It was back in May when I got my first good look at the Olympic Mountains. I was hiking along the southern shores of Vancouver Island for several days and dozens of kilometers hugging the Straight of Juan de Fuca. The trail, never veering far from the shore, offered a consistent 15-kilometer view of the mountain expanse as I dogged my way up and down steep coastal slopes. This was the perfect location to understand the magnitude of their grandeur. As we careened north away from the American shoreline, the stretch of mountains continued to frame the vista. The view offered an endless expanse of coastal mountains covered in a dense temperate rainforest of cedar, fir, spruce, and hemlock from the shoreline to their pointed caps. The weather had been grim, and shrouded the scenery in an ominous overcast. It was interesting, because often times people describe a mountain range as a gradation of green, white, blue but this was a spectre of deep green and an ambient dark blue sky. Searching for its end became not just something of a goal but the need for a resolve of a growing dramatic tension, but my hike came to a close before I could meet it. It was then that I decided to start a new story in order to lay this one to rest. It was my point to visit these mountains that captured my imagination, and find the place where they end.
If you don’t know anything about them, the Olympics are a gigantic block of mountains that take up the whole northwestern section of the state of Washington. They are directly south of Vancouver Island and across a narrow straight. They are a staple to the natural landscape of Victoria. If you’re driving towards the downtown, the mountains will appear to curtain the city. On foggy days with no visibility, the jagged glacial peaks will loom through the fog to remind you of their presence. On clear nights, you can see the tiny lights of Port Angeles at its shores, twinkling almost as if giving you a mischievous wink. It was after seven months of staring at them (or perhaps them staring at me) that I finally took the jump across the straight to explore these captivating mountains. My first stop: Port Angeles.
Port Angeles is a shitty fishing town—at least that’s how my roommate describes it. Riding on the ferry across the straight of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles is the mouth to the Olympic Peninsula. Its black harbour front is braced with rusty brown industrial fishing ports that swallow tankards on a daily basis. The town itself is void of any of the charm one would expect from a place of this size. Instead, it’s overrun with big box stores, truck stops, and cheap motels, and smells eerily of decaying fish anywhere within a half mile of the ferry doc. The only thing that’s appealing is that the suburbs climb the foothills of the mountains as if to get away from the rest of the city and its stench. Aside from that, if there was anything worth seeing, I didn’t see it. As the sleety rain took hold of the night following my anti-climactic arrival to Port Angeles, I decided to hit up one of the cheap motels to escape the rain (and the odour) and plan the rest of my trip.
For me, planning trips involves simple drawings. Looking at my sketching, you can begin to predict that I have a tendency to get lost. Above is my map of the Olympic peninsula versus Google Maps’ version of the Peninsula.
Say what you will, but I enjoy it this way, because this form of planning has flexibility built into it. Flexibility is imperative in mountain hiking because the weather can turn with the drop of a hat. For example, my first site I was hoping to hike was Hurricane Ridge. As I attempted to drive to the summit, the roads turned from sleety mush to ice-covered to a “this is not a Chevy Cruze snow” road. Intentionally giving myself possibilities made changing destinations easy after the police told me to turn around because my summer tires bare of any chains weren’t equipped to take on ice covered 30’ angled mountain roads. (As if that could possibly be a problem).
In addition to exploring this range that had captivated me, I wanted to use this trip to see and photograph places that some of my idol photographers have done. I wanted to see how they did it. I wanted to see how my photos would match up to theirs. It was an attempt to test myself and see how I fared at lifestyle photography. Turns out, this shit is hard.
Sol Duc Falls, Crescent Lake, and Cape Flattery, were three sites along the Olympic Peninsula Loop that were among my major goals for this trip. I went right into shooting mode when I arrived. The conditions weren’t ideal but I was able to get some good shots and nice composition. I was feeling proud of myself as I wrapped up my hike, but when I got to my motel, I realized that I had neglected to check my camera—I had shot everything that day with an ISO of 800. The pictures were all splotchy. The colours didn’t translate and my composition felt juvenile next to my idols. Photography can be cruel. You can get shots that look good on the playback screen, with what appear to be decent composition and colours, but examining them at home turns out to be a disappointment. But that’s the nature of learning photography: the more you shoot and learn from your mistakes, the more likely it is you’ll end up with a few worth sharing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to learn from my mistakes on that trip. I woke up late and the snow made it impossible to drive through the forest developmental roads to get to the Vance Creek Bridge. The sun set early when the snow howled in at about 4pm. When I finally gave up on the hike, I still had to complete the Loop by driving up the eastern section of the peninsula to get back to Port Angeles. Things didn’t turn out as I’d hoped for, but in the pale moonlight cascading off the eastern shores of the Olympic Peninsula and spilling onto the rustic cabin scene, it dawned on me that the sense of fascination I felt those seven months ago was only just the beginning of more adventures to come.
– Ben @ indieroad