Saturday, June 28, 2014

Backpacking on Long Island

Hiking along Smoky Hollow
The weathermen were out to get us again. Just a few days before our planned trip to the Enchanted Valley, the forecast had turned from mostly sunny to solid rain and clouds for the foreseeable future. We awoke Sunday with barely 2 days of sunshine before us and no time left to get ready for a long trip. A split-second change of plans and 30 minutes spent throwing gear into backpacks put us on the road underneath the wobbling length of a borrowed canoe. Two hours later we had arrived at the headquarters of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, and with the canoe wallowing through the receding tide, crossed the channel to the wild bulk of Long Island.

Long Island Trail
We dumped the canoe in the bushes, shouldered our packs, and set out through the knee-high grass that blankets the abandoned logging road serving as a trail connecting the remote beaches and sloughs of the island. Before this island was protected, it was a loggers paradise, and the swaths of second growth forest were thick and dark.  It is boring hiking, and what would otherwise be a remarkably short and easy hike turned into a monotonous slog, especially for the younger members of our party. The forest has a distinctly sad air to it; the massive stumps that rise ghost-like from the thick forest lead one to think of a graveyard in which the corpses have been left to rot on the surface.

Smoky Hollow Campsite
 It was a great relief to emerge from the forest onto the wide rocky beach of Smoky Hollow. The coast is a direct contrast to the island’s interior; sand and rock alternate with grass and muddy tide flats. Birds of every kind fill the air and probe the tideline. We saw otter tracks (and the otters themselves the next morning!). The few campsites in Smoky Hollow are sandwiched in between the bay and a swamp, thick with lilies and cattails. There were picnic tables, firepits, and access to a solar-composting outhouse-what luxury! Surprisingly for a place with a buggy reputation, there were few Mosquitos, and we were able to relax around camp without the hum of those blood sucking monsters in our ears! The beach was strewn with the best skipping rocks in existence, and high tide brought the water near to camp where we could practice our skipping skills

Night sky over Willapa Bay
Night on Long Island was spectacular; the lights of Long Beach Peninsula glowed beneath a brilliant, star-filled sky. I didn’t expect to see so many stars so close to civilization, and watched in wonder as the milkyway stretched out above us in all its glory. Frog song from the swamp accompanied the starshine, and the gentle lapping of the tide lulled us to sleep.

Old tree roots in Smoky Hollow
Morning brought with it a tide low enough to expose miles of mud flats, and only a thin ribbon of water marked the deep, shark filled channel that divides the island from the Long Beach peninsula. But the rising tide covered the shallow slope very quickly, and by the time we left, the water line had crept a mile closer. If we were to make it to the boat launch by high tide, we had to say goodbye to our quiet refuge or be stuck until the next high tide.

Top Left: Long exposure of waves in the grass.
Bottom Left: Smoky Hollow Marsh.
Top Right: Autumn foliage in June.
Bottom Right: Smoky Hollow Sunset.

On the way back, we visited the Don Bonker Cedar Grove. At 270 acres, it is one of the largest coastal Old Growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, and the short loop trail that visits it only scratches the surface of this cathedral of ancient trees. To stand among these giants is to be made a dwarf; some were every bit as impressive as the Redwoods, and after walking in their presence the sight of the massive stumps along the trail back was almost heart breaking.


Hiking back, we were struck by how the forests of the island had changed from our walk the previous day. In the afternoon, it had been a dark and dreary journey, but in the morning the light penetrated the canopy better, and the forest was much brighter. Mosquitos assailed us now, and grew steadily worse as the day progressed. A storm was on its way in; perhaps that had stirred them up. The crossing back to the boat launch was just as nerve-wracking as that of the previous day, but we made it all the same.

I am thankful for the difficulty of access to this Island refuge; dangerous currents, difficult logistics, and long miles of dark forest keep the crowds away. In all the time we were on the island we saw no people, no boats or planes. The only sign that we were not in a remote wilderness was the Long Beach lights at night. Our last minute decision did not leave us regretting the long hike we didn't take, but instead left us marveling at the wonders that were only a high tide away.