The Long Walk
Tales from the Olympic Discovery Trail
Day 1 – Rialto Beach to Mora Campground
Distance: 2 miles
Wildlife Seen: Two otters swimming in a dark pool right next to the road.
Every journey begins somewhere and mine began at Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula’s Pacific Coast.
After setting up camp at Mora Campground, my dad, my dog (Bonnie) and I walked the two miles to the beach in the waning hours of the day.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific is dramatic, and wild. Frothy, foam-tipped waves crashed onto the sand and pebble shoreline tossing a mist in the air that partially obscured two rocky islands just off shore. A chilled wind blew through my fleece jacket and whipped at my hair tugging the short strands loose from my pony tail and whisking them irritatingly across my nose.
As the sun dipped behind the horizon the chill in the wind began to nip just a bit too sharply. So we walked the two miles back up the road to Mora Campground. Technically, this was my first day of walking – the first tiny gesture toward a self-powered journey that will hopefully take me all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
It was in the fading light that we saw the otters swimming in in the dark little pool next to the road. I always feel very lucky to see wildlife, and those two little otters had me feeling like the luckiest person on earth.
Day 2 – Mora Campground to highway 101 (Forks)
Distance: 11.8 miles (19 km)
Wildlife seen: three rabbits, two domesticated turkeys, one guinea fowl (well, technically we didn’t see it, we heard it announcing our presence from half a mile away), and a bald eagle (I KNOW!).
Since my parents had an extra day out here with me, my dad decided to walk the first long stretch with me. This meant I didn’t have to carry my pack, and that we could spend another night under the towering old-growth red cedars at Mora Campground.
Although this road isn’t actually part of the Olympic Discovery Trail (the ODT heads over to La Push rather than Rialto), it turned out to be a pretty good route to take. From Mora Campground, we walked 110 for a little less than a mile and then took the airport road which runs parallel to 110 rejoining it three miles from 101.
The airport road had the advantages of being both quiet and scenic. It climbed a gentle rise and followed a ridgeline affording decent views over the young forest in the valley below us and the mountains to the east. Wild blackberry, wild Rose, and foxglove colored the fringes of the road pink and white and yellow and green.
The best part of this day, by far was walking with my dad. I always enjoy the company of my parents, and the time we spent talking was truly priceless.
Day 3 – Forks to Bear Creek Campground
Distance: 13 miles (21km)
Wildlife: a couple of vultures
I said goodbye to my parents today and that unhappy moment set a dull, unhappy hue on the entire day. It didn’t help that the first roadblock of the journey was a bridge less than two miles from where we parted.
I should have known it would be a bridge. Most of my known-roadblocks happen to be bridges (bridges, highways, and deserts) it only makes sense that my first unknown-roadblock involve bridge as well.
This particular roadblock had to do with the bridge just north of Forks. A tiny two-lane affair with no sidewalk and no shoulder, the bridge was marked out for construction. When I crossed it, it was one lane with a timed traffic light on either side. The crew used that other lane to create construction corridors on both sides of the bridge which meant there was plenty of space on the edge for me to cross safely. So I did.
When I reached the other side I stopped to chat with some of the construction workers about where I was from and where I was going. Then the supervisor approached me – an official clip-board in hand.
“Didn’t you notice the ‘No Pedestrian Access’ sign?” she asked me.
I explained that I hadn’t.
“This is an active construction zone, we can’t allow pedestrians – it’s a liability, you see,” she explain.
“Well then, I’ll just get out of your hair then,” I suggested cheerfully.
“That would be great, if you just move on,” she agreed.
As I moved down the road I wondered what they expected pedestrians to do…swim? Surely they had an in-case-of-pedestrian contingency built into their safety plan. Rare as we may be, pedestrians are users of roadways too – aren’t all potential users considered when planning for roadwork?
These thoughts occupied my mind as I continued along the shoulder of 101.
This part of the Olympic Discovery Trail is still “in development” which seems to be fancy talk for ‘we can’t secure land to build our trail, so use the road for now.’ The shoulder is nice and wide, and in Washington Pedestrians are allowed on most roadways providing they walk against the traffic (unless there is a sidewalk) and yield to cars.
I only passed one other trail user – a cyclist heading the other direction. I wondered what the construction protocol was for the bikes.
There were some pretty stretches of forest which were all tree farms, and one or two nice farms, but all-in-all, the Forks Bridge – where I didn’t get fined – was the most memorable part of the walk.
Bear of Bear Creek
When I arrived at the Bear Creek Campsite, there were no available sites. Every single site had a car parked, or a trailer or a camper van. Every site except one – a site reserved until 6pm for people with disabilities. I thought I might cry. There is a hotel at Bear Creek, but according to my information, they don’t allow dogs.
I developed a plan: I’d squat in the Disability site: leave my backpack on the table, and rest a while on the bench. If no one came, I’d set up the tent at 6. If someone with handicap tags came, I’d relinquish the site and start begging from site to site for a corner for my tent.
I hadn’t been at the site long when a thin man with gaunt features walked down the road.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I replied.
“Where’d you walk from?” he asked.
“from just outside of Forks,” I replied.
“Nice. I been walkin’ all day too. Down from the mountain.”
“Me and my buddy we was up there all night trying to get a tree down. Man, I’m so mad at him right now. you’d think in twelve hours you could get the damn tree down – all that time and nothin’ to show, hell I’m still pissed!”
“Where are you goin’?” he asked me.
“Across the peninsula,” I replied. Somehow I am hesitant to admit that I am planning to cross the state or even the country, so I say my most immediate goal: across the peninsula to Fort Townsend.
“Hey that’s cool,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth,” I reply.
“Elizabeth…I’m Bear, people call me Bear.”
“We’re over on the other side – end of the loop, we might get kicked out tonight, though, today is 14 days…we’ll see…”
Most Washington State Park campgrounds have a limit of 14 days. At little places like this, the limit is very loosely enforced and people overstay the limit until someone kicks them out. In fact, most of the Bear Creek campground looked like it was occupied by long-term campers.
“I’m just here trying to scrape together some cash to…” he let the sentence die. “But hey man, I’m doin’ alright,” he said. “I been in some bad places. I been messed up on drugs like you don’t know. But you know I kinda like it when people feel sorry for me because sometimes they give me money. One time I was all messed up and so hungry – you’ve never felt hungry like that, and I was sitting’ outside Burger king and this man he walked by and he bought be a hamburger. I’ve never tasted something so delicious as that hamburger.”
We chatted for a while and then Bear took off to go meet a friend. Later that evening, when I’d found some friendly Aussie-American-Canadians to share my site bear drove by.
“Hey, Liz!” he shouted through the open car window, “We did it, we stayed between the ditches!” With that statement, they drove off.
That is the story of Bear of Bear Creek.
Day 4 – Bear Creek to Klahowya
Distance: 13.5 miles (21.7km)
Wildlife seen: three deer, four elk, and one very cheeky sparrow who taunted Bonnie by hopping four steps to every step we took and staying just beyond the reach of Bonnie’s leash.
I had to backtrack along 101 a little more than two miles to reach the Olympic Discovery Trail Trail head on Mary Clark Road. This is another place where the trail follows roads – but these roads are quiet logging roads – a very different experience than walking the shoulder of route 101. In six hours of walking I saw only seven cars and two bicycles.
I’d walked less than a mile when I spotted some bear scat on the pavement. It was at least a few days old but it reminded me very quickly of how alone I was in that place. All of a sudden, the forest felt quieter than it had moments before. The empty country roads felt miles away from potential help. I made sure I could get my bear spray out if I needed it and then spent the next two hours singing John Denver tunes a the top of my lungs.
The only wildlife we saw, though, were elk and deer. Bonnie spotted a young buck hiding in the dark woods just a few feet away from us. I saw his eyes shining yellow in the darkness – gazing at me with a startling intensity. The rest of his face melted into the darkness of the forest. We have tales of wer werwolves and vampire bunnies – I’ve never heard of a wer-deer before, but if they exist, this buck was definitely one of them.
Day 5 – Klahowya to Fairholme
Distance: 15.9 miles (25.5 km)
Wildlife seen: two slugs, a baby opossum (possibly dead, but it is always hard to tell) and a mystery critter in the bushes that Bonnie chased off with a terrifying round of growling and barking (probably a raccoon).
The section of trail that links the Mary Clark Road with the Sruce Railroad Trail around Crescent Lake is brand new. Long, straight stretches of dark asphalt shaded by proud Red Cedars drooping branches of the Western Hemlocks. Moss dripped and oozed off of branches and rocks in the damp forest.
From time to time Bonnie spun around gazing behind us intently – alert and silent. Then, as if deciding that whatever was back there wasn’t worth our notice she’d turn around again and continue walking. Whatever was following us down the trail (probably cougar) never showed itself.
Eventually the trail switched back up a short, steep hill and connected with a logging road used by an active tree farm. I could clearly see the cut grid – one patch of land only recently replanted, another with growth that appears to be about 20 years old, then another in the process of active harvest.
All the way back in 1992, the New York Times published “A Final Clearcut, and Goodbye to Logging” an about the death of logging on the Olympic Peninsula, and this is what that death looks like. Publicly held lands are sometimes selectively logged to control bug kill and tree disease, but the real logging is done on privately held tree farms.
I stopped to wait for a logging truck to go by. The truck stopped and the driver got out.
“I gotta wait for a loaded truck that’s coming down the road,” the driver told me. As he reached down to fondle Bonnies soft, floppy ears.
“…figured I’d get out and pet your dog while I waited.”
We chatted about where I was going and about our dogs for a while.
“On the weekends I bring my dogs – I’ve got two labs – over here to the river,” he told me. “I’ll throw a stick in and they’ll float down the rapids and then come running back up the bank with the stick. They love it!”
We heard the sound of a truck coming down the steep, dirt track to our right.
“Well, I gotta get back to work,” the trucker told me. “You might wanna wait a few minutes after the truck goes by. It gets pretty dusty on the road behind the trucks.”
I thanked him and watched as a truck, loaded with recently cut trees made it’s way down the steep, dirt road, and onto the paved logging road. Then I waited until the sound of both trucks was a distant rumble before starting down the road.
We crossed the river, made a left on a forest service road, and soon came back to the new trail section – one that runs parallel to highway 101 for several miles.
After the silence and isolation of the experimental forest, the exposed trail, so close to the noisy highway was a bit jarring. Eventually the trail crossed highway 101, where a handwritten sign on a post warned travelers of the upcoming 101 detour around the tunnel work on the Spruce Railroad Trail.
“Take the bus from Fairholme,” the note warned, “101 is a nightmare!”
It was another four miles along the trail, down the cut through, and then back along the road to Fairholme campground. By the time I arrived, my feet and shoulders both ached. I dropped my things into the first campsite I found and called it a day.
Day 6 – Fairholme to Salt Creek
Distance: 8.27 miles (13.3 km)
Wildlife seen: an irritable bull that charged the fence as we walked by (OK, not wild but startling nonetheless).
The two tunnels along the Spruce Railroad Trail that runs across the northern shore of the lake have been under construction for several years. Each summer the trail re-opens for a short recreational season, and then re-closes for resumed construction. For cyclists, the detour involves riding the busy, fast, and shoulder-less highway 101 around the south shore of lake crescent. For pedestrians, there is no detour – they are supposed to take the public bus.
Unfortunately for me, to ride the bus, Bonnie would need a “secured container with a lid.” With the bus out of the question for my canine co-pedestrian, we were up the creek for a way across the lake until the tunnels opened.
After speaking with the fantastic park staff, and the store staff about the situation, the store employees volunteered to ferry Bonnie and I around the lake. So when Erica from Forks got off work, she drove me over to the Log Cabin Resort where I picked up the Olympic Discovery trail as it joined the roads.
Even though the distance was relatively short, it was entirely along a quiet, but narrow and fairly steep mountain road. When we reached the top, I realized my phone was showing us on a Canadian network. The descent down the other side of the pass was gentler. The dense forests were replaced with small ranch houses fenced pastures.
When I reached the Salt Creek Campground and RV park. I followed the directions I’d been given over the phone. I turned left and saw a large grassy field. There was one other tenter at the edge of the field under some trees. I chose a spot by one of the picnic tables in the center and set my pack down.
Day 7 – Salt Creek to Port Angeles
Distance: 16 miles (26 km)
Wildlife Seen: A fawn and her mama
The first five miles lay along highway 112 where logging trucks roared by. Bewildered drivers gave me puzzled looks as their mini vans and pickup trucks sped by. I got in the habit of saying “Bonnie, Off!” and then nudging her onto the shoulder of the road whenever I saw a car coming. We’d both stand there, in the loose, shifting gravel of the drainage ditch until the car was past. Too many times I’d see a car try to give me space, sliding over into the oncoming lane in a place where there was no visibility. In my mind I saw the resulting accident. I wanted drivers to feel safe going by me, so we got off the road.
The morning was spectacular. A perfect, blue sky, dotted with fluffy, white clouds capped the peaks of the Olympic Mountains to our south. Colorful fields of hay grasses and wildflowers stretched out at the feet of those mountains.
We found the trail suspended under a road bridge – an ingenious solution to the “the bridge isn’t wide enough for a sidewalk” problem. After that it climbed through the woods to a dramatic bluff overlooking the Strait de San Juan de fuca before diving into the forested suburbs of Port Angeles.
As we got closer to town, hand drawn signs began to crop up: “Caution: Cougar seen in area, lots of pets missing too!” The closer we got to town the more of the signs I saw. Then just as we reached the place where the trail changed to sidewalk I spotted my only wildlife of the day – a beautiful little fawn in a flower garden. At first I thought it was a statue – it isn’t very often you see the young’uns off on their own like that.
I stopped, then asked “Where’s your mama?”
As if on cue, a large and beautiful doe came bounding up the hill side and into the garden. Then she stopped. She hadn’t expected me and she froze. I heard the sound of a car behind me and turned around. An electrical contractor in a white ford work truck was coming down the road. I turned toward the truck and pointed at the deer – my way of saying “caution, wildlife.” Apparently the driver didn’t understand because the he didn’t slow down and the startled fawn went bounding across the street right in front of the truck. She made it, but it was a close call.
It was a long walk across town to my hotel. We walked past the port-side lumber yard and through the quiet little main street with its sports store, shoe store, brew pub, and banks, up the hill passed the little real estate agents in their house-offices and at long last to the hotel.
My feet ached, with the effort of the day. When I pulled off my boots I found that each toe had its own special blister. Some were a couple of days old – acquired during the hill walk to Salt Creek. Others were brand new. I was definitely looking forward to a day off from the walk.