My Spontaneous, Illogical, No Bad, Very Good Day at Cougar Hot Springs

This trip was not planned. This trip was not logical. This was a trip of the truly spontaneous nature. Jess and I needed a break from the city and we decided the best way to get that break would be by driving for three hours to camp in a car and then wake up at the crack of dawn to hit up Cougar hot springs- a place neither of us had been before. We basically were driving to Bend and back for a just-barely-24-hour break from the city. Rational? I think not. Wonderful? I say yes.

Over the years that I’ve lived in Portland, I’ve come up with a very scientific and official rule-of-thumb to ensure my personal positive mental health levels and overall feelings of satisfaction with life. That rule is to go no longer than two weeks without leaving the city limits. Once I cross the threshold of that second week, my mind starts to go wild- I get anxious, upset, depressed and hopeless. I’m not kidding, I really do have these problems! Then, as soon as I escape from the confines of the city for a day or more, my mind feels at ease. Everything is easy and life is good again- it’s a very vital rule to follow.

And so this brings me back to Jess and I’s spontaneous, illogical, no bad, very good trip. We both needed a break. A break from the city, a break from life, a break from everything. Soaking away our worries in a natural forest hot spring sounded like the perfect fix.

As we wound our way closer and closer along shady wooded roads, the sun dipped lower and lower on the horizon. After one missed turn-off, we found ourselves traveling along the upper ridges of a deep yet very low reservoir and had the chance to catch some amazing views of the sunset as it slipped behind the reservoir’s cliffs.

We finally crept into our campsite after dark.

As our (now giant) fire blazed next to us, Jess and I turned our faces star-ward to admire the diamond-studded sky above us. You forget how many stars there are until you escape the reaches of modern light pollution. I grew up in a small backwoods town, and one of my favorite things to do on a clear night was stare at the billions of beautiful stars up above me. I used to stand outside with my dad and sister as he told us that a single beam from our flashlight sent out towards space wouldn’t hit anything for thousands of year. It’s something that simultaneously causes you to feel very, very small and fill you with a huge sense of wonder.

The next morning we woke early. Since we’d camped in the car, there was nothing to break down and we quickly left the campsite behind and found the trail-head to the hot spring.

After 10 minutes of walking along a well-maintained path we came to a rough-hewn open shelter and crudely built steps that lead down to the rock-ringed thermal pools. We disrobed quietly, not wanting to disturb the peace of the place we’d just arrived at.

Cougar Hot Springs 1There are five cascading pools that make up the Cougar Hot Springs, with the hottest pools being at the top and each successive pool below getting slightly cooler than the rest. Jess and I got lucky and snagged the third pool down. As we sat and soaked in the volcanic thermal waters, we quietly observed the forest around us. Time slipped by and the morning sunlight streamed through the high branches to dapple across moss-covered rocks. It was heavenly.

Cougar Hot Springs Pool

We soaked for the better part of almost two hours and finally had to call it quits when we both found our water bottles to be empty. As we emerged from our soaking pool, we looked at the one above us and wondered… just how hot was the hot pool? But instead of testing our mettle in the hottest of hot pools, we snuck into the one just below it to test the waters. And the waters were HOT. I have no idea how anyone manages the top pool. I saw some people in it while we were there and decided it must be something basic within their DNA that allowed them to handle those temperatures; like how some people are taller than me or have a bigger nose. Its just something they’re born with.

Feeling fully warmed inside and out, Jess and I made our final departure. We walked quietly up to our belongings and dressed in blissful silence as we watched the steam rising and curling through outstretched evergreen branches. We didn’t talk again until we had started making our way back down the trail to the car, and even then conversation was unhurried and relaxed.

Once we got back to the car, we broke out the Jetboil to brew some tea and have some breakfast. We found a great place to sit at the edge of the cliffs leading down into the reservoir below us. A family of ducks swam thousands of feet below us, and we amused ourselves by watching their progress as they zigzagged from one place to another.

By the time we loaded the car back up, Jess and I felt refreshed, invigorated and ready to take the city on once more. Well, at least for another two weeks that is.

Cougar Hot Springs Res

Falls Creek Falls Hike – Washington

Falls Creek Falls Trail

Living in beautiful, gorgeous, green Oregon, (with its self-proclaimed, “7 wonders”) it’s easy to forget about our neighbor to the north- Washington, and all of the amazing natural spaces it has, too.

This was how I felt as I stood at the bottom of Falls Creek Falls, up near Carson, Washignton, watching feathery wisps of cold creek water pour over the ledges of not just one, but two falls, before it culminated in a brisk cascading pool of white-water.

We started the day out as most good PNW weekend days do- mildly hungover at brunch. My friend’s cousin from Ukraine was visiting her and we wanted to make sure he got out on some gorgeous hikes in the states before heading back home. After scarfing down a mouthwateringly-great late breakfast, we loaded our Osprey packs with snacks, filled our water bottles and set off for the leisurely day hike.

Now, it seems almost unfair that a place this cool was so easy to hike to. The trail was only 1.7 miles in to the falls and 1.7 miles back. We had originally been looking to take the longer 6.4 mile “balloon” route, but we ran into some issues that made us forget that plan and begin booking it back down the trail as fast as possible. But I’ll get to that later.

The hike started in a dirt parking lot which boasted no cell phone service. That was our first sign that this hike was going to be a beautiful one. Anastasia, Damien, Elvin, Totem (the tiny anxious and adorable terrier that belongs to Anastasia and Damien) and myself started off chatting along the dusty path. We were quickly quieted, however, by the woods around us. A creek followed the path for at least half of the trail, and its burbling combined with the cool shade of the trees set the serene mood for the walk in.

Falls Creek Falls BridgeMeandering through the forest we saw trees that must have been hundreds of years old. Before too long, we came to a small bridge that crossed over a long-dry creek bed that we all imagined must host a raging current or water during the spring time.

The woods were open and calm. We passed some other hikers, but nothing in the amount we thought we would be seeing for a summer Saturday in Oregon. But wait- we weren’t in Oregon. We were north of our home state in Washington. We should come here more often…

As the path made another turn from left to right, we saw through the trees the impressively gorgeous falls we had come to find. Falls Creek Falls- It was awesome!

Falls Creek Falls 1

We couldn’t stop staring. Elvin, the cousin from Ukraine, immediately went down to the lowest pool for a quick skinny dip. I mean hey, why not?

Falls Creek Falls Skinny Dip

Damien had disappeared after a few moments but we thought nothing of it. Then, we heard some shouting from near the falls. It was Damien! He was safe- don’t worry. He’d just found a path out to the middle of the falls. We quickly found the path he’d taken and began making our way to him.

Falls Creek Falls tricky route

It was a slightly trickier path than what we’d been traveling across earlier (read: not so good for kids) but we got to an amazing picnic spot pretty soon and quickly broke out our snacks. Our surroundings were blissful. More photos were snapped, cheese was shared and everyone was content.

Then…

TOTEM… vs. The Bee

Falls Creek Falls Totem Cheese

Someone noticed the little dog had been itching a lot. It looked like his stomach might be red, though that wasn’t unusual for him- he sometimes got heat rash from running too much. Anastasia picked him up. It wasn’t heat rash.

This poor pup had angry red boils all along his stomach and running up his front legs. We froze. Then we remembered that Elvin had told us he’d taken a bee out of Totem’s mouth about 30 minutes ago. Allergic reaction. To a bee. That’s what was happening.

And none of us had any Benadryl.

We quickly wrapped up our picnic spot and began passing the pup up a train along the path because he couldn’t climb it himself and we didn’t want him rubbing his legs together and irritating the rash further. Thank god my friends didn’t have a husky.

We got up the trickier trail and back onto the main path. We were jogging. Totem was being carried until he whined too much, then we would put him down and continuously called his name so he never had a moment to sit and itch more.

As we were hurrying along the trail, I was running our current situation over and over in my mind. We were about 40 minutes from the car, maybe 30 minutes from the closest store where we could buy Benadryl and then another hour and a half from home. Anastasia began asking everyone we passed if they had any Benadryl. We debated aloud for a while if maybe it was actually poison oak, but eventually refuted that idea. We moved quicker. We all watched Totem.

Then, finally- we came across someone who had the drugs on them.

Thank. God.

There is probably no worse feeling than the feeling of wondering if your friends’ dog is about to go into anaphylactic shock while you’re 30 minutes from help. Maybe if you were said dog’s owner. That’s the only way you could be feeling worse.

We thanked the woman profusely (who was allergic to walnuts and so always carried benadryl on her) and fed Totem his doggie-sized dose as quickly as we could. We waited and continued to hike back to the car, nervously keeping an eye on the tiny guy. After about 10-15 minutes we picked him up to check again- and the boils had gone down! His skin was red and agitated, but the angry fluidy bumps had receded and he’s noticeably stopped scratching himself so often.

Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. The dog was out of trouble!

We slowed our pace to a walk and began to enjoy the woods around us again. We even stopped off at a lower part of the creek to hang our feet in the water and dip totem in it to cool him off more.

As we wound our way back to the parking lot, we all felt happier than when we’d left. Although we’d missed the longer hiking route due to a dog-emergency, we’d had a beautiful, scary and exciting Saturday in Washington.

We’ll probably be back again soon.

And yes, Totem slept for the entire drive back home.

Tree Camping Above Salmon River by Jenna Kuklinski

The first time I found myself higher than six feet in a tree happened as my second summer working at High Cascade was coming to an end. I was helping to pack up skate ramps, move vans into storage and deep-cleaning all of the houses that campers and staff had lived in for a whole summer season. At the end of one of these long, tiring days, my friend Anastasia called me from Portland and asked if I would want to camp out in the branches of a giant old-growth tree for a night. What? Yes. Of course I would.

After spending another day or two scrubbing, sweeping and packing, I was finally freed from my summer post. Anastasia cruised up to Government Camp, swept me away from the place I’d been living for the past 2 ½ months, and steered us out towards the Salmon River. We made a quick pit-stop at a climbing spot called, “Salmon Slab,” a mild face of rock set against the woods and overlooking the nearby Salmon river. [I’d taken my La Sportiva Miuras with me to camp and though I’d left them in the back of my closet all summer, it felt great to lace back into them and find myself on a rock face once again.] We happily sent a few routes while her ornery shitsu watched us from the open hatchback of her Saturn. Once we’d absorbed as much of the view as possible at the top of the route, we loaded back up and drove further into the woods.

Jenna kuklinski climbing

Tree Base Camp

Big tree arboristEventually, we reached a small dirt parking lot. After parking the car, shouldering our packs and hiking about a mile in, we found our group of enthusiastic arborists. They were happily milling about the wooded floor, chatting about the amazing arborculture that surrounded us. They were excited to see us and immediately took us over towards the tree we’d be sleeping in that night. It was massive. It stood just over 200ft tall and our friends estimated it was somewhere around 500 years old. That’s a highly respectable tree in my book.

After learning some quick information about how we’d be sleeping and checking that we had on hard-toed, high-ankled hiking boots, we were shown exactly what we’d be sleeping in. The beds, or as they’re better known, “tree boats” looked like army-green reinforced hammocks. They were ridged around the edges, holding themselves out to be rectangular and giving the sleeper some room to roll around in. They were currently lodged 190 ft up in the branches of this old growth doug fir; tucked so far away that we couldn’t see them as we squinted up from the ground.

Tree Boat

We were also told that we should try to drink minimal liquids over the next couple hours leading up to our airy camp-out. Our friends explained to us that we’d be wearing a harness the whole time we’d be up there (meaning, yes, even when we slept). If we had to pee, it’d be an awkward endeavor of scooting our butts to the side of the boat, shifting the harness to the side of our thighs and getting our pants out of the way. Not so easy to do in pitch-dark at 1am. Other than that, our friends gave us few warnings. They were taking care of all of the technical stuff, all we had to do was listen to what they told us and enjoy our evening.

Arborists

Pretty soon, it was time for Anastasia and I to leave the ground and begin making our way up to the topof the tree. We grabbed our packs, slipped on the harnesses and clipped onto our friend that would be running us up the “elevator.”As I was slowly hoisted into the air, my surroundings changed dramatically. The world became simultaneously quieter and louder. You know how trees sound when they sway in the breeze? From the ground it’s a low, comfortable creaking. When you’re in the tree itself, that same noise becomes far louder and far less comforting. You move with the tree. You’re in space, in the air, over 100 ft from the ground. You have one lifeline and it begins to move. And so you move. You’re softly swaying together, undulating in the breeze. It’s at the same time a very unnerving very amazing feeling.

Jenna and Friend On Tree Elavator

We reached our beds easily, slid into our respective tree-beds and allowed our friend to unattach us from the elevator line and then link us in to our individual safety branches. Once looped in, we’d be anchored to the same branch until morning.

We brought snacks to share and even a little whiskey. We giddily munched on some cookies while we took in the rest of our surroundings. Looking out from our beds, we could see across what seemed to be the entire Mt. Hood wilderness, with tree tops stretching out in front of us for miles upon miles. We chatted as the sun dipped lower on the horizon and although we broke out our headlamps to continue keeping each other company into the dark, we soon all fell into comfortable silence, allowing ourselves to be rocked to sleep by the swaying tree that was delicately suspending us above the ground.

Jenna asleep in treeDaylight came fresh, crisp and beautiful. There is no greater way to be greeted in the morning than by the energizing mountain air above such an expanse of wilderness. One of our friends had a jetboil and brewed us coffee in the branches of this ancient doug fir. I don’t remember if it was instant Folgers or hand-ground Stumptown, but I know it was one of the best coffees I’ve ever had in my life. There’s no better place to sip dark coffee and nibble leftover cookies than after sleeping in the branches of an ancient doug fir.

Jenna awake in tree boat

Finally the time came to lower back down to the forrest floor (Anastasia and I couldn’t deny the fact that nature was finally “calling”). It was sad watching our temporary beds shrink away and get swallowed by the mass green needles that steadily grew above our heads. We were leaving behind the first experience of something so unique and inexplicable. But of course, we were overcome with excitement of what we’d just done and couldn’t wait to talk with our other friends about what we’d gotten to do!

Once we’d reached the ground, we spent the rest of the morning playing around with some silk fabric and drinking as much water as we wanted. After a few hours, we loaded all of the gear back into our packs and hiked back out to our car. Anastasia and I happily tossed our bags into her car and clambered into the front.

As we began the dusty drive back to the city, I watched the trees slowly shrink and change outside the car window. I couldn’t help but feel I had a new and deeper understanding of the woods around us, one that I would hold onto for the rest of my life. There are no words to describe exactly the feel that I have about this adventure, except for the words that urge you to make friends with a talented arborist and convince them that you need to spend a night suspended in the arms of a Doug Fir that’s last nearly half a century.