In the Footsteps of Early Geologists:
Searching for Clues to how the Olympics were Formed

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 15 miles – Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: 3 – Highest Elevation: 7,000 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

It’s easy to decipher the geology of many parts of the world because the record in the rocks is accessible, but not so here on the Olympic Peninsula. Here the jumbled valleys, dense forests, and thick glaciers conspire to obscure the layers of rock below. It took a century for three different geologists to uncover clues to a unifying creation theory. This is their story along with my three-day journey up the Dungeness River watershed to locate the final bit of enigmatic evidence that almost prevented the theory from being written. – The Incidental Explorer

Map - In the Footsteps of Early Geologists by Sequim artist Per Berg

Map – In the Footsteps of Early Geologists by Sequim artist Per Berg

September 22, 2015. It was the first day of autumn, but at the Dungeness River trailhead the weather was still all summery sunshine and blue sky. In addition to the pleasant weather, I was fortunate to be backpacking with two of my favorite Olympic National Park Rangers, Bruce and Donovan. Their years of roving about the Olympic Peninsula meant this duo usually knew the answers to my questions down to the minute details, but the questions I hoped to answer on this trip were big ones: namely how were the Olympic Mountains formed and who uncovered the answers?

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In the Footsteps of Homesteaders and Whalers:
Hiking the Cape Alava Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 9 miles – Time out: 8 hours

Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: Sea Level

Pet Friendly: No

February 18-19, 2015.

Cape Alava map - Per Berg

Cape Alava map – Per Berg

Here in this quiet corner of Olympic National Park, the Cape Alava Trail starts at Ozette Lake and ends at Cape Alava on the Pacific Coast. Hiking the trail is like following two parallel threads of European and Native American history. Ozette Lake was once ringed with Scandinavian homesteaders, and Cape Alava was once home to a large Makah fishing village. Today, where these two communities once thrived, there are only whispering forests and crashing waves. Recently, I had an opportunity to hike the scenic Cape Alava Trail with Donovan and Bruce, friends and park rangers who know the trail’s secrets.

The Cape Alava Trail begins at the Ozette Lake Campground. Today, big trees grow all the way to the lake’s edge, but in the early 1890’s Scandinavian families hacked 130 homesteads out of the dense forest. The homesteads surrounded the lake, one-half to one mile apart. Their Ozette Lake community was vibrant but isolated; travel to the outside world was either down the Ozette River by canoe and rendezvous with a ship off the Pacific Coast or via a muddy, twenty-five mile trail along the Hoko River to the settlement at Clallam Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Their isolation led to self-sufficiency. The Scandinavian homesteaders were a tough bunch. Out of the wilderness, they built stores, schools, a church and three post offices. The land was cleared, livestock raised, and their surplus cream, butter, beef and pork was shipped to Seattle. There was a community band and frequent celebrations as these hardy folk strove to acquire title on the land they lived upon by “proving-up.” The Scandinavian homesteaders turned this inaccessible frontier into a remarkably lively and cohesive settlement.

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In the Footsteps of Filmmakers and Mountain Men:
The Bailey Range Traverse

Story by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 70 miles – Time out: 9 days

Degree of Difficulty: 4 – Highest Elevation: 6,100 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

July 19th – July 27th 2014.

The Bailey Range begins at the edge of the Seven Lakes wilderness of Olympic National Park, where the maintained trail ends and few backpackers travel. I was part of a small climbing team that planned on traversing miles of the trackless peaks and valleys of the Bailey Range before summiting glacier-shrouded Mount Olympus. We were all very excited! The Mountain Trail Guide says that the Bailey Range Traverse is perhaps the finest high-county route in the Olympics. We’d be far from civilization; it would take us a day of hiking for our team just to reach the start of the traverse east of the Seven Lakes Basin.

I liked our team from the start. Mark, our guide, was from Mountain Madness, the world-famous mountaineering company. Though he had never set foot in the Olympics, the lean mid-twenty year old had plenty of climbing experience all over the Northwest. Just three days before, Mark had returned from guiding a climb up Mt. Denali in Alaska. Throughout our journey, he easily shouldered a backpack loaded with gear that I could barely lift. Julie and Grant, meanwhile, were a friendly married couple from south Puget Sound. They were fit from a daily exercise regimen designed for this climb. I, on the other hand, found myself talking a little too fast and laughing a little too loud during our introductions. I couldn’t stop worrying that I was a decade and a half older than the rest of the team. I was nervous because we’d be spending the next nine days navigating through the wilderness without the benefit of a trail.

Day 2

The Bailey Range Traverse begins at “The Catwalk.” Mark pointed up to where a jumble of boulders disappeared into the clouds and said this was the trail. I cleared my throat and was about to say that can’t be right when Julie, Grant and Mark began climbing. I shut up and followed. Our team scrambled up Cat Peak at 5,300 feet and then along a narrow spine of jagged rock, squeezing through crevasses among the gnarled branches of stunted, sub-alpine trees. Handholds were difficult to find and I wasn’t used to climbing with a heavy pack. The drop-off on either side of the Catwalk must have been stupendous, but we weren’t sure since it was raining and visibility was poor. Julie said, “I think God made it cloudy so I couldn’t be scared.”

Bailey Range Traverse map - click to enlarge

Bailey Range Traverse map – click to enlarge

We reached the end of the frightening Catwalk at 6pm where there was a narrow saddle of bare dirt called Boston Charlie’s Camp. There was just enough space for our two tents. Boston Charlie was a mountain man born in the 1860’s. He was the last medicine man of the Klallam people. He frequented Olympic Hot Springs for spiritual cleansing long before they were discovered by Whites, and his encounter with a mountain-sized Sasquatch is part of Klallam history. This tiny bench of ground was one of Boston Charlie’s favorite campsites. After a gourmet macaroni and cheese dinner prepared by Mark, and being warm and dry in our sleeping bags while cold rain pelted our tent, it became one of my favorite campsites too.

Day 3

After a rejuvenating 12-hour slumber, our team awoke to the clear skies that we had been hoping for. Now we had a stunning view of the entire forty or so miles of the trackless Bailey Range that we would navigate and climb, beginning with Mt. Carrie and ending at our final goal, the glacier-encased Mt. Olympus, far across the Hoh River Valley. I bit my bottom lip at the sight of the countless peaks while Grant kept his thoughts to himself, but Julie confided that Olympus looked intimidating, huge and impossibly far away.

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In the Footsteps of the 1890 Banner Party:
Backpacking the North Fork Skokomish River Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 26 miles – Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: 4,688 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

June 18th – 20th 2014

I jumped at the chance to explore the North Fork of the Skokomish River with a friend who knows many of its secrets. Donovan told me we’d be backpacking in the footsteps of the famous O’Neil expedition of 1890, and we’d also be following the path of a little-know group of explorers – the Banner Party.

Packed and ready

Packed and ready

It looked like the summer of 1890 would be the year that the last of the unexplored regions of the Olympic Mountains would finally give up their secrets. The public couldn’t get enough of the story. Because the Olympic Mountains were not on the direct path of commerce, their geography was little understood by cartographers until the end of the 19th century. Now the race was on to find what was inside that impenetrable maze of peaks and valleys. During the winter and spring of 1890, the Seattle Press had sold a lot of newspapers by funding and promoting James Christie’s heroic expedition up the Elwha and down the Quinault Rivers. Now other newspapers where poised to cover Lieutenant Joseph P. O’Neil’s US Army explorations up one of the last unknown areas in the Olympics, the North Fork of the Skokomish River.

Per Berg Map North Fork Skokomish River CLICK TO ENLARGE

Per Berg Map North Fork Skokomish River CLICK TO ENLARGE

In the south end of Puget Sound was a tiny newspaper, the Buckley Banner. Its struggling editor, Charles E. Joynt, was not going to miss out on a chance to pump-up his circulation just like the Seattle Press had done that spring. The Banner Party would also head up the North Fork of the Skokomish and “out-explore” the seasoned Lieutenant O’Neil as they both raced into the unknown together.

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In the Footsteps of Railroad Dreamers and Builders:
Bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 140 miles – Time out: 6 days

Pet Friendly: No

September 18th – 23rd 2013

Trisha and I took a few days off after the busy summer had ended to bicycle over the route of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT). While we journeyed along the trail, we were also journeying back in time. The route of the ODT is over the former tracks of three tiny railroads that were stitched together through the primeval forests of the Olympic Peninsula over a century ago.

Because of isolated geography, difficult topography, economic disasters and local politics, it took a generation for the three railroads to lay one hundred miles of track, but when complete, the Port Townsend Southern Railroad, the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway, and the Spruce Railroad shipped local goods to markets, transported strategic raw materials during both world wars, and opened the region to tourism. Beginning in 1890 and lasting for three-quarters of a century, these railroad tracks were vital to the economic development of the northern Olympic Peninsula as they simultaneously shaped its geography and character. But in the end, the three tiny railroads were swallowed up by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad in its quest to become a transcontinental railroad giant.

We began our journey in Port Townsend where Trisha and I enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the tiny Blue Moose Café just a block or so from the trailhead. Tana Mae and crew cooked big meals in their miniature kitchen. Trish said the veggie pecan sausage was delicious! With uncomfortably full bellies, we slowly pedaled south along the trail as it hugged the shoreline of Port Townsend Bay. It was mid-morning and low tide. A wrecked boat lay on its side in the wet sand while the sun sparkled on the water, like an impressionist painting.

A multi-modal path from Port Townsend to the Pacific Ocean was once just a crazy idea, but it’s fast becoming a reality. Today the ODT is 140 miles of quiet streets, busy highway shoulders, and rural paths along disjointed segments of railroad right-of-way. The trail runs across the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula through half a dozen towns, two counties, tribal lands, private land, National Forest and National Park. All these agencies, municipalities and people have partnered to form the Peninsula Trails Coalition. The PTC doesn’t build or own the trail, their separate partners do that, but the PTC works hard to maintain the section of trail that have already been built.

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In the Footsteps of Manganese Miners: Exploring the Crescent Mine

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 3 miles – Time out: 4 hours

Degree of Difficulty: 1 – Elevation Gain: none

Pet Friendly: yes

August 14th 2013

Exploring the Crescent Mine 2013

I have a confession: I’m lured by stories of vanished gold, hidden gems, old maps, and especially all manner of lost mines – so I was very excited when my friend Lynn Johnson asked me to take a walk along the Olympic Discovery Trail and visit the abandoned Crescent Mine. Andy Stevenson joined us. Not only is Andy a past president of the Olympic Discovery Trail, but he knows his geology. Andy holds a degree in mine exploration from Stanford and has explored for copper, gold, and uranium. He still mines recreationally now and then on a couple of gold claims his grandfather left him. When I asked Andy how he became a miner he said, “Learnt it at my grandpappy’s knee,” Turns out Andy’s grandfather was also a Stanford trained engineer and successful miner.

Lynn, Andy and I drove to the west end of Lake Crescent and parked our cars at the turn-off on the north side of SR-101 at the intersection of the Sol Duc Hot Springs Road. We walked down to the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) to start our journey.

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Cameron Creek and Grand Valley Backpacking Adventure

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 30 miles – Time out: 3 days

Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Highest Elevation: 6,773 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

July 30th 2013

This backpacking adventure will take you into the interior of Olympic National Park. Starting at Slab Creek and ending at Deer Park is a 30 mile adventure that will take you over two mountain passes. It’s not easy and our family ran into some unexpected obstacles. It’s not easy getting three college kids with busy summers together for a three-day wilderness outing, but after much planning, convincing, cajoling, rescheduling and compromising, the morning of our annual family outdoor adventure arrived. We drove to the Slab Camp Trailhead and at 8am slid on our backpacks. My wife Trisha lifted her pack gingerly; she had managed to remain active even with a decade-old back injury. My son Garrett, winced as he slid into his hiking boots; he had a broken toe. Nonetheless, Garrett and Trisha, along with my nephew Nate, set the pace. Bringing up the rear, my daughter Becca and I chatted about past adventures, but I was too anxious to talk much about this year’s hike; the most difficult backpacking journey I had ever planned for my family.

We hiked though rhododendrons that must have looked beautiful when they bloomed earlier in the summer. We brushed aside Horsetail fronds that were overhanging the trail. Olympic National Park botanist Joshua Chenoweth told me that it was, “Probably field horsetail (Equisetum arvense). It is not a flowering plant but a spore-producing plant in the fern family… A very ancient plant.” For a hundred million years Equisetum, ruled the understory of ancient Paleozoic forests. Unchanged, horsetail today is known as a living fossil.

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Grand Ridge with the Klahhane Club

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Roundtrip Distance: 14.8 mile roundtrip – Time out: 6 hours

Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Elevation Gain: 1,364 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

July 3, 2013

I enjoyed the day hike along Grand Ridge because much of it was above tree-line. The National Park Service lists this trail as the highest in the Olympic National Park. The trailhead starts at Deer Park Campground at 5,200 feet and climbs to over 6,500 feet. It is a remarkable trail.

The spectacular road to the trailhead on Blue Mountain was planned by the US Forest Service and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. A CCC construction camp was located at Deer Park. The Port Angeles Evening News reported on March 21st 1934 that the road, “…is almost entirely cut out of mountain rock in the upper five miles.” And that it’s, “…one of the best forest roads possessed by the United States Forest Service.”

We parked at the lower parking lot in the Deer Park campground. The first mile of trail slopes downhill and is broad and smooth because it’s an abandoned road. This was a highway that was to be continued along Grand Ridge to Obstruction Point; just one of many roads envisioned by the Forest Service in the 1930’s using its Civilian Conservation Corp labor pool.

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In the Footsteps of Admirals and Promoters:
Fishing for the Beardslee Trout

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

"The hardest fighting fish, the gamiest fish, in all the world is the Lake Crescent Beardslee." – E. B. Webster.

June 1st 2013

It was opening day of trout season on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park. I dressed quietly in the grayness of the early morning, slipped on my fishing vest and crept down the creaky stairs and through the dark lobby in my stocking feet. I laced up my boots on the front porch of Lake Crescent Lodge. I was hoping I’d catch a rare Beardslee Trout, I just didn’t want to catch the very last one.

I walked half a mile through a forest path to the boat landing at the Storm King Ranger’s Station. There my fishing guide Sean from Waters West, and my friend Robert were waiting for me. We pushed off from the dock onto the big, deep lake. Robert was sitting in the bow, I was sitting in the stern and Sean was rowing at the gunnels. It was calm in the early morning. The cool air was thick and moist. There were only a few cabins and houses on the far shore. Most of the shoreline was mountains covered in big firs that rose straight up from the edge of the water and where wisps of clouds floated among their peaks. High above was a flat-gray sky, but blue-green Lake Crescent refused to reflect the slate color, such was the lake’s powerful beauty.

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Anderson Pass 2013

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 35 miles – Time out: Three days

Degree of Difficulty: 3 – Elevation: 4,464 ft.

Pet Friendly: No

June 2, 2013

I loved hiking over Anderson Pass in Olympic National Park. This three day journey has it all; lush lowland forests, subalpine terrain and a snow choked pass if you are crazy enough to hike it early in the spring. I appreciated the wilderness and the solitude, more so since early park planners had wanted to build a highway over Anderson Pass. My Anderson Pass adventure began far down in the Dosewallips River valley where until 2002 you could drive your automobile up the road to the Dosewallips Campground. That year a storm washed away a big hunk of highway 5.5 miles below the campground. A passionate debate whether to repair the Dosewallips Road followed. This debate over the Dosewallips Road was part of the bigger battle that was fought in Olympic National Park for half a century: should roads be cut through the park that would give tourists greater access, like over Anderson Pass, or should we leave the wilderness alone?

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