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By Sarah Clayton
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 5, 2000

Emerging from the wilderness, beholding the mighty Pacific, I felt like Balboa. Great gray waves heaved onto the shore, sending tendrils of water and seaweed slithering over the algae-slick rocks. Offshore, steep-sided islands stood like small temples, their evergreen minarets stark against a low, roiling sky. Sea stacks, crowned with roosting eagles and cormorants, rose from the water like rock totem poles.

It was--as is generally the case on Cape Alava, the westernmost point of land in the contiguous United States--raining.

I had arrived here on foot, hiking three miles through a lowland rain forest that was spongy and mossy and green, with creeks tannin-stained like tea. In the final yards to the beach, five-foot-tall ferns replaced the enormous red cedars and hemlocks of this primeval landscape. And before me was the ocean in its most undisturbed setting in the Lower 48.

The 63 miles of coastline here is part of Olympic National Park, a Delaware-size wilderness preserve about two hours northwest of Seattle--although the coast, a separate strip on the far edge of the state, is about four hours away.

Besides this extraordinary piece of primitive coastline, the park contains one of the largest virgin temperate rain forests in the Western hemisphere, and is notable for its sizable stand of conifers (some are 600 years old and 300 feet high) and unmanaged herd of wild Roosevelt elk. It's also one of the most pristine ecosystems in the United States.

During the last ice age, the Olympic Peninsula was cut off from the mainland by glaciers, which allowed eight kinds of plants and 15 types of animals to develop here--and nowhere else on Earth. Because of the diversity of its habitats and species, the park is an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

In the center of the park, and throughout much of the drive to Cape Alava, the snow-capped, glacier-draped Olympic Mountains dominate, with Mount Olympus rearing grandly above it all at almost 8,000 feet.

I had admired all of this several years ago during my first visit to Cape Alava with my sister, Louisa. The cape's wild beauty so overwhelmed me that I vowed to return fully equipped to stay overnight. Now Louisa, my two teenage sons and I were walking out to the cape following the old Makah Indian pathway--now the Cape Alava Trail, part of the 600-mile network within the park. The trail led close to one of the five Makah villages that once dotted this section of the coast--which looks much as it did when this village was first settled here some 2,000 years ago and, indeed, has looked since time began.

The village, a half-mile north of where the Cape Alava Trail connects with the coast, was buried in a mudslide about the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. Some of the artifacts recovered from the village--cedar bark hats and robes, wooden long houses, baskets, a life-size wooden effigy of the dorsal fin and back of a killer whale studded with some 700 sea otter teeth--are on display in the Makah Archaeological Museum at Neah Bay, 16 miles north of Cape Alava as the crow flies.

The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, which included the Makah, were second in prosperity only to the Aztecs on the North American continent, though they never "advanced" beyond being hunter-gatherers. There was no need. This misty, damp Garden of Eden provided enough food for all, and plenty for trade.

Farming arrived in the late 1800s, when Scandinavians homesteaded the area. In fact, it was one of these homesteaders, Lars Ahlstrom, who improved the trail early in the 20th century by laying cedar puncheons over the old Indian trail we had walked in on. About halfway to Cape Alava, the path goes through his farm, an area the Native Americans originally turned into prairie land to harvest roots and tender plant shoots, which attracted deer and bear. Ahlstrom arrived here in 1902, just 13 years after the state of Washington was carved out of the Oregon Territory. About the same time, much of the Olympic Peninsula received protection as the Olympic Forest Reserve.

It wasn't until 1938 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave it national park status, though the coastal strip wasn't added until 1953. Ahlstrom was allowed to live there until ill health forced him to leave in 1958; he died two years later.


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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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