I’ve written a screenplay called My Sister is a Reptilian Shape-Shifter and a young adult novel where the prodigy young female protagonist can see the world through the eyes of a pair of California Condor chicks, so just imagine what my fantasy play was like growing up.
Now realize that while my body slowly surrenders to time, my imagination refuses. I live in a world of child-like wonder. Since my countless years as a journalist required an endless devotion to research and reality, I eliminate both as much as possible from my personal life. To summarize, I hate spoilers and love surprises.
So many of my adventures unfold as epic tales of uncharted lands when, in reality, I’m just ignoring any others who have previously pedaled these paths less taken. Every now and then, however, I do stumble upon a gem hidden to many. Such was the case last summer, when my wife surprised me by letting down her previously heavily-guarded refusal to take any chances in the vast outdoors known as the Pacific Northwest.
Maybe the seed survived from the previous year when, in a moment of desperation, she agreed to a 15-mile detour down a gravel road to a remote campground where our lives did not end with being eaten alive or our travel trailer hopelessly stuck on a mountainside.
Whatever the case, my spirits soared when she suggested we head down Twisp River Road in Washington’s Methow Valley — the same road she had nixed time and again in the previous three trips there. The catch was she was looking on a map, not at the road sign in downtown Twisp.
We took the leap primarily because our first choice, Loup Loup Campground, was closed for the summer for repairs and the sun was well on its way to the horizon when we learned that info.
I’ll save the true horrors of that evening for another day, this being a tale more focused on my apparent penchant to live and breathe the phrase I first heard from Darrell Waltrip on a NASCAR broadcast, “He don’t know what he don’t know.”
That could aptly apply to the Twisp River Trail, which on the map looks like a splendid mountain-bike trail. I jumped on the trail just outside War Creek Campground (the appropriately named site where the previously mentioned horror took place the night before).
The trail began with sweet single track on packed dirt covered in fir needles as it gently began to climb. Eventually the ascent steepens and the trail becomes more rocky. A couple sweet creek crossings without real bridges enhance the rugged, pioneering feel. Judging by our limited map, it would appear I had options for a relatively easy ride up to the next campground up the road, or even a longer stint to second camp. In either case, I had the day to myself. I’d chug up as far as I would like, and return via the gravel roadway, back down to War Creek.
At Slate Creek there are no trail signs, but the trail heads up or down. I assumed down would reconnect to the Twisp River Trail, and up would be the Slate Creek Trail (which appeared to be the case on the map). But down was just a short jaunt to the Slate Creek parking area, so I had to pound my way back up to eventually find the Twist River Trail again a quarter mile up.
I paused to catch my breath and note that I’d rate this trail an A so far. I found myself enjoying the pace of it so much that just before Slate Creek I heard a somewhat deep-throated WOOT! just off to my right. It sounded like, well, maybe a grouse on steroids. I’ve heard countless grouse grunting in the woods and, yes, some of them were of the more guttural hair-raising level of this one. It reminded me of a moment when a large buck barked at me at a campsite in the Grand Canyon when I’d ventured too close for video, even though this was a ‘woot’ and clearly not a bark.
For a few seconds I debated in my mind whether to stop and investigate — always hoping for some wildlife viewing to learn more my woodland friends — also somewhat perplexed by the sound. But I cruised along on a level section with some speed and rhythm that I seldom find in the woods, so I nixed breaking my form.
Not long after Slate Creek I realized that not many venture this section. More rocks littered the trail and eventually the overgrown brush simply swallowed the path whole, to the point where I couldn’t see any potential hazards, be that a pothole, rock or animal lurking nearby. Forced to walk some sections, I lost my rhythm. With the brush closing in, the conditions continued to deteriorate, branches grabbing at my derailleur and spokes.
My best guesstimate from the map showed the next campground closer than a return to Slate Creek, so I forged on. Walking a little, riding a pinch when the brush opened up, and all along, more than occasionally in the vast brush, shouting “Hey Bear!” A few years earlier I had ridden in a nearby section of the Methow Valley with Michael “Bird” Shaffer, renowned speed skier, for a feature I wrote. It was my first time riding with someone who spent most of the ride shouting, “Hey Bear!” in heavy brush.
After 45 minutes of this trail increasingly becoming the bane of my existence, the brush lightened up a bit. I hopped back on and trudged forward. Soon the overgrowth smothered in and just as I decided to dismount my front tire plowed into a huge rock and catapulted me down the mountainside into the bramble. I landed on my left elbow and side about 15 feet down on about a 75–80-degree incline in thick brush. Just before I began sliding down the hill further, I managed to swing my right arm back and grab a thick branch that saved me the long skid down.
Taking inventory, I realized the divot in my elbow was the major blow, so grabbing branches, I hoisted myself up to my bike and then eventually the trail. Enough riding for now.
I hiked about a half-hour and finally came upon a connector trail to a campground. In a nanosecond I realized the descent was beyond my bike handling skills, injured or not, so I walked down and eventually got to the road. Across was Poplar Flat Campground, the second camp up the road. Apparently, the connector trail to the first campground that I saw on my map did not exist.
A trickle of water from the spout there cleaned my wounds. The message board said the dumpster had been moved to War Creek. Poplar Flat looked like a great place, with a campsite right along the river. I reserved the site, hopped on my bike, and rolled back down and up the road.
The next morning, I took my golden lab Summer out for a walk. We headed out to the road and wandered up a little looking for some trail on our campground/river side, as opposed to the opposite side that held the Twisp River Trail above. On our return a sign on a tree caught my eye. It wasn’t facing the road, but rather up toward the Twisp River Trail. We walked 20 feet into the woods to investigate. As I stepped toward the tree noting a sign that simply said “98”, my foot broke a dead branch with a loud crack, and both my lab and I heard something scurry in the woods about 100 yards in.
It stopped at a large tree and then stood up on its hind legs, its massive arm grabbing a hold of the tree in the quintessential bear pose. I fumbled for my phone and snapped a pic. We paused with the three of us holding a stare down when suddenly it heaved out a deep WOOT! WOOT! WOOT!! The cheeks of its light brown face puffing out with each bark.
Every cell in my body leaped to attention, especially ones connected to a hair follicle. I could tell by the size of its head it was not a Black Bear. Judging by its size next to the tree, I could see it was much taller than my 5-10 frame. And yes, that’s the same WOOT! I heard on the trail the day before.
Summer and I slowly backed away and hit the road, still able to see it standing there watching our every move. Eventually it bent down on all fours and headed back into the woods. Shortly after returning to camp and downloading the story to Debbie, we heard shouts of “Hey BEAR!” in the woods, moving closer to us. Eventually a pack of five hikers appeared and walked through camp.
I asked if that was them shouting. Yes, they said, not expanding. Are you just hiking? No. We work for the Forest Service. We’re chasing bears away from the camp. Yeah, I said, I saw that one this morning. Which one? The big, light brown one. Oh, they said, the Cinnamon Bear. That’s who we just chased away. He’s been hanging around the campground, but he runs away. There’s also a sow with two cubs around. She holds her ground.
When we eventually returned to civilization, I spent an hour or two scanning the Internet in search of the noises bears make. Nowhere could I find any recording of barking or WOOT! I’m not really sure why.
But now I know what I know. And you do, too.
Time to ride.