By David (the turtle) Wilkes
Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.
W. C. Fields
On the edge of the Columbia River, in central Washington, is a fascinating landscape. Carved by floods of unimaginable proportions, one finds the dry remains of Ancient Lakes sitting in what were once the plunge pools of enormous but brief waterfalls. Standing below the sheer walls of basalt it is hard to comprehend what it must have been like when the Missoula Floods roared across the landscape carving out channels, in some places hundreds of feet deep, in the basalt that covers most of central Washington State. At the base of these dry falls, fed by small streams lies the small lakes named Ancient and Dusty Lakes.
After a long winter and a cold wet spring I was itching to get out on the trail. So with the excuse of having some gear to review, and despite having a tight schedule, I headed out. The plan was to hike the 3 miles into Dusty Lake late on Friday, spend Saturday hiking and exploring, then hike back out Sunday morning in time to pack and head across the mountains (3hrs drive) to start work on a major project by 8PM. Yeah, a recipe for disaster…but I needed to recharge my batteries after a few difficult weeks at work, and in preparation for what I knew was going to be another long and difficult week.
So I get off work a bit early, load up my gear, and head to the trailhead. On a whim, I thought it might be nice to have a few sips of something in the evenings so I picked up a small bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. At the trailhead, the day was warm and clear, one of the few nice days so far this year, and the hike into the lake was mostly uneventful. The terrain was easy to walk, with most of the trail following old jeep roads. Along the way I spotted one small rattlesnake in the shade of a large sage bush right on the edge of the trail, so when I met up with a couple of folks with a dog, I warned them they should probably keep the dog close as they pass that area. Upon reaching the lake, I found there did not look to be many good campsites. I found a nice spot near a few tents and hung around till the owners returned and asked if they minded if I camp near them. They said they were OK with it, but that they were expecting a few more people and they might get rowdy. I said I did not mind and set up my camp. As it turned out, I was more tired than I thought and ended up falling asleep rather early, completely missing any roudyness that may have occurred, but not before I discovered a good size rattlesnake not far from our camp area.
I got up late the next day, chatted with the guys in the adjacent camp (mentioning the snake I saw) and headed out for a day of hiking. My only footwear for the trip was my Vibrum Five Fingers Sprint shoes and I was wearing shorts. With a light pack (the Platypus Origin 9 that I was reviewing), minimal gear, and my MP3 player, I was off for a day of easy but fast-paced hiking (about an 8-mile loop down to the Columbia River and back). This trail was much narrower than what I had been on the previous day and in some places partially overgrown. The day was cooler and slightly overcast, combined with the cold nights it was ideal conditions to encounter rattlesnakes out during the day. It was not long after leaving camp that I decided the MP3 player was probably not such a good idea, so I put it away (probably the only smart thing I did the entire trip). Before long, I encountered my first snake of the day…by almost stepping on it. I was glad I was not wearing my headphones as my first indication was the rattling next to my foot. During the day I encountered many more snakes, most by almost stepping on them. One particular snake refused to get out of the trail until I prodded it with my trekking pole, and even then it simply coiled up under a sage bush directly adjacent to the trail and started rattling, forcing me to bushwhack around it (praying there were no other snakes in the low growth I was walking through, and contemplating the irony of getting bit by an unknown snake while avoiding a known one). The day remained cool and overcast with a few light showers, quite pleasant for hiking, and despite the snakes was enjoying myself immensely. About 2 miles from camp, the trail I was on reconnected with the old jeep road I had hiked the day before. Energized by a day of easy hiking, and relieved by the relatively (but false) safety of a more open trail, I decided to run the rest of the way back to camp…but it was not to be. Within about a half a mile I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and looked just in time to see a snake shoot out of the brush and narrowly miss my leg. I let out a few choice words that I can’t print here and decided maybe running in these conditions was another bad idea.
I returned to camp to find a few kids who were searching the area for snakes, spiders, and scorpions (all of which they found in abundance). Not long after I got there, they turned over one of the rocks only yards from my tent and discovered a small rattlesnake! They were nice enough to capture it and move it quite a distance from our camp.
That evening after dinner, I went over to chat with the guys in the adjacent camp. They were drinking and playing a game that one of them invented, and invited me to join them. One thing lead to another and the next thing I know my whisky is gone and I find I am drinking some vodka they poured for me. I have no idea what time we finally turned in for the night, but I am sure it was quite late, and I was feeling no pain.
I awoke late the next morning, and knew the previous night was a bad idea, but had no idea how bad yet. My tent was like an oven in the morning sun, and I was lying in a pool of sweat with a pounding headache and the earth spinning around me. Picture the scene from Wizard of Oz, of Dorothy in her bed with her house spinning in the tornado, only I was in a tent…and not wearing a gingham dress. I finally managed to drag myself out of the tent around 9am and it took the better part of two hours to eat a small energy bar and pack my gear. Just about the time I had all my gear packed I lost my breakfast and immediately felt better. I put my pack on, and headed up the trail. I don’t think I have ever moved that slow in my life. If you have never experienced it, I can tell you that backpacking through desert terrain in the hot sun with a hangover is a kind of Hell that I don’t think even Dante could imagine. I had to stop every 20 yards or so, sitting down when I could. Shade was out of the question and I found it difficult to even find places suitable to sit down so did most of my rest stops on my feet. If you have never tried to puke while wearing a 25lb pack at the same time as trying to avoid being bitten by snakes, I can assure you, it is an experience you do not want. About half the way back to the trailhead, I took the final few sips out of my water…oops! In my condition, I had totally forgotten to refill my water. Since I had time constraints, going back to the lake to refill my water was out of the question. The heat, my condition, and vomiting had me quite dehydrated and there was no water between my vehicle and me. Ugh! Needless to say I was severely berating myself for making such poor decisions. The one saving grace was that I managed to encounter only one small group of folks on the trail, and so mostly spared the embarrassment of my predicament.
I ended up not reaching the trailhead till about 3pm. I had planned to be back at my vehicle by no later than 10am! I had about one and a half hour drive to get home, but stopped along the way to pick up a cold drink, and then stopped again when it came back up. I got home, jumped in a cold shower, swapped my backpacking gear for my suitcase, then off for my 3 hr drive and a full night of work (ended up working till 3am) arriving only an hour later than originally planned. Work that night was tough, and the difficult day I had made it even harder. I was able to accomplish the work I had planned and then went to my hotel for some much needed sleep.
The lessons in this are rather obvious, in fact should be common sense, but sometimes I guess I need to learn things the hard way. While I love hiking in my Five Fingers, I will think twice next time the conditions are ripe for snake encounters. I don’t know what I would have done had I not had my trekking poles. They helped beat the bushes and clear the snakes from my path. Not to mention how much I needed the extra stability on the hike out. And as for drinking on the trail…It was never something I was fond of, if there is a time when I want a clear head it is when driving and when on the trail, so I don’t expect to experience that again…EVER!
If you enjoyed this I invite you to read my 3 part Misadventures of Dave series…