Published in The Sunday Times

GOING FOR A SONG

Olympic National Park, USA

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This is not a good sign. In fact, it’s rather worrying. Patch, a six-month old mongrel, has made straight for my backpack and begun chewing it. Usually I’d just laugh and say ‘how cute’ – but not this time. Not when I’m striving to make myself and my belongings as unappealing to animals as possible. Patch’s owner, whom Sally my wife and I had befriended on the ferry to Port Angeles, tries to reassure me.

“Hey, it’ll be okay,” he says. “By now the bears are so stuffed with berries and salmon they’ll not be that interested in people.” 

 

It’s easy for him to say that. He’s travelling around in a camper van, whereas we’re about to hike alone into one of North America’s last great wildernesses – a primeval realm of mountains and forests in Washington State’s Olympic National Park. By the time nearby Seattle was a thriving metropolis in the Klondike Gold Rush years of the 1890s, the entire Olympic Peninsular was still a large blank on the map. It was called the ‘great unknown land’, a trackless void where few ventured. Today, most of what remains lies within the 1,441 square-mile national park – a fraction of Olympic’s original terra incognita, but still big enough to accommodate a healthy population of bears and other wildlife. 

   

Before catching the ferry from Vancouver, via Victoria, to Port Angeles on the north Olympic coast, Sally and I came across some cryptic advice on dealing with a bear encounter: ‘If it has a hump, be a lump; if it’s black, fight back.’ By remembering this natty rhyme we could feel confident that we had approximately three seconds to decide whether the 800lb beast bearing down on us was a grizzly bear or a black bear and then take the appropriate course of action by either playing dead or punching it on the nose. Of course, neither the national parks nor the forest service would be held responsible in the event of us making the wrong decision. Fortunately, the ranger at the Olympic National Park Visitor Centre in Port Angeles is able to resolve the dilemma for us. 

   

“No grizzlies here,” Scott Kinghorn assures us. “Just lil’ friendly vegetarian black bears.” 

   

I smile at Sally, but I can see she’s not convinced. “What do we do if we meet one?” she asks.

   

“You got bells?” says Kinghorn. We nod and coyly reveal the two small, silver bells on Velcro wrist straps that a salesman in a Vancouver camping store somehow convinced us would warn bears of our approach. “That’s great,” says the ranger. “The most dangerous bear is a surprised bear.” I give my bell a little tinkle and smile again at Sally. She’s still not convinced. 

   

“Been a problem bear in Elwha Valley,” the ranger eventually confides in us. “When he got a whiff of some hikers’ lunch they just upped and went, leaving the food behind. Result: bear associates humans with free food.” Kinghorn goes on to describe how such bears have been known to ambush hikers once they’ve discovered this association – but armed rangers soon put an end to it. “A fed bear is a dead bear.” 

   

The following day, with an extra bear bell each and all our food hermetically sealed in enough zip-lock bags to defeat a Heathrow sniffer dog, we drive towards the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Centre, tucked into the western fringe of Olympic National Park. The road skirts vast swathes of clear-cut. Some are freshly logged, the tree stumps ragged and orange with freshly-bled sap. Others are in the process of restoration with new seedlings hazing over the carnage. Roadside placards chart each plantation’s commercial history: ‘First harvest 1930; Second harvest 1984, Next harvest 2036… Jobs grow with trees’. 

   

After 100 miles we enter Olympic National Park, the road burrowing through a tunnel of moss-strewn giants – big-leaf maples shaggy with the stuff; every limb trailing a living green coat. We collect our backcountry camping permits, pay a final visit to a flush toilet, then shoulder our packs and stride off along the 18-mile Hoh River Trail. Dozens of people are strolling much shorter paths near the centre (the national park receives over four million visitors each year) and they watch us pass with what I like to think is a mixture of awe and respect as we cross the threshold into the Great Outdoors. Actually, it’s not us that intrigues them – but our bells. 

   

“What happened to your reindeer, Santa?” a young man calls out to me. He’s obviously a Seattle urbanite, unfamiliar with the lore of the woods. I return his grin, but only manage to think of a suitable repartee, like “I think the bears ate them”, when he’s passed out of ear-shot. In fact, he’s not just beyond hailing distance – he’s vanished altogether. Suddenly, we realise that we are totally alone. In the time it has taken to walk a few hundred metres, the forest has drawn a green veil around us; a silent shroud of moss and leaves strung between soaring trunks of Sitka spruce and western hemlock. Some of the trees are colossal. Their bases must be thirty or forty feet around; their crowns two hundred feet or more above our craning necks. Layer upon layer of branches filter the rays of sun so that by the time they permeate to the forest floor, everything is suffused with a soft, green haze. Even sound is muted. I can hear the Hoh River, but it’s a murmur among the trees – as if the forest is guarding its whereabouts.

   

“I think we should sing,” whispers Sally. “I’d hate to surprise a bear in here.” 

   

“We’ve got our bells, remember.” 

   

“Yeah, but they sound more like a bunch of pixies skipping along behind us than a bear deterrent.” 

   

“Okay, what do you suggest?” 

   

“I can only think of one song…” 

There can be few occasions in the ancient history of North America’s most pristine temperate rain forest when its brooding silence has been shattered by sporadic outbursts from the musical, Les Misérables – accompanied by four bear bells and clapping hands on particularly dark and spooky corners. But it seems to work. We meet no bears on our first day’s nine-mile hike (or other hikers for that matter). 

 

We pitch our tent at Olympus Campsite – a grand title for what amounts to a deserted ranger’s hut, a long-drop toilet and a few grassy clearings beside the River Hoh. Our next priority is dinner. Setting up our wilderness kitchen on a gravel bar next to the milky, glacial melt-waters of the river, we follow the first basic rule for cooking in bear country – prepare food away from your tent. Dinner-for-two consists of a single foil bag containing the dehydrated ingredients of what is optimistically entitled ‘almond chicken.’ Simply add boiling water, stand for ten minutes and voilà! – a quick and simple meal that is completely odourless and lacking in any flavour; perfect when there might be bears around. Squatting on stranded logs, we take turns dipping our spoons into the dinner bag, occasionally uttering a small squeal of delight when one of us discovers a shred of chicken. The river valley faces west and we watch the conifer-clad slopes smoulder in the sunset as swarms of lacewings drift above the river, glowing like fairies in the golden evening light. 

   

We linger as long as we dare – but night falls quickly in the forest. Hurrying back to our tent we locate the nearest bear wire, a contraption installed by rangers to enable hikers to store food (and other ‘high odour’ items) out of reach of bears. Basically, it consists of a system of cables and pulleys tied between two trees that you can use to suspend things about twelve feet above ground – which is worryingly the kind of height you need to put something to stop a full-grown black bear reaching it on tiptoes. 

   

Having hoisted our bag of food and cooking equipment, we scurry in to our tent, only to emerge a few minutes later to lower the bag again when we discover what nine miles of trekking has done to our socks. Satisfied that our tent is a ‘pong-free’ zone, we slip into a fitful sleep – constantly straining to hear noises of creatures that aren’t there. Inconsiderate bladders haul us outside sometime during the night. Like a pair of rabbits caught in the open, we are all ears and eyes. But the night seems calm and peaceful; the river chuckling nearby and a spattering of stars arching through a gap in the black and silent forest. 

   

At dawn we are sipping coffee on the gravel bar. A light frost glistens on the pebbles while tendrils of mist squirm above the river. By the time the first glancing rays of sunlight have enflamed the riverside maples, resplendent in autumn foliage, we are back on the trail. The valley narrows as it feels the squeeze of 7,965-foot Mount Olympus, still hidden from view. Our progress is slow. There are numerous streams to ford and fallen trees to limbo under. Some of the larger trunks have been sawn through by rangers, creating strange canyons through the hearts of trees that may have germinated nearly three centuries ago. But even when vanquished, these giants act as ‘nurse logs’ for rows of seedlings which take root in their decaying wood. Olympic’s forest is plant growth at its most rampant. Nourished by nearly 15 feet of rain each year, it is said to be the greatest weight of living matter, per acre, in the world. 

   

Slowly, imperceptibly, we fall under its spell. The strains of Les Misérables dwindle, while the bear bells seem weak and distant. The forest commands a cathedral hush. By the time we reach the small waterfall, neither of us have uttered a word for over an hour. At first, we fail to realise the significance of the boulder stripped of its moss – or the well-worn path bisecting the main trail. We sit on a tree stump and begin to unwrap our sandwiches. Whether it’s a subtle shift of breeze or a deeper instinct that warns us, I’m not sure. But suddenly, the air is heavy with the unmistakable, cloying odour of an animal. My eyes chase around the shadows of the forest, then come to rest on the bare boulder. I can see the claw marks now – where the bear has been pausing for its daily pedicure. The path nearby is freshly trampled. And the smell… 

   

“This looks fresh,” murmurs Sally, looking up, pale-faced, from a berry-studded pile of droppings. “It’s still warm.” 

   

Once more, I take a long hard look around us. But the forest seems to be holding its breath; the trees standing sentinel in the aching silence. “I think we should sing,” I whisper to Sally and, gathering up our uneaten picnic, we begin walking as the first shaky strands of Les Misérables begin to filter through the forest.