|July 30, 2004.
I slept under the stars last night on the ledge above the river, and awoke to a heavy dew on my sleeping bag. Looking to the south, I know I have my last chance today to reach Service Falls. I'll first have to cross a long, bushy thicket of slide alder trees before I can reach the ledge above Upper Service Falls. It'll be rough, but I have little other choice.
"Rough" isn't the word for it. After a precariously steep bushwack down off the ridge, it takes me 5½ hours to cross the half-mile patch of impenetrable alders. Every foot is a hard-fought battle against the ubiquitous 2-3" alder stems that fill the air in dense clusters every direction. I go entire stretches without touching the ground, stepping from one branch to another, squeezing, thrashing, and muscling my way through each obstacle, only to be hit in the face (sometimes literally) with another. Finally emerging out of the thicket and back into the open forest at 2:00 in the afternoon, bruised, bloodied, and battered, I can look back and still see the campsite where I stayed last night. I appears I won't cover as much ground today as I'd hoped.
I scramble over a gully and up the side of a ridge. Over this ridge is Upper Service Falls, and across the river (over another hill) lies Service Falls proper. If luck is with me, I'll be there in a few hours. On they way down the opposite side of the steeper-than-expected ridge, I'm cursing my slow pace and pondering my schedule when I hear a movement immediately below me. Looking up, I'm face to face with a large bull elk and his impressive rack of antlers. Stepping a few paces off to the side (I'm aware that I'm travelling his
path), I take off my pack and snap a few pictures of the majestic animal. Soon enough, he gracefully (and surprisingly quickly) disappears into the forest. It's amazing to me how quickly things can hide here... if there were a single place on earth where a sasquatch could live unnoticed, this would be it. Waiting a good while longer, I shoulder my pack, and continue down the elk path, whistling the tune of "The Andy Griffith Show" as I go. No need to surprise any more 1,000-pound bulls!
After a short while, I can hear
the deafening white-noise of Upper Service Falls. I'm very, very close. But soon enough, I'm perched on a 100-foot ledge above the river, just around a bend from the falls. I search everywhere, scanning up and down, back and forth, looking for a route down. I drop my pack and try scrambling down a steep gully to the river, but there is no safe route down. Even if I do
get down, the river is fast & deep, and there is nothing but a sheer wall on the opposite side. This is the end of my road. There will be no Service Falls this trip. The matter is finally closed.
I sit down on that ledge and begin to cry. I'm not sorry for my failure to reach the falls... quite to the contrary, I'm content to have tried my best. Since I've done everything conceivable to the very limits of my abilities to get there, I feel no regret in that. Perhaps oddly, I'm quite satisfied with the results. No, my tears are something more. The extraordinarily difficult nature of this trip, combined with not seeing my wife for a month, nor seeing anyone
for close to a week, have physically and emotionally drained me. I have never felt so exhausted in my life. Drained of my reserves, and still uncertain what challenges lay ahead, I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of this excursion. I look down at my bruised and bleeding left hand, and see my wedding ring. I kiss the ring on my finger and make a promise to my wife: "Now, I'll come home to you." Call it a spiritual experience, but I feel that somehow, in some way, she's heard me. My mission now is to get home
, safe and sound. I have no desire to reach the falls anymore. I only want to see my wife again.
So I haul my pack back up the ridge, fill my water in the pool of a small seeping creek, and make an early camp. When planning this trip, I allotted "plenty" of time so I wouldn't feel rushed and could rest whenever I needed. Now, at the end of day seven, I have taken no rests, my body is growing weary, and the possibility of not finishing on time is a growing concern. Obvious questions arise... what if I don't make it out of the Queets valley and run out of food? What would I do then? I do not want to have to repeat the torturous route I used to get here... but what if there is no safe route forward? Even if I did turn around now, could I make it out in time?
It takes effort to put such questions out of my mind... pondering the worst does me no good. My journey into the backcountry has ended. Tomorrow, I begin my journey home. With that, I close my eyes and fall asleep under a forgivingly clear sky.
July 31, 2004.
Waking up this morning, I'm in a slightly better mood than last night. I've made the decision to continue upriver, if for no other reason, because it's a shorter distance going that
way than if I tried going back. Scouting the map, I know I need to find a place to cross the river this morning. Two things convince me of this: 1)
I do NOT want to bushwack back through those slide alders again, and 2)
even if I do cross the alders, I would soon reach an impassable canyon where the Jeffers Glacier river flows into the Queets, and would be stuck. Nope, I need to make my way up the opposite
side of this river. Unfortunately, even though the river is beyond the worst of its canyon, it is still
in a sizeable 100-foot valley. (I am beginning to develop a notable distaste for river canyons at this point.) Finding a way across could be tricky.
Coming down the north side of the ridge, I spot a promising gully down to the river, complete with an opposing gully up the other side. Will I be able to ford the river at the bottom, between the two? Who knows, but I've got to try. While bushwacking my way down the gully in an uncharacteristic hurry (I want to cross the river early in the morning!), I accidentally step down into a patch of ferns without checking my footing. This particular time, the ground isn't there, and I fall eight feet off a small hidden ledge
, landing on the rocks below.
That could've been much worse,
I murmur to no one as I pick myself up, rubbing my deeply-bruised left buttocks. That's gonna leave a mark.
Eventually, I complete the hairy descent and reach the canyon floor. In front of me is the raging river, which enters a deep pool before entering another rapids just downriver. The only way I'll cross this, I know, is to get to the top of those rapids, where the water is generally shallow enough to cross (albeit cold and swift). In order to get there, I have to somehow cross a twelve-foot-wide stillwater pool along the edge of a rock wall, which may or may not be deeper than my head. I have no choice but to try. So I shed my pack (I always scout the crossing of a difficult glacial river without
my pack first), work up my courage, and go.
Luckily, I reach the edge of the rapids by stepping blindly from submerged rock to submerged rock, in stomach-deep frigid water. It shallows-out at the top of the rapids (to only thigh-deep), but I can tell this will be scary. Step-by-step, inch-by-inch, I find a safe place to put each foot in front of the other, making steady progress in the rushing torrent that constantly threatens to wash me down the canyon. Reaching a wet outcrop on the other side, I hoist myself up, very wet and cold, and breath a sigh of relief. I do a few jumping jacks to bring feeling back to my numbed toes, and start back across to fetch my pack.
As soon as I slide my legs back into the waist-deep current, a sudden surge comes and knocks me off my feet. I fall into the water, banging my left arm violently on a submerged boulder. In the most frantic moment of my life, I grapple back from under the water, back onto the shore about 10 feet downriver. The rock has cut a deep gouge in my left forearm, which (within seconds) is bleeding down my fingers. I know that once the adrenaline wears off, hypothermia will soon set in on my chilled body. Having no choice but to get to my pack, I go back up to the rock. In a moment of determination that surprises me still to this day, I slide back into
the water (albeit in a slightly different spot this time), and safely make it back the way I came.
As soon as I reach my pack, I frantically strip my dripping shirt, use my teeth to tie it around my left arm at the elbow, and force myself to do jumping jacks until I stop shivering. Knowing the river will only get deeper as day progresses, I hoist my pack onto my shoulders and force myself back across to the other side. Once safely there, before I can celebrate, I strip off all my wet clothes and put on almost every piece of dry clothing I have left. For the next hour I warm myself back up, dry my clothes on the exposed rocks, and bandage my left elbow. Once the sun peeks over the canyon walls, I am comfortably warm and dry again. It amazes me how quickly these cold glacial waters can suck all the warmth from my body, and how much time it takes me to recover that warmth.
Now nearly noon, I need to find a way out of this godforsaken canyon. The walls of this "exit gully" are high (60-80') and look deceivingly steep. From afar they appeared quite climbable, but up-close-and-personal, with a pack on, these walls are a death wish! But I have to find a way somewhere
. Attempting one way, the rotten shale proves too unstable for safe footholds. There are no plants but weak matchstick sword-ferns to grab ahold of. I descend and search farther up the gully. Far too soon, I reach a spot where I can continue up no more. Looking at the still-too-high walls, I try another route... I have no choice! At least in this spot, there are small pine saplings that provide some
purchase on the otherwise vertical walls. I pause at a particularly rough spot (my feet are planted in loose crumbly footholds, and my hands clutch small pine saplings that can barely support my weight), close my eyes, and pray for a safe passage to the top. I hoist myself up, trust the strength of the pine saplings, and reach for the base of a larger pine bough. I've got it!
From here, the plants & trees are stronger, and I do a series of repeated pull-ups, from one tree to another, until I finally hoist my legs over the solid forest ledge. At the top, I collapse and nearly cry again. I don't know how many more life-and-death challenges I can face... the emotional strain is taking its toll.
Almost immediately, I find at my feet a blooming blueberry bush, ripe with fruit. Nestled in the leaves below it is the bleached skeleton of a bull-elk, complete with antlers. As I eat the sweet berries, somehow I begin to realize that the worst of my threats are now behind me. I don't know how
I know, but I'm quite sure of it. The going will be easier from now on... it HAS to be easier! In a matter of minutes, my mood is so elevated I can barely contain myself.
And so I continue hiking upriver through the forest, as if floating on a cloud. The steep forest (according to the maps) proves easily navigable, and I make significant headway as the afternoon rolls by.
Eventually I cross back over the river (now a wide, easy passage once again) and by late afternoon I've reached the Humes Glacier River, the last major glacial flow that empties into the Queets Valley. Here, the Humes Glacier River is in its own little canyon once again (why do they all
), but I am bothered little by it. I figure I'll make camp tonight, find another easy crossing of the Queets River (much easier now that I'm near the end of the valley) and continue up the other side, avoiding the glacial waters of the Humes altogether. I've had enough scary crossings of glacial rivers for one lifetime, and quite frankly, I'd rather be through with them.
Tonight, I'm camped on the edge of a small marshy meadow. As I lie in my bag & bug bivy, writing in my journal, I hear an odd noise coming from the bushes. I hear the same noise again, coming this time from the opposite side of the meadow. Looking up, I notice the tail-end of a bobcat (complete with its white rump and bushy little tail) storming into the forest, retreating from the meadow. There must be two of them... I wonder if they were discussing this weird smelly creature camped out in their backyard. I wonder what they thought of me.
It'll be another clear night tonight... much to my blessing, it hasn't rained in over a week. The moon is nearly full, and I let out a tired sigh as I drift to sleep in the waning light.