Backpacking Separation Creek Loop
The guidebook for backpacking the Separation Creek Loop in the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Willamette National Forest recommends hiking the loop counterclockwise. The only reason I can gather for this recommendation is that the author of the guide seemed to believe most packers would start out on a Saturday (he says as much). Hiking counterclockwise would put one at the busiest part of the trail after the weekend, thereby ensuring the packer would not hit this section of the trail while it was busy.
Did it occur to the author that backpackers might actually start on another day of the week? There is at least a one-in-six chance of this occurring. What then? Did the fact that from the map it appears that in the counterclockwise direction, 35 of the 40-42 miles (one can add 2 miles doing a loop around a lake if one so chooses) would be uphill? The elevation gain proceeding in this direction is significant. From the description of the hike, it also appears that the 5 mile or so portion that would be downhill near the end is not nearly as steep as one section near the beginning of the counterclockwise version with a 700 foot elevation gain within a half a mile.
Considering these factors, I have to ask the author of this particular guidebook, “Are you f-ing crazy?” Why not offer the clockwise direction as the recommended option and then tell people if they begin on Saturday they’ll hit the busy part of the trail on the weekend? Why not offer both options and point out that the bulk of the hike will be gain?
I didn’t notice these details until I was nearly 8 miles in. The 700 foot climb in a half mile kicked my ass, to say the least. I am pretty fit. I am strong. Yet carrying 30 pounds up the side of a freaking mountain is a lot to ask of a person. If I wanted to rock climb, I’d take up that sport. It’s not my thing. I like backpacking and hiking. I don’t even mind some elevation gain. But that shit was crazy. And at about 2/3 of the way up I started disliking my guidebook author pretty intensely.
Let me back up a bit.
I decided to do this loop alone for many reasons, the biggest of which was that I didn’t have anyone to go with, and I needed a vacation in the worst way. I wanted some kind of spiritual clarity. I’m going through some pretty massive changes in my life. I’m in school again to get my master’s in teaching and planning to leave the practice of law within the year. My littlest girl is starting kindergarten and my oldest has been gone for two months in Paraguay. And of course I recently went through the requisite man troubles that seem par for the course in this lifetime. I was feeling a little bruised from this (still kind of feel bruised from this, truth be told). I really like the guy. He really likes me. Yet he’s terrified of relationships, terrified of functioning much in the world, unhappy with himself and life in general. I cannot fix this. I don’t want to fix it. Yet it doesn’t seem so insurmountable as he seems to think it is and I was (am) frustrated by this. We had planned and booked a vacation together. My youngest daughter was on vacation with her father. My oldest wanted to stay home and sleep. I was so looking forward to getting away and our choice of trip was delightful, especially for a couple of book-loving introverts. We were going to stay in a cabin in the woods near a lake, kayak and hike, and lie around off the grid. We were going to visit Crater Lake and the giant redwoods in northern California. It sounded like pure bliss.
A week prior to our planned departure, he canceled. He was completely freaked out over many things I have no desire to go into here. He wanted a break to work on himself. He probably needs it, but his timing was terrible. I had already paid for the cabin. I really needed to go somewhere. I didn’t want to go by myself on the trip the two of us had planned. It was too far to drive alone and would have been depressing. Every other option I came up with sounded dreary and boring.
Then I remembered my backpacking book. Even though we had planned to hike some of the trails in the book together, I didn’t see why I couldn’t hike one alone. I’m geared up. I wanted to go. The trail called. I chose the trail based on its length for the time I wanted to hike and the solitude. I guess on that front I understand why the author made the counterclockwise choice. I readied my pack and set off, spending the night before departing in Eugene to be closer to the trailhead.
Up until the precipice alluded to earlier, I was pretty happy about my guide, yet his descriptions of some parts of the trail left a bit to be desired. I understood, however, that the guide was filled with many hikes and it might not have been possible to include the fact that this trail crossed a LOT of water. Even in August in an extremely dry year, I crossed several bogs and streams rolling down the sides of mountains. Thank goodness for excellent Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking GoreTex hiking boots with ankle support (yes, this is my product placement because these boots are so awesome). They make rock hopping on the side of a mountain a dry and supportive experience. They’re light. They fit well. I am extremely satisfied with these shoes. They are worth every penny I paid for them. They certainly helped when I hit stream after stream and water running out the side of the mountain and often down trails that could not be skirted without practically climbing down the side of a cliff. My foot didn’t feel one ounce of moisture when I fell off a log crossing a creek and landed with one foot ankle deep in mud. And the mud just wiped off the boot. You can’t even tell this happened.
The woods were amazing, filled with boulders and old growth, sky high trees, and lush native undergrowth. Snowberry bushes, rhododendrons, mountain huckleberries, sorrel, Oregon grapes, and more lined every trail. Thank goodness also for zip-on hiking pants. Someone out there in backpacking land has figured out all these details and the equipment available to us while hiking reflects this. I’d started out with the bottoms zipped off my pants. Those bottoms went right back on within a mile of starting out because the trail was so bushy.
The silence and serenity of the forest were just what the doctor ordered. I forgot civilization and became a part of the forest. Gradually as I proceeded several miles down the trail, I heard rushing water that grew louder as I eventually joined the Separation Creek from which the trail gets its name. I passed a couple of campgrounds, but I had only been out for about 3 hours and I certainly was not ready to camp in mid-afternoon, even if the campgrounds looked welcoming. Plus they were near that rushing water and I really wanted more quiet for camping.
After about five miles I came to a flat-topped log bridge across the creek. Creek is a mild word for what was essentially a small river. The bridge was about 12 feet above this and probably 20 feet across. In other words, scary as hell to me. I started to cross, then felt wobbly with my pack and backed up. I’m not fond of high places. I’m fine if it’s impossible to fall, but the fear of falling is strong in me. I stared across the log for a good five minutes trying to work up the courage to cross.
Finally I located a long stick to carry with me. I stepped up onto the log, holding the stick in front of me, tapping as I went. I looked only at the place on the log where my the tip of the stick touched and shuffled very slowly across. I didn’t even put one foot in front of the other. Tap the stick forward, shuffle one foot forward, shuffle the other behind. Tap the stick forward, shuffle one foot forward, shuffle the other behind. Do not look down at the water rushing loudly below. Do not consider what would happen if a loud noise startled me. Do not think about falling.
I made it across, elated. I turned and shouted at the log, “I did it!” I’m such a dork.
Crossing the bridge energized me. I was thrilled that I had conquered this fear. I have had dreams of crossing bridges like this one and nearly falling. I’ve had dreams of climbing steep staircases and then not being able to get down. I’ve had dreams of walking out on beams and being stuck in the middle, too terrified to go forward or back. I’m sure Freud would have a field day with me and these dreams of balancing acts in high places. I think it’s probably something to do with feeling anxiety about balancing so much in my life. Who knows? In any case, I was raring to go again after this. I was several hours in and needed the motivation.
The trail did a switchback up the opposite side of the rushing creek. There were several boggy wet places and many of them were filled with tiny little frogs. This brought me further delight, these perfect little creatures living out in the woods away from humans.
Eventually I came to Separation Lake. I stopped to rest and eat. The lake edge is covered with lily pads and downed logs fallen into the water. Dragonflies swooped. Frogs plopped. I saw fishes jumping out in the center. High mountains and trees reflected on the serene water. Seriously, the place was like something from a painting or a meditation on peace. It was utterly exquisite.
I set down my pack and pulled out my sleeping pad. I ate some lunch then lay on the pad for 20 minutes to rest. I was finally chased off by some kind of a wasp that was very interested in my activities. I’m not sure why. I did not eat anything or carry any kind of food that would have been interesting to a wasp, nor did it seem interested in looking for food. It seemed truly curious about this weird creature lying at the foot of a massive tree near the bank of the lake. I had hiked about 7 miles at this point and was enjoying my rest. I wanted to get another several miles down the trail before camping. I had decided I would settle down an hour before sundown, knowing that the dark would be immense and existing with a flashlight wouldn’t be the easiest thing in the world outside of a tent. The wasp motivated me just enough to keep moving. I had stinger pads in my first aid kit, but that didn’t mean I had any desire to use them. I wound my way gradually downhill for almost another mile before crossing yet another rushing stream.
The forest was so lovely. I was feeling peaceful in nature, and grateful to be there. Wasp or no wasp, the trip so far felt blessed. The guidebook warned that after this last stream, there would be the 700 foot climb. After crossing the water, I looked up the side of the mountain in front of me. I felt a small twinge of qualm, but pushed it down. I could do this. I gathered the pack and began.
By the end of the climb I no longer felt serenity. I was pissed off at the author for his suggestion of this route. I was mad. Mad at the climb, mad at the author, mad at myself for coming, mad at the man for not going on vacation, mad at the world. It was truly amazing how that one brutal climb changed my mood so drastically in a relatively short amount of time. Halfway up I shouted Fuck this shit!. Halfway again I screamed at the guidebook author You’re out of your fucking mind, you sadist bastard! Blessed? Hell no. I felt cursed.
The other issue that developed alongside my anger was a serious pain in my left leg just under my knee. I know now that I suffered Pes Anserine Bursitis, an inflammation of the bursa sac located between the shin bone and the three tendons of my hamstring. Pain in the area is exacerbated by climbing. I am seeing a physical therapist for a shoulder injury and she explained this to me upon my return and subsequent description of the injury. Whatever it was called, it hurt like hell when I climbed. Any elevation gain was met with commensurate pain in my leg. Shit and double shit.
Even after the amazingly steep portion I just climbed, the mountain was not done with me. There was still elevation to gain. Whereas before I bore the climbing with equanimity, now any elevation meant pain. This was not fun. I was no longer looking at the woods as a place I wanted to be. I was now frustrated and hurting and annoyed with the guidebook author for what seemed to me a stupid choice in the counterclockwise option. I was frustrated with the leg. As I mentioned before, I’m fit. I hike a lot. I run. I do my squats. I ride a horse over jumps. These legs work. What was the deal? Is it just that I’m getting old? I found out later that climbing lots of stairs usually brings on this condition. Climbing the side of that mountain was like climbing 20 stories of the steepest, narrowest stairs. I’m fit, but I don’t train on stairs.
Luckily the trail was balanced fairly well between gain and level hiking, and so I was able to continue as I had intended. As evening progressed, I realized that under the trees it was going to get dark a lot faster than it would have out in the non-woods world. I needed to find a place to sleep for the night. The search for somewhere flat off the trail without too much undergrowth distracted me from my irritation. I subscribe to the intention to do as little harm to the forest as possible while trekking through it. I did not want my being in a place overnight to leave any trace if I could help it. Finding a good spot for this proved challenging, as the forest floor in this area was covered with the aforementioned brush. In some places there would be nothing but floor and pine needles, but there were hundreds of downed trees. In every direction trees crossed and crossed. I wondered whether these downed trees were normal for the forest at this elevation of if there was something outside the ordinary causing this. If it’s not normal, it’s distressing because it looked almost like a river had come rushing through and left trees upended everywhere. I wanted to be off the trail, but I didn’t want to climb over many logs to camp.
I passed a few spots that probably would have worked, but I kept thinking I would find something better. It is so easy to keep thinking the next best spot will be right around the next bend or over the next ascent. Darkness was rapidly descending. The time was only just after 7, but trees are excellent at impeding the sun’s rays from penetrating the forest floor. I saw a clearing with no plants and lots of sticks. It was large enough. It didn’t require climbing a log jam to get to it. I decided I could move some sticks to set up my tent. I removed my pack and set to work.
I’m going to admit something that will probably make me look stupid or arrogant or both. Please don’t judge me. Please remember the aforementioned angst in setting out on this trip, the heartache, etc. I usually find it easy to put things together. I can often do so without reading directions or with only a cursory glance through them. I offer this as explanation for why I did not read the instructions on how to set up my new tent. I had lent my old tent to my brother and never got it back. This was fine because the new tent was much lighter than the old one anyway (aluminum — yay!). This meant that I spent a little longer than I would have in the burgeoning darkness figuring out this tent. The actual tent part, the fabric part, was easy. It’s rectangle–lay it on the ground. The poles were weird though and it took some fiddling for me to figure out how the contraption went and to remember the example tent from which I chose this model, an example tent that had been hanging up near the ceiling of the store where I bought it. How’s that go again? I figured it out, but I think I was hungry and definitely tired because I started to feel irritated again.
Once I got all situated and ate some food, I felt better. I was glad to eat and thereby lessen the weight for the next day. I was pleased with this tent that kept the bugs out. Another buzzing wasp was curious and checking me out. It wasn’t yet dark, but heading there. I sat, contemplating my little camp. I had purposely decided not to bring a book. I wanted to be present with myself and the forest. I did, however, bring a journal and a pen. I had written in the journal at the lake, noting the frogs and my isolation. I also noted the number of planes I had heard by that point. During this trip, I heard 20 planes on the first day and 5 the next. Of those 20, about 8 were heard after dark while lying in my sleeping bag, which leads me to believe there were probably more during the hiking portion of my trip during the day that I didn’t notice because I was occupied. That’s a lot of planes.
I napped a bit, then awakened. 8:30 is too early to go to bed. The forest was silent. Absolutely, utterly silent. It was so silent, when a pine needle fell on my tent, I heard the little Pip! then heard as it slid down the side.
I’m not zen. I miss everyone. It isn’t even like I’m trying to escape ME either. I just spend a lot of time with my thoughts already. I’m not gaining anything. I want company. And my knee hurts. Clarity? You know what is clear? I don’t want to be alone! I spend most of my time alone. I’m among people and alone. I spent all day thinking about Milla and Isabel and DC. That’s what I want. I’m boring.
This was the gist of most of the journal entries I wrote under my headlamp out in the woods. Lonely. Alone. I lay back down and drifted off for another fifteen minutes. Then I wakened and ate another snack. The night was so dark, I filmed it. I wrote again in the journal under the headlamp.
My eyes well up thinking about them. I miss my girls so much! I’m so lucky to have such wonderful daughters. I only feel blessed. I feel lucky. I already did. I didn’t have to come out here alone to know this. I miss all of you! I love backpacking, but not alone.
I finally fell asleep for real and slept for the rest of the night. I must have slept really well because it was 9:20 when I woke up! That’s not just late for me, it’s off the charts. I usually can’t make it past 6 a.m. Feeling pressured to get a move on, I ate my breakfast, piddled in a hole behind a log, dressed, and set out. It was at least 20 degrees cooler than it had been the day before, which was actually a welcome change. The forest had been cooler under the trees, but the day before had still been in the 80s. Not a quarter mile past where I set up to sleep, I found a spot that would have been absolutely perfect for camping. C’est la vie I thought. You never know what’s over that next hill.
You never know indeed. A half mile up from where I camped I came to a pile of poop on the trail that came from something large. I have not yet been able to identify it using various scat identifiers on the internet. It was definitely from something carnivorous. As you can see from this photo, it was a long as my foot! In reading various sites about animal potty, I have encountered many people wondering why it is these animals poop on the trail, as if in doing so they are sending messages to the humans who walk there. This seems to me a silly pondering. It may indeed be a message, but I don’t think so. One look at the brushy undergrowth makes trail pooping seem preferable to me. Who wants a stick poking you in the butt when you’re doing your business? I know when I look for places to go, finding a clear place is certainly a preference.
As I traversed the trail, it continued to climb. There would be moments of descent, but mostly, up, up, up. My leg was screaming at me. The trail had also not been groomed in a long time. Downed logs crossed and criss-crossed many places. I had climbed over and under several logs the day before, but in just a couple of miles I had to clamber over log after log. Each time my leg let me know that it was not impressed. Finally, after a long uphill stretch, the trail angle increased dramatically again, reminiscent of the steep trail the day before. Pain stabbed my leg so sharply it took my breath away. At the top of the rise, I had to stop. I had wrapped my leg just below the knee in tape before leaving camp, hoping to provide some support, but the tape was doing nothing. I sat on a downed log and examined my map closely. There were a couple of shortcuts that would take the length of the trip down to about 36 miles instead of 40, but nothing eased the elevation gain. I had not seen a single other person on this journey. I hadn’t even seen evidence of any other hikers out there.
Several years ago while visiting a friend in Coos Bay, I suffered a severe sprain in my ankle while running. The ligament detached from the bone. The excruciating pain stopped me cold. I could not move. Hopping–or attempting to do so–hurt so badly that I nearly vomited. I sat and called out, trying to get someone’s attention to rescue me and take me back to my friend’s house, which finally happened, but I was in the suburbs of a small town.
This episode came to me sitting there on the side of a mountain all alone, at least 12 miles from the trailhead. I could continue, but what if the ligament on the inside of my leg detached from the bone the way the ligament in my ankle had? I don’t know enough about such things to ascertain whether this is possible. I just knew that if I became injured, the little whistle in my pack would be meaningless if there wasn’t anyone in the forest to hear it. I could be stranded for who knows how long.
My daughter has since informed me that even without a signal, a mobile phone can call 911. I had placed my phone on airplane mode in order to maintain battery so I could use it for the gps and camera. But I didn’t know it would work to call 911 when I was out of service range. Actually, I just did a little internet research and determined that 911 works when you don’t have mobile service, meaning you do not have carrier coverage. However, it does not work when you do not have a mobile signal, which means you’re out of range, so this wouldn’t have been an option anyway.
All of this goes to explain why I decided that I had to turn and head back to the trailhead. I was worried about that 700 foot downhill grade. I was even more worried about that damn log bridge. But neither were more scary than the prospect of injury alone in the forest.
I turned around reluctantly. I felt like a failure at first in doing so. Then I realized I hadn’t failed anything. In the end I hiked 24 miles alone carrying a 30 pound backpack. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Plus even though I was lonely, it was fun. I was enchanted with nature. The forest sleep was silent and dark, unlike living in the city where there is constant noise and light. I awakened once in the middle of the night in the forest because I needed to pee, but I fell right back asleep, something that rarely happens in my own bed.
I remembered the camp spots I had passed near the beginning while hiking the day before. I decided to camp at the one closest to the trailhead and then hike the remaining few miles the following morning. I figured I would arrive in mid-afternoon so I could explore a bit around the stream.
The walk back was amazingly easier than the walk in had been. I covered four more miles the second day than I did the first, and hiked nearly exactly the amount of time. Downhill is easier than uphill, obviously. The steep downhill walk was difficult, but nothing compared to the climb. My leg made not one whimper as long as the ground was level or going downhill. There were places where I had to climb, but not enough to cause me any real discomfort.
I kept my pockets stocked with nuts and dried fruit and nibbled along the way. I made it back to the lake rather quickly, considering. I thought about camping there, but it was still rather early, so decided to maintain my plan of taking the campsite closest to the trailhead. I observed the differences in the vegetation as the elevation changed. I took lots of photos, including one of two banana slugs mating. During the entire return trek, I noticed many banana slugs. I think the cooler temperatures brought them out into the open. The day before I had noticed that many of the trees had black spots on them that did not look healthy. I took photos of these as well so I could ask one of my fellow master gardeners what the blight might be.
Throughout these observations I mulled over the relationship. I kept trying to talk myself out of my feelings. I thought going to the woods would expunge my desire. I thought clarity would meaning getting over my feelings. Instead quite the opposite occurred. It was as if left alone with my thoughts and no distractions my heart could fantasize to its complete content. As I walked through the forest observing trees and slugs I would devise a story then spend twenty minutes talking myself out of it. I observed this as it was going on. In a way the observation allowed me to keep some distance from it. I narrated in my head what I wanted to transcribe into my journal. My thoughts go here, and then they go there. Well now. Isn’t that interesting?
I reached the log bridge back across Separation Creek in very early afternoon. I stopped and took off my pack before crossing, shuffling some heavier items to the bottom and pulling out some snacks for my pockets. I then pulled the pack back on, picked up my stick, and crossed the bridge with nary a pause, one foot in front of the other. For some reason it just wasn’t as scary. I don’t know if crossing before conquered the fear, but the trip back didn’t bother me and I crossed quickly. Once on the other side I looked back across the bridge, stopping to take a video, pleased with myself.
The map that came with my guidebook left a lot to be desired as well, even more so than the description of the hike that went with it. I remembered one of the campgrounds clearly, but the other one not so much. It said the campsites were .8 of a mile apart. I figured this would be about 15-20 minutes of walking between the two. I set out. Eventually I came to what I thought was the campsite closest to the bridge. I had been walking for quite a while, longer it seemed than it had been between the site and the bridge on the way there. I chalked it up to the slight elevation gain on this side of the creek.
Less than ten minutes later I came to what may have been a campsite, but there was no fire pit and not much room for a tent. Plus it could not have been .8 of a mile. It came up too fast, and the trail had been slightly uphill. I presumed this could not be the second campsite and kept going. And going. And going.
I never found the second campsite. Reading backwards through the description of this part of the trail and comparing it to the really terrible map, I must have passed the first campsite without knowing it, and the one I passed up thinking it was the first had to have been the second. The clear place that looked campable could not have been a campsite because of its size and lack of a fire pit.
Once I made these realizations, I simultaneously realized that I would just have to keep going and head home that same night. I was not thrilled by this. Part of the reason for the length of the trip was to give man some time to think about things without me around. I had been fighting fantasies all day. I wanted to give him a chance away and see whether he missed me at all. Two days simply wasn’t enough time. Looking back I realize I could have just headed home and not called him for another day or two, but at the time this didn’t occur to me. Dumb, much? Maybe. But it didn’t. I decided I would call him when I got back to Portland. The drive would be three and half hours. It would be around 9, but he would be awake.
I kept walking and walking. In the end I hiked 14 miles the second day. The 10 miles hiked the first were more taxing because they had been all uphill, but I was still very tired and glad to reach my car. During the planning of the trip I had briefly considered bringing my Dachshund with me. I remembered this as I changed out of my filthy hiking pants, sweaty shirt and underwear, and exchanged my boots for sandals. Poor little George’s short little legs would not have been able to handle this trip, I was sure of it. It would have been nice to have had the company, but I doubt he would have made it through the first day, let alone the return and the return at the pace I made.
Later that night back in my cozy bed, it felt weird to be home. I had only been in the woods for two full days, yet I felt altered somehow. I went in with some expectation about what clarity I would gain. In the end the trail showed me how foolish my “knowing” really was. I realize now that I did get some clarity, it just wasn’t what I thought I would be clear about. I presumed I would love the solitude. Instead I came back wanting company even more than before. I have been able to accomplish a lot in my life by myself. For me, doing something alone isn’t really a big deal. What would be different is getting to share life’s adventures with others.
Milla wants to go out with me for the next backpacking trip. When Isabel gets bigger, maybe she will want to go too. What is clear to me now is that I want them there with me, enjoying the forest, the slugs, the poop, the lakes, the trees, the boulders, the streams, the elevation gains that make me scream. All of it. I didn’t feel loneliness in the woods; I felt alone. But I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to share that time and space with others.
I am clear about this: Companionship makes adventures more adventuresome. Sharing life with others makes it more worthwhile. Companionship is what I truly desire. My feet wonder why it took me 24 miles to figure that out, but sometimes that’s just how life is.