TOPOPHILIA: Intimacy With Place Interview Series: Canyoneering with Mike Peterson

Welcome back, everyone! Today, we are so excited to share our recent conversation with Pacific Northwest canyoneer, Mike Peterson.

Mike shares with us his perspective around time spent outdoors, places that feel like home, self improvement, and having no chill. We dive into a canyoneering mishap he recently experienced that could have been fatal, the way common mistakes can cloud our critical thinking, and how he imagines this incident will shape him going forward.

NORTHER EMILY: So, I was talking to [photographer and cave explorer] Josh Hydeman about a creek in the Gifford Pinchot and he was like, “Oh, well, you should just talk to Mike about that because he goes there every day”.

MIKE PETERSON: I don’t know what he’s talking about… unless it’s… Big Creek?

NORTHER EMILY: Yeah. I think so…

[Laughs]

NORTHER EMILY: So, the concept that I wanted to talk about with you today is topophilia; which is a sense of attachment or connection to a place. At Wild Solitude, we call it “Relationship with Place” or “Intimacy with Place”… but that’s a very flowery term for what I think is a very universal experience.

I was wondering if you have a phrase or a term that you use to describe your relationship with certain places?

MIKE PETERSON: I think about it in terms of feeling. It usually just feels like home. I mean, all nature does, but certain places just kind of fit, or I fit in them, if that makes sense. It feels no different than being at home with my dog.

NORTHER EMILY: Do you want to talk about what some of the places are around the Pacific Northwest that feel like home to you?

MIKE PETERSON: Big Creek is definitely one of those, I think it probably is for a lot of people who canyoneer, too. It’s unique for the area, in that it’s just a big, encompassing canyon. Once you’re down inside that place, you’re away from the rest of the world.

I feel that way about most places in nature. In the northwest, obviously, I spend a lot of time in canyons, so that’s the first place I get pulled to, but there’s definitely lots of other forests around my house that I spend time in.

For me, it’s anywhere that I can be isolated. Usually, off trail is my happy place.

I really dig places that are close by, right? Places where I can take off an afternoon and go out there, with my dog or by myself, so I can get that peace of mind that we’re all seeking out in nature.

Any kind of little trails near my house, or Eagle Creek trail is a great one… not the Gorge Eagle Creek, but Mount Hood Eagle Creek. Its a well manicured trail, but there’s hardly ever anybody on it. It’s just this peaceful little slice of old growth. Salmon Huckleberry is the same way. Even my backyard- I have a canyon in my backyard, I go out and hang out on the bedrock.

It’s pretty easy to find that intimacy you talk about anywhere in nature for me.

NORTHER EMILY: The Eagle Creek Trail is so underrated, and that whole area of the Salmon- Huckleberry. When I realized the Douglas trails connects and you can hike there from highway 26 over Wildcat mountain, that kind of blew my mind.

Do you want to talk a bit about how you got into canyoneering; I know that you are new to the Pacific Northwest…

MIKE PETERSON: So I started off trailing in June of 2020, and very quickly just jumped into it with both feet. I went from trying to get to places that were on the waterfall survey to trying to locate waterfalls that hadn’t really been figured out.

I was out hiking in Bull of the Woods Wilderness and I came across a slot canyon I couldn’t get into. It got posted on an off trail Facebook group and someone made the comment that, “I’m surprised the canyoneers hadn’t gotten in there yet, Covid really slowed them down”.

I had been looking at what they were doing already; I didn’t think I really wanted to canyoneer to canyoneer, it would be more like an access thing.

That really kicked it into gear for me, I was like, “I really want to go down there and if these guys are gonna go down there, I’d like to be part of that, or figure out how to do it in my own.”

So, I just bought gear and started looking into stuff. I put my toes in the water by going out a few times on my own, and then met up with these guys I go with now and… it was off to the races from there.

I’ve been kind of feverishly doing it ever since. Ha!

NORTHER EMILY: That’s really cool that you’ve got to level that you’re at so that quickly. I think it’s important for people to hear; that you can just pick up a new skill and put your all into it.

MIKE PETERSON: That’s kind of how I’ve always been, if there’s something I’m interested in, I’m gonna do it regardless. I’ll try and do as good as I can with it.

I owe a lot of where I am to the people that I’m surrounded with. They have, cumulatively, decades of experience between them, and I would never have learned as quickly as I did without those guys, and the larger crew.

NORTHER EMILY: Were you doing a lot of outdoor stuff before you came to the northwest?

MIKE PETERSON: Oh yeah. I grew up surfing, fishing as a kid. I grew up in Florida; our outdoors there was a little different than it is here. You’re gonna have to deal with the heat and the bugs if you want to do anything during the summer. I grew up playing in the woods, building forts, hiking around alone, going off trail in the woods near my house.

As I got older, I began going on trips to North Carolina and Tennessee, because that was the nearest mountains… Going to waterfalls out there. So, yeah, nature has always been a constant in my life.

NORTHER EMILY: You had a bad experience in a canyon recently- do you want to talk about that?

[Laughs]

NORTHER EMILY: When I saw you talk about it on social media, I remembered, you know- I had an accident in 2017 that really changed me and, similarly, I was on a fast track with rock climbing…. I think other people sometimes underestimate the significance of an experience like that.

MIKE PETERSON: I’ve had those fleeting moments, where if something goes wrong, you feel like you might die, but this is the first time I’ve ever had an experience where I was like, “There’s a very good chance I die here”. It’s not like I got to have the experience and then deal with it; it was a long drawn out situation I had to sit there and deal with it for eight minutes.

So, I went out to South Fork Clackamas. There is a big drop out there; we didn’t really know how tall it was beforehand, but we knew it was over 200 feet. I went out alone. Before you get to that two hundred footer, there are three smaller waterfalls that you have to rappel and you have to do in one fell swoop. So I did those three. I ended up in a pool, in the middle one, and I have to swim under a log, and there’s a very decent amount of flow that goes down it.

So, I get through all of that, I get to the bottom, and I left my rope in place so I could ascend back out if I needed to.

When I got to the edge of the large falls, there were a couple bolts in. I checked the rock. They weren’t in good rock, so I went to put in a new bolt. As I did that, my drill bit burned out. I didn’t have another one, which I usually do. I got a little frustrated, and lost my objective thinking. I thought I could measure the drop with the 200 foot pull cord I had, so I dropped that down, but I had no idea.

I decided the best way out was to ascend back up. I went up the first drop, which was easy, cuz it was kind of low angle and dry. I got in the pool on the second one, swam under the log, swam up to the rope… You rock climb, so you know jugging, right?

NORTHER EMILY: Yeah.

MIKE PETERSON: Same kind of thing- we have a mechanical hand ascender with a foot loop, that’s your way to move up the rope, and a chest ascender that captures your progress as you go, so your don’t fall back down.

Once you are locked into the mechanic ascender, there’s no going back down, unless you change over to a rappel.

I locked in, started up the ropes, and made it about halfway out of the water before I realized I was going to have a real bad problem. The flow was kind of waterboarding me at that point, so I was having a hard time getting a breath. I finally got a little flake with my foot, where I could push off to the side and take a breath, before going back into the flow. I spent about two minutes doing that before I finally got footing. Then, I gained a little bit of progress, so I was finally out of the water.

But once I got the full brunt of the flow on my lap… I was trying to stand up. I could stand up against the force, but I could not get the chest ascender to gain progress. So, basically I kept standing up and sitting back down again over and over in the flow.

After about five or six times of that I realized that I didn’t have much more of that in me. I had maybe two more efforts to stand up and then I was going to start losing strength in my legs, and once I did that I was going to die. If I would have lost strength and slipped into that water, it would have waterboarded me.

So, most people keep knives on their harnesses, which I do now, but I didn’t prior to that. The knife was in my pack. So, while getting pummeled by flow, I had to take off my pack, dig into it, and grab my knife so I could cut myself loose from the rope… and then deal with the problem of getting down that 220 foot drop on a short rope.

I did, and everything went fine, I just tied the rope back together. I found that 230’ was enough for that next drop, so I rappelled down and passed the knot.

I spent eight minutes in that waterfall while on rope.

NORTHER EMILY: Wow. That’s a long time.

MIKE PETERSON: Once I made up my mind, I knew everything was riding on me getting that knife out of my pack safely and not losing it.

NORTHER EMILY: That’s intense.

MIKE PETERSON: Yeah.

I kind of existed in a fog for about a week after that, not able to wrap my head around what had just happened. Pretty quickly, I rebounded from that and then last week we went back and ran it. That was a confidence booster for me, running that thing that almost killed me.

MIKE PETERSON: It’s a sketchy thing. It definitely made me think. I can only imagine, falling and hurting yourself. See, I didn’t get hurt- you got hurt, that’s different. That’s got it’s own ball of trauma wrapped up in it because you actually got physically damaged.

I just got my ego… I try not to have an ego, but something I’ve done a million times goes awry and I think, “well, shit, maybe I don’t know what I’m doing as much as I think I do.”

NORTHER EMILY: How do you predict that this is going to impact your practice going forward? Because I know for me, it unraveled in a way I didn’t anticipate.

MIKE PETERSON: There’s no telling… so far, my biggest predictor was that I was eager to see how I would feel approaching that last one- and I was just excited, and I didn’t have any ill feelings about it, I wasn’t concerned or scared.

I think in terms of, will it slow me down or alter the fervor at which i am trying to approach this; I don’t think it will.

One of the biggest takeaways for me is that I had a couple things go wrong. I made a mistake before I even left my house, and because of that… Those things got on my nerves, they annoyed me, they frustrated me, and it clouded my critical thinking.

That is the number one thing I want to avoid in the future; is for anything to affect my critical thinking. I had another 100 feet of rope, I could have tied that to my 200 foot rope and had 230 feet of rope to get down safely. If I had been thinking clearly, that’s exactly what i would have done, but I was frustrated. I let that cloud the critical thinking that could have very easily kept me from a situation that was dangerous.

But other than that… More checks, more making sure that before I leave my house I have everything I need. I put a knife on my harness. It just shows you some of those little things you get complacent about- that’s probably the biggest effect it had on me.

I’m going to the North Fork Teiton this weekend, we’ll see how much it effects me there, because that’s a big, imposing canyon.

NORTHER EMILY:What you said about not being in the right headspace… … There is kind of this line you have to learn to draw for yourself, around- “Am I in the right headspace to be out here”? Especially as a person who seeks out solitude and physical challenge as a way to process negative emotions…

For me, I was hungover when I had my accident. I didn’t drink a lot the night before, but… I was hungover, I didn’t bring my A game to the mountains and it almost cost me my life.

Do you have a different sense of where to draw that line now?

MIKE PETERSON: I wish that answer was yes. So, my problem is that I am forever pushing that line. It doesn’t matter what I do, I am always looking to push that edge farther. I don’t really care about the thrill, but the self improvement.

That’s why I won’t pick up mountain biking, cuz I know what’s going to happen. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that I’ll end up sending it off some big kicker and wreck myself doing it. That’s why I don’t get a motorcycle…

Canyoneering is a good one because I think that line is a little more evident than it is with a lot of things. You can look at water and say, “that looks too dangerous to do”, or you can decide to do it and hope it’s okay.

This year, as a collective group, we have pushed the line even further, which means that my personal line has gone even further, which means I need to be extra careful… Because what I think is normal now is not normal.

Its fun, its just scary at the same time. At least, it’s scary for people around me, it’s not so much for me, I don’t think about it much til afterwards.

But maybe I should. My girlfriend actually says that quite a bit… like, “you don’t know how to chill”

I’m like, “no, I don’t”.

[Laughs]

NORTHER EMILY: Yeah , isn’t it helpful to have people to reflect that back to us? “Actually you know what you could use a little more of….”

[Laughs]

MIKE PETERSON: Yeah it is.

Published by Norther

Norther Emily, Wild Solitude Guiding. I teach foraging classes, lead guided private hikes, host retreats to remote places in Oregon, give excellent travel advice #NortherKnowsBest , and I’m here to teach people how to reconnect with nature. wildsolitudeguide.com

One thought on “TOPOPHILIA: Intimacy With Place Interview Series: Canyoneering with Mike Peterson

  1. I was aware of this incident from his post online, and mutual friends, but l have a much better understanding of what actually happened because of the additional detail written in your interview. Looking forward to reading your future conversations with the next adventurer. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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