Image by ww_whist
Took the day off and planned to hike, if the weather was good. Last week they said it would be wet and chilly over the holiday, but Monday and Tuesday were warm and sunny. So Wednesday morning, 7:30 am, I headed out, out to Boulder Creek. It was 9 am when I parked at my regular spot near the cattle bar; a few cows, like shaggy black bears, ambled in the green distance. I got my things together and headed over the road and out onto the trackless trail.
I skittered down into Johnson Creek and back up along the deer tracks. I noticed my first ticks here, one a typical brown and several tiny, shiny black ones. At the top I crossed the open grass area to the dirt road that skirts the pasture and followed this up to the jog where the trail starts, hidden in a swath of manzanita. My last hike here was in August, but today the trail was as familiar as if I’d been there the week before. The recent rains had perked up the brush but the foliage was blissfully light and I made quick headway down the creek, only diverging from the bed a handful of times. I hadn’t brought a watch so I didn’t know what time it was when I reached the abandoned camp at the bottom, but it felt like I’d been on the trail only about an hour. I spent the next half hour, as usual, struggling to cross the ten or fifteen yards of Boulder Creek. There’s a fair amount of water running through it now but the trees, brambles, and poison oak are at low ebb, their branches bare and sapless. After a couple of aborted sallies into the thicket, I found the trickle of the stream that comes down from the rock shelf on the other side, the same stream I’d followed on my hands and knees last summer. The going was still hard, but knowing the muddy ground would get me where I wanted to go made it easier. As I went I attempted to crack a way through so that I could use track again. And maybe some grateful deer would take advantage of my work and help open it up a bit. When I got to the other side, I was scratched, wet-footed, and wishing I’d brought my machete, but I was also upbeat because I had now managed to cross Boulder Creek in the same spot twice.
There was water, burbling and spitting, all around; the pool that had been dry on my last hike and nearly stagnant the hike before was now overflowing, sunlight dancing on the racing water. I took a short rest on an exposed boulder and then investigated a stand of whitethorn just west of where I was sitting. Two things were of interest. First, the ground was turned up suggesting a trail through the whitethorn and, second, beyond the brush was a small scarp and open ground suggesting a way down. But the trail led nowhere so I went back to the boulder, got my pack, and picked my way up the rock ledge.
My plan was to get on top of the ridge east of the creek and follow it up to the very top, bypassing the uneven ground of the creek bed completely. It was hard going at first – surmounting the steep head of a ridge usually is. Once on top of the ridge, I followed the largely open ground up, as I had planned. Only when I’d almost reached the top did I decide it would be easier to hike up the creek bed than up the next step of the ridge which rose above the creek at least fifty feet. I got on the wide rock bed and started up, making quick work of a small patch of willows and reeds that were growing along the way. The incline became steeper but I was able to reach out and steady myself as I thighed my way up. I paused to catch my breath and looked over my shoulder. Behind me, or rather below me, the rock was sheer and then disappeared out of sight. Beyond that, in the direction a pebble would roll, was emptiness. I suddenly had the sensation that I was clinging to a pane of glass and someone was gradually pushing it upright. I couldn’t get down the way I’d come and there was nothing but smooth rock above. My breath couldn’t decide whether it was coming in or going out.
The first thing I did was remove the leather gloves I’d been wearing so I could get better purchase on the few cracks there were. To the left about six feet away was a swath of brush that ran along the edge of the incline. If I could get over to that I’d be fine. I started inching my way across the featureless rock, belly and legs flat, my belt buckle catching as I went. At one point I started to slip; in a flash I imagined myself sliding faster and faster and then over the edge. My fingers found a tiny lip and I steadied myself. When I was finally able to grab a handful of branches, I lay on the face for a moment, exhausted, before dragging myself onto the welcoming island of dirt and roots.
After several minutes, I surveyed where I had just been. It’s possible that, if I hadn’t looked back, I could have continued to flat foot it all the way up the face – I’m not sure. I had been up this part of the creek once before and I thought I’d gone the same way. I won’t be going up that way again.
I picked my way up through the brush to the next level spot, and from there it was an easy, albeit jittery, walk to the top of the creek. I sat down on an exposed boulder on the west side and took stock. On my first hike up the valley this was as far as I had gotten. My plan for today had been to continue up the ridge on the other side, the ridge I’d been on until I got stuck on the rock face, for as far as I could go. Now I was thinking I should just head back.
Behind me the sun was obscured by wispy clouds. I scanned the basin above; it was thickly overgrown and there was no sign of a way in. I looked across the creek at the exposed cliff on the other side and noticed something that excited and disappointed me. On the red rock shelf, within a stone’s toss, was a cairn. I slung my pack on and made my way down into the creek and back up to the red rock shelf where I found several cairns, including one that had two short stacks of stones which suggested that it might have been placed recently. I also found orange tape tied to a branch. I poked around and found a trail, narrow but well-marked, and followed it up for a hundred yards or so, at which point I lost it. I decided to call it a day and started back down.
I stuck to the eastern ridge and made a quick descent. Even when I got to the head of the ridge I was able to find the way I’d come up, occasionally coming across my own foot prints, and arrived at the exposed boulder where I’d rested after crossing Boulder Creek. Instead of following the trickle down to the creek, I went back over to the stand of whitethorn and looked for a way through. It turned out to be relatively sparse and I was across and at the scarp in little time. From there I could see the meadow of the abandoned camp less than fifty yards away. I descended into the brush below me. Once again, I sorely wished I had a machete. About midway through the web of chest deep brambles, a fallen oak limb blocked my way. There was nothing to step on to get over it so I had to gracelessly haul myself over. From there, however, the creek was only a few yards away and I was across it in no time. I was now within sight of the edge of the meadow. Another dead oak lay between me and the bank. Rather than climb over, I decided to climb on top of its ample trunk and walk along it. I heaved myself up and was taking my first step when my shoe slipped off the barkless wood and I fell squarely on my butt. Fortunately, there was nothing sharp where I landed and I managed not to fall off the tree. Unfortunately, I landed full force on a large knobby bit which gave me a painful charley horse. Cursing the useless tree, my cruddy shoes, and Boulder Creek generally, I limped up the bank to the meadow and back along the way I’d come. The return trip was slow but uneventful. For the first time, I hiked entirely along the creek bed, from bottom to top, except for one short span of about ten yards. From now on, assuming it doesn’t get overgrown in the spring, I should be able to make very good time going straight down the ravine, which I’ll need if I want to explore the trail on the other side.
When I got back to the car the sun was already low over the ocean, its gold disk, embedded in a red sky, glittering on the water. I did my tick check and started home. It was 5 pm; I’d been on the trail nearly 8 hours.