Rediscovering the Hoh

Despite all good intentions to get out backpacking this season, it didn't happen until just recently. Weddings, honeymoons, work and moving all limited my outdoor excursion opportunities.

I wanted to take advantage of the season's few remaining fair-weather days before the rainy season, so, on a free weekend, Mandy and I quickly packed our gear and headed out for a two-night trek up the Hoh River.

We planned to head out on a Friday after work, hike a few miles up the trail, set camp as the sun set then head farther in, leaving a longer return trek.

It was almost the perfect plan. Almost. However, I've never in my entire life had a backpacking trip go according to plan. Not even close. This was no exception. The first problem was trying to find our gear, which was scattered in several closets and jammed into multiple boxes and plastic tubs after a recent move. I even had my most of my camping utensil set in my office desk drawer to use when I pack a lunch. Except the forks.

The night before, I loaded everything into the trunk with the exception of the utensils, which I grabbed the day of and tossed into the front seat sans forks, which were in the utensil drawer at home. I grabbed them on the way out with a few other last-minute items including headphones for Mandy's MP3 player.

By this time, it was later than we'd planned for our departure. We grabbed an almost-but-not-quite-quick bite in Amanda Park. Despite eating on the road, it was dusk when we arrived at the Hoh Ranger Station.

It took several minutes to fill out the self-registration backcountry camping form and pay the permit fee ($5 plus $2 per person a night). By the time we were on the trail, it was quite dim.

Who am I kidding? It was dark. The trees were dark shadows with a deep blue sky rapidly darkening to black. We walked briskly in the gloaming through a hall of moss-laden trees.

A gibbous moon rose above the ridge south of the mountain, casting silver moon shadows through the trees. One by one the night stars lit in the darkening sky. We passed a sign marking the way to a campground at 0.9 miles. We debated stopping but the dark wasn't so bad, we really wanted to get farther along the trail and weren't sure if the sign, a triangle with ".9" carved below meant we'd traveled that far or the campsite was that far down the spur trail.

We carried on in the dark. Actually, it was quite beautiful.

The moonlight made ghostly patterns on the trail and the mossy silhouettes of bent-limbed maples twisted weirdly in the night. In the daylight, the rain forest is a mystical place; at night it is a strange place where one fancies that fairies dwell.

The path at times ran close to the river. Silver light shimmered on the watery, black serpent twisting in the dark. Night-shadowed ferns swayed in a gentle, crisp breeze. It was magical.

Veering away from the river, the trail headed into tree-shrouded darkness. I caught a large toad, nearly the size of my palm, to show to Mandy before letting it go. As the darkness deepened, we had to use our flashlights. Mandy's hand-held incandescent light had fresh batteries but I'd neglected to check the status of my LED headlamp. Its feeble light was less than the moonlight but necessary in the deep trees.

At 2.9 miles we followed a spur trail to the Mount Tom trail, marked by a campsite blaze. After a short distance the trail petered out near a fire pit and bear wire but there wasn't a good place to pitch a tent. Not horrible, but not good. We camped anyway. I didn't know exactly how close the next campsite would be and we were tired of stumbling in the dark.

It was a cold night. Our sleeping bags were sufficient to keep us from dying but not to keep us in comfort. We both woke up numerous times.

When I decided to get up for good, it was well past dawn, the sun had cleared the ridge line but the campsite was still in shadow. I walked barefoot across sand and river rock several hundred yards to a sunny spot along the river to do some stretches to work out the kinks.

I saw plenty of elk signs, droppings and prints, and even heard the high-pitched bugling of a bull elk echoing from far upstream.

After returning to the campsite, I made oatmeal and tea for my breakfast. This is when I discovered that I'd left the forks in the car. I ate with the blade of my pocketknife.

Mandy doesn't like oatmeal so she got a granola bar and an apple after she roused. Then I packed up camp and we shouldered our packs to further punish our unaccustomed muscles.

A short distance past the spur trail we crossed a small stream with a lovely, level site. A good spot to camp, I mused.

The trail meanders through areas populated with stands of massive western red cedar, ancient spruce and occasional maple and alder along the riverbank. The way crosses several creeks and dry sloughs.

We picnicked at a grassy clearing at the intersection with the trail leading to the Happy Four campsite, located 5.8 miles into the trail. The campsites are cheery and rather nice. The gloomy shelter was just past the campsites; let's just say it wasn't just depressing but evoked memories of the rats that plagued me the last time I camped at a shelter.

The trail passes into an area of massive, gnarled big leaf maples. The sunlight filtering through their broad leaves provided a gentle green tint beneath their canopy. It was like walking in a wide, wild arbor.

Soon, the fire-scarred ridge to the north was visible between the trees of the river bottom. White spindles spear upward from the otherwise bare-seeming ridges burned by the Hoh Lake Fire of 1978.

The trail climbs for a short distance before dropping to the Olympic Ranger Station at mile 9.2. We considered continuing onward to Lewis Meadow, my initial goal, or making camp and taking a day hike farther up the trail. We were lazy and decided to stay put.

The two best campsites with a clear view of the river already had been claimed. Other sites close to the river seemed too claustrophobic, surrounded by trees with no breeze to carry away bugs.

We picked a clear site with a little breeze within view of the ranger cabin to set up camp. I gathered firewood and built a small fire then we took a small nap and read before I started up my camp stove and made a tuna and rice concoction. It was more or less edible. This is when Mandy discovered that I'd left the forks in the car.

The friendly ranger stopped by to make sure we wouldn't leave any trash or burn nonflammable items in the fire pit, that we'd properly stored our food in a bear canister or suspended from bear wire and generally kept the site usable by all.

The ground was softer and the night air warmer than the night before and we slept well. I hardly had to stretch at all the next morning.

The way back was mostly about getting home, though the scenery was, again, quite lovely. It was really interesting to see the first three miles of the hike that we'd missed in the dark.

There were some lovely large trees and even several cute campsites that we'd blundered right by in the dark.

Actually, this trip turned out pretty well compared to most of my hiking trips. With the ample moon, we were able to enjoy a trail in a beautiful new light. The cold night and missing forks really weren't all that bad. I just included them for some melodrama.

Of course, if we'd twisted an ankle in the dark, cut our lips on a knife used as a fork or frozen to death, this would be an entirely different column.

Leif Nesheim is hiking columnist and a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He is a reporter at the Daily World in Aberdeen. He can be reached at lnesheim

Hoh Trail

How long: 9.2 miles to Olympus Ranger Station

How hard: Pretty easy

How to get there: Take U.S. Highway 101 south of Forks to milepost 178.5. Turn east on Hoh River Road. Drive 18 miles to the Hoh Ranger Station and visitor's center. Restrooms and parking are near the trailhead. A National Parks Pass is required. A backcountry permit is required for camping.

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