Clear Creek Canyon


he hike that Dad took us on through Clear Creek Canyon might have been the biggest fiasco that he ever got us into.

Clear Creek Canyon follows alongside the highway from the cabin down to Buffalo on a winding stretch that lasts about 15 miles. It was a hike that we had wanted to do for a long time because Dad’s Uncle Ronnie told us he had hiked through there years ago and that it was beautiful and challenging, our favorite combination. He did say it was longer than you think and he actually ended up climbing out of the canyon about three quarters of the way through rather than following it all the way to the end. For some reason, Dad decided not to listen to that part of the story. Not a relevant forewarning, I suppose.

We took a night to plan out our route, which didn’t take much. Pop was going to drop us off at a place called Paradise Ranch, which was located right at the upper entry to the canyon. We would be able to drop into the canyon floor from there. We’d then hike all the way down, to the mouth of the canyon, where Pop would be waiting with the truck to pick us up. The whole thing looked like it was about five miles, though it was tough to tell the total mileage because the canyon made a lot of small winds and turns. Seemed like a pretty straightforward affair, though. There was no way to get off trail, at least, so we could just follow Clear Creek all the way down. Dad estimated it would take us about four hours to get through there. The plan sounded good, so we went to bed. The crew for this trip was Dad, Teresa, Nicole and me. We would depart in the morning.

Clear Creek Canyon

We didn’t depart in the morning. We woke up late and had a nice leisurely breakfast. Dad concluded that since it would only take a few hours, we didn’t need to leave until the afternoon. After breakfast we cleaned up and then played a round of disc golf.  Finally, at about one in the afternoon, we loaded up the truck and Pop took us over to Paradise Ranch where we’d begin our expedition. It was a clear day and, since it would be a short trip, we packed light. It seemed like Dad was always packing light, no matter where we were heading or how far. We had some stuff for lunch in a small backpack and I think Dad had uncharacteristically packed a couple of jackets in case it got chilly. We arrived at the mouth of the canyon at around two in the afternoon. Perfect timing, Dad said. We would be out of the canyon and at the meeting point by about six. Pop would take us to the house just in time for dinner. It was seamless.

The first few hours of the hike were awesome. The water in the creek was still pretty high, babbling contentedly over the various rocks and logs down the grade of the canyon. Towering rocky walls surrounded us on either side, pine trees lining the top ridges. There was a thin trail that followed alongside the creek that we could use. We tried to stay on the trail as long as we could, but it kept twisting and diving into the creek itself, so after a mile or so we said screw it to having dry feet and started walking down the center of the creek. It was still hot down in the base of the canyon so the ice cold water felt nice. We moseyed down the canyon, not pressed for time. We found a couple of large raspberry patches and stopped to pick some to munch on along the way. We sat beside a big pool in the creek for a late lunch. Dad estimated we were probably about halfway to the pickup spot at that point. We relaxed by the pool, ate some lunch and even took turns jumping from a large rock into the cold water. It was an idyllic scene, very serene. The calm before the storm.

Picking raspberries

After lunch, we continued down the creek. Now that it was later in the day we no longer had direct sunlight, so walking through the middle of the creek wasn’t as comfortable. Plus, the water got a lot deeper the further along we went. There were parts now where we weren’t walking down the middle of the creek so much as just swimming. Nicole and I were a little ahead because Dad and Teresa were trying to stay out of the water as much as they could, but that meant trying to navigate through downfall and bushes, which is slow going.  We checked our watches and saw that it was approaching five o’clock, so we figured we must be getting close to the pick-up spot. Dad started tossing around a phrase that ended up sticking with us long after the canyon hike.

“It’s just around this corner!” he said, every time we came to a new twist or turn on the trail. “Keep going! The rendezvous point is going to be just around the next corner!”

Over and over he started saying it. After the tenth corner, we knew that this was not the case. Later on, “Just around the corner” was used for any occasion when a hike or stroll was going on too long, or if we just needed to make fun of Dad for something that he had poorly planned.

The sun was setting and our pace was slowing down considerably. By now we were all trying to stay out of the water as much as possible, but it wasn’t working. The canyon had narrowed significantly since we had started and now the trails alongside the creek were all but gone. The cold from the creek was tearing through us. We hiked around another corner which Dad thought surely was the last one. And there we saw it. Along the left wall of the canyon was the trail that Uncle Ronnie had climbed to bail out of the hike. It looked like it went straight up, so much so that it didn’t seem possible that he went up that trail with a rope. There was no way we were going to be able to use that trail to get out. Furthermore, Pop was waiting at the bottom for us, presumably. So we had no choice but to hike all the way out. And now we knew that we were only three quarters of the way there. We still had at least a mile and a half to go and we were moving slowly. Plus it was almost dark. For the first time all day, it started to feel like we were in dire straits.

Dad and Teresa were moving slower than Nicole and I, so he told us to go on ahead, they would follow behind us as fast as they could, but we should get out first to let Pop know that we were still okay. Nicole and I picked up the pace and started advancing as fast as we could through the canyon. We were pretty much swimming down the creek in most areas, just trying to push forward as best we could. We spent this part of the trip cursing and pissed off that we were in this situation. We looked behind us back up the canyon and Dad and Teresa were nowhere to be seen. Probably just around the corner.

Stuck on a rock in high water

It was completely dark when Nicole and I found the trail that would lead us to the mouth of the canyon and the pick-up spot. We were soaking wet and freezing cold. The trail out of the canyon was about a quarter mile and uphill, a last hurdle before we were finally out of that god forsaken canyon. We clambered up the slope and finally hit flat ground. There, shining directly on us, was a pair of headlights. Pop was in the truck with the engine running, casually doing a crossword puzzle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pop without a crossword puzzle in his hand. So the fact that, even when we’re four hours late to our rendezvous and most likely trapped up in a canyon, he was still calm enough to focus on his crossword, was comforting in a way. Apparently, he’d been through similar situations before.

For example, the second biggest fiasco we might have ever gotten ourselves into. About five years prior to our Clear Creek Canyon escapade we were making a routine summer hike up to Angeline.  On this trip were Dad, Larry, Aunt Shannon, Uncle Ronnie, Nicole and me, plus Larry and Shannon’s two basset hounds, Sydney and Abigail. It was a beautiful day when we left for the hike. We made it up to Angeline in record time, and enjoyed a nice afternoon by the lake, fishing and lounging. Then the clouds rolled in. Within an hour we were caught in the middle of a full-blown rain and lightning storm. Angeline sits above the timberline, so there were no trees where we could take cover. We instead all crouched under a large tarp while the rain beat down on us. The lightning started striking the rocks around us, maybe a football field or two away. When the lightning and thunder are simultaneous, it’s a whole different level of terrifying. I’d never been more scared in my life. We were cowering together under that tarp for about an hour, unable to stop from jumping at each intermittent lightning strike. The thunder was so loud as it bounced around the rocky bowl that surrounds the lake, that it caused a piece of the glacier feeding into the lake to break off and slide into the water below. The very same glacier that Dad and Larry had slid down so many years earlier. With an incredible rumble, we watched as a massive chunk of snow and ice slid down into the lake, causing the water to bubble on the surface. The glacial slide had caused a small tsunami and the waves crashed on the shore beside us.

Finally, the storm subsided and we were able to get out from under our tarp. We got a fire going to try and warm ourselves up before beginning the hike back. As a little cherry on top of the day's events, the fire cracked and spit a red hot ember directly onto my lap, which immediately burned through my polyester shorts and burned my…groin area. Dad had to check out my business to make sure the burns weren’t too serious. Fun stuff. The rainstorm had held us at the lake longer than we should have stayed, and it was already getting dark by the time we were packing up to leave. Once again, we had no flashlights. Turns out a lack of packing supplies was a family issue, not just a Dad issue. We had to hike back in the darkness. In fact, Sydney and Abigail were the only reason we made it out of there at all. The two basset hounds were able to pick up our scent from the hike in and lead us down the trail back to the truck. Even in darkness, we were still able to see the white tips of their tails wagging along as they trotted down the path ahead. We followed those wagging, white tails for four miles back to the truck. When we arrived at the cabin, disheveled, burned, exhausted, and four hours late, there was Pop in his chair with his crossword puzzle, yet again.

Lake Angeline, calm before the storm

Back in the canyon, Nicole and I scrambled into the truck and breathlessly explained the situation to Pop. Dad and Teresa were still in the canyon, who knows how deep, and by that point it was too dark for them to keep going. Dad hadn’t packed any flashlights because, obviously, we wouldn’t need them. It was only a four hour hike. Sarcastic voice. All it would take is one slip on a wet rock in the pitch black and you were dealing with a broken leg and a much worse situation. As renegade as Dad was out on our hikes, we knew he wouldn’t risk that, so they must be hunkered down somewhere up the canyon. They didn’t have any gear to stay overnight, of course, so it was still a hairy situation. If they were wet from the creek they could potentially get hypothermia in the middle of the night. They also had no food. We hadn’t packed any other than lunch. Pop absorbed all this information, calmly told us we’d figure it out, and pulled out onto the highway toward town. The clock on the dash told us it was now ten at night. Only four hours late.

We went back to the house and inhaled the dinner that awaited us. Gram was, of course, less than thrilled to hear about our predicament and was worried sick. She wanted to call Search and Rescue immediately to get Dad and Teresa out. Instead we called Uncle Ronnie. He was the only one besides us who’d actually been in the canyon before. Not that that really mattered, but still, we figured we’d better get him on board. The three of us, Ronnie, Nicole and I, decided we were going to hike back up into the canyon and try to get out Dad and Teresa ourselves. Gram was even less thrilled to hear that this was the plan we had settled on. She said she would allow us to go in and try to find them, but if we couldn’t get to them, then she was calling Search and Rescue. Challenge accepted.

Once again we loaded up to head into the canyon. This time we were coming in from the opposite direction. We put on layers of clothing, grabbed flashlights and headlamps, and climbed back into Pop’s truck. Pop sped back out to the rendezvous point. When we pulled up, I thought maybe there was a chance that Dad and Teresa would be there waiting for us.  But alas, no, there was no sign of them. They were still in there somewhere. We guessed by how fast they had been moving that they were likely still about a mile away. Pop parked the truck and we jumped out and started hauling ass down the trail leading back into the canyon. Nicole led the way, with me in the middle, and Uncle Ronnie bringing up the rear. Pop would wait in the truck for us. He’d brought his crossword.

Even with the flashlights, the trail was treacherous. We had to slow our pace down just to avoid tripping over the rocks. It’s amazing how black it can get in the bottom of a canyon.

We were able to stay on the trail for the most part, but we knew there would be no way we could get back into the water and swim upstream if the trail ran out. Once we hit the water, that would be it, we’d have to turn around and opt for Search and Rescue instead. Nicole and I kept moving as fast as we could. I could no longer see the light behind me from Uncle Ronnie’s flashlight. We twisted and turned down the path, the purr of the creek getting closer with each step. Finally, we reached the trail’s dead end. We couldn’t go any further. We looked around in the darkness for a moment. There, about a hundred yards up, we saw them. Dad and Teresa were on the other side of the creek. Somehow, Dad had gotten a fire going and he and Teresa were crouched around it with their jackets drying in the trees above. They were still within reach.

We called out to them, but they couldn’t hear us over the sound of the creek. We started waving our flashlights around and kept yelling. Finally Dad looked up and saw us. He looked rather surprised to see us, as if he had fully expected us to leave them there for the night. Dad and Teresa extinguished their fire, grabbed their jackets, and tried walking further down alongside the creek so we could get within earshot. They delicately stepped over fallen trees and rocks while we held our flashlights as best we could to light the ground in front of them. They were able to get within reach of us, but we still had to figure out how to get them across the creek. We found a spot nearby with a few large rocks jutting above the water that they could step over. We shined our lights on the rocks for them. Teresa went first while Dad held onto her so she could keep her balance. She carefully stepped onto each rock until she could reach Nicole, who took her hand and pulled her safely to our side of the bank. Dad followed and nimbly jumped from rock to rock, landing on our side of the bank with ease. Somehow, neither of them was injured. They were thrilled that we were able to get back to them; Dad thought they would definitely have to sleep by themselves in the canyon that night.

“Just you two came back for us?” Dad asked.

Shit. Nicole and I hadn’t noticed, but Uncle Ronnie wasn’t with us. He had never caught up to me when we were hiking in. Our relief of recovering Dad and Teresa was short-lived. Now we’d lost Ronnie.

Dad said maybe he turned around and went back to the truck once Nicole and I got too far ahead. That seemed reasonable, so we dusted ourselves off and started the hike back up the trail to the truck. Even though it was Nicole’s and my third time on the trail, it seemed as precarious as ever. We were still moving slowly. Dad and Teresa were in their mostly wet clothes, as they hadn’t had the luxury of a pit stop at Gram and Pop’s house like we had. Dad said that there were a few matches in the backpack, which is how he had gotten the fire going. He said he’d packed them in case of emergency, but let’s be honest, he probably just found them in there. We continued along in the darkness, mostly silent since we were all beyond exhausted from the day’s ordeal. Suddenly, we heard a small yelp coming from the darkness to our right. We shined our flashlights in the direction of the sound.

“Hey!” we heard again.

Our flashlights illuminated a patch of bushes and there, sticking out of a particularly thorny-looking bush, was a pair of long, gangly legs.

“Ron?” Dad called.

“Help!” Uncle Ronnie shouted.

Dad and I grabbed a leg and started pulling. Out came Uncle Ronnie, scratched up all over his face.

Apparently, while Nicole and I were hoofing it down the trail to find Dad and Teresa, Uncle Ronnie had taken a misstep and careened off the path headfirst into the bushes. I guess he decided it would be easier to hang out there, upside down, until we were on our way back. That’s confidence right there.

With the whole party intact, we set off back up the trail. We made it to the truck, where Pop was waiting with a crossword, but I could tell he was relieved this time. We drove back to the house and Gram was, of course, still up, waiting for us. It was one in the morning. Only seven hours late. Gram wasn’t too pleased with how things had turned out that day, but Dad did make the observation that he, Teresa, Nicole and I all went into the canyon, got trapped, got out, and the only person who had been injured was Uncle Ronnie. Somehow even in the worst predicaments, we always managed to come out relatively unscathed. I have to admit, I admire that Dad was ready to just camp out in that canyon all night and it didn’t seem to faze him. He took in stride everything that was thrown at him. I mean, it’s true that a lot of the things that were thrown at him were of his own making, but still, he kept moving forward. As bad as things got, he always had hope of better trails ahead, if only just around the next corner.

about my dad