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Nobody Expects the Spanish Canyon

  • Submitted by: Matt Donath
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

A strange stocking-stuffer, but appropriate for my first Christmas with my bride. Besides, she likes a recap now and then-I think I gave her two during the honeymoon itself. She's probably totally forgotten this incident and this will no doubt read like a fresh tale. So, here goes -- a recap of the defining moment of our honeymoon.

After pleasant little tourist towns like Arcata and Ferndale, we were in need of some serious wilderness. I'd felt it was a destined location the moment I first heard about it. Serendipitously finding the small tourist office in Eureka (Eureka!) was the first sign. Then, while lazily glancing at a map of the surrounding area, I note that there are no roads along the coast west of the King's Range. As an afterthought I ask if there is camping in that area and am rewarded with the very last BLM map of the "Lost Coast".

A perfect destination and my brand new wife agrees. We got a late start out of Ferndale, delayed by its interesting antique store and hilltop cemetery. The rambling drive down the long and winding road led to the mouth of the river and the start of the trail. I'm tempted to spend the night at the campsite here, where there is water and the cooking will be easier. We are tired and could use a good rest.

Sybil wants to hit the trail and get away from the crowd and I quickly change my mind. We should be alone and luxurious solitude lies ahead in the wild. We glance at the tide chart, just long enough to misinterpret it, and trudge through the sand.

I'd heard it was windy and they weren't kidding! It's mostly at our backs though, so we quickly reach the lighthouse and cook dinner up in its howling tower. Birds swoop in and out below us. We are out of the wind but it's whistling presence seems imposing and the hard metal floor is uninviting. So we decide to check out some of the stick shelters down on the beach. A few cookies for desert first.

The shelter is much homier. We feel like Robinson Crusoe in our driftwood house. Pitch the tent in the middle and off to sleep. Oh no! Sybil shoos off an otter or some other rodent that has gnawed a hole in our brand new Marmot tent. Oh well, what can you do. It couldn't stay new forever.

We start the next day blissfully ignorant of the trials to come. After some more beach walking we take the high trail up on the bluffs and get some fabulous views of unspoiled California coast. We see some sea lions out on the rocks. When we get down to the beach again we get much too close to a huge dead male sea lion washed up on the beach. His belly is bloated purple and distended. Amazingly, my curious bride decides to hurl a rock at him in some bizarre hope of getting an even stronger whiff of his decaying gases.

Skirting around some rocks -- doesn't it seem like the tide is too high? Up onto bluffs again, passing a youth group of mostly teenage girls napping off their hiking. Then some nice, easy walking on the flat, all the way to the next river where somewhere around here we're supposed to find the trail inland.

Where is it though? We ask some other hikers but they are more lost than we are. Back and forth we slowly search for a path up the foothills. Sybil is sure the path must be right near the canyon entrance, even though the map says otherwise. We look and it isn't there.

Sybil wants to hike up the canyon and scramble out at the end, up to the path on the ridge that leads back to the car. I'm extremely dubious as the map shows a few contour lines between end of canyon and start of path, but Sybil claims to have done stuff like this "dozens of times." We are out for adventure though and she was right about starting off yesterday afternoon, so we go for it -- into the soon to be infamous Spanish Canyon.

The going is deceptively easy at first, lulling us into false confidence. After scrambling up the beautiful streambed for awhile Sybil has us strip down to have a cooling wash in the cold water. The moment is nearly perfect as we sit drying in the warm sun. The air is fresh and green smelling.

On and on we climb, always looking up and off to the sides for any hint of trail. We scramble up one promising ridge, only to discover a split in the canyon in front of it -- dead end. At this point I want to go back, and say so. Sybil wants to press forward and part of me does as well, so we continue the progressively more difficult climb.

Large logs block the way as we discover a scree slope. We decide to scurry up -- bad idea! The loose scree pulls us back one foot for every two we climb. Then we get to an impasse. Sybil is precariously perched above me and says she can go no higher. I can not get around her to try. Even if I could make it, it would be pointless as I could never pull Sybil up. We must go down.

Because we let loose so much rock, causing mini-avalanches when we move, I tell Sybil to stay still while I go down. However, she can't easily keep her place and starts slipping while I'm far below her, sending large rocks down to bounce painfully off my head. I yell and curse at her to stay still but she can't help sliding down a bit. Even her tiniest movement seems to send a hailstorm of rocks raining down on me. We are both angry and distraught.

I finish up my descent with a quick unceremonious butt slide and Sybil follows. We are both scratched and banged up but very glad to get off the scree slope. Again I want to go down, even though I doubt we can make it all the way down by nightfall, but Sybil again persuades me to press on. According to the map it can't be much further . . ..

Oh, but it is. We go up and the way gets harder and harder. There are one or two places where it seems nearly impassible, but we somehow manage to find a way up. Once we have to shimmy up a fallen log next to the streambed. Another time, we pull ourselves over a rock to get around a waterfall.

It's now clear we will have to spend the night in this treacherous canyon. Sybil sees our first halfway promising spot for awhile and suggests we camp there. This time it is my foolishness that presses us forward. I want to see what's just ahead; we could be so near now.

Up we go. Up, until finally we truly stymied and can no longer go up the streambed. We are faced with a large pool of water surrounded by steep sheer slippery rock -- no way to pass. But wait! Almost as if someone had left us an out, a secret way out of the puzzle, we see a fallen log hanging over one of the steep sides. Slowly and dangerously we climb up.

Now if we can just climb up the wood covered slope beyond, we might just see a path. In my excitement at possibly getting out I forge ahead of Sybil and stagger up, up to the top of the ridge and see . . . another ridge! It is dark and I'm deflated. The canyon has defeated us this day. There is no sign of a flat place to pitch the tent. I go back down to Sybil and in desperation we huddle against a large tree on the side of the slope.

This is really the best we could do and it's damned uncomfortable. We just pressed against each other (and Sybil against the tree) waiting for the long night to end. We sleep a bit, but not very much. The only positive aspects of the night were that it didn't rain and that it finally ended.

The next day starts ominously wrong -- my sleeping bag is missing, probably rolled down the slope. I climb down, search around and eventually find it. I climb back up and we try to take the high road down, on the ridge parallel to the streambed we'd come up on. Yes, we have finally both come to the conclusion (and at the same moment even!) that we can not go forward.

We bushwhack up along the ridge sometimes through thick brush. I step on a beehive! An angry swarm shoots out towards my head and starts painfully stinging. I rush off in a mad blind run along the dangerous slope, crazily waving my arms, oblivious to the fact that a misstep will plunge me far down to the rocks below.

I finally lose the bastards and smash my stick against a tree in a rage, swearing and cursing. I have about eight very painful stings, mostly to my head. However I'm swearing more because I've come to another dead end as the ridge ends in empty space. Sybil eventually catches up to me and I tell her I'm a bit dizzy and could get worse. She suggests we try to climb down to the streambed.

It looks steep, but I'm ready to go. I just don't care anymore. I'm just about to dive down the slope first, to see if it's possible, when Sybil realizes it's too dangerous and talks me out of it. Later we will see there are sheer rocks below this point so I would most likely have been badly injured should I have gone. I was very close to a suicidal roll down the cliff.

We carefully make our way back up the slope, wary of the disturbed bees. Sybil tells me I caught a bullet for her, as she is most likely allergic to bee stings (runs in her family) and could have died if she'd been stung. I try to clear my head and keep from getting groggy with bee venom. Collecting myself I take charge and somehow find a way back to the log we'd used to climb out of the streambed!

We climb down, relieved to be on familiar ground but all too aware of the difficulties ahead of us. Those three or four places that were nearly impossible to climb up yesterday may prove even tougher on the way down. Still, we are determined. We get past one of the tricky bits and take a short break. Then we wearily move with great resolution towards a known goal.

If the Spanish Canyon hike is a milestone in the honeymoon, the next event is a key one for me. While bushwhacking around a waterfall, Sybil steps on another beehive. A swarm chases after her as she runs screaming back to the riverbed. I run down to her and tell her to get in the water and she frantically splashes the bees off on her. I'm also getting stung -- one bee is stuck under my shirt and using me as a pincushion. More bees start swarming around Sybil so she jumps up and starts running down the riverbed.

I pick up Sybil's backpack and hat and follow. We both race recklessly down the rocky bed. Any misstep could twist an ankle (I'm wearing gym shoes) but we just want to put some distance between the bees and us. Finally we come to a panting stop. I drop both backpacks and try to calm my wet and crying bride.

She is very close to full-blown panic. She again states that she could be allergic and could pass out at any minute. Then, just like a post-Carrie horror movie, a few more bees pop out of our clothes and menace us. We move off a bit and try to calm down again.

This is a moment I remember very well. Sybil is near panic, but she isn't quite gone. I can see the toughness inside her despite her quivering facade. Even though she has frightened me a bit with her talk of passing out, she has also strengthened my resolve. I get deadly calm and know I will get her out. Nothing will stop me and I certainly will not let her die. For I see very clearly at this point that we need each other and will survive together. I hold her and then wet a sock for her to place on her stings.

I immediately forget any thoughts of succumbing to bee stings. I become more talkative, giving Sybil positive feedback every step of the way. My resilient Sybil is also all capable action. We both get better and better as we climb down.

Once we are past the tough bits I breathe easier and am vocal in my optimism. When we finally reach the bottom of the canyon I know we are out of danger. Because Sybil is still afraid of a venom reaction, we decide to hike all the way out today. The way is long and hard with the wind blowing in our faces. We meet some hikers who give us some anti-venom swabs. They help a bit but not much.

Ominously, I have an itchy purple blob on the back of my right hand. It will later turn out to be a terrible case of poison oak, which will plague us both for weeks. Of all the nasties that hit us during the trip (and later Sybil will pull a tick off me that was lodged near my groin) the poison oak was by far the worst.

We scurry around rocks as the tide rolls in and hike hard to the lighthouse. Here we have a much-needed supper before the final enervating push out through the strong headwind and deep sands. The past two days were amazingly long and arduous. We are damaged but we are together. Most importantly, we know we can get through a great deal of adversity together.

We discovered our underlying strength in the Spanish Canyon. The remainder of the honeymoon is more soothing. Sitting in the Hopland beer garden drinking Red Tail Ale at my favorite California brewpub the Spanish Canyon seemed far away. Likewise, the luxurious hot springs in Calistoga, or sightseeing in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities, we could almost forget the perilous past.

We remember it all (those of us who remember) with fondness now. The good pushes aside the bad but it is the bad that makes for good stories and strong impressions. I was very proud of my Sybil during that final push out of the Spanish canyon. I was proud of the way we came through in the clutch.

We both learned much there. For my part I learned that what I used to view as Sybil's constant complaining is more like a continual verbal update on her operational status. I learned that we could scream at each other one moment and in the next calm down and think rationally. I learned that I can depend on Sybil to buck up under difficult circumstances.

Most importantly I learned that I had truly married the right woman.

Very Happy X-Mas 1997! -Our first together after the Spanish Canyon.

Matt Rec.Travel Library
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