MINK LAKE DESTINATION - SLOGACHIEL
It's common knowledge in the Pacific Northwest that putting on your boat and getting on a river with Gary Korb is a guarantee of a memorable and enjoyable trip. So when Gary mentioned that he wanted to do a self-support trip on the Upper Bogachiel river, I was excited to join him.
Planning for the trip, Gary warned me that it was going to be a slog through the snow. We tentatively picked a weekend in June, hoping we would have good water levels and the snow on the hike in wouldn't be too bad. Gary hoped we could make it to the river in two days, and we started referring to the trip as the Slogachiel. The weekend before our trip we met at Crescent beach and spent Saturday afternoon surfing before heading to the Sol Duc valley. Sunday dawned gloomy and the dim early light found Gary and I at the Mink Lake trailhead at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Our plan was to hike the boats in on this day, and we hoped to get them to the ridge top. We knew the trail was 4.3 miles long with an elevation gain of 2600 feet or so. We didn't know that much less than halfway up we would lose the trail due to the deepening snow. We put in a good effort that day, but didn't make our goal of getting the boats to the top of the ridge separating the Sol Duc from the Bogachiel, leaving them at the base of the last big, steep pitch.
On the following Thursday Gary and I met at the takeout South of Forks, and headed back around to the resort, where we camped at the trailhead hoping no one would kick us out in the middle of the night. We knew we had a long day ahead of us, so early morning found us on the trail again with everything we needed for our trip except of course the boats, which we hoped were still tied to a small tree in that avalanche chute........
It was a brutal day. We had snow shoes on constantly once we passed 2500 feet. The last pitch to the ridge was very steep, with 15 to 20 feet of snow, and about 1000 feet of elevation. The sun was out, and it was a beautiful day, though on the snowfields it was bright enough to burn retinas. We made it up to the ridge in pretty good time, and then headed back down to get the boats. Heading down the steep snow chutes was a blast. Gary had a branch about 2 and a half feet long that he planned on using to self arrest if he needed to. I remember watching Gary sliding down a steep slope on his butt, looking to plant his self-arrest stick, and realizing that the top foot of snow in a 20 foot circle was all sliding with him. We soon found that it was possible to sort of ski down on the snow shoes, and we appropriately ignored all the small avalanches we were causing.
We had taken a different route up from the lakes than we did when we left the boats the weekend before, and had not seen the boats on the way up. On our way back down we traversed to where we thought they should be. Since I was still too high on the slope I cruised right past the boats, but luckily Gary was on top of things and saw a glimpse of my orange Rockit through the trees (great reason for brightly colored gear). The boats and gear we had left were in fine shape. After spending a couple of minutes amazed that we found the boats, we gritted our teeth and started heading back up to the top of the ridge. The weekend before Gary had mostly drug his boat, where I found that I was more comfortable carrying mine on top of my head, but we both soon found that on snow covered slopes steep enough to requiring kicking in steps with your snowshoes neither method worked well. So we started in on the many pitches of hiking up as far as your throw rope was long, and a long line was an advantage, finding or stomping out a spot to put your boat, and then hauling it up behind you. Since the boats with gear weighed around 85 lbs, this quickly got old. To top it off I was worried that I would start hallucinating at any time after Gary pointed out that we were burning a lot of really old fat cells, and who knew what evidence of a well spent youth remained hidden in them. One episode from our second ridge climb that stands out was when my boat slipped into a tree well while I was hauling it up. I was so discouraged when I slid down to the tree and looked at my boat and gear strewn all over 15 feet down in the well that I just sat there dejected long enough for Gary, who had been one pitch ahead and hadn't seen what had happened, to get worried and come looking.
We made it to the top again at 4 pm, tired but very satisfied with ourselves. That wouldn't last long. After a short rest and some rearrangement of gear, we headed East along the ridge looking for a less steep route down the other side. I would like to point out again that there was a lot of snow up there in June. We soon found our way blocked by these huge hummocks of snow that forced us to find routes around them. Eventually we decided it wasn't going to get any better, so we headed down the other side which was still extremely steep. We tied the boats end to end, and then tied our throw ropes together, and we were able to belay the boats off of trees, with one person going down with the boats and one on belay. We switched off for every pitch, and in this way leap slid down for 6 or 7 pitches. It wasn't very fast. The slope was moderately forested, which meant lots of tree wells from 5 to 15 feet deep. The boats were drawn towards these like paddlers to playholes, and it took some creative new moves to get them out. Two loaded boats, tied bow to stern, are about the most awkward things I've ever had to heave around. Going down the slope ourselves also proved interesting. We usually had to resort to sliding on our butts and steering with our elbow or paddle. When we got going too fast we would just steer into a tree well. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. When the gradient moderated to about 35 degrees, we were able to slide down holding onto our boats, and for a little while made really good progress, though occasionally interrupted by comical wipeouts.
Dusk was filling in the corners when we broke into the top of a small open bowl. Now we got into our boats and had the highlight of the day as we slid happily down the slope, even throwing a spin on the way down. The bowl soon tightened into a small canyon, and looked like it would gorge up soon, so we worked our way along the high left side in the gathering twilight. We had dropped a lot of elevation, and were noticing signs that we would be out of the snow soon. It was getting late, but we pushed on hoping not to have to bivy in the snow. Though there was less snow, slumps and slides made travel slow and difficult, and we soon came upon a particularly broken up section, with no clear route. We were discouraged and tired, and recognized defeat when we saw it. Hoping that it was only a battle, and not the war, we gathered what we needed for the night and backtracked a few hundred yards to a small flat spot we had noticed.
It was one of the best places I've ever camped. The flat area, well, flat with a little help from Gary and his paddle, was on the down hill side of an enormous old cedar. We had a beautiful small brook a few yards away with easy access. Best of all were the small bare spots at the base of the trunk where we could step off of snow finally. We were soon sitting in our bags, happily eating a hot meal, and in no time were asleep under the very large dead branches swinging in the slight breeze 20 feet above us.
Luckily we survived the night, the branches staying in the tree where they belonged. Well rested and excited about getting on the river soon, we attacked the broken snow that had discouraged us the night before, and wondered why it seemed so difficult then. We soon made it out of the snow and continued bushwhacking down the valley. At one point we forded a small creek above a 40 foot drop into a large rock, with a short pool then another huge horizon line into a gorge we couldn't see over even though we were 40 feet higher. As we descended onto the valley floor we found our progress slowed by swampy areas and large deadfalls we had to go either over or around, but this was broken up by discoveries of elk activity, and the puzzle of some strange markings we found on the ground, with piles of grain and other stuff. We figured out that we were seeing the floor of tunnels mice had made when there had still been snow! The swamp itself seemed to go forever, but eventually I heard an excited yell from Gary, who was ahead me, and made it to where he was resting on a stump alongside a large well maintained trail. "I didn't know there was a trail in the Bogachiel valley." he said. Who cares we thought, this is easy to walk on! We couldn't see the river yet, but knew it had to be close. Straight ahead looked fairly impenetrable, so we headed upriver looking for a more open way. After crossing more swampy area, but this time on a well built wooden walkway, we got a glimpse of the river through the trees. Excited we hurried and soon found a nearly park like setting, with an open needle covered glade going right to a gentle bank, and a river running the wrong direction.
"Why is the river going the wrong way?" I asked Gary. Gary, a few feet behind me, came to a stop and we just stood staring for a few moments, our minds racing, considering the possibilities. Gary pulled out the map, and we tried, in vain, to convince ourselves that this was the Bogachiel, but slowly the realization dawned on us that somehow we were back at the Sol Duc! It didn't take very long after that for us to realize the absolute comedy of the situation, and though still shell shocked start laughing because there was nothing else to do. Essentially we had made a huge banking turn off the ridge, rather than crossing it. What confused us was the huge snow hummocks up there, going around one we had ended up on a small spur ridge that shot off to the North, so when we dropped off the other side, it was the other side of the wrong ridge! All that was left to wonder about was how far upstream of the resort we were. About then a family came walking up the well maintained trail, complete with sandals, toddlers and tank tops. Turns out we were only about a half mile up river from where we started hiking the morning before. We went ahead and put on the Sol Duc (Gary didn't even bother to take off his small backpack), and naturally had several portages around logs in the flat water between us and the resort. But we made it, and gathered several odd looks as we floated past the hot springs looking like refugees from somewhere.
As we reran the trip we joked about keeping the whole adventure a little secret, but knew the story was too good and we would have to share it. A true yakoneering feat we decided. Besides we agreed that it had been an awesome trip, and we felt a great sense of accomplishment. We can't wait to do the Slogachiel again next year, though we might just leave the boats at home.
A postscript: Perhaps we should have kept our misadventure to ourselves. A week or so after I returned home, I received a package in the mail from Gary. Curious, I opened it up to find one of those little key ring compasses. Very funny Gary, I thought. When I saw Gary next, another couple of weeks later, he thanked me for the compass. "Wait a minute," I said "you sent me a compass." After some confusion we realized that one of our friends had an outstanding sense of humor, and had sent us each a compass, with each others return address on it. It took me a while to find out who did this, and I still owe him a beer for the best joke anyone has ever played on me.
Post postscript: Gary returned the next year (I was unable to make it) and found much less snow, much easier hiking, and best of all he found the river. He reported the upper Bogachiel to be well worth the effort involved in both of his hikes, flowing through an untouched part of the Olympic National Park and having quality class 4-5 whitewater.