People and Places

Welcome to the Olympic Peninsula

Posted on June 3, 2012

On our first full day in Washington we woke up to dark gray skies and light rain, just the weather we expected.  I wandered down to the Starbucks in the hotel lobby and ordered a medium (I refuse to use their dumb serving size names – it’s a medium, not a “grande”) coffee that was prepared in the Clover.  What’s a Clover?  It’s sort of an industrial French press coffee maker that Starbucks has now rolled out to about 250 of its stores, the number of stores in approximately one Seattle neighborhood from what I can tell.  My Guadalupe special blend tasted awfully good and seemed worth the extra dollar. 

This is the most coffee mad place I have ever seen.  There are multiple drive up coffee shacks with names like Mocha Motion and Java Supreme in even the smallest, non-descript towns.  Clothing stores have coffee set out.  In an outdoor goods/grocery store in the gritty, logging town of Forks (more on that later) there is a coffee shop that would put to shame anything we have in NH and they use all sorts of esoteric terms that befuddles a guy who simply wants a cup of black coffee. Terms like a “breve,” a latte that uses half-and-half instead of milk.  Who knew?

Fortified with caffeine, we set out for Pier 52 and the ferry to Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula.  The Washington State Ferry system is extensive, well-run, and a daily part of many people’s commute in and out of Seattle.  I love ferries.  There is something about taking a ferry that feels like leaving the regular world behind.  Prince Edward Island is one of our favorite places in the world and we miss the days when you would reach it by ferry, even if the lines and wait times could be maddeningly long in summer.  The new causeway is fast and efficient, but it has none of the getaway romance of those old ferry boats.  Our 35 minute ferry ride deposited us on Bainbridge and as we headed west on Route 101 the traffic thinned, the trees grew taller, and the Olympic Peninsula (henceforth the OP) welcomed us.

First stop: Sequim.  It is pronounced “Scwim” and was the first of many place names based on Indian words and apparently possessing extra letters.  We are staying at the Kalaloch Lodge, but it is pronounced “Clay-lock.”  The Hoh Rainforest is pronounced….well, it’s pronounced the way it looks, but it produced no end of adolescent jokes (almost all of them from me, I’m ashamed to say).  Sequim is notable for four things:

  • It only gets 17 inches of rain and has 296 sunny days per year, a small island of dry in the water logged OP which gets 160 inches of rainfall on average (even more on the slopes of Mount Olympus);
  • It is the center of a thriving lavender growing industry;
  • It has become a magnet for retirees;
  • It has no good places for lunch.

The last item became grimly apparent as we cruised the main street and quickly returned to 101 and our next stop, the small city of Port Angeles. 

Port Angeles is a working town centered around its port and ferry dock and it like it seems to have two distinct populations if the town’s offerings reveal anything.  There was evidence of poverty: the community health clinic right down town, the range of pawn and consignment shops, and the number of people we saw with meth teeth (the blackened, rotted telltale sign of this rural scourge).  On the other hand, it had a very cool natural foods store with local wines and cheeses and one great place for lunch: the Next Door gastro-pub.  The term comes from England where a new generation of chefs are converting pubs into great restaurants, often with gourmet takes on traditional pub dishes, while keeping their look and feel and attention to beer and wine.  Next Door had the requite gastro-pub blackboard listing their daily specials, local microbrews, and organic food suppliers. Only opened last September, the Next Door had a welcoming feel, a funny waitress, good beer, and terrific food.  We were saved.

After stocking up at the natural foods store – where the tradition of ridiculously nice people continued – we made our way back to the two-lane 104 and our ride across the north of the OP.  It became pretty clear that the OP may be rich in ecosystem, but it is modest in work and wealth.  It is way more the interior of Maine or Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom or NH’s far north than the effete lux of Bar Harbor or California’s coast.  Many of the homes we passed had yards littered with broken down cars and trucks and the only political signs we saw were for Ron Paul.  This is logging country and we quickly sensed the tension between that industry and conservation efforts.  Again and again we passed forests that had signs reading:

  • Cut in 1932 and replanted
  • Cut in 1954 and replanted
  • Cut in 1978 and replanted
  • To be harvested in 2014
  • Working Forests=Working Families

We also passed areas that had been more recently cut and they were abysmal wastelands of brush and roots and torn up ground.  Clear cuts on hillsides looked like a giant razor had been drawn over the landscape.  It’s a pretty ugly assault on the landscape, at least in the immediate aftermath.

There are ways to manage forests better than those suggested in the industrial clear cutting we witnessed.  My brother-in-law is a logger in New Brunswick and he carefully manages his woodlots and uses methods that cause far less damage.  It is analogous to fishing where older methods—using hand lines, for example – don’t deplete fishing stocks, but when industrial fishing comes in its game over.  We saw numerous logging trucks barreling along 104 with enormous logs piled high on double trailers.  Not a vehicle you want on your bumper or meeting you on one of 101’s many tight curves.  Indeed, along Crescent Lake we came upon a terrible accident scene where a truck had clearly been going too fast around a curve, had tipped over, and crushed an oncoming car.  An ambulance left the scene of the accident without siren or speed and while we liked to think it boded well for whoever was in the car, the look of the wreckage suggested otherwise and we quickly changed the subject.

Somehow, two of our party came to the one of the country’s wettest places without raincoats.  While their names are withheld here (one of them does take an XL, ahem), it forced us to stop in the aforementioned town of Forks.  Forks is the setting for the wildly popular teenage Twilight series.  Apparently, the vampires in Twilight sparkle in the sunshine, giving them away (none of the burning flesh of Trueblood for these gentle readers), so Forks seems a perfect place for them – there is never any sunshine according to the young clerk at the Outdoor Outfitters store.  If the bulletin board plastered in pictures of smiling hunters and fishermen is any evidence, what there is in Forks or at least around it is an abundance of elk (in fact, the country’s largest herd of Roosevelt Elk), bear, and salmon.  Huge, takes two guys to hold them up salmon.  But what draws thousands of people to Forks is Twilight and there are Twilight tours, the Twilight Center, and Twilight goods – often advertised with hand written signs in the windows of despairing shops.  Our friendly (of course) clerk said that thousands of fans make the pilgrimage to take photos of the sites mentioned in the books and shown in the movies.  The funny part – and I don’t mean this unkindly to the gentle people of Forks – but there is just not much there.  A single sort of broken down main street, run down looking motels, public restrooms with locks on the toilet paper dispensers.  The author of Twilight apparently picked the town as the setting of her novels without ever seeing it, but she has unwittingly bestowed upon it a fame and newfound prominence altogether out of keeping with its humble reality.

Route 101 makes it way down the west coast of the OP from Forks and we drove the last 30 miles or so to the Kalaloch Lodge getting occasional vistas of the Pacific and the long, empty beach that runs down the coast.  The National Park here is unusual in that it has almost no roads through it, unlike Yellowstone or Glacier.  If you look at a map, 101 rings the park on public and private land, but there are only a handful of short roads that branch off and take you into the park itself and none penetrate very far.  If you want to see it, put on your rain gear and hiking boots and start walking.  Most of the OP’s coast line is now part of the national park as well.   The other interesting aspect of the OP is the number of large Indian reservations of the Makah, Ozette, Quileute, Hoh, and Quinault tribes or nations, as they often say.  We have routinely run into people of Indian decent on the ferry, working in stores, or just on the streets in a way that is so rare in New England (where the tribes were mostly killed off, mostly by diseases for which they had no immunity).

The Kalaloch Lodge is in the national park (and run as a concession by Aramark) and perched on a bluff looking at crashing surf and miles of largely deserted beach.  We have a little cabin right on the edge of the bluff.  It’s not much of a place, though it must be strongly built to withstand the howling storms that smash into this coastline – storm watching is a passion here.  It’s more camp than cabin, a lot of plywood and cobbled together cabinets and the like.  Even as the rain pours down, I write by a window to the sound of the pounding surf below.  There is no television, Internet, cell phone reception and the papers only make their way to this remote outpost by mid-afternoon.  Hannah tried making a call in the public phone booth – a first for her.  We remember when public pay phone were everywhere. The food in the nearby lodge building is not very good, the little general store is over-priced, and the staff has a bit of The Shining in their affect.  But our snug little cabin has all the essentials, including a working fireplace, and the location….well, it is mind blowing. 

By the way, just as Montana has a hundred ways to kill you, so too does the OP apparently.  The beach is littered with enormous pieces of driftwood.  Not the quaint, “let’s bring it home and put it on the coffee table” driftwood of Cape Cod, but huge tree trunks and roots thrown up onto the beach at high tide and bleached by sun and salt (or at least salt).  It looks like a boneyard for dinosaurs – note that my sense of the area’s creepiness has not diminished even as I find it more awe inspiring by the hour.  As we’ve been told by a lodge employee who seemed to relish the telling a bit too much, people stand on these driftwood piles at high tide and are routinely killed when the waves shoot up another tree trunk that either crushes the ill-fated victim or smashes into the pile he or she is standing upon and crushes them that way.  A prominent sign in our cabin reads “Beach Logs Kill” and goes on to explain the danger.

That isn’t the only peril.  At check in we were given a tide chart.   Walk some miles down the beach and forget high tide and you will either be washed out to sea or you’ll scramble up the bluffs into the impenetrable forest to wait some hours, shivering and wet and risking hypothermia no doubt, until the return of low tide and a path back to the lodge.  We have also seen signs about earthquakes and tsunamis. Our guidebook says that one should keep an eye out for rogue waves that routinely come up.  Our map says “If you meet a cougar, pick up small children and shout.” It goes onto say “If you see a cougar or bear tell a ranger.”  I’m pretty sure the ranger will be able to figure it out as I go racing by him or her on my way to the car.   That’s the thing about the west: it has countless ways to remind you of your relative insignificance.  A sort of humbling and troubling notion.

Yet we ended last night playing Banagrams, a fire crackling in our little cabin, talking and laughing and sipping a good Washington wine, and our little world felt secure and comforting even as waves crashed just below us in the darkness.  Outside my window this morning a small bunny is eating grass and this remote place perched on the edge of the continent feels peaceful and even benevolent.  I’m pretty sure that bunny has rabies and is just waiting for me to step outside.

One thought on “Welcome to the Olympic Peninsula

  1. Logan M Shannon says:

    I love how with one paragraph you have me planning my vacation out west, and in the next I am anxiously closing the travel planning tab I just opened. I really do enjoy reading your travelogue, and am working up the courage to start searching for flights again. If I could only get the nightmare image of rabid bunnies out of my head. Safe travels!

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