Day 174: Canada!

September 17

Mileage 14

Mile 2636 to mile 2650

My tent is blowing nearly flat in some of the gusts and the rain is pelting the rainfly, but I’m cozy and dry inside. Morning is coming on though and it’s the last day on the PCT so I’m wide awake as I let this fact sink in. The rain has let up slightly, and obviously temporarily, so I pack up as darkness fades to light. My bag is light once again as I’ve eaten much of the food down, though I’m still carrying a half liter of wine to celebrate with at the border (I wanted whiskey but Stehekin isn’t exactly Edinburgh Scotland). I put my poncho on as the rain picks back up slightly and I head down the trail looking for the others.

Three miles later I come across Teton, Hangman, Smilin’ and Baby still in their tents and I start making noise and being obnoxious (it’s a gift). Terrence shows up and then Team Truckee. Everyone is giddy. Everyone is weird. These are definitely my people and I’ll miss them, I already know it and I know they’ll miss me too – friendship.

We’re off just after 8:00 and it’s only ten miles to the border from here. It goes fast as we descend from the ridge into the forest and finally come to a small clearing. Actually it’s not small, it’s just narrow but it stretches across the northern boundary of the US to mark the border. A perfectly straight gap in the trees marking the longest unsecured border in the world. The wooden monument marking the end of the trail for us Northbounders sitting in this gap, a US flag on one side and a Canadian flag on the other. It has been such a long journey, difficult, wonderful in the very truest sense of that word in that it filled me with so much wonder every day. I walked up into the group of happy hikers, handed my phone to someone, stood on the monument for my photo and then opened my wine and joined the others in toasts, hugs, high-fives (bros broing out? Nope) and a whole lot of “I can’t believe we’ve finished”.

The Truckee Trio bid farewell and began walking back south to Harts Pass with promises to meet at Christmas. I don’t doubt we will. The rest of us walked a half mile into Canada and set up tents in the rain, Baby opting to walk the final nine miles to get Luna dry. It wasn’t a social evening as the rain kept everyone sheltered in their tents with only their own thoughts. I slept in fits as my mind began digesting everything from the past six months.

I felt so weak and so strong at the same time. I felt like a refinement of the little Truckee kid who had been shaped by a world of experiences.

And then I began dreaming of the next adventure. And I dreamed of introducing my own child someday to this beautiful and amazing world.

Day 173: I Can Smell the Poutine

September 16

Mileage 22

Mile 2614 to mile 2636

Up early and cold, fall rolling in like a colorful but frosty freight train. It’s a beautiful morning with wisps of clouds zebra striping the landscape with shadows. The Truckee Trio have bolted early to meet Lonni, Raiden’s girlfriend, at Harts Pass, five miles away. I’m on the trail not long after and start walking along the ridge up to the pass. The morning light and shadows are soothing and again I’m so happy to be right here right now. I need to come back down and explore the Cascades sometime with my buddy Tim, it’s his backyard and he’ll know all the secrets I’d like to discover.

I hit Harts Pass and meet up with the Truckee Trio, or Team Truckee now that Lonni has joined; she’ll be hiking to the border and the four of them will hike back to here instead of going into Canada. Lonni brings a lot of smiling and good cheer with her and rounds out this growing group quite well. The four of them take a lot of time getting ready and then we spend even more time just hanging out at a picnic table enjoying the sun, which we understand is about to disappear again later today. We wait long enough and eventually everyone shows up and I make myself comfortable at the table. My theory is that this is the last time we’ll enjoy sitting around together in decent weather and so there’s no reason to rush its end.

There are thirty miles to go to the border from here (and then another nine into Manning Park), so eventually it is time to go and I head off, alone and last, as usual and as I prefer.

It’s back to the ridgelines, the views and that feeling of contentment that the trail brings. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of having such a clear and singular goal, “walk north on this trail”, my head is clearer than ever and my soul feels well fed even while my body shrinks. Up on the ridges I can see how big the world is around me and I reflect on the fun and adventures Seva and I have had. Like any other couple, we have our dark rainy valleys but we also have our sunny ridges and peaks – I’d like to spend more time on them.

As evening neared I came upon Bamboo and Morning Kid, a trail couple who met on the AT and whom I’ve hiked around really since Old Station, nearly half the trail. Bamboo can crush trail when he puts the heat on and you see the two of them hiking apart about as often as together, and I absolutely respect and understand the need for that balance. I enjoy meeting up with them on the trail as it’s sure to result in laughter. I snap a shot of the two of them getting water at a creek and then move on, Bamboo sending me off with a joke. I wanted to do 25 miles today but the weather is turning and I’m running out of light. I set my sights on Rock Pass, three miles shy of the original goal but maybe I can get my tent up before it starts pouring.

I reach Rock Pass just after sunset and race the darkness as I set myself up near some trees. I know it’s going to be windy tonight and I want some protection from it or I won’t sleep. I’m all alone on the ridge, all alone my last night on the PCT (I’ll be on trail tomorrow night but it will be past the official end of the PCT). The clouds and fog are building against the mountains and blowing through the pass as if rising from a giant witch’s cauldron down in the valley below. It’s enchanting and I lay with my rainfly open, looking out over the dark landscape, a full moon hidden by the clouds, offering only the faintest light. The drops begin to fall from the sky so I zip myself in snug and allow them to dance across the fabric of the rainfly, drumming me to sleep.

Day 172: Oh Beautiful Cascades

September 15

Mileage 25

Mile 2589 to mile 2614

“I eat mountains for breakfast” a phrase heard time and again on the trail. And some mornings it rings true, like today, as I chew my way through 2,000 ft first thing. I had woken up wet. Soaked from the overnight dew as it blanketed the parking area last night. Shit, I should have camped in the trees. I woke early from the cold as my sleeping bag slowly lost its loft and left me shivering. Brian, who’s wife Alta is hiking while he drives support, called out that the coffee was on and I bolted out of my soggy bag of shivers and started grinding beans in his hand grinder.

Shortly after 8:00 I pack my stuff and hit the trail with Smilin’. We’ve heard there are some very angry and aggressive hornets a mile up the trail and we walk together until we see the notes that some other hikers left. Sure enough, buzzing menacingly over the trail ahead was a swarm of some seriously pissed off hornets. We walked faster and they went into attack formation, targeting our legs. We ran. We ran fast with me right on Smilin’s heals encouraging him to not slow down. Smilin’ yelped a few times as the hornets found their mark but I was spared.

We caught our breath and I walked on ahead. The sun was shining now and in the ferns and trailside brush were nets, cast overnight by spiders and now glistening in the sun, empty while the spider himself sits hungry and tired in anticipation of his web’s future bounty. At least I assume so, they weren’t very talkative after their all night web spinning.

Near the top of the climb I came out above treeline and was rewarded with even more amazing views. I love the Cascades, no doubt. Granite outcroppings near the top of the climb sat invitingly in the sun off the side of the trail and so I found a spot to lay out all my wet stuff and I stopped for a mid-morning break. I was joined shortly after by Smilin’, then Hangman and eventually by Teton, Baby and the Truckee Trio (Raiden, Chapstick and Big Bear). The rock had reached capacity.

The next five miles followed ridgeline and mountainside, staying high and generally above treeline as the trail went over Methow Pass. More amazing views and just after the pass came the 2,600 mile mark. Wow, this trail, this way of life, is about to wind down. I’m excited to spend time with Seva but other than that I’m not at all looking forward to reaching the end. Ok, I do imagine myself sitting on the couch watching Netflix and stuffing my face with food, but I love it so much on the trail. I wish Seva and I could go hike the Lycian Way in Turkey or the full Frances route of the Camino right after this as a perfect unwind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all mopey and sad, I just love being on trail and it’s hard to imagine that I’m about to run out of trail to be on, at least for now. Hangman and I have been chatting about the Lycian Way a lot lately and I imagine Seva would have some enthusiasm for hiking the southern coast of Turkey. Maybe in a couple of years.

In the afternoon I descend into the Methow River drainage and then climb up the next mountain to Glacier Pass and then beyond, further up. A few of the guys were watching the sunset just past Glacier Pass and I joined them. I stayed alone after they left and made my dinner before climbing up another 1,000 ft to the next ridge. I reached the ridge well after dark but a full moon made night hiking possible without a headlamp. I enjoy night hiking and I absolutely love it in a full moon with no headlamp. Everything is bigger in the dark and these peaks around me are no exception, glowing softly in the moonlight all around me like the peaks of so many waves in this sea of rock. A couple of miles later I saw some lights down off the side of the trail near a spring and then I came to a set of poles left to show the turnoff to where the others had camped. I went down and joined them, cowboy camping under a clear sky cast in silvery moonlight.

Day 171: The Long Slow Climb

September 14

Mileage 20

Mile 2569 to mile 2589

I was up early and ready for the 8:15 bus back to the trail, once again by way of the bakery where I bought a pie to split with Terrence. The bus is half full of retirees out exploring the park, well dressed and clean; the other half is full of hikers so close to the finish that the last vestiges of grooming are out the window. A lady handed Bamboo some food and I warned her against feeding these animals as they may follow you home.At the trailhead a ranger makes the rounds talking to people about bears and letting us know we need a permit if we want to stay overnight in the park, which even though they are free is enough hassle that nobody is willing to stay in the park. It’s only eleven miles to the boundary anyway.

Terrence and I eat our blackberry pie and then we’re off. It’s a long uphill out of Stehekin, so long that we’ll be going uphill all day today and after twenty miles we’ll still have more uphill in the morning. Within the first few miles I found a rock next to a lake and climbed on to enjoy the view; Hangman and Terrence joined and we soaked up the sun. It was dinner time before we got out of the park so the three of us stopped for dinner at a campsite and then moved on one by one after dinner, me last.

I walked the last two hours to Rainy Pass trailhead, where I found Terrence and Smilin’ cowboy camping on the edge of the parking lot. I joined them and Hangman hung nearby in his hammock.

Day 170: Into Stehekin

September 13

Mileage 22

Mile 2547 to mile 2569

Up early from my alarm, Terrence and I are both packing before sunrise. As we leave I see Luna and then Baby and Teton just getting up. Everyone is headed to Stehekin today, which means you need to hit one of four busses, 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, 6:00. I’m shooting for 3:00 but Baby and Teton have conceded that they will only make the 6:00.There is a bakery in Stehekin and I don’t know how late they’re open, so I’m definitely not taking any chances and am shooting for the 3:00. We hit the trail just before 7:00 though, so I need to average around 3 mph when I’m usually a bit slower. The first few miles were a continuation of yesterday’s climb, going up and over treeline. From there the trail dipped down and ran the next eighteen miles down a gentle decline back into the trees and along a drainage all the way to North Cascades National Park.

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing about North Cascades National Park, neither did I. It’s a paradise of mountain peaks, glacier lakes and the deep green forests of Washington legend. Inside the park sits the town of Stehekin, a town on Washington’s largest lake and only accessible by ferry, seaplane or foot. The foot option actually puts us at High Bridge where a shuttle takes us into town for $7 and by way of a stop at the bakery. I personally went for the sticky bun and cinnamon roll double combo.

Resupply in town was absurdly expensive and the town was out of beer so hikers were scattered around drinking boxed wine and a local cider. For me this is the last resupply until the border.

A free campground behind the store hosted the gaggle of hikers and as usual you could hear a pin drop by 9:00.

Day 169: Mountain After Mountain

September 12

Mileage 30

Mile 2517 to mile 2547

It felt like doing hurdles. Up and over one mountain, down the other side just in time for the next mountain, and back up I climb. After leaving the perfect campsite on the ridge, and leaving it very late, after 10:00, we dropped down to Mica Lake, an incredibly gorgeous lake sitting in a cirque on the side of the mountain. We continue to descend, Terrence and I hiking together, and reach a bridge over the creek at the bottom. This dark and overgrown place was our original destination yesterday and I’m glad we didn’t make it.

I leave Terrence at the bridge and begin climbing back up the other side. I’m feeling strong again and enjoy this medium grade climb through the trees with glimpses back across at the mountain we just came down. I reach the top and there is a rock outcropping in the sun, looking out over the glacier carved terrain, this will be lunch I decide and I kick back to wait for Terrence.

After lunch we drop down the other side of this mountain and into the next drainage. It’s a long downhill, much of it through thick, old-growth forest. Occasionally a wall of roots and dirt would mark a toppled tree. I’m loving the transition from high alpine mountain to deep old-growth forest. It’s especially pleasant in the waning light of the day as this ten mile descent burns through what’s left of daylight. Terrence has jetted off ahead so I’m walking alone through the dark forest, crossing the occasional creek and keeping up a good pace on the easy trail.

I reach the bottom and begin crossing the Suiattle River when I see a campfire and hear Terrence calling me over. Three other hikers are there, two section hikers and a thru-hiker named Alabama whom I knew from Oregon. We joined at the fire and had dinner, chatting with the section hikers about favorite parts of the trail, trail food, etc.. Around 9:00 they went to bed and we hit the trail again, hiking up the next mountain in the dark. Terrence drops back and I hike on another eight miles to a creek and some tent spots. When I arrive I see tents everywhere and I’m stumbling around trying not to shine my headlamp on anyone. I find a spot big enough for two to cowboy camp and then wait for Terrence. It’s just after midnight when I slip into my bag.

Day 168: Roof of the Cascades

September 11

Mileage 18

Mile 2499 to mile 2517

It’s 5:30 and I’m cold. The wind has died down somewhat and a cold, foggy, wet air has moved in. I hesitate but eventually eat, pack up and am hiking by 6:30. Up and over the ridgeline as I walk through the morning mist. I’m reminded of walking in southern England but there is no warm pub to pop into. I drop down the other side of the ridge and the views are expansive. I go down toward treeline and see some tents on a hill, probably Rayden, Big Bear and Chapstick. I continue down and enter the trees. I hear some voices and find Hangman and Smilin’ packing up. Teton is sick so he and Baby fell behind I’m told; I must have passed them without knowing it.

The three of us hike together down to a bridge to get water and while at the bridge we’re joined by Chapstick and then Rayden and Big Bear. The path continues down making hairpin turns around trees, feeling almost like a roller-coaster (though I’m sure foot powered roller-coasters will never become popular). The forest near the bottom was thick and covered in moss, more so than before, and I walked along an easy, fairly flat section alone.

As I began climbing in the afternoon I was caught up by Baby and Luna, then Teton and Terrence. We stopped at a small creek with grassy banks, the creek braided and spilling down through the grass in several separate braids, each rejoining into a single stream at the bottom of the grass. Teton and Baby left but Terrence and I lingered, lamenting that we couldn’t stay in such a beautiful spot. But we couldn’t and so we moved on climbing up, up and back onto the ridge. Here we found a spot that we really couldn’t pass up. A spot on the roof of the Cascades, looking down into a deep valley and off toward sharp rows of mountains in every single direction. We knew it would be a windy spot but just wasn’t any way we couldn’t camp here.

Day 167: Washington Has Its Ups and Downs

September 10

Mileage 28

Mile 2471 to mile 2499

We are on the trail by 7:30, climbing immediately but the climbs are short, less than 1,000 ft per shot with rolling terrain in between, right around tree level and opening up to green, grassy, hills. Glacier Peak rose in the distance, another Cascade volcano topped in a thick layer of blue-ish ice. Scattered clouds passed overhead but never threatened rain, it was just beautiful and cool all day.

The trail got up on ridgeline and then hit a peak, Grizzly Peak. The elevation is not high here, Grizzly Peak topping out at 5,560 ft, but it is a true alpine world nonetheless, and one of almost unparalleled beauty. One of the most common questions I get is around what my favorite section is, here is yet another contender in a very crowded field.

We followed ridgeline the rest of the day, dropping down off either side at times but mostly following the highest ridge, staying on the crest. Terrence cruised on ahead and I hiked on my own, occasionally running into other hikers; I know almost all of the thru-hikers around me at this point.

As darkness set I hit Reflection Lake where Turquoise, Burnside and some others were staying. I passed through and hiked on into the darkness just to get a few more miles in. I climbed further up the ridge and found a spot partly protected by trees. The clouds had thickened so no cowboy camping tonight, instead I set up my tent in the dark and had a quick dinner in the vestibule while the winds picked up outside. I was rocked to sleep by the wind, which returned to rock me awake throughout the night.

Day 166: Henry Jackson Wilderness

September 9

Mileage 9

Mile 2462 to mile 2471

I stood alone hitching for a while and was joined shortly by Terrence. There must have been some bad energy or we just looked too shabby as we tried for almost two hours with no luck. A burger joint was calling out to us from down the road and we finally caved in and went to it. A wonderful bacon double cheeseburger later and I was standing back on the road, this time apparently with the right vibe as Linda from Valdez, Alaska pulled over within five minutes. Linda drove us most of the way to Steven’s Pass, dropping us off at a rest area near her house and telling us to come down for dinner if we don’t get a ride by 5:00. We got a ride almost instantly from a mountain bike racer heading to the pass for some big mountain bike event.

Back on the pass we stopped to see Coppertone for a final root beer float and then hit the trail around 5:00. Terrence and I hike together and enter the Henry Jackson Wilderness Area. Placid streams and small mountain lakes passed by and a layer of green laid over everything, growth upon growth as moss hung down from the living trees while fungus broke down the dead trees. Easy trail cruised through this landscape throughout the evening bringing us to Lake Janus around dark, where we quickly found a place to pitch for the night.

Days 164 & 165: Steven’s Pass, Leavenworth and New Shoes

September 7 & 8

Mileage 16

Mile 2446 to mile 2462

It was clear at 3:30 I know because that’s when I got up to pee. It was windy through the night but not horribly so. Sometime after 3:30 though the clouds must have rolled in because it was spitting down when I woke just before 6:00 to leave.The path down through the boulders was easy in the morning light and I was down in half an hour. I entered the trees near the bottom and saw Smilin’s tent closed tight to the rain. I said a hello and passed quickly as I continued on above Glacier Lake. I reached the head of the lake and started the first of three 1,000 ft climbs and accompanying descents as the trail hops from one watershed to the next. Today these watersheds are really living up to their name. As I’m walking through the brush the leaves are unloading on me, letting me know I’m first down the trail this morning. Then there are footprints and eventually I pass an older man walking slowly up the hill. The climb gets steeper and follows almost a wide chute, switching back tightly on itself as it climbs up through and to the top where I popped out to another hiker, a German retiree I first met at Olalie Lake in Oregon.

Down the back side and into the next watershed, all quiet except the sound of falling rain, my footsteps on the ground and my steaming breath. The rain mixing with fog as I descend into the next valley with its small glacier lakes. Each valley strikingly similar to the other. Bamboo passed me on the second climb and told me Rayden wasn’t far behind. I pushed up over this second hill and down into yet another valley, this one different as large powerlines and then ski lifts climbed its banks. I dropped down and began climbing under the lifts to a ridge at Steven’s Pass ski area. Rayden caught up to me just at the top and we made the quick descent down into Steven’s Pass where the lodge was opened and buzzing with other wet hikers.

We had coffee and snacks while drying off in the lodge and then eventually hitched down into Leavenworth, a Bavarian village in Central Washington. Beers and schnitzel followed.

The next day was a unanimous zero as people rested for the next stretch, a tough one. I finally got new shoes, going for the more tank-like Solomon XA Pro 3D. It will be nice to have 3D shoes again as these last ones were most certainly flat.