Given the confluence of my rising stress levels, an impending presidential debate and an unexpectedly benign turn in the weather, it was pretty clear what I needed to do: get the hell out of what passes for civilization these days.
A bit of Googling, a couple of calls to the National Park Service and I had backcountry passes for three days of poking around Lake Ozette, out in the northwest corner of this fine peninsula/state/country. Night before, I did some camping gear Tetris with the kayak to convince myself that it really was possible to get tent, pad, bag, clothes, stove, food and miscellaneous cruft into the itty bitty hatches. Oh, and bear canister, because the Olympics, and therefore, bears.
Yeah, I probably ended up packing more stuff than I needed, strictly speaking. But this was going to be my first time solo backcountry kayak camping…okay, my first time backcountry kayak camping. Okay, my first time doing any sort of camping from any sort of boat, and I didn’t want to catch myself wishing I’d brought, oh, I don’t know, a patch kit, or extra line, or a spare water filter. So I crammed those hatches pretty darned full.
As for Ozette itself – I’ve spent a fair amount of time kicking around the 101 loop that encircles the Olys, but never made it to Lake Ozette. It’s always been a bit of a mythical place, just far enough off any convenient access to have kept it out of my travels. Folks tend to talk about it the way they talk about mythical places. Places where there might just be magic.
I understand that on normal years, during high season, it can get pretty busy out there on the lake, but in the last dregs of summer on a plague year it was deserted. I did cross paths with a fellow rigging his sailboat at the boat launch, but the only signs of civilization I saw until two put-ins later was a couple of kayaks pulled up onto the sand at the far end of Erickson Bay that evening.
Have I mentioned that I like kayaking? There’s something about it like flying a small plane. Being right there on the water, feeling the flow around you, balancing the thrust of a paddle against gravity, drag, wind and hydrodynamics, coaxing the laws of physics to bring you smoothly around a turn, drifting in complete silence, the geometry of motion tracing a contracting arc, threading a gap in the bulrushes to come into open water like a gymnast in slow motion, sticking the landing. It’s good stuff.
Moon came up red that first night on…you know, I’m going to resist trying to give you a play-by-play. So much of the time out there I found myself narrating, stepping outside of the experience to think about how I was going to tell people about this magical little excursion. I had to keep catching myself, looking around, being in the moment. Just being in the moment.
Which were pretty damned good moments. Okay, I’ll try to give you a couple of snapshots:
There was watching a red moon rise over an empty lake on a deserted beach. Huckleberries and salal berries dripping, positively dripping off of every bush. Gorging myself on huckleberries, like a kid in some back-to-nature Willy Wonka film. Paddling out across open water, the width of the lake, to tiny Garden Island, probably about five acres of woods piled on a little hill around a grassy shore. Something kind of magic/spooky/liberating to know that you’re all alone on an island – oh, the possibilities to choose from: Robinson Crusoe? Tom Hanks? Lord of the Flies for one? Or just sit at the hilltop lookout and let the solitude wash over you?
I wasn’t completely alone the whole three days. Paddling a bit south of Erickson Bay, there’s a grassy put-in spot with a little footpath that leads through dense temperate rainforest out to the coast itself, out to a deserted ocean beach. Majestic sea stacks to the north and south, waves crashing in from China. Halfway out I met an elderly couple who’d been camping on that beach for years and always wondered there that path led. We exchanged impressions of the half of the trail we’d each walked and speculated about bears, then wished each other happy adventuring.
And out on the beach, obviously miles from any other humans, I knew that the temptation to skinny dip would immediately summon some random beachcomber from around one of the massive driftwood trunks. I was not disappointed.
But back to the solitude. By the time I paddled, glided back up the silent shoreline to the north tip of the lake, pulled my still-overstuffed kayak out onto the grassy put-in and started fishing for my car keys, I felt like I’d found some semblance of a center. I could think with detachment of the chaos I was about to re-enter. The undoubted dumpster fire of a presidential debate, vacuous Manichean talking heads across the Twitterverse drowning out rational discussion, shouting out the terrors that awaited us if “those other people” got control. I could handle it.
Three days later, of course, I’m ready to head back out. (But not going to – as per my previous rant, there’s work to be done.)