It can be hard to convince someone to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to drive for more hours than you will hike, walk in the cold, dark woods, simply to see the moment the sun pushes over the horizon. I have woken for many a sunrise while backpacking, in fact, it is one of the reasons I am compelled to shoulder the heavy weight again and again. I love seeing a place at the end of the day when the shadows are long, under a starry night sky and again at dawn. But spending the entire weekend in the woods is not always realistic, so, in the late-fall and winter I try for a sunrise.
I was pretty excited to be invited on this birthday trip to Mt. Ellinor over the weekend. Finding a group totally willing to forgo physical comfort to see the sky turn magnificent colors felt pretty lucky. And when the sky lit up with the best sunrise I have seen this year, the disrupted sleep cycle felt totally worth it.
There is a practice I used to do a few years ago, where I would make a list of the type of person I wanted to be and the type of things I wanted to do. Then I would systematically look at that list and compare it to what I was actually doing, and make changes when I could. Consistent on that list was to use my time wisely. Push my limits beyond convenience and comfort to experience something that felt pivotal–spending time outside. I was warned by people when I started grad school that my time would disappear, but a few people said the opposite. When time becomes precious, you work that much harder to ensure you have it. There is no time to waste.
Looking out over Hood Canal, Lake Cushman and to the various Washington volcanoes in the sunshine I felt like I was using my time very wisely, indeed.
Mt. Ellinor Trail
I set my alarm for 3:00, lay down and willed myself to be tired. It was no use. I was wide awake and excited. In four short hours, I would be pulling on some bright orange yoga pants and shuffling down to the car for the long drive to the Olympic Peninsula. After a fitful night of sleep, I picked up Sarina and Kaelee and we began the slow journey westward. We climbed up a dark, spooky forest road and arrived at the trailhead. We met up with Katherine and Andrew a few moments later. Turning on headlamps and rotating through the trailhead potty, we prepped for the route and started up the trail in the dark.
A row of headlamps made their way up the semi-steep path. The few feet directly in front of us was lit, but the rest of the trail remained dark. Slowly, a light began to grow over Hood Canal as the sun began to rise. The low clouds glowed golden against a blue backdrop and we hurried on, hoping to get above the trees for the moment the sun crested the peaks.
After nearly a mile, we reached a little viewpoint and stopped for a breather. The sunrise was beginning in earnest and lit up the three visible volcanoes: Tahoma, Pahto, and Loowit (Rainier, Mt. Adams and Mt. St Helens–see this post for more!). It was too chilly to sit for long and we continued rushing up the trail.
The wooded trail gave way to a rocky climb as the golden light bathed the hill. Rocks shaped like staircases continued for what felt like an eternity until we reached an open, climbing traverse to the saddle. Thrilled to see something that looked like the top, we hurried upwards, only to find the summit was still a bit more of a climb.
Mt. Ellinor Summit
After putting one foot in front of the other for what felt like a long time, we made it to the top. Kaelee was waiting for us and as soon as we stopped moving we realized how cold it was at the summit. We roamed around the little batch of rocks taking in the views. The three volcanoes we saw on the way up were visible, then we spied Komo Kulshan and Suhn-na-do (Mt. Baker and Mt. Olympus). Below the peaks we could see Hood Canal and Lake Cushman.
I put on every layer that I brought and we all pulled the goodies we had packed out of our bags. A garnet tablecloth, orange juice, champagne, waffles, muffins, and breakfast sandwiches warmed by a stove. We felt infinitely silly and got a serious case of the giggles looking at the spread before us. Sarina, the birthday girl, busted open the first container of champagne and we gathered for a toast. The mimosas sloshed as we shivered but spirits were high. Before long, a dance party erupted. Was it delirium from lack of sleep? A desperate attempt to stay warm? The joy that can only come from being somewhere so beautiful with lovely friends? Not sure which, but it was great!
We eventually decided to descend. The ice-covered rocks were fairly easy to avoid on the way up but became more perilous on the way down. I took my time but still took a nasty fall, landing on my butt. It has since grown into an impressive bruise, swollen enough to make it look like I have three butt cheeks. A few bumps and bruises have shown up on my shin as well, but luckily nothing permanent. It was a great reminder that things can change in an instant, be careful out there: winter is coming.
Before long, we were back at the trailhead. We reached the cars by 11 am and on the road for a little coffee before making it back to Seattle.
Historical Land Usage
Mt. Ellinor lies in the Olympic National Forest, but before that designation the area was an important part of the Twana tribes. The Twana tribes stayed in winter villages at the mouths of major rivers in on Hood Canal and traveled in the other seasons for hunting, fishing and socializing. Lake Cushman, the lake directly below Mt. Ellinor was an important area to the Twana people, particularly the Skokomish tribe .
Lake Cushman received its named honoring Orrington Cushman, the interpreter for Governor Isaac Stevens during the Treaty of Point Elliot negotiations. Cushman gained the nickname “Devil Cush” for his plan of a single reservation for all Hood Canal Indigenous peoples. Both Stevens and Cushman were responsible for illegal oral agreements that were not matched in the written treaties, and led to highly problematic treatment of Indigenous people. Overall, Cushman seemed like an awful human being.
The Treaty of Point Elliot was signed in 1855 with a large number of tribes living near the Salish Sea. When signed, it provided more land for white settlement and pushed for relocation of Indigenous people. The tribes were told by Governor Stevens that if they did not sign the treaties they would be barred from accessing their traditional hunting and foraging areas. In the end, they acquiesced and were given a Skokomish Reservation. The reservation was further reduced in 1874, leaving only half of the original reservation for the tribes.
Included in the original treaty was the right to take fish in traditional hunting grounds, a provision enacted into federal policy in the Boldt Decision in 1974. This has led to recent litigation with the Cushman dams, erected in the 1920’s. The dams did not include any technology or allowances for fish passage and decimated salmon populations. The Skokomish tribe has been fighting the dam for nearly 20 years and recently reached a settlement for economic reparations and help with restoration projects.
When enjoying this stunning area, I hope you have time to reflect on the history of this place. And maybe utter a few curses for Devil Cush.