[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]