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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Thru-Hike Camera Review

The camera that I primarily used on my 2013 AT thru-hike was the:

  • Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm/ f3.5-5.6 OSS lens.
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Separate Flash
  • Weight: 1lb 2 oz
  • Charger: 3 oz
  • MSRP: $699.99
Sunset in the White Mountains caputured with my Sony Nex5N

Sunset in the White Mountains (Sony Nex5N)

Overall thru-hike review: 9/10. It was a bit heavy by thru-hiking standards (weight: 7/10), but seemed to be the perfect compromise between the much bigger, heavier, and more expensive DSLRs and the smaller (but poorer photo-quality) standard point-and-shoots. I was a little concerned about how it well it would do when faced with the brutal treatment and conditions I knew I was bound to subject it to on the trail, but it held up impressively well (ruggedness: 10/10). I carried that camera from Georgia to Maine and used it every day! The battery life was also really good. If I used it exclusively for pictures it easily lasted me 5-7 days between recharges, using it for video sucked up much more battery, but was not the way that I usually used the camera (battery life: 9/10). I had only two complaints about it on the trail, 1) I didn’t feel comfortable using it in the heavy rains that I experienced fairly often (waterproofness: 6/10) and 2) the 18-55 lens didn’t give me enough zoom to take good, high quality photos of the wildlife that I encountered along the trail (zoom: 7/10). Overall I loved the Sony Nex, it was easy to use, relatively convenient, and allowed me to take the kinds of photos that I wanted to document my trip with (Check out the series of photobooks, Parts 1-5: Walk it Off that I made after returning from the trail, they pair the photos I took with the Sony Nex-5N with the blog posts that I made for the same days).

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In addition to the Sony Nex-5N, I also used my cell phone as a camera:

  • iPhone 4S
  • Weight: 6.4 oz
  • MSRP: $450

Overall thru-hike review as a camera: 6/10. The iPhone was convenient for taking pictures and sharing them on my blog and on facebook whenever I got to town (10/10). The size of the phone and the fact that I used it for multiple purposes also made it incredibly convenient (10/10). Some of the downsides to using my cell phone as my camera were that the photo-quality wasn’t nearly as good as the Sony Nex (5/10), and it took a long time to boot up if I had it powered down (5/10). Leaving my cell phone in airplane mode allowed for better response time, but drained my cell phone battery more quickly (6/10). If it was raining and I wanted to take a picture, I used my cell phone camera. The only technical problem that I had with the iPhone was early in the trip (my first week in Georgia) when I discovered that it didn’t power down correctly, which drained the cell phone battery really quickly. After contacting Verizon, they sent a replacement phone to my next maildrop. The replacement phone lasted me for the rest of the trip to Maine. Overall thru-hike review of the iPhone 4S as a phone: 10/10. Though my iPhone didn’t get great reception everywhere on the AT, it had good coverage for most of the tip (typically much better coverage than other providers). Keeping the phone in airplane mode, I was able to use it as a quick and easy camera without draining the battery too much. I also used it to send and receive text messages and to write my blog posts from town. I even used it as an mp3 player occasionally when my radio died. Overall it stood up to the wear and tear of the trail and functioned admirably.

Which Camera should I use for the PCT?

Cedar Waxwing (Canon Powershot)

Cedar Waxwing taken with the Canon Powershot

When I returned from the AT, I wished my camera had been better at taking wildlife pictures so I experimented with a camera with more zoom. Over the winter I tested out the:

  • Canon Powershot SX50 HS
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Built in lenses and flash
  • Weight: 1lb 6.4 oz
  • Charger: 2.8 oz
  • MSRP: $429.99

Overall thru-hike review: 6/10. What I found was that the Canon Powershot was really good at taking pictures of birds, and was, in many ways, superior to SONY Nex 5N for this purpose. The image quality wasn’t as good as what I’d grown used to with the Sony Nex, but the zoom and image stabilization for the Powershot were definitely impressive. If I wanted to take pictures of anything other than birds (people inside with low light, or landscapes), my SONY NEX 5N was better, hands down. A downside that I anticipate with the Powershot as a camera for thru-hiking is the number of moving parts and fancy electronics involved with all autofocus the camera. Knowing me the camera would get damp and covered in dirt and grit like the Sony Nex did, and I’m not sure that it could withstand the kinds of abuse that I put my cameras through on backpacking treks). The battery life for the Powershot also didn’t seem to be as good as it was for the Sony Nex 5N. Overall backyard birding review: 10/10. Even though I wasn’t convinced that this was the camera to take on the trail with me, it is definitely an awesome little camera and does an amazing job when it comes to taking pictures of stationary birds in good light, even when they are far away! Check out the book that I made with all the fun bird pictures I took over the winter:

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Final decision for PCT:

Ultimately I have decided to go with the Sony Nex 5N for my upcoming PCT thru-hike. Since my biggest complaint about it was the lack of zoom, someone helped me fix that glitch by giving me a new lens:

  • Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 Telephoto lens
  • Weight: 12.8 oz
  • MSRP: $349.99

This new lens gives me the added zoom that I’m looking for, so hopefully I’ll gett even better wildlife pictures on the PCT than I did on the AT. I found that trying to exclusively use the telephoto lens was annoying for pictures of scenery and people so I splurged on a small wide angle lens for the camera as well:

  • Sony 16mm f/2.8
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • MSRP: $249.99

Between these two lenses I hope that the Sony NEX 5N will meet all of my needs as I hike the PCT. A definite downside is that my camera gear has gotten heavier between my AT hike and my PCT hike. The total weight of all of my camera gear (including chargers, lenses, and camera body) is now:

  • 1 lb, 12.8 oz

Making my camera gear a rival for the heaviest thing in my pack!