The Peninsula is one of the last really wild places in the lower fifty. Majestic mountains, lush forests, and remote, challenging rivers characterize this often overlooked region of Northwest Washington State. Most of the peninsula is within the boundaries of Olympic National Park, which has kept the area pristine for the most part. A few paddlers have explored the most remote rivers in the Olympics, but for the most part the streams are rarely run, if at all. The Olympic Mountains are heavily glaciated, so the rivers almost always have enough water to paddle, especially the really hard stuff that is only survivable at low flows in the summer.
In August of 2001 Jon Loehrke and I were carrying our boats twelve miles up into the Olympics to run the North Fork Quinault Gorge. A couple of miles up the trail we ran into a park ranger, who struck up a conversation. After a while he motioned towards our kayaks and said: "Did you boys ever hear about those fellas who ran the Hayes back in the nineties?" He shook his head in disbelief. "To this day we still don't know how they got in there..."
Jon was grinning and I was too, and when the park ranger paused I looked him in the eye and said: "Oh yeah, that was me...."
Back in the nineties I was paddling a lot with some of the most experienced exploratory boaters you'll find anywhere. We had some grand adventures, but the Hayes was pretty much off the scale, even for this group.
Scott Matthews has probably run more Washington Rivers and Creeks than anyone else, and he was the driver behind this particular exploratory trip. Sprague Ackley is another experienced exploratory paddler who has authored an array of hard runs in Washington and abroad. Eric Volk paddled a lot with Sprague and was another long-time exploratory paddler who was also interested in the Hayes due to it's ultra-remote nature and likely difficult character.
The Hayes is a tributary of the Elwha River, joining the Elwha about ten miles above the entrance of the Grand Canyon. Now, if you have ever paddled the Grand or visited the area you are probably wondering how in the heck we planned to get that far into the Olympics. Well, nobody said it was going to be easy, but that only increased the appeal for us.
The plan was to hike 15 miles up into the Enchanted Valley, then head due west from there for about three miles, climb over a 4000 foot mountain, and then drop into the Hayes drainage on the other side. We had studied the Hayes on the Topos and it looked good, with a respectable gradient and favorable geology. Scott had explored several other remote runs in the area (most notably the Upper Queets and the Upper Hoh) and both had solid class V canyons, so we were ready for an exciting trip.
Of course, Scott had also set the record in terms of long approaches in the Olympics for first descents: He had to hike for seven days just to reach the put-in for the upper Queets!
Because the approach was so difficult, we decided to approach river in two phases. On the first trip we would carry our boats as far as we could into the mountains and stage them within a day or two of the river, after which we would hike out and return later to do the first descent.
On the first weekend Scott Matthews picked me up in Olympia and we drove up into the Olympics. Eric was off kayaking in Idaho, so his friend Jordan had volunteered to carry his gear in for him (now that's a good friend!) Sprague and Jordan had started hiking earlier in the day, so once we got to the trailhead we threw on our packs, grabbed our boats, and hit the trail at a brisk pace. In spite of our heavy loads pushed on pretty hard, trying to catch up Sprague and Jordan before it got too dark.
Well, the sun went down and there was no sign of Sprague and Jordan. Hoping that they weren't too far ahead, we pushed on... Finally around 2:30 a.m. I saw something odd leaning against a tree. Now, at this point we been hiking pretty much all night so I was seeing plenty of odd things, but this really was a paddle and we had finally found Sprague and Jordan.
We were got up the next morning when the sun came up and pushed on towards the Enchanted Valley. Once there we found a trail headed west and followed it for about three miles to the base of West Peak, which soared four thousand feet overhead. The headwaters for the Hayes was on the other side of this mountain, and there was only one way to get to it...
Now, when you get ready to climb a mountain you look for a weakness, a chink in the armor. Once you find it you can usually get to the top, but the key is to find that crack, ridgeline, or other terrain feature that will help you top out. Of course, we didn't savor the thought of dragging our boats up through four thousand feet of brush and trees, so on the morning of day three we took the most logical line up the side of the mountain:
Oh, did I forget to mention that we also did the first Ascent of a creek during this trip as well? Well, we did... Anderson Creek screams off of the flank of West Peak at about 1000 - 2000 fpm over a series of waterfalls and cataracts. Since no one wanted to take on the brush, we started climbing up the creek, which was very low but still had enough water to cause problems. There were many places where the water plunged though deep cracks and dropped down through big falls, forcing us to use our boats as ladders and bridges. Fortunately we had several skilled rock climbers in the group, so the 'Ascent' of Anderson Creek went pretty smoothly,
at least at first.
After about 2000 feet of vertical gain we reached the first flat spot. It was getting dark, so we were dismayed to find two bears had gotten there first and set up camp. I don't know who was more surprised, us or them, but they took off in a hurry to leave us with what we dubbed 'Basecamp one'. I felt kind of bad about chasing the bears off, but I was too tired to be considerate at that point! We set up camp and the next morning started climbing again. Soon the air temperature started dropping and we could see snow above us on the rocks. None of us were really sure if we preferred snow or water in the creekbed, but soon enough we had both and our progress slowed considerably.
Soon the entire creekbed was full of snow and we were kicking steps into the slope to make upward progress. The snow wasn't dangerously steep yet, but upward progress was difficult and tedious. After ascending about five hundred vertical feet above the snowline we encountered a thirty foot diameter hole in the snow which blocked our progress and appeared to be quite deep. We could hear water roaring deep down inside the hole, but none of us were willing to get close enough to see how deep it was. Finally Sprague and Jordan (The two most motivated rockclimbers in the group) decided to scale the cliff wall on the right side next to hole to see if we could get around it.
For the next half hour or so we watched them ease up the wall until they disappeared from sight. Over an hour later they reappeared with some rather disturbing news. Apparently the hole contained a huge waterfall, which meant that we had climbed up onto a snow bridge suspended between the cliff walls. Sprague estimated that the waterfall was at least a hundred feet tall. We had mistakenly assumed all along that the creekbed was just under the snow, but in reality there was nothing but air under our feet. After this rather disturbing news soaked in we determined that it would be impossible to repeat Sprague and Jordan's rock climbing feat with heavy packs and boats, so we were at an impasse.
We had a brief discussion and decided to modify the plan. We would now be forced to leave the boats and return the following weekend with sufficient climbing gear to cross the crevasse. We descended back to Basecamp and secured our boats and most of our gear, hoping that the bears wouldn't venture back up and ransack our gear (though it would probably have served us right for ousting them in the first place). I drank my three 23 ounce Fosters Beers that I had been hauling along drink as a celebration at the confluence of the Hayes and the Elwha, and we descended Anderson Creek and hiked back to the cars. Everyone opted to carry out their food and gear in order to avoid bear problems, but Scott was sure he could seal up his boat well enough to avoid detection, so he spent a long time taping his food and other gear into his boat so that he wouldn't have to carry it out. The hike out took the rest of the day, and we were pretty darned tired by the time we got home.
The following weekend we decided to return for the first descent.
The plan was for me to leave my truck at the trailhead for the Grand Canyon of the Elwha, then catch a bus back down around the outside of the peninsula (over a hundred miles one-way) and then rendezvous with Sprague at the trailhead. Scott and Eric were going to hike in separately later that day.
Almost from the beginning things started to go wrong.
I drove up to the take out for the Grand at the Lake Mills trailhead, and set up camp. At the time I had never run that section of the Elwha, and I was looking forward to doing it at the end of this trip! The next morning I rolled out of my sleeping bag and though I was a little foggy I noticed it was a little too bright to be 6 a.m... I had slept right through my alarm!
Cursing my bad luck, I crammed my sleeping bag in my pack and sped off down the trail on my bike, hoping to catch the next bus. No such luck! For the next hour I stood at the bus stop by the old country store, fuming and wondering how long it would take me to bicycle the hundred or so miles to the Quinault.. Soon enough the bus arrived and I hopped on, but when I got to the rendezvous point a couple of hours later and hooked up with Sprague. This time we moved faster because we had crammed everything into our packs, which weighed around 70 pounds. We planned to push all the way though on this attempt, and this time we were better prepared for alpine climbing. Each of us was carrying a 150 foot climbing rope, and we had about thirty snow stakes that Scott had fashioned out of old aluminum windowframes at his house. We were also carrying enough food to sustain us for an extended period of time. In my case, this consisted almost entirely of a 30 pound bag of what I call 'Gorp', which some people also call 'Trail Mix'.
Sprague and I moved very fast and it only took us a day to reach Basecamp one this time. Upon our arrival we were relieved to discover that the bears had not visited in our absence, so we settled down for the night.
We didn't know it at the time, but Scott was having difficulties on his solo approach. He had gotten a late start and darkness had arrived by the time he arrived at the base of Anderson Creek. He started climbing up in the dark, but the flow was considerably higher than the week before due to a full day of sun on the snowfields high overhead. After about 1500 feet of climbing (only about 200 yards below Basecamp one) he reached a point where the water was too high and had to sleep there. The next morning the snow had frozen and the creek dropped, and he climbed up to our camp at first light. We organized our gear, ate breakfast, and settled in to wait for Eric who had started very early that morning.
By early afternoon we saw him far below, and we got ready to go. As soon as Eric arrived we loaded up our gear and hauled the boats back up the mountain and got ready to tackle the crevasse. This time Scott and I traversed across the cliff face above the hole in the snow, carrying ropes, snow stakes, and other climbing gear. Once on the uphill side we fashioned an anchor out of the snow stakes while Eric and Sprague set a matching anchor on the downhill side. I anchored myself to the stakes on the high side and eased down to the edge of the crevasse while Scott belayed me. I had tied a throwrope to the end of a climbing rope, and after several unsuccessful tosses I finally got the throwrope across to Sprague and Eric. In between throws I got a few looks down into the hole, which was appeared to be bottomless but we estimated it was around 100 feet deep.
Once we had a rope across the hole we set up a Tyrolean traverse by cinching the rope down tight with about 10 snow stakes on either side. Once the anchor was set, we eased the boats and equipment across, little by little, stopping in between to re-tighten the ropes. After a couple of hours of hard work we finally had all of the gear across the crevasse. Sprague and Eric scaled the cliff wall and traversed over to our side,
and we pulled the rope.
We were committed.
We only had a little daylight left but we decided to push on. As it grew darker we climbed up between the cliff walls on a steep tongue of snow. By dark the walls had fallen away and we were on the permanent snowpack, and the slope had gotten steeper. Soon we couldn't drag our boats any farther so we racked out for the night. Of all of us Eric was probably the best equipped for snow climbing as he had brought along his bright orange back country ski boots. We all wished we had done the same!
In the morning we got up and decided that we had to come up with a more efficient way to haul our gear up through the snow. We still had almost 2000 vertical feet to climb, and it was getting too steep and too tiring to drag the boats with our heavy packs. After a brief discussion we decided to rig up a system of pulleys to get the gear to the summit.
It worked like this: Three of us would climb about a 150 feet, trailing a line that was attached to one of the boats, all four of which we left anchored below. Once we reached the end of the rope, we would rig up an anchor with a pulley and one of us would grab the rope and run back down the mountain, which would in turn haul the boat and gear up to the pulley. Once the boat was at the top, the guy down at the boats would attach the rope to the next boat and the next guy would run down, and so on. This worked well as the snow steepened, but as you can imagine it was a little tiring. Soon it became steep enough that we had to carefully anchor everything in as the slightest slip would have left us without a boat or gear. When we set up camp that night I remember that the boats were actually hanging free, swinging in the air halfway up a narrow cliff we had climbed.
We probably did 'Run and haul' 30 to 40 times over the next two days, but by nightfall on the fourth day of the trip we reached the summit. At this point everyone was starting to run low on food but me. We had been going hard for four days, and everyone was feeling it. I remember Eric joking 'Well, even if all the rest of us don't have any food, John's still got a wheelbarrow load of Gorp!'
We camped that night on the summit, which was really more like a pass. The walls rose steeply on either side of us, and the narrow passageway in between the walls was a mere six feet wide! Once through the pass the views were spectacular. The Olympics fell away in every direction, and there was nothing but glaciers, seracs, and huge cornices as far as the eye could see north and south. Luckily we were headed west, and the next morning we were working our way down reverse slope of the mountain, heading down into the headwaters of the Hayes.
By now we had the pulley system down to a fine art, and we descended rapidly, lowering our boats and then downclimbing after them. After ten or twelve lowerings I grew tired of the ropework, so I announced that I was going to paddle down to the treeline. Everyone looked at me like I was nuts, but in reality I think they were even more surprised that they didn't think of it first!
I hopped in my boat, grabbed my paddle, and took off like a rocket down the mountain. It was a little scary but the snow was fairly wet so I never got going dangerously fast (I think). Even so, it was a heck of a lot better than lowering the boats! Soon we were all tearing down the mountain together, laughing and hollering like a bunch of school kids. We reached the treeline much too soon, and we set up camp.
On the morning of the eighth day we finally reached the headwaters of the Hayes, arriving right where it flowed out of the glacier! We were all soaking it up, glorying in this wonderfully pristine place, and congratulating ourselves on our successes so far.
Then I saw the tire.
I blinked once, twice, but there it was, a tire sticking up out of the river! I shook my head in disbelief. I had just hiked eight days up over a mountain to get to one of the most pristine and untouched spots in the world, and here's a frickin' tire in the river!
No one could believe it, and it was a really BIG tire to boot! Then I saw a piece of metal sticking up and it hit me: That's an AIRPLANE TIRE!
I scrambled over to where the tire was, and sure enough there were pieces of aircraft aluminum scattered all around. For the next couple of hours we wandered around, gathering pieces of the plane, trying to figure our what had happened. The best we could determine was that the plane had crashed somewhere higher up on the mountain, and the glacier was now releasing the remains out into the river, piece by piece.
Later after the trip was over I called the authorities and found out that this was the second of two bombers that had disappeared over the Olympics back September of 1964. This was a startling convergence, because twelve years earlier I had seen the wreckage of the other bomber while hiking the Baily Range Traverse with my father! The location of that plane had been known at the time so we didn't have any trouble finding it, but this was another story entirely! I remember vividly when the first one was discovered because a grade school kid had ended up coming home with some bullets from the bomber's machine gun. No one would have ever known if he hadn't taken them to school in Seattle the next week for a little show and tell...
Anyway, back to the story. We loaded up our boats but we had too much gear to safely carry. We ended up leaving a huge pile of gear by the glacier, planning on returning later to get it later.
On the morning of day eight we started down the river, which was pleasant and splashy, class II - III but nothing too hard. The scenery was great, very alpine with nice views. We encountered the occasional log, but nothing too bad. After a couple of miles of easy floating, we started to get psyched. We knew we were approaching the canyon, and everyone was excited, anticipating the prospect of some good whitewater. Every so often we saw the bedrock start to poke out of the scree slopes but nothing seemed to come of it as we descended. I remember Scott saying "The canyon's gotta be just around the corner, every other Olympic river has a canyon.. It's just around the corner..." The logs were becoming more frequent, but as we portaged we were confident that once we entered the canyon the logs would be few and far between due to the rockier terrain.
Soon, we rounded the corner, and there it was. We pulled our boats over to the side of the river and gazed downstream in awe at the spectacular sight:
It was a logjam.
But not just any logjam; this was the single most monstrous mess of logs I had ever seen in my life! It was as if the devil himself had crammed every old growth tree that ever existed down into that canyon, and it stretched as far as the eye could see!
We all gaped in disbelief; none of us could believe it. There was no canyon, no whitewater, just logs, logs, and more logs.
And thus began one of the most epic portages I have ever undertaken. We all took different routes, but all of them were horrible. I remember that there were a few times that I not only didn't know where the river was, I didn't know where any of my buddies were either... Up to that point I had never seen or heard of such an enormous mess of wood on any river.
It was horrendous, but after an hour or so of hard work we finally got back to the river. We were tired, but the river was wood free downstream so we were hopeful that there would be no more wood. We paddled about a hundred yards, and rounded the corner, and there it was. Another huge logjam. And another, and another. There was enough wood crammed in this river to supply all the timber mills in the Northwest for a decade, it seemed.
That was right about the time we realized we were totally screwed. Not just a little screwed, but totally, utterly screwed. We were many, many miles from civilization, low on food, and we only had a day to get out before we passed our "If we are not back by this day notify the authorities" deadline.
It didn't look good. We would paddle about a hundred yards, get out, do a heinous, tiring portage over a logjam, only to repeat the process just downstream. At one point I checked my altimeter watch and I saw that we were at 1660 feet, while the confluence with the Elwha was at 800 feet above sea level. At that point I estimated we had five miles to go, and I was hoping like crazy that the wood was going to come to an end soon, but it never did.
It took us two whole days to portage our way down to the confluence of the Elwha, and it was a horrendous experience for everyone involved. We were all very tired, and the food situation was starting to get a little critical. Of course, what were we going to do, hike out? I do remember at one point there was about two hundred yards of runnable whitewater, with a couple of class IV's and a class V right at the end. We were so elated that we set up camp right there and ran this section a couple of times each!
As we approached the Elwha the river cleaned up a bit and there were times we could paddle as far as a quarter of a mile without portaging, which seemed like heaven after the nightmare we had just endured.
Finally we reached the Elwha and our moods improved in spite of our low food supplies. We knew we were now past our latest return time and our families would be notifying the authorities, so we hiked up to the Ranger Station at Hayes River Bridge. To our surprise, there was nobody there! We looked all around, but to no avail. We ended up leaving a bunch of notes all over the place, and then we took off down there river. We were now eight miles above the put in for the Grand Canyon of the Elwha, and after that we had another eight miles of class five and then a three mile paddle out across the lake... We were far from finished! We paddled down to Elkhorn Creek Campground, but there was nobody there either. We all thought that was a little strange, given that it was a popular hiking destination and the fourth of July weekend was approaching.
That night we camped just above the entrance to the Grand Canyon of the Elwha. I remember clearly that the other paddlers in the group had been discussing what level the river would be at, and what flow would be best. There is a gauge rock in the first small rapid at the entrance to the canyon, so everyone was hoping the flows would be optimal for a run down this section. Sprague and Jordan had done the first descent of the Grand, and they both agreed that an inch or so flowing over the left side of the rock on the right meant a flow of about 1000 cfs on the Internet gauge, which was just about right. We all agreed that lower would actually be better because we were all pretty fatigued and no one felt like paddling big water class V with heavily loaded boats.
Finally we arrived at the entrance to the Grand and we pulled out on the left to look at the gauge rock. This spot is unmistakable from upstream; here the rock walls start rising up out of the water and there is a small drop that contains the 'gauge rock' on the middle right side. I had never done the Grand before, so I was looking around for this rock they had been talking about but I didn't see anything. Scott and Sprague were looking a little concerned, and then I realized that the big hole in the middle of the river was actually the 'gauge rock'. It was there, but it was covered by at least a foot of water!
I sat there staring at this munching hole that was being formed by the 'gauge rock' and listened to the others discuss what in the hell we were going to do now. None of us savored the thought of hiking out eight miles with loaded boats, but on the other hand what awaited us downstream didn't seem much better. The river was running high, and from what little I knew of this run I was sure it was going to be downright life-threatening.
Finally we decided to enter the canyon. Everyone was nervous, which made me nervous even though I had never done it. This was a serious decision, because once you commit to this run there are very few places to climb out; many of the rapids are only marginally portageable, and swimming is just not an option.
At least they had some inkling of what we were in for; I could only imagine...
We ran the first class IV drop and then spun into an eddy against the canyon wall above Eskimo Pie. The river was ripping downstream like a locomotive and the huge horizon line formed by Eskimo looked like pure hell from above, pounding between the narrow confines of the canyon walls with a tremendous roar. We could all see the steam and spray rising out of a gigantic river-wide hole; I knew there was no way on this earth any of us were going to run this rapid and come out of it in one piece.
We looked around for portaging options but they were very limited. At regular flows you can scout or portage this drop by catching a tiny eddy at the lip of the drop on the right side, but this requires the utmost care; one slip and you are swimming the drop, which is unthinkable at the flows I have seen this river at since. That eddy was gone at this flow. The remaining options were bad, but we didn't have much of a choice.
At this flow a misstep would almost certainly be lethal, so everyone was tense. We started portaging, which required doing some rock climbing that I am still trying to forget to this day. Two hours into this climb/portage we heard a thumping noise, and suddenly a large helicopter swung into view overhead. Someone had notified the authorities, and they had found us. I can only imagine what we must have looked like, clinging to the cliff like brightly colored bugs above this huge rapid that must have looked even worse from the vantage point of our 'rescuers'. For about ten minutes they hovered overhead, and finally we managed to communicate that we did not want or need a rescue, thank you very much! Eventually the helicopter drifted off over the trees and we continued the portage.
Later I found out that when the authorities returned to their home base they contacted my parents, who were justifiably concerned about where I was. The first thing the guy asked my dad was: "We saw some kayakers in there, do you happen to know what color of life vest your son has?" My father thought about it for a second and then said: "Well, I don't really know what kind of gear he has, but if anyone is stuck up in that canyon, it's probably John..."
The portage around Eskimo Pie took over four hours to complete. Once past the top part of the rapid Scott decided to put in and run the lower section. As we watched we was swept forcefully against the lower wall and spent about two minutes against the wall while we watched helplessly from above. Thankfully he was able to fight his way free, but we had seen enough. The rest of us portaged the lower part as well, ending the ordeal with a 40 foot throw-and-go into the pool below. Below here we started running rapid after rapid, and soon we were making good time. We were now approaching day ten, and it all started to become a blur. I remember splitting a snickers bar four ways at one point as our meager supply of food dwindled away, and soon I was the only one left with anything to eat. Soon we arrived at the exit of the Grand and the footbridge, which has a nice primitive camping spot above Rica Canyon. We got up the next morning and drifted down the few miles of class II to Goblin's Gate, which guards the entrance of Rica Canyon. We had been going hard now for eleven days, and we were glad to be done. We dragged our boats up out of the canyon and carried our gear three miles down the trail to the cars.
It was over.
But not quite yet. We still had to recover our pile of gear that was sitting up at the headwaters of the Hayes, and that would require another expedition in and of itself. We did eventually return, but that, as they say, is another story, which is nearly as epic as this one....