Journal, June 12, 2002:
(Cache Creek, evening) Burned patches, with brilliant green and yellow ground cover, as we descend on crazy steep roads through the breaks of the Snake River, crossing Cold Spring Creek and Cache Creek. Russell’s 4×4 pickup noses through crowding green thorny branches. Massive patches of Scotch thistle eight feet tall, blackberries and wild rose in bloom.
“Wheelbarrow Annie,” Russell tells me, “did everything with a wheelbarrow.” I try to picture this as we pull into the yard by the little house. Wild turkeys scratch in the yard.
The cabin at Cache Creek. A little house surrounded by locust trees, stone root cellar tucked into the hillside. Fig, plum, and cherry trees in the yard. Swarms of gnats silhouetted against a soft peach sky. Sound of stream tumbling to the river; birdsong, birdchirp. I eat some cherries.
Squeaking of many bats tucked out of sight under the eaves of the corrugated metal roof. The turkeys, with their six or eight young, majestically, farcically silhouetted against the skyline as dusk approaches. Bats flinging themselves in ones, twos, fours, down off the roofline in the gathering darkness. The cacophony under the roof dims, then ceases, as all of the dozens of bats join the flying feast in the gloaming.
We stand in the warm evening, talking. Soft sound of big river, the Snake, gliding by at 18,000 cfs. It’s surprising, the same way a large animal – a startled horse – can surprise you, moving fast.
Journal, June 13, 2002:
(Cache Creek, morning) A doe and two fawns, still spotted, and frisky like calves. Canada geese and their goslings. The river glints in sun just coming over hills to the east as I leave Cache Creek cabin.
I set out on weedily overgrown doubletrack. Bird song and morning cricket buzz. I’m surprised how cautiously alert I feel. No 2″x6″ white paint blazes, the prospect of poison ivy, ticks, rattlesnakes, lots of sticky prickly thistles and burrs which will make a mockery of my gaiters and shorts. Already heat waves on the grass. Barren slopes rising, one side in sun, the opposite bank in shadow. Four-petaled fragrant white flowers.
At the confluence of Garden and Spencer creeks, 18″ wide, I decide to stock up on water. Down a steep little bank into a spot in the thicket, use walking stick to beat five foot tall waterloving plants off to the side, step into the gravel streambed, careful not to step on the snail, reach up into leaf covered rocky spillway to get good angle. I drink one quart standing right there, and get two more to carry.
See the tail ends of two snakes, my eyes travelling quickly to the tip looking for rattles. Nope. A third snake reveals itself by the path of waving grass as it flees my footsteps. Wild rose in bloom all around, and prickly pear. Chukar rasp an alarm and glide downslope on concave wings. Iridescent green beetles, heavy abdomens hanging low beneath their hummingbird-like wing flutter.
A cloudless day, eighties at least in midday. I hole up under a low, multi-trunked, gnarly tree, branches so low I have to take my pack off and scootch under them into the shade. A wren is singing somewhere in the brush in the drainage bottom a few yards away.
Later, entering the valley of Jim Creek, I nearly step on a grouse with at least eight very young chicks, the size of my thumb. Willy nilly they scatter, the mother making a half-hearted broken wing display. So I stop and watch these little darlings rush about, until the only one left, having run eight or ten feet, sits frozen in the trail. I approach, and it keeps its pose until I nearly step on it, whereupon it bolts.
(Cook Creek, evening) Camped at the confluence of Downey and Cook creeks, a breezy spot. Darkness is bringing a downdraft from the mountains, cool. By now I am happy to have my legs under the warmth of the sleeping bag.
Earlier, while walking the road approaching Downey Creek, a pair of red-tailed hawks scolded me fiercely. Cheatgrass the color of ripened wheat. The Big Abdomen Beetles are partial to lupine.
Journal, June 14, 2002:
(Cook Creek, morning) A delightful breeze. I see two cow elk with a calf on the lovely grassy hillside above me. They stop and regard me, move a little further. One of the cows nudges the calf and they move on. As I start out, I am startled by a snake lying across the trail – only it turns out to be an empty skin.
(Cherry Creek) The clouds have moved on. It’s going to be hot again. Lots of yarrow everywhere. Rose bushes scratch my legs. Patches of light purple vetch quite lovely, getting worked by bumblebees. Coming around the bend into Cherry Creek, I saw a marsh hawk, with the distinctive white band at the base of its tail, carrying a small snake – then drop it. The hawk circled about, but didn’t go down after the snake.
Gorgeous violet-green swallows here. Bright white band on top at the base of the tail, white belly, green back. They make great sharp turns and twists, and are unafraid to fly close by me. Behind all else, the steady cricket chirp. I douse my head and soak my feet in the creek. Tank up, then pack four quarts out.
(Mountain Sheep Creek divide) Hot and sweaty, despite some overcast which has kept it cooler than yesterday. I saw another hawk carrying a snake off. This bird didn’t drop its dinner. Working on quart #2. Chalk Creek was dry as a bone.
Climbing up out of Mountain Sheep drainage, I was walking through knee high grass, and saw a place to angle up, cross a shallow defile, and gain the last ridge. I stepped into the defile and – rattle! – I felt adrenalin rush through my system like electricity. My sweat-soaked shirt seemed to tingle. After a moment, a 16″ rattler crossed the path.
My legs are dark with dirt. Dozens of tiny, fine, narrow maroon strands of grass are glued to my legs by sweat. Innumerable scratches from wild rose and the occasional thistle. Socks saturated with cheatgrass awns.
(Knight Creek, evening) Sweet music to my ears to hear running water here. A good camp spot.
Surprised a mama chukar – reddish beak, orange legs, rusty on neck and upper back, prominent black stripes through eyes – and a dozen or more chicks, old enough to fly. One or two flew a little ways down the hill. Mama, clucking rapidly, led the rest off into the grasses. Then one chick flew a good 100 feet down the hillside. Panic! Mom flew about half that far, splitting the distance, clucking frantically – and the brood followed. All but two or three more, who eventually lit out down the hill after the still waiting mama. I wonder if she keeps count. “OK, sound off …”
Also saw a beautiful mountain bluebird with a bright blue head and cape, body slightly darker blue. That was in one of the endless number of dry ravines I crossed today.
After a long day of hiking, I cook while watching the sun set on the hills across the Snake, my own valley in shadow. An assortment of birds make every kind of call and song – chirps, squawks, chortles, whistles, mews, croaks, cackles.
A crescent moon is following the sun. I realize with a start that I will still be out here when it is full.
Journal, June 15, 2002:
(Knight Creek, morning) Fire has been all over this country. Burned trunks are everywhere. Even solitary trees are burned, where the grass fires caught their lower limbs and climbed from there.
I am tented fortuitously beneath a tree which affords morning shade, so I am seduced into a lazy morning, enjoying the breeze which blows upslope in the morning. Reading, I hear a bark which comes from the sunny slope just downhill from me. The bark comes again and again – deep, piercing, resonant, cavernous. It is a cow elk. No, two, no, three. Hmm. I’m being scolded, or #2 and #3 are being warned, or I’m being sounded out. Mourning doves and other birds carry on. More barks. They want to get up canyon, but are nervous about me.
With that timeless patience only animals have, they move, slowly, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together, often just a step or two before stopping again, stare at me head on, ears flared. They are 200 feet away. They can’t smell me. For 15 minutes they slowly work their way 100 yards up canyon until they are directly across from me, but seem reluctant to go farther. Is it because their choices are to follow the edge of their slope, which would bring them closer to me, or to go around the corner, which would take them from my sight – but, more important to them, take me from their sight? The two followers turn and face down valley, and the leader follows suit. They move 50 feet in that direction, then stop. The leader turns back up valley. And there they stand, watching me write.
(Eureka Creek, midday) Fresh cowpies, a trashed out cabin, and rusted hulks of twisted metal scattered about lend a sordid atmosphere to this otherwise lovely drainage. That and the crows – which, although present in other places, seem to own this derelict spot. There are cottonwoods here. The air is scented with mock orange.
(Eureka Bar) My shade dried up at the cabin, so I headed downstream towards the Snake and a dip in the river. Trail down Eureka Creek was rife with poison ivy. In a couple of places it was so thick I had to abandon the trail and strike up the hillside for 100 yards or so. Even the breeze is warm here at Eureka Bar.
What have I learned so far? Never, ever walk around in boots without gaiters, because pulling barbed cheatgrass awns out of socks, boot linings, boot laces … is the worst. Don’t try to hike in the middle of the day. Intermittent streams on the map mean “probably dry.”
Threw on my boots without socks or gaiters and went to get water. Across the burning, barren desert of Eureka Bar, past the lonely signpost, past a solitary dark green plant wih pretty orange five-petaled blossoms so unreal-looking that I inspected it to make sure it wasn’t some kind of bizarre joke– an artifical flower someone planted here as a tribute to fecundity.
Dipped my water bottle eight times into Eureka Creek, dark water flowing over olive green fleshy polyp-like growths on the rocks. Filled my two-gallon bag, and the bottle itself. Gathered my stuff together, set up temporary camp in the paltry shade of a withered scrub oak to wait out the 100 degree heat of midday. Walked into the Snake, for a second time, wearing shirt, shorts, boots and gaiters.
(Toomey Gulch, evening) Hiked up the Imnaha River in the relative cool of evening to camp here at the mouth of Toomey Gulch. I feel enervated even though I spent most of the day resting in the shade. I knew when I decided to go along the Imnaha River that I might have a problem on my hands, because this trail has, in many places, been blasted out of sheer cliff. My choices, confronted with thickets of poison ivy, were to climb the cliff, swim in the river now running at full bore with snowmelt, or dive into the poison ivy. Dive I did.
Journal, June 16, 2002:
(Toomey Gulch, morning) Got up with a head full of dreams, packed, and left without eating, while sun had not yet torched the canyon walls. Sound of the Imnaha in both ears, left ear facing the river, right ear facing the cliff’s echo. Slow dance with poison ivy, turning hips to swing feet past these very healthy plants. Tunnels of Japanese knotweed.
(Cow Creek) Paul and I are headed high, where a cool breeze will be welcome. He found two unwelcome ticks on him a few minutes ago. Back at the Cow Creek bridge, where I rendezvoused with Paul, there was a fisherman, Dave. After 40 years of shoeing horses, he had to retire to save his back. Paul had brought my food resupply. Of course, I packed not enough of some stuff, and too much of others. As the Imnaha River at this point had flowed through miles of cattle-grazed ground and feedlots, I didn’t want to drink from it, so I traded Dave a fresh stick of butter for a couple of quarts of water. Everybody happy.
(Summit Ridge, mid-day) Paul and I are taking shelter from the sun under a lone pine just off Summit Ridge. He has no water left of his three quarts, I have but one. Damned little to last two guys five or six miles of walking to get to water. We can see the Wallowas, haze-dimmed, and the Findley Buttes sticking up like man-made domes off the Zumwalt Prairie. The weather is changing – a breeze, high overcast, cumulus to the south, a lightning strike five or so miles away. “Not a good place to be in a lightning storm,” says Paul. We don’t move, but do start telling lightning stories.
(Summit Ridge, evening) As the sky clouded up and we watched lightning to our south, we set out from our lone tree, walking the crest, Wallowas and Seven Devils both visible off in the haze, the wooded upper reaches of Cow Creek at our feet.
Came to this graceful saddle and couldn’t leave. First, Paul had to retrieve his walking stick, which he’d left up at the saddle crest. Then we almost set off down Little Deep Creek instead of the unnamed tributary to Deep Creek Ranch.
What we discovered by blithely heading down the trail we’d seen from the ridge was a nasty hunting camp with a corrugated tin shack labeled “Saloon,” some beat out horse areas, and a gigantic steel watering trough half full of water covered with a thick layer of green bubbly gelatinous slime. In the trough, its back floating just level with the slime, a path trailing behind it recording its struggle to swim out, was a dead mouse.
But fresh piped spring water fed the trough, and we were weary. So we stayed and it felt good. What a splendid choice we made to stay on Summit Ridge, the twin serrations of the divides between Cow, Lightning, and Horse creeks at our feet, patches of timber in the draws or scattered here and there on top, the rounded swells of grassy slopes and the sharp crenellations of the rims.
We cooked and ate, and I went up the hill to watch the band of orange beyond the drab clouds overhead. Found myself chuckling – always a good sign. It took four days for my head to get here, but I let out a “hay-o-ay” as I walked the broad, grassy ridgeline, grinning into an orange and magenta sunset. All at once, it was sprinkling on me, the sunset was shining warm gold, the nearly half moon was high in the west, pink phlox and purple lupine at my feet.
Journal, June 17, 2002:
(Deep Creek) Muted sunrise, cool enough to wear long johns. Leisurely breakfast with Paul, then we pack and move on to Fingerboard Saddle, where we part ways. Profuse wildflowers.
It seems like I may never get to Tryon Ranch, which will be the point at which I’m back on the bench. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll be able to do the miles necessary to get to Freezeout by the 20th. I also don’t have any too much food.
Big ponderosa and lots of white fir in the West Fork of Deep Creek, plus one very curious doe. When we met, we spent some time shifting feet, cocking heads, changing stances, just checking each other out.
(Tryon Saddle) I’m at that stage in which a thousand thoughts fly through my head while I’m walking, and only a few are caught by my pencil when I stop to write.
Saw two cow elk up on the hillside below the saddle. They were chewing cud on the western slope, catching a little warmth on this cool day. While the first one and I saw each other at once, the second cow was a bit late, so I got to watch her proess of observation, recognition, and alarm. Farther up, very near the saddle, a blunt-tailed, uniformly taupe brown, shiny snake, wearing a finely woven diamond pattern, torpidly wove off the trail.
A few spatters of rain just before I reached the saddle. Uniformly low overcast. The crickets don’t care; they’re still chirping.
(Tryon Creek Ranch)
1 shake-sided, tin-roofed house, sloping downhill
1 front porch looking across the Snake River at Idaho
2 chrome-legged vinyl-upholstered kitchen chairs, ca. 1955
1 screen door repaired with split surveyor’s stakes
1 coarsely threaded pipe, 3″ long 2″ diameter
1 large ball peen hammer, which I could use but won’t carry
1 straw broom, well worn
12 Copenhagen chewing tobacco tin lids, slipped under shakes like medals
2 antlers and 3 bones wired to wall, commemorating Joseph High School ag class visits since 1998
1 electrical fuse box, lid open, containing no fuses and a bounty of mud wasp nests
5 rusty spikes, 6″ long
1 tin bucket in front yard, upside down
1 large steel keg horseshoe on wall
1 gas range
1 blue enamel teapot
1 baby bottle, nipple removed
1 blue glass jar
1 wood cookstove
1 back door, cut to match slant of house
2 wall-mounted gas lights
2 rectangular checkerboard tins with bucolic scenes painted on their bottoms, nailed to wall above sink
1 tin bucket on back walk, upside up
1 length of 1/2″ braided hemp rope
1 can Huberd’s Shoe Grease
1 writing desk
0 writing implements
1 rocking chair with orange vinyl faux flat reed weave upholstery
1 willow chair, which I could use but won’t carry
1 tin can, cover removed, with assortment of dried flowers, stalks, and bird feathers
1 bottle of Chateau St. Jean merlot, vintage1999, empty
Today I found myself talking to myself – a lot. I was saying out loud, “I’ve been talking to myself.” Ha! What is that? A Mobius statment, a meta-statement, a self-referential statement? Whatever the case, I think it means that therapy is happening. I should talk out loud more.
(Somers Creek, evening) Somers Ranch has no buildings, just an old corral. But it also has a bench covered in the same blue-green “sawgrass” as the bench at Tryon Creek. It’s a grass with a single long blade attached to the stem, with a definite nap – stroke towards the tip and it feels almost smooth; towards the base and it grabs at your fingers. I think it was planted. It’s very competitive – the fields contain very few other plants.
Hog Creek, Dry Creek, and the other defiles I crossed all conform (as does Somers Creek) to the same pattern as Cow Creek: a chasm-like gorge surrounded by gentler slopes. I’ve really enjoyed this section of the bench – just high enough to result in less poison ivy and a few more ponderosas and big cottonwoods. Tolerably cool today.
So I come back with my water, announce (out loud, of course) “tick check” – nothing. Take off right boot, then peel right sock, which causes a tick to flick into empty boot. Little SOB. I shake him out. Second one today. They’re much more debilitating mentally than snakes or poison ivy; ticks – or the possibility of their presence – cause one to constantly check for them, imagine them, feel them even when they’re not there. Ticks.
When I sat on the front porch at Tryon, I thought of the people who homesteaded in the canyon, and of the government coming in and saying, “We’re going to take this away from you.” I understand how those people could hate the government for chasing them down in this most out of the way place, and evicting them.
Journal, June 18, 2002:
(Robertson Ridge) Oh! Such bliss to get even a little sun. My feet have been swimming since 100 yards out of camp. The day looked non-commital after a night rain; a bit cool. I put on windpants to ward off chill and started out. Within a quarter mile the pants had gathered beads of moisture off the leaves of high chokecherry and wild rose wet from rain, and funneled the water straight into my socks. Off wind pants, wring socks out, on rain pants. My feet still ended up swimming because my non-waterproof gaiters acted that way. A cow elk on the next bulge watched me change, then disappeared. Two marsh hawks swooped close as I climbed.
Before I reached the top of the crest, it had started to rain, and the poncho came out. The rain came with some wind. Lightning and thunder, but off to the north, so I felt lucky. Then I realized the wind was blowing out of the north. The obscure gray curtain approached, and before long it was pouring. Rounding into McCarty Creek, I hear barking from up above. Six or seven elk, silhouetted against the cloud line, watch me like doyennes. They are not fumbling with rain gear.
It pours. I slog on until the trail peters out at a fence enclosure. I beat a tack downhill and find the trail again where it crosses the creek, but there is a lot of blowdown. I see, through the downpour, what looks like a trail up on the hillside, but no easy way to get to it through rose brambles. I find an unpleasant way, but the trail has turned into gumbo, a goo that sticks very well to my boot soles and creates a rocker action with every step.
The trail, churned by mules, horses, and elk, is full of hoof-sized puddles. On the steep parts (there are many of them) their slipping hooves have created smooth streaks which afford little purchase. In other places, their prints have built up little mounds, like the downhill side of stock ponds. These little mounds stick up above the surrounding country and are therefore drier and offer little steps to me.
Because the trail is so scarce – often no more than some recent elk tracks in a slight depression, or a strip of different colored grass, or a slightly more gravelly path through the bunchgrass – I need to be very circumspect about whether a trail is The Trail. I find myself using horse manure as a trail marker. An elk path probably wouldn’t have any horse manure on it.
I crested a rise, and it was pouring. Pouring. So I found myself the best tree I could get to, and set up a camp underneath, rigging my poncho on the limbs, mixing some hummus (first too thin, then too thick), and just taking a Rain Timeout.
Because I had earlier come to a marked junction that said, “Pittsburg thisaway, Cougar Creek thataway,” and because I hadn’t taken my map out since that would mean removing my poncho and getting the pack wet, and because I hadn’t studied the map well enough before leaving camp, I had misplaced Cougar Creek, and therefore myself. It wasn’t until I sat and took a good look at the map that I discovered where I was: Pleasant Valley.
(Kneeland Place, afternoon) Boy am I one happy guy. One, this, this is a beautiful place. Two, the sun is totally out. Three, the sun came out in style, as a massive cloud system got pushed by the wind over the Devils. It was a stupendous sight, this towering mass of gray and white casting a dark shadow over the Idaho side of the canyon, while this side, this place, was bathed in sunlight. I danced in excitement at the beauty and power of the moment.
The sun is still very high. I’m amazed, but these midsummer days are long! My pickled feet are airing. Everything – poncho, gaiters, rainpants, waterbag, map bag, food bag, boots – airing.
(Two Corral, evening) Tonight, for the first time on this hike, I will zip up my sleeping bag. Took a while to get my feet warm, as I sat around camp for a while with no socks at all, then put on the “dry” pair, then finally got in the bag. They’ll be fine, but I think it’s going to be cold tonight. Saw my breath a moment ago. There’s still a lot of blue sky, despite the fact that big, lumbering clouds continue to roll across the canyon from the west. One thing about being in a canyon – you can’t see the weather coming.
Two Corral country is wide open and lovely, with great views of the Snake and the Devils, but monster clouds have kept their grip – a head lock – on the summits all afternoon.
In order to get to The Troughs tomorrow, I’m going to have to do a big day.
Big cumulus turning gold over the Devils. Yup, tonight’s going to be a zip-em-up night. I’m nervous about tomorrow. If the weather’s poor, it’s going to be tough. I suupose I don’t ave to go all the way to The Troughs, but that will almost certainly make me late for my midafternoon date with the Shephards at Freezeout Saddle. I’ve boxed myself in with a social engagement.
I see what looks like fresh snow in a couple of places on the ridge above Temperance Creek. Earlier this evening a big old gray droopy cloud hung over the edge of the rim over there, wth four tendrils lying down in the draws. The next thing I knew, that cloud had blown apart into a few harmless looking white clouds, but left the four fingers behind. Now those are gone too, but some white remains.
While often hard to find, usually faint, and poorly signed, the trail is at least fairly consistent in this regard and so can be delightful for one skilled in and prepared to use map reading skills. There were several places where I simply tacked cross country until I picked up the trail again.
(Midnight, thereabouts) Music playing in my head. Lots of stars, with a very bright one directly overhead. Cassiopeia obvious, but can’t see either dipper, probably because large masses of void – clouds – still hover over the landscape.
Journal, June 19, 2002:
(Two Corral) Breakfast in bed, watching the eastern sky lighten. Down below I hear a chukar hen clucking – perhaps at her kids. Long short short.
Last night, when planning for today, I told myself, “If it’s unequivocally fine, wear the dry socks and dry the wet ones. If it looks like another wet one, wear the wet socks and keep the dry ones dry.” This morning I’m wearing dry socks.
Saw a spruce grouse. They like to fly up into the lower branches of a tree just downslope, so they end up a little above my eye level, in easy slingshot range. And yesterday topping a rise I spied two turkeys eluding me by traversing backslope just above, silhouetted against the sky. Their motion, heads bobbing forward and back, made them look like tiptoe sneak thieves.
The benches here, at 4000 feet, and the benches below at 2800 feet or so, are different in that these have topsoil. The trails are little enough traveled that the soil is usually still in place, which means when it gets wet the trail gets very muddy, with few rocks or roots to act as stops. So walking becomes quite awkward, my feet skating around.
Contouring into Temperance Creek, I spotted a group of perhaps ten cow elk with three calves. Of course, they spotted me first. They nearly always do.
Heard a pileated woodpecker up by Salt Creek. What a tropical sound! The elk bark, I decided, has a squeeze toy quality to it. I barked back at the last group, and it caused a flurry of barking and momentary consternation. I saw two put their heads together and they figured I was an imposter, because they set out forthwith.
Climbing out of Temperance Creek, I’m doing long, slow switchbacks. I hear a high-low elk call. Sure enough, on the next hill, across the draw to my right, are thirty elk. They still saw me first.
(Sluice Creek) Dadgummit! Jest when yuh think yer close enuff ta The Troughs ta snare ‘em with yer lasso, up comes Sluice Crick. Son of a gun!
(The Troughs) Chuckling away, camped way out on a promontory. Not unlike the last group of elk I saw – about ten of them, way out on the nose of a point south of Rattlesnake Creek.
Got stopped in my tracks by a chukar hen who first jumped out of the grass near the trail and presented herself. I said “OK” and stepped off to the left side of the trail, opposite the side she had come from, thinking to give her chicks (dutifully silent and hidden) wide berth. But NO! The hen had other ideas. She squawked and launched herself in my path. I looked at her; she looked at me. There I was, stopped dead in my tracks by the fierceness of mother love. I stepped back on the path, which is apparently what she wanted me to do, and as I walked past, she flew into a tree.
Arrived at The Troughs, saw two figures sitting out on the edge of the timber, snuck up to the cabin to retrieve Trail Magic left for me by Stanlynn, Kate, Sharon, and Mary: Biscotti with white chocolate chips, rum cake, apples, chocolate bars, a New York Times crossword puzzle with the hardest word missing, a page of riddles, and a note that they met a solo woman hiker on a 10-day loop, three days ahead of me.
Filled bag with water, walked over to meet Megan and Shayna and let them know I was not a threat. After dinner, brought them biscotti and we visited around the campfire for an hour or two. Now to bed.
Gibbous moon bright in a clear sky. “It’s a brae bricht minlicht nicht!”
Journal, June 20, 2012:
(Two Burnt Trees) Morning thoughts:
Be instructed by fear and anger,
Do not be ruled by them,
As you are instructed, the less you will be ruled,
As you are ruled, the less you will be instructed.
Slept in and didn’t get started until the sun was a full hand high. Three bucks regarded me as I stood in the hot, bright sun. Two fled, bounding onto the far slope where they cast long shadows. The third stood and gazed at me for the longest time, out of curiosity or stupidity I do not know. I conversed with him until he, too, turned and bounded away.
(Summit Ridge) After Two Burnt Trees, I continued along the bench toward Freezeout. No elk or deer – too much human traffic, I bet, as the trail bears witness. For the first time on this trip human prints are the dominant impression in the mud.
As I rounded the bend into Big Creek, I spotted another hiker. Lo! It’s Paul – a different Paul – with his 25-year-old donkey, Brown Donkey. BD is packed in traditional fashion with a wooden packsaddle and canvas-wrapped bundles or “mannies.” He’s carrying about 60 pounds. Paul and I sit in the shade and visit for the better part of an hour, with him doing most of the talking.
We talk of canyon country; of kitchen cabinets; of BD’s origins (Paul got him 17 years ago as part of the New Mexico burro give-away). Paul used to live in Clarkston, and has explored the roads that take one into Cottonwood Creek, Joseph Canyon, Heller Bar … We talk of hiking the length of rivers, then of canoeing and Alaska. Finally I get up and make ready to leave, for that is the only way I can break out of the monologue.
So we part. I’ve eaten and applied sunscreen while listening to Paul, and I continue into the roasted Saddle Creek drainage. It’s got very few live trees left standing. There are many spindles, blackened, amazingly upright as eaten away as they are by fire. It feels inhospitable and I feel badly for having lured Phil and Ann, my next resuppliers, to this scene of desolation for our rendezvous. It’s so harsh compared to some of the beautiful benches I’ve hiked.
I’m sitting in some precious shade, figuring out that I could meet P&A at Freezeout Saddle and we could hike up the ridge, when I hear voices. I’m too late, they’re already here. I pop up, say “Hello,” and surprise them. For an hour or two we sit in the shade, periodically moving to stay in the shadow of our lone ponderosa. What we do mostly is talk about birds, grasses, shrubs. I felt overwhelmed by the richness of their understanding, and amazed at the beauty of the birds brought to life with their binoculars.
P&A were gracious enough to agree to my Summit Ridge plan, despite having already descended 40 switchbacks into Saddle Creek, so we climbed (back, for them) to Freezeout Saddle, turned south, and made a dry camp on the ridge. Phil traipsed a ways to get water while Ann started dinner and I gathered wood and built a campfire.
Journal, June 21, 2002:
(Summit Ridge) Solstice. I’ve already slept in through a hand’s height of sun. Camped on top of Summit Ridge, where Phil, Ann and I enjoyed a breezy campfire last night with the Wallowas and sunset on one side and the Devils and moonrise on the other.
(Barton Heights, evening) After walking with something of a sense of loss or loneliness after my enjoyable time with P&A, I am now camped just below the last pinnacle at Barton Heights, where the wind blows steady through dark fir trees and I think I hear voices on the wind.
Earlier today, before we parted ways, P&A and I dayhiked out to Bear and Black mountains. It rained on us and lent a mystical air to the craggy peninsula. We saw below us three bighorn sheep. Then the sun came out and by the “exact” moment of the solstice – 1:49 pm by our reckoning – we lay on our backs in the sun, basking and soaking up primal solstice energy. We hunted around a bit and found Marks Cabin and a good spring, but all this in the middle of clearcut, burned, and grazed-out land. And the cows were right then and there, staring stupidly at us.
The country has really changed since Freezeout Saddle. Either because Summit Ridge is higher, or because there’s more precipitation here, the trees are much more heavily weighted to firs. No elk at all since The Troughs.
Prepared camp with a sense of foreboding. As I approached this place I imagined I would find here some holy grail, unravel some knot. But no – not yet. Now with darkness coming, I hear in the wind drums beating, drums so deep they vibrate my bones, but so deep they are as faint as the wind. And over the drums, I hear voices, chanting or wailing voices, Nez Perce voices in the wind. They once lived here and the salmon swam all the way up this river and out into the barrens of southern Idaho– and now, as I saw just before dark, looking down from this high place, there sits across the river a dam with cold bright lights and it makes a dead lake behind it.
Maybe this foreboding has to do with the fact that I have very little water here. Only half a quart to spend the night and in the morning climb back up to Summit Ridge.
Last night I dreamt I discovered a new room in my house. It was clean, bare, empty, not hidden at all, just unknown to me.
The wind, the wind.
Journal, June 22, 2002:
(Thirtytwo Point Creek) Feels good to be back on the bench, although the country here makes me feel more cautious. No less scarce in terms of water, with higher reaches of the canyon too steep to get up without major difficulty, high enough in elevation that open ponderosa forest is replaced by denser fir stands with a ninebark and ceanothus understory. Can’t see a trail, if there is any trail at all, across the draw, like I could at lower elevations. This trail is exceedingly faint.
Still, this is more enjoyable than the doghair thickets I bushwhacked through up above. It’s like a separate bench system from the one that terminates at Freezeout, and in between is high country that’s been roaded, logged, and grazed.
Got up this morning feeling the thirst. Mostly gray and overcast, a dull pink sunrise visible only through the cloud cover. Ate an apple, boiled my remaining two cups of water to make tea, and commenced walking back up to Summit Ridge. Parceled out tea meagerly. Started to get partly sunny as I approached the top. Tried Freezeout Creek first, found it running, drank a quart, carried a few back to my pack. Ate cold oatmeal.
Started walking the rim road. At Himmelwright Spring, which was marked by an old sign and a still-pungent cow skeleton, I found fields of huge, lush mule ears. Also found that Freezeout Creek, above where I drank from it, was scummy with cow pies.
So perhaps the “intestinal discomfort” I’ve had today is related to bad water.
I think the USFS should simply classify some of these trails as “primitive,” meaning they may be overgrown, may be difficult to distinguish from game trails, may be located differently than the map indicates, may have nearly indetectable tread, may lack signs, may fade in and out, may be obliterated by deadfall. This definition applies to many of the trails I have traveled over the past ten days. “May Be” trails.
(Buck Creek Divide) Whew! One tough climb up out of 32 Point. Feeling good – good and tired.
(Somewhere S of Squaw Creek, evening) Moon came up through a smattering of clouds. What a day! I put in 16 miles, the first three that dry, thirsty climb up from Barton Heights. I feel a little peaked, as if I got too much sun – but that doesn’t wash, because there wasn’t much sun today. I bet I’m running a temperature.
In the evening dusk at Barton Heights, I heard, then saw, a nighthawk hunting over the canyon rims, making an unmusical “breek” as it flew with a few long strokes alternating with several rapid beats. Actually, what I heard first was the air vibrating like a frog croak each time the nighthawk pulled up sharply from its frequent steep dives.
Also saw a big red-tailed hawk rise from the shady forest floor only 50 feet away as I passed by. And a chukar hen who did the “I’m wounded, chase me” routine to perfection.
Feeling ill, hit the hay.
Journal, June 23, 2002:
(Spring Creek) Huddled in the lee of a giant ponderosa, one of a splendid grove of thirty or so. Feel better today. No fever. A robin and another nighthawk woke me before sunrise with their calls. The day started out promising, but has become gray and spitting rain now and then.
Crossed paths with a group of cows that panicked, knocked down a fence, and trailed out in front of me. For a while I thought they would be coming with me all the way up to Summit Ridge and the 39 Road. I finally was able to skirt them when the country opened up. One old mottled cow with her calf brought up the rear, the only one not seeming panicked.
This grove of ponderosas is quite lovely, roughly circular in shape, and not at all trashed out.
(Home, evening) Walked bare chested, with poncho over my shoulders like a cape, through occasional rain showers, mostly clearing. Found myself on top of a hill looking at McGraw Creek and the big climb up its south fork.
Moseyed on down to the McGraw cabin, dilapidated and set deep in the creek bottom among locust trees. The rock in this area is interesting: grey, convoluted, pockmarked, twisted.
Climbed up out of the creek bottom, going slow, getting rained and sunned on at once, setting goals of only a few hundred feet at a time. Had to do just a little bit of nasty brush-busting to gain the summit, where I found the going surprisingly easy – woods were quite open. Found some old logging roads which put me right at the junction of the 39 Road and McGraw Lookout Road.
The 39 Road doesn’t have much traffic this time of year, so I started walking in the heat toward Ollokot Campground, sticking my thumb out at the occasional vehicle. Two miles later, a red Nissan stops. In the driver’s seat is my neighbor Chuck. And in the back is a cooler, and in the cooler is a beer, which goes down like water as he drives me to my front door.