My friend, Marnie, and I planned our first long backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail – a 2,600 mile long, two-foot wide path through the wilderness that spans the distance from Mexico to Canada. We didn’t plan to tackle the whole thing this time (that’s for next year).
Backpacking never fails to surprise us. Often for me it even gets embarrassing. On this particular outing, we decided to walk the fifty-three miles between Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, Oregon and the town of Cascade Locks. We left the day after we attended PCT Days, a festival with vendors, speakers, and prize giveaways celebrating all things PCT. We were expecting to use the detailed four-day, three-night itinerary outlined in the book, Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon, written by the very optimistic and positive-thinking Mr. Eli Boschetto. He also offers a three-day, two-night itinerary for this section, which the word “optimistic” cannot come close to describing.
I was most concerned about river crossings and really gave little thought to all the ups and downs the trail would make going into and out of canyons and all the time randomly whenever it wanted. We crossed the Zigzag River without incident, except that the little climb up the bank needed quite a bit of effort. Not everyone was so lucky. A man crossed toward us using his hiking poles and then watched as his girlfriend slipped on a rock. When she showed him her injured leg he said, “Oh, Sarah,” and still didn’t offer her a hand. We thought poor Sarah had herself a pain in the derrière to go with the gash on her knee!
By this time it was getting pretty late, and instead of crossing two rivers in the afternoon while we were tired we decided to wait until the next day. We camped just above our next challenge, the Sandy River, hoping that the narrow, raging torrent would be calmer in the morning. We looked for a place to hang our food away from bears (they don’t care about you, they just want your cookies) and finally found an appropriate branch. After a rather humiliating four or five tries, we managed to throw the combination carabiner/tennis ball gadget invented by Marnie’s husband up and over, and wrangled our food bags to a suitable height. It was certainly not up to the standard of the official PCT method of hanging a bear bag, but we hoped it would keep furry critters from snuffling at our tents. We made sure we weren’t camped under too many widowmakers (dead trees or branches that could fall and squash us), and slept soundly with the noise of a creek in the background.
We woke up about 8:00 a.m., packed up, and headed down to the river. The Sandy River, while low, was still rushing wildly. After crossing part of the very narrow log “bridge” over the swiftly-moving water my legs turned to Jell-O, so Marnie reached out her hand and yanked me across after I got about three-fourths of the way. My sister, the Pilates and Parkour guru, had given me advice about crossing logs before we left – “Just draw an imaginary line from where you are to where you want to go and follow the line,” she explained. This is much easier said than done. The Sandy River has a very large, dry, rocky bed, so it is hard to see where the trail starts up again on the other side. After conquering the log bridge, we had to scour the far shore for cairns (artistic-looking piles of rocks) that marked the way back to the PCT.
Shortly after successfully traversing the Sandy River, we reached the Muddy Fork, which, of course, turned out to be completely different. Just when we were certain that we had sort of gotten the hang of tree-walking, we were presented with an entirely different sort of obstacle. High above the very fast-flowing Muddy Fork, two giant logs hung in the air. Some unknown person (bless them!) had tied a scrawny rope along the upper log. To start navigating this hurdle, you have to scramble up on the logs, bruising your shins on the way. Then to cross, you lean way over the upper log to keep from falling backward into the river, and hold onto the rope while you sidle along the lower log, not looking down.
We inspected the crossing for a few minutes, wondering first how we were going to hoist ourselves up onto the huge lower log. I hollered, “Adventure!” and managed to get onto the log after a couple of jumps, with Marnie and two thru-hikers as an audience. (Thru-hikers are people who are hiking the whole PCT in a season.) A photo of the crossing in the book is captioned, “Put your balance beam skills to work on the log crossing over the Muddy Fork River.” We were not amused at this. And yet, one of the thru-hikers, with a full backpack, hopped up and skipped across the top of the highest log in a way that naturally annoyed the heck out of us.
After crossing the Muddy Fork River we got to where dozens of tiny waterfalls combine together to form the beautiful Ramona Falls. It was such a dazzling sight that we decided to spend a little time there on a conveniently-placed sitting log to soak up all the negative ions before moving on. I’m surprised at the popularity of Ramona Falls as a day-hike destination since the Muddy Fork crossing on the day-hike trail is supposed to be more difficult than the one we had survived. That’s the very reason I hadn’t seen Ramona Falls before.
The rest of this day was spent going up hills through various switchbacks, some of which are deemed “more moderate and easygoing” in the book, but which we deemed no such thing. At the end of the switchbacks, the book has the audacity to say the trail “levels out”. We saw no evidence of this and continued huffing and puffing on up. We found a small bubbling stream where we gladly rested and refilled our water supply while talking to some southbound (SOBO) thru-hikers and some section hikers. The SOBOs told us hungrily, “We’re booking it to Timberline Lodge so we can have the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet tomorrow!”
Our second night we camped at Lolo Pass, right at the trailhead parking lot. We were pleased to have the use of a lovely, clean picnic table to organize all our things and try the expensive dehydrated meal I bought at PCT Days. The meal was some sort of Asian slaw that you could supposedly use cold water to rehydrate. It didn’t rehydrate well at all and was crunchy instead of slaw-textured, so we ate other things and then zipped ourselves up into our tents.
At about 8:00 p.m. (also known as “hiker midnight”) we heard voices coming, the first of which said, “Ooh, a camp AND a picnic table? And that picnic table looks NEW!”
The second voice said, “I think I’m going to call it a night,” and then set up her tent and camped right next to us, also making use of the picnic table. She was up and gone before we even opened our tents the next morning. Thru-hikers are early risers.
Next we started off through the 11.4-mile Bull Run Watershed, the source of drinking water for Portland, Oregon. The trail is bordered with huckleberry bushes so we nibbled at the last of the ripe huckleberries as we hiked, and stopped to rest, fill up our water, and snack at Salvation Spring. Marnie had signal on her phone, so she let everyone know we would be finished a day later than planned since we hadn’t done the river crossings on the first day, and we’re, well…slow. Four or five thru-hikers stopped at Salvation Spring as well. One girl plopped down on the ground, laid out her tent ground sheet, and dumped out all her food to find something she felt like eating. She probably thought I was odd because I kept looking at her food supply to get ideas. They were all crunching on Doritos, which we decided was a snack goal for our next trip.
In the Bull Run Forest Reserve there are strict “No Trespassing” signs reminding hikers to stay on trail. When we finally got to a space where there was just…erm…no waiting anymore, we decided to trespass just one tree off trail. Based on the number of toilet paper “flowers” behind said tree, every other girl hiker had the same idea. I was surprised thru-hikers would make such a mess, every GOOD hiker knows what are called the Leave No Trace principles, one of which is to always pack out your T.P. instead of leaving it for others to see! It was at this point that I realized my “potty kit” had fallen out of my backpack somewhere as we walked. I actually gasped in horror out loud – all my toilet paper and my Opsak and my trowel were gone! Thankfully I had some tissues and an extra Ziploc bag. (Opsaks are odor-proof zipper bags. Ziploc bags are NOT odor-proof. Get an Opsak to pack out your T.P.) The girl who dumped out all her food at Salvation Spring came by later, and when I asked her if she had noticed my potty kit on the trail she sort of sniffed, “Oh, I saw it, but since I didn’t know which way you went I didn’t want to carry the extra weight.” My trowel was a $20.00 ultralight item called a “Deuce of Spades”. Part of their being expensive is that they come in many colors. Mine was pink, because, you know, pink.
On this afternoon we were getting tired from continually going up, and were concerned about how far away the next camp listed in the book was going to be. We decided to check out what was described as an “old abandoned logging road”. It looked like campsites, so we camped there among quite a few bees. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten up in the night to pee while backpacking. I don’t even like to walk through my house in the dark to go to the bathroom, so this was a big step. I honestly had no thought of cougars or bears in the night until a few days after getting home. Then I thought I’d better not think of cougars or bears in the night.
On day four on our way to Wahtum Lake a SOBO section hiker told us there was trail magic at the campground parking lot. He said we should go up the steps. (“Trail magic” is when a person called a “trail angel” brings food and/or drinks to give to thru-hikers. All thru-hikers look forward to receiving trail magic during their hikes!) We were hoping we might qualify for a cold Gatorade or something even though we weren’t thru-hiking, so we saw the stairs and started up the 97 railroad tie and dirt treads with various rise heights called the “Express” trail. This was an option our book made no mention of, probably for good reason. Halfway up our legs were screaming, and after a good cry we realized there was an actual trail to the parking lot, but we finished off the steps anyway even though we could see that there was no sign of trail magic. We decided the guy had been playing a mean joke on us. There was, however, a good, clean picnic table and a toilet! (And more bees). We took a long lunch break there and then went down to the peaceful lake to fill up on water.
We needed a lot of water because our next section was the Eagle Creek burn area, which according to our book was a “lush, green forest” but is now actually an exposed area of burned and dead trees. Acres and acres of land were burned in 2017 because a 15-year-old boy was throwing fireworks into a canyon, and at the sight of the aftermath both Marnie and I were wishing we could have had a hand in deciding the kid’s punishment. But we were glad to see that many plants laughed at the wildfire and grew back up along the trail, including salmonberry, thimbleberry, and ferns. We had planned to camp at a site listed in our book that would have had a beautiful view of the sunset and the valley below, but it was completely burned and even had warning signs saying dead trees could fall on us. We kept going, wondering if we could make it to the next listed campsite. Once we got into the green forest again, though, an unlisted campsite materialized right next to the trail. It was a bit rocky (and full of bees) but just the right size for our two tents.
Day five was supposed to be all downhill after a certain point, according to our book. We went around a mountain on what we call an “edge” trail, with the ground straight up on one side and straight down on the other side and two feet of trail in the middle. The trail went through the forest and then over ankle-turner rocks and back through the forest and again over rocks as it wound around the hill. After going downhill for a little ways the trail went back up (To where? The town is downhill!) and up. I was woozy and my legs were wobbly so I asked Marnie to pray with me for strength so we could finish up.
The next surprise: Guess where I ended up at 3:30 in the afternoon with just two-and-a-half miles left to get to town? If you guessed sitting in the middle of the trail swatting at bees and calling 911, you would be correct. After running on little sleep and not enough food (nothing tasted good and my mouth was dry) and pushing hard through half a day more than I should have without sleep or food, my legs continued to be wobbly and I was stumbling every fourth step. I looked at the next rocky part of the trail and figured my legs wouldn’t do it, so I reluctantly made what we call a “safety decision” and decided to sit down before I fell down (or worse yet, knocked Marnie down) and call for help. I argued to myself, “But I should keep going anyway!” many times. The oft-used hiker phrase, “Embrace the suck!” came to mind. But each time I heard back, “Call 911!” Oh, safety or not, I was mortified. So embarrassing! I mean, what self-respecting hiker couldn’t make it two miles (downhill!) to town?
This new adventure included talking to a very kind 911 operator and an equally kind sheriff’s deputy, who came with six or seven volunteer Search and Rescue gentlemen (including two doctors) who were enthusiastically concerned about me. They packed me up in a litter with one big nubby wheel on it, covered me with a blanket, and proceeded to roll me down the mountain with one of the guys walking on the downside of the trail. I don’t know how they did it, but I was definitely “helping” by hugging the upside of the litter the whole way! When we got to the Forest Service road where the rescue party had parked, a stern young deputy demanded my name and information, and was particularly interested to know the address where I got my mail. I was not looking forward to receiving anything they wanted to send me, which I assumed would be some sort of reprimand for taking up their valuable time, or a bill. We were then bundled up into the back of another deputy’s SUV (my first time riding in the back of a police car – quite sparse accommodations) and given a ride to the fire station in Cascade Locks so the EMTs could look at me. Two young EMTs eagerly poked my finger, listened to my chest, and hooked electrodes up to me. All my vital signs were normal but they suggested I go in an ambulance to the hospital, to which I said, “No, thank you.” I signed a serious-looking document that said I refused transport in the ambulance and would see my doctor when I got home, and was thoroughly scolded by the supervising EMT for not eating enough.
“But nothing tasted good,” I said.
“Everything should taste good when you’re hiking ten miles a day!” she admonished.
After winning the argument (I wasn’t up to the challenge) she then asked me who the President was (cussing optional, she said) and where I was and my address, et cetera, and since I answered all the questions correctly they let me go. The deputy dropped us off at the Best Western where we waited for just a few minutes before Marnie’s husband picked us up and took us to Dairy Queen. Even though we were filthy and hadn’t had a shower in five days, we went inside the restaurant to eat. I had a burger and a strawberry milkshake, as I was suddenly very hungry. Marnie chuckled as we left.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“I must really have the hiker stink, when I went to refill my drink that man moved clear over there!”
After our dinner, we drove the hour and a half home and I took a shower and a two-day nap.
Frustrating as it was to need to be rescued (I didn’t tell anyone except my closest family and friends for months afterwards) I was encouraged that on our first long backpacking trip we were able to walk 51.74 miles. And me with hardly any food or sleep!
A few months later we went back to Cascade Locks and hiked up the PCT to the place where we had stopped so we could finish that part of the trail. We realized that the trail actually got easier from the place that we called for help and I probably could have made it (insert “Arrgh” emoticon here). Marnie had painted a rock that said, “The best view comes after the hardest climb,” and we left the rock there at my rescue spot in hopes of encouraging other struggling hikers.
Central takeaways from the hike: God doesn’t always answer prayer the way we might hope. We prayed for strength to get to where we needed to go, and God used the strength of others to accomplish it. God doesn’t always care that you might feel embarrassed. He knows what you need. And God knows where all the campsites are even if your book doesn’t.
Water takeaways: Drink lots of water. Bring electrolyte powders that taste good to put in your water. Water that is filtered out of a mountain lake or stream tastes much better than your water at home.
Food takeaways: Bring delicious food you will eat. Eat the food even if you don’t feel like it. Try all the food beforehand so you know if it’s delicious or not. Huckleberries are delicious. I would have felt better if I could have eaten more huckleberries. You may not be able to hang your food properly away from bears because there may be no branches low enough, live enough, or at all. Then just put your food in the foot of your tent and pray that the bears won’t notice it.
General backpacking takeaways: Backpacking is dirty. You will be dirty. Everything will be dirty. Your feet may never be clean again. Never underestimate the value of a nice picnic table or a good sitting log.
Thru-hiker takeaways: Don’t assume they don’t want to talk. If they will talk to you, talk to them. Ask them questions. (For instance, ask how they look so much less dirty than you do when you’ve only been out for two days.)
Bear takeaways: Well, none, because we didn’t see a bear. Or a deer. Or any wildlife except birds and a couple of chipmunks. And bees.
Cougar takeaways: Don’t think about cougars.