Story By Roddy Scheer
No doubt this is a peach of a gig. A major publisher hired me to put together a guide book on waterfall hikes in Washington State, so I have spent the last several months winnowing down the list of cascades and hiking some of them. While many of the waterfalls on my list are well-known and well-loved, others are more obscure. For me, that’s where the fun — and adventure — comes in.
One recent outing to a remote waterfall — I’m not telling where — accessed via a short hike off of an otherwise deserted old logging road turned out to be more of an adventure than I anticipated. I had basic instructions cobbled together from a couple of websites, but not a lot of detail on how to access the waterfall. I parked along the side of the logging road near a clearing which turned out to be the unmarked trailhead. As instructed by the folded up printout in my back pocket, I hiked in for about a third of a mile to where the trail started switching back but saw no pink ribbons indicating the side trail down to the falls. So I continued on further and kept a lookout for ribbons or any other indication of a way to safely descend down the gorge wall to the rushing water I could hear below.
Had I missed the side trail? I felt like I had hiked too far. But then up ahead I saw a pink ribbon tied around a tree branch. That must be it. As I approached I was surprised to see climbing ropes affixed to tree trunks leading steeply down. My back pocket info sheet mentioned the hike was of moderate difficulty but didn’t mention anything like this. Any monkey could tell what the ropes were for: grab ahold, take that leap and rappel, baby rappel. And that’s just what I did. Down I went, every five feet or so my boots touching down onto the loose scree below, sending dirt and rocks ahead down the steep grade as my advance party.
While it turned out the distance from the top to bottom was less than a tenth of a mile, the 45% grade — and my white knuckle grip on the ropes — made the way down feel a lot longer. But within ten minutes that felt like an hour I was down in a basin at the base of the falls, and I had the place to myself.
No time like the present for a dip. Besides, I was dusty from my rappel down. I put down my pack, took off my boots, socks and shirt and … ahhhh. That cold glacier-fed river water never felt so good. I did a few turns around the 25 foot punchbowl pool at the base of the falls and then slid up on a rock to dry out in the sun.
Being alone at a beautiful remote waterfall imparts a great sense of connectedness with nature, unmitigated by the small talk and human emotion that rules most of our lives otherwise. There was no water cooler talk about the latest episode of Breaking Bad. There were no spreadsheets. There was no whining. Just the constant sound of rushing water and an utterly dynamic but somehow still static slice of the universe.
My daydreaming turned to real dreaming, as I indulged in a little catnap there on the rock. Famished, I got out my lunch and enjoyed al fresco dining poolside. A turkey sandwich on white bread paired with Seattle tap water out of a Nalgene never tasted so good. A Washington Honeycrisp apple made for a refreshing dessert, and off I went back up the ropes to make my way home.
It sure seemed easier going up, likely because I knew what I was in for this time, and I knew that the ropes would hold me. In another ten minutes I was back up on the trail along the top of the river gorge, heading back to the trailhead, perhaps never happier to be alive.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to my car. Along the way I noticed another pink ribbon on a tree, and realized I had missed the actual route down to the bottom before. This must be it. So I took it, and just like the print-out I was carrying said, I was able to hike down into the gorge with my own two feet (that is, no ropes required). When I got to the bottom, there was the waterfall I was expecting to see (from my research) all along, downstream of the one I had just spent an hour visiting. My own secret upper punchbowl fall was up above and not at all visible from this lower vantage point.
Also, I was not alone. Two other hikers were ogling over the falls, dipping their feet in, drying off on rocks, eating their lunches. It was just gross. How could I revel in the sacred mists with strangers lurking about? I guess I had to be content knowing about my secret waterfall up above. I would always have that memory, and can always go back if I am willing to chance it on ropes set by others who knows how long ago.
While I was nervous going down those ropes, the experience of stretching myself and living to tell the tale, not to mention discovering an off-the-beaten-path hiking destination, made the experience well worth a little teeth gnashing. Despite what TLC said in their famous song on the topic, I for one am glad that I am still chasing waterfalls, not sticking to the rivers and the lakes that I know.