Today's miles: 23
Total miles: 2572
Last night was another very frigid night of sleep, and we were again awake and on trail before dawn. It was somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle getting everyone out of camp, but fortunately the earliest risers - Toots, Tears, Kazu, Sunshine, Katie and me - were camped closest to the trail and made a quick getaway.
We had two options for our route today. The PCT crossed over the infamous Suiattle River, which was a notoriously difficult and scary log crossing until 2011, when a new bridge was built upriver. Unfortunately, the new bridge detour added five miles to the PCT. We had the choice of safely crossing the bridge and adding two hours to our hike (thus affecting tomorrow's miles: we would catch the afternoon bus into Stehekin rather than the morning one) or we could take the unmaintained old PCT and chance it across the log, which hovered six feet over a rushing river.
Katie and I discussed our options last night. She was for the log route, but knew how I felt about heights and river crossings, and so she offered to take the new PCT bridge, instead. But the idea of saving five miles and two hours of our journey was huge in the grand scheme of things, so ultimately I swallowed my fear and opted for the log crossing.
The rest of the group was divided on the issue. Most of them went the old PCT route to save time, but there were a few hikers, such as Toots and Tears and TwoBadDogs, who loved a good, safe bridge, and didn't mind walking a little farther to utilize it.
The trail split not too far after camp, and Katie, Sunshine and I veered right, passing the sign that read: TRAIL NOT MAINTAINED. HIKE AT YOUR OWN RISK. We had a shallow, freezing river to ford, and then we disappeared into the trees, following the old PCT.
In some ways, it was like going back in time. This trail had been utilized not two years ago, but in that short time, the forest was already trying to reclaim it. If I thought the deadfall on trail had been horrible the past few days, it was nothing compared to this. We crawled over trees and branches. We kicked our way through dense shrubs. We scrambled up hills and back down them. We lost the trail and then found it again. As we delved deeper and deeper into the forest, it seemed we were losing the last shreds of civilization entirely. I felt like I was discovering a new planet, bushwhacking through brush and pushing aside lazy branches in search of a dusty span of trail that was no longer there. The forest was eerily quiet, as if the woodland creatures were watching us curiously from their perches, whispering to each other, there are humans, here. There have not been humans in these woods for many moons...
I felt out of place in this forest, and yet, completely enveloped by nature. I felt like I had stumbled straight into the heart of FernGully, and expected to see fairies and glowing ponds around every corner.
At last the trail dipped down a cliff and we could hear the river raging on the other side of the trees. But as we grew closer to the valley floor, the trail suddenly disappeared entirely. Trees, marsh, deadfall and rocks obliterated any view, and there were no obvious paths for us to take. For a while we stood there, and then walked in circles, ducking under trees and scrambling up hillsides to find the trail. But it was gone completely. We would have to find our own way.
We could still hear the river, and through the dense trees we could see the sandy beach that ran alongside it. The only way out was through, and so we squelched through marsh mud up to our ankles, pushed through rough branches that snagged our clothing, and got thoroughly filthy in the process. But, at last, Katie, Sunshine and I broke through the trees and emerged on the beach.
It should have been simple from there, but it wasn't. There was still no sign of the old PCT, and the wayward cairns were no help. We wandered up and down the river bank, looking for an appropriate crossing. We found Kazu doing the same; she had arrived at the river before us and had gotten lost in the sandy dunes. I checked my maps, trying to pinpoint our location, but it kept leading me in circles. Finally Katie spotted a large log spanning the river, and we climbed over piles of rocks to reach the spot.
At first glance, it didn't look too bad. The log was wide and sturdy, and I had no intentions of walking across it, anyway. I watched first as Katie straddled it and scooted slowly and carefully to the other side, where she pulled herself up. I followed next; I strapped my trekking poles to my waist and crawled out onto the log. I balanced my weight around it and slowly began inching forward, using the flats of my palms to lift myself into the air and slide forward a few inches at a time. It was easy at first. I wasn't directly over the river and the movement, though slow, was effective.
Then the log grew wider, and there was a branch in the way. I paused to try and lift my leg around it, but the second I moved my leg, my equilibrium was thrown off and I knew I would slide off the log and into the water. Annoyed, I fussed with my movements for a few moments before I discovered the solution: I inched myself forward, ignoring the branch, and simply dragged my leg over the top of it as I went. My pants caught on the rough bark, but I wiggled myself loose and kept moving forward. Now I was directly over the rushing water, and the effect it had was astonishing. The movement gave me a weird sense of vertigo, and the fear of falling was even greater, even though the log was no less sturdy than it had been. I kept my eyes planted on the log ahead and scooted quickly to the end of it, where I pulled myself up on its roots and scrambled up onto the bank where Katie was waiting.
Sunshine and Kazu followed behind, and when we were all safely across, we took a moment to eat a quick snack. We saw Alphabet Soup and Kudu on the beach and called to them, showing them the way. Kudu came right up to the log and started to immediately walk across it.
"NO!!" Katie and I screamed, holding our hands out in horror.
Kudu froze, staring at us, questioning.
"Sit! Sit! Go back! Don't walk!" We chorused at him.
Confused, he was doing a kind of stunted dance - stepping forward, stepping back, stepping forward, stepping back - as we yelled at him. But finally he gave a laugh and strode forward with total confidence, walking across the log in a matter of seconds. I couldn't believe that someone so tall would ignore his center of gravity so easily. I would have fallen off the log.
We saw Rotisserie, Sansei and Lighthouse coming up behind, but we knew we had to keep hiking. Sunshine, Katie, Kazu and I turned our sights to the trail again, but, alas - there was no trail. Frustrated, we pushed through the trees, looking for some sign of the old path.
"There!" said Sunshine, pointing up.
We followed his gaze and saw the PCT cut plainly into the mountainside. Unfortunately, it was 100 feet directly above us, and we could see no way to get up there but straight up the hillside. Katie, Kazu and Sunshine began crawling up through the moss, slipping and sliding as they went. They made quick work of it and called back down to me, where I was struggling with the hill.
It was steep, and covered in soft, loose moss and dirt, so every step I took made me slide back down the hill. I planted my feet sideways into the dirt, digging my fingernails into the moss, trying to crawl up to the trail. I felt like I was summiting a mountain, trying to grapple with soft snow instead of this loose dirt. I held on to roots and rocks, pulling myself bit by bit, until my fingers touched the bottom edge of the PCT. Sunshine and Katie leaned down, grasped me under the armpits, and hauled me up onto the trail.
As I dusted myself off, Sunshine looked around and said,
"This must be where the new PCT meets up again."
The trail was beautiful; we were back on our two-foot-wide swath of dirt, leading us north.
"I will never complain about the condition of the trail again," I rolled my eyes. Even on the worst days of the PCT, trail crews kept it nicer looking than anything we had just been hiking. Amazing what nature can do in two years. Next year, hiking the old PCT probably wouldn't even be an option.
From there, we had eight miles of uphill climbing. We were quiet and steady, taking our time through the green trees and rushing rivers. The sky overhead was cloudy and dark, and we worried that it would start raining again. We stopped for lunch near the top of the climb and Katie consulted her guide book.
"There's a trail in two miles that would give us a shortcut to Stehekin," she said. "It's a ten mile trail to a small town, and from there we could take a bus to Stehekin, if we wanted. We could be there tonight."
The thought was enticing. My food bag was empty, now - all I had to eat tonight was a granola bar and a tortilla. If we didn't take the shortcut, the earliest we could get into Stehekin would be the noon bus tomorrow. Could I go that long without food?
Sunshine didn't want to go in early, though. "There's no point," he said. "I have enough food to share with Brambles tonight, and it just means we'd spend more money on another hotel. We'll be there tomorrow anyway, so we might as well just stick to the PCT."
So we kept hiking.
In the end, the views on this last stretch of trail were beautiful, and we were glad we skipped the shortcut in favor of them. Hunger was making me tired, though, and the cloudy skies were making us all gloomy and fretting about the weather. Katie and I discussed our options as we walked. After Stehekin, there were only 70 more miles to the border; that was a three or four day journey. We knew from talking to southbounders, however, that another storm was on its way. What we didn't know was how bad it would be, and whether it would rain or snow. The trail after Stehekin mostly stayed above 5,000 feet, and in our experience this week, it would be snow at that altitude.
Katie asked me if I would want to keep going if it snowed. I said yes, stubbornly. I wanted so badly to finish the trail. It was like a sickness, a desperation inside me.
If I can still make it to that monument, I want to. I have to. As silly as it sounded, I wanted my photo taken there, and I knew I wasn't the only one who felt that way. But Katie was apprehensive about the conditions, and she was adamant about not hiking in bad weather, despite my conviction.
"What if we waited it out?" she suggested. "It's September 26 today. Instead of getting to the border on October 1, as planned, we could wait it out the storm this weekend, start hiking from Stehekin on the 1st, and get to the border around the 4th or 5th."
I frowned. "Yes, except that my family is coming in town, and they'll only be here a short time. They still think they're meeting me in Canada on the 1st. And if we wait it out and hike later, I won't get to see them at all while they're here."
"It might be our only option, though," Katie said.
"Wocka and Giddyup have a plane to catch next week," I added, "and Treekiller has a bus to San Francisco on the 2nd. It might upset more than one plan."
But as much as we discussed our options, there didn't seem to be a good solution. All we knew was, this storm was threatening our hike, and until we had cell service and an updated weather report, we had no idea what was going to happen. It weighed on our minds and occupied our thoughts. All we could do for now was walk to Stehekin, a seemingly simple five day goal that had taken us seven difficult days to accomplish.
The final eight miles of the day were all downhill again, and we wound down off the ridgeline and into thick forest. We reached our camp beside Swamp Creek at 6:30, just before dark, and were delighted with a wonderfully large, flat space. It was plenty of room for our huge group of nineteen to camp for the night, and hopefully make a final bonfire before reaching town tomorrow.
"I have an idea," said Katie, "we have eight miles to cover to High Bridge tomorrow. If we get up at 4:30am, we could potentially make it there for the 9:00am bus tomorrow rather than the one at noon. It would get us into Stehekin three hours early, so we can have more time to figure out what we're going to do next week."
We all agreed to this plan, deciding to get to bed early tonight to make sure we had enough sleep. Kazu, Sunshine, Katie and I set up our tents and made dinner. Katie and Sunshine donated the last of their food to me so I could eat tonight, and we waited for the voices of our friends to ring out around the bend. But the later and darker it grew, the more we realized no one was coming.
"They were behind us all day," I said carefully, "maybe they stopped early at the campsite before this one."
"Maybe," sighed Katie darkly, "or maybe they took that shortcut into Stehekin."
We sat glumly in a circle, bundling up as the night grew colder. It was lonely in camp without everywhere there laughing. It felt empty and foreboding.
We said goodnight and slipped into our tents at 8:30. I wrapped myself in my long underwear, jacket, hat and mittens, shutting out the cold night air. I curled up in my sleeping bag and tried to sleep, but dreams about the final monument haunted me. It felt strangely like the end of an era, and I wasn't sure I liked it.