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Shortly after waking under my tarp, I dine on breakfast, again with the bears. This morning, I see five black bears as I eat (it seems they brought a friend!), and surprisingly, not a one of 'em touched my food bag last night. Apparently they have got better things to eat! A short half-mile down the trail this morning, I see yet another bear, foraging on the hillside above the trail. I pass under him, smiling as I go, almost tempted to wave good-morning and chat about the weather.

Eventually I reach the infamous "Catwalk," a knife-edged ridge of stone that one must cross to officially begin a traverse of the Bailey Range. (You see, most people do not start like I did... it is only a one-day hike from the Sol Duc Trailhead to the Catwalk, so inevitably almost all Bailey Range traverses start here and go south.) I traverse it confidently... although the rock is exposed and I keep my wits about me, the route is well traveled, and I am never without a secure foothold or handhold. After two years of hearing ominous trip reports about the famed Catwalk, I am a little underwhelmed! I guess I have had enough edge-of-death moments this trip that this one seems remarkably unremarkable. I stop for a few pictures in the breaking clouds and continue up the steep "goat trail" leading over the top of the dusty ridge.

Before I know it, I am on a trail. Not an elk-path, not an unmaintained "route", but an honest-to-god trail, complete with blasted level pathways, cut logs and proper drainage. How novel! I have not seen one of these in, let's see.... eleven days? I could kneel down and kiss it (and I almost do!), but I soon pass a small party of four backpackers carrying overstuffed e-frame packs. One of them dons blue-jeans, and another has seen better days of fitness (*ahem*) in his younger years. They ask me where I am coming from, and I tell them. They glance at each other with slightly agape looks of surprise.

"You came up the Queets River? Why, that is where we are going!" one of them exclaims. I pause to make sure I heard him right. Apparently, I did. They are on day two of eleven in their planned trip, ready to traverse the Bailey Range southbound and head down the Queets River, from headwaters to trailhead. My jaw hits the floor.

"You are going where? What are you, nuts? You will get yourselves killed! You will never make it through there with those oversized snag-on-everything packs, and crapholio equipment... you are wearing jeans, for chrissake!! And look at you... you are already huffing and puffing here, and you have not even left the trail! You are gonna die out there!" These are all things I want to say, but do not. I know that if someone lectured me against heading in there before I left, I would have taken it as rude, and probably snuffed them off. "They do not know me... they do not know how much I have prepared..." I am sure I would have said. But I am worried nonetheless, and tell them (quite honestly) that it was the toughest thing I have ever done... it is rough country back there. Apparently the older gentleman among them has traversed the Bailey Range before, and it seems only logical that traversing the Queets River would be a great finish. I want to say "but... the Bailey Range is cake compared to the Queets River. There is a visible pathway over the Bailey Range! The two can not even be compared!" But again I hold my tongue. Instead, I offer them the best advice I can about routes and obstacles I encountered. I make sure to include "if you can not find a way down the Queets River, remember, you can head out the Elwha Snowfinger to get out safely." Perhaps they are not listening now, but I have a feeling this might be important advice further on in their journey. They seem visibly disappointed (as I am sure I would have been) to have met me; someone who just completed the wild, untamed route they are about to attempt. But I care little of their disappointment; I am worried about their safety, even if they are not.

After an all-too-brief conversation, I am headed down the trail again, leading over High Divide. Questions shoot through my head ("My god, what maps are they using? Should I have given them mine [I collected three sets of maps before this journey]? Should I go back and get their emergency contact info?"). I barely stop worrying for the next several days.

Back in the realm of maintained trails along the "High Divide" (the ridge between the Hoh and Sol Duc valleys) I pass several sets of weekend backpackers, and spot two more bears foraging in the Seven Lakes Basin below (bringing my daily total to eight!). I head down from High Divide to Hoh Lake, where I camp my first night (in two weeks) at an established national-park backcountry campsite. It has a latrine (wow, imagine that!), dished out gravel campsites (I am not so enthused about that), and bear wires for my food. Three capable Canadian gentlemen and five greenhorn high-school grads (none of them backpackers, but all having a good time) share the soggy evening with me at Hoh Lake, and we chat the night away. Tonight, we spot six more bears foraging the alpine hillsides above Hoh Lake, pushing my daily total to a personal-record fourteen black bears, several oversized marmot, and one mountain-goat. What a day!

It is another rainy night, this one wetter than most. Every piece of clothing smells of dank body odor, and my feet have suffered a case of athlete's foot in my consistently wet boots, but I care little. Tomorrow will be day 14 of my leg (without a single rest day), and should all go well, I will head down to Five-Mile-Island on the Hoh River. On Day 15, friends from the PNWH will meet me there, bringing food (I am almost out! ) and long-sought companionship. On Day 16, we hike out. For all intents and purposes, my trip is over. No more worrying. No more impassable obstacles. No more adrenaline. I am tired, weary, drained, and ready to be finished. It takes some time to get to sleep... The high schoolers converse loudly, and I am not accustomed to hearing voices nearby as I drift off. There are eight other people within five square miles of me, and I feel a little crowded... a little closed-in. Tonight, I sleep heavily on a bed of hard-packed dished gravel, and eventually fall asleep amidst a dark, steady rain.