August 24, 2016, Mile 2553: Over the Ridge

At a campsite, mile 2553

Matt was gone by the time I got up. He really wanted to hit Stehekin, 28 miles up the trail. I was planning on arriving at Stehekin on Friday 8/26, so I don’t know if we’ll cross paths again.

Today’s goal was a campsite at 2553, 12 miles and 4500 gain. This will be the most gain I’ve had in a day, over my hiking career, and is a measure of fitness for me (she said with a little braggadocio).

I left camp early morning, and it wasn’t too far before I saw something that gave me flashbacks to 2015: a Fire Closure sign. It was for a modestly sized fire well to the east of the PCT, and this was a trail junction which connected to that area. I sighed with relief, and kept hiking. **

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One more picture of Glacier Peak

Late in the morning, I was passed by two thrus. When thrus pass me, there’s almost a redshift going on. It’s amusing, when you consider that I’ve hiked about 300 miles and they’re over 2500.

Anyway, later in the morning I saw them having a snack by the side of the trail. I asked if I could join them, and they shoved over to give me room on the log.

I introduced myself, and one of them looked at me quizzically, saying, “I know you! We shared a campsite at Mt. Lassen!”

I said that I hadn’t been to Lassen, but he said, “You’re the woman with two teenage sons, one of whom is taking one college course at a time, while working.”

I said, “That’s me, but it wasn’t at Lassen. Hood maybe? Or Jefferson?”

Turns out, it was Jefferson. And this was Shower, who shared the gorgeous view of Jefferson at sunset. Cool!

He introduced me to his companion, Six Paws, who had passed me later that morning. Six Paws got his name because he was hiking with his dog. Unfortunately, the dog ran out of steam, and she had to be sent home. He was still pretty sad about that.

Shower and Six Paws swore me to secrecy regarding their location. They were hiking with two other people, whom they had passed late last night. Their plan was to sneak into Stehekin ahead of their friends, and then meet them at the Lodge, drinking beer and wondering what took them so long. So I’m now a co-conspirator.

And they told me something I’d completely overlooked. After I crested the final ridge today, it was functionally all downhill to Stehekin! I don’t know how I missed that one, as I normally review my next-day route before bedtime. But there it was. And with my planned destination for the night, it would mean a relatively simple 16 miles tomorrow. And given *that*, it was possible to hit the 6:15 shuttle into Stehekin. Tune in tomorrow!

I kept plugging, and midafternoon I hit Cloudy Pass, the last ridge of Section K. Blam! I crested the ridge, and there was GRANITE! Everywhere! Granite spires, ridges, and all kinds of stuff. It’s my favorite hiking vista, and suddenly I was in the midst of it. Welcome to the North Cascades!

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I began my descent…slowly, because I was having Ansel Adams moments all over the place. I had to force myself to keep going. Awesome!

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An hour later, I met another person from my Oregon section. This time it was Mighty; I’d shared a campsite with her at Barlow Pass, just shy of Timberline. Her plan was to hit the same campsite I was, although when I got there she had zoomed ahead. Thrus very rarely burn any daylight.

Tonight’s campsite is down a little spur trail, and has room for 4-5 tents on rough ground. I pitched my tent, and then was joined by Hoops. She’s a thru from Wisconsin. We had a great chat, and reveled in the alpenglow on the spires surrounding us in all directions.

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** Footnote: As of this writing in mid September, the fire is considered inactive. Its growth throughout had been considered slow and healthy; this is opposed to the horrific fires we experienced in 2015.

August 23, 2016, Mile 2541: Near Miss

At a campsite, mile 2541

I said goodbye to the group this morning. What a treat it was to share a campsite with them!

I was the last person out of camp, and I hoped to meet them at Vista Creek 2532. On the way, I spent a few moments playing Ansel Adams.

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Glacier Peak
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Old growth blowdown. Check out my three-foot-high trekking poles.

I made it probably 2/3 of the way to Vista Creek, when I hit a tiny bit of scree on the downhill. My left knee bent sharply and my left ankle twisted. And there I lay, knowing that a) I came mighty close to blowing out my knee, and b) my ankle might be sprained.

I lay there for a second, feeling more pissed than hurt, and a fellow hiker came along. He asked if I was okay, and I said yeah, probably, but I’m ticked. He gave me a hand up, and I continued down the hill to Vista Creek.

My ankle was quite sore, so I kept going at a snail’s pace. When I got down to the campsite, I put my foot up, chugged the ibuprofen, and had a bite of lunch. And once that was done, I attempted to walk it off.

At first, I could hardly put weight on it. But I remembered the lessons learned from June, where I’d tweaked my back during a short trip in the North Cascades. I kept walking around the campsite, and it gradually loosened up. Finally, it was at the point where I could put my pack back on, and with extreme gratitude, I headed down the trail.

Shortly after leaving Vista Creek, I hit the new trail. In 2003, that massive storm knocked out the old Suiattle River bridge. The river is unfordable, and without the bridge, hikers crossed on a log…unsafe is too mild a word.

The new bridge was completed in 2011; it is constructed of wood, iron, and bedrock. It had to be positioned 2.5 miles down the trail. The south side required all new trail, while the north side partially incorporated the Suiattle River Trail.  Check out the before and after photos.

Anyway, once I was on the new trail, my blowdown woes ceased. According to a SOBO I met, the trail was clear and mostly blowdown-free until almost at the border. Believe me, I was one happy hiker.

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My new favorite scent: freshly cut blowdowns. Thank you, trail crews!!!

The new trail also wound its way through a grove of enormous first-growth trees. I grew up in the Northwest, but these are some of the most mammoth trees I’ve ever seen.

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Again, check out my trekking poles

After crossing the bridge, I looked for the campsites which were supposed to be there, thinking to shorten my day and rest my ankle. The only spot I found was gorgeous, but apparently required rappelling to reach it. As rappelling was not in my hiking bag-o-tricks, I continued to my original campsite at 2541.

Wouldn’t you know, my campsite-mate was Matt, the student from Ohio. Cool! He was busy trying to prepare a dessert given to him by some longer-distance hikers. I pitched in with my stove, and we managed to concoct an apple compote. That works.

While we were cooking, who should come up the trail but the Brit Family Robinson! They’re the mom, dad, and two kids, Pippi Longstocking (age 13) and Captain Obvious (age 10), who were doing the trail this year. I met them at McKenzie Pass and again at Big Lake, in Oregon. We recognized each other, and chatted like long-lost companions. They were doing big miles, to get to Vancouver in time to catch their flight. The kids are supposed to start school the day after they return(!). I wished them well, and they zoomed up the trail.

Footnote: About a week after I was there, the North 350 Blades logged out ten miles south of the new Suiattle trail. Many thanks to these volunteers!

Footnote: The Brit Family Robinson kept a wonderful blog, written by Pippi Longstocking and Captain Obvious…check it out!

August 22, 2016, Mile 2529: Birthday Vertical

At a campsite, mile 2529

Happy 52nd Birthday to Me!

Today kicked off with a 2500 ft descent to Milk Creek 2522. In one of the steep sections, I came across a slight diversion in the trail. A landslide had sliced the trail in two, with no way to get across. I backtracked past the last switchback, and found a semi-worn path which cut the switchback. It involved skidding down the slope and hanging on while climbing over a couple of blowdowns. Par for the course.

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I made it to Milk Creek, without further ado. The creek was lovely.

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Upstream
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And down

I shared the bridge with a seeming multitude of great people. First up was a very familiar looking guy named Andy. Turns out he was the guy that did the trail last year, and filmed a selfie a day. It’s an incredible 5 minute movie; you can really see how the trail hardens you, for the better. I thanked him for sharing the movie, as it’s one of my favorite trail-related clips. He’s doing Washington again this year, and I wished him the best.

Then a group of seven hikers came by: six men of retirement age, plus one woman in her 40s. Turns out she lives right next door to our local elementary school. Her husband has a landscaping business with a distinctive looking truck, and I immediately knew where they were. And she’s a reporter for my favorite local radio station.

And I also saw Sprout! She was one of the people sharing the campsite at the Big Lake cove. She is also the first person I’ve met up north whom I also met in Oregon. Logistically, anybody I’d met from Oregon could meet me up here, if they were fast enough. Wonder who else I’ll meet along the way.

Tonight’s goal involved a lot of vertical; it was a campsite over the ridge, at 2529. Today’s total gain was just over 4000 ft, which I’ve only done a couple of times. Good birthday present to myself!

The ridge was gorgeous, with lots of alpine meadows winding around the East Fork of Milk Creek. It led gradually downhill, until I reached tonight’s campsite.

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I shared the campsite with Bellamy and the guys. They welcomed me right in, sang Happy Birthday to me, and even shared a drop of the pure. The evening ended with a lovely sunset behind the ridge. Life is good.

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August 21, 2016, Mile 2519: Not My Favorite Stretch of Trail

At a campsite, mile 2519

Today I coined a new phrase: Full Body Workout Blowdowns. These are blowdowns (fallen trees) which necessitate much more than a simple slide over the top, or trot around the end. They may involve old growth trees, tangled masses of young-ish alder, or any of the above. They can also require a belly crawl underneath, or a descent down a steep slope followed by a full-on veggie belay to pull yourself up. Crossfit has *nothing* on these bad boys, in my not-so-humble opinion.

The trail is also highly overgrown. Near the tops of ridges, you’ll get berry bushes and other high-alpine plants. And near the river bottoms, you’ll get masses of lowland shrubs and trees. In both of these areas, the overgrowth hasn’t been brushed back in quite some time. And if things haven’t recently been brushed back, the trail can’t be maintained: there was quite a bit of slump on all sides, which couldn’t be seen unless you looked carefully through the overgrowth. The overgrowth also makes ascents difficult. If I’ve got a rhythm going, I normally focus on my feet, and my arms/poles help keep pace. With this kind of overgrowth, I have to punch and push my way through.

What this all meant for me is an eight mile day. A couple of weeks ago I was doing double this, or even more, so I was mighty frustrated.

Please note that I am NOT under any circumstances dissing our beloved trail crews. Last winter was horrific in terms of blowdowns and other problems. I am really impressed with their ability to clear as much as they did, and having hiked this section, I am that much more grateful to them for their efforts. The work they do is fantastic. For more information on the local trail crews, check out the North 350 Blades. They have taken responsibility for the northernmost 350 miles of the PCT, or White Pass to the Canadian Border. “Blades” refers to their crosscut saws. Thank you to their awesome volunteers!

But even the slowest of days has its delights. I hiked down the Fire Creek drainage, with deep blue skies and brilliant greens.

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Fire Creek

From there, I climbed the ridge to Laslaih Creek Trail 2517. The ridge was wide open, with views everywhere. And the coolest thing for me was seeing an original Cascade Crest Trail sign! The Cascade Crest Trail was the original Washington section of the PCT; it and five other trails were merged into the PCT in 1973 (http://www.pcta.org/about-us/history/).

I sat on top of the ridge for awhile, chatting with a thru named Roberto. We admired the views…they are really stunning. The further north you go, the more spectacular they are. Right now, though, they showed gathering clouds. The forecast told of rain, and so I left the vistas and headed downhill toward my campsite.

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The campsite was partway down into the Milk Creek drainage. The first stop was the gorgeous Mica Lake 2518. The water is a perfect turquoise (which I couldn’t capture, but which blew my mind), and although I wasn’t planning on camping there, I spent a little bit just soaking in the beauty.

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Reluctantly, I headed downhill. I decided a little extra sleep would help my attitude, so I set everything up in preparation for the looming rain, and made dinner in my tent, in hopes to get to bed early.

I had one campsite-mate: a guy named Matt, in his early 20s, who is an engineering student from Ohio. He had lots of questions, as this was his first real backpacking trip, so I did my best to answer them. He seemed nice, and it was good to have a fellow traveler in camp.

Bedtime at 7:30!

August 20, 2016, Mile 2512: Billy Goat!

At Glacier Creek, mile 2512

I left my stealth camp fairly early, again to beat the heat. I needed to knock off the elevation gain before the sun was high in the sky.

Mid morning, I finally met the PCT! It was pretty awesome

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So why did I enter at the North Fork Sauk River Trail? In 2015, I did Stevens 2461 to Lake Sally Ann 2490, before bailing due to weather and wildfire. In 2014, I did Cady Creek 2485 to Red Pass 2502. And this year, I’m starting at 2500. I’m really glad I did the 2014 section, as the North Fork trail is one of the only runup trails in decent shape.

I stopped at Red Pass, to enjoy the views and have an early lunch. It’s a lovely place, where you can see peaks on both sides of the crest.

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And then I stepped off into new territory. Cool! The trail winds down into a huge basin, toward the White Chuck River drainage. Lovely streams were everywhere, along a gentle downward slope. The tread was easy; it was a wonderful section to be hiked on my first full day.

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Bridge over the White Chuck River
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White Chuck River. The larger creeks in the section drain the glaciers on Glacier Peak. They are usually pretty silty, and aren’t great for getting water.

 

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Baekos Creek. This is what winter storms and spring meltoff can do.

Suddenly I looked up, and there was Billy Goat! He is a legend among PCT hikers. He’s 77 years old, and spends almost all of his time hiking and walking. I gasped, “You’re Billy Goat!” and he smiled at me.

I told him it was a great privilege for me to meet him. He looked at me and asked if I ever felt discouraged. It seemed a bit unusual, but I said that, yes, I get discouraged all of the time.

He told me that he did too, and that his emotions will change ten or more times a day. Then he said to just ignore them, and keep on walking. Either he was reading my mind, or he knew what was ahead on the trail, or both.

Billy Goat has recently undergone heart surgery, and has Type 2 diabetes. But he just keeps going; with every setback, he keeps pushing to walk some more. In fact, he’s got 47,500 trail miles to his credit, and his goal is to hit 50,000 by his eightieth birthday. When I reiterated what a privilege it was to meet him, he looked slightly puzzled and asked why. I responded by saying that he was a reminder to us all to just keep walking.

We took a picture together, and he gave me a big hug, before heading south on the trail.

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Words of wisdom: less than a tenth of a mile north was the beginning of Trail Hell, a 30+ mile stretch of massive blowdowns, thick overgrowth, and slumping trail; this was over 9000 feet elevation gain and 9000 feet loss. Not the worst trail I’ve ever seen, but it was relentless, and had a certain soul-sucking quality about it. I plowed on, aiming for Glacier Creek, five miles up the trail. Appropriate, I suppose, as my pace could only be described as glacial.

But I finally had the chance to cross a semi-famous bridge, which I’d been looking forward to seeing. In October 2003, Washington experienced a record-breaking storm. Bridges, trails, campgrounds, and roads in this area were damaged, or completely obliterated. A chunk of the PCT simply disappeared. The well-known Kennedy Hot Springs vanished under several feet of debris. Even the Skyline Bridge, with huge I-beams and concrete footings, was destroyed. This article, published shortly after the storm, describes the damage.

Comparatively speaking, the Kennedy Creek bridge survived intact. Nevertheless, it can be a tricky crossing when the spring snowmelt comes crashing down the creek. This day, the water was low.

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As I approached Glacier Creek, with darkness rapidly falling, I had to violate one of Liz’s Guiding Principles of Hiking…never hike with my clear lined bifocals, which increases the risk of stumbling by a significant margin. I got to the creek at the tail end of dusk, threw my tent on a flattish spot, and hit the rack.

August 19, 2016, Mile 2500: Canada or Bust

We got home from Cascade Locks on the 12th, and spent a lot of time doing family things. First up was a trip to our favorite Mexican restaurant, and the next couple of days were spent transcribing my notes and adding to my blog. I spent quality time cleaning and reorganizing gear, and mailed my final resupply, to Stehekin. I sent off my old tent body with the failed zipper, and added the new body instead. But for a variety of reasons, it was a very fatiguing week. Such is life, but it was important that I go slowly at first to regain my energy.

On Friday the 19th, we headed out, via a breakfast stop at the Maltby Café. We drove up the Mountain Loop Highway, to the North Fork of the Sauk trail. Goodbyes were said, and I headed uphill midday.

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The North Fork of the Sauk trail is 5.5 miles of relative flat, which makes for a great basic backpacking trip. After that, it gains 3000 feet in 2.8 miles, a lot of which are in the first half.

With the aforementioned fatigue, it became clear that I wasn’t going to reach the trail, nor my desired first campsite. So I began the search for a stealth campsite. This is a spot which isn’t really visible to the trail, and which doesn’t violate Leave No Trace too badly, but is a functional spot. I found a spot maybe 50 feet downhill from the trail, with a mostly clear flat patch just wider than my tent. Score!

That new tent body, and the functional zipper, are proving their worth. The biting flies are out in force; I probably have ten of them smeared inside my tent, from their attempted incursion.

It’s supposed to be smoky hot tomorrow, so I’m planning to be up by 5:30. I used the umbrella today, which helped. I’ve got a clip that helps hold it in position. The jury’s still out, though, as to whether it’s a net win.

The elevation change is far different here than it was in Oregon. So my mileage will definitely drop from 15-20. I’ll have to monitor that, and be realistic about the difficulty of the trail. I’ve heard more than one highly experienced hiker caution about lower mileage.