I was supposed to do this trip on the previous weekend but since that was the 4th of July and I had priorities with family, I put it off until this weekend. I have hiked up the North Fork Skokomish countless times, either to do the Staircase Rapids loop or to go up to Flapjack Lakes. Even stayed at Camp Pleasant once. I had never set foot on the Duckabush until this trip, so this was to be a new adventure for me.
July 8-9 2011
Joining me on this adventure was fellow Peninsula Wilderness Club member and friend, Isaac Sun. You can read his trip report here. We were surprised when getting the permits from the ranger at the Staircase ranger station, he knew who I was. He asked my name, and when I told him he said "oh, from the Penwicle". I explained yes that was in fact me. I felt honored that he reads my club's publication.
With a late start due to the shuttle involved, obtaining the permits and a slight delay in finding the trailhead, we began hiking at 11:00 am.
The trail was in good shape for the most part up until just after Big Hump. Only a couple of down trees but nothing major to climb over. Once past Big Hump however, the number of blow-downs increased. Once we were past Ten Mile Camp, the hike became increasingly difficult due to the amount of blow-downs and creek crossings. I estimate somewhere between forty and fifty down trees across the trail that either have to be climbed over or around, slowing progress considerably. There was one spot in particular that was very bad with about 15 large trees across the trail. One worry I had about this trip were the creek crossings. I knew there would be no bridges across most if not all of the crossings, and with the huge snow pack and the rate of melt off, I had no idea how hard the crossings would be. Luckily there was only one creek I needed to put my water shoes on for. This creek was before Pitch Creek which I thought would be the problem.
Somewhere between Ten Mile Camp and the Lacrosse Junction, I heard Isaac say "Jay look, a bear!" Sure enough there was a black streak running up the hill away from us. It was near the creek and we must have startled it as the creek hid the sound of our approach. Too fast for pictures I'm afraid.
Once we arrived at the LaCrosse Junction, we decided to continue on to the Duckabush Camp. We got to the final crossing of the day, this time crossing the Duckabush itself. Luckily there was a log we could use as a bridge when we got to the river crossing. It was kind of sketchy with no hand rail. Falling here would not be a good idea. Not only was the water ice cold, there were logs in the water downstream that a person could get trapped under if they fell in.
Once across the river, we found a camp site and quickly set up our tents. I had got my feet wet earlier in the day and I was a little chilled. Since it was 8:00 pm and we still had an hour of daylight left, we decided we had time for a fire. While I rarely build a fire when I'm out, it was nice to be able to get warm and to dry my shoes a bit. As usual when I hike a long distance, I was not feeling too hungry but I managed to get some dinner down anyways. Isaac however, had no trouble eating, even went back a made more food when he was done. After dinner, we tended the fire some more until it was out before calling it a night.
The next day was cool and clear. There wasn't a cloud in the sky as seen from our vantage point at camp. After a quick breakfast and packing up camp, we headed out.
Up we started to climb from camp towards Home Sweet Home and First Divide. I was curious to see where the continuous snow started and how deep it was towards the top. Reports I had read earlier stated that continuous snow started at 2700' which was the elevation at the Duckabush Camp. We had seen a couple smallish patches of snow the day before at around 2600' so I thought the reports would hold true. I suppose either a lot of snow had melted since the two week old report, or the report was bogus.
We had an almost snow free trail with just small patches up until about 3400'. At about 3700' the snow was continuous and we lost the trail. At this point I noticed someone had tied ribbons to trees to mark the way but they only lasted a couple hundred feet before they petered out altogether. The snow was too deep from here out to rely on looking for sign of the trail in the form of cut logs or branches, so we just went straight up.
When we got to a big opening at around 4100', we realized we were near Home Sweet Home. Mt Hopper and Mt Steel were in front of us. White Mt and Mt LaCrosse could be seen across the Duckabush valley. All was right with the world except neither of us had been here before and I had no idea where to go from here. We looked at our maps and figured where we thought First Divide was, but just to be sure I turned on the GPS at this point to review a pre-loaded route I had saved to the unit. Not having a trail to follow and in unfamiliar territory, I just wanted to be sure before committing to the climb. Up until this point, we could simply turn back if unsure.
Just before climbing up, in the basin, we had to skirt around a creek we could hear flowing under the snow. The climb up itself was un-eventful. Just a little steep in a couple spots. The snow was fickle, being firm in spots and very soft in others. After about half an hour we were at the top. I, unfortunately was so concerned in route-finding when we reached the top, that I failed to take as many pictures as I would have liked, but I did manage to take a few. I don't like carrying 5 lbs worth of camera for nothing.
Soon, the task ahead was at hand, finding our way down the NF Skokomish. Looking at the map, I could see we needed to skirt to the west around a little peak maintaining most of our elevation before dropping down to be on the west side of the river before it forms. Much routfinding, sidehilling, bushwhacking and second guessing went on before we found the trail. The GPS was very helpful ensuring we were on the right track. The snow was pretty soft in places and we went down a couple steep sections. In going down through some of the wooded sections, special care was taken not to fall into any of the deep tree wells. I would estimate there was ten feet of snow up there by looking at the snow formed around some of the trees. I'm always hearing about people falling into tree wells needing to be rescued.
We eventually found our way down and even found fragments of the trail. Just above Two Bear Camp, we ran across footprints heading down and followed them until we reached the camp. We knew we were at the camp only because we ran across the bear wire there. Two Bear was otherwise mostly snow covered.
Just below Two Bear Camp, the trail became easier to follow and the snow, much to our relief, was becoming more patchy in areas as opposed to continuous. In one of the last patches of snow we saw a big fresh pile of bear scat. No more than perhaps a tenth of a mile away as we are heading down on real trail for the first time in hours, I see movement out of the corner of my eye and spot a big black bear about a hundred feet away. We pause long enough to take a few pictures and decide to move along when the bear decides to turn its whole body around at us to get a better look. This is the closest I have ever been to a bear in the wild (that I know of) and didn't want to tempt fate. I'm glad I was able to get a good couple of pictures, but I much prefer the bears that run away as opposed to the ones that look at me curiously, perhaps hungrily.
After the bear, we stopped a couple vertical hundred feet down the trail to refill our water bottles. It was good to know we were on solid trail for the rest of the trip, but the thought of eleven more trail miles was hard to swallow. It was already around 1:30 pm. I couldn't believe how much time we burned route finding at First Divide.
Down the trail we went, stopping at Nine Stream camp for lunch. Wow, Nine Stream would be a beautiful place to camp. After lunch on the trail, just before Camp Pleasant, we ran into some folks that warned us that Camp Pleasant was full and they were headed to Nine Stream instead. Lucky them, they were going to have the whole place to themselves. Camp Pleasant was in fact full when we got there. There was a huge tarp set up at the group site and there were two of the big Coleman two burner stoves set up there. We didn't figure out what it was all about until after we passed Camp Pleasant and ran into a big trail crew taking a group photo. They weren't WTA but looked to be some kind of a youth crew. I didn't pause long enough to pay attention to what was written on their hats, but I think Isaac took some photos of them.
At this point we were both getting pretty tired. We crossed over the NF Skokomish soon at the Six Ridge junction, and then passed Big Log Camp and then the Black and White Lakes Trail. At the junction for Flapjack lakes, I seriously started to hit a wall and the hike from that point was getting very difficult. About a half mile from the trailhead I called a stop for a much needed water and rest break before finishing up. We took a ten minute break, re-filling water for the ride home. Another fifteen minutes on the trail and we were back to the car.
This ended up being a fun but difficult trip due to the delay in the snow with all the route-finding. I'm ready for the snow to be gone, but I'm afraid it will have barely melted out before it begins to fall again this year.