Thursday, October 22, 2020

North Umpqua Trail (Dread and Terror Segment)

The trail had been etched into rocky cliffs above the river but here, the trail was soft soil and mud, and was badly eroded. The tread was narrow in width and inconveniently sloped off-camber toward the downhill side. More deer track than trail, the path was moist, muddy, and slippery as it rounded a cliff face, and there was not a lot of room for error. About fifteen feet below the precarious path, the North Umpqua River flowed, the waters deep and dark and only too willing to accept any hikers falling into its watery black embrace.

Boots (and feet contained within) got wet wading across creeks

Basically, the preferred mode of getting around this danger spot was to lean into the cliff, brace with the cliff-side arm for balance, and then step across as far as possible. When it was my turn, I stretched my leg across the worst of the faint trail and then transferred weight from the back foot to the front foot. Uh-oh, my front foot did not get traction and began sliding down to the river. No problem, I turned into the cliff and grabbed hold for a steadying purchase. Uh-oh again, for the cliff was mostly mud and instead of clinging to temporary safety, my front foot continued its slide and now both hands contained a fistful of soil and were not attached to anything solid other than my arms. Ok Richard, this is the appropriate time to panic, so I did my best desperate Wiley E. Coyote impression. You know the one where he is temporarily running in mid-air before falling off a cliff? That was me, right then! But somehow, I got just enough traction from my two frantically flailing feet to flop across to the accompaniment of Patti making some kind of squeaking inhaling noise like a mouse with whooping cough. Horrified, she had witnessed the whole episode. How's that for experiencing some actual dread and terror on the Dread and Terror Segment of the North Umpqua Trail?

The always graceful and delicate Columnar Falls

My near-catastrophe notwithstanding, the Dread and Terror is mostly benign and is one of the prettier sections of the North Umpqua Trail. Beginning at the Umpqua Hot Springs trailhead as we did, the first mile or so was all about the numerous springs and creeks gushing up and out of the earth, flowing over and onto the trail. After crossing Loafer Creek (which was NOT named after me no matter what Mrs. O'Neill says) we came across ethereally graceful Columnar Falls. More seep than actual waterfall on a cliff face comprised of basaltic pillars long since mossed over, the constant moisture sustains a lacy set of trickles that make the falls a very special place, indeed. 

The cliffs leaked water throughout the hike

Still within a mile of the trailhead, we ran into a couple of surprises in the form of Surprise Falls and Surprise Creek, both so named because, unannounced and fully formed, they jump right out of the ferny earth next to the trail, figuratively shouting "Surprise!" as they do so. There were also many other springs and seeps small enough to remain nameless as they toil in anonymity for all of perpetuity. They do a fine job too, as evidenced by the constant moisture, moss, and ferns growing on and all around the trail.

Water running on the trail was a thing

The route was a basic study in alternates, for the trail would amble through a lush and mossy forest next to the North Umpqua River and then clamber high up on a cliff-hugging overlook of the river coursing in the bottom of its canyon. Rinse and repeat for at least the next four miles, which was the extent of our venture. It's hard to get bored on this hike because the scenery varies frequently as the miles accrue. 

Either a mushroom or an alien pod baby's egg

Down in the forested sections, there was a burgeoning explosion of fungal growth. Seems like everything from dog vomit slime mold to coral fungus were busy consuming decaying logs and thick layers of forest duff. It was a veritable mycological rainbow with fungi of all color, sizes, shapes, and body types slowing down hikers with cameras. 

Puddle 1, Terry 0

At nearly the four mile mark, the trail went swampy as it traversed a boggy creek bottom. Boots and pants legs were soon wet and muddy, and hikers were mostly happy. I slipped into a knee-deep hole there too, but at least I was not the only hiker in our party to do so. Shortly afterward the seven of us plopped down on the forest floor to eat lunch and let wet pants legs dry out. And after our lunch 'n laze, we then headed back the way we had come. And I of course, still had that scary near-fall experience waiting for me.

The sunlight set the woods on figurative fire

On the return leg, the thin sun finally made it down to the forest floor, warming souls and hearts alike, illuminating the autumn leaves as if they had been plugged into a wall socket. It had been a cold day while hiking in the shadows and the fall colors had been rather muted until the sunlight hit. But with the sun now satisfying its contractual obligations, the vine maples were gloriously colorful and once again, those of us with cameras soon found ourselves lagging behind while other hikers simply enjoyed the soft golden glow underneath the trees.

The spot of my dread and terror

What really cheesed me about my near fall is that I had taken a photo of our little group making the step-over (completely, without incident too, I might add). Looking at the photo, it doesn't seem like it was all that dangerous but in this case, the photo lies, it really was more treacherous than an ex-spouse who also happens to be a pirate. But fortunately, all turned out well and let's not be repeating any more Surprise Falls (non-waterfall related context) again! 

Where light and dark meet

For more photos of this hike,
please visit the Flickr album.

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