MIKE MacFERRIN'S OLYMPIC SOLO TREK....July 28, 2004


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I awake early in the canyon, wanting to get a jump on the river-crossings before water levels rise in the late-morning sun. I am anxious today... the prospect of so many river fords makes me uneasy.

Let me quickly step aside to address one thing about fording glacier-fed rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. These rivers bear no resemblance to the crystal-clear streams one might find meandering through the Rocky Mountains on a summer day. I've forded many rivers in the Rockies, some of them formidable, and one key difference comes to mind. Here, I CANNOT SEE what I'm stepping into. I liken the difference to driving in a car along a curvy mountain road, with the accelerator stuck at 45 mph (hey, you can't tell the river to slow down here). On a clear sunny day, the drive would be hair-raising, but manageable, perhaps even enjoyable, as long as you pay close attention to the road. Now imagine that same drive, stuck at 45 mph on a winding mountain road, in an impenetrable pea-soup fog. Please stop reading; just imagine it for a moment. Now you're getting the idea. At any given step in the river, in the opaque gray-blue waters, I cannot tell if the current is two feet deep or twenty.



I cannot see the boulders or the gravel I am stepping onto, and should I slip in the strong current, I have no idea what surprises are submerged immediately downstream. I can use my trekking poles only to test the waters directly in front of me (much like headlights in a pea-soup fog), and for that I am grateful. I would never attempt such crossings without 'em. Making a long story short, it's hairy business out there (and frigid cold! ), even just doing it once. But now, back to the story...

I return to the area where the water was too deep yesterday, and try again. After two failed attempts (water in the channel was just too deep!), I finally make it across on my third. I must pay close attention to subtle clues in the river-current to get an idea of the best possible path... the adage "Still Waters Run Deep" has never been more applicable. Upwards I go, crossing again & again, avoiding a deep channel and a deep pool, one after another, making slow progress.

Within an hour, the ice-cold waters have sucked my warmth, and I'm shivering uncontrollably from hypothermia. I shed my wet pants and shirt, don dry clothes, and try to find shelter from the cold, wet breeze coming down the valley. It's late in the morning, but the sun doesn't emerge into these valley depths for more than an hour a day, and it's not here now. I could wait until the sun peeks over the canyon walls (and warms things up) to progress further, but that would only raise the river levels, which are precariously deep already. So I eat snacks, do jumping jacks, and stretch my muscles until my core temperature is back to normal.

By 10:30 AM, I am standing in waist-deep water, perched atop an unseen boulder in a deep pool. The current in front of me is too deep and too strong, the rocks too jagged to cross. Deep pools prevent me from going upriver, and identical conditions greet me on the other side.

I harbor no strong-headed illusions of "conquering the river" or "defeating the elements." I know that this wild land could take my life in any instant. Should I succeed, it would only be because the river allowed me to, and I would be thankful for that. At this time, in this place, the river grants no such passage. I have no other choice but to retreat, or kill myself in a flash of stupid bravery. I opt to retreat.

Making my way back to Paull Creek (refording everywhere I'd crossed before), I dry myself out & warm up in the appearing sunlight. On to Plan B. I turn upstream again, scrambling up a slope at the entrance of the canyon, and begin traveling above the canyon, hoping to reach another unnamed side-stream that I've dubbed "Canyon Creek." Canyon Creek (according to the map) leads down into the heart of the Queets Canyon from its west side, almost to the base of Service Falls. If I can follow Canyon Creek, I just might get there yet. But, after an hour of bushwhacking up along the rim of the canyon (which exceeds 300 feet at this point), I find an impossible wall leading down to the creek (my god, must every river form a box-canyon in these parts? ). Even if I got down there, the Creek has a nasty habit of flowing over 20-foot ledges, in a staircase succession, downward and out-of-sight. I cannot use Canyon Creek as a safe route... it is just too steep, the terrain too severe.

On to Plan C. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this. In the end, I climb up the dry ridge between Paull & Canyon creeks, ascending 3,000 feet through the steep subalpine forests on the way up to the Jeffers Glacier. The forest is dry, and I sweat profusely, running low on water. Another thousand feet up (according to the map), and I should be able to safely traverse over to the upper reaches of Canyon Creek, which I've been paralleling uphill for two thousand feet. I get my first glimpses of Mt. Queets, Meany and Noyes across the valley, and my first views south of the river I've been following the past 5 days. Eventually, I reach the steeply sloped creek and drink my fill. Camped on a small shelf close to the creek, I treat myself to a cheesecake dessert and ponder my situation. I hope that I can get up to the Jeffers Glacier tomorrow. I hope I can cross it, and find a safe way back down. I hope I can get upriver and find safe passage out of the Queets River Valley. I hope I can get home to my beautiful wife and see her face once again. There are no certainties anymore for me... "I hope" is the best I can do.

I am exhausted tonight, both mentally and physically, and quickly fall asleep under clear skies.