Queets Canyon - August 2005
About three years ago, I thought of taking a big solo trek through Olympic National Park. It was gonna be a great one. Last summer ('04), I finally worked up the courage, the money and the time, and I took it. In the end, deep off-trail within a remote river canyon, the trip nearly took me.
I've since read up on the psychology of survivors in dangerous circumstances and remote places, and reminiscing on my trip, I ran the gamut of emotions. Afterwards, having pushed beyond my personal limits and realizing there was a bit more to me than I'd thought, I was deeply satisfied with my trip. Not like "Oh, that steak was good"
satisfied. More like "Hey, my firstborn just graduated from college"
satisfied. Get it? I felt like I'd just accomplished the pinnacle of my hiking "career," and I had no ambition to push it further. My days of daring exploration were over.
Except for one..... little....... thing.
Y'see, I'm a rather goal-oriented guy. As a large part of my original trip, I spent a good bit of time (and an ungodly amount of effort) hiking off-trail up a great big river, which I shall hitherto refer to as the "Queets" (which is a handy name, because that's what they call it on the maps). About a dozen miles from the glaciers it drains off Mt. Olympus, far upriver from the dead-end of an abandoned trail, the Queets River feeds into a great big canyon. Very little is known about this canyon, except two things: First, the maps are notoriously inaccurate around this place, because frankly, no one ever goes there. Trails don't go anywhere near it. Second, there's a great big waterfall in the middle of this canyon, innocuously labeled "Service Falls" (named decades ago, after the Forest Service), and quite honestly, I've never met anyone who has been there. Nor have I met anyone who has met
anybody who has claimed to have gotten there. After countless hours of internet searches, forum queries, talking to park rangers, local residents, university researchers, other remote trekkers, and even the occasional Northwest waterfall expert, no one has yet been able to show me a photo of these little falls.
Now, for a guy who regularly enjoys wholly unhealthy romps through Devil's Club thickets and Blackberry bushes just to see what's there,
finding something like this is entirely irresistable!
Call it a character defect... I wanted to find those falls!
So I tried. In fact, I tried very very hard. And in the end, I failed. (If the details of this story sound intriguing, you might read it in your spare time: Olympic Solo Trek - 2004
) Despite what you might think, I wasn't disappointed. Hell, I was just happy to make it home alive. But time (that patient little devil) has a sinister way of ripening one's ambitions, and as the months passed, I started to have thoughts again of Service Falls. Distant thoughts, mind you, easily muffled at the back of my mind while planning other things. But there they sat, like a jack in a box, steadily winding. As fate would have it, when all the planets aligned again, I found myself packing ten days of food on short notice, preparing once again to head up the Queets River... "Take 2" of my nutty personal quest to reach an entirely unjustifiable waterfall.
Which brings me back to my little story, driving alone up Highway 101 (practically deserted on a cool foggy Monday), chewing sunflower seeds with the windows down, the radio blaring Classic Rock to a deep harmony of static. Stopping by the ranger station for a permit and a friendly lecture (which I could cite by heart), I flash a healthy smile to the front-country rangers as I head out the door and drive roundabout towards the Queets River Road.
Off the highway, the gravel road passes through the Quinault Indian Reservation before entering the National Park, and although I've seen it before, I'm still floored by the clearcuts leading right up to the Park boundary.
Y'see, the Quinault Indian Tribe, unrestrained by pesky federal laws about logging practices and species surveys, have wiped this stretch of old-growth forest clean, leaving nothing left standing and not a seed replanted in the wake. I drive the half-mile down the dusty gravel road and pass the "Welcome to Olympic National Park" greeting, crossing an arrow-straight boundary between a hot dusty stump-field and the cool deep forest. Before long, I reach a "Road Closed" sign, chained across the Matheny Creek bridge roughly 7 miles in. The ranger told me about this. I park my car, and after a mandatory bout of procrastination (I always hesitate to take the first step in any large trip), I begin seven miles of road walking to reach the trailhead.
After a short while on the road, I spot a grey-haired man heading towards me, walking with a hunter-orange vest and a wooden monopod staff in his right hand. He tells me he's surveying the road damage just ahead, where the river washed out a large chunk of the gravel strip during winter's rains.
"It'll take about $30,000 to fix," he remarks gruffly. "If you've got that with you, I could start right now."
He flashes a small grin as I lament I've only got $7.
"Well," he says, "it'll be years before the park ever gets around to fixing this road, if they ever do at all.
" After a light chat, he tells me about a big trip he took, several years back, traversing South from the headwaters of the Queets all the way down to the campground... he describes it as "a hell of a time. The ranger knew nothing about it. Another guy told us he tried to get through there once, but we'd better turn around now, 'cause we'd never make it!" As he pauses to contemplate, I tell him a bit about my trip last year, and my elusive quest to reach Service Falls. His face immediately lights up as he listens, and he shoves out his hand, properly introducing himself. We repeat each other's names several times, to be sure we've got it right. It seems we both want to remember this.
Queets-o-philes are a rare breed... a strange anomoly in the general "hiking community." It's unusual to meet a fellow member of this elusive little sub-culture, especially on such random terms. For the next half-hour, we eagerly exchange stories of the river... tall tales I might normally dismiss as eager lies, but we both know better. Before long, exchanging "good-bye's" and "good-luck's," we head our seperate ways; him back to his truck, and me up the road.
The rest of the day passes amiably,
and I enjoy the warm sunshine and wet silence of the rainforest as I make good time up the gently-graded road. It feels like I'm returning home here, the giant moss-laden firs, spruces and maples growing taller as I progress up the Queets Corridor. I reach the campground by early afternoon, finding it predictably abandoned, save a couple bicycle tracks and a party of horse prints. The river crossing (the official beginning of the Queets River Trail) is graciously low, only knee deep at this point. It's a good sign for me. I'm counting on good weather and low waters to boost my odds of finding a route up the river canyon in the days ahead.
Along the trail, I quickly pass a host of familiar sights: the old Andrews homestead and the former Record Douglas Fir that reside in this lower valley.
By early evening I'm at Spruce Bottom, a beautiful river plain full of old-growth blue spruces and dripping lichens. I settle down into an old horse camp, unrolling my bag far below the canopies of a couple giant Douglas Firs, their nine-foot boughs framing the north end of my camp. "It'll be a clear night," I murmur as I slip into my bag and stare at the star-punctured canopy above me, "probably a bit chilly, too." I fall asleep peacefully, wondering how my story will unfold on the Queets this year.
Tuesday, August 2.
I awake this morning with the dawn, in a fine mood. As I pack up my belongings, a young guy passes by, wearing a pair of headphones and half a National Park uniform. He almost doesn't see me as he walks on by, and is a bit startled when I step into his field of view. He's a young ranger named Jason, and he's spent the past 2 days on the Queets Trail. He's headed out this morning.
"It's not like any kind of trail
I've ever been on," he laments in an exacerbated tone. "I figured the little red line on the map meant there'd be a nice path through here, like the Quinault or Enchanted Valley... it's not like that at all!"
It's not the first time I've heard that. He attempted getting to the end of the "trail," but turned around miles before, slowed by the conditions and worried that he might get lost among the trail's many disappearing acts. He also tried to find the old Shaube Cabin (also dubbed the "Smith Place"), a historic old homesteader's cabin across the river, not far from where we stand. A Historical Preservation Society wants some photos, to check its condition. He never found it. "I've been there," I note. "I'll get some photos on the way out if you'd like."
I soon heave my pack and head upriver on the Queets trail. I see several sets of footprints, but most of them turn around before long, except one. A set of boot tracks (well, two pair, actually) continues farther up the valley, past the point where most folks don't go. They quell my curiosity. How far did up did they go?
During my first full day in the rainforest, I remember the quiet tones of the place, recognizing subtle noises and smells in the overwhelming silence of the forest. I prefer going solo here... to carry loud conversations seems almost sacrelige in this ancient setting.
Before lunch I reach the official end of the "trail" (which has long since disappeared) at Pelton Creek, 15 miles in (22, if you count the road-walking). I'm making good time, and I make a healthy little bet with myself. Last year I reached the Queets Canyon (at Paull Creek) in four days, having crossed the river three times as I went. This time around, with a much lighter pack and a better familiarity with the terrain, I hope to make it up to the canyon in just three days, and see if I can do it only crossing the river once
(at the Trailhead, where everyone crosses).
Travelling swifty off-trail, I quickly find myself back in a familiar groove, as if I'd never left the place. I follow faint elk trails, and try my best to avoid the nasty thickets of willows and young spruce, whose sharp needles lance my skin. Usually, it works. But sometimes my skills falter, and I still find myself crawling through a thicket on my belly, or grappling over a giant log (slanted 45° over the hillside), wondering... "how the hell did I get myself here?" It could take a lifetime to learn to efficiently travel in these woods.
At a reasonable hour in the evening, well past Hee Hee Creek, I spot a grassy shaded little knoll at the riverside... a perfectly reasonable place to camp. But I am not a reasonable person, and as such, I decide to push on, feeling confident in my ability to get a "little bit further" today before finding another spot to camp.
Two hours later, with the sun long set over the hillside and the light fading fast, I crash through yet another thicket on the steep riverside. I haven't seen a decent place to camp in hours! My legs are throbbing, my skin is worn raw, and I am dead exhausted. I finally give in, letting go my stubborn drive for that perfect campsite. "Enough!" I say, as I toss down my bag at the top of a sandy little wash above Kilkelly Creek. It's a precarious spot, and not the most comfortable place I've slept, but it'll have to do.
As I sit in my bag cooking dinner, with darkness settling in, a little thought nags me. Those footprints (the ones I saw earlier) haven't turned around yet. As I head up the valley, now several miles off-trail, I continue to cross them on occasion, always next to the river. How far do they go? Do they head up the canyon? Did they actually reach the falls? It's a silly thought, I know, and I try to push it out of my mind. It does me little good to obsess. And yet...
Rolling over and drifting off to sleep, I can hear the blue waters of the Queets churning over the rocks below me. I'm making good time, and by tomorrow I should reach the canyon proper. Until then, all I need is a good night's rest.
I take a deep breath. Whew, I stink! Note to self: I've gotta do laundry.
Wednesday, August 3.
Not much to report today.
I made good time up the river, just as I'd expected. Several times I recognized familiar spots from my trip last year... a lightning-charred tree, or a grassy sandbar where I'd eaten lunch. It's a hot, sweaty day, but I take frequent breaks, soaking in this rarely-seen river and it's deep moss-draped forests. In one place, I notice the river has completely diverted its flow since last year, moving its channel almost a quarter-mile across its floodplain. It's amazing to me, given its permanence and strength, just how quickly this river can reinvent itself. The farther upriver I go, the waters become more opaque, soon turning an iridescent sky-blue, telling of its glacial origins. I've seen it before, but it still amazes me.
I also continue seeing those footprints, and by mid-morning I pass a well-tracked area where they'd obviously camped. How far up do these footprints go?
I look up the river (almost expecting it to answer), laugh at myself, and continue onward.
By mid-afternoon I reach a familiar cliff above Paull Creek, marking the de-facto entrance of the Queets Canyon. I scout upriver to find the same trusty elk path I'd used before, leading down a steep gully to the floor of Paull Creek. Reaching the Queets Canyon, I get an involuntary chill down my spine, as if confronting a childhood ghost. It looks exactly as I remember it... the same icy blue waters, the same stark basalt walls shrouded with overhanging trees,
and the same sandy shelf where I'd spent the night last year at the mouth of the canyon. Crossing the river to the sandbar, I find the water is no less deep than I remember, which worries me. My hopes of reaching Service Falls depend upon low water levels in this river. But I reason that it's very late on a hot afternoon, and the water levels will surely be lower tomorrow morning. I will make my attempt for the falls tomorrow, beginning up the canyon at the crack of dawn.
I see no more footprints here. They may have travelled somewhere else entirely, but it's clear my unseen companions stopped short of reaching this canyon. I look downriver from my viewpoint, where the river churns violently between basalt walls, forming deep currents and frequent pools. It seems I'll never know just where they went, but they obviously didn't come here.
I spend the afternoon doing laundry and reorganizing my pack. Anything that isn't necessary for a one-day trek up the canyon stays behind. I bring a lunch, emergency essentials, and just enough gear to last one night in an unexpected bivouac, if needed upriver. Last year I wasted far too much time "scouting" my crossings of the river, only to double-back and ferry my gear across to the other side. This time, bringing only the essentials, I've stripped down my semi-monstrous load down to a svelte daypack (even removing the hipbelt), so I can carry it with me easily, wasting no time on the river. Light and swift will be my motto this year.
I am not counting on a "sucessful" trip up the canyon tomorrow, but I'm hopeful. Camped on a ledge of moss twenty feet above the river, I stare at the sliver of sky above me, my head filled with anticipation. I plan to wake before the sun tomorrow, making a jump on the morning's warming temps and rising currents. My gear is packed and stowed, and I've nothing left to do but arise, eat breakfast, strap on my sandals and head upriver. Questions run through my head... What condition is the canyon in? Will I make it all the way upriver? What risks will I be willing to take? To all of them, I give a final answer... we'll see! I drift asleep on my trusty bed of moss & roots, listening to the river churn below as the sky above me deepens into a show of stars. The easy stuff ended today... tomorrow, things could get interesting. I sleep fitfully, anxious with anticipation.