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My first task this morning, after breakfast, is to ford the river back to the Queets Trail. It's not so hairy as yesterday, but much colder than I remember! On the Queets River Trail, I soon notice that no human footprints are visible anymore. It appears to be just me and the elk, who leave prints everywhere.

While traveling through a moss-laden grove of trees just past Bob Creek, I scare a large bird from a nearby patch of bushes. A beautiful owl flies from the bushes and settles on a branch thirty feet in front of me. As it turns its head to stare, I notice distinctive gold flecks along its back and the characteristically rounded head of the Northern Spotted Owl, that famously threatened species that survives only in old-growth forests like these. I shed my pack and frantically (but quietly!) search for my camera, but before I can produce a picture, the owl flies off quietly into the forest, as if evaporating in a dream.

After Bob Creek, the trail becomes faint, often disappearing completely in meadows. At one point after steeply bushwhacking around a riverside washout, I give up the official trail altogether (who needs ya'!), and make the last few miles along game trails, laid here by resident herds of Roosevelt Elk.

Elk are responsible for the "wide-open" feel of these rainforests, grazing back the underbrush under a canopy of old-growth giants. They feed often, and know how to get around out here! Following their tracks saves me considerable time searching for cut logs and other trail indicators, and is a bit more exciting to boot. When I reach Pelton Creek, I use my GPS to search vainly for the old emergency shelter, but after criss-crossing several times through the forest where the shelter should be, I give up, and sit down by the riverbank.

I've gone 11-miles so far today, which is pretty good considering the condition of the trail and the 55+ pound load I'm still hauling. Still early in the afternoon, I decide to pick up and continue upriver, following elk-trails as I go. It seems I'm officially off-trail now, and I know I will be for at least the next week. A couple easy river fords and a half-mile later, I settle for camp on a grassy sandbar meadow among a grove of red alders. The Queets valley is narrowing considerably... it used to be several miles wide and flat-bottomed, but now the valley walls are now a little steeper, a lot closer, and I can see snow-clad peaks beckoning behind them. After a pleasant dinner and a few repairs (both my trekking pole handles are shot, and I stitch a hole in my pants with waxed dental floss), I sit quietly and contemplate the task ahead of me. I saw no people today, and now that I'm off-trail, I doubt I will see anybody for quite some time. I can't remember ever going two days in my life without seeing a fellow human, even in the backcountry. This will be a new experience!

Tired, but satisfied with my progress so far (this ain't so bad yet! ), I fall asleep under the stars, listening to the wide river gurgle a lullaby over a field of nearby rocks. Tomorrow, I start hiking off-trail (in earnest), and I am curious to know what mysteries await me, further upriver.