We’ve pitched camp on the bank of a brook in what seems the forest primeval near Buesch Lake Washington. It’s August 22, 2011, and a light mist is falling. A storm is moving in. I’m re-hiking most of the Pacific Crest Trail in the state of Washington with my long time hiking friend, Richard Birss. When I completed the PCT last year, I was a man on a mission. I didn’t know when winter would set in to claim the Cascades and shut us thru hikers out till spring and I wanted to finish what was for me an epic adventure, so I hiked fast and furious, continuing the pace we had set in Oregon where we regularly hit thirty mile days and more.
That was too fast to really enjoy the Northern Cascades, which were the first mountains on our trail which rivaled the High Sierra in beauty and sheer magnificence. The weather had been a mix of lovely and horrible and for days we saw nothing but fog as we climbed in and out of dripping clouds. But when they broke, the vistas of mountain after mountain, layered to the horizon, had just floored us. We spent three days in a drizzle on the slopes of Glacier Peak, reputedly on of the most beautiful parts of the PCT, and saw nothing. On the fourth day, and at a distance of many miles, the clouds finally cleared and we couldn’t believe what we had been missing. I vowed to come back.
Wolf Taffy, (also known as Brian, who had worked at a wolf preserve in Oregon for some time where he earned his trail name) had called me a few weeks ago and offered to do “trail magic” for me when I got to Washington this year, and sure enough he had met me this morning to drive us for over four hours to our trail head at White Pass, just east of Mount Rainier. Wolf Taffy is a twenty-six year old wilderness educator from Missouri, a former Appalachian Trail thru hiker who had hiked with me from just north of Ashland Oregon to the Canadian Border last year. He’s also a musician, playing trumpet and guitar among other instruments and had entertained us with his ukelele on trail in the evenings. When we got tired of the constant rain, he’d teach our whole group some goofy kid’s dance during a rest break, and for a bit, our spirits would lift, and the rain didn’t seem to matter. He was great with troubled kids. After all those miles he’s become a good friend and got his trail angel wings today on that long drive.
Richard is a friend of thirty years with whom I’ve hiked the sierra, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, and the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. He’s a hell of a hiker, and he’s also good with troubled kids, being a retired probation officer, so I guess any misbehavior on my part is pretty much taken care of with friends like these.
The day has been ominous with clouds, gathering and dispersing, sun and shadow dancing together as we drove from Seattle to the mountains. As we made our dinners and pitched our tent, I felt the first cold mist on my legs. I’m typing now as the rain comes down ever so lightly, a quiet background sound like a brush on a drum, softly underscoring the music of the brook and the occasional loud plop of a tree drop on the taught skin of the tent. These are the sounds of a night forest just on the edge of storm, soothing as sleep takes the reins.
Five am and the rain has stopped. Every so often a wind picks up and shakes the trees bringing on a new cascade of drops, but by six fifteen when we hit trail, the needles have been wrung dry. We leave camp in the early morning light, the tall, thin timberline spruce and hemlock, ghostly shadows in the fog that blows across the meadows and tarns. We’re high enough to be in a cloud. As the day dawns, there are streaks of pink and blue and in a few hours we’re hiking in a full on sunny day.
Eight miles up the trail is Bumping River, snow swollen, not to the point of dangerous, but definitely too swift and deep to hop rocks and stay dry. Last year I hiked in wet shoes for months. I can do it, but dry shoes are so darned nice that I didn’t want to give them up too easily, so I hiked up river looking for a better crossing and finally found a downed tree that didn’t look too bad. I made it across carefully picking my way with both hiking poles poking anything I could reach to provide support. Richard came next and when I asked him to stop for a second so I could get a picture -- sorry Richard -- he mis-planted his pole and one foot slipped off the log and into the water. It wasn’t deep, he just had one shoe wet, but as he was regaining his footing, he dropped his trekking pole, the current caught it, and it was gone.
Getting wet is not a big deal, loosing a hiking pole definitely is. I’m so used to the even push up a hill, and the constant spider leg points of balance they provide on bad terrain or stream crossings, that I can’t imagine hiking without them. Richard is just as hooked on them as me, so I dropped my pack and started running through the bush, and of course it was thick just where I needed it to be sparse. Dodging and weaving I made it to a clearing and hoped the pole would come by on my side of the river. No such luck. It was dead center.
There was no way I could get it from shore, and it was moving fast. No time to think, I threw my camera in the dirt and staggered out into the stream, just in time to see the shaft pass me by. I splashed down after it and caught the snow bail as it was speeding out of reach. Then I noticed the water was ice cold. Not another day started in ice water! I thought I’d left those days in the High Sierra of last year. I screamed and swore, and kept making noise until I reached the shore and got some feeling other than pain back into my feet. Ice water just hurts. There’s no delicate way to cross an icy stream without shouting and usually swearing. I do both.
Richard was very grateful and I was just glad he hadn’t hurt himself when he slipped. All I wanted was a good camera shot.
Just before this water episode, we met the first person we’d seen since being dropped off by Wolf Taffy the day before. He’s an ex Alaskan lumber jack whose been working for Costco’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, but he’s really a PCT thru hiker at heart. His trail name is Hop Sing, AKA Jeff, and he’s a gear geek whose been making his own cat can alcohol stoves and other typical thru hiker junk for years. In his fifties, he’s been looking for an excuse to pull the plug and do a serious hike, and man am I a bad influence. We ended up spending most of the day hiking together, me learning from him, where to get bargain basement prices on primo backpacking gear, and him learning from me just what gear worked last year on my hike, and which didn’t.
Hop Sing was raised on a homestead outside of Fairbanks, AK. He’s mushed dogs and lived at sixty below, and he’s clearly at home in the woods. He’s hiking a section of the PCT and moving off from Snoqualmie Pass to hike into the Alpine Lakes area. He’s a fascinating guy and provided lots of great talk on trail today. He reminded me of the folks and camaraderie I experienced on the trail last year. It seems to attract some very interesting people. I mean who else would do anything as crazy as hike across a continent. Ya, Hop Sing will hike it someday, he just feels to much like a thru hiker not to.
For much of the day we’ve been hiking on a ridge overlooking Mt. Rainier. It’s the best view of that mountain I’ve ever seen and the camera has been off the hook all day. Last year the mountain was in cloud as I hiked this ridge, and I knew I was missing a great view. I really was. It is huge, and it is beautiful and there is a lot more snow on the slopes than there was last year. As the sun drops behind the forest I’m camped at Lake Anderson, an idyllic little lake just down from the ridge. I hear wind in the trees and Richard snoring. I’ve got ear plugs. Not a problem. This place is gorgeous!
I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.