Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Week Alone in the Woods

Ok, here’s the journal I kept during my solo backpacking trip. I hiked along the PCT (mostly) from Timberline Lodge (up on Mt. Hood) to the Bridge of the Gods (on the Columbia River) over the course of seven days.
I have a big honkin’ pile of pictures (I took about 375 but narrowed it down to 125 to put up on flickr...with annotations!) but the internet connection at the Boston Public Library (where I am right now) doesn’t have enough bandwidth to upload them, so those are forthcoming.
I’m planning on revising all of this and writing something more artful...eventually. These are just my rough notes, pretty much unchanged, so take them for what they are. It really isn’t up to snuff my best writing, but it is what it is. If you are interesting in the “writing process” it may be cool to stay tuned and see how this stuff develops.

July 14, 2006, 8:06 PM
This moment is achingly close to perfect: the last hour of sun-light on my first day of my first solo backpacking trip is dwindling. I’m sitting adjacent to Ramona Falls. The mountain breeze is carrying the mist from the falls towards me, offering me solace from the mosquitoes and biting flies that relish attacking my camp about 600 feet away. (Even those are much more manageable than the notorious just-melted snow-pack infestations I’d heard plague this section of the trail, the flies don’t seem to remember that they are supposed to be morbidly repelled by DEET.) I’m nestled in a nook between tree-roots. I’m glad I made it to the Ramona Falls camp because 1) it’s gorgeous, 2) although the area is relatively crowded, I was able to find the perfect spot just out of eye- and earshot of the group of 7 or so men up the trail, but close enough to smell the wood smoke from their campfire, and 3) the white noise from the falls, coupled with my exhaustion, should help mitigate my lonely anxious fear of every bump in the night.
The only thing that could possibly make this moment any better would be sharing it with someone I love. Huh, it just got oddly brighter. I’ll pretend it was because I was thinking about Paul, or my family, or my friends. Being in the woods brings out the cheese in me. True, part of the purpose of this trip is that I have to succeed alone, but part of that entails being acutely aware of what being alone means I’m missing.
Today went by with only one (semi) major hitch (not counting the oddly heinous series of debacles serving as a prequel to departure). I almost think that my subconscious made it happen on purpose, because what would the first day of my first solo be without getting lost? I was merrily hiking along the trail a little ways past Paradise Park when a switchback just...didn’t switch back. The trail just turned and started heading back towards Timberline Lodge. The day-hikers I stopped to ask looked at me like I was crazy (and I probably was), and when I told them it was the first day of a week-long trip they looked like they thought for sure I would never make it. Oh well. I didn’t know how I got turned around backwards; when retracing my steps and consulting the map I found nothing. (There will, no doubt, be more consultation of the map later tonight!) So I bush-whacked a few ridges over and used my mad map skills to deduce where I was supposed to be going, and headed in that direction. After 15 minutes or so of semi-worried bush-whacking, I eventually met up with a trail I hoped (and thought) was the right one. Seeing as right now I’m sitting exactly where I had planned to be, it must have been. All in a days work.
The most beautiful part of the hike was from Timberline Lodge to right where I got lost. I stopped nearly every 30 seconds to take pictures, and wish there was some way I could have just recorded every frame I saw. I spotted a male deer with a few points on top of a neighboring ridge. I hope that shows up digitally. The mountain was never silent: the ambient buzz of flies, bumble bees, and other humming winged and segmented creatures whirring in the background like a well-run led factory never ceased.
My euphoria dropped into pain, boredom, and self-doubt as the tail dropped from alpine meadow and jagged glaciated volcanic outcrops to zig-zagging Rhododendron filled forest. However, my spirits rose again as I crossed the Sandy River (so small up here!...though still the most treacherous obstacle of the day), and started climbing up again to Ramona Falls (which I must try to draw tomorrow).
Oh, only other mishap: forgot a pot-holder, but on the upside, discovered a great new use for my extra pair of wool socks.
I hope Mom got back to the Lodge ok. Her knees were bothering her when she left me at the Zig Zag River. No doubt she’s worrying about me, too, seeing as I don’t get any cell phone service.

Let’s see, some vital stats on the day:
Miles hiked: ~11 (give or take because I got lost)
Started: ~1:15, arrived at Ramona Falls ~6:35, in camp at ~6:45, fred, cleaned, and built a “home” for the night by ~8:00.
Great first day. Let’s hope it only gets better.
9:49 PM: Ok...now it’s dark. Whole new ball-game? Not really. I’m definitely more nervous about my mom than I am about myself...wish I could have used my cell phone tonight. Maybe up on Yokum Ridge I’ll get service tomorrow. If not, definitely by Sunday night. Sigh.

July 15, 2006, 8:57 AM
Well, I made it through the first night alive. My food was pristine and untouched, too. Let’s just hope the critters don’t catch on to me by tomorrow morning.
When I woke up at 7:30 the big group camping next to me was already moving out. Wow that made me feel lazy. But then I reminded myself that I hadn’t slept very well the night before (took over an hour to fall asleep, woke up at 2:40 and couldn’t fall back asleep for an hour and a half, woke up again at 5:45 and 6:30), and I didn’t need to pack up my camp for the day.
I will be heading up Yokum Ridge today, hopefully I’ll get cell phone reception at the top.
12:20 PM: This is unbelievable. I’m as remote as I’m going to be for the rest of my trip. If not the first, I’m definitely one of the first hikers up the Yokum Ridge Trail this season. I can’t tell exactly where it terminates, but I think I made it pretty close to the end. Too bad the trail disappeared under snow. I was starting to doubt the author’s “strong recommendation” of this side-trip until I hit the treeline alpine meadows and amazing views. I guess slogging and switchbacking through 2 hours of woods was worth it. My family will be waiting for me back at Ramona Falls, and I even got to leave a voicemail for Paul!
7:40 PM: Ok...I’m officially exhausted. Perhaps because today turned into an 18-mile day? (11+ for Yocum Ridge, ~7 down to the Ramona Falls trailhead with my parents and a run back up). I think I may just eat my copious clam chowder (don’t even want to see what’s hiding under it stuck and burnt to the bottom of my pot) and collapse. It’s times like this that I really wish Paul was here. The novelty of the trip has started to wear off and now I realize that I still have 5 more days alone. Oh well, 1 more day and I’ll really hit the “rhythm” phase and then it will be over before I know it. And now I have my running shoes because my mom brought then up with her today. Yay!
8:55 PM: Oof, everything hurts. Just the way things should be, right?
Tonight my neighbors are a young couple and their 9-12 month old baby daughter. Awwwwwwwwww...
Vital stats:
Miles: ~18
Up by: 7:30, on trail by 9:00 AM
Dinner: Burnt but yummy clam chowder with shrimp in it instead of clams

July 16, 2006, 7:40 PM
The theme fo the day shall be “Roughing it Smoothly”...though only because of my humble $25 “F-Loop” Lost Lake campsite. Ha. I went from probably the lowest point of the trip to-date today (heading down through the viewless forests, my feet aching every step, tired, sore, and dehydrated) to one of the highest (now, very peaceful, full of Jaipur vegetables and soon fake cheesecake, calm, and happy). Wow, has my first gas canister run-out? (Note: it never did; I didn’t use it up the entire trip.) That would truly be an accomplishment. It’s making lots of weird noises...let’s hope the stove doesn’t self-destruct.
Anyway, when I got here I was at the height of exhaustion and soreness. I dropped my stuff at a (deluxe, more expensive, lake front) site and wandered around confusedly trying to find where to pay. Once I finally got back an hour later, I set up my tent and sleeping bag and collapsed for an hour with my feet uphill. When I woke up from my nap I could barely walk, but after groggily stuffing my face I decided I felt like going on a slow run around the 3.2 mile lake shore trail. Best decision of the day, by far. Turns out even though I could barely walk running felt great. My legs are still very sore, but stretching them after running felt amazing. Maybe another early-morning loop tomorrow? We’ll see how I feel in the morning. It’s going to be another long day (14 mi?) as it is.
Afterwards I took a “shower” (or maybe it was more of a bath?) in the lake with my new friend, Dr. Branner’s (18-in-one all-purpose soap...I have no idea what the 18 uses are...) Goal for tonight: read everything on the bottle. Ha...just kidding...you’ll only know why that’s funny if you’ve ever actually seen one.
Crows are cawing everywhere...or maybe they are just big ornery blue-jays? Either way, now it’s time for some tea and lakeside reflection. Will 3 bags be enough?
8:24 PM: Oh wow, just now while sitting by the lake shore a crawdad (or something similar) swan right up by my foot to explore a jutting rock (must have some good moss for eating on there or something...). As I leaned in to take a picture he scuttled (or maybe swam?) away very quickly. I had no idea those guys can move so well. A few minutes later, some large, crazy bird dove into the water (swooped? trying to catch a fish maybe) then flew up and off. It’s amazing what you can see when you are quiet and still.
Oh, let I forget, today also included crossings of treacherous debris flows (I’m so less daring when I’m by myself) and rapid semi-deep river fordings. Woo! Maybe slogging for miles with sloshy wet feet and socks is what made me cranky.
Oh wow, there are huge cedars here. No phone unless I want to walk 12 miles down the road. I really want to talk to Paul. He just...calms me and energizes me at the same time somehow. He’d love it here because lots of people have boats out. Maybe I’ll find service tomorrow.
Vital stats:
Mileage: 17.1 with pack, ~2 to store and back, 3.2 running = 22.3!!
Up at 6:30, on the trail by 7:50, arrived at Lost Lake around 3:30, in camp by 4:30

July 17, 2006, 8:37 PM
I’m writing from “indoors” (aka, inside my tent) tonight because Wahtum Lake, though beautiful, is home to many biting insects. Let’s see...I’ve continued to make very good time, reaching my camp at 2:15 today. I got very frustrated and almost started crying halfway between Indian Springs and Wahtum Lake because I thought I hadn’t made it to Indian Springs yet. I’m starting to learn that one of my biggest weaknesses (though it hasn’t become a point of failure yet) is pressing on too hard for too far and too long without taking a break. I need to just let myself stop or take it easy (or even take a drink) sometimes. Which, of course, will be my biggest challenge for the final three days of the trip. Going at the rate I have been going at, I could probably make it to the Bridge of the Gods by early afternoon tomorrow. My mom won’t be there until about 48 hours later. Hmmmm. I’ve made the conscious decision to challenge myself “mentally” by taking a slow, easy trek out. I could have outlined a grueling itinerary, looping down Herman Creek and back, but I’ve already proven to myself that I can cover 17, 19, 20 miles in a day. (And with plenty of daylight left...right now it’s just my stupid sore feet that make me need to stop.) So, now I’ll force myself to be alone, by myself, without my exhaustion to distract me. We’ll see how it goes.
The loneliness is definitely growing rather than subsiding. I hiked 2+ miles up to the top of Mt. Chindere before dinner so I could call Paul. That felt really good, and the view was amazing. I could see Hood, Jefferson, St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier (I think). I can’t wait to see Paul, and I can’t tell if the days are passing slower or faster here than they were when I was at home.
When I got here, I tried to take a nap inside my tent but ended up lying frustrated, hot and bothered, in a pool of my own sweat. I didn’t have much better luck outside. Oh well, the whole country is experiencing a heat wave right now, so I think I’ve got it pretty good considering. During my sweaty delirium a chipmunk chewed a hole through my bag of trail mix. I saw it scampering around gleefully afterwards and I tried to give it a dirty look.
I saw absolutely no one on the trail today between Lost Lake and Wahtum Lake, though there were some people canoeing on Wahtum Lake and camping up on top of the ridge. I wonder if they will still be there tonight. If not, or even if they are, this is the most “alone” I’ve been thus far. Funny, doesn’t feel that remote.
Mmmmm...dinner was actually awesome. Tuna yellow curry (from a magic pouch) and whole wheat spaghetti.
All I’ve been hearing since I got here is the wind blowing through the trees. It never stops. Time for more Moby Dick.
Vital stats:
On trail by 7:45 (but got slightly lost leaving...ha ha...at Lost Lake...)
Mileage: Lost Lake to Wahtum Lake, 14.7, side trip to Chinidere Mtn. and back, plus up to the pit toilet out at the trailhead, ~20 total

July 18, 2006, 5:22 PM
Oh man, someone just came down to share my campsite (Mica from Hood River). Oh well, I don’t really mind, it just means I can’t walk around naked or pee as freely...ha. Anyway, it’s still beautiful and peaceful here next to Eagle Creek. This spot of the stream almost looks deep enough to swim in. Don’t know if its inviting appearance is enough to override how cold I know it is. I can see the water splashing under the surface and then bubbling up again in this pool...where are the fish? Anyway, Day 1 of my 3-day anti-gruel relax-a-thon has gone pretty well so far. I slept in after a rather strange and interesting night: I had lots of crazy dreams, many of which were about playing basketball (with no actual playing, in high school but with people I know from college or middle school, some not even basketball players, tying into a separate dream about fashion...weird). I also had a dream where I was pregnant. Weird.
Anyway, the most remarkable thing about last night was when I woke up around 1:50 AM and thought someone was shining a flashlight into my tent, which was flooded with light from a very bright source low and to the east. I saw up, scrambled for my glasses, only to find that it was a very very bright moon close to the lake-horizon. I’ve never seen a moon so low and bright. Wow. And the stars were amazing, too.
The animals stayed out of my food all night, then managed to nibble into the trail mix again right after I got up this morning, so that grudgingly had to “be let go.” I sadly threw out the whole bag on my way back up to Mt. Chinidere (again) to call Paul. Now my phone is almost out of batteries. And I just felt some rumblings in my tummy...uh oh.
Today was rather boring, but nice nonetheless. I’m not sure what I’ll do tomorrow, when I have even more time and even less to do. The falls today were beautiful, though. Maybe I wan walk back up there for lunch and a swim? We’ll see.
Ugh...stomach not feeling too good. Great. I’ll have to take care of that soon. It’s so crazy to think this little creek carved this massive canyon. I should plunk my feet in and see what it can do for them.
8:09 PM: Well, today was a good, if short, day. Tomorrow should be similar. I kind of like this relaxed pace, and I’m really getting into Moby Dick. Again another good dinner (more tuna curry, red panang this time). I hope the little gnawing creatures are deterred by my sheisty bag-hanging job (ha ha...let’s hope the garbage bag doesn’t break either). It’s so great to have the sound of the creek trickling (ok, maybe Eagle Creek does more than trickle) along right next to me. I should be able to sleep well tonight. Tomorrow I’ll try to head down to Tenas Camp. Hopefully it won’t be occupied, but if it is, oh well. The description in the PCT guide made it sound very nice. If I hit it in the morning before heading up to the Benson Plateau it should be good. Hopefully I’ll get a cell signal up there--though I don’t know if the views will be anything spectacular. Hopefully flat enough for a good run, too?
Vital stats:
Up around 7:40, on Eagle Creek Trail by 10:40
Mileage: Up Mt. Chinidere and back, ~4 (running), on trail with pack, ~8, Total: 12...easy day!

July 19th, 2006, 7:40 PM
It’s the last night of my trip and it definitely feels like it. I’m glad that I’m looking forward to returning to my “normal” life. The solitary life was good while it lasted, but not something I want to practice permanently.
Well, I buckled under the challenge of “taking it easy.” Maybe it was my inner urge to prove myself to...myself, or maybe it was Mica from Hood River, sharing my campsite next to Eagle Creek smoking and doing yoga that girded me on, but today I made it all the way to Herman Creek. My “weakness” set in, probably the reason I’m camping at this “official” forest service campground and by I-84 instead of the primitive (probably more scenic) Herman Camp that was 0.7 miles up the trail. Oh well, I just don’t know how to make myself stop until I’m too tired and the damage has been irreversibly done. This place isn’t so bad...the cars constantly going by on the freeway sound almost like Eagle Creek, oddly enough. I’m not even joking.
I ate Chandler’s gifted “smelly Mexican food” for dinner. I’ll have to tell her that it was actually pretty good. I didn’t eat all of it because I don’t have to pack out my garbage tonight (see, one perk to pseudo-car-camping without a car...) and I wanted to make sure my bowels don’t go berserk on the last day. Although there’s a pit toilet here, I do have 6+ miles of lonely trail to go until I reach the Bridge of the Gods.
Oh yeah, I saw a lot of garter snakes slinking off the trail as soon as they heard me coming yesterday and today. And lots of insects copulating. A sign on the Eagle Creek Trail answered my question as to why all the biggest trees I saw were old dead snags: the area was burnt by a forest fire in 1902, and is now covered by “young” Douglas Firs. Right. It’s cool to see a burn zone that’s old enough not to be immediately recognizable as a burn zone anymore. I was starting to wonder if all the snags were coincidences. I guess there aren’t many coincidences in nature, though.
I had a nice talk with another solo backpacking today (I’ve actually seen quite a few others at it alone...no women except me, though). I had passed him yesterday while he was on a day hike up to Wahtum Lake. It’s strange, I can go forever without seeing anyone, yet I’m still not startled when I finally encounter another person. Maybe that’s because people are so conspicuous and loud.
Mmmm...more tea. I love the way the bottle of water post-tea tastes, too.
Dry Creek Falls was kind of erie today. There was an abandoned pair of boots, some used fireworks, and a weird concrete and metal dam-type thing (used for who knows what).
Ok...I came to this campsite because I wanted to feel safe on my last night, but now I think I would have felt safer at the more remote Herman Camp. (Note: After I got back, my parents would tell me a bunch of stories about people dying or getting attacked on trails and at campsites...good thing I hadn’t heard them yet.) Oh well, I will be on the trail heading out in about 12 hours.
I’m definitely getting weaker and more tired (slower too) as the trip wears on...isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Oh yeah, it’s slightly weird to pass bikers instead of hikers on the trail (like I did today).
Vital states:
On trail by 9:30 AM, reached camp ~5 PM
Mileage: WIth pack, hiked 15.6 miles (roughly, including my accidental detour up a power-line access road)

And that concludes my “on trail” journal. Some notes about the final day:

July 20th, 2006
There were a bunch of scary loud trains that kept going by last night. I don’t know how I didn’t hear them until after I was in bed...
The slugs were out in full-force today. I must have seen dozens between Herman Creek and the Bridge of the Gods trailhead. Maybe they know something that I don’t.
After getting to the trailhead, I got some coffee and a cookie (smothered in fudge and marshmallows...I believe it was called “rocky road”) before using the last 45 seconds left on my cell phone battery to call my mom. I found out she was stuck in Chicago due to thunderstorms. Uh oh. Her advice was to go to “plan B” as far as getting picked up...but there is not plan B! Luckily, everything got worked out eventually. My mom talked to my dad and my brother, and they all decided that my dad should drive down from Seattle (awww, thanks Dad!) and pick me, then my mom (when her plane finally got in) from the airport. I found out all of this after purchasing a $5 phone card from a local general store. The phone card was enough for 3 calls from a pay phone. Sheesh.
I ended up having about 5 hours to kill in Cascade Locks (right on the Gorge), so I wandered around, waved and said hi to the locals (who were all extremely nice), and bought the day’s Oregonian, my first news in a week.
I read every single article in the paper (even the obituaries) and was very proud of Oregon for what I read (protecting more wilderness area on Mt. Hood, where I just was, approving free wi-fi for the whole city of Portland, etc.) I was in the middle of doing the crossword and word jumble when my dad arrived. We headed back to the airport for a beer (mmmmm) before my mom’s plane touched down.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I like it! Good job. Go on.
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Alice said...

Hey Jordan, can you give me the link to those pictures you mentioned? Thanks! -Alice