An Expedition Into the North Cascades – VII

Chapter Seven

August 21, 2015. Bright white light from the smoky clouds above filled the tent as my tired and worn out body woke up with aches and pains. I unzipped the tent fly and stumbled out into the cool morning air to empty my bladder. By the time I had finished my morning business, a large angry bee had buzzed into the warm interior of the tent, waking up Seth and Christian. While they began putting their gear together for the hike to Ross Lake, I fetched water from a nearby stream and began boiling up water for our meagre breakfast of oatmeal. After we finished eating, Seth went to filter more water for our bottles and Christian and I finished packing up the gear. We rejoined with Seth and slowly began hiking, easing our sore bodies into that steady rhythm familiar to long distance backpackers.

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“Hey guys, wouldn’t that be crazy if Ross Lake Resort [where we had mailed our resupply packages] had been evacuated?” I asked.

We laughed. Ross Lake Resort was a rustic resort made out of house boats floating on the water, with no way a fire could reach it. We started thinking about all of the food we had mailed ourselves. Jerky. Henry Weinhard’s Root Beer. Banana candy from Israel. Snickers. Oatmeal. Salami. We had been talking about food for the past few days as our supplies began to dwindle. Chocolate and root beer were my main fixations.

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We stayed close to each other for the first few miles before we began spreading out. Familiarity can sometimes breed animosity, and although we were close friends,  we still needed some space. I plodded on ahead, frustrated with the murmurs from the other two about ending the trip a week early at Ross Lake and not continuing on into Canada. I stopped by a large grove of old growth to stretch and wait for the others to catch up. We stretched together and then started hiking again. Once more, we became spread out…so spread out in fact, that I wouldn’t see the other two for the next 5 hours or so until we all met up at Ross Lake.

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As I argued with myself about a mile ahead of Seth and Christian, I realized that I wasn’t hurting anywhere as bad as they were. Sure, I had a few blisters on my heels and tops of my feet, but I was feeling incredibly good and attributed it to having had more experience doing this sort of trek. Ending the trek a week early was definitely not something I had planned on doing. Instead, I had planned several alternate routes for unforeseen circumstances and had no experience with knowing when to “simply” end a trip. I’m a motivated and driven person, and although I had matured in the past few years, I still became so focused on a  task or goal that I stopped thinking rationally. I felt like I needed some space as these murmurs of discontent arose during the past few days as we were all feeling a bit stressed from the environmental and physical aspects of the hike. I kept on plowing ahead, battling with my thoughts and praying, before coming to a Y-junction close to the shores of Ross Lake where Beaver Creek emptied its pale blue-white waters into the turquoise-coloured lake. Here, I left a trail marker and followed the path to the right, hoping that Seth and Christian would also take the right path. The left one simply ended at the lakeside.

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I crossed over Beaver Creek and began the climb up toward Pierce Mountain, following  the simple trail as it rambled high above the lake’s rocky shores. Several waterfalls churned down through the elevation and into the waters below, pooling in several holes carved by the powers of water and time.

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As I followed the trail toward the south, the wind picked up on the high ledge I was on, and I looked out over a portion of the lake. Across from me were snowcapped mountain peaks and glaciers, intermixing with the smoky grey-brown clouds that filled my lungs with smoky air and cast a pall over the mountainous lake environment.

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The trail transitioned from a dirty topsoil to a rocky granite, and I moved with ease around Pierce Mountain. I came to another fork in the road and once again left a trail sign with my direction of travel. I followed the trail down as it descended to the lake shore and glimpsed the small brown wooden floating houseboats rocking among the turquoise waters that lapped against the planks connecting the houseboats together.

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I walked up the ramp from the shore and peered down at the clear waters below me, catching glimpses of rainbow trout hastily moving from my shadow. All of the rooms seemed locked up and for a few nervous moments I wondered if it actually had closed down due to the nearby fires. My fears were allayed as I rounded the corner near the Administrative Office and spotted several young adult men who looked like hikers. They had full packs and as I greeted them, I asked where I could pick up my resupply (assuming that they had just done the same). They looked at me quizzically and one of them pointed to the doorway into the office. I nodded thanks and carefully shrugged my way through the slender doorframe, trying to prevent my pack from catching on the sides. I glanced around the room. A nervous vibe seemed to emanate from the young girl behind the counter, the older gentleman leafing through some files in a folder, and the middle-aged woman briskly moving around the small office. I approached the counter and asked, “Hey guys, do you have a resupply package for John Chau?”

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The older gentleman paused and disappeared down a small hallway into another room. The woman stopped moving and gave me a cold glare. The young girl nervously began picking at various objects on the counter.

“No,” was the curt reply from the woman. “We haven’t gotten any mail since the fires started.”

The phone began ringing, interrupting the nervous office ambience. The girl reached over and picked up.

“Oh, yes. He’s right here.” she said and handed me the phone.

Thoughts raced through my head and the only logical conclusion I had reached by the time I put the receiver to my ear was that my mom had tracked me down and was worried about me. An unfamiliar female voice on the other end calmed my rapidly increasing heart rate. It wasn’t my mother.

“Hi! I’m Anne. Are you a PNT hiker?” were the words coming out of the phone.

“Uh…yes. Kinda. Yeah, I am.” I replied.

“Okay great! We know that there are a few more of you still on the trail, but we just wanted to let you guys know that trail is closed up east of the lake due to a fire and the roads are going to be closed south of the lake due to another fire. We can give you all a ride around the fire blockage if you need it! Here’s my number _____ and please pass this message on to the other hikers!”

“Um..okay. Thanks!” and I handed the phone back to the girl. I was suddenly being bombarded with new information. Fires. Trail blockages. Road closures. The woman in the office looked up at me and said in a tight voice, “This is the worst day ever. And you picked the worst time to pick up your package.”

Confused and overwhelmed, I asked her why. Her simple reply dropped like a bombshell onto my months of planning and logistics. “We’re being forced to evacuate.”

With no resupply package, our trip would be effectively ended. We could buy snack bars and candy at the resort but that wouldn’t last us very long. The older gentleman turned out to the be the manager of the resort and remarked, “You can take my truck and follow them out as they evacuate and pick up your resupply from the post office in Diablo. But they’re leaving now. So make up your mind.”

In the brief span of a few seconds, I made a decision with no way to get in contact with Christian and Seth. I left with the evacuating staff members.

I followed the resort staff, including the two guys whom I had thought were PNT hikers, out to one of the launches and jumped into the boat with two of the dogs, a chocolate lab and a little light brown pug-like dog. The engines roared and a smooth white crest appeared behind us as we motored across the lake toward the distant shore. The air had small flecks of ash falling down and smelled strongly of smoke. The two dogs shivered nervously as our boat neared the dock. I ran through my mental task list: depart the boat, hike the mile uphill to the trailhead, find the resort manager’s truck, drive it to Diablo, find the post office, unlock it and retrieve my resupply, drive back to the lake, use the shore phone to call the resort and request a boat to ferry me back, and talk over the plan with Seth and Christian. We had set out for adventure and that’s what we found, although this adventure was much crazier and wilder than we had ever imagined.

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The boat reached the far dock and we quickly jumped off and began jogging up the trail. I caught up with one of the younger summer staff members, a bronze haired male in his late teens and we talked about the craziness of it all as we hiked up. He wanted to be a park ranger one day and his parents had met on a trailcrew. His dad was now one of the key wildland hotshots out in this region and the boy idolized him, telling me tales about his dad as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep winding trail.

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As we reached the trailhead, I noticed Dan (from the campsite the night before) chatting with a ranger who was posting notices on the windshields of the few vehicles in the dusty gravel parking lot. I glanced around the lot, looking for the blue pickup that belonged to the resort manager and finally found it. As I scrambled around to the passenger side to unlock it (since the driver’s side lock was busted), the ranger came towards me. “Is this your truck?” he asked.

“No sir, but I’m a PNT hiker and the owner of it said I can use it to get my resupply package from Diablo.” I replied between winded breaths.

The other evacuees quickly corroborated my story and after the ranger went back to his truck to call it in to the rangers stationed at various roadblocks and advise them of my situation, I thanked the resort staff and prayed that everything would work out smoothly. The ranger came back to us and gave me the go-ahead to continue on to Diablo grab the boxes. I got into the driver’s seat of the truck, adjusted the mirrors and seat, and nervously remembered that I hadn’t driven stick for at least six months. I managed to reverse it without stalling and pushed it into drive, falling in line behind the other evacuees as they drove off toward Diablo.

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We sped down the mountain road and I realized that the speedometer on this truck wasn’t really working. We came to the first road block and were quickly waved through by the rangers there. The radio was blaring ‘80s rock as I roared down the mountain. We neared the turn-off for Diablo and I waved goodbye to the evacuating staff. I turned down the narrow main street and drove through the rapidly evacuated town. No one was there except for a public service worker monitoring the dam. I pulled up next to him and asked where the post office was.

“Take the next left and follow it down past the power plant. There’s an American flag near it. You know it’s closed though, right?” he replied.

“Great, thanks! Yep, I know.” And I pushed the stick back into gear and drove toward the post office. I parked out front and ran to the door. It was locked. I pulled out the key from the resort and opened it up. It was a tiny post office with perhaps room enough for two or three people to be inside and our resupply packages were neatly stacked by the door, next to some one’s unfortunate Amazon Prime package. They probably wouldn’t be getting two-day shipping anytime soon, with the mandatory evacuation of Diablo ending up lasting a few more weeks. After locking the office, I tossed the packages into the passenger seat of the truck.

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The smoke was billowing up in the near distance and I gunned that blue truck all the way back to the lake. I ran the mile downhill to the docks, with a 20lb box tucked under each arm. Clad in my running shorts, I felt very much like a postman. After my arms started to get tired, I stacked the boxes and carried them with both hands. A nearly unfortunate misstep caused the top box to slide off the top and tumble off the path toward a steep 400 foot drop off. I watched in horror as it bounced and dented before coming to a halt right before the lip. I set the other box down and, lying stretched out, grabbed the box and carefully pulled it back to the path. From then on, I slowed down from my five minute per mile pace to a more careful speed walk until I reached the shore phone and called for the ferry.

I set the boxes down on the dock and sat down next to them. Christian and Seth would probably have made it to the resort by now and would be wondering where I was. With only 26 miles or so left to go into Canada, if we bypassed the PNT and instead took a more northern route via Lightning Creek as opposed to Devils Creek due to the fire, we could easily make it. The resort manager said they would ferry us up there if we wanted, and that would save us at least two days of traveling. With two built-in rest days, I figured that we could rest for four days before hiking from Lightning Creek to the PCT and into Canada. Unknown to me, that plan would be nixed. Christian had received a text from his dad via his sat-phone and after calling his dad on the resort’s landline, Christian found out that his plane schedule got drastically changed due to a deal that Frontier was having. Since he flew standby (his brother is a pilot with Frontier), he wouldn’t be able to fly standby on the planned departure date in a week. Rather, he would either need to fly back in two days or he would need to wait an extra two weeks before flying back.
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I boarded the boat back to the resort and chatted with the manager. “Your friends made it,” he said.

“They don’t seem to want to continue on into Canada. I’ll leave it to you guys to decide what to do, but you might as well finish the trip when you’re this close.”

I agreed with him and anxiously waited to reach the distant resort docks to discuss the plan with the guys. We tied off on the dock and I headed over to the two sitting comfortably on chairs, waiting for me. I plopped the boxes down on the table and ripped them open. “Merry Christmas!” I remarked and pulled out three bottles of root beer. Seth and I drank ours and we distributed the food. Two grizzled PNT hikers, Spaceman Spiff and the Crazy Norwegian, had arrived and were lounging in the corner, trying to figure out their next steps. Christian informed me of his airplane situation and that quickly resolved the plan for us. Instead of continuing on into Canada, we would use the resort manager’s truck (again) and pick up my car from the trailhead before returning his truck to his house in Concrete, Washington, and then driving back to my house near Portland.

The roads were already closed but we were exceptions and once we left, there was no more traffic going through them for at least a month as the fires scorched the mountains there. They scorched so badly that Washington declared a state of emergency, deployed National Guard troops and were assisted by New Zealand and Australia firefighters. A few days  after we left the fire zone, three firefighters died near Twisp, Washington, when their brush truck rolled over and they got caught in the flames.

We ended up giving our resupply packages of food to the PNT hikers who had another 700 miles left to hike and, déjà vu for me, took a boat back to the distant dock, hiked up the steep trail to the trailhead, chatted with another ranger, gunned the truck to Diablo, met up with a convoy escorted by sheriff deputies, and fled through the fire zone.

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The deputies briefed us all as if we were going into a warzone: “We’ll drive European, meaning that we’ll be driving in the oncoming lane or we’ll stay in the middle of the road to avoid fallen debris. Just follow our lead. Keep you windows down so that if a rock smashes your windshield, you can still see. If the vehicle in front of you gets hit, drive around it. Don’t stop. Ever. Keep going. Be ready to evacuate the vehicle if you get immobilized.”

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We said a prayer and followed the convoy as it moved out. I stalled once. Or twice. Nerves were on edge. We picked up speed and were soon going 75 mph in a 45 mph zone. Or close to that, since our speedometer didn’t work, but I was in the highest gear. No one cared. This was a state of emergency.

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The mountainsides were smoking and charred boulders and logs scattered the sides of the roadway. We arrived in Marblemount without incident and after parking, we walked into the incident command post that had been set up. Engine companies were milling about and hotshot crews started arriving. We signed out of the zone, leaving our phone numbers and names in a large logbook and thanked the personnel. We walked back to the truck.

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Everything was in a weird dream-like state. The past five days, we hadn’t seen a soul. Then last night, we saw Dan, although it was dark and he was more of an apparition from the bright light of his headlamp in the dark. Today, we had seen at least 50 people. I tossed the keys to Christian. He would drive us to the trailhead, three hours away.

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We reached the trailhead just as the sun was beginning to set. Seth switched with Christian as Christian and I climbed into my Subaru. We’d drive back to Concrete, Washington, a town we had passed through after Marblemount, and drop the truck off there. We stopped at a turnoff along the way to take a final group picture. Deeply tanned, dirty, and blistered but grateful to be alive and well, we took the picture.

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Around 9 p.m., we reached Concrete, filled the truck with gas as a way to say thanks and dropped it off. The resort manager was planning on just moving his houseboats into the middle of the lake if the fire got nearer, and his wife would come bring his truck to him sometime. Then after a late dinner at Dairy Queen, we drove back towards Vancouver, Washington…five hours south of us. At first, I drove until we reached Federal Way. Then I switched with Seth or Christian and fell asleep. We switched again and again and again, or something like that. Reality had merged with dreams at this point and I was in no condition to recall much other than blurry streetlights and the sound of wind against the car. It was around 3 a.m. when we arrived at my house. We promptly crashed downstairs because we didn’t want to wake up my parents upstairs. I woke up to the sound of my parent’s voices in the kitchen. They were worried about us and talking about the wildfires. To say that they were incredibly surprised when I walked in and said, “Good morning!” would be an understatement.

Home safe home.

Special thanks to the Ross Lake Resort for being kind and gracious to us during that wild day. Check them out online at rosslakeresort.com!

Read Chapters 1, 2, 34, 5, and 6!

In closing, there were a number of things that we should have done differently so that we didn’t end up in the some of the places we did, such as on Day 3 and Day 4, when we deviated from our planned route up Bear Creek and traversed the slopes below Mt. Redoubt. Some thoughts  about the days:

Day 1: Make sure everyone is wearing shoes or boots that have been broken in. Day 1 was the start of the blistering plague. We also should have driven up the night before and then started hiking in the morning, rather than trying to leave the Portland-area early and drive the 5.5 hours north to the border, followed by trying to hike to specific campsites. Thankfully, the rangers were more flexible than I was.

Day 2: Mostly a downhill day as we descended to the river valley but the blisters started from Day 1 only grew worse. Trekking poles would have saved our knees.

Day 3: We should have started hiking earlier and not have deviated from our original course up the creek toward Bear Lake.

Day 4: Since we were now traversing the slopes below Mt. Redoubt, we should have taken the extra time to go lower and hug the treeline rather than attempt the sketchy scree and talus slopes.

Day 5: We had no knowledge of a good route down Redoubt Creek and although it was slow, tedious bushwacking, it was more mentally exhausting than anything. We could have relaxed more and enjoyed it.

Day 6:  Getting out of the bushwack and onto the trail was great, but stressful due to the nearby wildfires. If memory serves me right, we couldn’t seem to get a signal from the sat-phone down in the valley to call the ranger station and ask for updated intel. We had passed the point of no return and our only real hope was to continue on to Ross Lake to get our resupply.

Day 7: Circumstances were beyond our control. We could have stayed together, but then we’d have missed the evacuees and who knows what would have happened then. It probably would have turned out the same – we would borrow the manager’s truck and either leave our resupply boxes in Diablo to be given away or picked them up as we drove away.

Other notes: Carrying 60lb packs that had enough food to last a week, plus climbing gear and glacier gear, made for hard hiking and bushwacking. If we had known more about the conditions, we could have gone without the pickets and other gear, effectively shaving off ~10-15lbs each. Team morale is crucial to keep up on long, stressful trips like this, and knowing when to call it quits can be huge. Everyone has the power to veto. Be content with focusing on each step of the journey, rather than the destination. Our destination was Canada, and I felt that I missed out on parts of this trek simply because I was too caught up in finishing it and reaching our goal. Since you never know what might happen (e.g. wildfires, evacuations, etc.), just enjoy the moments you have.

 

Adventure Awaits,

– JC

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