Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hocus Focus

Yeah, so how cool is this 10 day forecast? Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, partly cloudy with showers, partly cloudy with showers, rain, rain.

A couple of weeks back I went on my second backpacking trip of the year. It's a late year. Nothing much was accessible until mid-July. Lots of snow in the mountains, and some insane rainstorms before that, back in November and December of 2007. Those storms took a lot of ground for a swim, all the way to the ocean, and rearranged large portions of several landscapes in the process.

The Mt. St. Helens area was a disaster. Still is. Unhikeable mostly. One of the main access roads got cut at the beginning of last winter and remains so. The Forest Service is using its funds to fight fires, and it has a lot of them.

That road and many others remain out of service. The trails too. Only after I got deep into the St. Helens back country on my first trip of the year did I realize how stupid I was. Getting around the trench that used to be Toutle River took a life-challenging two mile detour, some of it vertical.

Jumping, then sliding down a 15 foot high cut bank was the easy detour.

The next day, a couple of gullies farther south I came to the big detour. That one took less faith in controlled falling but was a longer off trail roundabout. I got to places I'd never been before and may not get to again. I saw forests few have walked in or had reason to.

I got to travel through brush, over and in and through moraines, up mountainsides, over rock piles, and just about everywhere else in order first to get around what used to be a little gully and now is a deep and forbidding crumbling canyon, and then back to the trail again.

The snow helped though.

There was still plenty of it, even in open sunny places, in mid-July, and it filled many gullies. Of course it also filled in long stretches of forest, but there were a few plastic ribbons and orange wands from previous years and I had a better time navigating through the trees than before, when I went through there in June of one year. A more normal year then, when you could expect snow in June, at least some snow. But 2008 is a different sort of year. This year has snow in August.

So finally summer came in August but I didn't want to make too long a trip. Six days seemed about right, and I headed for the Olympics. No, not those, the Olympic Mountains in Olympic National Park. Conveniently close, an hour's drive.

Things were odd. Not St. Helens odd, where the earth (if you can use that word) is a disorderly collection of talc like dust, sand, gravel, stone shards, rocks, cobbles, boulders, and hillsides all jumbled loosely together, held in place if at all by moisture. So when the landscape dries it flakes and powders and explodes into landslides and dust storms. The Olympics are not like that. But they were odd this year.

There has been damage in the park. The damage is from water and from snow and from wind.

Water removed earth and threw it down slopes at trees and rivers and at everything that held them in place. Many trees went down and stayed down, and many stretches of trail are now only pieces. Avalanches removed small forests and mixed them with snow that hardened and is still thawing in late August. It is a mess.

The main trails, the ones most used by the most people, are open, but the others are still like unspoken secrets. I walked on some of those too.

Up the north fork of the Skokomish River, over First Divide, then across O'Neill Pass to the east fork of the Quinault River and down it. Not too bad. Then a hard left and up again, along the Graves Creek trail, headed south. And things began to intensify.

That was on a Friday evening. It was nice to get away from the people. I'd seen 17 or so going in to the place that I was coming out of, Enchanted Valley, which is nice enough, but not with that many people milling around. The turn up to Graves Creek trail was a turn toward silence, and I began climbing toward it with relief.

There were deadfalls, untouched by the hands of trail crews. The last one was three trees in a cluster, fallen across a small footbridge. Water rushed below. Up slope the trees' roots were lost in brush: too nasty to try. Down slope the trees' crowns hung in empty space: hopeless. Straight ahead a climb over all three trees would have been possible. But at the top, at least 10 feet up, there was no way down the other side.

Stuck. Almost. The bottom trunk left a gap over the plank bridge. About two and a half feet of crawl space. Only enough room for a small and flexible person to wiggle under, between the crushing trees and the bridge decking.

Sure. Get in there and have it all collapse. Maybe. But no choice. The massive tonnage of the three trees had not touched the bridge, only blocked the trail. It worked. I squeaked through.

Farther up, there were three big washouts, the first two with dicey drops into them but a easier outs on the high end. The third not bad at all.

Then evening finally darkened.

I found a camp by the river, on sand, with two perfect trees to hang the hammock, and did it. Rain, having held off all day, fell all night in soft showers. Morning was wet. The whole world was wet. Breakfast and breaking camp came and passed without rain, but it soon returned.

Up over the pass and into the National Forest, the drainage of the south fork of the Skokomish River. Rain came in drizzling showers all day, with a few hard downpours, but the trail was good, clear. I made time, wet under a poncho and a wide brimmed hat. In the lowlands I was familiar with the trails and did not have to think about navigation.

Once at river level I looked for the downstream trail but it had flown with the river into the salt waters. Walking anywhere demanded crossing the river again and again. Scanning the left bank for familiar landscape I finally found it and regained the trail, but only after several futile tries at shouldering a path through brush and thorns where there was simply no longer a trail.

Finding live trail was a delight, and I made good time on miles of its soft flat tread. The trail was the good old familiar, where I had been hiking and photographing for a decade. This day came to an end in damp gloom and by morning the sky was cloudy but bright. Impending. Maybe not. My internal compass led east and then north, up into disconnected gravel roads that hooked into the last section of trail for this trip, the one that ended at my car. No need to check a map so I didn't.

There was hardly a need for one. I had been here before, half a dozen times, though more often down hill than up. At every intersection I knew which way to turn, and kept climbing. I wanted to make as many tracks as possible while the weather held, and finish this trip a day early, to avoid any more rain. Rain had not been in the plans. Rain was not fun. Rain was not good. Summer here is dry forever, not rainy. This trip had gone wrong.

I pushed on, up my gravel highway.

Hadn't been here for a couple of years. Didn't quite remember that things looked exactly this way, but there was no doubt about the route. Only one way up, after all. One foot after the other. Past some cliffs, looking a little higher than I remembered. Views to the south and west, unexpectedly. But no need to think, just walk. Get to the trail. Get to the car. Get home. Rest. Then make another trip later on, when things were drier. Screw the rain. Hiking two days with wet feet was more than enough. Keep putting them down and don't think. Focus on walking. Focus. Breathe. Walk.

Just focus on walking.

Downhill now. Seemed like a little too much. Downhill some more, then up again. To the right in a long sweeping curve of the dead road. I was getting close. Good.

Finally, a soggy pile of dirt and logging debris. They must have closed off the end of this road a second time, farther down than before, for some reason. I wondered why. Beyond, it looked like forest had taken the whole roadway, though my memory was only pulled culverts and a few weeds. Odd.

But no time to think about it. Had to make those miles. I plunged into the new growth. Thick. Very thick. Choking thick. Dripping. Could this have grown up in only two years? Must have, since this was the right place. So I kept on. No choice. Shove, and shove again. Still, there should have been an opening. A trace of the old road where a person could still walk, about a hundred yards or so in. But no. Too thick even to push through. No end in sight. No opening.

Trees 10 feet high, logs all over the ground, berry bushes filling every open space. Damn. Thorns.

Damn. What the hell was going on? Damn.

After 20 minutes I turned back. Had to return to the barricade and look again. Must have missed something right there. Things really seemed different. Have another look. And I was so far back I couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe I had thrashed a quarter mile through interlocking branches, like walking right through tree trunks themselves, but I got back, eventually, soaked, panting, tired, with bleeding legs.

Here is where I pulled out my map. It seemed to say that I was exactly where I thought. The sky was heavy with low clods. Foggy almost. Couldn't see Mt. Tebo, but the top of it had to be there, right there, inside the scudding white overcast. Though you know, if it was, then where was the mountain's bottom?

Look back at the road. Blocked by eager young forest, a tangle of brambles and branches all the way. Up slope? Nope. No way. Down slope a little then? Nope. Damn, this had to be right. What had changed? How had this place gone wrong?

My soul fell to the ground as I realized that I would not make it back to the car today. There was no way to do a quick hop through this stuff. Being a day ahead of schedule at least I would not go hungry. Had already planned for one more day. It would be a struggle though. A severe struggle. I would have to crawl. From the Dry Creek trail head it would be easy, but how to get there was the question. Something strange had happened here, and now I was in deep trouble. Damn.

Look at the map again. Huh.

Look at the landscape. Look at the map.

Pull out the little toy compass thermometer zipper pull and compare it to the map. Well...not too bad. But could this really be real? Huh.

There was this side road, a spur, and then another one off of that, and if I had taken that, just suppose, just play along here, what would have happened? Suppose the impossible, that I had taken a wrong turn and gone down this spur and come to the end of it, what would things look like, and if I turned my map north and then looked north, how would the landscape look, and how would it compare to the map? Huh.

Not quite a match, and going back, all the way back down again, then hiking another 10 or 12 miles out to the highway would be a bitch, but maybe.... At least bailing that way, if I really had to, I would not die.


I turned and hiked downhill, just to see, just to see if that last turn down there, where my true route had kept climbing and the other road had turned off the right track and declined, well, to see what there was to see. So I got there, silly as it was, and went down that wrong track. There should have been a stream hidden in a small valley.

The stream was in the right place. There should have been a stream deep in the woods and down to the right, and it was there. I could hear it. So I kept on a bit, and then there was the registration box for the Dry Creek trail about a hundred yards in, and then I knew I was back on the right route and was not going to die on my knees among the saplings.

The place I had been first had not been a road. It had been a stub of a road, and it and the slope above it had been logged about 10 or 15 years before. Then the forest had started to grow back, as thickets, and now here I was. About a mile east of there, and on the right road again (also closed off), a genuine road, and it still looked like a road and was walkable and even had a sign telling me: Hey Stupid! Walk this way!

So I walked that way.

And everything else looked exactly right, and familiar, even though it had been two years. I hiked to the east and southeast, which was right, and not the the west and northwest, and finally hit the actual trail head. From there it was still five or six miles, over 30 or 40 deadfalls, through mud and clouds of mosquitoes, but it was clear. I was going home. Alive. Finally. Jeez.

So what is the lesson here?

First, don't be stupid like me. Don't be so narrow. Don't lose focus by maintaining focus. Check your map often. Take a look at a compass every now and then, and your watch. Being in familiar country and knowing roughly where you are and how fast you walk are good, but sometimes a person needs more than that. I did, and I blew it. I ignored the obvious.

It's a form of arrogance.

Assuming that things are so obvious that you don't have to watch the land and check the map and compass is stupid arrogance. Deadly arrogance. Lucky for me to be on a dead end road. I could have gone for miles. I have the stamina to do that when I need to, but it also works the other way. I have enough stamina to go off the rails and over the cliff as well.

This is the opposite of the last post. In that one I came across a man who had no clue at all, and had to keep checking an ignorant toy to tell him where he was (but wasn't really). In my case, a short day after that, I didn't check a reliable source to tell me were I really was. Instead I assumed that I was OK. A few minutes spent, earlier on, would have saved me an hour and a half of hard and wasted effort.

As it was I got back to my car at 8:00 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m. or earlier. The good news for me was that I got back, and only had to rest my feet for a couple of days before I could walk on them again. They were so soft from rain and long miles that the old skin shucked right off with my socks that evening. The bad news for me was that I turned a long and not too pleasant day into a long nightmare that could have been serious.

Hiking is nice that way, kind of. If it doesn't kill you, it makes you a little smarter.

I hope.


Post a Comment