Weekly Peakly: Volume 6
Or: The Road Less Traveled
Peakers! Welcome back to another edition of everyone’s favorite chronicling of stumbling around in the woods! The write-up is a bit late, since I caught the world’s most aggressive cold right after this hike, but better late than never! Regularly scheduled Peaking should resume on 03/31 and onward. I’ve also got a couple vacations planned that are centered around hiking, so you can expect a Week of Peak to happen in the near future. This should help me catch up on some of the weekends I missed due to injuries and illness (rude, body, can’t you just function indefinitely?).
This week, I ventured into something called an “experimental forest”, otherwise known as Pack Forest, just outside of Eatonville, WA. It offered free parking and a trail that promised to lead to “Little” Mashel Falls, which I assumed to be small in size. You know, ‘cause of the name. I was wrong, but more on that later.
The drive there was short, about an hour and a half. The town of Eatonville, which I passed along the way, can’t be described as much else besides “Podunk” (no offense, Eatonvillians). The area in front of the hike was much the same. I’m not clear on what an “experimental” forest is, exactly, but from what I can tell it’s one that is monitored in some way. Unlike the other trailheads, this one seemed to be nestled amidst cabins where people resided and some sort of research building. The “information” board in front was scarce of actual information. There was nothing more than a faded map that was nigh impossible to read if you don’t have in-depth knowledge of how maps are deciphered.
The trail itself was barely marked and hard to tell if you were following the right one. This wasn’t just me and my terrible sense of navigation, either. Other people passing one way or the next on the trail were nonplussed as to whether they were on the right path.
Most of this trail was a broad gravel road, clearly meant to be used for vehicles as they made their way around the woods. I’m not sure what they would be using the forest for. There were signs here and there that indicated growth efforts were being made in certain spots, but aside from the post there wasn’t much evidence of anything special happening.
It was an overcast day, and while the sights on the side of the trail were pretty, I soon found myself itching for something a bit more. When the trail branched off in another direction, I found myself halting my march to stare at it, a wistful feeling building in my chest.
As I mentioned before, the trails were barely marked. This new one was no exception. There was no indication which path led to the falls, which led elsewhere, or which one an erstwhile adventurer might want to take to find excitement. I’m not sure why, knowing my terrible sense of direction, I felt the need to head down the foreign path, but I couldn’t help it.
I flirted with it at first, taking a few steps up the hill and telling myself I would turn back once I got a sense of where it might be going. About ten steps later I stumbled upon a marker noting the start of a Wildlife Trail, and my fate was sealed from there.
I had heard gunshots earlier, cracking across the open air and sending a deep and unsettling chill down my spine, making my heart race and my thoughts turn to fervent hopes that whoever it was had missed. The sounds had stopped within 30 minutes of me being out there, which was comforting. What it told me, however, was that there were possibly animals here to be found. I think one of the things I am searching for on these hikes is wild encounters. Hopefully nothing dangerous, or at least not a sighting that would put me within reach of something likely to gut my innards, but close enough that I could get a picture. Close enough that I could see something that lived in the woods and watch them go about their day.
The gunshots told me that animals could be somewhere hereabouts, and the marker declared this new path a Wildlife Trail, and so I pieced those bits of information together and determined that this would be my best shot of seeing anything wild on this hike.
And so, I took the road less traveled.
This trail was unlike anything I had found to date. It was small, barely a foot across in most places. The plants around it had grown large, looming across the path so that you had to push them out of they way to get by. It was a more intimate experience with nature, like I was venturing into a path deeper in the heart of the woods than may have normally been intended.
I don’t actually know if a Wildlife trail is meant for people. It’s entirely possible I trekked down a deer highway, invading a space that I wasn’t meant to. This thought crossed my mind a few times, giving me a rush of adrenaline at the idea that I was somewhere I ought not to be. It made me nervous, it made me excited.
It made me feel like I was finding more of that magic I’m so fond of.
In the middle of this path, there was a bridge. I stood at the edge of it, pondering its purpose for a bit. You see, it seemed to be built over a lawn of grass. The grass was thick, and the dirt below seemed dark enough that it could have been mud. There was certainly enough sloppy, slushy mud on other parts of the path that it wasn’t unreasonable to think this was a marsh of sorts. I didn’t have my trusty hiking stick with me yet, as it’s not finished, so I couldn’t test. I was tempted to dip my toe in it, but after my experience falling off rocks into a tide pool, I didn’t feel steady enough on my feet to give that a try.
Crossing it was more terrifying than it should have been. The wood was soft and gave more than I was comfortable with as my weight settled on top of it. In places it creaked, others it just shifted with the softness of crumbled cake, which didn’t make me confident that it would hold for very long. I didn’t know what would happen if it gave way in full. Would I sink into a marsh? Would I be swallowed by strange, accursed quicksand hiding beneath the pleasant green glades?
I made it to the other side, and it was at this point I knew there was no turning back to retrace my steps. I was going to need to follow this path to the end and find another way around, back to my car. Whatever was under that bridge, I was not prepared to tempt fate again to find out if it was harmful.
Luckily, the Wildlife Trail looped back around to the main road, just a bit further up than its entrance. In the end, it added about half a mile to the total distance of the hike but heaps more adventure. I don’t regret taking that path, even though I was nervous that it would have been a bad idea. It erased the sense of dread the gunshots had inspired, lighting the spark in my chest that reminded me just what I love about this hobby.
I wanted adventure, and now I knew that I would find it so long as I kept looking.
The wide, gravel road wound its way through the forest, past a few fields of spindly trees, until it came to a fork that curved into a trail that was closer in make to others I had hiked. It took a steep dip downward as it slithered through the trees, which made navigating much more difficult. It wasn’t currently raining, but I could tell it had been so recently, because the layer of mud was a couple of inches deep. That meant that every time the ground sloped, my foot would slide through it.
I had to grab onto rocks or tree branches several times to stay upright and prevent a full tumble over the edge of the trail. For some reason, this was more exhilarating than worrisome. I don’t know if it was the energy the alternate path had given me, or if the sound of the nearby falls was urging me on, but I didn’t have any fear as I made my way down.
The trail split not far into it, with a set of signs indicating one path led to the upper falls, the other to the lower falls. I opted to take the path to the upper falls first, because I take after my cats in that way. We like to be tall.
In truth, the path to the upper falls had a sign about three steps in notifying you that this trail was no longer maintained, and you were leaving safe area. If you know anything about me by now, you’ll know that I did absolutely nothing to heed this sign.
I made my way beneath a fallen tree, up around a bend. The edge of the falls was in front of me, about 10 feet down a steep hill with the semblance of steps still clinging to the mud. I was in awe of the vista, and my eyes locked on the edge of the cliff overlooking the waterfall.
I wanted to be there. Right at that spot.
So, down I went.
The 10-foot hill led to a ledge that was about 5 feet across until you reached the cliff. With how steep it was, how loose the mud was, and how poor my sense of balance was, I naturally ended up falling.
I slid in the mud, plopping onto my behind so that the water soaked into my pants. I kept sliding after making impact, dropping most of the way down without control on my momentum. I stopped just as the hill stopped, with 5 feet between me and an insanely high fall into the rocky shores below.
I was not fazed in the least. I got up, dusted myself off, and started taking pictures.
It is hard to convey just how high up this was. In some of my pictures you can see people on the trail that was for the lower falls, but you really need to zoom in to see. They looked like little beetles crawling in the mud.
It was breathtaking. Awe inspiring. I had been expecting the falls to be very tiny. The pictures on the WTA site do not give a proper sense of scale. They are far larger than any I had seen previously, and they sort of come out of nowhere. You would not expect them to be there based on the woods around them.
After taking a ton of pictures I left the cliff edge, carefully clambering back up the steps and down to the trail split again. I then took the path down to the lower falls, which gave me a fuller view of the falls. I didn’t climb down onto the rocks, as they looked wet and there were signs telling people to be careful, citing the fatalities that occurred last year. (I feel like those signs were there just for me. They heard about my hike last week and how I don’t know about slippery rocks. “Get that bitch some signs, she gonna die.”)
Instead, I stayed on the solid dirt and looked up at the falls for a bit, catching my breath. There was a moment where the breeze picked up, and the mist from the falls got caught in its clutches, sending it cascading down over the path. I closed my eyes, feeling the sun break through the clouds and the kiss of the falls over my cheeks, and I knew that the world was wonderful.
It’s easy to forget that sometimes. There are so many terrible things going on lately that it can feel like all we have are clouds and shadows. The silver-linings were lost, and we had no guiding light. I don’t like to think like that, though. I’m an optimistic person, though sometimes it takes a lot of work to remain so. I like to believe that no matter how dark it gets or how abysmal things seem, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if we must dig our way to it with rusty spoons, it will be there at some point.
I feel like this hike reinvigorated that positive energy within me. The belief that good will come, that everything happens for a reason. That I am strong enough to prevail, not just for myself, but for others. That I can carry my own burdens as well as others’.
Will there ever be a hike that doesn’t make me poetic and existential? Science has not yet discovered the answer.
After that, I made the grueling trek back up the hill towards the road. It was steep, but surprisingly easier than I anticipated. Tiring, for sure, but it didn’t murder me. It was about 600 feet of elevation gain stuffed into a very small distance – about a half mile. That is definitely steeper than the first hike I did in January that mopped the floor with me. I took breaks, but made good pace, and before I knew it I was back on the road.
All told, the hike clocked in at 5.7 miles and 695ft of elevation gain. The furthest I’ve gone and the highest I’ve climbed.
Mistakes and R E G R E T S:
1. Mud is slippery. Also, your pants will rip if you slide through it on your ass. I would say it was a mistake to tackle the steep slopes of this hike without a hiking stick. It would have saved me from a lot of close calls.
Hot Takes for Hikers:
Objects in Picture are Smaller Than They Appear
Pictures do not do any of this justice. No matter how pretty, they really do not capture the depth and feeling of being there. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and experience is worth a million. I cannot stress how much more amazing it is to see these places in-person than on the screen of the WTA website.
Sometimes, it pays to take the alternate routes. The less-popular paths. Maybe the trail that you don’t see on the map and don’t know where it goes. It’s risky, but once you get a sense of how strong you are and what you’re capable of, it’s a risk worth taking. Just make sure you have enough confidence to know you can make your way out of any situation that arises. Part of the reason I was okay with such a venture in this forest was that the whole thing was only about 10 miles across in any given direction. Sure, I would have been a withered husk from exhaustion by the time I traversed that, but I knew that if I got lost it wouldn’t kill me to find my way back out again.
Still, I recommend a little risk and adventure every now and then.
Song of the Hike: Ghost by Mystery Skulls. This is a friggn’ jam. I have only recently discovered the Mystery Skulls, but I really like the mood that lays beneath all their beats. This song in particular makes me want to spread my arms out and absorb the wild wind, which was in line with how I felt when that waterfall was caressing my face. Definitely a good hiking song if you want to paint with all the colors of the wind or whatever.
Animals Seen: 3 doggos, one bird that I didn’t see directly but saw all the branches it moved, and a bridge on top of a pile of grass that was definitely possessed by an angry and exhausted spirit.
Mood: Chasing that silver lining.
Trail Rank: Only vague threats of death, waterfall mist, a bit sloppy with mud but it is trying it’s best. Would return in search of those animal friends that hid from me on the Wildlife trail.