The Chiwaukum enigma
by Lee Rentz
As I write this, it is three days since we left the remote Chiwaukum Range in Washington's Cascade Mountains, but the haunting memories cling to us. My feet are blistered from the forced 11 mile hike out, when we needed to get out before darkness fell. We made it, but we may have simply been lucky. Others may not have been so fortunate.

The backpacking trip started innocently enough. We hiked in about five miles; it was getting toward dark and we were tired and short of water. I left Karen on the trail and descended to the Chiwaukum River. There were flat places on the flood plain where we could set up a tent, but the place was dark under big evergreens and felt vaguely ominous, so I climbed back up to the trail and told Karen I would search farther ahead along the trail. I hiked on about a quarter mile and decided that the place where Karen rested was as good as any.

On that little hike ahead along the trail, I had encountered a red day pack sitting neatly just beside the trail. I stopped and looked around for the owner, but nobody seemed to be nearby. I didn't think much more about it, but mentioned it to Karen.

We camped the first night under a grove of huge ponderosa pines. After we set up the tent Karen noticed a fresh pile of black bear scat about 15 feet from the tent. It was getting dark, so we didn't have time to move the tent. We hung our food out of a bear's reach, zipped the tent closed, and hoped for the best. The night was quiet, even as we strained to hear the imagined sounds of a bear rummaging outside.

The next morning dawned without incident. After making camp coffee and fixing breakfast, we broke camp and started down the trail. Almost immediately we were surprised to see that the red day pack was still there. We talked about it, and decided that we should look inside to see if we could figure out something about what happened to its owner. The main compartment contained food: a quick check showed some rank kielbasa, stale bagels, and sour cream with about a week's blue-green mold fuzzing the surface. Then we looked inside the flap and discovered a wallet , which contained a driver's license, library card, electrician's union card, and a credit card--but no cash. Had someone already taken the cash? We decided to remove the wallet so we could try to return it when we got off the trail; we also planned to pick up and carry out the red day pack when we got back to this point on the trail in three days.

Later that morning we encountered some hikers on their way out and gave them the wallet and asked if they could remove the pack, mark the place, and carry the wallet and pack to the authorities. They agreed, and we heard no more about it. What happened to that hiker we may never know. We also spoke to a couple later that day who thought they heard a bear nosing around their tent in the prior night's inky darkness.

We hiked up a long grade to a valley filled with meadows interspersed with aspen groves, reminding us of the Colorado high country we once loved so much. In a meadow surrounded by aspens, we set up camp for the evening. It wasn't a perfect place, and the more we looked around, the more uneasy we got. Something felt wrong. There seemed to be an unseen presence here.

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Trail into the dark spruce forest in Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Story and photographs Copyright © 2000 by Lee Rentz
LEE RENTZ PHOTOGRAPHY
Copyright © 2000 by Lee Rentz. All rights reserved.
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