Friday, February 9, 2007

Crossing the Johnson


Landmark to Johnson Creek

June 17, 2006

"Let's walk in each direction upstream and downstream to see if there's a better place to cross," Jerry suggested. "The ford is here," I thought, looking at the blazes on the tree on the far bank of the creek. "The trail ends at this bank and begins again on the other bank, and besides, there is Johnson Creek Road, right over there! They put the ford here for a reason!" my thoughts continued. I was very tired, thirsty, and frustrated by this large liquid obstacle in our path. Reluctantly, I started heading upstream, but all I could see were more rapids as the creek bed followed the contour of the canyon bending away out of sight. I knew that further upstream lay Whitehorse Rapids, which were even more impassable. I returned to the ford and waited for Jerry to come back from his search downstream…..


Our day had begun at 6 a.m. Saturday June 17th, 2006. I picked up Jerry at his house, and we drove north to Cascade. After picking up his Suburban from the repair shop, and eating breakfast at a local café, we drove east on highway 22 to Warm Lake. As we climbed above the early morning fog of lower elevations we could see that it was going to be a beautiful blue sky day. By the time we got the Suburban parked on one end of the trail as a shuttle vehicle, and drove back to the road intersection near Landmark, it was 11 a.m.

From this road junction, the ICT turns north on road 414. The first two miles were not too bad on graded gravel road. We made fairly good time hiking along, with Jerry in his customary lead position, and me in my customary “heel” position; that is, a stride or two behind him and to the left. We began to climb gradually above 6500'. When the terrain turns uphill, the distance of my “heel” position increases quite a bit since I can’t match Jerry’s pace. When we stopped for a break, Jerry took a GPS reading that said we were at 7300'. We were confused by this until a group of riders on an ATV and dirt bikes came by and stopped to talk to us. They looked at our map and told us that the ICT was further below, so we had to backtrack almost a mile to get to a Y in the road which we had passed. This road was marked 414 B, and another signpost said that FT123 was 0.9 miles ahead. These numbers didn't match anything that showed on our maps, but the direction seemed right. We hoped that the locals had been truthful with us and weren't sending us in the wrong direction.

This trail was not maintained and seemed to match the description on my map of a "single-track trail." The trail descended through the forest and then took another turn, also marked 123. We were looking for FT075 or Burnt Log Trail, but the men on the road above had assured us that this trail was Burnt Log. We followed along through the forest until we came upon a stream crossing. Jerry pointed out a trail marker that I missed, since it was bent over and I had my eyes fixed on the trail. This marker said we were on FT075. That was reassuring to know.

We stopped for a lunch break where the trail came alongside Johnson Creek. We could see the road on the west side about 100-200 yards across the way. We knew from our topo maps that our trail was to roughly parallel the road and the creek for several miles, and we were heading almost due north which was the way we had to go. Things were looking better from our meanderings of the morning. Since I had run out of water, I filled my water bottle and added iodine tablets (my filter still needs repaired).

From this point we knew it was about a 7 mile stretch to make it to the ford across Johnson Creek. The trail climbed back up several hundred feet and Johnson Creek was further to our west. Along the way, I saw a survey marker that had a ¼ etched above the marking S13/S18.

When I relayed this to Jerry, he located a corner on his map (didn’t appear on my topo) where two townships, S13 and S18, met. This helped to pinpoint our location.

From the top of our climb we could see for miles across the wide valley below us. There were mountains and pine trees in all directions. Jerry commented wryly that the view of trees and mountains beat the sagebrush and desert any day. We had been discussing desert hiking versus mountain hiking. Even though I said that desert hiking had grown on me, as long as it was in the proper season, I had to agree with his assessment. These kind of sweeping views are a large part of the reason we hike.

Several miles further north and later in the afternoon, our footpath of a trail met up once again with a gravel road. A trail marker pointed back at the path we had taken and was marked FT123. Very confusing. We were in the correct location according to the topo maps and Jerry's GPS, only the road signs did not match. We continued north along the road, pausing to investigate a side trail that dead-ended. I found a tube of Mary Kay lipstick near a fire ring, evidence of past campers in this location.

Another mile or so further north, we ran into a major obstacle. We knew that our road was supposed to make a steep descent of about 1200 feet, to take us down to Johnson Creek and the ford that was marked on our map. The road, however, ended at a large pile of rocks. There were no discernible trails or trail markers that we could see leading away from where the road ended. We began following the drainage downhill, reasoning that if water could run downhill, so could we. Conditions on the mountain side quickly deteriorated into brush, tangled blown down trees, pine trees, rocks and boulders. Jerry and I kept track of each other by periodically calling out. We were spread out so we could look for a path or marker. As we were struggling along, I remembered an old joke. It would probably be considered as “gallows humor” but I was trying to keep a sense of humor about the way our day was going. I asked Jerry, “If a man makes a decision in the forest, (and there is no woman around to hear him), is he still wrong?”

We could hear Johnson Creek roaring far below us, and see evidence of a road climbing the far western slope. According to our topo maps, this was Log Mountain Road. We knew that Whitehorse Rapids and Johnson Creek Road (and the Suburban) lie below us to the west, and that the ford was ahead to our north. At a rest stop, we consulted the maps again. It appeared that the slope was funneling us over to the western face, when the topo showed the trail descending from the road straight down the northern point and veering slightly to the east. At that point, we decided to stop descending and follow the contour around the mountain to the north and then to the east.

Once we got around to the northern face, we were confronted with a more serious problem. The slope became extremely steep and looked perilous to descend. This pushed us further around to the eastern side of the mountain, which offered a slightly less steep but still perilous slope. All the way, we were fighting our way over, around, and through the tangle of trees, brush, deadfall, rocks, and sloped ground. At one point I said, "We have GOT to get out of this soon, before one of us gets hurt!" The thought of a broken ankle or leg was very much in my mind, for either Jerry or myself. I could envision how much more serious our predicament would become were that to happen.

We continued downhill, angling to the east, then to the west, then straight downhill to the north. As we neared the bottom of the slope, we knew that we were drawing near to Johnson Creek and the ford. Jerry went one direction, and I the other, in search of some sign or trail. I found both. I stepped onto a path that went west, and at the same time saw one of the familiar double hash blazes on a tree ahead. I went back and called to Jerry, who was already heading my direction. We were back on the trail. We hadn't followed it for very long before it brought us alongside swift-flowing Johnson Creek. And then we were there, at the ford over Johnson Creek.

Now we were faced with our biggest, but not our last, challenge of the day:


Jerry had been worrying about the ford all day, from the first time we drove along Johnson Creek road and saw the strength and fury of its rapids. I wasn't too worried about it. It was something I knew we would have to do, but first we had to get to it. Now we had arrived, and realization began to dawn on me. I spend hours in the Boise River each summer, tubing and swimming with the kids. The current is strong, the water is cold, and there are some deep places along the way. Johnson Creek, however, was flowing much more strongly with snowmelt and was considerably faster. I had resigned myself to getting wet, but Jerry was very reluctant to cross here. He suggested that we look upstream and downstream for a better place to cross. Once we returned from that search, he suggested that we travel further north to the next creek on our side which flowed down into Johnson Creek. The topo showed this to be about a mile away. The daylight was waning, and I was tired from our bushwhacking experience down the side of the mountain. I pointed to the west and said, "We are going to run out of daylight!"

"Let me give it a try here!" I pleaded with Jerry, and walked down to the bank. He looked me in the eye in a penetrating way and said, "…and what is the alternative?" He didn't say, "You're going to drown, you IDIOT" but rather he asked me a question. There was something in the way he said it and the way that he stared at me that gave me pause. It started my internal wheels, such as they are, to spinning. I thought, "uh…..drowning?"

I stepped into the water near the bank, over my ankles, and probed with my hiking staff to feel for the bottom and it went in over halfway. This was only a couple of feet out from the bank. It was much deeper than it looked, and was running very fast. Here on the banks of "the Johnson," I felt a great deal of respect for the Israelites who were commanded to cross the Jordan River, at flood stage, into the Promised Land. Their first step would have been off the bank in over their heads. Right now, I was wishing that the LORD would dry this creek up for Jerry and me to cross over to the other side.

I was frustrated, but I had to grudgingly admit that Jerry was right. Sometimes you have to trust your hiking partner to watch out for you. Jerry was watching my back.

We began plodding north along the bank, through the tangle of trees, brush, deadfall, rocks, and hillocks, we pair of honyocks. I was extremely thirsty, having finished my treated water from earlier. I had not stopped to fill it beside Johnson Creek. I stumbled on, about 50 yards behind Jerry. Finally, about a mile later, we came to Buck Creek. The prognosis was not much better here. The creek was flowing strongly, although it was not as deep as Johnson Creek. Jerry began taking off his boots. I was desperate for water, so I filled my bottle and added iodine. Jerry turned back from his first attempt to cross. I walked over to another spot, where posts with pink and black striped ribbons marked the ford. I plunged across, boots and all, planting my feet carefully. At one point the current gave me a strong nudge, but I managed to keep my balance and stepped onto the bank on the other side. I looked back, and Jerry had begun to cross again, although he was still trying the same location as before. I watched him struggle about two-thirds of the way and then freeze. He looked like he was very uncomfortable with the situation. I plunged back into the water and began plodding against the current to reach his position. I extended my hiking staff out to him, but he motioned me away so he could toss his boots up on the bank. They contained his camera and socks, and he wanted them obviously to stay dry. That being accomplished, he started wading across again. Before he could reach the bank, however, the current knocked him over. Down he went, pack and all. Fortunately, he was able to get up and climb out of the water.

Now we had to climb steeply up the other bank and locate Thunder Mountain Road. Jerry put his boots back on, and then put on his nylon rain jacket. He said he was freezing and needed to get moving. The evening air was beginning to turn cool, and we both knew that hypothermia could begin to develop in these circumstances. He began ascending the hill ahead of me. I struggled along, still parched and waiting the allotted time for my water treatment tablets. He waited for me above, and then said he was going to push on so he could keep moving. I was only wet from the waist down, and had not gotten my torso wet like Jerry. I knew what he was saying. He said he would keep moving, find Thunder Mountain Road, descend to Johnson Creek Road, cross the bridge, walk back to the Suburban, and come back for me. He wanted me to just follow along at my own pace and he would find me. I agreed and he turned to continue climbing. After only a few steps, he turned back around to me and said, "Here it is! This is Thunder Mountain Road!" I was very glad. He took off down the road, and a few minutes later I got to where he had stepped onto the gravel road. What a relief. Thank you, LORD, I whispered.

From here, it was about a 300 foot descent down the road until Thunder Mountain Road teed into Johnson Creek Road. I turned left and walked over the bridge over Johnson Creek. Crossing the Johnson had been a major obstacle, but this bridge put it all behind us. My water tablets had finally dissolved, and after a few minutes to let the ascorbic acid tablets dissolve to eliminate the iodine color and taste, I took my first drink in hours. It was a little silty, but it sure was refreshing to me at that point.

The Suburban was parked about 3 miles up the road from the junction with Thunder Mountain Road. I made it about two miles, keeping a slow but steady pace. It was about dark-thirty by this time, but I still had enough light to walk by. Whitehorse Rapids was running furiously along the left side of the road, and I could see how it had received its name. Envision the scene in the movie, "Fellowship of the Ring" at the Ford of the Bruinen, when the creek rises up to sweep away the Nine Riders, and the image of white horses can be seen at the head of the frothing breakers. That, in miniature, is a good description of the frothy white current of Whitehorse Rapids as it plummets over the course of a mile through a narrow canyon.

After a couple of miles of walking, and nearing the midway point of Whitehorse Rapids, I thought I could see headlights somewhere along the road off to the south. I was hoping that it would be Jerry. I walked on and did not see the lights again, and thought I might have been seeing things. Soon after, Jerry rounded a curve and pulled up alongside me. TAXI !!!!!!!! He could not turn around at this point on the narrow winding road, so he drove all the way back down to the turn-in at Thunder Mountain Road. The transmission on the Suburban was still misbehaving, and Jerry was worried that we might not make it back up the road. He turned around and we headed back toward Landmark. Thankfully, the transmission began working better and we made it back to the road intersection where the Saturn was parked. It was now 10:30 p.m. We still had to drive home to Boise, which took us until 1:45 a.m. Sunday morning.

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