Out Of The Frying Pan And Into the Fire Season

So there we were. One state down, two to go. Every PCT hiker hears horror stories about the “green tunnel” of Oregon, where you hike for days without seeing anything beyond the walls of trees lining both sides of the trail. Needless to say, we were pretty apprehensive about starting Oregon. On the bright side, the ridiculously flat terrain would let us cruise for 30 miles a day without “much difficulty.”

After being greeted at the border with a free (and mandatory) rain shower, we made our way over Mount Ashland in the fog and down to the beautiful sounds of the highway. Hiking through the clouds along windswept ridges was a welcome change from the hundred-degree heat of just two days before. From Mount Ashland, we dropped down to cross I-5 for the second and final time. There we met Gabe’s family friend Bill Roberts, a cowboy/poet who has been maintaining the trails in the area for years. He generously treated us to dinner at an Indian restaurant in Ashland (sadly, we missed the buffet by a few hours), where we swapped tales of the trail over steaming bowls of curry. After dinner, we resupplied at a grocery store and Bill drove us back to the trailhead. Months of bland trail food had left both of us craving spicy Indian cuisine, and we slept well with that desire finally satisfied.

For a while after Ashland, Oregon lived up to its trail reputation. We trended northeast and finally got our last views of Mount Shasta, this time from the north. The Sky Lakes Wilderness held a welcoming party for us, but unfortunately the guests were all ravenous mosquitoes and we were the only item on the menu. We fought the swarm of bloodthirsty insects for several long days wearing headnets and rain gear to fight off their starving appetite, but we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. My parents and grandparents would be meeting us at Crater Lake on Saturday, and we used the promise of food and rest to motivate ourselves when the going got tough. When we stopped for lunch on Friday, I turned my phone on and was immediately welcomed by a torrent of text messages from my parents. “We’re at the trailhead,” said my dad. “Were waiting from 10-1, hope you’re ok,” said my mom. How could that be?! We’d agreed to meet on Saturday! With a growing sense of dread, I pulled up the calendar on my phone. Sure enough, it was Saturday. I kicked myself, both figuratively and literally. Somehow Gabe and I had both been a day off for the entire week, thinking it was Tuesday when it was Wednesday, and so on. Neither of us could figure out when we got off track. I guess that’s just what happens when you live in the woods for a few months with no schedule and the days of the week truly don’t matter. I sent off an apologetic text explaining our mistake, and we set off through the woods in a dejected mood, as visions of cookies and ice cream turned to puffs of smoke in our heads.

The next day we rested for several hours in Crater Lake while we took advantage of free showers in the campground, ate burgers and pizza in the lodge restaurant, and gawked at the hordes of people attracted to the easily accessible park. When we managed to rouse ourselves from our food coma, we made our way up to the rim of the caldera that holds the park’s main attraction. Crater Lake fills the bottom of the massive circular hole that formed thousands of years ago when volcanic Mount Mazama collapsed in on itself. Its waters are so clear that it must be seen to be believed – pictures don’t really do it justice.

20140820-151558.jpg

We camped at a spring near the rim to prepare for the next day’s challenge – a thirty-mile dry stretch through the most boring and flat terrain imaginable. I had loaded up on sugary pink lemonade drinks (160 calories per bottle!) at the store to increase my water carrying capacity, and I wasn’t looking forward to hauling the three extra liters the entire next day. The day started out pleasantly with a walk partway around the Crater Lake rim. Descending off of the rim, we hiked for hours through perfectly flat, dry forest. This wasn’t your typical forest with lush undergrowth and birds singing from the trees, either. As far as we could see in any direction (which wasn’t very far), there was nothing but scraggly lodgepoles sprouting from the grey volcanic soil. It was like hiking through purgatory- with so little to stimulate our minds, minutes oozed by like hours, and hiking through the hot air was like wading through molasses. At some point I pulled out my kindle and was literally reading and hiking to keep my mind from atrophying into mush during the mindless walk.

After hiking through the forest for what felt like an eternity, we crossed Highway 138 and entered the Mount Thielsen Wilderness. Here, we experienced an unfamiliar sensation- we battled gravity to gain elevation as we climbed up towards Thielsen’s flank. Though we were still enveloped by impenetrable walls of trees, the promise of a break in the monotony energized us. As we climbed higher, we were rewarded with views of Mount Mazama and miles of unbroken forest leading up to imposing cliffs at the base of Mount Thielsen. Just a few more miles took us to Thielsen Creek, the end of our dry stretch and an idyllic oasis of beauty in an otherwise barren desert of flat woodland. I stared up at the sheer rock faces surrounding the summit of the mountain above and forgot about the day’s drudgery.

The next day, we hiked through similar terrain, though the occasional lake and sporadic thunderstorms kept us from getting too bored or hot. Maidu Lake was a particularly scenic detour, and as an added bonus its resident dragonflies kept us mosquito-free while we filled our water bottles and stretched our legs.

image

That night, we camped at Crescent Lake, where the day’s storm clouds made for an incredible sunset. After 32 miles we were rewarded with a nice cool swim and relatively clean bathroom.

image

20140820-151712.jpg

While we were bathing in the lake, a group of moms on a summer camping trip with their kids noticed our emaciated bodies and took pity on us. They offered us a feast of leftover sloppy joes and fresh fruit, which we gobbled down while entertaining them with stories of life on the trail.

The thunderstorms that day unfortunately did more than just enhance the sunset. They touched off wildfires that effectively closed portions of the trail behind us in Crater Lake and Ashland. In fact, all through Northern California and into Oregon we’d had fires nipping at our heels like we were action movie heroes diving away from an explosion in slow motion. Fires had closed the trail in Old Station, Etna, Ashland, and Crater Lake, all just a few days after we left (we didn’t start them, we promise).

Entering the Three Sisters Wilderness a few days later, we saw evidence of the fires nearby. The sun shone orange in the morning, and the volcanoes in the distance rose out of a sickly gray haze of smoke. As we approached the line of mountains for which the wilderness is named, the ever-present buzz of mosquitoes grew to a feverish howling. The Sisters Wilderness is home to hundreds of lakes and ponds, which makes it a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes in late July and August. We spent most of the next several days in our skeeter suits (rain gear and a head net), and at night we were lulled to sleep by the hellish whine of hundreds of mosquitoes pressed against the mesh of our tent.

image

Thankfully one of the few pieces of gear that isn't riddled with holes yet.

We finally (and, as of this writing, permanently) left the bugs behind as we climbed up to the foothills surrounding South Sister, the first of three spectacular volcanoes we would pass in a single twenty-mile stretch of trail.

image

From the base of South Sister, we picked our way over sprawling lava flows and fields of pitch-black obsidian past Middle and North Sisters.

image

After rounding North Sister, we descended to an enormous field of lava. With every step we had to avoid rolling our ankles on tennis-ball-size rocks, so it was slow going. Somewhere in Northern California, Gabe had picked up some giardia from a spring and got another skin infection on his lower back. The combination of these ailments mandated an incredibly painful waddle between bouts of diarrhea.

Midway through the lava flow, we hit Highway 242, where we met my grandpa. My grandparents live half an hour down the road, so for this resupply they picked us up and brought us to their house to get a box we had mailed them. We ended up taking an incredibly relaxing zero day, and we even managed to catch a movie at the theater in Bend. A few hours at the doctors office led to two courses of antibiotics and they advised us not to keep hiking 30 mile days. Oops.

We set out the next morning rejuvenated from our zero day (and my grandma’s awesome cooking). From McKenzie Pass at Highway 242, we wound through burnt forests and over the side of Mount Washington into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. Over the course of the next few days we passed under the craggy cliffs of Three Fingered Jack and into the foothills surrounding Mount Jefferson, where we watched yet another fire smolder in the distance.

image

Mount Jefferson from the west.

20140820-151817.jpg

At the western edge of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, we crossed over a saddle and got our first view of Oregon’s (in my opinion) most impressive volcano, Mount Hood. On a clear day, Hood dominates the northern Oregon skyline for hundreds of miles around and provides 3G for us to send snapchats from the trail.

20140820-151958.jpg

image

From our viewpoint we had a preview of the next 50 miles of the PCT as it followed ridgelines up to the treeline on Mount Hood’s southern flank. Besides promising great views and being only 50 miles from Washington, we had one major reason to look forward to the mountain: the Timberline Lodge. Since starting the trail we had heard legends of the all-you-can-eat buffet in the dining room of this historic ski lodge. It’s thru-hiking tradition to stop at Timberline to gorge for hours on end, and we were not about to miss out on what many consider to be the trail’s best meal.

With visions of heaping plates of steaming hot food driving us onwards, we made good time. A hitch around a burned section of trail brought us even closer to our goal (thanks for the ride, Jim!), and within a few days we found ourselves slogging up the sandy climb to the lodge.

image

Upon entering the lodge, I was immediately blown away by the building’s architecture. Resembling the illegitimate lovechild of a log cabin and an English estate house, the Timberline Lodge is a sprawling hotel and tourist destination (some of the movie The Shining was filmed there) whose wooden construction and retro dĂ©cor manage to give it a cozy, rustic feel. Like most things on the trail, however, admiring the lodge’s grandeur was much less important to me than finding food. We headed upstairs to the dining room, and found ourselves in heaven.

When we laid eyes on the buffet, we became ecstatic. There was fancy cheese, fresh fruit, salad (pass, not enough calories), chowder, meats, a waffle station, and, most importantly, an entire table devoted to dessert. We stacked our plates high with food that I’m getting hungry just writing about, stuffed our faces until we could barely move, and then kept eating. At some point I lapsed into a food coma and an employee had to wake me up from my midday snooze. Apparently hobos sleeping on the couch isn’t in line with the image the Timberline Lodge likes to present to guests (who can blame them?).

Digesting the feast took us several hours, during which we chatted with other thru-hikers and charged our electronics. When we finally pried ourselves from the oh-so-comfy couches of the lodge’s lobby it was almost 5 pm. At first we were reluctant to continue hiking, but as the trail followed the treeline around the mountain and over silty, glacier-fed creeks, the views buoyed our spirits and we were soon camped near beautiful Ramona Falls.

20140820-152039.jpg

20140820-152119.jpg

The next day we left Mount Hood behind as we followed a ridge north towards the Columbia River Gorge and the state border. Through breaks in the trees we had views of three of Washington’s most spectacular volcanoes– Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams.

At Indian Springs Campground, we chose to take the Eagle Creek alternate trail. This route drops precipitously (2000 feet in two miles) down to beautiful Eagle Creek, which it then follows for about 15 miles out to the Columbia River. Apparently most hikers take this alternate, as the creek provides ample swimming opportunities and several incredible waterfall views. Our decision was also weighted by the fact that our friend Lucas would be meeting us ten miles up the creek.

After a swim in the creek to wash off the worst of the thru-hiker stench, we spent an awesome night around a campfire with Lucas and his friends Sara and Evan. Whiskey was in ample supply, which made for a late start the next morning. When we eventually got moving, we hiked out the final ten miles, passing behind Tunnel Falls and stopping to jump off the cliffs by Punchbowl Falls. Reaching the town of Cascade Locks, we crossed over the Bridge of the Gods and into our final state. Two down, one to go!

20140820-152203.jpg

20140820-152239.jpg

4 thoughts on “Out Of The Frying Pan And Into the Fire Season

  1. Charles Minton

    A great post and excellent pictures. You must have written it some days ago since “Where are we…” has you east of Seattle! (8/21). Not long to BC in any case.

  2. Dawn

    Love the description – makes me feel like I am hiking right along with you. Although I could never keep up . . . .

  3. PJ

    I see your on the final drive. Congrats on an epic hike. If you make it back to Arcata before going back East Gabe hit me up. I’ll buy a round or two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *