Fiery Temper (PCT Days 132-134)

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“Really?! You’ve got to be kidding me! A campfire?!!” There was no hiding my disbelief. I was at PCT mile 2067 on the Warm Springs Reservation, a section of the trail that had been closed due to wildfires until today, and these two backpackers were having themselves a nice big backcountry campfire, miles away from the nearest water source. I just couldn’t believe it!

The wildfire just a couple of miles south of us was still smoldering, and I was tired of having to breath smoke and watch as our forests burned… Being caught in the woods during a wildfire is a terrifying experience… You feel so powerless in the face of fire… You have no control over how fast it burns, how big it gets, where it goes…

Yet here was fire in the woods, fire that didn’t have to be there… That was created by humans, and that humans controlled (at least for now). The evidence of what would happen if they lost control of their fire was all around us…

A few minutes earlier I had approached a couple of southbound hikers to ask them about the still smoldering fire at mile 2065. “Hi, are you guys from around here?” I’d asked. “Well, we’re from Eugene, does that count?” Yes, that definitely counted. I told them that I was from the east coast and not very familiar with this whole fire thing. “Should I be worried that a six foot by six foot patch of the forest is still smoldering?” I asked. “It’s within the fire lines.” They assured me that that was pretty common, when the fire gets into the root system it can take months to burn itself out.

We then had the usual backpacker conversation about whether or not I was going to stay there or press on. They were both going to stay, and I was going to continue on. “There aren’t that many places to camp coming up… “There are some nice flat spots way down by the river,” said one of the guys, “and about a quarter mile down there’s a couple camped in the Cadillac of campsites, with a campfire.”

“A campfire?” I asked incredulously. They then launched into the story of how they’d smelled smoke and prepared themselves for more wildfire, but found these backpackers with a campfire instead, and how they hadn’t seen anyone out here during wildfire season with a campfire, not in the last 25 years!

“Did you rip them a new one?” I asked. “No,” they replied, they had just stared in disbelief and kept walking… Who starts a campfire in a section of the backcountry that had been closed due to wildfires until the previous day? It was pretty hard to believe.

“Well, I think I’ll have a little chat with them,” I said as I headed down the trail. “If we hear a ruckus down there we’ll come and back you up,” they offered as they resumed setting up their camp.

I wondered why those two burly guys hadn’t said anything to the folks with the campfire. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need anyone to back me up when I confronted the campers about their fire… I just knew that I had to say something…

At some level the PCT feels like it’s my home, my trail, and someone was doing something that endangered the trail and everyone on it… I had to say something because somebody had to say something, and because those guys hadn’t.

I didn’t really believe that anybody was actually stupid enough to have a campfire there until I rounded the corner, smelled the smoke, and saw the fire. The two guys hadn’t been joshing me… It was 85 degrees out, we were in an active wildfire zone, and this couple of yahoos had a raging campfire that looked like it was about to escape it’s fire pit… My jaw dropped in disbelief.

“Really?! You’ve got to be kidding me! A campfire?!!” I said in my out loud voice as I approached the couple.

“Yeah, it’s great isn’t it,” the woman replied. “It was just such a perfect spot, and someone had already laid out all of the fuels, so we just had to!” She smiled.

I’m not sure what I’d expected to hear, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it. How was I going to handle this? They had no idea that they were doing anything wrong, and here I was, getting ready to burst their bubble. I reminded myself that there are things called tact and grace, and that sometimes it’s good to use them…

“You know, with wildfires still smoldering less than a mile or two away, a campfire might not be a good idea,” I said, trying to maintain a friendly tone.

“That’s a good point,” they replied, they’re relaxed position staring into their fire remained unchanged… They were doing a northbound section hike up to Cascade Locks, and had just walked through the same burn zone I had… How could their attitude about fire be so blasé?

“Well,” I continued, “you should be really careful, the reason why this trail was closed until today was because 27,000 acres burned, and it took them months to get it under control.” At this point the guy stood up and went over to poke at the fire. “Also, I’m pretty sure that since it’s fire season (and half the state is on fire) you could get in trouble for having a fire out here.”

“Well don’t you worry. I going to have a nice big drink and then I’m going to wee on it,” said the guy standing by the fire. At first I was a bit confused, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a conversation between adults involving the word ‘wee’. It took me a minute to parse the sentence and realize that his plan was to take a big swig of water and piss all over their campfire. I just stared at him for a moment in disbelief.

“He’s really going to do it,” his partner said to me while I was still parsing his statement, “You really don’t want to stick around and watch.” She was absolutely right, I didn’t want to stick around and watch… I didn’t want to stick around at all… I didn’t want to smell what would result from his pissing on the fire, and I didn’t want to camp anywhere near them.

I’d done what I needed to do, I’d made my point, and they were going to try to put out their campfire… I hoped that they would succeed, even if their methods were questionable…

As I walked away I heard the distinct sizzle of piss on fire… I didn’t turn back, I just kept walking… Eventually (about five miles later) I found a nice lush section of forest near plenty of water and pitched my tent… I appreciated the solitude… There was still a chance that the thunderstorms rolling through that night would start more fires, but at least those would be acts of God, and not acts of human stupidity!

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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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Where there’s smoke… (PCT Days 95-97)

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As I hiked up the hill leaving Baum Lake I started smelling smoke… It smelled like campfire smoke. Who in the world would have a campfire when the temperatures were in the 90s in July in Northern California during a drought? Didn’t they know that this place is just primed and ready to burn! Over the course of the next half mile or so the smell of smoke got stronger and I got grumpier. I was preparing to give the campers with the fire a stern talking to, whoever they were.

As I approached the crest of the hill I started to see smoke, but no signs of people anywhere! As I got even closer I saw plumes of smoke rising out of the bushes about five feet to the left of the trail. I leaned my hiking poles up against a nearby tree and then pushed through the bushes to check it out. This was not good… Not good at all!

There was a patch of ground covered with forest debris that was smoldering… It looked almost like the coals of a campfire that someone had tried to kick to break up, but more dispersed, and definitely no signs of a campsite… This was something different… Something that I’d never encountered in the woods before… It was an unintentional fire of some kind.

It was a patch of earth roughly 3 feet long and 3 feet wide with a dozen or so charred/smoking sticks and piles of leaves in it… There were no open flames, and it wasn’t spreading quickly. I tried to kick dirt over one of the small smoking piles and then tried stepping on it to put it out, but that didn’t come even close to subduing the smoke. This was going to require more water than I had, and more water than I could easily get. I needed help dealing with this thing. It was still so small that it didn’t seem like it warranted panicking (at least not yet), but it was Northern California, in a heat wave, in a drought… This thing needed to be contained and soon.

It looked like there was a road just up the hill from me and I thought I heard some kind of vehicle up there and maybe a radio. I called out, “hey, there’s a fire down here, is anybody up there?” But I didn’t hear a response so I started bushwhacking up the hill towards the road to find help as I pulled out my phone. My friend hotshot would know what I should do, so I tried calling her… I was pretty sure she’d just tell me to call 911 and get the fire department out there… She didn’t answer… 911 was next on my list…

As I got to what I thought was the road, I instead found a bunch of bulldozer tracks criss-crossed with fire hoses. A fire hose was exactly what I needed!! Well, that and somebody that knew how to use it! I heard another radio squelch… The fire department was already here, somewhere nearby… I just needed to find them.

As I starting walking towards the squelch I saw a very happy sight indeed, a fireman turning the corner and walking towards me with what looked to be another thru-hiker by his side. “There’s a patch of the forest smoldering by the trail,” I exclaimed.

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He nodded, “are there any flames yet?” I replied, “no, not yet… Just charring and smoking.” As I led the way back down to the scorched, smoking earth, the fireman explained to us that there had been a fire in the area yesterday that burned 68 of the adjacent acres, so this was probably just a spot fire that had escaped from the bigger fire. That made sense and explained why they were already in the area.

After we showed him where the fire was he thanked Easy Bee (the other thru-hiker) and me for our help, and for taking time out of our hikes to report the fire and followup on it. He then called it in to the rest of the crew who were going to get water and deal with this mess.

“Where is the trail from here?” He asked. We both pointed to the trail five feet below us. I then asked him a question that I’d been meaning to ask my friend hotshot for a while, “what should we, as hikers, do if/when we encounter a forest fire?”

1. Write down your GPS coordinates if you have them (halfmile’s apps will give them to us).
2. Call the local fire department or 911 to report it.
3. If you don’t have cell service make sure you get the GPS coordinates of the location of the fire, and the next time you get cell service call it in to report it.

If it is a small fire (like the one I encountered), he said that you can try to kick a perimeter around it down to the bare earth (it’s ok to include bushes within that perimeter if you need to). He kicked about a foot an a half to two foot wide buffer of cleared earth around the fire and said that that was likely to keep it contained. Even if you do that, still call it in.

If you come across a campfire that someone has unsuccessfully tried to put out, call it in. Chances are you won’t be able to completely put it out either. He said it’s funny the number of times they end up coming to an abandoned campfire site and find a note from a hiker saying they tried to put it out (signed with their trail name).

If there’s a large fire on the trail he said the biggest thing you need to do is keep your wits about you and pay attention to the wind directions. You want to go whichever direction the wind is coming from because it will be whipping the smokes and flames the other way. He said that usually you can tell just by looking at it which direction the fire is moving in… Don’t go that way, even if it means that you have to go back the way you came from. He also said that most fires around here burn to the northeast, so if you’re unsure which direction to go, you’ll probably be best off if you hike in a generally westerly direction. Avoid canyons, ravines, or anyplace that funnels the wind because that will also funnel the fire. Lastly, if you circle behind the fire, your best bet may be to walk along the edge of the section that has already been burned and charred… You know that that section isn’t going to burn again, even if the wind directions change.

I thanked him for his advice, and headed back up the trail. I hope that I don’t encounter anymore active burn sites on the trail, but at least I have a better understanding of what to do now if I find another fire.

p.s. Last night I saw another section of trees go up in flames in the valley from the overlook I was sleeping at. Be careful out there! For anyone near dunsmuir today:

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official news about the fire

Addendum:
I finally got a chance to talk to my friend Hotshot, who said:

“Only thing I would add to his ‘escape’ advice is that around here fire is often slope driven, not wind driven, going uphill from a fire can be really dangerous… No one can outrun a fire uphill.”

“Also, be careful walking through old burns… Fire weakened trees can be blown over pretty easily so try not to take a break or set up camp under them & keep your head up when you are hiking through a burn scar in the wind!! Welcome to west coast crazy:)”