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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2000

Deep in the ancient forests of the U.S. northwest


By JON BURBANK

A soft light glows from the emerald-green moss covering every tree trunk, rock and piece of ground. The glow feels brighter than the light filtering down through the massive Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees towering overhead, whose crowns prick the silver clouds that obscure the sun.

A stream cascading over moss-covered rocks next to the trail to Sol Duc Waterfall in Olympic National Park (above), and waves crashing on huge boulders off Ruby Beach.

A trailside stream whispers as it glides over and through a maze of moss-topped rocks worn smooth and round. Farther away the Sol Duc River foams white over boulders and tree trunks and lets loose a roar its deep chasm can't contain.

In magical places like this one, in the heart of Olympic National Park, some people like to sit on a rock and meditate, while others like to throw their heads back and howl.

I take pictures. I quietly set up my camera on a tripod, the best way to take photos in this low-intensity, wonderfully diffuse light. Two men walk down the trail. With each step their ponchos slap and their hiking boots throw up sprays of forest debris. Each carries a tripod topped with a rain cover-encased camera. I hadn't noticed the gentle rain, more like fog, begin.

I heard the exasperated sigh of a parent witnessing a child's total lack of common sense. "I hope," said one man with obvious disapproval, "you've got a poncho."

He gestured at my camera, "And your camera's going to be ruined if you leave it like that, too." Then he and his friend strode off, shaking their heads.

I took a deep breath. No fellow baby boomer's irritating and unwanted advice could ruin this enchanted spot. I let the gentle mist wash the bad vibes away. I also covered my camera.

Olympic National Park, located west of Seattle, is the perfect place for tranquillity (and purification by rain). Its dense forests are some of the last remaining old-growth forests in the United States.

These are temperate rain forests, nurtured by generous rains sweeping off the ocean. Portions of the park get more than 4 meters of rain per year, including the beautiful stretch just past the Sol Duc hot-springs area.

Next day I hiked up the Hoh River Rain Forest Trail, even more famous for its precipitation and its trees. It was, of all things, a sunny morning. I wasn't deceived. This area averages 63 cm of rain in December alone. May is a relatively dry month, but I still carried rain gear.

All that rain combined with inaccessibility make the Hoh big-tree country. The park's biggest coastal Douglas fir is here, 90.8 meters in height and 11.4 meters in circumference. Mature Sitka spruce in this area average 67 meters in height.

Walking the Hoh you expect to round a corner and find some Jurassic fugitive munching on the ferns carpeting the ground. Sword, licorice, deer, lady, bracken, maidenhair, oak, horsehead, wood: You can spend the whole day identifying the ferns crowding the trail.

Only purple salmonberry blossoms broke the carpet of greens. Salmonberry is a favorite food of elk, and I was brought to a sudden halt by the call of a Roosevelt elk, half cough, half moan. I stood and listened until the elk, still unseen, moved off.

Walking through these towering trees is like being among some ancient tribe of centuries-old giants, patient and tolerant of the tiny humans who have just appeared the last few decades.

American Indians traveled in the area, but tread lightly. The United States didn't explore the Olympic Peninsula until 1885-90. In 1897 President Grover Cleveland designated the Olympic Forest Reserve. President Theodore Roosevelt (who gave the elk their name) designated portions a national monument in 1909, and his cousin President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating Olympic National Park in 1938.

The park centers around the Olympic Mountains, crowned by Mount Olympus at just under 2,438 meters. The Olympics are not particularly high, but they are amazingly rugged. They are also a world-class rain catcher, trapping huge masses of moisture coming off the Pacific. Mount Olympus records 508 cm of annual precipitation, while Sequim, just 48 km beyond, gets only 43 cm.

The Olympics extend right up to the Pacific Ocean. The park is mostly inland, but a thin sliver also includes most of the Pacific coast.

Ruby Beach is the most famous coastal spot, with massive stone pillars standing in the roaring surf. Coastal redwoods and Western cedars reach right down to the beach. The Western cedars are particularly resistant to decay, and Indians used them for everything from canoes to clothing.

At Beach Number 5 (most beaches are blandly designated by a number) pale green anemones and orange starfish filled chilly tidal pools. Sea birds skittered along the water line. Enormous, graying, twisted tree trunks littered the beach below a wall of forest giants.

I didn't run into any more condescending baby boomers on the beaches. I just explored tidal pools and sat on boulders, letting the surf soothe my eyes and ears. In fact, I didn't see many people at all walking the park's beaches and trails, an oasis of calm and tranquillity in a hectic world.

Olympic National Park is located about two hours from the Seattle airport; you'll need a car to get there. There is accommodation of all types, from tent sites to luxury hotels, in and around the park. For information, contact the North Olympic Visitor and Convention Bureau, +1 (800) 942-4042, Olympic Park, (360) 452-0330, or visit the Web site at www.nps.gov/olym.


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