About three years ago, I went to the Eagle Creek Recreation Area on a misty-rainy day in late fall. I remembered it as a a nice place for a hike. The trail winds along the cliff sides, the river pours noisily over rocks and falls below, and rain drips from the oaks and firs that line the trail. It was not a life-threatening experience, merely a pleasant one.
Add ice and frigid temperatures and the whole thing becomes a lot more serious. Sam and I drove up the gorge in high, car-shaking winds, hoping for a nice hike on a sunny afternoon. Within fifty yards of striking down the trail, Sam almost lost his footing on the frost-hard ground in a cartoonish, leg-kicking way, the trail turned to a sheet of ice, and then we reached a section that consisted entirely of icicles that had plummeted from the rock walls above, crystals and prisms and glass beads crunching under our feet. A couple passed us from the other way. “It just gets worse,” they said in the joyfully doleful way of Oregonians facing inclement situations. We could have turned around but it didn’t feel like an option. Instead we developed strategies for coping with the ice and continued on.
The most obvious method for avoiding death was to cling to the cliff face rather than the drop-off to the river below, the other, baby steps, flat-footed steps, timorous placement of one foot before the other. My Redwing crepe soles proved ideal for ice, while Sam’s slick hiking boots forced him to do the crabwalk at regular intervals. A portion of the trail is so narrow, the drop-off so murderous, that a cable has been thoughtfully placed for the nervous or less sure-footed. We clung to it, making our way along an ice-covered path, hoping none of the large and pointy icicles hanging above wouldn’t suddenly dislodge and impale us. I put my hood on in preparation for the worst and the photo you see above was taken. We continued on to Lower Punch Bowl, following a side trail down to a deep glacial blue pool and short falls, where we reveled in the ice-slicked ferns, the frost-heave on the banks, the epic loneliness of the high cliffs on either side. From there we turned back in anticipation of the failing light rendering the trail into a real death trap and returned the way we had come. At times we would stop and throw rocks over the side, watching the path our bodies would take if we happened to go over the edge. It’s amazing that we enjoy things like this, the possibility of danger, finding that the natural beauty is somehow more special when there’s a chance you could die at any moment. Without this urge to lean out over the edge, I’m not sure the sports I enjoy, surfing, snowboarding, etc., would even exist.