It was eighty-two miles to the Canadian Border from our Washington trailhead at High Bridge on the edge of North Cascades National Park. On September 8th, the weather was still glorious sunshine in what can be the wettest mountains in America. An overnight rest at the Stehekin Lodge, showers and great meals, had Richard and I amped up for the last stretch of trail to Manning Park, British Columbia.
After nearly three hundred miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, we had found a rhythm to our travel. Our speeds, camping skills and temperaments were similar. We got along well on trail and had been having a ball.
From High Bridge -- a very high bridge over the Stehekin River -- the trail passes lily ponds and river canyons, as it slowly climbs toward ominously named, Rainy Pass, a full days hike away. We knew we were near a National Park, as bear scat, full of mountain ash berries at this time of the year, was everywhere. Rounding a bend I startled one beautiful, black bear, cinnamon in color, as he foraged along the trail. Seeing me, he ambled down trail and eventually turned up hill toward the nearby forest, as I shot picture after picture. He paid no heed to me, ignoring the large two legged in trail, until he was halfway up the slope, when he turned around and shot me a glance as if to say, “So just what the heck do you think you’re doing here disturbing my grazing.”
A few hundred yards further I passed several backpackers going south who had just spooked 4 bears in under a mile. That’s a lot of bears in one place. None of them had posed a problem, and all had scooted off into the bush at the approach of people.
Black bears don’t bother me, but there have been several confirmed photos of grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades this summer and I am bothered by them. Frankly they scare the hell out of me. I’ve kayak camped in the Caribou Mountains of BC, and hiked in Glacier National Park, and recently in Alaska, and each time I’ve been acutely aware that I am no longer tops on the food chain. That’s always a bit disconcerting. Attacks are still rare, but do happen, and can be terrible when they do. So I kept my eye on the trail and was ready to backtrack if I needed to.
The Washington black bears are not like our schooled and educated Yosemite bears, however. One local told us there is a popular bear hunting season in Washington, which keeps them much more timid, as they should be in the wild. At least I think they should. When I hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier several years ago, I found a “bear pole” at each campsite, consisting of a light metal pole with a few bits of rebar protruding at the top, from which to hang your food bags. This is all well and good, but we laughed at the flimsy contraptions which any self respecting Yosemite bear would just lean on and knock over. Had we begun using these many years ago in California’s National Parks, however, we probably wouldn’t have the educated bear population we do. Generation after generation, they teach their cubs how to break into parked cars and the best way to rip open an unattended ice chest.
We camped that night at Six Mile Camp, in a dark forest on a rushing stream, the evidence of bear all around us. We chose a cook site at a distance from the tent and had no troubles in the night. It was a camp I used last year and is surrounded by thimbleberry bushes which provided fresh fruit for desert that evening. Looking like a little red thimble, they are more meaty and a little less sweet than blackberries or huckleberries, they are almost a meal in themselves and delicious.
The next morning found us climbing to over six thousand feet again and our last paved road crossing at Rainy Pass. But it didn’t rain, didn’t even come close, as the sun poured down on us and we both felt like we were in California, and not within a few miles of British Columbia.
In Washington elevations of six and seven thousand feet mean high country, timberline, similar to twelve and thirteen thousand feet in the High Sierra. The climb took us from the thick lower forests to sparse alpine woods, slim spruce and flower filled meadows. Above every rock and crag, blue sky greeted us, lush green foliage spread out beneath. And the views, did I mention there are views? Long switchbacks up every ridge brought us to breathtaking vistas into the North Cascades or looking left, massive Mt. Baker, the last of the Cascade Volcanoes in America.
Etched into the sides of the mountains in front of us were long lines, scratched into the distance. Someone had “keyed” the landscape with trails that seemed to extend to infinity. That was our trail, the PCT scrawled into the view, and the miles seemed far to many to ever traverse. But, one foot in front of the other, and by the end of an afternoon, you were there. It was one of the lessons of long distance hiking. No matter how long and insurmountable the trail seemed, one foot in front of the other always won out in the end. If I only thought about the next step, it was just a matter of time before I’d have placed that foot six million times, the number of steps from Mexico to Canada. It is a great study in perseverance and patience.
We’d done a twenty-one mile day to a camp at a little stream just past Methow Pass and then twenty-two miles the next day as we hiked to Harts Pass, and beyond to a camp at Buffalo Pass. It seemed that the word pass was in the place name of just about everything in the North Cascades, and that was because every time we looked up, we were climbing to another pass, or were on it. Ridge after ridge followed by more ridges, that’s the nature of these mountains, a jumble of earth wrinkles sharpened by eons of glacial forces and the infinitesimal, irresistible force of falling water. Only a few million years and several ice ages and we are left with beauty beyond belief.
The only downside we’d been experiencing to the great weather, was that smoke from recent fires had filled the air, and the atmospheric clarity I had last year between storms, was not there. The trade off however were spectacular sunsets as the fire haze took on shades of gold, pink and just before dark, purple. At Buffalo Pass, we found ourselves camped high, in still air, the view west into the sunset so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to get into the tent. I was exhausted by the twenty-two pass filled miles, but couldn’t give up on the evolving performance art happening right there on the horizon, the hills in the foreground pinwheeling from a point beneath the great mountains and vermillion sky. I shot picture after picture, but none of them come close to capturing the magic of that sky, and the changing shadow of the hills.
The next day, 9-10-11, was to be our last full hiking day, as we planned to camp three miles before the border and hike to it early the next morning. The PCT is a trail that doesn’t end with a whimper, it just keeps getting better, and I remembered this section vividly from my thru hike in 2010. It led us up and over, and over again, past glacial cirques, couloirs and vast escarpments, long switchbacks traversing steep slopes, hundreds of feet down and around obstacles only to climb back up hundreds of feet on the other side and finally escape the whole scene through a notch in the rock, another pass that led on to more of the same. Beauty never ending.
Woody Pass was one such escape route, which led to more climbing, to nearly seven thousand feet, and patches and fields of snow surrounded in new grass, destined never to grow more than a few inches due to the lateness of the season. I filtered water from a small pool of snow melt, lay on the grass and fell asleep in the sun. I was on top of the world, clothed in the warmth of the day, soothed by sheer exhaustion and completely content. A few steps from my crystal pool was a sheer cliff and a thousand foot fall to Hopkins Lake, perfectly round, filling the depression a glacier had left after scooping out its cirque ten thousand years ago. Deep blue and surrounded by alpine forest, it had been our final campsite last year.
We had only a few miles to go to our planned tent site a short ways past Castle Pass, and as the afternoon stretched into evening, we were looking forward to rest. Just beyond the pass we began hunting for the site, but never found it. I continued on ahead, attempting to find a flat piece of ground anywhere we could pitch the tent, but mile after mile, found nothing. It was late now, and I started to run. This day was already over twenty-four miles, and I didn’t want to go much further, but after a mile or so I realized there simply wasn’t a tent spot anywhere on this densely forested, steep slope, so I turned around and ran back to Richard to see if he wanted to just crash on the trail. He was absolutely “spent” as he called it, but kept walking, almost in a daze.
We pushed on and before long, in the fading light, I spotted the cleft in the trees on the western horizon that marked the international boundary. Both the US and Canada have a team of foresters who keep the border clear of trees in a perfectly straight line, even here, in the middle of nowhere. We were still eight miles from Manning Park Resort in British Columbia, the first bit of civilization a PCT hiker comes to when finishing.
Just as the last light was fading, we were there, the border and Monument 78 -- a marker commemorating the treaty of 1846 that settled our boundary with Canada -- and the first flat ground in three miles. In utter fatigue, we didn’t go any further, we pitched our tent in the small space, half in the US and half in Canada. It’s the first time I’d ever slept in two countries at once. The monument is a small bronze copy of an Egyptian “needle” -- as in Cleopatra’s Needle that sits behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY City -- but it’s hollow and comes apart in three pieces, holding a log book, notes and last year, a few bags of drugs left by those stoner hikers who didn’t want to risk getting caught by the Mounties. It had been cleaned out since then, and now only held the log book in which we both made entries.
For me, the sadness I had felt last year at the end of such a long and wonderful trail was repeated. Twenty-six-hundred miles the first time, three-hundred and sixty this time, but both incredibly fun hikes. I’d done what I’d set out to do and seen the parts of Washington I’d missed last year because of bad weather, and I’d hiked it slower, more enjoyably. Richard had even made coffee each morning, something I never did when thru hiking.
Richard and I found we were still great backpacking companions. We’d gone the distance in just under three weeks and had not taken even one “zero” (no mileage day). Richard has been a backpacker for many years, but on this trip he graduated to become a true PCT section hiker with the ultimate goal of completing the entire trail in sections.
I’d carried a MacBook Air and had written most of the columns in this series while on trail, an experiment in whether I could manage this on a long hike. I didn’t know if I could carry the extra 3lbs or so at my geezerly age. But I found spots on trail where I got an errant cel signal and was able to sit down in the dust and shoot off a column to Jim while miles from a road. Loading pictures was so slow that you may remember a certain paucity of them in one article. Mainly, could I find the time and energy to write in the evenings or on the few “neros” (near zero mileage days) we took with trail angels or at a lodge.
It worked however, and as there are probably more long hikes in me yet, this column may range far afield in the summer when the other great National Scenic Trails call me to hike. The Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian, North Country, Ice Age, Florida, Potomac, Natchez Trace, Arizona, Pacific Northwest and the New England Trails are all part of our national heritage, and the envy of every European, Asian, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi or South American I hiked with last year. I intend to put them to good use. For this year I got to hike some of the most beautiful mountains in the country, and found that I still love the life on trail.
This winter, I’m back in town and will be continuing my quest to hike every East Bay Regional Park. That’s quite enough to get me to next spring and a new long trail.
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.” John Muir