Thru-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

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Part 2: I’m Your Huckleberry

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One of the joys of hiking in the late summer and early fall is feasting on wild blueberries and huckleberries. Towards the end of my Appalachian trail thru-hike I feasted on the wild blueberries in Maine, and now that I was nearing the end of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike I was feasting on the wild huckleberries in Washington. In the Northeast we take pride in our wild blueberries, and often snub the obviously inferior commercial blueberries. In the Northwest people seemed to take pride in their huckleberries, but they categorically snubbed all blueberries… including the wild Maine blueberries that I thought so highly of. “Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not blueberries,” was a constant, condescending refrain that I’d heard over and over again, and it rankled every time. Though I’d learned how to recognize one species of western huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and was confident that I was picking huckleberries and not blueberries, there was another question that I wasn’t so sure about: “What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” None of the people I talked to really seemed to know. If they didn’t know the difference between a blueberry and a huckleberry, how could they assert the superiority of one over the other?

“What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” The question ate at me as I hiked through Washington… I needed the internet… I needed to do some research… I wanted a scientifically rigorous end to the debate of huckleberry versus blueberry… When I finally got wifi, I started by looking up the definitions of the berries in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

That seemed simple enough, right? Huckleberries are from the genus Gaylussacia and blueberries are from the genus Vaccinium… (Let’s ignore that the second definition of huckleberry is blueberry for now). This definition was consistent with the berries I’d seen on the Appalachian trail, and the colloquial definitions of blueberries and huckleberries that I’d grown up with on the east coast. It also provided the key to telling eastern huckleberries from blueberries while hiking on the Appalachian trail: when you break open an eastern huckleberry, it has 10 chambers and 10 big seeds in it, but when you break open a blueberry it only has five chambers and is full of lots and lots of tiny little seeds.

If I was only concerned about the east coast and the AT I’d be done, but what about the berries on the west coast, the berries on the PCT? Do they fit into those same simple definitions? No.  According to the united states forest service there are twelve species of huckleberry in Oregon and Washington and they all belong to the genus Vaccinium! That means that by east coast standards (and according to the dictionary definition), all of the western huckleberries are actually blueberries.

My initial reaction was to laugh. No wonder why people on the west coast were so confused about the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I briefly thought about invoking the classic east coast/west coast rivalry, and dismissing all western huckleberries as blueberries, but that didn’t appease my intellectual curiosity… there was definitely something different about western huckleberries… They weren’t the same berries that I’d grown up calling blueberries on the east coast, I needed to learn more.

I went searching for a better definition huckleberries and was surprised to find that in at least one state there is a legal definition of a huckleberry! In 2013 the Montana state legislature defined a “huckleberry” as: a berry referring to various wild species of the Vaccinium genus, commonly referred to in this state as a huckleberry or Montana huckleberry. Among these species are Vaccinium membranaceum and Vaccinium globulare. The legal definition gave merit to 2 of the 12 huckleberry species that I’d heard of, and listed four species that were not huckleberries, but it didn’t help me understand the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that lawmakers didn’t have the definitive answer I was looking for, the definition of a huckleberry is really a question for scientists, not lawmakers.

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I returned to the literature and to the genus Vaccinium, which includes all of the blueberries, cranberries, and western huckleberries. Since the genus was the same for all of them, I looked to the next level of differentiation, the subgenera. Vaccinium is divided into two subgenera: Oxycoccus (cranberries), and Vaccinium (blueberries and western huckleberries). The subgenera are then further divided into sections. Four of those sections include the berries we call blueberries and western huckleberries: Cyanococcus (blueberries), Myrtillus (bilberries/western huckleberries), Vaccinium, and Pyxothamnus. The majority of western huckleberries are in sec. Myrtillus. I’d finally figured out how to separate the western huckleberries from the blueberry!. I also discovered that in the field (on the PCT) the berry organization can be used to distinguish between the sections: most western huckleberries (sec. Myrtillus) produce single berries on new shoots, the rest of the western huckleberries (sec. Vaccinium and sec. Pyxothamnus) produce small clusters of berries, and the blueberries (sec. Cyanococcus) produce larger clusters of berries on one year old growth.

Based on my new understanding of the differences between blueberries and huckleberries I revised the Merriam-Webster definitions to include the berries from both the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT):

Using these new definitions, could I separate all of the North American huckleberries from the North American blueberries? To figure that out, I investigated the taxonomy of huckleberries and blueberries, focusing on the differences between the species on the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT). The naming and separation of species is constantly changing as our understanding of plant genetics evolves, which means that the species definitions for huckleberries and blueberries are constantly changing. Although I used the initial list of huckleberries of the northwest (1972) as a guide, I used the USDA plants database and/or the GRIN Taxonomy for Plants to determine a more current list of species (click on the links to see maps of their growing regions):

Family Ericaceaethe heath family, includes all of the huckleberries and blueberries
Genus Gaylussacia – Eastern (AT) Huckleberries (10 chambered ovary)

 Genus Vaccinium – Blueberries and Western Huckleberries (5 chambered ovary)

Finally, after spending way too much time online, I’d convinced myself that I knew the difference between blueberries and huckleberries both taxonomically and functionally. On paper it was easy, the eastern (AT) huckleberries were the ones in subgenus Gaylussacia, the blueberries (AT & PCT) were the ones in sec. Cyanococcus, and the western (PCT) huckleberries were still trying to sort themselves out, but were mostly from sec. Myrtillus. On the trail, the eastern huckleberries were the ones with 10 large seeds in them that you find in the eastern part of the country, the blueberries were the ones with big clusters of fruit with lightish colored innards, and western huckleberries were the ones the brothers on the reservation had described to me (with bright purple innards and typically single berries).

One of the interesting things I learned was that blueberries on the PCT are the same species as the blueberries on the AT.  I rarely saw anything resembling an east coast blueberry as I hiked through Washington. Though there are always exceptions, it seemed like all of the know-it-alls that were so adamantly reprimanding people for picking blueberries on the trail were wrong. Up on the mountain hillsides of the PCT, almost everyone was picking huckleberries… they weren’t always picking what Montana legally defines as a huckleberry, but they were picking Washington huckleberries (huckleberries of Washington (2007)).

If you are a professional huckleberry picker getting an estimated $40 a gallon for huckleberries, you should probably restrict your definition of huckleberry to Vaccinium membranaceum. However, if you are out there hiking in the mountains, with the sunshine on your back, why not enjoy all of the edible berries that sec. Myrtillus has to offer?

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Interesting huckleberry links if you are still thirsting for more information:

Part 1: I’m Your Huckleberry (PCT Days 162-164)

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“You’ve been picking berries haven’t you!” exclaimed a passing hiker. I was in northern Washington and my hands were stained a dark pinkish-purple from picking and eating huckleberries. The sweet perfume of berries filled the late-afternoon air. I grinned ear-to-ear, popping yet another warm, juicy berry into my mouth before replying, “Yeah, I’ve been picking huckleberries. My mom’s going to hike in to meet me at the border, so I’m making huckleberry wine for her!”

“Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not just blueberries?” The hiker asked, looking at me skeptically. “Yes, I’m sure,” I replied, still smiling and picking my berries… One for me… One for the wine… One for me… One for the wine… I popped another one into my mouth, “Definitely huckleberries.”

Huckleberries seemed to be a hot topic here in the Pacific Northwest. I’d learned that huckleberries were to be prized, and that blueberries were to be shunned… The superiority of huckleberries over blueberries was uncontested, uncontestable… there was just one little problem… Which ones were the huckleberries? None of the huckleberries I saw on the west coast looked like east coast huckleberries (gaylussacia baccata) to me, so I’d started asking my west coast peers to show me which berries were the huckleberries. It quickly became apparent to me that the term “huckleberry” was being applied to multiple species of plants. There was, however, one species that everyone on the west coast seemed to agree was definitely a huckleberry, the vaccinium membranaceum, and that was the one that I was picking…

“Well, most people think they’re picking huckleberries but they’re actually picking blueberries,” he replied undeterred. I paused from my berry picking to look around me. Was there something that made him think that I was standing in a thicket of blueberries instead of huckleberries? No, there wasn’t. I was surrounded by big, juicy (unambiguous by west coast standards) huckleberries. This was the third person that had felt the need to stop me while I was berry picking to inform me that I couldn’t possibly know the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. None of them seemed to notice or care that I was surrounded by huckleberries and huckleberry bushes… There were lots of things about huckleberries that I was still curious about and wanted to learn, but I was getting tired of these conversations… the unsolicited conversations which started with the assumption that I didn’t know what I was doing, and was followed by their display of superior huckleberry knowledge (which was usually even less complete than my mine).

“I’m confident that the berries I’m picking are considered huckleberries here on the west coast,” I assured the hiker. “When I was hiking through the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon I ran into two brothers from the reservation that were professional huckleberry pickers. I asked them a few questions and they were kind enough to give me a comprehensive tutorial on west coast huckleberries. It was absolutely incredible and I’ve been picking huckleberries ever since!” I smiled again, and pointedly turned away from him and resumed my huckleberry picking. He took the not so subtle hint, and moved on.

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Unlike the more recent conversations I’d been having about huckleberries, the conversation I’d had with the two brothers back on the reservation had been really informative. “There are a dozen different varieties of huckleberry out here,” the brothers had explained, “but the best huckleberries are the ones with the dark, almost black fruit. We only pick the ones that are big, single berries on the top of the leaf clusters like these,” said one of the brothers as he pointed to, and then picked, a big, plump huckleberry. “If the berries are underneath the leaf clusters, or if there is more than one berry in the same cluster, it’s probably a blueberry and not a huckleberry. Even though the huckleberries can be lots of different colors and sizes, you can always tell if it’s a true huckleberry because the pulp inside the huckleberries is this deep red or purple color,” he continued, popping the berry between his fingers to demonstrate. “The blueberries have much lighter colored guts.” His brother then added, “the best huckleberries, the ones that we pick, are the ones with pointy leaves like these,” he said, stroking one of the leaves almost lovingly. By the end of their tutorial I was 100% confident that I could identify the best huckleberries (vaccinium membranaceum), the ones their family had been picking for generations, and the huckleberries they sold commercially.

After the brothers taught me how to identify the huckleberries, they taught me how to pick them without bruising them, how to transport them, and how to store them. They proudly explained that the way they transported and stored the huckleberries now was the same way their family had been doing it for generations. As evidence, they showed me the huckleberry picking baskets they had tied to their waists. “These baskets are nearly 100 years old,” said one of the brothers, untying it from his waist so I could get a better look at it. It was a smallish (probably quart-sized) basket, stained purple with the juices of thousands of huckleberries, but otherwise it showed very little wear. “They’re beautiful,” I said as I looked at the weave of the basket. “They’re made from the bark of the cedar trees,” he continued. I looked at him questioningly, how could something this fine be made from cedar bark? Anticipating my question he continued, “if you look closely you can see the fine strands and the way they are coiled and tied together.” I was definitely impressed. He then showed me the loops across the top that allowed it to be tied to his belt. “After we fill these baskets, we empty them into the big basket,” he said bringing out a much larger basket with a different weave (twined instead of coiled if I remember correctly). “We line it with leaves to protect the berries. This one holds about seven gallons of huckleberries. We should have it filled by noontime,” he said and looked on, smiling, as I examined the basket. “This one’s 80 years old! Do you see the little loops at the top? They’re for tying a cover onto the basket for storing the berries.”

The baskets were amazing… steeped as they were in both huckleberry juice and history. We talked about some of that history, about the way of life of the Wasco and Tenino people before the reservation was formed… about fishing, hunting, and huckleberry picking… and about how things have changed. When the US government created the Bonneville dam, they flooded the traditional fishing grounds for the Warm Springs tribes, and altered their way of life. They said that the tribes still fish salmon, hunt, and pick huckleberries, but that isn’t enough to sustain their economy. Even in the world of huckleberry picking there are issues. “They forget whose land they’re on,” mumbled one of the brothers when talking about commercial berry pickers. “We usually pick up near Mount Hood at this time of the year, but they’ve been forcing us out.” The politics of huckleberry picking were entirely new to me, who was forcing them out? “Huckleberry picking is big business. They bring in lots of cheap labor from overseas, they don’t respect us and they don’t respect the land. The pickers from Vietnam and Laos are the worst. They’ll form a circle around us and pick all of the berries so there’s no where left for us to go. They make it so we can’t pick,” they said sadly. “That’s why we decided to come back down here. Usually this time of year its too early to pick here, but with the crazy weather this season we thought we’d check it out.”

“How are the huckleberries along the PCT on the other side of the road?” they asked. “They were pretty amazing! So plentiful that I stopped to take some pictures of them,” I replied and showed them some pictures I’d taken of berry-laden branches. “Good to hear, we were thinking about bringing our sisters out to pick with us tomorrow, sounds like there’ll be plenty of berries for all of us.” I nodded, and we wrapped up our conversation. I would have kept talking to them all day (and did in fact have more long conversations with them about the PCT and tribal lands), but I knew that they had 7 gallons of huckleberries to pick by noon, and I didn’t want to distract them too much.

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It was now a month later, but the conversation I’d had with the two brothers was still fresh in my mind. Every conversation I’d had about huckleberries since then reminded me of them and of the first mouthful of warm, black huckleberries that I’d eaten just moments later. The west coast huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) reminded me of wild maine blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), but they weren’t quite as sweet, and they had a slightly spicier flavor.

Regardless of whether people were calling them blueberries or huckleberries, everyone seemed to enjoy feasting on the fruits produced by the plants of genus Vaccinium. However, people weren’t the only ones feasting on huckleberries in Washington. The bears were were out in force! Going through Washington I saw five different bears feasting on huckleberries/blueberries (mile 2377- small brown bear, mile 2445- big black bear, mile 2491- small black bear, mile 2507- black bear, mile 2512- black bear). A couple of those times I only noticed the bears because I’d stopped at the same field planning to pick huckleberries too! If I was a safe distance away, I would just sit and watch them graze on those tiny little berries. It was fascinating and it was very different than watching them try to dig grubs. As I watched them pick huckleberries straight from the bushes with their mouths, I tried to imagine having to get all of my calories on the trail from huckleberries. At just 37 calories per 100 g, it would take a lot of huckleberries to fuel a human or a bear… we’d be better off eating the sweeter blueberries at 57 calories per 100g, but only slightly!

Even though I’d learned how to recognize one species of huckleberry on the west coast (Vaccinium membranaceum), I still couldn’t fully answer the question, “What’s the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” Stay tuned for “Part 2: I’m your huckleberry,” where I’ll answer that question and more!

Moms (PCT Days 156-161)

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“If you remember, when you get up to Fire Creek Pass, say hi to my mom for me,” said the day hiker I’d just met. “My brother and I spread her ashes there 25 years ago. It’s on the west side of Glacier Peak, up passed Pumice creek, but before Mica Lake.”

“It’s really beautiful up there,” he continued wistfully, “the trail follows the ridge, and is mostly above treeline.” He then told me that he’d met another thru-hiker about a week ago and gave her the same message to deliver, but he seemed rather convinced that neither one of us would actually remember to do it.

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“Have you been able to make the trip into the pass to visit very often?” I asked.

“No, I haven’t been back,” he explained. “I love to hike, but I have back issues, so I can’t carry heavy loads anymore.” I sensed a complicated milieu of feelings; regret, frustration, and acceptance, in his tone of voice and in his body language. It reminded me of when my asthma was really bad and I couldn’t even walk, never mind hike… There’s a grieving process that you go through if/when your health deteriorates and you lose the ability to do some of the things that you love. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must be when it interfered with the grieving process of a loved one as well.

“Maybe we should get some llamas,” his wife suggested, “they could carry the load for you!” I have to admit, this was the first time that the thought of pack animals on the trail seemed like a good idea, and didn’t just make me grumpy…

Usually I just see the negative impacts of the stock animals… Their sh** in steaming piles in the middle of the trail that I need to either step into or veer of into the bushes to avoid… The uneven, eroded sections of trail as their hooves punch through the wet or muddy ground, accelerating the deterioration of the trail… Their sh** in the middle of the spot where I’d like to camp… Yeah, horses on the trail occasional hit the top of my list of pet peeves. All other trail users are required to clean up after their own sh**. Why are horses exempt from that rule? I’m pretty sure that in the parades in the city the horses have little sh** bags that get emptied later… Why can’t the horses on trail use those and toss their sh** into the bushes instead of leaving it in the middle of the trail? But I digress…

I forgot about all of that sh** for a moment, and was suddenly glad that the PCT allowed pack animals… Allowing people that couldn’t otherwise access the wilderness a way to continue going to the places they love, to continue doing the things that they love… That’s worth putting up with some sh** every now and then. I hoped that this couple would someday look into that option so that he might get the chance to visit his mom himself someday.

As I continued my hike northwards I realized that delivering his message was actually really important to me… I would take the time, find the spot, deliver his message, and reflect on all the mothers that I have known… My amazing mother, the grandmother I have, the grandmother I’ve lost, the expectant mothers I know (congratulations again!), and the expectant mother that we lost… When I got to that spot I was going to celebrate a Mother’s Day of sorts… Besides, any mother that raises backpackers is a mother to all of the backpackers… Being a thru-hiker you live that over and over again… All the mom’s that visit their children on the trail becomes mom’s to us all!

Now, what were those directions again? Doh! He was right, I’d already forgotten the name of the pass where he’d scattered his mom’s ashes, but I remembered the rest of the directions… I quickly jotted them down. I would find the spot!

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A couple of days later I came to Pumice Creek, the first place that he’d mentioned. It was in the middle of one of the most challenging, hardest to access portions of the trail. No wonder why he hadn’t been able to get back there. I pulled out my maps and sure enough, there was a big pass coming up… If I hiked the way I normally did I would cross it during the late afternoon and end up camping at the bottom of the next valley…

As I continued hiking northwards I started wondering if there might be a camping spot at the top of the pass… I was willing to bet there were stunning views from the pass… And in general I love camping at the top of things… Campsites where you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset are my absolute favorites… I hate it when I have to camp in the deep dark valleys.

There wasn’t a campsite listed up there in any of my guidebooks, but I was cautiously optimistic… I don’t need much space to cowboy camp (roll my sleeping bag out under the stars). When I got to Fire Creek I stopped and ate my dinner… It was only 4:30 pm, but if I camped up at the pass there wouldn’t be any water there… And water is heavy… If I camped in the next valley there would be plenty of water, but just in case I ended up camping in the pass I didn’t want to carry the extra water I would need for dinner up the mountain! Besides I was already hungry… I was always hungry… an early dinner sounded like a great idea.

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One of the things I love about climbing up to the passes is that you never know what you’re going to find on the other side… It’s almost always a completely new landscape that you’ve never seen before. This time was no different. As I climbed towards the pass, the scenery got more and more impressive until I finally reached the top… And there they were, stretched out in front of me, the North Cascades.

It was an absolutely beautiful place, and as I looked around I realized that the best views were to the east, and to the west, which meant I’d be able to see both the sunrise and sunset from this pass !!! My absolute favorite places to camp are the places with amazing sunrise and sunset views!

Even though it was still early, I found a nice little spot among the rocks, inflated my sleeping pad, rolled out my sleeping bag and prepared to spend the night there. It was an incredibly peaceful spot and I had it all to myself. Here, so close to the end of the trail, lots of people were hurrying up, racing to the finish, but me, I was slowing down… trying to savor every moment I had left. I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped so early in the day and hiked so few miles, but I was determined to make the most of the remaining days of this amazing journey.

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It seemed fitting to slow down and to really take the time to enjoy this place in particular because I knew that this was the place where the brothers had spread their mother’s ashes… It felt like a sacred place to me… As I thought about the son that couldn’t make it out to this pass anymore, I decided that I wanted to capture some of it on film for him… I was guessing that he didn’t have any good pictures of the pass, and I was going to be there for sunset and the sunrise… The lighting should be amazing, and I had my good camera (Sony NEX-5N)… I didn’t know his address or even his name, but I wanted to let him know that I had said hi, and I wanted to give him pictures of the pass (if you are the brother I talked to, please contact me at Patches or Patchesthru on Facebook or leave an email address in the comments)…

After taking some pictures I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the sky shift through a rainbow of colors as the sun set and the moon rose. It was absolutely magnificent.

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As I drew my mummy bag around me something started to swoop in low just a few feet over my head… What was it?! It was after dark, but this thing was way too big to be a bat… It was also very light colored… It flew off and then swooped low over my head again… Definitely a bird, but what kind of bird waits until dark to come out, and it was huge! A wingspan of around four or five feet… It swooped low a third time, clearing me by maybe two feet, and I got an even better look at it… The head was too big to be any of the birds of prey I was used to seeing…

Suddenly it dawned on me, big head, the size of a raptor, waiting until dusk before coming out… It was an owl!!! I laughed at myself… I’d never actually seen an owl swooping around at night before, but it shouldn’t have taken me that long to figure it out. It did another circle around me and swooped down even closer… Wow! I wondered if I’d somehow invaded it’s territory and in a moment of panic was afraid that it was going to swoop down and peck my eyes out while I was sleeping… Having a bird that big dive bombing you while you’re getting ready to fall asleep is a bit disconcerting, but I reminded myself that I like owls, and that it likely had little to no interest in me… Also, I sleep with my glasses on, so my eyes at least would be protected.

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The next time it swooped low I just watched it. Owls are incredibly beautiful birds, and to get to watch one fly like this, in the fading colors of the sunset, less than three feet away from me… it felt like an honor. I also realized that regardless of whether or not it was intentional, the owl was going to protect me as I slept… Like most thru-hikers, I sleep with my food, and mice are a constant concern… An owl swooping this low, this often, meant that anything that tried to go after my dinner would become the owl’s dinner! I definitely didn’t have to worry about mice running around me tonight :)

Secure in the knowledge that I had an ever vigilant protector, I drifted off to sleep… I didn’t wake again until moonset, which was around 5 am. Whenever it is close to the full moon I wake up around moonset because it suddenly gets much darker and I’m very sensitive to changes in light. As I looked, I saw my owl still swooping nearby and smiled. It was getting much darker, but the stars weren’t out, so I looked around to see where the moon was… It was behind me, towards the west, and was a brilliant orangey-red as it began it’s descent into the horizon. I watched it, in awe of its beauty, until it completely disappeared from sight. From this amazing place I’d gotten to watch the moon rise, the sun set, the moon set, and I still had the sunrise to look forward to! I felt incredibly lucky to be where I was.

When I looked up half an hour later I was surprised to see the Milky Way stretched out above me… I didn’t think it would get dark enough to see it so close to the full moon! Apparently, however, there is a small window of time between moonset and sunrise when the night sky is truly dark and all the stars come out to shine.

Still smiling I drifted off for one last time, but awoke in the predawn light… I luxuriated in the warmth of my sleeping bag as I watched the eastern horizon waiting for the sun to rise with the excitement and anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve. Slowly, ever so slowly, the sky turned colors and brightened as the sun prepared to rise… After almost 5000 miles of hiking in the last two years, my appreciation for the wonder and majesty of the rising sun still hadn’t faded!

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My night at Fire Creek Pass had been one of those perfect nights… The kind of nights that make me wish that I could keep doing this forever…

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It’s a Win! (PCT Ditty)

Patches in Northern California

Hiking North through Washington I tried to focus on the here and now, on the beautiful scenery that I was still immersed in, on my love of backpacking, but my thoughts kept on drifting. I started reflecting on the amazing journeys that I’d been on, and on the future awaiting me when I returned to civilization. All of the existential crises that had been put on hold while I dealt with more immediate concerns like water, food, and shelter, were starting to flood back into those quiet spaces between steps. My vacation was coming to an end.

Pop quiz: Do you know the name of the song (and the artist who wrote it) that got stuck in my head and inspired me to write these new hiking-based lyrics?

When I look back upon my hike,
It’s always with a sense of pride.
I’ve always loved to be outside!
For everything I longed to do,
Whether alone or with a crew,
When I’m hiking this is true…

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a win!
It’s a win!
Every mountain I have climbed,
Every river I have crossed,
Every sunset that I’ve seen,
Every trail I’ll ever hike,
It’s a win!

Character building’s what they said,
And through the rain we forged ahead.
I’m a backpacker born and bred!
For everything I longed to do,
Whether alone or with a crew,
When I’m hiking this is true…

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a win!
It’s a win!
Every mountain I have climbed,
Every river I have crossed,
Every sunset that I’ve seen,
Every trail I’ll ever hike,
It’s a win!

Society forgive me,
I tried to slog through it.
I had the career job,
But that just didn’t do it.
The trails they have taught me,
They’ve led me right to it!
Both worlds are the real me!
But I hope you understand…

When I look back upon my hike,
It’s always with a sense of pride,
I’ve always loved to be outside!
For everything I longed to do,
Whether alone or with a crew,
When I’m hiking this is true…

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a win!
It’s a win!
Every mountain I have climbed,
Every river I have crossed,
Every sunset that I’ve seen,
Every trail I’ll ever hike,
It’s a win!

Someone is Wrong on the Internet! (PCT Days 151-155)

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I looked at the weather forecast and my mood plummeted: 3-5 days of rain were headed my way. The state of Washington has a reputation for rain, and it looked like it was going to try to live up to that reputation. The thought of being cold and wet for days on end was not even a little bit appealing. I’d been there, done that, and it wasn’t a lot of fun for me. Maybe I could figure out a way to take a vacation from my vacation. I was approaching Snoqualmie Pass, which is just a 40 minute drive from Seattle… Surely some of my friends from Seattle could come and rescue me from the rain. I furiously texted everyone I knew, but they already had plans.

Eventually, against my better judgment, I turned to the internet for help and posted to one of the Facebook groups, “Looks like nasty weather for this weekend… I’m trying to coordinate a place to stay with friends, but if that falls through does anyone know any trail angels near Snoqualmie?”

Almost immediately I got a response, “Cool weather and showers shouldn’t be considered “nasty weather.” Sounds like maybe your gear is inadequate, or maybe you’ve just been spoiled by the warm, dry summer we’re having this year…”

Oh internet, why do you have to be like that? I’d chosen to post in a closed forum, one that was usually relatively troll free, and I’d dared to hope that I would get helpful responses. Instead, I got the response that I should have expected from the internet, a response that really irritated me, pissed me off even. What I wanted to do was yell at the internet. Someone on the internet was wrong. I should correct them, right? I grumpily composed my rebuttal to the three inflammatory clauses:

1) “Cool weather and showers shouldn’t be considered ‘nasty weather.'” How, exactly do you define ‘nasty weather’? Do you think that maybe having a nice cozy house with four walls and a roof that you can retreat to anytime you want might modify your definition of ‘nasty weather’, or are you just thinking about the weather that you are going to get at home in Seattle (at 0-520 ft elev.)? Did you actually think about the weather on the trail itself, up in the mountains, and on top of the ridges (at 5000+ ft)? Up in those mountains is where I’m going to be, and the weather up near 5000 ft is the weather that I’m worried about.

Did you know that for every 1000ft of elevation you gain, the outside temperature drops between 3.3F and 5.5F depending on humidity? If the high in Seattle is going to be 61F, then 3000ft higher at Snoqualmie Pass the high will drop to 44F – 51F (a drop of 3*3.3F=9.9F in high humidity, or a drop of 3*5.5F=16.5F in low humidity). Up in the mountains at around 5000 ft the highs will drop to a balmy 33F – 44F (a drop of between 5*3.3F= 16.5F and 5*5.5F= 27.5F relative to Seattle)… Highs of 33-44F, that’s cold not cool, and we’re still talking about the high temperatures for the day, the peak afternoon temperatures, not the colder temperatures that will prevail for most of the day.

When they forecast a 90% chance of showers for the lowlands, take a peek at the radar maps and see what’s happening up in the mountains. Usually the clouds build up into a solid mass in the mountains so they can dump all of their excess rain there before getting to the much more arid eastern part of Washington. A lowland forecast of showers all day usually means a mountain forecast of rain all day… Just compare the annual rainfall for Seattle to the annual rainfall up in the mountains. Those mountains, they get very very wet. Not only is it colder and wetter in the mountains than it is at lower elevations, it also tends to be windier. So if you take the wind chill factor into consideration, the apparent temperatures up in the mountains are even colder.

According to the CDC, hypothermia can occur at temperatures above 40F if a person is wet (from sweat or rain), so I consider prolonged rainy weather with temperatures in the 40s to be hypothermia weather, and while on extended backpacking treks, I consider that to be ‘nasty weather.’ I know that the weather could always be worse (I’ve certain been through much worse) but is there any reason that I shouldn’t consider hypothermia weather to be nasty weather? Go ahead, enlighten me…

2) “Sounds like maybe your gear is inadequate.” Really? Really? Somehow because my definition of ‘nasty weather’ and yours differ, you come to the conclusion that my gear is inadequate? Perhaps you should ask what I have for gear before making a judgment about whether or not it is adequate. Let me share with you a partial list of the gear I have for dealing with cold, wet weather:

Most PCT thru-hikers would consider many of the items I carry to be overkill, but I don’t like to be cold and I pack accordingly. I’ve also had a lot of experience backpacking in cold, wet conditions. I’ve been backpacking in New England, rain or shine, ever since I was a kid, and my 2013 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was one of the wettest on record (it rained 50/60 days, and kept raining until I was more than 1000 miles into the trail)… My gear is more than adequate, and I have a lot of experience using it… Even though I am prepared to deal with endless days of rain, snow, sleet, and hail, I’d prefer not to.

3) “Maybe you’ve just been spoiled by the warm, dry summer we’re having this year.” Spoiled?! Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, but if someone’s been spoiled by the weather this year, I’m guessing that it was you, not me. When you’ve been out backpacking for five months straight you get a real up close and personal feel for the weather, and though I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice, warm, dry days this summer, I’ve also had my fair share of cold, wet, miserable days. For instance, last week I got clobbered with torrential downpours and hail three days in a row (they’d predicted 10%, 20%, and 0% chance of rain on those days, respectively)… Is that the warm, dry weather that you think has spoiled me? In case you’re wondering just how often I’ve gotten wet on my PCT thru-hike so far, here’s the list of days that I’ve noted measurable precipitation:

  • April- 1, 2, 4, 5, 11, 13, 18, 25.
  • May- 7, 8, 9, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24.
  • June- 2, 6, 14, 17, 25, 26.
  • July- 8, 11, 21, 22, 23, 29.
  • August – 10, 11, 12, 13, 19, 20, 23, 30, 31
  • September – 1, 2, 3 so far…

Sometimes the cold, wet weather comes with an incredible beauty of its own… The sounds of the forest change, and it can feel like the only things that exists in the world are you, the rain, the trees, and the occasional salamander… It can be incredibly peaceful. That said, most of the storms lately have come with a side of thunder, lightening, hail, fire, and flooding… For many of us hiking this year, the weather has felt more apocalyptic than peaceful… Hiking through Oregon the storms would come and we’d get wet, we’d get hailed on, and then the fires would start… As we headed further north, we got more torrential rains, rains that caused flash-flooding and killed a hiker the day that we were at Mount Hood… If anything, I would say that the weather this summer has traumatized us, not spoiled us… The good weather has been amazing, but the bad weather, it’s often been downright scary.

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Now that I’d written my rebuttal I felt a little better. I decided not to post it to the forum because it would just add fuel to the fire of crazy, and I was still hoping that someone might respond to my original question with something helpful. Starting a flame war wouldn’t be helpful, even if it did let me vent.

Eventually there were a couple more replies to my query, most of which were helpful and supportive. The next known trail angels were the Dinsmore’s. Unfortunately, they were too far away, I wouldn’t be able to get to them before the first set of storms hit. I looked at my maps and at Yogi’s guide and came up with a plan to deal with the upcoming storms. I decided that I would take a zero day (hike zero miles) and stay at the hotel in Snoqualmie Pass to wait out the first day of rain, and then the next day and I would hike out to Gold Myers Hot Springs in the rain… After that I hoped that the rain would let up, and I’d get at least one nice day before the rains set in again.

P.S. The weather ended up being cold and wet (as forecast), but the hot springs were absolutely amazing! I got there early in the day and had the entire hot spring to myself all afternoon… I relaxed in the hot water and enjoyed the company of the only other occupants of the cave, two bats. I watched them cuddling and grooming each other and decided that ‘bat TV’ was cute and highly entertaining… Eventually, when I got too hot, I’d dash through the cold rain and up to the little cool-off cabana (complete with a roof!! a very nice thing to have on a rainy day) where I’d eat a snack, drink some water, and watch the rain. ‘Rain TV’ wasn’t nearly as interesting as ‘bat TV,’ so when I got bored with the rain, or cooled off too much, I’d just head back into the hot springs in the cave… It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day (or two)!

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I Heard the Herd! (PCT Days 148-150)

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People are always asking me, “How is the PCT different from the AT? How is it the same?” It hasn’t been an easy question for me to answer. The question is too broad, the answers too many. There are millions of little differences between the trails that add up to big differences, but there are also millions of ways in which they are the same… On both trails there’s a lot of time between steps that you can spend thinking, and as I hiked through the woods of central Washington I found myself thinking about one of those millions of differences…

On the PCT almost all of the thru-hikers I’ve met have become trackers, we notice the tracks left by different people and animals on the trail… but on the AT, that didn’t happen very much (sure we could identify the occasional deer tracks, but that was about it). On the PCT, figuring the tracks on the trail in front of us was a required survival skill, and for most of us developing that skill wasn’t intentional… Back in the desert, hiking alone, I’d come to a fork in the trail and have to figure out which way the PCT went? The trails were rarely signed, and if there was a trail marker it was usually 30 feet before the confusing intersection, or 2 miles later. During that section of the trail whenever I saw a marker I thought, “Aha, there’s a confusing intersection ahead.” On the AT I knew that I could count on the white blazes (the AT trail markers) to lead me all the way from Georgia to Maine. The trail markers on the PCT were pretty decorations, but they definitely weren’t something that I could count on.

Instead of white blazes, all I had to go on were the footprints in the sand (my maps rarely showed the intersecting trails)… Which way were the thru-hikers in front of me going? Could I tell which footprints belonged to the thru-hikers following the PCT, and which footprints belonged to day-hikers following the side trails? At the beginning the answer was no… I had no idea which footprints belonged to whom, so I usually guessed that the trail most traveled was the PCT (not always the right answer, but better than 50/50 odds). Over time figuring out the footprints had become a game for me, a puzzle of sorts, that I would play to pass the time… Who/what was on the trail ahead of me? How long ago were they there? Was I catching up to it/them?

Now, over 2000 miles later, I could usually tell based on footprints alone whether or not the person ahead of me on the trail was a thru-hiker, and sometimes I could even tell which thru-hiker it was. The most recent set of footprints lingering on the dusty surface of the trail that morning were from a pair of Brooks Cascadia’s, the diamond shaped impressions in the forefoot and the series of parallel lines going down the instep gave them away immediately… If it were a perfect impression you’d be able to read the fine letters spelling out CASCADIA descending through the middle of the lines, but the impressions were rarely that good. As I hiked along my guessing game got more elaborate, what else could I figure out about the footprints and their owner? Hmmm… the footprints were big, probably a men’s size 12, but the distance between the footprints showed that a stride that was shorter than mine, so the person in front of me was probably a guy about 5 feet, 8 inches tall (maybe 5’9)… the stream of footprints showed a consistent, unwavering gait… no breaks, no stopping… Definitely a thru-hiker…and one who didn’t have any obvious knee, hip, or ankle injuries, so probably one of the younger guys… I thought about the thru-hikers that I knew that fit the description I’d developed, but no one came to mind…

It was strange to think that I was so effortlessly and carelessly tracking other thru-hikers as I walked… Most of the time I wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it… It’s just that there were always tracks there in front of me, and I couldn’t help but pay attention to them at some level… to register the differences… to try to solve the puzzle.  If the footprints in front of me were from Brooks Cascadia’s or Altras, and if they were at least a women’s size 10, they probably belonged to a thru-hiker. If they were smaller than that they were either from a section hiker or from Ghost or Wardrobe. If the tracks were from Merrel Moab Ventillators they could be section hikers or thru-hikers, but the thru-hikers in Moab’s were often previous AT hikers or from one of the older demographics… if the tread was from a heavier boot, it was almost guaranteed to be a section hiker… if the tread was from a trail runner and the gait suggested they were hiking, not running, it was probably a thru-hiker from one of the younger demographics… It was always fun if I caught up to the hiker/s later and found out how good my guesses had been.

On the AT I spent a lot of time focusing on the trail in front of me, but the rocks, roots, and forest floor of the east coast don’t capture human footprints as well or as often. Instead of having to pay close attention to the trail to figure out which way it went, on the East coast I had to pay close attention so I could navigate around all of the rocks… if you didn’t pay enough attention to the trail you’d end up getting a much better look at the rocks than you wanted (face plants are no fun!)… Over time, figuring out the best way to navigate through the rocks had become the game for me, the interesting puzzle I wanted to solve… It felt a little bit like going rockclimbing where you’re trying to figure out the best route… or like playing a video game like dance dance revolution… What is the best route through the rocks? How quickly can you navigate through them? On the AT I could watch someone hike through a boulder field and know right away whether or not they were a thru-hiker… Thru-hikers just moved differently… After 2000 miles of practice, we danced through the rocks in ways that no one else could… but we couldn’t track each other… not very easily… not very well, and when it did happen it was weird.

I’d had someone try to track me through the woods of the AT, and it had been unnerving at best. “Let me see the bottoms of your shoes,” the guy had demanded as he approached the campfire. I was sitting there relaxing with an older women I’d just met, and his demand seemed very strange. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’d run into the guy earlier that day and knew that he was planning on camping here, by the stream. He’d been very polite then, asking me if I was ok with him camping at the stream too since he knew that this was where I was planning on camping… It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time… Those conversations happen all of the time on the trail… I’d headed up the trail as he veered off the trail and over to a cafe for lunch and I hadn’t thought anything more about it. But now, 5 hours later, he was clearly very upset about something… the whole situation felt awkward.

“Why?” I asked, my posture stiffening as he approached. It clearly wasn’t the response he’d expected and he stopped to look at me quizzically. “So that I’ll be able to tell which footprints are yours and figure out which way you’ve gone when you’re ahead of me,” he responded grumpily, “I tried to figure out which way you’d gone earlier, but I wasn’t sure which footprints were yours.” This was not someone that I knew well, and the thought of him (or, frankly, anyone else) intentionally trying to track me was not a comfortable thought… The conversation, paired with his demeanor, was raising a lot of red flags for me… As I paused to think about how I wanted to handle this situation the older women spoke up, “That sounds like you’re trying to stalk her to me.” I had to admit, that’s how it had felt to me too… and why I thought that I needed to be very careful with the way I handled things.

He didn’t respond well to the not so thinly veiled accusation. His grumpiness shifted immediately into a self-righteous anger focused on the older women. How dare she accuse him of such a thing! He then angrily tried to explain to us that he wasn’t a stalker… that he just wanted to be able to follow my tracks in case he got lost etc etc etc… “I just call it like I see it and that sounds like stalking to me,” the older woman said shrugging. He paused, incredulous that he hadn’t changed her mind, violence brewing in his eyes. I took that time to excuse myself from the fire and head back to my tent. Even though it was early, the older woman followed my lead and did the same, leaving the guy, still fuming, to go set up his camp… I curled up in my sleeping bag, glad that the other women happened to be camping at that stream that night, and started drifting off to sleep.

Suddenly I heard a tap, tap, tap on the rainfly of my tent, “Patches, are you still awake? Can I talk to you for a second?” I unzipped the fly and looked out. The guy was crouched down in front of my tent, intent on talking to me. “Ok,” I said, a little bit hesitantly. He launched into an angry rant, explaining to me how outraged he was that the other women had accused him of being a stalker. The names he called her because she had the audacity to suggest that what he was doing was stalking would have made the heartiest of sailors blush. After he finished telling me exactly what he thought of the other women, he tried to reassure me that he was not a stalker, “If I was a stalker I wouldn’t have told you that I was trying to track you, I just would have done it,” he said. “You never even would have known that I was following you,” he continued. He went on and on with the descriptions of what he would have done if he’d actually been a stalker. He clearly did not understand that his position, at the only exit of my tent… with me essentially cornered, and his words, letting me know exactly what a stalker would do in his position, were less than reassuring. I was somewhat relieved but still feeling very disconcerted when he finally finished his rant and wandered off to bed…

As I continued hiking along the PCT I tried to figure out what was so different between what had happened on the AT, and what I was doing on the PCT. On the AT it had felt creepy, it had definitely felt like he was trying to stalk me… That, combined with some of his future actions, had kept me on edge whenever he was nearby. How was what I was doing different? Lots of PCT hikers knew what kind of shoes I wore, and could tell by my tracks that I was the person in front of them, but it didn’t feel awkward or weird out here… It just felt normal… Eventually, I decided that like many things in life, it’s not what you do, but how you do it that makes all the difference.

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Though most of the tracks we see on the PCT are from its human users, there is plenty of nonhuman traffic that makes its way up and down the trail. I turned my thoughts to cheerier things. Though the footprints of the Brooks Cascadias were the most recent human tracks, there were even fresher tracks on the trail… elk tracks.

The first elk I’d seen had been just south of Crater Lake… They’d confused me at first since I’d never seen an elk before. Is that a deer I asked myself… No, definitely too big to be a deer… Is it a moose? Nope, it had the wrong kind of antlers to be a moose… What would happen if a deer and moose loved each other very very much and raised a family together? I decided that that would definitely result in the half deer, half moose, that stood before me :) Though the thought entertained me, I eventually remembered that there were elk out here on the west coast and figured out that the large creature standing there must be an elk… Though I’d only seen one at first, when I startled it 8 more materialized from the woods before they careened off into the bushes never to be seen again.

In the last couple of days I’d run into a lot of people that had seen herds of elk on this stretch of the trail, but I hadn’t seen any yet. Their tracks were everywhere… their hoof prints were bigger than those of the mule deer (which I seemed to see all of the time) and sunk deeper into the mud… I studied the tracks as I walked… the tracks indicated that there was one walking in front of me for a while… and then blam… there were the tracks of a whole herd… Was the herd going up the hill? Down the hill? How old were the tracks? Could I spot the herd on the distant hillsides if I looked in the right direction? I could always tell if the herd’s tracks were fresh because they’d be accompanied by the faint smell of disturbed earth, and the overpowering smell of animal dung… It reminded me of hiking through the cow pastures in the desert. Lots of people weren’t filtering their water here in the cascades because it was so remote, but do herds of elk crapping in the water carry fewer pathogens than the herds of cows? I wasn’t going to bet my health on it!

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For days I saw signs of elk everywhere, but the elk themselves remained hidden from view. Was this going to be like Maine (at the end of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike) where I saw signs of moose everywhere and heard tales of moose encounters everyday, but never got to see a moose for myself? “There was a whole herd of elk at the basin this morning,” an approaching hiker told me gleefully, “but they’ve probably disappeared into the woods to find shade by now,” he continued. As I hiked through the basin he referred to I kept my eyes peeled… the meadows were idyllic, the views of Mount Rainier stellar, but the only wildlife I encountered were the ever vocal marmots.

Though the last section of trail had been spectacular, the section of trail I was approaching was rumored to be amongst the ugliest on the entire trail… it had been clear-cut and was criss-crossed by dozens of logging roads. I definitely wanted to camp in the nice, idyllic, protected portion of the trail, and not in the clear-cuts, so I decided to stop for the night at Ulrich Cabin. The cabin was in a beautiful spot, situated at the edge of Government Meadow, but it ended up being a little too crowded for me. Mostly it was the half dozen pack mules with bells around their necks that were shackled in the flat spots around the cabin that made me decide to keep on hiking. If I stayed there I imagined that the din from the bells would keep me up all night long.

Neither Halfmile’s nor Guthook’s apps listed any campsites within the next couple of miles, but I was hoping there would be a little spot that I could duck into after the trail crossed the next road… I didn’t want to go far, just far enough to get out of earshot of those bells. I hiked a little bit passed the road, but the cute little campsite I envisioned wasn’t there. The forest was densely wooded… filled with brush and boulders, and topped with a thick coating of moss… Not an easy area to create a new campsite in… I double checked my maps… It seem unlikely that there was going to be an awesome unlisted campsite anytime soon and it was starting to get dark… Hmmm… Where to camp? It was getting late and I didn’t want to find myself desperately searching for a campsite that might or might not exist after dark… especially since my guess was that I wasn’t going to find anything even halfway decent in the next couple of miles.

I ended up deciding to do something I’d never done before… I decided to turn around and hike half a mile back down the trail… back to a little spot I’d seen at the northern edge of Government Meadow. I hoped that it was far enough from the mules that their bells wouldn’t keep me up, and besides, it was a beautiful meadow and if elk were anything like moose, I figured they’d like this little meadow… Maybe I’d finally get to see my elk there. It felt very very weird to be hiking south though, even if it was just for a very short distance.

When I got back to the meadow I found the spot that I had in mind… It was just barely possible to get my tent fully pitched there without being in the middle of the trail, but it would  work, and it was much flatter than the spot I’d camped in the night before. As I cooked my dinner and lounged around eating it, I was glad I’d made the decision to turn back. The meadow was beautiful and full of sound… There was chirping and chittering, singing and hooting… Apparently the meadows are where the wildlife parties are! I tried to identify the sounds, a squirrel, an owl, a bunch of birds… The chirping I wasn’t sure about… it could be a bird, it could be a squirrel… strange that I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a mammal or bird, but either way, I’d found myself a great little spot.

As I was sitting there deep in contemplation I was surprised to see two people in flannel pajama bottoms and oversized T-shirts walking down the trail towards me… It was almost completely dark out and they didn’t have backpacks… What were they doing out there? As they got closer I recognized them as the guys from Ulrich Cabin… Apparently there was one spot 3 feet down the trail from me where, if you were just the right height, and squinted just right, you could get enough cell phone service to make a call, so every night they wandered down there to call their wives and let them know that they were still alive.

When they headed back to the cabin they stopped to say hi and I told them that I hoped to spot some elk while I was here at the meadow. “Well, now’s your chance, there’s one right there!” The guy facing the meadow had glanced up and sure enough, not more than 20 feet away, standing in the middle of the meadow, was an elk. All three of us silently turned to watch it graze. “They’re not usually solitary are they?” I asked. “No, the rest of the herd isn’t far,” one of the guys replied. I hoped they would all wander out into the meadow, it would be cool to see the whole herd.

elk

“Shhhh,” said the other guy and held up his hand, “Listen.” I didn’t take my eyes off of the cow, but I started to listen intently… the chirping I’d been hearing earlier… the cow was responding to it! As I watched, the cow turned it’s head to face the woods and made a lower, slower chirping sound back, but a chirp none the less. In response, there was another high pitch chirp. “Did you hear that? That was the baby elk talking to it’s momma,” he said, then paused to watch and wait for the mamma to reply, “and that, that’s the mom letting the baby know where she is.” I was fascinated as a whole new dimension of elk watching opened up to me. “The elk, they are the most vocal of the cervidae, or deer family. They’re always chattering amongst themselves.” The men in their pajamas were giving me lesson about elk, which was both awesome and completely unexpected! “Do you think we’ve scared the herd away,” I asked as the cow ambled back towards the woods, towards the place where the baby’s chirps had been coming from. “No, they bark, almost like a dog’s bark, when they sense danger… If we were scaring them away from the meadow we’d have heard them bark,” he said as he turned away and headed back to the cabin, “keep your eye on that meadow, they’ll probably be back.”

I continued to hear elk chirps in the distance as I prepared for bed, but I didn’t see anymore elk before the full dark of the night enveloped me… I figured I might have one more chance to see the herd, maybe they’d still be around and grazing in the meadow at dawn? At around 4:30 in the morning I awoke to a caucophony. It wasn’t yet dawn, but the herd of elk was definitely here, and by the sounds of it, they had found the shackled mules by the cabin and were causing trouble… It seemed like the elk were bugling almost constantly. I’d heard an occasional, solitary elk bugle a couple of times during the night, but this was incessant… I couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping through it, especially with the frantic ringing of the bells from the mules necks in the pauses between bugles. I peeked outside of my tent figuring that I might be willing to forgive the herd for waking me up if they would pose for an awesome picture, but light hadn’t even begun to tinge the morning sky yet.

I spend most my time on the trail taking in the amazing visual scenery, but this morning, as I waited for the sun to rise on what I hoped would be another amazing day, I snuggled back down into my sleeping bag and I just listened… I listened to the elk and the mules as they settled down, and then I listened to all of the other sounds of the meadow waking up on a late summer morning. What a spectacular auditory scene!

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