Sulphur Creek

My first memory of visiting Sulphur Creek was in the early 70's. The "Back to the Land" movement was in full swing, and if you had any brain cells left after going through the Sixties, your first thoughts were to get out of the evil cities and go live in the woods. Since my job was in the city, I had to make do with occasional trips via freight train to the Crags, where my friends and I built a sweat lodge on the lower part of Sulphur Creek.

Sulphur Creek after rain

upper section of creek after rain

For some reason we figured that if the water smelled as bad as it did, it must have some magical regenerative powers, or thoughts to that effect. We found a willow tree next to the creek, cut off most of the branches, and bent it over so that the tip was at ground level, where we tied it to a large rock, creating a framework to add more branches to until we had what looked like a lot of willow branches resting on a bent-over willow tree. Throwing a tarp over the whole "structure" and piling rocks along the bottom edge gave us our "sweat lodge". All we had to do, or so we thought, was to build a fire inside, pile a bunch of rocks on top, and pour water over it. What could be simpler?

For one thing, we didn't get started until late afternoon, and when it came time to build the fire, it was hard to find decent firewood that we could cram into our soon-to-be-overcrowded sweat lodge. Our initial estimate as to how big the "lodge" should be was determined by all three of us sitting in a circle on the ground, as we expected we would be doing inside the lodge. Mistake number one. On the plus side it just happened that the only tarp we had would be perfectly large enough to cover the three of us in our "sitting circle". On the minus side we neglected to figure in the size of the fire ring in the middle. Oh well, we thought, if it got too hot we could just go outside and jump in the creek to cool off. Mistake number two. In our wanderings to find the perfect willow tree to serve as the ridge beam for the lodge, we ended up choosing one that was near the creek alright, but up a 8' or 10' embankment.

By the time we brought in enough rocks to make an effective fire ring, and a supply of wood for the fire, it was dark. Guided by our feeble flashlight beams, we all stripped down and crawled inside, only to find that we could barely sit up without having our feet in the fire ring. After spending quite a while trying to sit comfortably while bent forward from the close confines of the tarp, we now realized that we should probably get a supply of grapefruit-sized rocks to put on the coals after the fire died out. Mistake number three. Slowly and painfully we all extracted ourselves from our pseudo yoga positions and somehow managed to come up with a half-dozen suitable rocks to generate the steam that would course through our skin an make us... "Indian-like". Fortunately, before we all had to re-enter the lodge again somebody remembered that we didn't have any water to pour on the rocks to make steam, so another stumble down to the creek was made and several bottles of water brought back.

By now my bare feet were killing me from sliding/stumbling up and down the embankment in the dark, so I also brought in a bottle of Hearty Burgundy, certainly one of the "Ten Essentials" of backpacking at the time. A candle was lit and we began whittling down some of the wood into kindling. Carefully we made a "tee-pee", and piled larger and larger pieces of wood on top to ensure a good bed of coals for our steam ceremony, which I hoped would ease the growing pain in my back from leaning forward all the time. The wine was doing its magic as the fire was finally lit, and we all felt a sort of renewal, or something like that. We had moved so far away from the fire ring that the bottom edge of the tarp had pulled away from the ground, allowing a rush of cool air that fanned the fire into life. As the fire grew larger (and hotter) we kept moving farther and farther away, so that my entire backside was now outside of the lodge, and the added airflow created a miniature blast furnace in front of us. Fully satisfied that there were indeed coals somewhere in the bottom of the fire ring, out of a combination of anticipation of just how this steam thing was going to work and an undeniable yearning of self-preservation facing a growing bonfire, we dragged the fiercely-burning logs outside, and went back into the lodge to pile the "ceremonial rocks" on top of the coals. Banking some dirt around them to keep in the heat, we worked on the Hearty Burgundy and wondered how long we needed to wait before we added the water. Somebody put their finger on one of the rocks to see if they were "ready" and a loud scream told us that they were.

cascades and waterfall

cascades and waterfall on Sulphur Creek

The Hearty Burgundy made another round and the water was held aloft, each of us mumbled something like "It's about fucking time!", and slowly the water bottles were emptied on the rocks below. What happened next was truly unexpected. Apparently [we learned after the fact] you're not supposed to put "river rocks" in a fire and pour water over them, because the moisture inside the rocks starts to boil, and since the steam has no way to escape, the rocks explode, which they did in a spectacular fashion. One minute we were sitting in a warm fog, drinking wine, and the next minute there was a noise like an M-80 going off inside a Volkswagon Bug. After inching away from the fire for so long we were almost sitting outside of the tarp, so when the rocks exploded we all tumbled backward on the ground, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Looking back into the smoke-filled lodge, there was now an intricate pattern of holes spread around the top of the tarp, allowing moonlight to filter through like our own little planetarium. I guess the dirt piled up around the rocks caused the blast to go upward, instead of outward, which we all agreed was a good thing. No one was hurt, except for a possible ingestion of smoke and flying dirt, and there was still a little Hearty Burgundy left to toast our first (and last) sweat lodge.