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.
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.