I was standing along the Pacific Crest Trail, north of Stevens Pass, chatting with two men who were camped nearby.
We were talking, as backpackers often do, about food.
One of the hikers looked past me to where Jerry, my 6-foot, 4-inch husband, was cooking dinner.
“Your husband,” the hiker said, “is a big guy. I wouldn’t want to carry so much food.”
In fact, I didn’t want to carry so much food. But the fault wasn’t really with Jerry’s height, although it is true he can eat an impressive quantity of food.
The real problem was that we had planned a nine-day backpacking trip and had to carry everything we would eat for that time — all while exercising hard all day.
We’d done trips before that were nearly as long, but we’d always had the luxury of caching food on the trail ahead of time. For this trip, it was all on our backs and we were feeling the weight. But even with the weight, we were loving our time on the PCT. I have long been fascinated with the PCT and for our first big trip on trail, we were hiking the section in Snohomish County. Our packs were heavy but, so far from civilization, we felt light.
We started at Stevens Pass around noon. My parents dropped us off with our heavy packs. We kissed our daughter goodbye and sent her off to be spoiled by her grandparents.
Then we started hiking. It was an easy first day that let us ease into the trip. In just over three miles, we entered the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness. We would be in wilderness for the rest of trip.
We spent the night at Lake Valhalla, a beautiful mountain lake. It’s a popular backpacking destination and we had company, including some people just out for the night and one woman who was hiking the entire trail.
After we passed the Smithbrook Trail junction, a common way to access Lake Valhalla, we stopped seeing day hikers. We quickly learned to identify the through-hikers (those doing the entire trail, from Mexico to Canada). Ironically, they had the smallest packs.
We ate lunch at Lake Janus where the first “tragedy” of our trip occurred. While packing up, I accidentally stepped on my hiking stick and cracked off the bottom. That stick had been with me since Jerry’s and my first backpacking trip. It’s seen a lot of miles. I picked up the stick like it was a living thing. I rested my head on Jerry’s chest and told him, fiercely, that he was not allowed to laugh while I had a small cry over a piece of wood.
He didn’t laugh.
So, several miles farther along, I didn’t laugh when he took off one of his boots and started hiking in one boot and one flip flop. He had a very angry, very large blister on his left heel.
Neither of these things seemed like good omens.
But the flip flop worked for Jerry, we found a nice campsite and we hung the bear bag on the first try. And we made sure to eat our heaviest food.
The huckleberries along the trail were insanely abundant. My tongue was sore from eating so many.
We stopped for a dip in Pear Lake. I waded out on a rock perfectly positioned for a leap into the water. It felt so good I jumped in twice.
As we hiked away from the lake, we stopped in the middle of a huge, mixed flock of birds. Mountain chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets, winter wrens, juncos, warblers, robins and a few species I couldn’t name hopped and chattered all around us.
We talked with several through hikers, including a man with the trail name Horizon. Jerry told him that sound rather majestic. Horizon laughed. Turned out he got that name because he likes to nap, and is often found horizontal along the trail.
We woke up early to the sound of thunder. We skipped breakfast and packed quickly. The sunrise was an eerie blood orange. The wind had shifted and smoke from the east side of the mountains was blowing over. Eventually the thunder turned into a rainstorm. It didn’t last long, and we sat in the woods until it passed.
Farther down the trail we stopped to talk to a man with a rifle who was hunting bear. About a mile later, we spotted a bear near the trail. It had been eating huckleberries — like us — and when it heard us coming it ran, faster than I would have believed possible.
In the afternoon we came across a group of teenage volunteers who were out for a 16-day trip with the Washington Trails Association. Their food was packed in by horses. I would have been been jealous except I was really just grateful for the trail work.
We set up camp near Reflection Pond. Smoke from a small fire a few valleys over made breathing irritating and turned the sky a creepy brown color. The sun couldn’t penetrate the haze enough to even make a shadow.
We climbed up to White Pass, with some good views of Glacier Peak, and then traversed an endless, hot climb to Red Pass. From the pass we had a good view of the small fire we smelled the night before. Even though it was small, it was intimidating to be anywhere near it. I was happy to leave it behind.
The hike down from Red Pass was gorgeous, with a great view of Glacier Peak in the lush, wide valley below. We stopped to chat with a group of Boy Scouts from Granite Falls who were out doing a 50-mile trip for a merit badge.
We could tell this section of trail hasn’t had much maintenance. Jerry counted 38 downed logs across the trail.
Just before dinner, the UV light pen we use to treat water stopped working. We debated what we’d do for the rest of the trip. We had iodine but not enough for the rest of the trip. We decided we’d borrow filters if we could, treat with iodine when we had to and just take our chances with any water sources that looked trustworthy.
It was a Friday and we were not at work. In fact, we had not been anywhere near civilization all week. Bliss. Even better, our UV pen decided to behave itself and started working again.
We crossed endless downed trees, and one sketchy broken bridge over Kennedy Creek. You can tell the power of the floods that can come through here by looking at the riverbanks and the huge rocks tossed in unlikely places. Everything feels wild and remote out there.
In the afternoon it started raining. We crossed over Fire Creek Pass in pouring rain and heavy wind. I could almost tell that, in better weather, it would be beautiful. We planned to stay at Mica Lake, but, without tree cover, it was too exposed.
We ended up in what was, no question, the worst campsite I had ever slept it. We couldn’t be picky. Since Mica Lake didn’t work out, we had to find something else before dark. We improvised a campsite well off the trail. It wasn’t really flat, but it was under the trees and protected from the wind. We ate dinner cold. No way we were getting out of the tent to use our stove.
Everything was wet. Well, OK, not everything. Our sleeping bags were mostly dry and that’s important. Everything else, though? Soaked.
There are few things less pleasant than stuffing a wet tent in a wet stuff sack, but I did it. My mood was improved when a large, chittering flock of chickadees came to visit.
The rain held off for most of the day, but started up again toward the late afternoon. We really noticed the lack of trail maintenance. At one point we came around a switchback and the trail was gone, completely washed off the hill for about 20 feet. We had to backtrack and find a scramble route down to the trail.
I decided that, despite its pretty appearance, I hate lupine. Its leaves seem to be designed specifically to catch water and deliver it straight into your hiking boots.
After the previous night’s horrible camp, we found the world’s best campsite ever. It was a thing of beauty: Flat, spacious and sheltered from the wind and rain. It even had rocks for sitting and a log for hanging our gear to dry. I never wanted to leave.
In fact, we didn’t leave for a long time. We woke up early to fog everywhere. It wasn’t an inspiring sight so we snoozed. Eventually, when the sun started to break through, we hung our wet gear in the sun. Then we backtracked and ate breakfast while enjoying the view we’d missed in the rain the day before.
We got a good view of Glacier Peak and Mount Baker. We finally started hiking about 1:15 p.m.
“Goodbye campsite,” I said. “We will miss you. You were awesome.”
The day of hiking was all about downhill. Down, down, down. We descended about 4,000 feet and spent a lot of time scrambling over trees. Finally, in the afternoon we came across a mass of freshly cut logs. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. From that point on, hiking was easy. Thank you, trail crews!
While we were eating a snack, a woman with the trail name “Flower” stopped to chat. She was on vacation from Florida and planning to hike the Washington section of the trail in about two weeks. She usually manages about 40 miles a day. I felt about as fast as a banana slug.
The final day was a breeze. All we had to do was hike out the Suiattle River Trail, seven mostly flat miles. When we reached the end, we met up with my parents. In a bit of trail luck, they arrived about five minutes before us.
We hugged our daughter as long as she’d let us and then asked my parents “So, can we go get a burger?”