Far from the Crowd

Those who dwell. . . among the beauties and mysteries of life are never alone.

Rachel Carson

The spring after my disappointing hike of the Washington section of the PCT ( see last week’s post, Still Hiking with Leah), I went on a backpacking trip in early May up the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. That beautiful river valley is one of my favorites, and I had an agenda. I wanted to find out whether or not I was still a backpacker. Since I could not imagine being anything else, this was an important quest for me.

I chose a week with rain in the forecast, not at all unusual for spring in the Olympics. I had hoped that the rain would keep other hikers away. I wanted to discover whether solitude was still possible on a mountain trail. It was.

The Elwha River flows north from the Low Divide into the Straits of Juan de Fuca. In the summer time it is a popular hiking destination, as are most of the park’s magnificent trails. The long river valleys are low enough in elevation that it is possible to hike long distances before climbing to the high country and consequently are snow free most of the year. The route serves as an alternate route on the Pacific Northwest Trail, though most hikers choose a higher one, which I have always thought was unfortunate. There is an abundance of beautiful high country on the PNT, but a walk through Olympic old growth forest is something rare and special.

My plan had been to spend a full week on the trail, rain or shine. When I left the trailhead at Whiskey Bend I saw a few hikers on my way to Elkhorn Meadow, where I spent my first night. It did not start raining until the following day, which sent most of the hikers back down the trail, just as I had planned.

The next day I continued to my destination, Camp Wilder, about twenty miles up the trail and the site of an old trail shelter. It was raining lightly, so I set up my tent hastily and then made myself comfortable in the shelter. I had not seen another hiker since I left Elkhorn Meadow that morning. The rain fell lightly on the roof of the old shelter, and there were a few leaks here and there, but I was able to avoid them. I fixed myself a pot of tea and sat in the shelter, warm and dry, watching the tree limbs bend with the weight of the rain, remembering why it is I go into the mountains alone.

The next day I had planned to day hike as far as I could up the trail towards the Low Divide, but the steady rain continued, and I could not think of a good reason to leave the protection of the shelter and the satisfying camp I had created, so I picked up the book I had brought with me, a new collection of essays by Mary Oliver, appropriately named Upstream. I had completed it by afternoon, so I read it again.

So went my days. I spent three of them in the shelter and saw no one at all during that time. I remember thinking about the thru hikers I had met the following summer, how they were always in a hurry. This is what had been missing for me on the PCT even more than solitude. I had become one of those eager hikers, unable to savor the beauty of a special place because I always wanted to be in some other place. . .the next campsite, the next resupply point, the Canadian border.

There was a time in my life, as a single mother with a career, when getting someplace was a worthwhile agenda, but I had been retired for four years when I made this trip. I was just figuring it out. I had that abundant gift of time. I was in a shelter in the forested valley of the Elwha River. I did not want to be anyplace else.

Something changed for me on that trip. Yes, I was still a backpacker, but it now meant something different. It was no longer a way to get from one campsite to another and to check off the miles. It was instead a way to get to a beautiful place and stay there, to discover its hiding places, to learn what the river has to teach me. . .upstream.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

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