Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Animals

August 22nd, 2015

Animals
Pacific Crest Trail, August 2015

One of the first things to strike you on the northernmost part of the PCT is a pervasive silence. The forests breathes, but the birds and squirrels generally don’t chatter (except in Canada; Canadian squirrels make a racket!). It’s like being in a pre-Internet library. Not to say there is no sound, just that it is generally a quiet rustle, definitely not a roar. One exception: an unidentified bird whose call exactly duplicates the single note sounded by the emergency whistle on the sternum strap of a backpack.

It’s never clear whether it’s movement or sound that signal snakes. Snake awareness is always synaesthetic– a full-body response. We only encountered the occasional garden variety, never hearing the electric rattle that stops all movement including the human heart. More often the rustle is a bird pecking at the ground, innumerable chipmunks, and the occasional sharp call of a pika (small round mammals related to rabbits who sound a sharp alarm before diving into their burrow).

image

Movement on the trail usually means marmots or grouse. Many hikers regard marmots and cute, almost cuddly animals, who fearlessly perch atop hills, surveying the slopes and the hikers passing by. To me, they are slightly cute grey groundhogs. Back home, I remember kids with 22 rifles going out to hunt groundhogs, and farmers who carried a 22 or a 310 shotgun on their tractors to eliminate the critters who were digging up their fields. Guess it’s an east coast/west coast thing. Other fearless beings on the trail are grouse–the size of chickens (well, almost). Most hikers know the rush of adrenaline when they scare up a covey — the sudden burst and beat of wings brings the unsuspecting hiker to a shocked, heart-pounding standstill (or the hunter to a frenzy of shotgun blasts). These grouse rarely flee, and barely make the effort to run away. Sometimes they just head down the trail in front of you, barely outpacing boots and trekking poles.

image

Bears lurk but do not often appear. Parks may require food canisters in parts of California, but the hikers on the Washington PCT don’t use them, nor do they hang. They just curl up in their tent, food bags and all. So the largest non-human creatures to grace the trail are deer. Also fearless and also desperate for salt, they act offended when you invade their area, particularly if it is a campsite. And if you are foolish enough to piss anywhere near camp, you can expect multiple loud visits in the night, with the deer munching carefully the moss, humus, and soil you recently marked.

By far, the most frequently encountered animals are human, falling into several categories: day hikers, trail runners, short section or weekend hikers, lashers (long ass section hikers), and the occasional thru hiker (in the case of the PCT, that would mean hiking from Mexico to Canada). Each species exhibit different behaviors. Short timers tend to be louder and overburdened with shiny new equipment (most of which they will not use). Long timers smell, travel light and fast, and demonstrate remarkable efficiency in setting up or breaking camp, eating lunch on the trail, or crapping in the woods. A typical PCT thru-hike is over five months, usually commencing around May 1, so we were in front of the main bubble, only meeting a few hardy, fast souls.

True long-distance hikes are not just weather but also seasonally dependent, which is why most people hike both the PCT and the Appalachian Trail northbound. As the title of his book indicates, Earl Shaffer (the first AT thru-hiker) hiked north “With the Spring.” But the PCT presents other obstacles to the would-be thru hiker as the mountain passes in California can still be snowed in well into the summer, and Washington can ice up even in September. And, as we learned, other unanticipated obstacles present including trail closures or rerouting because of fire. All that makes a pure thru hike of the PCT, what would be called a “white blaze” hike on the AT, difficult to accomplish. All but one of the thru hikers we met who finished in Canada, still planned to return south to finish miles skipped for any number of reasons.

image

The PCT hikers tend to be different from their AT cousins in some fundamental respects (even though there are clear exceptions). Perhaps because of the prior planning the great re-supply distances the PCT necessitates, most hikers are decidedly middle class, and tend to be well-outiftted. Benton Mackaye’s original proposal for the Appalachian Trail opens discussing labor, and quickly turns to the needs of all people for fresh air and some time away from urban factories. His was a decidedly egalitarian vision, turning the great outdoors into a place for all to use. The difficulty of access and resupply on the PCT creates an environmental niche that limits thru-hikers to the well- supplied, the well-heeled in all senses of the term.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Foliage

August 20th, 2015

Foliage
(Pacific Crest Trail, August, 2015)

Starting out, the plants are two–Douglas Fir and blueberries. The ancient trees loom. They have dominion. But the blueberries proliferate, and they are flavor. Their bushes vary in size and color, as do the berries. The ones with red leaves growing close to the ground seem always to give a tart jolt, while the slightly taller ones hold the round blushing blues you’d expect on a label. Others are tall with shiny black skins and a thin sweetness. Not just taste and sweetness, they also give moisture. One year, hiking from Vanderventer Shelter on the Appalachian Trail to Damascus Virginia, Bennett and I found ourselves in the middle of a 33 mile day with almost no water. The path was covered with blackberries which carried us down the mountain.

image

As the miles unfold on the PCT, the foliage differentiates. I now find Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock (a welcome sight after witnessing the die-off of eastern Appalachian hemlocks), Lodgepole Pine. There must be more I will see when my eyes and feet focus. I kept imagining balsam fir because the smell is penetrating, reminding me of the stories about tuberculosis sanitaria in the south Georgia Long-Leaf pine forests trying to exploit the healing power of the chemicals drifting through those evergreen stands. The Long-Leaf disappeared beneath the axe and turpentine bucket years ago, but here in the Cascades, apart from fire and chainsaws, these big trees just stand–hundreds of years. We came across one sawed log which was marked with a sharpie as 658 years–a testament to human insignificance.

image

At the burn-overs, the duality shifts. The silver-grey burnt trees shed all needles and bark, each species becoming synonymous. The blueberries are replaced in the first year with fireweed, in the second with what looks like coppiced beech. At lower elevations a few maples might mix in, but up high, the beech seem the only broadleaf to take hold, at least until the the evergreens re-establish their dominance.

image

Down close to the ground, tiny hemlock sprouts compete with club mosses. Both plants look like miniatures of the giants around them, but the club mosses, for all their tiny imposing stature, will never break for the sky, and must be content with the spots of light that filter through the canopy. Occasionally a tall yew or maybe a larch drift down short needles with the sound of rain as they cushion the path with litter. Near Canada a new bush appears looking very much like a wild American boxwood. The combination of yew and box take me back to the front yard of the house where I grew up, a domesticated version of the wild that confronts daily the walker of these Cascades paths.

image

But what arrests is reverence. The trees make quiet spaces through sheer brooding presence. A tall smooth-barked pine (Lodgepole?) grows straight, tall, fast, and the thin lower branches lose their needles and slowly drift into a semicircle, like arms lowered with hands about to clasp. Those branches are covered with an epiphyte a brighter green than what in the American south is called Spanish moss. When it dies, it turns black and looks like a bear’s fur on the ground, but in the air, it is a shaggy spectre, delineating a path, pointing on.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

August 11

August 19th, 2015

August 11 Darrington WA 0 trail miles

image

Slept in, walked to Glacier Peak Cafe (instead of Glacier Peak), biscuits and gravy, then to the Mountain Loop Book Store & Coffee for quiet, non-hiking backpackless morning. Walked around town a bit. The Red Tavern was packed at 1:30 on a Tuesday, not a good sign. The lumber yard is the main industry and maybe the only one, so the town is crumbly around the edges. Headed back to motel and spent afternoon posting blogs and making arrangements for the end of our trip– rooms in Vancouver etc. picked up pizza for dinner (classic hiker meal) and went to bed early.

August 16

August 19th, 2015

August 16 Hopkins Lake- Manning Park 15 miles 7:45- 1:00

image

Woke to sunshine, lay in the tent for a while watching a deer about 10 feet from us munching the moss where one of us had pissed– they love the salt. Then we were up and could smell the barn– possible lunch in a restaurant, cold weather along with a good, downhill trail makes for some good miles. Saw amazing clouds above and below the mountains. Tried to take pictures but there is no way they will show these strange post-storm atmospheres. Hit the Canadian border (it really is a 30ft mowed strip lining the mountains) while the Millers and some others were celebrating the end of their PCT and writing in the logbook. Compared to Katadhin, it is a pretty lame end to a long hike. Crossing over into Canada marked an actual shift. The trail quality changed, sometimes amazing, sometimes very rough– a lot like the Appalachian Trail. A change in the canopy too, more spruce. The last 5 miles into Manning Pass were on a well graded dirt road with us clipping off 3+ mph. Then back in civilization– lunch, Bennett’s first legal beer, clean laundry, showers — all the neglected essentials. Ending in the hostel listening to quietly jubilant thru-hikers try to talk about what they were feeling. Of course there are no words.

August 15

August 19th, 2015

August 15 campsite to Hopkins Lake 18.4 miles 8:15 – 3:30

image

Slept in a bit hoping the sun would come out and dry things– no luck, we used up out karma on the first part of the trail. Very misty, so we packed up wet gear and headed out, making good time on a gentle up and down trail. Initially it was damp but not too cold. By early afternoon the weather shifted, turned bitter cold and windy. No visibility. Rain soaked us completely, just stopping as we got to Hopkins Lake. The sun tried to come out but no matter how much we tried to cheer it on, it couldn’t, so we crowded back in the tiny tent to stop shivering.

August 14

August 19th, 2015

August 14 campsite to campsite 15.7 miles 5:45 – 1:15

image

It was a James Taylor Day — Fire and Rain
Very early morning started to rain. I was cowboying, and Toasted Toad (a thru-hiker) was packed up and headed out. The Rangers were closing trails because of fire threat as we move north, so we got going early to get past the fire and stay one step ahead of the closure signs. Long climb out of the site with some rain, got to ridge and met line of firefighters getting ready to do battle– that is some beautiful and brutal work. Stopped and talked a bit, then pushed on. We have been hiking in smoke since Rainy Pass so no need to stop to take pictures of the scenery. We pushed hard to get through Shaw’s pass just as they were closing that part of the trail. Some staff waved at us, and we just kept looking ahead and hiking. Heard later that they shut it down about an hour later. There is little listed water on this stretch so we headed for a camp that had some about 15 miles, arrived very early, basked in the sun and then about 3:00 the skies opened — wind and rain drove us into the tent. A brief respite at 6:00 let us cook, then back to tent while it howled all night. This little tent usually leaks, but it held up pretty well in the big storm. Read and slept in cramped tent for 17 hours-that’s all we could do. Sometimes the big outdoors can get claustrophobic.

August 13

August 19th, 2015

August 13 campsite to campsite near Glacier Pass. 11.2 miles 9:45-1:30

 

image

Slept in and hiked short day to position ourselves to cross a long stretch with little water– long days tomorrow and the next. Still in smoke as we left, but it slowly disappated over the miles. Uneventful day, passed some Canada bound folks–short hikers, saw a lot of helicopters monitoring all the fires, There are supposed to be some small ones up near us. Terrain is drier, trees are changing. Made nice but dry and buggy camp. A deer must live here because she is not happy we are in her spot, she keeps circling the camp. Long quiet afternoon trying to read slowly. Toasted Toad, a 4 1/2 month thru hiker came in late. He finished the AT last year so we had lots to talk about comparing the two trails.

August 12

August 19th, 2015

August 12 Rainy Pass to campsite 9.8 miles (after 72 mile hitchhike). 1:15-4:30

image

Slow start out of motel, picked up biscuits at IGA and went to intersection to hitch. We needed to go up 530 to Rockport, then take 20 to Rainey Gap. First ride was nice guy but only about 11 miles and left us at a spot where we could not hitch easily, so we ended up walking a couple miles on road until this incredibly nice family turned around and came back to pick us up. A full pickup with three children in the back. They all squeezed in, then took us all the way to Marblemount which was way out of their way, but a great place to hitchРyou always meet the best people on and around trails. Marblemount is a great little village. It was still early we had another breakfast, Bennett a huge stack of blueberry pancakes. Not long after a retired anesthesiologist named Dave picked us up and took us the last 60 plus miles to the trailhead. A short hike in was uneventful except for a thunderstorm which made more noise than rain. The terrain here is much different, almost desert like, though our campsite is a little meadow with a spring winding right through the middle of itРlooks as if Disney designed it. A crew came in and camped near us. They built fire even though half the woods around here are on fire. Sometimes ash from the Wolverine Fire drifts down on us and you can smell smoke everywhere.

Surface

August 11th, 2015

Surface

image

 

The Pacific Crest Trail in the Northern Cascades of Washington has a surface that, when not scree, is soft, springy soil composed of fresh and decaying needles, cones, and wood from the giant trees that dominate this world. Dig down a few inches and you will find grey sand– fine particles of granite, the result of eons of erosion. It’s a beautiful but fragile surface to walk on. The high-traffic areas near entry points or where pack horses work quickly turn to dust or deep loose sand that slips under foot and settles into every crevice of your footwear, painting your calves to the knee. Still, a forgiving surface which reminds us that we may experience the great outside through our eyes, ears, and nose, but we come to know it through our feet.

Preparing to navigate a trail, hikers first think about distance, then elevation change. Those factors are well-represented by maps, particularly in profile, but there are few sources for an understanding of the third important factor: surface. Mileage/Elevation/Surface. The PCT is 2,650 miles long–a brutal distance made tolerable by it being more often than not “pack-grade” (no more than 6%). This accounts for its incredible length, as it takes lots of switchbacks to keep that grade (the trail’s distance as the crow flies is just over 1000 miles), but it alsimageo keeps the trail generally perpendicular to the direction of water run-off, making the surface much more stable. In comparison, the Vermont Long Trail seems to have been laid out by hiking next to or directly up stream beds, almost as if the designers had decided to use dry creeks as the base of their trail and which results in a washed out path–hard hiking over exposed rocks, more like climbing uneven stairs than hiking a trail.

Most of the trails in the various parks and wilderness areas across the USA are well-designed and maintained near their entry-points–because they get more traffic but also it is is easier to bring in crews and tools at those points. This is particularly true along the Appalachian Trail which is maintained by volunteer clubs. So, for example, a walker can leave Stevens Pass¬†imagein the Cascades heading north and walk for miles along an old railroad grade wondering why anyone would think hiking is hard. Of course the deeper they plunge into the wilderness, the rougher it gets, but also more interesting.

These forests burn. Often a distance hiker will find a path through standing silver trunks, no bark, no needles, swaying gently but ominously, with an understory of shrub-like beech and a waving field of fireweed. One day, in a deep green growing forest I found on the path a cone with edges burnt. Puzzled, I thought back on tree stories I had read, concluding that this might be a cone from a tree that only opens in a burn, and, with the magic of ecological cooperation, some squirrel had dragged the now-open cone here for a meal and perhaps dispersal of the species. Across the Cascades, the trail is littered with strange white blossoms. Squirrels cut green Douglas Fir cones–tight cones with a thick green sap-like covering–then peel them, scale by scale, leaving neat piles of bleached white tinged with pink.

The thin soil of the Cascades supports trees of fantastic size and age– Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Mountain Hemlock. Their roots spread out, sometimes covering boulders and, after centuries, they pitch over, heaving roots high, revealing eternity. Stones suspended high in the air, and surface rock, now exposed, reacting reacting to light it has not reflected for millennia.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

August 10

August 11th, 2015

image

 

August 10 campsite to Darrington 17 trail miles 6:45-12:15 (then a lot of hitchhiking)

“Thumbs out”

Up early. Last night a wonderful older couple from Arizona whom we had bumped into earlier came in to our small site. They had hiked the AT to celebrate his retirement, and now were finishing the PCT. Almost ultralghters– cuben fiber bags and tents (including a zpack model very like my new one). They hike long days–25 miles–for four, then zero. They were up at 5:30 and off at 6:15, so we followed with an early start. We could smell the barn, so even though we had 17 miles, we averaged over 3 mph. Perfect trail, all downhill. First hitchhike was with a fish and game ranger, who took us halfway out, then a camp manager who got us to the main road (23 miles total). Half hour sitting in the back of a bouncing pickup with dust roiling all around– pure heaven after that hard hike down. We could not get last ride until the Fish and game guy came by on his way home and took us to the only motel in town. On my way to IGA for ice cream, chips and beer I met a hiker waiting for the bus. David yogied a shower, then hung out a bit. interesting guy, photographer heading to the Manhattan Photo school. Then, in full zero day mode, we watched an Austin Powers movie.

Seo wordpress plugin by www.seowizard.org.