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enchantments one-day thru-hike: toto, we’re not on the pct anymore

I thru-hiked the Enchantments on Friday, and it was glorious.

J. and I drove up to Leavenworth on Thursday via the Gorge, stopping at the Deschutes River State Recreation Area to go for a run (him) and a short hike (me) followed by much-needed partial (me) and full (him) immersion in the river — J.’s watch told him it got up to 108 degrees F during his run, and I believe it. In Leavenworth we ate veggie wursts buried in caramelized onions and kraut (when in faux Bavaria…) and then found a campsite not too far from the Snow Lakes Trailhead. On Friday morning at 6am, we met the guy behind the Loop Connector shuttle at the trailhead, and he drove us back past our campsite to the Stuart Lake Trailhead. “What time do you guys think you’ll finish?” he asked us.

“I have no idea,” I told him. J. asked me what my worst-case guess was. “10:30?” I was basing that off vague memories of the day-hikers I met last year while backpacking with a Snow Lakes permit, but I didn’t really think it would be that late. After all, I’m a super-fit PCT section hiker! I hiked 32 miles in a day the other week! 19ish would be a piece of cake.

At the trailhead, we filled out our day-use wilderness permits and started uphill around 6:30. I was hiking and J. was running — we planned to meet next at Colchuck Lake. I found him instead a little before the lake, napping on a giant rock with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills.

J. ran ahead and I continued on past Colchuck Lake towards Aasgard Pass. The lake was impossibly turquoise, and the trail was already a little harder to follow than I expected. The PCT is so easy — well-defined, well-marked, gently graded. But I was not on the PCT anymore! The trail was rocky, rooty, steep, and oh-so fun… but it was past 9 by the time I met J. again where the trail left the lake and began to ascend towards Aasgard Pass.

We followed cairns and sometimes bits of trail across and up the talus slope, crossing waterways and listening for the eeps of pikas. Every time I turned around to look behind me I grinned. Every time I looked up from where I was placing my feet I grinned. The sun behind the clouds above the pass cast rays of light, a picture of heaven — “We’re climbing to heaven!” I yelled to J.

Two hours and one false summit later, we topped out, and there was Isolation Lake. We took a snack break and watched a mountain goat be its goat-y self hopping across some rocks.

J. ran off ahead to scramble up Little Annapurna while I made my way down the trail. We planned to meet at the spot I thought, on the map, was where Sara and Mark and I had turned around last year on our day trip into the Core Zone. Everything around me was beautiful. Water ran across rocks and through meadows. The rocks were smooth and sharp and tumbled and arranged in a way Heraclitus would have loved. I saw a marmot dash from one pile of rocks to another, across a little meadow. I saw another one much closer, near a stream where I stopped to filter water. I took a million photos. (The photos included here are but a small, heavily culled selection!)

I descended towards Inspiration Lake, where J. and I planned to meet. The spot I’d pointed to on the map turned out not to be the spot I remembered — whoops. I found a rock to wait at where I’d be sure to see J. come down the trail, and I watched a mountain goat browse its way across some rocks and then settle down on a high perch for a while. A group of backpackers swam in the lake nearby — I regret that I didn’t use my time waiting for J. to swim myself. I felt a little awkward so near another group, and I didn’t want to risk missing J. when he came by, since we had no way of communicating with one another at a distance. So, I waited and snacked, and eventually he came down the trail.

We traversed the next bit of trail more or less together, J. running off ahead but stopping here and there to look around and take it all in. I found him at a side trail, gesturing for me to come over, watching a small group of goats, including a kid, graze in a little meadow.

As we watched the goats, another day hiker came up behind us. “This is a great side trip,” he told us, gesturing up the side trail we were on. “It’s about 500 feet up, beautiful views.”

“In how many miles?” I asked him.


J. looked at me. “Can I convince you to come with me?”

“Sure,” I said, and we started up.

The trail led to a saddle next to Prusik Peak. On the other side of the saddle, we looked down towards Shield Lake. The view was, as promised, incredible, in every direction.

Gaia’s topo showed a dotted-line trail curving around past Gnome Tarn and back down to the main trail through the basin, so we figured we’d give it a try instead of going back down the way we’d come up. We managed to find a few cairns, but pretty quickly realized there was no trail to speak of. We followed the line on Gaia and picked our way down a ridge, over rocks and around bushy plant growth, until, near the bottom, we finally found trail again.

At Leprechaun Lake, I took my shoes and socks off and soaked my feet, then waded in up to my thighs. My knees were sore and creaky, unused to all the steep ups and downs. After a while, we continued on to Lake Viviane, and from there down the steep descent towards Upper Snow Lake. It was late afternoon already, but I was still (irrationally) optimistic about finishing before dark. We hiked down, down, down.

J. ran ahead and said he’d wait up at the dam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes. I found him there as the sun slipped behind the hills, and we headed on towards Nada Lake. In the decreasing light, he kindly stayed not too far ahead of me, waiting up every mile or so. Once, I saw him ahead of me in a thimbleberry patch, and when I caught up he turned to me with a half dozen berries in his palm. “For me?” I asked gratefully. Yes! Nothing better!

When the light faded entirely around 9, I turned on my headlamp and kept walking, trying not to think about cougars. J. waited for me every quarter mile or so. It was just about 10 o’clock when we finally crossed the bridge over the river and hiked the last couple hundred feet up to the trailhead.

I was exhausted and done. But what an incredibly beautiful, fun day. When can I go back? “Hey,” J. told me, “this hike included your two favorite things: boulder hopping and night hiking.” He meant it sarcastically — talus and darkness have historically freaked me out and left me frustrated and cranky. I’d be lying if I said the day was totally devoid of frustration and crankiness, but mostly it was wonderful. I felt strong and capable (if understandably sore and tired by the end) and everything was gorgeous.

…and the Enchantments definitely is the most beautiful place in the world. When can I go back and do it again?

PCT day 27: shelter cove (or, ta ta for now)

In the morning I hike through the woods. A few miles from where I camped at Bobby Lake, there’s a ski shelter a short walk from the trail — a really lovely little cabin that’s also open in the summer, maintained by volunteers. I just stop in to check it out and sign the register, and then I keep hiking through the woods.

There’s not so many lakes today, but the ones there are are exceptionally lovely. I think about stopping to swim, but it’s just breezy enough that swimming sounds kind of chilly. And in any case I’m looking forward to getting to Shelter Cove.

I stop at the Willamette Pass trailhead, a tenth of a mile off the PCT, to use the outhouse. A woman sitting in the open doorway of a Sprinter van asks me, “Did you see a yellow cat up there on the trail?”

I pull my earbud out. “Sorry?”

“A yellow housecat.”

“No, why?”

“Our cat ran off; we’re waiting for him to come back.”

I tell her I hope he shows up soon, do my business, and head back to the PCT. About 100 feet down the trail towards the highway, there’s the cat, crouching in the middle of the trail, meowing at me. I stop and talk to him, making kitty cooing noises, but he’s clearly afraid of me and jumps off the trail when I take a couple steps forward.

I turn around and jog back to the trailhead. “I saw your cat! Just down the trail towards the highway.”

The woman follows me back to the PCT and I show her where I saw him. He’s not there, but I spot him another fifty feet down the trail. “There he is! I’ll let you go ahead of me,” I tell her. She walks towards him and follows him off the trail while he meows; I sneak past them and continue down the trail. Seems like a happy ending.

I cross the highway and then reach the turn-off towards Shelter Cove. I get a beautiful view of Odell Lake, then descend through the woods, cross some railroad tracks, and emerge onto a paved road about a mile from the resort. I catch some nobo thru-hikers and we chat on the way in.

At Shelter Cove, I find Ben’s car immediately but not Ben himself. I drop my pack, pick up my last resupply box, and buy a root beer float. Ben materializes right about when I’ve finished the float with his backpack full of freshly-picked huckleberries.

We drive to Eugene for a tasty meal, and then home to Portland.

PCT day 26: more lakes

I wake up with a headache. I also wake up to mist floating just above the surface of the lake — it’s beautiful. I take an ibuprofen for the headache and make breakfast just outside my tent with my sleeping bag still draped over my lap.

I pack up and hike through the forest. There’s not much to say about hiking through the forest that I haven’t already said a hundred times on this blog. There are so many ponds and lakes that I stop pausing to take photos of them, pretty though they are. They all look more or less the same.

Eventually I emerge from the forest into ex-forest — a recovering burn. It’s the middle of the day, and it’s hot out — this too is more of the same. Putting it like that makes it sound like I’m not enjoying it! I am, though, and also I am not. I am capable of these continuous twenty-plus-mile days, but I also wish I could give myself a break — but I also want to get to Shelter Cove as soon as possible so I can go home. But… I’m also sad to be ending my trip. Hah! I contain multitudes. My feet hurt. Etc.

Soon after the end of the burn, I stumble across some trail magic — a 2016 thru-hiker and his parents. I gratefully sit down, drink a soda, and eat a whole bunch of potato chips and grapes. I’ve been hungry all day, but my remaining snacks have to last me all the way to Shelter Cove, and I’m starting to feel a tiny bit anxious about that.

Then it’s back into the woods. I walk and listen to podcasts. Eight more miles, and then I turn off trail down a quarter-mile spur to Bobby Lake, 24-and-change miles from Mac Lake, where I camped last night. There’s at least four tents nearby, but I find a spot to pitch mine. I watch the sky turn pink while I cook dinner. I rummage in my food bag. I’ll have plenty to eat tomorrow — it’s just that it’ll be the dregs of my food bag: all the stuff I’m really pretty sick of. I curl up in my sleeping bag and stay up too late reading MaddAddam.

PCT day 25: lakes

I’m cold in the night for the first time in quite a while. I snuggle down into my sleeping bag as much as I can and cinch it up around my ears. I wake up at whatever hour the nobos start to pack up, but I doze until 8, by which point they’re long gone.

I leave the meadow and pass through some forest, then look down onto a big open valley through which the trail winds, green trees and hills on one side and lava rock glinting in the sun on the other. There are lovely views of South Sister, and little peaks of Middle Sister still visible as well. Ahead of me, Mount Bachelor.

I follow the trail back into the woods and climb up and down. Sometimes I hallucinate manmade object amidst the trees: a dead white log in the distance looks like a silver car, parked incongruously next to the trail. A burned-out stump looks like a black coat hung up on a coat rack. Another log looks like a roll of paper towels abandoned by a camper.

The nobos told me there were mosquitos south of here, so this morning I preemptively put on my bugnet pants. So far so not-necessary, but I do get some compliments on my style from other hikers. After a pair asks me if my pants mean there are bugs north, I take them off to get a little extra breeze directly on my legs; it’s warm, though maybe a little cooler than it’s been.

Not too much later, I put them back on. I’m entering a stretch of trail littered with lakes and little ponds — prime mosquito territory. They’re here, buzzing around my ears, but in numbers not nearly as overwhelming as in Washington.

I choose a lake a little over 20 miles from last night’s meadow to camp at. I’ve seen a million nobos today (slight exaggeration), but no one’s camped here. I eat two dinners — I have one to spare, and maybe hiker hunger has finally really kicked in. My food bag is getting pretty light — I hope I have enough to last me two more days.

I realize when I’m falling asleep after dinner that it’s my first night camping totally alone since before Olallie Lake. My second-to-last night on trail.

PCT day 24: I love oregon

We take our time in the morning eating breakfast and packing up. I have J. redo the gauze over my heat rash — he says it looks a bit better than it did yesterday — and then we say goodbye. It’s been nice having my own personal trail angel for the past few days! But I’m looking forward to being totally on my own again, too, for just a few more days. I won’t be able to change the gauze pad again by myself, though, so I’ll have to leave this one on as long as possible and hope for the best.

I finally leave camp at 9:30. The trail crosses the road and then leads right back up into the lava rock. For a mile and a half or so, I climb around on the lava where the trail leads me, and then I walk through some forest, and then through a relatively recent burn. I feel good, but I also feel tired. I think about doing this for five months, if I were thru-hiking, and it’s hard to imagine. I feel more capable now than I think I was in 2015, and I’m enjoying the rhythm I’ve got going now that I’ve pushed past the loneliness I was feeling earlier (or else J.’s occasional presence has alleviated it — also possible), but I also kinda can’t wait to be back home with my cats and my bathroom and my closet full of soft dry clothing.

All that said, I am having a fantastic time hiking today. The trail gains some elevation and then it’s semi-alpine and then it’s alpine, but it’s central Oregon alpine — more lava rock, paths that wend their way up and down between and over the rocks, tons of colors, red and brown and black and the blue, blue sky. On the northern horizon, Mount Washington and Three-Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson stand in a row. In the foreground, the beautiful lava rock. Oregon is so stunning! It has this undeserved reputation as the “boring” state on the PCT, and today I have no idea why.

I reach the northern boundary of the Obsidian Limited Entry Area — PCT hikers are allowed to pass through without a permit, but can’t stop to camp or leave the trail corridor. The PCT is only within the area for a couple of miles, and it seems unlikely to me that these couple of miles will be much different from the rest of the trail around here — but I’m wrong. The trail is littered with pieces of obsidian that glint and glimmer in the sun. Everything around me sparkles!

I pass pretty ponds and walk through lovely green meadows. I stop to filter some water at a spring that emerges from the earth underneath a red and yellow rock and then flows past wildflowers. I pass Obsidian Falls. I admire South Sister.

In the evening I descend through a recent burn to another pretty meadow with a stream running through it. There are several nobos camped nearby, and they invite me to join them. I pitch my tent and cook dinner and chat. After everyone disappears into their tents, I stay up too late in mine reading The Year of the Flood.