My wife tested my resolve by telling me that there was clear water running out of the Wenaha at Troy. Even though I knew the river would be high and not very wade-able, I was tempted. But I assigned myself the task of clearing the remainder of the Swamp Creek trail so there would be one clear trail all the way to Joseph Creek on public ground.
I was exhausted after my last weekend of work clearing trail and I decided I would try and get my pack weight a little lighter if I was going to carry that chainsaw in and then back out of the canyon. Nighttime temperatures were supposed to get into the 40’s so I didn’t feel the need to carry any extra clothes. When I am trying to pack light, I wear one set of clothes which includes a lightweight long sleeve shirt and then I pack one extra set of socks, underwear, a t-shirt, and a pair of shorts that weigh almost nothing. With these extra clothes I always have a set of dry clothes at the end of day whether I get soaked from rain or sweat. If it is cold at night or in the morning I use my sleeping bag to throw around my shoulders.
One of the lightest shelter systems I have is my Hennesy Hammock and I wavered whether I would take it or the tepee tent. I enjoyed having my dog Molly’s company the weekend before, but I didn’t know how she would handle me sleeping in the hammock while she was left on the ground. I wanted to pack light, so I finally decided she would have to stay home and I would take the hammock.
Starting at the Chico Trailhead off Highway 3 I would have around seven miles to walk before I got to where I had stopped clearing trail the weekend before. That left another two and a half miles to clear to Joseph Creek. I was unable to get my pack ready to go Friday night so after getting my things together Saturday morning I was leaving much later than I wanted. To try and save time and get the most out of the time I had available I would try and find a ridge to hike down. My map showed a Forest Service road in the 400’s that was supposed to lead to a ridge that was split by private property on the north side and forest service on the south. If I could drive to the edge of that ridge I could walk down the right side of the fence my map showed until the ridge eventually all turned into Forest Service ground a little ways down. Starting there would mean I would only have to walk around two and a half miles before I could start clearing trail again. It was worth a shot.
The road was easy enough to find and when I came to the barbwire fence that marked the boundary between private and public property I parked my pickup and got my pack ready to go.
I made fairly quick work of getting down the ridge and onto the Davis Creek trail that I had cleared the weekend before. A little further and I was to the spring, meadow, and small knob that I thought would have made such a great home site the weekend before. Just beyond this scenic little spot the downed trees and overgrown brush began again.
Although clearing trail is hard work, it is the kind of work that you can easily see what you have accomplished. You come to a big pile of trees that has blocked the trail and after a while you have reopened the trail. It gives me a good sense of accomplishment each time I clear something.
I came to a clearing with good grass and some slabs of wood that someone had cut for benches around their camp. The trail had come down to a fence line and the campsite in the meadow was across the fence from me. I stopped and was looking at the campsite trying to decide if I was going to crawl through the fence to have a better look when something began crashing through the brush behind the campsite. It was a bear of course. I had a wide angle lens on my camera and I quickly tried to switch my lens on my camera for something with a little more zoom.
After going up the hill a little ways the bear seemed to be in no hurry. He came out into some more open areas and kept stopping and staring at me. He would then move along at his own pace. Although I did want to get some pictures of him, I felt like he was taking a little too long to stop and stare. Most bears make tracks when they see me. This old bear was moving at his own pace. I wanted to go and look at the campsite, but the rather large bear moving slowly off made me feel a little uneasy. Part of this uneasiness may be because this was my first close up and personal bear sighting for the spring. I decided I would move down the trail in the opposite direction of the large omnivore.
With the pace I had set the weekend prior, I thought I would reach Joseph Creek by the end of the day Saturday. I kept thinking that each bend I walked around would open up to the big canyon. But the downed trees and overgrown brush steadily got worse and my progress down the trail became slower. In one spot I came to a large Ponderosa pine that was across the trail in a fairly steep spot. Each time I cut it, the damn thing kept scooting its way down the hill a little so I couldn’t get the cut section out. I don’t know how many times I had to cut it to finally get it off the trail, but it took a while. I had hoped that I would get to Joseph Creek that night, but once again I underestimated how much time it was going to take to clear the old trail. There was a spring nearby and I walked back down the trail looking for two good trees to hang my hammock tent.
As I was walking on the trail I slipped and nearly fell. I looked through the grass to see what it was and I had nearly fallen down sliding around on fresh bear shit. I began to think about my big bear up the creek a little ways again and wondered how often he walked this trail himself.
I found two trees at a suitable distance for hanging my hammock and soon was lounging in it eating my favorite freeze dried meal, beef stroganoff. I felt no need or desire to start a camp fire and was content relaxing in my hammock. I have to admit that I sometimes feel claustrophobic in a hammock tent. If I don’t think it is going to rain I will leave the rain fly off and you can see the stars and everything around you exceptionally well. But it is spring and rain has been a daily occurrence so I attached the rain fly.
I am usually at ease in the woods by myself, but I will admit I felt a little bit of uneasiness this night. That large bear I saw was not too far up the creek and there was a fresh pile of bear crap on the trail near my tent. As I lay in my hammock each sound I heard made me try to peer through the mosquito netting to see if the big bear was coming to visit. I put the large bear and fresh bear crap out of mind and soon went to sleep. Sometime in the night I woke to the sound of breaking branches and instantly sat up and hollered at the noise to “Get out of here!” I listened and did not hear anymore breaking branches so I assumed it was just a branch falling off a tree. For some reason that breaking branch seemed to put me at ease. The uneasiness went away and I slept like a log the rest of the night.
In the morning I left my hammock tent up so the dew could dry and I headed back down the trail to try and finish the job I started. Much of the trail crisscrosses the creek bottom. If my Wallowa Valley Ranger District map is correct, the original trail stayed on the right or east side of Swamp Creek almost all the way down. If this was the case, the trail would have to move up the canyon wall and away from the creek where it runs into rock walls.
I came into a section of the trail that did stay on the right for a good length and it moved up away from the creek bottom. There were also old sawn logs where others in the past had cleared the trail. I was fairly certain I was on the original trail. This section of the trail came back down to the creek and again went through another fence. This time there was a nice camping area on the other side of the creek with an abandoned stove.
I wasn’t sure if the trail was supposed to cross the creek at this point or if it was simply a nice camping spot that people had used across the creek from the trail. I recrossed Swamp Creek and thought I had found a trail that began to head up the canyon wall. Soon my trail was almost worthless. I began zig-zagging up and down the canyon wall trying to find the trail. I found pieces of trails here and there, but I lost the original trail for sure. I cleared the paths I found anyway, figuring that it would still be at least one clear path to Joseph Creek.
By the time I came to the mouth of Swamp Creek, I was a fair distance up the canyon wall. I found a nice shady spot and looked at Joseph Creek far below as I got out some lunch. Soon I spotted a coyote making his way up the canyon from the creek bed. He was soon across the canyon from me investigating every rock and bush for food as he went. It was a great lunch. The canyon was green and flowers were blooming on the hillside all around me with Joseph Creek running below me and animals of the canyon going about their daily business.
There is a small landlocked parcel of private property near the mouth of Swamp Creek. There is a cabin here that Ninebark Outfitters rents out and an old barn on the other side of the creek. A person could side hill along the canyon to avoid the private property, but if you decide to walk the Chico trail to get to Joseph Creek it would be easiest to simply call Dub at Ninebark Outfitters and ask permission to cross his private property here.
I made my way down the canyon wall to Swamp Creek, staying on the forest service side of the fence. I knew I had lost the trail so I thought I would try to find it again on the bottom and clear it on the way back up the creek.
Near the mouth of Swamp Creek the trail is on the east side like the map shows, but it soon crossed the creek. Thinking that the original trail stayed on the east side of the creek, I looked for remains of the old trail and thought I had found it. I began clearing it. Here the brush and trees are thick. I made my up the east side of the creek, sometimes feeling like I was blazing a new trail. If the trail did stay on the east side of the creek there are sections where it is totally gone now. I ran out of chain saw gas again in the middle of a bunch of downed trees. By this point I was extremely hot. The sun was beating down on me and I was in the middle of a bunch of rocks. I made my way back down to the creek and waded in to cool off.
I felt a little disappointed. I had really wanted to finish the trail this weekend and it wasn’t going to happen. Once on the creek bottom I found a more used trail that criss-crossed the creek again and followed it back upstream. It is badly overgrown and has many trees in the way. I had just a dribble of gas left and cut out a couple of the worst trees, but there are still quite a few on the trail in this lower section. I soon came to the camp where I had headed up the canyon wall rather than staying on the bottom. If I had stayed on the creek bottom I would have had enough fuel and time to clear it the rest of the way to Joseph Creek. So there remains a half mile or less of trail to be cleared at the bottom of Swamp Creek. I probably won’t get back to it this year, perhaps next spring.
On the walk out I heard a distinctly bear sound behind me and turned and saw two bears on the hill above me. One of the bears had either seen or smelled me and took off at a run. The other bear stood on its hind legs and looked to see or smell what the other bear was running from, but it still did not see me. This bear continued walking its way down the hill and was on a path that was going to intersect the trail I was walking on. I took several pictures and kept waiting for the bear to see me and change its course. I finally had to holler at him. He stood up on his hind legs and scanned the creek bottom. He was having a hard time spotting me so I waved my arms in the air and hollered at him again so he would actually see me. Once eye contact was established the bear turned and ran up the hill.
Back on the Davis Creek trail I stopped and took a rest near the end of Starvation Ridge. As I sat and scanned the ridge I saw a dark thing under a ponderosa. Dark stumps and rocks often look like bears at a distance and after staring at it for a second I decided I was wanting to see bears and that it was probably a stump or rock. I scanned further up the ridge and I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. The dark thing under the tree was indeed a bear and it moved out from under the tree a little where I could plainly see that it was a bear. The bear dug around for quite a while under the tree before moving out into the open. He then sat down and took a rest. Apparently he needed to let his food digest for a minute. I enjoyed watching the bear, but I decided I had better keep making my way out of the canyon.
I found my ridge I had hiked down and began the long pull up. The ridge seemed pretty nice when I walked down it, but now after wearing myself out clearing brush and trees, and already carrying my pack and chainsaw back up the canyon for miles, the ridge now felt plenty steep. I took many breaks and began to hear a cow elk near the top calling for her calf. As I made my way up the ridge I soon spotted her slowly making her way down the next ridge, stopping from time to time to call her calf. I tried to stay out of sight, but the fence I was walking by was private property on the other side and I didn’t want to trespass. Nearing the top I could see the calf making its way out of the brush and the cow waiting and calling on the ridge above her. When I was pretty much straight across the ridge from her, she saw me and sent the signal to the calf to hide again. The calf went running back into the brush and the cow moved back up the hill. I felt bad for breaking them up and tried to move quickly up and out of sight behind some trees so the cow would feel safe again and go back for her calf.
It was a good weekend even though I did not get the last little bit of trail cleared. I had reached Joseph Creek via the Davis Creek trail and was happy that I had now at least seen all the different trails and routes from the Chico, Davis Creek, and Swamp Creek trail systems. Now there only remains one trail that I know of (East Fork Tamarack Creek trail) that I haven’t went down to reach Joseph Creek.