We made several decisions that were bad-turned-out-good, but the first was to go on this hike and bring two tweens and two small kids. We'd done the lower two and a half miles of it a couple of days previously and while it looked fairly arduous, the distance - 11 miles - seemed pretty doable over one full and two half days. We'd descend to the creek the first day, hike the creek and ascend to the mesa the second and then stroll out the third day. It wasn't quite so simple.
We took forever to get out of main camp. After cleaning, organizing, packing, dropping the shuttle cars and fetching the kids from playing at the creek, it was 4 PM when we pulled out. We promptly made another bad-turned-out-good mistake. Early into the drive, we came to a four-way intersection at a low forest saddle. We took the middle fork; the road we wanted, 3850, was the left fork. For two hours we drove, running down dead-end spurs and back tracking, before finally taking an unmaintained semiclosed connector. Sound sketchy? It was. The road climbed and climbed and climbed, clinging to a north facing cliff. At one point we had to disembark all but Roger and build a temporary cobble track through the valley of a little landslide, but the Subaru proved its worth, climbing and rocking its way through the slide. Just then, we saw a lanky young bear who galluphed up the road before diving down through the fireweed. The entire ordeal, Roger and Mizu huddled over the map, driver and shotgun, while the kids and I sat on the window sills and played leaf-grabbing games and sang and got cold before diving into the warmth of the car only to emerge again. The views were stupendous. Just the long gaze up through the shadows of the reprod was great, an unfamiliar lateral view into the depths of the forest to ogle a huge tree or imagine a cat slipping along a downed tree or there! - in the rhodies - sasquatch, but the majesty of the sweeping northward vista was not to be matched. As we rocked slowly upward, the entire Steamboat drainage was spread out below. Then at last, the trailhead. It was 630. We were hiking at 7 PM.
We went steadily downward for about an hour, then as the sun was dropping behind the ridge to our right, we came to a little shelf. There was a wooded saddle, flat and clear under the standing trees, that'd make a great tent site, but the sky was just a chimney hole above and we wanted to see the stars and chance a glimpse at the Perseids. 150 yards on, the forest broke atop a little knoll. The fire had run up the slope, destroying all the trees and opening the sky. The ground was rocky and covered with small blowdown, yet for all that flat and the view! Open sky above and to the south and east only naked fingers of the burned forest. The site on the saddle was clearly the better tenting spot, but if we could make the little flat top of the knoll work, it would be spectacular. While the kids lolled tiredly by their packs and Roger headed back to check out the saddle, I set to clearing the top of the knoll. First sticks, then rocks. I'd almost gotten all the sticks when I noticed several yellow jackets angry around my waist. I turned and turned to see if there was a nest and - I saw it - right where I'd been working - right in the middle of that lovely site. "Run, girls!" I yelled. Then WHAM! the jackets released their attack pheromone and hit me in the side, then the ankle, then the other side. "RUUUUUUUN!" I screamed and then saw Hara coming back up the hill. She'd been below us exploring on down the trail and when I yelled had fled back up towards us - a path that was taking her right atop the nest. "Come one, Hara!" yelled Roger. "No, the other way!" I yelled and then she fell face first, mere feet from the hive. She got up again and ran on toward the other girls and Roger, unable to breather - she'd taken a stob in the stomach. Meanwhile, the jackets were still biting me and the other kids. "F___!" I yelled and "s___!" and "h___!" I ripped off my shirt and killed the one in my shoe. Staggered back to the saddle where we killed one more on Helen. The damage: Lou six bites, Opal two, Hara two. Hara, leg gashed and badly shaken need an hour cry to feel better. Roger sneaked back and recovered our packs that were two or three feet from the nest. We cooked, ate and set up camp in the dark. We all (except Lucie) slept poorly and awoke early with only one liter of water between us.
The trail continued down the ridge from the knoll and Roger went ahead to scout around the yellow jackets. The path he chose, a slanting scatter along a left-hand slope through fire ravaged forest filled with charred blowdown in all sizes - 1" branches interlaced into a crackling, grabbing web, shattered, tilting tree tops like tank guards with spikes projecting in all directions and huge, ancient corpses like walls and everywhere yellow jackets buzzing and exploring - was a terrible path, but it was the best we had. The other options were the same, but worse - more blowdown, more tangles and all filled with a chest-high sea of fireweed, pink and downy-white, obscuring obstacles and entanglements.
And so the morning progressed through a long, slow series of picking our way through piles of logs, finding little runs of clear ground or strung together log highways interspersed with too-short stretches of trail that we raced across with ephemeral joy before entering another long, slow slog through more blowdown. And all the while, searching out the pink ribbon trail markers and the faint, fire-erased scratchings of the trail. And all the while, our water dwindled and dwindled, a rationed mouthful at a time. Even so, spirits were high and we made steady, if very slow, progress, but Helen was suffering. Earlier in the week, she'd stubbed her big toe and torn the skin away from the tip to her toenail and now every step of the descent was agony. The down-slope pushed her toe foreward into the front of her shoe, jamming her full weight on her wound with every step and then-and-again the forest would reach up a stob or rock to strike the injury unexpectedly. Whimpering quietly to herself, she plugged doggedly onward, her hurt foot curling painfully under in a vain attempt to shelter her cut from contact and pain. As we descended, the possibility of return to the car diminished to nothing and our water shrank and shrank toward none.
At midmorning, the adults had a brief powwow and decided to send Roger down to the creek to get water and return. He vanished, making quick time and we finished a leisurely break with a ration bubblegum- watermelon, strawberry or fruit punch. With only two adults, we slowed the progress of coltish Opal and Hara as we went down through a long section that was pleasantly forested where the trail was largely visible and blowdown more occasional than constant. Helen and I were in the lead when I heard a hooting from below- Roger had returned! We sat on a dusty slant and drank and drank and drank and drank. We read from the Golden Compass and then, inspired by Iorek Byrnison's stirring victory and rousing "Bears! Who is your king?" We sprang up and flowed down the last of the ridge to the creek. Ah! Blessed water! We rested again and took three poops (Opal, Lucie, Lou) before moving downstream and settling in a to a lovely lunch spot. Four black and yellow garter snakes showed us the way to a long, lazy shelf of bedrock where Boulder Creek slid over pans and small pools. It was probably one or two in the afternoon, but we had the breakfast we'd been waiting for all day - tea for the grownups and oats for all. Lucie played quietly in the sand and pools upstream from our kitchen bench, while Hara, Opal and Helen explored downstream past a huge Ponderosa trunk to a little waterfall and dunking pool. The men slept or tried to sleep while Mizu read. Everything was easy and patient and do-what-you-want. It would be crazy to leave this idyll, but leave we must, so after a couple hours we sluggishly rallied up, packed, scrambled up the slip-slope and hiked onward.
We went a grumpy, forgetful hour along the creek before coming to an elk camp on a little bench. A small trib ran down along the south edge of the bench and the burned slope raised up behind. The hunters had made several log benches, laid in a supply of fire wood and the bed sites were numerous and flat. But despite all these positives, an air of burned aluminum and toilet paper wadding hung over the dust and only an exhausted Lucie wanted to stay. Feeling that a campsite was necessary, I decided to push on and scout ahead - Opal and Helen decided to come with me. 100 yards downstream from the elk camp there was a pleasant little camp and presented with this possibility we made another bad-turned-out-good decision. There weren't quite seven bed spots, so we decided to push on.
You see, when we'd scouted the trip earlier, I'd looked down on the creek from atop the mesa and seen a forested creek falling from pool to pool. This matched the description from the guidebook - a guidebook written before the 2008 fire. But this expected forest stream didn't match, didn't emerge - what emerged was a burned out river bottom of rocks, fireweed, brambles, no shade, no camps, no shade and only the charred pillars of the old majesty to signify what had been.
Opal took the lead and with grim determination strode throught the waste, hunting the trail and campsite possibilities with equal vigor. It soon dawned on us that we weren't going to find a camp, that ahead was waste and behind was waste. A half mile ahead, a long shoulder came down from the right - only beyond there would we find a camp. We bravely began the ascent up the shoulder and Opal and Helen churned their way up the rocky slope. Then from behind - a hoot and a yell! Roger and Hara emerged from the brush at the base of the slope and just behind them Lucie riding high on Mizu's shoulders. Soon we were together at the ridge of the shoulder - ahead the trail clung to high slope where unburnt forest came down from above and behind, the waste of river bottom. The adults, fearful of the work ahead turned to the kids to see how they were doing. Opal looked up from the rationing of Pez, Tictacs and gum to say "tired, but good." Helen and Lucie quickly assented that they, too, were tired but good and then Hara finally came out of candy-ville long enough to agree that she was tired, but good, but needed to count Tictacs. So onward we went, with Opal Helen and Hara in the lead and Lucie perched on Mizu's back chirruping, singing and conversating - lifting Mizu's spirits even as she weighed down her back. We zigzagged from shoulder to ravine to shoulder again then to a final ravine down to the final creek crossing. We could see the trail ascending the west face of the canyon and we could see no developed campsites. Mizu and Roger explored upstream and I went down and found a site - a turn and a boulder and logjam combined to make a maze of rock and sand beaches interwoven with boulders. There was no perfect bedsite for seven, but several possibilities would fit us. It wasn't perfect, but it'd do.
Actually, it was much better than it'll do. Let me explain. Below the trail crossing, the creek ran through a long rock garden before bending to the right in the face of a low bedrock cliff. Two elephantine boulders guarded the low side of the curve and had snared three huge Ponderosa trunks which formed a massive H chest and head high. Taken all together along with the inevitable snarl of smaller wood, the H formed a challenging barrier to the lower creek. But all that tangle had slowed the spring high water and just below it a small C-shaped rock beach had formed. Near the water's edge, two large rocks formed slanting backrests - one the kitchen, the other the living room. Behind and upriver, we leveled the crown for Mizu and Lucie to sleep and in an adjacent pocket between two small boulders a nook for Lou, Opal and Helen. Below the kitchen and beneath a gnarled exposed river-edge rootball, Roger leveled a sand beach for himself and Hara.
A small, narrow pool ran clear in front of our camp and on the low cliff across it, a single towering fir stood sentinal, bark burned black and skin age whitened against the sky.
Once arrived, we immediately divided the labor three ways - Mizu began cooking, I began flattening bed spaces and Roger went fishing. The kids mostly chilled out, helping here and there when needed and willing. The making-camp-not-yet-fed grumps were mercifully short and snuffed completely when I stole a dad tax of Chili Mac. Roger returned with eight fingerlings and once he'd made a bed spot for he and Hara and then eaten, we were all encamped, fed and ready for bed.
Now came the luxury of wilderness camping. The girls made a fire ring and I made hot chocolate. Roger made a fire and Mizu got out the whiskey. I ask you - is there a better place in the world than a campfire by a mountain stream, with stars overhead and a warm drink in your hand? A bit of the Golden Compass and a snuggle with Mizu finished off Lucie and so Helen and Opal went off to read in their sleeping bags - Mysterious Benedict and Fellowship of the Ring. Hara snuggled down with Roger then fell asleep. Then Opal's light was out and only Helen was awake - or not. I soon found her asleep face down on her still-lit headlamp.
The fire had banked enough coals and Roger set to cooking the fish. He'd prepared them beautifully - just removing the organs and strung them through the the mouth in a line on a long maple skewer. He laid them first one side then the other so they rested horizontal over the coals - heads held by the maple skewer and tails by a piece of driftwood. The driftwood soon ignited, charring the skin, but the fish was done.
At its best, trout tastes like the stream it came from and this was trout at its best. No seasoning, but clear and the experience. The flesh was cool and clear - we flicked the bones and skin back into the fire.
To close the day - whiskey, stars and campfire. Two Pacific salamanders and an enormous toad plied their trade mysteriously in the stream as one by one we went to sleep.
We woke lazy, with tea and books, with snuggling and fishing, with oatmeal and hot chocolate. All too soon, the sun was down the walls of the canyon laughing at us - we'd slept so late and moved so slowly. Packing was grumpy, of course, and slow so that it was lunch time once we set foot on the trail. We met the steep climb with a firm blend of squabbling, whining, resignation - but underneath it - strength. Helen took the lead with hat and stick, Opal and Hara and Roger on her heels. 200 yards back, Mizu, Lucie and I labored slowly and steadily as Lucie gained momentum with each step. Quickly we attained the 400 vertical feet to height of trail and began rolling along ravine and shoulder then suddenly, lunch. We gorged on jerky, nuts, cheese and mango while entertaining Phillip Pullman's exegesis on free will, original sin and the preoccupations of the Church. Is it any surprise that the crew was sluggish and sleepy - dazedly stumbling like exhausted house flies when it was time to hike again? But again, with that same determination that characterized the entire trip, the went onward.
But soon, Helen stopped. "My stomach hurts," she said weakly. This is a common complaint of tired Helen, so I gave back my standard "Do you feel like you are going to barf?" "Maybe." And then I realized she'd taken off her hat and was putting her hair up in a ponytail. Uh-oh. Helen hates pony tails. Then, with a polite half turn away from us, she puked. First spittum, then a gush of jambalaya red-and-white, then another, then a great outpouring of Velvetta-orange chunks. In the midst of all that, like a wide clown smile, the red curve of her strawberry bubble gum. She rinsed her mouth and wiped her face. "Did you pee yet today?" I asked. "I went back at camp when I woke up," she replied. Dehydration, then, until proven differently. So doctor-prescribed water bottle in hand, Helen perched on my shoulders and up we went.
Soon after, the high ridge on our left faded, we entered a shallow ravine full of viney maples and I dared to hope. Was this the same shallow ravine that bordered the spring? It was, it surely was, but after all the unexpected difficulties, I waited. Opal then voiced my hope, "We're here!" and I grumped a "We'll see." But she and my hopes were right, we were there! I dropped Helen on a round and my pack and went back to help the others - Opal and Hara were springing down the path, Roger looked sprightly under his two packs , Lucie had dismounted and danced ahead of Mizu, "The spring! The spring! The spring!"
There is nothing like cold, cold water. There is nothing like the shade of a madrone. There is nothing like the certainty of what lies ahead. And there is certainly nothing like the certainty that the path is short and downhill.
And we danced to the end. Roger was light-footed under his and Hara's packs, I floated under the weight of my, Helen and Lucie's pack and Mizu ran, literally ran, after the unencumbered Opal, Hara and Lucie. And Helen herself dismounted eventually and so - as conquering heroines all seven adventurers crossed under the huge pipe on their own feet under their own power.
"Bears! Who is your king?"
-Roger biked 3.5 hours to pick up the car the next day.
-We spooked a herd of elk up out of the river bottom - 75 to 100 cows, calves and bulls scrambled up to the ridgeline.
-The girls discussed, played and pretended on the Golden Compass from the spring to the car.
-We just missed the big waterfall - it was 20 yards downstream of our camp and 150 from the trail crossing.
-As we passed up the canyon we were just below and above many burned stumps - one was twisted and marbled, charred black and glossy, swirled with faces, fish, horses, snakes, trolls...
-Hara stepped in the creek three times, Lou twice, Helen once, Opal once, Mizu once, Lucie once, Roger twice - but on purpose.