YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Soddenly Last Summer--Life in a Rain Forest : Those Who Dwell in Woods Are a Different Cut From Folks Living in Drier Climes

Charles Hillinger's America

September 29, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

HOH RAIN FOREST, Wash. — It was raining buckets. Really coming down. Nothing to get excited about. Washington's Olympic Peninsula is the wettest spot in the 48 contiguous states.

Only a handful of people, 150 at the most, live year round in the Hoh, Queets and Quinault--the three temperate zone rain forests in northwestern Washington.

Few others could take it.

Average rainfall is 12 to 17 feet a year. Average yearly rainfall in Los Angeles is 14 inches .

It's eerie: Moss-draped branches of towering trees canopying a dense forest carpeted with a jungle of lush green plants, herbs, huge ferns, giant edible orange and yellow chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms and other exotic fungi.

The forest is alive with wildlife, big ravens and crows and flying squirrels in the trees. The serene sound of steady falling rain is rent by the bugling call of a male Roosevelt elk summoning a mate.

In the woods are cougar, black bear, deer, bobcat, mink, otter, skunk, shrew, mice and a raft of other animals. It is one of the most pristine, primeval chunks of virgin wilderness in America.

One would almost expect to see elves and leprechauns sliding down drooping moss-laden limbs or taking cover from the downpour under the wings of the gigantic mushrooms.

Those who live in the sodden woods with the pungent fragrance of evergreen may not be leprechauns but most certainly are of a different cut from the folks in drier climes. To live where it rains all the time and not go bananas takes a special kind of person.

"It's hard to keep your nose above water, that's for sure," laughed Gene Owens, 61, unofficial mayor of the Hoh, who owns and operates an A-frame general store on the edge of Olympic National Park.

35 People in All

There are seven families, 35 people in all, living in the tiny community in the Hoh Rain Forest. A sign along the road approaching their seven scattered homes and Owens' store proclaims wryly: "Congested Area."

Owens was playing solitaire. He finished out the game, then looked up. Business is always slow. Solitaire is his favorite pastime. Most that stop at his store stop not to buy but to ask how far it is to the Hoh Rain Forest Visitors Center.

Behind Owens is a faded sign his son printed years ago that reads: "13 Miles To Olympic National Park Visitors Center."

"Yes," admitted Owens, "it does get a little depressing when it rains day in and day out for three weeks or more without letting up. And, it's the floods that get downright discouraging. The road was out one year for 122 days. But somehow we manage."

Owen enjoys the rain forest so much he only leaves twice a year, in April and in November, and then only for a few hours to go shopping for supplies in Forks, population 3,000, the nearest town some 25 miles from his house.

It's the hunting and fishing that keep Owens and his wife, Mary, in the rain forest. He digs into a counter drawer and comes up with a July, 1982 Outdoor Life that attests to his skill. A story in the magazine is about four master fishermen. He is one of them.

"I catch 40-pound king salmon out of the Hoh River behind my house, catch giant steelhead in the river. I have raised my family in the rain forest and never bought fish or meat. I get an elk every year and if we need more meat I get a deer or two. Buying fish and meat is against my religion," he said.

How many umbrellas do you go through in a year, he was asked. "Who uses umbrellas? It's too troublesome. We who live in the rain forest wear wool. Wool even when drenching wet keeps you warm," said the mayor of the Hoh. The bearded man of the woods always wears a cap. It is said he has no hair, just moss.

"Is it wise for a person to live in a rain forest?" Bright-eyed Minnie Peterson repeated the question sitting on the porch of her homesteader's cabin between raindrops in the Hoh. She lives on her 160-acre ranch down the road from Owens.

"Well, I'll tell ya. I'd say it's wonderful after living in the rain as long as I have. I was born and raised in the rain forest. Lived here all my life. Never left. I'm 87 and still going strong. The rain hasn't hurt me none," she said.

Minnie Peterson is of sturdy stock. Her parents migrated to America from Sweden. "I'm grateful to my folks for settling here. They came clear across the country from one coast to the other looking for a place to settle down. They would still be going yet if the Pacific Ocean hadn't stopped them. This was as far as they could go. And, here they stayed."

Minnie and her late husband, Oscar, also a Swede, married in the rain forest in 1915. For their honeymoon, they rode on horseback to San Francisco and back, 1,600 miles round trip, just to take in the Panama Exposition.

Oscar was a blacksmith. Minnie, for 50 years, was a packer-guide leading groups on horseback from 1927 through 1977 to spectacular Blue Glacier, one of 60 glaciers in Olympic National Park. Today, she lives by herself, caring for 10 Holstein cows and her three horses, Pinky, Mandy and Freddie.

Los Angeles Times Articles