|July 24, 2004.
I eat a final breakfast at the Forks Coffee Shop... I spare no calories this morning as I pile on the pancakes, sausage, bacon and eggs, smothered in butter & syrup. Cate (my gracious shuttle driver and trip-caretaker) hauls me down Hwy 101 and up the Queets River Road. Devastating clearcuts prevail on Olympic National Forest lands here, and continue immediately up to the National Park Boundary, highlighting the divergent ideals of these two government bureaucracies. At the end of the road we reach the Queets River Campground. Cate bids me farewell, drives around the dirt loop back to town, and leaves me and my bulging pack behind. I look around a bit, as if in a daze. "Well, I guess this is it," I mutter to myself. I grunt my huge pack onto my shoulders and walk down to the river.
Heeding the advice that WrongBridge gave me before (he does frequent salmon surveys along the Queets River), I head upriver past the original Queets River Trailhead. One of the unique qualities of the Queets River Trail is that in order to reach it, you must fist cross the river itself (with no bridge), which can range from knee-deep to nearly fifty times that volume (and many times its original depth) in the midst of frequent winter storms. Luckily, the past days of weather have been clear. The official fording spot is thigh-deep at the present time, but a little ways upriver the water is slightly shallower. The crossing is a wee exciting, but I get along without incident.
While drying my feet on the other side, I meet a couple of European dayhikers who are quickly impressed with my plans these next couple of weeks. It's hard not to be flattered by their praise, but I'm careful not to get too head-strong... it would be foolhardy to congratulate myself. As of yet, I haven't actually done
Once past the river, the Queets Trail is (quite graciously) an easy path. For fifteen flat miles it parallels the Queets River before dead-ending at Pelton Creek.
It connnects to no other trails, and attracts few multi-day backpackers. In fact, compared to its rainforest neighbors (the Hoh and Quinault River Trails), it attracts very few visitors at all
... that's part of what drew me here. The first few miles of trail are popular among salmon fisherman, but nearly no one
bothers hiking to its end at Pelton Creek. Of those few who do, NONE of them (excepting rare crazies like me
) continue further upriver, where the trail ends. My intended route will follow the river its entire length, up to the rarely-visited Queets Basin.
Three-quarters of the way up, I have a goal of reaching Service Falls, a waterfall so large and impressive that many people have heard of it in conversation, although none of them have ever been there. It's so remote that (to my current knowledge) no picture of it has ever been produced. No one I've ever talked to (rangers, longtime residents, hundreds of hiking partners) has ever been there, nor have they heard
of anyone who has. This waterfall, having filled my imagination to mythical proportions, is my goal. If luck holds with me, I hope to be there within five days.
As I walk upriver, the rainforest here is breathtaking, and I use the magnificent trees as a frequent excuse to take a break and shed my heavy pack.
Lichens and mosses drip from the forest canopy, which itself varies widely from small Vine Maples and Red Alders to giant groves of towering Alaskan Cedar, Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs. I take lunch at a record-holder, a giant specimin of Douglas Fir that reached acclaim as the world's largest until a wind-storm blew off its topmost branches several years back. The folds in its bark make comfortable chairs, and I sit awhile, basking in natural history, wondering what this tree has witnessed in its centuries here.
By late afternoon I've reached Spruce Bottom, a paltry 6½ miles upriver. Across the river from Spruce Bottom stands the old Smith Cabin, which miraculously (albeit barely) still stands to this day. Along with the Anderson Homestead (which I passed further downriver), it stands as a temporary reminder, despite all appearances otherwise, that the lower stretches of valley here have not always been wilderness.
After bushwacking through the forest to the river's edge and scouting an apparently safe
place to cross, I strap on my sandals, unbuckle my hipbelt, and step into the river.
"Apparently safe" is a loosely defined term. Very quickly the cold water swarms around my thighs and splashes up my shirt. Using my poles to form a constant tripod, I manage to move slowly across. At one point, gripping my poles tightly (which shake violently in the swift current), the hard plastic cap on one pole pops off and begins floating down the river. I almost lurch for it, but think better as the current nearly takes me under. I have no choice but to watch helplessly as my trekking pole handle floats downriver, around the bend, and out of sight. (Hey, if anyone sees a trekking pole strap floating around the Queets River campground, lemme know, will ya? )
After using my GPS to locate the old Smith Cabin,
I camp tonight on a large sandbar along the river's edge. Prints in the sand here tell tales of survival... bear tracks follow along the water's edge and into the forest, accompanied by multitudes of elk prints and even a coyote. The sandbar is a hot, dry, windy place, but with no bugs here I call it a fair compromise, and I lay out my bag & cook dinner.
As the sun sets over Kloochman Rock, I stare at a half-moon hung low in the southern sky. I smile as I notice the moon's changing phase these past few weeks... within a week it should be full again.
While I met several hikers along the trail today, I see evidence of no one (not even a footprint) around my campsite tonight on the riverbank. For now, I have this wilderness all to myself.
July 25, 2004.
My first task this morning, after breakfast, is to ford the river back to the Queets Trail. It's not so hairy as yesterday, but much colder than I remember! On the Queets River Trail, I soon notice that no human footprints are visible anymore. It appears to be just me and the elk now, who leave prints everywhere.
While traveling through a moss-laden grove of trees just past Bob Creek, I scare a large bird from a nearby patch of bushes. A beautiful owl flies from the bushes and settles on a branch thirty feet in front of me. As it turns its head to stare, I notice distinctive gold flecks along its back and the characteristically rounded head of the Northern Spotted Owl, that famously threatened species that survives only in old-growth forests like these. I shed my pack and frantically (but quietly!) search for my camera, but before I can produce a picture, the owl flies off quietly into the forest, as if evaporating in a dream.
After Bob Creek, the trail becomes faint, often disappearing completely in meadows. At one point after steeply bushwacking around a riverside washout, I give up the official trail altogether (who needs ya'!), and make the last few miles along game trails, laid here by resident herds of Roosevelt Elk. Elk are responsible for the "wide-open" feel of these rainforests, grazing back the underbrush under a canopy of old-growth giants. They feed often, and know how to get around out here! Following their tracks saves me considerable time searching for cut logs and other trail indicators, and is a bit more exciting to boot. When I reach Pelton Creek, I use my GPS to search vainly for the old emergency shelter, but after criss-crossing several times through the forest where the shelter should be, I give up, and sit down by the riverbank.
I've gone 11-miles so far today, which is pretty good considering the condition of the trail and the 55+ pound load I'm still hauling.
Still early in the afternoon, I decide to pick up and continue upriver, following elk-trails as I go. It seems I'm officially off-trail now, and I know I will be for at least
the next week. A couple easy river fords and a half-mile later, I settle for camp on a grassy sandbar meadow among a grove of red alders. The Queets valley is narrowing considerably... it used to be several miles wide and flat-bottomed, but now the valley walls are now a little steeper, a lot closer, and I can see snow-clad peaks beckoning behind them. After a pleasant dinner and a few repairs (both my trekking pole handles are shot, and I stitch a hole in my pants with waxed dental floss), I sit quietly and contemplate the task ahead of me. I saw no
people today, and now that I'm off-trail, I doubt I will
see anybody for quite some time. I can't remember ever going two days in my life without seeing a fellow human, even in the backcountry. This will be a new experience!
Tired, but satisfied with my progress so far (this ain't so bad yet!
), I fall asleep under the stars, listening to the wide river gurgle a lullaby over a field of nearby rocks. Tomorrow, I start hiking off-trail (in earnest), and I am curious to know what mysteries await me, further upriver.