|July 26, 2004.
"Follow the elk."
This has become my new motto as I explore the uncharted forests of the upper Queets Valley. If an area is passable, elk go there... through woods, over hills, across sandbars, through meadows. If I reach a spot where elk tracks don't go, I must be wary. More than a few times I've gone on my own and been stuck in impassable alder thickets, scrambling over precarious logjams, or grappling up a steep gully only to find that I could have found an easier way around if I'd followed the elk trails.
With no more trails to follow, I measure my progress in river-miles. Today is a short day, only 3½ miles upriver, although on-foot I'm traveling several times that... it's impossible to say exactly. These distances may be crude measures of progress, but it's the best I can use. This afternoon brings spectacular views of Kilkelly Creek, draining off the precariously steep slopes of the Valhallas (those knife-edge peaks on the south flanks of Mt. Olympus named after an assortment of ancient German gods). Tonight I camp directly under one of them, as it stands almost a vertical mile above me. It looks very stately indeed, and I smile reverently as I cook dinner and study my maps in the late-afternoon sun.
Tomorrow, I'm quite sure I should make it to Paull Creek, which wouldn't be significant except for one thing. At its convergence with the Queets River, Paull Creek marks the spot where I'll enter the "Queets Canyon" (as I've dubbed it). Upriver from Paull Creek, the Queets River is bookended by steep box canyon, with 300' to 1000' walls on either side. A short distance up this canyon (approx 0.6 miles) is Service Falls, the ultimate goal of my trip. It has been my obsession for nearly two years. Will I reach it tomorrow? Will I reach it at all, or will the box canyon turn me back? Who knows? Nothing is certain yet, but within a day or two, I will begin finding answers to the questions I've pondered for so long.
July 27, 2004.
Waking early, I feel good about my prospects on the Queets River. I spend most the day away from the river, where frequent logjams and alder thickets slow my progress. Instead, I follow elk-trails through the old-growth woods, always keeping the river within earshot to my right. This valley holds an amazing network of well-trodden elk paths, and I have found myself learning to think
like a 1000-pound bull elk. "If I were an elk, which way would I go?" Elk have mastered these woods, and almost without exception they take the most efficient route from points A to B. They go around
thorny thicks, they travel above
riverside cliffs, and they avoid trickly logjams altogether. Elk have even mastered the art of switchbacks
! More than a few times, I follow the pounded paths of massive elk hooves as they switch back & forth (always at the most sensible places) down the side of a steep rockly slope.
At one point, not far downstream from Paull Creek, I emerge from the steeply sloped forest onto the riverbank (as I often do) to scout what lies ahead. On the opposite side of the river, the pebbled shorline has given way to powerful rockly cliffs, plunging vertically into the opaque blue glacial waters of the river. Upriver, the current is sandwiched between alternating rows of cliffs, churning its deep blue waters back & forth between them. I'm hit with the realization that here, at this moment, the river has changed character. Gone
are the flat-bottomed river valleys meandering between alder-covered sandbars. From here on up, the river is in a canyon, and the frothing torrent is a liability... something to respected and feared instead of enjoyed and loved. I take the solemn message to heart, hoist my pack, and continue up through the forest to find Paull Creek.
And find it I do! While following a 60-foot cliff rim over the Queets River, I run into an abrupt corner. Below me, at the base of a perpendicular 60-foot-cliff, is another frothing glacial river, bouncing over rocks and splashing loudly into the Queets. "You must be Paull Creek!" I say aloud to the river, as if introducing myself will somehow soften its mood. Maybe if I'm friendly, the river will go easy on me.
No such luck. I can't climb down here, the rock is near-vertical. So I head upstream (up Paull Creek), following the cliff as I go. The farther I go, the higher the walls climb... sixty feet... eighty feet... a hundred feet. About to give up, I ask myself: "So... if I were an elk, how would I get down?" Almost immediately, the answer comes to me... find a gully! Nearly every river canyon on this green planet has side-streams leading into it... even the miles-deep Grand Canyon! So upwards I explore, and sure enough, there it is... a side gully leading down into Paull Creek. At first it looks too steep to pass (20-30 feet of vertical at the bottom), but I quickly spot something that shouldn't surprise me (although it still does): an elk trail
! Steep but passable, this beaten path zig-zags down the rotten rocky wall of the gully, onto the banks of Paull Creek. The Park Service couldn't have built a better trail here, even if they'd tried.
After a quick ford of the creek and a walk down its opposite bank, I'm finally ready to get my first look at the terrain entering the Queets Canyon. My heart sinks. Almost immediately on my side of the river, the banks give way to a series of vertical walls and deep water. I have no choice but to ford the river. So I shed my pack, don my sandals, and scout a thigh-deep crossing to the other side. I return back to get my pack (which at only 50 pounds, doesn't seem so heavy anymore), and cross one more time (for a total of three) to get my stuff across. I am now officially inside the Queets Canyon. Scrambling a short 300 feet upriver around a corner, I find I'll have to cross the river again. So I take off my pack, enter the frigid waters, and try again. This time, while standing waist-deep on a submerged rock, I plunge my trekking pole into a deep channel ahead of me. It's a no-go... I can't ford here. I retreat back, and despite the early afternoon hour, make the executive decision to wait until tomorrow morning. When these glacial waters are at their lowest, I'll try again.
One thing I notice... there are no elk trails that enter the Queets Canyon. This uneases me. It seems that elk don't engage in such foolhardy activities as exploring deep canyons in search of long-lost waterfalls.
To avoid making camp at the bottom of the valley (katabatic winds funnelling down the canyon floor make for a chilly night), I haul my gear up to a small rocky ledge 20 feet above the river. There, I find a soft bed... a matress of thick moss covers a unique box-spring of tree roots. It's just big enough for my sleeping pad... the perfect place for a good night's sleep in this inimidating canyon of stone and water.