Explored by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 and designated a National Park by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, the rugged coastline and temperate rainforest of the Olympic National Park has long captured my imagination. The adventurer in me wanted to explore the South Coast territory in celebration of my 45th birthday. Joining me on this trip and celebrating his milestone birthday was my long-time friend, Clay Ballard. I researched trip reports, did a few training hikes, and acquired all the necessary equipment. What was supposed to be an epic four day backpacking trip, became a scramble for life.
September 13, 8:10 a.m.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news”, said the Park Ranger, “You’ll have to hike all day to make it to Mosquito Creek by tonight. If you miss the low tide tomorrow morning, you’re stuck out there until next Wednesday.”
Stuck out on the wilderness coast for a week.
Not at all what we were expecting to hear. Clay and I looked at each other and wondered if we should change our plans, but we’d already reserved the shuttle that would take us to the Third Beach trailhead. The Park Ranger suggested hitchhiking our way back if we needed to cut it short, but it was still a 10 mile walk from highway 101 to the Oil City trailhead where our car was parked. With no other choice, we decided to proceed as planned.
In the midst of getting our permits and bear canisters, a couple walked through the door reporting a cougar on the trail. They managed to back away safely, but were still in a state of shock. They believed it was protecting a fresh kill. The news made us uneasy as we’d seen a bear cub crossing the road earlier that morning - a warning that momma bear was nearby.
Arriving at the Third Beach trailhead, Clay and I zipped through the 1.5 mile forest trail in twenty-five minutes. We made an assumption - which one should never do out in the wilderness - that the forest trails would be relatively flat. Other than ascending and descending the *headlands using ropes, we felt confident we could complete 10 miles before nightfall as we’ve both hiked more than that in a day.
Five miles in and our knees started to ache - the result of 25 lb backpacks. We climbed another set of ropes along the steep muddy trail. Unlike the beginning, this section had constant ups and downs. Once we descended on the beach, we took a quick nap, ate a snack, and continued.
We noticed the variety of ropes set out by other hikers throughout the years. The ropes aren’t maintained by the National Park Services and they’re in poor condition. Some are frayed, badly worn down, or dangling from flimsy tree branches. There was either rotting wood or pieces missing to the makeshift ladders. Rappelling down cliffs was nerve-racking. One bad move and we’d plummet to our death. Our stress level increasing with every new challenge, we tried to keep a level head.
Toleak Point was our ‘mental’ halfway mark at 7.5 miles. After a brief Facebook Live check-in, we scurried to the next headland. Confronted with a 60 ft. rock wall, we couldn’t find the ropes. Sunset was at 6:54 p.m. and we were cutting it close. Minutes later, we found the ropes and began our climb. Quickly losing light, we had a 1.5 mile hike through the forest to get to Mosquito Creek, our destination for the night.
Nowhere near the end of this trail and once again we encountered steep climbs, more ropes, and a new element to the game - mud.
Knee-deep, boot-sucking mud.
Trudging through mud was brutal. Our boots got heavier adding more weight to our bodies. As much as we tried to avoid hiking at night, there was no way around it and the quiet, still forest seemed eerie. Headlamps on and our senses heightened, we stumbled into a creek.
We totally forgot there were three creeks to cross. Ankle to knee deep crossings with currents. The trails on the other side of the creeks were difficult to locate not only because it was dark, but we had to bushwack through some brush to get to them.
Clay was worried that I was falling behind. My body in pain, I couldn’t keep up and much to his chagrin I said, “look, I just can’t go any faster. I’m afraid I’ll lose my traction and injure myself, and that would make things worse.”
(Words from a person who’s been alone in the woods with a broken ankle)
There was a huge sigh of relief coming to the end of the forest trail, but a horrendous gasp soon followed. Rappelling in the dark with wet gloves and limited visibility is bad news and it was an 80 ft. descent to the beach.
Holy hell. How are we going to do this?
A measly rope rubbing against jagged rocks. Clay was a nervous wreck slipping throughout the descent. I soon followed. A few feet down, I lost my footing and swung towards the rock wall hitting my left rib.
“AHHH! GODDAMN THIS SHIT!” I yelled.
Desperately hanging on, I wrapped the rope around my arms to get a better grip. I made it down with rope burns, no doubt. Clay and I took a moment to calm our nerves and searched for a place to camp. We hadn’t made it to Mosquito Creek much to our disappointment, but we had to rest.
Having no experience in wilderness beach camping, we looked at the variations in the sand. Tightly packed sand meant the tide came up to that point. So we kept walking until we found soft ground.
It’s amazing to think how sheer exhaustion impedes one’s ability to do the simplest things. Clay and I practiced setting up the tent our friends let us borrow in a record 10 minutes, but that night it took us nearly an hour!
What. The. Fuck.
We didn’t even bother to eat. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Clay put the bear canister far away from our camp. Not making it to Mosquito Creek meant we had to wake up even earlier to make it there before sunrise. Wake up call was 3:00 a.m.
Sleeping in short spurts made for a restless night. Several things plagued our already exhausted minds - missing the alarm, the tide flooding our tent, or being poked and prodded by the local wildlife. Oddly enough at some point, I fell into a wondrous dream state soothed by the crashing waves. As for Clay, he was being eaten alive by the multitude of sand fleas on the beach.
September 14, 3:15 a.m.
God, it hurt to get up, but glad we made it through the night. Clay and I didn’t say much. It was a bit chillier that morning and our boots soaking wet. The one thing we did remember to bring was plenty of fresh warm socks. We packed up and headed out.
I’ve never done a night hike on the coast before and the stars were amazing. Tiny light bulbs illuminating the indigo sky. It felt like we were floating in space. Witness to a cosmic miracle, it was a reminder of the smallness of humans. Long ago, Mariners relied on the stars to navigate the seas. Now I was relying on them to get me home.
Turns out we were closer to Mosquito Creek than previously assumed. With time to spare, we huddled up against a rock and fell asleep awaiting the sunrise. I kept my headlamp on and occasionally looked across the creek and into the forest we’d be traversing in a couple of hours. I saw some red glowing eyes among the trees. Was it an owl? A cougar? Or maybe...Bigfoot?
We decided to enjoy a cup of coffee and a breakfast bar before we embarked on our final leg. Clay channeled his inner caveman and made a nice fire. We sat in silence listening to the crackling flames, grateful for the warmth.
Sunrise. We’re late.
We should’ve started our final 3.5 mile hike in the woods by 6 a.m., but we didn’t want to take a chance doing it in the dark again. After crossing Mosquito Creek, we hit the trail running. The flat terrain the first half mile was an absolute delight. It gave us a chance to pick up speed, but the wilderness soon toyed with us again. Ropes. Cliffs. Mud. Rinse and repeat.
A MOTHERFUCKIN’, BITCH-SLAPPIN’, RELENTLESS TEASE!
Now, both of us were out of water. My head was spinning and the shakes were full on. Clay was experiencing painful leg cramps, his eyes glazed over. Delirious, we both checked our water supply hopeful there was one last drop in there somewhere. He asked me to grab the map from his backpack, but I could barely pull the zipper down. A dizzy spell came over me and I grabbed Clay’s arm nearly losing my balance.
This was no joke. We were in trouble.
“We’ve got one hour to get out of the woods to make the low tide”, said Clay.
My lips dry and on the verge of tears, I kept going as the pain intensified. There were short respites of flat trail here and there, but everytime we heard the waves crashing below thinking we’d made it to the beach, the winding trails took us deeper into the woods. I lost sight of Clay and heard him scream “GODDAMN IT, MORE TRAIL!”
In all my years of knowing Clay, I’ve never seen him in a desperate state.
We should’ve been crossing the low tide off Jefferson Cove by now. To put my mind at ease, I tried to embrace the beauty of my surroundings.
The Hoh Rainforest. A mysterious and haunting place. The thin veil of mist makes you wonder what lurks behind the trees. Deep, dark woods rich with Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, moss, ferns, huckleberries, and more. Home to a band of Quileutes Indians known as The Hoh River Indians, legends says The Chalat’ “Those-Who-Live-on-the-Hoh” were created along the river by K’wati, the shape-shifting “Changer” who went around the world making things as they are today.
Daydreaming through the monotonous walk, I stepped onto a fresh pile of shit. Clay noticed and turned around to ask me if I thought it was bear scat. We saw lots of large animal tracks and came to the realization that we were hiking through blueberry bushes. - lots of them.
Aw, hell. Get out!
Forty-eight minutes late and in panic mode. One final rappel to go.
Clay thought we just had to get to the end of the beach and we were home free, but I remembered reading about the two mile stretch crossing barnacle covered boulder fields. The waves crashing at 4 ½ ft.
The new challenge - not drowning.
Clay got well ahead of me, but I held my own steady pace. I fell a few times and scratched my legs. It was 11:42 a.m. and the tide was coming in. I had a quarter mile more to go. I looked for the areas with the least amount of rocks and counted the waves. Going into the water when the waves were at their lowest, I figured it was the only way to move faster.
Clay stopped moving and stared at me. His face pale and emotionless.
It was over. We’d made it to the mouth of the Hoh River.
We didn’t die.
Still in disbelief, I turned around and looked back at the seemingly serene, yet hellish terrain we’d traversed. We had one more mile to the car, but I needed to stop and rest. My muscles cramping and the joints in my legs aching, I sat down on a log and removed my backpack and hiking boots. I felt a cramp in my chest that left me momentarily paralyzed. When the pain subsided, I started to dry heave and bent over to vomit. It was all clear fluid - the result of dehydration.
Limping to our final destination on what seemed to be the longest mile, Clay and I talked about food and an ice cold Coca-Cola. Once we made it to the car, we gave each other a half-hearted high-five. `We spent the night in Forks after inhaling elk burgers, fries, a pizza, and endless refills of ice cold Coca-Cola.
September 15, 3:00 p.m.
We drove to Port Angeles and checked into the RV I had reserved for us on Airbnb.
The RV sat on a cliff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the water was dead calm.
Oh nature, how you mock us.
I cooked a warm meal while Clay washed our gear. The evening was spent playing cards, chatting, and drinking wine.
We talked a lot about what we could’ve done differently on this hike and how close we came to ‘kicking the bucket’. This was by far the most difficult hike we’ve ever done and despite our preparations, we were at the mercy of the wilderness. The 24 hour nightmare seemed all like a dream now. We were even a little sad to be going home the next day.
“Do you have any regrets about this adventure?” I asked.
“No,” said Clay, taking a sip of wine. “But would you do it again?”
“Nah.” I said with a grin.
“Yeah, me neither.” said Clay, grinning back.
*headland: a narrow piece of land that projects from a coastline into the sea.