Thursday, August 4.
I'm awake before 3:30 AM, and the canyon is opaque in darkness. The only light comes from stars above, where a 10° slot between the trees reveals a narrow view of the sky above the walls.
My headlamp makes a futile attempt to break the darkness, as I try to check the river levels this morning. It's early August, and Persied meteor shower is out, so I watch my sliver of sky above, waiting for a shooting star to reveal itself. I imagine the things I might wish upon ("I hope I reach the falls today. I hope I'm safe in the canyon today."
), but when I finally see a spark shoot across the canyon rim, only one thing comes into my mind: "I hope Traci is doing okay at home." I guess I'm just a big softie.
By 5 AM I'm ready to go, sandals on, and I guide myself by headlamp across the first few (seemingly familiar) river crossings. The water is definitely a bit lower than I remember, but no less cold!
After an initial shock, the biting sting of frigid glacial water numbs my legs and abates a bit, and I feel confident again... almost comfortable. I can definitively say, this is one hell of a way to wake up in the morning.
After four quick river crossings no more than thigh-deep, I reach my moment of truth. I'm standing on a rock, and enough light has finally emerged to see the narrow canyon without my headlamp. I stare at a stark blue pool, the same place I'd been turned back last year. Winter storms have reshaped this part of the canyon since I last remember... bare rock greets me where a surging logjam had clogged the bank the year before. The waters will be deep, I can tell, but right now, it just might be passable.
Taking one tentative step, the water climbs to my knee. Another, and it splashes up my thigh. Two steps later, and the frigid chill swirls around my stomach. Tentatively feeling my way with my trekking poles, I feel the current growing only deeper as I proceed. It's deep, and it's cold, but it's not running fast here, and I take a semi-confident step as the ice-blue waters swirl around my armpits, sucking the breath straight from my lungs. Confident in my footing, I step onward, through the current, climbing slowly back up the other bank as water drains from my shirt, my pants, and my loosely-strung daypack (I want to give a big wet kiss to the folks who invented dry-bags!
On the other side, I'm filled with elation. No matter how far I make it up the river today, I've now passed my turn-around point from last year. I'm now exploring the unknown again, and the joy that accompanies a sense of true exploration (going where almost no one, including yourself, has ever been) fills me with adrenaline. I'm ready to continue!
But my enthusiasm is tempered with caution. This water is cold, opaque, and turbulent. In a word, it's dangerous. Around each bend, I keep hoping things will get easier (just after this next tricky ford!), but alas, around each bend they only seem to get worse. The river, in a schizophrenic state of confusion, cannot decide which side of the canyon it prefers to flow. Even on straightaways, it changes sides frequently, forcing me into another hairy crossing.
Within a couple hours I've crossed the river well over a dozen times. Soon I approach a massive pile of talus boulders, the tailings of a large old rockslide years ago. As I scramble up onto its banks, I see the secondary effects of the slide, and my heart sinks into my stomach. The rockslide partially dammed the river, creating a large stillwater pool, approximately forty feet wide and double in length. The water at the center of the pool barely churns... the adage "Still waters run deep"
has never seemed more applicable. Swift rapids drain into the top of the pool, curling under a cliff and bending abruptly around a 90° turn. It doesn't look good. On the other side, there's a short cliff ledge that I might
scramble over, if I'm lucky. Hell, I've come this far... I've gotta try.
Making an attempt to circumvent this pool, I ford across the bottom of the rockslide, and scramble up to a 20-foot ledge on the opposite wall. A huge log, an old-growth giant, is crammed at an angle across the far edge of the pool. If I can scramble up to the log, I just might be able to crawl across it, directly over the pool, to the base of the rapids. But what wll I do from there? I don't know yet... quit asking annoying questions, Mike!
I scramble atop the ledge, with the cool blue waters churning below, and I suddenly know I've reached the end of my line. There's a 10' gap in the ledge, too distant to jump, and impossible to scramble, separating me from the log. Nothing but a sheer cliff lies between, and it welcomes a straight drop into the deep waters below. For a moment I consider swimming the pool, but the rapids offer no safe destination to swim, and the cold turbulent waters could easily drown even an expert swimmer (even without
a pack). It'd be a suicide mission! Nope... for all intents and purposes, it appears I'm stuck.
Soon after I stop moving, the chill of this canyon invades my wet body, and I shiver uncontrollably. It's not unexpected... in fact, after my experiences with hypothermia last year, I predicted it much sooner. I don all the warm clothes I brought, and spend the next half-hour atop that ledge, killing time and fiddling with my camera as I warm up. Eventually, tolerably comfortable and smiling at the river (it's been a good trip, old friend
), I turn around. I spend the next hour heading back the way I came, criss-crossing the river and fording down the currents once again.
For my second year in a row, there will be no Service Falls. I'm not disappointed. This river has become a part of me, and I know, before long, I will sprout dreams of heading here again. I've already planted them. I'll be better informed, mind you, and better equipped, but I know I'll be back. Goodbyes are only temporary.
I realize by now, I happen to know as much about this canyon as anyone. The map suggests this is a short canyon, roughly a half-mile long, fairly straight, and relatively wide-bottomed. Many folks (people who have looked at the map and heard of my ventures) have offered a plethora of easy suggestions to aid my travels. They mean well, I know. But without actually being here, it's impossible to realize just how long, narrow and steep this canyon really is. At least a straight mile (as the bird flies) from Paull Creek to Service Falls (I've confirmed this with my GPS), the canyon winds back and forth, almost maniacally, as it twists its way between vertical walls, draining the high glaciers of Olympus onto the low valley floor. Despite what others might suggest, there simply is no way to reach those falls with anything that resembles "ease."
By 10:00 in the morning I've returned to camp, atop my bank at the entrance of the chasm. Since I'm here, and I've got the time, I think I'll explore a long shot. I'll spend the remainder of the day above the canyon walls, on the east side of the river (hey, I've never been that way), and see how things look among the steep cliffs approaching Saghallie Creek (a side-creek halfway up the canyon's southeast edge). It'll help quell another of my nagging curiosities about this place.
After a leisurely lunch, I find a gully (complete with a conveniet "elk-ladder") up the eastern wall (across from Paull Creek), and head up the canyon ridge. The forest here is gentle and amiable; quite a contrast to the turbid and violent world played out in the depths of the canyon below. Soon hitting the junction with Saghallie Creek, I find what I'd expected. The formidable side-creek is locked in its own canyon, choked with trees and impassable rock walls.
Grabbing branches, I peer as far as I dare over the corner of the rocky cliff at the stark junction. I want to see how the river looks, just a bit farther upriver than I'd gotten. The water cuts deep through the rock like a hot wire in butter, and it appears my premonitions were true. It only gets worse (much worse) as you head further up-river. I suddenly feel like a dubious fool for ever trying. I'll never reach those falls heading up that canyon! (But I'm still glad I tried.
I return to camp and tend a sore spot under my toe. I nap the rest of the afternoon away (I promised Grizzly James I would!
). Most of the evening I scan the riverbed, looking at the intricate pebbles of quartz, shale (peppered with fool's gold) and basalt. While cooking dinner, I sit at the entrance of my canyon, quiet and content, with another "failed" journey and a smile on my face. I'll get to those falls, someday, but it's not in the stars quite yet. I'm lucky, and I'm patient... I know I'll be back. In the meantime, I am a happy man.
Friday, August 5.
A short day today. I got a late start after a long breakfast, made the easy ford back to Paull Creek, and began to return home the way I came. There's no need to hurry... being on day 5 (I'm packed for 10!), with perfect weather, I take frequent breaks, setting up camp early in the afternoon at Mile 45 on the river, almost the exact same spot I'd camped last year.
After making camp in the tall grass under a grove of 60 foot alders, I sit on the riverbank for an unknown time, at least two solid hours, and do absolutely nothing at all. I doze off. I watch as leaves float in the current. I skip stones in the turbulent river (never got more than two... it's tough!). I think thoughts of home, and deliberately slow life down to a snail's pace. No agenda, no schedule. In the end, it's one of the most refreshing afternoons I can remember. I smile to myself, knowing that even though I didn't make it (again), it will give me another excuse to return here again.
Saturday, August 6.
I awake to a foggy morning on the Queets today, and I watch the low clouds play hide-and-seek with the surrounding firs as breakfast silently cooks.
Following faint game trails through the woods, still early in the day, I begin complaining to myself. This valley teems with wildlife... I've passed dozens of elk trails, bear signs and cougar tracks on my way up the river the past six days. It almost doesn't seem fair
that I've yet to spot anything bigger than a chipmunk. A short time later, while passing by a young grove of alders, I hear a distinct "crack" of a branch, somewhere behind the trees.
I freeze. I don't know what moved, but it's something, and it's big. Scanning the thicket with my eyes, I finally spot movement, and see a glimpse of two elk (a healthy cow [or is it a doe?] and a young fawn) picking their way through the woods. Then I see two more, another fawn and a young healthy bull. I hear more noises. "Wow," I whisper silently, "that's not an elk, that's a whole herd
of them!" I stand still for several minutes, counting the animals as best I can through thick trees, and in the end I see no less than 30 healthy animals pass by, including one giant antlered buck I figure to be the alpha male, guiding his harem through the valley.
I've reached Hee Hee creek, making good time through the forest, so I look for a change of pace this afternoon. Donning my sandals and stowing my boots, I walk down the river itself, crossing frequently and staying almost entirely on its sandbars. It's a refreshing way to travel, and my feet appreciate a break from my boots. By now I've reached the low, wide bottom of the Queets Valley, and the trail meanders again just across the river in the forest. But I enjoy the new scenery, reveling in the warm sun, the rich sand, and the open sky above me.
Tonight, I camp on the rocky shores of one such sandbar, just across from Paradise Creek (where a large washout has obliterated the trail across the river). Camped under a clear sky tonight, I drift asleep to a healthy appearance of stars, shimmering in beat with the music of the river.
Sunday, August 7.
It's early, just before dawn, and the valley is shrouded in dense fog and heavy dew. Besides the quiet roar of the river, everything is breathtakingly silent. I'm careful to stay quiet. The thought of breaking this silence, even to whisper, seems sacrelidge. The massive old growth trees mingle silently with the fog, draped in ancient shrouds of moss and ferns. Perhaps it's Sunday and I feel devout, but this valley feels like an utterly sacred place, as if time (being a crass invention of man) has no meaning here. I sit for awhile, humbled and privledged simply to be.
After a warm breakfast, I pack up and continue down the river.
The whole day is spent on the river's sandbars and logjams, and I leave my boots in the pack, wearing only sandals on the sand and rocks, and enjoying every minute of it. I spot several large eagles and hawks, screeching in the thermals above the river. I also see several more herds of elk, vulnerable and wary as they cross the river. At one point I scare a small group of six: three cows and three antlered bulls. They arise from their nap, rudely awakened, and trot across the river to disappear into the forest, the cows leading the way. Just before following their girlfriends into the bushes, the bulls pause and stare back in my direction. I almost hear one of them whisper to the other "Psst... Hey Joe, why are we running? I think we can take him!"
before they dash off the sandbar into the bushes. It makes me grin. Were it rutting season (just another month or two), I might have a fight on my hands.
Later in the afternoon I trail a larger herd of elk, at least 20 animals, as they cross the river into the a thick grove of alders. As I pass, I hear their squeals (sounding much more like a poorly-made trumpet than a half-ton mammal) coming from the bushes. Individual members of the herd have distinct voices, some high, some low, each unique in their pitch and tone--and all of them quite unhappy with my presence on their river.
I lay my bag tonight on a sandbar adjacent to the old Smith Cabin. A quick exploration tells me it's still there, although worse for the wear of 50 years without a resident. I don't go inside (it's roof is near collapse, and the walls aren't far behind), but taking a close look, I can still see some of the old plumbing pipes (yeah... it surprised me too, here in a place far from any municipal water or sewer), an old cot, and other various gadgets, all in advanced stages of rust and decay.
I fall asleep tonight, again under the stars on a rocky sandbar, feeling both tired and refreshed (neither quality being mutually exclusive). If I hop across the river and catch the trail tomorrow morning, I'm sure I can easily finish my trip on day 8, a full two days early. Although I'm not in a rush, I do look forward to seeing my wife again, so I decide to push on out tomorrow afternoon.
Monday, August 8.
My last day passes amiably down the trail,
after an initial cold crossing of the river. I meet one group all day (my first in 6 days), a family at the Queets Campground who hiked up the road for a weekend of peace & quiet relaxation. I also find a handful of empty shotgun shells and spent beer cans in the firepit of an adjacent camp, leftovers from a recent party. My temper fumes... guns are outlawed within the National Park boundaries. This place, being isolated (from the washout) and rarely patrolled,
makes an easy target for poachers to feast on the abundant wildlife (much of it endangered) that resides here.
I'm not "anti-hunting," but this is well out-of-bounds, and I find it reprehensible. Reporting this later at the Quinault ranger station, they tell me as much. "We just don't have the manpower to send anyone in there regularly," they lament. "Since the washout, hardly anyone goes there. But thanks for letting us know."
During the relaxed three-hour walk along the gravel road to my car, I wonder about Service Falls. In the several days since the canyon, I've hardly given up on the idea of reaching it. A crazy little plan has taken bloom, involving much rope and rapelling gear, and possibly an inflatable kayak or two. It'll be tough, and possibly expensive, but I'll get there yet!
I've been told several times that I could charter a helicopter into the canyon, for equal the price and a fraction of the effort, but the idea doesn't sit well with me. That's cheating!
To me, the Upper Queets should be left remote, difficult to reach. Contracting a helicopter seems akin to bulldozing an expressway in such a place. It would ruin the accomplishment, turning it into little more than an expensive rest-stop. I refuse to do it that way. If I'm ever going to reach Service Falls, it'll be under my own power, on my own terms.
After dusting my car of 8 days or rainforest debris,
I make the drive up to Forks, saying hi to a few friends from last year and meeting a few more. Spending the night a the Rainforest Hostel (run by a slightly eccentric but entirely great guy named Jim), I make the drive back to Portland on Tuesday, greeting my wife with a great big kiss. I'm glad to have gone, and I know I'll be back.