy nylon twine, which we tied to a rock before throwing the rock over a branch. About ten attempts later we'd got the rock over the branch about three times, but on no occasion was the string still attached. Eventually it dawned on us that a better solution was to put the rock in a bag and throw that over the branch. Then, a quick struggle and the goods were in the air, which leads us neatly on to ...
Day two: Jan carefully unties the string, bracing herself to take the weight of the food: but the stretchy nylon string had bitten a sufficiently deep notch into the tree branch to hold its own (remember all that additional food weight?). Endless fun ensued, involving the manipulation of twenty foot branches, eventually resulting in a rather delayed breakfast and the march seven further miles (2 steeply uphill) to Miller Camp at about 2,800 feet.
This stretch passed through the rain forest proper. The sitka spruce and red cedars grow up to 300 feet, and the lower branches are largely devoid of greenery. Fortunately, they get covered with moss, which is various shades of gently blended greens and browns. Add to this the reds of the cedars, and you have a delightful although muted palette. The greenery above filters the light so that only a diffuse light penetrates, but this gives the moss a softly luminescent character. All this at the root of the gigantic soaring columns of the trees reminds me of nothing so much as Westminster Cathedral on a summer's day. Except that the floor of the cathedral isn't covered in eight species of fern (write for details), dozens of flowers and hundreds of other plants.
Back to the plot. The hike up was a little too strenuous with full packs, but we eventually arrived, and settled in to our newest campsite. Nearby Elk Lake beckoned, to the extent that David jumped in for a small wash (not before time after two days' hiking). Next up:
Day three: got up with thoughts of a pleasant day hike, just the single day pack and plenty of time to get there and back. Apparently the glacial moraine offered spectacular sights, just three miles away. OK, it was a 2,200 foot climb, and there was reputedly a little snow still around, but hey, how bad can it be?
Off we trot. About four hundred yards from camp we encounter a landslide shute under about six feet of snow, with a delicate snow bridge leading out. Clearly too thin for a person's weight (gone by the time of our return that evening), so nothing for it but to scramble twenty yards up the 45 degree slope, hack through the bushes, stroll (or in Jan's case totter) over the snow and then twenty yards down the snow, and continue along the trail. Other hazards included a range of fast flowing river crossings and a stretch of trail cut into the side of a steep and apparently bottomless slope.
One part of this section had been reduced to slippery mud by a rogue sub-stream, with only a stretch of rope to save one from an unpleasant fall.
After a mile of this (around 80 minutes later), the real fun began. The second mile took us up to the Glacier Meadows campground. When there isn't snow around, this is a steep climb through a subalpine forest. In our case, the forest was largely full of snow, several feet deep, but melting fast. The last part of that sentence is the problem. The path under the snow cannot be followed, and the rangers heroically mark the best path with small pieces of dayglo ribbon. Fine, but as the snow melts the 'best path' changes daily. What's more, the marked path becomes increasingly dubious as the melt replaces previously solid hardpack with just a shell over a drop between awkwardly placed dead trees.
Then, you arrive at Glacier Meadows (minute 190) to face the one mile, seven hundred foot climb through soft powder snow to the moraine. This takes another 80 minutes, punctuated by pauses to let the pulse drop below 150 and to admire passing skiers. No, that's not a misprint. Someone else climbed all the way up with a pair of skis for the sake of one five minute run over soggy crud. Takes all kinds...
Arriving at the top, the view was spectacular. Fair enough, and there is that sense of achievement that you get from four and a half hours' hard work. The trip back was a little quicker, particularly for Jan, who had rather pessimistically brought her waterproof trousers along for the ride. Ten minutes of toboganning later we were back at Glacier Meadows, and the rest of the return journey passed remarkably quickly. Apart from a small spell spent lost in the forest looking for dayglo markers, reasonably alarming it has to be said.
Back to the camp, and a fire. Our first actually. Much of the national park system doesn't allow them, or even wierder, you have to carry in your own wood, but here, you can burn it if it's dead. So Jan had a go, and surprisingly, within minutes had a fine warming blaze going, that kept us going until bedtime and eventually...
Day four: up and just starting in on breakfast when a belting great black bear wandered through the campsite! It cast a bored glance our way, then paused to rip inch thick bark off a tree and lick the sap, before strolling off about ten minutes later. We stood about fifty feet away, jaws open, but for some reason forgot to be scared to death until it had gone. I later measured up against the tree where it had stood on its hind legs to get at the trunk: we're about the same height, but it's a little thicker set. In retrospect, I'm extremely alarmed. (So much for bears' vaunted sense of smell though. Our breakfast was nicely laid out if it had so desired. Maybe they don't like porridge after all!)
After that, we were a little late leaving camp, but the downhill terrain meant that we made good time to our campsite about ten miles down the outward trail. A beautiful campsite, no-one else around, and Jan's second fire. Did I mention her first the previous day? Day two of her pyrotechnic career, and she's setting fire to ten foot logs to see if we can burn through them (the answer is yes, but you have to stay up to 10 pm (late for us campers) to prove it). Then off to sleep before
Day five: tired, grubby, but packs a lot lighter, for the five mile hike to the car park and a return to the strange world of civilization. Time to reflect on backpacking. The beauty of backpacking is that there's always something to do, whether it's working out how many minutes until there's ninety minutes to the next milestone, or planning the best route across the river, or deciding where the flattest spot for the tent is, or whatever. None of this is exactly difficult, but it does require full attention, which stops you getting worked up thinking about anything else. At the end of five days your mind is marvellously calm and placid (the body is a different story). It's great therapy. The ensuing hot bath was also great therapy although all our clothes did have to be washed twice!
(click thumbnails for a larger picture) |
The quick way down
Lunch on the River Ho
Soft light in the rain forest
Texture of the moss
Seedlings on a nursery log