I went camping this week. It rained. I got wet.
The forecast after gorgeous weeks was maybe rain all the days I was going; but I was Daughter Off Duty—which I desperately needed to be—for four days, and I was going anyway, by god. If I spent the whole break in my tent with a book or under my kitchen canopy with my writing project, so be it. But at the last minute the forecast changed to rain Wednesday only.
One thing a Pacific Northwesterner knows is weather forecasters may know it’s going to rain in a given period of time, but they have no clue when. My dad, who was a meteorologist during WW2, used to respond to our “Is it going to rain?” queries with, “Be a long dry spell if it doesn’t.” That’s about as good an answer as any. Forecasters here have as many words for guessing at the daily relationship of rain to sun as Native Alaskans purportedly have for snow.
Non-PNWers think it rains here all the time. If you measure rainfall in hours, rather than in inches, I supposed it’s a deserved reputation. Whatever. It keeps the population down. Travelers from the East make it as far as the Rockies, or maybe go south to the Sierras, where summers are hot and dry, and check “Go West” off their bucket list. They rarely make it to Washington, so they don’t know what the cost of rain buys, especially in July, August, and September: “Verdant forests green, caressed by silvery stream” and all that.
But I was telling you about my camping trip. I was returning to the Lewis River Falls in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Mts. St. Helens and Adams, where I tried to go late spring for a hike, but it was still snowed in. I tried again a month ago, but spent all my available time on the wrong part of the trail and only saw one of the three Lewis River waterfalls, which was mighty and spectacular, and one of the three tributary falls. I did discover a beautiful campground, and vowed to return in July to camp (with my shiny new Senior Pass that gets me 50% off National Park and Federal Lands camping), if I could get Mama coverage, and finish that hike.
I arrived at noon on a beautiful Monday and put up my tent and raised my “Convertible Insta-clip Screen House” over the picnic table. It’s been a couple years since I assembled it. My camping trips to Hurricane Ridge and Takhlakh Lake in 2012 and 2013 were rain free. Unlike southern camping—when it could rain without warning any afternoon—in the PNW in the summer, there are days with zero chance of rain.
It’s a tricky assembly. Emma and her friends borrowed it last summer and were amazed that I can put it up by myself. A proud moment. But like I said, it’s been a while and I had a no-confidence minute when I took it out of the bag. Stunningly though, once I got over my moment, it went together more easily than I remembered. I wrestled it upright and it only fell over once before I got the pegs pounded in. Yeah, one section of one pole curved up instead of down, possibly making it a little out of plumb, but it was standing. And I didn’t use all four guy lines, but I never had. Maybe the top wasn’t completely taut, but it would be fine.
After a walk down to the lower falls, which seemed to have more water that it did last month, as the snows melted in earnest, I built a fire, poured a glass of wine, and read my book in the last rays sun slanting through the trees. Heaven.
Throwing more logs on the fire, I cooked and ate my dinner, then took another walk. Since I did leave my lantern charging on the workbench at home, I crawled into my tent early and read until it was too dark to see, which in the deep forest probably wasn’t very late at all, but my time piece (cell phone) was in the car.
I woke in the pitch blackness to the gentle patter of rain on the tent roof. The soothing sound lulled me back to sleep, and next time I woke it had stopped. Until it started again, for real this time. Unlike the middle-of-the-night brief-but-pounding rain in the Smokies, with thunder and lightening drama when you hope a tree doesn’t snap and fall on the tent, this was that here-for-the-long-haul steady rain we PNWers recognize. (The rare thunderstorm came at dawn the next morning.)
My 20 plus-year-old tent leaks. I know that. It puddles on the floor in the corners. Or runs to the middle if the ground isn’t level. The ground wasn’t level. I have a new air mattress though, one of those double thick ones, and my bedding wasn’t touching the floor. I hoped it would give me a Noah’s Ark-type advantage. I lay there realizing my poncho, umbrella, and two rain jackets were in the car.
I had no idea what time it was when it started to get light, but I had no place to be. I could lay abed indefinitely—be completely decadent. Then I would move to my dry kitchen and make coffee and be grateful I moved my chair in, even though it wasn’t supposed to rain yet. I dozed, then read, until coffee started to sound really good and I had languished long enough. I got dressed, mopped up the water with my towel and dashed to the car for my poncho. I checked the time: 7:15. Way to languish.
Grabbing the food box from the car, I dodged the raindrops back to my kitchen. There was a puddle in the chair seat and several on the vinyl table cloth. The benches were wet and collected water in the canopy dripped on my head via the covered mesh “skylight.” Apparently that out-of-plumb thing was a problem. I pushed the roof with a stick and drained the puddles to the ground outside the tent; except for the side I was standing on, which cascaded onto my hooded head. I fired up the stove and heated water. While my coffee dripped oh so slowly, I cooked bacon and eggs and ate them standing up, then took my coffee to the car, wrapped in my car blanket and read until noon, when the rain stopped.
Miracle of miracles, the sun was even winking off and on through the clouds. I added a guy line to the screen house and turned the pole round right. I almost hoped it would rain again so I could see if that corrected the problem before my Mt. Baker camping adventure in August, or if I need a new canopy. But I didn’t hope that very much. I hung everything up to dry and went for a long walk through the glistening fragrant forest. Not to the other falls, I was hoping for a better day earlier on Wednesday, but down river. Pretty sure the falls was running even more powerful and full than it was yesterday.
Ten minutes after I returned, as I was making tea, the rains began again. Guess I’ll get to test my kitchen tent theory. Kinda thought I would. I took my tea to the car. The rain stopped finally and the sky blued a bit, the setting sun beamed through the misty firs and hemlocks. I walked down to the falls again and watched and listened to it tumbling and roaring over the multiple precipices. I’ve been to Niagara Falls, along with billions of others. I bought the yellow-slickered tour on the Maid of the Mist. But it has nothing on this wild, remote place that most people will never know about, much less see. Nothing at all.
I know you don’t understand this rainy place, unless you live here; just like even after 36 years I never understood the allure of the southeast. I get it: Home. But unshed tears bit at the back of my throat and my chest tightened as I watched all that beautiful water and felt the post-rain dripping trees and stood in the sunbeams crossing the mossy green forest floor. God, I love this place. Reign on.
PS: I need a new kitchen canopy.
PPS: After the third day of nearly unrelenting rain, I was not feeling so generous. I hiked six miles to the other falls in the rain, because that’s why I came and I was going to see them. (There was a bit of sun on the return.) I slept in the car the third night after the top of the tent started leaking onto my ark. It was life-saving to get away, but I feel a little cheated; and overly intimate with my car. I still didn’t see the other two side falls. Guess I’ll have to go back.
PPPS: The weather has been beautiful since I got home. There must be a lesson in this. I don’t know what it is yet. Rebecca says it’s if the weather looks iffy, go to a campground near a lodge. Maybe that’s as profound as it needs to be.