The Waptus River Record

We stood at the high point of the first half on the Waptus River Trail.

The goal on this backpacking trip was to find a decent camping spot on the west bank of the Waptus just outside of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness boundary, and we were pretty sure we’d found our jumping-off point to cut off-trail.

This kind of go-it-alone exploration was getting to be something of a habit for us.

Since Tim, Randy, Mike, and I had hiked out the Waptus River Trail from the Pacific Crest in 1983, the thought of returning to the Waptus had been terribly appealing. We knew there was great fishing to be had, but we weren’t thrilled with the five-mile minimum trek to the first river-side camps, and we were decidedly unhappy about divvying those camps with saddle campers.

Sharing the trail with pack animals was bad enough. Sharing the trail with their parasites was something else entirely. As we debated our trek down to the river, deer flies buzzed around our heads in the hot September sun of ’88. We stood by the muddy, trickling outlet of a fair-sized perennial snowpack pond and gazed down into the hazy murk of the old-forest duff where the dank streamlet disappeared and periodically resurfaced through its mostly dry bed.

In the absence of actual trails, dry streambeds can often be the clearest path through dense subalpine scrub. If our maps were right, and if we were reading them correctly, the Waptus shouldn’t be more than half a mile from where we were standing. Venturing down 1000 yards of dry gully like the one in front of us should be a piece of cake. So off we went.

Sadly, the stream came out from under the old-growth canopy after only 100 yards or so, and the remainder of the descent to the Waptus became a skin-rending, eye-poking scramble over downed snags and through thick brush. We often couldn’t tell if we were even in the streambed any longer.

I was reminded why I prefer backpacking above the treeline. But most Alpine Lakes Wilderness trails are still choked with snow in July. I know from experience. And we were here on the Waptus River precisely because we were looking for a July alternative to Tonga Ridge and its siblings.

Almost two hours later we finally arrived at the banks of the Waptus… and what we found was somewhat disappointing. The mix of conifers and deciduous trees grew right down to the water’s edge, and the thick scrub offered no place to camp much less stand to fish. Not that I planned to fish myself, as I had given that up some years before; but the other guys were dead set on breaking out the reels as soon as we could pitch a tent.

From our limited vantage point, the options downstream did not look promising. The water got rougher as it jogged slightly to the east and then back west. Instead, we decided to fight our way through the tangle of growth upriver, following the broad and gentle flow of the deep green water toward another eastward bend that we could spy a couple hundred yards away.

Ah, what a fortuitous choice on that fateful September afternoon, for it led us to perhaps the most wonderful and secluded spot on the entire nine-mile length of the Waptus River.

Just inside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness boundary, the Waptus River was formed long ago by glacial waters cutting through an escarpment at this point, leaving steep bluffs on both banks of the river. A small cataract tumbles into a deep, deep and clear pool of icy water as it turns a short elbow around (and often over) a 600-square-foot peninsula of exposed bedrock jutting from the west bank. When water is high, you either need to jump or bridge the gap from the bank to “The Rock,” as we imaginatively named our discovery. Later in the summer, or when the snowpack is light, it’s a cakewalk.

But what an ideal summer destination! The pool below the cataract is perfect for swimming and fishing. Below the pool, the river can even be forded after the spring runoff is over. The Rock itself provides room and distance from shore for a safe open-air campfire, enough space to seat half a dozen grown men, plus ideal spots for a firewood cache, packs, card-playing, and suntanning. Perhaps 100 feet away through the trees, the periodic flood plain offers sites to pitch several tents if need be.

Yes, we had found home for this weekend–and for many, many extended weekends to come.

As soon as we came upon The Rock, however, I knew the real problems would be: How do we find our way back to the Waptus River Trail from here? And how would we navigate to The Rock in the future? There’s no way we were going to fight our way through the brush as we done earlier that day.

Before we had even made camp for our first night at The Rock, and while the boys promptly broke out gear for fishing the deep pool to the east of The Rock, I put my trail-finding skills to use and set out to solve the dilemma.

Clambering up the escarpment to the west, I found a series of shelves running roughly parallel to the river… and 100% parallel to the route we had taken away from the Waptus River Trail. Taking the as-the-crow-flies route back to our jumping-off point would run perpendicular to these shelves and be less than ideal, and perhaps very hazardous. Following the shelves downriver, however, would push us back into the Waptus itself.

The only sound way to use the terrain as aid was to follow the shelves up and away from the river. Knowing that the main trail pushed its way toward the river, I surmised that these shelves would bisect the trail sooner than later.

The local deer, as it turns out, had the same idea.

For the most part, deer rarely have the same destinations as humans… if humans are hunting anything other than deer. Deer most often establish trails to water sources or to sleeping areas that provide adequate shelter and fodder. These two destinations are almost never in the same locale. Humans, on the other hand, tend to have one kind of destination in mind: a place with fresh water, a view, a place to pitch a tent, and a place to dig a hole. Follow a deer trail to its end, and you are highly unlikely to find such a place.

When most people think of deer or game trails, they envision the seasonal migration routes that can look as heavily traveled as horse or ATV trails. In reality, most localized game trails are little more than dusty tracks two or three inches wide. Often, when the trails compete with undergrowth, the only really visible signs of trails are where the game have regularly crossed downed snags, clipping them with their feet as the pass–or where trails pass under old-growth canopies that deposit deep layers of brush-free duff. In such places, traces of a single animal’s passing can persist for weeks.

So determining where deer are moving in any particular neck of the woods is not exactly straightforward. And yet… scouting out these scant game trails is always wiser than charging off on your own through the brush since deer are infinitely wiser about choosing safe and direct routes between two points. They don’t tend to charge over dropoffs or into pits, or stumble into yellowjacket nests.

In the case of the 100-yard-wide shelf above The Rock, I had to bring all my trail-scouting experience to bear. The initial 20-degree incline away from the river bank had just about zero tree cover for 150 yards or so until passing briefly under an old-growth canopy. For whatever reason, the local deer chose to avoid the direct path over the crest of the first rise, instead skirting toward the steep right side of the shelf as it passed into the canopy.

I soon discovered why. The canopy existed because a wet trough bisected the shelf just past its crest, and trees thrived in the extra-rich soil. In the center of the shelf, this trough became an unpassable quagmire in July and well into August as the melting snowpack pooled in the bedrock pocket. The game trail targeted the precise point at which the bog drained through a narrow defile toward the river. The spot was tricky early in the season, requiring some deft hopping from tree root to tree root, but could be easily passed by humans as well as by deer.

Just past the defile, the trail again broke out into the relative open as the shelf leveled off. Fins of upheaved and lichen-pocked rock clearly marked the direction of the shelf’s travel, and the trail wove between them for 300 yards, squeezing through stands of dead snags as it went. Some of these passages would need to be sidestepped when carrying packs on the way out. In another place, the trail passed beneath a dead fir with brown needles. A stout duck would be required to avoid a shower of needles down the back if the top of a pack brushed the lower branches!

Abruptly, the trail jumped over the left side of the hogback into the main flat of the widening shelf through an almost meadow-like expanse of short huckleberry scrub. All that was lacking, in the Waptus River’s high-desertlike environs, was grass. After another 400 yards, the terrain abruptly changed as the shelf dissipated into the perpendicular landmass along which the Waptus River Trail followed. Sure enough, as the deer trail climbed a gentle slope, a depression containing the wide, dusty horsetrack appeared.

I cautiously stepped out onto the trail. I really didn’t want to encounter anybody and offer explanations about what I was doing in the middle of nowhere without a pack. I seriously hoped our secret spot would remain a secret.

Carefully noting where I had emerged from the seemingly trackless scrub, I walked up and down the Waptus River Trail 50 yards in either direction seeking any sign of a fisherman’s track heading off toward The Rock. No sign of a path appeared. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I just had to retrace my steps the halfmile back to The Rock. This was no easy feat as the terrain did not “read” the same way in the inbound direction as the outbound. In fact, in the dozens of times I’ve followed that game trail over the years, I’ve lost it several times while bound for The Rock while never losing it on the way out!

Fortunately, I was neither sweaty, hot, tired, nor pack-laden for my first in-bound trek. Within twenty minutes I was back at The Rock with the happy announcement that I had found a relatively simple and direct route out to the main trail.

Our first weekend at The Rock was pleasant and uneventful. By the time I had returned from my pathfinding, the guys had already fished out the swimming hole and were about ready to start a fire to broil the trout. We moved our packs over into the trees to set up the tents.

Just downriver from The Rock, the game-trail shelf empties out into what we concluded must be a periodic flood plain. Though a generation of trees four feet high was emerging, the flat space three feet or so above the river bed was not the least bit rocky, covered as it was with a thick layer of rich alluvial soil. The spot was big enough to offer six tent sites in pinch, and three or four comfortably. We’d have preferred a camp site with a better view… but heck! We knew we’d only be sleeping where the tents were pitched. The rest of the time we’d be at The Rock!

Dry firewood was readily available and abundant. We tossed mounds of the stuff down to the backside of The Rock, and set up a spar jutting up from the top of The Rock to use as a lantern pole over the cooking area. The night was warm and dry as Tim, Randy, and Mike broiled their trout. The light breeze coming upriver kept the bugs off but never became so strong as to disturb the ritual hands of poker and hearts. We turned in late that night, full and content.

The weather wasn’t the best the next day. A doe came down to a small cove just upstream for a drink as we breakfasted, a little startled, I think, to find humanoids horning in on her reverie. Later, we explored a little bit.

Upriver, just the other side of the doe’s cove, the Waptus makes a slight loop to the east. The almost perfectly level tongue of land that juts out into this loop was, at the time, heavily forested with mature fir. Foolish pioneers might take it for a perfect place to build a riverside cabin and clear a little ground for crops… only to find themselves waist-deep in water several years later during an unusually severe spring thaw. There’s a reason places like that are scoured level.

The tongue did contain several nice places to pitch a camp, but offered no exposed river bank for fishing or relaxation. Brush came all the way down to water’s edge and dipped its branches liberally.

Downstream from The Rock, on our west bank, we found the same to be almost unilaterally true. The bank continued straight downriver for 500 yards until an impassable bluff came down to block further exploration that direction.

As we retraced our steps to The Rock, we discovered a collapsed wooden structure of some kind, probably a storage shed. It had stood right at the Wilderness boundary and had probably been constructed and used by backcountry surveyors. Or so we conjectured. Regardless of their origin, the materials from that shed proved mighty useful over the years. On our first trip, we salvaged a good sized board to use as a card table.

We looked enviously across the river to the drier and more accessible (if steeper) east bank. Another time, we thought. Our first year’s visit to The Rock was just about done.

This was far from our first visit to the Waptus, however.

My own first experience with the Waptus came in August of 1977, just prior to the beginning of my brother Bob’s freshman year at Washington State. I was starting my junior year in high school.

Bob and I had read about the then-9-mile trek into Waptus Lake in one of Ira Spring’s classic trail guides. At that time, the trailhead was at the main Salmon La Sac campground, and rather than branching off from the Cooper River trail (as it now does) it followed a gully uphill in a track parallel to (and gradually away from) the river. At the point where the current trail crests the climb up out of the Cooper River, drops over the divide into the Waptus drainage, and bends to the north, you can still see where the original track of the trail came up from downriver. It’s still apparently used for local access by horse-packers bound for Waptus Lake.

Instead of the varying up-and-down of the current trailbed, the first 2.5 miles of the old trail was an almost uninterrupted uphill slog that gained all of four hundred feet or so. Heavens! The uphill stretch was broken only by one steep downhill switchback that I would loudly curse in coming years on outward-bound treks.

But with a heavy pack on that hot August 1977 day, I distinctly remember taking a sweaty breather on the final approach to the Nameless Pond and pausing to peel an orange as dappled sunlight filtered its way through the tall fir. I don’t think an orange has ever tasted so good to me!

Trail guides pretty accurately describe the passage of the trail from there into Waptus Lake. There are a couple places where streams must be forded, and only one decent (horse) camp until the trail finally comes to the river bank at about the 4-mile mark. Shortly thereafter, the route affords one large camping area and a few other scattered single-tent options.

Bob and I, however, were Waptus-bound and weren’t looking for camping options. I don’t recall an awful lot about that hike in, but I do recollect that it seemed long and on the dull side. I was, of course, more accustomed to high alpine hikes rather than subalpine forest trips such as the Waptus River Trail. With the latter, you spend a lot of time in the trees, and unless your trail follows a spectacular gorge (which the Waptus River Trail does not) you are not afforded views of much other than tree trunks, scrub brush, and the occasional chipmunk. And, if you are not leading your group, a generous helping of hiker backside.

So we made our camp that year right at the outlet of Waptus Lake and were, I believe, the only ones resident while we were there. I don’t even recall seeing other hikers on the trail. It’s possible that we were there midweek.

The fishing those three days was legendary. I was still actively engaged in the pursuit, and Bob and I discovered the most amazing fishing in the gorge just downriver from the lake. The trail doesn’t come close to the gorge, but it’s definitely worth visiting if you make the hike into (or past) Waptus.

Our first full day, we fished the pools just at the top of the gorge. It was late summer, and the grasshoppers were abundant. I discovered they made stunning live bait. I’d bait a simple treble hook with a single live, squirming grasshopper and float it down over one of the turbulent pools. Trout would come leaping up from the bottom of a pool and take the hook several inches in the air before flopping back down hopelessly hooked. I shared the tip with Bob, who was fishing the opposite bank, and we were catching trout as fast as we could throw our lines in.

That left the better part of Day 2 for exploring. We probed further down the gorge on the south bank for fishing possibilities the following day, and on the way back to camp discovered a curious anomaly: a 12-foot square shaft sunk straight down into the bedrock. It’s hidden in a stand of timber on the flats about 200 yards from where the bridge used to cross the Waptus–but there was no tailing pile, as one would normally find in proximity to a mine. Yet the shaft was deep enough that we couldn’t see the bottom, and there were definite signs that a road of some sort led at one time toward or away from the site downriver.

I’ve searched high and low for any reference to mining in the Waptus area, and can’t find any. Guidebooks insist, in fact, that logging and mining have never been conducted anywhere in the Waptus River valley, and that no roads have ever been forced that direction. And yet… old topographical maps clearly show that a bridge at one time crossed the Cle Elum River just upstream from its confluence with the Waptus, and that some sort of road at one time extended beyond it. For what reason other than logging or mining would anyone have bridged the Cle Elum at that point, and established a road up the Waptus valley?

The answer certainly eluded Bob and me at the time, but I did make a mental note to revisit that some day. I’ve yet to solve the riddle.

In any event, the third day at Waptus brought our visit to an unceremonious and troubling end. As planned, we ventured back down into the gorge for more fishing, settling into the brushy banks while 40-foot bluffs abruptly ascended the south bank above us. Bob was fishing about fifty yards downstream from me when I saw him suddenly dash into the middle of the shallow river–which, in the gorge at that point, was a potentially hazardous thing to do as the current was pretty swift. Bob nonetheless charged into the chill and proceeded to repeatedly duck himself under the water as if he’d made the mistake of shampooing with battery acid.

I hurried downstream and helped him back to shore. He had been using the branches of scrub trees as he balanced along the rocky shore and had grabbed directly onto a wasp nest. The rather unhappy residents decided to turn his head into a pincushion.

This was extremely problematic as his face began to swell. I knew enough from my own experiences with yellowjackets that bee stings are potentially fatal when they produce such allergic reactions. With so many stings, anaphalaxis was a very real possibility. With nothing but aspirin at our disposal, we had to pretty much wait things out on that score, packing the stings with mud and cold compresses in the absence of baking soda.

But as the swelling increased, we realized we had another very serious problem: Bob’s eyes were swelling shut. We knew that this was a condition that could persist for days, but thought it best to wait until the next day before deciding a course of action. When the symptoms did not abate, we were left with little choice but to make the nine-mile hike out with Bob largely sightless.

Under the circumstances, we were fortunate to have had a relatively level trail in front of us. Navigating the fords and footlogs was troublesome, as you might expect, and nine miles is an awful long way to guide a backpacker who is not used to traveling blind. And we never encountered anyone along the way to help us.

But even when we were literally out of the woods, we still weren’t. The real challenge came when we got to the car. Bob couldn’t even begin to think about driving, and I was only 14! With little choice other than calling back to Seattle for rescue (which seemed overkill), I took the wheel with some trepidation. I do remember my first drive down Snoqualmie Pass on a freeway being pretty scary!

Over Labor Day weekend that year, I again found myself at Salmon La Sac. Mom and Dad had decided to spend a long weekend camped there with Bob and I… and I got the bright idea to raft the lower portion of the Waptus and then the Cle Elum back to Salmon La Sac. Bob had conspired with me in this plan, but when it came to the point of getting in the water he decided he had better things to do. Bob did, however, examine maps with me and discovered that a ford crossed the Cle Elum just above its confluence with the Waptus–so he graciously ferried me up to that point in the family station wagon. It was a much better option than lugging the raft four miles up the Waptus River Trail.

So I forded the Cle Elum and followed an old road bed another half-mile or so up the Waptus River. Or so I thought at the time. I know the Waptus much better now, and am sure I couldn’t have lugged that raft any further than a couple hundred yards.

At any rate, I inflated the raft and put in. Those few hundred feet of the Waptus were slow going indeed. Late in the summer, the Waptus can get pretty shallow when the banks spread out as they do in that section, and the raft was often hanging up on boulders and shoals. Not until I reached the Cle Elum did the experience really became what one could call “rafting.” And then it got pretty exciting.

Most of the excitement came from the fact that I had never seen that stretch of the Cle Elum between the Waptus and Salmon La Sac. So every set of rapids was a bit of a surprise and definitely an adventure. I would ship tons of whitewater and emerge from a short cascade completely waterlogged. Once, I fought my way to the shore and dumped the raft over to empty it, as I had nothing with me to bail.

After the third or fourth rapid, I emerged into the deepest canyon of the Cle Elum. For about a quarter mile, the river settles into a quiet, steep-walled gloom where even the midday sun has a hard time finding the water. I shivered in my sopping shorts and tee shirt, sitting in the ten inches of water that filled the bottom of my rubber sanctuary. There was no riverbank whatsoever for a pull-out, and it was just as well as I wasn’t sure I could paddle the weight of my private bathtub anywhere anyway.

And then I started to hear the rumble.

Yes, I was approaching a significant waterfall. And I had no idea how high it was. Just that it was high enough to make a LOT of noise.

I could see my “event horizon” approach about fifty yards downriver. Praise be to God! Just at the brink of the waterfall, a small shelf of rock ramped out of the water on the right bank. I have never paddled with such might in my life, hauling the heavy bulk of that water-laden raft to safety with just a couple feet to spare. I’m sure I could have survived going over that fall with a well-timed leap into the pool below, but I was sure glad not to be forced into that scenario. I emptied the raft and shuttled it down the short cliff-face back to the relative safety of the Cle Elum. Within twenty minutes I was back at Salmon La Sac.

How much did I tell Mom and Dad about my little adventure? Not much, I can assure you! But I will never again get on a river without a guide, a guidebook, or a good advance scouting. I can also assure you of that.

But the experience did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the river.

With the excellent fishing to inspire me, I organized a return trip to Waptus Lake in June of 1982–among the first of many backpacking trips I’d organize with high school and college buddies. This time out, I was joined by Randy Sartin, J-W Smith, and Mark Stevens. It was my first time out in the woods with either Mark or J-W, while Randy and I had already shared a tent on a couple of winter backcountry adventures. I knew what to expect from him.

Life on the trail with Mark and J-W was certainly not dull, especially not with Randy–the Sultan of Snide–along for the trip.

Unlike my first trek to Waptus with Bob, this time around the trail was almost swarmed with hikers and horses. Though it was still early in the season, the year had already been dry and the horses had pulverized the trail to a dusty powder. By the time we had reached the halfway mark–and the first of the fords–we had pretty much had enough of equine company. J-W in particular had more than a few four-letter words to offer, and Randy had already gotten under J-W’s skin with the epithet “jackass”–a nickname inspired by the four-legged company with which we shared the trail.

Mark exhibited his first frightening wilderness tendencies by virtually dancing across the log bridges at swollen streams. What looked foolhardy to me was simply fun for him. And Mark led a charmed life when it came to such things, generally, except for his ankles.

At about the seven-mile mark my calves started cramping. Decades later, I discovered that my excruciating predilection for leg cramps of many varieties was due to electrolyte imbalances from chronic dehydration. If I’d known that while on the way to Waptus I could simply have stopped for a break and eaten something salty while guzzling some water.

But that was then, not now. Instead I marched on for the final two and a half miles and soon both calves were cramping at every step. And with every step I stretched out those knotting muscles. The pain was almost unbearable.

When we arrived at the lake, we also discovered that every campsite at the outlet was occupied by horse campers, and we were left with yet another mile or so of trail along the north shore of Waptus before we found a suitable promontory on which to pitch our tents. Ouch!

It was a great campsite, however, and worth the pain. Situated as we were on an outcropping of rock about 40 feet above the shore, we were out from under the trees and exposed to winds that kept the ample bugs away. We pitched our tents and settled in for the night, wisely trenching the hardpack around the ground cloths under our tents.

From dry as dust to deluge. Just after we turned in for the night, the clouds burst forth with an epic dumping. Randy and I were relatively comfortable in the Sears wall tent that we’d shared on our cross-country excursions, but the volume of water was nonetheless disconcerting.

We had barely drifted off to sleep when we were awoken by a bellicose stream of cursing from the tent that J-W and Mark were sharing. Their tent was pitched on a slight slope, and J-W’s sleeping bag had already slid down into the lower corner of the tent… right into a pool of water fed by the trenches outside. The worst part? In J-W’s words, “It’s only 12 %#$%*$& thirty!”

Mark and J-W spent the rest of the night in misery while Randy heckled from dry safety. The next morning, as we dried out our gear around our campfire, Mark brought out the new fiberfill parka he’d purchased for the trip. He held it up to dry in the heat of the flames… and promptly melted the nylon shell over the entire back of the coat, exposing the insulating layer underneath.

We spent most of the rest of that day close to camp. I don’t recall, but I’m sure we must have had to scramble down to lakeside for our water. Deer freely ambled through the campsite.

That afternoon, Mark initiated one of the most insane outdoor rituals I have ever seen. The bluff on which we were camped ended in a rocky precipice twenty to thirty feet high. From its base, spindly fir trees grew up with their tops sticking up a couple feet above the promontory and ten or fifteen feet distant. Getting a good running start, Mark flung himself from the bluff and toward the tree tops, grabbing onto them as he sailed by. Looking like a much more elegant and graceful version of Will Farrell in Elf, he’d cling to the tree tops as they bent over toward the ground under his weight and then drop neatly onto the slope beneath them. I’m sure if I’d tried this even once I would have broken something severely, but Mark executed this lark repeatedly over the next couple of days.

Our second day, we decided to hike up to Spade Lake, a steep 2000-foot climb up the south side of Mt. Daniel. We had not gone far at all before we were in heavy snow and the trail vanished, but we nonetheless read our contour maps properly and arrived at Spade Lake by mid-day. I’ve seen pictures of it, so I know it’s a gorgeous high-alpine jewel later in the summer, but when we were there it was frozen almost solid, with only a pond of clear water at the near shore. We sat on some exposed rocks and munched our lunch.

On the return trip, we saw a large buck, a porcupine, and a mink or marten. We also saw the darndest thing: a family of field mice that were enjoying their own private toboggan run. Like all the other wildlife coming out of winter hibernation, they were enjoying the sunshine and relative warmth. They had sculpted their own 14-foot ice run and were taking turns barreling steeply downhill on their bellies and backs, and then scampering back up the slope for another run. And they weren’t the least bit interrupted by their large, human audience.

Somehow we managed to avoid careening down the slopes ourselves and arrived exhausted back at camp for our final night at Waptus. Mark launched himself at the trees once more, while I set about capturing some photos of the insanity. While J-W tended the fire, Randy and I stood on the edge of the bluff waiting for Mark’s next leap–when I suddenly slipped. Thoughts of broken bones banished any protectiveness I felt toward my Pentax ME-Super and Vivitar 70-210mm zoom lens, and I flung out my arms to arrest my fall and prevent a deathly tumble. I still gripped my camera strap, however, and the Pentax slung outward and downward into the rock. The back popped open, exposing all the film I’d shot of our trip, and the focus ring on the lens dented sufficiently to render the lens useless. An expensive fall, but I did make the right choice about what to protect! I do regret, however, that I have no photos from that trip.

We left the next day and made the long slog back to Salmon La Sac. One thing the trip proved for sure: J-W’s irascibility and Randy’s sniping were not a pleasant mix… for J-W. The more J-W carped about dust, or road apples, or thirst, or heat, or Randy’s snide comments, the more it fed Randy’s appetite for sarcasm. By the time we reached the final uphill Switchback from Hell outbound and we were again forced off the trail by a party of horses (and a burro!), the two were at each other’s throats.

Much later, J-W could have a good laugh about his waterlogged sleeping bag and his remark that “The next time you approach me, it had best be with cotton balls!” But that final day on the trail, he was decidedly hot under the collar. Many years would pass before Randy and J-W would share the trail again.

By this point I had already entered into quite a love affair with the Waptus, yet I had barely gotten started. In the years when the Tonga Ridge road was closed for reconstruction, the boys and I made the Waptus our primary back-country destination, and I was hooked. If I could have married the river, I would have! When I was away from it, all I could think about was planning the next visit.

Tim, Randy, and Mike and I made a return visit to The Rock the very next July after our maiden expedition. The weather in 1989 was dry and dusty, even though it was early in the season, as we made our way to the jumping-off point from the Waptus River Trail. My reconnaissance from the previous year paid off, and we had little trouble finding and following the game trail along the shelves to The Rock.

This year the water was high enough to require a small jump over to The Rock and prevent fording the Waptus below it. It was hot enough, though, that wading wasn’t necessary. We just dove in and swam across, first throwing our boots to the other shore.

Since we had seen a hiker on the opposite side of the river during our first foray to The Rock, we knew there was a trail there–but didn’t know where it went. We knew, however that it didn’t appear on any maps.

The first thing we did upon crossing was to follow the trail downriver. It turned out to be a fisherman’s footpath jumping off from the Davis Peak trailhead at the confluence of the Waptus and Cle Elum rivers. Lo! and behold… here, at the very point where I had forded the Cle Elum lugging my rubber raft a decade earlier, the Forest Service had built a wonderful suspension bridge! Yet even with the heavy foot traffic on the Davis Peak trail, the narrow tracks that fanned out up the Waptus, eventually coalescing into a single well-worked trail, still seemed to be very well- and deliberately-kept secrets. In all the cumulative weeks I’ve spent on the Waptus over the years, I’ve yet to run into another soul on the Waptus’ east bank.

We left up-river exploration of that path for another visit, and wisely so, as it turned out. Instead, we turned our attention to enjoyment of the river itself, and to improvement of our campsite. We salvaged boards and nails from the collapsed structure at the Wilderness boundary to construct a re-usable latrine seat and cleared large stones from the tent sites. Once again, it was easy to accumulate a large stockpile of firewood on the backside of The Rock.

But the best part of that summer’s trek was the scorching temperatures that allowed us day-long enjoyment of the icy Waptus waters. One day in particular, we waded all the way down to the cascades at the southward dogleg a quarter mile below camp and dragged logs from the banks to bridge the entire 50-foot width of the Waptus! It was great fun if totally pointless and ephemeral. We had no use for this bridge, and with the heat we were far more interested in swimming than fording, much less walking across on dry logs!

That trip to The Rock really typified those that would follow: three- to four-day extended weekends that took advantage of easy private access, warm temperatures, great campfires, and rarely a threat of rain.

One year, though, we sat on The Rock during an evening’s dry thunderstorm and debated the wisdom of hanging in camp while we watched lightning arc through the sky. The woods were tinder dry, and being trapped on the river would not be the best of circumstances during a fire. The trail back to Salmon La Sac covers a lot of heavily-forested ground!

We were much relieved when the storm passed through without sparking a blaze. The area would not be so lucky in later years.

During that visit, though, we took advantage of the cool cloud cover to explore the east-bank footpath upriver. To this day, I still do not know how far the fisherman’s path extends, but it’s an easy meander that sticks relatively closely (with very few exceptions) to the Waptus’ bank. We managed to follow it about 2.5 miles to a well-established camp, complete with rudely constructed tables and benches, a bit upstream from the Hour Creek camp on the main Waptus River Trail. And I have to say–the fisherman’s trail on the east bank is a much more interesting walk than the established trail to Waptus. I’ve often wondered if that path manages to go all the way to Waptus Lake. If it does, it’s a shame it’s not better known than it is.

I might mention, though, that it really doesn’t pay to hike into the area too early in the season. On one trip to The Rock, Mike and Tim and I found the Waptus River Trail choked with snow and downed snags. When the trail is bad and the river is high, there’s not a lot to do on the banks of the Waptus other than try to stay warm!

After my second visit to The Rock, though, I became a Waptus evangelist, if you will. Late that summer I guided Shari Campbell there for a long weekend, and in the coming years I’d bring many others along.

In 1991, Dave Stark and I shared a tent for a couple of nights and spent gray days exploring upriver. We didn’t manage to cover any new ground, but it was fun visit nonetheless.

The next year, Dad and Bob and I guided Bob’s eldest son Richard on his first backpacking experience–a pretty extreme trek for a kid not quite four years old! The trip in and out took quite a bit longer than usual as Richard required a lot of rest breaks, but it was great fun for the three generations of “Wright Men.” Bob showed Richard how to fish, and we enjoyed generally fine weather.

My next overnighter to The Rock wouldn’t come until 1997, when Brenda Dyrdahl and I chaperoned the Koch girls on a Normandy Youth Group “rewards” trip. The water was extremely high that year, so it was necessary to build a bridge out to The Rock, salvaging yet more weathered boards from downriver, and leveraging a good supply of nails I’d already squirreled away in my pack. The gals were sure glad I’d been able to keep the campsite latrine seat in good repair for a decade, too!

The weather was singularly fine on that trip, and Rebekah in particular enjoyed her first backcountry experience. She’d later spend summers with Beyond Malibu in Alberta, crediting the Waptus experience for turning her into an avid outdoorsman.

In 1998, my fiancee-to-be Jenn and I spent an absolutely glorious weekend at The Rock. I have no photos of that trip, however, because I fell into the river while wading upstream to get a photo of Jenn. I did manage to keep my camera arm largely above the ripples, but the Pentax still took enough water to require a drying out and exposure of the film. Rats!

In 1999, I camped out for the first time on the opposite shore of the Waptus. Jenn and I planned everything out of the ordinary for our wedding that August, and for my Bachelor Party I opted for a campout! John Adami and Bob organized a fabulous barbecue for the night, packing a grill and cooler in from the Davis Peak trailhead. About fifteen men, including my young friend Joel Moreland, his dad, Tim, Randy, Dave, former co-workers from Quinton, my own dad, and even my future father-in-law pitched scattered tents along the fisherman’s path and we gathered down at the river at dusk for a night of ribs, steaks, cider, soda, and tale-telling. The next day was brilliant and warm, and those who could hang around enjoyed the cool water of the Waptus.

Over the next several years, Jenn and I would make frequent day trips along that side of the river, and in 2000 she joined J-W and I for a weekend. We pitched our tent upriver a ways from the Bachelor Party pad and spent a couple drizzly days exploring the path upriver. Jenn went swimming one gray evening on that trip and got hypothermic. She and I had to do the sleeping-bag trick to get her to stop shivering!

In 2007, J-W and I took Dad on his last packbacking trip, aiming to camp on the bluff opposite The Rock. We were shocked to discover, right before the site where J-W and I had camped with Jenn in 2000, that the Polallie Ridge fire of 2006 had completely torched the east bank of the Waptus. We quietly marched through an eerie burned-out landscape, and my soul sank within me.

I felt like I’d lost a dear, dear friend.

We managed to find a small green spot of huckleberry scrub opposite The Rock, but even the west bank of the Waptus at that point had been scarred. What a tragedy! This, one of my favorite spots in the world, devastated by wildfire!

Enjoyment of the outdoors is nothing to take for granted. Wilderness is such a gift–and the years I spent on the Waptus were pure magic.

I can still see Randy and Tim and Mike standing in the shade of the old growth in the September heat, sweat gleaming on their brows as they hunched into their packs at the high point of the Waptus River Trail before launching off into the unknown.

Adventure gleamed in their eyes… and it still does.

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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2 Responses to The Waptus River Record

  1. Mike says:

    Thank you for the memories Greg! I too have pictures from those trips.

  2. Greg Wright says:

    Was actually on the Waptus trail again over the weekend, more than decade since my last visit. The route into The Rock is now completely choked by the aftermath of the Polallie Ridge Fire in 2006. Thousands of burned trees have now fallen and choked all the game trails in a swath from near The Rock up into Polallie Ridge, and the new trees coming up are now two to three feet tall.

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