Devil of a Staircase

My long battle with the Devil’s Staircase came to a head this past spring.

The Devil’s Staircase is a borderline mythological destination. Even after successfully finding it, I made two unsuccessful attempts to slay the dragon. It was almost as if after having Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey and I uncovered its secrets, it decided to move, asaif it were El Dorado. Or it was almost like I made stupid navigational mistakes and simply got lost. Your call.

Before taking the next trip, I sorted out the navigational problems of the prior ones. On the first trip, we ignored the GPS and went West, which turned out to be a mistake. We ended up taking 4 hours to make just 0.75 miles of progress. Coming out, we found the sweet spot and a fairly simple path. The next time, I ignored my GPS and instead followed the obvious visual path and went down a false ridge. And once you start down something that looks like the right way to go, feels like it, and is only slightly off the real path, it’s hard to force yourself to adjust. “If we keep going, I think we’ll probably be okay.” Hope is one of the greatest traits we can exhibit as people, yet it is one of the worst you can have as an off-trail hiker.

This trip, I went with Tim and Melinda and Emily in and it was a good experience for all. Tim, Melinda, and I are all veterans of the battles of offtrail waterfall hunting. Emily had recently started doing the tough hiking, but she did great on what is one of the more intimidating hikes in the state.

Once the trail died, we stopped a couple times to verify and re-verify the correct path. We broke off the obvious elk path that caused me grief on prior trips and plowed off into the brush for a few hundred yards and picked the trail back up shortly thereafter. We made good time down to the falls, and by the time we hit the beach, I noticed that I had barely broken a sweat. Considering that successful trip Jeremiah and I made where we went through a vegetative war zone, this time was downright easy by comparison. It was a lifting feeling to be at this waterfall and not feel totally drained with a brutal hike out hanging over our heads. This made it a bit cathartic as I exercised some demons. It also made me wish my right hand man Jeremiah had made the trip.

 

The weather was highly inconsistent. It went from cloudy to blue skies to rainy within minutes. This complicated photography a bit. On one hand, it meant we had different colors and lighting. On the other, it didn’t give much time to hone in before the weather cycled. On top of that, the Staircase itself looks different depending on where you stand. Moving 15 feet one way can drastically alter the look and feel it gives off. This gave a diverse amount of looks to try and capture in a decidedly finite amount of time.

 

I found a footprint on the staircase.

 

There are countless holes and pools within the steps. While walking across the waterfall without it being pretty bare, I'd imagine it would be really easy to misstep into one.

 

My favorite part of this place is probably the easy access to watching and photographing rough-skinned newts. Already one of my favorite animals, they are so plentiful here, you have to watch where you walk. It is undoubtedly the best location I have found to observe them below and above water.

 

Many of the potholes in the rock had multiple newts in them. Some had as many as 7 or 8.

 

These guys look like they were smashed in Mario Kart.

 


This guy came right up to me and started quietly making fun of Tim.

 


“So, then the guy with the red shirt says...wait, he’s right behind me, isn’t he? We’ll talk later...”

 

Jokes aside, the newt came out of a small pool, looked up at me from a fair distance, and changed its course to make its way directly toward me. Once it got close, it lifted its head up and stared right at me for a bit. I hadn’t seen this behavior before.

 

I really enjoyed the 3 or 4 minutes watching this one as it watched me.  I have had the pleasure of experiencing many wild animal interactions over the years: having a bald eagle flex its claws as it stared directly down a tree at me, being trailed by a bear, being stalked by a cougar, other newts, whistling back and forth with hawks in the backyard, helping to hoot in owls, and many others.  This one really stuck with me.

 

What's going on in that head?  What's he building in there?

The more time I’ve spent observing rough-skinned newts and have learned about them, the stranger I find them, behaviorally. They are toxic for almost all creatures to eat, with only garter snakes being mostly immune. (Fun fact, when garter snakes eat a newt, they absorb the toxin and often become toxic to anything that eats them.) Biologists think this is a somewhat new adaptation by the snakes. Even though no large animals can eat the newts, they still are usually very skittish. Except when they’re not. They can also be very curious or will walk/swim right up to you. I’ve had them climb on my camera on many occasions, including this trip. Weirdly, this behavior can come from the same newt within the span of a few seconds of it fleeing in panic. I give an anecdotal attribution to my bright orange and sparkly Nikon AW100, but I can’t say for sure what causes them to drop their inhibitions and get curious or get scared and take off. Who knows what goes on in those little brains of theirs, but it may be more than we think. Or less.

 


Oddly, one of the main flat spots on the waterfall seems to force the water slightly uphill, as the water slows down quite a bit before heading over the edge.

 

Here’s a picture of the team as the rain started. It only lasted a few minutes. Left-to-right, it's Me, Tim, Melinda, and Emily. A great group of people...and me too.

 


We begin the trudge out of the hole.

 

There weren’t a lot of flowers. This white trillium had unusually straight leaves.

 

Emily or Melinda spotted this water collection in a spider web. We spent quite a bit of time trying to photograph it and I don’t think any of us did very successfully. By far the largest we had ever seen, measuring an estimated 1.5-2 inches in diameter. It is truly amazing what spider webs can withstand.



“Acquiring satellites”? How about “acquiring road”? We stopped so we could take a vegetation pic on the road. I put my head down to set my camera back in the door panel and when I looked up, I had to slowly start because I couldn’t tell where the road was and couldn’t be certain I stopped the car while it was on it. The road going in isn’t getting any clearer. It’s actually getting worse. I would imagine it will be unusable in a short number of years, either due to vegetation or collapse in a few spots.

In the end, we made it down without breaking much of a sweat. We made it back out without killing ourselves. The hike out, while steep, was quietly pleasant, with a nice breeze flowing through the trees during an early evening sun. Then again, I wasn’t the one suffering from leg cramps. Overall, my GPS tracked it at around 5.5 miles round-trip, which is pretty short, all things considered. Being able to get in and out without any drama or stress made the time spent at the waterfall that much more enjoyable, as well as the hike out that much more bearable, if not even somewhat enjoyable.

The Devil’s Staircase was on track to become a protected place, set aside from logging, mining, and other activities which would alter it for the worse. The BLM, Forest Service, logging companies, conservation groups, and the state government all came to terms on a land use agreement. Somehow, in spite of this, the wilderness area protective designation has still not been completed and potentially has fallen through the cracks. This is most likely due to the cancerous effect Congress has on our country. That all these public and private interest groups can agree and it still not happen proves how truly incompetent and lacking in integrity the current Congress is.

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