Bull of the Woods | part one

This is the story of two friends who set out on an epic three day adventure only for it to end with the one phrase no one wants to hear when you’re 5,600 ft into the mountains, tired, dirty, and completely cut off from the rest of the world:

“Oh shit. We made a BIG mistake.”

But let’s back up to three days earlier… Actually, three days and a few hours...

Thursday night was mostly a blur. The day at work had been long and drawn out as I bustled to get everything done and in place before leaving Friday morning for a three day hike where I’d have absolutely zero cell reception and therefore be of no use to the rest of the people back at the tasting room should they need anything over the holiday weekend.

 (this was Valentine’s Day weekend… I’m getting better about keeping my recaps to at least within the same quarter that the original escapade occurred). 

Anyway, of course it wasn’t until about halfway through the day that I remembered I’d promised to stay late and work on the new wine flight and tasting notes, so that meant it was almost 8pm by the time I rolled out and finally let Bryan know that I’d be swinging by soon to grab the last minute items I needed for my pack.

After cursing under my breath the whole drive and berating myself for waiting until the last. possible. minute. to get packed up (and getting the same sentiment from Bryan who I’m actually pretty sure just found the whole thing amusing because he was already packed and ready to go and seems to find solid amusement when I'm stressed) I finally made it to his folks’ place to pick up a borrowed tent from his dad (who reminded me that bears always eat the women first – thanks, Tom!) and found solace once again in the healing powers of snuggling a herd of fuzzy little paperweights.

After my blood pressure returned to a more acceptable level, we made a last minute trip to the grocery store to grab a few more trail treats and tent stakes (you know, minor things like that) and though my plan was to grab my own whiskey because I had finished the last of what I had on the Pechuck hike, I decided that the two pints Bryan had would probably be enough for the two of us for the next three days. We were also planning to break in the newest addition to the gear lineup: the Pat’s Backcountry carbonator bottle with the Pale Rail pale ale brew concentrate (more on that later) so I decided to just trust our beverage preparedness and finally get the eff home.

Of course I ended up procrastinating a little more and was on the phone until close to midnight and ended up getting somewhere between three and four hours of sleep.

THAT’S FINE. It’s not like we were going to be hiking 20 miles or anything.

So Friday morning was rough.

But once we met up out at our planned rendezvous point at one of Estacada’s classier joints and caravanned out and into Mount Hood National Forest, I couldn’t have possibly cared less about a little leftover fatigue because HOW CAN YOU BE MAD WHEN IT’S THAT PRETTY.

Miles and miles we drove. 

I attempted to keep the big red Dodge in my sights as Bryan navigated roads he knew much better than I did, until finally we pulled off the pavement and hit the dirt to make the final leg of the journey to where we’d drop the truck and pile into the KIA to wind down to our starting point.

You see, he had this brilliant plan to drop one rig at the end of the trail and start on the other so that we didn’t have to back track at any point. Genius! Not that loops aren’t fine and dandy, but I’d much rather see more of what this state has to offer rather than retrace my steps (I’d also be happy about this once we made it to the fire lookout and I could look down on the last dozen or so miles we’d hiked and yeah, I wasn’t eager to repeat that trek at the moment – though I’d happily do it again now because I am positively aching to be back out in the mountains).

Tradition dictates that we christen every hike with a nip of whiskey so it was a quick pull for each of us off the bottle and off we went. Into the woods, merrily along, after making sure my car was nice and locked up, and that we each had one of my key fobs just in case for some crazy reason the battery died in one and we wouldn’t be able to get into my car at the end of all this. We each left a couple of things in there just for safe keeping so it was important that we double check that what we left wouldn’t be disturbed while we were away.

Done and done, and off we went.

Now remember how I’d mentioned that Bryan had encouraged me to get my lungs in shape for this hike? Well I’m going to give myself credit here for once because even though that trail did its best to kick my ass, I think I actually gave it a little hell of my own for once. It was so amazing that I could, for the first time, really feel that I’m getting stronger and more able to go and do this. I’m sure he was still going easy on me, and if I did start to falter a little he was absolutely there to encourage and help me. It really does do wonders for the ego when you can kinda, almost, even a little bit, sorta keep up with someone who spent the better part of the last decade in the Army.

And again, I have to take a minute here to talk the dude up because I am so grateful for friends who build you up and help you reach your full potential. Because there were  more than a few times that I started to second guess myself and my abilities and Bryan is just the kind of person who a) won’t let you doubt yourself and b) won’t let harm befall you. I fully trust that if he didn’t honestly think it was safe for me to climb over or under something, or step there, or grab hold of that, he wouldn’t let me. But having him double back when I hesitated and hearing him tell me to trust my boots, trust my poles, trust myself – it really is amazing how just knowing that someone who’s abilities you admire has no doubt that you’re able to do something, and how that can get in your head in the best way, and you learn to really believe in yourself in a whole new and wonderful light.

OK, sappy friend moment over. But I really am crazy grateful for that.

Meanwhile, we both spent a good 99% of that first day hiking falling all over ourselves with just absolute wonder at the beauty we were going through. It only took about 45 minutes in for both of us to dub this one of, if not completely, our new favorite hike. In retrospect I’m kicking myself for not taking a series of photos documenting how often we changed landscapes every few miles or so – from rainforest, to rock, to swamp, to marsh, to forest and back again. It’s also worth mentioning how we realized that we were on a fairly steady decline for a while and so we began joking about how we’d have to brace ourselves for the eventual climb back out of whatever we were diving into.


That climb back up was no joke.

But we were in our happy place so there really wasn’t anything that could bring us down.

After while our legs and lungs started to burn a bit so we decided it was as good a time as any to drop pack and have lunch. This was also the perfect opportunity to strip off some layers because why wouldn’t I need to hike in a tank top in February? Did I mention it was outrageously gorgeous that weekend? It was insane. The weather was perfect. PERFECT.

Even with a properly fitted pack, it felt great to unload for a while and just enjoy the quiet and calm of being out there. Whiskey was happy to take a break too – until Bryan fired up the little stove and Whiskey took off back down the trail because as we know by now, his street cred does not extend to artificial fire-producing entities. After much cajoling he finally decided it probably wouldn’t kill him, but only if he hid under my arm which was as far away as Bryan would allow him to get without the risk of losing him to Mother Nature all together (because we remember what happened last time he took off on a hike). That dog, man. What a spaghetti head.

So Bryan, myself and Whiskey cooked up some ramen, ate some salami, and cowered in the bushes respectively After another tiny nip of whiskey and some hearty glugs of water, we threw our packs back on and took off once again. This is where the trail got a little tricky and after a while we finally came to a sort of rough fork and weren’t honestly sure which was to go. Probably not the biggest concern in the world except for the fact that shortly after we’d started out Bryan remembered that he’d left his maps (his maps! That he was so excited about! That I’m pretty sure he’d paid extra for for the rush delivery!) at home so here we are in the middle of nowhere and we’re relying on his vague memory of which way to turn, which road to take, and which side the river should be on at which point in the journey.

Again, I always feel safe with this guy. There's no need to worry. Please exhale now, dad.

Without getting too longwinded (ha! I know, funny right?) we started up one fork in the trail for a few hundred feet only to meet a fairly definite dead end into completely uncut trail so we backed down and over the way we’d gone and decided the only other option was to cross the river here and hope that the little bit of trail we saw on the other side was what we were looking for.

At this point we’d done a pretty good job of keeping our boots dry (shoutout to our Merrells!) but it was immediately evident that this was as far as we were gonna get with thatness. Bryan took a swing at it first, as he usually does when the trail gets a little uncertain, testing the water quite literally to find the best place to step, the safest route, etc.

Once he figured out which rocks wouldn’t slip me to my death and which trees to climb through in order to stay out of the deeper, faster currents of river, I started over. Only problem now was that the weight and balance of my pack was throwing me off as I tried to compensate for the current and it quickly became evident that while I probably wouldn’t die this way, there’s a good chance I’d have fallen in the water altogether because let’s face it, I’ve been known to fall down standing still (I think Bryan is still trying to wrap his head around the time he watched me fall smack on my ass wearing snowshoes while taking his picture at Trillium Lake… It’s a special skill man and I’m one of the gifted few). So he dropped his gear and waded back about halfway over to take my pack from me so that I could crawl my way through to the other side. As ever, thanks for taking one for the team!

Only hitch now? Whiskey. Old man is not a fan of a) getting left behind, and b) crawling over things that are even somewhat unstable (like that time he army crawled across a bridge that was just a little rickety and really drove home what a little badass he is). It was somewhere between heart wrenching and adorable listening to his little squeaks and whines of panic as he became more and more frustrated the more we coaxed him.

Finally though, all three of us made it across – wet, but no worse for the wear. And now I’m not sure what time it was at this point, but we were a good few miles in and it was time for that dreaded last climb up, up, and up to the first night’s campsite at Big Slide Lake.

And yeah, let me tell you, this leg of the hike was not fooling around. Especially not once we hit the rockslide area (that we can only assume was the lake’s namesake) and it was nothing but steep, rocky, craggy trail for a couple miles. I tell ya, nothing makes you feel more off-balance with a 40 pound pack on your back like this trail.

I admit, this was the part where I started to doubt my ability not only to just do it, but to not freak out at the sheer drop-offs and give myself vertigo. And again, here’s where I’m really grateful for who I was hiking with because he’s really good at keeping me out of my own head and making sure I trust my body to do what I ask of it.

The “giving up is not an option” attitude is also pretty contagious.

It was a couple more miles of up, up, and up (and a couple instances of false hope where we were sure we’d reached out destination only to realize it was a false summit and mutter a few choice words under our breath) and then finally Bryan, who was his usual dozen or so feet ahead of me, turned back around with a childlike smile and said through a grin, “Are you ready for this?”

And then there it was, nestled right down in a nest of pine trees – Big Slide Lake.

I don’t think I had even realized just how exhausted my legs were from a full day of hiking until the lake was in sight, but suddenly all I could think about was dropping pack and drinking it all in: the towering evergreens, the crystal clear water, the electric green moss covering its floor and completely throwing off any inclination of its depths.

“Welcome home, sunshine!” he said as we both marveled at the little Eden we’d found ourselves in.
Again, no clue on the time here but it was getting to be late afternoon so we set about making camp and getting things on a roll before the sun dropped fully from the sky. We were completely enveloped by mountains and it was already on its way to being a crap ton colder than the day had been to start. Bryan got his hammock strung up and helped me throw together the little pup tent and once beds were made and we’d both gotten cozy in our camp clothes, the only thing left to do was get a fire going.

So here’s where we ran into a tiny detail we’d overlooked in planning this trip: warmer than average temps or not, it was still winter in Oregon. And that meant everything was still a little soggy. And that meant no matter where we looked, there was not a single piece of dry anything in that little crater under a pretty dense canopy of thick, green boughs.

Whiskey dealt with his obvious anxiety over the whole thing by making a fort for himself and supervising from there.

I chose the "selfies by the lake" option.

He must have tried for over an hour to get that damn fire started, but as the light drained itself from the sky we both decided the best thing to do was bundle up another layer or two and just fire up the little stove and get some hot food in our bellies. And some whiskey.

I screwed around with the Pat’s Backcountry bottle trying to make us some beer, but an unnamed genius had left the directions at home (because who would think to bring those?) and while I’d hoped it might be simple enough for a one-armed monkey to figure out, no such luck.

So there we were – cold, but well-fed and even though we didn’t have the beer we were both craving at this point, at least there was whiskey.

It’s nice to know there’s always whiskey.

The rest of the night that would have been spent bullshitting around a campfire was instead spent walking back and forth around the campsite, down to the edge of the lake and back, trying to stay warm while we solved all the world’s problems and looked at the stars. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

I love the kind of friendships that can have two people spend all day and all night just talking about nothing and everything and still not get sick of each other, or run out of things to talk about. I'm an only child (so is he, kinda) so I'm usually good on my own, so when I find someone I actually really enjoy being around for days on end, that's saying something (especially when we're literally the only people around for miles and miles).

It was a crystal night and the stars were fully dancing in the sky by the time we finally decided to call it a night and hunker down to sleep, and even though I could barely feel my face, I was happy.

Whiskey had already turned in for the night and was curled up on the inner edge of my sleeping bag which meant that while he was warm and toasty, I was being booted out of my own bag by a 50 pound cinnamon roll.

I’d told Bryan to keep an ear out for my screams should a bear or a squirrel with a penchant for violence attack me in the night but for some reason I don’t think he took it very seriously.

After what seemed like the longest, coldest night of my life (thanks again, Whisk) it was somehow morning again and the world began to wake up. I was just barely conscious when I heard Bryan hovering outside my tent with a “good morning, sunshine!” that could only be the mark of a man who got a good night’s sleep in his super warm sleeping bag and exceedingly comfortable hammock (yeah forget all the warm and fuzzies I just mentioned and screw you, Farrell – next time the dog is sleeping with YOU). But really, I was far from mad because that morning on the lake was gorgeous. Especially once we fired up the stove and I got myself a hot cup of coffee and settled into the curve of the rocks while Bryan fished (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) and we watched the sky light up around our little crater.

After breakfast we took a quick tour around the lake then threw our packs back on to get our butts up to the lookout before anyone else could beat us to it.

To be continued... Because I'm not mean enough to make you read an entire novel in one sitting...

(part two here)


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