August 20, 2015. I slowly woke up and rubbed my tired eyes. The cold morning air smelled like smoke. I put my glasses on and looked at the burning sky dotted with blue. Smoke from the wildfires was rising up the valley toward us. I nudged Seth and Christian awake. “Hey guys, there’s smoke.”
The sun began warming the peak across the valley above us. I slipped on my flipflops and trudged my worn, blistered feet over to the chilly waters of Redoubt Creek, cascading down the valley from Redoubt Glacier above, to fill up my Jetboil. I hopped out onto a boulder and looked south down the valley toward the orangeish haze of smoke. Our only intel about the wildfires was 5 days old, and thoughts began tumbling through my brain. Did the fire jump onto the ridgeline above us? Had the smoke just settled in the valley floor as the temperature dropped overnight? Where could we escape to? I knew that fires moved faster uphill after reading Young Men and Fire by Norman McClean and knew that we would be safer down here in the creek, but the uncertainty ripped through my brain and the weight of leading this trip bore down on me.
As the water boiled and we began tearing down camp, we sorted through our options. Since we didn’t know if the fire had truly moved toward us or if its smoke had just changed direction, we decided not to hit our ACR Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) until we knew for certain that we were in a danger zone. We decided to continue on descending the steep creek drainage until we had a better sense of the danger. Our view was constricted to steep rock walls on our right and dense sloping thickets to our left.
We finished breaking down camp and began navigating down along the sides of Redoubt Creek. The morning sun burned amber through the smoke, and alternating warm and cold breezes blew softly across our faces. Our packs were lighter now that our food supplies were nearly gone. We were roughly a day behind schedule and our resupply point was at least another day away at Ross Lake.
The smoky haze thickened as we lost elevation and came to the fire blackened corpses of desiccated trees. They were cold to the touch and after a few minutes of observing them and the green new growth sprouting nearby, we realized that they had been burned years (or at least a year) prior. We crunched through the charred earth and followed the stream onward.
The creek had worn a smooth channel through the rocks, with the water piling up in clear pools before rushing through swift rapids and roaring through flumes before dropping several feet over small waterfalls. We gave up on keeping our boots dry and bushwacked first along one side of the bank before getting to thickets of devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) or impassable alders or vine maples and being forced to ford through to the other side of the creek.
After several hours of constant back-and-forth across the creek, we came to a narrow part of the creek where it frothed and boiled and ran over a steep drop. The foliage on the sides of the creek were growing out over the water and there was no easy way to continue. We decided to stay on the right and began clambering and ducking and pushing our way through the dense thickets of side-growing alders and vine maples.
Soon after we shouldered our way through needle-sharp devil’s club, the dense brush disappeared and we were standing on brown-orange pine needles blanketing the forest floor. We looked at the map and set a southerly bearing. The firs and pines were silent and the burbling waters of Redoubt Creek disappeared behind us as we began angling our way over fallen trees and down the slippery, sloping ground. I took a deep breath and let the dusty, piney scent flood into my being, knowing that as tough as this trip was, I’d miss the wild after it was all over.
We began to become spread out, and I was no longer in sight of Christian or Seth. I heard a whistle blown somewhere behind me and to the left. I replied with a short burst from my whistle. I leaned against a scrawny pine tree and looked at my map. Branches cracked behind and soon Seth had caught up. Christian arrived shortly after and we began our descent again. We knew that if we kept heading south, we would eventually run into the Beaver Creek Trail or, if we somehow missed the trail (since we weren’t sure what condition it would be in), we would reach Beaver Creek.
We began to spread out again and about an hour after we had trudged into the forest from Redoubt Creek, I descended into an old creek bed filled with ferns and large old growth firs towering above. Redoubt Creek roared back into view as I climbed up the other side of the creek bed and I headed towards the fist-sized rocks lining the bank. I plopped my pack down on a sun-bleached fallen tree and headed south down along the creek to see if I could find the trail. I wandered around, looking desperately for something resembling a trail and eventually found a small pink piece of surveying tape tied onto a branch. I heard some whistles behind me and trotted back toward my pack. Just as I was blowing my whistle, Seth and Christian came out of the forest and we reunited. We took a brief snack break, and I tried to wash my dirty feet in the creek. After we were done munching, we shouldered our packs and headed down the creek. We came to the surveyor tape and looked hard to find another one telling us we had found the trail. Soon enough, we found another…but we couldn’t find anymore after that and looked vainly all around. We began bushwacking once more, hoping to come across the trail and eventually popped right out onto the Beaver Creek trail. Never before had I been so happy to see a trail again, and I kissed the ground. We thanked God for keeping us safe on our wild off-trail trek and began walking west along the “easy” trail. (Side note: Don’t take trails for granted!).
We followed the Beaver Creek Trail through about two miles of old growth before arriving at a T junction and a cardboard sign that informed us that the trail we had been on was closed due to a fire (a fact we already knew but had been given the go-ahead by the rangers on Day 1). We turned left and hiked across a sturdy bridge over Beaver Creek and debated about whether to just end the hike due to some horrific blisters or to keep on going to Ross Lake. We set our packs down and ate lunch down by the creek, soaking our feet in the cold water and looking over the map. We settled on continuing on toward Ross Lake where we could get our resupply and rest up. We’d aim for going as far as we could today, with the hope of making it to a campsite near Thirtynine Mile Creek, about 10 miles away.
But first, we had to climb up a steep two mile section of switchbacks (1500 feet gain) to reach the top of Beaver Pass before starting on the gradual downslope all the way to Ross Lake. We trudged up and over the pass, distracting each other from the grueling pain of skin peeling off with each step from blisters upon blister by telling stories from our random adventures in life. I entertained the others with stories from South Africa and Kurdistan, Seth told us about his time in Djibouti, and Christian talked about his time in Israel and parts of Asia. Then we all started straggling again and met back up shortly before the shelter at Beaver Pass.
The air was hot and dry as we started our descent down from Beaver Pass, and only caught glimpses here and there of Luna Peak and Elephant Butte, the peaks across the valley from us. We were on the Pacific Northwest Trail and had planned on taking it all the way to the PCT east of Ross Lake. But with the murmurs of discontent and painful blistered steps, that plan was starting to change. The trail kept changing from a carpet of dried pine needles to dusty dirt, and sandy gravel and prickly blackberry bushes to mossy, fern lined, old growth and narrow dirt paths. Seth and Christian stopped suddenly ahead of me, inspecting a piece of “poop” that was alive. I enjoyed a good laugh and together we all looked at the Ariolimax columbianus, more commonly known as a Pacific banana slug.
The smoky daylight drifting down from the towering trees above us was beginning to take on a darker hue, and we hastened to get to the campsite. The trail was narrow here with dark leafy greens brushing us as we tromped our weary legs forward, forward to a good night’s sleep. Along the way, we found a large mushroom someone had carved PNT onto as an interesting trail marker.
We stopped for a quick drink and snack to fuel us for the last mile, and darkness arrived just as we reached the trail leading off to our campsite. A man in his late 50s (we’ll call him Dan) was staying there, and after we chatted with him, we found another spot farther downtrail to set up camp and cook dinner. We had just gotten camp set up when Dan came by to say how he was heading out tomorrow to Ross Lake to be picked up by his wife, and that if we wanted a ride out we could meet him by 2pm at the Ross Lake Trailhead. We thanked him and said we might see him then. We were worn out mentally and physically from the past few days and dinner was short. As we ate, we heard the wind rushing above us and a tree crashed down in a thundering sound of splintering debris a few hundred feet away. After that, we crawled into our sleeping bags, and I journaled about the day’s events in the red glare of my headlamp. Then I settled into my bag, tossing ideas in my head and running through mistakes I had made the past few days. I soon fell asleep listening to the sigh of wind in the trees above us and the differing tones of breathing that my companions had as they too fell asleep.