Life Near the bone

A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Category: Adventures

Happy Camper: A Photographic Tour of Wild and Wonderful Campsites

Introduction

When I was a kid, my family’s annual vacation entailed driving north to the shores of Lake Erie, where we would spend a week camping at East Harbor State Park near Sandusky, Ohio. My Uncle John, who lived nearby in a tiny carriage house in the small harbor town of Vermillion, would join us with his orange triangle tent pitched next to my family’s giant blue high-domed tent. We did all the usual family camping activities: built a camp fire, roasted hotdogs, made s’mores, lounged in camp chairs, told stories. During the day, we would go to the beach and swim in the great lake. We always took a trip to Cedar Point for a day of roller coasters rides as well. I was a very happy camper, indeed.

Oh, 1980s fashion. I love our poses, too. Not sure who took this photo of me and my brother Alex.
Two happy campers. Thanks to my Mom for digging out these photos for me.

I remember the warring sensations of thrill mixed with fear as I followed at night one of the many social paths leading from the tent sites to the restroom. The tall trees loomed above, and who knows what lurked in the dark. Moving quickly toward the beacon of the shower house’s light, I would hurry through the woods, both loving and fearing being alone there at night. Once, on my return to our site, a small, black creature ambled past. Animal lover that I am, I went toward it, for some reason thinking it was a cat. Upon closer inspection, the cat turned into a skunk, and I scurried away to the safety of the tent.

My brother Alex and I playing in Lake Erie at East Harbor State Park.

Later in childhood and into young adulthood, after my parents’ divorce, those trips morphed into a yearly camping vacation with my Dad, our extended family, and our horses at Brown County State Park in southern Indiana. What an enchanted childhood it was, to pitch a tent and have your horse tied outside. Through the fabric of the tent, I could hear my horse, Whisper, chomping hay and giving a big horsey sigh as he lay down to sleep. We would spend the day riding through the forest, racing up and down hills, urging our steeds over fallen logs, and galloping with wild abandon down the straight stretches.

At night, my aunts prepared dinner as us kids groomed our mounts then rode them around the campground, showing off for all the other horse folk. Each night ended with a family jam session around the campfire, singing and playing guitar. Neighboring campers always found their way over to join us, drawn by the music and mirth.

Those were even happier times. I recall sitting in school, oblivious to the teacher’s voice, lost in day dreams of being at Brown County. If we were lucky, we’d sometimes return again in the fall or spring for additional trips with our Dad and neighbors. Those were smaller, quieter trips, often in the “primitive” campsites which lacked electricity, but I loved it all the same. Not many kids have the good fortune to grow up camping with their horse. It truly was a childhood dream come true.

These experiences instilled in me, at an early age, a love for camping, and I’m grateful to my parents for choosing this as our big family vacation each year. True, it was car camping in parks with sites cordoned off and all the amenities of electricity, water, and showers at hand, but it felt wild to me at the time. I liked being out in the woods, falling asleep to the sound of the whippoorwills and Bob Whites in the trees, the smell of campfire in my hair for days. The hikes, the music, the laughter, and the sense of freedom that comes with being in the great outdoors was a formidable, and formative, component of my childhood.

As I grew older, I still sought out opportunities to camp, but they seemed fewer and far between. Somewhere along the line, I also developed a fear of being out in the woods at night and had trouble sleeping. On a trip through Quebec and New England during graduate school, it rained relentlessly and deluged my leaky, borrowed tent. Pitching it one night under a lean-to on Burton Island in Vermont, I lay awake all night convinced that rabid raccoons were trying to claw their way inside (I had seen a poster on the outhouse warning of rabid raccoons, with a picture of a raccoon with wild, bullseye red eyes.) On a trip to the Pacific Northwest, shortly before I moved here, I camped at the Cougar Rock Campground at MORA. I had purchased my first tent and sleeping pad from REI for the occasion. One night, I fidgeted in discomfort, waiting for sunrise to come because I was too scared of having a rogue bear encounter if I walked alone to the privy at night. I was 34 years old.

Writing this now, I laugh at that camper. Over the past three years I have evolved into an entirely new camper, someone who sleeps soundly in the backcountry and pitches a tent far from cars and crowds, or who even plops down on the trail in the middle of the night for a dirt nap, no need for a shelter. My camping life these past three years has been rich and full, and I have awakened in some incredibly beautiful places, as well as in some exceptionally strange ones. In all of these places, I also awakened next to Seth Wolpin, who taught me nearly everything I know about life in the backcountry.

With Seth as my wilderness guide, I have learned to be discerning and snobbish in all matters of gear, choosing the best and lightest options and doing the research to know I’ve made the correct choice. Seth instilled in me the importance of walking just a little bit further, scouting just a little bit longer, to ensure that we have indeed selected the absolute best camp site in the area. Or, how to gently carve one out for ourselves if no sites exist. Seth showed me how to seek out stunningly beautiful and remote locations that no one else seemed to know of. He taught me to paint routes in Caltopo and not to leave home without the GPX tracks. His attention to safety protocols shaped my approach to arranging an emergency contact who knows when and how to contact the rangers if they don’t hear from us, and to carry an inReach for added insurance. I learned how to hang a bear bag, tie a variety of knots, position a tarp, and that there’s no reason to pack anything other than Pad Thai for dinner. I learned how to use dryer lint to start a fire in the pouring rain and that thick plastic bags are great for wrapping up your feet in cold, wet weather. He showed me the value of having a tent for any and all occasions. When it comes to gear, Seth has a quiver of everything, and I am following in his footsteps as my gear closet expands. He insists that chocolate is the 11th essential and that, no matter how light we’re going, that there is always room to carry more. Along with a dromedary bag full of water, it’s also essential to tote ukuleles and recorders up mountains so that we can serenade the stars. He fostered my love for puff and showed me the importance of having an array of layers to prepare for whatever the weather throws at us, and to toss wet socks in the sleeping bag to dry when the skies soak us. Upon departure, one must always fold hands in supplication and say, “Thank you, Campsite.” I have learned all of this from him, and so much more. Most importantly, with Seth by my side, I learned to fall fast asleep in the woods, completely at ease and content.

I have shared with him three years of learning and growing in the woods, and it has been the most transformative and happy time of my life. I would like to think that perhaps I also taught him a thing or two along the way.

What follows here is a look at some of the highlights of our camping adventures. Seth and I have shared more than I can possibly include here, and the following must serve as representatives of a much larger quiver of experience. They also represent some of the happiest moments of my life.

I have organized the rest of this post based on the type of camping excursion and have chosen some highlights from each to share. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of all of our great (or weird) camping locations, but there’s enough to offer a taste of this part of our life together. To keep things manageable, I tried to limit myself to only including photos of the actual campsites or the view from the tent. That’s tough, because most of these trips were part of larger adventures that I would love to document here, so in a few cases, I allowed myself an extra photo or two. I also tried to keep the narrative component brief and will instead allow the photos to do most of the talking. That’s also difficult, because each of these experiences comes with its own unique and special story in our life. I hope you will enjoy this photo journey and the wild and wonderful campsites it takes you to.

Alpine Lakes

Horseshoe and Goat Lakes

This was my first wild camping experience, and it will forever remain my favorite. It was September of 2017. I had no real backpacking gear and had to borrow things from a friend so that this incredible guy I was falling in love with wouldn’t think I was a wilderness imposter.

It was a magical journey up a boot path to a hidden lake, where we plucked blueberries to toss into our tsampa, made s’mores over the flame of a gas stove, ate the most delicious risotto out of a pouch, bushwhacked up to Goat Lake, and fell asleep to the most peaceful and profound quiet I have ever experienced. You can hear more about it in this story I shared at Boldly Went.

The next year, icebergs on Goat Lake halted our plans to complete our Middle Fork Mega Loop. As consolation, we returned to our first campsite at Horseshoe Lake for another night at this special place.

In October, I will pass by these lakes once again, as I return with my packraft to complete the Middle Fork Mega Loop on my first solo packraft adventure. While I won’t camp on Horseshoe Lake, I will be sure to fold my hands in thanks as I pass.

I’m pretty sure he is saying, “One day, all of this will be yours!”
We watched videos on how to set up the Echo II tent for the first time.
Horseshoe Lake meditation.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Post-bushwhack respite on Goat Lake.
Coming down the “trail” from Horseshoe Lake. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Seth’s forest ballet.
Water whacking to our campsite on Horseshoe Lake. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Goat Lake iced over during an attempt at our Middle Fork Mega Loop in June 2018.
Returning to our special spot on Horseshoe Lake is not a bad Plan B.

Ancient Lakes

Technically, these aren’t alpine lakes, but camping here was just as splendid as any lake we’ve encountered in the mountains. We first visited Ancient Lakes, in eastern Washington, for a day of running through the coulees of columnar basalt in March of 2018. The landscape is so striking, and so completely different from the verdant west. We returned that May for camping and were treated to a great spot above the lake. It was warm enough then for the rattlesnakes to be out, and I had my first encounter with one and ran the scariest 10 miles of my life with rattles rattling from every bush it seemed. Shell shocked, we spent the rest of the day flying a kite and practicing the Riptide strum pattern on air ukuleles, repeatedly saying out loud, “down down up up down up.”

The coulees of Ancient Lakes.
View of Ancient Lakes from above.
Ancient Lakes tent view.
Tough to beat that backdrop.
Camped above Ancient Lakes.
Dusk on Ancient Lakes.

Alpine Lakes High Traverse

We explored this route through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in August of 2019. We took our time and lingered at three lakes along the way, where we enjoyed solitude and sweeping views. We gave the recorders a good workout, blazed through books, navigated by bearings, and, of course, ate a lot of chocolate. It was definitely a highlight of the summer.

View from our camp at Lone Duck Lake, named for the solo duck swimming around by itself. We promised never to reveal the location of this secret lake.
Perfect sun napping rocks on Lone Duck Lake.
Setting up camp at Lone Duck Lake. A good example of making a space workable for the tent.
A picture postcard alpine lake.
It’s recorder time!
We spent night two perched above a lovely little tarn.
Following a bearing across the talus.
View from our awesome camp on night three. We dozed in the sleeping bag, opened our eyes to this view, read, dozed some more, then ate Pad Thai.
The route lives up to its name with being up high and dotted with alpine lakes. We were happy to just lay there and take it all in.

The Coast

While alpine lakes have their special place in our hearts, it is the wild Washington coast that we love most. I recently wrote about our last trip there, and in that report I talk about our many experiences on the coast and explain why we cherish it above all other places. A trip to the coast means we also have the privilege of visiting our dear friend Mary, and stopping at her lovely home overlooking Discovery Bay is an important part of our coastal escape tradition.

We have made camp in the most spectacular places along this pristine stretch of coastline running from Oil City in the south to Shi Shi in the north. We have our favorite sites to which we return time and again, and on each visit we also discover new places to pitch our tent. Please permit me to indulge myself with more photos in this section, as we’ve had the pleasure of calling so many lovely spots home for the night along the coast, and it would be a shame not to share them with you here.

December 2017: First Trip

Seth proudly presenting our very first coast camp, north of Rialto Beach.
The kitchen at our first coast camp.
We called this the Huck Finn camp, as it had lots of platforms and hammocks made of driftwood and hemp ropes. Due to a deluge, we stayed here for a few days. We didn’t mind.
View from our tent along Toleak Point, on the southern end of the coast.
Seth taking it easy at our Toleak camp.
Sunset at Toleak Point.
Soaking it all in before we depart our beloved coast.

November 2018: With Sudeep

Our friend Sudeep came to visit from Nepal, and since he had never seen the Pacific Ocean, we felt obliged to make the introduction. We spent the Thanksgiving holiday playing in tide pools, introducing Sudeep to s’mores, singing songs, sharing stories, contemplating the enormity of the Pacific, and being the sole spectators of the world’s most breathtaking sunsets.

Breaking camp. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
All three of us crammed into my 2-person Half Dome tent.
Sudeep’s first s’more! He very politely humored me, but I don’t think he was impressed.
Playing in the tide pools.
Just another superlative sunset.
Love on the beach. Photo credit: Sudeep Kandel

View from our camp just north of Hole-in-the-Wall. This site has become a perennial favorite.
Sudeep races against the waves.
Showing Sudeep the ropes of overland trails. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Sudeep and I contemplate the enormity of the Pacific. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
All smiles after an alpine start in a successful race against the tides.
Seth’s bathroom typically looked like this after a wet beach adventure. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

December 2018: New Year

After our insane Christmas paddle trip on the Skagit (see details on that in the Rivers section below) we headed back to the coast to ring in the New Year. We returned to what would become one of our favorite camps on the southern section of coast. On our way there, Seth said, “I want you to spread my ashes here when I die.” I feel the same way about this place.

We did have a wild night there when an unexpected wind storm blew in. We stayed awake all night trying to hold the tent in place, and it seemed at any moment a tree would fall and crush us, or the rising, raging tide would swallow us. I must admit that it is the most scared I have ever been; the stakes felt real, and high. The situation was largely out of our control. We waited until the tide was low enough to get around the headlands, packed in a flurry, and fled. It was definitely a most memorable night in a tent!

It doesn’t get cozier than this. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

November 2019: A Holiday Tradition

A trip to the coast was now firmly a holiday tradition for us. This time, we made camp at Hole-in-the-Wall and spent our entire time there relaxing and feeling happy to be in our place.

I will never tire of this view.
Of course we brought the recorders!
The tent tucked behind driftwood. We tried to bushwhack to the top of the hill behind it, after speculating for a couple years as to what was on the other side. It will remain a mystery.
Reading by a campfire, another favorite pastime. Note the obligatory Pad Thai staying hot near the fire as it rehydrates.

March 2020: Isolating

I wrote a detailed report about this trip, which we took as a consolation after Covid canceled our trip to Nepal. This time, we went north of Ozette to Shi Shi, the only section of the coast that I had not traveled. As you might imagine, it did not disappoint. I’ll include here just a few campsite photos, as the trip report includes a full album of stunning photographs.

Our first camp on this trip, above Seafield Creek.
This goes down in history as one of the best campsites ever. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
This is the life! PC Seth Wolpin
Hangin’ loose at our coastal high camp.
We had to clear a spot of rocks to make it work, but it was well worth the effort.
Site cleared, tent pitched, fire burning, and everything in its place.
One last sunset at Sand Point.
Saying farewell to the coast from the top of Sand Point.

Mountains

The Cascades have been our playground, and we have spent many a night camped on the flanks or the summit of a beautiful mountain. What a life, indeed! Here are a few with particularly stunning views.

Earl Peak

True, we had to haul water up the steep trail to the saddle below Earl Peak, but the views of the Stewart Range and Teanaway Country rewarded the effort. We brought our ukes for a mountaintop jam session, scrambled a fun ridge traverse, and outran a thunderstorm.

Camped below Earl Peak.
Mountaintop serenade.
Sunset from camp with Mt. Stewart as a cinematic backdrop.
Twilight falls on the tent.
A most memorable ridge traverse with big views of the Stewart Range.
Nice spot for a mid-traverse nap.

Cascade Pass

The fabled Cascade Pass lived up to its reputation for being one of the most stunning locations in the North Cascades. We had planned to explore part of the Ptarmigan Traverse, but I had some trouble crossing a washout, so we decided to pitch the tent in a picture-perfect spot and call it good. I remember thinking, as the sun set over the jagged peaks, “I can’t believe we live here.”

After seemingly endless switchbacks, the view from Cascade Pass greets you.
How many people get to open their tent to a view like this?
Sun sets over the North Cascades.
The next morning, the world was socked in.

Revolution Peak

While we didn’t make it to the summit of Revolution Peak, we nevertheless scored an incredible campsite from which the Central Cascades unfolded before us. It was one of the most spectacular mountain sunsets I’ve witnessed. This was October of 2018, and the fall colors were on point. On the way back to the truck, I lost both my hat and recorder, so keep your eyes open for them if you find yourself in this sweet little spot.

Central Cascades panorama, Tahoma in the distance.
Tahoma tent view.
Crisp autumn evenings call for campfires.
Twilight mountain magic.

Mt. Ellinor

Spending the night on a mountaintop and awakening to the sun striking summits hovering above the clouds is about as magical as life gets. This will forever rank among my favorite campsites. While I wrote a lot of words about the experience of camping atop Mt. Ellinor in a previous post, all you really need is to look at these photos to see why it was so awesome.

The stoke is high. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Peaks of the Olympics peek above the clouds at sunrise.
Photo taken from inside the tent. Pinch me.
Reluctantly breaking camp. Photo credit Seth Wolpin.

Harvey Manning’s Absolute Last Chance Promontory

Besides having a great name, Seth had been talking about this as a nice campsite since I met him. With the purchase of my very own ultralight backpacking tent this spring–the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum–it seemed like the perfect excuse to finally give old Harvey Manning’s Promontory a visit. With its sweeping views of the Middle Fork Valley, a place we spent a lot of time exploring, it was a fitting location for what turned out to be our last tent camping adventure together. While the evening included a serene sunset over the Central Cascades, the night provided an opportunity to see if the Tiger Wall would pass a wind and rain test. It did.

Promontory Panorama.
My Tiger Wall seems right at home nestled on the Promontory.
Taking in the Middle Fork valley from our camp on the Promontory. We enjoyed one of our favorite pastimes, pointing to and identifying all the peaks in view.

Rivers

Exploring the wild via watercraft has replaced running as my favorite way to experience the world around me. As a kid, I grew up swimming my horse up, down, and across the Whitewater River in Indiana. My brother, myself, and our friends would find ourselves miles upriver from home, riding bareback as our mounts splashed through the water and loped along sandy beaches (apologies to my mother who is learning of this only now by reading this post, but it was the absolute best part of our childhood and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.) We also made a yearly canoe trip on the Whitewater, and later I made a yearly canoe trip on Sugar Creek in central Indiana.

Despite all this time on the water, I had never actually camped on a river until Seth and I made our first canoe journey on part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the Adirondacks. The experience tapped into my nostalgia for a childhood spent playing in the river and whet my appetite for the many river adventures to come (stay tuned for a separate post that highlights some of my favorite paddling experiences over the past few years and a few that I’m planning for this fall.)

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

For our first big vacation, Seth and I traveled to the North Country to visit his Mom, Stepdad, and Sister at Camp High Skies near Potsdam, NY. Wanting to show me the Adirondacks while also trying something new, we borrowed a lightweight canoe and other paddling gear from a family friend and set off for an incredible adventure. Starting at Long Lake and paddling a series of rivers and lakes on our way to Saranac Lake–including going through locks!–we had the opportunity to camp in a lean-to each night. With a roof over our heads, there was no need for the tent, save for the night we spent on an island–which we had entirely to ourselves. It was an unforgettable experience, and I would love to return one day to complete the entire 740 mile route.

You can read Seth’s trip report here.

Starting our journey on Long Lake. Can you tell by looking at the photo that we were total noobs who had no idea what we were doing? Photo credit: Tammy (who also gave us a lift to the put in)
Recorder practice in the lean-to at Long Lake.
View of Long Lake from the lean-to.
Still practicing the recorder by headlamp as the sun sets over Long Lake.
There was much reading in the hammock on this trip. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
All smiles making camp at our next lean-to. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Basking in the joy of having an island to ourselves.
Sometimes we paddled hard… Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
…and other times we enjoyed a lazy float. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
The route included several portages, over which we carried our gear and the canoe.
Not wanting this trip to ever end, we lingered for hours on a deserted island before concluding our journey in Saranac Lake.

The Skagit River

Our paddle of the Skagit River in December of 2018 will likely go down as the most bone-headed outing of our relationship. Allow me to set the scene: It is late December. The water is beyond ice cold. We have no whitewater experience. The river is high and swift. We don’t have dry suits. We have only a hodge podge collection of wet suit parts. I have never paddled a kayak on a river. Seth has never paddled a packraft on a river. What could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately for us, we survived this excursion without incident. The universe repaid our foolishness with lovely campsites on gravel bars and beaches, more bald eagles than we could count, the thrill of Class II+ rapids (and not going for a swim through them), and a taste of what river camping in the great Pacific Northwest holds.

You can read Seth’s trip report here.

A tad bit intimidated by the swift current at the put in. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Our Skagit paddle adventure was, fortunately, more beautiful than terrifying. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Our first camp on the Skagit. Note the snow on the driftwood. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Skagit tent view. We thought people were throwing large rocks in the river that morning but soon realized it was the bald eagles diving for fish.
Enjoying a calm yet swift section of the Skagit.
After clearing out some rocks, we made a lovely little camp here on our second night.
Gravel bars and mountains, the standard backdrop to river camping in Washington.
With wet, frozen fingers and a ridiculous amount of layers piled on over a wetsuit, this pee break took me 30 minutes. I timed it. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

The Skykomish

After a nerve-wracking weekend of paddling a tippy kayak in a “whitewater fever” course I took on the Snoqualmie River, I gladly traded that terror for the pleasure of paddling a packraft. We made our way to the “Sky,” me in the small little Scout and Seth in his Alpacka packraft. We had a blast in the big-enough-to-be-fun-but-not-too-scary wave trains and rapids, and pitched our tent on a perfect gravel bar before enjoying a stunning sunset over the mountains.

Making camp on a gravel bar along the Sky. We often manage to find a camp that includes a giant log that can be used for hanging gear to dry.

Sunset over our Skykomish camp.
Surrounded by mountains at our Skykomish camp.
Packrafts double as camp chairs.

The Wenatchee

This was a nice break from some seriously hot August weather. Our friend Jessica met us at Lake Wenatchee, where we paddled around a small island before heading down the Wenatchee River, which emerges from the lake. This section of the Wenatchee was an easy paddle, and Seth and I camped on a river island along the way to extend the trip. This was the first (and, so far, only) time that I had to paddle across a river and back in order to take care of personal business, which was quite an experience in itself.

Since I was in the tiny Scout, we strapped most of the camping gear to Seth’s raft. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
Kicking back on our river island in the Wenatchee. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

Paddling back to the island after seeing a man about a horse on the mainland. Maybe TMI, but it was certainly a memorable camping first. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.

The Yakima

We had learned a lot in the year since our first December river camping trip and felt good about making another go at it. This time, we were equipped with more paddling skills, more river knowledge, and dry suits. I even had my own packraft now. This was our first real packrafting trip, which included both packing our camping gear on our backs and rafting down a river. We started by bushwhacking up to the Yakima Skyline ridge, where we spent two nights camping with the coyotes. We were at the edge of comfort in those cold temps, but the beauty and solitude made this a most memorable Christmas camping trip. On the third day, we made our way down to the Yakima, which swiftly and sweetly carried us back to the car.

We first had to ferry across the Yakima in order to access the ridge.
We’re real packrafters now!
After a wild bushwhack, we camped at the crest of the ridge. At night, the coyotes yipped, their voices ringing through the crisp Christmas night.


Setting up camp the second night. We were in the tent before 5pm, thanks to the cold, short day.
Watching the sun set from inside the tent.
Frosty grass at dawn.
Hotel takeover, Ellen and Seth style.
Drying gear and thawing ourselves before attempting another leg of the Yakima.
Typical post river camping scene.

Random and Bandit

This post has, to this point, featured jaw-dropping campsites that we intentionally sought out or worked hard to find. There have been plenty of times, though, that we just needed a place to lay our heads for the night. The campsite wasn’t so much the destination as it was a waypoint. We’ve called flat spots (and some not-so-flat ones) on abandoned logging roads, in clumps of bushes, urban forests, and off-trail patches home for the night. I wish that I had more photos of this type of campsite, some of them random spots in the woods, others stealthy bandit camps, because they represent some of the more creative places we’ve spent the night. While they might not have the big views, they are nevertheless memorable because of their unconventional nature.

Granite Lakes Trail

This was an early camping trip during which we left autumn and walked into a winter wonderland. We had planned to camp up at the Granite Lakes, but given the deep snow, we had to abandon that plan. With daylight waning, we headed down to a lower elevation and happened upon the perfect little patch along the trail to pitch our tent. We could hear Granite Creek roaring below and we prepared dinner in the vestibule while laying inside the tent. That night, a loud thumping noise awakened us. It sounded like someone lobbing snowballs at the tent. Turns out that it had started to snow even at this lower elevation, and giant clumps of fresh snow plopped down from the branches above us.

Walking into winter.
Winter was in full effect by the time we reached the Granite Lakes. Not having the snow tent with us, we had to leave this winter wonderland.
Our little trailside home, nestled in the first snow.
We hadn’t expected to wake up at the snow line.
Waking to winter on the Granite Lakes Trail.

Mount Gardner and Little Saint Helens

Not long after our Granite Lakes adventure, we had another weekend of carving campsites out of thin air. The first night, en route to Mount Gardner, we chose a flat spot near a mountain creek (where I explained to Seth the difference between a river and a creek). It was by no means an exceptional site, but I enjoyed the experience of looking for a place that was good enough to call home for the night. The next day, deep snow prevented a summit of Mount Gardner and Little Saint Helens. We were moving slowly, and getting cold. It was dark by the time that we found a passable place to camp. Since young hooligans frequented the forest road at night, we made our way down a decommissioned forest road until we were far enough into the bush to be out of sight, no reflective components of the tent detectable by headlight (unfortunately, I have no photo of this spot.) By this point, I was an ace at making dinner and s’mores in the vestibule while wrapped in the warmth of the sleeping bag inside the tent. We were both a little on edge as vehicles passed by in the night, but ultimately we went undetected.

This spot will do. Calling an unused forest road home for the night.
Ditching our summit plans and searching for shelter.

Snoqualmie Falls Urban Bandits

Seth and I were working on a project to cross the state of Washington on foot while pushing our camping gear in a baby jogger, and the first piece of this was our epic Hyak to Lake Forest Park run. We broke this 75-mile route into two days, and we found ourselves looking for a place to land as we left the warmth and comfort of the brewery in the town of Snoqualmie Falls. We had even contemplated dishing out a ridiculous amount of money to stay at the lodge by Snoqualmie Falls (of Twin Peaks fame), but no one answered at the front desk. We were perhaps a bit on edge after learning that a mountain lion had killed a cyclist not too far from our route earlier that day. Polishing off the last of the garlic fries, we made our way into the twilight in search of an indiscreet place to camp. Down the road a bit, we found a small copse of trees, just off the main road. We waited until no cars were passing and then dove in. There were many informal footpaths crisscrossing the woods, and we feared we were imposing upon a camp used by people experiencing homelessness. This sparked a long conversation about the incredible privilege we had to be doing this by choice. While I don’t have a photo of that bandit camp, the following pics show the baby jogger in action.

The baby jogger shredding the trails.
One of the many perks that comes with pushing your gear in a baby jogger: you can bring gourmet vegan cheese and the soda stream. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

South Cle Elum to Hyak

On yet another baby jogging adventure, we once again needed an inconspicuous place to pitch our tent for the night. We definitely put into practice Seth’s method of keeping up the search until you find just the right spot. This time, we scrambled up and over a boulder field, down to the banks of the Yakima River just west of Lake Easton. In higher-trafficked areas like The Palouse to Cascades Trail, we always seek places that are out of sight in an effort to avoid catching the eyes of passersby in the night.

Baby jogging our way across the state.
Boulder scrambling rewarded us with this riverfront view.

Columbia River to South Cle Elum

Continuing our run across Washington project (which I must now, sadly, complete on my own), we ended up in perhaps our most unconventional bandit camp. You can read the full trip report here, but the short version is that we had spent an absurdly hot day running across the semi-arid desert of eastern Washington and were desperate for a campsite as we raced against the setting sun. Running along an access road that paralleled I-90, we scanned the horizon in what appeared to be a futile search for shelter in this flat and treeless landscape. Growing anxious, we lucked into a spot on a small rise above the side of the road. We followed a faint game trail, littered with coyote scat, which led us to a small spot concealed by sagebrush. We were out of view and safe for the night. It was such a neat feeling to have created a home out of thin air, and we thanked the coyotes for allowing us to crash there. In a weird way, this is another one of my favorite camping experiences. It was just so unexpected and showed up exactly when we needed it. By being bandits in the bush, it felt like we were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to do.

You’d never guess that a busy interstate highway was just on the other side of the bushes.
Sunset at our coyote bandit camp. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin.
We camped near the river on the second night, choosing this spot after backtracking nearly a mile because it was the only place to access the river for water.

Lake Nadeau

This was another randomly selected site that came with some little surprises. We had started in the Middle Fork Valley and came up over a pass near Moolock Mountain. On the eastern side of the pass, several lakes lay nestled below. We chose the central one, Lake Nadeau, as our goal. We spent quite a long time walking around looking for an ideal spot, but we were met only with brushy brambles and steep shores. We finally had to settle for a flat spot in the middle of the trail. As for the little surprises: first, this location had the most incredible echo I have ever heard. We spent much of the evening calling out words and sentences, only to have it repeated back to us. It was uncanny, and I’d never experienced anything quite like it. Later that night, we spooked at the sight of what we thought was a headlamp coming over the pass. Who would be coming out here at this hour? Our nerves eased when we realized it was the moon cresting the ridge, and what followed was one of the most spectacular moonrises of memory. It goes to show that even a random campsite that lacks the grand views still has the potential for some natural magic.

Looking down at Lake Nadeau (left) from the pass.
Our little site carved out of the rocky trail.
We still had a great view from the tent, and that echo off the surrounding rocks was simply amazing.

Blanco

In April of 2019, El Blanco Beasto, a VW Westfalia, entered our life and added an exciting new way to camp. Seth put a lot of work into rigging out the Westie, adding burly tires and bumpers, a solar panel and batteries, tables he built himself, an awning, a propane heater, and a fridge, to name just a few of the personalized touches. Words cannot express how much I loved our travels with Blanco. As wonderful as tent camping is, there’s something to be said about having the creature comforts of a van. We could make dinner on the stove, curl up with books on the couch in front of the heater, look out the window at a picture perfect vista, and then climb up into the loft to sleep. Much like searching for the perfect tent site, we also wound our way down forest roads looking for a good pull out to park for the night. We sure did find some real gems. We also had the tent camping equivalent of bandit and random camps, parking at trailheads, in horse pastures, in parking lots, on the street in front of friends’ houses, and in dirt turnouts we’d hoped would see no traffic. I’ll never forget our first night in Blanco, parked way back on the Middle Fork Road. We weren’t accustomed to sleeping somewhere in the woods that saw vehicles passing throughout the night. It was a tense night, but over time we became experts at finding quiet places off the beaten track. After a long day on the river or in the mountains, it was such a wonderful reward to have Blanco waiting there for us. During the shutdown this spring, we even slept in the loft while parked in my driveway, just to feel like we had made a little escape. While folks move toward the van life and trick out Sprinters with all the fancy accoutrements, I will take the classic simplicity of a Westie over any other ride. Thank you, Blanco.

Camping by the Sauk River with our new packrafting friends. I was making mac and cheese in the van (our standard Westie dinner) while the rest of the group jammed by the campfire.
Crewing friends biking the Lewis and Clark trail. We had a nice jam session that evening that included the classic musical combo of a recorder, a ukulele, and a harmonica.
This was one of our best turnout sites, located near the Glacier View Wilderness. It wasn’t too far from home, and we had a front row seat to watch the alpenglow on Tahoma.
Nothing beats looking up from a good book on a comfy couch in the warmth of a Westie to see a view framed like this.
Watching the sun set over the San Juans near Oyster Dome. We were maybe not supposed to be there after dark.
Not bad, Blanco.
Blanco waiting patiently for us at the Ozette Trailhead. Note the new bumpers!
Going stir crazy at home during the shutdown, we found a local forest road to escape for a night in the woods (or what was left of them here.)
Seth admiring Blanco. We might have loaded up some of those rocks to use as a garden border.
Blanco is the epitome of coziness.

Cimaise

After months of searching and looking at a dozen boats, Seth and I found the absolute perfect sailboat. Cimaise, which roughly translates from the French to something like a picture frame, is a 34′ Jeanneau Melody and is one stunningly beautiful boat. A sailboat is similar to a Westie in that your home for the night is mobile, and you have the opportunity to moor it in some incredible places. This opened up another thrilling new way for us to camp. I also started learning to sail and was amazed by how much I truly enjoy it, and that I’m actually pretty good at it, too.

We mostly spent nights on Cimaise docked in a marina, but even that felt like an adventure. The first taste of what it would be like to sail from island to island and camp in hidden coves came when we sailed (well, mostly motored, due to lack of wind) from Anacortes to bring Cimaise home to Tacoma. The previous owner, Mike, came with us to help us learn along the way. It was a thrill to know we had an idea of where we would dock for the night, but that the possibilities were also open. It was the sailboat equivalent of looking for the perfect site. We ended up pulling into the public docks on Bainbridge Island. It was like showing up at a car camping site, where you pay at a pay station and put the receipt on the “dashboard,” except it was a million times more exciting. We joined other boaters as they walked into town to resupply and daydreamed about our own sailing adventures. I will never forget these nights sleeping on the water and hope to one day have the experience of anchoring off islands around the world. Thank you, Cimaise.

Setting sail from Anacortes and heading toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Leaving the San Juans and sailing south. I thought being far off the coast would be scary, but instead it was exhilarating.
Our first docking at a marina en route, at the Bainbridge Island public docks. It was like car camping, but with a sailboat, and way more exciting.
Walking back to the public dock from town. You can see other boaters carrying provisions back to their boats.
Sailing wing on wing.
We’re sailing! Note that I’m smiling even though Cimaise is heeled out a bit. Photo credit: Mike Bancroft
Motoring into Tacoma after going through our first squall.
We made it!
“Camping” on Cimaise, docked in Tacoma.
The Skipper looks quite relaxed even though this was our first time taking Cimaise out on our own. We did great!
Enjoying being at the helm on our first trip out to Commencement Bay with Cimaise. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Even Buster enjoyed chilling on Cimaise.
Sparkimus loves tents, but Buster prefers boats.

Solo

Gem Lake Femquest

I took my first solo camping trip in October of 2018. While I had car camped by myself before, I had never actually walked out into the woods on my own and stayed the night. Seth went on a “Manquest” solo camping trip, so I went on a “Femquest.” Initially, I wanted to hike out to Upper Wildcat Lake, as it seemed remote enough that I might have it all to myself. After seeing a video of a spot above Gem Lake, which was on the way out to Wildcat, I decided to aim for that. While I had the knoll to myself, there were other parties below on the lake. All the same, I had a little taste of solitude. I was, admittedly, a little nervous that night and listened to podcasts to help me fall asleep. I spent the next day using the map to identify the surrounding peaks, scrambled up Wright Mountain, and sat in the nook of a tree to take in the views.

The approach to Gem Lake. I camped at the top of the boulder field above the lake.
Nice view from the tent!
View of Gem Lake from my camp.
Looking down at my camp from the summit of Wright Mountain. If you zoom in, you can actually see my tent on the ridge above the lake on the right.
What a great spot for my first solo camp.

Lake Terence and Moonshine Lake

My second solo camping trip came this summer. I made my way out to Lake Terence, a seldom visited alpine lake below Davis Peak. It lived up to this reputation, as I didn’t see another person until the afternoon of my second day, when a forest ranger came out to destroy illegal campfire rings. This was my first experience being entirely alone in the woods; the next closest person had been the ranger camped 6 miles away. It was an excursion that entailed a range of emotions, but I felt braver, more skilled, and more confident than on my Gem Lake Femquest. I thoroughly enjoy the work entailed in making camp, and on this trip it served as a welcome distraction from the thoughts clouding my mind. The second night, I hiked to Mooshine Lake, which was surrounded by meadows of wildflowers. The entire outing led me to reflect on just how far I had come in my three years of rambling through the backcountry.

Lonely Lake Terence.
My first truly solo campsite, near Lake Terence.
The wildflower meadows surrounding Moonshine Lake.
Camped near Moonshine Lake.

Alpine Lakes Circumambulation

I embark now on a solo journey. This new life will commence with my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation, a 145 mile, 14 day loop through the part of the Washington wilderness that has been such a tremendous influence on my development as a camper, and as a person. It will be the longest amount of time I have spent in the backcountry, and the longest amount of time I have spent alone. Look for a full trip report later this fall.

Going solo is not a path I have chosen for myself, but it is the only way open to me. There is nothing else I can do but strap my gear on my back, enter the wildness of this new landscape, and try to find my way.

Tent Credits

A number of tents sheltered us on these wild excursions. Thank you, Tents.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2

Big AgnesTiger Wall Platinum 2

Black Diamond FirstLight

REI Half Dome 2 Plus

My new Tiger Wall Platinum 2 getting a full cat inspection.
Sparkimus and Max on a backyard camping trip in the FirstLight.

Antidote for Despair: A Much-Needed Day in the Mountains

On May 5th, 2020, Washington Governor Jay Inslee opened up some state public lands, as a means for helping residents to access the natural world as an antidote to the despair of being on lockdown for two months. This news offered a tiny ray of hope, something to look forward to in an otherwise bleak spring. Upon hearing it, I decided to take a much-needed mental health day and escape to the mountains.

Scanning the list of lands that would open, I decided on a loop around Change Peak and Mt. Washington, both of which are accessed through Olallie State Park. You may recall my earlier report on this loop, which was an early part of my 40 Peaks for 40 Years project last year. My wishful thinking presumed that most people would wait until the weekend to hit the parks, and that few would be making their way to the Mt. Washington trailhead early on a Tuesday morning. Ha.

I arrived at the Mt. Washington trailhead at 7:00 a.m. to find a dozen cars already parked in the lot. Wanting to avoid crowds, I moseyed down the road to the parking lot for the picnic area, where there was only one truck. Being a map geek, I knew there was a back door entrance to Change Peak, so I would take that route in hopes of some solitude.

The effect of lush green vegetation and the distant whoosh of cascading creeks on my spirit was almost immediate. Months of stress and anxiety took a back seat, and I felt the tension in my body begin to release.

Lingering on the bank of Hall Creek, taking in a deep breath of mountain air.

After soaking in the joy of cascading water, I made my way up to the Palouse to Cascades trail, from which I would link up to the Change Creek Trail.

High trellis of the Palouse to Cascades Trail, with Hall Creek below.
Gazing down from the trellis as Hall Creek crashes below.

Soon after joining the Palouse to Cascades Trail, I encountered a man and a woman sitting on a bench. I pulled up my buff to cover my face and stepped to the far side of the trail as I passed. “Happy independence day!” the man said. I laughed and said, “Yes, enjoy it!” He then proceeded to launch into an absurd conspiracy theory, arguing that “99% of COVID deaths could have been prevented if we hadn’t gone on lockdown. The lockdown is the reason for so many deaths.” All I could manage to respond was a long, dissenting “ehhhhhhhhhh” as I continued on my way. There’s no use arguing with a lunatic. Fortunately, that would be my last human contact for a while.

The Change Creek Trail is a bit of a secret, and I walked right past it. Looking at my map and realizing I’d somehow overshot it, I retraced my steps and found the hidden entrance.

The secret trail was easier to spot when heading eastbound.

Once you’re on the trail, it’s well marked and maintained. I suspect that the Change Creek Trail has a custodian who has taken it upon themselves to maintain it and add nice little touches along the way. Once on trail, there are handmade signs, wooden benches, and other details that are clearly a labor of love for someone out there.

Exactly one mile later, I encountered another sign that said Mt. Washington was still 5 miles away. I never saw another sign for Songbird Peak, unfortunately.

The trail gets right down to the business of climbing, winding its way through the forest. There are rocky outcrops with lovely little benches for breaks, scenic overlooks to stop for snacks, and the sound of whitewater works to drown out the hum of traffic on I-90. I was just so grateful to be there after being away from the woods for so long. To have the trail to myself made it all the more perfect.

One of the many scenic vistas along the way. The lush green trees cloaking steep mountainsides, with streams surging down from snow, was a most welcome sight after months spent within a 2-mile radius of my house in the city.

A perfect resting spot is most welcome after all those switchbacks.

Since I was on a hike, not a run, I took the opportunity to linger along the way, stopping at the “Change Creek Vista Point” and the “Change Creek Rest” (both spots labeled); going a little extra distance to check out Hall Point (which, despite traffic noise, would be a great little campsite); or veering off route to follow the MMM Ridge (I don’t know if the Ms are initials for something else, but you know I can’t walk away from any arrow pointing toward a ridge.) I kept reminding myself that it was ok to slow down, to check out where the trail leads, to detour, to stop and rest. All of this added up to make the entire excursion feel like a true adventure. There was much smiling.

Lovely view of a lovely ridge, from Hall Point. From left to right on the ridge you can see Mailbox, Dirty Box, Dirty Harry, Webb, Putrid Pete, Defiance, and Bandera, with Dirty Harry’s Balcony down below. I’ve had my eyes on this traverse for years.
View of Mt. Si, Tenerife, and Green Mountain from the Change Creek Vista Point.
Don’t mmmind if I do.
The sign reads, “Change Creek Rest.” It’s a sweet little spot above the creek babbling below, complete with wood benches for taking a load off.

Soon after my stop at the Change Creek Rest, I hit the snow line. There was one set of boot tracks, so I tried to walk in that hiker’s footsteps to make the going easier. Since it was pretty deep forest, and not much sunlight filtered through, the snow was often pretty well packed. In other places, it was starting to become rotten, and I postholed down to my waist in some places, despite my best efforts.

The snow travel begins.

Not long after I hit the snow, some rather large tracks caught my attention. Reading tracks isn’t my strongest suit, but I’m always curious about them and hope to learn more. I paused to take in the details and knew that they belonged to a dog, a coyote, or a cougar, but I wasn’t sure how to determine which one for sure. I had seen some scat shortly before this that I thought belonged to a coyote, but now I started to second guess it. My gut was saying “cougar.”

Following in the footsteps of a mysterious creature.

As the tracks continued down the trail, a battle between reason and irrational fear took hold. In truth, the man’s boot prints were as unsettling as the animal tracks. I don’t like encountering men on remote trails when I’m alone. At the same time, the unidentified tracks also raised the hair on my neck a bit. While my rational brain knows that the chances of seeing a mountain lion, much less being attacked by one, are minuscule (cougars have killed only 2 humans in Washington State–ever), it’s one thing to know the odds, and another to be the only human within miles while walking alongside large predator tracks. The woods were dark, deep, and close, and even though the prints suggested that whatever this animal was, it was ahead of me, I nevertheless felt watched.

I forced my thoughts toward reason: “Cougars hunt at dawn and dusk, so it’s not hunting now. I’m too big for prey, and humans aren’t on cougars’ menu anyway. Only 2 humans have been killed by cougars in Washington. In the rare case cougars attack, humans typically fight them off. Whomever these tracks belong to has already gone ahead of me and are well on their way elsewhere. Just because my trail name is Cougar Snack doesn’t mean I’m actually going to live up to that moniker. Plus, this might be tracks from the hiker’s dog, anyway, because I don’t know how to tell the difference and might be making something out of nothing.” And so on.

Reason prevailed, but as much as I like to think of myself as a friend of the apex predators who get an undeserved bad rep and about whom hikers have very little to fear, I would be remiss if I didn’t own up to feeling a little creeped out. I don’t want to be afraid when alone out in the wild, and I thought in this moment about Cheryl Strayed choosing to tell herself a new narrative about fear, which she explains in her memoir, Wild: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.” For myself, while I remained aware of my surroundings, I resolved not to let fear of this environment or its inhabitants overpower my experience there. Like Strayed, for the most part it worked for me, too.

[As soon as I got home, I used this very thorough tutorial to learn how to distinguish between dog and mountain lion tracks. For the record, it was most definitely a mountain lion.]

Reaching a junction marked by a wooden sign, I opted to take the more direct route instead of circling around a small pond. It appeared that my booted predecessor went around the pond, and I soon lost his tracks. The cougar seems to have gone its own way here as well. What followed was some high adventure, as there was no sign of the trail, and I trashed through thickets and postholed like mad. Far above, I could see sunshine, which suggested that the trees broke. I knew there was an old logging road above me, so I decided to just make a line for the clear skies above and reassess once I was in a better location. Of course, this all added to the fun, as I bushwhacked up a steep slope, off trail but with a good sense of where to go. My hypothesis paid off, and before too long, I was above tree line on a wide logging road.

As I walked up the road, complete with logs carved into thrones for sitting down to survey your domain, the sun’s rays warmed me both physically and emotionally. My smile was at its toothiest, and the mountains lit me up on the inside. “I’m out in the mountains today! I’m out in the mountains!” More smiles; big damn smiles. After months of personal struggle and feeling mired in despair, this was a welcome respite from the new normal of my life.

I spy McClellan Butte! Bandera! Mount Defiance! Putrid Pete Peak! I’m out in the mountains today!
A throne fit for a happy hiker.
Safely through the sketchy, snowy slope. Pictures never do justice to these things.

After very carefully traversing a steep, sketchy snow slope (of the “I wouldn’t have died but could have gotten messed up if I slid” variety), I reached the junction with the trail that circles up to Change Peak, or down to the Mt. Washington trailhead. This would all be familiar ground now. This ground would also become irritatingly difficult to walk on, thanks to the condition of the snow. It felt akin to walking through quicksand, but I was just so damn happy to be exercising someplace other than the blocks around my house that it didn’t bother me at all.

Soon, I founds myself angling up the spine of a ridge that leads to Change Peak. I had the place to myself and yipped out loud with glee. I dropped down off the north side of the summit to take in the view and eat lunch in the sun. It was glorious. After months trapped in my house and neighborhood, it was just incredible to be eating a Twilight bar on a mountaintop kept all to myself.

Nice little spot for a solo picnic. Joined by McClellan Butte and Bandera Mountain in the distance.
You can just make out the snowy bottom of Tahoma below the clouds, in the center of the photo, on the left side of the saddle.

While my brain told me it was probably a bad idea, I’m such a sucker for loops that I couldn’t resist heading over to tag Mt. Washington and then return to my car via that trailhead. I was clearly the only person who had done so for some time, as there were no tracks heading in that direction after I left Change Peak.

My footprints are the only tracks in sight. Looking back at Change Peak (center) with my next destination, Mt. Washington, to the left.

After quite a slog through the snow, I reached the ridge that leads up the back door entrance to Mt. Washington. As I crested the top, I saw groups of hikers sprawled across the grassy clearing below the summit. They were everywhere. They were not wearing masks. Realizing, too late, that I should have left well enough alone and not come here, I pulled my buff over my face and for some stupid reason still went up to tag the summit, where more unmasked and not-so-physically-distanced hikers hunkered down.

View of the Cedar River Watershed, just below the summit of Mt. Washington.
Look familiar? You may recognize this view from the banner on my website. Same location, but less snow and no view of Tahoma today.

Feeling anxious about the summit crowds, and dreading the possibility of encountering droves of hikers on my descent, I made haste to get out of there. The descent was a mixed bag but erred on the side of stress-inducing unpleasantness. First, I should have taken a moment to put on my microspikes, but my desire to get away from these people overrode the inconvenience of falling on my ass in the icy snow every 50 yards.

Pulling off trail to provide a lot of room for an unmasked uphill hiker to go past. Nice view of the Middlefork Valley, with Tenerife, Green, and Bessimer visible along the ridge and Mailbox to the right.

Some hikers did make an effort to follow public health guidelines and statewide rules for recreating outside. As per state mandate, we were directed not to recreate with people outside of our households; to keep at least 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others; and to cover our faces, if possible. Some hikers really made an effort. They wore buffs or bandanas (I chose a buff instead of mask thinking it would be easier for hiking; next time, I will wear a mask instead because the buff doesn’t offer much protection and kept slipping down.) Only one woman wore a mask. Some hikers gave me a wide berth (although it was mostly me giving way and creating a lot of space.) My encounters with such hikers were relatively pleasant, and I said thanks and was friendly. Unfortunately, this does not represent the majority of hikers that day.

I was disappointed to see so many hikers not covering their faces; not creating physical distance with me; and clearly recreating with people they didn’t live with (while also not wearing face coverings or keeping 6 feet of distance.) My stress spiked exponentially with each encounter that tipped the scale toward encountering more of these types of hikers. This provoked my anxiety for several reasons. First, this was “opening day,” so to say, of some state lands. It was a test run to see if the state would open more, if people would behave. People were clearly not behaving, and I feared what it would mean for this “experiment” (as the governor called it) with allowing us to recreate on state lands. The rules were put in place for a reason; not to limit us, but to keep us all safe. To see people recklessly flouting that was quite upsetting, even if for personal reasons. For one, it could lead to a loss of our privilege of accessing public lands. Two, it could also lead to another spike in infections, possibly overwhelming our healthcare system. I didn’t even acknowledge hikers who took this tack, offering only a scowl in passing. Their decisions could end up affecting others, and, quite frankly, I was pissed. Yes, I was judging. This opening of state lands was being closely watched, and it was people like this who jeopardized it for the rest of us.

The entire trip down the mountain was one long coronavirus nightmare. Cars spilled out of the Mt. Washington trailhead and lined the road as far as you could see (the directive to move on to a new location if the parking lot was full clearly didn’t register with these folks.) Things didn’t get much better once I hit the Palouse to Cascades Trail, where gaggles of climbers clogged the trail, CDC guidelines be damned.

To distract myself, I tried to focus on the wide variety of spring flowers that bloomed along the trails. Ah, so pretty.

The skies opened up and showered as I reached my car. Reluctant to return home after this too-short respite from lockdown, I sat in my car, ate some snacks, and stared through the rain at the mountains that surrounded me. While the Mt. Washington portion of my day was not really enjoyable in any way, I decided to train my focus on the Change Peak portion, which was simply wonderful. There’s nothing like a global pandemic, and a shelter at home order, to make you realize how fortunate you are to have access to the natural world. I don’t think that I take my access for granted; in fact, I’m quite consciously grateful. What I came to recognize, though, was how essential it is for my personal well being. Cut off from the mountains and forest, my mental health has deteriorated. This brief excursion did much to make things right, if only for a little while.

Governor Inslee was right to prioritize getting Washingtonians back into the wild. As Thoreau noted, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Personally, I realize now how essential the wild is to my own well being, and I vow to spend as much of my life in wild places as is possible. There’s no telling where our world is headed and what the new normal will look like. That’s what is so troubling about this pandemic: so much is unknown. All I know now is that I need to find a way to connect with the wild as much as possible. I believe it is, quite frankly, my only means of self-preservation.

Head over Heart: Self Isolation on the Olympic Coast

[Nearly six months after beginning to draft this trip report, and I am reading back over it before hitting the publish button. It’s remarkable what a radically different world this has become in such a short span of time. The introduction feels embarrassingly quaint now, but I’m preserving it here as a record of how the new world of COVID evolved in my personal experience.]

Head vs. Heart

The Panch Pokhari Puzzle will remain unsolved, for now. After much back-and-forth, Seth and I decided to postpone our trip to Nepal. At the time, we weren’t so much worried about the possibility of picking up the coronavirus ourselves, nor were we concerned about the possibility of getting stuck in Nepal or Thailand indefinitely. The one thing holding us back was the possibility that, traveling from the then-epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, we might inadvertently spread the virus to remote villages in the Himalayas. I couldn’t shake this thought, and my gut said, “Don’t go.” Talking it through with my brother and a friend reinforced this feeling. An article about a British couple unknowingly spreading the virus all around Vietnam made me cringe at the thought of being the subject of a similar headline: “Two Idiotic University of Washington professors spread the coronavirus all over Nepal, infecting villagers with no easy access to health care.”

And yet, Nepal tugged. I spoke with our Nepali friend, Sudeep, and expressed my concerns. He sent back a thoughtful reply, to which my heart overrode my head. Ignoring the sentence in which he said, “not traveling is the best possible course right now,” I latched onto his statement that, “there are still trekkers out in the mountains.” Sleep evaded me, as head and heart battled through the night. In the morning, Seth and I had an online meeting with Sudeep. I was ready to call off the expedition, but our conversation somewhat allayed my concerns. We decided to camp the entire time so as to avoid interaction with locals and mitigate the risk of possibly spreading the virus. I could sense the hesitation in Sudeep’s voice, but, again, willfully ignored it. We spent the rest of the day finishing up packing. My movements were slow as I placed items in my pack, weighted with doubts. I knew not going was the right thing to do, but it was so difficult to make that call. I’d been waiting years for this moment, and I selfishly could not let it go. Another restless night followed.

On our scheduled departure day, we woke to news that Sudeep’s grandfather was gravely ill, and Sudeep would need to withdraw from the expedition to be with his family. While Seth and I could have continued without him, we weren’t eager to do so. It was an adventure for the three of us and wouldn’t be the same without Sudeep. While I was sorry to hear of his grandfather’s condition, ultimately, it was the final thing that pushed us to make the right decision and postpone the trip. I’m sorry and embarrassed that it took that circumstance to really push us there. I would like to think that we would have arrived at that decision before leaving for the airport later that night. I’m fairly confident that we would have, the recognition that going would be selfish and unethical winning out before we stepped onto the plane.

We were scheduled to fly from Bangkok to Kathmandu on March 14th. On the 13th, when we would have been soaring over the Pacific toward first Taiwan, then Thailand, the Nepali government decided not to issue visas on arrival, starting the 14th. We would not have even made it into the country. A few days later, Sudeep’s grandfather passed away, and he went home for 12 days of funeral preparations and festivities. The universe was very loudly reassuring us that we were not meant to go to Nepal at this time.

It’s incredible what the mind can rationalize when we want something badly. It’s one thing to pursue a dream at all costs, but when the costs could cause harm to others, that’s an entirely different matter. We very nearly made a terrible mistake simply because I wanted to fulfill a heart’s dream of going to the Himalayas with Seth. That the trip was meant to begin laying the foundation for my sabbatical project and book manuscript leant further legitimacy to my warped perspective. Others are sacrificing far more precious things during this pandemic, and Nepal will be there. I take a breath of relief knowing that we ultimately came to the right decision before it was too late.

Consolation and Isolation on the Olympic Coast

Since I’d already submitted grades, hired a cat sitter, and had my auto-reply email set, we decided to make a getaway to the Olympic Coast, as consolation. This was prior to the shelter-at-home order; the coronavirus situation was still relatively new, but we understood that things were getting serious, and it seemed like it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get away from town and self-isolate in the wilderness. Like most Americans at the time, we still didn’t fully grasp how quickly the situation was evolving. On the day we hit the trail, there were only 1,678 known cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Today, nearly that number of people are dying in the US each day. Back then, we could not fathom such a tremendous and rapid change of the world.

Seth and I have talked for a couple of years about working on a travel guide to the Olympic coast, so this seemed like a good opportunity to begin that project. The coast is a special place for us. It is wild and rugged, yet peaceful in its own way and stunning beyond compare. We typically go during the winter, when there’s reliable water sources and few to no other humans in sight. You pitch a tent near the shore and have the Pacific Ocean as your front yard. The sunsets are devastatingly beautiful. Maybe you see a headlamp or two on the next headland over the course of a week. It is glorious.

This is what your typical Olympic Coast camp looks like. This shot taken on a 2018 trip to a great site just north of the aptly-named Hole-in-the-Wall.

I studied tide charts and maps to determine our route. Trekking up the coast does entail some thought and timing. Certain beaches and headlands are only passable at a certain tide height, which the maps indicate. You have to line up the tides with your route so as to be able to proceed up the beach without crawling over dangerously slick logs or to round a headland without racing the tide and potentially getting stuck on a precarious perch–or worse. I like puzzling these things out. Since I’d never been to the famed Shi Shi beach, the northern terminus of the Olympic Coast Trail, I decided that we would yo-yo from Lake Ozette to Shi Shi.

Detail from the Custom Correct North Olympic Coast map, illustrating the tides at which headlands are passable, and where overland routes are available. If you’re going to the coast, be sure to purchase the Custom Correct Map, as others don’t include tide information.

One hazard we would confront was the Ozette River. Our map says, “No bridge; not fordable in winter.” It was nearly spring, but the foreboding of the map gave cause for some concern. We decided to bring Seth’s smallest packraft, the Scout, and we would paddle across the river. Of course, this meant extra weight to carry (including a paddle and throw rope), but it seemed worth it to ensure safe crossing of the river (plus, it’s exactly what the Scout is meant for.) Logistics in order, we swapped out some gear, loaded up the Westie, and headed out.

Day 1: Ozette to Seafield Creek

After a night spent at the Ozette trailhead in the cozy comfort of the Westie, with its newly-installed heater, we hit the trail. The weight of my pack stunned me. I made the mistake of weighing it before we left. It came in at 42 pounds, and it wasn’t entirely loaded with all of the gear yet. My best guess is that it was easily in the high-40s once fully loaded. It can be tough to pack for the coast, because you have to be prepared for a range of weather, plus the use of bear canisters is compulsory. Add in 6 nights and 7 days of food, and you’re looking at one heavy pack. This came in just under the weight I carried to Camp Muir up Rainier. At least I wasn’t wearing plastic mountaineering boots here. All the same, I was surprised at the need to take breaks along the way as I staggered under that behemoth.

The trail leads from Lake Ozette through a coastal forest of cedars, along precarious boardwalks, through two expansive prairies, and out to Cape Alava.

Hiking the boardwalk out to Cape Alava. PC Seth Wolpin
Leaving the forest, the boardwalk continues through a prairie. PC Seth Wolpin

The tide was far out, so we couldn’t hear the ocean as we broke through the trees and spilled out onto Cape Alava. We turned north, and everything from there on out would be new territory for me. We passed a slew of campsites and the summer ranger station, and we encountered a couple of deer who didn’t seem bothered by our presence.

Taking it all in on Cape Alava. PC Seth Wolpin
Traveling north from Cape Alava along the beach. You can barely make out the water in the distance, and you see tide pools to the left.

At the first headland, which requires a 5 foot tide, we were able to skirt around it by hopping from wet boulder to wet boulder. Going around headlands is always difficult, but some are more treacherous than others. You can always count on navigating over rock of some sort, sometimes coated with slippery sea weed to make it even more precarious. Sometimes you have smaller boulders that wobble under foot; at other times, you have giant rocks that require some scrambling; at others you have craggly rock surrounded by small tide pools. No matter the type of headland rock, you can always, without fail, count on it being wet and slippery, the promise of a rolled ankle or broken femur always within the very close realm of possibility. All of this while balancing a heavy pack on your back to boot. If you’re racing against an incoming tide, things get even more dicey and nerve-wracking. We’ve definitely been there, but, fortunately, the tides aligned quite well for us on this trip, and it was always on the way out as we rounded headlands. Yes, I am a great solver of tide puzzles.

Ah, sand! This is a welcome sight after hopping boulders around the headland.
Using the rock to take some of the weight off my back for a moment. PC Seth Wolpin

At the second headland, which calls for a 4 foot tide, we opted to take the overland route. One accesses the overland trails along the coast by climbing up steep cliffs. Good Samaritans have scavenged rope washed up on shore and soundly secured them (one hopes) for others to use as an aid in ascending and descending the overland routes. The ropes have always been a challenge for me, mostly due to the heavy pack being part of the equation, with my vertigo and fear of heights rounding things out. The ropes on the northern section win “Scariest on the Coast,” handily. This first one was a doozy. In these moments, my pride sure does come in handy; since two other hikers were watching our ascent, there was no way that I wouldn’t get up this thing, and I certainly wouldn’t let Seth carry my pack up for me. It’s frustrating, because I’ve become a pretty decent climber, but that heavy pack absolutely derails me. The truth of it is, if the pack throws off your balance, and you fall over backwards, you’re dead–literally. Oh, the things we do for fun.

Pics never do justice to these overland cliff climbs. PC Seth Wolpin

Descending the rope on the other side brought us to the mouth of the Ozette River. We assessed the situation and made a plan for crossing. On the south side, there was a nice, big eddy, perfect for hopping into the Scout and preparing to paddle across. On the north side, much of the bank was steep and composed of loose rocks, but slightly down river there was a small sandy patch, perfect for landing. We could see two swiftly-moving channels in the deep river, one on the south side, the other on the north. That could make crossing difficult, as those currents could quickly sweep us out into the Pacific Ocean, where we were unsure of how the undertow and other currents might affect our ability to get back to shore, should the river carry us out. Typically, a river crossing wouldn’t give us pause, but toss in the gaping maw of the wide ocean, and it certainly intimidates.

Seth inflating the Scout, with the Ozette River in the background.

More confident in my paddling than in my throwing skills, I opted to go across the river first, The plan was for Seth to then toss the throw bag over, which I would attach to the raft, and he would pull it back over so that he could cross. We staged in the eddy, securing my pack, which took up most of the raft, and then I awkwardly wrapped my legs around it. I left the eddy facing upstream and paddled at an angle, pumping my arms vigorously against the current. It was as if I was standing still; the current was too strong and I couldn’t make progress across. I decided to turn downstream and hoped that I could paddle fast enough to reach the other shore before the current could hurl me into the ocean. The current on the north side was equally fast, but I was able to push through it and onto the sandy shore.

Looking at the photo above, you’d think that it would be an easy toss of the throw bag across. This proved otherwise. There is 75′ of rope inside the bag, to which Seth added an assortment of other ropes to extend our total to probably around 100′. This was just long enough to get to the other side, but it was difficult to actually get the bag all the way across. Seth tried valiantly to reach the far shore, but the light weight of the bag made it impossible to get the needed distance. After each toss, he had to recoil the rope back inside the bag, a lengthy process itself. After repeated attempts and no luck, the only option remaining was for me to paddle back across, take the throw bag with me as Seth held the other end, and then I would send the raft and paddle back to him.

I launched from upriver and easily paddled into the eddy. Seth handed me the throw bag, which I secured under my arm. The rope would be just long enough to reach the other side, and the current would eventually pull it downstream. As such, we couldn’t tie the rope to the raft. Instead, I would need to quickly hop out on the other side and secure the rope to the raft before it started to pull downstream. Things went well at first; I made it to the north side and was right up against the bank. It was the steep bank, though, so I waited to get down to the sandy part. All of a sudden, the current grabbed me, and I went charging downriver. The rope reached its end, and I felt the throw bag start to tug under my arm as the raft began to pendulum around. I made the split-second decision to jump out of the raft into the river. Recalling the lessons from my “Whitewater Fever” kayak course, I understood this was potentially a bad idea, as the current could have knocked me off my feet and sent me out to sea, but it was just shallow enough for me to stay vertical. In a blur, I was in the water, secured the rope to the raft, and tossed in the paddle. We hooted in triumph as Seth pulled the raft back to his side.

“You got the packraft all wet!” he says.

Seth made easy work of his crossing, and we took a break together on the north shore to celebrate this little victory. Our crossings of the Ozette would prove to be a highlight for me on this trip. It entailed an element of danger, but there was also a thrill in that. It’s strange how that works. For me, climbing and mountaineering are Type 2 Fun, fun only after the fact, because I’m so focused on the danger of it in the moment. With paddling, though, it’s Type 1 Fun, fun in the moment, even if it’s also a bit scary. I’m not sure what creates the distinction here for me. Perhaps it’s the years spent on the Whitewater River throughout my childhood (on horseback) that makes me more comfortable with the risks involved on the river.

Reveling in our successful crossing, we contemplated pitching camp on the north shore and calling it a day when a couple walked up to the banks of the south shore. They were a bit farther downriver, right at the mouth. It’s a much wider crossing there, but also shallower. We stared in disbelief as they took off their shoes, rolled up their pants, and waded in. While the tide was going out, the river was still moving incredibly fast, and the man was in above his knees. They had no poles and were trying to walk barefoot across rocks in ice cold water. I can tell you from first-hand experience that fording cold, rocky river bottoms barefoot is not easy. The woman hesitated on shore, but her partner continued on, so she eventually followed. Not far in, she paused, as if frozen. He coaxed her on, and eventually she started forward again. It took a long time for him to get all the way across, and she was once again frozen about a third of the way across. He came back, took her pack, and helped her to the other side. It took them about 20 minutes to cross, compared to our hour and 20 minutes. Reaching the north shore, the woman fell into her partner’s arms, and he hugged her long and tightly. She was clearly done for the day, so we decided to press on and leave them to enjoy the North Ozette campsite. We briefly reflected on whether we should have just forded it instead of dragging out the extra gear, but, in the end, we didn’t know for sure that we could ford the river this time of year. Plus, the paddling and the adventure it entailed was more fun, and more memorable.

We stashed the packraft, paddle, throw bag, and a bear canister with the second half of our food in the woods before trekking north. I’d expected this to make a difference in the feel of my pack, but it seemed just as heavy. We pushed on to Seafield Creek, two miles north of the river. There, we knew there was a campsite and good access to water. The going was fairly easy, as far as beach walks go.

The words “beach walk” might conjure for you a lovely stroll along firm sand, but this is rarely the case on the Olympic Coast. You get that occasionally, but the footing ranges from unpacked sand that you sink into and move as if you’re fleeing a monster in slow motion in a nightmare; to small pebbles that provide about the same footing as that unpacked sand; to bigger pebbles; to small boulders; to any combination of these. Often, driftwood lines the shores, and by driftwood, I mean gigantic dead trees that you have to scramble over, under, or around, depending on the case. My notes from this 2-mile stretch on the quality of the beach go from “sandy butter beach” (very easy), to “small rocks beach some sand,” to “slightly bigger rock Seth not a fan,” to “smaller rocks,” and back to “sand” as we neared Seafield Creek.

We made camp on a rise above the creek, with a view of the ocean beyond. We’d logged just over 8 miles but were completely exhausted. Camp established, Seth built a fire, I made Pad Thai, and we settled in to watch the sun drop out of sight. The stars emerged in sparking splendor, far from the light pollution of civilization.

Home for the night at Seafield Creek.
The first of many glorious sunsets. Below, Seafield Creek, choked up with driftwood, empties into the Pacific.

Day 2: Seafield Creek to Camp Aerie

The tides worked in a way that allowed us to have a lazy morning in camp before heading north in the early afternoon. Our lives are typically so rushed; it’s go! go! go! from our morning alarm until we collapse, exhausted, in bed that night. To have a morning of no alarms (including feline alarms demanding breakfast), no work, no expectations–that’s a real gift. We sipped hot cocoa, read books, dozed, talked, and took pleasure in doing nothing. We don’t do that enough.

We usually plan for an hour to break camp and get moving. I was able to stash a bit more gear in a cache here. Unpacking the evening before, I found that I was carrying a bivy sack we had packed along with a tarp for Nepal, which one of us had forgotten to remove from the sack (I won’t say who.) Despite losing about 2 pounds, my pack didn’t feel much lighter, but I was growing accustomed to its bulk.

The sandy-ish beach turned to boulders, then back to sand, then to “stepping boulders,” in the typical footing dance of the Olympic Coast. I have a talent for finding the loose boulders but have perfected my precarious wobble dance. In some ways, the stepping boulders are easier than some of the types of sand, as you can hop from rock to rock and be on firm footing. The wobbly ones keep it interesting.

Boulder hopping as we go around the headland. You can see Seth far ahead of me (as usual when going around the headlands.) I have learned to accept being slow here.
Slowly making my way around the headland. PC Seth Wolpin
Seth waiting for me to catch up as boulder hopping turns to scrambling.
Made it to the next beach!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The next section entailed three overland trails, which meant three rope climbs, and three descents. All three rope climbs were steep and scary. As with the others, as long as you keep your weight forward on your toes, you’re good. The possibility of losing your balance and falling backwards, though, looms over you as you ascend. Without a pack, you could zoom right up with little concern. Seth always offers to carry up my pack, saying there’s no shame in it. Of course, I am too proud, and stubborn, to accept. The first rope was particularly gnarly, to the point that we stopped to take a mental breather at the top before proceeding to the overland trail. I look forward to the day when I completely obliterate my vertigo and fear of heights.

Up and over the headland. PC Seth Wolpin
Taking a mental breather at the top of the first rope, looking down at the cove below. I like how you can see our footprints in the sand.

Fortunately (at least when you’re northbound), the descent is never quite as tough as the ascent. Coming back down to the beach, we continued on to the next headland, which we went around, then reached another dizzying rope climb. This one led to a longer overland trail. About halfway through, we stopped for lunch in the forest and noted that there was a good camp spot there, just in case we were in need of options for the night. Sitting on two conveniently located logs, we rehydrated some dried hummus and enjoyed a humble repast. Not far past this, we discovered a little eagle’s nest overlook, where we plopped down in the sun to enjoy its warmth. While we have talked of doing the entire coast in one push, we were glad to be moving at a slow pace now, being able to stop and enjoy the feel of sun on our skin at will.

View from the little eagle’s nest.

The trail took us back down to a little cove, and then up the ropes we went again. My research noted a spot with a great view along this overland trail, so we stopped to take a look before descending back down to the next cove. We followed a narrow trail along the spine of a cliff, which led out to a most spectacular view. The cliff was a airy peninsula of sorts. There was a secluded cove behind us, with startling blue-green water that crashed against the rocks that rimmed it. On the other side, views opened out onto the vastness of the Pacific, with a small island near the cliff, which created a protected mini-cove behind it. On the north side, you could see the next beach. Seth described it as ocean surround sound, as we had waves crashing on three sides. We paused for a break to enjoy it all, and I secretly hoped we would call it a day and stay here forever.

Traversing the spine out to Camp Aerie, which we pitched in the small copse of trees on the cliff.
Standing at the edge of the cliff at Camp Aerie. To the left is the opening of the cove behind us. To the right, the Pacific Ocean.

As we sat there smiling, I noticed a small, flat spot where we could conceivably pitch the tent. Reading my thoughts, Seth said, “We could press on further for Shi Shi, or, we could just camp here.”

“Let’s camp here!” I said, not skipping a beat. He smiled in agreement.

View of the small island and the protected waters behind it. I took this photo while standing in the tiny flat spot that would become our tent site.

After working out a safety protocol for separating, Seth went north to collect water (the one downside of this campsite is that there’s no water nearby), as I made camp. Making quick work of my task, I kicked back to revel in the sun. After a long winter in Washington, to feel the sun’s rays on your bare arms is a luxury beyond compare.

Camp Aerie, named for the many eagles soaring around and the sense of being perched up high like an eagle.
This is the life! PC Seth Wolpin

Surprisingly, we both had a cell signal from the top of the cliff; this was certainly unprecedented out on the coast, and, admittedly, a bit disappointing. I resolved not to check the headlines and instead sent the above photo out to a few friends and wished them well before putting my phone back in airplane mode for the remainder of the trip. We had gone to the coast, in part, to escape the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation. I had been obsessively checking headlines, growing more anxious each day, so we intended this trip as a bit of a respite from the world. Of course, our escape was the epitome of privilege, which we certainly recognized. Not everyone had the opportunity to step away and say, “No thanks, not now.”

The coast could certainly lead you to a false sense that all was well in the world. A few days later, as we made our way back south, I gestured toward the gorgeous panorama spread out before us and said, “You know, being out here, you would have no idea that civilization was crumbling not too far away. The birds are winging, the waves keep crashing, and every day ends with a spectacular sunset. The natural world just keeps on keeping on, despite what’s going on in the world of humans.” On the one hand, this is true; the natural world is indifferent to the worries of humans and will continue to perform its natural processes without regard to what is happening to us. That said, I was tense throughout this entire trip, the state of the world looming over me like a pall. I knew things were getting rapidly and progressively worse, and while the remoteness of the coast offered some comfort, this undertow of anxiety exerted a palpable force.

Making camp and the chores that come with it offered a welcome distraction. When Seth returned from collecting water, we went about filtering some water and setting up the hammock. There’s truly nothing better than swinging in a hammock built for two, the sun kissing your skin, and a beautiful scene wrapped around you. Huddled in the sleeping bag, we rocked with the sea breeze, alternating between reading, playing the recorder, and dozing. It was a pretty good day.

Seth brushing up on his recorder skills from the comfort of a hammock.

After watching the sun dip below the horizon, we settled into the tent to read and listen to podcasts. In the morning, I learned that we had both awakened a few times during the night with the sudden, panicked thought that we were perched a tad too close to the edge of the cliff. The tent’s foot did come within a couple inches of the cliff’s edge, but it has been the only feasible flat spot around. For me, what woke me was the possibility that “the big one” would hit, and the tremors would crumble the rock beneath us. The odds seemed pretty low; it really didn’t cause me to lose too much sleep, and we decided to stay put for another night.

Day Three: Shi Shi

Unencumbered by heavy packs, we made our way north to the famed Shi Shi beach with ease. Rounding the headland at Point of the Arches, we marveled at the sea stacks and wondered about the origin of its name. On the other side, Shi Shi unfurled before us–two miles of the most buttery sand beach. We strolled along in silence, smiles beaming, searching for sand dollars. After nearly six years, I’d finally made it here.

Coming around the headland and dodging tide pools near Point of the Arches. PC Seth Wolpin
Negotiating tide pools and slippery rocks as we round the headland at Point of the Arches.

Save one couple who soon broke camp and headed south, we had the entire beach to ourselves, for the entire day. This was surely a rare treat, as Shi Shi is among the most popular coastal destinations. Later, it would all make sense, when we learned that the Makah Reservation, the main access point for Shi Shi, was closed to all visitors in an effort to prevent the coronavirus from reaching the Makah community.

This beach scores a butter factor of 11. PC Seth Wolpin
Shi Shi, at long last! Looking back south at the sea stacks of Point of the Arches.
Shi Shi is a two-mile crescent of buttery sand beach.
Smiles all the way. PC Seth Wolpin

Reaching the northernmost tip of the beach, we scrambled up a small headland for a sweeping view. I had now hiked every inch of the Olympic Coast Trail, which runs from Shi Shi in the north to Oil City in the south.

Taking it all in from above.

Climbing back down to the beach, Seth opted for a post-lunch nap in the sun, while I ventured out to explore the tide pools. There was a plethora of giant, sea foam green anemones as well as tiny pink ones. Small, iridescent purple crabs scuttled under rocks; tiny fish swam for cover; and clusters of mussels lay calmly in wait for the water’s return. Hopping from tide pool to tide pool, peering into these secret worlds, I felt full of the wonder of a child. I also recalled passages from Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea: “In this difficult world of the shore, life displays its enormous toughness and vitality by occupying almost every conceivable niche. Visibly, it carpets the intertidal rocks; or half hidden, it descends into fissures and crevices, or hides under boulders, or lurks in the wet gloom of sea caves.”

Sea anemones, although ubiquitous in the coastal tide pools, are nevertheless always a magical sight.
Peering around the headland for a glimpse of the seemingly endless tide pools that lie north beyond Shi Shi.
Mussels patiently await the flood tide. It’s always a delicate dance around the tide pools, making every effort not to step on the tiny lives exposed by the ebb tide.
Tiny pink anemone and friends in a tide pool.

Reluctantly, I returned to the beach and woke Seth from his brief slumber. It was time to head back to camp, although I half hoped we might just stay for the night and sleep on the beach under the stars.

Shi Shi panorama.
Approaching Point of the Arches on our return to Camp Aerie.

On the return, it was now easy to see how Point of the Arches earned its name. Many of the sea stacks had small holes carved out by centuries of waves and wind, creating tiny arches in the rock. It was like Hole-in-the-Wall turned up to 11.

Enormous root ball trapped within an arch.
Passing through one of the many arches.

Returning to camp, we went through our evening ritual of dinner (I made the unfortunate blunder of not packing all Pad Thai and paid for it by eating a second rate meal of Chana Masala) followed by toasted marshmallows with chocolate (how did we forget the graham crackers?!) Since we didn’t build a fire on the cliff, we impaled our marshmallows on sporks and hovered them over the open flame of our gas canister. After yet another lovely sunset, we drifted off to dreamland to the accompaniment of waves.

Why oh why did I not pack all Pad Thai? PC Seth Wolpin
Watching the sun sink into the sea never gets old.

Day Four: Camp Aerie to North Ozette

It was time to start making our way back south. I wasn’t all that excited about having to descend the south side ropes, but there was no getting around it. Having descended one of the more gnarly ropes, we paused in the cove for a brief rest and to let the tide ebb a bit more. Frustrated at how difficult that descent had proved, I kept insisting to Seth, “I’m actually a pretty good climber! I really am!” He suggested that I go up and down without the pack to build confidence. Sans pack, I proceeded to zip up and down the rope without batting an eye, proving to myself that I wasn’t completely hopeless. It really was just the added awkwardness and weight of the pack that was giving me fits.

Continuing on, we reached a headland that wasn’t entirely passable, the water still just a bit too high. To our great fortune, we were able to scramble up to a perch above the water where we could wait out the tide. Seth made lunch, and we resumed our daily activities: reading, playing the recorder, and napping.

The perfect perch for waiting out the tide. Once it had ebbed enough, we would traverse the rocks on the left to the next beach.
Not a bad place to be stuck for an hour.

Two men came across the rocks and told us it was all clear from there down to Seafield Creek. We suspected as much, but it was so nice to be perched up above the water, that we had lingered after the tide was out. Packing up, we continued down past Seafield Creek to our food and gear cache just north of the Ozette River. After some discussion, we decided to stay north of the river for the night, even though others were camped nearby. We found a good camp site that just needed a little TLC to make it homey, and we had enough space between us and the next party that we barely knew they were there (except for when two young men came awkwardly scrounging through our camp looking for firewood.)

We went through the usual rhythms of making camp: clear a site; pitch the tent; set up a small kitchen area; build a fire; procure and filter water; change into camp clothes; relax on the beach. I love this simple routine. We carry on our backs everything we need to make a home, including luxuries like chocolate and books. Camp chores completed, we retired to the beach for some afternoon reading and sun-drunk dozing.

Final task of the afternoon: reading on the beach.

We timed dinner perfectly each night so as to dine while watching the sun set.

Day Five: North Ozette to Sand Point

Needing to cover a good distance today, we broke camp earlier than usual. Since we had the Scout, the tide didn’t limit our choices for when to cross the Ozette. We stepped onto the north shore and an entirely different scene presented itself to us. The tide was quite high, and the river was deep and expansive. It was a bit unnerving, but we trusted that it would still be about as straightforward as it had been for me paddling southbound a few days prior. Seeing the line between river and ocean more blurred with the high water did give us pause. Before I launched, Seth grabbed my arms and said in a very serious voice, “I love you.” In my mind, I thought, “He said that as if he might not ever see me again and wanted this to be his parting words, just in case.” I tried not to think about it and readied the packraft.

The south-side eddy had shifted a bit, but it was still the plan for me to land there, hop out, and then send the raft and paddle back to Seth. In my mind, I walked through the steps: keep the throw rope under my arm and also tied to me with a quick-release (slip) knot; land; hop out; toss my pack on shore; untie the throw rope from me; secure it to raft; send it back to Seth. Do you notice anything missing from this process? Look closely! [foreshadowing]

I launched into the river and paddled across to the eddy on the south shore. As I neared the shore, I heard Seth shouting something. It took a moment to register: “You’re out of rope!” I was still in deeper water, but the eddy would protect me. My legs were wrapped around my pack, and I started to panic as the throw rope tugged me backwards. I tossed the paddle on shore and tried to get out without tipping my pack into the water, which seemed imminent. I managed to haul myself out into the water and lift my heavy pack to shore. Tugging the rope from my waist, the knot slipped clear, I tied the rope to the raft, and sent it off. Just when it was out of reach, my jaw dropped in the realization that I hadn’t put the paddle in the raft. Seth called out, “The paddle!” but it was too late. I gasped repeatedly and kept stammering, “Oh my god I effed that up! I effed that up! I really effed that up!” In my mental preparation, I had neglected to include this very essential step in the plan.

After we both gasped and laughed uncomfortably for a few minutes, in total disbelief of my blunder, we yelled ideas back and forth over the roar of the river. We’d already learned that the throw rope wouldn’t be of help. I offered to swim the paddle across, and Seth had thought he might do the same. The water would have been so ridiculously cold, but we could have managed. We had dry clothes to change into, and the day was warming. Seth walked upstream, looking for something to use as a makeshift paddle. He found a flat piece of wood that seemed like it would do the trick. It was worth a shot.

Since his pack would have complicated things, he decided to leave it on the north shore and focus on using his driftwood paddle to get across safely. Launching far upstream to give a little more room for error, Seth came around the bend, in perfect control of his craft. I sighed a breath of relief. Seeing all was good, we laughed and hooted as he paddled across. Giving me a gentle “you are in so much trouble” smile, he gestured for the paddle and tossed his wooden oar aside. Over and back he went to collect his pack. In the end, we had both completed an extra, unexpected paddle across the Ozette. I suggested that it was much more memorable this way than if everything had run smoothly. Seth agreed.

Seth masterfully crossing the Ozette with improvised paddle.
The driftwood paddle that saved our butts.
Seth returning for his pack, this time with the paddle.

Crisis averted, we found a trail through the woods and continued on toward Cape Alava. The tide was still high, so we made use of overland trails most of the way.

Because it is relatively accessible, Cape Alava sees a lot of people. On this day, it was absolutely crawling with them. We tensed up, not being accustomed to seeing other humans on our journeys along the coast. A strong sense of feeling territorial overtook us. “This is our place.” We picked up our pace in order to make it to Sand Point before the hordes of humans headed in that direction. It seemed as if the idea of self-isolating on the coast had become more popular, and isolation was becoming less possible as a result.

A deer ambles over to the sea at Cape Alava. Maybe it was the same one we’d seen days earlier? We watched her walk all the way out into the water, making her way toward the island that was accessible at low tide.

The way was slow going, moving south from Cape Alava toward Wedding Rocks. The footing was mostly wet, slippery rock, and I maintained my daily streak of getting at least one foot completely soaked. We had passed through here on our first trip to the coast together, and I had scanned each stack for the petroglyphs that give Wedding Rocks its name. Now, as before, we still didn’t see them. We did spot a number of incredible, unoccupied campsites. According to the map, though, there was no water nearby, so we decided to press on.

Reaching the northern end of the beach leading to Sand Point, we started to look in earnest. The beach rewarded us with a lovely little campsite, close to fresh water and a good distance from any other sites. We claimed it for our own and went about the camp-making rituals that had come to feel like our regular, everyday life. Everything in order, we hanged the hammock and called it good.

Just another beautiful sunset view from our camp at Sand Point.
I’m running out of adjectives to describe these sunsets.
“Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

Day Six: Observing the Locals and Searching for Petroglyphs

Since we would be spending a second night here, we were left with a full day to explore the local environs. I spent the morning watching in rapt attention as the resident fauna went about their daily routine. It’s quite incredible what you can discover by sitting still and observing your environment. Monocular in hand, I studied the habits of shorebirds and seals, jotting down descriptions of their identifiable traits and behaviors and making up names for them. I hoped to collect enough detail to allow me to later identify the birds. It worked! My notes and drawings later revealed that my shoreline companions that morning included strikingly plumed Harlequin Ducks; loquacious Black Oystercatchers; and head-bobbing Hooded Mergansers.

Observational notes.
Trying my hand at sketching. Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job.

After an educational morning of shore-watching, I decided to head north to Wedding Rocks in search of the famed petroglyphs. When we had walked through there a couple years earlier, we passed a young woman heading southbound and asked her if she had seen the petroglyphs. “Oh yes!” she replied. “Were they tough to spot, or were they right along the trail and obvious?” “Oh, they were obvious. You can’t miss them!” Well, we managed to miss them then, and we had managed to do so again yesterday. I was determined to find them today.

I spent a couple of hours inspecting every large rock from Sand Point past Wedding Rocks. The way points on my map seemed to indicate their location, but no such luck. I would approach a sea stack, convinced this would be the one, only to be disappointed. Of course, it’s hard to stay disappointed out on the coast. I hopped up on a boulder near a large sea stack and ate a chocolate bar, watching waves crash on the barrier islands off shore. I saw eagles lock talons and fall through the sky and a bob of seals sprawled over a tiny rock island. Tide pools held their usual wonders, and the sea breeze flitted through my hair.

No petroglyphs, but still many pretty sights.

Incidentally, a simple internet search suggests that these petroglyphs appear to be impossible to miss.

After a few hours of roaming, I wandered back to camp for one last evening of hammock swinging, fire building, Pad Thai gorging, sunset viewing, marshmallow toasting, and general happiness. Knowing there was more food waiting a short hike away in the Westie, I contemplated running out and back to resupply so that we could extend our stay. If the crowds hadn’t continued to grow, that might have been possible, but we saw more and more people each day, and it seemed wise to head out the next day as planned.

Day Seven: Sand Point to Ozette

Reluctantly, we broke camp and headed south to complete the “Ozette Triangle” (see the map above.) Before heading into the forest, we paused to climb up Sand Point to get one last sweeping view of the ocean. There were a few other parties there, and our interaction just goes to show how much has changed since then. Pulling out my phone, I asked a party of three to take a photo of me and Seth. They agreed, but as I handed a young woman my phone, the young man said, “I guess this really isn’t practicing good social distancing, though.” That term was, at the time, still a relatively new addition to the general lexicon, so it hadn’t occurred to me when I asked for the photo. My reply speaks to how new all of that was to us: “Oh, I used hand sanitizer right before leaving camp just now.” It’s wild to think of it, now. Of course, I could have touched my face between now and then. All the same, they took me up on my offer to take their photo as well. As I passed the phone back, I said, “Sorry, we’ve been out here for a week and are a little out of touch with what’s going on out there.” “Everything is shutting down,” the young man replied. “Bars and restaurants are closed, and a lockdown is sure to come next.” It was hard to process that information. We’d been gone 7 days, and the world had shifted into something entirely new to us.

Final moment of innocence: on top of Sand Point, failing in the social distancing department. I wonder if asking strangers to snap a photo for you is now a thing of the past?

We lingered a few moments to hold onto the view and the sound of waves breaking along the shore before making our way over to the inland trail. I was surprised to see a sign indicating that bears had been spotted in the area, and it warned campers to follow food storage protocols, or this area risked being closed to campers. I’d always thought the bear canisters were a protection against mice, so this came as a surprise.

We passed quite a few day trippers on our way out, as well as some rangers heading toward the coast to check in on park guests. It’s astonishing to reflect back on this. As we hiked along the boardwalks, we passed others with caution, but not with a 6-foot wide berth. We had masks in our packs, but we didn’t wear them. Today, this seems unthinkable. It’s incredible how much the world changed over the span of a camping trip.

The Westie was patiently waiting for us at the trailhead, now packed with vehicles of day trippers seeking escape from the world of COVID.

El Blanco Beasto, looking tough with its new beefy bumpers. You can see two members of the round of robins that flitted around the lot.

We still had a week of vacation time left, so I suggested we check out Cape Flattery, which is the northwesterly most point in the contiguous United States and is part of the Makah Reservation. Briefly within service range, Seth caught the latest headlines. “There are more than 15,000 known cases in the U.S. now.” That was staggering, and my mind honestly could not compute this number. It had been at 1600 only 7 days prior. The world was changing faster than we could imagine.

As we neared the Makah Reservation, an electric road sign indicated that Neah Bay was closed due to the coronavirus, but we naively pressed on thinking that this closure wouldn’t apply to Cape Flattery. Reaching a road block, Makah law enforcement officers said otherwise, and we felt a bit sheepish in our decision to continue on past the sign. Turning tail, we found a pull out near the water to hole up in the Westie for the night. The new state of the world wasn’t yet entirely tracking. We read books, and I watched a sea lion slap an enormous salmon from side to side, unsure if it was playing or just taking its sweet old time dispatching its dinner.

The next morning, as we drove toward Tacoma, we explored our options, even as we passed highway signs that read, “Stay at Home; Save Lives.” We decided to stop at home, swap out some gear, and then head out for some sort of baby jogger/packraft adventure. I think we both questioned how advisable this was, but we still didn’t fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. We decided to sleep on it. The next morning, we awoke to news that Gov. Inslee had imposed a shelter at home order. We complied.

Life in the Time of COVID-19

Fair warning, dear reader: things get quite bleak in the conclusion.

I’ve worked on this trip report in fits and starts over the past 7 weeks (I wrote that sentence in April and am only now publishing this report in August.) It’s just staggering how much has changed in this relatively short amount of time. I’m grateful to have had this brief respite on the coast, this short stay in the wilderness before being confined to my house. At the same time, I think about walking into the gas station at Clallam Bay to pick up snacks for the drive home and wonder if I ended up doing here what I feared doing in Nepal: unintentionally spreading the virus in communities other than my own. Probably not, but the possibility is there, and it forces me to reflect on my choices. True, the state wasn’t under lockdown yet, but it was clear we were headed in that direction. It goes to show how impossible it was to wrap our minds around this new reality. The day to day life that we lived was coming to an end for the foreseeable future, and, yet, we couldn’t entirely see that. Even then, I was already more cautious about what I touched, using hand sanitizer if I couldn’t avoid touching something, and washing my hands nearly obsessively. And, yet, the full force of this pandemic had not fully sunk in, even though the WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th. I suspect it’s the same for many of us in the United States. We’ve not experienced something like this for generations, and we are so accustomed to enjoying a wildly naive sense of being immune to something like a pandemic.

Since this trip to the wilderness, my own life has changed dramatically, although not to the extent of others less fortunate. I still have a job, for now, and I have a home. I have food, and my state allows us to go outside to exercise. On Tuesday, some state lands will reopen for day use. Things in my life could, most assuredly, be worse.

That said, the seven weeks since this trip feel like a lifetime, and like an entirely new life at that. I’m teaching online for the first time and am forced to learn as I go. My students are panicked and attempting to navigate unprecedented circumstances. I’ve not interacted with anyone in person, other than Seth, during this time, save for zoom happy hours and faculty meetings. After a few virtual happy hours, I’ve largely opted out of these new forms of social engagement. They feel like an echo chamber of anxiety, and it’s all too overwhelming for me.

I feel caged, cut off from the wild.

For weeks, most public lands have been closed. We’re asked to travel only for essential reasons, like picking up groceries. Health officials urge us to interact only with people within our own households, and I choose to follow this directive. I turn down invites for “social distance runs.” Going to the grocery store became the source of such incredible anxiety, that I now order online and use the free pickup service (only to be dismayed that the clerk putting the groceries into my trunk wasn’t wearing a mask or gloves.) I wear gloves to carry those groceries to my back step, where I remove the contents of the bags and carry them into the house. I come inside, wash my hands; put away the groceries; disinfect every surface in sight; and wash my hands again. I let the mail and packages sit for a day or two before touching it. I sanitize everything we touch with Clorox wipes that my mother mailed me from Ohio because there have been none in this state since sometime in February. These behaviors make me feel slightly insane. I hold my breath as I pass others on my runs. I run twice a day in a desperate attempt to keep my sanity. I try to manage my stress, which gets compounded by my students’ stress, and my total lack of preparation for teaching online. I spend 8-10 hours a day during the week trying to keep up with my courses, scarcely keeping my head above water. At the end of the day, I feel lobotomized.

I am 9 weeks behind schedule for sending out a book proposal and haven’t mustered the energy to notify the other contributors to this edited collection. I am depressed and full of despair. Hope is a very scarce commodity, and I have it good compared to others (which leads me to feel guilty for the level of anxiety and despair I am experiencing.) Faculty in the know indicate that we won’t get our measly 2% merit raise, and that I probably won’t get my promotion raise (which was to be the one and only actual raise I will get in my career); there’s talk of 15% salary cuts on top of this. I do the math and fall into a tailspin, wondering how I can possibly make ends meet.

Nepal slips further away. I was set to spend the fall and spring there, during my sabbatical, working on the book project of a lifetime. I have little hope of being there in the fall, and even the spring seems unlikely. I gasp inwardly in disbelief that this dream is vanishing. My sabbatical was my one shot at this experience, and there’s little real hope that travel to Nepal will be possible for quite some time. My book, and the experiences I’ve dreamed of using as its foundation, slip through my fingers. I mourn the loss of my life as planned, of this project and all that it entailed. It has kept me afloat through difficult times, and it’s been the beacon motivating me to continue. I am adrift without it and feel paralyzed by how difficult and impossible and hopeless everything seems. I remind myself, constantly, that others have it worse, and the guilt of my self-pity shames me.

All the same, I grieve what seems the inevitable loss of the year that was meant to revive my spirit and to propel me toward completing the book I’ve dreamed of penning. My sense of despair is, at times, suffocating. My motivation to do just about anything wanes. After a long day of putting out fires at work and accomplishing little else, I have nothing left to give. Lacing up shoes and stepping out for a run requires every shred of will. I just want to eat chocolate and skip workouts. Guilt set ins, and I loathe my apathy and inertia.

Repeat, for seven weeks, and counting.

I reflected on how proud of myself I’d always been for being able to endure physical and mental suffering. I could muscle through big pushes in the wilderness; I could finish 100 mile footraces and endure. I was mentally tough, I assured myself, and this was proof. But those were contrived circumstances, and entirely of my own choosing. I could opt out at any time; it was a game I’d invented for myself. I’m now getting a taste of emotional and mental suffering on a very real level. There is no opt out. There is no control. I am at the mercy of this new world and this virus, and these circumstances reveal my hubris and bend me before humility. I am breaking, and my mental toughness is no match for the uncertainty bred by this virus. How privileged am I that this is my first true taste of such utter helplessness.

This post concludes with a new state of mind to reflect a new state of the world. Previously, I’ve always found the silver lining; I’ve always found the lesson that my experience in the wilderness reveals to me, even if hard-learned. I’m left here with little else than a bleak perspective of the world that will emerge from this pandemic, a world in which my dreams are shattered, and in which I am not the strong minded, emotionally resilient person that I believed myself to be. I’m reduced to a human who is suffering emotionally, who will likely suffer financially, and who is coming to terms with the loss of everything that I thought the future held. We will all sacrifice something to this pandemic; some more than others; many more than me.

In this moment, my dreams, and my spirit, are slipping away. I grasp at them, wildly.

[I sat on this concluding section for over a week, thinking I would delete it. I’ve decided to retain it, because it honestly reflects what the past 8 weeks have been like for me. While many people are keeping “Quarantine Journals,” I opted not to. This conclusion will remain, then, as an artifact of my life from this time.]

[And now I’m proofreading this nearly 6 months later and decided to leave it all intact for the same reason.]

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