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Olympic gold

Silver streams, mossy green forest, beaches and icy peaks. Washington's peninsula is a place of enchanting extremes.

August 29, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Olympic Peninsula, Wash. — We were looking for a unicorn, four young friends and I. This did not seem an unreasonable thing to do. We had found the hall where the fairies dance, the throne where the elfin queen sits. We had scurried past an old troll and had walked across a bridge of tree roots that would be the perfect place to raise baby dragons, if you were in the baby-dragon-raising business. Then we stopped in a clearing. Moss covered the trees like the robes of ancient druids, and every inch of space was occupied by something growing -- on broken stumps, on the sides of trees, on fallen nurse-logs where seedlings sprouted from fragrant rot like flags in front of a palace. Even the sunlight was filtered green as if through seawater.

For a moment, no one breathed. Then, off in the underbrush, there was the sound of a twig breaking. Under the golden hoof of a unicorn, no doubt. Because we were in the Hoh Rain Forest on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and if unicorns exist, this is where they live.

The peninsula is a place of many extremes. It includes the only rain forest in North America and mountains so high that snow and ice linger through August. The primeval forest at its heart is cradled by a coastline that dips between sandy beaches littered with enormous tangles of silvering driftwood and cliffs that tower over waves crashing like the wrath of Neptune. Beyond, the cold Pacific waters are full of surfers and starfish and king salmon and an endless, glorious silhouette of tiny islands and rocky outcroppings.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 31, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Rain forest -- An article on Olympic National Park in Sunday's Travel section said the Olympic Peninsula includes the only rain forest in North America. The North American Coastal Temperate Rain Forest extends from Northern California to Alaska, including parts of the Olympic Peninsula.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 05, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Rain forest -- An article in last Sunday's Travel section about Olympic National Park incorrectly stated the Olympic Peninsula includes the only rain forest in North America. The North American Coastal Temperate Rain Forest extends from Northern California to Alaska, including parts of the Olympic Peninsula.

Cellphones don't work here, major newspapers aren't delivered here, and in summer, time moves differently, taking long, slow steps. Morning and afternoon can blur together as the sun burns through the seaside fog and the day stretches far into night, the sun reluctantly setting sometime after 9.

We came to the peninsula in July, our family -- my husband, Richard, Danny Mac, 6, and Fiona, 4 -- traveling with friends Peter, Ute, 9-year-old Leah and Emma, 4. It was a trip that almost didn't happen. A week before our departure, Peter broke his leg. Fortunately for us, he decided that pain and inconvenience were nothing compared with the prospect of telling his daughters they would not be going on the summer trip we had been planning since winter.

Ferries, fog and an octopus

SO early one morning, the eight of us flew from Burbank to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, where we rented two cars and drove directly to Seattle. We boarded a ferry for Bainbridge Island, stopped on the charming main drag to grab some lunch, then drove through the greenery to Port Townsend. In the late 1800s, this seaport rivaled San Francisco for a time. Talk was that a rail line would connect it to Tacoma and make Port Townsend the biggest city on the West Coast. But the railroad never materialized, leaving the Victorian town small and lovely, geared now toward tourists.

We spent the first two nights in Port Angeles, about 30 miles away, because the town is right outside the entrance to Hurricane Ridge, a series of trails in the still-snowcapped Olympic Mountains, and a departure point for ferries to Victoria, in British Columbia.

On the first morning here, we headed up to Hurricane Ridge, but rain threatened, and the guard at the entrance to the park told us that clouds had covered the peaks. Rather than drive 17 miles to see fog, we went back into town.

Port Angeles is a tiny working port, with a brooding waterfront and a remarkably good, though equally tiny, Marine Life Center on the city pier. We spent almost two hours in this museum -- which would fit into the ladies' room of the Long Beach Aquarium -- where a trio of knowledgeable staff members peeled back the hide of a "mermaid's purse" to show the kids prenatal baby skates and provided rapt commentary when the octopus in residence made a dramatic appearance to engulf and eat the crab that had been sitting in its tank for days.

In nearby Sequim (pronounced "squim"), we took a trail through the tranquil woods of the Dungeness Wildlife Refuge Reserve down to the Dungeness spit, a strip of sand barely 100 yards wide that curves like a tentacle five miles into the Pacific. Here we had our first glimpse of Olympic driftwood. On every beach there is inevitably a forest of entire trees, worn smooth and pale by water and wind, stacked in crazy piles like pick-up sticks abandoned by giants. We played a rousing game of "don't touch the ground" until the children discovered that previous visitors had built forts and shelters among the logs, and then it was pirates and Swiss Family Robinson, while the parents turned their faces into the chilly mist and contemplated the craggy coast to the left and, to the right, eternity.

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