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22 August, 2010

Great Wednesday, Part I: The Field

Recently, a friend sent an email explaining why Wednesday is such a great day. If he's aggreeable, I'll post his brilliant and hilarious epistle, but for now I'll just tell you about a fine Wednesday I enjoyed this past week. It began with fog, the curtain that opens to the most gleaming northwest days.

Driving to the project area, I reached the gate that gave me the first gift of the day: a lock that opened easily. The road excellent by backwoods standards: well trammeled gravel neither washboarded nor potholed, logging trucks nowhere barreling down at me, just peaceful driving through misty mysterium.

Then up and around a bend, out of the woods and into the sun, above the clouds, a few watercolor wisps soaking upward, stroking and softening blue sky. Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters poking through to join me and the birds. Pausing in this peace, consulting maps, and then working down smaller roads to drop into a stream valley.

And I do mean drop. This mountain's black rock shales off steeply, and the thinning a few years ago (because yeah, it's a Doug-fir plantation) just made room for the youthful survivors to stretch out a bunch of poky branches over the bones of the thinned. Downed stuff and branches both too weak to support much weight, so there was to be no walking, just de-climbing this hill, a deliberate scramble down. Good fun.

By way of work, I was checking out every flat spot and cedar along the way. At about 1400' elevation they began to appear, right about the time I could hear the falls: cedars seamed and flattened by the healing of old scars, marking vertical strips of bark pulled off by people who would make things mundane and sublime from it. The scars were old and appeared among the stumps of long-ago logging as well. These trees may be common, but finding a grove still thrills. Here, the people of old left something special, they had stripped many trees twice, on exactly opposite sides. Hmm...

The last dozen meters or so was pretty much vertical, but enough roots stood bare and abandoned by the gritty soil and rocks racing to the streambed that I was able to ape my way down into this black-rock canyon. No real trace of the century old site I was looking for, but the rocks were rewarding enough. Black and metallic, some flat and straight, others as snaky and ropy as the the inside of a lava tube, then pockets and layers of pure white crystals. If not actual heavy metal, then  aesthetically so.

All of this falling from the bedrock, which down here lays exposed and sculpted by the water, smoothed soft lines and hard rock. Not far upstream was the fall I'd heard, a curvacious sluice dropping the stream into an oval hole in the rock below, then a further fall under and through the rock, emerging to the bottom pool. Maybe a person could go through, which would be really cool, but not something to do without a rope tied to your ankle, held by somone trusted and strong. So I did the next unsafest thing possible, which was to climb the flow-less mossy side channel and then cantilever myself as far out over the top as possible. Sometimes you just don't feel like back-tracking, especially since I could crack a leg in that tangle of trunks anyway. [If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently. This time I'd take off my boots to let my monkey toes grip, thorns be damned.]

I continued far enough upstream to know that the second sites I was seeking had, like most of this mountainside, long ago slid and slurried its way down to be buried under untold tons of bedrock and glacial debris. Then the long way up, regaining 700 feet of elevation I'd had to relinquish to get down. The tangles of salmonberry, dead branches, and rotten downed wood were no more help on the way up than down, and having to lift my feet high for each step made my heart pump faster than a keg at a frat party, my sweat to pour faster than gin at a yacht club.

It was grueling, to be blunt, but in a good way. Like, yeah I'm 45, but I'm not dead yet. I can keep climbing, kicking despair's ass downhill, bulling thorough thickets, doing the stoic stomp onward and upward. This kind of trail-less traverse requires frequent stops, both to keep the heart from exploding and to eye out the best route, the least chance of ending up boxed in or broken. As I neared the top, getting close to the road according to the GPS, I took the luxury of being very picky, avoiding the thickest and thorniest of the roadside vegetation to find an animal trail through.

And just before popping out onto the gravel, I found myself in a thicket of bitter cherries, whose bark is used as the red decoration in baskets. I'd been on the lookout for this since spring, and even though it was a long shot, I made a little cut to see whether a harvest was possible. And it separated easily, the thin red papery layer peeling off with ease. Basketmakers will be happy with this material, and now I know that at 2000' on this mountain in August, you can get it.

The final chapter of the field is one of those bad news good news things. The plan was to continue down the northeast flank of the mountain, letting myself out onto Route 542 (see that other post) to visit the North Fork Beer Shrine (and Brewpub/Beer Musuem/Pizzeria/Wedding Chapel) and take them up on a couple or three of their services before continuing on to see Cracker in the hamlet of Glacier.

But of course the 'master' key I'd been issued did not work on the lock, and I was stuck decidgin between a vain wait there or hike down to a road where nobody else would have the key, or a vain drive back across the mountain with an empty gas tank, maybe missing the concert and spending a freezing night on the mountain. I vacillated, but finally decided that since the truck was nosed downhill steeply, that maybe there was actually enough gas to get to the other side. The gauge millimetered up as I turned around and made my way up and over. There could be no avoiding the 4wd and low-gear/high-rev descent that eats up gas, unfortunately, but the further I got, the better I felt and finally I made it out the other gate and into civilization, or at least waterfront houses.

So I gassed up and made it back to 542, headed up valley to the show. At which point Part II began.

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