On paper, something can look appealing, simple, even highly enjoyable. One thing I know about travel and hiking (and still apparently have yet to learn) is that these attributes are usually logical fallacies, born out of ignorance or, commonly with me, denial. Yet again, I find myself on the wrong side of easy and amusingly, most of the time I wouldn’t have it any other way.
North Fork to Whiskey Bend, bisects the Olympic National Park; a straightforward hike following the Quinault and then Elwha rivers North, before terminating a few miles up the road from the recently removed Glines Canyon Dam. There are a multitude of options for bagging a few peaks or extending ridge trails but for this particular hike, we were (incorrectly) informed when calling the local rangers, that the intended higher routes were still somewhat inaccessible due to snow and so decided on hiking the valley for the most part.
During this first day, I’ve never seen so much available foraging. Red Huckleberries, Blackberries, Salmonberries, Thimbleberries and Blueberries were available in such abundance that I hardly snacked on my packed food at all. The wilderness food became more scarce as the hike went on but what a treat to start a four day adventure.
The first eight or so miles, gently incline through a trail which despite the alleged heavy usage and being noted as well maintained, is looking a little overgrown in places.
Save for a few open areas by creeks, it’s mostly all under the shade of old rain forest growth, giving a cool reprieve on hot days. After passing eight miles, the trail steepens slightly, to accommodate the remaining 2500′ to Low Divide.
The first water crossing at Elip Creek, is marked as a ford but the water was low enough to just walk across protruding stones. 16 Mile on the other hand, offers the first but deepest of wet crossings which are cold enough to warrant the concern as a man of ‘where did all my junk retract to and will I ever see it again?’. New lesson learned – when a map says ‘Ford’, it’s not indicating a puddle to walk through. My delicate feet were unaccustomed to the hard rock surfaces so I opted to remove socks and put my trail runners back on. This is where bringing my 5-fingers would have been a lifesaver because from here on, I don’t think my socks and shoes ever fully dried out for the remainder of the hike.
At this point we were starting to get tired. The map mile markers indicated somewhere around seventeen miles and by time the forest receded and we crossed the meadow, our tracking devices were showing nearer nineteen miles, arriving at the camping location at just over twenty miles. This was to be a theme for the remainder of the trip and in the future, I’m going to use those markers purely as ‘best estimate’!
Day two proved to be the easiest so far, heading down from the Low Divide to pick up the Elwha river, on the way to the Hayes River campground. Sixteen miles with a combined incline of around 800′ was a welcome break from over 4000′ on day one with a full pack. On the way to Mary and Margaret lakes, we passed a group of older hikers who were on the way back from summiting Mount Olympus. As it turns out, they were just a few hundred feet from where a thunderstorm hit on Thursday and had quite the adventure. Sadly, we only saw flashes and heard rumblings at North Fork that night but wondered where it was coming from.
Hayes River gave us our first encounter with some kind of park officials. These were actually volunteers but were staying at the ranger station and checking permits, while doing some minor maintenance along the trail – they said they were ‘sweeping’ the trail but our visions of these three with brooms and dustpans, likely didn’t equate to their actual endeavors. They indicated this campsite was usually very busy but we were the only ones there that day and picked a prime spot, right next to the roaring river and even though some tales were passed on of a bear walking through the camp a few nights prior, I must have had the best night’s sleep of the whole trip.
Day three was supposed to be a short day and we were not due to get to the meeting point, at the other side of the washout by Madison Falls, until lunchtime on Monday. Unfortunately, the volunteers at Hayes had informed us the previous evening that construction on the washout was starting Monday morning but would result in the park entrance to neither let people or cars in, or (somewhat unbelievably) out, in our desired location.
This conversation had us decide to push on to the site at Lillian, for a shorter walk the last day and potentially a side-hike on this third day. Early on in the day, we came across some women who were saying how delightful Lillian was but that the following stop at Hume Ranch had both a bear wandering through the site and some trouble with bees, so that was settled, Lillian it was! Which of course it wasn’t… Stopping to refuel, we were a bit dismayed to be swarmed by mosquitoes, amid some small and quite primitive camps. After the delights of the Low Divide and Hayes River, this was not for us. Sure, you could argue that it’s backcountry camping but I’d like to at least be able to enjoy the surroundings and not be stuck in a tent half the day, to escape flying predators. So, that was it, we were moving on.
With Hume Ranch already ruled out, we made the option to stay at the Whiskey Bend trailhead, until we found out that there was no realistically comfortable camping area (unless you’re keen on enjoying a gravel parking area as your carpet) and more importantly, no water availability. Hot and tired and in need of a cell signal, to make new transport arrangements for the morning, it was time to push on a few more miles to the Glines Canyon Dam and ultimately, on to the ranger station at Madison Falls. With the road closed to traffic, the picnic area was the option which at least had the Madison Creek to filter water from and the dulcet tones of some overly zealous donkeys on a ranch behind us. After almost 25 miles of hiking and so tired from the long day, we were just extremely happy that during dinner and just before dark, nobody asked us to move on (we would have but they may have received a few expletives, in the process).
The psyche is an interesting animal. When you know you’re about done with something, it tends to shut you down in certain ways, which is what happened to at least myself for the last day. With our transport now losing access into the park, we had to take the alternative of meeting them at the Hurricane Ridge car park but mentally, I had built myself up for a day of a simple flat walk to the waiting car. Hurricane Hill is the antithesis of a relaxing stumble across the finish line; it’s the kind of day hike I do, to punish my calf muscles into a contortion of pain and has me forcing myself on with an anger of determination, that I. Will. Not. Quit.
Over the next five hours of almost nine miles and over 5000′ of incline, each painful step was interspersed with swearing, wheezing and overwhelming thoughts that I just didn’t have the energy, physically or mentally, to make it to the top. It’s a hill which consistently lures you into thinking it’s almost done, or gives you a subtle reprieve before angling steeper still. Just when you think it’s coming to an end, exiting the forest to an open hillside meadow, it adds a relentless Sun to mock you further and continues this merciless taunting, as you desperately try and find the true top of the ridgeline.
And then suddenly, as if you’ve been holding your breath ascending some deep ocean and pierce the surface to gasp your first air, it’s completely flat, so utterly beautifully flat. That you still have over a mile to go is of no consequence because the endorphin rush of breaking through is so great, your engine surges with power. This is how it ended for me, doing a few Jumping Jacks out of giddy joy and then with laser focus, power walking the final downhill path to the waiting ice-cold beer and ride home.
By the Numbers
This was one hike which looked a fairly easy 9 mile out and back to Fisher Lake, yet ended up with a couple of interesting circumstances extending it to a 12 mile, 6+ hour jaunt. The trailhead of Tonga Ridge puts you high enough that any incline is moderate after the first 1/4 mile and is a pleasing stroll in partial shade, with some consistently beautiful views up to the Mount Sawyer turnoff.
We opted to head up to the peak of Sawyer first because the forecast was for cloud and potential rain later in the day, which would have likely masked the viewing distance at the top. The steep winding trail affords little shade and I would imagine that on a very hot day, one would have the concern of exposure to the burning Sun. I had commented at the time that this stretch is very similar to the hike up Bandera Mountain; equally unforgiving on a hot day. Even in mid-June there was still some large areas of snow to traverse but despite carrying them, I didn’t have to use my micro spikes.
The peak gives tremendous views including Rainier, Glacier Peak, and Baker to name the most famous. A few bugs are prevalent but nothing to stop me from having lunch with a divine view and apart from the light drone of said insects, it’s an utterly peaceful summit.
We made it halfway back to the trail junction when I realized I was missing my GoPro. I had hung it on a tree branch while having lunch and had stupidly spaced on picking it back up. I ran back up most of the trail before the previous nights alcohol took its toll and reduced to a gasping crawl, I got back to the top, just as a couple of day hikers were walking off with my gear. As it turns out, this was not as nefarious as it sounds; they saw the camera and knew we were on the trail so had assumed I’d either come back for it or just hang around the trailhead carpark at the end to ask about it. Anyway, I’m externally grateful to have caught up with them!
Back on Tonga Ridge, it was less than a mile when we started to try and find the entrance to the unmaintained Fisher Lake trail. You could easily miss the turning as it’s more like a small parting in the trees, than a marked opening. Even though we had a physical map for this route, it was the first real chance I’d had to test out the Garmin for guidance. I would say that on reflection, it’s best use is to give you an approximation of direction, rather than an absolute position. Several times we were off course from multiple factors but mostly snow, water runoff and too much faith in the Garmin. To be fair though, I only plotted a rough estimation so perhaps if I had been able to plot exact points, then it would have been the only reference I needed (I’ll have a chance to test this theory, next month).
After several adjustments, we finally reached the shore of the lake. It still always surprises me that the scale of something is so much different than how you envisage it on a map and this was no exception. Fisher Lake stretches out of view to either side with stunningly clear waters and the occasional ripple of fish. I’d like to come back here in the height of summer, to float the day away and see what’s worth catching for dinner. As with Mount Sawyer, the silence here is tremendous; all ambient noise is removed to leave you with nothing but thoughts and dreams.
Amusingly, the return hike was incredibly easy as we were able to find the majority of the original path by following the footprints of people wiser than us. I couldn’t help but laugh when almost back to the trailhead, we intersected our own footprints and realized we could have cut off a large amount of time if we’d only headed in a slightly different direction. There had been mention of bears on the trail but none were encountered and from the stripped berry bushes around, I would have thought they’ve already moved on to pastures new.
In summary, this is an absolutely divine hike for peace, soul and solitude but bring a map and plenty of water on a hot day!