OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Startling Clarity in the Buckhorn Wilderness
When people think of Seattle’s weather, they shudder at the dark overcast and constant drizzle. Actually, that perception of western Washington is largely true from late October through April, and during some entire weeks during May and June. But after Independence Day, the maritime clouds are held at bay by offshore high pressure zones, and the atmosphere becomes washed with brilliant light. This light has a clarity more sharp-edged than any location I’ve ever been, and for a few days in summer, it is stunning.
We had two such days of clarity this past weekend during a backpack trip into Olympic National Forest, located on the Olympic Peninsula. The peninsula, which is visible across Puget Sound looking west from Seattle, is isolated by geography and is sparsely populated. Olympic National Park forms the heart of the peninsula, and is my favorite national park in the nation because of its blend of high mountains with glaciers, enormous conifers, a temperate rain forest, abundant wildlife, and over 70 miles of wilderness coastline along the Pacific Ocean. The Buckhorn Wilderness lies just outside the national park and is part of Olympic National Forest.
But enough geography lessons. My wife, Karen, and I arrived at the trailhead at 9:30 a.m., then hefted our backpacks and began hiking through ten-foot-tall native rhododendrons, still blooming on this mid-July weekend. At the trailhead, one trail leads to Gold Creek; we followed a trail crossing Silver Creek with the idea of camping along Copper Creek and then heading into the alpine for a view of Iron Mountain. All these metallic names are there for a reason: this was mining country a hundred or so years ago. We planned to camp just below the Tubal Cain Mine, the site of an old copper mine and a one-time ghost town. The mine still exists in the form of a deep shaft and a steep slope of mine tailings, though the old town succumbed to dynamite and mountain weather decades ago. The Tubal Cain Mine shaft penetrates the mountain for 2,800 feet, with 1,500 feet of side shafts. We entered the mine, but it is a wet journey within, as a stream gushes through the tunnel from deep within the mountain. One young man we talked to had explored much of the mine shaft, and he said there was a waterfall deep inside that he had to climb up and over. Old and rusted mine machinery is scattered in the woods where there used to be miner’s shacks.*
After setting up camp among volcanic boulders that originated on the ocean floor millions of years ago, we crossed Copper Creek and headed up a series of gradual switchbacks leading to Buckhorn Pass. Shortly after the creek, the forest faded away and we began hiking through a stunning subalpine meadow that was at its peak of summer blooms. Incredible blue larkspurs and sky pilots and lupines. Vivid red columbines and Indian paintbrush. Saturated yellows of arnica and wallflower. Peaks of naked rock surrounding us, above them the deep blue sky found only in high country.
We spent the afternoon and evening happily absorbing the sweeping meadows and patches of coniferous forest along the way. When we reached Buckhorn Pass at about 5:30 p.m., the sun was lower and the light on Buckhorn Mountain and Iron Mountain was warm and shadowed. The moon began rising between the two peaks. At the top, we enjoyed the views and Karen found one of the wildflowers we had especially hoped to photograph. Flett’s Violet (Viola flettii) is endemic to the Olympic Mountains–that is, it is found nowhere else on earth. Karen found the beautiful plant blooming in crevices along the west-facing rock faces at Buckhorn Pass. We also saw a second Olympic endemic, Piper’s Harebell, growing on talus slopes farther down the trail. We photographed these special wildflowers in the brilliant sunshine of this summer afternoon.
Though we saw little wildlife on this trip, there were some memorable bird songs. The bell-like, spiraling call of the Hermit Thrush and the seemingly never-ending melody of the tiny and drab Winter Wren lent haunting music to the dark forest. There was the deep, deep, almost imperceptible booming of a Sooty Grouse calling from the trees (and a female Sooty Grouse shepherding her five scattered young). A Dipper explored Copper Creek, looking for larval insects on the stream bottom. We saw an American Robin at Buckhorn Pass; robins are virtually everywhere (one time we even saw them–and dandelions–in the Brooks Range of Alaska, above the Arctic Circle).
We stayed at Buckhorn Pass as late as we could, then headed down the trail at our fastest pace, arriving in camp at about 8:30 p.m. We then took down our bear bag from where we left it hanging in the trees and cooked a quick freeze-dried dinner. Then into the tent for ten hours of sleep after a long day. It feels good to know that at age 58, I can still do a 10.5 mile day in the mountains with roughly half-a-mile of vertical gain. I’m not as strong or as fast on the trail as I once was, but I see more, and my photographic skills along the trail have never been better.
The next day, as we hiked out in early afternoon, I spoke with a man who mentioned how clear the air seemed. I commented that I had never seen it clearer in the mountains, and he said “I was just telling my wife the same thing.”
*I discovered at a realtor’s web site that 216 acres of land at the Tubal Cain Mine site is for sale for $2 million. It is surrounded by Olympic National Forest land. So if you have the money and want to work a mining claim and have a helicopter to get to the remote acreage, this might be just the perfect place for you!
To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com
Click on the photographs below for larger versions with captions.