Thursday, June 12, 2014

My first trip to Coffee Rock.

Coffee Rock
(Named by Josh Simons after he prepared and drank a cup on top of it.)

Labor Day Monday, around 1996.

I had been hiking in the Valley for a few years, and was learning my way around.  That was a lot different in those days!  Carlton McNeill had been hard at work surreptitiously “clipping out” new paths and keeping existing ones open, so there were at least as many trails as now.  But the Forest Service was not active at all in the Valley.  There were no trail markers or blazes. When I first started exploring there were no trail guides available. It was a real adventure in wilderness route finding!

 I'd been to all the major clifftops, most of Greenland Creek, Wilderness & Frolictown falls, and was working my way down the Tuck a section at a time. I had learned my way from Warden's Falls to Riding Ford.

Warden's Falls

I was ready to go farther downriver with the ultimate objective of getting to Devil's Elbow.  It was obvious from the contour lines on my Topo map that it was where the action was!

On this trip I was exploring the last of the little side trails running from Devil's Elbow Trail to the river before the main trail climbs up the ridge away from the water.
The trail goes to Elbow Falls, which is a small drop but has a strange feeling of power.  From there on down you are entering the mouth of the gorge and it feels like wilderness!

I found a trail that goes downriver from there, Rich Stevenson describes it and that section of river in his website trail guide at:

At that time the trail was narrow and faint, but not too hard to follow if you paid attention.  It soon climbs up the ridge away from the river and runs parallel for about a half mile.  Then it goes back to the river in the Red Butt Falls area.
From there I explored on downriver into the area around Coffee Rock .  I was trying to find a trail heading from there towards Devil's Elbow, but there was none.  I wasn't ready to start wading at that point, so I turned around.  

Looking back upriver at Coffee Rock

I headed back upriver, looking for that little trail. It was at this point I realized I had committed a serious newbie blunder - when I came down off that trail I didn't pay good attention to where I was. I didn't place it with landmarks or stick arrows or nuthin. Now I couldn't find it!   I'd go upriver til I ran into the briar-patch that covered the riverbank. I'd head back downstream but couldn't see where the trail went up the ridge. I did circles through the woods with no success, and the terrain is too steep to navigate very far. After 15 minutes of this I gave up. I may have cussed a couple of times, and felt pretty foolish.  I wasn't lost, since I was on the river, but I was seriously inconvenienced!

I finally said “Oh well” and started upriver.  I soon realized why the trail had not followed the riverbank.  That may be the healthiest patch of scrub and saw-briars I ever encountered!  I was wearing shorts & t-shirt, and was getting slashed. Every step was painful.  I finally got stopped by a dead-fall tree and had to get in the river and start wading in my hiking boots. 
Rich Stevenson mentions this section of river in his account: “ I rock hopped and waded down one time. The river is very scenic, but there are deep pools to maneuver around.”
That sounds a bit under-stated compared to my experience!

Even though I spent a lot of time in wilderness areas I didn't feel very sure-footed on those wet rocks in fast flowing water. I felt in real danger of a broken ankle or something worse, and was very aware what my situation would be then.  Alone, way off a barely known trail, and no one knowing my location any closer than  “in Panthertown”.  Didn't even own a cell phone.   I could have been there a long time!  You might say I was scared, I prefer to call it being a little concerned.

When the river got too treacherous I climbed out into the briar-patch again. Until it became impassable and I got back in the river. I probably did 3 or 4 repetitions of that cycle. 
(Another complication of wading in deep water was my oversize camera case full of all my 35mm gear.  I went shopping for a smaller case the next week!)

I think that when I finally rejoined the trail at Elbow Falls it was one of the happier moments of my life. I hiked back out to my old '76 Ford Bronco in my soggy boots with arms & legs bleeding and a smile on my face!

Of course I had to go back on my next trip, paying closer attention.  Then I couldn't believe how obvious that trail was to find!

If there is a moral to this tale it would be: “”Pay attention!”  Especially when you think you know what you're doing.  Don't let your enjoyment of wilderness make you lose your respect for it. Or it will bite you!

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