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Wild, wild country: kayaking and hiking in America's Pacific Northwest

Nail-biting white water with stomach-turning drops, steep inclines through verdant forests and bucolic mountain ridges – we discover a world of adventure on a voyage through the region

Will Lyons kayaking in White Salmon, Washington

I level my eyes 20ft ahead and endeavour to keep the front wheel of the mountain bike on the narrow brown track that plunges swiftly down Hospital Hill, crossing fingers that the landmark isn’t aptly named. Mercifully, the trail bottoms out and opens into a broad, rolling ridge peppered with lonely spindles of wild rose and shimmering groves of white oak. Will Lyons pulls up to a vista across the Columbia River Gorge into Oregon’s Hood River Valley.

“All of this land was once flat and there was a big magma chamber under Mt Hood,” he explains, indicating the 11,250-foot snow-capped peak on the opposite side of the river. “When it erupted out of the volcano it collapsed and created a massive graben – a giant subsidence. Then, about 400,000 years ago, it was stripped and denuded by the Missoula Floods.”

Even today, there’s something visibly cataclysmic about this landscape. We’re standing amid a ring of fire, formed when a dense oceanic plate slammed into North America. As we speak, it sinks further underneath in a process called subduction. It’s the same action that led the nearby Mt St Helens to erupt on 18th May, 1980 – the deadliest eruption in United States history.

Will Lyons was my high-school roommate, a former geology student, and field producer on shows such as Deadliest Catch and Naked & Afraid. A self-proclaimed “dirtbag kayaker”, Will will beg, borrow and steal, or even shoot reality television shows in a bid to support his habit of paddling and skiing – two activities that can be pursued year-round in the states of Oregon and Washington.

We sink our paddles into the torrent in tandem, then plummet 14 feet into roiling water

The next day, we plan on taking a tandem whitewater kayak down the White Salmon River, but as it turns out I’m “too tall,” which I suspect is codeword for too heavy. Instead, we opt for a two person ‘shredder’ raft. Suspicions are exacerbated as the neck lock of my dry suit splits while I attempt to seal it in the parking lot at BZ Corner.

“Well, I guess you’re going to get wet if we fall in,” Will laughs. We clamber down steep stone steps to lower the boat into the water. Moments later, we’re off. The conversation melts into easy banter as the twin pontoons of the raft coast over boulder gardens that would scuttle a canoe. Will loses his balance during one section of rapids and I grab him by the drysuit. “You saved my life,” he jokes in a characteristic Kentucky drawl.

Fed by subterranean aquifers and glacial runoff from a 12,000ft volcano named Mt Adams, the White Salmon is a National Wild and Scenic River, and one of the only on the planet with a significant waterfall that can be run commercially year-round. The canyon through which it winds is bountiful with flora and fauna. A mosquito lodges itself my eye. Moments later, caliginous shapes appear to hunt the insects. Myotis lucifugus. Little brown bats.

We approach Husum Falls as the sun sets, in crepuscular light at best. The river is low this time of year, adding an additional two feet of drop. Will asks if I’m sure I want to do it. I ask why it’s worse in the dark.

“Because you can’t see a submerged body through the water,” he replies.

“Okay, great to know,” I hedge.

Will Lyons kayaks down a Waterfall in the Pacific Northwest

We must paddle as hard as possible at the waterfall’s edge in order to push the nose of the raft up and improve our chances of staying in it. A strange coolness settles in as the cascade draws near. We sink our paddles into the torrent in tandem and get a decent boof off the drop, then plummet 14 feet into roiling water. My legs are wedged under either pontoon. Otherwise, I’m completely out of the boat, my back and bottom adrift in the drink. Will’s disembodied head twirls down the river, shouting at me to get back into the raft. I perform an atomic sit-up then retrieve my waterlogged compatriot.

The next morning I bid farewell to Will and his fiancée Grace and drive west out of the gorge. A herd of buffalo shift upon the crest of a ridge, their black silhouettes backlit by an early sun. A lenticular cloud perches atop Mt Hood like a downy flying saucer. At Maryhill I turn northwest and through Goldendale. The evergreen forests grow increasingly thin and scrubby until there aren’t any. The road continues through shrub-steppe rangeland where a tractor trailer is upended and abandoned on the shoulder of 97, north out of Klickitat County and into the Yakama Nation, one of the state’s largest native American reservations. In the city of Yakima, three police cruisers crowd into the gas station as I refill my tank. They apprehend two men and a woman.

At Ellensburg I act on a whim and drive north into the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The plunge in altitude from Liberty to Leavenworth is incredible. I descend for almost an hour, ears popping, then take a detour past Cashmere Mountain to hike at Icicle Gorge, dodging magnificent potholes and doing unspeakable things to the rental car’s alignment. I’m duly rewarded by the journey, where impossibly tall mountains flank a gin-clear creek, and jog out a four-mile loop above restive waters.

Taking Route 2 west through Steven’s Pass below towering ridges and peaks cloaked in copses of lodgepole pine, western larch and grand fir, I pass a 1,328ft white cataract named Bridal Veil Falls that spills forth from Mt Index, an awe-inspiring triple-pointed igneous spire. I then continue through a trio of oddly named towns – Gold Bar, Startup and Sultan – beyond ramshackle shops selling Big Foot paraphernalia and cannabis.

Coming into Munroe, two hot-air balloons hang in the hazy bronze sunset, which dazzles across the windscreen. By the time I’m on the last stretch north the sky has gone dark. It’s almost a relief. My eyes and mind are weary from boggling at the enormity of the landscape during the 400-mile drive. Yet I see one last ghostly sight as I pull into downtown Anacortes. A slender white-tailed deer walks leisurely through the red light of an intersection, as if I’m not there.

The next morning, a black 2001 Ford E-350 van pulls up at the Whistle Lake trailhead and an otterhound bounds exuberantly out of it. Sammy Spence, the guide I was supposed to accompany on a three-day paddle-powered whale watch with Anacortes Kayak Tours, follows behind. An adherent of the #vanlife ethos, she notes that her dog is named Gatsby and her vehicle Vandalf. We’ve had to cancel our paddling trip due to inclement weather and 25 knot winds, but she advises me on where I should explore as we spin through a 10 mile circuit up and around Mt Erie that affords views of the mountainous San Juan Islands and even as far as British Columbia in Canada.

The next day I drive south from Fidalgo Island across Deception Pass to Whidbey Island, where misty fields are laden with bright orange pumpkins, past Fort Casey into Coupeville, and board a ferry across Puget Sound. Grey and minke whales cavort in the tidal ripple, spouts and slick backs visible from the ship’s deck. We dock in Port Townsend, and I continue west on Route 101 further into the Olympic Peninsula.

There are a number of outlooks along the way – the one that’s Insta-famous requires steely nerves

I stop off at Marymere Falls to climb Mt Storm King. The out-and-back hike is only just north of 5 miles in length, but legs quickly begin to release lactic acid during a stairmaster steep ascent of 1,700 vertical feet, with switchbacks worthy of MC Escher. The track weaves upwards through ancient pines. They stand sentinel above red-berried madronas and manzanitas, which proliferate as the altitude increases.

There are a number of outlooks along the way which offer excellent viewpoints, but the one that has become Instagram-famous in its own right requires steely nerves in perfect weather and can be dangerous in inclement, with a vertiginously steep, multi-pitched rope climb punctuated by unsupported scrambles on loose, slippery sedimentary rock. The difficulty of the climb, alongside its set piece summit, have made Mt Storm King one of the Olympic Peninsula’s most popular climbs.

There’s a bottleneck of hikers below the final incline. Various parties hesitate and cavil at the rope. I hoist myself up and ignore the drop. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, you’ll find your heartrate a little elevated by the exposure. I top out on a narrow dorsal-ridged crag of basalt. Canada jays – little round-headed grey and white birds that seem sadly human-habituated in the context – hover charmingly, hoping for a handout. Lake Crescent is splayed out below, its waters an otherworldly midnight blue, due to its depth of 650 feet. The Strait of Juan de Fuca lies beyond, its Pacific waters carrying a touch of grey. I drive roughly parallel along it to Forks, Washington – the town in which Twilight was set.

At the Miller Tree Inn I’m met by Susan Brager, a flossy-haired woman with a twinkle in her eye. Being relatively unschooled on the saga, I ask how the Miller Tree Inn is connected. Susan explains that her inn bears an uncanny resemblance to the Cullen property in the books: a turn-of-the-century white three-storey house with a deep wraparound porch.

Is Stephanie Meyer from the area? I’m informed that she isn’t. The author resides in Arizona. She had simply Googled the town with the most rainfall in America as research for her novels. When I remark there hasn’t been much precipitation recently, Susan shoots back: “Well, you might not see any vampires because they sparkle in the sunlight, but you might see some werewolves down by the water.”

I walk Rialto Beach in the late afternoon, beating a path down its shingle towards Hole-in-the-Wall and other monolithic sea-carved mudstone and sandstone rock formations that curl hundreds of feet out of the shore like canine teeth, feeling vaguely annoyed by the other tourists doing the same. As I double back I experience an additional volte-face: irritation transitions into admiration for the people of myriad ages and backgrounds that I pass, opting for an evening of wild camping miles away from plumbing or modern amenities, nesting in the driftwood. You can almost hear Woody Guthrie’s dulcet tones singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in the wind.

The sun glowers on the horizon and the air is suffused with gold. A man in corduroys and a Patagonia gilet pulls tai chi shapes, unaware or unperturbed by the squad of teenage girls pointing and smiling at him. A scoop of brown pelicans congregates on wave-worn rocks that could have been sculpted by Henry Moore, plumes riffling in the breeze, beaks lowered, looking rather droll. The sun goes cherry red and flares out, swallowed by the Pacific. It’s one of those ecstatic moments that people look for in travel. There’s a surge of gratitude at having witnessed so intense a sunset. I wonder how many more I’ll see and feel vividly alive. Then, it (breaking) dawns on me. I’ll be packing this epiphany away and polishing it in a loosely Twilight-themed hotel.

As if to drive the point home, Michael Sheen’s slicked back hair and smarmy visage mocks me as I pass a shop selling merch inspired by the film. Neon ticker tape on the signage of a nearby motel spells out “Don’t worry, Edward Cullen didn’t stay here.” The town is rife with ersatz vampires.

And this, to me, is America in a nutshell: the sublime tempered by the absurd.

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