Trekking The Eel River Canyon: Dust Never Sleeps (But MenDo)

Well, Eel River, our time together is nearly at an end… (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Well, Eel River, our time together is nearly at an end…
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

…And The Water Shone Like Diamonds In The Dew

Morning found me ready for some real food.  The knowledge that later on today we would be loading our backpacks into Jake’s car, on a paved road, in a community where regular, everyday, accessible folks do their living, infused us with an extra boost of collective vigor, an amplified will to continue on, yet with that normal, everyday tendency toward distraction greatly dimmed.  This light (of sorts) at the end of the tunnel (pun not intended, yet consciously not avoided) would draw us along through the remainder of our route almost as if we were but mere passengers on a set course, driven by a force outside of ourselves- kind of like a cartoon character who, suddenly detecting the scent of a freshly-baked apple pie cooling on some little old lady’s windowsill, proceeds to float along through the intervening air toward the source of the seductive aroma, with his feet no longer on the ground and his body led by wispy tendrils of sweet aroma that tow him gently by his nostrils.

Give me breakfast or give me... lunch. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Give me breakfast or give me… lunch.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Look Out Mama, There’s a White Boat Coming Down The River

A few miles south of camp we saw, for the second and final time on the trip, other people. But rather than trucking on dirt roads alongside the river, these ones were traveling on the river, on a trio of whitewater rafts.  All week long I’d been surprised that we hadn’t been seeing rafts on a daily basis, thinking as I had that this canyon was a far more popular rafting destination for this region of the state than it apparently is.  And having now walked almost sixty miles of it, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t.

From my vantage point high up on the Woodman Creek Bridge, I gazed down upon the rafters, feeling remote from them, as if in some place altogether removed from their own.  But when the navigator of the foremost boat looked up and waved at me, it brought me back to reality, and the fact that I in fact was sharing this world with other people- not just the two with whom I was traveling, but you know- everyone else.  I waved back.  After all, I needed the practice.  Soon I would be back among the teeming throngs of humanity to whose company I had spent almost 40 years growing accustomed. 

Running out of twists: The Eel River Canyon. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Running out of twists:
The Eel River Canyon.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

There’s An Ancient Railroad Rending

Immediately south of the bridge we passed through the tenth tunnel of the journey; and, though the tunnel was not collapsed in on itself, or in any other way technically impassable, it did, on its southern end, issue forth directly onto a nauseatingly steep slope of broken rock scree which reached all the way down to the river, 70 vertical feet below.  The swath of crumbling rocks, a good fifteen or twenty feet across, was set at such a steep angle that it was nearly impossible to move laterally across it without sliding downwards toward the river; yet to do so would be to never again be able to regain the rail bed, due to the steep rocky cliffs on both sides of the rock-fall.

The collapse outside the Woodman Creek Tunnel. (photo by Scott Greacen)
The collapse outside the Woodman Creek Tunnel.
(photo by Scott Greacen)

Picking my way gingerly across the loose crumbling scree, I was barely able to haul myself and my pack up to the solid ground on its far side; but after several nail-biting minutes, and some of the most adroitly-executed footwork of my backpacking career, I at last heaved myself onto terra firma, beyond the scree slope.  There I waited for the others, who followed close behind.

Scree slope outside of the Woodman Tunnel. (photo by J. Grotta)
Scree slope outside of the Woodman Tunnel.
(photo by J. Grotta)

 

Numbers Add Up To Nothin’

After that it was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the way, save for a few gnarly spots of twisted rail and brittle earth; but the challenges posed by these were nowhere near as formidable as much of what we had already come through over the past fifty-whatever miles.

The last stretch of crazy train on the journey. (photo by J. Grotta)
The last stretch of crazy train on the journey.
(photo by J. Grotta)

Just south of Deer Lodge, the last derelict railroad depot town we would pass, we stopped for a final lunch and dip at the riverside.  Fully aware that our next break would be taken after we’d left the railroad tracks for good, we savored this one, basking in the hot sun for twenty or thirty minutes, and enjoying the river’s cooling powers, before heaving on our packs for the final few miles.

 

It’s Better To Turn Out, Than It Is To Bust

After the river stop, only one bridge, one washed-out-chasm, and one tunnel remained to us; and none of them was particularly challenging.

Sometime around 1 PM, after passing out of the south end of the twelfth and final tunnel, I rounded a bend and saw a rubble-strewn equipment yard that looked familiar to me, as if I’d seen it before.  As it happened, indeed so I had; for on my reconnaissance mission a month earlier, I had gazed down at this spot from the road above, at a spot to which I had driven my car.

At the southern end of the yard, a rocky dirt road led uphill and away from the railroad, which continued on and passed out of sight just after crossing under a road bridge.  This was the bridge at Dos Rios– the endpoint of our long adventure.  I ascended the sloping dirt path, circumvented a metal gate, and stepped up onto the pavement of Dos Rios Road.  I turned left onto the road and walked out onto the bridge.

Seen from the air, the Dos Rios Road bridge, at the confluence of the Eel's Main and Middle Forks, and its junction with Highway 162. The railroad can be seen in the foreground, bending around the foot of Holmen Ridge, and winding away southward along the Main Fork, opposite, yet paralleling, the paved highway. (photo property of The Eel River Reporter http://eelriver.org/eel-river-reporter/ )
Seen from the air, the Dos Rios Road bridge, at the confluence of the Eel’s Main and Middle Forks, and its junction with Highway 162. The railroad can be seen in the foreground, bending around the foot of Holmen Ridge, and winding away southward along the Main Fork, opposite, yet paralleling, the paved highway.
(photo property of The Eel River Reporter http://eelriver.org/eel-river-reporter/ )

There’s An Ancient River Wending

Far below I could see the spot where the waters of the Middle Fork Eel mingled apprehensively with those of the much-smaller Main Fork, just before becoming one and passing away under my feet, to run the long, twisting canyon through which we had just made our way on foot, unscathed for the most part.  Jake’s poison oak was the most troubling malady our team had to show for an undertaking that could have easily left any or all of us far worse off.  All in all a very respectable showing, I thought.

Confluence of the Eel River's Main Fork with the much larger Middle Fork (entering in from the left), as seen from the bridge at Dos Rios. Dos Rios- get it? (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Confluence of the Eel River’s Main Fork with the much larger Middle Fork (entering in from the left), as seen from the bridge at Dos Rios.
Dos Rios- get it?
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

 

On An Asphalt Highway Bending

Just beyond the bridge, I could see Jake’s car, sitting quietly on the side of the road, calmly waiting for us.  Seeing it was some kind of relief.  It meant freedom, food, family, and bed; if not exactly immediately, then soon enough for my purposes.

Deep in the heart of Mendo, nowhere is anywhere. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Deep in the heart of Mendo, nowhere is anywhere.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

A few minutes later, I saw the forms of Chalk and Jake emerging from the woods up onto the road; and five minutes after that, we were speeding down Highway 162 towards Highway 101, Willits, and the Bay Area.

 

Finalist: "Understatement of the Decade" Sign Contest. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Finalist: “Understatement of the Decade” Sign Contest.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

Shelter Me From The Powder and The Finger

And so passed we, enriched and in good health all, from beyond the beyond back into just the plain old beyond, ending an epic journey through a remote and seldom-seen canyon, along the twisted, rent, and broken ruins of what was once upon a time the most expensive stretch of rail line to be operational and maintained in the United States, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, ancient ghost line of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle.

And the only thing longer than the trip itself was my re-telling of it.  Now move on.  There’s nothing more that can be said on this topic.  Ever.  By anybody.

Bye bye to you, Mendocino County, and all your North Coast associates. We will meet again; but before that can happen I need a beer, a burger, a bed, and my family for a little while. (photo by D. Speredelozzi)
Bye bye to you, Mendocino County, and all your North Coast associates. We will meet again; but before that can happen I need a beer, a burger, a bed, and my family for a little while.
(photo by D. Speredelozzi)

 

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10 thoughts on “Trekking The Eel River Canyon: Dust Never Sleeps (But MenDo)”

  1. This is a wonderfully written adventure. I have had the pleasure of twice running on this railroad, from Willits as far north as Arcata and Samoa Island, on a track speeder with Motorcar Operators West. This was many years ago when freight trains were still running occasionally. How sad to see it all gone.
    But you are right about the heat – unbearable at times, but a dip in the cool river seems to set things to right.

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that. It certainly was an epic adventure.

      Incidentally, I just an hour or so ago got back from another backpacking trip along the Eel- this time the Middle Fork, and much further upstream in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. Didn’t see anybody all weekend (except the people I was with). I love that area.

  2. Excellent piece of literature. I enjoyed reading about your adventure. Being a Rail enthusiast I was quite interested in the parts about the RR. I was out to California for the first time in 2013 for a wedding in Santa Rosa and we then took a side trip up the coast as far as Cresent City and then turned inward to Bend, Oregon and then back down I5 to SF to fly back to West Virginia.

  3. A most enjoyable read. Got to it from a post on the FB group Abandoned Rails. But as my outdoor interests extend beyond railroads to hiking and backpacking I enjoyed your entire adventure. Thanks for the posts. Thanks for saving me the trip!

    1. Thank you, and thank you for letting me know where you found the piece. I’ll have to go check out that Abandoned Rails group.

  4. I was the last GM of the NWP before the board hired an outside co to run the NWP. the beginning of the end.
    To say I could have saved it will never be known. My back was open to those who did not want change. I wish the new NWP the vary best along with SMART it will work. I enjoyed your hike it brought back a lot of good memories.

  5. It always amazes me how quickly nature reclaims it’s territory once man leaves it alone. Thanks for taking this journey! I most likely never will, but was thrilled to read of your adventure.

  6. I really enjoyed your trip report and commentary. I rode a passenger train over this route in 1985 when it was operated by the Eureka Southern Railway. I snapped some pictures from the train and posted them on the railfan website link below. Always hoped to get back there for another look but never did. If anyone recognizes location names or other specific details in my photos, please feel free to leave me some feedback as I’d love to update my captions. http://johnhill_3009.rrpicturearchives.net/srchThumbs.aspx?srch=Eureka+Southern&search=Search

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