Suiattle Log

Karen Roper                                          

John has his version of climbing Grassy Point. I have mine. Though it occurred more than 16 years ago, some parts of the trip are etched in my memory forever; some I'd just as soon forget.

On August 26, 1988 , John and I got to bed late, with me in limbo wondering where our 3-year relationship was headed. I wasn't in on John's plan.

The morning of August 27 dawned breath-takingly beautiful, destined to be a scorcher, at least we assume that it did, since by the time we drug ourselves out of bed it was well on its way. John was on a quest to pick off every named peak (as well as those that weren't named) in the Skagit drainage. I was just along for the hike.

With our late start, it was already warming up as we walked across the Suiattle River on a wide bridge near road's end. A pale lavender-blue butterfly that perched on my shoulder seemed a good omen for things to come. I hoped so. I don't like hiking in the heat, the trail promised few spots of shade or water, and we weren't carrying enough fluid with us. It took me years to learn that, if I wanted to hike with John, I needed to bring at least twice the water he recommended.

The trail stays flat for a long while - maybe a mile or two - then begins to switchback its way up for some few thousand feet. As we began to climb, I paused to put on shorts and a halter, which, contrary to popular climbers' beliefs, substantially reduces my susceptibility to sunstroke. Unfortunately, shorts and halter provide no protection from the swarms of deer flies that accompanied us, and the nasty little biters love me. We only walked a few feet before I knew I wouldn't survive. In my pack I carried only loose, cotton pants - suitable protection for my lower half - and a polypro turtleneck and sweater - impossible in the heat. I put on the pants and concentrated on murdering as many of the creatures that plagued me as I could. Each slap took out 7 or more. It wasn't enough, but it helped, if only through the psychology of revenge.

We slogged through the heat and flies for what seemed like miles and miles, me in abject misery thinking it would never end. John tried to be encouraging - but, as everyone knows, he sometimes stretches the truth. He kept saying we were nearly there. How can "nearly" last so long?

But, eventually, we could see the slope flattening out. Bright-colored fabric hanging in the trees above became a beacon signaling a plateau. The fabric appeared larger and larger as we neared, and we began to wonder what it could be. Oh . . . parachutes. Then, we saw the smoke. Gaining the ridge, we could see spot fires . . .and fire fighters. One of them apologized for "ruining our wilderness experience." I was ready to turn back, but John shrugged it off and pushed on. He had a plan, after all. Watching the huge bucket of water flown in by helicopter emptied over errant flames was fascinating.

Beyond the ridge, in full view of the glacier, the temperature dropped and the flies thinned. John had a particular campsite in mind where we headed. Unfortunately, it was taken. We selected another site in the smoky breeze, and made camp. I relaxed. I had survived. I thought the worst was over. I was wrong.

John lit his camp stove and started dinner. Dinner with John in the mountains is never gourmet, but it does the job . . .at least usually. This time, about half way through boiling our mixture of Top Ramen flavored with some kind of soup (split pea?), the gasket on his stove blew, shooting flames in the air. Dinner was crunchy and barely edible. Breakfast was to be oatmeal. We added the water then let it soak over night. I went to bed, ready for this day to be over.

But John had plans. Unfortunately, the moon took its time in cooperating. Finally, close to midnight, the full moon lit the icy cirque above us. John dragged me out of my sleeping bag, insisting I take in this spectacular sight. I wasn't interested. He insisted. Finally, though somewhat cranky and tired, I stepped back into my boots, crawled from the tent, and admired the view. He proposed. I transferred my gaze to him. I said "yes," then went back to bed. I may have been surprised, but I wasn't about to let him off the hook after three years together. And it was a pretty romantic setting.

The next day looked better. The smoke had dissipated, the day seemed cooler, the flies were nowhere in sight. We packed up, after sucking down our soggy, cold oatmeal, and headed toward Grassy Point. A short time later, John mentioned he had an ancillary goal - Is anyone who knows him surprised? - that he'd neglected to mention earlier. I could either come with him, or hang out in the meadow. I chose the meadow, and laid back watching and listening to the marmots at play. Two hours or so later, he returned successful and ready to go on.

The final goal was in sight . . .or so I thought. We went up. The sun moved high. We went down. It was getting hot. We went up. The flies were back. We went down. I was volubly complaining. We went up. . . I don't remember how many ups and downs we made. John had sworn it was just another thousand feet of elevation. He didn't mention we'd have to repeat it several times. I was not a happy camper. I was sick of this whole trip. Finally we reached the point. I didn't care.

Then, he gave me a choice. We could either go down (and up, and down, and up, and down, and up, and down. . .) the way we came, or we could drop off the side - "Here, look at the map." - and head straight for the Suiattle River . It seemed like a no brainer. No truer words were ever spoken. I must have had no brain to accept that alternative.

Down, down, down we dropped nearly 4,500 feet down an evergreen- and tree needle-covered cliff, my soft trail boots sliding all the way. (John's much heftier climbing boots dug in.) Luckily there were so many trees to slam into that I never got out of control. Unfortunately, the trees were hard and rough, and my bruising and jarring were significant.

I was tired. I was cranky. I was unhappy. I was whining. I needed a break.

My husband-to-be was nowhere to be seen, but a barely audible response to my "hoot" came through. He - reluctantly - agreed to wait for me. I found him 20 minutes later resting on a log. I dropped down next to him and immediately jumped back up screaming. He looked totally disgusted. "What?!!" was his sympathetic query.

"I got stung," I yelled.

He rolled his eyes in disbelief.

A minute later he saw the swelling on my arm and had the grace to admit it did, in fact, look like a yellow jacket sting. ("Thanks for your confirmation, honey.")

After another 5 minutes he looked at me expectantly. "Are you ready?" he demanded.

The argument doesn't bear repeating. At least that gained me another few minutes of immobility. But, all good things must end.

We continued on down the slope, with him again leaving me far behind, and finally came to a wide swath of devil's club, indicating the river's presence. devil's club was nothing at this point, and we gamely batted our way through to our first look at the river.

Oh. My. God. How did that little creek become such a raging torrent? And, how are we ever going to cross it?

The Suiattle, fed by melting glaciers in the August heat, had easily risen 2 to 3 feet. It roared passed us without sympathy. Not a single log or gravel bar (or even a rope swing, for God's sake) offered any encouragement. To our left, downstream, the way we needed to go, our way was blocked by a 200-foot cliff. Upstream, devil's club grew as far as our eyes could see. Since I was too exhausted to even look at the cliff, we chose the devil's club and prayed for a well-placed log. Half a mile later, there was none, and the day was getting late.

John, the king of chivalry, made this offer: "I have to go out tonight. People will worry if we don't come out and I have a full slate of patients tomorrow. I'll help you set up the tent and leave you our food (about a tablespoon of stale peanuts and a cube of sun-baked cheese), then I'll go on out, call my folks and let them know we're okay, and go to work tomorrow. By then it will be too late to come back that day, but I have the next day off and then I can come back to get you."

Leave me two nights in the woods without so much as a trashy novel? Not a chance.

I followed him up the cliff, the whole time listening to his arguments in favor of his plan. On the other side we could see a gravel bar, but still no log. His arguments grew more forceful.

It was a brush bash between us and the bridge, about 3 miles downstream. We were rapidly losing light, I was tired, and he knew I'd never make it.

Lips compressed, teeth grinding, I continued to walk. As he argued and I walked, we came upon a 100-foot log, extending all the way across the river. It wasn't a perfect log. It could have been bigger around. It might not have had such loose bark. And it really would have been better if the water weren't splashing up on it so much. But, it was a log, and I fully intended to cross it.

John can walk across anything. He went first. I've always suspected that if I hadn't followed he would have kept going. But, he encouraged me to sit on my bottom and scoot across, or crawl on my knees, and he'd come back for my pack. I flashed him one look of loathing and started walking.

Anger is a wonderful thing. I had no doubt. I had no fear. Anger filled every part of my being and I walked solidly across the log above raging waters. In the middle of the crossing, I looked up and stated, "I'm still going to marry you, but I will NEVER hike with you again." He snapped my picture. That photo - now framed on our wall - won a first-place award from the Boeing Alpine Society. I completed the crossing and made it to the trail on the other side as darkness fell.

We made it to the car in another hour and headed for home.

Yes, I still married him, and, believe it or not, I'm not sorry.

Occasionally, I still hike with him, but only with plenty of witnesses.

(I may love him, but I'm not a masochist.)

And, I do love you, John. Truly.

Happy Birthday.