Six years ago last weekend, my son Michael and I had a new word enter our vocabulary.
Just one word…
It’s a word that brings back memories that are still filled with wonder, laughter, awe, and not an insubstantial amount of reverence. It was the first hike for me after a long time of recovery, and was kind of a celebration of sorts, to prove that we could go out and do something more than just ‘recover’. By way of introduction, Michael was a Boy Scout at the time, and, it turned out, this was a traditional camping trip that our Scoutmaster, Paul, did on President’s day weekend.
You might be thinking, “But President’s Day weekend is in February!”
The Norwegian Memorial was a 5 hour drive to get to from Seattle.
It was out west of Forks, Washington, long before any TV show brought attention to it, and after you got there, there was a hike in. I had to work Friday and couldn’t get away, and it was a hike not recommended to do in the dark.
Note: What happens in this story (note: all of it is true) is what caused us to go out the next year – the adventures of which you can read in the Shi Shi beach story. It’s in that story we learned about hiking in the dark – and if you read that, you might get a better picture of why this doesn’t happen often.
So Michael and I headed west, in the Saab (1968 Saab 96 Deluxe, with the V-4 Engine). He navigated, I drove. At one point we were bombing down a gravel logging road, and having watched bits and pieces of the Paris-Dakar Rally on TV some time earlier, he’d commented that that would be fun to do, and it didn’t take me long to realize that we were doing just that.
We were doing about – oh, 30 or so, which on a road that had simply been bulldozed through the forest actually felt pretty quick. I yelled at him over the roar of the engine, the tires sliding sideways every now and then just enough to throw gravel up against the bottom of the car, “Hey Michael! you know what we’re doing?”
And the thing was, we kind of were…
I took a picture (hey, it’s me, what would you expect?)
We had a rough set of instructions that would get us into the right neck of the woods, so to speak, but we didn’t have any more detail than that… There were areas we had to travel slowly and carefully on, but there were some parts, the straight and gently curved stretches of the gravel road that we traveled down just fast enough to make it fun and exciting, without being so fast that we’d damage the car or ourselves if we got ourselves stuck. And there was the fact that this was the kind of road I’d learned to drive on (and it was a Saab I’d learned in.) So I knew the limitations of the car from a few decades of driving experience.
It was, to put it mildly, fun. (in fact, I’m still smiling about it as I write this)
Not on the map was our primary goal, which was, “Find Paul’s truck”, because if we found that, we’d find the trailhead, so that’s what we did. By the time we got there, it was 3:00, so we didn’t have too much daylight left. We’d been told it was a mile to get in, but Paul had developed this reputation that meant we had to convert “Paul Miles” into “Standard Miles” so we figured it might be a bit longer than a standard mile, and so we scarfed some snacks and started hiking in. The trail was barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest, but we figured if we kept heading west, eventually we’d hit this big patch of water called the Pacific, and we’d be able to find things from there. After some time, we took a break and sat down on a log to rest for a little bit. By this time, we’d learned two things about the trail:
- If it was muddy and you got stuck in it, chances are you were on the trail.
- If it was impassable, chances are, you were off the trail, and had to get back to the mud.
It was nice to have things clear and simple like that.
We got up and hiked for another half hour or so with Michael leading the way, and somewhere in there I realized the brand new tent I’d been focusing on, the one that was tied to his backpack, wasn’t there anymore.
Sun going down in the west, nothing but trees and the beginning traces of darkness, and maybe a tent to the east.
Thing is, we still had light, we just didn’t know how far (and thus how long) we had to walk, so we didn’t know how much time we had to go look for a lost tent.
We decided he’d go back for no more than 10 minute to look for it, and it’s good we had radios with us to communicate, otherwise the trees absorbed ALL sound. It was truly eerie how loud he could yell from just a few feet away and it just didn’t penetrate the trees.
Later I took a picture at that place, because it was suddenly so easy to understand how someone might get totally lost and never come out…
We were glad we’d each brought a tent of our own. It gave us a spare.
We kept walking, and eventually the trail started going sideways downhill toward the beach and we could hear the surf in the distance. We found where a tree had fallen and blocked the trail. It was too big to climb over, too low to the ground to crawl under as we were, and since we were on a hillside, we couldn’t really go around. So we took our packs off and crawled under, then kind of lobbed the packs over the top of the trunk laying there and put them on when we’d gotten to the other side. It was nice that we succeeded in that, it meant not having to climb into the tree to get our backpacks back down. After that, the trail was pretty clear. In fact, when we got to the bottom of the trail, it was next to impossible to miss…
This part of the trail could actually be hiked in pitch black darkness. Here – take a look…
I also took this one looking back on the way out but this is roughly what we saw on the way in.
Some of the scouts saw us and were both surprised and delighted that we’d made it. One took my pack off my shoulders for the last few feet, and of course when that happens, you just feel like you’re floating, so I floated over to the campsite (just left of center in the picture above, and it was right…
It was amazing.
When we finally got there, there was a small fire on the beach (okay, small, relative to the size of the beach) –
There was only rule about the fire, and that was that if it could burn, and you could lug it to the fire, it got burned. As you can see, they were stoking the fire with a couple of small sticks as we walked up.
The fire was worth its weight in gold for all the time spent just staring into it, focusing on everything, and nothing…
There was time to walk on the beach, and just be alone with your thoughts, whatever they were,
and even though the weather was so cold, there was a chance to sleep in a warm sleeping bag, in the same old tent that we’d slept in at Fort Ebey years ago when Michael was a Webelos Scout. We did see evidence of some strange wildlife out there, causing us to wonder where genetic engineering had gone drastically wrong.
It was a wonderful place…
There was time for pondering, and reflection…
There was time to etch your autograph anyplace you could find to put it.
There was always a pot of water on…
… for hot chocolate or coffee…
We had some guests for dinner, and found all sorts of things on the beach…
We never had any problem with food spoiling that weekend. Of course, the fact that it didn’t get much above 27 degrees in the daytime might have helped that particular issue out just a bit. It wasn’t windy, wasn’t rainy, just clear and bracingly cold.
There was an abandoned silver mine south of Norwegian by a couple of miles. We hiked down there with the rest of the scouts who’d gone and stopped to see some of the decaying machinery, where what had once been a boiler of steel able to harness the power of steam had been scoured by the salt air for so long that the steel could be peeled away with your fingernails.
Since we’d gotten there late, Michael and I took a hike up north, to the actual Norwegian Memorial, hidden away off the beach, a memorial to the sailors who died in a shipwreck many years ago.
On our way to see the memorial, we saw many downed trees, and this one…
…was truly a Goliath among them, making all of the others look positively tiny in comparison.
We kept walking, not really knowing where exactly what we were looking for, but eventually we found it, nestled deep in the trees, away from the beach, in a place you could easily miss.
Our Scoutmaster, Paul, had been keeping it tidy once a year…
…for the last thirty years or so as part of being with the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association in Ballard, where we live.
The mussels we had for dinner one night simply covered a huge rock. It was impossible to walk anywhere without stepping on them. And it didn’t take long at all to gather enough for dinner.
Once we got back to the campfire, we had what was again, amazing food. We learned that you can make something called Cioppino in a dutch oven, and since I’d spent a few years playing with cameras, we decided we’d take a picture of it. Of course, trying to take a picture of a dutch oven over a fire likely wouldn’t win any awards, and since we didn’t have any studio lighting, we just used the campfire for light and I think a couple of flashlights. We waved them around until we thought we might have something, and who knew that you could come up with a picture like this with just a couple of flashlights and a campfire?
Come to think of it, who knew mussels made pearls?
And, Pop Quiz:
When you’re eating them, how do you know the difference between the sand in them and those pearls?
If it’s sand, your teeth crunch it…
If it’s pearls, it’s the other way around…
(That particular lesson only takes one time to actually sink in…)
The temperature was cold, but no wind and so that evening a huge cargo net served as a wonderful hammock for two to relax and watch the sun set,
and watch the fire burn to embers.
But the most incredible part of it all was something not in any photographs.
As I said, it was 27 degrees in the daytime. After dark, it got colder still. One night, we went out onto the wide, wide beach for a walk. The beach was mostly flat, so we walked and walked, and as we got further away from the light of the campfire, and our eyes got adjusted to the dark (there was no moon that night) we found that we could see, literally, in the dark. It’s because the stars were brighter than we’d ever seen, and even Orion, huge in Seattle, was small in comparison to all the other stars now visible.
We kept walking, our eyes in the heavens, as wide as children seeing those stars for the very first time.
It was only when the sand we were walking on became a little slippery, and a little soft, like crème brulée, crunchy on the top, soft underneath, that we slowed and stopped. It took about three steps or so, and we all looked down…
…and found ourselves in a world that words cannot adequately describe.
The salt water had frozen as the tide went out, and the beach we’d been on had been transformed into ice that extended as far as we could see in front of us, and far enough left and right to feel like it went to the horizon.
As I looked back up, I noticed that I could see Orion again, not once, but twice. Once upside down below the horizon, once right side up above.
Wait a minute…
I looked left and right, up and down, and still saw stars.
I kind of skootched my feet around a little to be sure I wouldn’t fall and realized we were not standing under the stars, we were standing among the stars. We were standing on a mirror, stars visible above us, below us, and all around us.
As our eyes registered it all, and our brains struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what we were seeing, the sound of the waves to our right faded away with the tide. We were quite literally in awe.
We stood there for a few minutes, in silent reverence for the creation before us and around us.
We weren’t standing on ice, on a beach, we’d been transported into the heavens.
We were standing in the stars.
It was Amazing.
It was Magical.