Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Stuck in Bald Rock Canyon

Whatever pushed Cato to the sword and Ishmael to the sea drove me to throw a new backpack and well-used fishing pole into the side seat of my truck and head by myself to Bald Rock Canyon, a deep granite canyon gorge on the Middle Fork of the Feather River. By the end of the day I'd be crawling from the canyon in little more than my underwear, bleeding and cold, with a granola bar in my stomach, but at 4:30 a.m. all I could hear was the air whispering something about love, peace and elephantine trout. My vehicle, fueled by thousands of dollars of TLC I had recently put into it, ran great.

I headed straight for Feather Falls on the Fall River, from which I planned to hike down a canyon to the Middle Fork. No cars blocked my way. Towns glowed in the steady green of overhead stoplights.

My plan was to drop down the gully by the overlook to Feather Falls, meet the Feather River, and fish three miles up to the Dome trail. From there, I would hike out and hitchhike back to the car or simply backtrack, depending on the things that sort of thing depends on.

I grabbed the REI pack from the back of the truck and packed it with an armful of goodies. I put some goggles in one hip
pocket and a headlamp in the other. The hard case inside the pack was a perfect spot to stash the Clif Bars and 30-cent chocolate pies from Albertson’s. I slid my car keys under the liner in the bed of the truck and took off.

Getting down the gully wasn't fun and I decided right away to leave the canyon on the Dome trail. I started fishing and caught two big rainbows, one about 16 inches. The fishing only got better from there. By the afternoon, when I got to the area of the trail, I had a few fish over 14 inches in my backpack, the cream of a 45-trout crop. I just couldn't tell how to climb past the last couple pools.

I had swum up three long pools in a row and was anxious to stay out of the water now that the sun had left so I started climbing up the walls at the water's edge. It worked several times before, when brief climbs had ended in easily navigable shelves high above the river, but in that area, I never found such relief. I climbed up nearly 400 feet before dislodging a dead tree that made climbing back down harder. Then it got worse.

I started making heinous traverse moves across blank rock. I was in the middle of one such move, a slippery climb up crumbling rock when, in a Pilgrim's Progress moment, I decided to throw my backpack - pole, shirt, hat and all - off the cliff. It bounced twice before crashing into the river. I never saw it again.

I spent the next two and a half hours climbing back and forth looking for a way down. My fear became so intense that it eventually stopped altogether. It was only with a remote, disconnected reasoning that I chose to claw my way around certain things and not others. I remember at one point considering a jump onto a protruding manzanita bush on the wall 10 feet below me. I was on the verge of doing it when I stopped and thought, "This could be the last decision of my life." I kept climbing.

I was close to 800 feet off the ground when I finally found a gully that led toward the river. I had to climb out on a loose 5.7 finger crack in my wet tennis shoes to get to it, but it worked, after a slip and a lunge. The gully emptied out directly across from the Dome trail.

I was scratched from head to toe from the bushes I had hugged on the wall, my shorts were torn in shreds and I had been saving all my food for the hike out and now had nothing - but the energy of being on safe ground was electrifying. I had to hike out five miles and convince someone to give my half-clad self a ride, but it didn't matter. It was like being in love - not with a person but with the whole world, everybody, every tree, every leaf, every memory, every thought. I felt redeemed.

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