Hell Hike

Ten miles of terror

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

It seemed like a foolproof plan. I’d cut out of work early, hike down to the trailhead, hop in our rig, head to the ranger station, grab a couple spare parts for the ailing come-along, drive back to the trailhead and stroll to camp beneath autumnal star clusters.

The first five miles went off without a hitch.

I negotiated the switchbacks out of the remote basin where we were working and crested the ridge saddle at full gallop. Nebulous gobs of late-afternoon sunlight dappled the upper bench meadows as I contoured past glowering cliff faces, spectral tarns and anthropoid boulder heaps. The North Cascades were magnetizing.

Suddenly—just as I began to levitate—a huge clucking raven swooped overhead and kept circling toward me as if it was zeroing in on a potential meal. Stopping to wave it off, I noticed a cluster of white dots high on the shoulder of a darkening butte. 

Through my monocular spotting scope, I formulated 23 mountain goats. 

Bedazzled by ungulate antics, I hunkered down to watch frolicking phantoms haunt the heather draws for a spell. 

Unfortunately, I dozed off for an hour. 

Daylight was fading as I entered the old-growth and the trail crisscrossed a fast-flowing creek that grew exceedingly treacherous in the gathering gloom.

My glued-together boots were compromised and pretty soon my right heel started flapping. Annoying as this was, I managed to clomp around just fine—until the owl attack began.

The first time it swooped, I only felt a swoosh. I didn’t think it would happen again. But it did. And it never let up. By the fifth swoop I’d covered my head with my arms and started running. This strategy proved effective until my floppy boot heel crumpled, launching me into the ferns.

I hid down there for a while and finally stole a look at it. But all I could see was a shadowy form with hollow eye sockets perched on a low-hanging branch. As soon as I stood up it swooped again. And again. And again. And again.

Finally, pleading for mercy, I pulled the rucksack over my head and started to slither. The owl relented for a while, but then it attacked once more.

Bruised and bloodied, I finally reached the clear-cut. The wreckage was ugly down there, but at least there weren’t any standing trees for my tormentor to swoop from.    

Before roaring off in the truck I cracked the windows to listen. I wondered whether a barred owl or a northern spotted owl had just spent the past hour dominating me.

“Hoooo… Hoo-hoo… Hooooo!” it soon hooted. This was the signal call of a spotted owl defending its territory. 

“Who are you? Who are you?” it kept echoing.

I’ve pondered that question ever since.

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