Friday, July 7, 2017

The accidental 37 miler

Ann was out of town for two weekends, which meant we were ready for a good long trail run upon her return. Since my family was going to be out of town, we had the whole day to drive somewhere new and run. We discussed doing the Summer Solstass 50k up Silver Star Mountain. Ann contacted the organizer and we were in.

But we started to wonder-- would it be better to do our own thing, something a bit shorter since neither one of us had run much the past couple of weeks? Time with just the two of us, to catch up, no pressure.

Siouxon Falls



We decided on Siouxon (pronounced "SOO-sahn") Creek, which we had both separately hiked and thought would make a great run. We left a bit later than usual, and got to the crowded trailhead at 9am. We started down the trail, noticing lots of occupied campsites.

Heavenly Siouxon Creek

At the first trail junction, Ann decided we would skip the add-on 4 mile loop, taking our run from about 22 miles to 18 miles. We passed lots of gorgeous waterfalls along the icy blue Siouxon Creek. The trail itself had plenty of little stream crossings, too.

We passed a bridge to the left over the creek, and about a mile or two later the trail dwindled down to a thread through overgrown vegetation. Ann looked at the maps and realized we had gone too far-- we backtracked to the bridge, nearly adding on the 4 miles we had previously skipped.

A bigger creek crossing on the Sioux Creek trail

Soon after the bridge was Chinook Creek Falls, a gorgeous waterfall we could get closer to than any of the previous big ones. There were people here crossing Chinook Creek on series of logs fallen across and secured, and a few fording the very cold water with their dogs.

Slippery but easy creek crossing on the trail

One of the dog owners asked us about Wildcat Trail, which wasn't part of our route. He was worried about taking his dog on it. We chatted for a moment and ran on to start the climb up to the top of Siouxon Peak.

So much of the trail was underwater and basically a stream, that we started joking we couldn't find it when it was dry. At one point, I saw a chicken, but I couldn't understand how it got out there on the mountain, running along the trail and into the undergrowth. We realized from the sounds we had been hearing that it was a grouse-- proving that for some reason we tend to see more varied wildlife in Washington than Oregon.

Beautiful, peaceful Siouxon Creek

Just before the peak, we crossed paths with a solo woman. She said she was camping below with her husband and dog but came by herself because they weren't sure the dog could make it. Rather than chance Wildcat Trail, she was going back down the way she went up. Again, we had nothing to tell her about Wildcat as we were headed the long way, down Huffman Peak.

Waterfall selfie

After a short detour to sightsee from the peak, we hit some patches of snow, which were fun where it was flat. But then we hit some snow that sloped down across the trail, hard and icy. Combined with large, fallen trees, it was impossible to get through on the trail. We had to bushwhack down below to the lower edge of the snow, stepping against the trunks of young trees and shoving through the whipping branches, then climbing back up to the trail.

A beautiful piece of wood in Chinook Creek, as we crossed via logs

We thought that was our adventure for the day. On we went, past Huffman Peak on our final uphill, and then down the long 5.6 mile downhill to Siouxon Creek and back to the car. I enjoyed the downhill, the beautiful wilderness, and all the signs of various flora and fauna-- from orchids to elk.

Then we got to the creek. The water was swift and cold, and it looked suspiciously deep in the middle. There was an old metal cable going into the water, but it was no longer connected to the other bank. We stood for a minute, tightening our packs down against the crossing that would doubtlessly get them wet, and then Ann went first.

Chinook Creek Falls

Less than a quarter of the way across, she was up to her waist and struggling against the current. She started to slip on the smooth rocks, and turned back to look at me with a look on her face that instantly told me this wasn't going to happen. I saw her lose her footing and quickly stopped trying to take photos, to reach my pole out to her. She made it back close enough to grab it and I half-dragged her back in.

Coral root, I think

Now my heart was racing. I was not about to try that crossing. We decided to go upstream a bit to look for a better crossing. We half-bushwhacked, half-waded through the water, but the undergrowth was so thick, and the water so deep, cold, and fast, that we didn't get very far. We could see a ways upriver, but there was no sign of any fallen trees, big rocks, or wide, shallow places where we might cross more safely.

Indian pipe

We went back and tried downstream. Same thing.

Then we tried bracing against each other and crossing. We got about to the same spot, where it was up to our waists and only getting deeper, still a third of the way or less across. I was struggling to remain upright, and I cried out to get back to shore.

Views of Mt St Helens, LAKE, and Mt Adams as we climb Siouxon Peak

We stood there for some long minutes. It was 4:15pm. If we turned around now, we had to choose between going 17 miles back the exact way we had come, or trying Wildcat Trail to save 4 miles and "only" have 12 miles back. One thing was certain: we had 5.6 miles back up Huffman Peak.

Ann's first attempt to wade across Siouxon Creek, about a quarter of the way across




We started the trudge, using the time to discuss at length the logic of our decision. We decided that it made the most sense to retrace our steps. If we got to the bottom of Wildcat trail and couldn't get through, we'd end up with 22 miles to get back, which was unlikely to happen before nightfall. We'd have to spend the night camping.



Then Ann got one bar of cellphone coverage. She called her husband, and asked him to research Wildcat Trail to see if it was passable. He was out at a bar, and at first didn't seem to realize the seriousness of our situation. He put the phone down to use his phone's web browser, and both Ann and I freaked out when he didn't respond to us, thinking that we lost the call.

Slug yin-yang

John found a trip report from someone who hiked the trail a month previous, in early May, and had made it along the trail just fine. With that knowledge in hand, we resumed slogging uphill, re-working the logic of our decision. We decided to go for Wildcat Trail.

Mt St Helens and 

Of the three maps Ann had brought, each showed a different spot for creek crossing at the end of Wildcat Trail. One continued directly across Siouxon Creek where Wildcat Trail ended. One crossed Wildcat Creek just below Wildcat Falls. And the third one meandered over Wildcat Creek right where it joined Siouxon Creek. We hoped this boded well for options.

Glacier lily

It seemed to take forever to get back to the top of Huffman Peak, and forever again to get to the trail junction. We kept thinking we'd accidentally passed it. Finally, we reached the trail and-- surprisingly-- more uphill. The trees were thin and not very dense, and there was no undergrowth, so the whole area was open, packed dirt and pine needles. It looked like not many people had been this way in ages.

We headed down, steeply. There were a few switchbacks, but mostly straight down, much steeper than the trail down Huffman had been. Often, the trail all but disappeared, but the ground was so clear that I kept moving forward, knowing that we were heading in the approximate direction (down) and would see the trail when it reappeared.

The kind of snow that's easy to cross

It seemed to be getting dark now, too, but it couldn't have been dusk. Likely it was the forest growing more dense, or the sun dropping behind the mountain we were coming down, or the thick cloud cover blowing in. We didn't have headlamps or flashlights, since we didn't expect to be out late. But we did each have a phone with flashlight mode and external batteries. We worked to conserve the phones' power in case we should need it. We also discussed the supplies we had, and found we were pretty well off: first aid kit, space blanket, plenty of food.

Downed trees and snow

My mind was racing as we rolled downhill, thinking of every possible outcome. "Now we're to the point where we can't go back up. It's down all the way to the bottom, and if we can't get across the creek there, we're here for the night," I thought, my heart hammering. Soon I realized that my pounding heartbeats were overwhelmed by the growing sound of a waterfall.

Glacier lily

It was Wildcat Falls. We couldn't see it for a while, and then we hit a switchback that skirted along a ledge, opening into a canyon with a view of the falls.

When I saw the falls, my mouth went dry. I had never even considered that it would be bigger than one of the many small falls along Siouxon Creek. But it was massive-- much bigger than Chinook Creek Falls-- cut through a rock canyon, one tall drop preceded by a bunch of smaller ones, surrounded by sheer, rocky cliffs that looked utterly imposing and unforgiving.


We were pretty quiet after that. I didn't have anything nice to say and I tried to keep the fear and panic to myself. I kept my head down and attempted to focus only on what was directly in front of me. I knew that we would be fine spending the night if we had to, but I was worried about being tired and possibly not making the best decisions.

We came to a rocky switchback close enough to the falls that the spray made the trail slippery. I asked Ann for a pole to help keep my balance. It turned out to be only about 30 feet of the trail, but she realized that I needed the comfort. I put it away sheepishly.

Siouxon Peak panorama

Now we ran along above Wildcat Creek, looking down into the narrow channel it had carved, rushing cold and white with many rapids and smaller waterfalls. We kept scanning for possible places to cross-- rocks, downed trees, shallower spots-- but there was absolutely nothing.

The view from Siouxon Creek

There was a turn off to head back to the main Siouxon Creek trail, but we continued to the end of the trail at Siouxon Creek to see if we could cross there. To my delight, we could see a big tent across the way, and a father and son filling water containers on the other side. Civilization of sorts! Alas, it was still far too deep, cold and fast here to cross.

We backtracked to the turn-off, dismayed by Wildcat Creek's nearly identical flow. Then we picked our way along the bank, downstream, looking for a place to cross.
Ann on Siouxon Peak

Not far down, we both saw the log jam. I'm pretty sure we both yelled aloud. Two long tree trunks spanned the creek, crossing in the middle, wedged in place with a number of rocks and smaller trees. "Do you want me to go first?" asked Ann, aware that I get freaked out by crossing logs and raging water. "No, I can always scoot on my butt," I called back, really damn eager to get on those logs.

Western coral root

I tentatively stepped onto the first one. It was steady, solid and not slick. I crossed faster than I've probably ever walked across a log, then turned around to cheer, dance, and give both middle fingers to Siouxon Creek as Ann crossed, too. Then we refilled our empty hydration bladders in Wildcat Creek and enjoyed the taste of that same cold, clear water.


By now, dusk was slowly setting in and it was misting lightly. We ran along the clear, gorgeous trail to the bridge, where we celebrated with peanut butter cups. Then back along the main Siouxon Creek Trail, nearly giddy with delight, actually running and feeling great on legs that should've been pretty beaten up. Adrenaline does wonders, and that last 4 miles was like a victory parade.

Wildcat Falls

We got to the car at 8:45pm-- after nearly 12 hours and 37 miles of running. Utterly thrilled, we quickly changed and hopped in the car. The road is pretty bad, and I was in a cautious mood, so I pulled over a couple of times to let rambunctious Washington trucks past.

When we finally got onto smooth pavement and into cellphone coverage, Ann's phone lit up with texts from her husband. One of them said that if he didn't hear from us in two hours, he was coming out to us. That was more than three hours ago! Ann called him and checked his location, only to find that he was 3 miles from us. If we had waited much longer, we would've crossed paths in the deepening dark, and he would've been out of cell range.

The log jam that got us safely across Wildcat Creek

We pulled over together, and Ann grabbed some water from the extensive supplies-- sleeping bags, rope, food-- he had brought to rescue us. Ann and I stopped at a Dairy Queen for our customary treats, well deserved. We got back to my house around 11pm, where I took a long, hot shower and a few hours to decompress in the quiet, empty house.

Looking upstream at Wildcat Creek

I felt so fortunate to be home and get to sleep in my own comfortable bed. But I also felt a sense of wonder and pride that Ann and I safely, efficiently turned something that could've been an absolute disaster into a thrilling-- albeit long-- adventure. We learned some important lessons, like doing a bit more research before we go into wilderness, something we've slacked on recently. And we have a few more emergency items that we will always bring between us, like a headlamp and a way to start fire.

It's 9pm and we made it to the car!

2 comments:

  1. So glad you were ok & still managed to have a beautiful adventure! Also, John is awesome to have such a well stocked rescue already underway.

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  2. Those mountains look beautiful -- I've got to start running longer distances. Heh.

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