Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hiking the PCT North Days 10-14: We reach a new low, Stehekin, and Cherry Pie

My feet. My feeeet. Sometime on the ninth night as I lay in my tent, the tingling and burning in my feet increased until it felt like someone was holding a match to them. It was true that in the first few days while hiking my feet would be sore, but not like this. Was it a nerve thing? Insoles too stiff? It was hard to know. Since it would subside a few hours into lying down, I decided to ignore it and hope it went away entirely.

Otherwise, I felt fine. I leaped out of the tent to begin a difficult day. It would involve a deep dive down to the 3,000 foot level, a rolling walk through the forest, and ascending Fire Creek Pass at about 6,600 feet. We tentatively pinned our sights on Mica Lake, fourteen miles in the distance, and began to walk.

Though I had dreaded losing the elevation only to gain it again, the walk was pleasant, testing only our balance skills as we skipped across several rivers and one barely functional bridge. Our guidebook had told us we would be "struggling" upwards soon, and it was right. We huffed our way up to a gorgeous pass, where the wind whipped steadily and we could see a whole new set of mountains.

Okay, this bridge still works.
At 5,900 feet Mica Lake was a perfect jewel, but a chilly wind blew. There would be no swimming only huddling in puffy jackets. Besides, it was too early to stop and the specter of Milk Creek hung over us. We had heard about this climb for months. Swathed in thick vegetation, it was a jungle of horribleness. Our guidebook insincerely mentioned a campsite by the river, prior to the climb. Our guidebook had been wrong in the past. We trudged on.

Lovely Mica Lake. Would have loved to camp here, if it had been warmer.

As we maneuvered over huge dead trees and lost about five feet of elevation per switchback, the dull roar of the river not getting any closer, I edged towards a full-fledged bonk. Going downhill is not great at the best of times, but with perhaps not enough food and water taken in, at the end of a nineteen-mile day, I could barely sustain the pace. Scout trotted merrily down the trail, looking strong. It seemed like we would never reach the bottom, but finally we did. To find...


Ten Sierra Club tents.

And no room for us.

I collapsed in the path, close to a tantrum. What to do? Surely we couldn't ascend the 4 miles up from the creek today. There was absolutely nowhere to even throw down a sleeping bag--the terrain was too thick and steep. The Clubbers had even brushed out their site to fit their tents, a surprising decision for a group that I thought was more Leave No Trace in nature.

Then I saw it. A trail bridge. It was flat. It was our only option.

We put our sleeping bags out on the bridge, feeling a bit like zoo animals as the Clubbers took pictures of us, came to chat, and even bore whiskey to our makeshift camp. It was true, the bridge was comfortable, although I didn't sleep at all. I listened to the water pass underneath, watched the bats swoop low and a full moon graze the shoulders of the peaks.

"At least we're not sleeping UNDER the bridge," Scout observed.

This was true.

Scout with one of her Sierra Club visitors.

In the morning we rose stiffly and packed our condensation-soaked bags. To our delight, though, an intrepid trail crew had brushed out the former jungle that was the Milk Creek climb. Though steep, it was sweet, with views of a glacier-clad mountain as we ascended. At the top as we dried out our stuff in the sun, a forty-ish thru-hiker named Diesel passed by, telling us that he had "only" done thirty miles yesterday. He shook his head in disgust.

We rolled on through open alpine country, populated with fat marmots, back up at the 6,000 foot level. This was of course going to change, as we plunged another 4,000 feet down to the mighty Suiattle River. A few years ago a log crossing washed out over this river and now the PCT is five miles longer, as you walk downstream for a flat, huge cedar-lined 2.5 miles and back up again on the other side, ending up where you would have crossed in the first place. We easily covered 17 miles, camping at Miner's Creek.

View from Fire Creek pass, showing switchbacks.

The next two days took us back up 3,000 feet and all the way down to 1,500 and the Stehekin River. We covered the last 9.7 miles in three hours and clambered on the 12:00 bus to town. There we were faced with town chores: get resupply. Sort through resupply. Exclaim in wonder over all the food we had packed. Shower. Laundry. Since there was no room in the campground, the Park Service directed us to a lawn in front of the visitor center, which wasn't as bad as it sounded.

Stehekin is a cute little town, a place I could imagine living. Funky houses nestled in the trees and the sunset was amazing. Unfortunately I suffered from food poisoning here and couldn't fully rest and recover. I was definitely operating at a calorie deficit, but staying another day wasn't too appealing. There still wasn't room at the campground, and if we were going to sleep in a tent, we might as well sleep in a tent on the trail. We boarded the bus with a high-energy section hiker named Cherry Pie, who was hiking 20-28 mile days. No way, we reassured ourselves. This last 90 miles was going to be a stroll. Fourteen mile days only, we promised ourselves.

The twenty miles before Rainy Pass are all in North Cascades National Park, and we had to say where we were going to camp for the night. This annoyed us because often where you stop is a function of the weather and how you are feeling. But since we had to, we picked a spot. Though our guidebook had promised us a viewless hike, we were entranced by the Sierra-like vistas and deep canyon. Chatting with Cherry Pie, who was finishing up a project of hiking the PCT from Northern California to Canada, the miles went quickly.

As we cowboy camped at Hideaway Camp, the sparks from the other campers' fire rising into the air, I realized we had very few miles left. Eight miles to the last highway we would cross, and then s
eventy miles, which in the beginning had seemed to far, now seemed like nothing. Our hike was coming to an end.

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