Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: Stuff

Here's a description of my trip.

And here are some additional blog-type thoughts about the hike:

-It's such a unique trail.  It's over 2,600 miles, and simply the sheer distance involved makes it inadvisable to attempt in a summer.  But it's the smoothest, gentlest trail through the mountains you've ever seen.  And it's a never-ending stream of highlights that most people never see.  The weather can be astoundingly good - a few northbounders, three months into their trips, told me they hadn't seen any rain since they started.

-I'm guessing work on "new" trail after 1968 was organized by ranger district - or at least by long-ish sections surveyed and built as units.  For example, the trail between Castle Crags and the Trinity Alps has a very definite character.  Whoever laid it out felt strongly about the trail staying to the ridges, avoiding most wetlands and streams, and staying true to the other design criteria.  While true to the letter of the criteria, there are many miles of ridiculous nearly-level contouring trail.

-Which makes me wonder what the trail builders thought about the PCT.  I know what the trail meant to it's original dreamers, and I know what the National Trails System Act says.  But at a certain point, the day-to-day managers and trail crews must have realized they were building a lot of horse trail that would rarely, if ever, be used by horses.  Many miles were going to be too snowy, too dry, too difficult to access, or too-infrequently maintained to provide a viable horse route.  And it must have been at least somewhat unclear who exactly would be using the trail.  There was no lightweight, speed-oriented backpacking community in 1968 - that community basically developed, at least in part, to address the challenges posed by the PCT.

Example - the Hat Creek Rim:

I certainly understand why the trail was routed along the Rim.  It's a striking geological feature, with gorgeous views from Lassen to Shasta.  It's quintessential American West - a huge lava and wooded valley unfolding from north to south, broken only by a few farms and dirt roads.  But there's no water on the Hat Creek Rim.  It's 30 miles of dry travel.  Plus, there is a warning sign not to drink any pooling surface water on the Rim - not only is it dry, but apparently even the little water that might collect is unsafe as well.

Who builds 30 miles of trail, in California, with no water sources?  Was the concept that most travel would be supported horse trips?  Or to develop a well or wells?  Or for everyone to carry 30-miles worth of water?  Again, at some point, the builders must have realized they were building something for which an established recreational community didn't exist.  It's like the modern marathon - 26.2 miles is a semi-arbitrary distance established by an ancient Greek soldier, and it was long thought to be difficult and borderline dangerous to run such a long distance.  How many people foresaw large numbers of people running marathons?

-Is this related in some minor way to the still frosty/limited reception afforded hikers at some points along the way? Like the trail was part of some forgotten federal initiative, isn't really of any use to local residents, and now just brings bearded nu-hippies to town?  It just seems strange to me that (a) there are now 700+ thru-hikers a year, but (b) they still have to send basic food supplies to themselves (to more than a few particularly remote locations) (here's a good post on the basic economics of PCT hiking/hikers).  Are PCT hikers still such a small part of the bottom line that it doesn't make sense to carry, say, isobutane canisters?  Or is this just now starting to change due to increasing numbers of hikers?  This is particularly striking along the southern Oregon "Burger Belt" of lakeside resorts - when you have 1,000 or more total hikers with credit cards roaming by, you might want to stock more than oven cleaner, bait, and soda.

(My favorite example of this is my self-created oatmeal packet index.  In Old Station, I paid $8.50 for a box of 10 packets that you could buy in your local grocery store for $4-5 [I just really wanted oatmeal for breakfast]).  Then, in Sierra City, a creative proprietor had opened the boxes and was selling packets for $0.99 each - the winner!)

-Here's a fascinating animated progression of the Bagley Fire.  It never did cross the McCloud River to burn the PCT (but the trail is still closed).  This is exactly what the firefighter I talked to said the fire would do (as he casually chewed his sunflower seeds).

-Surely, no one would be tossing their paper Halfmile maps into fire pits during a fire ban, when it seems like practically the whole trail is on fire, and within a few miles of an actual forest fire.  Except that someone is:

And so we broach the sensitive subject of PCT hikers' backcountry ethics/practices - which vary from excellent to shocking (see above).  The hikers' general theory - about a lot of things - seems to be that PCT hikers are hardcore hiking ninjas who are above and/or beyond the rules.  Example: "I know there's a fire ban, but I'm extremely careful with my little cooking fires, so I can have them anyway."  The forest managers' general theory - about PCT hikers - seems to be a combination of gentle frustration mingled with honest admiration and respect for a unique group of recreational users - users who generally clean up after themselves, and are part of a larger community that maintains its own trail(s).

When do those attitudes change, if ever?  When does the Forest Service take action against the quiet proliferation of campsites near water sources?  Or do the rules get bent when clearly so much volunteer work has been done in recent years on trail maintenance (and to improve the springs and other water sources)?  More generally, what is the critical mass of hikers before the PCT changes - permits, designated campsites, maybe required equipment?

My prediction is stasis.  I was reading about one of my favorite public lands issues, the Forest Service and/or concessionaires charging illegal fees, and was struck by the bottom line - all Forest Service campgrounds nationwide bring in $35 million a year.  That's it?  The Forest Service has a $5.1 billion budget, with over $2 billion spent on fighting fires.  In short, thru-hikers (or PCT hikers generally) aren't even on the radar.  The Forest Service has been trying for years to monetize recreational use (akin to the Bureau of Reclamation's endless [and fruitless] quest to make money on all the money stored in its reservoirs), and for years it has failed.  The rec users are a vocal group with at least some political leverage, but the bottom line is the group is getting a good deal (measured in terms of access, trails and facilities - as opposed to environmental/cultural preservation or other metrics).

-Which makes me think that the continuing existence of the PCT is a fairly remarkable concurrence of wilderness dreams and hard work.  It's really not worth very much in dollar terms (although it's utterly irreplaceable), and fairly long sections of trail aren't really used by many people.  Yet year after year, there's a (generally) extremely smooth and well graded trail from Mexico to Canada, free to all, and ready for your immediate enjoyment.  It's easy to lose sight of that when you're out there experiencing a seemingly arbitrary fire closure or a frustrating stretch of downed trees.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: Simple vs. Complicated, and stories to tell

Here's a description of my trip.

I've been home now for two weeks, and life as usual rumbles ahead.  I'm more interested at this point to write about the fascinating difficulty of finding a place to rent in New Zealand ahead of our trip in January, or stumbling upon the fine Black Eye Coffee Shop, than writing more about the PCT.  My hiker hunger has faded, and Will-J is no longer interested in my bear stories (sigh).  I have another longish "stuff" post already written that I'll probably stick up, and a rant about thru-hikers playing water treatment roulette, but even those seem more like work than expression - and as I'm heading back off to real work on Monday I should probably stick with/to my day job.  

In lieu of the "squishy emotional post" promised at the outset:

-There's a complicated way and a simple way of writing about my 12-year PCT hike.  This is a blog concerned with the day-to-day (such as it is), and therefore the complicated way of writing necessarily falls by the wayside.  The simple way of writing about my hike is that: (a) in 1997 I found a book recommending hiking the PCT in a certain way (very lightweight), and committed to hiking the PCT on a relatively-fast schedule; and (b) I couldn't, and can't, hike so many miles per day.

(a) I (still) find the lightweight-backpacking fringe fascinating, although I got burned by what I was told, could  very well have gotten injured, and spent a year or two circa 2000 railing against said fringe.  This said, I can't decide if there's a story worth telling there, or if every conceivable activity (in this case backpacking) has a die-hard, superstitious, and occasionally dogmatic element.  I'm leaning towards the former (and even have a working title for that story), and I also believe that despite getting burned I'm the better for the experience.  However, it's not a story that's going to get written here (or in the near future) (although my water treatment roulette post may capture the gist).    

(b) I'm a fairly good runner, so it seemed to make sense that I could hack the big days required by a relatively-short PCT hike.  But I couldn't, and I still can't.  This trip sent me out into my red-zone - beyond, surprisingly, any ultramarathon I've run or mountain I've climbed.  In short, I just get tired of hiking so much.  Running 100 miles in one day is (or at least was) fun for me.  Hiking 25-35 miles per day, day after day, was never fun for me, and still isn't (outside of the limited context of a 2-3 week trip, which remains very fun).   

I can't help but adding one more cheesy cliche to the mix, which is that while it may be important to follow your dreams, you also have to be careful about selecting those dreams.  This particular trip was great/unique/[insert meaningful adjective here], but I never felt fully comfortable out there chasing a dream from 1997 in 2012.  All I can say - which I said at the outset - is that I'm very lucky to both have been able to give up that dream in 1999, and to be able (and have the support) to return to that dream in 2012.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: Idiot flatlander edition

Did I just predict that the PCT through Belden would be closed until next summer?  Well, it's open again.  So, if I had been a week later, I could have hiked the alternate through Lassen National Park and then the rest of the trail through to Donner Pass.

But I couldn't have hiked Section O, because that's still closed.  And I may not have been able to hike into Seiad Valley, because the road alternate is closed now, too.  I was right about one thing in that fire post - chance is indeed involved.

Mountain Research Station

With Catherine at the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station for a meeting.  Will-J and I went off on a hike to the Rainbow Lakes:

I was thinking that Will-J and I spent some time hiking on Niwot Ridge at the same meeting some years ago, and indeed that's one of the first photo sets I posted to my Flickr account - Will-J was about 1 1/2.  Just look at this little guy.  Yes, time flies.

I'm always happy to go to the research station.  It's in such good condition, always with new projects and energy.  Clearly the University treats the station as an asset rather than a legacy liability, and as always the food was overwhelmingly good.

I was reading a book on the history of the station, and found this guy:

Who knew Indiana Jones worked at CU back then?

Rakish hat, confident stature...and sunglasses.  I'm sure Dr. McCourt had some stories to tell.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: Thru- (and other) Hikers

Here's a description of my trip.

As I was getting ready for the trip, I realized that I would be starting south smack in the middle of the herd of northbound thru-hikers.  I didn't know how I felt about that, but it turned out to be inspiring, validating, and a little entertaining.

Like I said, I was a PCT thru-hiker once (actually twice), but failed.  So, we parked our rental minivan at McKenzie Pass, and there was a thru-hiker getting a visit from her family.  I toed the dust in the parking lot, looked around a bit, and decided that probably I should get back in the minivan, forget about this whole hiking 700+ miles thing, and head back to Portland.  Catherine dutifully kicked me out of the car, and I was on my way.

And almost immediately I ran into a phalanx of thru-hikers.  They were young.  They were dirty.  And they had impossibly-tiny backpacks.  Some looked happy, and some sad.  One guy looked nearly completely exhausted.  Nearly all of them were wearing the same type of shoes as me, which I found surprising.  It was like a big, loosely-knit, hiking team, and at that point they were all heading to a big trail-angel party near the pass.

That first afternoon I saw about 15 thru-hikers.  For the first two weeks (about until I reached Ashland), I would see about 20 a day.  I maxed out at about 40 the day I hiked to Shelter Cove Resort.  That day I saw the full spectrum of northbounder-herd travel life.  I saw an intense discussion between trail boyfriend and girlfriend - there may have been tears.  I saw trail love being born - a couple had dropped off the back of their little group (but stayed right on the trail) to moon into each others' eyes - there may have been kissing.  There were guys with ukuleles.  There were women with little speakers on the outside of their packs.  There was everything.

After Ashland, the rush was over, but I was still passing northbounders, and even better, I was meeting hikers doing all kinds of different trips.  I met southbounders, section-hikers, and even slack-packers.  A few days south of Seiad Valley, I met a guy everyone had told me was the "last" northbounder, but like a lot of things I heard on the trial, it wasn't true - I met a guy hiking up out of Old Station who said he was going to try to make it to Canada.  He was hiking with two weeks of food at a time, only making 10-15 miles a day, and it was the first week of September.  But who was I to tell him he was running late?

My WAG is that I saw about 250 northbounders, and maybe 15 southbounders.  Some observations:

-About 85% of them were younger twenty-somethings, and about 10% were fifty-and-sixty-somethings.  The remaining lonely 5% or so looked like thirty-somethings.  I didn't meet anyone who really fell into my demographic (borderline forty-something) - because there aren't many spouses out there who are going to tell said hiker demographic: "Hey, why don't you take a sabbatical with me, and I'll watch your wild-man five-year-old while you backpack for four weeks."  I'm very lucky.

-About 70% of the hikers were men.  About 90% of the men had beards/facial hair.  Most of the women were hiking with boyfriends/spouses, but there were some women groups/teams.  I only saw a few women hiking solo - at least two of them were in their 60's and looked extremely happy.

-Happiness was generally unrelated to backpack size/weight.  There were happy people with big/heavy packs and unhappy people with small/light packs.

-Speed did seem to be related to backpack size/weight.  I hit the trail towards the middle/end of the major northbound herd, and the packs generally got bigger/heavier as I went south/got later into August.  ULA packs are very popular, but there were a lot of other brands as well (but very few Six Moon Designs bags, making mine stick out).

-We're drifting into gear, but I need to note the small sub-population of hipster thru-hikers.  I especially appreciate the guy hiking in ironic surf-jams and aviator glasses, as well as the guy with an ironic mustache and football-style greasepaint made from campfire charcoal.  Oh, and the woman dressed like Ke$ha in the Siskiyou's.  Good stuff.

-A surprising number of free-standing tents.  I did see some tarps, and people just camping out, but I never got over seeing a hiker fish a freestanding tent out of one of those little backpacks - like the hiking equivalent of a clown car.  I believe this trend is related to thru-hikers' general refusal to wear/carry bug repellent.  I was standing there in the somewhat-buggy southern end of the Sisters Wilderness, and three hikers speed up.  One guy is wearing a bug-net hat and shorts, swatting his legs; the other two are just swatting.  Question: "Is there a flat, bug-free spot for camping near here?"  Um, sure - in California?

-Nearly all the thru-hikers opted for camp shoes, usually Crocs.  This was almost as fascinating as the freestanding tent phenomenon.  Hikers with little tiny backpacks, but a big pair of Crocs strapped to the outside.  I don't understand.  I think Crocs camp shoes qualifies as the current odd PCT gear fad (back in 1998 when I started it was umbrellas).

-Thru-hikers were universally amazed at my heavyweight gear selection.  I'm not sure what was more amazing - the real stove or the water filter.  I think the stove.

-I never saw the guy hiking the PCT in 26 wedding dresses, but wish I had.

-Speaking of water...well, I think that requires a separate post.

Hiking south during the herd rush was like getting to go back to high school for a few weeks, but while also being allowed to remain completely anonymous.  I could observe and enjoy.  No one cared who I was, and no one liked my trailname (it seemed funny at work - I guess that's lawyers for you).  Everyone was in at least somewhat of a hurry, and the cast changed daily.

Things changed south of Ashland.  I met fewer hikers, but they weren't as rushed and were more interested in talking.  I met some southbounders (who I hiked with for a few days), and some other section hikers.  The last big day of northbounders was Seiad Valley - it seemed like someone was camped, cooking, or resting behind pretty much every tree and building in town.  And there was one kid who I was pretty sure wasn't hiking the trail at all, but wanted to tell me all about the "glowing eyes" outside his tent the night before.

And as I talked to the different groups, I grew to appreciate a different wrinkle of PCT hiker culture - people doing what they want.  You see, there is a nebulous PCT pressure, furthered by perhaps a certain defined PCT brain-trust, that promotes a "right way" to thru-hike.  That right way is to start in Campo at the kickoff party, then hike boots-on-the-ground straight through to Canada, arriving between three and five months later.  You carry one of those tiny backpacks, probably sleep under a tarp, and mail food to/stop at a number of defined "trail towns" and post offices along the way.

The reward for hiking the trail the right way is to get to Canada, having carefully avoided doing anything original.  Then, break down in tears the minute you step off the trail, go home, delete a bunch of those overly-sharing blog posts, suffer mild PTSD, go to an orthopedist to deal with various overuse injuries, and slowly try to reintegrate with society.

The penalty for hiking the trail the wrong way is...wait a minute, there is no wrong way.  There is no governing PCT body.  You could hike the trail jacked up on PED's (which I've heard happens), only at night, over the course of sixty years, slack-packing all the way, etc.  The only thing you risk is a few disapproving looks, and maybe some mild online opprobrium.

It took me a long time to get back out to hike the trail the wrong way - 13 years.  And I was impressed by meeting so many people who figured it out sooner.  I think my favorite group were the college kids who got a late start, hiked from Ashland to Canada - but skipping a few of the snowier sections, and then took a bus back to Ashland to hike south - and catch the snowier sections after they had melted.  Genius!  I wish that I had figured out something like that back in 1998.  I also loved the RV-living slack-packer team - why rough it under one of those little tarps all summer?  

I also just loved being on a trail both jammed with backpackers, and where the average backpacker might be hiking 20 miles a day (in a wedding dress).  In Switzerland I was amazed by the huge hiker culture, and it was nice to see our own limited, linear, volunteer-driven version of that culture.  It certainly made the miles easier.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: Fires

Here's a description of my trip.

Like I mentioned, there were a lot of wildfires out there - currently there are nine fires burning on or near the trail (not including nonexistent/mystery fires - see below).  And away we go:

-Windigo Pass/Butte Fire.  As I've written, hiking the PCT is a great way to see beautiful areas of which I've never heard (and to which I'll probably never return).  I had never heard of the Mt. Thielsen Wilderness before.  Here it is:

It's gorgeous.  I was heading south along the Oregon Skyline Trail alternate route, part of which is in the Diamond Peak Wilderness:

Which I also hadn't heard of, but is not as gorgeous (and was pretty buggy).  As I was contouring in and out of drainages towards the Windigo Pass road (FS60), I was looking forward to visiting the water cache located there.  But I kept seeing little puffs of smoke.

Smoke?  I met two northbound thru-hikers, who said they hadn't seen any smoke - but added there was a guy at the trailhead who had a cooler of Subway sandwiches and literally an entire truck of food/supplies for hikers - a true "trail angel."  No smoke?  Nope - must be dust.

Then I got to the road and met another thru-hiker, who said the same thing - no smoke, but there's a guy waiting for his spouse to finish hiking for the day (she was "slack-packing"), and he has Subway sandwiches, etc.  Hm.

I got to the pass, and found the water cache:

I saw the trail angel's car, but he wasn't there.  I sat down on a log, looked up, and saw a plume of smoke directly south - but it didn't look like it was on the trail.  I jumped up and hustled up the trail.  After about twenty minutes, I met the trail angel - he had hiked up to see what was going on.  We quickly found out what was going on - the fire was coming up to and crossing the trail:

To which we responded as follows:

Several wildfire trucks arrived as we hiked back to the road, and a helicopter was buzzing around.  The trail angel duly gave me a Subway sandwich.  He also had an Oregon gazetteer, and we quickly found that the Windigo Pass Trail paralleled the PCT through the wilderness, rejoining near Maidu Lake.  He drove me down to the trailhead, past the oncoming stream of fire trucks.  More nice people - there was a small campground at the trailhead, and the camp hosts invited me to have a drink and stay the night.  Instead, I said my goodbyes to angel and all and headed up the trail - right into the worst mosquitoes of the trip.

By the next morning, smoke hung in the valleys:

Also by the next morning, another angel/volunteer had printed out maps of the alternate trail I had taken, and posted them in a folder where the Windigo Pass Trail rejoined the PCT:

It was an impressive, generous effort.  The alternate grew longer and changed over the next few weeks until the fire calmed down and the trail was reopened.

-Nonexistent Sky Lakes Wilderness/Fish Lake Fire.  I passed maybe 250 northbound thru-hikers, and received a lot of information from them.  Some wanted and some unwanted.  Some correct and some incorrect.

Along rim of Crater Lake, I met a group of northbounders - one of them offered insistently that the trail was closed near Fish Lake due to fire.  Mazama Village (the little Xanterra-run outpost near Crater Lake) was full of thru-hikers, and I asked around about the fire.  A few of them had seen a little fire near Fish Lake, but it was less than an acre and under control - one hiker said it was "surrounded by helicopters dropping water."

Later, near Sky Lakes/Devil's Peak (another little gem of an area on the PCT in another wilderness) a hiker told me emphatically that there was a big fire near Fish Lake and the trail was closed.  I told her she might not be right, and she responded with a koan of "it's the PCT, so what you hear is always incomplete information."  Later, a southbound hiker told me there was a fire in the Sky Lakes themselves - she was laying next to the trail, and addressed me from her rest in the pine duff.  Also, two more northbounders pointed out a small plume of smoke near the lakes.

Given my experience with Windigo Pass, I was concerned/paranoid, and ended up camping in a buggy trail junction half expecting a fire crew to come close the trail in the middle of the night.  Instead, a quiet but insistent thunderstorm rolled through, with heavy solid raindrops slapping my tent and profound thunder peals  extending across the dark Oregon sky.  It cleared out the smoke for a few days, and I never saw a fire near Fish Lake.

-The Goff Fire/Fort Complex.  I knew about this one - the section of trail heading down into Seiad Valley was closed due to a fire.  I could see the smoke even before I got to Ashland:

And there was more and more smoke as I headed along the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains towards Seiad Valley:

The Forest Service had designated and posted the alternate route:

The Forest Service also posted a ranger at the closure:

He said he was there due to "the government's legal liability," but I couldn't figure out under what legal theory someone could recover against the federal government due to getting burned by a forest fire.  I didn't press.

The next few days were heavy with smoke from the Goff Fire - especially through the Marble Mountain Wilderness:

(easily the most rugged hiking of this trip)

And the Russian Wilderness:

The fire came to threaten the town - one hiker told me that the August 25 Seiad Day celebration was bittersweet.  Everyone was enjoying beer and a barbecue, while the fire was creeping down the mountains towards town.  Later I learned that an evacuation order had been issued, but later rescinded - it looks like the town will live to see another Seiad Day.

-Bagley Fire.  The smoke from the Goff Fire calmed down as I hiked into the Trinity Alps Wilderness.  Another great thing about the PCT is the striking transitions.  Every day is different from the last, and occasionally the trail veers strikingly from one region to another.  One such transition occurs when the trail veers east (at least for southbound hikers) from Trinity Alps Wilderness straight into a rain shadow area of the Scott Mountains.  Within a quarter mile, the entire character of the trail, and the area, changes.  And as I turned that corner, I saw a mushroom cloud:

A fire blowup somewhere south of Mt. Shasta.  And I thought that maybe the fire was near the PCT.  But for the next few days I traversed the high and lonesome - and very evenly graded - trail along the crest of the Scott Mountains towards Castle Crags:

(one of my few relatively clear views of Mt. Shasta)

At the little store in Castella they told me the trail was open and that the fire had calmed down since the Saturday blowup.  Thus began my adventure into Section O of the PCT.

Everything was clear at first (except for the fields of poison oak):

And then I rounded a ridge towards the McCloud River and saw the smoke:

Hey, isn't that a burning tree?

Well, the fire was across the river, and seemed to be entrenched high on a ridge.  I did my anti-poison oak dance along down to the river and camped out for the night as it gently rained ash onto my tent.

In the morning, I was excited to see the big bridge - my first date with Catherine in twelve years ago was to Mt. Shasta, and we stopped along the river to see the bridge.  Yes, I was pretty surprised to find it plumbed up with sprinklers and fire hoses:

I was even more surprised to find that the trail I was on had been closed:

(but hey - free water! [see background])

I duly marched up to the first fire truck I could find to see what was going on (I had a few to choose from):

The wildfire guys were friendly, and told me that the sprinklers/closure were just a precaution - I would be fine if I just kept hiking south out of the closure area.  Don't worry.  They were more interested in my hike than me being in the fire zone, and sent me on my way.

My way for the rest of the day was a cool, smoky haze:

Fires make their own weather, and the smoke simultaneously blocked the sun and trapped the river's humidity - it seemed more like hiking in Washington than California.  I had hoped to escape the smoke as I hiked up out of the river valley, but the smoke had lazily expanded to cover the entire area east of the fire:

By the end of the day, I passed the eastern edge of the closure area:

And I found a place to camp near some active logging areas as the sun dropped out of the smoke towards the hazy horizon:

After dark, the sky was pitch black, but slightly orange, with smoke, and my headlight shone against gently raining ash.  Just before I fell asleep, a breeze from the north kicked up.  By morning, the wind had cleared out the smoke and I was back to another beautiful day of hiking along the PCT:

My brief time in the area formed my most striking memories of the trip - hiking along in the unnaturally-cool haze, isolated visually in a closed area.  Section O has long been considered one of the worst parts of the PCT - back when I first hiked the trail in 1998, it was borderline impassible due to thousands of toppled trees, and more recently it was known for being extremely brushy.  Section O loomed in my mind when I left the trail in 1998 - I knew there would still be snow, and I wasn't looking forward to fighting through the blowdowns.  While the trail has been greatly improved, it still has a rugged and end-of-the-earth feel.  The trail climbs up and down sandy, severely-eroded bluffs, through an odd combination of chaparral and fir forest, and there are few water sources.  It is still the Section perhaps furthest from a major city.  It's isolated.  It's difficult.

Which of course is all arguably wrong, or at least based only on my unique impressions formed on a fast three-day hike through the area.  The day that the smoke cleared up, I hiked through a trailhead where a guy was waiting with an RV for his slack-packing friends - they were hiking all the parts of the trail that wasn't closed for the fire.  He was friendly and upbeat, and had stream of questions about the trail for me.  No rugged and end-of-the-earth feel for him.  Then, later I met a group of three southbound thru-hikers in Sierra City who had been hiking only a few hours ahead of me through the closed area.  Apparently the fire crews had given them more of a hassle, suggesting they had violated the fire closure.  I could have cut through the haze and isolation chatting with a friendly and generous group of fellow hikers.  No hike is the same, and no easy generalizations stem from one experience.

The timing was interesting, and fortuitous.  I crossed the road to Ah-Di-Na campground (interestingly, on land once owned by William Randolph Hearst) between six and seven P.M. on August 27.  By eight A.M. on the 28th, the trail closure signs were up.  If I had been a few hours behind schedule, I would have faced backtracking to Castella, or having to take a train/bus combination around to Burney Falls.  It was the second time of the trip with such close timing - at Windigo Pass, if I had been a few hours earlier I wouldn't have even seen smoke; at the McCloud River, if I had been a few hours later I couldn't have hiked Section O.  Unlike the Windigo Pass fire, the Bagley Fire was zero sum - there was no volunteer posting alternate routes.  If you didn't know about the fire, and you were heading north, maybe you would have hiked two days from Burney Falls and gotten stopped by the closure.  Some people complete a straight-line, boots-on-the-ground thru-hike of the PCT, and some don't.  There is some chance involved.   

Meanwhile, the wind came up while I was hiking on the Hat Creek Rim, and I saw the fire blow up again, this time from the southwest:

-Mystery Section P Fire.  At Burney Falls State Park, I met a southbounder who had been just hours late to the closure of Section O.  He was part of a small group of guys who had started at the Canadian border in June, and had spent a good month fighting south through snowdrifts - days like 12 miles in 12 hours.  He was waiting at the state park to meet up with one or two of the group.

The guy told me that he had been hiking south from Etna and met a ranger.  The ranger told him that there was a fire nearby, and although the area wasn't technically closed, that the hiker shouldn't keep going.  The ranger gave him a ride back to Etna, and he had embarked on a hitchhiking/train/bus adventure to get to Burney Falls.  I never heard anything else about that fire, and I couldn't find it reported anywhere online.

-Lassen Fire.  I didn't realize how close the fire in Lassen National Park was to Old Station - you could see  it burning right from town:

The trail was closed, and I didn't press:

-Chips Fire.  Again, on the trail sometimes you get correct information, and sometimes incorrect information.  Many hikers along the way said the Chips Fire near Belden was wrapping up, practically contained, shouldn't be a problem, etc.  However, I found firefighting efforts in full swing, and fire crews told me that the area immediately surrounding the PCT would be burning until perhaps December.

Again along the lines of the information conundrum, I heard lots of stories about the Chips Fire.  Some people told me that PCT hikers had started the fire (most likely hikers using the nearly-unbelievable technique of doing all their cooking on little fires along the way).  Others told me that pot growers had started the fire.  One guy told me that a Forest Service fire crew had deliberately started the fire.  Another guy told me that the fire had been small and could have been easily controlled, but that the Forest Service had accidentally let it get out of control.

As of writing - the fire is 100% contained, and PCT hikers could hike dirt roads around the burn area.  So in this case, I was too early - there are now alternate routes for both the Lassen and the Chips fires.  Like I said, chance is involved.  Maybe next year...unless there are more fires.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: McKenzie Pass to Old Station & Bucks Summit to Donner Pass

I spent 26 days backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail.  I started at McKenzie Pass (Highway 242), Oregon, and hiked south to Old Station (near Lassen National Park), California.  The trail was closed due to fires both in Lassen and near Belden (the Chips Fire), and so I jumped south to Bucks Summit (near Quincy) and hiked south again to Donner Pass.

I made three Flickr galleries of photos from my trip:

-McKenzie Pass to Crater Lake
-Crater Lake to Castle Crags
-Castle Crags to Old Station & Bucks Summit to Donner Pass

I plan to include some detail on where I took the photos, but haven't had time as of writing.

The whole trip was 730 miles of the PCT, but this gets knocked down a bit due to me hiking the Oregon Skyline Trail alternate (10.4 miles shorter), and having to hike around the Butte Fire (Windigo Pass) and the Goff Fire (near Seiad Valley).  For the first fire, I hiked the Windigo Pass Trail through Dutch Oven Camp and past Maidu Lake back to the PCT - this was about two miles shorter than the PCT route.  At the Goff Fire, southbound hikers were required to leave the PCT at Cook & Green Pass and hike the dustiest dirt road on earth down into Seiad Valley - this alternate was later closed as the fire grew worse.  The road was about 10 miles long (according to the Forest Service folks) and bypassed about 15 miles of trail.

With those deductions, I'll take credit for about 715 miles of the PCT.  I feel like the Windigo Pass Trail alternate was consistent with hiking the PCT and have no plans to go re-hike that section.  I don't feel like the Goff Fire alternate was consistent with hiking the PCT and aspire to go re-hike that section (especially because this will allow me to go back to the wonderful community of Seiad Valley and have another delicious and inexpensive breakfast at the Seiad Valley Cafe) (and also to help them celebrate the fire not destroying their town).

Also, I have to go back and hike the 108 miles from Old Station through Belden to Bucks Summit.  It's not the most glamorous section of trail, but it's the last section of the PCT that I haven't hiked (besides my planned semi-purist re-hike of the Goff Fire alternate).  That's right, I've hiked (give or take) 2555 miles along the pacific crest, and have 108 miles to go.

(I also hiked from Mexico to Kennedy Meadows twice, and most/all of Muir Trail a few times - maybe I can donate a few miles from those trips to the Seiad Valley closure.)

I thought about road-walking/hiking alternates around the Lassen and Chips fires, but I ran into both time constraints and my sense that this approach was just too major a deviation from the trail to count as an "alternate."  So, next year August, assuming the trail north of Belden is passable (the Chips Fire is a major burn, and I've been told that the area around the PCT is a mess), I'll try get back out to sunny Northern California and finish the trail.

Oh, and I'm happy to cherry-pick eight days from the trip where I maxed out my mileage (thanks for asking).  From Seiad Valley to the Hat Creek Rim I averaged about 33 miles a day.  Hey, there are a lot of folks out there who can hike further and faster, but that's pretty much my middle-aged maximum.

So...phew.  With the nuts and bolts out of the way, how do I write about this trip?  I'm sitting at a hotel-lobby computer in Reno, looking at photos and wondering what to say.

The trip was everything anyone could ask for in a long backpacking trip:

But it was also a struggle with wildfires (and accompanying smoke):

More than this, this trip was an intense brush with personal past.  I originally set out to hike the PCT in 1998 with my girlfriend at the time, and then again by myself in 1999.  Both times I left the trail, and jumping back on the trail where I quit in 1998 - and right into the herd of thru-hikers heading north - revealed a surprising amount of emotional baggage (that didn't come up when I hiked from Tuolumne Meadows to Donner Pass in 2010).  The resolution/disposal of this baggage may be beyond a public blog, although I think I could explain it (in another post) in terms of the simple cliche that not only can our failures define us in very positive ways; and that I am extremely lucky to both have left the trail for the reasons I did back then, and to return 14 years later legs and knees intact to hike the rest.

In addition to that possible squishy emotional post, I will add at least two others:

-First, I loved returning to the thru-hiking/PCT world for a few weeks - trail names, trail gossip, tiny packs, tall tales, and everything else.  My day-to-day run-ins with hikers of all stripes was flat-out inspirational - a great validation of seeing the world by hiking from point to point.  The trail is getting more popular, but the wealth of information out there about the PCT is enabling people to enjoy it in different ways - ways better suited to their own ability-levels and schedules.

-Second, the major theme of this hike was wildfire.  It seems like I'm always writing about fire, but on this trip it was a day-to-day concern.

I may also write some gear notes, but this of course would lead to pot-shots at the ultra-lightweight style, and I enjoy having a blog titled as a slight to that approach without ever writing why.

I'll close this post by thanking my spouse, Catherine, for inspiring the trip and making it possible.  Catherine led the charge for our sabbatical, and she listened patiently back in March as I explained that indeed I wanted to spend nearly a month of that sabbatical away from her - and our son - chasing an old dream.  I would not have blamed her in the slightest by suggesting that I chose to chase a different dream, but instead she told me to go for it, helped me plan, drove me to McKenzie Pass, and took over sole parenting duties (!) while I was away.  Catherine, I won't do a trip like this again, but thank you so much for helping me do it.