Huge seastacks loom out of the frequent fog, adding to the hazards for early explorers looking for the Northwest Passage along the Pacific coast. The bodies of hundreds of trees lay strewn on the beaches, their carcasses resembling the bleached bones of gigantic mastodons.
Further inland, in the western valleys of the Olympic Mountains, intrepid explorers found dark, dank forests where rain is measured in feet. Spruce, Douglas fir, red alder, and hemlock live for centuries on the rotting remains of downed trees called nurse logs. Moss drapes everything, creating ghostly forms. The early explorers feared the rain forest.
It was an impenetrable place of danger where ferns and trees grew to Olympic proportions, and cannibals hid in the lush underbrush, unseen and unheard over the steady drip of the rainforest.
As you enter the Hoh Rain Forest, you’re surrounded by thick, moss-draped woods and are struck by the gothic images. Tree roots spread out like giant tentacles, enveloping boulders in their search for soil. Struck by lightning and quickly covered by moss, stumps take on the appearance of gargoyles.
Giant burls appear to have eyes that follow your progress to the Hoh River. Ferns, lichens, and mushrooms grow on the bark of the trees, adding to their spooky appearance. Yellow and black slugs mature to six inches in length, gorging themselves on oyster mushrooms and other delicacies that thrive on the backs of the monolithic trees.
John Muir came to this ancient forest in 1889, and in 1909 his compatriot Teddy Roosevelt made the Olympic Peninsula a national monument. Franklin Roosevelt ignored the pressures by the logging industry and created the Olympic National Park in 1938. Today, tourists can walk trails through the Hall of Moss and the Hoh River Trail in hours or days instead of the months taken by early expeditions burdened by fear and whiskey. (Speaking of whiskey, the town of Forks deserves mention as a watering hole and rest stop. It’s a fungus on the top of the peninsula, but as a timber town, is arguably a necessary blight.)
Following the Hoh River, you can soon see the Olympic Mountains. Mt. Olympus and The Brothers rise up out of the valley, their snow-capped peaks creating a startling contrast with the dark, green forests and brilliantly colored wild flower meadows. Looking beyond the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson and the awe inspiring visage of Mt.
Rainier serve as anchor pins on the horizon of the Cascade volcanoes. Starting in the parking lot of the Paradise Inn and looking up at the blue ice of the Nisqually glacier of Rainier, one wonders at the beauty of both its form and the alpine meadows that surround it.
Lavender lupine, pink and red paintbrush, and fuscia fireweed wave in tribute to its glistening white splendor. Flowering Towhead Babies tickle the meadows. Their punk hairdos and fat, saucy shapes lend a puckish appearance to the landscape.
Wild streams and waterfalls cascade down its face, feeding the White and Nisqually Rivers and turning them milky white with “glacier piss”. Mt. Rainier is over a million years old and is the sleeping beauty of the Cascade Range. Its last eruption was approximately 5,800 years ago.
In contrast, Mt. St. Helens, which lies to the south of Rainier, is the young dragon lady of the Cascades. Its graceful cone blew off in 1980, blackening the sky and raining ash over eastern Washington and as far away as Montana. Everything was destroyed for one hundred fifty miles, and fifty-nine people lost their lives. Today, you can walk to Spirit Lake and view the destruction. On your way, you pass young forests springing up through the fertile ash and serving as a reminder of nature’s endurance. Mountain climbers carrying pick axes and ropes walk up the paved trails of Rainier to the less friendly glacier-covered rock faces.
At the top, Rainier sometimes gives a lazy sigh through steam vents to warm the climbers after a cold journey. Those who make it to the top of the crater rim become part of the 7,000 climbers who annually view the entire Ring of Fire. From their lofty perch, they can gaze at the icons from whose bowels sprang the very elements of life. Trees, elk, salmon and thousands of other plants and animals were created from the hot breath of these Dragons of the Northwest.
Written and photographed by Paula Laubner Lechten
All Photos are Copyrighted © Paula Laubner Lechten.
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