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Where the Mountains Meet the Sea: Trekking the Olympic Range (Photo Essay)

Boy Scouts tackle the Olympic range - from rainforest to snowy divide - in lightweight style.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2014-08-05 00:00:00-06

I grew up in Seattle. I learned backpacking skills in the Olympics, and it’s where I cut my teeth as a trekking and mountain guide in the early 1990s.

It was in the Olympics where I first learned about packrafting log-choked, glacier-fed, ice cold rivers. It was in the Olympics where I first learned about real bushwhacking and infectious slopes of slide alder and devil’s club. It was in the Olympics where I first learned about glacier travel, postholing, talus, bears in camp, and navigating with a map and compass in the fog.

And of course, it was in the Olympics where I first learned how to manage severely inclement weather - interminable rain, fog, and sleet - and the penetrating, chilling humidity that makes synthetic fill gear so valuable there ten months out of the year.

It was in the Olympics where my love for the outdoors evolved from youthful passion into something less glamorous but more mature - an appreciation for all of what Mother Nature had to offer, in all of her inglorious adversity, uncertainty, and mood swings.

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Blue Glacier, preparing for a Mount Olympus climb. Photo: Stephanie Jordan, August 1990.


Much of the Olympics remained unexplored until the early part of the 20th century. Many summits and off piste routes were pioneered by ambitious Boy Scouts and “Hikemasters” (i.e., trek leaders) walking out of Camp Parsons, situated between the deltas of the Quilcene and Dosewallips rivers.

In 1987 I would join the Camp Parsons Staff, and within a few years would carry the Hikemaster moniker with a later generation of Boy Scouts keen on exploring the range’s glaciers, slide alder, and talus.

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Parsons Boys on a Mount Constance trek, 1921. Photo courtesy of the Camp Parsons Museum.

In 1990 I’d start dating the Camp Director’s daughter, a fellow staffer. She ran the trading post, had a perm, and seemed strangely attractive ... in a Boy Scout uniform.

In 1991 Stephanie and I would embark on our second Olympic mountain hike together - a trip up the Quinault River valley to Mount Anderson and the iconic (and now-endangered) Enchanted Valley Chalet. A little over a year later, we’d marry.

In 1998, our first son, Chase, was born. In 2004, he’d join Scouting. In 2011, he’d visit Camp Parsons for the first time. In 2013, he too, would explore the Olympics with some of his pals as part of the Camp Parsons high adventure program, and follow in the footsteps of Boy Scouts from Parsons who have been walking the Olympics for more than 90 years.

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We Jordans have a storied history with Camp Parsons and the Olympics. We have the Enchanted Valley Chalet painted on a milk can that resides in our home.


In late June of 2013, we’d take a group of Scouts from Bozeman, Montana to a trailhead near Forks, Washington, and begin a trek through the Olympic rainforest. This photo essay presents a few highlights from the trek and hopefully, captures the spirit of Scouting, and the Olympics, in an inspiring way.

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Crew Leader Chase Jordan prepares the duty roster for the week. Each crew member would have assigned responsibilities daily, including navigating, cooking, firebuilding, water treatment, food storage and bear bagging, camp cleanup, and erecting the shelters. These responsibilities would rotate daily. These are critical components of what Scouting calls “The Patrol Method” and are designed to foster responsibility and accountability.

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Honoring the raising of the United States flag the morning we left. Camp Parsons has a long (if somewhat interrupted) tradition of having the high adventure Scouts wear their loaded packs to flag ceremonies. The purpose of this is twofold: to promote the high adventure program in a visible way to younger campers, and of course, to show the rest of the camp that there’s no room for weenies in the high adventure program - "Stand up straight, give a proper salute, and stop complaining about your heavy pack," the Hikemaster would say.

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One of the most difficult challenges to overcome in Scouting is that of getting rid of hiking boots for expedition trekking. The primary resistance comes from old guard adult leaders who are intolerant of change or the recognition that perhaps there is a better way today. Twenty years ago, we’d disqualify a Scout on a high adventure trek for not having sturdy, waterproof boots. Currently, I serve as the Program Director for the Montana High Adventure Base (MOHAB). At MOHAB, we disqualify Scouts for not having well-draining (i.e., non-waterproof!) trail running shoes (at least for our long distance, advanced programs).

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When I was a Camp Parsons hikemaster, I immediately decommissioned the brand new geodesic dome tents that were donated by a thoughtful donor and replaced them with blue poly tarps from the local hardware store. They were lighter, drier, cheaper to maintain, rewarded good pitching skills (and penalized bad ones!) and fostered better group dynamics because we could fit a whole patrol of boys under them. Not much has changed today except the technology. I’m still a fan of using large, lightweight floorless shelters that can house a bunch of boys and require them to use some thought and skill in pitching them.

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Ian Engelbech, a modern-day Camp Parsons hikemaster, still doing what a hikemaster is supposed to do: mentor the Crew Leader and let the Crew Leader lead his crew. In 2013, I missed being the hikemaster (instead being relegated to a passive observant) but immensely enjoyed a new generation of hikemaster and Scout learning to appreciate the art of expeditioning.

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Trekking past massive Douglas Fir in the Olympic rainforest of the Hoh River Valley. For us in the northern Rockies, “old-growth” means little when you’re constantly surrounded by twiggy lodgepole pine forest. So when our boys were exposed to these massive bastions of the Olympic backcountry, they felt like they were on another planet.

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Early mornings bring eerie light to the Olympic rainforest. Moss coats every limb and reflects light in all directions. Sunlight doesn’t burn hot on the rainforest floor, filtered by the innumerable ecosystems defined solely by tree elevation.

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The core of Scouting high adventure programs is threefold: cultivate positive group dynamics, expedition leadership, and advanced skills. Backpacking skills that emphasize weight-saving philosophy, techniques, and equipment must be foundational to an advanced backcountry skills program. No heavy pump style water filters for this group.

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High adventure - expedition trekking - is work, especially for those tasked with positions of leadership. Long days and late nights are the norm rather than the exception if you plan to tackle an expedition of any difficulty (and thus, real reward). Here, the next day’s Navigator reviews route options with the Crew Leader at 11PM, after everyone else has gone to bed.

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Boys have an incredible gift at finding fun in the moment in the midst of toil. Drumming with a bear canister at a camp on the Hoh River.

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Summit peanut butter, a Camp Parsons tradition. I learned from the hikemaster that I trained under, that any summit worth climbing must be climbed with an ice axe, and that any summit achieved in such style shall be celebrated by marrying the pick of the axe to a jar of peanut butter. That lesson was instilled in me 25 years ago. I passed it down to these summiteers atop Bogachiel Peak in 2013. I’m confident the tradition will continue.

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Steep tundra and prolific snow characterized our early-July route from C.B. Flats to the Sol Duc Valley. It was over this difficult terrain where I learned about the need to keep pack weight insanely light back in the 1980s. We used to circle our high adventure Scouts around a trash can in the Camp Parsons parade field, with their gear laid before them. The hikemasters would then walk around the circle and, with great compassion for the future suffering the Scouts would endure, remove bits of their kit and toss them into the garbage can (from where they could retrieve them at the end of their trek). Doing this successfully allowed us to keep pack weights below 25 pounds for a 5-day trek in the 1980s. Not much has changed today, except that we’ve replaced the garbage can with a more objective tool: a gear checklist and a scale.

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A Scout climbs back up a steep snow slope after losing his footing and sliding down it several yards before self-arresting with a shortened trekking pole. We did not equip everyone with an ice axe (like the old days). Instead, we equipped them with a more useful, and lighter tool (a trekking pole) and taught them how to use it effectively for snow travel in steep terrain.

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Traversing the snowy High Divide, thankful for no rain and infinite visibility.

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Descending the High Divide with the Mount Carrie massif looming ahead.

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Searching for confirmation of our arrival at Sol Duc Park on our last night.

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The majestic sentinel of the Olympic Range - Mount Olympus - as seen from a high slope above C.B. Flats on the Hoh Lake Trail.

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The Camp Parsons Silver Marmot High Adventure Program, Week #1, 2013. Hoh River to Sol Duc via High Divide.


This trip would not have been possible without the advocacy of the parents of each one of the participating Scouts, and their belief in the value of high adventure for their boys. In addition, our travel was funded in part by generous donations from many Parsons staff alumni, Adventure Medical Kits, American Tactical Construction, Redmon Law Firm, Chief Seattle Council BSA, and many others who supported a crowdfunding campaign that has resulted in the movie "Where the Mountains Meet the Sea", a film about the Camp Parsons Silver Marmot High Adventure Program that will be premiered this fall.

About the Author

Ryan Jordan and his Parsons-bred wife Stephanie are the co-founders of Ryan is an Eagle Scout, and has served as a Scoutmaster. Ryan and Stephanie are the chartering sponsors for BSA Venturing Crew One of Bozeman, Montana, and the Program Director for the Montana High Adventure Base. Venturing Crew One, whose membership includes seven members of the Olympic trek featured in this story, recently completed a 13-day, 105-mile packrafting expedition in the Bob Marshall Wilderness without resupply. Read the trip blog at Ryan’s website.


"Where the Mountains Meet the Sea: Trekking the Olympic Range (Photo Essay)," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2014-08-05 00:00:00-06.


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Where the Mountains Meet the Sea: Trekking the Olympic Range (Photo Essay)
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Maia Jordan
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Where the Mountains Meet the Sea: Trekking the Olympic Range (Photo Essay) on 08/05/2014 19:07:46 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Where the Mountains Meet the Sea: Trekking the Olympic Range (Photo Essay)

Curtis B.
(rutilate) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
I enjoyed this photo journal on 08/06/2014 10:33:52 MDT Print View

Thanks for posting this. I quite enjoyed the writeup and the photos. It would have been nice to have been introduced to lightweight backpacking as a youth!

Michael Gunderloy
(ffmike) - MLife
Scouting at its best on 08/06/2014 11:02:22 MDT Print View

Is there a trade-in program where we can swap our old-school HA trainer for you?

John St. Laurent
(johnstl) - M

Locale: Pacific NW
My Origin Story As Well on 08/06/2014 11:06:23 MDT Print View

I'm from Port Angeles, the principle town on the Olympic peninsula, and started out as a Scout as well, so this resonates with me a great deal. Those are great memories that still make me smile.

My troop didn't run an Eagle mill, or go to the council camps during the summer. What we did do was traverse the Olympics. We also abandoned tents early on, not only for weight but because the affordable ones simply couldn't keep you dry in the heavy rains of the shoulder seasons. It helped that our scoutmaster was a carpenter with ready access to visqueen and a grommet set from his Coast Guard days. There weren't many gear shops then, so resourcefulness was key. We even did MYOG snowshoes one season.

When the ultralight phenomenon came on the scene it was easy for me to embrace the idea of tarps and low-cut shoes, since I'd never know anything else. If anything, the emerging gear was a vast improvement in comfort, aside from any weight considerations. Coming from one of the wettest places in the lower 48, I can perhaps be forgiven for being reluctant to embrace sleeping bags made of down though.

I have no doubt that a young man will one day look back at a lifetime of exploration and point to his experience on this trip as his inspiration too.

Stephen Parks
(sdparks) - F

Locale: Southwest
Extraordinary scouting program! on 08/10/2014 20:58:37 MDT Print View

What a great experience for those kids to have so early in life. What I remember about my scouting experience: exceedingly heavy gear transported to site via pickup, playboy mags on the scout bus, smoking cedar bark rolled in notebook paper, listening to Eddie Murphy's "Raw", and other such character building activities. We did occasionally manage to work in a day hike.