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.

xiire6153.jpg

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.

ADSPE6070

IMG_1375

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.

IMG_1374

ONKOE7642

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.

IMG_1376

 

 

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.

bearbox (1)

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.

Mazama Village Sign
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 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.

BKBE8950BADW6133

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!

Rim Village

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.

PEVME0236

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.

For the record, I didn’t take this picture. I have never been this close to any fire, and in fact the trail would be closed far before any hikers could see this.

hendrix_fire

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.

Mazama-Village-Campground-Map-Crater-Lake-National-Park-1024x790

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.

Mazama Village Store
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 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.

NTOFE1511IMG_1366

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.

RPHTE5072

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 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!

IMG_1362

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.

FDSME7282

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.

BGYXE6831

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.

NBXEE0371

Tomorrow, the lake!

Not Everything Is as It Seems

When I returned from my 2017 PCT section hike, I was in tears, and not the happy kind.

I completed one hundred miles, which was far short of my desired goal. Saying “one hundred miles” makes it sound huge. And it is, if you don’t hike like this. But for me, it felt like a defeat, even though it was clearly a victory. I had been ill from September through April…just a few months before I had planned to hit the trail again. Chronic fatigue syndrome bit me in the ass, and it wasn’t going away.

I wrote my blog from this space of victory and defeat. I couldn’t really dig into the story. It hurt too much, and besides, I didn’t want my family to worry.

I’m now two months removed from my hike, and I’m starting to gain perspective. I also know that other hikers have faced their own demons, and it is for these reasons that I wrote this.


August 8, 2017

After a handful of miles, I came to a water cache on a forest road. Water was so critical to me. Without enough hydration and electrolytes, I would be in serious trouble. My heart would start pounding. I would get dizzy. I wouldn’t be able to see straight. I certainly wouldn’t be able to walk much. This was my biggest problem…how to balance the need for far more water than normal, with the inability to carry excess water.

The cache was huge, and there was magic. I was very grateful for both…a chance to rest and snack, and fill up with the water that I needed. If the cache had been empty, I would have needed to hitch a ride to town. That had been weighing on me.

The next water source was 15 miles south, and 2000 feet of elevation gain. This isn’t a huge deal, and it certainly would have been fine the previous year. But now it was clear I couldn’t do that in one afternoon, so I needed to load up with water for a day and a half. That meant five liters, over six miles and 1100 feet, to the high point of the fifteen mile stretch, followed by nine miles of easier trail to the lake.

Mid-afternoon, I hoisted my pack. The weight had increased by more than 50%, heavier than the recommended pack weight by several pounds. This meant that I took a lot of the weight on my shoulders, which is really uncomfortable. I hurt in several different ways, and despite the snack, I was headed into despair.

I took a hit off of my inhaler, and headed up the hill, listening to my music. I focused on the rest step, and regulating my breathing. Step, straighten the knee, and breathe. Step, straighten, and breathe. Do this as long as possible. Stop and rest. Gulp some electrolytes. Repeat.

Every few stops, maybe every ten or fifteen minutes, my lizard brain screamed “GO DOWNHILL”. Retreating would have taken me down to the forest road cache, and would probably have netted me a ride to town. I fought to overcome the lizard brain, and pushed myself uphill. Step, straighten, and breathe.

Lizard brain was getting louder, when I met some northbound thru hikers. I have no clue what their words were, but it was all about encouragement. I could do this thing, they said.

Several rounds of this, multiple thru hikers, much encouragement, four miles, and 900 feet later, I reached a wide open campsite. There was a retired couple in front of me, and I dropped my pack. My body was done for the day, and I set up my tent next to the really awesome couple.

We shared some snacks, while thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain eventually started spitting at us, so I crawled into my tent and crashed.

The next morning, the couple had headed north. I had to push myself to get ready to turn right, uphill, southbound. I still had three liters, which was probably enough, but I had to be careful.

Once again, I hoisted my pack. But. My body started heading back downhill. My lizard brain started heading back downhill. I felt sick to my stomach. Everything in me was screaming “TURN LEFT! GO DOWNHILL!”

I made my feet stop. I almost literally grabbed my shoulders, and forced them to turn right. Uphill.

To this day, I’m still not sure how I did it. But I made myself take a step. Uphill. And then another. Uphill. And then another. For two miles, and then I stopped.

I had reached the high point.

It was easy from here, down to the lake. Fresh water and new friends awaited.

This is the real story of my hike.

 

Epilogue

Eighteen hours after getting home, I threw my pack in the van with all the camping gear, and Steve, Patrick, and I headed for Madras, OR. It was amusing to be heading back to Oregon so soon, but we were well east of Mt. Jefferson, well northeast of Ashland, and far from where I was the day before.

The eclipse was incredible, and totality was unbelievable. If I couldn’t be on the trail, I’m mighty glad I could see totality, especially with my family. It was a gift.

I learned a few days later that the trail I would have been hiking out of Ashland, California Section R, was partially closed due to wildfire. Given my hiking speed, I could say with 100% certainty that I would have been in the closure zone. When an area is closed, firefighters sweep the trail, looking for hikers and hustling them to safety. Fast. I’m grateful I didn’t get caught up in that. And the air quality in Section R has continued to range in the moderate to unhealthy range, especially for people with asthma.

So it became pretty clear that getting off of the trail was even more important than I had anticipated. I’m grateful for that.

By the numbers: Section D, from Willamette Pass to Highway 138 (northern border of Crater Lake National Park), is 60 miles. I took the Oregon Skyline Trail alternate, which cuts ten miles, so I did 50 miles there. I flipped past Section C, and hiked Section B, from Fish Lake to Callahan’s, 54 miles. That puts me at 104 miles for the summer.

In some ways, I’m disappointed, because I wanted to hike straight through to Seiad Valley. Let’s face it, I wanted to get my Oregon tat, to match Washington. It’s my little bit of vanity.

But really, given where my health has been, 104 miles is a mighty fine number. And I’m learning to keep that in perspective.

I don’t know what next summer will bring. But I do know that I’m in good health. And I completed two sections, when the odds were against me even taking a day hike. I am profoundly grateful.

In August 2018, I returned to Oregon, to take another shot at the fire-damaged trail. My adventures continue here.