ODE TO THE COAST
Miles of unspoiled wilderness; old growth spruce and hemlock forests thick with sword and bracken ferns, beaches strewn with driftwood ground smooth and bleached bone white, imposing headlands beaten into sheer cliffs by relentless waves, isolated basalt monoliths of every imaginable shape rising from tumultuous water. Spending time in the coastal wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula is like living in a dream.
The ocean supplies white noise, muting mundane sounds. The already incredible scenery is rendered more ephemeral, less probable, by the ubiquity of airborn water. Clouds, fog and rain, vapor breathed out by the forest and spewed out by the churning waves. Visibility is perennially low; objects on the horizon seldom appear fully anchored. It is a world that doesn’t seem meant for human habitation.
As dreamlike and wonderful as the Olympic Coast is, it is also a logistical nightmare. Hikes that require hours of shuttling multiple vehicles between remote trailheads. Trails that require careful review of tidal charts. Precipitation and stream crossings and fordings. Bugs, bear canisters, and of course, mandatory backcountry permits. This brief foray was for us a testing of the waters, a demystifying of the planning process for the next, longer, Olympic Coast adventure.
We hiked from Third Beach to Toleak (toe-LEE-ahk) Point, camped, and hiked back. The total distance was just over 13 miles. On paper it sounds tame. In reality the going is slow. Hiking in sand, ducking under and climbing over driftwood on the beaches is more draining than hiking a typical trail. The tides did not cooperate and we hiked both directions at high tide, which meant going up and over several steep heads using ropes and ladders for assistance. Slow, but never dull. The variety of trail conditions kept us working hard and engaged throughout the hike.
There are a number of backcountry campsites just beyond the treeline at the point. We almost slept in one, but then opted to sleep out on the sand. We pitched camp about 20 feet from the high tide line. After an evening exploring the tide pools, eating a hearty dinner and huddling around our small driftwood fire, we turned in for the night. The water was already rising with high tide due at 1 AM. I didn’t sleep a moment until I was sure that we wouldn’t be sucked into the ocean by higher than expected seas. As amazing as the campsite was, I will opt for greater peace of mind the next time.
I had extremely high expectations of backpacking the coast and I was not disappointed in the least. I don’t know how long it will be until I embark on a full blown coastal wilderness backpacking trip, but I am eager to spend as much time there as possible. In the meantime, here are a few things I learned on this adventure.
- Consult tidal charts and carry one with you
- Make sure your map shows high and low tide routes
- Add trail time for climbing the headlands during high tide
- Arrive early at camp to secure decent spots (the best are taken by mid afternoon)
- Arrive early at camp to leave time for scouting expeditions
- Arrive early at camp to relax (bring a hammock)
- Lighting during the day is harsh for photography
- Lighting in the evening is great for photography