Saturday, June 27, 2015

Overnight in the Tillamook Range

Overnight in the Tillamook Range

When I first moved to Oregon, I was drastically overweight and out of shape. But I didn't really know it. I started to do some hiking with my company's hiking club and right away found that my limits were much closer to the car than I had thought. One particular hike sticks in my mind. The club had gone out to Elk Creek Trail and had elected to climb up the trail to “The Waterfall” instead of going along the Wilson River trail to Dog Creek. I had thought that the waterfall would be sort of neat to see and had started up the Elk Creek trail with a majority of the 40 or so hikers. At first I was doing just fine and having some good conversations with the other slightly slower hikers, but when we got to the intersection of the east and west branches of Elk Creek, things changed. The trail started a rather steep incline up the old logging trail and I started sweating and panting. I didn't make it even 15 more minutes up that trail when I had to stop, barely able to breath, lean over and put my hands on my knees and admit that I just couldn't make it another step up that hill. I had to turn around.

I was so out of shape that it always felt like I was hiking through snow

That was my wake up call. I started going out hiking every week at the Vernonia Linear trail. Soon I was finding harder and harder hikes to do. I quit smoking and started watching my weight. When the Linear trail got too easy, I started doing the Elk Creek Trail again. Pretty much every Saturday, without fail, summer and winter, I would hike this thing. Getting further and further up the slope. One winter there was a big snow fall and it took down a lot of trees and blocked the path in many places. For 2 months I brought a bow saw out with me every week to work on clearing the trail and working my way up. I was eventually rewarded by being able to make it up to the ridge line. I remember thinking “2 hours up. 2 hours down, maybe 2 hours to play at the top”. And so I explored.

That is when I found this nice little unnamed mountain top on this trail that you can sort of see on Google Maps. I even added the trail to google maps (it was there for a while but seems to be gone again now). If you look at the Google Maps pictures in that area..... You will see that they are just about all mine. Of course, that was before Facebook, when Google Maps was the happening social media site.

About that point in time, I start thinking that it would be pretty cool to come up and spend the night on the summit. Sleep out and enjoy the stars. Do a solo overnight. The main issue in my mind? Water. It would be hard to carry enough water up the hill and the chances of finding water up there anytime except in the spring (when it could be too wet or too cold) are iffy. However, this goal was firmly on my bucket list.

And that is where my Partner found it, took it out, and dusted it off. “You want to go to this place backpacking, and we want to try backpacking, so let's go”. And we did.

Did I mention that it is sort of steep?
Around 900 feet to 3500 feet in around 5 miles.
But it is very pretty, and it doesn't get slippery when it rains (as it is mostly rock). There is usually water at the 2 mile mark and occasionally water at the 4 mile mark. In late summer there is no water anywhere.

And how much does water weigh? Well, 1Kg per Liter (duh. I can't believe I looked this up on Google. Perhaps the internet IS making us dumb). 1KG is around 2.2 pounds. I think we need about 2 liters of water (each) just to climb the mountain. Once up there, we need another 2 liters to cook and probably 1 liter each to come back down the hill. So around 4 liters each at a minimum. I would rather have 6 liters each. 15 pounds of water. Hmmm.

We decided to try climbing with 3 liters each and hoping there was water up there (and just rationing if there was not). Ok. We have all of our other gear? (Stick stove? New REI folding camp chair?)

I got all of my gear together and had 2 problems:
  1. My gear weighed too much.
  2. My pack wasn't big enough to hold the gear I wanted to bring.

Clearly my issue was wanting too much gear. Any reduction in gear would save me in weight and in volume. I did finally figure out out how to get my gear in my pack (it is a 68 liter Osprey, for gosh sakes), but I didn't get it to be any lighter. Getting rid of a couple liters of waters would have helped..... But I need that camp chair. I am going to have to weigh everything and make a spreadsheet before the next outing. And perhaps get an external pack frame backpack like I had in Scouts....


We started up the Hill on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the official start to the summer season for most folks. I thought that the campsite at Elk Creek would be loaded with people, but it seemed to be only half full. That was OK with me because I didn't want to share our mountain top camping spot with too many people. I figured if the bottom wasn't full then the top wouldn’t be either. We left our trusty Subaru in the trail head parking area and we shouldered our packs (38 pounds?) and stared up the trail.

I began suspecting that we were in trouble even before we got to the previously mentioned creek confluence, where the trail begins to get steep. I mean, those packs were heavy. It was hard just to sling them up onto our shoulders. And we had 4 steep miles to go yet.

The Elk Creek trail is all re-growth after the timber and fire spurts of the early 1900's. There are a lot of Doug Firs still making their growth, and many stands of Alders down near the river. No really big old trees though. They were all cut down at the same time that the Trail was first cut and all that remains of the once stately trees is their stumps, that old lumber road, and many miles of wire rope that can be seen snaking it's way up the river.

Down under the trees you can see a lot of the local representative plant life. Columbine was in bloom, as was Monkey Pod and (further up) Bear Grass. The ubiquitous Sword Fern was with us until we got up on the ridge and all of the (seasonally) wet areas had Ladies Hair fern and Wood Sorrel. My partner took lots of good pictures of flowers (on the way back down), we will try and label them here.
Bear Grass

Indian Paint Brush

We didn't take very many pictures on the way up. Why? We were concentrating too hard on making it up that fraking mountain. The little waterfall at 2 miles was almost dry. We filled up 2 liters of water. I hated to top off and carry all of that weight up the hill, but with the water so dried up here, I didn't hold out much hope for water on the top. We were moving very slowly, but steadily. We had passed my original out of shape turn around long ago. I remember trudging by it and thinking, “This is hard, but I am breathing fine and and muscles are not screaming and I am carrying a heavy pack. I am in significantly better shape than I was 10 years ago. Just image how buff I am going to be when I am 80 !!”


At 3 miles we dropped our packs and had our lunch. My partner is all game for this kind of hiking adventure, but she is very leery about carrying dehydrated hiking food. She wants good meals. The way I figure it, if you are carrying all of your water, then dehydrated food doesn't really save you much in weight. So we had pretty decent meals planned. For lunch we had Sandwiches and fresh fruit. For Dinner were were having brown rice, carrots and sausage. Well, if we made it up the hill.

All along here, we were checking with each other and trying to make sure that we didn't go past that “Can I make it back to the car today?” point. But slow and easy. Slow and easy.

Our lunch stop was at this relatively flat section of the trail right after the second set of steep switch backs. This is my favorite section. You have just managed 2 steep parts and have rounded the curve out of the sun into this lovely shaded and protected section of forest. You are now far enough up the trail that the casual family hikers are gone and you can enjoy the coolness and subtly different flora of the area. Some big old tree stumps are here as well. After you turn the corner you start getting sun and there is a place where cutting the old logging road has exposed a few hundred yards of cliff and rock that are festooned with Paint Brush, Foxglove, Hare Bell, and Bear Grass. The Foxglove wasn't in yet for us, so no pictures this time, but trust me on this one.

This flat span ends at a nice little view down elk creek drainage. On many of my weekend hikes, this is the spot that I stop and rest before heading back down. Why do I stop here? Because the next section is really steep. Today we climbed on. This is also where we passed this strung out group of around 15 hikers that were coming the other way. They were carrying varying loads, one guy with a pack, one woman with nothing. They were also in varying states of happiness. That one woman gave us a very “not happy” look. If she had no warning for the hike she just did, I certainly understand that look. If you are coming down Elk Creek trail then either you are doing an up and back or you are doing one of the 2 loops. Elk Mountain Loop, or King's Mountain Loop. Both of these trails are killers.

Elk Mountain Trail starts at the same trail head where our car is parked. It also has approximately the same elevation change that the hike we are doing has. The difference is that the Elk Mountain trail does the 3000 foot elevation change in 1.2 miles instead of 4.5 miles. Makes a huge difference. I have done the Elk Mountain trail a couple of times and each time I swear that I won't do it again. Going up that trail I find myself taking about 10 steps and then resting for 2 minutes. Repeat 1000 times. One part of the trail has a rope to help you get up. Trekking poles are useless because you have to use your hands to climb most of the time. Going down that way isn't much easier. However, you are hiking right up the ridge of the mountain, so you have great views down into the Wilson River valley. And the view from the summit is very grand. I also really like the part of the hike from the summit along the high ridge to the main part of the King's Mountain trail. Once again, different flora up there. Lots of things that grown on rocks. For a while you are walking along large bolders and rock outcroppings that are the narrow top of the ridge. It is steep down on both sides of you into different drainages. You can pee into 2 rivers at the same time !! Was that over the top? Sweat, you can Sweat into 2 rivers at the same time !!

Pictures from the Past:
Elk Mountain

Looking down from halfway up Elk Mountain Trail

King's Mountain trail starts a couple of mile further down the road from Elk Creek Campground. It is a trail that is maintained by the Mazamas club. The Mazamas is a real “you have to get sponsored and be a serious hiker” sort of club that does a lot of summitting of big peaks. They also come out a couple times a year and work on this trail. Kings Mountain is a pretty tough climb. A little harder than the trail my partner and I are doing right now. It is also a lot more dusty and dust-slide slippery. But, once again, killer views from anywhere near the top. Some good camping and resting places at the top (no water, but there is a picnic table just before the summit). And, if you are crazy, you can continue your hike by going down the other side and challenging “The Traverse”. I don't find the name very informative. What is really there are these cool spikey tall rocks right on the ridge, maybe 100 feet tall sticking up out of the spine of the mountain. You have to go around them by going straight down a few hundred yards to the base of the rocks, hike along the base, and then come straight back up. It wouldn't be so bad if you hadn't just done that 5 mile climb up Kings (or up Elk, which is how I have approached it).

With either of these loop hikes you will meet the other trails at this cross roads of King's Mountain Trail, Elk Mountain Trail, and Elk Creek Trail. There is a cool sign post there. It is located pretty much straight downhill from the summit that we are going to camp on tonight.

If we get there.

At this point I would like to encourage all would be hike planners who are taking their partners and editors on a significant jaunt to explore their memories of the hike they are doing. Perhaps take a topo map with you on this exploration. Make sure that when you tell your partner that “It is pretty much level once we hit the ridge at 4 miles” (for instance), that your statements are accurate. Otherwise you risk mutiny. Or perhaps defenestration. At the very least, some not happy looks. Truth be told, I was giving myself some unhappy looks. I was sick and tired of going up. I wanted to stop and be done with it.

Just. One. More. Push.

At the 4.5 mile mark, there is a half hidden side trail going up. It is not often hiked and is getting overgrown, but it is before you get to the crossroads with the other 2 trails. Watch your step. Watch the over hanging branches. Persevere. If you are lucky, you will do what we did and emerge from the trees into the bright sunshine in a wonderful warm clearing with an awesome view of Kings Mountain, the mountains to the west, and the place where you know the ocean must surely be. Oh, it felt good when that backpack hit the dirt.

A very tired Partner makes the final ascent

So. We lay down in the soft moss for a few minutes and let our bodies acclimate to the non-packness. The sun was warm and very nice. I believe I may have taken my shirt off. We had heard voices below us when we were hiking up the side trail, but whoever it was must have been going in a different direction because no one was up here on the summit. In fact, it looked like no one had been up here for a long time. There was an old campfire ring in one place, but a 5 foot pine was growing up out of the middle of it. We had hiked 5 miles to a beautiful place that no one ever comes. I would be hesitant to put this into a blog except that no one reads it. This is a secret just between you and me, alright?
Yes, that is Kings Mountain in the background


A similar view from 2007

Another 2007 shot

I set up the tent and gathered some sticks for my stick stove. I was going to cook brown rice (real brown rice) so I needed to keep the water boiling for about an hour. We had found some water right at the 4 mile mark on the summit. It was a little trickle of a stream but my partner had managed to scoop out 2 liters of water which we ran through our Sawyer filter and topped off our platypus bladders and water bottles. We had water to Burn !!..... or perhaps make tea.

While I was cooking (which means feeding sticks to the stove to keep the water boiling, which I really like to do) my partner was keeping an eye on the weather. A bank of low clouds had built up on the mountains over next to the ocean and had started to spill over the top into the valley between us. It was like watching a slow motion tidal wave coming our way. We had a hot sun and blue skies. Then the sun dipped down into the oncoming clouds and it got a little colder, and then the clouds filled up the valley and spilled over the top of our little ridge. The temperature dropped like 20 degrees in 30 minutes and things were all of a sudden starting to get wet. I was really glad we had a good solid REI tent and rain fly set up. We were ok out in the open right now but it was going to get a bit chilly and damp this evening.

But...... I admit to being very tempted to try out a lighter tent. The Six Moons Lunar Duo, for instance, is about half the weight and claims to provide the same weather security and perhaps even slightly larger size. The trick? It uses your trekking poles to set up (like my one man tent) and it has a hybrid dual wall (which means the top of the tent is single wall and the bottom is bug netting and outer wall). I don't know how well that would work keeping the inside condensation off. We'll have to try it sometime. This is where I wish I was a big time equipment reviewer and people just sent me stuff to try out. Hey people, why don't you send me stuff to try out?  I will write about it in my blog.



Just before we called it quits and went into the tent the fog had engulfed us pretty completely. We couldn't even see up the little hill next to us and the surrounding hills were all completely invisible. We could see the moon through the whips over our head as well as the brighter stars that were right overhead. I got up a couple of times during the night (ostensibly) to look at stars. The first time things were pretty much burned out by the moon and the fog, but the second time the fog was lighter and the moon was lower and the stars were pretty nice. I could clearly see Scorpio and Cygnus (up there in the just visible Milky Way) along with the usual crew of Big and Little Dipper. The third time I got up we were engulfed in cloud again which stuck with us until the sun came up.

It got down to about 46 degrees that night. I had brought my warm season Golite bag (whatever happened to them?) and I had to put on some extra clothes to stay warm but I was pretty toasty that way. What I really found that I missed was a pillow. Say, didn't I say that on my last camping outing? I should probably read my blog before I go out again....

We slept in the next morning. Hey, we are on vacation. And we were waiting for the sun to warm things up a bit, which it did with alacrity. By the time I got around to lighting a fire for breakfast things had warmed up to around 60 and the fog was starting to burn off.


Big Old Ants

Tiny Little Flower

Bear Grass

Going down the hill was certainly easier than going up. I find that going down you have to pay extra care just to stay alert. If you lose concentration and start enjoying yourself too much you will go too fast and hit a little rock and wham!! find yourself on the ground with a twisted ankle and wondering if your arm is broken. So don't do that. I don't think we went much faster downhill than up hill, but you don't have to stop as often to catch your breath and you don't use as much water.


On the way down my Partner took the time to do some wild flower (and wildlife) photography. They turned out pretty good and thus I include them herein for your edification and enjoyment:

Gartner Snake
 Bunch Berry

Oxalis or Wood Sorrel

Pretty White Flower

Illusive Famous Author

Western Bleeding Heart
Western Church Bells (OK, I made that up)(I looked it up: Fairy Bell. Hey, I was close)

Miner's Lettuce?

Monkey Flower (not sure about this one either)

I also got to achieve another of my bucket list items. When people asked us “Hey, those are big packs, did you spend the night out on the ridge?” I got to say, “Yes. Yes I did”.

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