I was about knee deep, four steps into the cold, silty and swift-flowing waters of the Elwha River when something unexpectedly grabbed me out of nowhere: a single moment of undiluted clarity that This Was a Very Bad Idea.
It hadn’t started out as a bad idea, but then, they never do. It had started out as a very good idea, in fact: the idea that, having spent the last couple of days buried in farm administration and a year’s backlog on accounting, I needed to spend more time just having fun out here.
The week’s crazy sideways bluster of snow, hail and rain had given way to a bluebird morning, so I flipped to a random page of our Big Book O’ Day Hikes and discovered that the Elwha River Valley is considered one of the must-see winter hikes of the Olympic Peninsula. With the removal of the century-old dam (damn!), the river had returned to its wild, churning, primordial state and the salmon had begun to return. The book recommended the Geyser Valley trail, a seven mile loop from where the road ended at riverside near Whiskey Bend.
The first tinge of it not being a great idea was the realization that I really should have done some internet research before setting out, as the wild, churning primordial river had recently spilled from its banks and wiped the road to Whiskey Bend out in two places. No matter, I could still hike the road up a little ways, and a gentleman in the parking lot informed me of a bypass trail through the woods that would get me back to the road above the washout. It was still a pretty good idea at this point. The trail was gorgeous and deserted, leaving me with only the sun, river, ferns and omnipresent moss-monster trees for company.
It would have been three hours to even get to Whiskey Bend on foot, so I set my sights on the more modest goal of the former dam, which promised an overlook of the former lake it held back. It was pretty glorious, and hinted at even more glory with the discovery of a faded footpath down to the lake bed itself. This is where the goodness of the idea took a sudden downturn.
Oh, the lake bed itself was spectacular, but my map clearly indicated a second trail that descended by another path just on the other side of the river. And unlike the crazy, breathtaking plunges the river took down the canyon below the dam, up here, the Elwha was diffused across half a dozen little streams that spanned the flat. I selected a sturdy walking stick and hopscotched my way across the most of them without even getting my shoes wet. It was only the last one, just shy of the far bank, that gave me pause.
But hey, I can see the bottom, it’s not moving that fast, and… As I said, I got four steps in before realizing what a (literally) slippery slope I’d started down. I got the hell right out, sat down and had lunch.
There’s a sign below the dam spot that says (and I quote) “High Risk of Serious Injury or Death. Long, sharp pieces of twisted metal in water. Hazardous currents, steep rapids, large boulders.”
Sure, that’s way downriver, but I’ve learned to respect moving water. When I was a kid growing up in Colorado, a friend and I took a little inflatable raft down what looked like a quiet section of water just outside of Montezuma during a family outing. It was grandiosely named the Snake River, but anyone could tell it was a piddling little mountain stream. I don’t think my mother will ever let me forget how she threw herself into the water to pull us back to the shore when we lost control of the raft.
But lunch was a good idea. As was taking my time to explore the Elwha Forest Loop on the way back down. Oh, and telling my mom about this little adventure? (Hi Mom!) Maybe that’s not one of today’s better ideas, either…