APPALACHIAN TRAIL MEMOIR

In 1970 I hiked the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a college friend. The trail was filled with adventures that I look back on with nostalgia.

The Appalachian Trail winds through the lush forest of the Great Smoky Mountains

Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.

I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.

We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.

After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.

After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.

After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.

After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”

Memories of the vast forest

One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.

Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial. 

On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!

The high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever

We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical. 

The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.

On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get. 

A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?

These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted. 

We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.

On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked up with three young men. Actually we had seen the young men earlier, and one was pulling a two-wheel golf bag cart up the trail–filled with bottles of beer! That explained all the hootin’ and hollerin’ from their campsite during the night. They had a big and blazing campfire that I’m sure was set in the traditional Appalachian manner: dousing the wet wood with gasoline, standing back, and tossing a match at it to watch it explode!

The next morning, a wet fog had settled over Silers Bald and we couldn’t see a thing through the thick sky soup. Another hiker came up to us while we were on the rock; he was thin and maybe 40 years old. He asked us how much we hiked in a day and we responded that we hiked about eight to ten miles a day. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he averaged over thirty miles a day and that his best day was 43 miles. I’ve never had the ability or the body type to do that kind of hiking, and it wouldn’t work with all the times I stop to take photographs, so in retrospect I’m not impressed, though at the time I thought he was superhuman.

By that time on the trail my feet were sore. Even though we washed our socks and dried them by the nightly fires, the trail had done its job on my tender feet. I had a blood-filled blister the size of a half-dollar on one heel, so I limped my way along the trail to the trailhead. We hitched a ride to a campground, where Dowell made friends with an older woman (she was probably 25) who was a teacher, and she took us the next day to go for a hike to a waterfall. That was fun, and this was a more trusting time in America, when people weren’t as afraid of each other. She drove us to the Gatlinburg bus station the next day, where we caught the bus to Knoxville. I distinctly remember the fat bus driver telling us and a couple of other hikers that he didn’t think backpacking was very sporting, so he wasn’t very impressed by us. Oh well.

In Knoxville we had just enough time to walk to Mary’s apartment for a meal, then walk back to the bus station where we boarded the overnight bus to Cincinnati. The atmosphere on the bus was electric, because many of the rural Kentucky and Tennessee passengers had just come off an experience attending a Billy Graham crusade that took place on May 28, 1970, in Knoxville. They felt inspired and chatty, talking about their churches and children and chickens.

We arrived in Cincinnati the next morning, where Dowell’s mother fussed over and treated my blood-filled blister, then we drove out to the family cabin in rural Ohio, which was a rustic place done in the Appalachian style with a long covered front and back porch. Dowell took me fossil-hunting in the nearby creek. In his high school years, he had been an avid fossil-hunter and actually had at least one scientific paper to his credit. The next day I flew home and began preparing for a summer semester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Epilogue: I just finished writing this a bit over 50 years after the experience, surprised at how much of it still felt fresh in my mind. Early experiences can be like that, imprinting themselves on a still-impressionable young person. I lost track of Dowell a year or two later; I only know that he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I went on to get my degree in Natural Resources, and later worked in that field and in photography for the rest of my adult life.

To see the photography of Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com and follow his work at Lee Rentz Photography on Facebook.

SHI SHI BEACH AND POINT OF ARCHES ON A SUMMER WEEKEND

We hiked to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in Olympic National Park during the lowest tides of the year so we could explore the most distant tide pools. This experience never ceases to amaze us, and we see life forms that look like they evolved on another planet. This weblog primarily shows the hike through photographs, with a few words about our observations during our three-day backpacking trip in June 2018.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Shi Shi Beach was not as crowded as we expected, though by Saturday night it was pretty much filled up with people at the end near Point of Arches.

Almost all the people on the beach were millennials in their 20s, with few baby boomers until we saw some coming in on Sunday. Nice to see young people visiting. Everyone had smiles on their faces: exploring tidepools, photographing the sunset with smart phones, doing paired yoga poses, playing frisbee, and talking around campfires.

Perfect sunny weather; not too hot or cold.

Birdsong: lovely sounds of Swainson’s Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, American Robin, Pacific Slope Flycatcher, and Pacific Wren floating above our tents. Pigeon Guillemot, Black Oystercatchers, gulls, ravens, eagles, and crows added their less musical but still atmospheric calls to the beach.

We waded through tide pools and climbed over barnacle- and mussel-covered rocks to get out to the outermost sea stacks. Getting near, we spotted a family (mother and two pups) of River Otters climbing the steep vegetated wall of a sea stack. A seabird was loudly calling out in alarm. Then, a pup fell 15′ down the cliff. The mother quickly descended with the other pup, dragging it along by the neck. When it got to the bottom, the mother rejoined the apparently uninjured pup, and then grabbed one of the pups by the neck and kept it from heading toward the sea. They quickly headed through one of the arches and we didn’t see them again. We could see their tracks where they explored the sea caves and arches. It’s good that the youngster had a resilient body; I would have been a heap of broken bones.

We spotted at least two Pigeon Guillemots high on the cliff above one of the arches, where we think they were establishing nests on ledges deep in rock overhangs. Hard to photograph with the sea spray and deep shade.

Most of the campers at our end of the beach went out in the tide pools, though few were as passionate about the natural history as we. Exceptions included a couple from Olympia who were on their 8th trip to Point of Arches in two years; and they went out of their way to show us an unusual tide pool animal. Another was a young woman who was incredibly interested in everything in the tide pools; we saw her over two days carefully inspecting small tide pools. Most everyone else was content to explore the convoluted arches and caves.

Counted 15 Black Oystercatchers at Willoughby Creek, joining the gulls in drinking and bathing (while photographing them laying on my belly a wave caught me and I was soaked).

We played a recording of a Wilson’s Warbler to attract one close enough that our companion, Joan, could see it. It came close indeed–zooming withing three feet of our heads in what seemed like a frontal charge.

The Olympia couple backpacked in with an REI Kingdom 8-person tent with garage and extra pole, which would have been 28 lbs. to hike with. The woman carried that, while her husband carried everything else.

Here are photographs from the weekend.

Blood Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Blood Star, Henricia leviuscula, at Point of Arches

Cadlina luteomarginata at Point of Arches in Olympic National Pa
Yellow Margin Dorid, Cadlina luteomarginata, aka Yellow-edged Cadlina, at Point of Arches

Three-lined Nudibranch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Pa
Three-lined Nudibranch, Flabellina trilineata, in a tide pool at low tide at Point of Arches

Woody Chitin, Mopalia lignosa, at Point of Arches in Olympic Nat
Woody Chitin, Mopalia lignosa, on a rock exposed during low tide at Point of Arches

Leaf Barnacles at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Leaf Barnacles, Pollicipes polymerus, at low tide in a surge channel at Point of Arches

White Giant Green Anemone, Lacking Green Algae because of Dark L
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, lacking algae in a dark microhabitat so it appears white, at Point of Arches

Orange Cup Coral at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Orange Cup Coral, Balanophyllia elegans, in a tidepool at extreme low tide at Point of Arches

Feather-duster Worm at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
A feather-duster worm, aka fan-head worm: a plankton filter-feeder in the family Sabellidae, on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Underwater view of Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, at Point of Arches

Driftwood Logs on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Driftwood logs deposited during fierce winter storms on Shi Shi Beach

in Olympic National Park
My bare feet on Shi Shi Beach

Dwarf Purple Olive Shell at Point of Arches in Olympic National
Dwarf Purple Olive, Olivella biplicata, shell probably occupied by a hermit crab, among Coralline Algae, at low tide at Point of Arches

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Opalescent Nudibranch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Par
Opalescent Nudibranch, Hermissenda crassicornis, in a tide pool at low tide at Point of Arches

Emarginate Dogwinkles at Point of Arches in Olympic National Par
Emarginate Dogwinkle, Nucella emarginata, aka Northern Striped Dogwinkle, Nucella ostrina, on the rocks deep inside the arches of Point of Arches

Shell of Crab Consumed by a Predator in Olympic National Park
Shell and other body parts of a crab recently eaten by a Raccoon or River Otter (otters viewed, raccoon tracks seen nearby) at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone in Dark Microhabitat, Lacking Green Algae, a
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone in Dark Microhabitat, Lacking Green Algae, a
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, lacking algae in a dark microhabitat so it appears whitish, at Point of Arches

Mossy Chiton and Hind's Mopalia at Point of Arches in Olympic Na
Mossy Chiton, Mopalia muscosa (L), and Hind’s Mopalia, Mopalia hindsii (R), at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone and Encrusting Coral at Point of Arches in O
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with Pink Rock Crust, Lithothamnium pacificum (or related species), aka Encrusting Coral, at Point of Arches

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, with arms around an anemone, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, and Six-rayed Sea Star, Leptasterias hexactis, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Man Walking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Man walking in the morning sea spray mist on Shi Shi Beach

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Hikers and Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Egregia menziesii Kelp in Olympic National Park
Feather Boa Kelp, Egregia menziesii, stranded and casting shadows on the sand of Shi Shi Beach

Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
The rocks of Point of Arches nearing sunset

Patterns of Pacific Ocean Wave Receding in Olympic National Park
Pattern formed by water rushing back to the ocean as a wave recedes

Hiking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz hiking on Shi Shi Beach

Black-tailed Deer Doe and Fawn in Olympic National Park
Columbian Black-tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, near backpacking tent on Shi Shi Beach

Leg Lift of a Young Woman in Olympic National Park
An athletic young backpacking couple having fun on Shi Shi Beach

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, gathering at Willoughby Creek, a source of freshwater on Shi Shi Beach

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, at Willoughby Creek

Common Raven on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Common Raven, Corvus corax, strutting on Shi Shi Beach

Northern Kelp Crabs at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Northern Kelp Crabs, Pugettia producta, aka Spider Crab, in a tide pool with a lot of hermit crabs at Point of Arches

in Olympic National Park
Frosted Nudibranch, Dirona albolineata, in a tide pool at Point of Arches

Smooth Bay Shrimp at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Smooth Bay Shrimp, Lissocrangon stylirostris, aka Sand Shrimp and Crangon stylirostris, found in tide pools at Point of Arches

Leather Star in Olympic National Park
Leather Star, Dermasterias imbricata, out of the water at low tide at Point of Arches

Red Crab at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Red Crab, Cancer productus, in a tide pool at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with marks in sand where tentacles withdrew as tide went down

Emarginate Dogwinkle at Point of Arches n Olympic National Park
Striped Dogwinkle, Nucella emarginata, aka Emarginate Dogwinkle, with barnacles on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Channeled Dogwinkle Laying Eggs at Point of Arches n Olympic Nat
Channeled Dogwinkle, Nucella canaliculata, laying eggs on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Six-rayed Sea Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Six-rayed Sea Star, Leptasterias hexactis, during an extreme low tide at Point of Arches

Black Turban at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Black Turban, Tegula funebralis, aka Black Tegula, snails in a surge channel at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone and Pink Rock Crust at Point of Arches in Ol
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with Pink Rock Crust, Lithothamnium pacificum (or related species), aka Encrusting Coral, at Point of Arches

Sea Cave at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz inside a sea cave of Point of Arches at low tide

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch at Point of Arches at low tide

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch and photographer’s shadow at Point of Arches at low tide

Couple on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Couple holding hands while walking on Shi Shi Beach

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches

California Beach Flea on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
California Beach Flea, Megalorchestia californiana, males fighting over a burrow near the high tide line on Shi Shi Beach

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with a tide pool along Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Ripples in Sand on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Sandy shore ripples of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with the sandy surface of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with the rippled surface of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Bull Kelp and Shadows on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, stipe stranded and dried and casting curving shadows on Shi Shi Beach

Wooden Pallet Washed up on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Par
Wooden pallet that has been at sea for a while, as evidenced by its load of large barnacles

in Olympic National Park
By-the-wind Sailor, Velvella velvella, aka Sail Jellyfish, stranded on Shi Shi Beach

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Bull Kelp and Shadows on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana

Boardwalk along Trail to Shi Shi Beach through the Makah Reserva
Boardwalk along the trail through the Makah Reservation forest on the way to Shi Shi Beach

Western Redcedar Bark Stripped from Tree on Makah Reservation
Traditional technique of removing strip of Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, bark (for use in basketry and other crafts) from trees along the trail through the Makah Reservation on the way to Shi Shi Beach

 

If you want to visit Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, you need three permits:

Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.

Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.

Parking Permit  Bring cash of $10 per day as of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.

In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.

This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.