Benson Plateau (Day 1: Ruckel Ridge)

We started late on our first day. My hiking partner didn’t pick me up until around nine and we had to stop for some supplies on our way, so we didn’t get on the trail until almost eleven. Luckily, everyone else was lagging even more and we were able to get a good parking space right next to the caretaker’s trailer. We got our packs on and adjusted and got moving. Pretty much right away, my buddy realized that he forgot his poles. This was a bit of a disappointment for me, since it meant that I would feel like a bit of a jerk using my poles when he didn’t have his. The jaunt to the base of the Ruckel Creek trail was quick though, so I really didn’t have long to wait before the climbing began.

The Ruckel Creek trail is steep. It starts out aggressively and climbs about 2000 feet in less than two miles. This was the first time either of us had worn more than a day pack in a couple of years and the effects were immediate. We stopped a lot and marveled at the vertical distance we gained with each switch back. When we eventually took lunch, our view over the Columbia was impressive and little did we know that we were less than half way through the days climb.

Lunch was amazing though. I ate the first of my lunches and it was just about the best trail lunch I’ve ever had. My wife had gotten me some tasty little cured sausages and aged smoked gouda from the Woodsman Market and I supplemented those with dried apple rings. The combination of flavors was just right and my body was thirsty for the proteins and salt. We had even found a perfect log to sit on and enjoy our meal. Our morale was at a high point as we set out well fortified.

The next section of the trail was more leisurely in its climb, though we did continue to ascend. We were treated to some spectacular views of the Columbia and the wildflowers were in bloom in the meadows. It was a gorgeous day to be hiking, clear but not hot. So we pushed along and consulted our maps, confident that the worst already lay behind us.

We were wrong. Eventually we started running into day hikers headed back down the trail. They warned us that the last mile of the trail would be ‘intense.’ These words of warning didn’t really sink in until we reached those last switchbacks. The trail pitched up at a nearly ludicrous grade and we were quickly reduced to a trudge. We managed to suffer through and I must say that finding the wilderness boundary that marked the edge of the plateau’s top almost made me cry.

We decided to pitch camp at the first site that we stumbled into and settle in before we collapsed. We had a nice little creek to supply us with fresh water and good spots for our tents. I ate my ramyun and collapsed for the night.

This first day on the trail showed me a couple of things. The first was that I needed to focus on not favoring one foot. As I climbed the steep trail, I realized that I was doing the bulk of the work with my left leg and that I could be setting myself up for trouble. The FiveFingers had worked well, but the made me acutely aware of how my feet interacted with the ground. My food had worked out well. My new pump turned out to be awesome and fast. All in all, my gear and provisions were treating me right.

This would all change on our second day, when it rained.