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I slept under the stars last night on the ledge above the river, and awoke to a heavy dew on my sleeping bag. Looking to the south, I know I have my last chance today to reach Service Falls. I'll first have to cross a long, bushy thicket of slide alder trees before I can reach the ledge above Upper Service Falls. It'll be rough, but I have little other choice.

"Rough" isn't the word for it. After a precariously steep bushwhack down off the ridge, it takes me 5 hours to cross the half-mile patch of impenetrable alders. Every foot is a hard-fought battle against the ubiquitous 2-3" alder stems that fill the air in dense clusters every direction. I go entire stretches without touching the ground, stepping from one branch to another, squeezing, thrashing, and muscling my way through each obstacle, only to be hit in the face (sometimes literally) with another. Finally emerging out of the thicket and back into the open forest at 2:00 in the afternoon, bruised, bloodied, and battered, I can look back and still see the campsite where I stayed last night. It appears I won't cover as much ground today as I'd hoped.

I scramble over a gully and up the side of a ridge. Over this ridge is Upper Service Falls, and across the river (over another hill) lies Service Falls proper.
If luck is with me, I'll be there in a few hours. On they way down the opposite side of the steeper-than-expected ridge, I'm cursing my slow pace and pondering my schedule when I hear a movement immediately below me. Looking up, I'm face to face with a large bull elk and his impressive rack of antlers. Stepping a few paces off to the side (I'm aware that I'm traveling his path), I take off my pack and snap a few pictures of the majestic animal. Soon enough, he gracefully (and surprisingly quickly) disappears into the forest. It's amazing to me how quickly things can hide here... if there were a single place on earth where a sasquatch could live unnoticed, this would be it. Waiting a good while longer, I shoulder my pack, and continue down the elk path, whistling the tune of "The Andy Griffith Show" as I go. No need to surprise any more 1,000-pound bulls!

After a short while, I can hear the deafening white noise of Upper Service Falls. I'm very, very close. But soon enough, I'm perched on a 100-foot ledge above the river, just around a bend from the falls. I search everywhere, scanning up and down, back and forth, looking for a route down. I drop my pack and try scrambling down a steep gully to the river, but there is no safe route down. Even if I do get down, the river is fast & deep, and there is nothing but a sheer wall on the opposite side. This is the end of my road. There will be no Service Falls this trip. The matter is finally closed.

I sit down on that ledge and begin to cry. I'm not sorry for my failure to reach the falls... quite to the contrary, I'm content to have tried my best. Since I've done everything conceivable to the very limits of my abilities to get there, I feel no regret in that. Perhaps oddly, I'm quite satisfied with the results. No, my tears are something more. The extraordinarily difficult nature of this trip, combined with not seeing my wife for a month, nor seeing anyone for close to a week, has physically and emotionally drained me. I have never felt so exhausted in my life. Drained of my reserves, and still uncertain what challenges lay ahead, I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of this excursion. I look down at my bruised and bleeding left hand, and see my wedding ring. I kiss the ring on my finger and make a promise to my wife: "Now, I'll come home to you." Call it a spiritual experience, but I feel that somehow, in some way, she's heard me. My mission now is to get home, safe and sound. I have no desire to reach the falls anymore. I only want to see my wife again.

So I haul my pack back up the ridge, fill my water in the pool of a small seeping creek, and make an early camp. When planning this trip, I allotted "plenty" of time so I wouldn't feel rushed and could rest whenever I needed. Now, at the end of day seven, I have taken no rests, my body is growing weary, and the possibility of not finishing on time is a growing concern. Obvious questions arise... what if I don't make it out of the Queets valley and run out of food? What would I do then? I do not want to have to repeat the torturous route I used to get here... but what if there is no safe route forward? Even if I did turn around now, could I make it out in time?

It takes effort to put such questions out of my mind... pondering the worst does me no good. My journey into the backcountry has ended. Tomorrow, I begin my journey home. With that, I close my eyes and fall asleep under a forgivingly clear sky.