Glacier: Snow What?! (CDT Day 145)

Glacier: Snow What?! (CDT Day 145)

Some of the brightest, pinkest clouds I’ve ever seen rolling up over the snow-capped mountains of Glacier National Park (Sunrise: September 25, 2018).

I’d seen the forecasts and I knew that winter was coming with a vengeance, but I’d hoped that an epic 29 – mile day would get me through Glacier ahead of the snow. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. These are the stories and photos from that day.

Journal Entry: CDT Day 145 (9/25/18): Mile 2936.6 (Morning Star) to 2964.9 (Reynolds): 29 miles, 2500’ up, 3600’ down. Epic!! Today was an epic 29 miles. Finally settling in @ midnight. I hate permit systems FYI. Freezing rain/snow last night. Drifts of 12-15” of snow in the pass. Breaking trail for the first 6 miles of the day. They removed all the suspension bridges to make life more interesting. Ran into a moose. Awesome foliage. Night hike waterfalls. Feet wet all day. Poor feetsies. Didn’t see anyone all day.

(Click here for: Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144))

Snow Day

“Brrrrrrrr…” It’s hard to get up and out of my warm, cozy sleeping bag when it’s soo cold outside, but a 29 – mile day in Glacier is bound to be epic, and an early start isn’t optional, so as soon as it started getting bright outside I was up and at it.

Although the sleet and freezing rain had kept on through most of the night, by morning it had stopped. Unfortunately, that meant that my tent was sopping wet and partially frozen as I packed it up. Nobody seems to talk about how cold your hands get when you’re trying to pack up a sopping wet tent in the early chill of the morning. Even with my gloves on, by the time the tent is packed my fingers are uncomfortable cold and by the time I hike out of camp they’ve become a bit numb and tingly.


Descending into the frosty cold valley as the pre-dawn light reveals the first hints of color of the day.

As I descend into the valley, the temperature plummets. The cold night air has sunk into the valley, trapped by there by the beautifully rugged peaks I so admired yesterday afternoon. It’ll be hours before the sun rises above the mountains and warms this valley. Though my layers are mostly keeping me warm, my feet are cold. It was amazing how quickly they’d gotten so cold. They’d been toasty warm all night and had maintained their warmth in the morning as I started hiking, but now they were cold. Very cold. They were cold and they hurt. “Suck it up, buttercup” I mumbled to myself in a war of wills, trying to force mind over matter. They’ll warm up, they always do, I tried to console myself, but my feet were still cold.

Thank goodness for small favors, at least the slushy mess of the trail from last night has frozen into a blessedly solid mass, so my feet remain dry.

The sky was getting brighter and brighter and the clouds began to turn pink with beautiful colors of dawn and the impending sunrise. It really was quite a gorgeous sight, watching the clouds fill with color over the magnificent peaks of Glacier, met by an even more impressive show of fall foliage on the ground. The colors were truly spectacular.


Color above and color below, what a way to start the day!!

I continued through the valley, spotting mountain goats on the rocky slopes around me as the sun continued to rise and hit the peaks of the mountain tops around me. My feet were cold. Yup, still cold, and it was looking like it might be a while before the sun reached me in the valley I was walking across. My feet were definitely uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough that I started wondering what, if anything, I could do about it. Could I warm them up somehow?

I suddenly remembered the pack of 4 toe-warmers that I’d brought with me. Surely those would warm my toes up. Since they’re not a renewable resource, I wanted to use them wisely, and in general thought of them as a fail-safe in case of emergency. I rationalized that I would be out of the woods the following night, and had two sets, and they had the potential to eliminate the misery I was in in that moment. Besides, I had 2 sets so I could use the remaining set if I ended up in an emergency later.

I sat down, pulled them out, and activated them, while rubbing my feet to try to warm them up a bit. To my extreme disappointment, the toe-warmers didn’t get warm ☹. “Surely, they’ll warm up eventually,” I hoped, but hope was not enough, and they remained cold. I uttered a few choice words and looked at the packaging more closely.

Grumble, grumble mother-f***ing grumble! The store in East Glacier had sold me toe-warmers that were 6 months passed their sell by date. I let out an exasperated sigh. Now I was grumpy, angry, cold, and my feet still hurt.


Deep oranges and reds lined the trail as I headed back up towards Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park.

Ok, so one set were duds. That was ok, I had another set. Future emergency be damned, my feet were cold NOW. I pulled them out, activated them, and waited. Nothing. NO warmth, nothing. *sigh* I looked at the date and sure enough, they were passed their date as well. Ever hopeful that I was just being too impatient, I inserted them into my shoes and hoped against hope that they would eventually provide my poor toes some warmth. As I laced my shoes back  up I grumbled about the store and the toe warmers, and the extra ounces that I’d carried and would have to continue carrying with absolutely no benefit to me…

Heavy little cold bricks of iron dust, grumble, grumble, grumble… Sigh. My feet would eventually get warm with or without their help (usually on the downhill, since they always remained cold for the uphill). Unfortunately, I had quite a bit of uphill to go (to get up to Triple Divide Pass) before my feet would be warmed by the downhill. My feet remained cold for the next half hour to hour, and eventually I stopped and pulled the dumb, cold, foot-warmers out of my shoes because they we causing my feet to rub uncomfortably towards blisters.


Snow above and elk below, just 25 miles to go!

Eventually the sun began to rise above the mountains and my spirits began to rise too. The low angle light hit the peaks in front of me, and I climbed up the valley to meet it, and bask in the sun’s light. The moment I met the sun, I stopped and luxuriated in its warmth. Bathed in light, the bright colors of the fall foliage popped out of the landscape all around me. Snow glittered above me, the brush was aflame with reds, yellows, and gold, and there in the light green meadow below I watched two bull elk with large racks lock heads, putting on a show for a herd a short distance above. They strutted and postured, retreated and fought each other again, like gladiators in an arena, putting on a show for me (and the other elk present). Their sounds echoed up the valley to my ears, the only noise breaking the early morning stillness. My grumpiness faded away, replaced with awe at the beauty of the place I was in. IT was phenomenal.


The view of Medicine Grizzly Lake looking back at the trail behind me and the valley below. It was absolutely breathtaking

The snow deepened as I got closer to the pass, and the color faded from the trail above me, replaced with the muted colors of rock and snow. It looked like their was 4-6 inches of freshly fallen snow. Step by step I made my way up towards the Triple Divide Pass. It was absolutely beautiful, but with a 29 – mile day ahead of me, and freezing cold temps, I moved relatively quickly.


Triple Divide Peak and Norris Mountain looming above me as I hiked higher and higher up into the snow.

It was slower going than I hoped, but I decided that I might as well enjoy it. I stopped, put down my pack, and flopped into the snow to make a snow angel. I laughed at myself as I did it. It was ridiculous, and hilarious. Here I was hiking a 29-mile day on the CDT. A bad-ass thru-hiker, soon to be triple crowner, all alone in the wilderness, stopping to play in the snow. Whatever! YOLO, and sooo much snow!


Stopping to make a snow angel on my way up to Triple Divide Pass

As I lay there expending precious calories creating an angel on the CDT, I reflected on all of the amazing trail angels that had helped me on this hike, and on my other thru-hikes. I wished there was a way that I could give something back to them, to let them know how much they meant to me. Maybe I could share my snow-angel picture with them and tell them with a picture as well as words.

I reluctantly stood up, looked at my angel, and kept hiking. I had many miles to go before I slept! I hiked higher and higher until I got to the pass. It had taken much longer than I’d hoped because of the snow, but most of the rest of the days hike would be downhill, which would be much faster. I ate a snack, made another snow angel or two, then began my descent 😊


Stopping to make another snow angel at the top of Triple Divide Pass

The descent was much, much slower. On the Northeast side of the pass the snow had blown into drifts that were 2 feet deep and not even the faintest outline of trail existed. Soo much snow! I pushed my way through it, frequently wading through snow up to my knees. I could see the snowline below me, and I knew that once I descended far enough into the valley I would eventually get out of the snow and enter a world of golden aspens and a nice clear trail. Eventually. Yes, eventually that would happen.


Breaking trail through deceptively deep snow drifts with an awesome view of Spirit Mountain and the valley below.

As my thoughts turned hopeful, I reach the next switchback, only obvious because the snow depth instantly went from 18 inches to 36 inches. I grumbled, suddenly up to my hips in snow, and took the switchback… the drifts had blown so much that the switchbacks were consistently filled with at least a foot more snow than the surrounding trail. Who knew that entering deeper snowdrifts would be the consistent indicator for me that the trail was turning.


Descending towards the snow line and into the gorgeous valley below

The instant I descended below the snowline I stopped for a break on a set of dark gray cliffs. I rested there a moment, soaking in the sun, and drying out my shoes, insoles, sock, jacket and tent. “My pack will be sooo much lighter once I stop carrying this extra water,” I beamed.


At long last I was out of the snow, admiring Spirit Mountain, and enjoying the foliage.

Below the snowline the foliage exploded into color: golden aspens as far as the eye could see, and red huckleberry bushes blazing the path of the CDT. The colors were insanely gorgeous as they formed their gradients of yellow and red. The base of the cliffs surrounding me were full of mountain goats, grazing and leaping around.


Mountain goats were scattered near the bases of all the cliffs

And OMG the waterfalls cascading off of the cliffs and into the brightly colored valleys below were spectacular. I took hundreds of pictures, astounded as I was with the epic beauty of the scenery on this epic day of hiking.


A waterfall cascading through the cliffs and into the colorful valley below

“Crash! Crash!” A noise thundered in the bushes beside me. My pulse quickened, as I realized that a large animal was in the brush beside me. Moose or Bear? Moose or Bear? I wandered.

“Hello,” I announced, in a loud, firm voice. The ground beneath my feet vibrated as the large animal moved a few paces away from me. I let out my breath. A moose, not a grizzly. A big enough moose that it caused the earth to shake with each footfall.


Mr. Moose eyeing me from the bushes.

“Sorry buddy,” I apologized as I continued down the trail, spying him in the brush about 6 feet away. “The foliage is pretty awesome, isn’t it,” I continued conversationally since he was the only living creature I’d been close enough to talk to all day. I snapped a quick picture and continued down the trail as he crashed a few more paces away from me into the brush. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” I assured him as he stared at me and I continued on my way.


Saskatoon berries nestled among the colorful foliage of the CDT and the well tread path to easier terrain.

The sun was bright and beautiful, and both the trail and the afternoon seemed to go by quickly as I descended into the burn zone below. It was rather sad and dreary compared to the beauty of the mountains I was descending from. Though the trail was good and easy to follow, I faced a new obstacle. IT was late enough in the season that the rangers had come through and dismantled the suspension bridges that normally cross the rivers and creeks along the trail.

“SIGH.” Ok, it was a really loud sigh, but that was only because the water was REALLY, REALLY cold ☹ The first time the suspension bridge faked me out. I thought it was probably pulled, so I went to cross the stream at a shallow spot, but when I got there it looked like the bridge might still be up, so I bushwhacked over to it since it’s cables were still strung across the water. But, no dice. The cables were up, but the wooden boards were stacked in a nice, neat pile on the far side of the water. This was a horrible place to cross on foot, and I didn’t want to have to backtrack… I wonder if I can just cross on the cables?


Do I really need the wooden planks to cross? Yeah, yeah I do. #NoDying

I climbed the stairs to where the cables crossed the stream, suspended 3 to 5 feet above the water. Maybe? My feet were finally warm and I didn’t want to have to submerge them in the frigid water and make them cold again. I put my hands on the upper wire, and tentatively placed on foot on the lower wire… Maybe? I thought as I weighted the foot. I was confident that the wire would support my weight. Carefully holding the upper wire with both hands, I moved my second foot from the safety and support of the bridge platform and onto the lower wire. My body swayed left & right, and the wire on the bottom bounced up and down in a very unsettling way. I waited a moment to see if things stabilized and it sort of did. I tried to inch my weight a smidge along the wire, but the instability was ridiculous.

Yup, Stupid. It would be really, really stupid to try to cross along the wires. #nodying I reminded myself, and then I  retreated back to the solid and not wobbling base of the suspension bridge. Grumble, grumble. Having all the boards just piled up, lying there on the other side, seemed like they were adding insult to injury. “If they wanted to protect the boards for the winter they could have at least hauled them away,” I frumped.


Bridges are over-rated. Sometimes you just need to get your feet wet.

I made my way back to the safe crossing spot, took my shoes off, crossed, put them back on and headed down the trail again. Before long I came to another suspension bridge with the bridge removed. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Normally I just tromp right through with my boots on, but my feet had been so cold that I wanted to keep them dry so I stopped and switched to my camp shoes for each stop. Killing time each time. I looked at my map. There was absolutely no way I was going to get to my permitted campsite before dark. My level of grumpiness suggested that it would be a good idea to stop at next campsite and eat an early dinner. Besides, it’s always nice to eat dinner while it’s still warm and sunny, and I should be able to make the last river crossing before dark, which is always important.


Plenty of solitude, a sunny spot to eat dinner, a privvy, and a view. What more could a hiker ask for?

I stopped to eat at around 5 and took advantage of the break to finish drying out my tent in the afternoon sun, and to try to dry out my shoes and insoles, which were still wet from the snow. The food in my belly felt good and I set off with renewed energy, after making a quick stop to get water. The lake was pretty, but the burn zone was sad. The landscape, gray, dull, and dead. Eventually, after what felt like forever, I spotted the most golden copse of aspens I’d ever seen. They seemed to be twinkling in the golden-hour sun, giving them an almost magical air.


Golden fall foliage and golden-hour light made for a magical combination

I crossed the final river crossing, not even bothering to change into my camp-shoes in my race against the dark. I scurried up the bank on the far side. There were fewer aspens, but the underbrush had an amazing medley of fall foliage colors, spectacular in every way. In places the reds, oranges, and yellows made the trail come alive with the colors of fire, but without the smoke and trauma of the real fires. I moved quickly, trying to get as far as I possibly could before losing the last light of the sun. I was also hoping that I might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the sunset hidden from me by the mountains to the West.


The final river crossing of the day.

As I rounded the corner of the East End of St. Mary Lake the sun was getting low on the horizon. I still had more than 10 miles to go to get to camp, and any illusion I may have had about getting to camp before sunset or anywhere near sunset, completely disintegrated. It just wasn’t going to happen, but I kept moving fast, pretending it might be possible to get to the site my permit had assigned to me before it got too insanely late…

I dipped in and out of the trees along the lake as the light grew dimmer and dimmer, it was starting to look like the sun was going to set behind the mountains without giving me any good views of it. I was feeling a little bit bummed as I dipped into a thicker section of woods figuring that I wasn’t going to get much of a sunset view when I rounded the corner, and much to my surprise was greeted by one of the most spectacular displays of sunset colors I’ve even seen. The crisp gray mountains stood in stark relief against a fluorescent pink sky. It was gorgeous, it was beautiful, and it was breath-taking. I stopped and stood there, alone, in the middle of the trail appreciating it.

“Totally worth it!” I smiled, knowing that I had hours of night-hiking ahead of me, but I didn’t care. if I’d had any kind of sane hiking plan for the day I would have missed this sunset, and this sunset, was worth the challenges I’d already faced that day, as well as those that lay ahead of me for the evening. Totally.


The camera didn’t do it justice. It was absolutely incredible

My pace was a little frenetic after that. I would speed through the areas shaded with trees, and slow way, way down for the lakeside views with their awesome displays of color until the last of the pinks slowly faded from the sky and darkness settled in.

I had many miles and hours of hiking in the dark to go, but I was a very happy hiker.

Into the Darkness

The darkness was thick and beautiful in its own right as I hiked beside the cold, windy lake. My awesome headlamp provided me with a wide swath of visibility against the darkness and I kept hiking, quickly, but carefully into the night, hoping that maybe I’d make it to my campsite by 10 pm. I hustled, but the trail was overgrown with brush (maybe cloudberries ?) and seemed to have had little traffic on it this year, except perhaps from horses early in the season, which had eroded holes into the trail at awkward and unpredictable intervals. I had to stay very focused on the trail to avoid spraining my ankle in any of those, or worse, tripping and rolling down the very, very steep embankment to my right.

The trail rose, climbed, and fell, and the solitude of my existence followed me with each step… it mostly feeling very fitting. Hiking in the dark creates a sense of isolation, but also narrows your attention and forces you to focus on a much smaller area and range of things… I looked for signs of bear (grizzly), moose, or elk, but didn’t see anything. Even still, I sang as I hiked to warn any and all nighttime creatures of my imminent arrival. After a few miles of rather contented night-hiking, I was tired and starting to get grumpy. I was on edge as I hiked through the dark along the edge of the forest, the edge of the lake, the edge of a cliff.


Navigating steep drop offs near Saint Mary Lake by the light of my head lamp

“Friggin permit system!” I grumbled into the darkness. “If I wasn’t in Glacier, I would have stopped and found a place to camp for the night hours ago,” I huffed, before channeling the impetuous voice of my teenage self, “But No-o-oo, I can only camp at the designated site on my permit in Glacier, even if it is STUPID.” I then blurted out the reasons why it was stupid that I had to keep hiking: “Hiking alone on the edges of cliffs at night is STUPID! Night-hiking alone in grizzly country is STUPID! It’s STUPID that the park system is making me doing something that I think is UNSAFE! It’s UNSAFE and its STUPID…”

I’d allowed myself to whine and have a little self-pity party because I was exhausted and needed to vent even if no one was listening, but was I actually putting myself and my safety at risk because of the permit system? It was a sobering thought. The short answer was YES, which is why I was feeling so grumpy about it. In general, I feel that solo night-hiking is taking unnecessary risks, and those risks outweigh the potential benefits. In fact, the only other time I’d only stayed up hiking solo this late after dark was in Yosemite trying to get to the campsite designated on my permit there. Both then and now I was solo night-hiking in grizzly territory and was well outside my comfort zone.

Was it unsafe for me to continue? Would it be safer to me to break the rules, and find a place to camp now? I stopped in the middle of the trail and thought about it. The SMART thing to do would have been to camp at Red Eagle Lake when I got there at 5, but realistically, even without the constraints of the permit system I probably wouldn’t have camped there because I got there too early. I’d known I would. It was a Goldilocks problem, Red Eagle Lake Campsite had been too close, and Reynolds Creek Campsite was too far, but there were no Campsites that were just right, and I wasn’t allowed to make up my own. So my decision in advance, and also when I decided to leave Red Eagle Lake after dinner a few hours before had been to push on to Reynolds Creek. Under normal conditions, I would have made it to Reynolds Creek by dark, but the snow had slowed me down and worm me out a lot more that I’d realized or thought it would.


Waterfalls cascading down by the trail at night.

“Answer the question,” I reminded myself, “Should I keep going, or should I try to find a place to stealth (camp) as soon as possible.” Stopping as soon as possible seemed like a really good plan, and if there had been a designated campsite with a bear cable between where I was and the sites at Reynolds Creek I absolutely would have camped there, but that wasn’t an option. The hillside I was traversing along the lake wasn’t particularly conducive to stealth camping and wildlife (including grizzlies) in National Parks more notoriously more problematic than anywhere else. Ultimately, I decided my best bet was to continue on to my designated campsite.

I stopped at a Falls along the lake to get water. Getting water from waterfalls makes me illogically happy, so on a long exhausting day it was worth it to pause and find a reason to smile and try to pull myself out of the funk I’d been. It felt cozy and peaceful there, but I wanted to keep moving. “No,” I reminded myself, “you have to eat!” I was tired and didn’t want to eat my snack bar, but I knew I was hungry, and with good reason. Logically I knew that I was super low on calories. It was cold and I was burning lots of calories, so I had to eat. I forced the snack bar down, before allowing myself to leave the spot.

Sure enough, by the time I got to the next waterfall my blood sugar was clearly up, and I was feeling better. The waterfall was beautifully framed in the darkness of night. It was at this point that I finally managed to embrace the night.


Stopping to eat a snack and photographs waterfalls in the middle of the night

“Screw it,” I exclaimed to the darkness, it was so late there was absolutely zero chance that I’d get to camp anywhere near a reasonable hour, so I finally decided to slow down and just enjoy the night. Fully embracing this new attitude, I pulled out my camera and tried to get some night pictures of the falls.

“Click,” I pushed the button on 10 second timer after setting my camera on its rock tripod. I ate a snack and waited for the 30 second exposure and then the processing time, and then looked at my creation. It wasn’t quite right, so I tried again… and again… Eventually I got something that looked cool and headed non-chalantly to the next waterfall. The path was much clearer and nicer through here, during daylight hours it looked like it would have had lots of tourists, but long after dark, I had the area to myself.

From that point on I made my way, slowly, but surely, along the trail from waterfall to waterfall, each one more gorgeous than the last. I set up my camera on a rock, and went through the process of photographing it. But this time I ate one of my packets of almond butter while I waited for the extremely slow shutter time. Oops, not quite… naw, not that one, until finally I got one that seemed ok.

Saint Mary Falls was thunderously loud, and amazingly beautiful framed in the light of my headlamp, with the stars above. I looked off into the distance across St. Mary Lake, and wondered what the source of light pollution coming from behind it was… it seemed odd since I hadn’t noticed it earlier. I finished taking pictures and hiked a few more steps before I realized that that light was the moon.


Saint Mary’s Falls was beautiful in the glow of my headlamp with stars twinkling above

I paused, wondering how long it would be before I lost the beautiful stars and the milky way to the epicly bright moon rising up through the mountains behind me. It was still below the mountains and I suppose it was just a hypothesis that it was the moon, and in that moment realized that I was missing a glove. What? How’d that happen? Oh yeah, I didn’t have my hiking poles anymore either… oops… I was definitely tired. I’d left them on the bridge where I’d photographed the waterfall. Luckily, I hadn’t gone that far before I realized my mistake, so I trotted back and got them. Yikes. Gloves in hand, and chopping down some trail mix, I set off down the trail again.

“Wait, What?!” I stopped, and there in the middle of the trail was a toad staring up at me. “Hi, Mr. Toad, what are you doing here?” I asked. I hadn’t seen many amphibians on my CDT thru-hike (probably due to the severe lack of water), but all the ones I had seen, I’d seen at night. I stopped, crouched down, and looked more closely at it. It was beautiful, with big, deep, black eyes. I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo or two before carefully stepping around it and continuing on my way.


A friendly toad sitting in the middle of the trail just North of St. Mary Falls

“Ugh,” I was suddenly feeling very, very tired. “Maybe I could just camp here, in the middle of the trail,” I muttered as I slogged down the wet and muddy trail. I was getting so, so close, but I was soo so tired. I pulled out my tropical fruit mix, shoving handfuls into my mouth hoping to fuel my body to power through the last little bit. “Munch, munch, munch,” I paused to swallow and look behind me. Still no moon. I kept walking.

“Munch, munch, munch,” how about now? I stopped looked behind me. Still no moon.

“Munch, munch, munch,” ah, I smiled, there it is 😊 It peeked an edge up from behind the mountain. How quickly will it rise? I wondered, staring at it intently. Hmmm, too slow to justify stopping and watching it rise all the way up.

Only ½ a mile to go, “munch, munch, munch,”… only 1/3 a mile to go, “munch, munch, munch,” oooh, the moon is risen, “munch, munch, munch,” only ¼ mile to go. “You can do it!!” I encouraged myself, out of trail mix and really pushing myself to keep going. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I found myself at the sign for my campsite.


The moon rising up over the mountains behind me as I finished hiking the last couple of miles.

“Oh no,” I mumbled, seeing the base and cables of a suspension bridge between me and the campsite I had a permit to sleep in that night. My heart sank since every single suspension bridge I’d come to so far had been dismantled. It was almost midnight and I DID NOT want to do a stream/river crossing now. Nothing and no one had said anything about a suspension bridge here. I frowned, shoulders slumping as I approached the bridge, hoping against hope it was there, but not believing it would be.

I climbed the stairs, and breathed a sigh of relief. The bridge, the bridge was there and waiting for me 😊 I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude and bounced my way across the bouncy, bouncy suspension bridge full of joy and relief. I was here! I’d made it my designated campsite.


A photo of the suspension bridge crossing the river from the trail to the campsite that I took the following morning (September 26, 2018)

Exhausted I walked over to the bear-hang area, pulled out my food-bag, and grabbed a Milky Way. I sat on a nearby stump, pack off, staring at the bear hang wire above me as my mouth filled with rich chocolatey goodness. It was still frozen from the night before and rather chewy, but oh so good. As I finished the last crumbs, I put the wrapper into my food bag, and threw my bear rope up over the high wire. “Yes!!” I smiled, sugar beginning to course through my veins, I got it on the first try.

After stringing up my bear-bag I hefted my pack onto my back and headed for the closest campsite. I was tired and wanted to be done walking ASAP, but there, in the middle of the campsite was a pile of fresh bear poop.

Well, it’s black bear poop not grizzly, so there’s that at least. Still, I wasn’t going to camp there. “This,” I grumbled, “this is another thing that sucks about the permit system.” I grumbled turning to leave, and spotted a freshly mawed ptarmigan carcass. “Great,” I sighed, “just what I need,” signs of black bear + a predator I just startled off mid-meal, all in this campsite.

“This,” I mumbled, “this is why I don’t camp by rivers.” Wildlife tends to congregate by rivers, which is great for wildlife sighting, but less so for a peaceful night’s sleep. If I wasn’t in the National Park I would have hiked to a spot at least ¼ mile away from this evidence of active bear and predator activity, but here, that wasn’t allowed, and my best option was to choose whatever campsite was furthest from this one, and furthest from the water. I circled the area and settled for one with a much better strategic location. A small tree had fallen across it, but after verifying that there wasn’t any animal sign around, I moved the tree out of the site, and pitched my tent.

As I prepared to curl up for the night, the moon had risen, and I enjoyed the sound of the water and the gently swaying trees… This might be my last night on the trail I realized as I crawled into my tent. I checked the time, and it was just after midnight. “I made it,” I thought rather incredulously. My 29-mile day through a snow-covered Glacier National Park was done, and I just had a couple days of hiking before my CDT journey was over. Unbelievable.

I Heard the Herd! (PCT Days 148-150)


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.


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!


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.


“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!