Rolling trail through mist and huckleberries

PCT miles 2302.8 to 2401.7 – White Pass to Snoqualmie Pass – Total PCT miles 2401.7

It was inevitable to hike in Washington and to get a little rain. And if it’s going to rain, this is the section of trail to have cloud covered views. The trail rolls gently for 100 miles of lower elevation Cascade country: through the William O. Douglas Wilderness up to the eastern edge of Mount Rainier National Park crossing Chinook Pass, down into the Norse Peak Wilderness where it skirts Crystal Mountain Ski Resort and then over Naches Pass, Tacoma Pass, Stampede Pass, Dandy Pass and then Windy Pass before making the final bend to Snoqualmie Pass.

We watched clouds cloak Mount Rainier as we crisscrossed the ridge that separates Yakima and Pierce counties. Bounding from side to side of waters flowing to the Columbia River and to Puget Sound. As we neared Anderson Lake, the clouds lifted ever higher until they hid Rainier and the setting sun. Our world had gone from blue skies and golden light that glowed in the firs, kissed the lupine and blushed the clouds, to subdued muted tones of  gray and white. We were in a cloud. Familiar, comforting. But a contrast to most of our hike.

The rain started falling just after we finished dinner and got into our tent. What timing! We could hear the gentle patter of the drops on the roof. Our layer of silnylon guarded us, kept us dry and we slept well. Rain sleep. Harvey Manning described it aptly,

“No sleep is so peaceful as wilderness sleep, rain sleep. City anxieties cannot follow beyond the sound-range of internal combustion machines, and are submerged too deep to clutter and muddle the calm flow of wilderness dreams. And while rain continues there is no pack to carry, altitude to gain, brush to fight, route to find. Possibly the only pure and quiet sleep remaining for civilized man is a rain sleep in the wilderness, an island in time.”

When the rains are only a small part of your journey-as they were for us-it is easy to appreciate the silver drops glistening on pasque flower, patterning lupine leaves, cleansing the air for deeper breaths of fir and hemlock. Cloud and rain let the hiker focus on immediate surroundings, the details underfoot as the horizon vistas are no longer distracting.

Coming down to Chinook Pass we saw a sign that beckoned hikers to stop in for lunch.

A surprise at Chinook Pass

It was just after breakfast time for us, but we at least wanted to say thank you to the trail angel who’d camped out at the pass to help hikers. Ron was using his grill to warm up the diesel engine of his camper truck. It had been a cold night. He stopped his project to offer us chairs and fresh fruit. It was too chilly to sit for long, but we gratefully accepted the bananas. Fresh fruit is one of our favorite types of trail magic. Ron had come up to the pass for a few days to feed hikers and hear their stories. He’d taken archery season off this year in exchange for meeting hikers. We told him just the day before we saw the largest elk-with a rack 7-8 feet wide-that we’d ever seen. In the Park. Ron gave us an elk bugle on his horn and we chatted a few minutes more. He need to get his truck running and we needed to keep going if we wanted to hike 30 miles today.

Our distance goal was not for sake of miles, it was our plan to reach Camp Urich and sleep in the dry comforts of a cabin tonight. Allowing all of our gear to dry out. We thought for certain that other hikers would have the same plan. We saw dry footsteps on the trail, sign that a few hikers weren’t too far ahead. The tracks were Brooks Cascadias though. The most popular shoe on the PCT with a distinctive tread and that made them candidates for any number of hikers we knew were close to us on the trail.

When we got to Camp Urich we found a very well maintained cabin thanks to the Puyallup Sno-Jammers. The cabin was dry, warm, clean and empty. No one else had opted to stay here for the night. We read through the trail journal. Friends were two days to a few hours ahead of us. It was comforting to know we were all loving the trail and making our way to Canada. But we wanted the companionship of our friends, not just their register entries. Still, we were grateful for being right where we were: a dry place to sleep.

The next morning we crossed the historic road that goes over Naches Pass. After reading Egan’s The Good Rain and Winthrop’s The Canoe and the Saddle, I’d marveled at this long-time route and the effort  it took to travel that distance by foot or by horse. Moving along a path not nearly so well-maintained as the PCT. Now I had greater appreciation for the distance and time it took to travel from the Nisqually River over the shoulder of Rainier and down into the Columbia River Basin. So many feet had traveled this way. Even with the sloppy mud ruts-brought on by the last wet days-the road felt like a poignant historic place.

We hiked on rolling through beautiful hemlock forest, silver fir waiting in the understory for release from the shade, false azalea and mossy carpets littered with lichen. The light brighter ahead at the edge of replanted forests. We’d entered the checkerboard of private timberlands and public forest. It was not the horror scene described in books accounting PCT thru-hikes of the past. But then, those hikers had walked the trail a decade or twenty years before. They saw these lands at a different stage in their use, dramatic in contract? yes, but not permanent. What had been clear cuts with stumps and slash piles were now beautiful young forests, reminiscent of slopes under avalanche tracks. Time and the efforts of conservationists and resource managers have served these lands, and will serve these forests well.

And a trade off for a few years of young forest is one that any hiker can appreciate: HUCKLEBERRIES! The juiciest, biggest abundance of berries we’ve ever been fortunate enough to graze. A kind, good-natured hunter we’d met at Tacoma Pass (he’d offered us water, beer, whatever he had in his nearby truck) told us we were about to hit the motherload. We’d heard some hype from southbound hikers and hadn’t found this fantastic fictional berry patch yet. Well, the hunter and those hikers were right. We had miles of huckleberries! Black huckleberries, oval-leaved blueberries, Alaskan blueberries, and red huckleberries. We stained our hands purple and red with their sweet and tart juices. Gift of the Cascades.

The berries slowed us down on one ridge where we had views of the Snoqualmie Range. I saw the mountains in a new light with that view. They were dramatic, craggy, worth pursuit. They were the most precipitous peaks we’d seen since the Sierras. It gave me new appreciation for this close to home range. How fortunate to live within an hour’s drive of these mountains! To be able to come to them after work on a long summer day and hike to their summits. To touch wilderness-oh so briefly-after a day in the office. I felt grateful for these mountains, where as before I’d turned my nose up at them. Always deferring to the Mountain Loop, Highway 2, the Glacier Peak Wilderness or the North Cascades when it came time to plan a trip for the weekend. Now I have more respect.

Gratitude and appreciation for the trail and the perspective it instills in a hiker kept coming. In the last 15 miles to Snoqualmie Pass there were four opportunities for trail magic! Three of them noted on Facebook-there is wireless and data service in those hills south of Snoqualmie. How were we going to get to Snoqualmie Pass and enjoy an evening of luxury at the motel with all the magic to partake of!?! This is the joy and the angst of a thru-hiker.

Fortunately we missed two of the magic offerings but enjoyed the others. Near Twilight Lake we encountered the PCTA crew repairing the drainage system for a segment of trail that looked more like a mud pit. On the volunteer crew were Bigfoot Jim and his wife Dona, we’d hiked with Jim in southern California and hadn’t seen him since our camp a day north of Mojave. The summer had been good to Bigfoot Jim and Dona, road tripping, exploring National Parks and now giving back to the PCT. They gave us cookies. I felt inspired.

Onward we went along the backside of the now very familiar segment of the PCT that leads to Tinkham, Silver and Abiel. Peaks we’d hiked often for after-hours conditioning or for mellow weekend excursions. It was exhilarating to know we’d walked to these mountains, traveled a long ways back to a familiar part of the PCT.

Around the bend from Mirror Lake we met a guy with his two dogs and chain saw. The rain was back, steadily dripping. But this guy was happily sawing blowdown while his dogs ran through the woods. He’d run an ultra-trail marathon along the PCT a year back and the race had required participants to do trail maintenance as part of their entry. This guy got hooked on maintaining the flow of the trail. We’d be the first hikers to enjoy his latest work, clearing more than 30 blowdown trees from the trail. What would have taken much effort and time to go up and over or down and under was a smooth walk. Easy steps taken in less than a minute. Fresh cut logs and sawdust along the trail were evidence of the significant damage and significant work. Again, I felt inspired to see someone take initiative to give back to the trail.

Onward we went, more rain falling. Passing happy day-hikers. It was a Saturday and this is Washington. People here hike in the rain. I felt proud of my fellow Pacific Northwesterners for being hardy souls who aren’t dissuaded by weather. We were happy hikers too, knowing we were just a few hours from a dry motel room and hot showers.

We hiked passed the trail junction to Silver Peak and kept cruising toward Windy Pass. It was well after lunchtime, but we wanted a semi-sheltered spot to have a snack. I was nearing bonk stage, wanting to just plop down anywhere on the trail for a few minutes to eat. Gabriel was feeling more selective, he always wants to find just the right spot and he is skilled in picking the perfect lounge spots. We kept on walking and were curious to see a tarp lashed to trees up ahead. Maybe the person packing up stuff would let us sit under his tarp for a bit.

We got more than just shelter. (Good job Gabriel to keep us going!)  It was Thai Kitchen, friend of other PCTers Red Beard and Saggs. We’d heard about these guys from our friends Little Bug and Squirrel, so we felt like we knew them. Thai Kitchen had camped out for the weekend at Windy Pass and was performing trail magic for hikers. He wasn’t the anticipated stop based on the facebook beta, but his magic was perfectly timed. He cooked us up a feast of noodles, Thai eggplant, basil, tomatoes and cashews. He gave us cookies and sodas. We were warmed inside and out by his kindness and that was the best meal we’d had in weeks. Thank you Thai Kitchen!

Onward we went and the rain started to pelt us as we hiked through Olallie Meadows and round the bend to roaring I-90. Passing Lodge and Beaver Lakes, so close to places we come to frequently, but had never visited before. And then round the bend from Beaver Lake we were back on familiar ground the base of Thunderbird, Wildside and runs down from the Pacific Crest chair. We were walking through Summit West. And though tempted to follow the fall line straight down to the resort and to the Summit Inn, we stayed true to the trail as it gradually descended the green runs into a thick stand of silver fir and around a bend to the western most end of the Summit parking lot/South PCT trail head.

Our reward for sticking to the trail: Gabriel found a new hat.

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