OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- On the edge of the Hoh Rain Forest, inside the Hard Rain Cafe, where they count the annual rainfall on a special gauge and sell "Rain Happens" bumper stickers, owner Michael Rasmussen watches the sun peek through the drizzle. And he frowns.
"Today is dry like Seattle. It's only rained an inch. Where did our rain go?" asks Rasmussen, 46. "If it goes a day or two without raining in the summer, I miss it."
Candace Steed, his manager, nods: "I spent a couple of years in Hawaii once. You can get bored with the sun. The sun only shines in one way, really. The rain is different. Every rain is different."
Rasmussen and Steed are happy only when it rains. That's the way folks are here on the western side of the Olympic peninsula, the unofficial national capital of rain.
The rain forest that spans the Queets, Quinault and Hoh rivers here is the only temperate rain forest in the United States and one of only three left in the world, ecologists say. (The others are in Patagonia and New Zealand.) Nearly 150 inches of rain falls here each year, on average, and for the past 18 months, the pace has far exceeded that.
In 1997, a record 190.71 inches of rain -- nearly 16 feet -- fell. That's almost six times the annual rainfall 100 miles east in Seattle (34 inches), the kind of city where it's always wise to take an umbrella. "We would have broken 200 inches last year," says Steed, "but it pretty much stopped raining in November and December."
Pretty much? Well, those two months, reliably wet before, provided only 32.5 inches last year.
Of course, a claim to be the rainiest place in the continental United States may seem unfashionable in an America full of folks who either have moved to the Sunbelt or seem headed that way. But people here couldn't care less. They proselytize without prompting.
Rain keeps things clean, they say. It is a lullaby by night, an alarm clock by morning. Here, in the magical forest, rain helps life grow so fast and vast -- 10-foot-tall ferns! 300-foot spruce! Moss growing on the phone booths! -- some visitors are shocked the locals aren't all built like Paul Bunyan.
Only in recent years have large numbers of tourists seen the area at all. A daunting four hours by ferry and car from Seattle, the Hoh Rain Forest has traditionally received just a fraction of the Olympic National Park's 3 million or so visitors. But that number is rising fast. Gary Peterson, 50, who owns a store along the only road into the forest, says he counted 250,000 visitors in 1997, up from 100,000 five years ago. The Hard Rain, which used to close every rainy winter, is now open year-round.
"It wasn't on our map, and when you come it seems like a fantasy," says Henk Mattern, a Dutch tourist. "How can such a place exist?"
The Hoh, from an Indian word meaning "fast white water," is the offspring of the Olympics, a range of 7,000-foot peaks 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean. That unusual juxtaposition is a recipe for rain: Warm ocean air hits the mountains and rises, colliding with cold higher air and creating precipitation.
Each year, more than 200 inches of snow falls on Mount Olympus, and the constant weather shrouds its peaks in clouds for all but six weeks. More often visible are the mountain's 60 glaciers, whose pure water gives the Hoh River a crystal-clear, aqua-blue look. The Hoh, which descends from glacier to ocean in less than 50 miles, is the fastest-falling river in the Western Hemisphere.
The river valley is the heart of the rain forest, 900,000 acres that feel like a world apart. It can be pouring in the forest while the sun shines 20 miles away. In fact, for every mile you drive away from the forest on U.S. 101, you lose two inches in annual rainfall. Sequim, a town on the Olympic peninsula 60 miles east of the rain forest, gets only 15 inches a year and has an annual irrigation festival.
But here, plants grow without prompting, on every spare inch. Green air plants, or epiphytes, cover branches, leaves, even the hair of ranchers' llamas -- all-natural Chia pets. Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red cedar rise to heights they can't attain elsewhere on Earth.
Visitors can see elk, black-tailed deer, mountain lions, black bears and cougars. Tom Busemeyer, a retired Cincinnati architect, videotaped the forest.
"Nothing in Alice's Wonderland compares to this place," he said.
The rain forest thrived because it had the good fortune to be remote. It wasn't until the late 1880s that the first homesteaders arrived. By the time logging companies descended on nearby Forks in the 1910s, they had to contend with the federal government.
Rarely has the United States preserved so much, so fast, as in western Washington. In 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the 2.2 million-acre Olympic Forest Reserve, much of which became the national park. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt boosted the park's size by one-third by adding the rain forest.
Roosevelt's action likely saved a national treasure: Satellite photos now show the area has been logged right up to the park border. But 60 years later, the mere mention of Roosevelt's name still rankles ranchers and businessmen here, many of whom descend from John Huelsdonk, an original homesteader.
These critics argue that the park's preservation efforts -- which have included taking some residents' property by eminent domain -- insult the memory of Huelsdonk, the legendary German-born trapper and hunter who shot the peninsula's last wolf early in the 20th century.
Known as the "Iron Man of the Hoh," Huelsdonk was carrying a stove on his back one day when another man met him on the trail. "Doesn't the stove's weight bother you?" Huelsdonk was asked. Not as much, he replied, as the 50-pound bag of flour inside.
"John Huelsdonk made it safe for people to live here," says Bob Huelsdonk, who, with his wife Mary, raises Indian Nilgai antelope, goats, 50 head of cattle and 30 llamas on the Hoh Humm Ranch. "But the Park Service hasn't really cared about the people here."
Times are tough, though it seems a stretch to blame the U.S. Park Service, which maintains a visitor center in the Hoh. Most of the lumber yards have shut down as logs become scarce. With a dwindling supply in the forest and declining demand in Asia, many loggers have been showing up in the rain forest this summer -- as tourists.
"This summer is the first time I couldn't get work in 30 years," says logger Fred Ross."So I just decided to get on my bicycle and see the Pacific Northwest and the whole country."
Rasmussen says he also does a brisk business using llamas to deliver supplies to the rising number of camping groups. He and Steed often talk about ways to bring more people to rain country.
"People retire to Miami where there are hurricanes," says Steed. "They retire to the South where there are tornadoes. They retire to California where there are earthquakes. But they won't retire here because it rains."
! Pub date: 8/07/98