We are here in small town America just south of Mount Rainier National Park in Packwood, Washington. With a population of 1330, Packwood has lost its elementary school due to the closing of the local lumber mill eight years ago. As you might expect, Packwood gets by as a tourist destination for seasonal national park visitors, seasonal snowbirds (retirees), and the affluent with their seasonal second homes.
Kids go to high school in Randle some 16 miles away. Why do people stay in a little town like Packwood? Like rural Maine, I doubt few twenty-somethings do since jobs are hard to come by. If you got a good-paying government job (e.g., rangers in the national parks, teaching, postal work), you can afford to live her quite nicely.
Three bedrooms, 2 baths, nearly 2000 square feet goes for $185K on Zillow.com here in Packwood. What do you do in central Washington all winter? If you like hunting, fishing, and winter sports, you have hit pay dirt. None of those interest me at all. Ultimately, if they stay or if they return they do so because it’s home. Mom and dad are here. Childhood memories are here. It’s safe. It’s the known.
Though a heavy gray/black overcast greets us this Tuesday morning, we know rain and the Northwest go together like biscuits and gravy, red wine and good heart health, diapers and toddlers, and Mary Lynne and Wayne. If you come to the Northwest, get comfortable with the idea of regular precipitation. We can’t be the first ones to think the “Rainier” in Mount Rainier is pronounced “rain-ee-er” rather than “ray-near.”
Fueled by biscuits and gravy (Hannah) and biscuits and decaf (Dan) at the Crest Trail Inn, we head east on Route 12 through a forest of pines and firs that seem crammed together in beautiful symmetry. With so little time to work on the roads, it’s not surprising that with just one lane open we are stopped by a flagman while traffic comes from the opposite direction.
The Ohanapecosh campground is located just outside the Mount Rainier National Park. On this first pre-season week of June, we see no one camping and one RV dumping its waste appropriately. We do see crews digging up the road to lay sewer pipes before the season begins.
The Silver Falls Loop Trail is a family hike with four miles of well-marked trails and easy ups and downs. As we hike along the Ohanapecosh River, the elevation gain is modest, never more than 40 feet at a time. Just one hundred yards down the trail, we lean down to touch the warm water from the hot springs to our right. The warm water is a reminder of the powder keg of destructive possibilities that lie beneath our feet near this active volcano.
One of the big deals about eruptions is the volcanic mudflows called lahars that form once a volcano blows. With the consistency and density of wet concrete, lahars are caused by massive amounts of water after a volcanic eruption; be they rain or melting snows or turbulent rivers. Geologic history of Mount Rainier shows lahars occur once every 600 years. The last lahar occurred 500 years ago. The next one will affect 300K people on its way to Tacoma.
Ever hopeful that today is not a day of explosion, we walk through a rain forest of green upon green; ferns and wide leaf plants. The trail of pine needles covers the wet packed dirt that is easy on our feet. It is a walk in the park that kids, seniors, and those in love would adore.
Within a mile, we hear the roar of the Ohanapecosh River. Spring thaw and recent rains have made for a white water extravaganza by our side. Since the Mount Rainier National Park is so near to major population centers like Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland and their airports, the park teems with visitors during the summer months. It’s similar to summer in Yosemite. Today we have the falls to ourselves.
What is it about waterfalls that draw me in? The fury of the white water is kin to the crashing waves on the coast of Maine. I associate falls with hiking and exploring. There’s an “away-ness” that speaks to me.
We have another mile along the river through stands of towering Douglas firs, red cedars, and western hemlocks to the Grove of the Patriarchs. This three-tenths of a mile trail to the Old Men leads us to a boardwalk tour of the boreal giants of the area – Douglas firs can grow 250 feet and live for 1000 years. They are successful brothers to California’s redwoods.
Crossing a wiggly bridge suspended over the Ohanapecosh River, similar to what you would see in York, Maine crossing from route 103 to the Steedman Woods, we notice that it is posted with the rule that only one person is allowed on the bridge at a time. Never did we see anyone abide by that restriction, including us.
The rebels within me is unleashed by this “rule.” Perhaps you didn’t know that… sometimes I send personal notes in parcel post packages without paying extra for them; I don’t always wear a bicycle helmet; I take the unused soap when we stay in a motel; and I sometimes fall asleep when I meditate. Quite the Sixties rebel!
After two days of knee busting climbs of 2100 feet, today’s walk along the river with little elevation gain is just what the doctor ordered. We return by way of the west side of the Silver Falls Loop Trail to the Ohanapecosh campground. Tonight, we will end up in a motel bed four hours away in Port Angeles, WA on the Olympic peninsula rather than camping in a tent in the damp forest on one of these 40 degree nights.
Amazing how soft I have become. I guess it just comes with age… and wisdom.