Smoky Mornings (PCT Days 130-133)

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“The smoke isn’t too bad,” a day hiker reassured me, “I’ve seen it much worse…” They let the sentence trail off as their gaze swept across the smoky haze, which darkened all of the distant peaks.

She was right, the smoke wasn’t too bad yet, but my lungs are the canaries in the coal mine, and they were already unhappy… Whenever anything messes with the air quality, my lungs let me know, and the smoke… it was definitely messing with the air quality and making them grumpy.

I tried to focus on the positives associated with the smoke… The spectacular sunrises and sunsets that seemed to last halfway through the day, and the blood red moon… The smoke made for some very memorable vistas, but there was no denying it, it came with some negatives… I was having to use my emergency inhaler again… Just once a day, but I could feel my lungs protesting against the smoke, and my body was getting tired more easily than it should, which was a classic sign that I wasn’t using my inhaler enough…

Before I got to Rockpile Lake (just south of Mt. Jefferson) I’d been able to wait until I hiked out of the smoke to pitch my tent at night, so I’d get to sleep in a low-smoke environment, but dark was fast approaching and the smoke still hung thick in the air as I set up camp for the night at Rockpile Lake. I wondered if I was going to need to sleep with my bandana on as a mask… I was already hiking with it as a mask during the day, and I hated it.

After I set up camp, I went down to the lake to get more water… Still pouting about the smoke, I waded two or three steps out into the lake to where the water was clearer and suddenly I was surrounded by water monsters! They were roughly nine inches long, and looked like a cross between a horny toad and a salamander… I forgot all about the smoke, my asthma, and my water, as I dashed back up to my tent and grabbed my camera… I didn’t know what they were, but they were definitely cool! (It turns out they are the Pacific Giant Salamanders in their larval stage). Eventually my hunger was overpowering, and I had to stop watching the salamanders so that I could get water and make dinner, but by then my nose had tuned out the smell of smoke, and I forgot all of my smoke-related woes.

I woke up the next morning with heavy lungs… I’d forgotten to sleep with my makeshift mask on. “It’s ok,” I reassured myself. I hadn’t taken my morning maintenance meds yet, they would help. I sat up and went through the normal routine… Take my meds (Advair, Flonase, Singulair, Zyrtec), pack up, and start hiking.

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As I headed up the trail I was greeted by an absolutely stunning sunrise (I was still glad to have the opportunity to enjoy some of the perks of the smoke) and an even thicker cloud of smoke than I’d encountered the day before… I decided that if I could smell the smoke I needed to use the odious bandana as a mask, especially since my nose still wasn’t working right.

As I continued northwards, the side trails to the right, and to the left of me were all closed due to the recent (and ongoing) wildfires in the Jefferson Wilderness Area… With the trails on both sides of me closed, I wondered why the PCT was still open? I supposed it was because the trail wasn’t on fire… That was a good thing. I wondered if they ever closed the PCT due to excessive smoke?

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A few minutes later the breeze picked up, maybe the smoke was gone? It looked like it should be a nice day, with the wind fluttering through the leaves of the trees… I didn’t need the mask, right? Unfortunately when I lifted the mask up I was overwhelmed by smoke… I couldn’t ditch it yet.

As the hours wore on my eyes burned, my throat burned, my lungs burned, and the inhaler wasn’t bringing me back to normal… My lungs were just progressively getting worse and worse. I wished that I could use the inhaler more often… Or that there was something else I could do…

I started to worry… I was in a section of the trail that had been reopened for weeks, where the wildfires were supposedly under control, but I was headed into an area with active fire closures… Would the smoke be even worse there? Would the smoke last for days? Would it last from here until I got passed the closure? Sh**!

My lungs could handle one day like this if I was careful, used my mask, used my inhaler, and took it easy… I could even manage the two days that it would take me to get to Ollalie Lake (the next place that I would hit civilization, and where the fire closure started)… But if it lasted longer than that I was going to have to make a decision… I would have to start taking prednisone so that I could walk through it, or I was going to have to hitch-hike north of the smoke. I didn’t like either option.

I had a sudden flashback to my last year at work… Wearing an uncomfortable mask all the time, struggling to breath, but forcing my body to fight through it… I’d had a goal, I’d had a dream, and I’d used prednisone to help force my body into letting me live that dream, but at what cost? I’d known that the only way I could truly get healthy was to walk away… to remove myself from the situation… to go find a different dream… but it was a heart-wrenching decision, and there was a whole lot of no fun along the way.

As I thought back on it, I knew that I couldn’t do that to myself again, not if I had a choice… I didn’t need to take the prednisone, I could solve the problem another way… I could hitch-hike past the smoke, but it felt like cheating, and I didn’t want to cheat… Knowingly heading into an incredibly smoky areas for days when you have asthma? That just wasn’t smart (even if I did start taking prednisone to keep my lungs in check).

If I’ve learned anything on these long distance hikes, I’ve learned that I have to respect my body and my health… If I do that I can always find other dreams or other ways of achieving my dreams… I still hoped that I wouldn’t have to make the decision, but I knew the decision I would make if it came to it… I would skip a section if I had to :(

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As the day wore on, the smoke showed no signs of clearing… It had been at least 20 miles of smoky, windy, plodding before I came around to the north side of Mount Jefferson and ran into a couple of southbound thru-hikers, “oh my gosh, where did all of this smoke come from?!” they exclaimed. “Did you come through a fire?” I explained to them that I hadn’t seen any flames, but that it had been really smoky for the last 20 or so miles. “Ah, that makes sense. We’d heard rumors that when the winds picked up this morning the fires broke through the lines and headed towards the ridge the PCT runs along.” It wasn’t exactly reassuring news, but at least I was done with that section now. “How much longer does it stay smoky like this?” I asked.

“We just rounded the corner and came into it, maybe 20 feet from here.” Just 20 more feet!!!!! I was overjoyed! I was beginning to think it was going stay smoky forever! Just 20 more feet and then I could ditch the stupid bandana mask, and my lungs would start getting happier… It wouldn’t be instantaneous, but, if there was no smoke, within a couple of hours I’d be able to breath normally again!

“How was the smoke over in the closure area and in the areas north of here?” I continued almost gleefully.

“This is the worst smoke we’ve encountered on the entire trail! The area by the closure wasn’t smoky at all, and we ducked the lines and went directly through the closure area. We didn’t do the 26 mile road walk.”

This was amazing news… The smoke wasn’t that bad north of here! I was going to be able to keep hiking! I wasn’t going to have to come to terms with skipping a section, I was going to be able to hike my hike :)

I was so happy I was almost bounced up the trail. I rounded the next corner and, sure enough, the smoke was gone. It seemed almost impossible… I’d been struggling with it all day, and most of the day before, but here I was, on the north side of Jefferson, and the smoke was gone!

It felt so good to be free of the smoke and of my mask that I made it to Jefferson Park early, and had to remind myself that my lungs hadn’t had enough time to recover yet… I had to take it slow (at least for the rest of the day).

As soon as I broke free of the crowds at Jefferson Park, I plunked down in the middle of a meadow and looked back at Mt. Jefferson. You could see the smoke billowing up and over both the east side of the mountain and the south side, but the winds were taking all of the smoke to the west. It was going to be a gorgeous sunset with all of that smoke on the horizon, but none of it was headed towards me, none of it was headed north.

With the promise of a spectacular sunset (and no predicted thunderstorms) I decided to try to camp up on Park ridge… I could probably make it all the way to Ollalie Lake, but that would be pushing myself pretty hard, and I needed to give my lungs a chance to recover… Besides, ridges are usually better than lakes for sunset views :)

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Where the PCT crossed over the top of the ridge there were some gorgeous campsites with phenomenal views of Mt. Jefferson, but none of them had good west facing views… They were awesome, but they weren’t perfect. Off to my left, however, was a tiny side trail that looked like it snaked its way off to the highest point on the ridge… The trail was unlabeled, and wasn’t on any of my maps, but I decided to check it out… Maybe the campsite of my dreams, with an amazing sunset view, was up there…

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The trail was definitely a bit of a scramble, and it skirted a couple of snow fields, but at the top was one perfect little campsite… It had a west-facing view of the foothills, mount Jefferson was due south of it, and the sun would rise over the snowfields in the east in the morning. It was still a couple of hours until sunset, but this was the perfect place to kick back, relax, and let my lungs recover!

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