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Getting to Staircase is more difficult that it seems it ought to be.  I suppose it should come as no surprise in this land of water and mountains; traveling between points in Western Washington often take two or three times as long as it would anywhere else.

My journey began with a circuitous rout south and west and north again around Hood Canal to join up with Highway 101, the necessary starting point for all journeys into Olympic.

The turn for Staircase is an unassuming road hiding in the middle of Hoodsport, a cute little town that I will have to return to and explore.  It looks to be a good place to pick up supplies that may have been forgotten at home or to take a break from the road.  Driving by I saw a gas station, an IGA grocery store, a promising looking coffee shop, and a run down “Family Mexican Restaurant” that (knowing how these things usually work) probably has some pretty good food.

119 (the road to Staircase) immediately starts climbing into the hills towards Lake Cushman.  Lake Cushman is not a pretty lake.  It was created by a dam, as the dead trees and stumps sticking up out of low water will tell you.  A fork in the road directs you left around the lake on a forest service road of compact gravel plagued with pot holes.

Upon reaching the park boundery, the change in management is immediately apparent.  The road is paved, second- and third-growth forest gives way to towering old-growth trees, and even those who know nothing about river ecosystems will notice that the north fork of the Skokomish River looks much healthier here than when if flows into the lake a mile downstream.

Half a mile later the road ends in a parking area by the ranger station, campground, and trailheads.  I laughed to see a phone booth sitting under the hemlocks and cedars as we left the car to set off up the trail.

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Quick Art Update

I’m thinking of going to Staircase (in the south-east corner of the park) this weekend.  That should give me some more material to post soon.  In the mean time, check out two illustrations I worked up today:

Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

Yesterday I went on my first hike of the season: four miles along the western shore of Lake Mills, the lake created by the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha river.  They are removing the dam at the end of this summer as part of a plan to restore the Elwha to its original state.  Here’s a bit of what I wrote as I ate lunch on the trail and a few pictures I took along the way.

The wind blows hard along the lake-shore, taking the sweat of the trail and ripping it away, leaving only chill behind.  But up along the cliff-line, where the trail dead-ends above the little rapids of Boulder Creek, the sun shines sweet and orange-mottled butterflies dance between the orchids and the stonecrop and the saxifrage and the licorice fern.  I have come today because in another six months this lake will no longer be here.  They are tearing down the dam and there will be no lake left: only a giant’s empty bathtub, with feeble creeks drizzling down its muddy walls.  The trail I walked today will be orphaned, high up a barren hillside, overlooking, I imagine, the world’s largest drainage ditch.

For a while.

Until the forest creeps again into the valley.  The press finned fir-seeds into the soft, damp earth, thrush drop huckleberries along the riverside, ants carry trillium seeds deep into their nests, and the moss pulls its blanket over the rocks.

Trillium

The trillium are blooming, and that’s always a special time of year for me.  Trillium have been on of my favorite flowers for as long as I can remember, made all the more special by their rarity and short blooms.  So in honor of them I put together a little graphic guide for them.  I hope to have insets like these throughout my book.

(If the picture looks a little fuzzy, click on it and you will get a clearer view.)

Sleeping bag prep

Hello internet-land.  I don’t have a lot of information to impart to you this week, just a few rambling thoughts on how we’ve been getting ready for camping season.

This morning Lavon and I went down to the laundromat in downtown Silverdale to wash her sleeping bag.  I’ve seen various recommendations regarding washing sleeping bags, ranging from be careful to it’s really not a good idea and breaks down the pile (fluffiness) of your bag.  But even REI, who was in the latter camp, admits that if your sleeping bag is getting dirty and gross you’d be better off washing it and being clean.

Well, Lavon’s bag wasn’t gross, but it was dirty, and had lost a lot of its pile, so we packed it down to the laundromat where it could take a ride in one of the big front loading washers, since the absence of an agitator would be gentler on the fabric and stitching.  While it was washing we popped next door to have breakfast at one of my favorite places to get camping rations: Pip’s Bagels.  They make a nice variety of bagels there fresh every day, as well as their own flavored cream cheeses.  My favorites include pesto bagels and sundried tomato bagels, and I love their spinach-artichoke cream cheese.  If you like sweet bagels (I’m not a big fan myself), the orange cranberry poppy-seed are also quite good.

After breakfast it was back to the laundromat and about an hour in the dryer at low heat with some tennis balls (for the sleeping bag, not me–I don’t think the attendant would have liked it if I’d gotten in the dryer.)  I don’t know how much good the tennis balls did as they didn’t have a lot of room to bounce around.

The sleeping bag is now a lot cleaner, and it looks a little fluffier, though it’s kind of hard to tell.  I’m sure it will be nicer to sleep in now either way.

Here are two interesting and unique things about Olympic National Park:

1—the park contains a surprisingly large variety of ecosystems: alpine, subalpine, rainforest, a rain shadow, old growth lowland forest, second growth forest, coastline, and an entire river system from headwater to ocean.

2—there are no roads that cut through the park, only spurs that lead in from highway 101, which encircles it.  This can make places seem far apart when they really aren’t.  For example, Sol Duc hot springs and the Hoh rainforest visitor’s center are only about 8 miles from each other—but to drive between the two you would have to travel 68 miles and it would take about two hours!

These two facts can combine in interesting ways, and it’s a profound moment when you realize that  some very different sections of the park are almost literally on top of each other.  I got to experience these large differences in a small space in 2004 when, along with my father and my friend Lavon, I hiked from Hurricane Ridge down into the Elwha river valley.

It was surprising when I realized that these two points, which are 25 miles and almost an hour apart by road, are only six miles away from each other by trail.  Of course, they are also about a mile apart in another important way—vertically!

But we were going downhill all the way, so that morning we parked my dad’s CRV down in the valley and then drove up to the trailhead to Hurricane Hill, laced up our boots, and hit the trail.

Alright, it wasn’t entirely downhill; the first mile or so was actually uphill, as we followed the trail almost all the way up Hurricane Hill to where a much narrower trail carved its way across the subalpine meadow.

This trail lead us along a rocky ridge line and through some stands of subalpine firs, where fog (or really, some low-flying clouds) rolled in.  I imagine there are wonderful views from that ridge, but the clouds lent their own imposing atmosphere to the place.  We stopped for lunch among the trees and were delighted when a young buck, velvet still on his antlers, decided to graze for his own lunch right beside us.

When the ridge ran out, the trail dropped steeply down a meadowy mountainside, passing erratic outcroppings of stone, and dropped through the strait edge of a high forest.  The boundary between forest and meadow was surprisingly stark, as though the trees, in their march uphill, had come to the point and said, “that’s it, one more step and it will be too high for me to grow,” so they stopped.

The forest was full of dim light and surprisingly open.  There was virtually no undergrowth, just conifers and vanilla leaf.  As we continued to descend, though, more and more plants entered the scene.  It was like walking through geological strata, or a layer cake.  I hadn’t imagined that different altitudinal regions would appear so distinctly, but I’m sure, had I had the right knowledge about which plants grow at which elevations, that I could have told you how high we were within 10 feet at times.

We ended up, at the bottom of our hike in a wet, lowland forest full of big leaf maples, moss, and ferns.  By this time we had made our descent of nearly a mile in five miles of trail.  I won’t tell you whose knees gave out first and him or her sliding down the muddy trail.  They were surprisingly good-humored about it, considering the circumstances.

And the next day?  Well, I could barely walk, but I considered it worth it to walk through so many ecosystems in the space of a couple of hours, and to see so much beauty with cheery companions.

Campfires and I don’t always get along.

There, I admitted it.  I tell myself and others that I’m great with fires.  In truth, they tend to burn up all the newspaper I use to light them and then take about 15 minutes of babying before I have a stable fire going.  I think my problem might be over confidence (in the fire): I just expect it to instantly light the big pieces of wood I put in there, with the help of insufficient kindling.

So this year I have resolved to build better fires.  To work towards that end I made some fire starters today.  They were really easy and totally free, thought they did take a bit of time and effort.  They might not end up being free for you (I have a lot of random stuff lying around my house!) but they will at least be pretty darn cheap.

Here’s what you need:

An empty egg carton

Sawdust (or scraps of wood and some tools to make sawdust)

Candle stubs

(extremely messy work bench not required)

I didn’t have any sawdust readily on hand so I made some using a rasp on a scrap piece of wood (Lavon made a bunch of it, actually.)  We also made pretty little curly wood shavings with a plane.

I put some of each into the egg carton divots.

Then I lit a candle (It’s an old communion candle I got free from church.  They get changed out every month.) and held it sideways over the sawdust so the melting wax would drip over it.  I put the match I used to light the candle in one of the divots for good measure–why waste it?

Let enough wax drip over the sawdust to make a good coating–we don’t want any of that highly flammable material to escape!

Wait for the wax to harden up and then cut all the pieces apart.

They’re small, so I’ll probably use two or three per fire, but it’s hard to argue with free, and it’s so satisfying to make something useful.