Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Trip Report: Backpacking The North Fork of the Skokomish River. June 19-21, 2011

   Sunday, June 19th. The forecast called for a 30% chance of rain until 4pm, so we didn't hurry as we got some coffee, loaded our packs into the car, and stopped for food on our way to the Olympic National Park. Our driving destination was Staricase, an area on the southeast corner of the park. The first year we moved to Washington we did most of our camping at Staircase and Big Creek nearby in the National Forest. (My hike up Mt. Ellinor started from Big Creek.) From there we would don our packs and hike four miles up the North Fork of the Skokomish River Trail to Spike Camp.

   The weather was a bit overcast with highs in the low 60's. This was our first backpacking trip of the year and we were all out of shape after a long winter. My son was not thrilled about the four-mile hike with a pack on his back. I wish we could have worked up to it and done a few warm-up hikes, but the weather has been awful and we've been so busy. The first day is always the hardest.

   At our first stop to take a break and drink some water we realized that my wife's water bottle was gone. Somewhere it had fallen out of the pouch on her pack. Only a minor setback as we carry an extra water bottle to have at camp for cooking, cleaning, etc. We stopped at the next creek crossing to fill up the spare bottle and top off the other two.

   When we arrived at Spike Camp we still had plenty of daylight, so we took our time setting up. Before I had the tent up our son had rebounded from his misery and was bouncing off the trees. We set up the tent, sleeping bags, filtered water, built a fire, had some food and drink, and were almost ready to call it a day before the sun went down. I was able to start the fire without a match using tinder from the area, a small bit of tissue, some magnesium, and a flint.

   I had traded my hiking boots for my new Vibram Five-Finger barefoot shoes as soon as we arrived and they were a welcome change. In fact, the only downside to the barefoot shoes I noted on this trip is that they are not warm on a chilly night. The Tevas aren't warm, either, but it possible to put on a pair of wool socks with the Tevas. Not so much with the barefoot shoes. Still, I think the barefoot shoes will continue to be a part of my warm weather backpacking gear.

    Monday, June 20th. That night, for whatever reason, we all woke up during the night and had a difficult time getting back to sleep. As a result, it was 10am before we got up the next day. After some coffee and a bit of food, we took down camp, packed up, and headed up the trail just before noon. It was mostly cloudy with a high in the low 60's. We filtered some water on our way out since the nearest water source is a little way up the trail. Our plan for today was flexible -- we would hike up to the next camp which is Big Log and at that point decide if we wanted to stay there or continue on to Camp Pleasant.

   This section is where we started to run into some minor obstacles. The trail winds along the side of a reasonably steep hill and there were places where a tree had fallen across the trail and had to be scrambled over. At one point I spotted what we believe to be a ptarmigan appear on the trail ahead and then duck back into the brush. As we approached we were able to spot her again with maybe a half dozen baby chicks following her.

   We got to the spur for Big Log and the sign said Camp Pleasant was only 1.4 miles further. We agreed to press on.

   There were three major creek/river crossings along the way: Madeline Creek, Donahue Creek, and the Skokomish River itself. The Donahue crossing was no problem as there was a log bridge over the water. There was a good-sized, well-built bridge high over the Skokomish River. The Madeline crossing, however, was a different story. There were still signs up indicating a river ford, but it was clear that flooding had seriously altered the terrain at some point. The current river crossing is a large log with a single rail on the downstream side about 20 feet over a pretty respectable water flow. My wife isn't a fan of high ledges. I, on the other hand, will jump off a bridge tied to a bungee cord. I found the crossing a little nerve-wracking; I can only image how my wife felt. It was the highlight of the trip for our son, of course.

   After we crossed the Skokomish River the trail followed pretty close alongside the river. There were a couple minor challenges like loose footing down and back up into post-flooded creek beds and scrambling under small fallen trees. A short distance before Camp Pleasant we rounded a corner to find a fallen tree over the trail -- not a small tree, but one that had been around during the founding of Rome. Seriously, it was probably seven feet in diameter where it covered the trail. It took a little exploration but we found where a handful of previous hikers had made a way over. After helping each other over we were happy to find Camp Pleasant just beyond the huge obstacle.

   Like Spike Camp the night before, we had the place to ourselves. We picked the spot next to the river, took off our packs, and set up camp. My wife took our son down to the river to play. I tried to start the fire using only tinder, magnesium, and the flint and got some smoke, but had to resort back to the tissue for flame. We ate some food, played games, and sat talking around the campfire. At one point my wife stopped, spotting a deer over my shoulder. The buck continued to come closer and we tried to be still and quiet so as not to scare it away. It wandered into the neighboring camp site, grazing along the way and did not seem very concerned with us. We were able to get pretty close and get some pictures before it decided to head up the hill.

   We enjoyed the campfire well after the sun set and then retired to our sleeping bags. We had not seen another person all day. With the sound of the river just outside, we all slept soundly through the night.

   Tuesday, June 21st. The next morning the sky was clear and blue. Our son was up before my wife and I. We had seven miles to hike out plus the drive home today. We didn't hurry, but after breakfast we divvied up the tasks of cleaning up, taking down camp, and getting packed so we could get going. The weather was beautiful and I was happy to have my sun hat. Since this trip was an out-and-back, it was nice to know what to expect. Once we were over the huge tree near Camp Pleasant, we knew the hardest part was over.

   As we approached the dreaded crossing of Madeline Creek, my son spotted a deer on the trail ahead. This deer was being followed by a fawn that still had it's spots. The two darted up the hill and into the trees. Just beyond was the bridge and on the other side was another hiker with his eyes on the hill behind us. "Did you see the deer?", he said, holding up his hands to indicate the size of the little one.

   We took a break on the other side of Madeline Creek and then continued on. We took another break at Spike Camp. We were making better time than expected. Some point beyond Spike Camp four hikers appeared ahead of us. The hikers turned out to be fly fishers who were just looking for a better spot to wet their hooks. They continued to disappear and reappear ahead of us as our pace varied. A wild rabbit came out onto the trail and ran away from the fishermen -- right at us! The little guy got surprisingly close before it finally noticed us and ducked back into the brush. We also spotted some other critter that I thought at first to be a chipmunk darting back and forth across the trail, oblivious to the fishermen and us. It turned out to not be a chipmunk and we're still not sure what it was, but there was a bird nearby squawking loudly at the critter. We suspect the bird may have been protecting it's eggs and the critter was looking for a meal.

   The last two miles were difficult. Again, I wished we had been able to work up to this trip. We never did spot our lost water bottle and there was no one at the ranger station to ask if it had been turned in. After stowing our packs in the car, we drove down to the campground restrooms for a quick clean-up and then headed for home.

   Over the course of the trip I kept notes of things we forgot or needed to acquire/change/upgrade. Being our first trip of the year, the list was disturbingly long and the subsequent trip to REI expensive. On our way back from the Olympic National Park I added one last thing to the list: don't forget a change of clothes to leave in the car for the drive home.

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