An Expedition Into the North Cascades – III

Chapter Three.

August 17, 2015.  I awoke to the sound of rushing water. Slowly the events of the previous day filtered back into my mind. I was in my tent, camping at Bear Creek Camp. Seth and Christian were still dozing. I yawned, fumbled around for hand sanitizer and attempted the tough task of putting my contacts onto my eyeballs. I failed on the first attempt. The moist contacts simply refused to adhere to my dry eyes. I tried again. And again. On the fifth try, I got my right contact to stick and followed by my left immediately after. I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag and began organizing my gear. I slid my feet into my sandals and walked down to the river to fill up the Jetboil.

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Seth and Christian began to stir while I fetched the bear bag. Before long, our bags were organized and the water was boiling. I hadn’t washed in two days now and was getting tired of the musty funk following me around. I slowly waded out into the crystal clear, cold waters of the Chilliwack and after leaving my towel on a rock, I let out a feral yell as I immersed myself into the freezing, blood-thickening water. I dunked my head in and scrubbed off two days worth of sweat, grime, and dead skin. My body went numb in about two minutes. I clambered out of the water and dried off. I hurried back up the bank to our campsite and made a piping hot breakfast of oatmeal and coffee as steam rose from my bare skin in the morning air.

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We finished breakfast and packed everything up as the the sun slowly rose in the direction we were headed. After a last check of our campsite, we began the start of our bushwack. Heading directly off trail toward Bear Creek, we marched across the spongy mats of moss and clambered across logs and looked for an easy way to cross the roaring waters of Bear Creek. As Christian and I resigned ourselves to taking off our boots to wade across, Seth called out that he had found a safe spot. A fallen tree formed a perfect, albeit precarious, bridge across Bear Creek and we quickly followed him.

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We marveled at the incredible beauty in this old forest as we made our own path through the ferns and tree debris. Numerous unnamed and unmarked waterfalls appeared around every bend, filling up blue pools of water before spilling over and dropping twenty, thirty, fifty feet down rocky slides and dropoffs in Bear Creek’s never satiated quest for the river. Sunlight glistened on the water and we kept heading east to where the mountains, hidden by the tree cover above us, lay.

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About two hours into our bushwack, our pace significantly slowed. Game trails kept disappearing and then reappearing. No previous evidence of human hiking appeared, but the stillness and eerie feeling that we were being watched by unseen beasts kept us alert for bears. The elevation climbed higher and higher, and large piles of fallen trees, branches, and brambles kept hindering our forward progress. We were still on the north side (left side) of the creek when we came across a chilling sight. A huge claw mark on a tree. Bears definitely had been in this area. Black bears hopefully, rather than the ghost Grizzlies that are rumoured to live in the North Cascades. We took a few pictures of the claw mark and came up with a plan of what to do if a bear attacked.

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We continued on and soon came to a solid wall of cottonwoods and vine maples that had essentially formed an impenetrable acre of uncrossable land. All forward progress halted and after a few attempts at muscling our way through the tangle, we took off our packs and ate lunch in the shadow of two huge old growth western redcedars. Seth monkeyed up into the branches of one of them to see if he could spot a clear way through the thicket, but to no avail.

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We decided on crossing the creek and continuing east on the other side and tramped back through clumps of Devils Club scratching our arms and legs before wading across at a slow-moving spot. The other side of the creek was filled with fallen trees among the short baby evergreens and we found that the only way to keep moving was to climb on top of the trunks and follow them as far as we could before hopping to the next. It became a game of finding the right connection, with the penalty being a hop down to the ground, trudging around until finding another suitable trunk, and climbing back on board – all with 60 lb packs.  What was to only be a short 5 mile hike that shouldn’t have taken more than 5 hours began to creep closer to 6+ hours of staggering up the sloping, trail-less forest with three miles still to go to Bear Lake.

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Frustrations began to release and escalated when Seth got stung by a ground wasp. We kept going, and I was leading. I was following game trails and soon we popped out in a small meadow that sloped up to our south (right) and merged with the forest that sloped down to Bear Creek to our north (left). The smell of a large animal hit my nostrils and I looked around, hoping to spot a deer. We were starting to get strung out with Christian no longer in sight and Seth way behind me. I paused and waited for them to catch up. By now, all I was thinking was that I did not want to spend the night in this bear forest. Seth caught up and Christian soon after. The forest started to become impenetrable on the south side, so once more we hiked down to the creek and crossed over on a thin, bouncy log with branches poking up at us as a thin clear sheen of Bear Creek trickled below us over marbled rocks.

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We trudged around tall grasses and soggy mud before the forest once more swallowed us whole and we decided to hike straight up towards the towering ridgeline above us, a decision that would affect the rest of our trip. We  began the climb up, panting heavily and pausing to rest every 100 weary steps. Sweat poured off my face. The forest was drier now. We tried switchbacking up the mountain. As I stepped on the crackling, dry pine cones and pine needles, my right foot sunk into a small hole. I glanced down and noticed that the hole was moving.

“AGHHHH,” was the adrenaline-fueled roar out of my mouth as I began sprinting with my 60 lb pack and zig zagging up from the mountainside.

I felt a sharp biting, aching pain on my achilles and stopped long enough to kill the ground wasp stinging the back of my foot. After a few yards, I paused, panting, out of breath and tried to scrape the stinger off my foot. I couldn’t see any so I pulled my sock back up and explained the cause for my odd behaviour to my hiking companions. Christian was stung shortly after and now all three of us threatened death to any stinging insects in our approach. Our slow climb up the mountainside was made even more difficult by the carpet of pine needles that kept threatening to send us sliding back downhill.

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Eventually, enough was enough and we headed east toward what looked like easier climbing. We stumbled out of the forest onto a rock ledge with a splendid dropoff both to the south (right) and about 10 yards in front of us, with some sketchy shrubs to our left that we could use to climb up to the top of a small waterfall and make it around the drop in front of us. We fumbled around and using small clumps of dry grass to inch our way up and over the slippery slab, we made it.

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Seth was ahead of Christian and I and had already found a good line back into the forest on the other side, so we followed his path. About twenty minutes later, as we angled our way up the mountainside, we came to another opening and we crept down into a small thicket of vine maples that threatened to snag our packs. We emerged relatively unscathed, and were back in the forest again. We spent about another thirty minutes angling our way up the steep hillside and began encountering large rocks. We were getting out of the treeline and soon Seth spotted dozens of mountain blueberries.

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We were parched, having drained our last water back in the forest. We needed water desperately. We dumped our packs among some of the lichen dotted boulders, blueberry bushes, mountain heather, and stubby evergreens. Seth went up the hill with one of the radios to forage for water while Christian and I sat down, enjoying the view. Facing south, Bear Mountain jutted upwards and in the distance, Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker appeared in the dusky light. Various hues of amber, lavender, and orange sherbet on a milky white backdrop stretched in the skies. In the distance, the sound of elk calling reached our ears. Various birdsongs dotted the slopes behind and below us.

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Seth radioed back that he hadn’t found water but instead had found a huge field of blueberries and was gorging on them. Christian settled in for a short nap. I took my ice axe and started heading east toward what looked like another drainage couloir. As I approached, I prayed that God would provide us water from a rock, just like He did with Moses in the wilderness. A few steps further, I descended through stumpy evergreens and reached the rocky couloir.

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I heard rushing water directly beneath my feet. I gazed down. Somewhere below me, beneath yards of rock, a stream was flowing and there was no simple way of getting to it. Mouth dry and tired after gaining nearly 4,000 feet of elevation, I staggered up the couloir to find access to this water of life. I found a tiny pool, about the size of cupped palms and an inch deep. Tempted to stop my search, I knew there had to be a better access higher up. Then I saw it. The sunlight caught on a glistening black sheen that trickled from the eastern side of couloir. Dripping drops dazzled like precious diamonds in the sun’s dying glow. I rushed up to it, and splashed it on my face. Cold. I quickly put my Aquamira filter bottle beneath the delicate stream and waited impatiently for it to  fill. Water, at last. I radioed back to the other guys that I had found water and hurried back to rejoin them, guzzling on my bottle’s mouthpiece.

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Back with Seth and Christian, we put on our packs as I excitedly told them about the water. We hiked over to the spring and began preparing dinner as the sun disappeared. We turned on a few songs from Bethel and rejoiced in the fact that we were alive, had water, and were eating food. This was better than any hotel room!

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By the time we had finished dinner, all was dark and the stars glittered brightly above us and the temperature fell. Seth grabbed his sleeping bag and went off to find a place to sleep. After finding a decent place, he called out to us and we joined him. On a 35 degree slope, we essentially wedged ourselves amongst the blueberries and heather and prayed we wouldn’t slide too far during the night.

 

Map showing our path from when we decided to get out of the forest to where we bivvied for the night.
North Cascades Route
Map of the original planned route

Read Chapters 1, 2, 4, 56, and 7!

Adventure awaits!

JC

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