Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hypothermia Hills, April 6, 2010


Q: Where the heck is Hypothermia Hills? A: Just about any trail near North Bend on a rainy day.

This was just about the most entertaining but frustrating hike we’ve done lately. The trail is not really a trail, rather it is a route that has sprung up like weeds that lead to any number of destinations, none of them sane or easily described. Add rain, sleet and mud and you’ve got Hypothermia Hills.

This trail (for lack of a better word) is undoubtedly nothing to a rock climber but a hiker will have their work cut out for them. It could be considered one of the climbers’ trails off Exit No. 38 and you might be able to find more information about this trail by researching The Internet or a bookstore, especially a used bookstore.

Of greater interest to some: you can look up “Dirty Harry” on The Internet but this Dirty Harry is not to be confused with Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry was a gyppo logger who put in logging roads where other road-builders refused to tread. Let’s just say the foothills around North Bend were his cathedral, a place where his used-up trucks and equipment could forever rest.

A hike called “Dirty Harry’s Balcony” should also give you some idea of what to expect of the terrain and though guidebook author Harvey Manning was not fond of the logging industry (especially gyppo loggers), I believe he had a grudging admiration for wily Dirty Harry who built roads too stubborn to die. Legend has it that Harry is still around and if he’s not, his ghost is. Every time I come across a cable in the brush, I get a shiver thinking of Dirty Harry and the way he shaped the land up around North Bend. I also believe that though he used the land he loved it fiercely.

There’s also a place where a stream crosses Dirty Harry’s road where persistent hikers find and photograph the slow death of one of Dirty Harry’s trucks. I’ve looked but haven’t found it yet; like Harry, it eludes me.

I may have met his ghost. Recently on our way to Mount Si we screeched to a halt along the Mount Si Road where elk had just crossed and were disappearing into a field, silent as shadows. A few other vehicles braked to a stop and pulled off to the side for a closer look. A fiftyish fellow in a beat-up pickup had pulled over and rolled his window down – he was holding on to a cup of coffee with one hand and his lower denture in the other as he expounded to us on how “great” it is to see elk so close. We were as fascinated by this local as we were the elk – he was so amazingly unself-conscious about how he looked. I almost asked his name but didn’t. I’m basically shy. It’s one of the reasons I write.

When I was writing for The Seattle Post Intelligencer I got a handwritten letter from a reader who was a child when she encountered him on a logging road in North Bend. Her family had gone for a picnic and a Sunday drive on the back roads when their car broke down. It was getting on toward twilight and it was too far for the father to hike down to North Bend. As they sat in the car trying to think what to do a couple of rough-looking fellows pulled up in a beat-up truck. This was back in the days before cell phones; the men offered to drive the father down to North Bend for help. The woman continued her story describing how long it felt to sit in the car with her mother as darkness fell, waiting for her father to return. The story had a happy ending – obviously the ruffians were good men and did not harm anyone in the family.

Back to the present: Instead of going to North Bend we continued east, turning off I-90 at Exit 38; from there we continued east along the frontage road (Old US 10) to the east end of the exit (to head back west you have to drive back along the frontage road for the west-bound on-ramp). Parking is limited but there are a few spaces where you can park without blocking roads used by the Fire Training Center or land-management agencies. To find the beginning of the trail hike up the road as if you were going to the state Fire Training Center. Cross the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River on a bridge. Just after you cross the river on the bridge spot the trail heading east along the river.

Some hikers call this the “bird box trail” and I find this name agreeable despite the unpleasantness of the route on a rainy day. There are actually bird boxes on trees at several points along the trail. Nope, I don’t know who put them there but it’s nice to spot one (that way, you know you are “somewhere” at least).

We found the Bird Box trail by accident (we had planned to visit Dirty Harry’s Balcony) a few years ago. We’d planned to hike to Dirty Harry’s Balcony (further up the road past the state Fire Training Center) but spotted an obvious trail at the bridge. We’d been to the “balcony” before and since the trail near the bridge wasn’t signed we had to find out where it went.

That turned out to be a route-finding romp but the weather was good and my companions were jolly. The crafty path wove between boulders in forest gloom before finally climbing to grassy, bald knolls with views down to I-90, the surrounding foothills and ridges. After gaining 1,300 feet or so the trail came out on an old road with a sign and arrow pointing to Dirty Harry’s Balcony (you can also get to this spur from Dirty Harry’s Road). From there it only took a few minutes to reach the Balcony. After the visit to the Balcony we followed the spur road back to Dirty Harry’s Road and hiked back to the car – that made a nice loop.

Silverback and I attempted to repeat that loop yesterday; we were raring to go despite the rain. After crossing the South Fork of the Snoqualmie I looked for the start of the trail and spotted it immediately (it is on the east side of the bridge).

Off we went in the spirit of optimism despite the rain. The trail is level for a bit as it parallels the river and gradually becomes an old road. The next stretch of the hike is part of a cable line road. Signs prohibit “digging” because of the buried cable but who would want to dig here anyway? After a bit of this and that we paused at an unsigned fork in deep woods interspersed with boulders. You will encounter several forks on this trail system, each one more vague than the one before.

Memory kicked in; I recognized a tugboat-sized boulder pinned to earth by a chain mail of steely roots. While the surrounding forest is dark and gloomy the outcroppings, are graced with the yellow-green sheen of moss that illustrates how long the boulders have been there (a very long time).

Meanwhile, back at the “junction” I couldn’t remember the correct “spur” to continue on the Bird Box Trail. First we tried the east fork; but that was wrong – the east “fork” does lead to another jumble of boulders but that wasn’t where we wanted to go.

We tried the other path; the correct one (this is actually the old road that is marked with buried cable signs). From that junction it was up, up and up. Occasionally we’d spot a bird-box or a cairn to help us find our way though once you are on the correct trail, it’s easy enough to follow.

The buried cable signs disappeared; the trail climbed steeply, through pockets of forest, skirting rocky promontories with what are wonderful views on clear days. Today the views were of fog in shades of white and gray, obscuring the ridgelines across the freeway. From time to time I-90 would partially materialize before disappearing again into the void.

Of course, we were dealing with Harry’s weather; rain, drizzle and fog. Worse, we began to encounter snow. Initially the snow wasn’t a problem though we had to watch our step where the path skirted an outcropping with nothing below but fog. After skirting about the 5th or 6th outcropping (we weren’t counting, we were too busy hiking) we lost the trail in a forested section where snow had covered the ground. We gamely carried on a while because we knew we were close to the road that provides egress to Dirty Harry’s Balcony.

We were ever certain of success when we spotted a wooden arrow pointing the way on a tree but Dirty Harry had a trick or two up his sleeve. He wasn’t going to allow these city slickers into the Balcony today; we spent quite a bit of time looking for the trail, always returning to the arrow so as not to get lost.

Lest you think we are idiots without route-finding skills give us a break; the GPS is broken and our only assistance was my less-than-perfect memory and our ability to follow the trail as the snow continued to erase the tread. It was getting late, we were getting wet and after bungling about on what “might” have been the “trail” we had to admit defeat and start back down the way we’d come (earlier in the day we’d gaily remarked how nice it would be to hike back down on Dirty Harry’s Road rather than the Bird Box trail). Be careful what you say!

Descending the trail was not pleasant; where there wasn’t a thin layer of snow there was mud. Then, of course, add rocky outcroppings looming over a foggy void where a haphazard slip could lead to Certain Unpleasantness. While this descent could hardly qualify as having a good time it went quickly, much more quickly than we’d anticipated. Fantasies of dry clothes and coffee back at the car added inspiration to our somewhat reckless and speedy descent (we managed to descend without slipping, a minor miracle).
We were chilled to the bone by the time we got back to the car; even the best raingear and boots will fail to some extent on such a wet day. Sound miserable? It was; but it was also a lot of fun.

As for the weather we call it hypothermia weather; hence, Hypothermia Hills. So rest guaranteed that just about any place you hike around North Bend on a wet day might put you at for hypothermia – go prepared. Watch out for Dirty Harry’s ghost, allow time to sleuth the way and if you ever do find the connection of the Bird Box trail to the Balcony drop me a note!

Last but not least I’d love to say we’d climbed a couple thousand feet for a 10-mile hike but it appears we’d gained only about 1,300 feet of elevation per my ancient altimeter; and I’ll guess at the mileage. Three to 3-1/2 miles the at most; it felt like more.

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