Another slow morning. We’re just over twelve miles from White Pass. Backup and I pack up and leave together and hike the first few miles thirty feet apart to keep out of the dust clouds that we kick up. For a while we’re following a dry riverbed that’s deep and carved enough that its incredible dryness is jarring and odd; why is this riverbed so much dryer than others?
Backup almost steps on a salamander that’s hanging out, motionless, in the middle of the trail. He spends several minutes taking its photo and is relieved when it finally demonstrates its vitality by moving slowly off the trail.
Since we got a late start and we’re not sure what time the store in White Pass will close, I send Backup on ahead. He takes off down the trail; I’ll find out later that he’s doing ten-minute miles with his pack on just for kicks. In the meantime I keep hiking, swishing my trekking poles back and forth, hitting the little lupine and huckleberry plants at the side of the trail from time to time, thinking about a thought Backup had the other day: “I wonder if thru-hikers are a major vector of plant disease.” I think about humans as an invasive species and wonder what I’m doing here. If there’s beauty in the wilderness and no one to see it, is the beauty really there? Do the birds and deer know they live in a beautiful place?
The trail is wide and flat and easy, and I make better time than I really expected I would. In the last few miles, there are dozens of little frogs in the trail, who leap aside as I approach. I hopefully succeed in avoiding squashing them under my shoes. Then I’m crossing a dirt road, and then another at a campsite, and then I’m emerging onto the highway, turning right, and walking half a mile on the wide shoulder towards the store.
I turn off my airplane mode partway there, and Backup’s sent me a text — he’s at the store chatting with Elroy and Sinbad, and he wants to know if there’s anything I’d like him to have waiting for me to eat. What luxury! I ask him to buy me some chocolate milk, and the next thing I know he’s running towards me, chocolate milk in hand, to walk me the rest of the way in.
The store is staffed by two very hiker-friendly women, and we linger for hours eating snacks before walking to the inn next door to get a room for the night. We drop our packs and put on ridiculous laundry outfits (me: rain jacket and skirt; Backup: down vest and leggings) and bring our dirty clothes back to the store to do our laundry. While we’re waiting for it, we sit on the bench outside drinking beer. Our room has a kitchenette with a stove and oven, so we also buy some actual spaghetti and pasta sauce and a box of brownie mix. Laundry complete, we invite Sinbad and a nobo hiker, Blue Sky, to come by our room for brownies. Blue Sky brings more beer and we all sit around until way past our usual hiker bedtime talking about this and other adventures and stuffing ourselves full of gooey brownies.
Wellllll we sleep in a bit this morning. It’s 11 by the time we both leave camp. We’re about 26 miles from White Pass, our next resupply stop, but we don’t have another 26-mile day in us, so we may as well take it easy today and hike together. Backup’s Achilles’ tendon is hurting, which slows him down enough that I can keep up.
The trail is a mix of vaguely alpine rocky dusty, open forest, grassy beautiful-light meadow, stunning I mean STUNNING views of Mount Rainier.
We’re back in slightly wetter territory, with water every few miles and even a few seasonal streams running that aren’t on our map. We stop at one of these for a long break when we hear some twig-breaking nearby and see the bushes move maybe 20 feet up the slope above us. “There’s something big up there,” Backup says, standing up. It turns out to be a female elk, munching on the huckleberry bushes. She looks up at us a few times, but we don’t scare her one bit. She kind of scares us a little, and when she continues down the slope towards us, we pick up our packs and move on.
We’re camped tonight near a big creek that could almost be a called a river — it’s like it was further north, when we’d fall asleep to the sound of rushing water almost every night.
Last night I set my alarm optimistically for five and realistically, I thought, for 5:30, but in the end I snooze until six. Still, I’m out the cabin door by seven. There’s frost all over the meadow outside, and the sun is just starting to rise over it. Beautiful.
A little ways into this morning’s gentle uphill hike through the woods, I hear some rustling ahead of me and am considering the possibility of a bear when a very human voice says “hello!” A minute later the source reveals itself to be a nobo hiker — he thought I was a bear!
Just a bit later, I hear another big rustling and look up in time to see a small herd of elk running through the woods in the direction of the meadow.
I start the day in my puffy jacket and leggings, but it warms up quickly, especially once the trail leaves the woods and the sun comes all the way up. I stop to pull off all my layers and a group of hikers rounds a corner to find me with my shoes off, making adjustments. It gets all the way to hot today! The trail winds around and over ridges, into woods and out of them, into the sun and out of it, into the wind and out of it. With water sources a bit rarer than they used to be further north, they’re what stands out, every five miles or so: the first, a creek where I fill up while listening to storytelling podcasts; the second, a piped spring with cold, clear water; the third, Sheep Lake, 20 miles in, where I fill up at an inlet and then walk on. These water stops are my only breaks today, and I stop only long enough to fill my two 1-liter bottles and treat them with Aquamira (which is faster than using my filter).
Near the piped spring, I realize I need to go dig a hole (Backup’s and my preferred euphemism), and I tromp off-trail up some small use trails until I emerge at a small clearing, where I spot at least three different kinds of animal scat. I’m not tracker enough to know what animals produced them, but it makes me grin to be an animal among animals, shitting in the woods.
In the afternoon, I pass a nobo hiker who looks familiar, but I’m not sure why. A minute later, I pass his hiking partner, and she stops and says, “Did we meet at the REI in Seattle?” Yes, I remember! We met in the shoe department when Backup was replacing his beat-up pair. They told us then that they were nobos who’d gotten off trail at White Pass to solve their own shoe problems. “Glad to see you made it back to the trail!” she says, and we exchange the usual trail notes (campsites near the Knife’s Edge in Goat Rocks, the food cart in Snoqualmie Pass, etc).
I also tell her, “There’s a great view of Mount Rainier coming up! It’ll be on your left, just rising up between two hills…” and then I walk a bit further and crest a ridge and THERE is a phenomenal view of Mount Rainier, big and beautiful. The view follows me for what seems like hours, and I can’t get enough of it.
To the south, I can also see Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens (just barely). I think about standing on them both, a couple weeks apart, this past May. Summitting snowy peaks makes me feel simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, both humble and amazing. I want to stand on top of Mount Rainier someday and look down at the tiny ridge I’m walking now.
Sheep Lake is around the 21- or 22-mile mark. Already a long day, but we had grand ambitions this morning when we agreed to meet at Dewey Lake, 26.6 miles from the cabin according to Guthook. I’ve got enough daylight and maybe enough energy. The last five miles are conveniently bifurcated by a highway and trailhead at Chinook Pass — a nice landmark to aim for. Soon enough I’m past it and navigating some twisty switchbacks through a pretty semi-alpine landscape as the sun starts to set and golden hour light is splashed across the hills.
Backup finally catches me a mile or so from our destination, at a Wilderness boundary with a permit box. I’m writing him a note when I hear his trekking poles clacking down the trail; he’s hustling to catch me and get to camp before dark. We hug, then walk the last bit together slowly — I’m not moving so fast — and take the first empty campsite we come to by the lake. A marathon day! Our feet hurt. We spend a good long time sitting on a log moaning about our feet before we set up tents and make dinner, and it’s almost 11 by the time we’re ready for bed.
It rains all night and into the morning. I pitched my tent a little bit wrong last night, and as a result couldn’t close both door flaps on the side I expected the wind would be coming from, so I left one open, and figured that to protect the foot end of my sleeping bag from any rain that blew in, I’d put my pack liner (a trash compactor bag) around it. My feet are toasty cozy all night, but in the morning, my sleeping bag underneath the liner is covered in condensation. Oops.
I move slowly in the rain, cooking my oats in the vestibule and then rolling up my wet tent. It’s past eight when I get out of camp, with Backup — I assume — just a little bit behind me. It’s hard to tell whether it’s still raining or the fog is just really thick and heavy and wet. I hike uphill through a forest full of tall trees that fade into the fog above me.
I meet two nobo section hikers, Zombie and La Contessa, who get a kick out of my cosmic leggings and chat with me for a while. I tell them to say hi to Backup when they meet him — later he’ll text me to say “I spent way too long chatting with them. Gotta hustle to catch up!” I have spots of cell phone signal all morning and get distracted by civilization. Civilization and huckleberries.
Gradually the rain and clouds fade, as does the forest… in and out. There are a few logged sections where fireweed is growing between the stumps, and snowy mountains are just beginning to be visible underneath the clouds. Sometime in the early afternoon, I catch up to Elroy at the first water source of the day, nine miles in, where he’s chatting with a couple nobos. I grab some water and walk on, through a beautiful burn section (the fire was in 1988, according to the Boy Scouts sign at the beginning of the section) absolutely chock full of the tastiest huckleberries yet.
The sun is thoroughly out and the miles comes easy-ish. I get to the Mike Urich Cabin, built by a snowmobile club in memory of a member, around four. This morning, Backup and I figured we’d meet here, so I check it out and then lay my sleeping bag and tent out in the sun to dry. I sit next to them, also in the sun, reading Midnight’s Children and moving a little bit at a time towards the meadow as the shadow of the cabin gets longer and longer.
It’s two hours before Backup shows up, sweaty from exertion and confused about why I’m still here waiting. He thought I’d’ve pushed on to the next campsite and water source, five miles on. But we decide to stay here at the cabin instead, the roof and wood stove proving difficult to resist. Backup uses his big knife to baton some kindling and builds us a roaring fire in the stove. It’s our first fire on the trail, since there’s been an outdoor burn ban in Washington since before we started hiking. We’re joined at the cabin by Waterboy and Sinbad, a nobo and a nobo-turned-sobo (he flipped up to the Canadian border after 1500 miles from Mexico) respectively, and we all make dinner as the sun fades. Backup and I bed down in the loft, made cozy warm from our fire.
We wake up at 7 and I stroll out of camp at 7:45, right around the time Elroy passes our camp spot. Elroy and I leapfrog all morning, exchanging greetings.
This section of trail is the least wilderness-y section we’ve had yet — it’s National Forest land, I think, not Wilderness like much of the areas we’ve been hiking through — but I kind of like it. Sections of older forest mixed with younger forest (in these sections the trail is lined with huckleberry bushes), laced with dirt roads that offer views of the blue sky. A few times we pass under high-voltage powerlines — Guthook’s app always marks them as landmarks — which buzz oppressively.
I pass seven nobo thru-hikers in the morning before losing count. Mostly, though, I’m hiking alone, in a happy groove. After a while I put one earbud in and listen to some podcasts. I’m listening to an episode of You Are Not So Smart about the fear of rejection when there’s a tremendous noise on the trail in front of me. Something big disappears into the bushes before I get a look at it. Bear? Maybe just a deer, but I back up, take deep breaths for a moment, and then walk through banging my trekking poles together, saying, “Hello! Hello! Thank you very much, just passing through, thank you!” Whatever it was lets me go, but not very much farther along, up a couple switchbacks, I hear another noise and look up in time to see what looks to my easily-convinced eyes like a smallish bear disappearing over a big log a little ways from the trail. Again I pause and then walk past loudly. Who knows! I could be freaking out about squirrels or deer.
I take a midday break at a seeping spring. The water situation is getting a little trickier the further south we get, but by that I just mean we can’t count on a water source every five miles anymore. The spring is in the middle of a little clear spot in the sun. It’s cooler today — it might rain — and the sun feels nice.
Backup finally catches me 16 miles into the day when I’m chatting with some nobos at another little sort-of stream and campsite. “I maybe had a bear encounter!” I tell him, and he tells me, “I definitely had a bear encounter!” Just a quarter mile or so back from where we’re standing, a small bear ran across the trail in front of him and then through the woods next to him.
We walk more or less together to the last water source of the day, a beautiful little stream a tenth of a mile or so off the trail, marked by a crude wooden sign at the end of a switchback. It’s our last water for 12 miles, so we fill up, which makes the last few miles to the spot we plan to camp — all uphill! — especially slow and tough. Backup, eager to get to camp before the rain, pulls ahead, and I get there a bit after him. Two nobos are set up already; we join them and are soon joined by Elroy. The three of us cook dinner and chat and then turn in.
I have just enough signal in my tent to check the weather. Rain is due at midnight and hopefully will be gone in the morning.