Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Return to the PCT

Ever since Zach and I left the PCT in September of 2014, we’ve wanted to return— not to hike, but to volunteer. A significant portion of the trail is maintained by volunteer crews, and we didn’t get a chance to join one, until this year.

After filling out the volunteer applications and convincing Gary to sign up as well, we chose a weekend trip at Nannie Ridge, which is close to the Goat Rocks in central Washington. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but got our gear ready and headed out last Thursday with high hopes.

The meeting place was the Walupt Lake Campground, which turned out to be a cool destination in its own right. It was a long winding dirt road to get up to the National Forest campground, but the cold lake surrounded by sweeping mountains was well worth it. We waded in the lake a bit, then got to camp for free next to the campground host. We met our crew leader that night, Haley: small and dark-haired with a quiet smile, she instantly struck me as one of the most laid-back people I’d ever met. Two other volunteers also arrived that night: Bart and Susie, a couple from southern Oregon who had done a bit of trail work before. We toasted marshmallows over a fire and chatted, excited to hike into the wilderness and start work tomorrow.

Walupt Lake

The next morning, we woke up early and got the group together as the stragglers arrived. Our crew consisted of eight volunteers and one leader: Zach, Gary, me, Haley, and Bart and Susie; a guy named Ben who was traveling around on his motorcycle with only one backpack to hold all his possessions (which he carried on his back while he rode); and a couple from Chicago (but before that, Romania) named Marinas and Anna.

We learned that we wouldn’t actually be working on the PCT itself, but an access trail called Nannie Ridge. It was important to maintain this trail so later horse crews could get up to the PCT to work on the Goat Rocks.

We hiked the three miles up to our group campsite, which was grueling because our packs were heavy with water. On the way up, we saw the part of the trail we’d be working on: it was deeply trenched in some areas, ankle-turningly rocky in others, and generally eroded all over. Our work was cut out for us!

The pavilion and kitchen tent
Once we hauled ourselves up one last slope and turned off to an alpine meadow, we learned that a horse-supported backpacking trip is the best thing ever. Tucked in between the spruces and purple lupine flowers, we found supplies cached for us: a dozen digging tools, a mesh-enclosed pavilion, a shade tarp, tons of cooking gear, several bear boxes filled with all kinds of food (the boxes folded out into shelving), and even a cooler of fresh vegetables! 

We scattered across the meadow, setting up our individual camps. Zach and I pitched our tent in a stand of pines on a little knoll, then helped get the kitchen area up and running. Bart and Susie dug a hole for dishwater, and a trench on the far side of the meadow for a latrine. Zach and I shoveled snow from a small snowfield on the edge of the area into garbage cans, to melt into drinking water since there was no other source of water here. After an hour of setting up, we ate some PB&J sandwiches, and prepared to actually start the trail work.

Haley walked us through the tools, most of which I had never seen before— the McCloud, the hazel hoe, the rogue hoe (my favorite)— and then we each grabbed a couple tools and started down the trail. 

Most of the work consisted of knocking down berms that had formed, either on the edges of the trail (preventing water from running off), or in the middle between two trails (forming trenches on both sides). We grabbed the heavy tools and knocked out the sod, evening out the ground so that it gently sloped to the outside edge. If that wasn’t possible, we dug some swales to catch the water and direct it off the trail via a trench, although we had to make the slope gradual enough so that people and horses could easily walk over it. As we worked, we had to consider different factors: rainwater, stock with saddlebags, hikers who naturally take the path of least resistance. 

After an hour or two of constantly bugging Haley about what needed to be done, we all began to fall into the rhythm and understand our work more intuitively. With nine of us working, we could fill in a trench in no time, and the trail was unrecognizably smooth and wide by the end of our first day. We hiked back up to camp, oohing and ahhing over everybody’s work. Haley made us a veggie stir-fry with rice and homemade peanut sauce, which tasted amazing after even just a few hours of hard work.

It turns out that the melted-snow situation didn’t work as well as it could’ve: the water was full of silt, which clogged the communal filter. We ended up having a big “filter party” where several of us sat around using our personal filters, as well as helping to strain the water through a towel so Haley could boil it. This is the kind of stuff that makes you really grateful for running water!

Zach, Ben, Gary, and Haley at our Filter Party. I love how ridiculously photogenic everyone looks here.

On Saturday, we worked a full eight hours: tearing down berms, grading the trail, fixing switchbacks, clipping vegetation, installing “water bars” (logs that direct the water off-trail) and even digging out and moving a huge boulder that sat in the middle of the trail. By the end of the day, the tendons in my hands were swollen and throbbing, and I was covered in mosquito bites and dust. We limped back to camp, where Haley and Ben worked together to whip up spaghetti with veggie-packed sauce and sausages. I hadn’t tasted anything so good since the PCT! We made a fire that night and burned our paper trash (including our dirty toilet paper, which inspired a lot of goofy joking), and we all chatted about random stuff. Marinas had hiked the Appalachian Trail, Ben had hiked both the AT and the PCT, and the others had done various shorter trips, so there were plenty of trail stories to go around. 

On Sunday, I woke up feeling refreshed, and we easily finished our morning’s work. Haley had announced we’d have the afternoon off to do hiking, and Zach and I knew exactly where we wanted to go: we wanted to hike up the last couple miles and find ourselves on the actual PCT. 

A five-minute hike from our campsite brought us to this view of Mt. Adams

We set out with Gary a little after noon, hiking over the top of the mountain we were on and heading north toward Sheep Lake. The sun was hot, and we were all sweaty by the time we reached the clear blue body of water. Zach hates cold water, but Gary and I decided that swimming was an order, and waded in. The water felt freezing at first, but once you got in up to your neck, it felt like you were floating in air. I paddled around, feeling some of the dirt wash off my skin. After so much dusty trail work, it was incredible!

After splashing around for a bit, we rejoined Zach on shore, and Gary opted to stay behind while Zach and I hiked onward toward the PCT. Within a few minutes, we saw the familiar wooden sign— PACIFIC CREST TRAIL NO. 2000— and set foot on the trail for the first time in almost three years.

I was home.

Even though I didn’t recognize this particular part of the trail, even though it would be a mile or so before anything looked familiar, I immediately felt the weight of returning to this path that had been my home for five months, and I nearly teared up. It was good to be back.

We trekked along the path, heading north through some woods, past alpine bogs and meadows filled with wildflowers, and out onto open slopes with views of Mount Adams and St. Helens. A jagged volcanic ridge rose up before us, the first of the Goat Rocks, painted with glacier, and at last I recognized where we were.

Haley caught up with us at Yakima Pass, and the three of us hiked together, chatting about her life as a trail worker and talking about what the area had looked like last time we had been through. Now, in high summer, it was still spotted with snowfields and banks that we had to scramble over. One section, that had been a barren slope of gravel when we crossed it, was now covered in a blanket of heather. 

We reached Cispus Pass, looking down into a valley that I clearly remembered. We hiked for a while, then sat by the trail with Haley, talking about this and that. But the sunlight wouldn’t last forever, and we had to return to camp. We waved goodbye to the valley and headed back.

As we walked, Haley pointed out the different wildflowers growing along the trail: dwarf mountain lupine, red columbine, Menzies larkspur, tiger lily, Indian paintbrush, beargrass, bunchberry, western pasqueflower. We even stopped at an alpine bog and she showed us exotic flowers such as elephant’s head, monk’s hood, and a couple different kinds of orchids. (Check out this page for pictures of the different flowers.)

Sunday was the last night with everyone, since Bart, Susie, Marinas, and Anna were heading out early in the morning, but we sat around the paper trash/toilet paper fire and had one last good talk. 

Group photo our final morning (minus those who left early)

On Monday, we packed up our personal camp, stashed the remaining food and supplies for next week’s trail crew, and hiked halfway down the mountain to do a bit more trail work. After a couple hours, Haley announced we were officially finished, and we cached the tools and hiked the remaining distance back to the campground. We said goodbye to Haley and Ben, grateful for the chance to get to know them. Then we took to the road, heading back to the world of flush toilets, instantaneous water, and wonderful, wonderful showers.


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