August 14-16: PCT La Porte Road to Bucks Summit

Over the weekend my husband Greg and I completed another chunk of PCT Section M: 33 miles in less than two full days of hiking!

Day 1: 5.7 miles (PCT mile 1232.3 to mile 1238.0). My father-in-law dropped us off at the trail head on Quincy-La Porte Road a little after 5:00 on Friday evening. Our packs were loaded with water in anticipation of dry camping that night. After a moment of confusion over the location of the northbound trail we began the hike.

The hiking was easy and we cruised at 3 mph, stopping only for a few photographs when the trees parted. Lassen was visible to the north, looking distressingly naked with its complete lack of snow.

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Naked Lassen.

At sunset we came upon a huge fist of rock perched on the edge of the hill. A glance at the map revealed this to be Chimney Rock. There were several tempting campsites nearby and we debated the pros and cons of spending the night, finally deciding to eat dinner here and then push on to get a few more miles in before dark.

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Sunset at Chimney Rock.

Wildfires burning across California have cast a haze over this part of the state. This smokey haze made the sunset electric. We ate our food and spent a lot of time taking pictures of the red sky. We finally moved on when the sun sank below the horizon.

We were prepared to night hike to find a suitable campsite but after just one mile we found a very nice site and decided to call it a day. We set up camp and crawled into the tent just as it was getting too dark to see. I woke up in the middle of the night to a Great Horned Owl hooting nearby, but I soon fell back asleep.

Day 2: 18.0 miles (PCT mile 1238.0 to mile 1256.0).

I was almost giddy when I woke up the next morning. Saturday was going to be big: we were going to find out how far I could hike in one day! My longest one-day distance to date was a little over 16 miles, which I completed on a day-hike in 2012, before I got sick. Post-Lyme, my longest one-day distance was about 9.5 miles. Could I beat my personal best of 16?

We started hiking at 7:45am. The trail was easy as we wound down to the Middle Fork of the Feather River. We covered 9.1 miles in less than four hours and arrived at the river at 11:30, having stopped only once for a snack break. We took pictures from the bridge, crossed over, and found a nice river-side spot to eat lunch. Our lunch break stretched out to two hours as we ate, filtered water for the next section of trail, and relaxed in the shade. I washed my dirty socks in the river and managed to slice my toe open on a stick that was poking out between the rocks – a chance to use the first aid kit that I always carry.

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Middle Fork of the Feather River.

At 1:30 we started hiking again. In retrospect, this was not a good trail to find out how far I can hike in one day. After crossing the Middle Fork the trail climbs relentlessly from 2,800 feet to roughly 6,000 feet in elevation. With a few losses along the way, total elevation gain on the climb out of the canyon is about 4,500 feet. We tackled this stretch of trail in the hottest part of the day, after already having hiked a little over 9 miles – and 9 miles was the farthest I’ve hiked since getting sick. How much more could I do? I had hoped to make it to Lookout Spring at the top of the mountain, where we could refill our water supply, but that would be a very long hike indeed.

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Having fun with iPhone’s panorama feature on one of many switchbacks on the climb up from the Middle Fork.

Despite the heat and the steep slope we cruised along at a quick pace. Bear Creek was flowing well, and we stopped there to have a snack and soak our feet in the cold water. All afternoon we continued to climb. Up and up and up. Each time we thought we were nearing the top the trail swung around onto the next of the mountain’s folds, and we continued to climb. As evening approached my energy began to sink and we took more frequent stops to rest and refuel.

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Dogwood Peak on the far side of the Middle Fork.

Every now and then I checked the mileage on Halfmile’s PCT app. When we hit 16.5 miles for the day I asked my husband to take a celebratory picture. No matter how much farther we hiked, this would be the longest hike of my life! I felt proud of this achievement. The longest hike of my life! I can’t be sick anymore if I’m hiking farther than I ever hiked before I got sick!

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The longest hike of my life! Photo at mile 16.5.

By 17.5 miles I was feeling very tired, but we were still perched on the edge of the mountain with no flat space for a tent, and no water nearby. We continued to climb. I asked Greg to hike in front of me and to hike slowly so that I wouldn’t push myself too hard. We crawled up the mountain. The sun set, then re-emerged as we climbed ever higher, then set again.

Suddenly the slope decreased and the trail presented us with two campsites, one on either side. We stopped and took off our packs and discussed our options. After the long hot climb we were running low on water, but it was another mile to Lookout Spring I didn’t think I had enough energy to drag myself a few hundred feet higher. I was starving and in need of my evening antibiotics, so I ate dinner while Greg went up the trail to investigate what lay ahead. When he returned we decided to stay where we were.

So how far could I hike in one day? Today, 18 miles. That is, 18 miles with 4,000 feet of elevation gain in the second half of the day! But I was not feeling well. I had a headache and I really wanted to lie down. Greg generously set up the tent while I finished eating. Then I crawled inside and promptly fell asleep. My day was not over yet, however. Two hours after eating I had to take my final round of medication, so before I fell asleep I set an alarm on my phone. Two hours later I woke up and swallowed the pills.

As I lay in bed trying to fall back asleep I heard a woosh over the tent, followed by the sound of tiny claws grabbing a nearby tree. A flying squirrel! I heard the animal scurrying up the large red fir beside our tent. A flying squirrel was in the tree next door! Years ago I worked as a seasonal wildlife biologist on a small mammal crew. We caught, tagged, and released mice, squirrels, and woodrats to determine population trends before and after forest thinning activities. Part of the study involved radio-collaring flying squirrels and tracking them at night. I hadn’t seen a flying squirrel in years, but I loved the species and was excited by the sound of one gliding over the tent and climbing into the neighboring tree.

It took longer than expected for me to finally fall back asleep, but once I did I slept through the night and woke up the next morning just as the darkness was lifting.

Day 3: 9.5 miles (mile 1256.0 to mile 1265.5).

We quickly ate and packed and started hiking at 7:15. My legs were sore from yesterday’s effort, but I had recovered during the night and I felt strong. The car was a 9.5-mile hike away. Could I do this after my record-breaking distance yesterday? I hoped so, because I had to be back at work on Monday morning!

Lookout Spring was only a little over a mile away and we soon reached it. We refilled our water supply then continued on –  and promptly found a giant pile of recently deposited bear scat in the middle of the trail. Wow, this was really fresh. The bear was probably still nearby. A few minutes later we arrived at Lookout Rock and stopped to admire the view.

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Perched on the edge and photographing the view.

Greg decided to make a second breakfast, now that we had enough water for cooking. While he got busy lighting his stove I gazed out over the hillside and spotted a bear lounging on a large boulder! Surely this was the author of the scat we’d seen in the trail. I pointed out the bear and we watched as it lolled around on the boulder, then jumped down and made its way downhill following the drainage. After it disappeared from view I heard a rock tumbling down the hillside and, looking in the direction the sound had come from, I saw another bear higher up on the slope. As we watched this second bear Greg suddenly noticed a third bear, higher still and a little farther away. The second bear seemed a little larger than the others, though size was difficult to judge given the differing distances. I hypothesized that this was a sow with her two yearling cubs. Three bears in one morning! Awesome!

I took a short video of the second bear. Greg spotted the third bear while I was filming.

After Greg finished his second breakfast and all of the bears had disappeared from view we continued hiking. Lookout Rock was the high point on this side of the river, so the trail was mostly flat or downhill from here, with a few short, mild climbs sprinkled along the way. My body was tired and sore, but we were able to cruise along at 3 mph through the red fir forest. We dropped down to Lower Bucks Road (also known as Big Creek Road) and continued on, stopping only a few times for breaks.

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At the crossing of Big Creek Road.

At 1:30 we reached Bucks Summit, completing our 33-mile trek. What an achievement! This was far and away the toughest hike I’ve ever done; even before I got sick I never tackled anything this difficult. On Saturday I hiked 18 miles with 4,000 feet of afternoon elevation gain, then turned around and hiked 9.5 miles the next day. In the days since this massive effort I’ve felt a little sore and a little tired, but I have not felt sick. I feel good – ready for the next hike. I feel healthy.

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