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Back to Basics II - The OP

Just off an old dirt road, atop a gentle hill, deep within the Quinault Rain Forest, down on the southern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, all the way out in Western Washington state there stands a big tree. Over 1000 years old and upwards of 75 feet in circumference, it is a majestic old fellow, a Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) by name and a little rough around the edges, hollowed in the middle, and battered and torn at the top by lightning and wind. A cadre of much smaller trees, (only four feet across or so) stand closely about like vassals as if to prop up this royal old timer who is clearly positioned as the elder statesman in this misty land of conifer giants. Birds nest and swoop through the dense foilage, critters scurry along the moss and ferns of the forest floor, and banana slugs ooze along the fecund paths where the sun never reaches the ground. 

What defines a rain forest not surprisingly is rain. A bunch of it. Rain of the magnitude of 140 to 170 inches each year. The Olympic Mountains to the east buffer the coastal areas from any extreme weather and it is rare that the temperature drops below freezing or that the summertime highs ever exceed 80 degrees. Along with the Red Cedar also prevalent in the forest's inner sanctum are some of the globe's largest specimens of Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, red alder, vine maple, and black cottonwood. Nearly every bit of space is taken up with a living plant including plants that exist completely atop other plants. Known as epiphytes, these are plants that do not come into contact with the earth, but that are not parasites. Because of the dense ground cover it is hard for seedlings to get a start so youngsters that long to join their parents and shoulder their way up to the nourishing light have no choice then but to germinate just above the verdant floor on the decaying corpses of their fallen relatives. They then send their roots down around the log beneath which eventually rots completely away and leaves the young strappers on stilt-like roots standing in a perfect line where the invisible ancestor once lay. The thick and protective vegetation also provides excellent habitats for the animals of the rain forest who in turn then contribute to the health of their unique environs by keeping the rampant vegetation under control with their grazing.

Leaving the forests and following the draining rivers down to the beaches and the driftwood graveyards it is clear what happens to the expunged trees that reside near a rivers edge. Washed out to sea at high water and bashed and tossed up the shore by the winter storms, the enormous logs provide challenging navigating for the beach comber who heads down through the mist to investigate the numerous tide pools. The pools, tucked beneath and around igneous upcroppings in the surf, are replete with sea stars, anemones, giant acorn barnacles and nudibranches, sponges, hermit crabs, sculpin and algae, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, purple shore crabs and sand dollars. Walking along the acres of sandy damp as the gray waves crash and roll away one encounters the remnant shells of so many razor clams which are often too quick to dig by hand. Pacific Razor ClamThose hoping to dine on these succulent mollusks must lurk near the low tide line waiting for the clam show, or small hole where the creature extends it's neck to spritz some sea water into the air like a miniature old faithful. The clam digger must drop to their knees as soon as they see the spray and dig furiously like a spaniel after a squirrel to have any chance of success. Once a bounty is gathered, a driftwood fire and a large pot are all that's required for a down home clam bake. There are stretches of beaches off the OP so choked with driftwood that if you time it right and walk along the shore at low tide you can nestle into your own little sandy enclave which is quickly sealed around you as the tide rolls in. Perfect for campers with roaming dogs, the night can be spent in seclusion amongst the logs protected from all other land lubbing visitors. Build yourself a huge bonfire, open a nice bottle of red and hunker down.

For those seeking more traditional accommodations the Kalaloch Lodge provides cozy cabins warmed by wood fires and positioned on a sea cliff overlooking the beach. The structures have survived pounding ocean storms and 190 inches of rain a year becoming a Coast Guard outpost during World War II and attracting crowds despite not having telephones or TVs in the rooms. Instead, each cabin comes equipped with a beach guide, pocket tide tables and two walking sticks for hitting the sands not to mention full kitchens, coffeemakers with java and cozy couches perfect for curling up on and knocking off the literature you had stowed away for the perfect time. The current main lodge, which houses a bar, restaurant and 22 traditional rooms, was built in 1951 but will eventually lose its battle with the ocean as the bank erodes away. The cabins are spread out along the sea cliff that overlook Kalaloch Beach. Up the road a pace, Rialto Beach is also a great sandy expanse to explore. It is very accessible, located near La Push, west of Forks and offers rock spires with surfaces covered with limpets, barnacles, spindle snails, periwinkles, and mussels. Common birds include sandpipers, turnstones, gulls, northwestern crows, and an occasional bald eagle.

The OP formed as trench filled oceanic layers were crumpled and peeled back as the tectonic plates collided at the submersion zones as they dive beneath the crust and eventually melt in the heat of the earth's core and rise to the surface as the volcanoes in the Cascades. The warmish Japan Current and nearly constant westerly winds create the almost constant soupy fog that drifts in from the Pacific as the shore warms. The unique ecosystem of the OP also features numerous hot springs, glacier capped mountains, crystal blue lakes, waterfalls, rippling brooks, regular glaciers (266 of them), and alpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers. It's highest point is Mt. Olympus (7,980 ft.), which is one of the more spectacular mountains in the northwest. Climbing season usually begins in late June and goes through early September. Some of the factors to consider if planning an ascent is glacier travel, rock fall, and avalanche potential. The inner vastness of the OP is haven to abundent wildlife- black bear, mountain lion, Roosevelt elk, marmot, fox, black tailed deer and a large number of small mammals, reptiles and birds.


The OP is a little out of the way, about a five or six hour journey from Seattle but is well worth the trip which involves taking a ferry across the sound to Bremerton or Port Townsend and driving a winding highway through places like Sequim and Port Angeles, past Crescent Lake and out to shore beyond. Port Angeles and Sequim are quaint little fishing towns replete with history and a laid back, off the beaten path feel reminiscent of towns farther up on the Alaskan coast. If planning a visit, be aware that the OP is much bigger than you might think with hundreds of square miles to explore by foot, boat and car. Also be warned that things typically move slow as banana slugs out there. Except for the logging trucks and the razor clams.

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