Though my husband is a veteran, Veteran’s Day never finds him dashing off to get one of the countless freebies offered by so many appreciative businesses. An Air Force retiree, but still working, he is one of those lucky people to have Veteran’s Day off – which always calls for a special activity, just the two of us. Usually away from any crowds. This year, we set off for a hike on the Olympic Peninsula.
Maybe, you have heard of the Staircase Rapids? That’s where we were headed for, and beyond. We had been there only a few days earlier and paid a steep 30-dollar-fee to park at the Staircase Ranger Station. But the ticket was good for seven days – so we decided to really out it to use. The Sunday before, the mountain tops had already been sugared over with snow – now, the snow line had moved even lower. We had foreseen this and brought gloves and warm hats, along with hiking sticks and cramps for our shoes, just in case.
Our hike started with crossing the North Fork Skokomish, a totally clear river that springs at Mount Skokomisch, feeds Lake Cushman, and reaches Hood Canal in Hoodsport. We crossed the wide bridge spanning it and briskly hiked into the woods. This time of the year, the area is more humid than normally, the air is crisper, and the ground is abundant with mushrooms all shapes and colors. The rushing of the river is a constant companion on one’s way up the Staircase Rapid Loop. Every few hundred yards, you reach an outlook over the river, as it boils and plunges down between massive boulders, creates quiet, sandy pools, then regains speed, and precipitates down the next cascade. It’s an impressive spectacle in turquoise, teal, and white, accentuated by yellow foliage in the dripping evergreen rainforest, culminating in crossing a hanging bridge to the northern bank of the Skokomish River.
A few yards further on, the trail splits. You can either continue and finish the 2.1-mile loop or go up the river further on into the Olympic wilderness. Which is what my husband and I did this time. We would still walk the rest of the loop on our way back. Our path went gently uphill, affording us some fantastic vistas of the river below and the mountains on its other side. The farther up we went, the more often we ran into rocky places. There were little creeks spanned by wooden planks; in one or two cases we had to ford, searching our way across stepping stones. After 2.4 miles, we reached Spike Camp (which even has a privy), a place campers can probably only use with a back-country permit. On we went, for our ambition was to reach Big Log Camp. It was an easy, though longwinded hike. At Madeline Creek, I almost balked, though. There was a beautiful waterfall and pool on one side, but the precipice on the other was stunning, and the idea of crossing on a leveled, wet tree trunk with huge gaps between the railing made my knees wobble. I was literally frozen after a few steps, vertigo kicking in hard with my wild imagination of what might happen if … (And you know that, as a writer, I’m prone to wild imagining.) In the end (and thanks to my husband’s patience) I crossed over, hanging on to the railing on both sides, muttering a hundred quick prayers, and staring straight at my husband, who was waiting on the other side. The ford below wouldn’t have been an option – the water rushes through way too wildly.
We continued and reached Donohue Creek after a while, only to meet the next challenge, another leveled tree trunk bridging the water. The trunk was wet and slightly slanted, but with tiny steps sideways, we made it to the other side and stood at the access path to Big Log Camp about maybe ten minutes later. We didn’t climb down. By that time, we were starving, and we knew we were running out of time. You need to be aware that the late fall sun sets quickly in the mountains, and that hiking rocky paths in the dusk is not such a great idea.
So, we turned around, facing a 5.3-mile walk back to the ranger station. At Donohue Creek, we ate our lunch – we always carry food, water, extra clothing, and what not. This time, I wasn’t as scared anymore to cross over Donohue Creek; even Madeline Creek was almost a breeze. But the sun hid behind the clouds, and two hours went past quickly. The forest became quite dusky in places.
Finally, we reached the Staircase Loop Trail again and followed down the path through lighter and level rain forest. We crossed a creek by ways of balancing another tree trunk without railings, then the Skokomish River by way of a tree trunk with a one-sided railing. After that, it was a steeper climb over the ridge of a hill to reach the ranger station and its parking lot again.
Let’s face it, 11.6 miles are quite a little hike for half-seasoned hikers like we are. My feet are still blistered, my muscles are still a bit sore. You have to be sure-footed and adventurous to a degree. You definitely need good hiking shoes and, this time of the year, warm clothing. But the memories one makes will surely outlast the pain.