Into the North..

After two wonderful nights of recouperation, thanks to a friend of a friend with a cabin, I found myself in Cascade Locks, ready as i’d ever be to start the final push. A final burger and coke at the cascade locks ale house were followed by an ice cream, too large to be successfully contained in a waffle cone without spillage, from the Eastwind drive-in famous for being visited by hiker and writer Cheryl Strayed. Initially it wasn’t obvious how to get up to the bridge itself. The slipway off the highway curled around well above the sidewalk and aligned itself with the old clinker clad toll booth at the entrance to the bridge, but there did not initially appear to be a pedestrian walkway to the bridge. After over two thousand miles of hiking I had learned that America is built for the motor car not the pedestrian, so after climbing a wall and scrambling through the undergrowth where others had clearly gone before, I emerged by the toll booth where, true to form, a road sign instructed pedestrians to walk across the narrow iron bridge, in the road, facing the on-coming traffic, including the big trucks for whom this was clearly a major thru-route.

Emotionally the Bridge of the Gods was a huge milestone. I don’t think I really started to believe I might complete this hike until that point. Finally what had always seemed a dream, the sort of adventure that happens to other people, was coming within reach. I have dreamt, talked and read about this hike for over ten years. During that time it’s popularity and the number of people attempting the hike have increased, helped most recently by the film ‘Wild’. I had to remind myself that while Washington was the final State, the journey was far from over and Washington weather had ended the dream early on more than one occasion for previous hikers, as I was well aware.

On those first days in Washington the humidity seemed to dominate every moment. The change had seemed almost immediate after crossing the Colombia River. Lush, rich undergrowth and dark, peaty earth demonstrated that moisture was not a problem here. Sweat trickled repeatedly down my back, neck, even into my eyes which stung from the salt it carried. As the sun got higher in the sky by midday, shafts of light would catch on the dew resting on every leaf and frond. 

Rich ferns and bracken now dominated the ground around and the lichens that were tinder dry wisps hanging from the Oregon trees, were now lush lime green cloaks that clung tenaciously to trunk and branch, full of life and territorial ambition. Even the rocks seemed to sweat, droplets oozing from dark crevices and dripping from moss covered slabs. Slugs had appeared on the forest floor too. Thick, slimy specimens up to seven inches long oozed their way across the damp rock, mud and pine needles, negotiating pine cones like ships avoiding rocks on an ocean. Bracket fungus clung heroically to dead and fallen trunks, determinedly extracting every last nutrient of life from these rotting hulks. Twisted and knarled roots were disguised now, laying below the decaying leaf matter, awaiting the unwary or tired hiker and inviting a trip. The trail climbed and fell daily here and small changes started to happen. Here and there a leaf would appear out of place: red amongst its green compatriots.

Then over the coming days more and more would follow their lead until it seemed that the greens were in danger of being taken over entirely by yellows and reds. Nights had started to get colder too and collecting water began to mean freezing hands. One night I was camped with a couple of other hikers at high altitude when the mists that had hovered all day cleared at dusk to reveal incredible views of the glaciers on Mt Adams. Once wrapped up in my sleeping bag I lay awake listening to the ice cracking and breaking on glacier. Deep rumbles and sudden sharp cracks. It was the first of many nights to come when I would struggle to stay warm enough to sleep. 
It was now elk hunting season. An unnerving time to be a hiker in the woods. As well as occasionally passing other hikers, I had started to regularly see men in full camouflage, faces painted as if at war, creeping around the woods armed with dangerous looking and powerful crossbows. Many also carried guns but those I spoke to assured me that only bows were allowed to be used, for another few weeks at least. It must have been target practice I was hearing some evenings then. The elk seemed to be aware that they were being hunted and it seemed too that they knew who was hunting them. While many hunters would be seen traipsing back to their pick-ups empty handed in the early hours of the morning, the elk seemed quite content to spend the night grazing close to hikers tents. I secretly think they had adopted the guerrilla tactic of the human shield!

Along with the cold nights and cooler days there had also been an ominous development going on in the sky above. The once clear blue skies had begun to be dotted with cloud. Fluffy, white puffs at first that did little more than decorate the canvas. Then splashes of darker shades were added and these grew together until the sky hung above with a weight that could not last. All summer I had known this would come, and when it came it was a deluge. On the day I was due to hike into Snoqualmie Pass it was raining before first light. Packing up the tent was quite challenging. I’ve never figured out quite how a ‘waterproof’ material can successfully hold so much water. Quicker than I could pack, water pooled in every fold and the resulting wad of soggy material was too fat to fit into its dedicated bag as well as being three times heavier than it had been all summer. The ground cloth was no better and all the while I was packing rain stole its way into every corner of my pack. The resulting weight once lifted was significantly more than I’d been carrying previously.


All around me the steel grey cloak of mist and rain, that hid all but the nearest trees, sat heavily on my shoulders and galvanised the feeling that this was not a brief shower. The feeling was not wrong. The swirling mists would continue to lay over the landscape all day and the rain pounded down relentlessly. The trail became a series of deep pools, connected by torrents of rushing water. Suddenly my lightweight gear and well-vented boots didn’t seem such a good idea and very quickly I was soaked through. My pack cover did little to protect my pack either and by the time I reached the Summit Inn at Snoqualmie I was a dripping mess. The character of the hike had changed overnight and I could not be more aware of the weather window that appeared to be closing in fast on me. In some previous years the trail had become impassable with snow by early October. The forecast was for more rain and the temperature had been dropping daily so it was hard not to have some anxiety about what the next couple of weeks might hold.


OregonĀ 

Reaching Oregon was an end and a beginning. The end of 1700 miles of California, and in addition to starting in a new state,  the walk distinctly changed character. Pine forest dominated Oregon, particularly western larch and ponderosa pine, and almost immediately I found myself hiking in the shade of these great trees. Initially it was still hot but the air around me became noticeably more humid as the days went on. 

I’d dubbed the first hundred miles or so ‘the forest of fallen trees’. Strewn with lichen like old men’s beards, fallen trees lay everywhere, scattered like matchsticks from a discarded box, laying where they fell. This included across the trail in many places leading to frequent climbing, skirting or ducking under. I wondered, is this what happens when a forest is left untouched for a thousand years? Trees push their way skywards, breathe for a time, observe the seasons, age and fall, lying for a time like a memory, then gradually fading away again into the ground. There was no felling here, deep in the forest. No management plan, no thinning or pruning. The forest just grew, aged and died, left entirely alone. In the shafts of sunlight that found their way to the forest floor new trees fought hard, full of the vitality of the young pushing for space and sky, and among the resignation of the old, slumped on the forest floor, beatles and larvae worked hard to complete the circle of life.

However, the forest seemed too quiet, almost eerie. It took a while to realise what was missing, but there was very little bird life in this section. There was little other ground cover either, just the trees, so perhaps the lack of direct light from the sun made the difference here.

I’d started to notice the nights were getting colder and the cold lingered a little longer into the morning, before the sun’s warmth could penetrate a chilly hiker. I’d also noticed that opportunities for cell phone reception were getting rarer, an indication of the increasing remoteness of the trail as it meandered north.

Crater Lake was a highlight of early Oregon. At 7,700 years old it is the crater of a collapsed volcano that is fed only by rain and snow. Without outlets it’s water level is maintained only by the balance of precipitation and evaporation. It’s deep blue waters are among the deepest of lakes in the world as well as being considered one of the most pristine.

Much of Oregon’s forests were dotted with thousands of small lakes. While some were stagnant and uninviting, many were beautiful, turquoise jewels that provided valuable water sources as well as an opportunity to wash a little, despite the ever present whine of the mosquitoes! 

After the density of much of the forest, which continued for days at a time before crossing an occasional road, it was a surprise to enter an enormous burned area. The burn appeared old but there was little new growth yet. Hillside after hillside of it. It went on for miles. Like sentinels or terracotta warriors the remains stood, some lean, tall and bare, a few charred, but most were bleached white by the sun. Wind whistled eerily in and out of their remains. Even the insects seem to have avoided re-colonising the area. It felt like a scene of death. In pockets pretty, vulnerable little wildflowers hinted at life returning, their presence seemed so fragile in this theatre of destruction. Even the rock and dirt trail appeared to emphasis this feeling. Porus solidified lava formed scattered boulders, rounded and shrunken by the passage of time and forces of nature. Their dusty remains swept lightly across my path in the keen breeze that added a delicate soundtrack to the scene. Here and there termites had started work, reducing a stump to scattered chippings. Their task unenviable as a million more lay beyond awaiting their fate. A tiny chipmunk disturbed the peace with its high pitched chattering. Drawing attention to itself, pausing and then running away. Skipping lightly along the trunks of the fallen giants. Dotted around was a little new growth but their hold seemed tenuous up there in the open, desolate and windswept landscape. With autumn already waiting in the wings, keen to take the stage, only the hardiest and most established young trees would see their way through to another spring. 

Fallen trunks on the ground, decayed and hollowed, were reminiscent of the abandoned timbers of long forgotten ships among the rocks of shore. 

Abruptly as I descended a slope I entered an area rich with new growth. Dense and full of vigor, it was everything the higher slopes were not. New trees pushed their way from every exposed inch of soil and encroached impertinently on the edges of the trail. Perhaps this was how the forest recovered. Not at once, springing from the ground and claiming the hillside, but advancing steadily outward from a stronghold like soldiers on a battlefield. Just as suddenly the soundtrack of the forest exploded.  Birds chirped and cried, alarm calls that chimed out alerting others of my presence, chipmunks chattered and darted to and fro, and the eerie wind that had whistled so teasingly through the barren remains on the hills, now sang through the leaves and pines, making celebratory waves among the tree tops. 

There had been several moments across those days when I had noticed the small subtle differences that would hint at the bigger changes coming. This year in particular hikers on the PCT have been blessed. There had been enough rainfall early in the season to fill the creeks and lakes, and then seemingly guaranteed clear blue skies and sunshine all summer long. It had become so accepted that most hikers had long since sent long pants and rain gear home, preferring to hike only in shorts and shirt, carrying little else. But change was coming. 

One morning as I passed Shale Lake I could sense it all around me. It seemed to hang in the air like a gentle warning. A low mist hovered just above the water, obscuring the pines, reflected in the stillness that I had become so accustomed to seeing. The grass around the waters edge sparkled and bent over under a blanket of dew. Even the morning air seemed slightly different. Try as I might I couldn’t pin down exactly how, but it was there. Something small and intangible, a clue to alert the observant to the seasonal change that was coming.