A winter misadventure in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

A group of four local anglers went on a mid-January backpacking trip into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness on a quest for steelhead in the beautiful upper stretches of the Chetco River. Not everything went according to plan, however, and the group ended up having to bushwhack out through the snow.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The journey began as a backcountry fishing trip into the wild stretches of the upper Chetco River.

It ended as a bushwhacking escape through the snow, wind and cold in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

The only sure thing about Ron Padgett and his group’s mid-January trip is that it turned into an adventure they won’t soon forget.

“It was one of those trips that reminds you why it’s so important to be prepared when you go into the wilderness,” Padgett said. “In the winter, you can have everything prepared — your route and the weather report — and it can still go to (heck) pretty quick.”

The idea was a simple one. Padgett and his group of four knew that runs of large steelhead lurked in the emerald pools of the upper Chetco this time of year.

Because the dry weather of this past December and January kept the Kalmiopsis accessible later than normal, the group decided to attempt the unique fishing trip.

“The fishing really is incredible,” said Eric Gade, who had explored the upper stretches of the Chetco in the past. “They’re big steelhead and you almost have to sneak up on them in those beautiful, clear green pools.”

Their trip started on Jan. 12 at Onion Camp Trailhead, west of Selma, where the group parked and hiked a few miles north to Chetco Pass.

From that point, it was supposed to be an easy hike to the spot where Slide Creek empties into the Chetco River.

The trail, however, ended up being anything but easy.

Padgett and Gade, who are both 62 and own landscape businesses in the area, said the trail was blanketed with downed trees and thick brush.

The group, which also included locals Steve Weadock and Dustin Hardin, made painfully slow time as they thrashed down an overgrown route that used to be a road.

“I couldn’t believe how bad it has gotten over the years,” Gade said. “We came to places where we had to take our packs off and crawl under branches and trees for 50 to 100 feet.

The group thought about turning around more than once, but with the river seeming just around the corner, their water bottles empty and the route back a disaster, they decided to tough it out.

They made camp in the woods and finally reached the Chetco River at 3:30 p.m. the next day, finding themselves well behind schedule.

At that point, they decided fishing just wasn’t going to happen. They had more important things to do, such as finding a new path back to their vehicle.

“The plan had been to camp along the river near Slide Creek, spend a few days fishing and then hike back out the same route we came in,” Gade said. “But we weren’t going to make it back up that trail, so we decided to figure out a different route.”

Mother Nature didn’t make it easy.

After they followed the Chetco River south — and twice forded its frozen waters — they stopped for the night at the old Bailey Cabin site.

The next morning they awoke to three inches of snow with more on the way.

“The snow came in, and kept right on blowing on Sunday,” Padgett said. “At that point we did start to get a little concerned. We lost the trail under about five inches of snow. And there were a lot of very slick, icy cliffs that were pretty treacherous.”

The target was Babyfoot Lake and a trail that would lead them back to their car. But after losing the trail they had to navigate across a snowy landscape of cliffs and valleys with winds blowing and visibility often limited.

“My worst fear, being at an older age, was that I would slip and break a few limbs,” Gade said. “At one point we were on a bald ridge, with the snow blowing sideways, and I realized that we had to make sure and do this correctly.”

There also was the need to get out that day. The group told friends and family they would return Sunday night. If they didn’t show, that would cause a great deal of worry.

During a break in the weather, they caught sight of a road in the distance they believed would lead back to their truck. After a few miles bushwhacking in that direction, they came across Babyfoot Lake Trail 1124.

The exhausted group headed northwest to Forest Service Road 4201 and finished its odyssey around 4:30 p.m. — just before the night’s darkness arrived.

“It never got too dire,” Padgett said. “We had plenty of food and could have camped out for quite a while before it would have gotten serious. But it was one of those trips that reminds you how important it is to be prepared.”


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