Excerpts from the Trail

With the recent coronavirus crisis and social distancing measures in place, I have been quietly going crazy. During stressful times such as these, I would usually escape to the woods to find solace. But with trailheads and parks closed, I have nowhere to turn. A stay-at-home order is nothing short of cruel torture for an outdoor enthusiast. As much as I deeply appreciate the urban trail systems close to my house, nothing compares to getting out in the true wilderness. With no ability to satisfy my craving for wild places, I have taken to daydreaming (and literally dreaming) about all of the wonderful trips I have taken in the past year. 

One of the trips I look back on with the most fondness was thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail with my best friend, Alia. Located in Mt. Rainier National Park, the trail spans about 95 miles and 23,000 ft of elevation change. With very little backpacking experience, we completed the trip in 9 days. It was no doubt one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. It also happens to be one of the best documented trips I have taken in the past year. I kept a journal the whole time and, now more than ever, I am very happy that I did. Reading about my experiences on the trail has brought me a lot of joy during these hard times, and reminded me that waiting to go back to these beautiful places is well worth it. So, I copied down some of my favorite entries in the hopes that you can find some joy in them too. Or, at least they can help tide over your nature cravings until the next time we can all safely get outside. 

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A map of the Wonderland Trail shown in Red. The trail circumnavigates Mt. Rainier.

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

Day 2

I woke up this morning cold and naive. Cold, because the temperature really drops here at night, and naive, because I didn’t properly check out hiking itinerary when we got our permit. Turns out we are in for a big epic. When we stopped for a break on the trail this morning, Alia checked the map and realized that we have two 16 mile days back-to-back on the tail end of our hike. Neither of us have hiked 16 miles before, let alone with big packs. But, we’re up for the challenge! I mean, we kind of have to be if we want to complete this thing.

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Stopping to look at the map always brought some sighs and confusion

We’re currently staying at Dick Creek. It’s 8:30 PM and we have only been here since 7 PM but I have already cracked enough dick jokes for Alia’s eyes to roll into the back of her head. But, seriously, Dick Creek is an unfortunate name for a truly beautiful camp. It is located on a forested outcropping on a ridge that overlooks Carbon Glacier. There are stunning views of the peaks surrounding us and the forested floor of the valley below. The creek itself is stunning too — crystal clear with lots of mini waterfalls cascading off of multi-colored boulders. This camp is seriously straight out of a national geographic magazine. The same can be said for the whole trail, really. This morning we passed through, what can only be respectfully described as, a forested fairy-land. The rocks were covered in carpets of bright-green moss, the forest floor was scattered with cartoonish-looking mushrooms, and the sunlight reflected off of the spiderwebs woven in the trees in such a way that it looked like sparkling pixie dust was suspended in the air. While I was hiking through I realized that the only thing that separates the Pacific Northwest from a fairy-tale is sunshine. When the sun shows itself, the colors are so vibrant – the greens so bright, the blues so deep, and the water so crystal clear that it looks surreal. It felt like I had been inserted into a Disney-princess movie and at any point the mice and birds would start talking to me.

The forest then opened up into Winthrop Creek. The creek was milky in color from all the silt in the glacial runoff. We passed over a rickety bridge spanning the creek that gave us views of Winthrop Glacier coming straight off of Mt. Rainier. I have never been so close to a glacier, nor have I been to Mt. Rainier. Even close up She looks massive and majestic, Her peak rugged and icy, and soft and warm all at once.

Winthrop glacier
The debris field of Winthrop Glacier with Mt. Rainier in the background
carbon glacier
Admiring the milky waters of Winthrop Creek

We worked our way up another ridge to Mystic Lake, where we stopped for a very long lunch. We bathed in the cold, refreshing lake and basked in the warm sun while we ate surprisingly delicious freeze-dried hummus. But, we had to keep moving. Reluctantly, we said goodbye to the lake and continued on, passing through countless alpine meadows and picking huckleberries along the way. Finally, we descended down a steep, forested ridge to arrive at our campsite with enough time to leisurely set up our tent and cook dinner. 

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Bathing in the freezing waters of Mystic Lake

We ate like kings. . . well, more like kings with dehydrated meals. We have a cache full of fresh food at tomorrow’s camp. So, in an effort to not carry any excess weight, we ate all the excess food we won’t need . . . which mostly included chocolate-covered almonds. YUM.

Overall, we hiked 8.2 miles today with lots of breaks and dilly-dallying. So far, my body feels good and is taking the mileage well. I also have no blisters – which seems like a miracle. I’m sure that will change in the upcoming days. I thought that I wouldn’t like hiking this many miles day-after-day, and that I would be tired from the monotony of the trail. But, actually I have really enjoyed the hiking, and to my surprise I am actually looking forward to getting back on the trail tomorrow.

Friday September 6th, 2019

Day 4

I woke up today with an abundance of water around me, but none in my water bladder. The rain came this morning, and as Alia and I scrambled to pack up our wet gear, off Sanjay went: back to the safety of heaters and dry homes (he drove into Mowich Lake to camp with us last night). With Sanjay went our dirty, damp clothes, unneeded food in our cache, and, tragically, our water treatment system. We realized we (meaning me) had left it in our cache too late, when, half-an-hour after he left, we got thirsty and were without water. This realization came with a couple of exclamations of “Oh *#$%, we’re totally screwed”, followed by the realization that we were not totally screwed because we can boil water the old fashioned way. Plus, we noticed that our neighbors who were car-camping had a few large jugs of city-water. So, we bashfully explained our situation and asked for some. Thankfully, they agreed and off we went, bladders full, spirits high, having successfully completed our first hustle of the day. 

Sunset at Mowich
Sunset at Mowich Lake

We hiked from the dry alpine environment of Mowich Lake down, down, down into the lush, temperate, old-growth forest of South Mowich River. It rained the whole time that we descended, but instead of getting beat-down by our soaked packs, slippery boots, and sweaty rain jackets, we spent our time making a list of all the reasons why rain is awesome while hiking. Here is a sample:

WHY RAIN IS AWESOME WHILE HIKING:

  1. The rain cools down the air.
  2. We get to see new wildlife that comes out only when it rains. Like frogs and slugs!
  3. We get to find out/ test by force which pieces of our gear are actually waterproof.
  4. The cooler temps and humid air mean that we don’t have to drink as much water, meaning we don’t have to treat as much water, meaning we don’t have to stop and boil as much water.
  5. Our chocolate won’t melt.

The rain eventually stopped, and, despite our supposed enjoyment of the rain, we were happy to see it go. 

By the time we got to the South Mowich River crossing, the river had swelled from the rain. The usual, straightforward crossing had been blown out from flooding earlier in the year. So, instead, we weaved through a series of cairns that led us up and down the river bank, rock hopping and navigating narrow, slippery log crossings. After we played what felt like nature’s version of frogger, we reunited with the trail, which turned up the next ridge. We climbed through a forest of giant pines and cedars, among which I felt so very small. As we climbed, the massive trees of the lowland forest slowly turned to the stunted shrubbery of the alpine and, before we knew it, we made it to camp. 

Rock hop
Rock-hopping over swollen river beds was a common occurrence on the trail

We are staying at Golden Lakes, a beautiful campsite that overlooks the Western part of the park. From the viewpoint in camp, you can see all the way across Western Washington to the Olympic Mountains. It is remarkable. 

When we got here, Alia and I immediately went to work boiling water to treat it for drinking. While we waited on our water, I took a glorious bath in the lake. The sun showed just enough to dry the freezing lake water off of my body. Then, in what seemed like a couple of seconds, clouds dropped into the lake and completely enveloped the whole camp in a foggy haze. The clouds threatened rain, so we headed back from the lake to set up our campsite. The rain never came, but the clouds took away our beautiful vista. 

Team Mates
Alia and I make a pretty good team

Then we embarked on our second hustling mission of the day. Yesterday we camped next to some folks who said they were going to camp here tonight, and at South Puyallup tomorrow. Our permit states that we have a campsite reserved at North Puyallup tomorrow, which would make for a very short day and then two heinously long days of hiking after that. So, staying at South Puyallup (which is about 6 miles past N. Puyallup) would even out our hiking mileage. We have been asking every ranger that passes by to see if a campsite has opened up there. So far, it hasn’t, so when we heard this other group had a campsite reserved there, we made a plan to ask them if we could stay with them. So, ask we did, and, in another bout of awkward hustling, we got what we wanted. Tomorrow we will be staying with our new friends/guardian angels Ken, Sierra, and Jon. Although we may not look like it, Alia and I become pretty good hustlers when we encounter desperate times. 

Saturday, September 7th, 2019

Day 5

We are currently trespassing at someone else’s camp in the South Puyallup campground. We were going to camp with our new trail friends, but it got dark and no one showed up at site #1. So, we took a little flat spot to the side of the camp. We got our tent set up and food put away just in time for an epic thunderstorm to roll in. Right now I am writing from the comfort of my dry sleeping bag as the rain pours down, getting some very welcome relaxation after a long, hard day. 

We woke up early this morning because we knew that we had a long day of hiking ahead of us. 13 miles to be exact. We blazed through the first 6 miles, all downhill and flat. But before we started dropping down in elevation we came across an incredible, close up view of the west side of Rainier. It looked intimately familiar, from what I then realized was the same view of the mountain featured on Rainier beer cans. I couldn’t help but be filled with a sense of pride that only a freshly-graduated-PNW college student on-a-budget could relate to. 

Then we dropped down through the lowland forest to North Puyallup campground. Suddenly, the trees opened up into one of the most epic river corridors that I have ever seen. A wooden bridge took us over a narrow gorge that was fed by a huge, raging waterfall. The water was brown and pushy, fed by snow-melt from high up on the mountain that we could see in view. It was astounding.

N. Puyallup waterfall
Standing among the raging waters of North Puyallup River

 By the time we got to N. Puyallup River, we felt pretty good about ourselves. We had knocked out almost half of our mileage before 11 AM and we still had lots of energy. Little did we know what was in store. As we proceeded to climb up the next ridge, I started to notice that I was losing steam. I wasn’t able to march up the switchbacks with the same speed and vigor that I had the days prior. I felt tired and slow, tripping at every point that I had to lift my leg more than a foot off the ground. It seemed like each step introduced a new ache to my body, and I started to realize that the exhaustion culminated over the last 5 days of the trip was starting to set in. Hard. I began to have to coax myself up each switchback, telling myself white lies — like that at the next turn there would be a downhill section. My lies never became reality, but it still worked. 

Working slowly but surely, I made it up that ridge. My hard work was rewarded with Saint Andrews Lake, a pristine alpine lake surrounded by stunning meadows and Mt. Rainier as a backdrop. This lake truly deserves its place among the Saints. 

We had lunch at the lake and then headed down the next ridge, where we were delightfully greeted by ripe salmonberries and thimbleberries. We stopped at every chance we could get to snack on these trail-side treats, their sweet juices momentarily distracting us from the burning sensation in our feet and legs. 

hikin downnn
The trail was very physically demanding, with nearly constant elevation change.

Finally, we made it to camp, only to find out that the only clean water source was a steep quarter-mile up the trail, what seemed like a marathon after a long day of hiking. Feeling like this was an impossible task, we borrowed a water filter from our neighbors and attempted to filter water from the silt-filled river right next to camp. After pumping for what seemed like forever, we got about ¼ liter of water and gave up. We ended up hiking the quarter-mile to the clean water source after all. 

SiltyRiverBoi
We had no chance of filtering any clean water from this silt-filled glacial runoff

After our water saga, we cooked up some delicious dehydrated Pad Thai and ate lots of Oreos for dessert. Overall, despite being crushed by the never-ending elevation change and long miles, it was a good day. Plus, by some stroke of luck I still don’t have blisters on my feet. We are more than half way through the trail, so the hardest part of this is behind us. Now, all we have to do is dig in and finish this thing. 

Sunday September 8th, 2019

Day 6

I woke up to the sound of rain dripping from the trees. It rained all night. I would know because I woke up multiple times from mysterious small creatures that decided to take refuge from the rain by scurrying across my face. However, in the time that I wasn’t fighting off forest creatures, I slept well and woke up feeling refreshed. 

cozy in cabin
Staying cozy and dry during a storm in a shelter on the trail

The rain drizzled on us as we hiked up Emerald Ridge, properly named for its bright green meadows. Breaks in the clouds offered us views of S. Puyallup River glistening in the distance. But, as we hiked higher up the ridge, a thick, cold fog surrounded us and shut out any possible views from the top. At a couple of points, some sun beams managed to break through the cloud cover, so that the meadows and mist were lit ever-so-softly in a way that I can only describe as angelic. 

“This is what heaven looks like,” I told Alia. She agreed, “yeah, but without the heavy packs and wrecked legs.” She was right, because after the climb up Emerald Ridge, I felt anything but heavenly. But with my legs full of lead and my heart full of bliss, I thought that maybe, the only way to experience heaven on earth is to go through a little hell first. 

Suddenly, a close encounter with a family of marmots startled me out of my cliche contemplation. I have never seen marmots before. They were the size of a small cat and had thick grey coats with adorable squished faces. Seeing them run around that beautiful meadow made me both pleased and jealous. I was jealous that they got to live in that little slice of alpine heaven, playing amongst the clouds and wildflowers, and I had to continue down the trail, going towards busy roads and job hunting and resume building with every step. 

marmot
One of the marmots that I envied on the trail, poking his head up next to the rock

I walked down Emerald Ridge in a state of mourning. But that didn’t last long, because at the bottom we crossed over a suspension bridge! On this trip Alia and I have discovered our shared love of suspension bridges. I don’t know why but every time we come across a suspension bridge we rejoice and spend at least 15 minutes playing on the bridge, taking pictures, and talking about how epic and badass they are. It’s the little things like obsessing over suspended bridges that further convince me she’s my soulmate 🙂

suspension bridge
Walking across one of the beautifully constructed suspension bridges on the trail

After play time on the bridge, we continued up the trail, climbing back into the alpine. Our camp tonight has no close water source, so in preparation we spent 45 minutes collecting and boiling water from the last creek before camp. We are staying at Devil’s Dream tonight, a campsite just enough below the treeline to be tucked away into the forest. We got here early, at about 2pm, and spent the afternoon snuggled up in our tent talking, cooking, and reading. Our trail friend Sierra came by and gifted us dehydrated mango sticky rice as a thanks for giving her beer earlier in the trip. She also offered us a place to stay at her house in Wenatchee if we ever go through. That’s officially the most I’ve gotten out of a can of beer. A little trail hospitality seems to go a long way. 

Sierra’s gift turned our trail dinner into a feast, and we ate until we couldn’t possibly down another bite. Now we are full, happy, and cozy, protected from the rain that has returned once again, and ready to rest for our big day tomorrow. 

woweee
One of the many breathtaking views we encountered on the trail

I am surprised if you have made it this far. I did not realize how long my journal entries were until I began to copy them down into a Word document. I am usually a very slow and calculated writer but it seems that outdoor adventure really unleashes my creative ability (which is another gift that I seem have lost during the past month). I hope you enjoyed this little slice of my adventures. I cannot wait for a time when going outside will bring joy once again, without the stress of safety concerns. Until then, I’ll be daydreaming with you.

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