by Glenn Nelson
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. – A doe, followed by her fawn, marched straight up a trail I recently was hiking and stopped so close to me, all I had to do was lean slightly and reach out to touch her. Which I didn’t, of course. The night before, I encountered a herd of Roosevelt Elk crossing a road on which I was driving in near pitch-darkness. When I stopped to watch them pass, I was treated for the first time in my life to a symphony of otherwordly bugling.
After a summer of reintroducing myself to Mount Rainier National Park, I returned to Olympic National Park for a couple fall days, and was reminded of how thoroughly different the vibe is out on the peninsula.
Rainier is grand and bold, almost hyper-realistic, and challenging. Olympic is muted and more secluded, a place of mossy, lichen-kissed rainforests, sheltered ocean beaches with their almost-surreal sea stacks, salmon-enriched rivers and eminently accessible waterfalls, plus species of animals that exist only there.
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Each place is strongly tied to Native cultures, but Olympic perhaps more so because of the diversity of its landscapes and ecosystems. That, plus its almost whispering presence, invokes a sense of magic and mysticism – an aura reinforced by my recent experiences there.
Both happened near Lake Quinault. I’d started at the supposed, slam-dunk-elk-sighting Hoh Rainforest. I’ve never seen Roosevelt Elk near the visitor center or campground, where people purportedly see them all the time. But I’ve always seen them on the drive in or out.
Not this time. I scoured both aforementioned areas, hiked five miles up the Hoh River. Nothing. On a very slow roll along the Upper Hoh Road, in and out – nada.
That’s how I ended up at Lake Quinault, and encountered the elk at night along North Shore Drive. Since I couldn’t photograph them, I recorded the eerie bugling with my iPhone. I woke early and found them in the vicinity the next morning.
My original plan was to hike out to Pony Bridge, which crosses the Quinault River, leading into Enchanted Valley. The night before, I read up on the area and noted that it was Black Bear country. I know a lot of people worry about me, and it’s not a good idea to hike alone around bears, mainly because you’re too quiet and might surprise one of the beasts. I decided to skip this.
It’s about a 17-mile drive from the lodge, where I overnighted, to the trailhead at Graves Creek, the last 6.2 miles being a turn off the loop around Lake Quinault. I wanted to at least make that drive because Graves Creek campground is a hangout for elk. On the way there, I stopped at the U.S. Forest Service ranger’s station, just to make sure that drive wasn’t one I should skip. I casually mentioned that I was skipping the hike to Pony Bridge because of the possibility of seeing bears.
“Oh, you should be so lucky to see them,” she said. “But it’s not dangerous. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”
She encouraged me to go and as I left she said the area had never had a bear attack. She then knocked on wood, which unsettled me, but not enough to skip the hike.
The 6.2-mile drive to the trailhead is spectacular, worth doing on its own. It had a calming effect, but I still was wary when I hit the trail. Spotting the Blacktail Deer startled me. I had my camera out, but didn’t snap a picture for a long while because I just couldn’t believe they were walking right up to me.
“You’re not really going to walk right up to me, are you?” I asked out loud.
They did, then stopped and stared. And I had the overwhelming sense that it was my late, great friend Susan Cronin. She was an unreformed hippie who talked to me frequently about auras, spirits and mysticism. The moment after she died, I felt a rush of air pass through me, and behind me a list that had been pinned to a bulletin board was dislodged and fluttered to the floor. It was a list of side effects and negative interactions of the medications Susan was taking, and we hated whenever the nurse would add to it. She kicked its ass on her way out of this world.
The deer hopped off the trail, crossed over the log (a scene I came to my senses in time to record), then hopped back on the trail behind me. They stopped and looked at me for a while. I had the strong sense that the doe was telling me, “You’re going to be OK.” It made me weep to feel Susan’s presence so strongly, but I also oddly felt complete reassured.
When I stopped back at the station to thank the ranger for encouraging me to take the hike, I told her about the encounter with the deer.
“Are you positive they weren’t elk?” the ranger asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “I definitely know the difference.”
That’s weird,” she said. “We almost never see deer in that area.”