Wildlife Encounters

Early morning cobwebs were stretched across the narrow path, these grabbed at my face and neck as I pushed through the bushes. My feet crunched on the loose stone of the path. My noise disturbed a large stag grazing in the bushes and I held my breath as the sudden movement of antlers turning caught my eye on the path ahead. His head high and alert. His body poised and ready. We stood, eye to eye for several seconds and I became acutely aware of how loud my breathing was in the demanding silence. His short, visible breaths marked the seconds between us before he stepped, with a flash of taut muscle and quivering head, quickly to the side, moving with the grace of a dancer, repositioning on our stage, then pausing, watching intently to read my next move. 

The ridges and trees stretched to a distant horizon. It was hard to estimate but it seemed as if I could see for a hundred miles in the clear morning air. The sun was already strong but I felt good to do another long day. Seeing the stag had been exhilarating and I was feeling like I’d found my rhythm again, comfortable moving through the woods and hills alone. Windfarms punctuated the horizon and I could trace a feint outline of my path far into the distance where it appeared to meet the clear blue sky. Sharp shrubs reached and jabbed at my legs, fine red scratches appearing to record my progress like contours on a map. My steps kicked up a fine dust, yellow that morning unlike the desert reds of last night. Ground squirrels chirped angrily and darted away from the path as I passed by. Deep green waxy bush leaves appeared to unfold in the sunlight, turning their pale undersides away from the strong morning sunlight. As I climbed higher the views appeared to unfold gradually, the sun penetrating the valleys and hidden places. 

By late morning I was seeking out Deer Creek Spring. As I approached the area I found myself holding my breath, listening hard for the trickle of water with anticipation. On occasion creeks would be dry and the consequent dry miles would be hard. On this occasion however the magical sound of trickling water was like a small celebration of the life-sustaining power that it brings and I could drink readily, as much as I could take.

Four o’clock came around quickly and I was up, packed and on the track. I am not normally one to leap out of bed, full of joy, in the early hours of the morning as Lisa will attest. However the thrill of moving swiftly through the darkness in remote and wild country was energising and I found myself breaking from a quickstep into a jog over the four miles downhill to the river. I crossed it quickly by an old wooden bridge and I recall wondering whether there was any risk that my speed could trigger the predatory instincts of a bear in the vicinity. I knew that there was one. A fellow brit hiker who I’d run into a number of times over the course of the hike, had messaged two days before to let me know she’d run into a bear at this spot. She’d been resting and eating lunch with her hiking partner when this bear had boldly strolled in and over the bridge to check them out. 

(Photo credit: Laura Savage)

    Quickly dismissing the thought. I continued ahead and commenced the long climb over the last big ridge I faced before I would reach the trailhead. 

    It was barely 6am when I rounded a corner, the early sun was just starting to stream through the trees. I stopped suddenly as ahead of me on the track was something I had not expected to see on this trip, a North American badger. It looked at me for moment, seemingly unconcerned, then turned to head off up the track. Surprised and enthralled I grappled for my camera while following it, keeping pace as best I could. As I pursued this badger along the track it paused twice turning back to look at me. 

    I should have taken this as a sign and noted that it was opting to leave, not fleeing afraid. After a thirty yards or so it stepped off the track and into the scrub on the right of the path. However with two crossed fallen logs blocking it’s path it suddenly and unexpectedly found itself cornered. Or rather, in my keeness to secure a good photo I had unwittingly cornered it and reduced its fight or flight options to one. I knew immediately this was the wrong thing to have done. Somewhere in my sub-concious mind I knew this was a dangerous animal. Sometimes baited by unscrupulous hunters, badgers were capable of taking on the most vicious of fighting dogs and winning, but here I was not two metres from a fully grown,  beautiful North American badger, surely one more photo wouldn’t hurt, so I carefully raised my camera..

    The speed and ferocity with which it launched its attack was simultaneously both shocking and awe-inspiring. It let out a petrifying snarl, snapped out two inch claws like a scene from Edward Scissorhands and launched itself at me. Despite my thirty pound pack I erupted upwards and backwards, somehow tuning in midair and literally landed already running. I did not turn or slow for over one hundred yards, but I had the distinct sense that in that first yard or two it narrowly missed my heels. Now I can hear half of you out there already reminding me that when faced with a dangerous animal we’re supposed to not make eye-contact, keep calm and back away slowly. Well, I can now speak from experience: all of that goes out of the window. Fear takes over and I can assure you, the only way to go is to run like hell, screaming like a schoolgirl on a ghost train! OK, so that’s how I remember it anyway. Knowing I had no choice but to go back up the track to continue my hike I decided I had a sudden interest in the unusual looking trees high on the ridge, and took a wide detour to examine them. 

    The excitement for the morning didn’t end there. As I summited the ridge, now firmly back on track and breathing normally again, I became aware of noise ahead. It was barely seven in the morning but it appeared that loggers were already hard at work just off the trail to the right. Diesel smoke and the roar of big machinery filled the air. I didn’t worry about this as I’d passed through logging operations close to the trail several times. There was always clear signage and a safe working distance in operation. I was confident I’d not seen any sign so I continued. I was concentrating on calculating the distance to the trailhead when suddenly a deafening crashing sound erupted just ahead around the corner. I cautiously rounded some rocks to find the dust barely settling around a huge spruce tree freshly downed.. directly across the trail! I said a little thank you in my mind to that badger for delaying me on the trail. Had I been just a little earlier I may not have been writing this. 

    It was all downhill from there onward to the trailhead. I buzzing from all the excitement of the morning and with my ipod blasting Iron Maiden into my ears, and ignoring the pain in my feet, I ran down that hill feeling more alive than I had in a long time. I reached the road by ten thirty,  completing my self-imposed eighty-five mile challenge in just two and a quarter days. My feet would take at least a week to forgive me but what the hell, I’d had a couple of days I wouldn’t forget in a long while.

    Night hiking 

    After the night-hike of Hat Creek Rim I found that I’d appreciated both the relief from the heatwave of 100+ temperatures we’d been having, but also I enjoyed the excitement of the night and the variety of wildlife encountered. As my thoughts turned to the next town I realised I had to think about the mundane logistics side of such a hike once again. I’d mailed a supply box to the post office in Mt Shasta and also had to visit a small store in Castella where a parcel from home had been sent. This meant I had to be out at the trailhead early enough on the coming Friday to hitch to Castella, then hitch to Mt Shasta, find accommodation, sort my box out and mail it on, all before the post office closed at 5pm. Over the next three or four days I would have to ensure I covered a good mileage. Shasta was still eighty five miles away and my feet had been really sore since I changed footwear in Truckee. However hiking in the relative cool of the night, or at least through the dusk and dawn, could really help.
    Despite my foot pain I made an early start that morning. I was usually hiking soon after 6am anyway. I’d removed the insoles from my shoes to help relieve the swelling and this seemed to help, at least for a while.

    I crossed a dam and started up a hill on the far side. I’d been made aware from others that a couple of hikers had been attacked by aggressive honey-bees on this hill. I took all the precautions I could (a mosquito head-net and moving slowly) but fortunately none showed. I may have benefitted from the early hour in which the temperature was still cool.

    Despite my feet I was feeling good. I walked with a couple of others throughout the morning before deciding I needed to ‘turn on the gas’ a bit and achieve a really good mileage day. I hiked through dry, crackly woodland all afternoon. Pine needles and giant pine cones littered the track. Sun streamed through the leaves and I crossed fire breaks and long abandoned dirt roads. I missed a spur trail to a water source but I’d become much more relaxed about small errors such as this, confidently knowing I could cover the four or five miles to the next creek with only the little water I had left. In the early days of the hike this would have worried me, but I’d grown accustomed to living outdoors and being dependent on such unpredictable natural resources. On many occasions I’d got to supposedly reliable water sources and found them dry. I was hiking well and enjoying the sense of aloneness that afternoon. However even that deep into the woods and hills it was hard to fully escape the intrusions of the modern world:

    I passed a good camp on a saddle at 5:30pm having already covered 24 miles, I was excited to hike on into the late evening and see how far I could get. The vegetation became dense and leafy and in places it was claustrophobic and humid, the impending dusk adding to the anticipation of darkness arriving. At 7:20pm I reached Moosehead Creek side trail which I knew led to a good water source, the last one for fourteen miles. I stopped to rest and eat. The temptation to stop there and camp was strong. The darkness was by now seeping in, around the trees and shrubs that always appear to huddle closer as light fades. My surroundings seemed to be changing to a more uncertain and foreboding presence and I suddenly become acutely aware of how alone I was. 

    Quickly I filled water, anxious to move and dispell the tension settling over me. After a few paces I had to stop and remove my shirt again, it was still too warm for it, and I took the opportunity to put some music on my ipod. I’d decided I could achieve thirty miles in the one day and I wasn’t far off at that point.  I commenced a big climb however and I knew that flat campsites would be limited. I passed several unsuitable spots over the next couple of miles and I even started to flirt with the idea of completing a forty mile day. However, I knew deep down that I would pay for it later and my yawns confirmed what I was thinking. There was no moon and as I hiked my headlamp offered a narrow shaft of light through the darkness, illuminating just a spot on the ground ahead. All else was plunged into darkness outside of my vision and unknown. 

    In the spot my light picked out spiders and millipedes hunting in the darkness, momentarily frozen in the beam as I stepped quickly over their heads. As quickly as I came, I was gone, and they continued their work, unrecognised by the world of the light. As I descended a narrow rocky track my light picked out several medium sized birds, well camouflaged and almost owl-like in plumage. I wondered what these were and they blinked sleepily in my light before reluctantly launching into the silent darkness.  

    Eventually I came upon a clearing. The wide corner of a dirt road. My legs were pleading to stop and they won. A quick look around revealed another hiker cowboy camping behind some bushes. As quietly as I could I put up my tent, a gusty wind which seemed to come from nowhere tugging at anything loose on the exposed saddle, so I threw my pack into the tent and quickly followed it. No washing or reading that night. It was 1:30am. I had hiked my biggest day yet at 34.1 miles. I threw the sleeping bag across me and was gone.

    Hat Creek Rim 

    Mount Shasta as it looked at dusk, as I and several other hikers, set out to night-hike Hat Creek Rim to avoid the soaring daytime temperatures in this largely shadeless and waterless section.

    Northern California is proving to be a section requiring real mental toughness. It is a long way between completing the Sierra’s and reaching Oregon. California from South to North is 1700 miles and it feels like Oregon will never come. That said there is some real beauty in this area. The Trinity Alps Wilderness and Russian Wilderness are areas I hope to come back to one day and share with Lisa.

    Highlights of the last week or two have included Drakesbad Lodge, nestled deep in the woods and mountains of the Lassen Volcanic National Park, at the site of a natural hot spring. This was a reminder that much of the hike follows the eastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000 mile horseshoe of nearly continuous oceanic trenches, moving belts or plates, volcanic arcs, and active volcanos. Shasta would be the first of many ‘classic’ looking volcanos on the route. Drakesbad itself was little more than a series of cabins in the woods, but they welcomed passing PCT hikers providing a shower, laundry and a hot meal for a small fee, as well as the obligatory dip in the hot spring, a gift beyond description for those of us who are now starting to feel the effects of hiking so far, and for so long. 

    Soon after Drakesbad came Hat Creek Rim, an exceptionally hot and dry section of over forty miles without water. I’d been missing Lisa tremendously since she returned home for the second time, and for some company i’d taken to hiking, on and off, with a loose group of hikers I knew that had travelled at a similar pace since early in the hike. I was especially glad of the company to travel the rim at night, an area known for its bear and snake activity. True to form we’d only been going for about an hour before dusk when we encountered an aggressive green rattlesnake. 

    I’m told there are numerous variations of rattlesnake,  some more aggressive than others. This one was certainly not happy to see us and, despite several polite requests, he would just not move away from the trail so we had to take a wide detour to keep out of striking range. I’d heard of at least two hikers whose hikes had been ended this year by rattlesnake bites. I led our little group for much of that night and encountered two more rattlesnakes, both brown and much less aggressive than this early one. We probably passed within a few feet of many more though without knowing. I later spoke to another English hiker who had come face to face with a black bear on that section of trail at night! Despite actively looking for them I had yet to see a bear on this trip. What we did see plenty of during that night were small rodents I later identified as the California Pocket Mouse (forgive the poor photo, they didn’t stay still long – must be something to do with being a rattler-snack):

    Hat Creek Rim in the dawn light was simultaneously harsh and gorgeous. Dark, coarse lava rock was sparsely covered by scrub and small thickets of low, hardy trees. Crickets chirped incessantly and giant ants forged tracks across our path. An escarpment led to a drop to the valley floor where the temperature soared. The whole scene that morning reminded me strongly of being in East Africa and it struck me again how incredibly diverse the environments and climates of the American West are. The beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail is that it takes the hiker through so much of it.


    Later that morning our pace had slowed as the sun grew stronger and rose higher in the sky. We spotted an opportunity for a shady rest and moving in we disturbed a snake I didn’t recognise. If anyone can identify this one do leave a comment and let me know.

    A break in the hike!

    It’s been quite a few days since I’ve blogged and a lot has happened. If you read the last post you will know that I was super-excited about my wife, Lisa, coming back to the trail. She’d hiked from the start in Campo and had completed around eight hundred miles before the foot pain that had been troubling her had led to a decision for her to retire fom the trail, at least for a while, and let her foot rest. After four weeks off, she flew in to Reno and I went out to pick her up in anticipation of resuming hiking together. 

    We took advantage of the opportunity to go out to REI and pickup, or change out, a couple of bits of gear, before heading into suburban Reno to meet up with several other hikers at the house of one of their family members. It was great to take a chance to relax with others we’d met through the hike. One of them had family in Reno and his brother kindly hosted a group of us, cooking great food and giving us a place to relax and restock as well as driving us back to the trail the following day. Perfect trail angels! I don’t think I have mentioned trail angels before here. It is a tradition in many of the towns these hiking trails pass through for kind members of the community to help hikers however they can. This can range from a cooler full of drinks left at a trailhead to rides in to town, or in some cases people will even offer to host hikers overnight. It is extremely generous and it means a lot when you receive these random acts of kindness from strangers.

    Our first day back on the trail together saw us climbing high onto a ridge above Packer Lake.The views were awe inspiring, looking out across miles and miles of pine forest and lakes, criss-crossed by a network of forest roads. It was great to be together again and we chatted lots as we hiked. I was able to catch up a little on some news from back home and I was able to fill Lisa in on some of what I’d seen while she had been off the trail. We tried to take it easy that first day and hike gently as Lisa had to adjust to the exertion of hiking all day once again. The need to reach a water source saw us hike eighteen miles that day however. Much of that was across loosely wooded ridges of aspen forest, but as the day wore on we found ourselves descending into denser, darker forest, trees crowded the trail and filtered out the afternoon sunlight. Lime green lichen clung to tree trunks at about a level of ten feet and above, revealing the extent of the previous winter’s snowfall, and equally green ferns pushed their way through the dense and sometimes spikey scrub that filled the space below the canopy of dark greens and browns above. As we neared the lower slopes the dusty, needle-covered red earth became darker and firmer, hinting tantalisingly at the possibility of moisture. Eventually we began to hear voices and with tired feet we rounded a corner to find several hikers all scratching out clearings amongst the deadfall and detritus of the forest floor to make camp. As was often the case when there was only really one water source in a long dry stretch, we had the opportunity to meet other hikers and socialise while having some dinner. The water source itself was little more than a trickle remaining in a rapidly diminishing creek bed. In another few weeks thus would dry up and hikers passing through would be looking at a two-day stretch without water. We’d been lucky. This year was considered to be a ‘normal’ rainfall year. The previous four years had been significant drought years in California. 

    Keen to get some rest and sleep before another day’s hiking, we soon got our little tent squeezed onto an almost flat patch of clear dirt between trees and settled in to our sleeping bags. We’d just about got ourselves comfortable and were dozing off to sleep when there was a loud crack of a stick and the ominous sound of something heavy pushing through the branches of the bushes behind the tent. Lisa sat bolt upright and whispered, “what was that”? We could only sit there with our breath held considering the possibilities. We had a kevlar bag, designed to resist a bear attack, in which we stored all of our food. This we had diligently tied to a tree a little way off from the tent. We need not have worried. A quick look revealed that several deer had chosen to completely ignore our presence as we were getting in the way of their grazing some of the greenest leaves in this section.

    The following day we hiked out early keen to beat the heat of the sun. A long, steady climb took us back up to, often exposed, ridges which we’d traverse for the next couple of days dropping down only for roads and water. Over this time Lisa was increasingly getting foot pain again. We couldn’t believe it. She’d done everything right; rested, been to doctors, been cleared to continue hiking, and yet the pain had returned almost immediately. Something wasn’t right. We quickly decided we couldn’t continue as we were and that we needed to seek medical advice. We were coming in to the small mountain pass resort of Belden, so we would find a way off trail there and work out what would be the best course of action.

    When we arrived in Belden we found a music festival in full swing. It was more than a little surreal stepping off the trail and into the colour, lights and crowds of a party in full swing complete with face painting, crazy costumes, pumping house music and inflatables on the river. The partygoers were incredibly welcoming of these sweaty hikers however and within minutes of arriving we’d been handed free beers, offered ‘love pills’ and thoroughly encouraged to join in. Tempting as it was our minds were on Lisa’s foot and getting a clear diagnosis. We sweated out in the full heat of the sun by the road trying to hitch for as long as an hour before we decided to quit and went in to get some lunch and cold drinks. On our second attempt we had more luck, or at least so it seemed. Our ride was an aging Toyota pick-up, with an equally aging driver. The odometer revealed that the truck had done more than a quarter of a million miles, and it seemed that the driver had done at least twice that. I climbed onto the cramped shelf behind the cab seats allowing Lisa the luxury of the only free seat. I’m not sure who had the worse deal as there was as much litter on the seat and in the footwell as there was in the limited space I had to occupy. Our driver peered out through the steering wheel without his prescription glasses, taking his eyes off the road periodically to peer at us while consulting us on where it was that he was going in the first place! After no small amount of debate it appeared that we were intent on travelling in the same direction, us to Chester and a medical centre, he to Chester and, well, it seemed to be something to do with a man, and a deal and panning for gold. Well at least it would supplement his current income from farming cannabis! Perhaps now we were starting to understand why we were veering from the center line to the shoulder side drop-off in such an erratic manner, although that may just have been that he couldn’t actually see the road! Nonetheless he got us to Chester without harm and the following day we were sat in the ER while Lisa’s x-rays were processed. 

    I could write another whole page about our farcical interaction with a Romanian locum doctor who couldn’t give a clear diagnosis, but told us ‘lifes like that, go home, buy cat, stroke it, but I’ll save that for another day. After two days, and a second opinion, we had confirmation that Lisa had stress damage to her 5th metatarsal that would likely result in a full stress fracture if she continued hiking. So as quick as that it was decided and my lovely wife, whom I had waited so long for to hike with once again, was going home for the second time! We were both incredibly disappointed but there was really no option. We made arrangements for a flight and I went with her out to Reno to the airport to say goodbye before returning alone to the trail two days later.