A week ago I was looking at the same ocean. Grey ripples, long foamy waves, the savory smell of seaweed remind me that the water is 30-degrees colder. The thin layer that crawls up the beach touches my bare feet, makes me shiver. There will be no swimming here. Wading, but no swimming. The sunshine is unlikely for this time of year, May 1st, the birth of a season, the birth of green shoots, the rebirth of what lay dormant. My brother, Joss, and I walk the beach north, silently inspecting every inch of sand for our own different treasure. Treasure is everywhere.
Since I can remember, we have been spending time here at the cabin, watching the spouts of migratory whales, fitting puzzle pieces together while knowing that at least one or two are missing, folded into a crack in the floorboards, torn apart by a nest building mouse. Everything feels right. The deteriorating foam mattress, the coiled black larvae in the rain barrel, the rickety steps from the porch to the outhouse are just the same. Things that disturb most people make me feel at home. Joss and I make quinoa salad for dinner, share it with two friends who are staying up north past the Whale. Cheap red wine ties everything together.
I spend a few hours the next day picking up asphalt roofing around the pentagon. When it fell we were in such a rush to take the thing apart that we just threw the roofing onto the ground around the building. Now, after two years of chainsaws and rips, the old roofing is covered in heaps of decomposing sawdust, a moisture barrier beneath which all kinds of white mycelial colonies are growing, the roots of mushrooms. I pull the stuff up barehanded, pile it at the corners, figure I’m reducing our impact with every piece of tarpaper I slide from the earth. It feels good to clean things up.
Joss has planted things: red flowering current, shore pine, Nootka rose, vine maple, ocean spray, serviceberry, bitter cherry. The twinberry and red osier dogwood are sprouting from mud puddles. Tiny buds cover the earth like a five o’clock shadow. A patch of clover grows where the fire pit used to be. I try to imagine what it will look like in ten years, try to imagine what I will look like and can’t do it. I think that maybe we’ll build a greenhouse, some raised beds, import dirt from Forks or Amanda Park. Imagining the greenhouse is easier.
We spend three days at the cabin. The tides are so low that we walk as far south as Hogsback, cross the Raft with rolled up pants, the water colder than the ocean, and red with tannins. Otherwise, its quiet time, and nice to have it. We spend the evenings hidden in open books, the twilight cooking dinner. The ocean rhythm goes almost unnoticed behind the sound of written words, the spatter of garlic in hot oil.
The Mariners are doing better than this time last year. The local sportswriters wonder if their pitching will hold up. President Obama is coming out with his new budget. The weather forecast for the Peninsula is rain, and, at higher elevations, snow. May 7th, 2009 is my first trip of the year into the Olympic Mountains.
Joss drives south on 101 while I choose tunes from the passenger seat. The centerline stripes sync with the music as they pass by the tires and we can’t help but nod to the beat. When we reach the Hamma Hamma River, Joss turns right. The trailhead is not far up the road. We park outside the fee site because I forgot the pass, hike down the pavement to the trail.
We’re moving so fast that I almost take a wrong turn and head down to Lower Lena Lake. I notice the sign only after I see Joss out of the corner of my eye, waiting above me on a different trail. We’ve already gone three miles and we have another four to Upper Lena Lake. I stop for a second, sip water and remove a layer. This hike is going to be too easy, I’m thinking.
The snow is spotty at first, little drifts with sword ferns sticking through. But it soon becomes serious. We put our gaiters on, trudge through soft mounds, sink to our knees. The trail is not obvious, but there are a few red markers stapled to tree trunks. Every so often, my boot punctures a hole beneath the snow and I sink to my waist. It requires flexibilty to get out. “This is good practice for mountaineering,” I say, “I’ll be totally used to the feeling of falling in a crevasse.”
The snow gets deeper and the trail more obscure. There are no more markers. There are no other footprints. We are breaking trail through giant cedars, loosely following a ravine that contains a roaring river. I fall into a hole next to the trunk of a fallen tree. There is nothing beneath me and I’m in up to my chest. It takes me awhile to escape. I squirm and roll my way out.
After more than an hour in the deep snow we come to an avalanche field. Small trees have been contorted into pigtails by powerful slides. It is when we are ascending a particularly steep section that Joss points up and says, “Avalanche.” There is an old slide above us. Clumps, bricks of snow jammed into tree ankles. I think this is what Joss is talking about, say, “Yeah, crazy,” continue hiking. A moment later he says it again, “Avalanche!” this time with more force. The old slide is actually moving toward us. The whole broken mass of snow is gradually inching downhill. It scares me for a second and I scramble out of its path, up a hill to my left. A wall of deeply rooted trees stops the slide just above us however, and we have a chance to inspect the frozen rubble from a distance. I imagine being under it and am glad it wasn’t moving faster. Bones are toothpicks against that much force.
We continue post-holing steeply uphill. The ridge ahead looks promising. From the crest we can see the white expanse of Upper Lena Lake lying like spilled milk beneath the towering thumb of Mt. Bretherton. The weatherman fucked up again. Sunshine pours over frozen rim to the west, drenches the snow in gold, and Bretherton’s features are all light and shadow. We’re exhausted, sit on our backpacks, say we wish we had skis.
A shallow finger of smothered land extends into the lake. We stomp camp onto a flat spot, dig a windbreak with pot lid and ice axe, go three feet down and never hit earth. The lake is seamless except for a few tiny pools around the edge. Joss wants to fish. We step out onto the lake cautiously. The snow is as deep as it was on land. Joss jabs the axe into the powder in front of him and hits something solid. Good enough. We trudge towards a pool the size of a doorframe.
He casts the lure beyond the pool, drags it across the snow until it plops into the water. I can see the yellow squid bobbing with each jig and then the silver flash of a tiny trout as it bites. The hook must be too big, but he was too small to eat anyway. Joss fishes, crouched in the snow, casting delicately with the ancient reel, until the last streaks of heavenly color have faded to black.
Water is boiling when he returns empty handed but smiling. Whole-wheat pasta, dark green pesto, vegetarian sausages for dinner. The mixture radiates heat from my insides. Our little tent is a warm potato in an icebox. Soon, however, the whole moon rises and soaks us in winter rays like dry ice. The opposite of warm day is freezing night.
My hair follicles are sore from sleeping with a wool hat on. The morning is grayer than yesterday but the sun is strong enough to push heat through the mist, the clouds an unlikely insulator. We take our time packing up. I wish I could stay a week, wish for a pair of skis, skins, boots. But I’m also wishing for a dry pair of socks.
Trudging back across the lake and up the eastern rim of the basin, Joss notices a bear wire hanging between two trees. Yesterday we couldn’t find evidence of a campsite or trail, but now we discover a wooden sign that points directly at our tracks. I’m amazed by how close we were to the trail, am happy we were the first people to come here this season. Our tracks will be followed until the snow melts, even if we did take a few detours through steep terrain and over hidden snow caves. We fall and tumble our way down the slopes, and once we reach solid earth at a lower elevation, it feels strange. Soggy roots are slippery ankle traps. Fresh green shoots grasp for sunlight, signaling with their anxious desire that a new season is opening.