Opal Creek Wilderness and Bull of the Woods Wilderness Areas June 21-22
Ancient Forest, Brush, Blowdowns, A Sprained Ankle, and Shackleton.
"For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time," wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard about exploring the Antarctic.
This weekends adventure led us to Opal Creek and Bull of the Woods Wilderness areas in Oregon. We camped by crystal clear water, hiked through heavy brush covering the trail, battled blowdowns, and suffered an injury. All of this happened in just 24 hours, and it is a trip that started with smiles and would end in me digging deep with everything I had to get myself out of the woods.
History of Opal Creek and BOW
Opal Creek was brought to national attention in the 1990’s it was here that the environmentalist fought the forest service from logging out this vestige of old growth forest. It took nearly 20 years for them to finally win the battle and on September 30, 1996 it was designated a federally protected wilderness area.
The wilderness itself was the site of various zinc and metal mines going back to the 1890’s. There is an old mining town called Jawbone Flats 3.5 miles from the gate and visitors can stay in a cabin and experience the area at the ancient Forest Center there.
Bull of the Woods wilderness shares the boarder with Opal Creek Wilderness. This 34,885 acre wilderness is the home of old growth forest, steep mountains and ravines, small lakes and some very rugged terrain.
Friday-It all started at 7:45am I got a text from one of the two folks that were supposed to go with me, saying “so sorry but we can’ make it”. Damn I thought, I guess it’s just going to be Karluk and me this weekend. After coming to terms with now going on a solo trip, I informed my wife and ensured her that I would be fine.
It was National Bring Your Dog to Work Day- my office celebrated by having us bring our dogs in, we had a dog walk, a trick contest and a hot dog bbq. Karluk had a great day at the office and made a new friend; my cube-mate's american staffordshire terry, Bullseye. After lunch I had my back turned to Karluk as I was checking my voicemail, he seized the moment and before I knew it he was in a co-workers trash can eating the better part of 1/2lb beef hot dog and chili! Great and we're sleeping in a tent together that night.
We set out and battled our way through rush hour traffic, so many cars all headed away from the city in the search for a weekend escape from everyday life. We turned off the pavement and drove the next 15 miles of gravel to the trailhead. There were about 12-15 cars there already, I knew it would be a busy night along Opal Creek. We started off enjoying the evening time in the forest, the trail is basically an old jeep road for the first 2.5 miles and it only gains 200’ of elevation so we were moving at a good clip of about 3.5 mph. Along the way Karluk stopped to relive himself, to my dismay he was pretty runny, I had to dig a hole and use some ferns and other plant matter to clean things up. We reached Sawmill Falls and stopped to grab a few photos of the rusty old boiler, rail tracks and other artifacts from when this area was a mine. A few hundred yards later we reached the trail head for Opal Creek, we crossed the bridge and started up. I figured I would find a camp spot somewhere up the trail for the night, site after site was taken as we hiked through the magnificent old growth cedars along one of the clearest creeks you’ll ever see.
Finally we reached Opal Pool and the bridge we needed to cross in the morning I looked up the hill and spotted a nice spot. I dropped my pack and was about to set up when I noticed TP and human pooh in the site - Gross! when will people ever embrace the basic and proper Leave No trace ethics for using our backcountry areas? I quickly got out my trowel and took care of the mess, then proceeded to set camp. We enjoyed a light dinner, and then played ball for a while before the light faded. Karluk and I slipped into the tent and quickly fell asleep to the sound of owls and running water from the nearby falls at opal pool.
The hot dogs and chili though from earlier in the day were a bit of an issue that night. Karluk had some of the worst gas I ever experienced, at least 3 times during the night I was woken up by what I was sure was him having a GI issue in the tent, even with the door wide open it was down right un-bearable in there at times
We woke early as usual it was about 5:15am and already it was light out, Karluk was glad to get out of the tent to relive himself, I laid in my trusty old GoLite Ultra 20 quilt not quite wanting to stir, I rallied though and went out of the tent to get the day going. I enjoyed some instant Vietnamese coffee I got at the Asian market the other week, and my homemade hiker mash as I call which consists of grape nuts, craisins, dried coconut, and powdered coconut milk. I then fueled up Karluk with a TurboPUP bar and broke camp.
We were off hiking by 6:30 that morning, we crossed over Opal Creek and took a quick trip to Jawbone Flats to see the old mining town and artifacts before hitting the trail. Jawbone Flats is a large confusing area it took us a few minutes to know exactly what trail to take but we eventually found our trail and started our climb up to Beechie Saddle. The trail started out on the old road that used to lead to some mine sites, the road was pretty good at first because it was wide enough to not be too brushy, after a few miles we finally made it to the gate and boundary for Bull of the Woods Wilderness.
The next four miles found us following the old road which had been turned into the trail, the area has a lot washouts along the road, and tons of brush. Often we were pushing our way through rhododendrons, devil’s club and huckleberries. The trail had a lot of blow downs that we made quick work of as we weaved our way over, under and through them. We arrived at Beechie Saddle a gap which sits between Beechie Mountain and Battle Axe Mountain. We broke for about 20 minutes, ate a snack and enjoyed being in the sun after hiking through the damp forest for the past few hours.
We then proceeded to climb up Battle Axe Mountain and took another rest at the summit where the remains of a former fire tower sat. We enjoyed views of the Cascades from the summit, you could see Mt Hood, Mt Jefferson, Broken Top, Three Sisters, Mt Bachelor and the steep foothills that connect them all. I consulted my map and saw the area of our planned hike was going to take is through a burned over area from the forest fires in the area a year ago. Since t was in the 80’s and more or less sunny I decided to alter our route to avoid the burned area. We then crossed the ridge of Battle Axe until we came to a saddle in the mountain, this was the junction to Whetstone Mountain, Bagby Hot Springs andTwin Lakes, it was lunch time so we dropped our packs and commenced with lunch.
During Lunch I pulled out my map and reviewed the area, the clouds were steadily building and the barometer was dropping. I decided that instead of camping at twin lakes as we planned I would instead make a 25 mile loop and camp again that evening by Opal Creek. This new loop would allow us a nice 3-4 miles out out in the morning and if the rain came early we wouldn’t have to spend our Sunday walking a ridge line in the rain. The decision was made and lunch was over so we set out for the rest of our loop. We were out of water at this point but the map showed a spring in a half a mile so I figured we would camel up there for the remaining 13 miles. Little did I know that all hell was about to break loose.
I was walking along through the thick brush, enjoying the scenery when out of know where I rolled my ankle the hardest I ever have. I SCREAMED OUT in pain cussing like a sailor for the whole forest to hear! It felt like someone had just bashed my ankle with a sledge hammer. I nearly hit the ground, but was able to brace myself with my hiking poles. I panicked and started to have thoughts of doom race through my mind, luckily years of wilderness first aid a backcountry travel kicked in, I caught my breath. I knew this was bad, so I prioritized what i needed to do to keep going:
1. Get to spring, soak the foot and get water
2. Wrap the injury if needed
3. Keep moving until I got to my car, I knew once I stopped the ankle would seize up and I would be stuffed
I made it the spring in about .2 miles, to my dismay it was little more than a 6” puddle on the hillside, “well guess i’m not soaking this ankle” I thought. I filled my water bottles and Karluk’s and pulled out the map, it was 11.5 miles to my truck, it would require us walking along the ridge of Whetstone Mountain and then descending 3.5 miles to the valley floor and the old jeep road that would take us back to the car. I put on my pack, in the heat of the moment I spaced wrapping my ankle and just started doing the only thing I knew would save my ass, hike.
We started along the ridge the trail was a brushy mess, like the rest of the previous miles we had hiked. We started to encounter the first of what would be many blowdowns, the first one was tough, I had to crawl under it and with my ankle being hurt, it made this usual inconvenient task a monumental argus one. I made it through and we kept on. The first few miles were rough, I knew the ankle was cooked but I had to keep moving, each step shot a pain straight up the ankle and my shin, I nearly moaned with every step. After a mile I decided to put on my head phones and see if music would help distract me form the pain. It helped some but the moving was slow.
Karluk really knew something was wrong, early on after I was hurt he stayed right in front of me and never went more than 10’ away. When we approached an obstacle, typically a blow down, he would pause, look back at me, and then go over , through or around the the obstacle. once on the other side he would stop turnaround an wait for me. If for some reason I took to long, he would come back through to me, nudge me with his nose and then go back through again. I am positive at this point he was guiding me through these obstacles as he knew I was injured and needed his help.
The miles went slow, my typical 3.5mph pace was down to about 1.9-2mph. I was trying to just keep moving but my new gait looked like more of strut down the trail than a hike. I hobbled along another mile thinking of my brother Don. When we were kids he was relentless on me he was always wrestling, fighting, giving me wedgies, and constantly waging physiological warfare that only an older brother can apply to his younger one. Later in life I asked him one day why he did that to me when we were young, his response “to toughen you up, now look at you are the hardest person I know, you’re a bad ass mountain man and I know you can handle anything life throws your way”. I laughed at his statement as I walked, if he could only see me right now he would be proud, I told myself and walked another mile.
I eventually caught another hiker, a solo UL hiker out for the weekend. I told him of my injury and we decided to hike together a mile or two until his turn off to an old ridge road he was going to camp on. He had extensive knowledge of the trail ahead and the area. He helped take my mind off the pain by chatting with me about UL techniques and gear. I told him about being a brand ambassador for different companies and some of the various hikes I have taken in the past few years. Before I knew it we were at a trail junction that could get me to Jawbone Flats and the environmental center. He did inform me that the trail was pretty much straight down with a steep grade. There was water along it in a few miles.
I pondered taking the trail but i still had enough water to get me out and either way my car was still the same distance no matter which way I went. I did consider going down and trying to get someone at the Environmental Center to drive me out the gated road 3.5 miles, but knew there was no guarantee if I did that and my truck would still be 4 miles away. I decided after asking how the trail ahead was and being reassured that the blowdowns weren’t so bad so I decided to just push forward, he was wrong the blowdowns were bad the whole way. In half a mile our friend departed us just as quickly as he had appeared, and turned down the old road to find a camp site. 6.5 miles to go, I can do this-I plugged in my ipod and Karluk and I continued on as the bonded pair we are.
I made it about another mile when I just couldn’t take the pain any more. I dropped my pack and Karluk’s for a quick break and to see if I could wrap my ankle. I dug through my pack and pulled out the first aid kit, which was pretty low, in fact it was missing my ace bandage. I had loaned to my wife last fall on hike and forgot to put it back in afterwards. Quickly I dug through Karluk’s pack and found the vet wrap he carries. I pulled down my gaiter and my sock and loosened my shoe enough to slip my heal out. What I saw was frightening. My ankle was like a giant tick, all bloated and red, it was hot to the touch and very tender. I took the vet wrap and began wrapping my ankle as tight as I could handle. I then quickly pulled up my sock, shoved my foot back in the show-OUCH! and laced them tight. I took 3 extra strength Tylenol, I am allergic to Advil, Naproxen, and the other anti-inflammatories out on the market, so this was my only choice. I had a few cliff gel cubes, packed up and we were back on trail. 5.5 miles to go, I still had lots of day light I just hoped I had the fortitude to keep going.
The start back up was rough, in the short time I had taken to wrap my ankle, it was now starting to get the locked up feeling. I dug deep into my soul and thought of all the polar explorers I have read about who endured much worse than this. One in particular being Sir Ernest Shackleton, and his story of survival on the ice. When I was hiking the AT my friend Brush worked in Antarctica, and as we hiked along he would tell me tales of the ice and the explorers who went there, then he taught me this quote, “if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time," He said whenever he was struggling in life on a trip, or when hiking a big mountain he would say the name “Shackleton” and conjure up his spirit to help him on his way. I proceeded to do just that, for the next 5 miles I would often find myself chanting “Shackleton, Shackleton, Shackleton” over and over. It worked, in a mile and half I was back walking and reached the summit trail to Whetstone Mountain and the beginning of the descent to the car.
Great downhill! Boy was I wrong, usually I fly down hill I soften my knees and lengthen my stride and practically jog down hill, not today. The first steps were a whole new pain level for me. I gritted my teeth and told myself, “just 3.5 miles down and .5 mile flat, come on Allgood man up!” I walked slowly down the mountain as we descended I was moving very slow, Karluk did what he had been doing all day when I slowed, he started to hike behind me. Then every once and while he would gently nudge my calf with his head, he was helping me to keep going even though I was struggling.
The forest changed from the thin nobel firs of the day and reveled old growth Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars. Some of the trees were 8’ in diameter, mighty sentinels of the forest. I kept my mind off the pain by thinking about how old the trees were and wall they had witnessed. Being a wood scientist by education, and profession, geeking out on the trees was a great escape. The trail wasn’t going to give me up that easily though. All of a sudden one of these Giants lay in my path, it was massive, to low to go under and as tall as me. I grabbed a branch and pulled myself up, I sat my butt on a branch and proceeded a second pull up to get me to the top, I was then able to slowly lower myself down to the trail and continue on.
Finally we were close, I ran into 3 folks coming up the trail it was almost 5pm and they were just starting, got to love the long light this time of year. They informed me there was some water ahead and that I was close to the jeep road, it was just the encouragement I needed to get this thing done. I stopped at the spring and filled our bottles while Karluk got a drink, I felt a sigh of relief enough at this point that even sapped a few pictures of the trees. We then pushed on and met the jeep road. That flat 1/2 mile was the longest 1/2 mile I have ever had to walk, just get me there already I said. I limped around the gate at the end and over to my truck. It was 5:44pm, It had taken me over 5 1/2 hours to get out after I was hurt, I was spent and just wanted a bag of ice and some pain killers.
I fed and watered Karluk, then reached in my pack and pulled out the beer I had saved for dinner that evening. After all that hiking I sat in the shade of my truck, and drank a beer, it was cool from my hydration pack being on it all day, and never has beer tasted so good or well earned. I changed into my fresh shorts and t-shirt I always leave in the truck for a town stop on the way home- and headed for the barn. After jostling down the 20 miles of gravel and back to the highway I was able to stop in Stayton, OR - 45 minutes later. There I bought a bag of ice, shoved my foot in it, and drove home the hour and half to Portland.
I reflected on my experience on the way home, how lucky I was to have been able to get myself out. If my Ankle had been broken or a compound fracture I would have had to used my SPOT for a rescue, never what any hiker wants. I also thought about my gear, I was so thankful that my pack was light, if I had been carrying my AT gear from the ’90’s I don’t know if I could have made it out, just one more reason to go UL and encourage others to do the same. Finally, I was so thankful that Karluk was with me, it was his encouragement and companionship that helped me through the ordeal more than anything, I am so lucky to have him in my life.
Upon my return form the trip, I had x-rays, it revealed that nothing was broken just a very bad sprain that stretches from my ankle to my calf. I got the old, “probably would of been better if it had broken” and was informed the hike out only made matters worse, yup thanks for the heads up. The doctor prescribed RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) and told me I was to stay off trail for 2-4 weeks and brace it when hiking going forward.
So here we sit at the beginning of backpacking season, and were off trail for a month. So many trips were canceled, PCT White Pass to Trout Lake, Mt St Helens Climb on the 7th, etc...Hopefully I will be ready to hit the trail in mid July for the Timberline Trail. Until then happy trails to you.