Aug 23rd about 10 am.
Well, the walk anyway…for now. The real work of putting the book together has just begun.
I plan to upload a load of photos over the coming days, but I felt it would be good to try and get a post up before I get any further sucked back into this other ‘real’ world of clocks, appointments, schedules, and general bustle.
I suppose I haven’t had an opportunity to write since Snoqualmie Pass. I couldn’t really summarize the experience of those last 260 miles and the last 12 days it took to hike them except that it is truly one of the most spectacular, difficult, wild, animate, and engaging landscapes on the entire trail.
There are several climbs and descents over 3000 feet including an arduous and infamous overgrown south facing avalanche chute that requires 47 switchbacks to make it back up onto the alpine ridge from a start at about 2000′ elevation at Milk Creek. This section of the PCT around Glacier Peak I vote as simultaneously the best and the worst maintained section of the entire trail, which I think is a testament to how difficult it is to keep a trail operational in that lush part of the backcountry. Between the bridges constantly being blown out by the burgeoning Spring pulse of glacial snow melt, and the consistent need to not only cut but also dynamite massive fallen trees out of the way, there leaves little in the budget to do the kinds of things to a trail that really make it functional. Brush clearing just doesn’t seem to get done there, and as such those long up and down climbs lead one into tangles of growth well over the head height.
At times you are literally encased in Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), Alder (Alnus viridis), Corn Lily (Veratrum viride), and Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum). It is at those moments that you hope you Don’t run into a bear as you can only but remain focused on trying to see if there is a rock or log across the trail. That said, it is a wild place and full of animals, and I am thankful I have now had many encounters.
During those last ten days I about doubled my black bear count for the hike to 17 in total. One such recent encounter lasted for about twenty minutes. I had stopped along the trail at the base of a granitic boulder field to photograph a wild raspberry bush when I heard a strange noise uphill and to my left. Looking up I see a momma bear gracefully gliding out of a Devils Club (Oplopanax horridus) thicket into the boulder field no more than 20 feet away from me. She had a fair sized cub at her heels. I sensed no aggression from her, transmitted no fear to her, and just watched in awe and amusement as she moved on above me to another bush wherein she would pull the spiny plant towards her and in one bite ravage the entire spike like raceme of red berries. I had no idea they ate them, and had actually been wondering earlier that day what were all the seeds I was seeing in the plentiful bear scat along the trail. (I think they are also eating a lot of Kinickinick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) this time of year while waiting just a little longer on the masses of huckleberries to come in season.) After polishing off all the ripe Devils club she ballet danced her way across the scree field and climbed straight up a granite boulder to gain access to a rotting standing dead tree. I couldn’t really tell what she was doing under the thick of the vegetation, until I heard a loud cracking sound and saw a chunk of tree go flying past me across the trail. It was big enough to easily knock a person right off their feet if they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose she was after grubs of some kind within the rotting log. I marveled at the bears ability to transition seamlessly from tip toeing around on boulders while gently eating berries to the next minute scaling a rock face and tearing a tree in half. With respect and admiration I decided it was a good time to move on. While the bears had enough common sense to stay on the cool north facing slope for the afternoon, I, and other hapless humans trudged on up the hot, exposed south face through North Cascades National Park and towards Rainy Pass
This was a section that I was actually already familiar with and passing through Rainy Pass, Cutthroat Pass, Snowy Lakes, and Golden Creek I reminiced about weekend hikes I had taken there two years ago. I also marveled at how really different an activity weekend hiking and thru hiking are. This time through by noon I had already passed both of my old campsites from a three day trip in 2010. I am not even sure what it was I had been doing that enabled me to move that slowly through the landscape back then, but I do recall a fair amount of lollygagging at Snowy Lakes. I have actually changed my opinion about the idea of moving 30 plus miles through a landscape in a day. I used to think that to do that requires one to have their head down and see nothing of what they are experiencing. In truth, while I typically averaged about 28 miles/ day this summer I had several days over 30 and apart from one of those days I never felt like I was pushing myself beyond a speed of being able to absorb my surroundings. On the contrary, my longest day of the trip was also the day I saw the most elk, and probably one of the most memorable days of the trip on account of having goofed and run out of water midday. What a thirty mile day does require is getting up at about 5 am and hiking until early evening. However, in terms of seeing things (especially wildlife) these are precisely the times of day you want to have your eyes open.
At any rate, as they say on the trail, “HYOH” (Hike your own hike). Everyone finds their pace eventually if they don’t allow themselves to get caught up in the pace of another or a group.
The Snoqualmie to the Canadian border section also has a couple of the nicest trail towns on the PCT. At Stevens Pass hikers are fortunate to be welcomed into ‘Hiker Haven’ at the Dinsmores. These generous folks have created a hostel in miniature but totally not for profit by donation only. They have a room finished off in their long metal shop/barn which they have furnished with bunks, a computer, wood fire stove, books, movies, etc etc. There is also access to laundry and shower at their house, and they live about two stones throw from a real decent cafe/general store.
Pretty much the only other stop available through this section is in the totally surreal town of Stehekein, WA. This fairytale place can only be accessed by foot, boat, or sea plane as it is on the western tip of Lake Chelan. There is one small stretch of non connected road along the lake. Strung down this road between the trail head and the boat landing like pearls are bus stops not to be missed; the bakery, and ‘The Garden’ are two such gems. Legend of the Stehekein bakery travels deep into the southern reaches of the PCT. I was hearing about those pastries and pies high in the California Sierras, nearly two thousand trail miles away. To discover that all tales told were true nearly overwhelmed the senses and my ability to decide what to order. In truth, if out on the trail long enough, one can get pretty obnoxiously excited about the idea of getting to a can of beer at a Chevron station, let alone this deep woods hut full of rainbow apron clad women beating, mixing, rolling, spreading, and filling the most obscenely delicious pastries I have ever seen in my life.
Then the bus stops at ‘The Garden’ where Karl, barefoot and ripped jeans monastically ignores the fact that his land is adjacent to a mosquito infested wetland. Swatting not, he will calmly ask you “how many carrots did you say you wanted” before he heads out into the garden and picks them for you right then and there. It just doesn’t get any fresher than that. I was ‘forced’ to do a ‘nero’ (trail jive for nearly a zero day ((8.2 miles in my case))) as I arrived to Stehekein on a Sunday morning and had to wait for the post office to open Monday morning to get my 13th and final food drop as well as pick up my passport sent out by a friend in Berkeley. Being forced to spend a day lounging on the sunny docks in Stehekein and periodically jump into the lake doesn’t really take much ‘forcing’ at all. It comes pretty naturally I’d say.
But so did the end of this long walk.
I wrapped up my hike of the PCT on Thursday the 23rd at about 10 am and hiked out from there to Manning Park, British Columbia. I was blessed to finish with another guy my age who goes by the name of ‘Pockets’. In some ways the terminus there at a random spot in the woods with a thirty foot wide clear cut line demarcating the boundary between Canada and the US is not exactly the kind of climatic finish one would hope for. However, that place is special and being a focal point for so many people each year, it seems to hold a certain unique energy about it. There is a wooden monument exactly like the concrete one down on the Mexican border, and there is also a metal obelisk about four or five feet tall. It is hollow and contains the last (or first) trail register of the PCT. Fortunately it was a continuation from last year and I was able to read the many entries of familiar faces and names from folks who hiked thru last year. In that small way I was able to connect last years hike through California with this years trek through the Cascades. I laughed when I saw the last entry in the book was by a pair of young Israeli guys (Pepper and Mace) who finished on Oct 27th! The last I saw them was just north of Deep Creek Hot Springs in southern CA where they were ducking behind a Juniper bush to take a snooze after eating some pizza brought by a couple of trail angels to us at the road crossing. I think I give them the award for having spent the most time out there on the trail last year. On the flip side you have folks like Swami, who finished this year at the end of July and moved immediately to the Continental Divide Trail to southbound that before he will hop over to the Appalachian Trail to try and hike that one as well all in one calendar year! Seems to me you could wear out your hip sockets doing a thing like that, but I guess he is up for it so what can you say? HYOH. Or how about Burning Daylight? He is a 65 year old retired law enforcement officer who completed his SECOND thru hike of the PCT the day before Pockets and I.
For me the trail was neither a race nor a prolonged slog. It wasn’t really a thru hike and not really a section hike either. It was something of a ‘chunk’ hike I guess, but mostly it was a treasure hunt. Every single day I met new plants I didn’t know the day before. Every day was indeed something new. The movement, the passage, and the sweat weaves those new interactions, new places, new plants, and new people together for me into a coherent story, a whole experience that like all experiences live on within us, but fade away a bit each day. Already I am forgetting chronology. Already I am searching for names of lakes and passes. Already my legs and feet are forgetting what it is to get up before dawn knowing they will be moving all day long, and the next day, and the next day, and the next. But on a cellular level it all remains intact. Muscles will atrophy this winter, feet will grow soft again, memories will fade, but on a cellular level the experience will endure.
A warm thanks to those of you who have been reading this sometimes gibberish blog. It isin’t over. I hope to be posting periodic updates as the book progresses.
For now, I am back in Berkeley, back in my home, and if my lovely sub-letter ever decides to give me my room back I might even stop sleeping in the backyard under our giant Doug Fir and move back into a bed…maybe.