MIKE MacFERRIN'S OLYMPIC SOLO TREK....July 14, 2004
Five minutes later, I am at another pool, directly in front of the falls. This one is deeper, and longer, and has nowhere to swim to, so I conclude this is as close to Traci Falls as I am gonna get without killing myself from hypothermia. Taking the camera out of its bag, I snap a few pictures, take a moment to soak it in as I smile broadly, and turn back to camp. I hesitate again at the pool, eventually jumping back in and hyperventilating my way back to camp. Ahh... it is good to be alive!
After a good bout of procrastination, I am off again, scrambling up the rocks to the trail. Thousands of tiny salamanders and banana slugs slither over the wet rocks below me... full-time denizens of the moist, at home among the sword ferns and lichens. Once back in the forest, I finally break out my pocket-field-guide and begin feasting on the wide array of berries growing throughout the forest. Fresh Huckleberries, Salmonberries, Western Thimbleberries, Blackberries, Elderberries, and many more I do not bother identifying. All so sweet (except the waxy-red Elderberries, which are inedible)... a man could get used to this!
At one point, while ambling quietly down the trail, I hear a distant "skweek!" from the bushes ahead, stopping me in my tracks. Fifteen feet in front of me, a small ferret-like rodent, approximately 10 inches long with a beautiful shiny brown coat of fur, ambles out of the brush towards me. Seemingly unafraid, and a little curious (it has probably never seen a human before), I watch as it walks up to me, sniffs the toe on my right boot for a moment, looks up at me, turns around, and wanders away down the trail, out of sight. I am dumbfounded, and when I pull out my pocket field guide, I realize just how lucky I am. I just met an Olympic Ermine* , a rare, beautiful subspecies of a short-tailed weasel, endemic (found here and nowhere else) to Olympic National Park. Very few people (even those who visit often) ever see this tiny treasure. Rejoicing in my luck, I stare around me, agape in awe of the forest, wondering what secrets it will reveal to me next.
A possible answer comes shortly. Among the elk tracks left in the muddy shallows of trail, I see a remarkable track that stops me cold. Fresh in the mud lies a 3" print, unmistakable, revealing the recent passing of a medium-sized cougar. It can not be more than a day old... probably within the past 12 hours. It is heading my way. Despite my looking, I never see any further sign of it, but it stirs my blood and awakens my soul (especially when travelling alone) just to know it is there, and not far off.
By late afternoon I spot a wide, shallow ford in the river... this is where a spur-trail crosses the river and heads south over the opposite ridge and into the Hoh Valley. On the other side of the river is a wide, shallow, rocky sandbar. Realizing I probably won't find a better place to camp tonight, I ford the river (watching the tiny salmon-fry and Mud Minnows camouflaged in the current) and roll out camp under the evening sky.
This sandbar is a popular watering-hole for elk... hundreds of their tracks criss-cross the small island, and I imagine for a moment that a giant thundering herd will burst from the forest to meet me here at any instant. Alas, it is not meant to be, and I don't see a single one of the resident elk tonight. I saw no other people today, either. I fall asleep, content with that compromise, listening to the river gurgle into a deep turquoise pool beside me, under a deepening sky.
* As described in the field guide: Olympic ermine (Mustela erminea olympica) - A subspecies of the short tailed weasel, the Olympic ermine is the smallest of all the subspecies. Seldom seen by humans, the Olympic ermine is seven to eight inches long, with rich brown fur on its back, a creamy white belly and a black-tipped tail.