The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

Local man paints verbal portraits of wilderness


Contributed by Skip Johnson

Johnson on the trail near Mt. Adams.

Skip Johnson graduated high school in Goldendale in 1986. He joined the Marines about a year later and was stationed in Camp Lejeune. As an infantryman in a weapons platoon, he was deployed in the Mediterranean Sea twice and visited all the countries surrounding it and some countries in Europe as well. After four years of service he received his honorable discharge and came home. For the next five years he worked on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. Most recently he is drawing notice for his poetic descriptions of his hiking sojourns. Following is one such narrative of his time on Mt. Adams around the time of the fire.

The Indians call this great mountain Pahto or Klickitat. Legend has it that Wy'east (Hood) and Pahto (Adams) were both in love with Loowit (Helens). They had great wars of fire and earth that buried villages and ruined the forests. The Great Spirit, Sahale, was so smote with the three lover's behavior, that he struck them down and erected great mountains of ice where they lay. To this day Wy'east stands defiant, holding his head high, not ever letting Pahto have his maiden Loowit. Pahto bows his head slightly in sorrow, to see his beautiful maiden frozen in time.

Thursday, July 2:

I had been eyeing Mt Adams ever since Heidi and I had come around Mt. Hood on the Timberline trail. As I looked north that trip I could see this broad mountain on the distant horizon. Today I am driving towards it and my first stop is the ranger station in Trout Lake. After much planning, today I am not sure where I should start my hike around the mountain; the Wicky shelter or drive the extra miles to Bird creek meadows on the Yakama Indian reservation. Sara, the nice ranger lady, assures me that it is well worth the extra drive to Mirror Lake and the five dollar fee paid to the Indian rangers at their campground. I hope she is right because I hate slow bumpy roads that take forever to get to someplace close to nowhere. Sara provides me with a local map and highlights my route to Mirror Lake and I decide that's the route to take, as it is presented to me perfectly.

It's hot today and the temperature is expected to climb all day. The Nissmo does not have ac and the fan is blowing waves of warm dusty air. My road is definitely long and bumpy and almost a little ruff. I feel the heat of the day building and I just want to get into the woods and hike. This is exactly what I did not want to do. Drive for hours on a bumpy road just getting hot and frustrated. Around the curve is a small narrow bridge with the cleanest looking water running under it. I must stop to moisten everything and splash my face. The water is ice cold and I look around and realize I may be looking at one of the best scenes of the whole hike already! The fir trees are scattered across a green meadow. The flowers of spring in the mountains are vibrant with splashes of red, yellow and purple of fluorescent extremes. If this is a sign of what Pahto has to show me, then I am in the right place.

I jump back into the truck and bump down the dusty road until my head starts to hurt and my vision is blurry. Out of the mirage I begin to make out a sign that says Mirror Lake campground. I have arrived and I fill out my wilderness permit that allows me to leave my vehicle behind. I pay my five dollars for five days of parking on the Yakima Indian Reservation. It is free to walk through the wilderness. What a deal.

I make talk with the Indians, Roger and Frank. They are taking a break from daily duties as rangers in their forest and enjoying baloney sandwiches in the shade. Roger is the one that tells me it is just two more miles up the bumpy road to the Bird Creek trail. This leads to the climber route 20, which then turns into mountaineering cross country, where there is no real trail for about ten miles. During these ten miles lies the Klickitat Glacier, Avalanche Valley and the Ridge of Wonders; each one a geological feature that could stop me in my tracks, on my quest around the mountain. Frank advises I go to Bench Lake and hike out the back of it, to the top of Little Mt Adams and strike west cross country, from there heading west to Sunrise camp. He shows me a way on the map where others may have gone before and left cairns. I thank them and they say they will watch for me to return in four of five days.

As I drive further up the ever increasingly bumpy road, I roll around Frank's route in my mind. I'm not sure about it, since it runs straight into the Ridge of Wonders. In the end I decide that another one and a half miles on this road is the deal breaker. At Bird Creek Meadows trail I stumble out of the Nissmo and feel like I have been on a journey already. Everything is dusty and my pack is filthy. A last triple check and I exit the parking area entering into the wilderness. A small line separates the two worlds and in special places a person can pass from the new world into one that is ancient and held in time. It is no coincidence that it feels different to the core of my soul. With each step it becomes more pure and satisfying. I feel like I have found a recharging station for my spirit.

A mile out I stop to adjust things. My map shows a viewpoint up ahead and then the trail goes away. It is time to look farther ahead and read the features of land on the map. It is early July but it has been a low snow year so I hope to escape snow hiking. I meet a few people who are heading down the mountain and everybody says the trail just petered out. Well, I think, I guess it is true about the no trail thing. I walk along the ridge that overlooks Hell Roaring Meadows and gaze into the distance and see the towering Ridge of Wonders. I wouldn't want to climb that and I am glad I didn't listen to Frank about that lower route. My route continues on and I encounter a snowbank and then another big drift. I am able to walk around these, but I know that soon I will probably be walking on top of snow fields. The plus side of this is lots of water and usually a fairly flat surface to walk on. Reaching the top of the next rocky ridge I crest the edge and spy a vast high plain of snow fields with islands of black lava rock. The snow drift next to me starts steeply away from the rocky ridge. I gauge it and decide it is a go with a slip sending me down the hill but on a safe sliding decent. Stepping out onto the frozen snow I slip almost immediately and go sliding out of control down the hill seventy yards or more. This puts me downhill and I trudge back up the snowfield vowing to be more careful. The snow was a little more frozen than I had thought, causing me to slip, catching me by surprise.

I steadily work my way upwards and across the snow fields knowing that I can't stay out in them for more than a few hours. The snow fields are incredibly white and the sun glares up at my face. I can feel the heat on my back and it is never ending across this high valley. Sunrise camp comes closer and I believe I can see a tent there. There are other people up here too. It is a strange place to be in July on a hot day, in the middle of all this frozen snow and yet so hot like a desert. At the camp I meet a climber named Mark. He and other climbers are finishing up and heading back down the mountain tomorrow. He asks if I am going around the mountain. I am I say and was thinking of camping here tonight. I decide to go look into the Gorge I must drop into tomorrow and spy my route for the morning. When I make my way to the little gap in the mountain and look into the Klickitat Gorge, I realize I have got myself into a dangerous challenge. This calls for a sit down. It is what I do when I have to think it out.

This Gorge is comprised of a two headed monster called the Klickitat Glacier. The entry to this Gorge is directly onto a steep inclined snow field requiring a traverse across and down to the glacier's edge. I test the snow out first, carefully this time, without my pack. It seems softer now than earlier today. I can get good traction if I stomp my heel into the snow. I make a snap decision to go now and camp somewhere far below in the Gorge next to the glacier. Grabbing my pack I head over the pass and ease my way onto the snow, eyeing the downhill side, not liking the slide of hundreds of yards if I slip again. I couldn't honestly say that I could slide that far and be ok. It is just so far. This whole area in the Klickitat Gorge is just so large.

I move along slow and rest. Further I go and further till I am over half way down. I rest often and move on a little at a time making sure of every step. After longer than I want it to be, I make a knoll that sits in the middle of the snow field. I'm through the steep part but this is nowhere to camp and a bit close to the high mountain cliffs. On occasion rocks come tumbling down from the heights above and it's not a place to hang around. I work my way around the knoll and find a waterfall pouring over its rock face from under the snow down the valley and into the snow field again. At the very end of the snow field I can see three huge rocks that are the size of city buildings. The water appears there again and flows on exposed the rest of the way. I think that if I can make those rocks it will be a good camping spot.

Working my way along a wall of debris I realize it is the Klickitat glacier covered in avalanche material. I head back onto the snow fields and get squeezed in by the water running under the snow. I can hear it and I climb back onto the glacier debris to achieve my goal of the huge rocks. Among the monolith boulders I make a spot to roll out my sleeping pad and bag. Only a slight breeze and I cook some ramen noodles listening to the mountain melt rush by on the rocks. Some little birds show up chirping their disapproval of me nesting in their house of rocks. As the sun goes down I look up at the snow fields and the pass and see pink and blue skies above the white bluffs. It is so beautiful in these mountain high-pockets. I lay with no tent, cowboy camping under the stars feeling like I could reach out and grab one.....

Friday, July 3:

I wake in the morning to a pale sky. It is not yet sunrise but moments before. As I cook up some oatmeal, the sky to the east becomes so much a yellow color. The yellow color is of the most vibrant glowing layer of light I have ever seen. It lies on top of an orange band of light that separates the earth from the heavens. A couple of wafts of clouds glow fluorescent pink and I can see rays of light piercing the layers of color and shooting into the space above.

My coffee tastes exquisite this morning. I finally have figured out how to make coffee on the trail. I pre grind the beans at home and bag the grounds in, tea like, soaking satchels. This works well as I get a nice coffee with no grounds and no hassle. No filters or filter holders. No extra cup needed. Nice and neat and easy to use. Why it took me two years and 700 miles to discover this trick, I don't know.

The little birds show up again and sing their songs this morning. I wonder if this is a stopping place each night and morning on their daily routes. A place to drink water and catch bugs maybe. I stroll around my house of rocks and see that mountain goats have been here also. Their shaggy hair is stuck to an overhanging rock. It looks like a natural spot for all travelers to stop on their way through this Gorge. Again I gaze up from where I came down last night. It amazes me, the size of everything up here in the mountains. The water from the melting glacier is at its lowest volume right now. I must be on my way and make a fording of its boiling cold turmoil, before it becomes too much from the heating day.

I pack up my gear and leave the huge rocks behind. The going is ruff and slow, my route determined by ravines and places I can't go. When I reach the Big Muddy Creek I am taken aback by the quickness of the flow and its force. The width of it is too much for me to cross safely here. The water is so cold that I feel that just rolling around in it could freeze you up dead. I must find a better place to cross. Instinctively I head up the channel. Going down to get out of a difficult situation has never worked out very well for me. Going down is usually when the trouble gets worse and I work my way up closer to the open face of the glacier. Several spots look possible but I am not willing to chance it yet. Finally I reach a point where I am so close to the glacier that I can see the runoff and debris falling down into a cavern of icy waters. Rocks are tumbling down the glacier face and bouncing dangerously out of control. It is a crazy place to be and I realize I can go no closer. I must cross here and I must do it quick. Sliding my pack off my back, I give it a big throw and sling it across the creek. My pack is over there and I am over here. Now I am committed. I test the waters bottom with my pole and find footing. Two steps out and halfway across, I make a plunge for the other side. I make it across and am relieved to be reunited with my pack. I turn and look at the glacier again just as a boulder the size of a car engine goes tumbling down and bouncing high into the air. I turn and spot a safe distance away and don't stop until I get there. A person could really mess it up out here.

Battlement ridge with a giant pointed rock sticking up, called the Spear Head, angles away from me to the east. All rock and no trail, I must reach the ridge and get over the top into Avalanche Valley. It is a long haul and I feel like a mountain goat when I reach the spine. I look into the most beautiful alpine meadow. It is covered with purple Lupines and bright Red Indian Paint Brush, all the empty spaces filled in with green foliage. It smells so fresh and clean here. The birds are abundant and the grass waves in the wind. I feel like I am the only person in the world. I sit and revel in how far I have made it. I'm getting through the tuff parts and sometime later today I will find a real bonified trail called the Highline Trail. I must head north/northwest until I reach Devils Garden.

After taking lunch, I descend past the Rusk Glacier and then the Wilson Glacier. These glaciers are melted way up the mountain and I cross many small run-offs and streams flowing through hills and draws covered in purple Lupines. Goat Butte rises to my east and it stands high into the sky with yellow cliffs that reach down to the valley below. I am not at Devils Garden yet, but at times, I have a trail to follow. It goes away and I lose it to find it again, easily stepping off the trail when I gaze around at the land. At last I spy a sign. It is the other side of the Yakama Indian Reservation and the beginning of the Highline Trail! I have made it back into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Just now I look up and see Mt Rainer. The Wonderland Trail circumnavigates it, a ninety-three mile loop that's supposed to be the trail of all trails. I hope to get it later this summer.

Foggy Flats is not foggy today but bright and hot. As I approach the north side of the mountain I am feeling tired, hot and dusty. The last river crossing got my map wet. I need to lay up in some shade and soak my feet in the cool glacier melt. A small stand of Pine trees offers some relief from the sun and the stream is close by. I shuck my pack and drop my feet into the run-off. It is amazing what a mountain stream can do for tired feet. When I can't take the cold on my feet anymore I retreat to the shade and lie on my sleeping pad among the rocks. I sleep until the fierce glare of the sun is no longer straight above, but has more of a sunset angle. This will be a nice evening stroll, what looks to be downhill most of the way, around to the west side of the mountain.

I pass several campsites that are very good. So good that I seriously contemplate stopping early, but I feel the pull of the trail so I keep walking into the sunset. Suddenly I see a large plume of smoke to the south. A forest fire? It could be and looks like it. I hear choppers and planes flying and can only assume it is a fire. The bugs are getting bad and distract my attention away from the fire. Miles go buy and it is getting dusky. I find a small meadow with a waterfall and a large camping area under the trees. The flies are horrible but it is the end of the road for me today. I have put in fifteen miles.

After setting up my tent I encounter other hikers at the creek. There is some panic about the fire and people are leaving the trail. I wonder if I should too, but I have to get back to my truck. To go off trail here might be worse than just making my way around the mountain as planned. The fire isn't smoking anymore and it didn't look to be very large in the beginning, so I decide to stay put. This is a new element of hiking for me. Fire. A few hikers stay at the creek, all heading north tomorrow, on the Pacific Crest Trail. It looks like I am the only one heading south and the other hikers ask about my route across the east side of the mountain. I tell them the way is there and it is spectacular.

As I walk across a meadow of Lupine, back to my campsite, I think of how it has been such a great hike and so colorful. I have timed the season of spring in the mountains just right. The people down in the valley are roasting and I am in a mountain paradise with bubbling springs of glacier water and waterfalls too numerous to count. The nights are warm and the moon is full again tonight. I fall asleep and dream of running from fire.

Saturday, July 4:

I wake to the morning light of the fourth of July. I can't see the horizon because of the trees I'm camped among. I feel an urgency to get started today. The fire was ahead of me and I figure if it flares back up, I am in trouble. My best bet is to make tracks and get past the danger zone. Seventeen miles takes me back to Bird Creek Meadows. This mountain is passing by fast. If I make the campground at Bird Creek Meadows, I will stay another night and walk out the one mile to my truck in the morning.

I keep my phone off most of the time because service is sketchy in the mountains, saving the battery for an emergency. I expect to have reception later today as I approach the southwest side of the loop. I want to let H know that all is well and I set off briskly down the trail. Passed the waterfall, through the upper meadow and I am in the woods again. The morning is bright and beautiful. The colors today, are vivid beyond belief. This day is worth all the walking I have done to get here. Alpine meadows, with flowers splashed everywhere, are one after another. The fragrance is intoxicating. This is what I call mountain fresh. I think Tinkerbell just came through here and sprinkled Pixie Dust on everything. Several times I stop to just gaze at the scene and soak it all in. This is what hiking is all about, to find places like this.

I keep checking the view of Mt Rainer. Each time it presents itself, I stop. Soon I won't be able to see it anymore. It is more and more behind me now. Mt St Helens looks all burnt up. The snow is almost all gone and it really looks like a burning volcano. The distance is blurred by a smoky haze. There have been some fires and it looks eerie out there and dangerously hot. The fire hasn't materialized, but I keep track of the nearest water. I see some choppers cruising around with a bag of water suspended below their bellies. Against this vast backdrop, the small water bag looks way too small to do much good. It looks like a thimble in comparison to anything around. I commend the effort. I guess that's all the chopper can carry.

Now I see where the fire is. Actually, all I can see is smoke. The fire is about a half a mile as a crow flies from the trail. It could present a problem under the right conditions. If it was to flare up and the wind was headed my way, it could cut me off. I speed up and mean to put some distance between myself and the smoldering fire. The trail is mostly a gentle downhill grade and I cruise along dropping miles quickly. Soon I will have to stop to eat lunch and I want to treat my feet to another soaking in the mountain run-off. I find the most incredible brook! The water runs white, like milk! I have never seen this white water. A nature made spa with special mineral oxygenated water for my feet. I sit on the bank in the shade of some trees and dangle my feet into this magical water. I eat the last of my snacks for lunch. All I have is a dinner of mashed potatoes and some oatmeal left for in the morning, some coffee to go with the oatmeal and a little Chai tea.

Back on the trail I check my phone for the time and I have service. I quickly call Heidi and let her know I'll be home Sunday. It is getting hotter and hotter as I come around the south side of Adams. The map says I have come more than ten miles since this morning. I am on the lookout for the appropriate shady spot to sit out the afternoon heat. I find it next to the trail with a thick screen of trees that block the sun for hours. Warming my tea in the sun I sleep and rest. A slight breeze keeps the flies down and I take short trips to the nearby stream to wet my bandanna. At 5 p.m. I decide to push on, I'll never get there if I don't keep walking.

I decide that this day of hiking, I will just hike till it gets dark and see if I make the campground. If I don't, I can just lay down on the trail. It is cool in the evening and I come across many nice campsites. One area is like a small amphitheater with a rock stage and room for dancing. I refer to the map and I have walked another seven miles. It is getting dark, but still no Bird Creek Meadows. It has to be close and I stumble through the dark, not quite finding the right places to put my feet. I broke my hiking pole two days ago and have been using a stick I found. It falls from my hand and I hesitate to pick it up. I leave it behind. I don't care anymore. My goal is to just keep moving forward. The bubbling sound of running water stops me in my tracks. As I peer into the darkness I make out a low sitting picnic table tucked off the trail next to a stream. Over 17 miles by my figures and I go for simple cowboy camping tonight, not tent, just me under the stars again.

Sunday, July 5:

Contributed by Skip Johnson

OPEN VISTAS: Skip Johnson (shown with his wife Heidi) is a Goldendale native and GHS graduate whose poetic writings on his immersion in nature have drawn notice.

Birds awaken me this morning and I see it is getting light out. Again I see the super yellow beginning of the sunrise. It happens just prior to the first glimpse of the sun. Bird Creek Meadows is something special. It is old too. The tables have been here so long that the seats are on the ground, or the ground has risen up to the seats. I find the remains of an interpretive trail that no longer has its signs of knowledge; to pass on to visitors the names of plants, geological features and the type of birds that live here. I walk the trail around the campground and get a glimpse of the past. It is kinda cool to discover this beautiful place that is forgotten, tucked away in the folds of Mt. Adams. I will bring H here and show her what I found.

After walking this mountain, the legend of two brothers fighting over a beautiful maiden comes to mind. I think of Loowit erupting and breaking from her prison of ice. Pahto must once again be happy to see her free. Wy'east is looking on with jealousy. The ice seems to be disappearing from these mountains, and I wonder if Sahale's spell can hold much longer.


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