A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Month: August 2020

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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