Backpacking in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, part 1

Aug 19, 2021 | 0 comments

Whenever things work out well, I always get suspicious that something is going to go wrong, but somehow this time, everything went right. Friday afternoon, we rode out to the Windy Creek trailhead with another group of hikers who were also planning to backpack in the valley that weekend. Although we weren’t all planning on hiking together, there was some comfort in knowing there would be at least 4 other people out there somewhere, following a similar route at their own pace. We said our goodbyes to the rest of the crew, and Asa and I plunged into the Cow Parsnip.

For anyone unfamiliar, Cow Parsnip is a tall, unfriendly plant known to cause skin burns. We weren’t too concerned though, because we were in raingear head to foot, and it was the end of the season, so many of the plants were dying back.

As I got used to the weight of my pack, we wove our way down the steep trail to the first creek crossing. Low-growing blueberries dotted the ground, and we munched our way down to the water, enjoying the sweet, tart, juicy morsels as we went. When we got to the crossing and paused to take off our shoes and roll up our pants, the other hiking crew caught up to us again. “Long time no see!” We laughed, since it hadn’t even been an hour.

The water was icy cold and fast-flowing, but it was an easy crossing, only up to my knees.

Obligatory “Before” photo, at the beginning of our trek.

What was not so easy was finding the trail again on the way back up out of the brush after we crossed Windy Creek. We found what looked like a trail, but it seemed to lead the wrong way, so we forged our own path for a while, knowing the general direction we needed to head. Eventually we caught sight of the other kids coming out into the opening again a quarter mile or so behind us, and realized we had veered a little too far to the south. We corrected our path and found the trail again.

The route took us across the edge of the valley’s ignimbrite, through rainbows of color on the ground, little islands of vegetation, past bear tracks and scat, piles of rocks, and flowing streams. The weather changed rapidly, from rain to clouds to sunshine and back to rain.

At one point, we came upon a viewpoint that caused us both to gasp in awe. The deep gorge of the River Lethe spanned out in front of us, silty water coursing through the bottom of it, the steep walls jutting up in warm, earthy colors on both sides. At that moment, I felt like everything was worth it; if I saw nothing else on this trip, I was beyond satisfied. To get to see such an amazing place in my lifetime felt like a gift.

Around mile 5, we began encountering dense thickets of alder that were miserable to clamber through with our backpacks. The trail dipped down into the alder, and then climbed back up again so steeply that you’d slide down the loose sandy ash almost as quickly as you could get up, scrambling on your hands and knees. On top of this, there were lots of bear signs around, so we made a lot of noise going through the alder, just in case, talking loudly and singing silly songs.

By the time we got out of the alder, I was soaking wet, head to foot, my hat and hair drenched, and my hands covered with wet, gritty sand that I couldn’t wipe off on anything. As waterproof as my boots were, they were also wet inside. There are very few things I despise more than wet, sticky hands and wet socks!

The six mile hike took us about 4.5 hours–a testament to just how hard the hike was, and how pretty, too, since we kept stopping to take pictures and admire! When we finally made it to Six Mile, the trail all but disappeared, but it was pretty clear which way to go to get into the shelter of the mountain. A couple streams flowed from the mountain side, and as we drew closer, the terrain helped block out some of the icy wind that was now tearing through the valley. Only once we stopped to set up camp did we realize how cold we’d gotten.

It was hard to think, and hard to move our hands. I could barely grip my rain jacket zipper, and had to use my teeth to open my backpacker meal bag, I was so cold. We set up camp as quickly as we could, and waited for what seemed like an eternity for the water to boil for our food on my tiny backpacking stove. Once it was finally warm enough, we were able to use the meal bags as handwarmers in our jackets to bring our temperatures back up, while the food rehydrated inside.

It tasted delicious, once it was finally ready. I was so hungry, I scarfed down as much rice and beans as I could, and gave the rest to Asa, since I knew he could use the extra calories.

After dinner, we stashed our bear barrel a good distance from our tent, and finally got into some warm, dry clothes and into our sleeping bags just as it was getting dark. I slept surprisingly well, as we huddled together in our mummy bags and all our layers.  The next day, we would evaluate how we were feeling, and decide whether or not to extend our trip to the volcano, or head back toward the valley road.


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