Rain Forest Adventure!

if you've been checking this blog lately and finding no updates, i apologize. so here comes a long and colorful one for you.

long story short, i drove to seattle. the next day, 2 life-long buddies of mine, DS and MCM, flew in from the east coast for a backpacking adventure on the Olympic Peninsula and Canada.

the Olympic Peninsula (OP) is a humongous chunk of land west of Seattle. there's a little road that winds around it, but the most of the land is rain forest and mountains and is only accessible if you hike in. its a great and weird frontier which doesnt seem to belong in the continental United States. it's both a National Forest and a National Park. our plan was to hit the National Park for a few days, then head north and do a loop through Canada.

on the first day we loaded up our packs. we did a poor job of this. it was strange. i've had the same external frame-pack for over 10 years. i know its a bit dated as far as outdoor gear goes (it belonged to my older brother first), but in that time i never had any problems with it, either from discomfort or via organizing it. this trip, though, it was a constant nuisance. it hurt my back and shoulders, it felt big and unwieldy, i couldnt get stuff to stay on it firmly, and the big compartment seemed less than adequate. DS and MCM also had some packing difficulties.

in retrospect, we all brought far too much rain gear. since this is the pacific northwest and since we were aiming for the rain forest, we anticipated rain. but August is the dry season. it only rained once all week, and that was just a spattering during the night. the rest of the time was hot and dry and sunny.

we loaded up our needlessly heavy packs and took the bus to downtown seattle, where we checked in at the Green Tortoise Hostel. it was my 26th birthday so we did a bar crawl and got appropriately hammered (or inappropriately, considering we had a long backpacking trek ahead of us). there was some mixing of beer and whiskey, which is never wise, and when we returned to the hostel around 1 AM, my head was spinning too much to lay down. i spent an hour pacing around the corridors of the hostel waiting for my equillibrium to come back. there were other night owls up, kids from around the world, roaming like i was. i hate being that drunk. there's no joy or grace to it.

i got to bed at 2 AM. my alarm went off at 5:30 AM and we showered and packed and marched off into pre-dawn Seattle for the ferry terminal, where we eventually caught a ferry to Bainbridge Island (below).

what can i say about Seattle? where to begin? its an astoundingly beautiful city, especially on the waterfront. and its not just beautiful but its got an edge to it - its got edge and grit and style and soul. there's a free-spirit feeling to the place. all the good music and literature and coffee that's come out of there over the past 200 years is alive in the streets, its alive in the people. you look one way and see the ocean, or you look elsewhere and see Mt. Rainier's snowcapped peak in the distance. what a place.

actually getting to the rain forest is kind of a hop, skip, and a jump. i'm not going to waste your time with all the details of how we finally got out there. but we did. the first thing we stopped off at was Lake Crescent (above). Lake Crescent is off Rt 101 and west of Port Angeles, on the northern side of the peninsula. its a great lake with water like you've never seen before. the above picture doesnt do it justice. you can see straight down to the bottom. from a distance its a perfect blue-green. its looks clean enough to drink. we stopped there and dipped our feet and continued on.

The above picture is of Rialto Beach, which is in a reservation on the western shores of the Peninsula. the whole beach is strewn with huge sun-bleached logs. these are some of the biggest downed trees you'll ever see, and they're stacked helter-skelter and many trees deep, thrown there during violent storms. you can climb all over them. we went for a quick swim at Rialto just to get refreshed (it was very cold and the water is dangerous because of all the trees floating in it!).

that first day, since it was getting late, we car-camped at Mora Beach, a state park near Rialto Beach. this was a fine state park, on par with the excellent state parks I encountered up the Oregon coast. the fire ban in effect throughout the rest of the peninsula was not in effect here and we were instructed by the ranger to collect driftwood to burn.

the next day, we parked at the Hoh Rain Forest visitor center and backpacked into the rain forest. the photograph at the very top of this post is from that area of rain forest. we pulled off the trail at the Happy Four campground, a small site between the trail and the Hoh River. it was one of the most beautiful backcountry sites I've ever seen. it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime camping spot. we pitched our tents in the sand on an embankment over the river. there was a fire ban in this area, so we had to rely on our headlights and candle latern once the sun set, but it was OK.

the only problem with Happy Four was the bear situation. bears, raccoons, and other scavengers are active in the Hoh Rain Forest, and they want your smellables (food, toiletries, etc). you've got to either hang your belongings from a very high tree to make them out of reach or rent an airtight bear canister from the rangers. before we left on the trip, we discussed our route with a ranger, and he assured us that Happy Four would have a built-in bear wire (a metal cable strung tree to tree, with wires hanging off it for you to string up your smellables). so we declined renting a bear can and didn't even pack a length of rope.

you should never go into the woods without rope. it's one of those essentials like a knife or first-aid kit, stuff you bring whether you anticipate a need for it or not. this was our mistake.

so we were at Happy Four, the sun was setting, and I set out to find this bear wire. it's always wise to find the bear wire before dark. you dont want to be out there at 10 PM with your flashlight shining the trees and tripping over branches searching for it. i walked around the whole campground twice, and even went out to the trail, and couldnt find it. i told MCM and DS that i couldnt find it, so they went out and searched, and also couldn't find it.

so we had no bear wire, no bear can, no rope, and a whole lot of smellables. it was time to improvise. ultimately, we filled a stuff-sac with our smellables, attached it to the end of a huge branch, then raised up this branch and looped the stuff-sac onto a tree. this took about 30 minutes and involved a lot of grunting and cursing. it even involved, at one point, me crawling onto DS's shoulders to try to reach up and guide the bag into the branch. but we did it and in the morning we found our smellables were unmolested.

ABOVE: DS cooking our pasta dinner on a backpacking stove at Happy Four. the mosquitoes were a nuisance, hence the bug netting over his face.

the whole rain forest adventure lasted 4 days. it was a great success. i endorse the OP as a hiking and travel destination. one note on weather, though. as i said earlier, this is the dry season. that made for beautiful, dry days - perfect for camping. but as far as the ecosystem was concerned, the flora and fauna were very stressed. i had visited the OP once before, in March, when it was raining all the time, and the colors were far more vibrant. in March the OP seemed to be exploding with color and life. in August, it was spectacular, but didn't have the same vibrancy because of how dry it was.

we left the rain forest and took a ferry across the Strait of Juan De Fuca to reach Victoria in British Columbia. at the Canadian Customs Office, the 3 of us were singled-out to be searched for drugs. this was no surprise as we were three dirtbag backpacker young people. i expected as much and didn't necessarily blame them for choosing us. we were led into a backroom of the Customs office and then split up among 3 different agents. my agent was very harsh. he had a "bad cop" vibe going as far as how he talked to me. i wasn't nervous because i didnt have any drugs or contraband or subterfuge, but he still kind of scared the shit out of me. its hard to stay relaxed when a Customs agent is waving a finger in your face and accusing you of being a druggie. (the good news is that the whole incident will always be a funny story to tell people).

they searched us and found nothing since we had nothing and then released us into Victoria. we took a taxi up the island to reach Swartz Bay where we caught another ferry into the gulf islands. this ferry took us to Mayne Island, where we had a reservation at an eco-campground on Seal Beach.

Seal Beach was a real delight. the owner has built a beautiful, eco-friendly campground around his gorgeous log cabin house. you camp on a very tranquil harbor (above). there is an awesome treehouse shower. they recycle and compost everything. the water was a bit too cold for swimming, but the shower was very refreshing. a fireban was in effect on Mayne Island, so again we relied on our small light devices once the sun set. we cooked rice and beans and drank a bottle of red wine (beer is always preferred but when you can't keep your booze cold and dont want the harshness of liquor you go with red wine).

the next day we woke at 5:30 AM, packed our gear, and took a ferry from Mayne Island to Tswassen Bay. from there we rode public transportation into Vancouver. we didnt have Canadian tokens but the bus drivers were very forgiving and let us ride anyway.

we had 3 beds lined up at the Same Sun Backpacker's Hostel in downtown Vancouver. we checked in there, dropped off our gear, then left on foot to explore the city. it was early (around 11 AM) so we had plenty of hours for tourism.

i'll admit we had very high expectations for Vancouver. i always imagined it completed the trilogy of awesome northwestern cities which includes Portland and Seattle. i was expecting an alternative vibe, great architecture, lots of trees, and a feeling of mystique. however, from what we saw, it really had none of those things. it was a city of concrete, litter, drab architecture, rampant homelessness, and little green space. even the famed Stanley Park was kind of dirty and depressing.

in Vancouver's defense, they are in the middle of a drought, so that could explain the drab appearance of their greenery. they are also feverishly prepping for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and so constructions was happening all over the place. and of course, 24 hours isn't really enough time to intimately get to know a city.

as the sun set, we initiated another bar crawl, but 1-2 beers in, an undercurrent of exhaustion i'd been feeling all day blossomed into a full-blown case of I-feel-like-shit. so while DS and MCM continued to party i returned to the hostel and was passed out in my bunk by 8:30 PM. i took the below picture from the window of my room in the hostel when i woke up later to pee and saw the beautiful colors on the street below.

out of Vancouver we rode a Greyhound. ironically, passing through US Customs at the Washington border was no-sweat. they didn't pull us aside or interrogate us or anything. we were waved through with the rest of the bus passengers.

we enjoyed one more night on the town in Seattle. it was Sunday, so many bars closed early, but we did find some cheap beer and greasy food at El Malecon, a fun little cantina/sports bar in downtown Seattle. then we retired and the next day we went our seperate ways.

all in all, it was an awesome trip, and we accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish. thanks, fate!

as for my future -- I'm staying on in Seattle in the van. i'll try to do a post about my explorations of Seattle soon. Thanks for reading!


catching up

shortly after my last post the summer took some unexpected twists and turns. due to a family emergency, we had to fly from Phoenix to RI.

the day before we flew out of Phoenix, we needed some long-term internet access so we could buy airplane tickets online. that, plus the fact that we needed to clean the van and shower before flying out, made us decide to get a motel room. at that point were driving down the eastern edge of Utah. there were many motels along the way, many tiny towns whose economy seemed to orbit the outdoor industry. but the motels were usually too expensive.

finally in Blanding we found a little motel that was 30 bucks a night plus wifi. the lady at the desk complained that it was a bad summer for the motels in town. she claimed that people were renting RVs rather than renting motel rooms. she seemed to have a point; i saw more Cruise America rental RVs in Utah than anywhere else.

the room was just what you'd expect at $30 a night. of course, having been sweating it out in the van for a week or two it felt luxurious. TV! hot showers! a big bed! electricity! we walked up to the A&W and bought fast food then ate it in the room and began the depressing process of trying to find cheap airplane tickets. it seems like the airplane companies spike or drop the prices based on the time of day when people are most likely to buy tickets. we ended up buying tickets at some ungodly AM hour. then we high-tailed it to Phoenix.

Phoenix was burning up. night fell and it was still burning up. we slept in the van. it was a long strange feverish night. we slept, but it was a weird sleep where you're sweating profusely and kind of delirious. i kept waking up and shining the flashlight on the thermometer. it hovered between 95 and 100 in the van all night. dawn came and it thumped up to 100 and stayed there. we got up at 6. from the rays of sun coming thru the windows it felt like noon.

the we realized we'd left a wallet at the motel...

anyway, we got to RI, where it was surprisingly cool weather-wise, and we did our thing there. after 2 weeks, things were resolved, and we flew back to phoenix. i was relieved to find the campervan had survived its lonely stay in the economy lot, which cost $8/day. the interior of the van had that "toasted leather" smell which i associate with the way my great grandparents' car used to smell; they were Tucson residents.

now we're in California. readers of this blog may recall how in April I chickened out of a tour of LA. well, this time I went in! the driving was not disastrous but was indeed high-octane. within 90 miles of the city there was a perceptible change in the road vibe: people started driving faster and more aggressively, the road expanded from 2 lanes into 4 or 5, and the traffic thickened. i had to keep my wits about me. once we penetrated the city there were some crap drivers who cut me off and forced me to slam on the brakes (when you do that in a campervan you hear all your worldly possessions go crashing about behind you). but we made it to a friend's house in west LA where there was overnight parking.

in addition to visiting friends in LA, we visited the famous Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City (west LA). The museum is a deliberate blend of fact and fiction. Some of the fiction is blatant fantasy, such as an exhibit about a tropical bat which can fly through solid matter, and some is a more subtle distortion of history which leaves you wondering what exactly is real and what is not. its really genius --- imaginative, hilarious, weirdly fascinating. and affordable, at a suggested $5 donation for entry. check it out next time you're in LA!

we continued up the coast. the California coast is notoriously unfriendly toward vandwelling. the walmarts all forbid it (that's the word on the street, at least). we aimed for the town of Paso Rubles, where there was a movie theater showing "District 9" which we were itching to see. we got there and saw the movie then we decided to take a risk and just camp in the van on the street. it was a major street but in a quiet part and there were other cars parked around us which suggested you were allowed to leave vehicles out overnight.

me being me, i went for a walk to try to find a police station or cop just to get an informal OK. i figured if i was honest and told the cop that we just wanted to get some shuteye and we'd be gone by morning, he wouldn't mind. no subterfuge, you know? well, i couldnt find a cop, and since it was saturday night, the police station desk was closed. so we went to the movie then got out around 11:30 and discretly entered in the van and went to bed.

around midnight somebody pulled up behind the van and sat there with the car idling. there was the sound of a dog barking. the headlights were very bright. we lay there waiting, trying not to make any sounds or movement. this went on and on --- just some dude sitting behind us with his headlights blaring through the back windows (the back windows have translucent coverings so you can't see out or in, but light gets through). then we heard the guy get out saying, "... Shine both windows with the light..." then we heard them walking over. clearly, they were police.

so i jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. at that point the officers had made their way to the front of the van and they were shining their superpowered maglights into the windows. and weirdly, one officer was narrating all this loudly, "... now, shine these windows, and look for any activity there. now move onto the front..."

it was strange, but i was a nervous wreck, and it happened very fast, so i didnt have much time to reflect on what was happening. i went up to one of the slider windows. "Hello, officer?" I called in a friendly tone. There was a police officer at the driver's side window, shining his light in, and another person, not in a uniform. They turned, startled. "Oh, sorry," the police officer said, "We were using your vehicle for practice. Are we cool?"

"Yes," I said.

Then they turned and walked back to their cruiser and sped off.

"What the HELL was that?" Jora asked.

My hands were shaking, I felt like puking. You'd think I actually had something to hide. "I don't know," I said, "I guess they're cool with us being here."


"Well, I DON'T fucking know!"

Once the adrenaline had drained out of us we sat there trying to make sense of what had happened. Ultimately, we decided to take the officer at his word - that he was just giving a lesson to a trainee - and we stayed.

nobody bothered us. morning came and we drove out of there. such is van-dwelling, i guess...

Oh, before I end this, here's my 2 cents on "District 9", the new alien sci-fi movie which everybody is really excited about. The idea is that harmless aliens crash-land in Johannesburg and become the victims of human cruelty, prejudice, bureacracy, and greed. that's a great concept, with huge potential for all sorts of commentary.

but "District 9" blows it. it's unrelentingly bleak and sadistic, with virtually no redemption at the end (there is an attempt at a redemption story, but it rings very, very false). the social commentary is aggressive, but misdirected. and sure, there's a big man vs man / man vs alien shoot-out in the end, and if you like that sort of thing, you may be titillated. but don't buy into all the hype about this movie being a more "cerebral" sci-fi tale. it's not.

thanks for reading!