Olympic: Through My Eyes

My first experience with Olympic National Park was also my first experience with the National Park Service. I can’t remember where, but I had heard about this spot that I just needed to see. This was also my first experience with the Pacific Northwest, a destination I had longed to visit for quite some time. I was determined to get the most from my journey out west. 

It was a bit of a drive from the quaint rental cottage on Vashon Island, including a quick ride on one of the iconic Washington State Ferries. It was there, standing at the stern-side loading ramp that I caught my first clear glimpse of the Olympic Mountains. It was love at first sight.

Three hours later, I find myself maneuvering the tiny rental car through fog so heavy I could hardly see the end of the hood. It was then it hit me: these are clouds! A few days ago I had never even seen a mountain and now I’m driving through a cloud. I was exhilarated, almost euphoric. I hadn’t done anything beyond driving a car along a paved road, but my spirit was over the moon.

And then I was above the cloud. In that moment, Hurricane Ridge was the only place I had ever wanted to be. The crisp mountain air filled my lungs like a drug and I was born again.

The mountains stretched before me for miles. Countless tree-covered ridges narrowed into a dozen or more snow-capped peaks. I was in the most beautiful painting. In a postcard from wonderful land so far away it must be fantasy. I gazed upon the bluest sky I’ve ever seen, like an endless ocean cast from the finest glass. Looking down on the clouds like a God or a King.

Something in me changed that day. I stayed until dark, taking in the scenery from every angle. Each view was more breathtaking than the one before. I watched the sun slowly dip below the distant peaks and I felt the cool mountain night slowly creep across the land, and it when it had finally extinguished the day, I marveled at the clearest, most star-filled canvas of night ever beheld. I was one with the heavens.

June of 2021 was my eagerly anticipated return to the Olympic Peninsula. My lifestyle had dramatically changed, thanks in no small part to Hurricane Ridge and the freedom I felt while there. Since that time, I learned to channel a childhood spent in nature to get closer to the Earth. This meant a lot of hiking and camping in the meantime, and allowing myself to get the most from every experience. In my heart, I’ve learned this to be the purest way to feel the true nature of a land. 

The Heart O’ the Hills Campground is located just inside the park entrance. You’ll find it near the bottom of Hurricane Ridge Road, but it’s still deep in the thick, lush forest. The woods around the grounds are peaceful like you’ve never felt. The quiet is a level past serene, almost unsettling. Walking a few minutes down any of the nearby trails is enough to really drive home just how deep this forest is.

You don’t have to be far from the campground, just a few turns of the trail and it may as well be gone, replaced with dark forest under a thick canopy. Light filters through and down to the forest floor in the daylight, but night falls swiftly in the forest. Swiftly enough to catch you unprepared.

Even at night, when forests come alive, you’ll be shocked by the silence around you. In the night, you’ll realize just how quiet it was during the day. And that’s when you’ll cross the line from unsettled to creeped out. You’ll realize you hadn’t heard a single bird’s song all day, or spotted so much as a mosquito or an ant. You’ll remember the bright yellow signs pasted through the campground warning you about the predators and scavengers lurking in those hills. And that’s when you’ll realize these woods could be hiding anything. Perhaps even a Sasquatch.

I awoke feeling uneasy. We had already slept here a couple nights and both of those passed without incident. It was late, probably the middle of the night, and so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Still, I couldn’t force myself to fall back to sleep. There was a feeling I couldn’t shake. A feeling that something was waiting just outside my tent. Or maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me.

A footstep!? Or maybe that was something falling from the canopy above. The quiet.

An exhale! Or was that just a gasp of wind slipping between tree trunks in the still night? My mind went back to warnings about securing your food, lest a bear or a mountain lion be lured in. I know I secured my food. Was it enough? God, I hoped so. Did Kent? Did the last people here clean up after themselves? While my mind raced, I lay still in the pitch-black night.

A twig snapped. My heart stopped. Was impending doom waiting just past the canvas and zipper of my tent? Or was it just a mouse playing games with me. I remained still, clutching my canister of bear spray tight to my chest. Would it even be enough to fend off the untold horrors waiting for me?

I laid still for what felt like hours, until I slowly drifted back to sleep. I awoke the next morning unharmed, if you don’t count my bruised ego. I couldn’t believe I had let my imagination get the best of me. With great humility, I pulled myself together to get on with my day.

The foolish feeling faded fast when I spoke with Kent about my night. He listened and then confirmed that he, too, had spent much of the night awake and aware of something waiting, and watching, just outside of his tent.

We investigated our campsite, trying to find any evidence of whatever had investigated us the night before. Alas, it seemed we never had anything to be concerned about. At least that’s what the Sasquatch wants you think!

September of 2022 was my most recent excursion to this most marvelous peninsula. My anniversary adventure with Krissy was filled with idyllic escapades, but one that truly stands out is the tranquil morning we spent at Lake Cushman. While technically outside the boundary of the park, it’s hard to ignore its unique allure.

The previous day was our initial venture into the Staircase region of Olympic National Park. The drive from Anacortes, where we had stayed the night before, felt endless as we explored the lands around the Hood Canal for the first time. The towns were small. Even smaller than we had anticipated. It was easy to see there wasn’t much industry in this area. The treasures here would certainly be found in the waters and the woods surrounding them.

The woods were thick, so thick your gaze could hardly penetrate in the time it took to drive by. This wouldn’t be uncommon during our time here. The rugged wilderness waiting just outside of each settlement was what brought us here in the first place. This would be the first opportunity for Krissy and I to feel in touch with this revered land.

We made our turns off the main road and into the forest and it wasn’t long before our path became rustic and rough. The car rocked back and forth and there were a few times I questioned if this rental car could handle the terrain approaching our campsite and home for the next few days.

A haze hung in the air, evidence of the forest fires plaguing the region during the dry summer. It wasn’t quite cloudy, but the smoke in the air provided a similar effect. No matter. I was left in awe at my first glimpse of Lake Cushman. It wanted to be every serene mountain lake I had ever dreamed of visiting. Views were fleeting as we trudged along the dirt road leading to our destination.

Dust kicked up by the surprisingly heavy traffic on this rural road didn’t make it any easy to take in the views. Neither did the pick-ups and SUVs lining almost every bend and overlook. Any spit of land that could possibly be mistaken for a beach had been claimed and occupied. It seemed the locals were enjoying the season’s final beach days during the waning days of summer. Between the trees and traffic, I caught glimpses of glory.

Steep mountainsides covered in forests like thick, heavy fur lined the shores of the picturesque blue lake. Rarely could you pick out a residence among the trees on the far shore. There were none on our side.

The lake beckoned us to find a spot and take a dip, but the allure was drowned out by the din of teens and families who took the tranquility of this place for granted. When we finally dared to stop and explore, a boombox blared 90’s hip-hop to all within earshot. There was almost nowhere to walk or stand without impeding another’s personal space. In just a few moments, it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to bask in this place how we hoped, so we moved on from Lake Cushman and to the impending labor of setting up camp.

When morning broke the following day, we embarked on our next journey, which was to be a hike through the woods along the Copper Creek Trail. It so happened that we would need to retrace a bit of our path along the dusty road beside Lake Cushman. It was in the early morning light that we finally had the opportunity to embrace all the lake had to offer us.

Much of the smoke and dust from the previous day had dissipated, replaced with soft golden rays of morning sunshine. They filtered over the mountaintops lining the lake and through the remaining haze, creating an ethereal plane made just for us and Lake Cushman.

The crowds were all gone and the quiet now was palpable. Almost tangibly peaceful. The water’s surface was so still you’d swear it was frozen that way. The deep blue that took hold just a few feet from shore seemed to harbor all of life’s mysteries and their solutions. To call that feeling “serene” doesn’t begin to translate the deep sense of peace I felt. We felt. The words I need don’t exist, swallowed by the eternity of the lake.

With the locals returned to their daily routines, there were a dozen or more places to take in all Lake Cushman was willing to offer.

We stood in silence. My mind wandered to all the ways I wished to embrace this paradise. Paddling out on the kayak with a fishing rod, a tin of bait, and an empty schedule, letting the hours and sunlight trickle away, and then returning home to prepare the dinner which the lake provided.

Watching the snow slowly drift down from gray skies over the countless trees preparing for another winter. Cuddled together on the couch under a blanket, drinking hot cocoa in a log cabin while the fireplace whispers and crackles in the background. Wrapped presents under a fresh evergreen I felled myself, quietly and patiently awaiting Christmas morning.

Waking up on a morning just like this, preparing a fresh pot of coffee and sitting on a lake side dock. Basking in the warmth of the first rays of a new day and slowly waking up with the land to face another perfect day at Lake Cushman. In my mind, I lived an entire lifetime on these shores. In reality, it was no more than a few moments.

Our initial plans were replaced without a mention as we slowly and deliberated explored the shores and beaches lining the lake. Each new view refreshed my inspiration and left me longing for another.

For all she had for us, I would still love to explore Lake Cushman as a local. To truly relax and unwind with such a beautiful lake as the backdrop and be able to take it for granted. The lives I lived in my mind would pale in comparison to the real thing.

This peninsula hides more adventures than I could ever convey. Humpbacks and orcas and various pinnipeds and countless sea birds. The seal who swam beside the beach while we walked the shore under shining moonlight. The rocky shores and hidden beaches and the generations of fallen giants returning to their homeland as weathered driftwood. Rainforests filled with elk and bears and mountain lions and God only knows what else. Islands and tidepools and snow-capped mountain peaks towering over the land. Lakes and hills the most beautiful sunsets you’ve ever witnessed. And some of the kindest and most interesting people you’ll find. The Olympic Peninsula is truly God’s country. I’m not sure there’s a place on the plane that’s closer to Heaven.

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