July 22, 2018: Finally, Crater Lake!

At Grouse Hill Camp, Mile 11.0 (Crater Lake Rim Trail Alternate)

My hike is finally here! I wasn’t sure how this year’s hike would play out. My chronic fatigue syndrome is somewhat improved, although my health is certainly not where it was in prior years. But we’re making it work, and I’m really excited!

Steve and I got up at 4:00 this morning for my 7:00 flight to Medford. It’s a lot faster than the train, which would have required a drive from Eugene and then on up the hill, far south of where I’d started before. But I definitely missed seeing Robin and Mary Beth this year!

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I had the pleasure of a ride with Devilfish, who angels up and down the trail. It was great to meet him. We dropped off our other passenger, an Israeli hiker named Alon, at Mazama Village, which is the lower southern part of Crater Lake National Park. I got my bearings quickly, as I’ll be back in a few days.

Devilfish gave me a quick tour as we drove north to Hwy 138, the northern end of Section C. The smoke was moderately heavy; the Timber Crater Fire in the northeast corner of the park was really kicking in. It was too far to be a particular danger, but the smoke was a challenge.

Finally, my starting point! The astute reader will remember that I had to get off trail at Hwy 138 last year, due to the Blanket Creek and Spruce Lake Fires in August and September 2017. I will be hiking through a lot of new burn, but at least I’ll be on trail, and will hopefully finish Section C.

The trail winds along a flatter-than-a-pancake section, for nine miles. It was a good warmup, and I started getting acclimated to the smoke and elevation. Crater Lake itself runs about 7,000 feet, and the lake itself is far below the rim. People, certainly me, aren’t expecting this, so it was a surprise. But the lake itself wouldn’t be visible until tomorrow.

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After the nine miles, I reached a trail junction. This is where the “official” PCT diverges from the Rim Trail. It’s rather odd, that the PCT itself doesn’t come within sight of the lake. Virtually every hiker takes the Rim Trail Alternate. And it’s actually mandatory right now; the Spruce Lake fire closed the PCT for the foreseeable future.

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Next to the junction was a tiny spur up to the highway, which deadended in a trailhead parking lot. And in that lot was a bear box. And in that bear box was a water cache! And that water cache is regularly supplied by Devilfish! He fills three separate caches (two of which I used last year), via the Diamond Lake Resort. Without these caches, there would be dry stretches of 25-30 miles. Needless to say, his efforts are heroic and change the game for a lot of us.

I had a friend drop off a gallon with my name on it, but there was so much water that it was redundant. Hikers taking care of each other.

Once I refilled my water, with enough for tonight and tomorrow, I continued down the Rim Trail to Grouse Camp. Crater Lake National Park only has a few approved campsites, and I planned to use two of them.

I tossed down my tent, and met a girl named Linnea, who is on her very first section. As soon as we said hello, she asked me for my top five tips for new backpackers. It was a great conversation starter.

The smoke was getting thicker, as the day wound to a close. But as always, it makes for a great sunset.

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Tomorrow, the lake!

July 23, 2018: Exploring Crater Lake

At Lightning Springs Camp, Mile 4.6 (Crater Lake Rim Trail Alternate)

After such an early start yesterday, I was slow getting out of camp. But I had planned for today to be slow, with low mileage, and extra time to see the lake.

Once out of Grouse Hill, the trail went up 2.5 miles to the rim. It was just enough elevation gain for me to notice, as the smoke grew thicker. The trail grew closer to Rim Drive, until they both converged at the first viewpoint, on the northwest corner of the lake.

Even though it was smoky, it was still a great view. I took my time, taking pictures and the like.

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I chatted up a family doing the same thing, and the dad asked me how it was going. I replied that it was going great, although there was a 22 mile stretch with no water. He offered me a liter, straight from the fridge in their RV. Boom! For the curious, or for new readers, to Yogi means to finagle food or water from a willing tourist. In the heat and the smoke, ice water was really appreciated! The fact that I was accessing water caches remained unmentioned; extra water is always welcome even on shorter days.

After that wonderful encounter, I headed south along the Rim Trail. It was more meandering than hiking, but with all the views it was pretty cool.

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I spent some time chatting with a 70 year old hiker named Unchained. It’s always fun meeting people who are older than the average hiker. I gave him some tips about the northern end of the trail, including a drool-worthy description of the cinnamon rolls in Stehekin.

Because my actual mileage was very low, I took a side trip up the Watchman. It’s a 1.2 mile round trip, 600 feet gain trail, up to the fire lookout, which is at 8025 feet. It’s not officially part of the PCT, but it’s the highest point in Washington and Oregon. I plodded along, nursing my asthma, but the view was worth it. The lookout is periodically staffed, and of course there was a guy up there today, watching the progress of the Timber Crater Fire. Also, the smoke cleared a bit in the late afternoon, so that I got to see a bit of the lake’s incredibly deep blue.

After I got down the Watchman trail, I met a couple who were sitting still and watching pikas! It was so nice to see and hear the pikas…it’s been a long time. With climate change, their habitat is shrinking.

I reached the Lightning Springs Camp junction, and headed down the 0.8 mile trail. Almost immediately, I met a guy who was one of the CLNP wildfire fighters. I thanked him profusely. Other than homeowners, nobody thanks firefighters like hikers. I was almost misty.

Once I reached the camp, I filled up with six liters at the spring. That will save me the time of getting water in the morning, and will give me my desired two liters for camp, plus the chance to camel up before I leave (camel up = pound a liter of water while at a water source).

Tomorrow will be finishing the Rim Trail Alternate, and heading downhill to Mazama Village.

July 24, 2018: Hiker Trash in Mazama Village

At Mazama Village, Mile 1820.9

First, a bookkeeping note. Earlier this year, the trail was rerouted in Sierra Buttes, CA. This added 2.5 miles to the trail. So while last year’s start at Hwy 138 was at mile 1847.8, the mileage is now 1850.3. Mazama Village was 1818.4, but is now 1820.9. If you’re paying attention to the mileage in my blog, that’s what happened. If you don’t really care, that’s fine too! I’m mentioning this here, because today was the day I finished the Rim Trail Alternate, and continued south on the PCT.

In the morning, I headed back up the trail from Lightning Springs Camp, crossed the road, and set my sights on Rim Village. Rim Village is up on the rim (go figure), while Mazama Village is a few miles downhill from that. It’s completely out of sight of the lake.

This section of the Rim Trail was far lumpier than I had expected. Again with the preconceived notions: walking the rim of a lake is not necessarily a stroll along a flat beach. I did get a few more good views, though, especially as the heavy early smoke thinned to reveal Wizard Island.

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I stopped in Rim Village for a snack, and had the opportunity to chat with a mom and her two adolescent kids. They’re from Wasilla, where she is a firefighter. Their hike is from Campo (the Mexican border) to Cascade Locks (the Oregon/Washington border). More power to them!

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After a bit, I headed downhill 4+ miles, to Mazama Village. I met a man named Dallas; we kept crossing paths. We talked about my concerns with the Hendrix fire, and he said he might be able to give me a ride to the border, from the California side, if that were necessary. Magic! I’ll shoot him an email if needed.

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And this is a good time to jump in with one of my big trail concerns. On July 15, one week before I left, there were lightning storms all over southern Oregon. With the high temperatures and tinder-dry conditions, there were multiple fire starts. One of these, the Hendrix Fire, was in Section R, which stretches from Ashland, over the California border, and into Seiad Valley. I was shut out of this section last year, and I really, really wanted to finish Oregon this year.

A few days before I left, however, there was a several mile closure on the Oregon side of the section. A detour was put in place, but it was really complex, with lots of tiny dirt roads and a couple of dozen intersections. That was changed a few days after that, to the dirt road thoroughfare, but I was leery of both of them. Navigation is one of the weaker links in my backpacking toolbox, and while I could certainly do it, I had a lot of other things to deal with as well. And this doesn’t even talk about the smoke. Needless to say, I was on edge.

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The smoke was bugging me, and I was coughing quite a bit whenever I talked. So I was grateful that the trail was almost entirely downhill. I arrived at Mazama Village midafternoon.

The campground is fairly large, with seven large loops. The hiker-biker camp was naturally all the way at the end, but it was only five dollars per night, and had tons of room for tents, tucked into tiny sites. There were also a couple of picnic tables and bear boxes, in larger clearings. And this was the location of social hour. After I grabbed my cold water shower, I plunked down next to several other hiker trash (aka long distance hikers), and we had a great time hanging out for a few hours.

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I re-met Sam and Kylie, who shared the Grouse Hill campsite with me. They were a brother-sister pair from Missouri, who had spent months preparing for their trip through Crater Lake. Unfortunately, Kylie got altitude sickness after several hours of hiking on the Rim Trail. They were able to hitch a ride down to Mazama Village, and the decrease in elevation was just what she needed. They were in the process of rethinking their plans, and I daresay the camaraderie was just what they needed.

I headed up to the café around six, put my name on the list, and went to grab my resupply. I had brought my nearly empty pack (yes, I’m the brains of the operation) and just dumped everything inside. Dinner was fairly forgettable, although I appreciated the salad bar. And I got to text with Steve, which is always the highlight of the day 😊

I was a bundle of nerves, because of the upcoming portion of the trail. The next twenty miles were completely dry. I had to figure out how to make that work in conjunction with my slower speed and my increased need for water. Steve was very encouraging, and it was good to have him talk me down from my tree.

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Hikers with their fresh resupplies

There was more time around the picnic table when I returned. What was really great was that there were hikers of all flavors…sections, LASHERS (long assed section hikers), thrus, you name it. But it was all about respect and friendship. Every once in awhile, you get snobbery, but that definitely wasn’t the case here. Ben (Costco), Fire Socks, Kylie, Sam, and many more added a lot of fun to our evening. Love my hiker trash.

 

July 25, 2018: Planning for Water

At Pumice Flat Trailhead (Alternate Starting Location)

I didn’t set my alarm this morning, and I slept until 8:30, getting up just in time for an Actual Breakfast down at the café. I also did Actual Laundry, and took an Actual Shower. Happy dance!

Ben, Kylie, and Sam were down at the store. Ben’s resupply was there, and so they were going over his box. I hung out with them until my laundry was done, and then I went into the store to talk with the wonderful information guy.

I told him of my concern for the 20 mile stretch, and how I needed extra water, medically speaking. And that I felt the need to start before dawn, but that I couldn’t possibly get a hitch that early.

Echoing Steve’s advice from the night before, he suggested that I get a hitch later today, down to the Pumice Flat Trailhead. This is a cutoff for the PCT, losing maybe three miles, and a lot of elevation gain/loss. The thought was that I could buy a gallon of water, fill my own supplies to the brim, get the hitch, camp at the Pumice Flats Trailhead, and in the morning I could camel up and leave with all the water I needed. Slosh.

This plan made the most sense of any I had heard so far, so I thanked him profusely, and headed off to the campsite to pack up my gear and sort my resupply.

I almost always pack extra food into my resupply boxes. And that’s totally fine with me, because I can share a few extras with the 20-something hikers who have almost no money. I dumped several things into the bear box, which had a dedicated shelf for a hiker box. A hiker box is a specific place for your extras. If you’re lucky, you’ll get dessert or M&Ms. If you’re not so lucky, the only things there will be instant oatmeal and bags of Mysterious White Powder.

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Once everything was put together, I shared hugs with the resident hiker trash, and then headed down for an early dinner at the café. I had a fun moment in the parking lot, where I saw a VW Westy in the exact same colors and setup that we had in our van, back in the day. I had a great chat with the owners of Franz the Van. Very cool!

Dinner was fairly quick, and then I got my gallon of water at the store. Next stop, the road. I needed a 2.75 mile hitch down Highway 62, to the trailhead. I stood by the road, started to get my sign out, when a guy pulled over and offered a ride. Fifteen seconds flat! He was a hiker, up in the area for the weekend. After a little figuring, and one wrong turn, we got to the Lodgepole picnic area, where the trailhead was located. I thanked him profusely, and then went to find a decent tentsite.

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Looking back to Mazama Village, from my hitch location

It took a bit to find something flat enough, as this wasn’t technically a camping area. My plan was to hit the rack ASAP, for a 4:30 alarm. Party on.

July 26, 2018: The Burn

At Jack Spring Trail, Mile 1808.9

As planned, I got up before dawn, and shuffled my water. I used my gallon to top off my carry, and poured the rest down my throat, with a lot of electrolytes.

Part of my chronic fatigue syndrome is the need for extra electrolytes, particularly salt. Each liter I drink is spiked with Nuun, or with Liquid I.V. (my favorite). I usually have two liters in camp, plus three-ish along the way. Naturally, the extra weight slows me down, which means I need more water, which means…you get the idea. Today’s plan was 3 liters, plus 3 liters tomorrow, for a titch over 13 lbs. Meh. My pack was a bitch.

I pounded two liters, topped off my six liter capacity, and headed out. The Pumice Flat trail is nearly flat, which made for a good warmup. I need about an hour to really get going, so the grade was very welcome. I plugged in my podcasts (today’s was Radiolab), and hiked approximately west.

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The fun part today was meeting more terrific people. At the junction of Pumice Flat Trail and the PCT, I met two groups of CLNP volunteer rangers. They were heading downhill on the Stuart Falls Trail, an alternate for the water-challenged. This had been an option for me, but last year’s fires destroyed the trails, and route-finding plus a handful of extra miles were not in the cards for me. Anyway, the guys were working on trail reconstruction. Again, I thanked them profusely.

I also met a guy from Amherst, MA. I have family there, and while he didn’t recognize their (unusual) name, he did recognize the name of my friend, Suzanne Palmer. It was only a “hey, I’ve heard of her” rather than “hey, we’ve been friends for years,” but it was fun nonetheless.

And I met a woman who was my age. She is NOBO (northbound), like virtually all hikers on the trail in the third week of July. She is also finishing the trail, just a few miles ahead. We stopped and chatted for awhile. She let me know that Jack Spring, which is always considered dry, had a little water. There is a cairn at the site of the (burned out) trail, with an arrow pointing in the ostensible direction of the pond. I made plans to check it out when I got there.

Today was the day I completed Crater Lake National Park, and entered the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

And on a much more serious note, today was the day I hiked through last year’s burn. There were other burns in the area, each pretty awful, but this one was shocking. It burned with such intensity that there was zero green coming back in. The slopes were 100% bare, and the snags were partially to mostly burned through. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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I continued through more burns. The exposed trail got pretty hot, in addition to having ash. And the ever present smoke continued apace. It was not a pleasant day.

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Late afternoon, I reached the Jack Spring Trail. Sure enough, there was the cairn and sign. I headed in the direction of the arrow, but I had zero luck. It was in a burn (naturally), so I didn’t need to do much route finding, but alas, the pond was not to be found. I did find out later that the pond existed. Devilfish posted a couple of pictures. Apparently I had not gone far enough; perhaps 500 feet were an understatement. But that didn’t help me this night.

I headed back north just a bit, where there were several campsites (in this case, just flat spots with a lot of debris), and tossed up my tent. I was pretty thirsty, and filthy beyond belief. It’s amazing how ash can get all over the place. I ate dinner with arguably the dirtiest hands I’ve ever had. I couldn’t wash up because I had to save all of my water. Such is life. Tomorrow, a stream.

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July 27, 2018: The Joys of Water

At Second Stream, Mile 1800.5

Today was a long slog. I really wasn’t feeling well; a lot of that was nausea from the smoke. But I got an early start, so that I could do more miles before it got too hot.

In many ways, today was a repeat of yesterday…hot, dry, smoky, lots of burns. I put on some music, and gutted it out. Like Billy Goat told me a couple of years ago, just keep walking.

The first water opportunity came at the bottom of Devil’s Peak. Honeymoon Creek is notorious for being a mudhole.

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It was indeed a mudhole, but with a little care I was able to pull the better part of a liter, and then filter it. I still had half a liter from yesterday, so I tucked the Honeymoon Creek water away.

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And then I met a youth group from a local church, on a weekend backpacking trip. They stopped to chat, and they asked me how I was doing. I said, “Great, but I’m dry. I have almost no water left, because the last water source was Mazama Village.” The adult in charge offered me half a liter, and I gratefully accepted!

With a half liter, plus the reserve water, I headed uphill. The northern flank of Devil’s Peak has four streams, the first and fourth of which have very decent water, and the other two of which are passable.

I finally reached the first stream! It had good flow, and was very clear. There were two European guys, about my age, who were staging there for an early run toward Mazama Village tomorrow.

One guy was fairly quiet; I don’t think his English was all that great. The other guy made up for it, rather obnoxiously. He asked me how far I’d come today, and I replied with, “Oh, I don’t know. Far enough, I guess.”

Then he replied with, “Well, if you tell me how long you’ve been hiking, I can tell you how far you’ve come.”

I retorted, “No you can’t,” and he proceeded to tell me, “If you’re going three miles an hour, you’re going fast. If you’re going two miles an hour, well, that’s umm, medium. If you go one, you’re going very slow.”

In my best @#$%-you voice, I told him that I hike very very slow, and with my best stinkeye, I headed over to the stream.

I rinsed off my hands and face (no soap allowed), soaked my bandannas and my hat, swished out my water carriers, filtered a few liters, drank one of them, and headed uphill to the second stream. I didn’t want to deal with his crap.

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There was a decent sized tentsite, just before the second stream, so I dropped my pack and went to load up. I’ve become fond of maxing out my water in the evening, which saves time in the morning. I just need to filter my dirty water (in Evernew 1.5L bladders) into my clean water carriers (SmartWater bottles), and I’m good to go.

While I was making dinner, I saw my first SOBO! His name is Waffle, and he’s a LASHER, going from Cascade Locks to South Lake Tahoe. He was really nice. I invited him to join me in the tentsite, but he was going to go check on the water, and possibly continue on up the hill. He didn’t return, so I assume he went on his merry way. But yay…another SOBO!

There were maybe a dozen NOBOs who passed my tentsite after dinner. I figured they were all planning on staging at the first stream. It made me doubly glad I’d continued on uphill.

What with all the stressors of the last two days, I really wasn’t doing well. I texted Steve, in a bit of a mess, and finally just sat in my tent and cried for a few minutes. That seemed to help. I’m sleeping in tomorrow, and then I’ll head up Devil’s Peak.

 

July 28, 2018: A Hidden Gem

At Snow Lakes, Mile 1796.0

Today was low and slow. With my physical stressors, I realized I just needed to take an easy day. I’m not very humble, at the best of times, so this was hard to admit. But it was the right thing to do. Plus, I’ve developed a breathing cadence which seems to work, not too deep, and not too fast. Add that to keeping my music going, and I can plug along.

I kept going up the hill this late this morning, and in a little over a mile, I hit the fourth stream. This was nicer than the second, and so I joined some more hikers for a water break.

There were four of us, including a guy from Houston, and a father/daughter pair from Melbourne. I mentioned that my friend Wendy lived in Box Hill, and of course they knew exactly where that was. Yet another connection!

Second breakfast and water gathering done, it was time to head up Devil’s Peak. I had heard ominous things about how steep it was.

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But for the last quarter mile or so, the trail turned into a talus slope. It looked an awful lot like the trails at home, and I absolutely know how to deal with these. With a smug grin, I pounded the rest of the way, up to the ridge.

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View from the top. The smoke is over the greater Medford area.
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My pack takes a break at the top of the ridge.

Once I started the long, slow downhill, I started asking the NOBOs if they’d seen Snow Lakes. And none of them had. I knew the spur trail was difficult to find, so I prepared myself for some routefinding.

As I got closer, I resorted to my app, which plays with my GPS. I was hiking through yet another burn, so trail descriptions might or might not be accurate. Finally, I came across a laminated sign, which was dated 2017, and indicated that hikers needed to exit the PCT here, at the Snow Lakes trail.

The trail sign itself was difficult to see if you were NOBO, which explained why none of the hikers had seen it. And all the next day, I passed on the trail info to every NOBO who came my way.

Anyway. Once I’d figured it out, it was an easy spur, less than a quarter mile, downhill. And suddenly, boom! There was a lovely little lake, with a few tentsites. Water! Comfort! Yay!

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I set up my tent in the first site, threw everything inside, put on my conveniently waterproof camp shoes, and scooted out onto the lake, on one of several logs.

The water was clear on top, and so with a little careful finagling, I filled up all my water. It was a pretty little spot, and the water was quite warm.

Shortly afterwards, another hiker appeared. His name was Sisyphus, and he was from the Netherlands. We had the same general hiking philosophy, which is to take time and smell the roses. So even though he’s a thru, he’s not going to miss out just to make miles. It was wonderful to chat with a kindred spirit.

As usual, the smoke started rolling in around dinnertime. Today was pretty heavy, and when I woke up around midnight, the moon was deep red. I’m pretty sure it’s from the Hendrix Fire; I’ll confirm once I get to Fish Lake in a couple of days.