A Retrospective of the Olympic Wilderness and Wilderness Management, Part II

A Retrospective of the Olympic Wilderness and Wilderness Management—Part II

Andrew Ackerman

May 26, 2017

Paradise discovered
The Hoh is one of five or six major west-facing valleys on the peninsula. It is a superlative example of a temperate rainforest, and by the early 1990s it was becoming a better known attraction for serious outdoor enthusiasts and casual day visitors alike. The primary path up the Hoh Valley is almost 18 miles one-way to Glacier Meadows, and the terminus of the Blue Glacier. The first 13 miles are moderate to easy hiking through lowland old-growth forest and riparian zones, tracing the curves of the river. The last five miles however are tough ones, especially with a 40+ lb backpack. One gains over 2,500 feet in a little over four miles of hiking as you move into the montane forest, and eventually the subalpine and treeless alpine zone at 5,000 feet, where the trail ends. Those with alpine pursuits typically traverse the Blue Glacier, ascend the perennial ice-scape, and eventually top out on the aptly named “Snow Dome.” The base of Mount Olympus is short, but steep, rocky finger protrudes from the surrounding ice-scape at about 7,700 feet. It is about a 200" scramble on rock to the summit.

As a Hoh Valley backcountry ranger in 1993 I would usually encounter 6 groups of glacier-bound hikers per day on the weekends. Of those groups, about 2 groups per weekend, would attempt to summit Mt Olympus or nearby lesser peaks. Some weekends, even during peak season, I encountered no climbers. Other times 4-5 groups would summit the same day. However, on weekdays the group numbers would drop to less than one a day. The average number of groups to make it to the glacier Mon-Thurs was no more than two per day. I recall intervals of four or five days without seeing anyone, and this became more common in late August and early September. I spent one lonely, but reflective, September tour at Glacier Meadows without seeing a single soul for 12 days. Not quite Jack Kerouac Desolation, but a good dose of solitude just the same.

The Olympic backcountry was becoming more popular in the 1990s. The park and the district managers took a "hands off" approach to the popularity surge, relying on a strategy that included visitor education, the daily presence of experienced backcountry staff, and their intimate knowledge of the conditions of each of the eight backcountry districts trails and resources. In the Hoh this meant we had rangers at the popular mile 9 of the Hoh River Trail, Olympic Guard Station, and we had coverage at the Glacier Meadows on most days, the entire summer and fall. That summer I hiked from the Hoh VC to Glacier Meadows and back at least a dozen times. I encountered Roosevelt elk, Black bear, cougar, bobcat, Olympic marmot, Mule deer, Mountain goat, Short-tailed weasel, owls, dozens of songbird species, and yes, slugs. I even extended my stay after the summer season ended in September, staying on at the VC for a few more months. It was not until mid-November that I finally, and reluctantly, left my job in the Olympics for the last time, only to return years later to some unexpected changes.

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