I’m not much of a hiker, so when Bryant Carlin forged off an established trail in Olympic National Park and led me through a tangle of moss and Pacific fern, I had to speak my mind.
Not that I was surprised. We were on day five of a nine-day journey along the Bogachiel River, one of the park’s major western waterways, and every day up until that point, Bryant had done something similar. He calls himself a “wilderness immersion photographer,” a job title that encapsulates his propensity to venture into the park and camp out for weeks, sometimes months, to pursue his dream of taking nature photos. Bryant prefers this title over being called homeless, though he admits he is: He sells Real Change in front of Red Mill Burgers, on Phinney Ridge, and he sleeps atop a picnic table in Woodland Park.
Our joint trip took place in late May, when daytime temperatures had already crept into the 70s, and part of Bryant’s focus was to capture how a drought was affecting Olympic National Park. But since the photos that tell a story aren’t always on the trail, Bryant steps off of it. Then he bushwhacks for a mile, two miles, three, four. It all depends on how long it takes him to find the just-right lighting for the perfect shot.
By this point in the trip, we’d already trekked off-trail multiple times in search of Roosevelt elk — which paid off, because, on our second morning, we’d encountered a five-member herd that moved with such seamless, silent ease through a stand of Sitka spruce and Pacific fern, the mammals seemed to disappear and reappear at will.
And on the fourth morning, Bryant asked if I wanted to see a waterfall. Of course I said yes. So, not long after we left our basecamp, I followed him to Tumwater Creek, which we forded on a diagonal path to a point on the opposite shore. Then we returned to the original shore, crossing on another diagonal, to a spot farther upstream. We zigzagged our way up the creek, struggled through a thorny patch of devil’s club and, right when I’d reached the point of exasperation, it appeared: A waterfall of such power and grace, it silenced me.
Or maybe I couldn’t hear my thoughts over the thunderous tumult of water. A dipper, a shorebird that springs up and down on its legs like a well-oiled piston, reveled in the spray.
Nearby, a blooming cow’s parsnip, an umbrella-shaped ivory flower that makes Queen Anne’s Lace look like a dirty rag, peaked out from under a jumble of driftwood. I didn’t want to leave.
So I’d learned that when Bryant went somewhere, it usually paid off. But this time, I couldn’t figure out why he’d come this way. I couldn’t hold my tongue.
“Bryant, where are we going?” I asked. “Why’d you just walk off the path?”
“I’m following the trail,” he said.
“The elk trail. You’re standing on it.” He pointed right in front of my soggy hiking boots.
All I saw when I looked near my feet were downed logs enmeshed in moss. Surely, Bryant was joking. I thought this for another 15 or 20 seconds, until it happened: The trail, it materialized. There, meandering through the ferns was a thin, near-invisible path. When I gazed ahead of me, I saw that Bryant stood smack in the middle of it; when I looked behind me, I saw the trail snake behind me. I’d been walking on the path the whole time.
Humbled, I turned to face Bryant. “All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
And we continued on our clear path through the woods.
But pinpointing clear evidence to show there’s a drought in Olympic National Park? That proved a lot harder.
On a riverbed near one of our basecamps, we came across a stagnant pool with a strand of ebony frog eggs, curled like a forgotten obsidian necklace. The eggs were dead. Bryant became visibly upset, positive this was sign of climate change. I wasn’t so sure. But then I found another strand of inert eggs in a nearby pool. Close to that, I came across a third strand. Bryant found one more. Four pools full of hundreds of dead frog eggs in a span of 50 yards? It seemed like a lot for one stretch of shore. But was it?
Another day, we sat on a bluff overlooking a bend in the Bogachiel River. Upstream, a golden eagle battled a bald eagle for some type of carcass on shore. The bluff was blanketed in moss, which should have made for a soothing cushion, especially after days of sitting on rocks or logs. But the moss was as tan and dry as shredded wheat. It crunched under my hand. It meant something. But what?
For those nine days, we struggled with this reality: How do you depict a drought in a rain forest? Even though it seems easy, we couldn’t be sure what imagery or words would reveal the crisis. But we did figure out something early on in the trip: You need more than a week to truly tell that story. So Bryant vowed to come back to the park in the summer to take more pictures. I told him I’d return, too, to spend time with him.
Then one day in June, a couple weeks after we’d left the quiet and solitude of the park and returned to the jackhammers and sirens of Seattle, Bryant left me a voicemail. There was a fire burning in Olympic National Park along a hillside of the Queets River, another of the park’s major waterways. “A fire,” he said, in a twangy Southern deadpan. “In a rainforest.”
Now, when Bryant and I had planned our trip, we almost decided to hike along the Queets, but for numerous reasons, we opted for the Bogachiel. This decision tormented Bryant. He wondered if maybe we would’ve seen the smoldering embers before the fire scorched hundreds of acres (state officials believe the fire along the Queets was started by a lightning strike in late May, the same time Bryant and I were two river valleys to the north). Who can say.
Now it’s August, and that fire, it’s still smoldering. But Bryant’s passion to tell the story of a drought in Olympic National Park, that burns with an undying heat. He plans to go back to the park and stay longer. This time from September to March. That’s right. Six months.
That’s a long time, and if I heard just about anyone else say he planned such a feat, I’d have my doubts. But I don’t doubt Bryant. Why? Because I spent nine days with him in the park, and every time he led us off-trail, he always got us safely back to camp, even if the excursion took hours. He possesses an uncanny ability to see the hidden trail, his vision amplified by 21 years undergoing photographic treks in the park. He knows those woods, and he knows how to survive in them. Remember that 2008 snowstorm, the one in late December, that shut down Seattle? When it hit, Bryant was camped out in the park. During one of our many recent conversations, I asked him if he thought it would be hard to spend the winter in the Olympics. “I sleep outside on a picnic table in Woodland Park,” he told me. “It’s not that different.” Except he’ll have to pack in his food, and other than the elk, bears, marmots and mountain lions, he’ll be all alone.
Or maybe not all the time. I’ll be with him for some it, since I plan to visit, to check up on him, to check up on the park. True, I won’t stay six months — the thought of it makes my whole body clench — but I feel there’s something more, some story, in Olympic National Park.
Of course, it may seem off the wall to say I’d return with a man who bushwhacked some 40 miles through a dense rainforest. But really, Bryant was a fantastic, thoughtful guide, one who was adventurous but never reckless. My frustration came about because I couldn’t see where we were going. That sense was amplified because I was in a place I didn’t know. Now, I have a better idea where we’re going. Now, I’m willing to venture out there again because, after those nine exhausting, exhilarating, profound, terrifying, soul-stirring, sublime days, I have a better sense of what stories we may find there.
Now, I can see that near-invisible trail that snakes through the woods a little bit better.