North Fork Wenaha August 1, 2009

I wanted to hike into the Wenaha again last weekend as usual.  And as usual I was having a hard time getting anyone to go with me.  My wife had some excuse why she couldn’t go, my good friend and business partner Trever had no good excuses (to me anyway) but gave me some anyway, and Jeff told me he couldn’t abandon his wife and the get together they had planned at his parents cabin on Mill Creek.  I had pretty much resolved to go in solo as I did most of last summer, which can be pretty nice.  If you need time to reflect, you get ample opportunity. 

The only time I became real nervous by myself last year was when I went down Elk Flats in the dark and then saw several bear the following day.  Two of the bear I saw were across the river from me and they never even saw me.  I had walked down the trail a few miles to a spot that I wanted to start fishing and as I approached the first run I heard a strange crying sound.  The trail was a good 50 feet above the river so I stopped, sat down on a rock and began scanning the bank of the river and the brush.  The crying went on and soon a small cub popped out of the brush along the river.  After a few more minutes of crying and wandering along the side of the river the mother popped out of the brush as well.  This contented the cub and they made their way back into the brush.  Now, the brush is thick and as soon as the bears went into it I could not see them again.  I tried to watch for the brush moving but after they made their way about fifteen feet into it I could not tell if they just stopped or went on.  I really wanted to fish that run, so I waited another 10 minutes and then made my way down to the river and quietly fished the run.

The next bear made my heart skip a little.  Although I had seen several bears on the Wenaha, they were always at a comfortable distance with the river and a steep bank acting as a barrier.  Walking along the trail I was pondering what my best plan of action would be if I should happen to meet one on the trail.  As I pondered this I came around a bend in the trail and a male bear was walking down the trail toward me.  After an initial “Oh Shit” feeling in my gut, I hollered at the bear and he turned around and ran up the trail.  Although I was glad the bear turned and ran, I would have preferred that he ran in a direction I was not going.  Thinking that I might be able to get around him and avoid a second meeting I got into the creek and tried to get above him on the trail.  Apparently he had a similar idea though.  As I walked up the creek I saw a large wet trail leading out where he had crossed trying to avoid me.  At this point I got back on the trail and was somewhat nervously proceeding, listening for any breaking sticks or other non-me sounds.

After another fifteen minutes of walking I began to relax and upon finding some nice cut and split firewood at a campsite I proceeded down the trail with the thought of my good fortune at coming upon such a treasure.  As I carelessly rounded another spot in the trail coming to a campsite someone has labeled “Happy Camp” I saw a small cub go flying up a tree and saw its mother run to the tree, stand up and just stare at me.  I didn’t feel like testing out the hollering method on a bear standing up staring at me with a cub in the tree above her.  So I dropped my prized firewood and slowly backed away until I was out of sight of the bears.  At this point I was thinking that I really didn’t like the trail that much anyway so I got in the river and waded upstream back to camp.

When I got back to camp I still had an hour and a half of daylight left so I thought I would snoop around a little bit.  What I found was that the bears seem to use the campsite more than humans.  Besides finding fresh bear scat all over, there was lots of turned over rocks, torn apart rotten logs, and other signs of them digging around for food.  Happily I did not site any more bears that trip.  Although on the hike out I stopped for a snack on the trail and heard one rock rolling down the hill ahead of me.  I stopped and listened and a few seconds after the first one, I heard another rock rolling down the hill.  After this repeated several more times, I hollered at what I assume was a bear around the bend of the trail.  My holler was followed by a lot of brush crashing so I feel fairly confident that I came fairly close to another bear on that trip.

Back to my original story, I had pretty much planned on going into the Wenaha solo.  Although I enjoy going into the Wenaha with or without company, I do prefer to have a good friend along to share the experience with or perhaps to fight off a bear if the need should arrive.  With that in mind I began to scheme on how I could get Jeff to go with me and I thought the North Fork of the Wenaha might be the key to getting him to go.  To explain I have to delve a little further into the past.

Before either Jeff or I began going into the Wenaha, Trever (now my business partner)  worked for the forest service several summers cleaning trails.  On the weekends Trever and I would travel together and compete at rodeos all over the Northwest and on these long drives Trever, knowing that I loved to flyfish, would tell me stories about the Wenaha and the fish that lurked there.  Upon telling Jeff about Trever’s adventures, Jeff remembered a story about some guy telling his father about great fishing on the Wenaha.  And if he remembered right, it was on the North Fork of the Wenaha.  The only problem is that there is no trail into the North Fork.  There was a trail at some point in time and it is still shown on maps.

With Jeff and I both ignorant of the trails into the Wenaha and not knowing that the trail into the North Fork had not been maintained in a long time we set out.  We found the trailhead without any problems and began to hike.  Indian trailhead is or was the starting point for two trails, Round Butte trail that is a 12 mile hike into the South Fork and the roughly 3 mile trail into the North Fork.  They are supposed to run along the same path for a ways and then split. Upon coming to a long ridge about a ¼ mile away from the starting point Jeff and I couldn’t agree which way to go.  We could only see one trail, but I did not think it went the right direction.  After discussing it a bit I recommended that we call Trever if Jeff’s cell phone could get reception.  Trever, my authority on the trails of the Wenaha, had never even heard of a trail going into the North Fork.  After discussing it a while, Jeff won out and we headed down the trail that we could see.  Needless to say we did not reach the North Fork.  After several hours of hiking we turned around, assured that the trail into the North Fork did not split off somewhere further down.  Later that year Jeff and his dad tried to find the trail again without success.

Not to be discouraged by our first failures, the following year Jeff and I decided that we would fish the North Fork of the Wenaha on the opening day of the fishing season.  One of Jeff’s tennis players wanted to go as well and we made plans to drive up the day before and camp at the top.  The following day we were supposed to hike in and fish.

With our trip planned and provisions packed we drove up Tiger Canyon.  The weather was great and none of us had entertained the thought of finding snow on the shadowy slopes of 64.  If you have ever been on the unmaintained section of forest service road 64, you know it gets narrow and has several spots where if you made a mistake driving, you would end up in the bottom of the canyon never to be heard from again.  It was after getting on one of these narrow sections of road that we encountered the first bit of snow.  There was not much so we simply drove over it.  Not long after that we found a lot of snow.  There was no way to turn around, the road was barely wide enough for the pickup and trying to back the pickup around the narrow curves and snow banks gave me butterflies in my stomach.  So we decided to try and proceed with caution.  It was a bad idea.  The pickup nearly slid off the mountainside and it took us over a day of shoveling snow and cutting ice blocks with my chain saw to make a track through the snow banks.  Once again we failed at getting to the North Fork.

The North Fork became almost mythological like the elusive Sasquatch.  We have talked many times of trying to go in there again over the last few years but never did make another attempt.  This was my temptation for Jeff, the mythical North Fork.

I called Jeff again and tried to negotiate a trip.  The trade was that my wife and I would come up to the cabin Friday night and hang out with everybody and then Saturday he and I would set out once again for the North Fork.  Apparently I am not a good negotiator.  What we finally agreed on was that I would drop my wife off Saturday morning to hang out with everybody while I braved the North Fork alone.  I would hike out early Sunday morning and meet Jeff at the Cabin.  From there we would load his dad’s trail 90s and we would try to reach the upper south fork of the Walla Walla on a trail that allowed motorized vehicles.

Saturday morning as planned my wife and I drove up Mill Creek.  After a stop at the cabin I headed up Tiger Canyon alone.  I had not been on the unmaintained portion of road 64 for several years and it has gotten severely torn up from people driving on it while soft.  To say the least, I was cussing a lot.  The ruts were deep and 10 miles per hour was top speed on the better spots.

It is near one of the really badly rutted sections of road that the unmarked road to Indian Trailhead meets 64.  Whether it was due to one of my swearing episodes or just intense concentration on the ruts, I missed my turn.  I began to think that I had missed my turn when I saw Squaw Peak and didn’t remember it.  I was sure I missed my turn when I came to the marked turn to Table Rock Lookout.  After more swearing I finally made it to Indian Trailhead.  It was sometime between noon and one o’clock by then and it was hot.  I threw on my pack and headed down the trail.

This time I was confident that I would make it to the North Fork.  I had one big advantage this time.  This spring I bought a Delorme Earthmate PN-40.

I had a map of where the trail used to be combined with aerial photographs.  From my GPS map I also finally had a name for the trail, Indian Tom Trail.

When I got about a ¼ mile away from the trailhead this time I knew this is where the old trail diverged.  I took a hard left and to my surprise I could visually see the old trail in many areas.  The trail basically goes straight down the ridge into the North Fork except that at some point in time it had a switchback near the bottom.  As I made my way down it was kind of like a game of hide and seek.  I would see the trail and then it was gone only to appear again 50 yards further down.  The places that it was gone were the flatter rockier parts where a person could either walk somewhat easily and therefore no one trail would get worn down or it was mostly solid rock and so again there was no visible wear from traffic.  When I came to brushy areas I was pleasantly surprised to find good paths through them and I can only assume that these paths are kept open by deer, elk, and bear using Indian Tom’s trail.

The hike down was hot, miserably so.  And it was steep.  I thought to myself several times that it was a really dumb idea to hike down an unmaintained trail by myself that I had never been down when there was extreme heat warnings for the weekend.  It was a combination of the heat, the steepness of the trail and the beating my pickup and I took on the ride there that made me think several times about stopping and turning back.

I often looked at my GPS on the way down and was surprised that I stayed pretty much on the old trail the whole time.  A little over half a mile from the bottom, the ridge gets really steep and really brushy.  This is the point where the old trail switch backed.  I looked hard for the old trail here or even a game trail that might make an easier path to the bottom.  I finally found a game trail and began to make my way down it.  Unfortunately the game trail abruptly stopped in the middle of thick brush and a nearly vertical part of the hill.  Fighting my way through brush on a steep hillside is one of my least favorite things to do and I began another swearing episode.  Looking at the aerial photographs from my GPS I could see that the ridge had a small brushless section about 200 feet away and I began to fight my way through to it.  When I came to the clearing it was still steep, but at least I wasn’t fighting the brush.  As I neared the bottom I could begin to see the North Fork through the trees.  Just one last section of steep brush and I was there.

When I got to the bottom I was tired, hot, and hungry.  I threw my pack off and crawled over a large downed log to take a look at the river and get some cold water.  I thought to myself, “I came down that steep &%$#^#* mountain for this little thing!”  Then I looked around the small flat area beside the river.  I saw a freshly torn apart log, newly turned over rocks, and a torn up beehive.  So not only was the North Fork tiny, but I’m in bear paradise it looks like.

I sat down and had some lunch with cold mountain water and began to feel a little better.  I contemplated setting up my hammock and resting in the shade until it got cooler and simply hiking out, but that seemed like a waste of all that energy getting down there.  Once I got on the river, the world seemed right again.  The water was cool and clear as it should be.

As I began walking down the river I saw that my trip was not a waste of time.  The hike is probably not worth it if you are looking for great fishing, but around almost every bend there was water cascading off the rocks.  It was beautiful.  There is no trail along the North Fork and it looks untouched by man.  If it weren’t for an old fire ring and a few old rusty nails in the tree at the bottom of the old trail you could imagine that you were the first human to see it.

I walked and fished occasionally more struck with the beauty of how numerous the springs were.  The North Fork grows bit by bit with each spring that feeds it.  Although it is not large, it does form a lot of pools from running into the rock bluffs and there was one good sized pool created by a small log dam.  After going downstream for roughly 2 miles it was almost five o’clock and I had decided at that point that if I didn’t want Jeff sending out a search party for me the next day I had better get at least part way up the steep trail that night.

By the time I got started up the trail it was getting close to seven.  At that point I was thinking primarily about getting past the super steep and brushy part of the ridge and then camping somewhere on the trail overnight.  I started up hoping that I would make it back to my pickup that night, but willing to settle for getting part way up the trail if I got tired of it.

Even though I have been hiking almost every weekend since the first of June, I realize that there are people who are in better shape than me and could possibly run up that hill, but it kicked my butt.  The three miles up out of there was at the end of a 10 mile day and the heat had really drained me.  The one thing I knew for sure was that Indian Tom was in good shape if he walked that trail all the time.

By the time I got a mile away from the trailhead my clothes were completely soaked with sweat, my legs felt shot, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it out before dark.  As I stopped at numerous spots to let my legs rest or to try and find the best way up, I began looking at what trees would be best for hanging my hammock.  I also began to think that it might be kind of a neat experience to camp on the nose of that ridge.  But slowly I made my way to the top and when I came within a half mile of the trailhead I resolved to go all the way and tried to pick up my pace.  By this time it was getting dark.

I have never been a big fan of hiking in the dark.  Particularly when it is an unfamiliar area, there is no real trail, and I have to find paths around rock bluffs.  It didn’t get good and dark until I was nearly to the summit.  I pulled out my flashlight and made my way around the last few sets of obstacles before the two trails meet.  Once on top it is a short jaunt down hill to the trailhead and I felt a huge relief that I didn’t have to walk up hill anymore.  The only obstacle left was a small section of wooded area and I like hiking in the woods in the dark even less than hiking open areas in the dark.  Often when I am alone in dense brush or trees, or in the woods in the dark I will sing or whistle.  I do this both to warn creatures ahead that I am coming and to make myself feel better since I can’t hear every crackle in the brush around me.  That night, with bears on my mind, the only appropriate song I could think of was an old Johnny Horton song “Ole Slew Foot” and I just sang the first verse of the song that begins “Bear tracks, bear tracks lookin’ back at me.”  It made me feel even better that I was singing it when I heard multiple creatures go crashing through the brush ahead of me, rather than them taking off in the brush when I was at close proximity.

Once to the top I began heating some water for dinner.  After a nice hot meal of freeze dried lasagna and a dry set of clothes, I set up my Hennessy Hammock and crawled in.  Tired from the day, I fell asleep almost instantly.  Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to hear a sniffing sound near my head.  Awoken from a deep sleep I was a bit startled and my first thought was that a bear was sniffing at me right outside my hammock.  I listened for a few seconds and then hollered at whatever was examining me and my hammock.  I heard hooves trotting off and fell back asleep.  The first deer or elk that sniffed me must have told his friends and I think I became the central focal point of woodland creatures that night.  I awoke several more times to other animals sniffing near my head or walking around my hammock.

I woke at 5:30, fixed coffee and breakfast and headed down the road to meet Jeff for Sunday’s adventure.  To hear about Sunday’s adventure you will have to read Jeff’s story.

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One Response to North Fork Wenaha August 1, 2009

  1. Pingback: North Fork of the Wenaha: Hiking Down Indian Tom Trail and out Elk Flats August 27-29, 2010 |

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