I did all the things a smart solo hiker should do. I read the reviews. I had the trail map downloaded to my phone, fully charged. I logged my hike onto foursquare and facebook, so my loved ones would know where to find me.
Iller Creek/Big Rocks is a five mile loop, touted to be one of the best hikes in Spokane. Justice and I hit the trailhead right around three o’clock. Worst case, I should have completed the hike by six – well before dark. The weather was overcast and fifty degrees. I slung a light jacket over my long sleeves and headed out.
There was snow on the trail! What a wonderful surprise, with Iller Creek running along beside us. The center of the trail was pretty well-packed and slick as ice, so I tried to steer to either side in order to keep upright. I decided not to irk at what my floorboards would look like when I got back to the car. Eventually, snow covered the entire path.
I followed the trail map precisely… “Starting at the Holman Road trailhead, stay right following the west side of Iller Creek. You immediately enter a cool shaded forest and climb gradually. At one mile there is a fork. Stay right and start climbing more steeply. You’ll encounter another fork at approximately two miles. Again stay right. Unfortunately, signage is currently lacking.”
Check and check. The second mile climb is steep and consistent, the snow making a rough go of it. I use the nearby stumps and tree limbs to pull myself along.
“After a short very steep section the trail becomes more gradual and you enter an area of wonderful new trail built by WTA volunteers. Finally reaching an abandoned fire road. At this point you get your first outstanding views of Big Rocks and the surrounding area.”
“Make a left on the road for a short distance and re-enter the forest. After 0.2 miles you exit and find yourself in a saddle between the East and West ridges. Big Rocks is to your left.”
“Start another short climb to the high point of the hike and climax views. This is a great spot to stop and have a snack.”
I agree! The views from the ridge are simply stunning, even on a cloudy day. I can hardly believe the scene, just off the heart of the city. Looks like rain in the distance… better get a move-on!
“You then begin your descent. In 0.2 miles you reach a T-intersection. Hang a left and continue descending. You are now on the East Ridge. After 0.5 miles the trees disappear thanks to an old burn and you are treated to an outstanding view of Mt. Spokane to the North. A gradual switchbacking trail built by the WTA takes you back to your car.”
So far, so good. I’ve had a challenging hike, rewarded by spectacular views, and I am feeling exhilarated!
Unnnntil the footprints disappear… The snow ahead of me is pristine. No one has walked here. “Did I miss a switch?” I track back to the T, but I don’t see an alternate route anywhere. I retrace my steps, looking for any indication of another option, but I return to the same predicament. So I plod on.
The path is wide and obvious enough, but I’m punching through the snow up to my calves. Justice lags further and further behind me, attempting to navigate a better footing, but finding herself punching into the snow as well. She finally pulls up hard – she’s had it. She is not taking another step. I don’t have time to persuade the poor thing. I punch my way back to her, and she crawls up into my arms.
I come to a fork… Check the trail map… no mention of a fork on the switchbacks. “Which way do I go?” No footprints to guide me, and both trails are buried in snow. One leads to the right, and one leads down. I make my best guess and plod on.
Several feet down and I am punching into the snow up to my thighs. I transfer Justice from one shoulder to the next as my arms begin to ache. I plod on and on, and the light becomes dusky. I begin to wish I had started the hike earlier. I try to pick up the pace, climbing up and out of the holes I am making in the snow only to punch right back down again. I fall. I fall again. I rip my jeans. I need to rest, but the dark is creeping faster than I am.
The trail winds and narrows. I am punching through the snow up to my waist now, and I feel water seep into my sneakers. Then it hits me. I am hiking the creek bed, not a trail at all. The creek is running under the snow, and I am smack in the middle of it. My gut is twisting as I reason to myself that I can just follow the creek out of the woods. “It’s an adventure. You’re going to have a story to tell. Just keep your chin up.” And for the first time I see footprints ahead of me. And scat.
I follow the footprints down the mountain as the snow thins. The creek bed deepens, and at times I am winding my way along mud walls reaching up to my shoulders. My feet go numb in the icy water.
I think I see a trail. I climb out of the creek bed to follow it, hitching Justice up ahead of me. She can walk now, and my arms are thankful for it. We’ve left the snow behind, and the trail leads ahead… into a thick brush.
The leash keeps getting tangled, slowing my pace and speeding my heart. I decide to carry Justice again, but the footing is too difficult. The path peters out, and the woods swallow me up. I try to track back, but I can’t tell which way I’ve come. I realize I am in deep trouble as the sky greys on.
The woods feel ominous when you are lost in them. I remember the scat and wonder what animal left it.
“911, what are you reporting?” I feel stupid and small and a little scared. It takes a few minutes, but she gets a GPS lock on me. Dispatch calls with a patrol in the area. She asks me if I can hear the airhorns. I listen. I listen harder. But I don’t hear them. It bothers me that I don’t hear them, the distance away it supposes.
I find a mossy tree to sit put on, and Justice climbs into my lap. I try to predict how long it will take them to find me. The cold air presses in around me, and I start to shiver. I try to remember exactly what time the sun sets now. Justice’s ears are standing straight up, and that too bothers me. I try to predict what time I will get home tonight. That bottle of Merlot on the counter needs my company. Another hour goes by.
I can’t make any phone calls because my cell is on emergency callback. Besides, I need to save my battery, which has gone from 63 to 49 percent in what feels like a flash. I am alone with my thoughts as the light continues to wane. The mind can imagine all sorts of grim scenarios, but I keep a tight rein on it. If your thoughts create the future, mine is going to be a bright one. I decide to be a beacon of positivity. They will find me, and I will spend the night in my warm bed.
And that’s when I heard my name.
The first is the trail map for Iller Creek/Big Rocks. Point A on the second map illustrates the lat/long of where they found me. Point B is where I should have ended up. Mind you, I was already on the switchbacks at the north of the trail when I wandered. (Ignore the blue route, those would have been driving directions!)