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Sunday, March 16, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Life In The Rain -- The Olympic Peninsula's Soggy Climate Produces Giant Trees, Preserves The Solitude And Shapes Self-Sufficient People

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

HOH RAIN FOREST, Olympic National Park - Here, where it rains more than 12 feet a year and an additional 30 inches arrives in "fog drip," Ranger Martha Hutchinson obsesses over a single wiggling droplet. -----------------------------------------------------------------

HOH RAIN FOREST, Olympic National Park - Here, where it rains more than 12 feet a year and an additional 30 inches arrives in "fog drip," Ranger Martha Hutchinson obsesses over a single wiggling droplet.

As every Tuesday, she has carefully carried this week's bucket of rainfall from a collection gauge to a gram scale. But before she can weigh and measure it, she must eliminate the pesky condensation drop on her pail's outer lip.

Scientists awaiting measurements from points across the country are sticklers and won't permit one wayward drop, not even from the rainiest season in one of the world's rainiest spots.

So she dabs the drop with a rag. It regenerates. She pokes it again. Another drop quivers in its place. She gives it a long, firm wipe. And another. And another.

It doesn't pay to quibble over raindrops in the rain forest. More rain fell here this January and February (38 inches) than usually falls in Seattle in a year (34 inches).

Three-quarters of the forest's precipitation typically falls between October and March when the days are short, the sky is a gray ceiling of clouds and the hulking trees are like curtains. That is when people here pay the price for living in the shadow of one of the last temperate rain forests on the planet.

The rain - and the protection of being part of a 1 million-acre national park - produces some of the world's grandest trees. It also shapes the people.

It walls them from Seattle and provides elbow room out on the Olympic Peninsula's northwestern corner. It prompts them to watch the banks of the mighty Hoh River more than prattle on television.

It hands them two distinct seasons: the summer, when the skies are clear and the tourist hordes invade; and the rest, when it's just them and the rapping raindrops. Some here insist the sun shines more than you'd think. It's just that it never sprinkles; it rains hard.

Hutchinson has survived seven winters, arriving here in 1990, the mother of all rain years, when 175 inches fell. During the off-season, as the only full-time ranger working out of the deserted Hoh visitor center, she rarely changes the forecast posted on the bulletin board. It always says, "rain."

"Oh, it's pretty safe leaving it like that," she says, a numb smile on her face. "Some days, if I have time - and I'm really feeling optimistic - I might change it to cloud breaks, or even sun."

She is casual and friendly with the regional habit of moving purposefully, talking slowly and both respecting and regretting the rain.

"It can rain so hard here that it wakes me up at night. I mean, I'm used to the rain. And it still wakes me up. There are times when I check that gauge and I realize that it rained every day that week. Then I get a little depressed."

Hutchinson has lasted longer than most park rangers at this soggy outpost. She reads, weaves and, like many others here, relishes conversation. If she needs to work in the pouring rain, she puts on a rubber parka and overalls. She is one of the few locals who uses an umbrella; it's one of those jumbo golf bumbershoots.

After seven years, she, too, is looking for a change.

"I'm from the Midwest (Columbus, Ohio), and I have very fond memories of playing in the warm rain as a little girl," she says wistfully. "It would be nice to have that feeling about the rain again."

Where is she looking to go?

"The high desert."

Slug Capital of the World

The Hard Rain Cafe & Mercantile is an unofficial slug museum. There are two giant cedar slugs, chain-saw-carved by owner Mike Rasmussen and tied to a wagon outside the small business. He has a slug-crossing sign, makes and sells little wooden slug magnets and displays books such as "Field Guide to the Slug."

Although the Forks Chamber of Commerce cannot confirm this, Rasmussen and Hard Rain manager Candice Steed believe there are more slugs per acre in and near the rain forest than anywhere else - the Slug Capital of the World.

An entrepreneur works with what he has.

Rasmussen and Steed are alone and preparing fishing tackle as the rain rolls in during the late afternoon. Tourists will overwhelm the Hard Rain and two other small businesses along the road this summer. (About half the annual business comes in July and August.) But in the off-season, they may go all day without a customer other than a stray fisherman in hip waders squishing toward the munchies rack.

Rasmussen, 45, bought the store from an uncle in 1990, quitting his industrial plating job in Kent ("where just about everything I touched was toxic"). Between his cafe/convenience store and his llama-tour-guide business he makes enough money to hunt and fish in the off-season, the real reason for being here.

He spends the winter painting tree mushrooms, whittling wood into slugs and feeding his llamas. During storms, Rasmussen and Steed go to the river bank to watch the Hoh rise.

The sole road into the park was washed out from November 1995 to last June, marooning the park and killing business.

"I think I should get wetland status for my driveway," he says, "because it's under water four months a year."

Steed, who lives in a small cabin in the hills above the store, moved to the outskirts of the rain forest because of the fishing and hunting, but she stays because of the rain.

"I love everything about the rain," she says. "I love the feeling I get. I love the sound as it hits the roof. I love the lush green world it creates. I love that it keeps this place from being overbuilt. I love the feeling of aloneness."

The rain also unifies people, she says. They all have muddy floors.

Up the road about a mile is Peak 6, a retail store as upscale as the Hard Rain is quaint. It sits at the front of a 280-acre spread once owned by legendary packer Minnie Peterson, who led hundreds of back-country expeditions over a 50-year career.

In 1927, Minnie and her husband, Oscar Peterson, began using pack horses to guide mountain climbers, naturalists, students and tourists into the rugged Olympic range. They hauled lumber and hardware needed to build shelters in the park.

She also acquired land whenever she sighted a good piece. She died in 1992, leaving heirs about 450 acres along the upper Hoh.

Her grandson, Gary Peterson, and his wife, Charlotte, live on her homestead. They run the store and raise cattle in the pasture between it and their house, perched on a bluff.

The Petersons, both educated people, are not fazed by the isolation. "We do a lot of talking," he says. "People will come by, and it's not unusual that we'll go on for 90 minutes."

While they are content, their two daughters have chosen the world. One, 21, is in the Peace Corps in Russia. The other, 18, attends college in Germany.

Peterson, who has a master's degree in mathematics, says he and his wife live there for the same reasons his grandmother did: room to move, nobody telling you what to do, and acres of some of the grandest country in the world.

You can do worse, he says, than looking out your window and having it filled with the sight of 7,965-foot Mount Olympus - even if it is usually smothered in clouds. Where weather forecasts begin

The mountain, which rises only 25 miles from the coast, is a rain magnet, drawing 200 inches a year. Its presence forces warm marine air to abruptly rise and collide with colder upper air, producing rain.

This makes the corner of the Olympic Peninsula an important weather-service outpost. On the other side of Forks, past mildewed satellite dishes, roadside stumps and rusted machinery, sits the Quillayute Valley Airport, an abandoned World War II airfield.

Twice a day, at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m., a hydrogen-filled balloon is launched, dragging a radiosonde loaded with sensors, circuitry and a transmitter. It sends data about air pressure, temperature and moisture that the U.S. Weather Service uses to make Puget Sound forecasts.

Each balloon grows from six feet in diameter at takeoff to roughly 10 yards wide before it bursts at an altitude of about 100,000 feet.

The weather service contracts with Weather Experts Inc., a company set up by New York City dropouts Robert Riccola and Richard Carlson. Both men have been here since 1990, and neither lives in nearby Forks. They make the long, log-truck-choked commute from the drier and sunnier towns of Port Angeles and Sequim.

It still beats New York.

As Carlson prepares to release the afternoon's balloon, the station's pet Dalmatian starts her ritual, running in a tight counter-clockwise spiral and barking. The dog stops the second Carlson lets go and the westerly wind yanks the balloon up and out of sight.

Carlson and Riccola use an antenna to track the radiosonde and record its signals for about the next 90 minutes. In the meantime, Carlson provides an unofficial weather report: "It's a nice day at the Quillayute whenever it's not raining."

That's also the view at the end of the road in the coastal village of La Push, where tribal fishermen brave jolting winds and the churning Quillayute River. It is the last day of the three-day fishing week, so they tend the nets and scare the competing sea lions until there is just a sliver of light left.

Buyers for the steelhead stand on the shore, getting slapped by the ocean-brewed wind. One wholesaler, who doesn't even wear a coat, says, "They aren't catching much, but at least it's a nice day."

From Beverly Hills to a green cathedral

The rain forest in winter is like a cathedral. Sound is muffled and light is diffuse, giving the dormant but cluttered landscape a reverent feel. The spread of 200-foot, moss-draped Sitka spruce and hemlocks serves as an umbrella.

This must seem like Mars to the dozens of Beverly Hills eighth-graders who find themselves walking down its spongy paths and around 100-foot downed nurse logs birthing their own saplings.

The rain forest was a last-minute stand-in for the school's usual nature trip to California's flood-ravaged Yosemite National Park.

A 14-year-old kid in a stocking cap, ski goggles and Nikes stands in front of a 50-foot snag. Glancing frequently at a laminated card, he explains that the dead trees are often home to woodpeckers and other forest creatures. He repeats his spiel to every student in his nature class who wanders by and admits he wears the goggles "just to look weird."

Up and down the dark forest trail, kids are giving talks and learning lessons about nurse logs, moss, mushrooms, roots, tree rings and the rest of the forest's story.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Bobby Assil, 14. "I've never seen moss. I've never seen trees near this big. Ours are like 20 feet tall. The water and air are so clean. I woke up last night to rain and wind. In L.A., you wake up to ambulances."

Other kids talk about the green, the crawling pace, the quiet. One boy breathlessly recounts an encounter up the trail with a feisty, hissing tree squirrel. The forest seems to swallow their laughter.

"We ran all over L.A. trying to find rain gear," says principal Dick Douglas. "But this is great. These kids have never seen anything like this, and last night they listened to a Native American woman tell tribal stories. Now we'll have a hard choice to make on next year's trip."

Tanning - or just drying out?

While the students head back to sunny L.A., residents of nearby Forks must settle for tanning beds found in hair salons, the health club and a couple of motels.

There are three tanning beds at the Sun With Style hair salon, tucked away on a side street.

"I think people here do it not so much to get tan, but to warm up and dry out," says salon owner Kris Merriman, using her fingertips to noodle a client's perm. "I have one customer who no longer has to take Prozac since she's been using the beds. Some people get seasonal affective disorder up here, and the rain and clouds can get to you."

Other customers prepare their skin before vacationing in sunny climates.

On cue, Sally Hurn, a young teacher at Forks High School, rushes in for 15 minutes of synthetic sun before her next class. She's getting ready for a ski trip and doesn't want to burn, but admits she also wants to maintain her soft tan.

"What's that saying?" she asks Merriman "Brown fat is better than white fat?"

Merriman smiles, "Yeah, I used that in one of my ads."

Then they start in on the weather. It makes you wonder, don't they get used to it?

"You get used to it," Hurn says. "That doesn't mean you have to like it."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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