September 25, 1999 - Saturday
The Hike from Hell (See map)
Trapper Steve drove his truck and we picked up Thom Powell at his house near Barton. He has a great Golden Retriever. What a dog! He was so full of fun and energy! They had a very nice garden that was a little to a lot like a French painting with tall flowers and pumpkins starting to dome orange out of the fading vines.
We drove up past High Rocks and turned west toward the middle section of Roaring River. We were going to hike down into the river basin to a camp site where Thom and his friend Jim had spent two nights about a month ago. They had left their old tent down there to see if anything would bother it.
Roaring River has always attracted me as a prime wintering ground for the BHB's. It is well protected and rarely penetrated by people, except up toward its head where a road drops down to a camp ground and a lake. It sort of curves around the north base of Mt. Mitchell and the great plateau north of Mt. Mitchell would naturally feed winter bound animals down into the basin. I have tried to hike into it without much luck from where Roaring River enters the Clackamas River near Three Lynx. All in all, it was something I wanted to do. However, there was one "But." When I looked at the topo map, the contour lines sure seemed close together and I didn't see the dashes of a trail zigzagging down into the canyon.
We met Jim and his friend Gay along the ridge. They had camped out in Jim's trusty red Chev van. It was drizzling a little, but they had a warming fire going. We looked north across toward High Rocks and the ridge that borders the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness across the canyon of the North Fork of the Clackamas.
We followed Elliot road about 5 miles to where a spur road goes up to the ridge summit. On the way, Thom pointed out a Forest Service camp outhouse that had been tipped over. He and Jim had looked it over. They said it was either some very strong men or there was a forest vandal of immense strength that had done it. It was shoved off its foundation bolts the wrong way for a vehicle to pull it over and he said there were no rope or pry marks on it. It was another one of those strange things you see in the mountains if you pay attention to details.
Elliot road is narrow, fortunately it is mainly washed out on the other end, so we didn't encounter any facing traffic. It passes through some interesting rock formations that would be great to explore. There were also some screes above and below it. The slope was pretty steep and there was rock falls along the way, but none of them were too big. Below us to the south, the sweep of the Roaring River canyon was inviting. We clearly saw the benches and saddles to the east and north of Mt. Mitchell. That was isolated country well worth exploring and it would take a lot of time to explore.
The day was wet and it was lightly raining. We crossed the road to the down slope and sure enough, no trail. Thom, Jim and Gay were in top physical shape. They didn't need a trail. One of them led and was a lefty. The foot steps were all wrong for us right handed people. Steve was the first to notice it, so we slightly spread out.
About a hundred yards down, we came to a copper wire that was obviously at one time a telegraph or telephone line. The copper was thick, so we knew that it went a long ways. It had been installed right many years ago and was tight and the insulators were still on the trees. That was an indicator of how slow thing grow up there. The wire would have been at very least thirty years old and the insulators still hadn't been overgrown by the trees.
It was pretty dense in there, with no real good visual landmarks. On their first trip down, Jim and Thom had tied trail marker ribbons. We all had a roll, it was one of the things requested we have to go along, so lots more ribbons were tied to mark the trail. Even so, the Thom and Jim in the lead had to look around pretty well to find some of their old ties from last month.
It was steep. The footing was unsure and mildly dangerous. A slip wasn't going to hurt anyone much, but it would be muddy and a sore behind would probably come of it. It took two hours and 10 minutes to get down. We made one 10 minute stop. It wasn't much of a stop for me, because I was slow and the others had stopped for a few minutes before I caught up. The slope was trees, brush, rhodies, rocks, fallen timber, mountain beaver holes (like big rats) and general slick from the forest debris on the ground. Fortunately, I had picked up a good walking stick in a wind damaged area up near the top, so I could brace myself. Occasionally, I would see someone ahead of me loose their footing.
Down at the bottom, it was marshy and there was fallen old growth all over the place. Thom said that when he and Jim were down there before, that they used the fallen timber as sidewalks. I could believe it, but today, the bark on them was damp and slick and very dangerous.
The river was way down, like a big creek, but it was only wadeable if someone wanted to be cold wet below the knee. The others went across on a big log, but quite frankly, I was too tired to risk it. I leaned back on a branch coming out of it and ate my lunch and tried to rest. I was shaky and worried about the trip back up. I wasn't in shape to do this. I had to be careful from now on or trouble would come my way. I wasn't dreading the hike back up the hill, I just didn't want to give myself a heart attack or something.
The others were on a little point of land that would soon be river bottom on the other side. There was drift wood stacked up all around it, in the river and along the bank. The tent was back in the trees beyond it. Steve and Thom went back into the timber to inspect the tent. The timber in the bottom was big, not huge, but big. Most of it was 4'-5' or so and about 200' tall. It was virgin and the scene was beautiful. The slope had obviously been burned in a forest fire, so the trees up on it weren't too big. The slope hadn't been logged, so there were no old roads to follow back up.
As I started to rest, the place became almost ethereal to me. Gray mist was blowing through the canopy, the river noise was all I could hear, my perch was comfortable, my stomach was full, the water tasted just right and there were the trees and the green.
After a while, I decided enough of this. It was just too good. I skidded across the log on my behind because I was afraid of a fall into the river rocks. I went over to where Jim and Gay were. They had been trying to get a warming fire started, but didn't have any luck. I sort of looked the deal over. They had everything they needed, but they weren't consolidating the starting materials. I got some more twigs and twisted them up and took a little piece of paper Jim had and in a minute had a bunch of smoke and in another, crackling orange, red fire. We heaped it up it was still misting and I tried to dry out my cotton gloves. After about ten minutes, we had plenty of fire because I had dragged over a nice piece of shield wood from the wash down pile and got it burning.
When Thom and Steve came back, they said the tent hadn't been disturbed. Steve said there were very few animal tracks. This was clearly wintering grounds. They asked if I wanted to go back into the tent. I was just too tired. I had to save my strength. After about 30 minutes, Steve and I crossed back over the log, fought our way through the river bottom brush until we found the ribbons and started the climb back up. The others wanted to spend some more time down on the bottom. I will admit, the fire was very nice and inviting down in that almost dark, shadowy world.
It was just as steep going back up. It was plant foot, raise leg, plant other foot and do it again and again. Occasionally something we came upon looked vaguely familiar. About a third of the way up the hill, Steve called me over about 20 yards to him. He had found fresh bear tracks! They were the really fresh variety. It was misting and the bear had kicked up dry ground! He was literally within minutes or less of us. What was he doing on that slope? Eating a lot of the good blueberries was our guess.
It turned into a bad-ass hike going up the hill. The ground was getting more slippery from the rain. Feet skid on leaves and needles and twigs. Where we touched the coming down imprints, we had mud to skid on. One place had gotten very wet for some reason and I had to crawl on my stomach to get around the little rock face. Steve paralleled across the slope a ways and walked up and met me in a triangular path fashion. It was no fun at all, except we did have lots of ribbon markers to follow. Fortunately, some different muscles were in use climbing instead of descending.
I thought Steve would outpace me, but he seemed quite content at my pace. Finally we got to the copper wire and knew we only had hundreds of feet to the road. It took hundreds of steps to get there. In my head, I had calculated the distance per stride and the number of strides per minute. I figured the number of thousands of steps it took to go down and the number of thousands it was taking to come back up. I calculated the time. When we got to the road, which just seemed to burst upon us as we moved up slope, I asked Trapper Steve how long to get up. He said two hours and twenty minutes. I wasn't far off.
We were exhausted. There was no more. We were cold and wet through. We drank some beer. We couldn't eat any sausage or cheese. That was really out of character for Steve. He wasn't saying much. I got out the pint of Bushmill's Irish whiskey that I thought we might appreciate on a day like today and we had a toddy. We wondered about how to warm up. Between us, we are both graduates of rocket science you know, we finally decided that the best way was to start the truck and use the heater. Honestly, we were so tired, that that didn't come easy to our minds. We had put ourselves in a dangerous position. Both of us were shaky. You could see it by how we held the beer cans.
They had told Steve to leave without them if they didn't show soon after we got to the top. We talked it over. If one of them got hurt, it would be a bad deal with no help. We waited. After a time, they came stormin' over the crest of the ridge and out on the road. They said it had taken them an hour and 40 minutes to make it up from the bottom. They were tired and were more than happy to help with the Bushmill's. In a short time with that many people, the bottle was empty and there was fire in the bellies.
Thom wanted to go home with Jim and Gay. Somehow, Steve and I took the wrong turn at the three way intersection on the way down. After a little while, Cache Meadows was below us and we could see Timothy Lake. What a bone head. I knew we should have been going down instead of along a hillside, but didn't think to mention it to Steve. What made it worse, was that Jim, Thom and Gay were tired and they just followed us along and didn't blink their lights on or anything. Jim said he was pretty sure the road we were on wasn't the right one, but he figured we knew what we were doing. They were tired too. You could see it in their faces.
It was definitely the worst hike I had been on since the Marine Corps days and I don't remember any that bad even back then. I didn't pass the sniff test at home. SLB insisted I go promptly to the shower. After that she had a nice dinner. I am sure lucky to have her for a wife. Hope it works out.
The hike was on Saturday. On Sunday, we put in a long day and drove down to Babe's and helped with the wood and the pear picking. On Monday, I finally got stiff, real stiff from the hike.
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