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.

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