Washington Section H
For 3 days I stared at the Bridge of the Gods - an old metal structure spanning the Columbia River at Cascade Locks. Washington was just a few steps away. Another month, and I'd be hiking into Canada. I was excited to cross into Washington, but I was sad all the same. One aspect of the hiking the PCT was that nothing lasted. Every time I came across a beautiful timeless meadow, or a magnificent waterfall, or an endless view... I knew that before long I had to move on. There was always something to look forward to, but in a sense I wanted to be on the whole trail all at once. The PCT had started to feel like home, and I knew this was the last leg of the journey. Before too long, I'd be stepping out the back door.
But, I had more immediate and practical concerns. The next resupply wasn't for another 148 miles. At 25 miles a day, that translated to 6 days of heavy food. The bad weather had broken up, but there was supposed to be another minor cold front in a few days... nothing to worry about though. I finally broke myself away from the lure of Cascade Locks, headed up to the bridge and walked over.
The Bridge of the Gods was notorious for being "the most dangerous bit of trail on the PCT". There isn't a lot of room to walk, and if you happen to meet a driver who thinks the bridge is for vehicles only... or more precisely "his vehicle only", you have nowhere to run. There wasn't much traffic when I crossed, and it was no big deal. The trail entered the woods of Washington, and I was on my way.
I quickly ascended the hills north of the Columbia River, and had a great view behind me. The Columbia River slowly snaked from the high deserts of eastern Washington all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The volume of water was immense.
I dipped down to the lower forest again, and before long I was walking in the wettest, greenest, most mossy and dense forest I'd seen. Everywhere I looked, the force of life was making a show. The massive trees seemed to support even more life when they were fallen rotting logs tossed in a jumble along the forest floor. I could barely make out the color of the sky through the tops of the trees. I found a place to camp in the soft forest duff about 20 yards from a creek. It took 10 minutes to pick out a path through the dense foliage to the creek. I soon figured out just what the sky was doing... it started to drizzle and drip on me. It wasn't enough to cause any concern, but I had a feeling this was the only place within a hundred miles that was getting any precipitation.
The next day, I continued through the jungle... eventually climbing along side the creekbed to a ridge. The forest got a little thinner as I ascended. A mile or two later, I headed down the north side of a ridge to a crossing of hwy 43. The trail paralleled the highway for a few miles. I decided to hike down the highway - I thought there might be a little general store up ahead. Sure enough, there was a store. I stopped in to buy some ice cream.
It was the start of bow-season for elk, and a few hunters in green camouflage pulled up in their pickup trucks. I chatted with the woman behind the counter, "There are a couple elk that keep visiting my backyard, I can't wait for the rifle season... I'm gonna get one!" She was genuinely excited about this. She'd lived in the area most of her life. I asked her if she was living here in 1980 when Mt. St. Helens erupted. "Oh ya, I was outside playing with my friends and the sky turned dark. We had to come inside." That's all she had to say about that. I wished her luck with the elk and headed back to the trail.
I had spent the last two days climbing up and down over a series of high ridges. Now, I was barely higher than where I started - only 947 feet above sea level. The trail quickly took care of that though. I headed straight up the side of a mountain... well at least as straight as the PCT gets. After 4 hours of going uphill, I was at 4000 feet... I got a quick view of Mt. Adams and headed back down. Just when I was starting to look for a campsite, I heard some familiar noises - a little bell ringing, and the howl of a dog. Helen was setting up camp just off the trail. It was a perfect little spot - a nice clearing under the giant trees. A natural spring was flowing a few yards away. I set down my stuff nearby. After a little conversation, it was dark and time to sleep.
The next morning, I thought about what I could do... Hmmm... Ah! Hike! What a great idea! Inspired, I headed down the trail. The PCT wound among another pumice field, this one looked particularly inhospitable. There wasn't a flat piece of earth anywhere but on the trail itself. Irregular boulders of sharp pumice completely covered the surrounding area. Some of them were 20 feet high, some the size of my fist. Between the boulders, scraggly trees and bushes tried to gain a foothold. It was a kind of terrain that looked flat and boring from a distance. But simply heading across would be more difficult than climbing most mountains. I was lucky enough to have a trail.
I passed by a road, where a makeshift parking lot had developed. The pickup trucks, SUVs and campers had that well-used look which indicated the owners were hunters... or "outdoorsmen" as some of them would prefer (whatever that's supposed to mean). The vehicles were deserted. All the occupants were fanning out through the woods, trying to get that one good shot.
The trail slowly ascended through a pleasant forest then up Berry Mountain. I had some decent views of Mt. Adams looming ahead of me. The top of the 12,276 foot volcano was obscured by a ring of high clouds. In the distant west, the shattered remains of Mt. St. Helens (8364 feet) kept watch over a sea of rolling forested hills. The flat gray mountain was covered in snow. It looked peaceful and spent, like a used shotgun shell, patiently waiting for the earth to clean it up.
I headed down Berry Mountain and into the Indian Heaven Wilderness. I stopped for a snack at Blue Lake (which was... a blue lake) and watched a group of boy scouts splashing around in the water. I felt like their troop leader should have taken them on a longer hike - they were obviously not pooped-out. I resolved that someday I'd take a bunch of boy scouts on a serious hike which would test the limits of their young resilient bodies and minds. I figured they'd get a lot more out of that than just splashing around in some lake.
As I hiked on, I passed more and more lakes. Day-hikers and weekend-backpackers were in abundance. The lakes in Washington appeared to be some of the cleanest I'd passed. Although, any comparison was silly - almost all the lakes I passed on the entire PCT were absolutely pristine and clear.
I cruised down many more miles of forested trails, barely stopping to look around. I came across an "alternate route" which went a mile up and down Sawtooth Mountain (rather than around the base of it), I felt like getting another view of Mt. Adams... maybe it'd gotten closer? So, I headed up the mountain. Mt. Adams was larger than ever. The top was still covered in clouds. More clouds were just starting to creep in from the northwest horizon... the cold front was on its way. But, I still had a nice evening to enjoy, I continued down the mountain and on my way.
I soon came to a crossing of a road. There was another makeshift parking lot here, but the lure wasn't just elk. A giant field of blueberries was nearby. The berries were in season. Anyplace which didn't have trees was covered with berry bushes. The place was called the "Sawtooth Huckleberry Field". I stopped for a spell to fill my water container with berries. I read later that the local Indians had exclusive rights to the bushes east of the road (where I was). There were zillions of berries though. I don't think they felt my "impact". I kept going down the trail. "Hey, how's it going?" came a voice from the bushes behind me. Startled, I jumped and turned around. Two bow-hunters were sitting on a log. Every inch of their bodies was covered in camouflage, only their eyes were showing. I had to wonder... maybe this whole elk hunting thing was just an excuse for grown men to dress funny and go sneaking around in the woods. I never did see a dead elk.
But a few minutes later, I did see a live elk - storming off into the bushes. I passed a couple of hunters, a father and son, who looked like they'd had a long day. It probably wasn't very fair to the elk, but I decided to tell them that I'd just seen an elk a little way back on the trail. Their mouths opened and their eyes lit up - the hunt was back on! Even with my tip, I knew they'd have a tough time getting the elk - the brush in that area was extremely thick.
I passed Helen again just when she was about to camp for the night (we'd been passing each other all day). I mentioned before how smart her dog Ceilidh (again, that's pronounced Kaylie) was. I had another reminder of that. Helen had stopped for some water, and Ceilidh headed up the trail to scout a bit. The trail forked. One fork was the PCT, the other led to a little flat clearing. Ceilidh looked down each path, weighed the options, barked once back to Helen, and headed to the clearing. It was time to camp. Helen replied, "Yes, I'm coming..." I had to wonder who was leading who down the trail.
I expected the morning to be overcast, but it was sunny and nice. The trail went up a nearby hill, on its way to the flanks of Mt. Adams. I decided to walk on a forest road which paralleled the PCT for a few miles. I figured there would be berry bushes growing along the road. I was right. I spent a good half-hour picking berries. Each time I thought of hiking again, I'd spot another berry-laden bush nearby. I couldn't just leave them for the birds... I felt it was my duty to pick and pick and pick (plus, they were darn yummy).
The trail turned directly toward Mt. Adams. As I climbed, the fog got thicker and thicker. After a little while it started to drizzle. The sky was cloudy, but I couldn't tell if these were just the semi-permanent clouds around Mt. Adams, or new clouds from the cold front. The trail ascended further up the mountain and eventually leveled-out on a high grassy meadow. From here, the trail followed the contour of the mountain at around 6000 feet elevation. It was a pleasant hike. I dipped in and out of each canyon and had occasional views across the hills to the west. The sky had pretty much clouded up. The wind was blowing from the northwest, right at the mountain. Mt. Adams stood like an immovable object. No matter how formidable the clouds seemed, Mt. Adams was infinitely stronger. The weather smacked against the mountain. Clouds rose, parted, bunched up. The mountain seemed to enjoy its role disrupting the air currents.
I didn't know what to think. I figured I was in for some cold rain... maybe even snow. I just wanted to get down the mountain by nightfall. I decided to cook a quick dinner at a little mountain stream. I was continually ready to "deal" with a deluge of rain, but it never happened.
It was early September, and the snow from the previous winter still hadn't melted. As I continued around the mountain, the snow on the ground got thicker and thicker. At this rate, it was going to have to wait yet another year to finally melt. While I was crossing one of the snowbanks, a hiker passed me, headed the other direction. I asked him about the trail conditions ahead. "Goat rocks is tough... There are 3 steep icy snowbanks. I couldn't dig my feet in because only the top inch of snow was melted. It was scary.". This didn't sound too encouraging, but the source of the information wasn't too reliable. When I showed him my ice axe, he didn't seem to know what it was. He was planning on 10 days for the hike south to Cascade Locks.
A minute later, a miracle happened. The clouds around Mt. Adams lifted for only a few seconds. I stood there with my jaw gaping, trying to soak in the sight. From a distance the mountain looked like a uniform snowy dome, but up close, every detail was exposed. Steep cliffs and canyons made of multi-colored rock held enormous dripping glaciers. The glaciers were jagged and broken, their dirty weathered surfaces contrasted with baby-blue colors emanating from underneath. The top of the mountain was a double hump of foreboding volcanic rock. I was happy that the forces of nature had agreed to give me this brief glimpse of majesty. I went on with a new respect for Mt. Adams and the power that it conveyed.
The day still wasn't over. I sloshed across more snowfields, skipping from trail segment to trail segment. Eventually, I started heading downhill. I managed to hike 5 or 6 more miles and camped next to a broken bridge at Muddy Fork.
It rained that evening, but tall trees protected me from the worst of it. I woke up surrounded by cool, soaked vegetation. I cursed the dripping bushes as I plodded through them. It didn't take long for my body to become completely wet. It might as well have been raining. The trail went over some soft rolling hills. I passed some horse-packers and asked them how long the weather was forecasted to last. "Supposed to be totally clear by tomorrow.". This was excellent news. I was heading over goat rocks the next day, and didn't want to deal with cold, windy, cloudy conditions. I headed up to the top of a foggy hill and stopped to cook at a little lake. It was drizzling on and off, but it didn't bother me too much. I had a nice sheltered spot under some big trees.
The trail continued around to the north face of a minor mountain and I had my first good view of goat rocks. They were a cluster of jagged snowy peaks. The PCT rambled on through them somewhere. I paused only briefly and kept moving.
The trail dipped, then took a noticeable shift uphill toward the goat rocks area. I passed by an amazing berry field and couldn't help but stop for a half hour. I wanted to make it to the Cispus River valley that evening, but that was looking more and more doubtful with each passing moment. What was the rush?
I climbed higher and returned to the clouds. Evening was settling in, and the weather was taking its last shot at making things miserable. I was just starting to think about camping when I came to a flat little ledge on the side of an otherwise steep mountainside. A few trees provided shelter from the wind, and a clear mountain stream was flowing nearby. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect location. It was a little early, but I stopped anyway. I set up my wet tent and stuffed myself with two cooked meals. Clouds continued to roll up the mountainside. 200 yards on either side of me, thick gray fog was streaming by. I couldn't see beyond it. I felt like I was in the eye of the storm, incredibly lucky to find such a perfect little spot.
I woke up to a frosty tent. It was cold outside. The trees which sheltered me from the wind the night before, now sheltered me from the sun. I was just starting to move when Helen walked by. She'd been behind me for the last couple days.
About an hour later, I headed down the trail. The sky was absolutely clear. When the sun hit me, I instantly warmed up. I quickly headed over the snowfields which covered Cispus Pass, and was rewarded with a view down to the Cispus River valley ahead. The headwaters of the Cispus River cut miniature snakelike canyons through the steep green pastures. Snowfields decorated the hillsides, providing a sharp white contrast. Above, barren sharp peaks rose toward the sky. The area had a character all its own. It seemed so typical, but it reminded me of no other landscape on the PCT. The trail circled around the base of this valley, passing by countless waterfalls and budding flowers. It felt like spring even though it was almost autumn. Butterflies floated among the plants, completely trusting the giant camera above their backs. They knew nothing to be afraid of. I left the valley, sorry that it had to end so quickly. Little did I know of the splendor around the corner.
I came out on the top of a gently sloped plateau decorated much the same as the valley below. The sun was melting the snow. The water made gentle sounds as it poured through the rocks around me. To the distant south, Mt. Adams was now free of its cloudy shroud. It towered like a giant monument, keeping watch over the surrounding country. Its former twin, Mt. St. Helens, stood as a reminder of the awesome power contained in the earth below.
I looked at the map, the black line which designated the trail was routed right over a dotted blue circle... which designated a glacier or permanent snowfield. This was going to interesting to say the least.
I started across Packwood Glacier. It was fairly level, and more of a snowfield really. No crevices or solid ice. I looked ahead at the trail. It was blasted across a steep dark cliff. The peak of Old Snowy Mountain rose 900 feet above. Giant slabs of snow covered large sections of the trail, and continued unobstructed, a steep 2000 feet down the valley below. I noticed a tiny figure in the distance making tracks across the snow. It was Helen. She was a quarter mile ahead of me, making slow steady progress. I started to follow in her steps.
I quickly realized that this was not going to be easy. The cool night had frozen the snow into a sheet of ice. The mountain was blocking the morning sun. There were old rounded footprints in the ice, but they barely offered enough traction for safe passage. As I was picking my way across, I looked ahead and noticed that Helen had stopped in the middle of the next snowfield. I figured that it must have gotten too steep or dangerous. I knew she didn't have an ice axe with her, so I hurried ahead. I planned to hand her my ice axe so she could cut some steps. I started across the same snow bank Helen was stuck on. I got maybe 30 yards behind her when the situation took a major turn for the worse.
A couple small rocks came streaming by her, then a few more. Within seconds, a series of rocks, some of them 6 inches in diameter were plummeting through the air at full speed. They were falling all around her. Ceilidh stood there on the snow, yelping... fully aware of the trouble, but unwilling to leave Helen's side. I looked up to see more rocks headed down from some unknown origin. I stood there in quiet shock as I tried to comprehend what was happening. Before I had time to say... something... (I don't know what I could have said), Helen dashed across the rest of the snowbank. She reached a dry section of trail and just stood in place looking up. Mysteriously as they had started, the rocks stopped falling. Cautiously, I crept across the same section and caught up with her.
One of the rocks had hit her in the hip, another in the wrist. She was fully aware of how lucky she was, and how close she'd come to a disaster. She was a bit shaken up, but safe and OK. I just stood there shaking my head in disbelief... if one of those rocks had hit her in the head... well, I didn't want to think of the consequences. It was a long way down to the bottom of the mountain.
She had gotten stuck when the next "step" in the snow was just too far to reach. She knew I was behind her, and decided to wait until I caught up... that is, until the rocks started falling.
We continued down the trail, and soon came to another icy snowfield. This one was even worse than the previous two. I was able to chop steps into the ice. Our progress was slow, but we made it across... always keeping an eye out for more wild rockfalls.
When we got to the end of the snow, we stopped to take a break. The scene was magnificent. We were at the start of a long rocky ridge. Snow blanketed all the peaks around us. Far below, the valleys and forests were two seasons ahead. The trail continued along the top of the ridge, cliffs leading down to snowfields on either side. The rolling hills and forests continued westward. Sitting above it all was the crown jewel of Washington, Mt. Ranier. The king of the Cascade volcanoes. At 14,410 feet, its massive hulk was visible throughout much of the state. It was quite a rewarding view, made all the more special as we knew we'd just made it through the most difficult bit of trail in the section.
We headed along the ridge. I spent the whole time just looking around, soaking-in everything that caught my eye. The mountain dropped straight down on either side of the ridge. It was truly a "crest trail" in every sense. There were signs advising anyone foolish enough to bring a horse up here that there was almost nowhere to pass or turn around. If two horses met eachother... I guess one would have to jump.
The trail eventually wound down off the ridge across a snowfield (which Ceilidh thoroughly enjoyed) and down to another green valley. We stopped for a more relaxing break next to a mountain stream in the middle of a grassy meadow. I took off my shoes and felt the grass poke up between my toes. It was a massage by mother nature, none better can I imagine.
I wanted to shoot for White Pass that night. I was running out of food (well, "good" food anyway) and had dreams of the pleasures that awaited me. Helen was content to go just a few more miles. I shot out ahead, almost racing the sun as I went through forests, up to another ridge and down the other side... taking care to notice the magnificent views all around me. As the sun got lower, Mt. Ranier made an impressive glowing red silhouette on the horizon. I dipped into the forest, and darkness soon followed. As I squinted through the waning light, I heard an owl hooting a song. Not a simple hoo hoo... but a complex varied tune that must have taken millenniums to evolve. Before long, it was pitch black and I was navigating by headlight. The light made the path clearly visible, I barely had to slow my pace as I raced down the mountain. I got to the highway at 9PM and found it deserted. This was supposed to be a major highway... where was all the traffic? I headed a mile down the empty road to the general store. Closed. Damn. I went to the hotel nextdoor and got a room. They didn't even have a vending machine. So, I sat in my room and cooked up some soup. I stared at the wall till I got tired, then drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I took care of some chores then worked on my mission... hitchhike to Ellensburg, ~100 miles away. I made a cardboard sign which spelled out "Yakima", my intermediate destination. 12 minutes later I had a ride. He was an anesthesiologist and avid hiker. Our conversation ranged from white water rafting to Willie Nelson's mother. The land abruptly changed into a dry brown desert. I looked up and noticed a rock formation just like Devil's Postpile National Monument, 1000 miles back in California. There weren't any tourists here though. He dropped me off at a mexican restaurant. After a quick meal, I started working on my next ride. This was a little more difficult as I couldn't find a good place to flag down cars. Still, a half-hour later, my "Ellensburg" sign paid off. A baptist pastor picked me up. We talked about lots of things... except religion. He dropped me off at a cheap decent hotel just outside of town.
After eating a quick lunch, I made another sign. It simply read "Phish!". I stood near the entrance ramp to the highway... waited... and bingo. A VW minibus pulled up. Perfect.
I spent the next couple days with Brian and Kim and their loose assemblage of extended friends. We camped near the Columbia River at night, and went to the concerts during the day. Phish (especially Trey) was in rare form. The music was all the more brilliant as I'd been deprived of it for the last 4.5 months. Birds are neat, but they just aren't the same thing. Before long, it was time to get back on the trail. Brian and Kim dropped me off at White Pass, on their way to the Phish show in Portland.