The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is a magical place. Elk, deer, bears, and cougars wander through the tall trees and berry fields. Caves and outcroppings of weirdly contorted lava dot the landscape.
During most of the year water is abundant; frequent rain and snow feeds ponds and streams, hidden lakes and bogs. Summer is a different story. The creeks and ponds dry up. The water goes underground, out of reach, trickling down through the broken lava, flowing in unseen rivers beneath the surface.
My brother and I had been trying to find a year-round water source we could camp near during the summer months. I located a promising stream, but it required a long hike through the brush to get to.
Looking at the map, it appeared we might be able to reach it from a different direction, so we decided to try to find an easier route to the water. We invited our wives to join us on an expedition of discovery. Sunday morning the four of us climbed aboard the sidecars and headed into the forest. At one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, it turned out to be the hottest day of the year.
We parked the bikes near where the headwaters of Lava Creek should have been, and walked down the road searching for a deer trail that might allow access through the brush.
Unable to locate a trail, we forced a path through the underbrush until we stumbled upon one of several dry creek beds, which we followed until it became choked with debris.
Pushing into the trees once more, we happened upon a game trail. A large animal had broken through the brush here, clearing a path.
Before long we came across mounds of fresh scat, which identified the animal we were following as a bear.
We spread out through the woods, searching for the elusive stream. I heard it first; when I parted the bushes, there it was. The tributary of Lava Creek I had found the previous month had gone dry, but this section of Lost Creek was still flowing.
The plan was for Andy or I to hike back to the bikes and retrieve our food and drinks after we found the creek, but the hike in had been so difficult we abandoned that idea. We cooled off for a few minutes and then headed upstream, hoping to find a spot a little closer to the bikes we could picnic at.
Walking in the rocky stream bed was difficult, especially for Amy, who is inseam challenged; stepping from rock to rock was much harder work for her.
Our wives wanted to strike out directly for the road, which cut the distance in half. I was concerned the stream was going to lead us into a bog, so we called Andy back and headed off to the north, directly into the lava bed. It proved to be very difficult terrain and in hindsight, I am not sure this route was any easier.
The heat was relentless and the humidity rose uncomfortably. It felt as if a thunderstorm might be sneaking up on us. The lava was folded and broken, with steep hills and ravines to negotiate. There were numerous holes and small caves. The gullies were filled with dense brush; the ridges of black lava baked in the sun.
Ahead of me, Andy was in the trees, blazing a trail with his machete. Behind me, Amy and Susan were crossing the stretch of jagged rock.
I looked at my feet and saw a huge, moist pile of bear crap. To my left, a trail disappeared into a black hole in the rocks. I was standing atop an active bear den. The bruin that lived here had been gorging on red huckleberries. We hurried to catch up with my brother.
We traversed another ridge, worked our way through another brush filled gully and climbed a rock ledge, where we took a short break in some shade.
I was out of water, and felt close to a medical emergency. Susan and Amy seemed pretty tuckered out, too, but we got back on our feet when we heard Andy call out that he had reached the road.
After struggling through the trees and up one last steep hill near where we parked, we hopped on the bikes and headed for Cabbage Creek Road. About five minutes later we were in the dense woods at the bottom of the canyon. A cool breeze blew down the creek; we set up our chairs near the stream, finally enjoying our picnic.
It had been an adventure, but perhaps next time my brother and I should do our exploring before we invite our wives along, or at least wait for a cooler day.