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.

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