PCT Week One
Donomore Pass to Mazama Village
07/05 to 07/13
This morning, as I was driving to work, I saw Mt. Hood silhouetted against an orange sky and I felt a physical pang of longing to be back on the trail. 455 miles seemed like such a long way, but the miles and the time flew by. We can't wait until we can do another one.
The PCT at the California/Oregon border is accessed from a remote forest road, southwest of Ashland. Kinley and her boyfriend drove us and then walked with us to the border which is about 0.3 miles south. When we arrived, we were surprised to see two workers lounging in the shade of a brand-new sign. I was a bit disappointed that our picture wouldn’t be by the old, iconic border sign. Then we realized that we were the first, or at least among the first few, to start our journey at the new sign.
We hiked back to the car to put on our packs. We were excited. We were nervous. We had promised ourselves that we would focus on each day and not think about the daunting total miles. At last, we said our goodbyes and watched Kinley and Jackson drive away. It was 3:17 p.m. We had planned a 11.9-mile day, but with the late start, we decided to shorten it up. We found a promising destination in our guidebook about 6.4 miles away.
Oregon is called the "Green Tunnel" of the PCT because a lot of the days wind through view-less forests. We heard other PCTer's complain about it. One hiker said that she feels like Oregon is "long days of boring with islands of awesomeness." In hindsight, I remember three or four “green tunnel” days overall. A few years ago, there would have been many more, but big fires have wiped out a lot of forest.
We are used to tree-lined hikes. Hiking around Portland usually involves a lot of elevation gain through dense forest, to a small window of open space framing a magnificent view. Southern Oregon with its wide expanses of grass and wildflower meadows charmed us.
Wrangle Campground is 0.5 miles from the PCT, on a forest road. We debated whether we wanted to walk 'down' half a mile to a camp without water, but the next source was almost six miles away, too far to keep going. As it turned out, we almost always had elevation loss in the evening to get to water. There were many times when we hiked more than half a mile from the trail to camp.
The campground had five spots, picnic tables, a pit toilet, fire rings, and a big stone shelter built in the 30's with a fireplace and a wood stove, a " community kitchen". The Forest Service description claims that there is also a cabin, but we didn't see that. Despite the lack of water, we thought it was a lovely campground and we were surprised that we had it all to ourselves. Except for the young deer that visited us, twins that grazed near our tent for half an hour. Instead of hanging a bear bag that night, Kirk put the food in the privy for the night.
The next day the terrain was the virtually the same, with all that lovely wide-open space and views of Pilot Rock which would be in our future. At this point, we were west of I5, so we spent the first couple days heading east. The weather was warm, but not too hot. We saw our first "trail magic", but since we were less than 20 miles into our hike, we didn't feel that we had earned the right to help ourselves.
Trail angels are people who leave "trail magic" along the way for thru hikers. This might include water, sodas, and snacks. We also saw some supplies, like mosquito repellent wipes and duct tape. It doesn't take long to obsess about food and especially drinks out there. If you see a long-distance hiker, you might consider making his/her day by offering a cold drink. If you want to take it to the next level, you might offer to take his/her garbage! Something that people don't often think about… “Leave No Trace” means, “Carry Your Garbage.” Garbage cans are few and far between.
We hiked 19.6 miles to get to Callahan's Lodge on I5 where the promise of a fancy meal and hiker showers awaited. Callahan's sells a hiker package which includes, dinner, breakfast, a shower, laundry and a spot on their back lawn to pitch a tent. All of this for a mere $65 per person. We went ahead and each bought the package.
Dinner included unlimited spaghetti and a free drink. The minute the server saw our hiker coupons, her whole attitude changed. It was like we didn't exist for her. It took an eternity to get her attention. We decided that she must have some bad experiences with stinky hikers, and perhaps she was often shorted on tips. (The spaghetti was not great.) Breakfast was much better, and our server was more enthusiastic.
The shower and laundry were in a large wooden outbuilding. We went to check it out and then we realized that the single shower, toilet and laundry were in one tiny room. This meant that one hiker at a time can do laundry and get cleaned up while waiting for the laundry cycle. It is quite a long process. The hot water knob on the shower was missing, replaced by a 3/8 box end wrench. The laundry soap had run out, there were no clean towels. Soap was included. Tiny slivers of used soap from the rooms in the lodge, same with the toilet paper. We were not thrilled with our hiker package, but it was nice to sleep on the soft, deep lawn.
We didn't see very many animals on our trip. We talk a lot when we hike, so we probably scare everything away. Our sightings were limited to small critters like chipmunks and rabbits. In southern Oregon, we saw a lot of deer. They were more curious than wary of us. I kept yelling at them to stop trusting humans. This little lady was not about to move from the trail. She grazed for a while, ignoring us. Then she walked toward us. We started to get nervous that she wasn't going to stop. At the last moment, she veered off into the grass and climbed the hill.
Pilot Rock was our first major landmark. We watched it grow closer and bigger as we hiked toward it and then smaller as we hiked away from it. One of the most satisfying experiences while hiking is to look back and see how far you have come!
Water was a huge issue for us. There are 1400 named lakes in Oregon and the PCT passes scores of lakes and ponds, but often, we had no access to water. This was a late snow melt year, so many of the seasonal streams were still running. We were getting very low on water which made us nervous. We had read about a faucet that should have been in a meadow, where we had planned to eat our lunch, but the grass in the meadow was tall and some other hikers hadn't been able to find the faucet.
We passed a "seasonal stream" which had dwindled to little more than a mud puddle. We had read about a spring a mile or so farther and we hoped and prayed to find that so we wouldn't have to backtrack and try to scoop water out of the dirty puddle. It was supposed to be just a few yards off the trail via a faint boot path. We explored two or three faint booth paths before we found it. We heard the spring before we saw it, cold, clear water running from a pipe.
The spring fed this beautiful cattle pond. With several tent sites nearby, we were tempted to stay, but decided that it was too early to call it a day. We moved on with regret.
Much of the trail in southern Oregon winds through BLM land and some of it goes through private property. We passed through numerous pipe gates. 17 miles from Callahan's we crossed into Green Springs Wildlife Sanctuary with anticipation. Our guidebook claimed that deer, elk, bears, coyotes, bobcats and other small creatures lived on the 154 acres. We didn't see anyone, not even one of the owls, hawks or woodpeckers that were also said to inhabit the area. We were so tired, too fatigued to stop among the oaks and watch for animals. But I enjoyed the trees as we climbed an unnamed bluff and descended back onto private land.
We had started late after breakfast at Callahan's and hiked almost 18 miles. We needed to get to water and it was 7:10 p.m. At least 5.6 miles remained between us and the next reliable source, so we had to deviate and walk along the road for a mile or so to Keene Creek Reservoir.
We didn't see any tent sites, so we set up in the tall grass beside an old service road above the reservoir. Other than a few people fishing directly across from us, we had the place to ourselves.
Kirk's left foot had formed a blister deep in the pad. When he had put on his shoes at the car, it looked like his feet were straining to escape. He had finally abandoned heavy hiking boots in favor of a lightweight hiking shoe. (This is the footwear of choice on the trail now.) He had worn them to work and on short hikes to break them in with good success, so we couldn't understand what was going on. I thought about the new insoles we had purchased, but Kirk said he distinctly remembered taking out the factory insoles before inserting the new ones. Now three days later, I urged him to check again and sure enough, he had been hiking on two set of insoles. Oops!
We taped Kirk's feet as best we could.
The trail continued through oak woods, open expanses, and forests. We began to see commanding Ponderosa Pines with their scaly plated trunks. When we stopped for lunch, I took off my shoes and swapped them for sandals. After we ate, I changed back into my shoes. By the time we stopped for the night., I had a rash creeping around both ankles. Of course, we immediately thought poison oak, even though we didn't see any during the entire hike. The rash spread and turned into blisters; it was sore, but it never itched. I couldn't wear my shoes, so I had to hike in my sandals for days. I am still suffering the consequences of that with nerve damage to the bottoms of both feet.
We stayed the night at Klum Landing Campground on Howard Prairie Lake with flush toilets and showers, picnic tables and fire pits. The wind blew so hard that we had to set up our tent in the shelter of the brick bathroom and then move it to our campsite and weigh it down with our packs. We did our laundry in the shower, something we got very good at on our hike.
The next day, the landscape changed to red volcanic cinders flanked by black lava rock. For several miles, the trail alternated between shady old growth to open, exposed lava beds. The lava was hard to walk on, especially in my sandals.
We didn't see one rattlesnake, but we saw this guy in the lava beds. As far as I know, scorpions are rare in Oregon and only indigenous to the desert areas, but here he was in the middle of the trail.
When we planned our hike while sitting in the comfort of our home, we hadn't planned to go to Fish Lake resort, which meant we had to carry seven days of food to get to our first resupply. On our second night out at Callahan's, we realized that we had to lighten up, so we changed our plans, ditched a lot of our heavy food and added Fish Lake Resort to the itinerary.
A word about "resorts". While this brings to mind luxury and comfort, the resorts that are along the Pacific Crest Trail are RV campgrounds, some with cabins, showers on a timer ($2.00 for 3 minutes), and camp stores with 300% markups on off brand products. But a timed shower is luxury and the price tag on the snacks didn’t matter.
Hikers get mixed reactions at resorts, both from the other clientele and from the staff. Hiker Trash is an affectionate term in the backpacking community for long distance hikers who have "sunk down to a lower standard of living." The Trek. But some of them go even lower, like it is a badge of honor to smell them before you can see them on the trail. They avoid showers at all costs, even when they are available. Section hikers, like ourselves, can spot thru-hikers and vice versa, partly by just how dirty you are and by the size of your pack. (The smaller the pack, the longer the distance, although this sounds counter-intuitive. The longer one has to go and the higher one has to climb, the less stuff he/she is willing to carry.)
We hiked into Sky Lakes Wilderness, a.k.a Mosquito Nightmare, the day we left Fish Lake. We climbed up from the highway over the east shoulder of Mount McLoughlin and by lunchtime we couldn't stop to eat due to the angry swarm. No words can adequately describe the next two weeks of our trek. Except for a few breaks when we would climb high enough during the day to escape, we were under constant assault. They were aggressive, persistent, and seemed to work together to get at us. They flew in packs, dozens of angry, droning hoards. We were not prepared! Neither of us had long pants, so Kirk ended up hiking in his pajamas on more than one occasion. The mosquitoes loved him best, perhaps due to his O negative blood, as some studies have suggested. Kirk had bites on top of his bites...literally. We did not have head nets until a week into it, when another hiker took pity on us and asked her friend to bring some to Shelter Cove.
By this time, Kirk was working on a deep blister on his right foot, probably from compensating for the pain in his left. I was still in my sandals and the bottoms of my feet were bruised from lack of support, but my rash still prohibited me from wearing shoes. We agreed fully that the mosquitoes were much more demoralizing than the injuries.
Devil's Peak offered us a reprieve. It is also one of the highlights of the trail for me. After twelve miles of sustained elevation gain, the summit offers a huge 360° view which includes the wide base of Mount Mazama, although we didn't realize it at the time, the rim of Crater Lake.
Seeing Mount McLoughlin so far in the distance was satisfying. I could have lived up there with the breathtaking views (away from the bugs), except for the lack of water.
Devil's Peak is 7,582 feet tall.
We dropped down on the other side of the ridge to a lovely, little stream, the first water in over 14.0 miles. I persuaded Kirk to stay even though it was still early. I bribed him by suggesting that he soak his feet while I set up camp. He had the company of dozens of frogs. They varied in size from pinkie nail to the size of a fist. Instead of hopping away, they stared at him with their curious, bulging eyes.
“Pull up a seat,” they seemed to be saying. “Hang out with us and we’ll be friends.”
He watched them hop around and whip out their long, pink tongues and catch the mosquitoes that lurked near the edge of the water.
The next day, we walked through nearly 21 miles of water-less trail, exposed, burned areas and a desert of sand and lodge pole pine. We were hiking toward Crater Lake when we suddenly realized that we were heading due east. We were hot and tired and miles from water. As far as we could tell from our guidebook, we should have been northbound. We could see mountains in the distance to the north and we realized that they must be the caldera of the lake. We were both convinced that we had strayed from the PCT. Perhaps we had followed the Sevenmile Trail when it veered off to the east. We were low on water, had no cell service and real fear gripped us. Even if we backtracked, we had miles of dry trail to cover.
With panic rushing in, Kirk dropped his pack and walked farther up the trail while I sat down to read our guidebook. I couldn't find a clear answer. Then I remembered Guthook, a GPS map app that we had purchased for our phone. I opened the app and started to play with it. I enabled the GPS and our location popped up, placing us just where we should be on the PCT. In a short distance, we would swing north again, getting closer and closer to Crater Lake. We discovered that the app also showed mileages, camps and water sources with real time updates from fellow hikers on the condition of the streams and camps along the way. After this, we largely abandoned our guidebook, using it primarily in the evening to plan our next day.
Even with our new fancy app, we managed to miss the first junction to our evening's destination, Stuart Falls. At the second junction a sign proclaimed the area closed for restoration from fire damage. Another sign informed us that we still had almost 7.0 miles to Mazama Village, the next water source. We didn't have another seven miles in us. Also, we knew from trying to book months ago, that all the campsites at Mazama Campground were reserved. We pretended not to see the sign and followed recent footprints from some other desperate hiker, dropping down toward the falls on a trail that disappeared several times. It is amazing how fast the earth reclaims a trail that is not maintained. Along the way, we saw scat, the only evidence of Mountain Lion that we would see on this hike.
Mosquitoes swarmed over us when we set up camp near the falls, but we didn't care, we were so happy to see water. We had about ten miles to Mazama and the resupply box that we had mailed there, as well as the promise of a hot shower and real food! But the blisters on Kirk's feet were so deep and painful that he thought worried he would have to throw in the towel the next day.
When at last we reached Mazama Village (which is still 7.0 miles from Crater Lake), we went straight to the store to look for our resupply boxes. We had three, because we had ordered a couple of vital items while we were on the trail. I bought and ate a big bag of Sour Skittles before the man returned from looking for our packages to say that he couldn't find even one. It took a while, but eventually we breathed a sigh of relief when we had all three. Meanwhile, we looked around the store which was smaller than we expected and wholly inadequate for hikers. They were out of Ibuprofen; they didn't have Moleskin for blisters (we ended up buying Dr. Scholl's inserts and cutting them like Moleskin). They didn't even have normal chips; they had three shelves of Tim's Sea Salt & Vinegar Potato Chips. We bought some thinking we would get used to them. We didn't.
When we were at Stuart Falls, Kirk had prayed all night, sure that he couldn't go on without a miracle. We had even discussed an exit strategy, that maybe we could catch a bus to get closer to home so no one would have to drive all the way to Crater Lake to get us.
I had mixed feelings about this. During the first week of hiking, we were in constant pain. It was typical to spend most of the day taking an inventory of everything that hurt or to spend a couple hours focused on one area, such as the hip where the backpack was digging in. Then the pain (or at least one’s focus), moved to the knees or the lower back, or wherever…We were still in that stage. Also, I missed Misha, who wouldn’t join us for two more weeks. I thought I would be at peace either way. I was relieved that this time it would be Kirk who had to quit. We thought of all our sponsors and I kept telling Kirk that they would understand, but we both dreaded the idea of having to explain should we have to stop.
In the morning, his feet felt a little better. The thicker Dr. Scholl's material helped even more. He decided to give it another day while we were still close enough to bail out if we needed to.
We ate lunch at Annie Creek Restaurant, a small personal pizza, a salad, one hamburger with fries, a bowl of mac n cheese, one slice of cheesecake and three drinks. $83.00. But so worth it! Even my very thrifty husband didn't care and said he would have paid more.
We dragged ourselves away at last and hiked north for a couple of miles to Dutton Creek Camp to stay for the night. We were still well away from the lake. The Pacific Crest Trail skips Crater Lake completely, but there is an alternate Rim Trail that follows along the west side of the lake. Most hikers take it. We decided to skip the crowds at Rim Village and stay on the PCT for a few hours, then cut over to take advantage of Lightening Spring before we hit the water-less rim. I began to feel some anticipation. I had always been ambivalent about it, maybe because of all the hype. But now that we were so close, I realized that I really did want to see Crater Lake.
Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.