Day 109: Volcanoes and clearcuts

22.6 miles (2144.4 to 2167.0)

Nick and I say goodbye at Bridge of the Gods. I proceed across the bridge – trying not to look down – and cross into Washington. I find the trail on the far side and continue north. My main task today is a 3,000+ foot climb followed by a 2,000-foot descent. Somewhere after that, I hope to find a campsite.

In Washington after crossing the bridge.

I walk through conifer forest with a lush understory of ferns and other vibrant green plants. I do some mild ups and downs before hitting the big climb. 

Washington’s lush understory.
My pack is almost excruciatingly heavy thanks to the 6.5 days of food in my bear canister. I see clearcuts on the surrounding mountains. I see volcanoes in the distance. Mount Saint Helens is distinctive. As I traverse a ridge, I see three others, two to the northeast and one to the south. I don’t know who’s who. The one that looks like Mount Hood is probably Mount Adams. The one that looks like Jefferson is probably Hood. The maps on my phone aren’t much help. Hopefully I can sort this out later.

Clearcuts

Down goes the trail, taking back all of the elevation I gained earlier today, making my hard work feel wasted. At last I bottom out and cross Rock Creek. A few hikers are already preparing to camp here tonight. I continue on without stopping. Unfortunately, the next campsite, a mile away on a different creek, is already filled with three tents – section hikers, I suspect. Dang it. On I go, climbing again, looking for anywhere flat to pitch my tent.

I come to a tiny spot crammed into a switchback. I’d take it, except the surroundings are so steep there’s nowhere to pee other than the trail itself. Dang it again. I continue climbing and finally find a little cleared area off on the left. The site is sloped and lumpy, but I don’t want to walk until dark looking for something better. By the time I stop for the day, I’ve hiked over 22 miles and climbed at least 4,100 feet. I managed this with an insanely heavy backpack and a malfunctioning hip-belt. My body hurts. In camp, I examine my backpack and fix the hip-belt problem. Hopefully the pack will feel more comfortable tomorrow. 

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Day 108: Portland zero

In Portland, I replace the case on my iPhone. I get new shoes. I debate with myself – yet again – about whether I should continue carrying my bear canister or take my Ursack, which I shipped to my cousin’s house just in case. Yet again, I conclude that the size and weight of the can are worth the peace of mind it provides. I add my umbrella to my gear pile. Sadly, I prepare to leave my solar panel behind and switch to a giant battery pack. Clouds and dense smoke challenged my solar panel in Oregon; I expect similar conditions in Washington, and I do not want to run out of power. Goodbye for now, beloved solar panel. 

My cousin Nick takes me out to dinner. As we catch up on each other’s lives, I devour a massive Cobb salad and a side of fries. Afterward, we share a pint of coconut milk ice cream. This may be the most relaxing zero I’ve had so far. I hope I have enough energy to hike tomorrow. 

Day 107: The end of Oregon

35.5 miles (2108.9 to 2144.4)

Smoke obscures Mount Hood. Smoke from which fire? None seem close enough to do such damage. 

I pass a group of three section hikers and begin the day’s first climb. As I enter a boulder field, I hear a squeaky chirp. Only one animal makes a sound like that, and I wouldn’t expect to find it here, at such a low elevation. But my eyes confirm what my ears tell me: pika! As I walk through the boulder field, I see or hear at least a dozen pika. I gleefully take photos and videos of the world’s cutest mammal. 

Pika!

The trail continues to climb. Near the top I see a wall of white. This is odd. It’s as if someone took a giant eraser to the world. Looking down into what should be a canyon, there’s nothing, just white. Smoke? I don’t know what else it could be. This is by far the worst smoke I’ve walked through. Visibility is no more than 1/4 mile. I put on the face mask I wore during the Whitewater Fire detour. It helps block the smokey the smell. 

I traverse a massive boulder field where there should be excellent views, but instead I see only the white wall, now tinged with brown. At mile 2124.7, a USFS employee greets me. His name is Mitch. He says the Indian Creek Fire has grown today, and hikers may have to be swept from the trail (that is, evacuated). For now I’m allowed to proceed, but he takes down my name and phone number and my intended destination for tonight (a campsite near Teakettle Spring) in case evacuation becomes necessary. 

Forest Service employees through the smoke.

Shaken, I hike on. At the fork to Indian Spring, there’s an official vehicle parked. I approach. The man and his vehicle are from New Mexico, temporarily stationed here to assist with the fires. John tells me that the USFS wants to close the PCT because the fire is beginning to move in that direction and could quickly spot up the hill and onto the trail. I ask if it’s safe for me to continue. For now, yes, otherwise the trail would already be closed. However, I should hurry. I thank him, get water from Indian Spring, eat a quick lunch on a nervous stomach, and keep hiking. 

I don’t want to be anywhere near this fire right now. I need to go at least eight more miles today to get through the most dangerous area. I’d planned on going that far, anyway. The big question is, how far can I go? Cascade Locks would be a 35-mile day. It would involve hiking after dark. It would get me out of this smoke today. By now it’s already almost 2pm. I don’t know if I can do another 18 miles. 

I quickly reach Wahtum Lake. Here, I find two NOBOs taking a rest, and three more USFS employees with radios. “Are we still good to go on the PCT?” I ask. One tells me that as of now, Incident Command is still allowing hikers through. His tone tells me that this may soon change. 

Two miles later, I come upon another guy on the trail who takes down my info and warns me that the fire may soon be spotting toward the trail. He’s advises me not to camp anywhere from here to Cascade Locks, then asks where I’ll camp tonight. As before, I say near Teakettle Spring, but this time I add, “or farther.” He advises me to get to Cascade Locks if I can. That’s still 15 miles away. I tell him I’m going to try. 

I soon reach the place where the fire is directly below the trail. Dense trees block my view of what’s happening below. I hear planes, constant planes. The slope is so steep that it looks vertical. I do not want to be here. Ahead, there’s a gap in the trees. I’m going to be able to see down into the canyon. I know the sight is going to make me nauseous. I’m at mile 2131.1. Stay calm, I tell myself as I look down. Thick clouds of smoke curl beneath me. The authorities have my name. They know I’m out here. They’re keeping a close watch on this. They’ll come for me if I’m in danger. I’ll be ok. I just have to keep moving. Keep moving. Stay calm. 

Fire directly below.

Half a mile farther, a SOBO appears. I know this guy. It’s Rabbit! We hug. He attended PCT Days in Cascade Locks and is now heading south toward Mount Shasta. “Be safe,” I tell him as we part. 

Suddenly, the air seem less smokey. Either the wind has shifted, or I’ve hiked out of the worst of the smoke. Maybe both. I hike into a small boulder field. There’s going to be another view of the fires. I look back. From here it’s not so scary. I watch the smoke blow southward toward what should be a great view of Mount Hood, but instead is only a white wall. 

Ash has fallen on the trail. The wind could shift again and smother this area in smoke. I need to get to Cascade Locks. With 11 miles to go, I sit for my second break of the day. I’ve done 24 miles on one half-hour break. I eat, then keep going even though I’d like to take a nap. I have to get to Cascade Locks. I check my mileage, then text my cousin Nick and let him know that I’ll arrive at Bridge of the Gods between 9-9:30 tonight. He’ll be there to pick me up. 

I reach the long descent: from here, the trail drops 4,000 feet to the Columbia River. Down, down, down I go. I get my first glimpse of the river. At mile 30, my feet hurt. This descent is enough to make anyone’s feet hurt, 30 miles in or not. The temperature rises as I descend. I’m in complete shade, going downhill, yet I’m burning up. 

The trees open and I catch a view of sunset over the Columbia River. That’s Washington on the far shore. I’ve come so far. I watch an air tanker refill on the river, then fly back to the fire. I hear a train, and traffic on the highway. I pass through boulder fields where pikas chirp at me. I never expected to find them at such low elevations. 

Hiking toward sunset and the Columbia.

I turn on my headlamp. I still have four miles to go – over an hour in the dark. Alone. In my desperation to get away from the fire, I ignored how much I dislike night hiking. I swing my light this way and that as I walk, checking for eye shine. I walk fast, faster than I did during the day. 

Trees grow dense around the trail. Darkness deepens. I wind around the mountain, down to Dry Creek, passing hikers camped near the bridge, then onward into dark and silence. 

At 9:20 I emerge at Bridge of the Gods. I did it. I pulled off 35.5 miles and an hour of hiking alone in the dark. My cousin Nick is parked exactly where the trail emerges. In the dark, he photographs me in front of the bridge. Due to the fire closures, I’m 90 miles short of hiking across the State of Oregon, but this is still a big moment; I’ve reached Washington. A new phase will soon begin. 

Day 106: Eclipse

14.5 miles (2094.4 to 2108.9)

In the morning, smoke to the south is so thick that I can’t see Mount Jefferson. I eat, pack my things, and walk down to the lodge to use the restroom and fill my water bottle. Then I walk back up the mountain and find a place to sit and watch the eclipse. 

While I wait for the show to begin, I upload blog posts. Finally I put on my eclipse glasses and look at the sun, and see that the eclipse is underway. Half an hour later, we’re down to a sliver of sun. The lighting has become strange. People whoop and howl, from the mountainside down to the parking lot. The darkest moment doesn’t last long. Very soon, the strange lighting becomes more or less normal. People leave their posts on the mountain begin walking downhill toward the lodge. Suddenly everyone is on the move. 

I wait a little longer, then hike north. The ski lifts are running, now shuttling people down the mountain after taking them up for eclipse viewing. It’s odd to walk under a working ski lift in August. 

Working ski lifts in August.

After half a mile, I’m the only person on the trail. Down I go into Zig Zag Canyon, then up the other side. Here, I encounter a massive log obstacle. I follow a steep detour on the downhill side and finally get around the log jam. I run into several more logs that require me to take off my backpack in order to pass beneath them. 

There’s no century marker at mile 2100. I walk back to be sure I didn’t overlook something. Nope. Nothing. Once again, I sketch the number on the trail and take a photo. 

After a long, steep descent, I leave forest for a rocky canyon and a crossing of Sandy River. There’s a small log across the water. This is where most (all?) hikers cross. The log is only a little wider than the width of my foot. The river is flowing fast but doesn’t seem very deep. Still, I don’t want to fall in. I investigate upstream. I don’t like the look of things there, so return to the log. I stand on the log for a bit to get used to the idea. Ok, this isn’t so bad. I can get across this little log. I move forward. My left trekking pole slips out of my hand and into the water. Oh, shit!

Thus begins the Great Trekking Pole Rescue of 2017. I spear the water with my remaining pole and manage to pin the loose pole against a rock, but it slips free and zips downstream. I spear again, and press as hard as I can to keep the thing pinned as I maneuver to pluck it from the stream. Saved. 

I walk through the river in my shoes. The water doesn’t come above mid-calf. I should have just waded in the first place, like I usually do. I hate crossing on logs and will always avoid doing so when possible. 

Log crossing on Sandy River.

With wet feet I take the Ramona Falls alternate. The trail is almost exactly the same length as the PCT, but I get to see a beautiful waterfall and walk along a cool, shaded stream. 

Ramona Falls

I rejoin the PCT just before a crossing of Muddy Fork. There’s a campsite here, and it’s filled with tents, all of which appear to belong to weekenders. I pass through and arrive at the stream crossing. 

Well, crap. There’s a huge log on top of another huge log, with a rope rigged along the higher log to assist with crossing. However, the lower log, where one’s feet will go, is half covered by the upper log – meaning it’s another narrow footpath. These logs are higher above the water than the crossing, and the water is moving faster than the last one, too. A few of the campers are down at the steam, watching me. I don’t want to make a spectacle here. I just want to get across this creek. 

I dip my trekking pole into the water. It’s deep and fast. I take another look at the logs. I could scoot across the top log on my butt, but that would leave an awkward dismount at the end, during which I’d be extremely likely to freeze up entirely. Back to the creek I go, and walk upstream looking for a shallower section. I find one and walk right in. It’s not a difficult ford. Water doesn’t come above my knees. Once across, I wave to the folks on the other side and proceed on my way. 

I’ve flunked two log crossings today. I feel like a wannabe thru hiker. Real thru hikers cross on logs without hesitation. I’m not good enough. Wait. Hold on. I haven’t failed anything. There were two ways across those streams: ford, or log. Fording is in no way a lesser option. I may not be making progress on my log aversion, but I’m increasing my confidence with stream crossings. I’m doing well. 

After Muddy Fork, I face a 2,100 foot climb – at the end of the day. Halfway up, I stop for water at a spring. Afterward, I pass SOBO after SOBO. It’s like class just let out or something. Then I remember: PCT Days was held this weekend in Cascade Locks. They probably all attended the gathering and left around the same time. 

I reach my intended campsite at a fork in the trail. I pitch my tent and eat dinner while black flies swarm. I’m tired, more tired than I should be after two 14 mile days. Maybe I just need a day off. It’s been two weeks since I had a zero. 

As I finish eating, a weekender on the Timberline Trail shows up. His name is Mike and he opts to camp here, too. A little later, two more hikers arrive and manage to squeeze their tents in the vicinity. After several nights of poor sleep, I hope I can sleep through the night here. 

Day 105: Mount Hood

14.2 miles (2080.2 to 2094.4)

One guy gets up and out of camp much earlier than the rest of us. The rest of us emerge around the same time, pack our things, eat breakfast, and peel off one by one. A short distance up the trail, I get cell service and a fantastic view of Mount Hood, along with a nice log to sit on. I sit and catch up on correspondence and internet tasks. 

Mount Hood

Dodger catches up to me and we sit on the log together and talk about PCT life. She leaves before I do. Later, I catch her at a picnic table with another hiker. The three of us eat lunch together and talk to passing day hikers about the PCT. We each have different strategies and different styles. Dodger loves going into towns, whereas I carry a humongous solar panel to avoid spending time in towns. I started with camp shoes and ditched them, whereas Dodger started without camp shoes but later added them. 

From the picnic table, Timberline Lodge is 5.5 miles and a 2,000-foot climb away. PCT hikers get excited about Timberline Lodge because of the legendary breakfast and lunch buffets. I have a resupply box waiting at the lodge and I plan to watch the eclipse from near there, but due to my dietary restrictions and the fact that I have plenty of food, I’m not going to spend $16 for a meal (possibly making me the only hiker ever to voluntarily skip the buffet.)

The trail climbs mildly. The slope is perfect for my legs. I cruise on up. After relatively little effort, I emerge from forest onto grassy slopes with unimpeded views of Mount Hood’s peak. The trail here is sand and difficult to walk through, especially uphill. 

On the slopes of Mount Hood.

Suddenly I hear a strange noise. I stop and listen. There it is again. It doesn’t really sound like a raven. It sort of sounds like…someone vomiting. I take a few steps. A blue shirt appears. A man bends over and heaves, then again, and again, on and on while I stand a short distance away wondering what I should do to help the poor guy. Finally the retching stops. He straightens and moves to the side of the trail, clearly as a gesture for me to pass. 

“I have pepto bismal tablets,” I offer. 

He says he drank too much (water, I assume, since he’s wearing a big backpack) on an empty stomach and he’s not handling the elevation well. We’re at less than 6,000 feet, but maybe that’s high to some folks. I ask if he needs anything. I have plenty of food if he needs something to eat. He declines. I keep walking and he follows, asking about my trip. He soon falls behind. I’m a little worried about the guy, but Dodger is behind me, so at least if this man collapses, someone will find him. 

I continue to climb. Timberline Lodge appears, along with a packed parking lot. I cross the headwaters of the Salmon River, then come to a cluster of tents where a trail splits off down to the lodge. I see only one vacant flat spot. There may be other places to camp, but if not, I’d better snag this place. I set up my tent, then head to the lodge to claim my box. 

After I’ve organized my bear can and eaten dinner, I walk a short distance up the Mountaineer’s Trail and find a nice spot to camp. I take down my tent and move everything up the hill. My new site is below a little knoll on bare sand. Some of the noise from the lodge and the other campers should be blocked here, yet I’ll have an excellent view of Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, sunset, sunrise, and the eclipse. 

Inside my tent after dark, I hear parking lot noise, and traffic, and people talking. My sunset photos look like a pure wilderness experience, but unfortunately that’s far from the truth. I just hope all that noise stays down below, and that no late night wanderers make their way up here. I’m in need of a good night’s sleep. 

Day 104: Another difficult decision

21.9 miles on PCT (2058.3 to 2080.2), plus 0.5 to/from Little Crater Lake

Wind moves through the treetops. All night, a small dead snag rubs against a live tree, making a horrible squeak – the sound I initially mistook for an owl. The little snag is rotten. If it falls, it’s going to fall on my tent. How did I not notice this before? 

This little leaning snag makes some big noise.

I don’t get much sleep. The squeaky noise and my nervousness keep me awake. I’d intended to let myself sleep late, but instead I’m fully awake before 4am, convinced that the squeak is getting louder, and that this can’t be good. I don’t want to pack up and hike out in the dark, however, so I try to sleep, and partially succeed, and finally start hiking shortly before 7am. Today I hope to find a campsite near Timothy Lake where I can spend the afternoon, zero tomorrow, and find an eclipse viewing opportunity nearby. I pass a lot of people coming southbound; most are clearly out for the weekend. I cross Warm Springs River, then climb 1,000 feet in elevation, straight uphill. 

As I approach Timothy Lake, I see more and more people. Backpackers, day hikers, runners. Timothy Lake is what I feared it would be: people, boats, trash strewn about, obnoxiously overstuffed campsites. I don’t want to spend the night here, let alone zero here tomorrow. I eat lunch in an unappealing site by the lake where golden mantled ground squirrels try to steal my food. I hike another mile and a half, nearly to the lake’s inlet, before I find a place I can imagine camping. The site is set back from the water, which is probably why it’s still empty. It’s well shaded with several big logs and one decent place to pitch a tent. I sit here for a long time debating what to do. Now that I’m here, I don’t want to zero, even to see a total eclipse. I’d rather keep walking. I can be at Timberline Lodge tomorrow. In 3-4 days, I can be in Portland. 

But I have masses of food in anticipation of zeroing and watching the eclipse in the zone of totality. Am I going to regret hiking on? I know one thing: I’m going to go nuts sitting here all day tomorrow. I’m already going nuts imagining sitting here for the rest of the afternoon. I should keep going. Maybe I’ll find a really tempting spot ahead, and the decision will be obvious. 

I walk for a mile without finding anything tempting. I take a short detour to look at Little Crater Lake. There, I meet three section hikers (out for the eclipse, of course) who thru hiked the PCT last year. Two of them jump into the frigid blue lake. One of them swims across and back – impressive, as the lake stays at a constant 34 degrees. Two men approach and ask if we’re thru hiking. Their names are Scott and Dave; they met while thru hiking the PCT in 1984 and have remained friends. We all talk for awhile, but finally I have to keep moving. I say goodbye and make my way back to the trail. I have 4.5 miles to cover before the next water and campsite. 

Little Crater Lake

When I arrive, there are already three people here. Tent space is limited. I’d rather hike on than camp with so many others, but I don’t want to hike until near dark again looking for a reasonable site. I manage to cram my tent into a semi-flat space, then join the others in eating dinner. One of them is Dodger, a hiker I met earlier on the trail. Two more hikers arrive, collect water, and hike on. Then a couple arrives (Zebra and Skittles from Hat Rim!), followed by another hiker. They all wedge their tents into the already full campsite. 

This is the first time that I’ve camped in a crowded campsite on the trail. I came close only once before: Spanish Needle Creek (Day 49), but that night I managed to camp on the outer edge of the site, on the far side of the trail. This time, I’m right in the middle: three tents are downhill of me, three tents are uphill. I don’t like this at all. Luckily everyone is quiet by 8:15. But why is this a NOBO hiker bottleneck? We’re no longer in the zone of totality. 

Day 103: The trail provides

19.7 miles on PCT (2038.6 to 2058.3), plus 1 mile from Horseshoe Lake and 0.2 to/from Ollalie Lake

My new friends treat me to a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, and sliced melon. I haven’t had a meal this good in a very long time. I eat so much that I may not need lunch. I hike away from Horseshoe Lake around 9am after hugging everyone goodbye. We’ve only known each other for a short time, but I feel like I’m parting from family. 

Horseshoe Lake campout.

I climb back to a smokey PCT. The air quality is so poor that visibility is almost zero. I walk through the trees and soon arrive at Upper Lake, where I’d intended to camp last night before accepting the invitation to Horseshoe Lake. Several tents line the shore. I’m glad I didn’t have to camp here. 

I crave dark chocolate. In a few miles I’ll reach Ollalie Lake. Maybe I can get a chocolate bar at the store. At the junction to Ollalie, I find trail magic: a cooler of soda cans and a bin of little bags of chips. Cool. I could use an extra bag of chips. To see the total eclipse I’ll need to take a zero, and I’m probably not carrying enough food to do so.  

I walk down to the store and buy a $3 bar of dark chocolate. Outside, what should be a spectacular view of Mount Jefferson is almost completely obscured by smoke. Bummer. 

Ollalie Lake and an almost nonexistent view of Mount Jefferson.

I walk back to the trail and sit in one of the trail magic chairs and take a bag of chips out of the bin. I sign the trail register and stash my new food in my pack as two hikers arrive from the trailhead. They ask if I’m thru hiking. Yes, I am. They’re Mackenzie and Stuart, brothers, here for the eclipse. When I mention that I’m hoping to zero near here in order to see the eclipse, but I’m not sure if I have enough food, they open their packs and offer me all kinds of goodies, including a jar of almond butter (!) and a bag of dried cherries. They plan to hike north for a few miles to scope out Ollalie Butte, so we walk together chatting about Lyme disease and the PCT. They plan to hike the PCT in 2019. 

We arrive at the turnoff to Ollalie Butte, but we’re having such a good time that they opt to continue hiking with me. We eat lunch at Jude Lake with a group of section hikers, then walk a few more miles before they have to head back to Ollalie Lake. We exchange contact info. For the second time today, I say goodbye to wonderful new friends. Hopefully we’ll meet again. 

On I go. I get water at Topper Spring and climb toward Pinhead Butte. Near the top, I meet a SOBO named Cole. He started his day at Little Crater Lake, one of the locations I’m considering for eclipse viewing. We discuss the upcoming eclipse and the ever-changing fire closures. I should be back in the southern Sierra around the same time he passes through; maybe we’ll see each other again. 

On I go. The first tent site I come to is directly under two dead trees. There’s a Jeep parked at the next campsite. Then more dead trees. Then a site directly adjacent to the trail. Finally I find a nice spot slightly off the trail with no dead trees overhead. I have just enough time to pitch my tent and eat dinner before darkness sets it. It’s windy tonight. I think I hear an owl muttering in a nearby tree – but a weird owl, maybe a Barred Owl? Or maybe it’s just two branches rubbing together.