Tumbling down from the craggy summits of the Olympic Mountains, the rivers of Olympic National Park are as wild and scenic as anywhere in the world. Fueled by glaciers, melting snowpack and endless deluges of rain, the waterways of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic peninsula are our lifeblood. Water transforms the region into a hydrological wonderland- a land where being damp and wet means you are home. For thousands of years, the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula were a source of food and remained mostly untouched. The riverbanks shifted through the valleys in which they ran, swinging wildly back and forth, searching for the lowest point to reach the ocean.
Last century, rivers were viewed different than how their ancestors viewed them. In the 1900s, rivers became something to “harness,”- a source to create power and electricity, fueling our modern life. One river on the Olympic Peninsula experienced thousands of years of freedom before becoming dammed for over 100 years. Luckily, the dam was removed and the mighty Elwha River was once again free and wild.
It is the Elwha where I hiked with my grandfather one wet spring day a few years ago. I had been visiting them in Sequim and was itching to go on a hike. Like me, my grandpa is an explorer at heart and also was eager to go hiking with his youngest grandchild. I hadn’t been to the Elwha for quite awhile, and when he suggested taking a trip out to that river, I was overjoyed. Not only would I be hiking with my grandfather, but I would also be walking one of the most famous rivers in America. The dams of the Elwha had been just recently removed and its name was all over the lips of conservationalists.
We left early in the morning, after watching a gorgeous sunset. Our destination was to hike to Michael and the Humes Cabin, then catch a glimpse of Goblins Gate before returning to the car. The car ride is no longer in my memory banks, as the conversation was just a way to pass the time until we reached wilderness. We were both excited. Hiking the Elwha is like walking through a Time Machine that is running backwards. Each step you take upstream, the farther away from modern society you get.
We got out of the car and started hiking. We were hiking 7.5 miles in beautiful wilderness that day, so there wasn’t a moment to waste. A light rain was falling and the temperature was still chilly, but within a quarter mile or so, we warmed up. Second growth forests, perfectly dissected by the wet trail, soon gave way to larger trees, towering high above the two wanderers trekking below. We soon reached the junction at 1.2 miles and decided to stick left, heading to the Michael’s Cabin. We stopped and chatted, took a few pictures and headed on. We soon reached the famous Humes Cabin. Built in 1900, the Humes Cabin was used in the 1940s Disney movie, titled “Olympic Elk.” My grandpa and I stayed here for quite awhile, catching up and eating a snack before heading down to the river.
I remember this moment best of all. Hiking with my grandpa along the Elwha, I couldn’t help but think of how lucky of a life I had. I was in good health, with good genes. My 80+ year old grandfather was hiking quickly, easily keeping up with me, if not going a little faster. I hadn’t really hiked with him in decades, and nothing this long since we backpacked across the Olympics when I was a teenager. On that trip, it was my grandpa, my parents, and my sister hiking with me. This time, it was just the two of us.
We had climbed Mt St Helens together in the 1980, with stories and inside jokes that have remained for decades, but this trip along the Elwha was just as special to me. It was the first time, as an adult, that we had gone on an adventure together and it was great. We would talk about life, the history of the Olympics, share hiking stories and just bond like family members do. Stopping and watching elk, looking for eagles in the trees, my grandpa and I got to be two guys out in nature, enjoying the splendor found on our public lands.
As we continued downstream along the Elwha, the conversation dwindled as we became overwhelmed by the immense beauty of this majestic river. By the time we reached Goblins Gate, a sharp right corner taken by the Elwha River through a rocky gorge, the silence was replaced with the roar of the Elwha. Here, looking over Goblins Gate, I gave him a hug. It was a magical day of hiking in the silence of the Olympics with my grandfather.
The Elwha is the place where I felt closer with the older generation of my family. It is a place of history and beauty, happiness and overwhelming wilderness. It is wild and free. Today, the Elwha is struggling to find the old channels it used to run, searching frantically for a welcome route to handle the raging waters of fall storms and spring runoff. Often flooding, the Elwha has wiped out campgrounds from the maps of Olympic National Park, but that is a good thing. The Elwha is returning to nature and once again bonding with its roots.
*This post was written in one hour for the first #NatureWritingChallenge.
For more information this hike or more of our 52 Olympic Peninsula Hikes, head over to our page dedicated to the book. (Will be updated ASAP)