This month we’re enjoying an unusually long stretch of cold, sunny days, the kind whose slanting light and wintry blue skies entice me outside. Most weekends this fall have been devoted to book promotion — that’s not a complaint — so I’m not getting out much beyond urban trails near my home. And while local trails are great, I crave the quiet sounds of woods in winter, and views that don’t include a golf course or highway. Mr. Adventure is recovering from a cold and catching up on work, so I am on my own. A recent trip report on the Washington Trails Association website leads me to Lena Lake, a pretty destination about an hour away in Olympic National Forest. I haven’t been there for at least 10 years, probably longer. A return visit sounds like a good idea.
From stratus to sunshine, eagles point the way
Heading north toward the mountains on Highway 101, I feel my breathing and blood pressure slow. Dropping into the tidal flats of Mud Bay, I glimpse an eagle squatting on a sand bar, one eye glinting as it surveys the pickings. Five miles further on, another eagle swoops low, wings stretched in silhouette over Kennedy Creek where it drains into Oyster Bay. The salmon run there is almost done, and the spent fish are an important food source for eagles and other wildlife.
The fields along the highway are frosted, each blade of grass outlined in hoary white. The trees are flocked with rime that’s built up over these clear, cold days and nights. I drive across the base of Kamilche Point and past Shelton, home to oyster farms and a working lumber mill, through the Skokomish Indian Reservation and into the lower reaches of Hood Canal, where fog turns everything misty gray. I know from reading Maria Mudd Ruth’s wonderful book A Sideways Look at Clouds that fog is simply a stratus cloud at ground level.
There. Right next to the highway, another eagle, sitting in an evergreen tree on an upper branch that sags under its weight. I’m flying by at 45 mph, but I think the bird looks a bit grumpy, its white eyebrow feathers drawn into a frown. The fog thickens as I follow Highway 101 up the west side of the canal. It’s a gorgeously scenic route, but this morning sky, water, and land are blanked by the fog, from which houses and signposts and oncoming cars materialize in a swirl of silver, then disappear as quickly. I learned from Maria’s book that there are many types of fog, and I’m guessing this is advection fog, formed when warm air is carried over cooler water. The chances of me being able to pull that name out of my head without looking it up first are pretty slim, so I just call this marine fog and enjoy the feeling of being carried through it along the road.
Time and space dissolve into the pale murk as I drive on. North of Hoodsport, a small dock emerges from the fog like a phantasm. Another eagle hunches on a piling, squinting into the nothingness. I wonder how, or even whether, eagles hunt in fog. Perhaps they just find a spot to hunker down and wait until the fog evaporates. There are hundreds of wintering waterfowl bobbing on the canal’s water; it’s the only way I can distinguish its surface from the air. It must be frustrating to be an aerial hunter on a foggy morning, I think. A few miles further on, a scatter of old pilings pierce the water, and there are two more eagles, waiting out the weather. Barely 9:00 a.m., and it is an eagle-rich day. Cars line the road in front of the SCUBA-friendly Sunrise Motel and Diving Resort, and indistinct figures gathering dive gear look like a convention of creatures from the black lagoon.
A quarter-mile after I turn onto the Hamma Hamma Recreation Area road, I’m lifted above the fog. The sun is up, shining on the forest as I drive the eight miles to the trailhead. The last mile is deep in the Hamma Hamma valley, where winter sun doesn’t reach, and the road is slick in spots. Hoarfrost ices the forest, but the parking area seems okay. There are already about 10 cars there.
Ice coats the first 200 feet of trail, and I momentarily consider pulling out my micro-spikes. Purchased last year, they have yet to be used, mostly because I keep deciding instead to tread carefully on the short stretch of slippery trail I’m facing. I follow a young family and their small Australian shepherd, then overtake the woman as she uses a stick to flick most of the dog’s poop off the trail. Not even a quarter-mile in, and I’m wishing I were better at talking about what “Leave No Trace” means, even on a dog-friendly trail like this one. But I can’t find the words, so I just nod and pass her, then speed up to put some distance between us.
And I keep that speed going all the way up to the lake, just over three miles. The trail is wide and well-maintained, your basic roots-and-rocks affair that’s typical out here. The forest is pretty, with a few old-growth giants left behind by loggers a hundred years ago and tiny rivulets dripping out of the mossy rocks. Verdant sword fern, deer fern, and salal line the trail. Even in December the forest is evergreen. I can hear Lena Creek cascading downhill from its outlet on the lake, but only catch a few glimpses of frothing water from high on the trail. Mostly I hear chickadees and my breathing. I gulp tree-cleansed air and think about how much I need this hike.
More quickly than I expect, the lake comes into view. It’s pretty small, as far as these things go, and a jade green color in the winter sun. I vaguely remember that a large rock shelf is one of the first possible stop-and-snack points, and there it is. I walk out onto the warm stone and tilt my face to the sun for a moment, then keep going.
I’m planning to hike past Lena Lake into the Valley of the Silents, a moss-draped vale that eventually leads to the climbers’ route for The Brothers, one of the Olympics’ mountaineering destinations. But when I get to where Lena Creek drains into the head of the lake, all I see is a tangle of uprooted trees and logs sticking every which way. The trail has been sliced off, the bridge is out, and others have tried to cross the stream at a lower point. But after clambering around on the rocks and logs for a while, it’s clear I won’t be going any further. A couple of canted logs span most of the creek, but the ends are submerged in the fast, cold water, and I’m by myself. Another mile or two of hiking isn’t worth the risk of wet feet or a dunking, so I turn around and head back along the lakeshore. I find a campsite in the sun and sit down to soak up the rays and munch an apple and some cheese.
It’s pretty up here, but I feel restless, so I decide to keep moving. After briefly considering then abandoning the idea of heading up the Upper Lena Lake trail until I hit snow, I head down. As I hike past the rock shelf, I see the young family again. They’ve made it to the lake. The mother calls out excitedly, “The birds eat right out of my hand!” Of course they will, I think to myself, they’re gray jays, commonly known as camp robbers. You’re an easy mark for them. I reply, “Yep, they’re well trained,” and keep hiking. Once again, I can’t think of a polite way to suggest that feeding pretzels to the birds might not be an ideal diet for them.
As I hike downhill, I pass perhaps 20 people heading up. I didn’t think I got a particularly early start, but now I’m glad I had some solitude at the lake and on the trail. The forest reminds me of one we visited ten years ago in Bavaria, where every stump looked like a fairy house and every tree an elf hideaway. I wonder if any of the kids straggling up the trail are looking for fairies. It’s magical, the Northwest forest in late fall, and I feel lucky to have this in my backyard. By the time I reach the bottom, the last couple hundred feet of icy trail have softened a bit and I carefully pick my way through. The microspikes stay in the pack.
A sunny, pensive drive home
Compared to the morning, the drive home is positively pedestrian. The sun is out, and except for a bank of fog floating on the middle of the canal, everything is clear. I try to clean my windshield against the glare, put down my visor, and head south.
On the way home, I realize I’m feeling slightly discontented. It’s not a strong feeling, but usually hiking leaves me energized and ebullient. What gives? The day was beautiful, the air fresh, the scenery enchanting. That evening, I tell Mr. Adventure about the hike. “You seem unenthusiastic,” he says. Not exactly, I reply. I was happy to get out, the drive up was memorable, and I enjoyed myself on the trail and at the lake. I’m not ungrateful. It’s just, well, I don’t know what.
There’s always a next time
Sometimes I feel packing for a hike is a lot of work. It’s not. Everything’s organized in bins in the garage. It’s a simple matter of throwing the right gear into the pack. But when I start to feel that way, I know it’s past time to get out. I can talk myself out of a hike by mentally anguishing over the prep, despite knowing that my mental health is so much better when I hike regularly. I definitely needed to go. And Lena Lake is a fine destination. So why did I feel meh?
Pondering this atypical response to a day spent outside, I remember that not every hike is fantastic. I’ve learned this lesson before, particularly during a sweaty day on Mount Rainier. It’s okay to have “just” a good time. I also think maybe I could have hiked more. It’s about seven miles up to the lake and back, with an easily managed 1,300-foot elevation gain. Even with a half-hour lounge on the lakeshore, the whole hike took me 3.5 hours. I must have been burning up that trail. With plenty of daylight left, I probably should have taken the upper lake trail after all. Further, there were a lot of people on the trail. Not like summer, when Lena Lake can be just a long line of folks heading up or down, but still plenty of people for this time of year. Maybe I overthought my frustration with the dog-poop-flicking, wild-bird-feeding family. Maybe I just missed my favorite hiking partner.
I don’t have an answer beyond these thoughts. Of course I’ll keep hiking, and I know some hikes will be, well, meh. The reasons for that will vary, but none will be good enough to keep me inside.