Across the Olympics, Day 13: Old Growth and Avalanche Tracks

August 10, 2017
Graves Creek CG to Sundown Lake
Graves Creek Trail

1.

No alarm today, and no reason to rush, so I half sleep through all my neighbors packing up. It’s eleven before I even leave the tent.

By the time I get breakfast stuff together, the place is basically empty. The only group left is half a dozen Girl Scouts and their leader, having brunch on the rocks along the river. They’re essentially the opposite of the Boy Scouts I saw at Deception Creek: laughing, taking turns trying to drink river water through a Life Straw, skipping rocks… Two literally dance off to the bathroom, doing an utterly endearing combination of jumping jacks and patty cake, chirping some private language.

As the group’s heading out, the leader comes over, and asks if I want any of their leftover food. I tell her I’m all set, but then, awkwardly, also say how nice it was to see them all having fun, after the Boy Scouts I saw last week. She grimaces. “Yea.” She shakes her head. “We’re not training them for the army.” A long pause to consider the river. “Anyway,” she looks down at my watermelon Dirty Girls, “I love you your gaiters.”

2.

It’s early afternoon by the time I finally leave the campground. It’s a short walk up to the Graves Creek Trailhead, then across the Graves Creek Bridge. This used to be an old road, which stretched a couple miles further up, to Pony Bridge. But there was a washout or something, and now it’s a trail. That seems like a common story here: the roads get shorter and the trails longer. The wilderness keeps growing. It’s one of my favorite things about this place.

We tend to hold what I think of as a virginal conception of wilderness: wilderness as an untouched Eden, as the Wilderness Act has it, a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” But I wonder if this is too narrow. A lot of the places we think of as wild have been repeatedly settled and scarred by civilization. They contain old roads, old buildings, the moldering remains of whole communities. They are overgrown, but not untrammeled.

The virginal conception is primarily backward-looking. Wilderness is defined by the purity of its history, its eternal escape from the ravages of civilization. But maybe there is also room for a conception of wilderness that looks forward, for wild places that are not pure or untouched, but which we have promised to let go on their own ways, away from us and toward the wild, even if their wildness will never be perfect.

3.

I leave the old road right after the bridge, and start up the Graves Creek Trail. It’s immediately overgrown with a luxuriant understory of fern and a thousand things I can’t name. The trail climbs first through stands of old cedars, then reaches a bench above Graves Creek, and enters an old growth forest of fir and hemlock. I wander through as the trail fades in and out. Graves Creek’s flowing loudly a few hundred feet below, echoing up its deep, unseen ravine.

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Beyond the bench, the trail traverses several old avalanche shoots, all overgrown with salmonberry and slide alder. There are minor washouts, some of which require a little scrambling over loose rock or dirt, but after the Skyline, it almost feels like a maintained trail.

Every now and then, Graves Creek comes into view, a rushing torrent flowing down falls and over fallen rock and trees. It reminds me of a wilder Eagle Creek. And there are feeder creeks, cascading down from an unnamed ridge across the way.

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In a few miles, the trail descends to an unbridged crossing of Graves Creek. The water’s rushing and high, but it’s spanned by several small fallen logs a little upstream. I bushwhack up, cross using the logs for handholds, then walk along the shallow edge back down to the trail on the other side.

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A few miles later, there’s another crossing, but in the interim the creek’s become a gentle mountain stream, and I walk across easily, water barely up to my shins.

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Entering the Graves Creek Basin, the trail fades to a subtle indent in seemingly endless fields of salmonberry, which stretch from the creek to the tops of unseen hills. There’s old flagging here and there, but its relationship to the actual route is, at best, eccentric. Still, I find my way through, and switchback up to increasingly open meadows watered by increasingly mellow streams. Then there are flowers, bushes and bushes of columbine. And bugs. Some of the most aggressive flies I’ve met all trip.

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4.

I reach Lake Sundown in the mid-afternoon, accompanied by a crowd of biting flies that’s been following me for what feels like miles. I set up quickly in an old and overgrown but obvious spot, strip, and run into the water. The flies follow. I swim underneath for as long as I can hold my breath, out into the middle of the lake, but they’re always there when I come back up, waiting to bite at my forehead.

It’s ridiculous. So ridiculous that I have to just laugh. And then there’s this feedback: hearing myself laugh, and imaging what I must look like—this ludicrous human, laughing and treading water in the middle of this grand mountain lake—makes me laugh more.

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I swim back, run into the tent, and zip myself in. Bugs buzz loudly all around. The sound reminds me of powerlines, the big high voltage ones back home, which I once mistook for a chainsaw. But I’m safe in my muggy tent.

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5.

The afternoon passes slowly, but eventually it’s evening, and the flies fall away, off to wherever flies spend the night. I leave the tent, finally, and eat dinner along the shore, pacing to avoid the mosquitoes that the flies apparently tagged in on their way out.

This all feels weirdly, I don’t know, almost anticlimactic. But that’s not quite right. It feels different than I was expecting. This is my second-to-last night. Last year on the PCT, my second-to-last night was overwhelming, all advanced nostalgia at the end I knew was coming. But this time, it feels almost routine.

I finish dinner and retreat again to the tent to write Krista my nightly letter. The whole process is familiar: trying to balance the journal on my sleeping pad; the too bright light that reflects from my headlamp of the unnaturally white paper; how much worse my handwriting is out here than at home; whispering the lines first, to see if they sound alright; staring out of the tent midway through, to imagine her, at home, reading. It’s familiar, and unfailingly the best part of my day.

I finish, and try to get a handle on this strange thing I’m feeling. Maybe anticlimactic isn’t the right word. I’m almost done. I’m coming home again. At the end of the PCT, it felt like the end of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, the fading light of a miracle. But now it’s the everyday sunset, the twilight walk home, the familiar click of our front door lock. It’s the last song on my favorite album, or Krista’s voice, welcoming me back. “Hey sweets! What’s for dinner? I’m hungry!”

3 thoughts on “Across the Olympics, Day 13: Old Growth and Avalanche Tracks

    1. Hey, thanks so much! I’ve somehow avoided Mosquito Misery in the North Cascades, but I did spend a couple days hiding from some seriously insistent black flies around Park Creek Pass.

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