Day 95: Unexpected alternate

16.4 miles on PCT (1859.3 to 1875.7) and 9.2 miles on Oregon Skyline Trail, plus 0.8 mile to/from Six Horse Springs

A red sun rises. There’s too much smoke in the air. I hike away from camp at 6:30 and I complete the 10.3 miles to Six Horse Springs in only 3.5 hours. Comments in the app warn me that the trail down to the spring is long and steep. I’m prepared for the worst and am pleasantly surprised when the trail isn’t nearly as long or as steep as I imagined. 

Back at the trail, I sit on a log and take my first break of the day. I’ve never done so many miles without a break before. My trail legs are back, and then some. In the water report and in the app, I keep seeing the letters OST. I’m supposed to know what this means, but I don’t, and until now I’ve just been ignoring it. Now, however, I go through my resources and unearth the full name: Oregon Skyline Trail. The alternate begins at Windigo Pass, a little more than six miles from here. For those resupplying at Shelter Cover Resort (like me), OST is eight miles shorter than the PCT. Apparently it also has more water (irrelevant for me since I just lugged four liters up this hill) and less climbing, and goes almost directly into Shelter Cove. Should I go for it? I wish I’d thought about this before now. 

Two hikers arrive and sit nearby. I ask if they’re planning to take the PCT or the Skyline Trail. They’re doing Skyline. It sounds tempting, but I think I’ll stick to the PCT. At 1,000 feet higher in elevation, it should be cooler, possibly with fewer mosquitoes. On the ridge, I should also have better views, provided the smoke isn’t too dense. 

I hike on. A little farther along, I catch a glimpse out to the south. Something’s wrong out there. I take a few steps, peering through the trees, until I see the thing that caught my attention: there’s smoke rising from the mountain across the canyon. The fire must have started last night. I get my topo map oriented and attempt to locate the fire. Oh, no. I think it’s right above the PCT. I’m standing at mile 1870. I think this fire is above mile 1868.6. I smelled smoke back there, but saw nothing, so concluded the winds had shifted. I have reception here – barely – so I call the fire information line to report what I’m seeing. Then I keep walking. I want to get out of here!

Seeing the smoke freaks me out, and now I don’t know what to do. Maybe the lightening started more fires; maybe I’m walking toward another one. Maybe I should take the lower Skyline Trail after all. Lightening is more likely to strike on the ridge. What should I do? I want to see the upcoming section of the PCT. I hadn’t planned to take the alternate; I don’t want to take it. Back and forth I debate, trying to convince myself to decide one way or the other. 

Suddenly, I spot an old trail marker. I’ve been looking forward to finding one, and starting at mile 1874, the trees are full of the old diamond shaped markers – literally: the trees look like they’re digesting the metal markers. 


I reach Windigo Pass. Now I have to decide. PCT or OST? I sit and eat lunch and study my maps. The hikers I met earlier arrive and stop for lunch, too. Thunder booms. It’s only 1:15. The storm is early today. Lightening flashes. The other hikers take off toward Skyline Trail. I remain behind, undecided. A SOBO arrives. I ask him about the trail to the north. He asks me about the nearby fire, which he could see from the trail. As we talk, ash begins to fall from the sky. A spotter plane begins to circle. 

Finally I realize that if I felt comfortable hiking the PCT, I would already be doing so. Something is stopping me. I should take the lower trail. The SOBO is going to continue hiking south despite the fire near the trail. We wish each other luck. 

The Skyline Trail winds through hemlock and down into lodgepole pine. Lots and lots of lodgepole pine. A few miles in, I catch the other hikers taking a break beside the trail. As I stop to say hi, rain starts. They move off to set up camp near a little lake, while I put on my rain gear and forge ahead. 

For awhile, I walk through drizzle. Drizzle turns to rain, then to a downpour. I don’t want to camp here, or there, or there, so I walk as fast as I can, scouting for potential sites as I go. Crescent Lake, several miles ahead, is supposed to be nice. There’s a free campground with running water, a sandy beach, and nice views of Diamond Peak. Maybe I can get there tonight. 

I’m soaked. Rain keeps coming. I’m still hiking through tall, spindly lodgepole. I don’t want to sleep here. Actually, I don’t want to sleep at Crescent Lake, either. The lake is accessible by car; a free campground will be filled with people I won’t want to camp beside. 

On I go, not liking anything I’m seeing. Once, I catch the slightest glimpse of what must be Diamond Peak. The trees are too dense to see more than a tease. I want to camp with a view of that mountain. A few miles later, I still haven’t found a place to camp. Rain tapers off, but thunder still booms. I’m getting close to Crescent Lake. I may not find anything before I reach the lake. 

Miles and miles of lodgepole pine on the OST.

I don’t. At the fork to the lake, two tents are pitched in a flat area. Finally a reasonable place to camp, and someone’s already here. I go a little farther and a paved road appears just below the trail. I’ve gone 26 miles. I don’t want to go any farther. I scout around for awhile and finally choose a spot a short distance uphill of the trail where headlights from cars on the road won’t enter my tent. From here, I can hear loud music, dogs barking, cars on road, and – of all things – a train. A train? I check the map. Yeah, there’s a train track on the other side of the lake. I hope I can sleep tonight.

Day 94: The high point

22.6 miles (1836.7 to 1859.3), plus ~0.3 mile on Rim Trail

A few minutes out of camp, I’m reunited with the PCT. I proceed along an absurdly flat trail through lodgepole pine forest. There’s a short, mild ascent into red fir and hemlock. Ahead, I see a brown mammal clinging to the side of a tree. It’s a pine marten! Wow! A rare sighting. It bolts out of sight before I can snap a photo. 

Soon I’m back in lodgepole pine. The sun attempts to break through the clouds and finally succeeds in giving me a shadow. I cross Highway 138. A mile later, I cross a dirt road and pass a huge water cache. I’m in another long dry stretch, but as usual I’m carrying enough water to get through without relying on caches. 

From here, I climb 1,300 feet onto the slope of Mount Thielsen. The grade is so mild that I hike my normal pace uphill without getting out of breath, even in the hazy air. As I gain elevation, I catch views back toward the Rim. Dense smoke blurs all of the details. I do 10 by 10. I get my first glimpse of Diamond Lake through the haze. Suddenly, the jagged mass of Mount Thielsen rises before me. I laugh out loud, because there’s no other sound I can make to express the joy I feel looking upon this peak. This is a mountain out of a fairytale. 

Fairytale mountain.

The trail takes me around the mountain and pops me out on a shoulder with a fantastic view of the peak. I stop. I take off my pack. I take lots of pictures. I eat lunch. I have reception, so I upload a blog entry and call Greg and mess around on Instagram. I plug my phone into my solar panel, and even though the sky is cloudy and I’m using the internet, my phone adds 30% to its battery in an hour. I’m officially impressed with this new solar panel. 

A section hiker shows up. Two NOBOs walk by. I need to get moving. I’ve been sitting here much too long taking advantage of the internet (or maybe the internet has been taking advantage of me). My plan for today was to get an early start and finish my miles early to beat the afternoon thunderstorms. I started strong, doing 15 miles by noon; then I got seduced by this mountain. 

Another view of Thielsen.

I pack up and hike on. Down I go, collecting more photos of the pointy peak. I hike over a large lingering snowbank and switchback down to Thielsen Creek. Here, there’s another spectacular view of Mount Thielsen. This mountain is gorgeous from every angle. Jagged peaks always steal my heart. If you asked me to name my favorite mountain along the PCT, Thielsen would probably be the one. At least, so far. I’ve seen pictures; there are more heart-stealing pointy peaks ahead. 

Thielsen Creek and Mount Thielsen.

At the creek, I fill up with water for another long dry stretch. As I prepare to leave, thunder booms. Dang. I shouldn’t have taken such a long lunch break! I’m still almost six miles from the place I want to camp tonight. I hope those won’t be six wet miles. I consult the topo to make sure I’m not about to do something reckless, like climb onto a ridge. Hmm. The trail is going to climb to its highest point in Oregon, but I won’t be on a ridge. I’ll more or less follow a contour a few hundred feet below ridgeline, which should be relatively safe in a thunderstorm. Certainly it won’t be more dangerous than trying to wait out the storm here. 

So, onward. I walk through hemlock forest. I love hemlock forest. I get one more view of Mount Thielsen through the trees. I’m going to miss that gorgeous face. 

One more picture of the heart-stealing mountain.

After a few miles, thunder booms from a different direction. Great. Apparently there are multiple storm cells today – I’ve hiked out of one and into the next. I climb onto a plateau where the trees thin out. Now I’m a little nervous. Thunder booms over the peak to the north, too close for comfort. I need to get over this high point and lose some elevation on the far side. 

A sign appears. This is it: the PCT’s highest point in Oregon and Washington, 7,560 feet. I photograph myself at the high point as thunder cracks behind me. Today has definitely been a high point of the trip. I’ve enjoyed this stretch of trail very much. 


I hike on, still without getting pelted by hail or rain. The trail takes me down. Thunder rumbles. It keeps rumbling as I find my campsite and set up my tent and eat dinner. Thunder goes quiet for awhile, then picks up on the far ridge. Another storm cell has formed. Still no rain. Later, I emerge from my tent hoping to photograph a colorful sunset, but the clouds are too thick. Maybe sunrise will be better. 

Day 93: Decision time

2.5 miles on Crater Lake Rim Trail

I sleep until 7:15, then spend the next hours analyzing my options. I consult websites and calculate mileages and finally decide to resume my hike north of the Crater Lake closures. I’ll be skipping another 66 miles, creating yet another gap that I hope to complete in the fall after reaching Canada. Maybe by then the Rim Trail will reopen. 

By the time I’ve decided what to do and how to do it, it’s time for lunch. Charlotte and I run a few errands, including picking up a detailed Oregon/Washington map (a critical piece of gear, it turns out), then we drive to Crater Lake. We pick up my resupply box at Mazama Village. I reorganize my things. We drive around the east side of the lake. This narrow winding road is the route I would have walked had I decided to walk around the fire closure. The route is a 26-mile road walk. There’s no shoulder. I don’t want to walk along this road, but I have mixed feelings about skipping ahead like this. I never considered skipping around the Idyllwild closure; I went into that road walk without hesitation. Until yesterday, I assumed I would walk this one, too. I don’t know why I’m skipping. Because this road feels too dangerous for walking? Because of the thick smoke from an active fire? Because I hope I can come back and walk the closed section in the fall? Probably this last is closest to the truth. Even if the trail doesn’t reopen, I can always opt to do the road walk in the fall. I’m not skipping so much as postponing. Yeah, that feels better. I’m postponing this section. 

When I do hike this section, I plan to hike the Rim Trail alternate, not the PCT itself, so I’ve decided to resume my hike at the place where the Rim Trail opens. I thank Charlotte for everything. She takes my picture as I step onto the trail. Then I’m on my own again, hiking north under dark clouds. Within minutes, it starts to hail. Hail turns to rain. Thunder cracks overhead. I suit up in my rain gear and keep walking. I’d rather not be on the rim during a thunderstorm; this trail will take me down and into trees. 


The scenery is gorgeous, made even more spectacular by the storm. Soon the rain stops, but thunder continues to boom. I remove my jacket and rain kilt and hike on. 

Pointy Mount Thielsen to the north.

After only a few miles I reach Grouse Hill Camp. I intended to go farther than 2.5 miles tonight, but it’s already 6pm, the thunderstorm is still active, and the next campsite listed in the app is less than a mile ahead, so I won’t gain much by going there, and who knows how far I’d have to walk after that to find something suitable. This is a nice sheltered site. I can hear the road from here, but so what. I decide to make camp here and get an early start tomorrow. Thunderstorms are in the forecast for the next few days. I may end up starting early and ending early to avoid getting soaked each afternoon. 

Mosquitoes are abundant, swarming while I eat dinner but thankfully not landing to bite. Deer wander through camp. I’m in my tent early, happy to escape the buzzing, happy to relax for the evening, happy to be out here hiking my hike. 

Day 92: I leave the trail. Again. 

18.1 miles (1752.8 to 1770.9), plus 0.4 mile to/from creek and 2 miles to Fish Lake Resort

Raindrops hit my tent off and on throughout the night. Near 1am I get up for a call of nature. When I return to my tent, my headlamp catches movement in a tree beside my tent. A flying squirrel freezes in the beam, clinging to the tree trunk. It’s been years since I’ve seen a flying squirrel. Cool!

In the morning, everything is wet. Ferns and shrubs along the trail dump water onto my pants and shoes. In a matter of minutes, I’m soaked. 

Soaked.

I hike through red fir forest. Soon, Douglas fir enters the mix. Back home, you’d never find these two species living together. When I see hemlock, I laugh out loud. Hemlock and Douglas fir? Unheard of in my neck of the woods, where Doug fir is a mid-elevation resident and hemlock only grows on the highest peaks. 

For awhile I leapfrog with three NOBOs who are much faster than me but keep stopping. At 10:06 the day’s first sun beams break through the clouds and find me in the trees. I do 10 by 10:20, and when I stop for a break, I’m not in pain. Hallelujah. 

I keep walking. Forest opens onto black lava rock and a PCT made of crushed red rock. The contrast of red and black is striking. I feel like I’m on an alternate version of the Yellow Brick Road. Pointy Mount McLaughlin appears and disappears. Red trail winds on and on, taking me in and out of boulder fields, in and out of forest. Six hikers blaze past me. Am I really so slow? 

Mount McLaughlin and the red PCT.

After lunch, I pass three SOBOs. I also pass the six hikers who zipped by me earlier. They’re sprawled beside the trail with all of their gear spread to dry, including their sleeping bags. Must have been a rough night. 

I meet two more SOBOs. (They’re actual SOBOs who started at the northern border!) They tell me that the Crater Lake trail closure has expanded. I’ll now have to exit at Sevenmile Trail, 32 miles ahead. However, the PCTA recommends getting off at Highway 140 for logistical reasons and to avoid excessive smoke. Highway 140 is less than one mile from where I stand. I don’t have much time to decide what to do. 

I manage to call Greg and my parents, but reception is so bad that they can’t understand what I’m saying. Greg gets on the PCTA’s closures page and confirms what the SOBOs told me. Apparently I can hike those 32 miles to Sevenmile Trail, take that trail down to Highway 62, then walk the highway into the park. However, Crater Lake National Park is under a Level 1 evacuation notice. Each day the situation there has worsened. Each day more of the PCT closes. By the time I get to Highway 62, conditions may be even worse. The safest choice, and the most infuriating choice, is to get off now at Highway 140. Which means I’ll be skipping more trail. 

By “the safest choice,” I mean the choice with the lowest possibility of encountering major difficulties, logistical and otherwise. Smoke from the fires is supposed to be extreme north of Fish Lake. I’m very sensitive to smoke; I don’t want to make myself too sick to hike, which is a real possibility if I spend the next 3-4 days inhaling thick smoke. If I had WIFI, or the ability to hold a real conversation with someone who does, I might make a different choice. Given the resources available, I choose to bail at Fish Lake. My mother-in-law Charlotte will meet me there. 

I have no idea where I’m going to get back on the trail. If I get on north of Crater Lake, I can only hike 160 miles before I’ll have to get off again due to the closure in Jefferson Wilderness. If I get on north of Jefferson, I’ll be outside the zone of totality during the upcoming eclipse. I’ll also be hiking into smoke from Canada’s wildfires. Air quality in Washington is supposed to be miserable right now. Where can I go? 

Right now, I just need to get to Fish Lake, a little over two miles away. I keep walking. Immediately, I run out of water. I’m only 0.3 mile from the next water source, located at the creek by Highway 140. I have plenty of time before Charlotte arrives, so I’d planned to walk to the highway and back anyway (by hiking this 0.3 now, I won’t have to backtrack when I return to complete this stretch). At the creek, I get water, then sit with the six hikers who passed me earlier. (They passed me again when I was on the phone.) They, too, are checking mileages and directions. They’re planning to hike to Sevenmile Trail. One of them has family coming to the park. One of them tells his companions that he’s still sick. He’s nauseous. So it’s still going around, whatever it is. 

I hike two miles down the side trail to Fish Lake Resort. I sit at a picnic table and eat dinner. Two golden mantled ground squirrels harass me for handouts. No way, you little tick carriers. 

A tick-carrying beggar.

I wander down to the lake and sit for awhile with my feet in the water. A smokey haze dominates the view. Then, I hear thunder. I know I’m not supposed to be by large bodies of water during thunderstorms, so I dry my feet and head back to the picnic tables. 

Thunderstorm at Fish Lake.

I shouldn’t feel guilty for getting off the trail here. But I do. I feel like a failure – again – because I can legally hike another 30 miles. Today you can, I remind myself. But tomorrow, the closure may expand yet again. This time, bailing out isn’t my fault, or even my decision. The trail is closed. 

Another hiker shows up and sits across from me at the table. He’s Tatters, from Australia, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to handle the closure(s), either. We discuss the options, and we don’t like any of them. Three more hikers arrive. They eat dinner. They joke about having had diarrhea. I say nothing of my own problems, but secretly I’m wondering why we’re all having the shits. Darkness comes. The others move out to find a campsite. Charlotte finds me and we drive to Medford, where we check into a hotel and I enjoy the luxury of a shower and air conditioning. Tomorrow I’ll have to decide what to do. 

Day 91: Thunderstorm

19.2 miles (1733.6 to 1752.8), plus 0.2 to/from spring

The first four miles are easy. Then, my feet start to ache. I sit on a log and eat a snack. I’ve seen five deer in 4.5 miles: two does with fawns and a solitary doe who wasn’t the least bit concerned when I walked by. I give my feet a good rest, then continue on. At the crossing of Little Hyatt Reservoir’s outlet I find Torpedo and Keeper, who I met yesterday. I get a little water and continue on. 

Looking down on Ashland and the Rogue Valley.

The next two miles pass so quickly that when I reach the next water source – a spigot – I think I’m in the wrong place. But no, I really did just hike two miles. I get more water. I attach my new solar panel to the top of my backpack. This thing is a monster. It’s three times the weight of the panel I used in the desert(!), and nearly three times as powerful. I loved my little Suntactics S5 panel, but in the forest it can’t keep up with my demand. With all of my picture taking and blogging, I use a lot of battery. I have two requirements: 1) I cannot run out of battery and 2) I will not sit in town all day (or all night) in order to charge batteries. With a large enough battery charger, I could meet condition number one, but I would be forced to spend many hours tied to an outlet in order to recharge the thing. Not how I want to spend my time. I had a positive experience with my Suntactics panel in the desert, when other hikers disliked the panels they’d purchased from other brands, so I decided to try the largest panel Suntactics makes, the S14. If this baby doesn’t work in the forest, nothing will. Today will be its first test. It’s huge. It’s heavy. It doesn’t really fit on my backpack. It looks ridiculous up there. But if it can get the job done, I’ll be happy to carry it. 

Sauron’s eye is fixed on Oregon.

I cover another five miles before I have to stop for lunch. My feet hurt, like they haven’t spent the last three months hiking. Like I’m starting from the beginning. Ouch. I sit on my tent’s footprint and massage my feet and eat lunch. After lunch, I plug my GPS unit into the solar panel. The sky is mostly cloudy and I’m in forest, a double problem for solar power. Let’s see what this new panel can do. In an hour, it adds 8% to the GPS battery. Impressive. 

By now the sky is completely clouded over. Around 2pm, I hear thunder. Shortly after, it starts to hail. I stop under a white fir and deploy my backpack’s rain cover. Hail turns to rain. Rain continues for over an hour while I shelter under the fir in my rain jacket. Eventually I pull out my rain kilt and my rain mitts, too. Should I set up my tent and camp here? I’m 2.3 miles from the next water source. Because I expected to get to that water tonight, I’m not carrying much. And it’s still early. I’d like to do a few more miles. Actually, I’d like to do a lot more miles, and I have the daylight for it, but my body isn’t ready for the 27-mile day my mind wants to do. If I camp at the spring in 2.3 miles, I can give myself plenty of rest this evening. 

Rain gear.

I hike on in a drizzle. It appears that I waited out the storm in the very place that received the most rain. Water puddled on the trail here, but as I continue the trail becomes more dry than wet. Rain stops. I take off my rain gear. Humidity is 100% and I’m overheating. 

I arrive at the turnoff to the spring. The clouds overhead are still dark. I investigate two camping areas and select the one without dead trees standing overhead. I set up my tent, eat dinner, and fill up with water for tomorrow’s 18-mile dry stretch. I’m enjoy a relaxing evening in my tent. A group of section hikers arrives and settles into the other campsite. A few rain drops hit my tent. I sleep. 

Day 90: Oregon

17.4 miles (1716.2 to 1733.6)

I sat through 11 zeroes before my body felt well enough to hike. Eleven days equals approximately two hundred miles. I’d just lost two hundred miles. My chance of reaching Canada and completing the High Sierra before winter had faded to a sliver. 

Or had it? Greg suggested I resume my hike farther north. I’d considered this, then promptly forgotten the idea because I was so intent on maintaining a continuous footpath. Well, I could maintain a continuous path without doing so in a continuous manner. If I skipped ahead to Ashland, I would put myself back on schedule to reach Canada before winter and still have a chance to complete the High Sierra, too. Then, in late October, I could finish those 200 skipped miles in Northern California, even with snow on the ground. 

Being back on schedule feels promising. In the morning, Mom drives me to Oregon. When we pass the exit for Castella and Castle Crags, I feel pangs of guilt. I’m skipping a lot of miles. I hope I’ve made the right decision. 

Mom lets me out where the trail merges with Old Highway 99. For half a mile, the trail follows the paved road. For the first time, I get to slack pack! (Slack packing is hiking without a pack, or with a mostly-empty pack while someone shuttles your gear ahead.) Mom drives up the road and meets me up the road where the trail resumes. She hikes with me for a short distance, then says goodbye. We’re both a little emotional at the separation. 

I proceed through little meadows interspersed with forest. It’s smokey enough that I can smell smoke. Oregon is burning. The PCT is currently closed through Crater Lake National Park and Jefferson Wilderness. I’m going to have to take Oregon one day at a time. 

As I walk, I enjoy hazy views of Pilot Rock. I listen to I-5. Visibility is amazingly poor. 

Looking south toward the I-5 corridor.

I eat lunch on a boulder beside the trail. A few miles later, I meet two European hikers, Torpedo and Keeper, at a spring. We spend a little time chatting about the situation at Crater Lake. I fill up with enough water for 13 miles and a dry camp. 

I intend to stop hiking early this evening to give myself an easy day. I’m not feeling well. Could be the smoke, could be lingering weakness, could be my stomach misbehaving, could be anything. My feet hurt. My body has forgotten how to walk with a pack on. This isn’t my best day. 

Another pretty little southern Oregon meadow.

I reach my intended campsite at 5:30. I sit, and then I notice a dead tree standing right over the tent site. Oops. I don’t camp under dead trees; I’m going to have to keep going. According to the topo map, the trail ahead goes through many flat and mostly-flat stretches. Hopefully I’ll be able to find another site. 

Four miles later, I finally find something. It’s a lumpy spot beside the trail, but my feet are hurting and I really can’t go much farther. I eat dinner and set up my tent. I hear Keene Creek flowing down below. Inside my tent, I write about my day. My stomach starts to churn. I’m nauseous. Again. I hope tomorrow is a better day. I hope my body can do this. 

Day 89: Recovered

When hunger hunger returns, it’s safe to say I’ve recovered. And for the last two days, I’ve not only had a strong appetite, I’ve been able to eat my trail foods without negative consequences. A chiropractor skillfully unpinched the nerve in my back, and I can now move without fear. This pinched nerve was the most painful experience of my life. Having such pain on the heels of severe diarrhea made the whole experience even worse. Enough of that. I’m ready to return to the trail!

To give myself the best chance of completing the entire PCT, I’m going to resume my hike in a different location than where I got off last week. (Details to come in future posts.) I hope to reach Canada, then complete the High Sierra, then finish the miles I’ll be missing by skipping ahead this weekend. I still have more than half of the PCT ahead of me. More adventures to come!

*I may not have reception for a few weeks after returning to the trail. Thank you all for your patience as I resume my trek, and thank you so much for your well wishes when I was sick. You are an awesome support crew. Thank you!*