Come With Me To Opal Creek

I took advantage of some time to get back out into the woods. If you think a few days detaching and being by yourself in the wilderness might be what you need, the feel free to come along. Here is my potentially boring, but accurate journal of 4 nights backpacking through Opal Creek Wilderness. The attentive reader may notice that day 1 is especially boring as the only important thing on my mind was getting away from the mosquitoes, and then around day 3 my writing kind of hilariously starts to mimic the writing style from the book I had been reading – The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts.

Day 1.

Late start. At the trail head by 1:30pm, but the bridge about 1/2 mile in was under construction and only being opened at 9am, 12 noon, and 3pm for hikers to pass through. Also open overnight from 5pm to 7am. Luckily the wait only ended up being about 20 minutes before the crew reached a good stopping point and waved the few of us gathered to pass.

I followed the Little Santiam River north to Battle Ax Creek, and then up the Battle Ax to the junction with the Beachie Trail. About 9.7 miles – no, actually about 10.3 including the 1/2 mile from the trial head that’s off the edge of my map. And about 2300 feet of elevation gain.

The mosquitos are heavy. I pitched the tent at a rocky clearing overlooking the Battle Ax Creek valley that lays to the north, and I’m enjoying the view from inside the tent for a break from playing pin cushion for the locals. Tomorrow I’ll turn north toward Silver King Mountain and if I’m ambitious, continue on West onto the ridge line north of tonight’s view. The camp sites along the Santiam looked so great – I’d love to manage to spend 2 nights back down there or along the Opal Creek Trial. If I feel strong tomorrow, I may just power through the loop back to the Jawbone Flats and make that happen. That would be a 12 mile day, but there would be a lot more downhill. Maybe I’ll find a place on the Whetstone instead.

Day 2.

I slept pretty well all-in-all, but I’ll enjoy a real bed when I’m back home. An early start with the sun and the fog in the valleys didn’t hep with the mosquitoes much, but a hasty (relatively) exit did. I started down the road instead of up the trail as I thought it was the Beachie Trail, so I missed 544B, but by the time I realized it I was already at the junction for 544 that would cut across the side of the summit rather than topping it, saving hundreds of feet of climb while sacrificing a view from the top. Seemed like a fair trade. There was a car on the road close to the 544 junction – an interesting place to start instead of the trail head. The road is rough, but not impossible.

I’m on a mossed-over scree field that is saturated and burbling with water; a shrubby break from the forrest that is surprisingly very light on bloodsuckers. Delightfully this is athe stop for breakfast, water refill, and generally hanging about without the worry that the thing that just landed on me is going to leave me swollen and itchy. There are lots of winged insects, and crawling ones, and perhaps the biodiversity is part of what is suppressing the mosquito density even though I would have expected many near the water. My poor left elbow seems to be a delicacy, and has been bit probably 20 times or more, leaving it red and swollen, and wishing it were a knee or shoulder instead. But it is finding strength and rejuvenation through some relaxing shirtless lounging here at the springs.

I am heartened to find a place light on pestilence, and hopeful that more will be discovered along the way, ideally at times that allow longer stays.

The bugs seem to have fallen by the wayside for the most part. I’m finishing the day in a cozy little site alongside Battle Ax Creek just before the trail 3369 crosses back to its south side. The views from the ridge above on 546 looking south toward the previous night’s camp site were the best so far, with fluffy clouds in a leisurely race against the shadows. The morning’s views eastward were a close second, with what I think was Jefferson imparting a gravitas to the scene.

Tonight’s camp is right along the trail and there have been enough day hikers to make me think this map from 1998 could possibly be outdated, otherwise I can’t imagine where these people started from to do a loop that brings them down this route in less than 20 miles. I suspect that one or more of the branches leading north between the gate and Jawbone Flats, which do not appear on the map, cut up to 3369 and allow for a nice 10-ish mile loop out and down 3339.

I had thought this spot a bit more inaccessible, and that spending a Saturday night here would be less peopled than on the Opal Creek Trail, and that may still be the case. Anyhow, this should be the last of my long mileage days. Tomorrow I plan to head to Opal Pool, and maybe further up the Opal Creek Trail to find a spot. A late start might get me there after any weekenders have already packed up and headed back to their lives, giving me a couple days in that area, hopefully without many others.

Today’s total mileage was about 8.6 miles, and I was in camp by early-to-mid afternoon. The left foot is registering some moderate complaints, and a couple of fairly large blisters required lancing, but no serious damage that a sterilized pointy thing and some antibiotic ointment cant improve.

Before surgery there was time to head down to the creek, and the large pool just downstream from the camp site, near the trail crossing. (Which, by the way, is not so great, and will probably require sandals rather than shoes tomorrow.) If I had gone there straightaway after arriving a swim might have been in order, but having cooled down while setting up camp, a prolonged dip was all that could be mustered, with some relatively frantic splashing about which was meant to mimic washing. A full dunk of the head allowed me to leave with my dignity intact, regardless.

Tomorrow shouldn’t be more than 3.5 to 5 miles, max.

Day 3.

Today has gone very well indeed. Aside from having to interact with a variety of people as I neared Jawbone Flats on a Sunday, it all fell together quite nicely. I spent a lazy morning in my camp and slowly packed up after a lot of time reading and lounging about through breakfast and lunch. Another set of dayhikers came by with a massive malamute-looking dog named Duke, and confirmed that the Whetstone Trail drops back down to the main trail closer toward the entry trailhead. Perhaps it’s just off this map to the east, but I also found that there is a neetowrk of old roads between Opal Pool and the Battle Ax Trail that are not shown. Additionally, none of the signage here refers to the Opal Creek Trail as such, but rather as a surname, which eludes me know, even though (and likely because) it sounds like Kitzhaber.

I cut over from Battle Ax on one of those roads before reaching Jawbone Flats, and did some educated guesswork at a couple of turns to emerge – surprisingly – back a Jawbone Flats… Wrong turn somewhere in there I suppose, but it was a different route than my ascent, and nice to see. Opal Pool was full of people, and so I passed it by, continuing along the trail up the creek, deciding to revisit it tomorrow perhaps, or at the very least on the way out.

Another mile or so up the trail I found a campsite right beside a short, steep trail down to the creek, and claimed it without a second thought. I should say, without a second thought once I scrambled down the path to confirm the scenic nature of that section of the creek. I think I’ll try to stay two nights here, unless the rain comes with enough strength to chase me off. But I hope I can enjoy the time by this section of creek. I had a good part of the afternoon here today, and evening, and I quite like it.

Still no mosquitoes, happily. But a beautiful little yellow mayfly that landed on my leg and a brownish-red translucent disembodied insect wing that I watched float down from above out of nowhere and land on the next rock over, beside me, in the middle of the stream.

A last minute decision to take an evening stroll to explore the end of the trail has paid off in several ways. First, a brisk walk felt good after a relatively easy day with the pack. A voice over by a 1950s era physician expounding the benefits of brisk walks in nature, cigarettes, and thalidomide would do the trick right about now.

Second, I have confirmed that I stopped at the best possible location. The trail’s terminus doesn’t end, so much as dissipate and peter out into a network of overgrown and unkempt trails. The place that seemed to be the “end” was clearly marked by the only fully blooming rhododendron since Jawbone Flats, but I can’t say I understand how the trail maintenance crew managed that.

There are several other campsites further up, but no stretch of creek matches mine, save the one with the falls, which are exceptional. However, mine has the longest stretch of opalescent water hosting the greatest number of very large, fairly flat rocks. It has the greatest potential for scampering about by far, and is not completely visible from the trail. Lastly, my camp is already set up here. A critical factor.

Third, it has been revealed that the ravine carved by the creek, with its steep west wall and towering timbers, plays tricks on you with the light. It only just now fades, though I would have thought the light lost an hour ago or more. Which begs the question, “When did I get started today anyway?” I must have arrived here earlier than I originally guessed. Perhaps 2pm even?

The rain fly is up for the first time tonight, just in case. I’m heading in there now to continue my Zen Mastery by headlight. Headlamp? Whatever. Words are merely abstractions of this reality.

Day 4.

Last night’s rain was barely enough to justify the fly. Indeed, the bandana I left on the line was still drier in the morning than when I hung it. The food bags were barely damp, and the ground squirrels seemingly unperturbed. The only real downsides are that there is now a low-lying cloud cover, which makes it even harder to judge the hour, and has laid a coolness that requires extra layers. Hopefully, some of that will burn off throughout the day. Additionally, the rain seems to have hatched some tiny no-see-ums, and though they do have a bite, so tame are they, and ephemeral their attack, that they seem almost friendly in relation the first day’s mosquito onslaught.

In response to such hardships, this day has been declared “Two Dinner Day.” A day of gluttony, luxury, indulgence – living it up, really going to town, painting the woods red, a veritable bacchanalia to the degree possible when it is just you, what you’ve carried, and a ground squirrel. By contrast, were yesterday to have been given a name it would have been “Two Lunch Day,” and I trust you can see the myriad reasons such a day need not be named. Last night’s meal was had down by the creek, and so expediency and ease were paramount, and what was basically a second lunch passed for the evening meal. This left additional prepared food for today, which, if it held to predictions to be rainy, would be a good day for more than one warm meal. And as a layover day, without packing, hiking or setting up camp anew, there is plenty of time for cooking and cleaning.

The rice and quinoa pocket form the chana masala two nights ago proved to be about half as much again as necessary for me alone, so this also proves a good way to split the other rice pack between two proximal meals – with some dehydrated soup mix for breakfast, and the saag something-or-other later today – without storing the opened rice pack for long.

There was also the second coffee of the trip this morning, which was far too sweet, but precisely as easy as anticipated.

I also “slept in,” which is to say that after waking just before dawn to the sound of light rain on the fly, and taking the time to unroll 1/2 of the fly door to ensure my pack and shoes were protected, I went back to sleep for an indeterminate amount of time. Which is to say that I might have woken up a 6am – who knows, but it still seems like I told the morning to stuff itself for at least a while, regardless. I hope, in fact, that it is still quite early, as this might mean the rain since awakening has been so misty and light that it’s been difficult to notice when it has stopped or started, but for the most part it has been stopped.

It turns out that the deep gray of the morning was not so much due to a thick layer of clouds, as to the fact that the sun was still below the eastern ridge line of the ravine. As I stood in camp it crested, and though it wasn’t directly observed due to the clouds, when it peaked the ridge the light shifted dramatically. Still diffuse through the white overhead, everything brightened and awakened nonetheless. Steadily the focal point that was the sun became noticeable, and pockets of brightness appeared throughout the ravine and on the far wall as hints of blue patched the sky and hinted at a day out of the tent, of somewhat fewer than all of the layers, and of many, if not all, of the colors.

From the cozy confines of the tent I can tell you that although I was slightly too optimistic on the day’s potential, it’s been excellent in spite of the weather. The morning held strong as mostly cloudy with bits of sun from time to time, and mists of showers occasionally as well. But some time, perhaps in the afternoon, the gray settled in for the long haul and the mist became default, with pockets of drizzle breaking it up at various intensities. Still, there was no downpour or full-on rain to chase me from the stream side, and I had settled in such an ideal spot that I was loathe to go. Low-hanging fir branches provided cover when the drizzle picked up, and plenty of windows were still to be had for reading and writing when the rain was so fine that it couldn’t be bothered to make its way to the pages.

I got quite a lot done for my presentation next week for an environmental non-profit, and it struck me that this has been an ideal place for that work. At one point I finally bean to feel the chill, and very nearly packed up and returned to camp, but then I considered that everything I had was portable, and there was no reason I shouldn’t bring the tools to fix something warm to my location instead of the reverse. Some warm miso by the creek later, and though I can’t rightly say there was anything zen about the scene, with the movie rights again in mind, a contemplative Brad alone with his steaming pile of horse shit bowl of miso, crouched by the side of the stream… sounds like a winner. Just me and the water ouzel.

The miso bought me another good hour or two, but the rain thickened a bit more, and my desire to read tipped the scale. I will be quite content if tomorrow is like today all-in-all. A respite from the rain in the morning to pack up would be nice, and anything more will be delightful. A break overnight so that things are dry upon waking would be even better. But there are big plans to salvage the evening… Saag something-or-ther with the remaining rice – though I must admit that I’m finding more than one similarity between camping food and the menus at Breitenbush… those in the know will know.

For dessert though, if I maintain the motivation, will be the oats with chocolate melted in. And if I don’t, then just the chocolate. A fine compromise. \

I wonder if, with the addition of the miso, this is now actually a Three Dinner Day?

Well, the rain continues to the extent that finding the will to leave the tent and make dinner as the light faded was a true effort. As such, the chocolate oatmeal did not come to pass, and instead dessert consisted of my last two cookies, eaten while dinner was cooking. I now have no more cookies. It is good that I’ll be returning home tomorrow.

Now, back in the tent for good until tomorrow, this has been the first full day without seeing another person, which was nice. A combination of factors likely contributed – location, weekday, and inclement weather. What I did see were:

  • A water ouzel grooming itself very nearby, and hunting up and down my stretch of creek, calling out occasionally.
  • A banana slug eating a dead leaf (I think?). It was less gross than it’s about to sound, but it’s as though the mouth is a paler bit of slug that emerges from the head as though emerging from a foreskin. It seemed to be just gumming on the leaf… I did not watch long enough to watch the leaf disappear; that would have been a long time at the rate I observed.
  • Many different kinds of drizzle.

There is also a large, seemingly deep pool in this stretch, just below the waterfall at the top-most part of the section that is accessible from this point. It seems like a perfect swimming hole for a hot enough day.

Day 5.

I’m out of cookies. I’m all packed up. Excited to get home, but sad to leave.

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