We hiked a river on the eastern slopes of the Olympic Range. Loggers have had their way with the lower stretches of the Big Quilcene river; only a few patches of old growth remain. Throughout most of its length, small Douglas Firs stand by the side of the trail, their light green needles shimmering in the sun or dark green in the mist.
On this trail Hikers never travel far from the sound of the river, though the path runs a good mile before finally taking you down to the water’s side. The river runs west to east, toward Hood Canal; the trail starts to the north of the river and several hundred yards above it. Hiking west into the mountains, the trail descends gently, while the river rises to meet it.
When Margie and I hiked it yesterday the big hills and snow capped mountains that stand over the river valley were hidden in the mist, their peaks visible only briefly when the rain shadow tore through the clouds to reveal the blue sky.
The mist and the rain suits the Quilcene, though on the protected eastern slopes of the Olympics the habitat can no longer be called a rain forest. The trees are rarely more than four or five feet across — small by the standards of the great Hoh Rain forest on the western slopes of the range.
Throughout most of the year the rain here is not heavy, but it is constant in the winter months. There is enough water to ensure that Greens and grays predominate, and the rocks in the clear black river are an iridescent lime hue.
When the trail reaches the river, the small 15 or 20 year old Douglas Firs yield to old growth. The change is dramatic, the big Douglas Firs and the occasional Cedar towering above us, the lower canopy transformed by their deep shade.
Wooden bridges cross the river in several places, giving us unobstructed views of the water as we stand above the rushing flood and contemplate the river’s might. The rushing water is at once powerful and restful. The big firs know the same secret. One leans against their bulk knowing that there are more rings in their trunks than there are years since Columbus landed in the New World.
The trail itself is easy to navigate. There are no switchbacks, no steep climbs. In places slides from the heavy winter storms block the trail, and trees blown down by the fierce winter winds lay across our path.
Spring opened the buds on the trees and bushes we passed when driving to the trail head. But at this elevation the new season is still dormant. We pass rhododendron bushes, but their buds are still closed tight.
We turned around about three miles in, just as the old growth gave way two a twenty year old clear cut. Our guide book, written in the early eighties, described the area as desolate, but now firm young trees stand by the river, ready to take their turn at nurturing the soil and protecting wild life.
On the way back home we had one last visual treat. A lake stood by the side of the road, the foothills of the Olympics behind it. The farmland around the lake lay quiet in the evening mist, but very different from the wild rough and tumble of the old growth forest.
The sun set, and the wind and rain whipped across Puget Sound as we took the ferry back to Seattle. Only a few of us stood up on the bow, watching the lights of the city shine like bright stars against the black hills. The Space Needle stood tall and straight, and the harbor sparkled in the wet night air.