Thursday, March 19, 2009
an Idaho Centennial Trail adventure
Jerry hikes from Rocky Bluff Campground to Five Mile Campground
Ron hikes from Five Mile Campground to French Gulch and return
August 8 - 12, 2008
During the course of our many trips across Idaho, both Jerry and I have experienced car problems. Some trips have been relatively problem-free. Still others have been made, shall we say, more memorable by vehicle breakdowns. In some cases, the actual hiking has been easier than the complications caused by a vehicle breakdown on the way to get to where the hiking is. In the case of this particular hike in central Idaho, a vehicle breakdown caused us to almost abandon our hiking plans. Although it did create a temporary difficulty for me, as well as some unexpected expenses, it also resulted in an unexpected hiking success story for me. The situation showed that it pays to be flexible.
The story of the Apollo 13 moon mission is an illustration which relates well to this story. The Apollo 13 astronauts blasted off from Earth on April 11, 1970 with intentions of landing on the moon and going for a *hike*. However, while enroute, they experienced an explosion in the service module. The ensuing loss of oxygen and electrical power caused them to radically change their plans. Instead of landing on the moon, their mission became one of survival against all odds and returning home to Earth safely. Our hiking adventure, while not quite as dramatic and life-threatening as their mission, shared some general parallels that I can relate to our adventure. Their trip included a launch, travel to a far away destination, a planned excursion when they reached that destination, and a return home. They had two vehicles to begin with, then one vehicle broke down, and they improvised a new plan, using the other vehicle to survive until they could bring the broken one home. I will be drawing from examples of the Apollo 13 story during the telling of our trip in August of 2008.
Our plan was to hike a 40 mile section of ICT, from west to east, along the northern edge of the Gospel Hump Wilderness. We were to begin on Saturday morning at Rocky Bluff Campground. We would hike a few miles along the western edge of the wilderness, then turn east toward Sourdough Peak Lookout and campground. Further along the path we would pass by Twentymile Lake, then descend into John's Creek and then climb out the other side. We planned to come out on Tuesday at Five Mile Campground on the other side of the wilderness. This hike would make an ICT connection for Jerry between Rocky Bluff C.G. and Five Mile C.G. We departed from Boise about 6 p.m. on Friday evening to drive northward. Jerry was driving his Jeep Cherokee, which had replaced the famous Suburban. I was driving my Aerostar minivan.
On Friday night at about 10 pm, as we reached our intended campsite at Leggett Creek, I started hearing weird noises from under the hood. We thought it might be the water pump. During the night, we had a hard but very fast moving thunderstorm which roared through. I was nice and dry sleeping in the van, while Jerry was in the Jeep (and missing the spaciousness of the Suburban). On Saturday morning, we continued on to Five Mile Campground about 10 miles up the Crooked River. This is a remote location south of Elk City. About 3 or 4 miles from Five Mile, I noticed the steering wheel was fighting me in the turns. Great, no power steering. We pulled to a stop at the campground, popped the hood, and saw the belt was broken and water was pouring from the water pump. Oh man. My heart sank.
Jerry's reaction was external and immediate. I had a delayed reaction. Usually in a bad situation like this, this means that first, I go numb. Then, gradually, my response grows into panic mode from the inside out over time as reality sets in. Jerry exclaimed, "well, today is shot." I knew what he meant. It looked like the prospects for the 40 mile hike were blown. We had planned on planting the van at Five Mile, then driving around to the other end to get an early start. Now we had a whole new reality in front of us. We had just "lost the moon." I will explain that saying. We left the van there and started heading back toward the town of Grangeville.
Fortunately, we had over an hour to drive from the campground back to the town of Grangeville. This gave us time to talk and discuss our options. I also prayed for guidance. The options that we discussed were to :
a) get a tow to a repair shop in Grangeville.
b) get a mechanic from Grangeville to go out on site to fix the van.
c) one of the options above *plus* renting a vehicle to have a shuttle vehicle on the other end of our hike.
d) some combination of a + b + c
e) stick out our thumbs after completing our hike.
As Jerry drove, and we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of all the different possibilities, I started thinking about the Apollo 13 story. When the oxygen tank exploded and damaged the service module's fuel cells, both the astronauts and their NASA controller counterparts back on Earth realized that they would have to "improvise a new mission." The commander of the astronauts also told his comrades, "We just lost the moon. " This meant that he realized the reality of their situation. The damage to their craft, and a remedial procedure to isolate their fuel cells, which failed, had killed any chance they had to land on the moon. They had to deal decisively with their new reality. I felt, in a similar way, that Jerry and I had just "lost the trail" as far as our hiking plans went. However, as we drove back to Grangeville, and made arrangements for towing the van and repairing the van, it began to dawn on me that perhaps we could "improvise a new mission."
Before we went to breakfast, we made a couple of stops in Grangeville and made a couple of phone calls to get pricing. It was obvious to me that it was NOT going to be cheap or easy. The most financially painful part was going to be the TOWING charge to retrieve the van from the remote campground 50 to 60 miles from town. We talked to the crusty, hard-bitten owner mechanic at the repair shop, and got a reference from him for a towing service. I made a phone call and talked to the wrecker driver, who said, "Oh yeah, Five Mile Pond, I know where that is, I go fishing there all the time!" He estimated that it was going to cost about $250 just for the towing. Instead of growing pains, I was having *towing pains.* From all the discussions, it had now become apparent to me which of the above options were feasible and which were not.
Over breakfast at the local cafe' on main street, resolve came over me about what needed to be done.
1) Surrender my part in the 40 mile hike.
2) Get the van towed.
3) Get the van repaired.
4) Drive Jerry to the start point, let him go solo.
5) Drive his Jeep Cherokee back to Five Mile and wait for him.
This was my new reality, and it was my problem to be dealt with. There was no reason to drag Jerry down with me. It was a sad feeling, but there was also a settled peace that went along with it. There would be some anxious moments for me in the coming days, but overall the peaceful feeling remained.
Jerry was accepting of my idea to let him hike solo on the same trip we had originally planned. This would allow him to complete a vital connecting section of his ICT quest. He said that he had always wanted to take the challenge of a long distance solo hike. Now was his chance. Meanwhile, I would drive his vehicle back around to the take-out point, Five Mile Campground, and wait for him to arrive 3 days later. This gave me plenty of time to figure out my own "new mission."
After the arrangements were made with the towing guy and the repair shop, we set off for Rocky Bluffs Campground, about a 50 mile drive back to the south from Grangeville. Jerry had been to Rocky Bluffs before on a previous hike. He had completed the ICT from Rocky Bluffs going south to the Salmon River, about 26 miles away. When we arrived at the campground, I hiked the first mile of ICT going north with Jerry, taking lots of pictures along the way. I took one final picture of Jerry as he set off to complete the remaining 39 miles all by his lonesome. After some more photos of road junctions and directional signs, I hiked back to the car. I took a scenic back road back to Grangeville. I had to hang around town until the tow truck showed up with my van in tow. I needed to transfer some camping gear out of the van. That completed, I drove east again on Highway 14. I made a side trip to see Elk City, then drove the Crooked River Road again to Five Mile campground.
After I set up camp and made dinner, a plan started to form in my mind. I had three nights to wait for Jerry. While I waited for Jerry, I wanted to make this trip count for something on the ICT. I didn't just want to sit around camp for 3 days, nor did I want to burn a lot of $4 a gallon gasoline cruising around sight seeing. I *could* have hiked west on the ICT to intercept Jerry somewhere on his way east toward me. But what I really wanted to do now was hike from Five Mile back toward the Red River and French Gulch. Jerry had done this section, but I had not. French Gulch was the last point where I ended our 40 mile Anderson Butte hike back in July. I slept on it, and awoke resolved on Sunday morning to go to the Red River.
If I had actually known just how far it was to the Red River before I started, I might not have tried it. I had traced the route on the National Geographic Topo program, and it looked to be about 15 miles one way, so I knew that it was going to be a long walk there. I didn't realize that it was going to be almost 19 miles one way.
I left camp at approximately 8:30 Sunday morning. I knew that the first order of business after crossing the log bridge over Silver Creek would be to gain 1,000 vertical feet within the first mile. After the first mile, the road would follow the 5500' contour for a long ways, then drop gradually to 5000 feet. Then it would contour along the 5000' line for most of the rest of the way to the Red River, when it would drop the last 500 feet to 4500 feet. So the 1000 feet was front-loaded on the outbound trip. On the return trip, the 1000 feet would be gained in two 500 foot stages.
F.R. 9836 began from Five Mile campground as an ATV width trail. A signpost announced that Elk City was 17 miles away. After the first mile of climbing, the trail widened to a four wheel drive Jeep width road. I took one wrong turn, which dead-ended in a clearing. That was only a half mile added to my day. I continued on the jeep road, until 9836 intersected with 1803, where it became a full width graded all weather gravel road. A sign at the junction showed that this road was part of a network of snowmobile trails in the backcountry.
I didn't see very much wildlife during the ascent. I did see and hear a couple on an ATV who came by me from the direction of camp. They first passed me going the same way I was going. They then met me on their way back around the 12 mile marker. They said they were curious about what I was doing out here? This gave me an opportunity to tell them about the ICT, which they seemed very interested in. They then drove off in the direction of Five Mile, while I continued on toward Relief Creek. There was a fair amount of road construction equipment parked at the big curve at Relief Creek. They were installing new culverts in two locations. Apparently the road had been washed out during spring melt off. Relief Creek was flowing moderately through the newly installed culvert. I noted that it was a good water source should I need one for the return trip.
The ascent along the west flank of Porter Mountain resulted in some fantastic views to the southwest, west, northwest, and north. I topped out at around the 5500 foot mark and took numerous pictures of the sweeping views. At the trail marker for F.T. 844, I chose to deviate from the *official* ICT West route. Jerry had done the hike previously from the Red River, together with Dave and Jeff, back in July, and had reported that they had become seriously lost by following the official trail. He had advised me to take the road around it. After our many bushwhacking adventures, he doesn't have to tell me that twice.
Within another 3 miles from the trail junction I found the forest road that I had traced out on my Topo program at home. F.R. 9803 started north from a five-way road intersection at the 5 mile marker post on F.R. 1803. I had followed 1803 for about 8 miles to this point, and would now follow 9803 for another 6.5 miles down to the Red River. This road was posted as being restricted to motorized traffic, and was only open to foot traffic. That suited me just fine. The road was designated to be returned to a natural state, and it was obvious that it had not been in use for some time. There was knee high grass down the center of the lane, with two paths on either side of the grass where wheels had once rolled by.
This road followed the 5000 foot contour closely for about 2 miles, then came to an unmarked Y intersection. The left fork looked to be the well beaten path. The right fork curved up and to the east and had a fallen tree blocking it about 30 feet up. This seemed to be the right location on the northwest side of Wheeler Mountain, according to the map portion I carried, and the maps I had studied on the computer.
I knew that 9803 had to bend around to the east and contour around the northern side of Wheeler. I followed this lesser travelled section of road 9803 for several miles. To say it was *less travelled* is an understatement. I felt like the first human being to walk upon it in decades. I kept thinking it was going to dead end around the next bend 100 times, but there was always more road to follow. The condition of the growth on the road worsened the further I went. At one point, the trees and brush got so thick that there was just a single track going through the middle. I noted that there were orange ribbons set at intervals along the path. These kept me going until I was through the thick part and it widened out again. I called out "hey bear!" periodically to announce my presence to any bruins that might be lurking about.
As I went along the north side of Wheeler, I could see a large valley below me directly to the north. Within the valley, off in the distance, was the town of Elk City. I knew that I needed to continue in a generally easterly direction to hit the Red River. I came to a bend in the road that went down and to the left, but with what looked like to be a ramp going down forking off to the right. The orange ribbons on the trees were showing to continue along the curve to the left, but this didn't seem to jive with my desired direction. I followed the left path down for about a half mile or so. My bad vibes were getting stronger. I thought since it was descending that it might curve back around to the east, but I seemed to be going west now. I took my compass out and confirmed that I was heading due west. I didn't really want to climb back up the half mile that I had come down, but I thought I would go back and see if that small ramp going down the other way was the correct path. It was now going on 5:30 p.m. I made up my mind that if the ramp was not the right way, that I should turn back even if I wasn't going to make it to the Red River. I didn't want to extend myself out any further along a wrong trail. No one even knew where I was, so I should at least walk back near the main road.
When I got back up to the junction, I examined the ramp again. What I thought before was a sketchy path and undefined now looked much clearer as a trail. I followed it tentatively and saw that at the bottom of the ramp it flattened out and continued due east as a roadbed. My progress eastward continued on for another 45 minutes. I began dropping in elevation and could see glimpses of a valley below through the thick forest cover. I hoped that I was going to come out at the Red River. The trail kept dropping and curving around and dropping some more. I wondered if I would ever make it. Finally I came to a big gate and a sign marker for 9803. YES!!!
I also saw the trailhead sign marker for F.T. 508 which was the *official* ICT route, the one which Jerry said they had gotten lost on. From the gate, 9803 dropped down onto road 1800 for about a quarter mile winding down until it finally bent around to the left and there was the bridge over the Red River. I pumped my fist and said YES!!! It had taken me 10 hours to reach the bridge. After briefly walking over the bridge to put my feet on Road 222, Red River Road, I went back over the bridge and walked down on the western bank of the river to make camp. I put my tarp on the ground and laid down with my backpack for a pillow. I was so spent that it took me almost an hour of laying there before I could make myself get up and start doing camp chores. It was 9:30 by the time I crawled under the tarptent.
I awoke on Monday morning to misty fog over the Red River. By the time I was fed, packed up and ready to hike it was 8:40. I followed the same route back to Five Mile Campground, minus the wrong turns, in 10 hours and 10 minutes. The 1000 foot elevation gain came in two stages on the way back. It seemed as though I had done better climbing the 1000 feet all at once yesterday, than I did climbing it in two 500 foot stages today. Monday was also a warmer day than Sunday. I went through six liters of water on Monday's walk back. I had gone through about three liters on Sunday.
I arrived back at Silver Creek and Five Mile Campground at 6:54 p.m. I didn't know whether I would find Jerry there or not. He was not there. There were new campers and ATV's in camp. I collapsed in a chair and rested for a while before I started boiling water for dinner. Tonight's meal of Mountain House brand dehydrated chicken breasts and mashed potatoes was outstanding. For a dehydrated meal, it was outstanding. Did I mention that it was outstanding? I kept watch for Jerry to possibly arrive, but by 8:30 I was ready to get in the tent to lay down and escape the mosquitoes.
Apart from two bathroom breaks, I did not get out of the tent until 9:30 the next morning. After breakfast I made my way down to Silver Creek and took a quick dunk under the bridge. It was very cold but it felt good to get the sweat and bug spray and trail dirt washed away. While I was there I also washed my dirty trail clothes so they wouldn't smell so bad. There was plenty of time as I waited for Jerry's arrival to hang up the wet clothing and to get my tarptent dried out from the condensation it had accumulated on Sunday night.
Jerry arrived at about noon (11 local time) on Tuesday at Five Mile. He was exhausted from his 40 mile trek. He had already put in 7 tough miles that morning from the place where he camped above down to Five Mile. He was so spent that it took him 30-40 minutes to recover. I unfolded a chair for him and handed him a Gatorade to drink. As he rested and recovered, he began to tell me the details of his ordeal. He said this 40 mile section had been horrific, due to an appalling lack of trail maintenance and proper signing.
He told the story of lost trail, no trail, heavy bushwhacking, falling many times, incredible amounts of fallen trees, coming dangerously close to running out of water....and then things got really tough! He said he pushed himself to the maximum physically every day of the hike, almost to the breaking point. The toughest part had been the massive elevation drop into John's Creek where one side of the mountain had collapsed. Jerry had traversed the western side of the mountain without a trail going down, and then had climbed the opposite side, also without the benefit of a trail. The only evidences of a real trail that he had found were the intermittent wilderness boundary markers on the trees. These markers, and my GPS which he borrowed for the trip, were the only indicators he had that he was heading in the right direction. He sounded immensely relieved that he had survived the experience.
It will fall to Jerry to give a proper and, I'm sure, entertaining, written account of his ordeal.....
For my part, in summary, on Sunday I hiked 17 miles (plus 1 mile added for 2 wrong turns) all the way to the bridge at the Red River. On Monday I walked back without the wrong turns. 10 hours going there, 10 hours 10 minutes coming back. The 2 miles on Saturday, plus 34+ miles Sunday and Monday, gave me 36 miles, plus 163 miles hiking to date, which gave me a new total of 199 miles to that point for the year 2008.
I think, in the long run, it worked out for the best that I didn't go on this particular section hike with Jerry. I will plan on doing a combination of road walking and taking the trail directly through the Gospel Hump Wilderness to avoid this unmaintained trail section in the future.
We drove back to Grangeville to see if the van was ready. I have included a scan of the bill for posterity.