Reckoning

My hike started on May 8 and ended on October 28th. Before I started, I knew that it would probably be impossible to hike the entire PCT, given that at least a portion of the trail was sure to close due to summer wildfires; I hoped to complete a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada by walking around the closures. However, in 2017 there were many closures, and I didn’t feel safe walking around most of them, either because the alternate routes involved long miles of highway walking or because the fires were so active that the official closure areas were changing daily.

In all, I missed 239 miles of trail:

28.1 miles from Sonora to Ebbetts Pass (CA) due to extreme (65mph) wind and feeling unsafe going solo.

61.2 miles from Seiad Valley to I-5/Ashland (CA/OR) due to fire closure.

65.8 miles from Hwy 140 (Fish Lake) to northern Crater Lake Rim trail (OR) due to fire closure.

31.3 miles from Elk Lake to McKenzie Pass (OR) due to fire closure.

52.3 miles from White Pass to Government Camp (WA) due to fire closure.

img_4369

 

Looking at this another way, I hiked a total of 2,545 miles this summer. This number includes all of the “bonus” miles I hiked: backtracking from Mount Whitney to Crabtree Meadows, returning to Harts Pass from the Canadian border, road-walking around the Jefferson Wilderness fires, etc.

img_9776

Now that I’m home and back at work, people want to know if I hiked “the whole thing.” Obviously I didn’t…but this is still a difficult question to answer. How much of the trail did I hike? In one sense, I hiked all but 28 miles of the 2017 PCT. The rest of the trail was officially closed.

img_1495

2017 was an exceptionally challenging year for a PCT thru-hike. I met a few people who [claimed to have] hiked the whole thing, straight through the snowy Sierra, around every fire closure. Most of us didn’t. Couldn’t, for our own reasons. If my timing had been different, if I hadn’t gotten sick, if I’d had a hiking partner, if I was more willing to take risks, if, if, if….maybe I could have walked all the way from Mexico to Canada.

I have very mixed feelings about the miles I missed, and how they fit into my personal definition of a thru-hike. But I’m proud of this: I never gave up, or abandoned my hike. I kept walking until I was staring winter in the face – and facing the end of my leave of absence from work. I consider myself a thru-hiker. I thru-hiked the PCT this year, but I couldn’t walk all the way from Mexico to Canada. One day, I will.

Advertisements

Day 174: The unexpected end

21.0 miles (1634.0 to 1655.0)

We leave camp as darkness lifts and immediately head downhill. Downhill it will be for the next 15 miles. We cross a dirt road, then another, dropping lower, winding down into a steep, damp canyon where sunrise is still hours away. 

Fall colors here are exceptional. Bright yellow big leaf maple is the star of the show, with dogwood and thimbleberry and many other shrubs and forbs glowing pink and yellow and orange. We cross little streams, cross and re-cross Grider Creek. We’re making excellent time. All of this downhill is exhausting, though. The trail is frequently overgrown, and there are many fallen trees. 

Crossing Grider Creek.

At last we arrive at Grider Creek Campground, where we enjoy the luxury of eating lunch at a picnic table. 

From here it’s a 6.5-mile road walk to Seiad Valley, first on a dirt road, then on a paved road along the Klamath River, and finally along the side of Highway 96. I’m surprised the official PCT is the shoulder of a highway, but it is, so we walk and arrive in Seiad Valley (population 350) at 3:45pm. 

Highway 96 and the PCT cross the Klamath River.

In the store, I ask for my box. Confusion follows. Apparently the store and the post office have returned all remaining hiker boxes. A few weeks ago, the store still had my box, and I told someone who works here that I was still coming. Now I’m here, but my box isn’t, or so they say, though it isn’t on the list of returned boxes. 

I decide to purchase food for the final three days to Ashland. Unfortunately there’s very little here that I can eat, given my odd dietary restrictions. I piece together a somewhat reasonable resupply. Dad and I hike on. After nearly a mile the trail leaves the highway and begins what will be a long, hot climb. Shortly after, there’s a signpost with a map of the general area. Below the map hangs a laminated sign that announces, in big red letters, “TRAIL CLOSED.”

We pause. The Klamath River ranger station told Dad the PCT is open. They told me the same when I called. The Rogue-Siskiyou ranger station told Dad the PCT is closed, but they told me it’s open. The PCTA website says the trail is closed; a PCTA employee told Dad they haven’t received an update for a few weeks. Now there’s a new-looking sign on the trail itself saying closed. What’s the truth? How can there be such conflicting information? 

No matter what, we can’t spend the night right here, and we were both told that the Klamath Forest section is open, so we decide to go on for another half mile to our intended campsite. If the trail is still closed, the closure must be on the Rogue-Siskiyou Forest, many miles ahead.

Is the trail closed? How can there be no clear answer? When I spoke with a woman in the Rogue-Siskiyou office a few days ago, she said there was no closure, but that there had been some “discrepancies” as to the status. However, the printed and laminated sign near the trailhead looks new. It doesn’t look like it weathered the recent big storm. 

Self explanatory?
In addition to our uncertainty over whether the trail is open or not, there’s the burned area itself to consider. It seems to be a large burn, perhaps affecting a larger stretch of trail than the burn I walked through two days ago. Several tentsites listed in the apps were obliterated in that fire; soil was seared away, leaving only rocks. We won’t be able to count on the apps to know where we can camp. This will be especially problematic if we find ourselves still in the burn come sunset tomorrow. 

When I started hiking at Castle Crags, I only intended to reach to Seiad Valley. Later, when it seemed as if the trail had reopened, I was excited about hiking all the way to Ashland and closing my gap. Now, I’m confused and disappointed. I don’t want to stop if the trail really is open. But I don’t want to keep going into a burned area where status and safety are uncertain. I think my hike is over. 

We set up our tents in a semi-flat site on the side of a steep hill where gnats swarm my face and buzz in my ears. We eat dinner. I know I should end my hike, but I don’t want to, not like this, not without knowing for certain if the trail is actually closed. PCTA says it’s closed. The sign at the trailhead says it’s closed. If the trail is closed, the decision to stop or not isn’t mine to make. Yet I’m forced to make a choice. 

If I’d known I was stopping in Seiad Valley, this day would have felt very different: I would have known I was walking through the last day of my thru-hike. That experience was stolen from me. I feel disoriented. This is the end? Now? 

It is. With so many unknowns, I don’t feel right about going on. 

I text Mom on the GPS and ask her to pick us up tomorrow in Seiad Valley. I’m glad Dad was with me today. I’m glad we finished together, though this finish wasn’t what either of us expected. 

Day 173: Marble Mountain

21.4 miles (1612.6 to 1634.0)

I’m slightly worried about running into snow on the steep north-facing climb I’m about to tackle on my way to a pass on the ridge. I leave camp at 7:30. I cross Kidder Creek and load up with water for the next 10 miles. There’s snow on the trail, but not much, not enough to be dangerous. I crest the pass without difficulty. 

Below, Man Eaten Lake appears. I’m very curious how this lake received its name. It’s a gorgeous lake that would require a steep climb down (and back) to access. 

Man Eaten Lake

The trail climbs again, then mostly levels out. In the distance, I get my first look at Black Marble Mountain. What a beauty. The mountain is unlike any other I’ve seen. I walk through more burned areas. I encounter a m hiker. He says he’s camped at Sky High Lakes and is out exploring – the first backpacker I’ve seen since leaving I-5. 

Marble Mountain looms closer and closer. I drop over a ridge into Marble Valley. Cows with bells graze on the east side of the valley. The white rock formations here are amazing. I don’t know what kind of rock this is, but I need to find out. 

Marble Mountain

One of the toes on my right foot hurts, and the pain is getting worse. When I stop for water I sit and take off my shoe and examine the toe. There’s no obvious injury. The skin looks a little torn near the nail. I squeeze on some antibiotic ointment and cover it with a bandaid. Hopefully that will help. 


I continue the climb out of Marble Valley, then drop into the next basin. The trail more or less follows the contour to Paradise Lake, where I find Dad sitting with his back against a boulder. I eat lunch, then we head north. 


We do eight miles before stopping for the night at the wilderness boundary. There are several mostly-flat spots here. We pitch our tents and eat dinner. Male and female Great Horned Owls hoot nearby. Darkness falls. We’re in our tents early. I reapply ointment and bandage to my toe, which is painful to touch. I hope the pain will be gone come morning. 

Day 172: Through the burn

24.3 miles (1588.3 to 1612.6)

What a difference camping on the north side of a mountain. Since starting at Castle Crags, I’ve been camping on east- and south-facing slopes. This morning on the north side, it’s still dark at 7am.

Paynes Lake, where I intended to camp last night before being derailed, is beautiful but frigid. I’m glad I didn’t end up here. It would have been a very cold night. 

I climb to gorgeous views of Smith Lake and Mount Shasta. A few small snow patches linger on the mountain, some on the trail but none big enough to cause a problem. 

Smith Lake and Mount Shasta.

On the descent to Sawyers Bar Road I meet two dayhikers coming up the hill with two dogs. So far I’ve seen at least one person per day out here, but I haven’t seen a single backpacker. 

Dad is waiting for me at the road with my resupply box and a gluten-free muffin. Cows wearing bells wander up the road while I organize my resupply. After an hour break, I’m ready to continue. As always, it’s hard to say goodbye and walk away. 

I climb into Marble Mountain Wilderness and come to a trail register. The last entry was nine days ago; I may be the last PCTer to hike this section this year. A half mile or so later, I enter the area burned by the Salmon August wildfire complex. Until recently, the trail was closed north of Sawyers Bar Road. 


Fire severity was patchy. There are patches of unburned trees and patches of live trees, patches of scorched trees, and patches where even the soil burned away. Even in these most severely burned areas, though, I find shrubs already sprouting. I’m glad to be hiking this section now and not next year. Landslides and fallen trees will obliterate portions of the trail this winter, I’m sure. 


The trail creeps along the slope, more or less following the contour, for ten miles. It’s a long walk along the top of a steep canyon. I pass Shelly Meadow, where I find an unburned campsite. I still have daylight left, so I keep walking. 

After the sun sinks behind the mountain I finally cross the ridge and drop onto the unburned north side. It’s cooler over here, so much so that patches of snow linger. I reach the next campsite. It’s perched above a damp meadow and looks like it will be freezing cold, so I keep going. The next campsites, at Fischer Lake, are small, and this place looks just as cold as the last, so again I keep going. Marten Lake is only 0.3 miles ahead. 

There are supposed to be two tent sites at little Marten Lake, but I arrive to discover that neither of these tiny flat spots will fit my tiny tent. The next campsite – the last for many miles – is another mile ahead. I walk as fast as I can and arrive as the last of the alpenglow leaves the mountain tops. 

Looking for camp as alpenglow fades.

This site is much better than the others. It’s large enough and flat enough, with no dead trees overhead, and no signs of frost-heave. There’s even a nice view of Shasta. I pitch my tent and eat diner, and by then it’s dark. I receive a text from Dad on the GPS. He’s going to meet me tomorrow at Paradise Lake and hike with me to Ashland from there. I’m excited to hike with him again. We started together and we’ll get to finish together. I’ve been alone for a long time. I’m looking forward to gaining a hiking partner. 

Day 171: Discrepancies

22.0 miles (1566.3 to 1588.3)

As I climb away from camp, the sun’s first rays touch the trail. Sawtooth Ridge, Sawtooth Peak, and Caribou Mountain appear through the trees. The granite mountains are distant, but I can identify them even at this distance, along with what appears to be Thompson Peak, tallest mountain in the Trinity Alps. 

I pass the fork to Middle Boulder Lakes and enjoy a view of the lakes from an overlook adjacent to the PCT. Wind races over the ridge, so I snap a few photos and don’t stay long. Shortly after, I see a scraggly coyote running away from me. Poor thing looks mangy. 

Middle Boulder Lakes

I continue to catch views of the peaks in the heart of the wilderness. Then, at last, the trail ends its obnoxious southward trajectory and turns north. Here the whimsical contouring ends. I descend to the South Fork Scott River, my last water source for 10 miles, then climb toward Forest Highway 93. Climbing to a highway feels weird and wrong; the trail descends to all other highways and major road crossings – Rainy Pass being the only exception that I can immediately recall. 

I leave Trinity Alps Wilderness, cross the highway, and continue climbing. I haven’t done this much climbing since my first day out of I-5, but my legs soon remember what to do. I hike to a campsite on a ridge where I get reception. Here I stop for lunch. 

I receive a text from Dad: “The trail is still CLOSED in the Rogue/Siskiyou forest.” 

I fine-tune my position on the ridge until I have a strong enough signal to give him a call. Because the closure information he received yesterday was unclear, he called the Forest Service again and was told that the trail is closed eight miles south of Mount Ashland. Damn. 

He gives me the phone number for the Sisiyou forest. I call. The woman who answers says there have been some discrepancies, but the trail is open in her district, however she doesn’t know about conditions on the Klamath Forest. She gives me the phone number for that office. I call. The man who answers says the trail is open, but he doesn’t know about conditions on the Siskiyou. Well, both offfices have told me the trail is open. Apparently I can get all the way to Ashland. 

I call Dad. While we discuss our ever-changing plans, two men walk up. One walks right up to me and starts talking as if he doesn’t realize I’m on the phone. After a few paragraphs he mentions they’re out looking for cattle. I tell him about the cattle I heard yesterday. These cows probably belong to his cousin, who runs on the range to the south. Eventually the two men hike on, but I soon catch up to them when I resume my hike after finishing lunch. 

The older man is Carl, the younger is Jeff. Carl is a talker. I can’t politely break away. I’m always conscious that I represent thru hikers to those I interact with, and I want to leave a positive impression, so I’m as patient and polite as I can be. Finally I seize an opportunity and bid them goodbye and hurry on up the trail. 

Looking back toward Highway 93.

It’s already 2:40. Almost 10 miles stand between me and the campsite I had in mind for tonight. I’d actually hoped to go another three miles beyond that, which is clearly impossible now that I spent so much time with the ranchers. With day length so short, one hour makes a huge difference in what I can accomplish. Now I’m going to have to push hard, push to my limit, to get to camp before dark. 

As if in compensation for all those earlier miles of easy walking on the contour, the trail now turns steep. The terrain becomes nearly vertical. One wrong step here and I’ll end up at the bottom of the canyon. Small patches of snow put fear into my heart as I pass by. No, it’s not dangerous, not even close, but who knows what lies ahead. Until the last stretch before Sonora Pass, the trail was perfectly safe. I can’t stop worrying about snow and other potential hazards that come with hiking in late fall. 

I push on over steep, eroding trail on the wall of a steep, steep canyon. I enter a burned area. I cross several springs. At the top of the canyon, there’s a rock formation that looks like a Trojan helmet. 

An old burn (and a Trojan helmet) in Russian Wilderness.

At last I reach the top of the climb. I speed over a gentle grade through the remaining half mile to the campsite. The campsite is better than I hoped, despite sitting on a north-facing slope: no dead trees overhead, relatively sheltered from the wind. 

I’ve arrived two minutes before 6pm (a few minutes before darkness falls) after a tremendous effort. Had I not been waylaid, I probably could have reached the next campsite, three miles away, beside a lake. Instead I’m dry-camping once again and hoping I sleep well enough to recover from the hard push to get here. 

Day 170: A change of plans

24.6 miles (1541.7 to 1566.3), plus 0.2 to Boulder Lakes overlook

Morning temperatures are so warm that I don’t need my down jacket as I go about my chores and pack my tent away. A pink sunrise glows through the trees as I leave camp. 

On the trail, I step over cow patties and fresh tracks. Late October seems late in the year for cattle to remain on a grazing allotment. Has a cow been left behind?

I go over a little pass above Bull Lake and behold the high peaks of the Trinity Alps. Trinity Alps Wilderness is one of my favorite places. I’m excited to see a section of the wilderness that I haven’t visited before. I’ll enter the wilderness later today; now I just enjoy the view. 

Looking toward the heart of Trinity Alps Wilderness.

I hear the tinkle of a cowbell below in the meadow along Robbers Meadow Creek. Ah ha! I knew there was a bovine out here. Shortly after, fresh cattle tracks cover the trail. Hmm. Obviously there’s more than one out here. Grazing season must not be over. Looks like I don’t have to call the USFS to report the whereabouts of a missing cow after all. 

I come to the crossing of Highway 3. There are two motorcycles parked at the summit, though they aren’t traveling to together. The driver of the second bike offers to take my picture when he sees me attempting a selfie with one of the PCT signs.  

From here, the trail climbs. I enter Trinity Alps Wilderness and continue climbing. At the fork to East Boulder Lake I set my pack beside the trail and take off up the steep trail to Boulder Lakes. I quickly reach the ridge and drop over the other side. The setting sun hovers behind the lakes, making photography difficult. I gather a few photos and return to the PCT and continue the climb to my campsite. 

East Boulder Lakes

As I traverse the slope, Mount Shasta comes back into view. The scenery is lovely, and unlike the other parts of the wilderness that I’ve visited. 

I reach my intended campsite. I have spotty reception here, just enough to receive text messages. Dad tells me know that the trail appears to have reopened from Seiad Valley to Ashland. He spoke with employees at the two USFS offices with jurisdiction. One told him that the trail is open, the other described a closure area that seems to use the trail as a boundary. The PCTA website still lists this as a closed section due to the Cook and Abney Fires, but apparently their information is outdated. 

Dad had planned to meet me at Sawyers Bar Road in a few days and hike with me to Seiad Valley, where we’d both leave the trail. We now revise the plan: he will meet me at Sawyers Bar Road with a resupply, but won’t join me on the trail until Seiad Valley. We’ll hike to Ashland together. 

Day 169: I walk the contour

25.3 miles (1516.4 to 1541.7)

Wind gains strength as the night progresses. I wake, nervous, as my tent shutters and leans. I have reception here. I recheck the forecast. Ten miles per hour, says the forecast. This wind is much stronger than that. I fear that my tent won’t withstand the onslaught. 

At 2am I get up and adjust some of the stakes and tighten the guy-lines, and afterward I feel more confident in my tent’s ability to stand through the night. I’m able to sleep a little, between the strongest gusts. When my alarm sounds the tent is still shaking. 

I manage to pack up without anything blowing away. I walk for maybe a quarter mile before the wind suddenly decreases. As I walk, views of Shasta come and go. I pass little meadows where pitcher plants grow. I wind around mountain after mountain, mostly following the contour. This is the strangest section of PCT I’ve seen: mile after mile of walking along the contour, barely climbing or descending, around one mountain and onto the next. 


In late morning, I have a sudden epiphany. Since somewhere in Washington I’ve been trying to recall the name of the singer who performed on David Bowie’s song “Black Tie White Noise.” For hundreds of miles I’ve searched the archives in my brain, refusing to give in and ask Google. Suddenly, the name comes to me: Al B Sure! What a relief. Unfortunately there’s no one to celebrate with.

I eat lunch shortly before the fork to Toad Lake, but I should have walked another three minutes before stopping to eat at the fork itself. The view here is much better. Around the mountain I go, climbing mildly to 7,600 feet. On the north-facing slope I encounter snow on trail, all that remains from the recent storm. 


The trail goes over a low spot, then onto a south-facing ridge. Along the contour I walk. With so little climbing, I’m making great time. Near Parks Creek Trailhead I suddenly see day-hikers on the trail, the first people I’ve seen all day. I pass two day-hikers heading south. Not long after, I catch up to two day-hikers hiking north. There are six cars in the parking area. On a Monday afternoon. I did not expect to find so many people here. 

I speed across the paved road and onto the trail on the far side. The trail begins what may be the strangest iteration of its constant contour traverse. For miles I walk the perimeter of a canyon until I’m directly across from the place where I entered the canyon after crossing the road. Here I stop. I’ve done 25 miles today, but only 3,200 feet of climbing. 

I pitch my tent and eat dinner. A breeze picks up. I hope it stays a breeze; I can’t take another sleepless windy night. A Great Horned Owl hoots nearby as I finish night-time chores in my tent. I listen for the hoots as I slowly drift toward sleep.