The Olympic Peninsula, set off in the northwest corner of the continental U.S., is a unique place. My longpoem American Olympus is a travelogue of one week we spent camping there.
Here are ten things to consider.
Size: About 3,600 square miles, it’s a large arm with the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the north, and Puget Sound on the east. You can’t drive straight through it, by the way – only around the perimeter.
Distinctive features: The Olympic mountain range fills the center. It’s dominated by 7,980 foot elevation Mount Olympus, which has seven notable glaciers. The peninsula’s Pacific coastline (including 73 miles inside the national park) has impressive sea stacks and dense old-growth rainforests.
Precipitation: The Hoh Rainforest receives 12 to 14 feet of rain a year – that is, up to 170 inches. In contrast, the eastern half of the peninsula, facing Seattle, is in a rain shadow, where lawns and gardens may require irrigation. The mountains, as you may have guessed, get buried in snow.
Public lands: The peninsula includes Olympic National Park and national forest, plus designated wilderness areas and state parks. The national park itself covers nearly a million acres.
Rangers: The national park has 139 full-time rangers. Seasonal support pushes that to 256 in season, assisting nearly three million visitors a year.
Natives: It’s home to eight contemporary tribes of Native Americans and ten reservations.
Population: 104,000 people. The largest city is Port Angeles, 20,000 residents.
Freshwater attractions: Glacier-carved and crystal-clear, 12-mile-long Lake Crescent is up to 624-feet deep. Average depth is 300 feet. The peninsula also touts 13 significant salmon-bearing rivers, most of them wild, plunging from the mountains to the sea.
Who was Juan de Fuca? The band of seawater between the peninsula and Canada is named for a Greek maritime pilot who lived from 1536 to 1602. Though we know him by his name in Spanish, he was Ioannis Phokas, sailing in service of King Philip II of Spain. He claimed to have discovered the strait on a voyage in 1592, and though much of his report departs from reality, a few details make it possible that he was just a lousy recordkeeper.
Washington state isn’t the only part of the country where ferry service is important. The Staten Island ferry makes appearances in my Subway Visions novel, strange as that sounds. Check it out.
A bit further to the northeast, here in New England the boat service can also be impressive. Most of my trips here, I should add, have been as a walk-on passenger.
Now for a look.
Casco Bay. Portland (as in Maine, not Ory-gone) overlooks Casco Bay and some of its neighborhoods are on islands. A state-created ferry service makes daily stops on four islands within the city limits plus two in towns beyond. The little yellow-and-white boats are rather picturesque, truth be told, and the fares are quite reasonable. We’ve become quite fond of the mail run, which has six stops on five islands out and then back.
Portland to Nova Scotia: Also out of Casco Bay is a catamaran ferry that zips to Nova Scotia in half the driving time. (Looks like there’s one stop en route, at Bar Harbor.) Back when it was a conventional boat, much of the appeal was in overnight gambling, once you were out in international waters.
Nantucket. There are several routes, mostly from Cape Cod. The island likes to think of itself as a world all its own.
Martha’s Vineyard. Like Nantucket, but maybe more exclusive.
Boston to Provincetown. The catamaran zips from downtown Boston to the Cape in just 90 minutes, half of the time of driving in good conditions. I might mention some Boston Harbor commutes for shorter ventures.
Block Island. Out from commercial fishing Port Judith in Rhode Island, it’s a fine daytrip. Rent a motor scooter when you land for a quick tour.
Isles of Shoals. Just downstream from us, there are several services linking Portsmouth and the Isles of Shoals. The small islands split by the New Hampshire-Maine boundary include the Star Island summer retreat run by a Unitarian-Congregational church arrangement.
Mohegan Island. Penobscot Bay in Maine has several ferry trip choices available. Mohegan Island is a prime destination served from several points onshore.
Lake Champlain. Several crossings connect Vermont to New York State. Of the ferry trips on this list, these are the only ones on freshwater, not saline. One even follows a cable from one shore to the other.
Campobello Island. OK, that’s in New Brunswick, Canada, but it’s once again served by a small ferry from Eastport, Maine. Sometimes the boat goes further, too, out on the world’s biggest tides.
Ever been on a ferry or whale watch? What’s your experience?
When I lived in the desert in Washington state, we used to joke about the “rainy side” of the Cascade mountains, the strip where most of the people resided and worked.
When we visited that side, though, we often found ourselves driving the car onto a ferry and venturing onward. The state government manages an impressive fleet, some of them small and others, well, more substantial. It’s the largest ferry service in the country and fourth largest in the world. It’s boats even show up in my novel Nearly Canaan.
Here are its nine routes plus one, all on Puget Sound but the last, which is a private operation.
Seattle-Bainbridge Island: 6,429,853 riders a year. Big-time commuter run from downtown. (That’s still only a fourth of the volume on the Staten Island ferry, and there’s no Statue of Liberty along the way. But the New York line has eight boats compared to this route’s two.)
Edmonds-Kingston: 4,114,181. With a terminal just north of Seattle, this route offers a quick hop across Puget Sound. Obviously, popular with commuters.
Mukilteo-Clinton on Whidbey Island: 4,073,761. It’s the first leg to Port Townsend from Seattle. Most of the riders are commuters who live on Whidbey Island.
Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth: 3,059,587. Operates as a “triangular” route from West Seattle.
Seattle-Bremerton: 2,739,926. Includes some hairpin turns getting into Bremmerton while passing a U.S. Navy shipyard.
Anacortes-San Juan Islands: 2,009,438. The San Juans are four gemlike isles north of Seattle. Popular with sailboat owners.
Port Townsend-Coupeville on Whidbey Island: 819,285. Port Townsend, at the “anvil” on the Olympic Peninsula, has become a trendy, artsy waterfront town.
Point Defiance-Tahlequah: 812,786. Links Tacoma and Vashon Island.
Anacortes-Sidney, British Columbia: 123,001. Also stops at Friday Harbor in the San Juans. Landing is a 30-minute drive from Victoria.
Port Angeles-Victoria, British Columbia. Its 90-minute voyage across the Strait of Juan de Fuca links the Olympic Peninsula to downtown Victoria. The vessel carries up to 110 vehicles and a thousand passengers. The Black Ball Ferry is not a state-run route, but it is truly a “poor man’s cruise.” I remember eating well and being agog at our landing in the heart of the classy Canadian city. (A foot-passenger-only rival sails from downtown Seattle.)
I’ve never seen a photograph that captures the breathtaking majesty of Mount Rainier. Even from miles away, it can seem to hover over your head, perhaps even reaching on around for the back of your neck.
Like Joshua and Jaya in my novel Nearly Canaan, I lived in the desert to the east. That meant we usually frequented parts of the national park that the folks from nearby Seattle were least likely to visit.
It’s been 40 years since I was forced to move elsewhere. Here are ten things that still impress me.
The park: Established March 2, 1899, Rainier is America’s fifth oldest national park. It covers 369 square miles, making it the 21st largest in the continental U.S. and the third largest in Washington state.
The central mountain: Also known as Tahoma, Rainier rises to 14,411 feet above sea level, making it the second tallest peak in the continental U.S. Unlike its rivals, its base is only miles inland from sea level. Measured from base to summit, or by its topographic prominence, that’s 13,210 feet – more than K2 in the Himalayas. It’s the most heavily glaciated mountain in the continental U.S.
It’s a stratovolcano: Rainier is an active volcano, with sulfur-fuming pits in the ice at its summit. Considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, it leaves about 80,000 people and their homes at risk of an eruption.
Distance from the summit to downtown Seattle: 59 miles, if you’re a crow.
Diversity of ecosystems: About 58 percent of the park is forested, ranging from dense evergreen forest to open ponderosa. The tall Douglas firs and western red cedars are nearly as impressive as the sequoias further to the south. Another 23 percent of the park is subalpine, above the forests but having evergreens at distances. In season, this is wildflower heaven, with orange paintbrushes, lupines, and white-starred avalanche lilies in profusion. Above that, half of the remainder is alpine, having unique vegetation, while the other half is permanent snow and ice.
Year-round ice and snow: Depending on your source, 26 or 27 major glaciers cling to the mountain. They release thunderous booms of breaking ice during the summer. Combined with permanent snow patches, they cover about 35 square miles.
Ice caves: By late summer, the mouths of some of the glaciers melt away to form mystical blue caverns. They’re dangerous to enter but unforgettable if you’ve ever been in one.
Reaching the summit: Climbers are required to register for permits before setting out. They must possess technical skills regarding ice axes, harnesses, and ropes and be in good physical condition. They face a 9,000-foot elevation gain over eight or more rugged miles. And then they repeat it in reverse. For most, it’s a two-day trek. About 10,000 people set out for the summit each year, with half of them succeeding. The mountain claims an average of two lives a year.
Thermal hot springs: Furthest away from Seattle is the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs. Once a resort, it now features trails that are delightful to hike in winter.
Two lodges: Situated at 5,100 feet elevation in the subalpine terrain, Paradise receives an average of 53 feet of snow a year. Sunrise, at 6,400 feet elevation, is the highest point the roads reach. The lodges are often snowed in till the Fourth of July.
In my novel Nearly Canaan, Joshua and Jaya find themselves surrounded by orchards. They quickly appreciate apples as much more than an orb to eat daily.
Here are ten unexpected uses.
Headache relief. Cut a green apple open and start sniffing. It’s supposed to work faster than some pain pills.
Christmas decorations. Slice an apple, then carve out the core. The rounds can be hung individually or as a garland on the tree or window. They’re fragrant, too, as they dry.
Shrucken heads for Halloween. Bake them on low for three hours or so, then carve out a mouth and nose, maybe the eyes too. Add buttons or other small objects for the eyeballs. Quite spooky and yet funny.
Kiddie craft stamper. Cut one open, then carve out a design for imprinting with ink on paper or fabric.
Candleholder. Carve the core from an apple, then insert a votive or tea candle. It makes for a romantic glow.
Hair rinse. Dilute cider in water, then rinse after shampoo and conditioner rounds. Removes excess oil.
Salt reduction. Ever put too much salt in something you’re cooking? A few wedges of apple or potato added to the pot can turn the trick. Remove them after ten minutes. Don’t see this helping on the table, though. Any suggestions there?
Green tomato ripener. Place an already ripe apple in a paper bag for a couple of days. We’ll have to remember this in the fall, when we harvest everything we can before the first big frost.
Potpourri. Stud an apple with cloves stems and let it dry in a clothes drawer. I remember that from childhood.
As a bow-and-arrow target. Especially if you’re William Tell.
Like Joshua and Jaya in my novel Nearly Canaan, I was surprised by the relative importance of smaller urban areas in the Pacific Northwest. Look how quickly the population figures drop.
Looking at the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, here are the ten largest cities by metropolitan area population. These figures have mushroomed since I lived in the region four decades ago and even desert communities have been deemed desirable destinations for retirees. As for geographic perspective, remember that the Seattle standard statistical metropolitan area includes the wilderness of Mount Rainier National Park. Anyplace else have an active volcano?
Seattle, 3.9 million. Ranked 20th in the U.S. Feels more like Boston, Chicago, or Atlanta in its impact.
Portland, 2.4 million. Ranked 30th in the U.S.
Boise, Idaho, 730,426
Spokane, Washington, 559,891
Salem, Oregon, 432,102
Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, 379,611
Olympia, Washington, 286,419
Tri-Cities, Washington, 296,224
Bremerton, Washington, 269,805
Yakima, Washington, 251,446. The major metropolis for the middle third of a large state.
Note that six of the ten are west of the Cascade range. None are in the eastern half of Oregon.
Just to the north, Vancouver, British Columbia, has 2.4 million population, making it Canada’s third largest metropolis.
You’ve no doubt heard cliché quips about the stress-relieving blessings of having your own garden. I want to know, compared to what? A day at the beach or in the mountains? Kicking back with a brew on a deck overlooking the river? Listening to music or dancing? Sunbathing on your own deck? Reading a book?
Maybe you’re one of the newbies who decided the year of Covid, with its upsets to the food chain, would be a good time to lay in your first home produce. Welcome, and good luck. Now, for the learning curve.
Veteran gardeners to some degree enjoy what they do, the way any obsessive does, and the activity does provide a common topic for conversation with an in-crowd, or one that’s “in” at the moment. Otherwise, it’s usually old folks looking for some diversion.
Either way, don’t consider relaxation to be among the benefits.
Here are ten reasons gardening is going to raise your blood pressure instead.
Weeds. You can never stay ahead of them, especially if you’re growing organically, which is your ethical alternative. I could do a long list of these nasty invaders alone. Weeding usually comes down to triage, depending on your available time and anger.
Weather. It’s either too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, and not just for the plants. For you, too, when you’re out there. And watering, in our city, costs a fortune.
Woodchucks. They can mow down your beds overnight. Squirrels, as a subcategory, can also take quite a toll. Even our beloved birds can wipe out most of our berries.
Garden slugs. We have clay soil, and the slimy (expletives) proliferate, taking bites out of everything in their path. You should see what they do to strawberries, for starters, as well as the tomatoes.
Heartbreak. Something you’re really anticipating instead croaks prematurely. There’s always at least one sacrificially crop each year. Sometimes it’s a perennial that died off over the winter. Sometimes, something entirely new.
Heavy harvests. Crops that survive usually roll in like a flood. How much zucchini can you eat at once? Do you really have time to home can or freeze the rest? How much can you actually give away? You bring it inside and watch it start rotting on a kitchen counter, which points back to Heartbreak.
Skeeters, sunburn, and bleeding scratches. Remember, those raspberry and currant bushes have stickers, as do the roses … especially the wild roses that pop up as stubborn weeds. They’re not alone, either.
Your knees and back. You’re not doing sets of hatha yoga asanas while you’re out there, often in cramped spaces where you’re trying hard not to crush the plants around you. Plus, you’re getting older. Let’s not overlook all those muscles you didn’t know you have, or the ones you wish you still did.
Long lines and crowds at the nursery. Even if you order your seeds from your favorite catalogs at the beginning of January, something’s going to be out of stock. Besides, you’ll need something, maybe six-packs of a plant that died under your grow lamps or a bag of vermiculite, which means heading to the greenhouse same time everyone else is. Circling around the parking lot just trying to find a spot is a huge aggravation.
Expenses. Even without factoring in the cost of your own time (I argue it’s not free), you’ll find that your produce and flowers can be pretty costly. Yeah, you’re already paying property tax, but don’t overlook that when you’re being realistic … that’s part of the reason you bought or rent a place with some ground, right? Good tools aren’t cheap, either (now where did you last see that trowel you need now or the nozzle to the hose?), and cheap tools break pretty fast. Cheap? Neither are those bags of everything from potting soil and starter mix to fertilizer and peat moss. Oh, yes, you may need to replace that hose and, while you’re at it, pick up another soaker hose to try to save on that water bill. And you’ll want rolls of plastic or bales of mulch hay or bags of bark to keep those weeds down, and skeeter spray and band-aids and more gasoline for the weed-whacker and …
All that said, before adding guilt or shame to our list, let’s return to the amazing taste of asparagus or strawberries or real tomatoes sped straight from the garden to the plate. There’s no other way to get this. We’ve really earned it.
In my novel Nearly Canaan, Joshua and Jaya settle into a place unlike anything they would have imagined. It’s desert, for one thing, where nearly everything has to be irrigated, for another. Quite simply, it’s a lot like Yakima, in the middle of Washington state and an agricultural mecca.
Besides the well-known crops of apples, hops, and grapes, let’s consider: