Walk longer, sleep less
a hiking adventure in Hell's Canyon
Granite Creek to Pittsburgh Landing
April 04-06, 2008
The title for this chapter is an adaptation of a line from the Disney movie "Iron Will." In the movie, the character Will Stoneman enters a 500 mile dogsled race. He is trained for the race by the character Ned, a farm hand who happens to be Native American. Ned knows that his young friend will be facing a field of toughened and experienced dogsled racers, as well as brutal winter weather. One of the lessons that Ned teaches Will is "Run longer, sleep less." As the story plays out, Will wins the race by following this wisdom.
Going into this hike, I knew that there would probably be a lot of elite hikers, and probably some trail runners as well. I also knew from past experience that I am usually the slowest person in any given group of hikers. I resolved in advance that I was going to "Walk longer, sleep less" in order to complete the 25 mile hike. At the time I didn't realize just how poignant and relevant this expression was going to become for me.
The following *advertisement* appeared on the Idaho Outdoors Yahoo email group, announcing an upcoming hiking trip in Hell's Canyon:
We have a friend with a jet boat who is willing to take approximately 10 people 25 miles upriver on the Snake River from Pittsburg Landing. We will hike about 25 miles back to Pittsburg Land that day. If you are looking for a shorter hike, you can get dropped off at other locations along the river. The trail is a well marked trail along the Snake River with a few steep sections, but mostly level or rolling hills. We did this last year and really enjoyed it. The cost should be about $50 a person for gas if we can fill the boat up. We are going to drive up on Friday, April 4 and spend the weekend camping at Pittsburg Landing. We will get up early on Saturday morning for the hour jet boat trip up the river. We will be back to camp before dark late on Saturday afternoon. Please email me direcly if you are interested in joining us. ---Carrie
On Friday April 4th, I drove north from Boise on highway 55 to McCall, then continued north on highway 95 from New Meadows. Just before reaching the town of White Bird, I turned off on Deer Creek Road (Road 493). This is the road to Pittsburgh Landing recreation area in Hell's Canyon. As I began to drive the gravel road, rain began to fall. By the time I reached Cow Creek Saddle at over 4,000 feet elevation, it was snowing large, fat, wet flakes of snow. It continued snowing as I descended the switchbacks on the western side of the saddle, then went back to rain as I dropped below the 4,000 foot mark. I could see the road descending for miles ahead towards a great big canyon wall which looked a lot like Hell's Canyon. I arrived at the Pittsburgh Landing campground, and looked for a large group of people camping next to a large jetboat. Steve and Jeff Ostrom and their family members had occupied the first campsite inside the gate. I selected a campsite across the road from them, and struggled with getting my tent, rainfly, and extra tarp set up in the wind and blowing rain. Ironically, once I got the tent set up, the wind died down and the rain quit. Figures! I heated my dinner and made a large cup of instant coffee. After eating my dinner, I took a folding chair and my coffee and went to sit by the fire at my neighbors' campsite. In this way I got a little acquainted with some of the folks with whom I would be hiking the next day. Most of them were experienced long distance walkers, and some were planning on running the last 10 miles of the trail. I knew that it would be a test for me, but I was excited about the challenge. My sleep was less that night, thanks to some inconsiderate campers next to me who stayed up laughing and talking around their campfire until the wee hours of the morning.
Saturday, April 5th
Eight a.m. was the appointed gathering time in the morning for the group to assemble. There were about a dozen people and three dogs who would be leaving on the boat, with a couple of people remaining behind in camp. Carrie with her recently broken leg was one of these. It was probably 08:30 by the time they told us to start walking down the road towards the boat ramp. The F350 truck pulling the enormous jet boat circled the campground and came down the road toward where we were waiting, then swung around into position to back down the ramp. It took several minutes to maneuver the large craft down to the water. Captain Steve oversaw the backing process from the stern of the boat while Doug backed the rig downhill. Life jackets were distributed and each person donned one. Once the boat was afloat, the group assembled on a large dock 100 yards south along the river bank and Steve nosed the boat in to the dock. After we had all climbed aboard, we started off to the south on our great river journey. Or at least, so we thought. Steve throttled up the dual 6.0 liter Chevy engines and they roared to life, propelling the boat with great speed against the strong river current of the Snake.
The first order of business on the river was to travel one mile upriver to the official trailhead to pick up some more passengers. Before we got a half mile up the river, I overheard Captain Steve voicing a concern about a temperature gauge on one of the engines. As we approached the river banks near the trailhead, I could see three people waiting for us to pick them up. One of them happened to be my friend Nick Abshire, with whom I have hiked quite a few times and about 100 miles. The other two people were Andy and Julie Rad. Captain Steve maneuvered the boat carefully near the bank and we took the threesome aboard. Then Steve announced to everyone on board that we had to return to Pittsburgh Landing so that he could figure out what was wrong with the engine. Since we were getting a later start than I had anticipated, I inwardly groaned at this news, but the Captain is the Captain, so back we went. They unloaded all of us at the boat dock.
Then Steve maneuvered the boat back onto the trailer, and the F350 pulled the boat and trailer out of the water up the ramp. Steve crawled under the stern of the boat and started investigating. After about 15 minutes, Ben came walking back over to the docks where most of us were milling around. He showed us a small rock, about the size of a walnut. Two such rocks had been found in the water intake for the right engine. Just the two small rocks wedged into the intake louvers had been enough to cause the engine to overheat. With the problem fixed, the boat was lowered back into the water, and within a few minutes we were all back on board ready for re-departure.
The ride upriver through the canyon was very enjoyable. Steve handled his watercraft like a seasoned river runner, expertly picking his way through rapids and around large boat eating boulders in mid stream. The ride was very rough and bouncy in places as the powerful engines propelled us through the wild rapids. I overheard Captain Steve commenting that "this boat is like a Cadillac compared to the old boat." I also heard him saying that, in the calm stretches of water, the boat was reaching 50 mph, even with 15 people on board!
From inside the enclosed cabin, we were able to preview the day's hiking in reverse, from the water level looking up. We passed by Kirkwood Ranch, Suicide Point, Johnson Bar, and Bernard Rapids. After about an hour's travel up the river, Captain Steve began saying that he was looking for a certain mountain which was a landmark for him to know that we were close to Granite Creek. Around another bend in the river, a snow-capped mountain appeared in the distance to the south. Steve pronounced this mountain to be his desired landmark. We were not quite all the way to Granite Creek, but we could see rapids further up the river which corresponded with the approximate location on the map of the creek outlet. I would guess based upon what I remember and looking at the topo maps that we were about three-quarters of a mile from the creek outlet. We pulled in to the bank on the Idaho side and prepared to disembark. I looked at my little clock, which read 11:00 am Boise time. We were getting a much later start than I had hoped for. Steve asked us if we were all *really* sure that we wanted to walk all the way back to Pittsburgh Landing. I answered in the affirmative along with everyone else. Walk longer, sleep less. I tried not to think about the extreme distance, just the adventure ahead of me and putting one foot in front of the other.
The *river bank* at this particular point consisted of lots of irregular shaped boulders lying jumbled at the bottom of a steep slope. The group assembled here, then began to climb the steep bank to reach the trail above us. We had to ascend the sometimes slippery slope at least 150 to 200 vertical feet before we actually could set foot on the trail. I was already huffing and puffing before I reached the trail. We looked below to see the few people still left in the boat pulling away from the bank and setting off down the river. Some of the group members were carrying FRS radios in order to stay in touch with the boat.
Hence began the great journey through Hell's Canyon. Most of the group set off ahead of me, with a few folks behind. It wasn't long before I stepped aside to allow Paul and a couple of others to pass by me. I was trying to settle into my pace and didn't want to try to win the race in the first half hour. For the first mile and a half, the group played a sort of leapfrog game, with some folks stopping to peel off outer layers as they warmed up. I got ahead of some of the faster members, then had to pull right over again and allow them around me. After we had gone a little over a mile, the trail lost all the elevation that we had fought so hard to win when we scrambled up the hill from the boat. The trail came down to a water drainage or creek of some size. The depression was filled in with a lot of small trees and tangled undergrowth. I stopped at the edge, looking around for the trail which seemed to vanish. Great, I thought this was supposed to be a "well-defined trail" and "easy to follow." I wound up doing what the others in front of me did, which was to bend to the left, down into the creek bed, through the thick undergrowth, and down to the river's edge trying to pick my way along through slick rocks and boulders. We fought our way through the brush and came out on the other side of the ravine, then had to fight our way back up another steep cliff section to the trail which now made itself apparent above us. All through this bush-whacking process I kept thinking "I hope I don't see a snake, I hope I don't see a snake." Again, I was sucking lots of wind by the time I clambered my way back up onto the trail. We hadn't gone even two miles yet, and I was already feeling fatigued. I was beginning to think that this trail was going to be a whole lot more than I had bargained for.
Fortunately, after this point, the going became much easier and I settled into a comfortable walking pace to go the distance. The sun had now gone up high enough in the sky to shine down into the canyon. It was becoming warmer but not uncomfortably so. It was still fairly chilly in the shaded sections of the trail. People had by now peeled off a lot of layers and were walking in shorts and T-shirts. I kept my outer shirt on and the zip-on leggings of my pants on, due to the frequent brush we had to go through. I was still on the lookout for serpents and ticks, and didn't want to invite either to sample my flesh.
The overnight group, consisting of Nick Abshire and the Rad's (Andy and Julie), had stopped ahead of me. I jokingly asked them if they were making camp already. Nick grinned and said, "Yeah, we're tired." I passed on by and that was the last I saw of them for the rest of the hike. Their plan was to take two nights to do this section. I hope to return some day and do likewise.
The canyon walls were steep and high on either side of the river for the first few miles. Nearing the four mile mark of the journey, the terrain on the Oregon side underwent a significant change. The high canyon wall receded and gave way to a large valley opening up for a long distance up into the high country on the Oregon side. This valley was the drainage known as Saddle Creek. At the bottom of the drainage is a large brushy triangular area which has the appearance of a river delta. Apparently many centuries of sediment washed down from high above and deposited at the mouth of the creek where it drained into the river. According to the maps, there is a trail that follows Saddle Creek down to the Snake River, where it connects to the river trail going north along the Oregon side. The Saddle Creek trail climbs into Oregon all the way up to Freezeout Saddle, and from there to the National Scenic Trail high on the rim. It looked to me like another great adventure, although it would have to wait for another time. I took a picture of it and continued on my way. On the other side of the creek, the canyon wall once again rose several hundred feet above the river.
From about the three mile mark onward, I was hiking by myself almost the rest of the entire trip. This I was prepared for, since my walking pace is typically slower than most other hikers. I had already accepted that the majority of this group were “racehorses.” That would make me a “Clydesdale,” I guess. The thoroughbred stallions and mares had already taken off and left me behind. I just kept clopping along with my slow steady pace. I did catch up to Lydia at the five mile mark, which was at McGaffee Cabin. She was resting and eating as I passed by. I took some pictures of the historic cabin and went across the bridge. It was time to get my first bottle of water. I had decided to use Potable Aqua tablets for this trip, so as not to have the weight of the water filter. I would simply dip my bottle and fill it in the creek, put two Iodine tablets in, and carry it for a while to dissolve the Iodine. The second part of the treatment is two Ascorbic Acid tablets (vitamin C basically) to clear up the water and take away the Iodine taste. The system worked well for this type of trip. Water stops just took a couple of minutes and then I was on my way again.
As I passed by upper and lower Bernard Rapids, I noted that my topo map showed these were 5 miles along from our starting point. I set my sights ahead to reach the next 5 mile interval, which was near Johnson Bar. I kept cruising along through the canyon, pausing occasionally to admire the snow capped mountains above, to marvel at the river's power and volume as it flowed relentlessly along through the canyon, or to watch a passing jet boat go by. The trail was not hard to follow and I made reasonably good progress as the sun shifted past the halfway mark and began its downward progression through the afternoon. I only caught occasional distant sightings of my fellow hikers as they pulled further and further ahead. The one exception was Lydia, whom I saw again briefly as she was stopped near Johnson Bar for lunch. I took the opportunity to grab a few bites myself as I spread my stuff out on the convenient rock slab beside the trail. By now it was mid-afternoon. I studied my topo maps for my upcoming objectives. I was not quite to Johnson Bar, as Captain Steve had made sure to point out the gauging station on the Oregon side of the river as we had passed it earlier that morning.
Done with lunch, I continued walking and within a mile or so came to a large sandy beach. Across the river I could see the gauging station, and knew that I had arrived at Johnson Bar and the 10 mile mark of my hike. Only 15 more miles to go to the trailhead, then another mile beyond that to the campground. I tried not to think too hard about the miles ahead. I had an awareness that I was racing the daylight, yet felt comfortable with my progress and was not (too) anxious about finishing the remaining distance. I just tried to concentrate on the next mile and keeping my footing on the narrow winding trail.
Another mile or so beyond Johnson Bar I came upon Sheep Creek Ranch. Crossing the bridge over Sheep Creek I saw a sign marker that showed it was 11 miles back to Granite Creek, and 13 miles to Pittsburgh Landing trailhead. Almost halfway there. I briefly stopped here to refill a bottle and drop the treatment tablets in it. Then I came upon a row of trees and a picnic table set up beside the trail. I rested here for about 10 minutes. There was a house and several small outbuildings here and a lawn with green grass. I saw the proprietor of the place headed down another trail toward the river. After several minutes I walked ahead and met him as he was walking back up to his house. We exchanged greetings and I continued on. The trail merged with the broad path that led to the house. Down by the river the trail resumed its single track and continued northward. Here there was a U.S. Mail box on a post. Whoever brought the mail to this address was a dedicated postal employee.
The next several miles were a succession of cliffs and bars. I passed by Pine Bar, High Bar, and Little Bar. Pine Bar was a hillside sloping down to a gravel beach. The pine trees lasted for about a quarter mile. High Bar was a large mounded hill that went on for over a mile. The shade from the cliffs on the Oregon side was starting to get long and cover the trail on the Idaho side as I walked on. At Myers Creek the trail ascended a cliff and turned eastward until it crossed over the creek. A large cliff loomed ahead of me. From the topo map I could see there was supposed to be an old mine ahead, and on the cliff I could see a long section of pipe running from the direction of the creek horizontally across the cliff. Up and over a saddle and I continued marching north. Ahead was a long field on the Oregon side with several buildings, and on the Idaho side adjacent was a long field with a dirt airstrip. This corresponded on my map with Brockman Ranch. The daylight was waning. I paused for a few pictures and then continued on. I wanted to get around Suicide Point before the daylight was gone, but the longer I walked the less likely it looked that I would get there.
Suicide Point. That had to be the massive rock formation I could see ahead of me in the fading daylight. I checked my topo map and compared features on the map with what I could see ahead of me. I decided that it was Suicide Point. I had hoped that I could make it up and around the big climb before I lost the daylight, but it became apparent now that the sun was going down. Not only had the sun already dropped beneath the western wall of Hell's Canyon, the Oregon side of the canyon, but the amount of light in the sky above was diminishing. I continued my dogged pace. The trail was not difficult, and I kept a good measured rate of travel. All the same, even as the physical light was fading, an intuitive *light* was dawning inside me. I was going to be walking in the dark.
At the time, I was caught up in the adventure of my hike. I didn't become fearful or terrified, but I felt great respect for the terrain I was in and the prospects of encountering something big that went bump in the night. There was no way that I was stopping, at least not at this point. I was constantly making mental calculations as I walked, judging the distance remaining against my present speed of travel and the twilight. I still had the strength to continue walking. Perhaps I could make it to Kirkwood Ranch, and then possibly stop until daylight. The air was growing cooler and I felt that I would stay warmer if I kept moving. Walk longer, sleep less.
At about 8:45, the trail turned briefly into the eastern wall of the canyon and began climbing a draw. I decided here to stop and get out my headlamp before I totally lost the daylight. I knew it had fresh batteries in it, and hoped that it would light my way. Suicide Point loomed massively on the other side of the draw. I could see the trail snaking its way up the opposite wall. I would soon be over on that side making my way up for several hundred feet to go around the western point of the cliff where it jutted out into the Snake River.
I slowed my pace down to climb the trail and made steady progress, to the far point inside the draw where it crossed the creek bed. Stepping across, the trail then bent to the west and continued its upward progress now along the southern cliffs of Suicide Point. This was one big hunk of rock! My headlamp made a 2.5 to 3 foot diameter circle of artificial L.E.D. white light on the trail immediately ahead of me. I kept the beam tilted down at just the right angle. My concentration became very intense on the trail. I was very aware of the large drop off the cliff on the trail's edge, so I made sure to keep my eyes on the trail. If I wanted to look at something, like the river below me to my left which was becoming further down with each step, I made sure to stop, plant my feet, plant my hiking stick, then look.
One worry began to gnaw on me. I had no way to contact the hikers ahead of me or the ones remaining back in camp. By now Captain Steve would have pulled the boat off the river. It was too dark to take a boat out on the Snake River, no matter how good of a boat driver one might be. I wondered if the group back at camp was wondering about my well being? I didn't want to create worry, and I didn't want to create extra work and extra searching for anyone. This in part became my driving motivation to keep walking. I was tired for sure from an already long day, and feeling the chill of the evening beginning to seep in. I had another layer if I needed it, but did not want to put it on and then sweat it up inside. As long as I kept moving I was generating warmth.
By the time I reached the *top* of the trail around Suicide Point, it was a very dark night. Stars were out, but so were some clouds. My headlamp continued to shine the way for me. I pursued it like some animal chasing an enticing morsel of food dangling on a string perpetually just out of reach.
At the time, it seemed as though I was 1000 feet above the river. But now in retrospect, seeing 3D versions of Suicide Point on Google Earth, it wasn't that high, but it was still a few hundred feet up.
I could hear the roar of rapids somewhere far down below to my left. Occasionally I would stop and shine the beam toward the river. I could see reflections of whitewater. This was a powerful beam of light. I was very glad to have it. For the record, it is an Energizer brand from Walmart, which I bought for about $9, and uses 3 AAA batteries.
Now passing the northern side of Suicide Point, the trail turned to the east and began descending, before bending to the north again. The river's sound steadily became louder as I dropped to within a couple of hundred feet. I was still aware of LARGE amounts of empty space off to my left, so I kept my intense focus on watching where I placed my feet on the trail.
I had thought that Kirkwood Ranch was just a couple of miles beyond Suicide Point. I began seeing small lights of lanterns and campfires down near the river bank. I thought I was nearing Kirkwood, but I still had some distance to go. It was almost midnight by the time I made my way along the trail to the front gate of Kirkwood Ranch. My breath steamed as I knelt on the ground at the official sign for the ranch. I could see a building with lights on and people moving around inside. A creek ran briskly down to my left. I was tired. I rested for a few minutes, eating a snack and drinking some treated water as I considered my options. I could try to catch a few hours of sleep here and continue on at first light. The main drawback to that option was staying warm. Since I only had my daypack, I did not have a sleeping bag. I considered covering up in my rain poncho and wrapping a mylar survival blanket around me to try to stay warm. Where? was the next drawback. I got up and studied the Kirkwood layout on the sign. I could see that campsites were located across the creek. I remembered when we had passed by Kirkwood many hours ago on the river. There had been many tents and many hikers along the river. After resting for a few more minutes, I made up my mind that I wanted to keep moving.
I crossed the creek on the footbridge and slowly made my way in the dark along the footpath. There were several outbuildings that I could see. Then I went through a very large open field with many tents pitched to either side. Off to the right, there was a bathroom, so I made a stop there. To my surprise, it was pleasantly warm inside and had indoor plumbing with a flush toilet and sink. For a few minutes I considered sleeping in the bathroom. There were two of them. Everyone was in bed, no one was up and moving around, except me. The bathroom was heated, and had a locking door. I thought about locking the door and stretching out on the floor with my pack as a pillow. I was tired enough. I had come 20 miles to this point. However, I wanted to finish the hike. Walk longer, sleep less. I made up my mind to continue on, despite the cold, the darkness, and the terrain that I knew awaited me.
(now) Sunday, April 6th
From Kirkwood Ranch, the trail going north makes a climb up several switchbacks before continuing parallel to the river. This was my first challenge, after I had slowly walked across the large open field and followed a narrow gravel road to a fence on the north end of the ranch property. A signpost for the trail helped me to get oriented. As I began ascending the first switchback, I could imagine that people in their tents below probably wondered who that NUT was that was hiking the trail after midnight? They were probably right. I got winded going up the switchbacks, but continued making steady progress. I had to take a couple of brief standing rests to catch my breath, but soon was on top of the switchbacks. The river was now several hundred feet below again. The trail continued north and I resumed my pursuit of the bobbing circle of light a few feet ahead of me on the path. I can remember images from those miles, but the next six miles seemed to go by in a blur. They are not blurred because of my non blazing fast speed, to be certain. They are blurred in my memory because of the fatigue I was feeling. I remember a creek that went across the trail, from which I drew one last bottle of water to replenish my supply. I made sure to keep myself hydrated.
At around 3 a.m. I could tell that the single track trail was getting wider. Then it became a double track trail. Trails always tend to get wider and better maintained in relation to their nearness to the trailhead. The terrain to either side of the trail began to broaden and get flatter. At last, I could see the reflection of vehicles ahead, and then a large trailhead sign. I made it to the Pittsburgh Landing trailhead! YES!!!! Despite the exhaustion and the chill, I had to smile. It was a great feeling of accomplishment.
However, before I could let go of the long hike and allow myself to stop and rest, I had one more task to finish. The trailhead was just over a mile from the campground. I had turned on my GPS about 3 miles back and had been checking the distance remaining to the campground. I had taken a reading the previous evening right at my tent, so this was my reference point for how far away *home* was. I began walking again along the road, past 20 or 30 cars and trucks which seemed ghostly and other-worldly in the beam of my light. Beyond the parking lot, which seemed to go on and on, the road became asphalt and widened out. I trudged along, keeping an eye on the GPS and the arrow which pointed slightly west of north from my current location. As I staggered along, the distance to allowed myself a small celebration with each tenth of a mile passed, telling myself to keep going, another tenth, another tenth, another tenth.
I was unsure of where this road was going to come out on the main road to the campground. When I got within two tenths of a mile, the arrow on my GPS was pointing almost straight west. I decided at that point to cut through the field to my left and trust that I would make a beeline for the campground. What I didn't realize was that if I had just stayed on the road, I would have come to the T junction in another one tenth of a mile. The field that I was going through abruptly began to drop off and became a hillside going down through sagebrush. Ahead I could see these strange twin points of light. I wondered what they were? As I descended the steep hillside, it became apparent that the little points of light were little beady eyes belonging to a herd of deer who were grazing on the edge of the campground. The hill continued to drop until it came to a bank just above the road. It felt confusing to me in my exhausted state of mind. I stepped down the steep bank back onto the pavement. The campground sign should be somewhere close, where is it? I thought. Finally it came into sight. Then there was the bathroom. Then a couple more campsites over, there was the rental car. I was done. The day was done at last. From 11 a.m. Saturday morning to 3:20 a.m. Sunday morning. Sixteen hours and change. For all of that time, I had perhaps allowed myself a total of about an hour resting, and only a couple of times sitting down.
Walk longer. Sleep less.
In reflecting back on this trip, a couple of things come to mind. I would like to re-visit the 10 mile portion that I hiked in the dark in the DAYLIGHT, so that I can see what I missed. Second, I would like to repeat the jet boat ride and hike as a multi-day trip. Nick's group did a three day two night adventure. I would like to do the same so that I would not have to rush through it. There were so many things that I wanted to stop and really look at, such as the many old homestead foundations and old rusted farm implements. There just wasn't enough time to take it all in during a single day excursion. I blasted through Kirkwood Ranch at midnight and didn't get to take in the many buildings and side trips that are available. And then of course, I would like to repeat the 27 mile one day trip, but with a MUCH earlier start than 11 a.m. An overnight stay at Granite Creek and a 5 a.m. departure would be reasonable start, assuming that a boat ride to Granite Creek can be obtained.
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