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

Day 36

I woke up at 5:30 this morning, gray dawn making everything monochromatic, and while I had planned to sleep in, the wind was picking up and it shook me out of my tent. It was very cold last night, the coldest night so far on the entire trip, and this morning I dressed in my rain suit and insulated jacket for the hike. It took awhile for the sun to penetrate the deep clefts the trail wound in and out of on the south-facing ridge I travelled. I was hiking an apparently popular stretch of the Pasayten, since I continued to see backpackers, filling in every campsite. I stopped to talk with a few, many of whom told me they had seen three PNT hikers the previous night (those would be Beth, Dan, and Stefan). Finally, after leaving the Cathedral Basin area, a rocky shelf with a lake surrounded by fierce rock mountains and the destination of many of the folk I talked to, I stopped seeing other people. One exception was the woman out with two horses and her dog. We stopped to chat and she told me she was just wrapping up two weeks on the backcountry. She rode one horse and the other had supplies strapped to it in bags and boxes. The woman wore jeans and a tshirt and had a pistol strapped to her back. She was a fount of knowledge about trail conditions because her travel plans aren’t really plans: she heads off and tries out trails, much of the time needing to turn around because the trail isn’t passable for horses. She was quite inspirational, actually. I know the shock people have when confronted with a solo woman in wilderness, but its true there aren’t so many of us. It was steadying to meet a compatriot.

The day warmed up enough and the wind died down, so I was able shed layers with the passing miles. I took breaks to stretch my calves and hip flexors, and one to lay in the sun with my feet up on a rock. I also kept my pace down, taking plenty of time on descents which can be aggravating to my IT band. Even at this mosey, I hiked about 24 miles today, though so far the Pasayten is refreshingly easy hiking, mostly contouring between six and seven thousand feet on good trail.

20130829-172743.jpgGood trail and good mountains

20130829-172836.jpgCathedral Peak

20130829-172931.jpgUnnamed tarn in the Pasayten

Day 35 in the Pasayten Wilderness

I made it to the Pasayten Wilderness! It took some more road walking this morning, some cattle herding, and quite a bit of hill climbing, but at about 1pm this afternoon I crossed the official wilderness boundary. Once arriving on the Boundary Trail, I’ve seen more hikers in a few hours than in the last four weeks, and the first backpackers since Glacier National Park. It’s quite nice to have so much company out here.

I’m dropping my pace down, both for enjoyment and also in response to my growing list of physical troubles. All of them are in the left leg, the same side as my back injury from January, and they all feel like a tangled, related knot. I have the lower leg shin splint (if that’s what it is) from before, a spot of deep tenderness and mild swelling that makes lifting my foot from the ankle pretty agonizing. My ankle is shockingly tender on the sides and is having trouble stabilizing. I’m having pretty strong iliotibidal band pain on the outside of my knee, especially when walking downhill. Between these three things, my downhill gait is ridiculous and no doubt all the effort to compensate is making everything worse, like a great wheel of torture.

It’s beautiful country though, with open, long views of rock and grass mountain tops. The Pasayten is a huge wilderness area, beloved to many in this state, and for good reason.

20130829-153519.jpgEastern Pasayten mountains

20130829-153535.jpgArid tree skeleton

20130829-153701.jpgOne of the few pictures of me, and in new white shoes

Onto Day 34

When I was taking my rest day in Oroville, I went down to Tonasket with my Dad and Stepmom and visited the drop-in clinic to have my ankle looked at. A quirky doctor who talks rapidly in partial sentences as he thinks through the possibilities looked at my foot, bent it, tapped it, even ultra sounded it with an old tank of an ultrasound machine from the eighties or seventies, joking to the nurse that “it’s twins!” After everything, including cracking open a dusty fifty-year old book on anatomy, he said it’s most likely not a stress fracture but shin splints seemed improbable too. Maybe a sprain, he thought, but he said the best thing would be to take three weeks in Oroville and do a rushed course of physical therapy. I told him I was hiking out today. He said to come back if it was too painful.

So I left Oroville this morning on a rail trail that wound along the Similkameen River, whose banks were full of little rafts with air compressors attached to people dredging for gold. The rail trail was arid sagebrush country, hot and open, rocky and severe. Eventually the trail entered private property where in the past an easement issue has prevented hikers from being allowed to pass, instead detouring them on a paved highway. However, this year there has been some unofficial progress made, at least between the landowner and individual hikers, and passage was possible. Thankfully, because paved roads are especially hard on my ankle. After the rail trail ended, I had three miles of paved road and then I had planned to take an alternate, a steep scree gully up the side of a mountain, a route dubbed “The Whiskey Trail” that climbs something like 2300′ in less than a mile. It sounded rough, but would cut out almost 9 miles of paved road walking and 6 miles of dirt road walking. The trade off sounded worth it, since the paved roads are crushing my ankle right now, though ultimately both options seemed kind of crappy. At any rate, just as I left the road and entered the private property at the base of the “trail”, a truck barreled down the road, screeched to a halt, and the man inside said in no uncertain terms this alternate was not going to be happening. “The whole mountain’s a rate snake den,” he said. “Plus there are two grizzlies up there.” “Plus it’s private property”. So much for that.

I didn’t think I could handle all the pavement on my ankle, so for the first time so far in the trip, I hitched through some roads. I’ve still got a few more road miles tomorrow, but not paved and followed by miles and miles of trail. Hopefully it will help my ankle restabilize.

20130829-152512.jpgApple crates outside Oroville20130829-152621.jpgOld train tunnel20130829-152650.jpgRail-trail out of Oroville with Stefan20130829-152733.jpgChopaka Lake Palmer Lake

20130829-153247.jpgMoon over Chopaka Lake at dusk

Day 33. Fear and Statistics.

In the turbulence of living, we are each exposed to any number of dangers. Illness and accidents, also strokes of fair luck, all these are the textured fragments that make up the randomness underpinning life. This can be quite frightening sometimes, the wild looseness
of all the chaos, and there is a desire to wrap all the ends into a tight little story that makes sense. People do this all the time, live with their stories like protective equipment, but the truth is that the stories often do not serve us. Stories aren’t quite the right tool sometimes. Statistics are.

I once heard the term ‘bearanoia’ to describe the somewhat overwrought reaction commonly held to bears. Bears can be dangerous but maybe the paralyzingly fear so many people have of them is, in simple cost terms, way more expensive. Consider the statistics: in the last eight years, there have been only 24 fatal bear attacks in all of North America. Considering how many human/bear encounters are probably happening all the time, that’s pretty low. Reassuringly low. And yet the amount of energy spent on fearing bears is considerable.

Mountain lions, in this regard, have a pretty bad rap. Mountain lion sightings are rare despite human encroachment on their territory and exploding human populations in the back country. Attacks happen at about 6 per year, and just under one death per year are the result. Many of these are children. Again, with millions of humans in the North American outdoors every year, this is a strikingly low incidence. As defenders of bears and mountain lions point out, you are much more likely to get struck by lightning (which kills something like 90 people a year).

I don’t walk around with these numbers in my head, and in fact I had to look them up on my phone to write this, but I know them as relative quantities. As in, cougar attacks are really really rare, bear attacks really rare, and lightning pretty rare. Cars are by far more dangerous to me with all this road walking. Knowing this helps me stay sane, because otherwise fear of harm from all the dangers of the wild would paralyze me. Fear is the enemy of freedom. My knowledge of statistics is considerably more effective than fear.

Today was a good rest day. I puttered around like a master putterer, preparing for the next long section through the Pasayten Wilderness. My dad and stepmom came to visit from Spokane, which was great. In another stroke of quasi-coincidence, myself and three of the other six people that I know are hiking the trail this year landed in Oroville at the same time. We had a beer together last night and talked trail. It’s all been that kind of relaxed town fun that is so necessary sometimes.

I almost definitely won’t be able to post to the blog until Ross Lake Resort in the North Cascades National Park or possibly later, in something like six days. The next stretch of trail is 150 miles through a roadless wilderness. So check in but don’t worry! I have statistics on my side.

20130817-223327.jpgStefan, me, Beth, Dan: PNT hikers!