To say I was looking forward to a day of hiking the Columbia River Gorge with my 16-year-old daughter and her friend was an understatement. Not only had our winter been long, cold, and wet, but the end of February and early March were full of heartache. My uncle had died unexpectedly, and then a week later my mom found out she had breast cancer. Shortly after returning from my uncle’s funeral in California, my mother-in-law was admitted to the ICU and put on life support for complications from the flu. In the middle of all this, my 8-year-old nearly drowned at her birthday party. During “normal” times, the pool incident would’ve been laughed off after the initial adrenaline rush, but now it caused me several nights of unease. I couldn’t shake the ominous darkness bombarding me. My novel, which I had hoped to finish by the end of March, came abrupt halt. I couldn’t find words to fill the page, even when I could find a few minutes of time.
Now, here was a chance to escape my ordinary-turned-dreary life, and spend time with my sweet-sixteen daughter (who is also the only one of my three children who likes to hike!)
I knew we would have several options on the Columbia Gorge to choose from, so I tried not to over plan our getaway. My daughter’s first request was that we not get up too early, so we leisurely left our hotel in Troutdale at about 9:00 a.m. I had read that Latourell Falls was the closest waterfall to us, and that it was far less crowded than the more popular falls along the Gorge, so we headed there first. It was easy to find parking, but the lower access to the falls was closed as a jail crew worked on the trail. We headed up the hill to upper Latourell Falls. The trail was well maintained but at a pretty good grade. The challenge for me was keeping up with two teenagers. We made it to the top fairly quickly, and we’re greeted by that familiar waterfall wind that I love so much.
The girls ventured behind the fall. I had already realized by that time though that my shoes were not cut out for the muddied parts of the trail, so I stayed behind and took pictures. We headed down the trail and found some good views of the Gorge. It was still cool and cloudy, and we hoped the forecasted afternoon sun would soon make its appearance.
After stopping to view Latourell Falls from the bridge at the bottom of the trail, my daughter, Natalie, hesitantly asked if there were hikes we could go on that weren’t just waterfalls. My heart fell. Had I stolen this day from her and made it my own? I told her I had an article on my phone that listed the five best hikes in the Gorge, and she could pick any hike from the list. She quickly perused the article and picked the Eagle Creek hike. The pictures I’d seen of Eagle Creek showed a narrow trail on a high cliff, and most hiking summaries I read listed the trail as not family-friendly. No doubt Natalie saw those same pictures and thought it looked like the most exciting hike to go on, but I was hesitant. Granted, Natalie is not a little kid anymore, but she still trips over her own shoelaces sometimes and taking her on a hike with a narrow trail blown into a steep cliff didn’t sound like a good idea.
“Google it while I drive, and see if the trail is open.” The last time I had read up on it, the trail was closed. Part of me hoped it still was. We found out that the trail was open, but only in part. A landslide had closed it off just past Punchbowl Falls. That still would give us a three mile hike up the trail, so we decided to make it our destination.
“But we should stop at Multnomah Falls and hike that loop,” I said as we headed down I-84. “You can’t go to the Columbia Gorge and not see Multnomah Falls.”
The girls weren’t too excited about the idea of the super touristy destination. Fate saved them. The exit to Multnomah Falls was closed because all the parking lots were full. The look of relief on the faces of Natalie and her friend, Claire, along with the sight of all the cars that had filled the stop, assuaged any regrets I may have had about missing the attraction.
The exit to Eagle Creek wasn’t closed, but both lots were full. I guess that’s what happens when you go to one of the most popular hiking destinations in Oregon on Spring Break (not to mention get a late start to your day!) I drove down a road that was marked as a viewpoint. There was parking there, and it was free. It added some extra walking to our hike but it was worth it.
The trail started wide and even along the creek, then pulled away and became a bit narrower, rocky and pretty muddy in spots. The uneven ground was a challenge for me with my uncooperative right foot, but I managed. To my disappointment, the spur trail to Metlako Falls was closed because the trail had fallen into the creek.
The trail came to a moss and fern covered cliff, with a narrow hiking trail etched into it’s side. There was a rusty cable bolted into the cliff to provide extra reassurance for hikers. This was the spot I was worried about; the part that was not kid friendly. It was also one of the spots where the girls took the most pictures. The cliff to the right dropped pretty much straight down into the cavern, about 100 feet. I’m not a big fan of heights, at least not ones where not falling to my death is solely dependant on my own two feet. The sun had finally made it’s appearance, and its soft light shining into the canyon and the beauty of my surroundings dampened my fear. After passing the cliff, we stopped for some photos at a small view point. While we stood there, we saw a group of people carrying kayaks on their backs. This perplexed us: where could they possibly be going? This creek was lined with waterfalls.
We continued down the trail, getting closer to Punchbowl Falls. The girls were in front of me, and I heard footsteps approaching from behind. No doubt it was a more fit hiker who needed to get by me. I stepped to the side of the trail to make room. It was one of the kayakers.
I motioned for him to go ahead. “I’m sure you’re much faster than me.” I smiled.
The man was young, probably in his early twenties. “Oh, I don’t know, not with this thing on my back.” He was obviously being polite. I motioned him forward and he found himself walking with Claire and Natalie. Claire is the kind of person who can instantly become best friends with complete strangers, so I knew now we would find out more about this group of kayakers.
In the few minutes on the trail, we learned that the group of kayakers were in fact going into Eagle Creek. They would put in at Punch Bowl Falls, and go down the creek and over waterfalls up to 90 feet in height. As the young man talked, there was no bravado or pride in his voice. He humbly answered all the girls’ questions.
“How do you get down into the creek? Do you just jump in and sacrifice yourselves?” Claire asked.
The kayaker laughed. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. We just get as close as we can and jump in.”
We were in awe of the courage and skill this adventure-seeking activity must take. How did someone acquire that?
“It’s a ten year process.” The young man said. “My dad started taking me kayaking when I was eight-years-old.”
Ten years. The number struck a chord in me. That was the number of years I was told it takes most writers to become successful. Practice, practice and more practice. Try and fail. With all the recent turmoil in my life, I had put my writing aside. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to pick it up again. Why would I want to do something that was so hard, and would take a decade to grow to fruition?
We arrived at the Punch Bowl Falls overlook and parted ways with the young kayaker. The view of Punch Bowl was from high above and not very close. We continued down the trail and the girls found a steep spur trail to get a better view. The trail had a big warning sign about NOT jumping off the cliff, which made me laugh after the conversation we had just had. My foot was throbbing by this point, so I stayed behind and found a nice rock to sit on. While I was sitting there, the group of kayakers passed by, looking for a way down to the creek. I saw them cut a path through the trees and bushes a little farther down.
The girls made their way back up the spur trail, and then we headed back. I was disappointed to not get closer to the water, but a little ways down the trail we saw the sign we had missed for Lower Punch Bowl Falls. The girls laughed at my exuberance as we began our way down the trail that would take us to the creek. Lower Punch Bowl Falls was small, but the creek and canyon were beautiful, albeit a little crowded. It looked like when the creek was lower, it would be possible to walk up it and get closer to Punch Bowl Falls. We settled for just getting on the river rocks and admiring the beauty of the canyon.
While we were there, the kayakers started coming down the creek. One by one they came around the canyon wall and stopped, forming a group on the side of the creek. I was thrilled that we could get to see them go over one of the falls, even if it was the smallest one. A crowd had gathered by this point, camera phones in hand. A large drone flew overhead catching the aerial view of the action. We watched in amazement as one by one the yellow kayaks went over the fall and disappeared for a brief moment, then reappeared on the creek, upright and unharmed. The cameras followed these few men and women who had the courage to brave the falls, and the dedication to master the skills necessary to do so. We were the observers; the kayakers — they were the ones not only chasing their dreams but grabbing them by the tail and enjoying the ride. No doubt each had faced obstacles: injuries, setbacks, disappointments. How many times had one of them been tempted to give up on the challenge of conquering waterfalls, because it was going to take too long to become good enough? How many times had they looked fear in the face, and had to make a choice to let it stop them, or make them stronger?
Obviously, these kayakers had natural talent, but it takes a lot more than raw talent to plunge down a 90 foot waterfall and come out in one piece. The humble confidence I saw in the young man we talked to told me that these brave souls weren’t doing this for the attention, or the glory, or the Instagram photo. They did this because in one way or another, this was their dream and they weren’t going to let anyone, or anything, stop them.
Here I was worried about letting my 16-year-old daughter walk along a cliff with a cable hand bar, and some of these kayakers were probably braving class IV or V rapids at her age. Here I was thinking about giving up on writing because my routine had been disrupted for a few weeks by death, illness and mishap, my heart heavy with worry and grief. But isn’t that the stuff that births good writing, anyway? How many writers have pushed through depression and tragedy to bring us works that touch the soul? If I gave up now, I would forever be an observer of what I admired, instead of doer. That would be a life half-lived.
After the kayakers disappeared down the bend in the creek, the girls and I made our way back up to the main trail and trudged to the trailhead. I lagged behind. It had been a long winter, and I was out of shape and sore. Each step hurt, but my hope was restored — kindled back to a small flame by the leading of my nature-loving daughter, yellow kayaks, and courageous souls.
Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:31)