Friday, 12 October 2012

September: Highs and Lows

I've talked a bit about what it was like to finish the trail but I realize I've still yet to say much about the entire state of Washington. Washington was the perfect end to such an amazing adventure with spectacular views all the way until the very end of the trail. Not only that, but I also got to hike half of the state with my dad who came all the way out from Toledo, Ohio, to hike with me for two weeks. As I've said in previous posts, I finished the trail on September 27th completing 2,660 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. However, if I was to travel that distance up and down I-5 without all the switchbacks and east and west wanderings of the trail, I would have gone from the Mexican border up to the Canadian border and all the way back down to Los Angeles. From my hometown of Toledo, I could have hiked all the way out to Vancouver, British Columbia, or all the way down into Guatemala in Central America! This final month confirmed all of the rumors I had been hearing that the best was yet to come; the trail kept getting better and better the further north I got. However, my final month was not without a few frustrations and challenges.

High: Foraging for Food (mile 2,155 to mile 2,303)

I've already mentioned the hundreds of berries I found on the trail starting in northern California which continued to get plumper, juicier and sweeter as I traveled north up to the Washington border at Cascade Locks. Then, just as I crossed over the Bridge of the Gods and entered some of the clear cut zones of southern Washington, I suddenly entered the world of the huckleberries. Down in southern California whenever I entered a burned area, I usually had to be on guard to avoid the toxic poodle dogbush. However, up here I found almost all of the burned areas and clear cut forest to just be teaming with huckleberry bushes and blueberry bushes below. Huckleberries are very similar to blueberries, but I found tended to be more tart and grow a bit smaller. Many times the berries would not be ripe, but when I found a good bush, they're amazing. Sometimes, I would be nervous to keep eating the berries after I had a really good one in fear of grabbing another unripe huckleberry. I still couldn't figure out though how the bears can have a diet consisting of primarily huckleberries though because they take a while to pick. However, I also heard reports of workers who would come out and fill up buckets with the tiny little berries and get paid $6 a gallon by a local store, which seemed like an awful lot of work for little gains. I preferred just picking as I went.

Not only was I foraging for berries up in Washington but I also started to sample another forest delicacy that grew everywhere in Washington, mushrooms. Now I am not a mushroom fan at all but they were all over the place, and after a while the idea of just picking one up off the ground and throwing it in your dinner seemed pretty cool. Luckily there were multiple thru-hikers around me from the area who knew their mushrooms quite well. They showed me how to identify one of the more common mushrooms that tasted pretty good, the Chicken of the Woods. Chicken of the Woods is bright orange and yellow, is usually found on the sides of trees, is a bit soft and flexible when picked and most importantly is fleshy on the bottom and doesn't have gills. The first time I tried one I actually wasn't hiking with my mushroom loving friends so was a bit nervous I had picked the right one but turns out I had, and they were right; it tasted just like chicken. I would pick them whenever I saw them on trail and often cook them up in my dinner which made an excellent addition to many of the boring instant pasta dishes I was carrying. However, after a while the novelty of picking mushrooms for dinner wore off, and I realized while I don't hate mushrooms anymore, they still aren't necessarily my favorite food. In the end though, I was really glad I tried it and didn't end up picking something that may have taken me off trail for a couple days recovering.

High: Goat Rocks (mile 2,280 to mile 2,295)

I had heard many thru-hiker alums and Washington thru-hikers raving about the Goat Rocks Wilderness, yet I had no idea what to expect. Much of southern Washington took us through nice mossy green forest and smaller mountains and of course the majestic Mount Adams, but it was also ridden with lots of clear cuts, and compared to the rest of the PCT, it was not too impressive. When I finally did make it up to the Goat Rock Wilderness I was ready to start seeing some crazy peaks again, and it certainly didn't let me down. The first great view came right when I crossed over a pass, and I got a sweeping panorama of the peaks called the Goat Rocks. This scene was impressive enough with a massive valley filled with lupine painting the ground blue and purple with the rocky peaks about. However, next I crossed over another pass to enter this giant basin with waterfalls rushing down from the tall mountains above and flowing down the basin into a large valley heading far off into southern Washington. Little did I know the best was still to come. I hiked up and across a snowfield all the way up to a ridge nicknamed the Knife's Edge because you honestly were hiking along with a steep drop just to your right and just to your left. Best of all, this sharp ridge carried me along a crest heading right for one of the most beautiful views of Mt. Rainier I saw on the trail. This was the icon location where many PCT guidebooks select their photo for the cover. It is one of the rare occasions where I was actually walking on the crest of the mountains and for a good five straight miles or so with breathtaking views of one of America's most beautiful mountains the whole way. I even heard from a woman that the USPS made a stamp for the PCT and this was the image chosen to represent the trail. As I was hiking in Goat Rocks, I just couldn't believe my eyes and was so excited I finally made it to this landmark spot on the trail I had seen so many times as I was preparing for my journey.

High: Hiking with my Dad (mile 2,303 to mile 2,503)

One of the parts of the trail I had been so excited for and used as motivation to keep pushing on was when I would get to hike with my dad up in Washington. He had taken off two weeks from work to join me and wanted to see as much as he could. Our scheduling wasn't easy because we actually ended up hiking he two sections in front of the ones we had originally planned because my conservative estimates of where I would be and the timing of when he could get off ended up shifting over the summer. At the Washington border, I found myself with 5 and a half days to hike the 150 miles to meet my dad in White Pass which was a bit daunting since Washington was quite a departure from Oregon where everything was relatively flat. However with the help of his friend from Seattle, we ended up meeting in White Pass no problem.

I felt super lucky to have my dad out there with me. We had always done family backpacking trips, and the two of us went out to Philmont Scout Ranch together back when I was in the Boy Scouts. Many other hikers would tell me how they wished they could hike with one of their close relatives but most people don't have the time or willpower to get out on trail for a week or two and keep up with a thru-hiker who is pushing 20 miles a day. We also ran into some trail angels along the way one of whom was the father of a former hiker, and he kept telling us how luck it was to get to hike together. I felt like I had some great bonding time with my dad and was so happy I could share my experience with him directly. While he was only out for a portion of the trail with me, he still managed to to hike 200 miles of the trail in some of the toughest ups and down in the beautiful Alpine Lake Wilderness. While at the end of the trail 200 miles didn't seem like that much, I now realize how that was quite a feat, and I certainly had never hiked over even 100 miles consecutively before I left for the PCT. I certainly felt like one of the luckiest guys out on the trail to get to enjoy some of the most beautiful areas of the trail with my dad and was so happy he was able and willing to come hike with me for so long.

Low: Patience is a Virtue (mile 2,303 to mile 2,503)

As you can imagine though, it wasn't necessarily the easiest trying to adjust my hiking style to my dad's. While my dad did an excellent job training before the trip (much more my than my pre-trip training), there is only so much you can prepare yourself in the flat farmlands of suburban Ohio. The Cascades provided a couple additional challenges more than the stair stepper in the gym, and one of them frustrated my dad so much because it was all loose rocks. He did have a couple of falls on the rocks and would get so frustrated trying to cross them and really had to slow down and focus on where his next step would be. Before the trip he wasn't too sure whether or not he wanted to use hiker-poles, but by the end those two were probably his favorite pieces of gear. I quickly learned it was best to not rush my dad because that would just make him more likely to have a bad accident on trail, and I didn't want to spend a week sitting next to his hospital bed in Seattle as he recovered from some terrible injury (yeah, I was pretty selfish towards the end).

However after hiking 2,300 miles at my own pace, I tended to develop a rhythm that isn't easy to break. Sure I would hike with other people, but usually they would be hiking close to a similar pace or may hike on ahead or behind at their own pace, and we would just meet up for breaks and to camp. Since my dad came all the way out to hike with me, that is exactly what I wanted to do, so I had him setting the pace in front of me, and I would be nipping at his heels right behind. At first it didn't bother me because it was great to catch up and chat but as the days went on I started to realize how my body just wasn't on the same page as my mind and really wanted to be hiking at my stride not my dad's (after all it comes with the trail name). Sometimes, I wasn't very patient and would just want to scream for my dad to hurry up but knew that would only make things worse. I really can't blame my dad though because it wasn't like he was going very slow. We still managed to get in 20 miles a day. I guess I was used to my slightly faster pace and would take longer breaks. Plus, he joined me for one of the steepest sections of the PCT where the trail was never leveled and you would go up, up, up just to head right back down, down, down. While I had such a great experience hiking with my dad, I won't lie that it felt so great when we finally did say goodbye, and I could get back to my old stride.

"It's been great Dad, but now time for me to speed off to Canada"

Low: It's Not Gonna Rain (mile 2,310)

The very first day my dad joined me on trail ended up being quite a trip. We met up in the afternoon and didn't really plan on hiking too far, but he was really excited to get out there, and I can always put in a couple more miles. We ended up meeting up with another thru-hiker, Busted Magic, this girl who hiked 2,500 miles of the trail last year but was prevented by trail conditions from finishing so came back this year to complete the entire trail in one season. We ended up camping over by a lake, and Dad was so excited to finally be out on trail with me. I had talked to him a lot about how most nights I would just sleep out under the stars and not bother setting up my tarp because it almost never rains. He was so excited to try cowboy camping and decided not to set up his tent and try it out. As we were sitting there eating our dinner we could hear some thunder rumbling in off in the distance. Now I had seen a couple other storms pass by earlier while I was on trail and never really had any trouble with rain. Washington had been on a 51 day streak without any rain, and one more day would have broken the record for the most consecutive days without rain (which we learned after). Dad and I kept looking back at each other debating whether or not it would rain, and both of us kept on saying, "no that storm is far away, we can still see the stars above us here, we'll be fine." Busted Magic, who had only set up her tent about 4 times on trail this year, ultimately didn't want to risk it and decided to set up hers just in case. None of us really thought it would rain, and it seemed like the storm we heard off in the distance was dying down as we crawled into our sleeping bags.

Sure enough though sometime around midnight I was awakened by a couple of drops on my face. Immediately I tore out of my hammock and started scrambling around to find my headlamp, cover my sleeping bag and set up my rain fly. I have a down sleeping bag and getting it wet is probably my biggest fear out on the trail because down doesn't dry well. Dad on the other hand was not as quick to react and was not about to try setting my old single-man tent he had borrowed in the dark rainy night and planned to just sleep underneath my rainfly since there would be room on the ground under my hammock. I admittedly set up my tarp in a rush and didn't set it up in an ideal fashion with tight tie downs, but it got the job done. I crawled back into my hammock relieved to find it was still warm and dry. My dad was still stumbling around trying to get his things out of the rain and eventually came over to lay out his sleeping pad and sleeping bag under my hammock. Right as he was about to crawl into bed her ended up bumping into the tarp in a spot where some water had pooled up. Sure enough it fell directly on his synthetic sleeping bag soaking the one side of it. I just laid their thinking, "great, now what is he going to do?" and I was a bit frustrated he wasn't being as cautious as I get about my sleeping bag. He didn't have much of a choice so slept in his partially wet bag trying to avoid the wet areas after drying it off with his pack towel. I felt so bad for him that this happened on his first night on trail, but we are certainly used to rain while backpacking.

We got to experience the "Twilight" side of Washington for a few days

It continued to stay foggy, damp, and cloudy the next three days, and the whole time he never got as worried about his bag wet and overcame going to bed with a damp sleeping bag whether it was from picking up some of the condensation from the sides of his tent or the dampness that we simply couldn't dry out without seeing the sun. He kept saying "we'd be getting sun soon," but I was so worried because I have heard many stories about how sometimes it will start raining and just never stop, and I'd never get the chance to dry things out. Fortunately, my dad was right in the end, and we had sun, sun, sun the rest of the time we were on trail together, but one things for sure we both make lousy weathermen.

High: Glacier Peak Wilderness (mile 2,509 to mile 2,568)

The Glacier Peak Wilderness was probably one of my favorite places on the trail because it is one of those areas where you could probably come back 100 times and never see the same thing. When I was traveling through, I ran into hazy mornings, sunny afternoons, and foggy nights, and the weather was constantly changing around the massive Glacier Peak. I remember as I was first approaching the wilderness area and the land suddenly began to transition from smaller forested mountains to bigger and bigger peaks with bright colorful shrub covered slopes. The reds, yellows, oranges, and greens painted a beautiful canvas across the trail as all the huckleberry and elderberry bushes changed colors and made some of the vibrant valleys I had ever seen in my life. The trail decided to hug the side of Glacier Peak once we approached it which meant we got to make some epic climbs up and down all of the ridges coming off the mountain as we circled around the peak. The trail would take us up to provide breath taking views of all the peaks and valleys around Glacier peak then drop us back down to raging streams with some difficult crossings. It would have been fun to play around in some of those surging streams, but the water was cold and silty, and I was far too concerned with pushing on to Canada by then. Down by the streams, there also was an abundance of mushrooms and fungi in all shapes, sizes, textures, and colors (and from what I heard it wasn’t even mushroom season yet which tend to occur after the second big fall rain). One of the biggest crossings of the milky white Suiattle River used to be quite dangerous because the bridge had been washed out in a big flood sometime in the early 2000’s. However, we were lucky since they had just completed a new bridge and cut new trail for crossing this river. Unfortunately, it added 4 miles to the PCT, but at this point in the trail I was not about to take any risks crossing the old log that many of my fellow hikers decided to use on the old PCT route. Glacier Peak was one of the few locations where I actually felt completely isolated from civilization, and it was tempting to find a way to just settle down in the colorful valleys out there. I certainly hope to return to explore more of this area and take in the ever changing landscapes once again.

Low: Climbing through the Fog/Haze (mile 2,509 to mile 2,568)

As I just mentioned Glacier Peak was stunning, but it also was exhausting and many of the views were obscured as I passed through.  The thunderstorm that came the first day my dad was out on the trail ended up triggering hundreds of fires throughout the overly dry forests of Washington. The forest fire fighters were doing their best just to keep everything contained and from damaging property, but for many of the fires, they were just letting nature take its course. This generated a very thick smoky haze that covered most of central and southern Washington for the end of my trip. The haze would seem to come and go, and there were some nights where I would wake up smelling a campfire smell to realize the wind must have shifted and brought in a fresh cloud of smoke. It was pretty crazy some mornings when there would be a clear sky, but the sun would remain obscured with a reddish glow hanging in the sky. I felt like I was caught in the Los Angeles smog or anywhere in China. It also hid many of the peaks around me. The whole time I was hiking around Glacier Peak, I never got a view of Mt Baker, the next giant mountain watching out over all of northern Washington. It was really hit or miss too because I saw some of the pictures my friend Mad Dog had taken just the day before me at Red Pass. He could see hundreds of mountains with a colorful sunset but I was having a hard time making out the peaks just on the opposite side of the valley I was in.

This section was also very physically demanding. At the very beginning of the trail I had been warned by a trail angel that the Cascades will beat you up so I was ready, but even after 2,500 miles I was still struggling at the end of the day. After leaving my dad, I was very excited to hike bigger miles so tried to do around 30 miles a day, but with multiple 2,000+ ft climbs. One of the most exhausting days was as I was passing the northwest side of Glacier Peak. I had already made two big climbs that morning as I approached Milk Creek, and the insane set of switchbacks dropping down a steep mountainside just to come directly up the other side. A fog had rolled down into the valley that Milk Creek created creating this ominous effect where from the top, I just saw the trail drop into a cloudy abyss. I was hiking with Mad Dog at that time, and we headed down together on what seemed like a set of switchbacks that would never end. The worst part was that the fog was so thick I could never see the creek but could always hear it below, so we kept thinking, we had to be there only to hike another mile. We finally reached the bottom knowing we had to go and make up every foot of elevation; we just lost and gained some. It was already 6 PM, and I hate night hiking, so I pushed on ahead. With the sun setting and thick fog, the trail turned rather dark and spooky where I felt like I were in a scary movie and had someone or something stalking me as I hiked alone up this seeming eternal mountainside. If hiking though endless set of passes through the High Sierras is my idea of heaven, I think hiking up a never ending set of switchbacks in a thick dark fog where I have no clue of when the top will come or if it will come is my idea of hell. I was starting to get worried too because I had noticed before we dropped into the cloudy abyss where the clouds intersected the other side of the mountain I could tell, based on the terrain, that the fog must be pushing up the valley covering more of the mountain now which meant that I would be sleeping in condensation and would wake up to a very damp sleeping bag. However, I caught a break though because I could see the end of the fog in the sunset. It was a weird transition because the fog would in some ways make things seem brighter, and the sky above was clearer, getting darker in the sunset, which created a strange effect where I couldn’t really tell if I was still in the fog or not. Eventually, I got far enough out of it though and looked back at a spectacular scene I never could have imagined. There were thick white puffy clouds filling up all the valleys around Glacier Peak, and all the surrounding peaks stuck out like and archipelago of islands amidst the sea of fog. Then around me, I could see the final gradient of light fading away and a red crescent moon illumining the sky hidden behind the haze remaining in the air. I was so glad to rest after my marathon of a day and super happy to be in a dry spot above all the condensation.

High: Stehekin, WA; Best Town in America (mile 2,580)

If there is one thing I love when I get into town is a good bakery. Stehekin's bakery could not even compare with anything I have ever had before because that place truly felt like I was up in heaven. For the most part Stehekin did feel like a little slice of heaven. Tucked miles away from any roads, Stehekin is found at the far end of Lake Chelan, a long skinny lake tucked within the Cascades. The only way to get to Stehekin is by ferry, seaplane or the back way we took from the PCT. The trail is actually 10 miles away from the small tight knit community but luckily there is a shuttle that takes tourists up to North Cascades National Park. Then, as I was relaxing on the bus, I first got to stop at the bakery to stuff my face. I think any thru hiker who spends less than $20 in that place does not deserve to be called a PCT thru hiker because I just could not hold back. They had giant cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, pies of all flavors, scones, muffins, cupcakes, and so much more deliciousness. I especially liked their pizza which was loaded with cheese.

Then as I waddled my way into town from the bakery, I came across another gem of Stehekin, the Garden. This organic garden had some of the most decorant flowers I have ever seen and a couple beehives tucked away in the corner of the yard. The gardner was a bit quirky, and I got in trouble for picking of the heirloom tomatoes which he had to hand select the ripest fruits and even gave me his recommendations on how much longer to wait for them to reach peak ripeness. Those tomatoes were so tasty, and I got a pear I patiently carried with me onto the trail with me as I waited for it to get nice and juicy as I was advised. After that we got into town to meet up with so many hikers. Even though everyone was so anxious to get to the Canadian border just 80 miles away, this was clearly the final vortex of the trail where hikers could easily get sucked into spending a few days in town. The town had a campground that was located for some reason along a hillside which made getting back to you site after a good night out with a couple of beer pretty difficult. It was just such a happy place with everyone enjoying their final trail town with friends and in one of the most scenic towns yet locate right on the shore of the lake. Even though the haze from all the fires prevented us from seeing the tops of the steep mountains bordering the lake, I could tell this place was unlike anywhere else in America. I certainly hope I will get to spend another summer afternoon lounging on the shores of Lake Chelan or up at the Stehekin bakery whether I'm coming from another trip on the PCT or just coming up to visit this amazing place.

High: Larch Trees Lighting Up the Finish Line (mile 2,571 to mile 2,660)

I think my favorite thing about the PCT was how it truly was good to the last mile. I had seen the photos of people at the finish line with the forested area next to the monument and assumed that most of northern must be forested without many view. That was clearly not the case.

This section after leaving Stehekin had magnificent open views stretching all the way out into Canada. I traveled just to the east of North Cascades National Park after crossing through some of it and on into the Pasaytan Wilderness. It was so exciting getting to walk up high along the crest, and fortunately this part wasn't quite as taxing as some of the earlier sections. One of the best parts of this final section of trail were the beautiful yellow larch trees. Trees there are some of the only conifers that change color and loose their needles, and they made for some of the best photos on the trail contrasting against the beautiful blue and purple mountains.

One of the weekend hikers I met out in this section compared the Pasaytan wilderness to Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings, and it truly did look like I was in some fantasy land being surrounded by mountains with no signs of civilization in sight. Hiking that final day, I got up on a ridge, and I could see all the way out to the peaks of the North Cascades, and I had one of the few views of Mt Baker that I had missed due to all the haze earlier and just couldn't have asked for a better finish to a four and a half month long walk though the wilderness.

High: Finishing the Trail! (mile 2,660)

Enough said