'I should've turned back' is a common refrain on an icy hike to Umtamum Falls

Part 1 of a series on a fly-fishing trip to the Yakima River Canyon. Part 2 continues next week.



Nora looks down at Umtanum Creek.


A view from a cliff above Umtanum Falls.


A view of Umtanum Falls.


Nora the Schnauzer heads down an icy trail.


The cotton-pickin' root pulled loose.

On my hands and knees, I clawed at the soaked black earth with my fingernails to halt my backwards skid onto the inch-thick sheet of ice - then over the edge of the 30-foot cliff and down, down into the tumbling icy pool beneath Umtanum Falls (It's spelled "Umptanum" on some maps, by the way).

Nora the Schnauzer, her feet digging ahead of me on her leash, turned to peer into my wide, round eyes.

I felt like Carl Kolchak, the TV journalist played by Darin McGavin in "Night Stalker" about 35 years ago.

No, I wasn't about to be hacked-up by a supernatural Jack the Ripper, but as I looked into Nora's face Kolchak's familiar thought came to mind: "You're probably wondering how I got myself into this fix."

"We'll, you should know," I hissed to Nora as I ground to a stop inches from the sheet of ice. "You were there."

I had stopped at Red's Fly Shop in the Yakima Canyon, bought some new Skwalla fly patterns, and fished a couple of my favorite holes on the Yakima River, while my wife Darlene waited in the car.

So, at about 11:15 a.m., having caught my usual limit (zero is apparently my limit), I asked Darlene if she wanted to visit Umtanum Falls again.

She hesitated but said, "Sure."

"It's not that far, and we can be back on the river for the afternoon Skwalla hatch, and I can fish dry-fly patterns for a few hours," I predicted.

I should've known better.

Another bad sign came after we'd driven much farther than I remembered, hit a slippery mud road with a sign that said, "not maintained in winter, proceed at your own risk."

Another half-hour or so later, I stopped in the empty parking area for the falls, with the temperature in the mid 30's.

A thick layer of mud covered the car's sides, and when I got out my coat brushed the door and came away soaked with oozing mud.

"Aren't you going," I asked Darlene.

"Aren't you kidding?" she retorted.

"We'll it's not very far," I said uneasily. "Nora and I will be right back."

I should've kicked myself and crawled back in the car. Instead, I slung on two camera bags and we left.

I carried Nora across the first creek crossing, at the edge of the parking area, tip-toeing across 10-feet of water almost over my boot tops. When we had crossed the stream last May, Darlene simply stepped across it.

Very little snow remained on the meadows, but packed-ice made the trail slippery, I walked the edge of the path.

When we reached the woods, bushes forced me to walk the path, and it was slip-and-slide progress until we reached the next stream crossing.

I should have turned back. No way to cross, so I climbed along the canyon wall for a couple hundred yards until I saw two side-by-side, 4-inch saplings across the stream.

I found a walking stick and lifted Nora under my right arm. I stepped on the saplings and they sank, but not over my boots. As I made the final leap, I tossed Nora (gently) onto the bank.

It took 30 more minutes to reach the falls. It had taken under 30 minutes for the entire walk, one way, in May.

Anyway, after crashing onto my side as I cleaned my glasses while walking, we reached the falls.

The steep horseshoe-shaped trail up the hillside and down onto a rim with a view of the falls was a combination of ice and mud.

I should have turned back, but we made it down to the steep wall in front of the falls.

When Nora skidded onto the ice there, I orderd her back and put her on the leash to keep her away from the edge.

I skirted the sheet of ice and took several photos. I wanted to climb all the way down to the stream below the falls, but even I'm not that dumb.

So, we started to leave. As I pulled myself up the hill by bare pine roots, one broke.

So, I clawed. And clawed. Finally, sweating above the falls, I scrubbed my hands in snow.

I crossed the stream on a different log on the return. Nora wouldn't follow, however so I went back and picked her up.

Then I miss-stepped into the stream up to my knees, soaked my pants and filled my boots. Nora didn't get wet.

We climbed up the hillside and tried a shortcut, which didn't pan out.

By the time I reached the car, I'd sweated through my shirt, shorts and sweaters. My socks, pants and boots leaked streams of Umtanum Creek.

On the way home, I bought gas in Yakima, and we stopped for dinner. Not a happy meal for me.

That evening at home, as I stuffed newspaper into my boots to soak up Umtanum Creek, I realized I'd left my credit card at the gas station.


On the happy side, Darlene tried her first-ever hamburger at Miners in Yakima.

"It was the best," she said.

Editor's Note: Part 2 of this report about a fly-fishing trip to the Yakima River Canyon will continue in this space next week.

If You Go

Drive north into Ellensburg on the Yakima Canyon Road. Turn left at the first stoplight after driving under the I-90 underpass onto Damman Road or Umtanum Road on some maps. The road goes under the freeway. Turn left when Damman Road meets Brown Conn Road. It will turn back into Umtanum Road and soon become unpaved. Eventually the road twists down from the ridge to the parking area on the left. The elevation is about 2,500 feet, and the GPS coordinates are N46 53.975 W120 38.588. WDFW parking permits are required at the trailhead.


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