First, there was the silence. Rain was falling, of course, but there was none of the percussive water music of a North Cascades storm or even a Seattle shower. The drops were being cushioned and subdivided by so many botanical impediments on their way down, and what little pings they still produced were being sopped up so effectively by the vast sponge of moss and humus that what remained was an ethereal gauze of white noise, a vanishingly faint sibilance that quickly slipped below the threshold of consciousness. The only other sound was an occasional slurp at my feet, as a yogurt-textured mud bog tried to ingest my boots. When an anomalous fat raindrop somehow pulled itself together and plopped onto a crisp fallen maple leaf a hundred feet away, my pulse spiked with a jolt of adrenaline. The silence was beautiful, yes, but also so unfamiliar, so exotic, that it seemed almost ominous.
It’s little wonder that people flock to the Olympic rain forests—the Hoh, the Queets, and the Quinault—during the slender window of dryness, July and August. The Quinault averages eight-tenths of an inch in July, 18 inches in January. Yet July is precisely when I recommend not going. If the point of travel is to spin preconceptions around, discover environments totally unlike one’s usual surroundings, and most of all to experience authenticity, then hiking the rain forest in the rain is the way to do it.
There are a few asterisks: Leave the Gore-Tex at home—“breathing” fabrics are not what you want in this relentless nag of precipitation. Cheap plastic slickers are better; I just use my sailing foulies. Take a compass and trail map in a plastic pouch. A GPS under this forest canopy will prove useful solely for throwing at a pesky raccoon. Check road and trail conditions on the Olympic National Park Web site before you go; snow and washouts always close some routes.
My most recent rain hike was Fletcher Canyon, a modest mountainside trail about four miles north of Lake Quinault. Annual precipitation at nearby Amanda Park averages 129 inches, almost a foot more than at Forks, the usual touchstone of Olympic Peninsula moisture. It was raining, but not fiercely. The trail was a squishy ribbon crisscrossed by inch-deep creeklets where salamanders squirted back and forth. The slugs seemed to have run for cover. I briefly considered slushing back to the car for my rubber kayaking boots, but decided their soles were too slippery. There are worse fates than wet feet; a tumble off the side of a mountain would be one of them.
After that all-consuming silence came the overwhelming onslaught of green. In the even, ambient light the omnipresence of a single color at first seems smothering, but after the first half-hour, odd things happen to your perception. The tyranny of chlorophyll blossoms into a rich and resplendent spectrum of greens: the deep emerald of licorice fern, the wan olive of hanging club moss, the pale turquoise of Sitka spruce needles. Where alien colors burst into sight—the wedding-dress white of an angel wing fungus or the Belgian chocolate of an exposed cedar root, darkened from soaking—the counterpoint was brilliantly vivid. It didn’t seem gloomy. Dark, yes, but everything was polished, glistening, bouncing the scarce light around as if to share the wealth.
This seems to be too much sensory concentration for some people: “like exploring a dark rat hole” groused a member of the first white men’s expedition to explore the peninsula’s interior in 1889. For me, the sensation of enclosure, of encountering an ecosystem that goes about its business without reference to the outside world, is enlightening and energizing. There aren’t many places left on the planet where the thumbprint of civilization hasn’t severely altered the landscape. The fact that you have to drive past miles of clear-cut mountainside to get to the preserved national park rain forest only emphasizes how rare and precious this environment is.
I never hike in the rain forest without recalling, with gratitude, the exact words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took a driving tour of the peninsula in 1937. Viewing the raw stump lands, shorn like a marine recruit’s scalp, Roosevelt turned to the congressman riding with him and said, “I hope the son of a bitch who logged that is roasting in hell!” The next year saw the creation of Olympic National Park, more than 1,000 square miles of rain forest, mountains, and coastline to be protected forever.
My perverse preference for hiking in the rain is something deeper than the mere seeking of solitude. It has to do with the idea of authenticity, of willingly experiencing an exotic environment in its most natural, normal condition. The arc of civilization has been to increasingly manage environments for human comfort, and while I wouldn’t want to live in a house without heat or glass in the windows, I believe that the near-total control we’re now able to effect has caused us to be more and more alienated from the natural world. And the less we understand about the processes of nature, the less we respect them and the more likely we are to commit mistakes with disastrous consequences.