What happened on Days 46 and 47

From Concrete to Port Townsend, the route is going to be unlike any other section of the PNT. Though not always trail, and not always in wilderness, the route has generally followed more rural lines of travel, visiting only small towns along the way. From Concrete, though, I plunged into the densities of Western Washington population, following the rail-trail parallel to Highway 20 and passing a couple towns yesterday on my way to Sedro-Woolley. Sedro-Woolley has 10,000 people living in it, a fact quite amazing when examined against the size of many of the other PNT towns. I’ve taken a rest day here with Dan, who had only a 1.5 hour drive from Seattle to arrive, making this town likely the closest stop (by car) to Seattle on the entire trip.

From here I continue on the rail trail, only minus the trail since for the next 11 miles or so it is apparently still railroad track, hikable except for Thursdays. I’ll cross I-5 tomorrow, which feels something of a milestone, and work my way over to Anacortes on bike paths and country roads. It’s unfortunate the rail trail stopped because it was quite pleasant to walk, sided by mossy-trunked maples or farm lands or, briefly
, the wide and roiling Skagit River whose water is the color of milky coffee from all the rain. No matter though. I expect to continue enjoying this radically different part of the trail in this narrow and bustling strip of earth where, to my great delight, I can listen to NPR as I walk.

20130831-215655.jpgVineyards next to the rail trail in the morning most

20130831-215813.jpgGreen draped rail corridor

20130831-215929.jpgGoats!

Concrete on Day 45

It rained. I woke up. I walked through the morning in rain of varying intensities, on a direct route to Concrete, skipping the portion of the trail that explores the east shore of Baker Lake. I had been looking forward to hiking the lake, but in such ferocious and sustained rain, and after so many weather days, I decided to leave it be this time and head straight for Concrete. I’m now in a motel, and I’m very excited to sleep tonight with a roof between me and the rain, rather than a piece of plastic suspended just 5 inches above my face.

Tomorrow I head for Sedro-Woolley along a rail-trail that parallels Highway 20. I rode the rail trail once, a number of years ago, on a bike trip I took across the state on Highway 20, but tomorrow I’ll see it with fresh eyes, with PNT-hiking eyes. I’ll also see all the conveniences that come along with civilization: sandwich shops, coffee stands, cell service. This is a part of the trail I’ve often mused on, the part of crossing the dense urban ribbon of the I-5 corridor. It will be a new kind of hiking experience on this trail.

The geometry of trail time is distinctly non-Euclidean. Days I’ve just left shrink to nothing behind me, disappearing. Days before me stretch out long, almost unthinkably dense with minuscule moments, little packets of time to be lived through. But now there on the horizon, west, is the end of the trail. A few weeks or so still, but there nonetheless. It can cast its shadow here, without the Cascade Mountains to block it.

20130829-210833.jpgThe only photo I took today, of me on a rainy road walk

Swift Creek on Day 44

Last night I could only eat 4/5ths of my pizza before I was too full to continue. One of the gastro-features of a long hike is that the stomach seems to shrink roughly inverse to the increase in hunger. I never eat a large quantity at once while out on the trail. Rather, I snack all day on small portions, nibbling little nuts or pieces of dried fruit as I walk, and my stomach becomes small. I’m hungry though, like a hippo. A hungry hungry hippo. So I did the best I could on my pizza, and had two slices I hoped to eat for breakfast, but where to keep them overnight? They were in a cardboard pizza box, and bringing them into my tent seemed unfeasable and also imprudent. I didn’t think they’d be palatable if I stored them overnight in the privy, so I wedged the box on edge high in the crook of a tree and hoped for the best.

It rained all night, nonstop, and quite heavily much of the time. I managed to see the weather report while in Glacier and it was giving a 50% chance of rain, but this rained drummed down much harder than 50%. The ground under me became soupy, and there was so much moisture built up on the underside of my tent that the hard-hitting raindrops knocked loose a spray of moisture across my face. I had no crises over the course the night, but I woke up soggy and somewhat dreading the day’s hike. Packing up when everything is so wet needs to be carefully choreographed so that what shreds of dryness remain can be saved. I danced through it grimly: this shirt off, that one on, sleeping bag away, food bag toweled off and stowed in pack, and so on. When I was finally done and packed and stashed my pack under the privy’s awning, I went for the pizza box. Of course, in the night something had knocked it down from its perch, the box was sogging apart, and it looked like rodents had been at the crust. I still would have eaten it except when I opened it, the slices were covered in slugs. Because it is the Pacific Northwest, after all. I couldn’t handle the slugs, and threw he last of the it away.

The most interesting stretch of hiking today was on the Swift Creek Trail, which descends from high on Mt Baker’s east flank into the Swift Creek Valley, another of the deep North Cascades river valleys the feel ragged on the edges and seem as though they were made by a giant fingernail raking through the earth. The valley is like a sharp V, the trail a ribbon tacked on the edges and the creek raging below. The trail was wet and somewhat treacherous, apparently not really maintained except for some recent brushing (hallelujah), the kind of trail that requires all my attention to navigate it. My descent to the bottom was punctuated by a ford of Swift Creek, belly button deep and fast moving. I forded with my shoes on.

Tomorrow is supposed to be quite rainy, but I’m headed for the town of Concrete. All day I dreamily thought of the hot shower I’ll take there when I arrive tomorrow afternoon.

20130829-205126.jpgThe Swift Creek valley

Day 43, more rain!

I had Dan bring me a new sleeping pad at Ross Lake, a full length inflatable one, and last night I had my best night of sleep on the trail. Indeed, I was sleeping so deeply, heavy rain on the tent but with the door unzipped to help dispel condensation buildup, that I was startled awake by the pitter patter of tiny feet on my head and at one in the morning had to shoe a mouse from my tent that had crept in and managed to chew on a number of my things before it trod on my head and woke me.

The trails in National Parks are usually well-maintained: good wide tread, built soundly, and brushed out. Some of the trails in North Cascades National Park are in decent shape, but the one I was on this morning was certainly not. It climbed a rugged, narrow river valley etched into the heart of the north Cascades, a valley whose sides are so scenicly steep that avalanches tumble into the trail on a regular basis. The brushing was the real problem though, something that would be annoying in any case but was terrible in the rain. Wet brush so thickly obscured the trail, towering even over my head, that I was horribly soaked, even through my rain gear, in minutes. Up and over Whatcom Pass, the wet conditions were sustained, but later in the afternoon the sun came in and out of the clouds and the incredible views of this remote part of the mountains opened up.

Later, I left the park and for the first time in days was off trail and on a road, but still in a beautiful mountain valley. As I was about to arrive where I planned to camp, a car pulled up behind me and offered to drive me down the road, off-route, for 11 miles to get a pizza to go and then bring me back to the trail. Yes! I got a hot pizza for dinner, which I ate under the privy overhang at the picnic area where I was camping, hiding from the rain.

20130829-204420.jpgThe wild Little Beaver Creek valley

20130829-204640.jpgRock and ice

20130829-204737.jpgThe trail crosses the Chilliwack river in a hand-operated cable car. Another backpacker was crossing when I got there.

20130829-204913.jpgLush green creeks, a sure sign of Western Washington

Day 42 in the rain rain rain

Last night it rained for a long time, maybe the whole night. I know because I was awake for much of it, carefully arranging things in the tent to avoid the growing puddles of water encroaching from the edges and spreading across the floor. This particular tent is not my hiking tent, but a big, spacious, older tent by Wenzel called the Sagebrush, which I would submit is the first clue it is going to be challenged in an all-night rain. Somehow before I left I managed to hide the tent Dan and I use for backpacking, so he brought this one which is awesomely large and also not seam sealed at all. At any rate, I managed to keep my stuff and my sleeping bag dry, but I didn’t sleep much. When I wasn’t moving things around the growing floor puddles, I was worrying about how much rain I’d be hiking in today.

Eventually dawn came. It always does, even in the darkest, wettest, most anxiety-provoking night. Dan and I got up to a rain-free though wet morning, dealt with our stuff, had a cup of tea. After looking at the maps and seeing the trail would be in the trees on the edges of Ross Lake, and after spending yesterday exposed to only a smidge of the lake and loving what I saw, I decided to take a boat from where we were camped to where the trail departs the lakeshore and heads northwest towards Mt Baker, five miles up the lake, so I would get a chance to see more of the lake and its surrounding mountains. Dan walked to the resort and got a ferry, and we rode up together in the shredded ribbons of clouds clinging to the peaks around the lake. It was a beautiful boat ride. He and the boat driver dropped me off, Dan and I said our goodbyes, and they left while I headed from the dock to the trail. On the boat ride over, Dan showed me the weather report on his phone: rain, in diminishing probabilities, over the next few days, starting with 60% chance for today and 50% for tonight. Today wasn’t so wet, except for the brush overhanging the trail, which came to a head late afternoon as I left the trail to take a shortcut, bushwhacking across some river banks with Devils Club towering above my head and crossing a river at a log jam that ended up with me soaked and covered in dirt. Tonight, however, the rain is here and maybe also vengeful. It’s been fierce, driving, consistent, and I’m laying in my tent hoping that it will wear itself out and tomorrow will be blissfully dry.

20130829-202543.jpgThe trail went through some groves of giant trees

20130829-202750.jpgThe trail through towering cedars and hemlocks, sided by lush ferns

Day 41 spent resting at Ross Lake

Some days are crap and some are great, because the world is a diverse place stocked with a menagerie of beasts and experiences. Today was great, spent in the company of my love and in the beautiful, deep valley of Ross Lake. I felt like a bird perched in a nest on the dramatic edge, watching the boats pass all day and the sun ride its arc through the sky until the clouds buried it by lat afternoon. We stayed in a boater’s campground, each site with a bear box and picnic table for convenience and the campground accessible from the lake by a large dock. We spent most of the day down on the dock, laying in the sun, reading, talking about math and education, or swimming in the startling clear water. We watched a flock of little gray ducks with rust colored heads diving in the water for tiny slivers of fish, the ducks bobbing along with their heads in the water until they found their prey, and in a sequential submersion curving like dolphins into the water, one right after another. They stay down a surprisingly long time. When they had fed or exhausted their air, they popped from the surface like floating rubber duckies. At one point; a duck that wandered close to the dock took notice of us and hastened away by practically run in on the water.

We had a charmed day, one that was ultimately fortifying. I rested my body but also my will, that ethereal and somehow unstretchable muscle that does so much knotty work. I had a full, sweet, sun-drenched day without worrying about post offices, logistics, miles, batteries, route finding, time, physical ailments, errands, or loneliness, to name a few of the worries on hiking days or town rest days. The setting also lent no shortage of majesty. An excellent rest day, all told.

20130829-201528.jpgRest day mess and rest day ten

20130829-201648.jpgA replenishing view on a grand scale

20130829-201759.jpgComplicated weather makes for amazing skies

20130829-201904.jpgThe ducks

Day 40! Forty days and forty nights (almost)

I woke up this morning with a fire in my belly to get moving, anticipating getting to Ross Lake Resort and seeing my husband. The hiking today was pretty smooth, along pine needled paths next to mossy ground that looks like green clouds. I would say I flew through it, but not quite. My ankle/shin/leg thing on the left side was flared up a bit today. On top of that, the new shoes I picked up in Oroville are kind of smooshing my feet, giving me a blister and tender, bruised spots across the bones on the top. I must say, I’m having a carousel of physical trouble on this hike, something I’m more or less filing under ‘back-related’, though of course the shoes are just unfortunate luck. I’ll pick up new ones in Concrete, but until then I’ll be battling it out with the ones I’ve got.

Ross Lake Resort is an amazing place, a flotilla of little cabins anchored to the steep banks of Ross Lake near the dam (the dam which makes the Skagit River into Ross Lake). Sad for me, they have no restaurant and no laundry. Also they have no open cabins, since people book a year in advance to stay there. The office, another floating building in the armada, all anchored together with docks and boardwalks, allowed me to use their phone to call my husband, who wouldn’t be arriving for a few hours. It was windy but I hung out on the dock, charged my phone, and watched the busy happenings of the resort unfold, most of which were boat-related happenings since people rent boats and go out on the lake for camping or fishing trips. Shortly before Dan arrived, a few of the guests invited me over for a glass of wine, a bit of food, and, when they heard about my trip, a shower! You can’t see your husband for the first time in weeks after crossing the wilderness without a shower first, one of them said. Good thing, with Dan about to spend a rest day with me in a little boat-in campground on the lake. I was definitely ready for a shower. In a final act of kindness, one of the guests boated Dan and I from the resort to our lakeside campsite, saving us about a mile and a half walk. Also a good thing: Dan was carrying in all my resupply food for the next section and all the food we would eat for the rest day.

20130829-200719.jpgRoss Lake Dam, which I walked across

20130829-202201.jpgThe rivers are looking more like Cascade rivers

39 Days of walking

Around five o’clock last night, the clouds to the west started to thicken and get dark as I descended from the PCT and headed for camp. At some point in the night, it rained, and then again later, but never too hard or for very long. I woke up this morning and my tent was actually dry inside and out, quite a rare occurrence on this trip. I was feeling great about it as I poodled around with my stuff and packed up camp in a leisurely fashion. And then it started to rain, with all my things spread around and the tent still up to catch it, and by the time I finally managed to get it down it was wet. So much for the dry tent.

It rained all morning, the kind of western Washington mountain rain that, once it starts, can go for days at a steady cold drizzle. I had a fair bit of climbing to do on overgrown trails, and I spent the morning struggling with rain clothes, on or off: on and I sweat out the inside on the climbs, off and I get soaked from the brush cloaking the trail. I was tripping on roots, slipping off the steep edge of the absurdly narrow tread, rolling my ankles on rocks, and getting wetter and colder and generally more frustrated until I finally decided I needed a mantra to sing as I hiked or the misery would eat me up inside out. I started to sing: I am at peace with the world, over and over, each time the tune morphing into something a little different. Interestingly, it helped! I calmed down, hiked steady and sure even with all the rain, and by the afternoon the weather cleared and I was losing five thousand feet of elevation, leaving Pasayten Wilderness and heading for Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park.

As I was hiking along the lake shore, the most awesome bit of trail magic on this entire trail happened (trail magic is the general catch-all for those serendipitous or fortunate events that happen to hikers, and while trail magic is common on the PCT, say in the form of a cooler of beer in the middle of the woods, its pretty much nonexistent on this trail). I was looking at the lake, enjoying the beautiful lakeside hike where the trail is practically run along a dike on a rock cliff right next to the water, when I looked at the trail and there was a piece of paper with my name on it! Underneath was another piece of paper with a note, all of it held down on a food bar with a rock. It was left by friends of mine from Seattle who are spending the weekend camping on Ross Lake, and somehow they figured out where and roughly when to leave such a thing in the middle of the trail. It kind of made my day, actually. I’ve been in the wilderness for almost a week, and one of the moving and equally chilling things about a vast, mountainous wilderness is that it doesn’t know you, doesn’t see you, doesn’t care about you. It’s a very different environment than one built for people, with people’s needs in mind. To come from the wilderness, where as a distinct identity I could almost disappear into the rocks and clouds, and find my name in the middle of the trail was as perfect a moment as I could imagine.

I’m camped about 13 miles from Ross Lake Resort, where I will meet Dan tomorrow (oh my god I am so excited) and pick up my resupply for the next section through North Cascades National Park.

20130829-192259.jpgThe view from the top of Devil’s Dome in the western edge of the Pasayten

20130829-192558.jpgJack Mountain draped in glaciers

20130829-192802.jpgI love the layers of trees, clouds, mountains, and ice in this picture

20130829-192938.jpgMy name on the trail

20130829-193313.jpgStartling green horsetails in contrast to all the gray

Day 38: the PCT!

Somehow the dew fist came crashing down (with the magic gentleness only a dew fist can muster) last night, and though I slept quite warm, my tent was soaked both inside and out and my sleeping bag was a dampish mess. I was up at 5:30 and packing carefully, trying to keep wet things appropriately compartmentalized to prevent sogging up my dry things. I climbed away from the Pasayten River, out of the endless burn, and immediately the forest looked different, looked more ‘west’ of the Cascades, almost as though the Pasayten were the dividing line. The forest was greener, lusher. There were more firs and fewer pines, and the undergrowth was more broadleafed plants and less grass. The trail was decent though overgrown and littered with blowdowns, which slowed me down as I climbed from my camp at 4200′ to meet the Pacific Crest Trail (only at 5800′ but I had to go over a 6800′ pass first).

From the second I got on the PCT, meeting it only a few miles south of its northern terminus, I started seeing people in numbers almost unimaginable only yesterday. None were thru-hikers, but many were section hikers, people working on the trail on section at a time. None had heard of the PNT for the most part, unless they ran into Beth, Dan, and Stefan who had apparently been through this morning. One exception was a couple who are hiking this section of the PNT, the first such folks I’ve met (and likely the last?) I ended up walking most of the day with a woman who was out for a week backpacking trip, and between chatting with her and with all the other people I met on the trail, I feel almost over socialized. I can feel in my body the impact of having my attention be so outwardly focused, in contrast to how it is most of the time on the trail: quite inward. I didn’t drink enough water today or stretch enough, I wasn’t listening my inner flow of wishes and thoughts and anxieties that are ever-present every day here. It was really nice to talk so much anyway, to feel like I’ve dipped my hand into the seething pot of humanity just a little. Sometimes it can get a bit lonely out here.

One mildly amusing part of the day was the incessant warning coming from everybody I passed about the washouts on the trail where the PCT cuts across a steep east-facing scree slope. ‘It took us an hour to go a quarter mile’ or ‘It’s really bad and really dangerous’. Of course, by PNT standards it was nothing at all, but then PNT standards are in another language altogether. It was interesting being in the PCT again, realizing how much of the trail I didn’t remember (like the part I went through today, which had some jaw-droppingly spectacular scenery but I think was obscured in clouds when I went through on the PCT in 2005), and reflecting on how different a trail that is from the PNT. It’s a much easier trail, but I doubt PCT hikers realize how plush their experience is. I certainly didn’t. And yet, less than a quarter mile off the PCT onto another trail (the one I’m on), the tread is disappearing and the blowdowns are piled on like toothpicks. And for the PNT, that counts as good trail.

20130829-174246.jpgMountains getting greener

20130829-174348.jpgMountains getting more rugged

20130829-191358.jpgThe unequaled view from the PCT

20130829-191818.jpgThere’s a weasel in this picture!

Day 37 in the Bunker Hill Burn

Some kinds of repetition are powerful: in comedy, for instance, or when learning something new. Other kinds are powerfully exhausting, as was the case with the burn area I was in today. I had a quick ascent to Peeves Pass (a great name) and some panoramic views to the west from a high ridge, views which included the snow-clad point of Mt Baker in a visually thrilling sign of my proximity to Western Washington. Around 10am I first entered the burn, spiny bare trees and brushy undergrowth from a 2007 fire, and except for a few times within the first hour where I just flirted with the edge of it, I’ve been in the burn all day.

The fire must have been very hot. All trees were killed and the ground eroded wildly in the intervening years. The trail is pretty much a mess, though followable with a keen eye. It’s clear a crew came through at some point after the burn and cleared some blowdowns, but not this year and possibly not last. At first the burn was interesting, a stark contrast of silvery taupe trunks like a field of toothpicks agains the deep blue summer sky. Eventually it grew monotonous, aided in part by the hot afternoon sun and the total lack of shade. The eroded tread was sometimes a little treacherous, especially with my problem ankle, and I grew a little tired of watching my footing so very closely. Though a bit tedious, it was broken up by a ford of the Pasayten River, whose bridge must have been massive before it burnt in the fire,as evidenced by the big concrete footings still in place on the river banks. The water was refreshing on my achy feet, and after crossing I sat in the sun on the bank and ate a late lunch.

I’m camped in the burn, but at the very edge. I should leave it first thing tomorrow. Later in the day tomorrow, my trail will join the PCT for about 13 miles, which will be both scenic and maybe nostalgic for hikes gone by.

20130829-173133.jpgYou can just see the rugged peaks of the North Cascades poking through

20130829-173449.jpgBurned trees

20130829-173541.jpgArchitecturally interesting burned tree

20130829-173630.jpgLook at the white of these trees!

20130829-173739.jpgMe about to ford the Pasayten River where the bridge used to be