I miserably poured the water out from inside the camera case. Ominously, a darker shade of water was leaking out from inside the camera body itself. I felt even sicker, but I didn't throw up anymore.
“Oh, goddammit!!!” I looked around to see if anyone had seen my idiotic Crown Creek stunt and its embarrassing aftermath. As expected, I was completely alone. My throat was burning. The taste in my mouth was awful. I knew I was lucky to be alive, but then I obsessed on my camera. I couldn't really afford it, but I bought it anyway (credit). It was a 35mm Pentax SLR. My only hope was to get it to a repair shop as soon as possible.
Suddenly, I'd lost all interest with this trip. It was only the second day of what had been planned as a ten day trip through Kings Canyon National Park- a vast section that I'd never visited before. But, now I wanted to quit. Run home. Tail between my legs. Except... This trip was not over. Not by a long shot.
I looked back at Crown Creek- spanned by that f**ken log. There was no way I was going to try to recross that. I realized an unpleasant truth: Like it or not, I was committed. There wasn't going to be an easy way out. I was in the clutches.
The bright afternoon sun was suddenly eclipsed by a cloud. I looked around shivering- water still running off my clothes. A circle of wet sand had formed around my boots. I needed a campsite. I looked around, but didn't see anything. My eyes were drawn upward by a monolithic wall of granite directly above me. Tehipite Dome seemed to hang over my head. The late afternoon sun was gleaming off its sheer cliffs. Clouds had begun to obscure the uppermost portions. Across the huge flooding Kings River were the incredible cliffs, turrets, and gorges of Crystal Creek and the Gorge of Despair.
Less than an hour before, it had all seemed so sublimely beautiful- almost like a fantasy world. Now Tehipite Valley had become a trap that I'd willingly walked into. I suppose there's a lesson to be learned here. Something about 'dangerous stream crossings' and 'knowing when to turn back'.
As the layer of clouds began obscuring more and more of the sky, the interaction of light and shadow were creating some incredible photo ops. I would have reached for my camera, but...
What was I going to do with this thing, now? This 4 or 5 pounds of dead useless weight. Jam it into my already heavy backpack? Or just keep wearing it around my neck- like a lodestone? I thought seriously about flinging it into the Kings River, but decided that that would surely be a stupid thing to do. I'd already done enough stupid things this afternoon. Maybe it would still be repairable when I got home. Whenever that would be.
My plan to find a better campsite on this side of Crown Creek had, apparently, failed. There were a few, but they were all under water. The fire rings rising out of the muddy torrent was the only evidence of their existence. Everywhere else was too choked with boulders and brush for camping. I was wet, cold, and frustrated as I buckled my waist belt and began to hike up the canyon along the trail. My soaked pants stuck uncomfortably to my legs as I hiked. I thought it would be just a short distance to a decent campsite and then I can start to dry out.
This portion of the trail follows the base of the cliffs at the foot of the mighty Tehipite Dome. Along this narrow rocky corridor- between cliff base and flood plain, I could see that almost the entire floor of Tehipite Valley was flooded. In the middle of the valley, there seemed to be a couple of thickly wooded islands. Looking carefully, I could see that the river was flowing through the trees of these 'islands'- not around them. An intense display of nature's awesome power. If only my camera... 'sigh'.
My despair increased when after a short time the trail began to climb and wind its way through steep jumbles of boulders. I'd reached the eastern end of Tehipite Valley without coming upon a single good campsite. Damn! If I continued up the trail there would be very little chance of finding a flat space large enough for my tent. But on I went as if in a trance, walking like a zombie as the trail wound its way through the boulders and chaparral. I'm pretty sure that I was still in a mild state of shock.
Finally, after a mile or two, I came to a small grove of trees and a flattish area close to the thundering river. For the first time since Crown Creek, I struggled wearily out of my wet heavy backpack and set it down.
I opened the compartments and began pulling stuff out. I was happy to find the the top third or so of my pack was fairly dry. This would include all my food and my warm outer layers. The lower half had my spare clothes and down sleeping bag. The clothes had gotten pretty wet. What I was already wearing was starting to dry out, so I didn't bother changing. I pulled my goose down sleeping bag out of the stuff sack and was happy to find that the water had only slightly penetrated a few isolated areas.
I ate a much needed “Slim Jim” as I wandered around looking for the best place to set up my tent. It was then that I realized that maybe this wasn't such a great place after all. A nice grassy area that had initially attracted me, turned out to be too rocky. Worst of all it was uncomfortably close to the Kings River which was thundering heavily down a short cascade. I looked at the sky- gray with ever lowering clouds. The threat of rain had been on the increase ever since... my mishap. What if the river floods even more? I didn't want to be this close to what was already a raging torrent.
According to the map, I was just downstream from the next major tributary: Blue Canyon Creek. I hoped that there might be a better site there. Somewhat replenished from my snack and a bit relieved that my gear- especially my sleeping bag- wasn't as wet as I'd imagined, I packed up and got ready to move out. When I reached for my ruined camera, I noticed orange water running down the rock it was sitting on. It looked almost like blood, but I knew it was the emulsion chemicals from the roll of film that was still inside the camera. Shit!
I rewound the film and opened the camera. Half a cup or so of orange water poured out. That film contained all the pictures I'd taken in Tehipite Valley and the flooding river west of Crown Creek- now lost forever.
In a brief moment of angry frustration, I took the roll of film and did something that I've since greatly regretted. I flung it under a large boulder that had a cavernous gap between it and the ground upon which it rested. It was full of dead leaves and twigs and, for all I know, some of those rattlesnakes that are reputed to be abundant in this canyon. I guess I hadn't done enough stupid things that day after all. Sorry, everyone. Sadly, I'm no John Muir.
I was disappointed, though not very surprised, to find that there were no campsites along the trail all the way to Blue Canyon Creek. When I arrived there and saw how massive and turbulent this creek was, I became consumed with fear. It was just too damn soon to be facing yet another dangerous stream crossing. Whatever confidence, courage, or even cockiness that I'd brought with me to the mountains on this trip was left downstream on the other side of Crown Creek.
A thick wet log- about 15 feet long and just barely clearing the surface of the creek was my only crossing option. Water from the creek had splashed onto the top of the log in a couple of sections. Those sections looked kind of slick and I didn't trust myself to walk across. I would have to straddle it and scoot on my butt. This situation was frighteningly similar to what I'd just been through back at Crown Creek.
The increasing clouds hid the setting sun as I stood there hesitating and pondering all those 'what ifs'. It was getting dark. I had to get going!
“Grow a pair and just do it!” an inner voice screamed. Wasn't this the same voice that got me in trouble in the first place? Did I trust it? Did I trust myself?
“Shit!” Like before at Crown Creek, I unbuckled the waist belt of my pack and sat on the log- straddling it. I was glad that it was just high enough above the creek so that my feet wouldn't dangle into the torrent. It was thicker and more stable than the Crown Creek log, but it vibrated and shook uncomfortably due to the power of the raging water just below. Immediately downstream from the log, the Kings River rumbled violently through house and truck sized boulders. Like before at Crown Creek, there would be no opportunity to stop myself from being pitched out into that massive flooding river if I fell into the creek.
And, just like at Crown Creek, when I was about half way across, my pack decided to shift suddenly to the side. “F**k!!”
...I was rapidly losing strength! I had to do something fast! I somehow turned my body over so I was now face down- Crown Creek rushed by just a foot or so below my face. I remained mostly horizontal as I was bounced and violently jerked by the current. It was like hanging onto the tow rope on the back of a fast moving speed boat. My aching hands were locked onto that log for dear life...
This time, at Blue Canyon Creek, the log remained stable as I used both hands to clutch it with all my waning strength. The only consequence was a near cardiac arrest.
At last, to my great relief, I reached the far side and struggled to my feet. Darkness was closing in. I buckled my waist belt and continued on- pleading with the mountain gods for decent place to camp. They must have forgiven me for my earlier transgressions with the roll of film and my other feats of stupidity, because after a short bit of hiking, I finally came to an adequate campsite.
This site was also uncomfortably close to the river, but I was too tired and desperate to care anymore. At least it had a flat clean spot for my tent and even a small fire ring (which I didn't use). There was just enough light left in the evening to be able to set up my tent without using my headlamp.
After my camp was set up, I went down to the river's edge to get some water to boil to make my evening meal and coffee. The river was still in a full state of flood- the sky now completely clouded over. I built a cairn at the very edge of the water to serve as a makeshift gauge so I could keep track of the water level.
By the light of a candle, I ate some kind of freeze dried crud for dinner. But, under the circumstances, it was some of the most delicious crud I ever ate. I hadn't had a meal since breakfast at Crown Valley earlier that morning. It felt like many days ago. God, what a day! I felt cut off, isolated and utterly alone. For me, those are usually good things, but not this time. Seeing just one other person on the trail would have gone a long way toward improving my morale.
As I ate, I wondered how many more swollen tributaries were in store for me as I continued up this miserable canyon. I carefully unfolded the wet map that I still had in my shirt pocket. There were three: Alpine, Rattlesnake, and Dog Creeks. None of them looked like they drained anywhere near the huge areas that Crown or Blue Canyon Creeks did. I relaxed a little.
Further study of the map revealed nothing that I didn't already know. There would be no easy way back to the car. There weren't any practical ways of climbing out of this canyon cross country until Goddard Creek was reached. Unfortunately, Goddard Creek was known to be a very difficult bush whack and there would surely be more dangerous stream crossings up there.
The only logical way back to my Rancheria Creek trailhead was to keep going up the Kings River and over Muir Pass. Once I got to Simpson Meadow and was back on the maintained trails, surely there would be bridges constructed over the largest streams. I just hoped that they wouldn't be washed out by the floods. From Muir Pass, I could travel cross country through what looked like easy terrain to the Hell For Sure Pass Trail and begin to work my way across the region near Courtright and Wishon Reservoirs.
Ha! This had been my original plan anyway, with a side trip to visit the Palisades. Well, for the moment anyway, the Palisades were out. I was in escape mode.
[Note: It turns out that my camera was working just fine, but I'd accidentally adjusted the ASA to the wrong setting which resulted in many of the pictures taken during the next couple of days turning out too dark (as you will see). Drat!!]
I slept until the sun was lighting up the trees outside my tent. The sun? I peeked outside and was pleasantly surprised to see a cloudless blue sky. My spirits were instantly lifted and I put on my still damp clothing.
I instantly decided to take advantage of the sun and spend as much of the day as needed to dry out my wet clothes and gear. While water for coffee and oatmeal heated over the stove, I began draping various garments over nearby bushes, rocks and even the roof of my tent.
I discovered, to my annoyance, that my toilet paper had gotten soaked as well. Damn! I carefully unwound several squares at a time and hung each strip on low hanging branches all around the camp. It looked as though my campsite had been the victim of a high school prank.
I was pleased to see that the water level of the flooding river had receded a small amount from the tiny cairn I had built the night before. A few more sunny days and maybe everything would return to normal.
And then there was my camera... Was it as bad as I thought? Yeah, almost certainly. Precision mechanical devices really don't like getting wet, but I decided to remove the lens and open the back to let it dry out. During the process, I took a clean bandana and wiped up as much of that orange liquid as I could. When it appeared to be clean, I cocked and released the shutter only to find new droplets of water on various internal parts. I then wiped these off before cocking and releasing the shutter again. I repeated these steps over and over again using different shutter speeds. I hoped that the water would be forced out of the complicated mechanisms and that the preexisting lubrication would stay intact.
Eventually, after more than an hour of cock, release, and wipe, the inside of the camera appeared completely clean. The electronic light meter seemed to be working normally, so, what the hell, I decided to load a roll of film and begin taking pictures again. The trouble was- in that pre-digital world- that I wouldn't know for sure if it was working properly until I got the pictures back from processing a week or so after returning home.