Adventures on the Olympic Peninsula

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For days I’ve been wringing my hands, starting and re-starting blog posts. Organizing thoughts, shuffling, organizing anew. There is a bigness to this trip I’ve just completed. There are a multitude of photos, of experiences, of personalities. I’ve decided to start with the Olympic Peninsula. It’s not chronological, and I don’t care.

Dry Dock, Port Angeles, Washington

When I originally conceived of this trip to the West Coast, and decided that I’d be going to Seattle, I was unaware of the Olympic Peninsula, the San Juan Islands, a lot of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Looking at my itinerary, I realized I had some free time while in Washington, and so I looked through some travel guides to find interesting and beautiful things nearish to Seattle so I could do some adventuring. I contacted a friend to see if he’d join me out in the San Juan Islands, and he insisted that we should drive the Olympic Peninsula instead. I worried that we wouldn’t be able to fit it all into the day I had allotted. He assured me it would be a long day, but doable. I eventually relented, and said okay.

Olympic Peninsula-0564The adventure began with a 4:30am alarm, so that I had time for some coffee before catching one of the first ferries of the day out to Bainbridge Island. From there I drove, in unfamiliar, drizzly darkness, to Sequim, where I met Damon. We then drove on to Port Angeles, and followed the coast all the way out to Cape Flattery.

If you have driven the Oregon or Northern California coast, the Olympic Peninsula will seem familiar, if somewhat colder. The coast is rocky, with stacks jutting out at odd angles from the sand, sometimes towering. Bald eagles are a common sight, and if you’re lucky, you might be around Port Angeles when a nuclear submarine arrives or leaves port (we missed one on its way out by a couple of hours.)

Tanker and Piles, Port Angeles, Washington

The road we took winds through the Olympic National Forest and along the strait of Juan De Fuca. The forests are prototypically Pacific Northwest, featuring mossy hardwoods in dense, dark groves full of ferns and promises of wild animals lurking (or stalking) nearby.

Elk Herd

We stopped at Lake Crescent, carved out by glaciers long ago. The “official” depth is 624 feet, but is actually unknown, and the water is a brilliant, deep blue. We were lucky to encounter one of my favorite things about mountain lakes: fog drifting lazily around the surrounding hills, meandering out over the water, refracting and diffusing light. It is a powerfully tranquil place.

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Damon, my cheerful tour guide, is a Marine from Louisiana, who found his perfect home in the upper reaches of Washington State. All along the way, I was entertained with anecdotes about local history and people of the area, descriptions of geography, geology, mythology. A fellow photographer, he proudly shows work in local galleries in Sequim, Poulsbo, and maybe other Olympic towns. His narrative, colorful and funny, opinionated and heartfelt, provided a memorable soundtrack to our journey, punctuated by moments of silence as we scrambled out of his Subaru to make photographs, or just enjoy the awesome beauty of our surroundings. A recurrent theme in all my travels is the folks I met and visited, the folks who opened up their doors, their arms, their lives to me. Though the scenery was spectacular, it was all of the people–with their own stories, tales, personalities and knowledge–who made it so incredibly special.

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Cape Flattery, and the small island of Tatoosh, were the main features of our drive. Arriving late in the afternoon, we caught the long rays of the late day winter sun, casting the crags and caves, the stacks and waves, in golden light and sharp silhouette. When you are traveling, you very rarely have control over what time of day you will be at particular places–there are so many competing considerations of time and schedule. As a photographer, I try to make the best out of what is given me, and make compelling images whatever the conditions.

Damon walks the beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

After looking out at the Pacific from the Cape, we made our way down to one of the nearby beaches for the sunset. We scrambled around rocky tidal pools exposed by the ebb tide while Bald Eagles surveyed from above. These remnants of once-great stacks, worn down by the ocean over millenia, are like wet, rocky moonscapes along the coast. Dark and seemingly barren, they at first appear an empty wasteland, until you look closer and find the mussels, starfish, and other sea creatures that tether themselves to the slick rocks and hold on for dear life. It is a seemingly inhospitable place, battered by cold Pacific waves, then left exposed to sun and birds when the tide ebbs, only to be pounded anew when the tides return. And yet there life clings, and thrives.

We drove back to Sequim, where I was treated to dinner and beers, and shown some of the pieces Damon has hanging. There is something utilitarian, pragmatic, everyday about the towns on the peninsula. They aren’t kitschy, or touristy, or cute. The Makah reservation is littered with signs warning against drug use, imploring young people to avoid meth. These are not resort towns. Though they are not beautiful, they are somehow welcoming and comfortable in their own ways. Maybe it’s because life there rings true, relatively free of pretense. These are rocky places where life clings, and even manages to thrive.

My day wound down as it had begun, driving in darkness on Bainbridge Island, then watching the dark water of Puget sound glide silently by the sides of the ferry as I made my way back to Seattle, the city lights along the skyline winking in the damp night. One remarkable day among a series of remarkable days during this, my western journey.


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