By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 40 mile round-trip – Time out: 5 days
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Pet Friendly: No
Highest Elevation point: 2,000 ft.
February 13th 2013
We parked at the Whiskey Bend Trailhead at eight in the morning. It was 35 degrees, overcast, but blessedly there was no rain or snow falling. We were headed up the Elwha River Valley on a five-day, winter backpacking adventure.
Earlier in the winter, my friend Donovan, a former Olympic National Park Ranger, asked if I wanted to spend a week exploring historical sites and cabins up the Elwha River. Donovan wrote that we’d be following the Press Expedition’s route of the winter of 1889-1890. We’d try to get as far upstream as a long-gone hunting camp from the 1930’s called Crackerville. Donovan concluded, “Pretty heady stuff. But this is as far as we will go as dragons are known to inhabit the upper reaches of the Elwha during the winter.”
My calculations added up to fifty miles round-trip. Shivering, not with thoughts of dragons, but with memories of past winter camping trips, I hesitated. Don’t worry Donovan said, we’d be hiking with Bruce, a savvy Backcountry Ranger here at the Park, and as long as we kept to our schedule we’d sleep under cover in the Ranger’s cabins. Day one would be a twelve mile hike to Elkhorn Guard Station.
The start of the trail was dry and wide. The first log cabin we encountered was Michael’s Cabin, just a couple of miles from the trailhead. The cabin sat in the center of a grassy clearing. It was built out of small six-inch diameter logs. The wide, cedar-shake roof sloped down to an inviting front porch framed with pole-sized logs. Contrasting with the huge Douglas firs all around, Michael’s Cabin had a delicate and perfect appearance – like it was built for show.
In reality Michael’s Cabin was built for trail work. According to the National Park Service, Michael’s Cabin was constructed in 1937 primarily for National Forest and then National Park employees. Trail crews were using Michael’s Cabin up to 1947. The cabin was in good shape. You could see that the Park has been maintaining it throughout the years. But it was empty and it felt a bit lonely inside.
We continued up the trail, Donovan stopping frequently to examine old Douglas Firs for the telltale blazes from the long-ago Press Expedition. Bruce usually led, but sometimes the rangers chatted and walked together. Mostly they talked about long-gone friends and colleagues; occasionally it was about terrible mountain storms or unsuccessful search and rescues. I was nervous, not that I couldn’t hike the twelve miles we had planned for the day, but that deep snow or difficult trail conditions would force us to sleep outdoors. Bruce had volunteered to bring the tent. I glanced at his small, ultra-light backpack and couldn’t imagine that among his equipment the tent he was carrying was big enough for three men.
Just past Lilian River we climbed to the highest elevation of the day at 2,000 feet. As the miles melted away so did my apprehensions. The rain held off and the trail remained dry. By 4pm we walked into a broad clearing next to the river. We had arrived at Elkhorn Guard Station with plenty of daylight left. We never know what’s in store for us around the next bend, but most of the time it doesn’t pay to worry.
The five-acre, grassy field was partially covered with a crusty snow. We walked past an open shed and a three-sided hiker’s shelter, both built of shakes over pole frames. Beyond sat a snug log cabin up on a bench of land with a commanding a view of the river valley.
The 12’ x 16’ cabin was constructed of uniformly-sized, eight-inch diameter logs. I admired the tightness of the gap between the stacked logs and perfect saddle notches on the corners. I strode up onto the front porch, stood in the doorway and inhaled. Inside, the cabin smelled of wood smoke, clean fir trees and white-gas lamps, musky animals and damp days, chili and spilt beer, sweat and satisfaction. I stepped through the door and back in time to my youth.
When I was a teen-ager I built a log cabin in the New Hampshire woods with the help of my brother and my friends. We worked without chain saws or power tools. We chopped-down, limbed and notched tall white pines with sharp axes. Straddling the logs, we peeled the bark with two-handled draw knives. We lifted the heavy logs in place with youthful enthusiasm. The final result was a cozy home that, thanks to a homemade woodstove with a copper coil, had running hot water. Never in my forty years since, have I felt as independent as back then when, warm and comfortable inside my cabin, the New Hampshire winter howled outside.
According to the National Registry of Historic Places, the Elkhorn Guard Station was built in the early 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Roosevelt’s more successful, depression-era stimulus programs. Over the years, the Elkhorn Guard Station had been well cared for. The logs, floor-boards and rafters were all newly painted a glossy, pale gray. The layout was a single, open room, but Donovan could remember when Elkhorn was partitioned off into two small rooms. The table and chairs were thick and sturdy and the bunks wide. Best of all there was a beautiful cook stove inlaid with ceramics. On the surface of the stove sat a squat teapot with a wide flat base that was sure to boil water quickly once we kindled-up the firebox.
Bruce lit a fire in the woodstove, while Donovan figured-out how to work the water system. Donovan walked up to a tiny creek on the hillside in back of the cabin. He lowered the end of a plastic pipe into the stream. Gravity did the work and water began to flow through the pipe toward the cabin. In the kitchen sink, air spurted and then clear water ran from the faucet.
We cooked dinner. Bruce boiled his water on a stove made from a beer can that burned a thimble-full of alcohol. We swapped stories and then conveniently cleaned our dishes in the sink. Bruce was excited not for the running water, but because he found his four-year old food cache in the corner of the attic. “Here’s the best high-calorie, backpacking food!” Bruce was shouting and holding a can of Pillsbury Creamy Supreme vanilla frosting, and yes, it was still delicious.
Donovan had a tiny mp3 player on which he played songs from the 40’s and 50’s. Outside a cold rain fell and the temperature dropped toward freezing. We turned in early. Donovan loaded the firebox with wood. While Burl Ives crooned, I snuggled into my sleeping bag, supremely happy we weren’t outside in Bruce’s tent.
The next morning we hit the trail at around 9am. Bruce checked his radio. It was drizzling, but dispatch at Olympic National Park predicted clearing. The trail leading from Elkhorn was an easy river grade. Half a mile up the trail Donovan poked around the scrub on a rise of land above the river. He was looking for the remains of the Truman Drum cabin. Donovan said the cabin was razed by the park in the early 1980’s. All we could find was the two-hole outhouse. We headed back up the trail with me trying to visualize how an outhouse with two side by side seats actually worked.
By mid-morning we arrived at Remann’s Cabin, a private fishing cabin built in 1926 for Judge Remann of Tacoma. The park had relocated the cabin away from the river to a tiny space between big fir trees. The structure was a ten by twenty feet and had a roof that overhung the front door. The square notches on the corners were cut with precision and the logs were all identical size. I pushed open the thin board door. There was no glass in a couple of the windows and the single room was bare except for a broken cabinet. Gaps showed where the chinking between the logs was missing. A rear sill log had rotted way. A sign asked help protecting the cabin by camping 100 feet away.
When we past old mines, long-gone cabins and tree blazes, Donovan shared their history, but for long stretches of trail we hiked in solitude, the big firs absorbed the crunching sound of the crusty snow under our boots. The river murmured far off to our right. We didn’t hear a bird or see an animal. There was only white and green and brown and stillness.
The snow was deeper and blown-down trees began blocking the trail. By the end of the day Bruce had recorded 64 blow-downs for the spring-season trail crews to tackle. Climbing over, scooting under or hiking around these obstacles took extra effort, but Bruce kept up a fast pace to make up the time. Toward the end of the day I straddled and then carefully dismounted off a big Douglas Fir that had fallen across the trail, while 71 year-old Bruce, with boots and backpack on, leapt on top of the log and jumped down the other side. Thanks to Bruce’s pace we arrived at Hayes River Patrol Cabin with plenty of daylight left.
We walked across a clearing though half a foot of snow to the wide front porch of the cabin. Originally built in the mid-1940s, the Hayes River Patrol Cabin was big and thick and substantial. According to Richard Tarnutzer, "The Hayes River Patrol Cabin was built in the summer of 1969 by two groups of high school volunteers working for the Student Conservation Association. I was there as a 17 year old and have been back since with my sons to work on it." Richard verified that there was an older cabin on the same site, but, "that was taken down when the new cabin was finished."
The Hayes River Patrol Cabin was 18’ x 20’ and it was bigger than any of the other log cabins we had visited. The logs weren’t uniform in size either. The logs around the base were almost a foot thick, while the final course of logs in the peak of the gable tapered down to six inches in diameter. Thick roof rafters spanned the cabin’s entire length and extended six feet out over the porch. The peeled logs were natural wood and not painted. The construction of the Hayes River cabin didn’t have the feel of precision like Elkhorn. The temperature was much colder here than down the valley. Inside the frigid log cabin was a kitchen cook stove identical to the stove at Elkhorn, except that here at Hayes River the stovepipe had rusted through where it attached to the cook stove collar. There would be no firing up the stove in this unsafe condition. We searched the cabin and the shed but couldn’t find any replacement stovepipe.
That’s when Bruce went to work. He found a big institutional food can, cut out the bottom and slit up the side. He wrapped the can around the rusted stovepipe like a sleeve and tightly bound it by twisting round a wire coat-hanger. When Donovan lit the fire, not a puff of smoke leaked out of Bruce’s repair. Outside we noticed that heavy, wet snow was pushing against the chimney pipe, so I climbed up a ladder and shoveled off the roof. Finally feeling useful, I went inside and made dinner.
Inside the bigger Hayes River log cabin there were a couple of tables and three big bunks. There was no inside running water like at Elkhorn, but there were shelves of equipment, pots and pans, and many caches of food. Bruce stabbed his finger at a tiny piece of paper listing all his foods that were supposed to be here in this cabin. Bruce was furious – somebody had eaten his cache.
The cook stove’s tiny firebox grudgingly warmed the big cabin. I read the logbook by the white light of a hissing Coleman lantern. I sat close to the stove. The biggest heat of the evening occurred when the two Rangers argued the benefits of yurts vs. geodesic domes. I turned in wearing every layer of clothing I owned. When the fire died, the icy air seeped into my sleeping bag. I lay there shivering in the blackness, knowing I should get up and stoke the fire, when I heard the cook stove door creek open and Donovan throw on more wood.
Friday morning we set out for Crackerville and the Wilder Cabin. Donovan had a hand-colored photo and a location on a map six miles futher upstream. The rain was gone and the sky was blue. I was filled with optimism, but that ended quickly. Before we had gone a mile we ran into our first difficulty – crossing the icy Hayes River. A massive landslide had swept away the bridge. The temporary crossing was a tree trunk coated with snow. Bruce slipped, but he caught himself before he fell. We all walked with tiny, careful steps on the log and struggled up the steep embankment on the other side.
The blow-downs were bigger and more numerous as we continued upstream. We climbed over piles of three-foot diameter tree trunks. Wading around the obstructions in the deep snow was exhausting. Donovan and I had wanted to bring our snowshoes but Bruce said no. Bruce had wisely reasoned that with the frequent blow-downs, we’d spend all our time putting on and taking off our snowshoes.
We had only made a couple of miles by noon. It was obvious we couldn’t reach Crackerville. We ate our lunch in a glen of bare alder trees that let in the slanting winter sunshine and then turned back to the Hayes River cabin.
Olympic National Park is now revising its thirty-three year old Backcountry Management Plan and wants to hear from the public. As we retraced our steps back down the valley over the next two days, there was plenty of time to think about how the log cabins of the Elwha fit into that plan. The cabins like Elkhorn and Hayes River are historical treasures that also serve a needed function – housing backcountry rangers, trail crews, search and rescue, firefighters and the occasional lucky civilian like me. The National Park Service should keep and maintain those structures. It’s more difficult to know what to do with log cabins like Michael’s and Remann’s. Does the Park commit scarce resources to their maintenance? Will the structures ever serve any other function besides museum pieces in the middle of the forest?
After the 1899 World’s Fair, Parisians were ready to tear down the Eiffel Tower. It was saved because the French government needed a place to stick a radio antenna. I’m not sure what to do with Michael’s and Remann’s cabins. I can’t think of a timely reason to save them, but I don’t want to be the generation that orders them to be torn down either. If we can’t find a function for these cabins in the new Backcountry Management Plan, can we at least hand them off to the next generation? Perhaps they can figure out what to do.
To get to the Whiskey Bend Trail Head of Olympic National Park from the Quality Inn and Suites, Sequim:
- Head west on Highway 101 past Port Angeles – drive 24 miles.
- Turn left at Elwha River Entrance to Olympic National Park – drive around 4 miles
- Bear left on Whiskey Bend Road – drive about 4.5 miles to the trailhead.
- Don’t forget the entrance Fee at the Olympic National Park gate. If you plan on visiting more than once in a year a year-long pass is the better option.
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