As we press deeper into the forest, the forms around us grow taller, stranger, more deeply enveloping. Crooked limbs overhead are draped with fluorescent green moss. Massive columnlike trunks swoop up to disappear into the canopy far above. “Pound for pound, there’s three times as much life in this rain forest as you’d find in a tropical one,” says ecologist Jamie Glasgow, riding beside me in the front passenger seat. We bump over a pothole in the rutted dirt road, dodging limbs and branches. “Each tree supports several tons of moss, lichens and other living things.”
Glasgow is my cousin—Little Jamie, I used to call him, though now he’s 40, has a good four inches on me and moves with the sinewy confidence of a man who makes his living forging through mountain habitats. When we were kids growing up on the East Coast, we both loved to play in puddles and throw sticks in streams, but for Jamie that childhood passion grew into a career. After college he moved to the Pacific Northwest and devoted himself to protecting the native fish and waterways. By now he’s probably spent more time exploring the streams of this area—Washington State’s 5,300-square-mile Olympic Peninsula—than the average river otter.
For my part, this trip is providing me with my first chance to visit Jamie in his office. It’s a largely wild region, extreme, sumptuously lush and gorgeous, yet also forbidding: The Hoh Rain Forest is deluged with an average of 12 feet of rainfall a year, which nurtures ancient trees of massive size and creates violent tumbling creeks that carve through precipitous gorges. I’m glad to have at my disposal an Explorer Sport, a high-performance version of the iconic SUV that’s especially well equipped to handle a variety of punishing conditions.
We meet up by the roaring fireplace in the lobby of the Lake Quinault Lodge, a rambling cluster of wooden buildings overlooking the eponymous lake on the southern end of Olympic National Park. Built from native timber in 1926, it’s a park lodge in the classic mold—think washbasins in the bedrooms and deer antlers in the lobby. “You’re going to want to use your auto-start tomorrow,” says Jamie, referring to the Explorer Sport’s available remote ignition system that lets you warm the car up before you get in. “When the sky’s as clear as it is tonight, the mornings can be really cold.”
RAIN FOREST RECREATION
Sure enough, dawn finds us hustling across an icy parking lot. We drive east toward the park entrance, through a landscape so glittery with hoarfrost that I can’t believe it hasn’t snowed. A mile out, I jam on the brakes: To our left, a herd of elk moves across a field, snorting and stamping through a scrim of fog. We take pictures until the herd drifts off and then follow the road as it hews to the banks of a broad, cobble-bedded river. As the pavement gives way to gravel, I switch the computerized Terrain Management System™ to “Grass/Gravel/Snow” mode with a twist of a knob on the center console. I add speed, then hit the brakes: Try as I might, I can’t get the beast to slip. It’s like driving on Velcro.
Soon we’re in the heart of the rain forest, where rare winter sunlight dapples the thick carpet of ferns through the shaggy aerial moss to the forest floor. This jaw-dropping lushness, Jamie assures me, is not something you’ll find in many northwestern forests. “Trees are a crop in this state,” he says. “But what you’re seeing here is a forest that’s never been cut down. Some of the trees were already giants when Columbus sailed.”
The tremendous age of the ecosystem is crucial scientifically because it allows ecologists working to restore damaged habitats to understand what a healthy, mature ecosystem should look like. For ordinary folks like me, it’s just an incredible sensory experience. Within a couple of miles of us stand the largest mountain hemlock, the largest Sitka spruce and the largest Douglas fir in the world, to name just a few of the area’s record-holding specimens. They are the blue whales of the plant world.
Jamie, for his part, is keen to get back to his own natural environment: the water. We pull on waders and make our way into the river, where we set ourselves up on the edge of an eddy a dozen yards apart, flicking our dry-fly lines over the roiling surface. “Our odds aren’t good,” he warns. “During the winter the trout are active mostly at night, when predators like eagles can’t see them.” Sure enough, a solitary bald eagle swoops over our heads and settles on a tree trunk on the far bank, from which it regards us coolly.
Trophyless, we make a beeline for the coast. At the town of Moclips we make a hard left and proceed right onto the hard-packed beach. I pause to set the Terrain Management System to “Sand,” and then gun it toward the water. I’ve never driven on a beach before, and it takes me a few minutes to build confidence in the idea that I’m not about to hit a soft patch and sink up to my headlights. Soon, though, we’re tearing it up, bombing up and down the shallows at 40 mph, whooping as rooster tails of spray thunder onto the windows. Jamie points to the console GPS screen: It shows us offshore, on the blue of the map. “Under Washington State law, you really should have a boat registration number on the side of this thing,” he says.
We stay until the last speck of the sun’s red disk has melted into the breakers. For all the mileage we’d put on the SUV, we still haven’t hit an elevation higher than 200 feet—on a peninsula whose interior is thronged with peaks that soar to nearly 8,000 feet. We’ll rectify that tomorrow.
SCALING THE MOUNTAIN
The next day, we set out before dawn on a two-hour drive up the western coast of the peninsula. As we near our destination, the sky clears and a ridge looms high above us: a fir-covered wedge topped in snow. This is Hurricane Ridge, site of one of the most dramatic National Park visitor centers in the country.
From its base a steep winding road leads to a trailhead perched at 5,242 feet. The visitor center rents skis and snowshoes, and there’s a pull lift that provides access to ungroomed, hidden backcountry. Because the road is exposed, steep and winding, drivers must carry tire chains in their vehicles before they’re let through the gate.
The map suggests a shortcut. Soon we find ourselves working our way up an aggressively steep, snow-covered dirt two-track with a sharp drop-off on one side. “Road Not Maintained in Winter,” a sign warns. There’s no room to turn around. Now the computerized traction control isn’t a fun accessory; it’s a tool that could save our lives. Gingerly, we ease our way up the hill, then start down. The far side looks even hairier. I stop and press the central button in the Terrain Management System: Descent Control enabled. Like a mule negotiating a tricky slope, the Explorer lowers itself down.
At the top of the ridge, we park and set out on Nordic skis across a gently sloping meadow. Soon we reach a thicket of firs framed in featureless blue. Pressing past, we find ourselves overlooking a vast panorama. The sheer, verdant mountains below us step down toward an ocean of clouds, and beyond that stand the serene white cones of the distant Cascade Range.
The landscape at our feet looks totally impassable, and we marvel that we’ve been able to reach such an improbable view by car. There are some, to be sure, who think that this kind of remote, wild place should be kept forever free from human disturbance. Jamie isn’t one of them. “Wilderness should be wild,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s important that people are able to get back in here and experience this for themselves. If they can’t get here, they can’t love it. And if they don’t love it, they won’t care about protecting it.”
Click here for video of the Ford Explorer Sport at Olympic National Park.
This article originally appeared in My Ford Magazine. Story by: Jeff Wise. Photography by: Roark Johnson