By Craig Hill The News Tribune
Depending on the point of reference, a hastily scribbled note and my dilapidated fax machine either perfected or ruined our attempt to hike what’s arguably Washington’s most famous trail.
The first step in most Wonderland Trail adventures comes March 15 each year. This is when Mount Rainier National Park rangers start accepting requests for backcountry camp permits.
The Wonderland Trail takes most hikers 10 days or more to complete.
All permit requests received March 15 to April 1, usually 800 to 1,000, are treated equally.
Starting April 2, a team of park employees randomly select requests and assign the parties their camps.
Hikers who miss the March 15 to April 1 window rarely get what they request, but rangers try to accommodate them.
Our plan last summer was for five of us to hike the loop in eight or nine days in August.
I filled out the form late on the night of March 31 and at the last second I got a little nervous. What if we didn’t get our dates?
So, just before I faxed my request, I scribbled a note in the middle of the form: “As a very last resort, we could depart Sept. 11 or any day that week.”
I hit send and went to bed.
It wasn’t until late the next evening that I realized the paperwork was still in the tray. My ancient fax machine had let me down.
I hit send again but, now I knew, it was too late.
Three weeks later, a letter arrived stating our permit was for Sept. 11 to 18.
The good news: The trip was happening. The bad news: I might be hiking alone.
A doctor and teacher who planned to come along bowed out. Two co-workers were suddenly on the fence.
For months I would ask others to join me, but my offers were repeatedly declined.
Finally, I got a yes from Graham firefighter Thad Richardson.
Next, News Tribune photographer Drew Perine and public life team leader Matt Misterek were back on board.
For the four of us, it couldn’t have worked out much better. Eight days on the trail. Not one drop of rain.
On the trail, I didn’t feel much remorse for the two we left behind, but now, when I see them, I sometimes feel guilty.
Don’t put yourself in this situation. Submit a request by April 1 and give yourself the best chance. Here are some tips:
Don’t wait until the last minute. Make sure your fax sends.
Don’t start your trip on a Friday. Most hikers request a Friday start, Overturf said.
Consider hiking counterclockwise, Overturf said. Most people hike clockwise.
“Be flexible,” Overturf said. Allow the rangers the ability to tweak your itinerary.
The rangers will try to keep the hiking distance as close as possible to your request, Overturf said, and they’ll call you before making any dramatic changes.
The later in the season you’re willing to hike, the better your chance of scoring permits, Overturf said.
Make sure your itinerary is realistic. While it might be hard to get the time off work, so is the trail. You can take up to 13 days.
“When in doubt, give yourself extra time,” Overturf said. ” … Take some time to plan. Sitting in front of the map and envisioning your journey is one of the best parts of the experience anyway.”
Get a permit
Permit reservations should be made by April 1. Reservations can be made by fax or mail. Get the form (which lists the fax number and address) at http://1.usa.gov/1jh9GOB.