Thursday, December 23, 2010

In Search of the PCT

And the road walk continues....
I was on the trail and hiking shortly after sunrise. My goal for the day was simply to get back to the PCT. I wasn't sure if I'd make it or not--the officially suggested fire detours would have required about 40 miles of hiking which was quite a stretch, even for me, but I hoped to shorten the distance some either through illegal or cross-country travel. Maybe both. We'll see.... =)

Highway 46 was a bit further away than I expected, and I turned left at another dirt road before I even reached the highway hoping to cut off a small corner from the suggested route. That went well enough, but I found myself wishing I hadn't stopped as early as I did the night before. I could have easily gotten in another mile and still had a great place to camp alongside the dirt road. I could have been that much closer to the PCT when I started this morning. Oh well, there's nothing that can be done about that now.

Finally I hit Highway 46, a river of asphalt blocked by a barricade of tape. The boundary of the fire closure. And I was on the wrong side of the boundary. I went under the tape and read the posted signage about the fire closure, where I finally learned that the fire closure was put up the day before I reached it. If only I was a day earlier, I could have walked through on the PCT instead of taking this stupid detour. I grumbled a bit, but again, there was nothing I could do about that now.

I didn't stop long, though--just long enough to read the sign. The day was young, and I still had a lot of road walking to do before I'd get back on the PCT.
I finally reached Highway 46, but I'm still on the
wrong side of the fire closure! Not for much
longer, though.

Highway 46 was open to traffic, but there wasn't much of that. Every ten minutes or so a vehicle would drive by, and about half the vehicles that drove by were fire trucks rushing off to some place or another. I didn't know where they were going--clearly not up the dirt road where the PCT had been closed off since I saw nobody at all along that stretch. Guess there must have been another fire somewhere to the south--that's the direction all of the fire trucks were traveling.

The road walk was immensely boring. I couldn't wait to get off it!

Highway 46 eventually intersected with the Forest Service road 4690, which is where the two suggested detours parted ways from each other. Route #2 headed down 4690, which is the direction I went. I was pleased to note that this road seemed less used than Highway 46 as well, but vehicles would still pass by every now and then. Occasionally it would pass an intersecting road that would be closed due to the fire closure--I was now traveling around the northern boundary of the fire closure, basically hugging the boundary the entire distance.
This truck was also sent to help battle nearby wildfires,
but I'm not really sure why it pulled over to the side
of the road here. I'm glad it did, though, because
all of the trucks that drove by were gone before
I had a chance to get my camera out.

Road 4690 eventually turned into dirt after several miles, which also pleased me since it was easier on my feet than a paved road. I noticed that the road seemed unusually wet considering that it hadn't rained since several days before, but that mystery was solved when a fire truck drove by spraying water on the dirt, and I dived into the woods so the water wouldn't hit me. =) I was a little puzzled by the water truck, though. There was no fire around here. If the fire burned up to the edge of the road, whatever water was laid down to impede the fire would have long since dried. Why was it out here spraying water on the roads when it should have been putting out fires? (Later, while talking to some of the personal fighting the fire, I learned it was simply to keep the dust down for the vehicles used to fight the fire. The water had nothing to do with controlling the wildfires--not directly, at least.)

My maps for the area weren't especially good--my maps covered the corridor along the PCT--so I was constantly doubting myself with every road intersection and trying to figure out exactly where I was. At some point, I knew, this dirt road would intersect with another road. To the right would head into Olallie Lake, currently closed due to fire, and to the left was the continuation of the detour, and a mere mile away, if I went straight through the trees and brush, I'd hit the PCT. I needed to figure out exactly which of the road intersections this was. It looked like it happened at a sharp hairpin turn in the dirt road, and I found what I thought must be it. The road to the right was closed off with tape--it must have led to Olallie Lake. Nobody was around and it would be easy to sneak in to hook up with the PCT, I thought, but I was still a little bothered at the idea of sneaking into an area closed due to fire. Even if there was absolutely no fire visible anywhere. I decided to follow the suggested detour a bit more and check out the cross-country option which would allow me to avoid the closure completely and actually shorten the distance I had to walk as well. The brush and trees didn't look too bad for traveling cross country.
Always danger on the trail!
Even the road walks....

I arrived at another intersection a short way further up the trail where a dozen or so cars were parked with people milling around. Hmm..... What is going on here?

I walked into the group of people and was told that the road to the right was closed due to the fire. Most of the people there were campers who had been evacuated from the campground at Olallie Lake during the lightning storms several days before and had to abandon all of their gear at the campground. They now had permission, for the time being, to go back to the campground to retrieve their belongings, but they had to be escorted by fire personnel and immediately leave the area again. They were waiting for their escort.

This was also the first fire personnel I could actually talk to and get information about the closure from an actual source. I had been trying to use my cell phone and e-mail all day, hoping to get a connection to the outside world to find out more about the closure, but I had stayed annoyingly out of range of cell phone towers and my devices were utterly useless. Now here was someone with first hand information!

There was a woman controlling access to the road to the right, who told me that she was pretty happy when she got the call for this fire the day before. It was Saturday (today was Sunday), and that meant overtime for her. Ca-ching! She said she'd been expecting a call all week ever since the lightning storms went through Monday night.

I also learned there was a wildfire burning in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness area, which concerned me at first since I thought the PCT went through that area. When I tried to get more details about that fire closure, though, I realized that I mistook it for the Bull Run area which is Portland's water supply. The trail does go by Bull Run, but Bull Run had no fires burning in it. So I at least had confirmation that once I got around this fire closure, there would be no more through the rest of Oregon. She didn't have any information about fires burning in Washington, though.
Road 4690 to Olallie Lake was very well marked!

I was a little bothered by the road that was closed, though. That was the suggested alternate route. That was the direction I needed to go, and I really didn't want to backtrack a dozen miles to take alternate route #1, and I wondered if I could talk my way into the "technically" closed area. I'd just barely graze into the closure, then pick up the PCT and hike right back out. The fires were burning deep in the interior of Olallie Lake so I'd be well away from any area that would have been dangerous. And I'd be on foot so there wouldn't be a vehicle to get in the way of the fire trucks that were working up and down the road.

Ultimately, she gave me the okay to get a ride with the campers going to retrieve their belongings, and they'd drop me off at Olallie Meadow where I could pick up the PCT. Yes!

I jumped in the van with the campers and we formed a convoy that drove into the fire closure. Almost immediately, I realized I had made a big mistake. I thought I had already walked past the road to Olallie Lake and I'd get a ride back to the intersection, but I was wrong. It was the wrong road. No, they drove through the closed road that the was where all the cars were parked. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

They dropped me off at Olallie Meadow, perhaps a mile away, and I sat down there trying to decide what to do. My footsteps were broken. This really bothered me. I had left a trail of unbroken footsteps from Mexico all the way to that intersection, and now there was a gap of about one mile in my footprints I hadn't walked. But it was just ONE MILE! I tried to justify it in my head. It was a situation out of my control. It's not like I had ever planned to hiked every step of the PCT. I had already followed two official detours in Southern California due to damage from wildfires, and I lost the trail so many times in the High Sierras that I lost count. It's not like I was ON the PCT that entire time.

But despite all that, my footsteps had always stayed connected. $#!^! My feet had covered that entire distance, even if it wasn't always strictly on the PCT. Was it such a big deal if there was a one-mile gap in my footprints?
Here the pavements gives way to
gravel. I much prefer walking on
gravel. The gravel seemed unusually
wet, though....

I looked around Olallie Meadow, knowing that the PCT was supposed to be somewhere on the other side of the meadow. I so wanted to be able to dash on over there and be back on the trail, but I couldn't. My footsteps were broken. I had to fix that.

I picked up my pack and started walking back out on the road I came in on. I got back to the intersection with the lady controlling access to the fire closure, and when she saw me, she had a look of concern. What was wrong? What happened?

"I couldn't do it," I told her. "I couldn't break my footprints. I need to keep them connected."

We got into a somewhat philosophical discussion about hiking and connected footprints. I was the first thru-hiker she had seen on the trail, and she didn't realize that there were some of us out here who had hiked in all the way from Mexico, so she asked me a few questions about that and about how heavy my pack was. I pointed to my pack and said she could pick it up if she wanted to feel its weight, which she did, and said it was lighter than she would have expected.

I knew there were hikers ahead of me--I had seen their footprints while hiking out to Highway 46--but if she hadn't seen any, I assumed that meant they had taken the suggested alternate #1 route. I was the first thru-hiker to reach this point on this detour.

In any case, I needed to connect the footprints.

"So it would have been okay if you walked to Olallie Meadow and reconnected with the trail?"

A water tank keeping the dust down. Thanks! =)

And ironically, I had now walked that gap, but now I was back at this intersection and not at Olallie Meadow where the trail could be found. I didn't really want to walk back again, and there weren't any campers milling around anymore waiting to get in. I decided to just go cross country instead.

I pulled out the maps I had and asked the lady about my idea. Did she know what the terrain was like where I proposed hiking cross-country back to the PCT? No, not really, but she did study my topo maps closely and agreed that it was quite doable, and completely outside of the fire closure. It looked like the trail approached the road closest about a mile further up the road to the left, so I told her that was my plan. I'd continue walking north on the road for about one mile, then cut cross-country a mile (perhaps a mile and a half depending on the terrain) until I hit the PCT. I told her exactly what my plans were. If I somehow hurt myself and went missing, I wanted someone to know where to start searching. She would know. Not that I expected there to be any problems, but better safe than sorry.

Then I picked up my pack and started hiking north along the road again. After a mile or so, I pulled out my compass, hung it around my neck, and dived into the forest.
Olallie Meadow. The PCT is somewhere
on the other side of that meadow!

The compass was absolutely essential. The sky was still overcast and I couldn't identify directions from the location of the sun. I couldn't even tell where the sun was located. The forest was full of tall trees that obscured all views, so I couldn't sight my compass on some distant point then follow that landmark. The only landmarks I could use were trees that were maybe 50 feet away. I wound my way through the brush and trees, over logs, and around thick, densely packed trees that would have been too difficult to get through. Its easy to lose one's sense of direction in such conditions, and I'd have to check my compass every couple of minutes to make sure I was still headed in the correct direction. Usually, after just a couple of minutes, I was heading approximately 90 degrees off in the wrong direction.

It was astounding how quickly I'd lose track of which way I was headed. Without the compass, I could have wandered around in circles for days never making any progress. I never really understood how people who get lost end up walking in circles, but it really hit home with me after this experience. I've traveled cross-country before, but it's always been when visibility is good and I could sense my direction from the sun or identify distant landmarks that I would head towards. Without those indicators, though, I was completely and totally dependent on that compass. "Go east, young man," I told myself. "Just go east. Eventually you'll hit the trail."

Almost an hour later, I reached a small creek flowing through the woods. Yes! While analyzing my topo map, I noticed a small creek running mostly parallel between the road and the trail. It was called Small Creek, and I expected to cross it at some point. This must be that creek, I thought. Confirmation that I was still headed in the correct direction! (Besides the confirmation from my compass, that is.) I stepped up on a log crossing the creek, crossed on the log, then stepped down on the bank on the other side. My foot immediately sank a foot deep in the mud, which took me by surprise. The bank had looked pretty solid!
This is the precise location where I left
the road and started to travel

I jerked my foot out, mostly a knee-jerk reaction, and the mud sucked my shoe right off my foot. $#!@! I need that shoe! I put my foot back into the hole, trying to catch the shoe with my toes, slowly working it back out of the mud. Once extracted, I tried to rinse it off a bit in the water and reestablished it on my foot. Stupid mud. Where is the PCT anyhow? Shouldn't I be getting close to it? I couldn't wait to be on the trail again.

I wondered if anyone had ever stepped foot on the ground I was currently walking on. It was far off the beaten path. Maybe hunters or explorers come through at some point, I thought. I felt like an explorer myself. The creek was named, so clearly people knew it was there. A couple of minutes later, I walked into an area that had clearly been clear cut. Loggers, of course. None of this area is virgin. Loggers have probably covered every square inch of this forest at some point or another.

About an hour and 15 minutes after I headed into the forest, I fell out again. I was only about five feet away when I finally saw the trail. It's amazing how close it can be while having no idea it was even there. YES! The trail! I made it! I'm back on the PCT!!!! I whooped it up, danced a little jig on the trail. "Hello, my friend! How are you?! I've missed you!!! Don't ever leave me like that again!"

I was pretty happy with myself. I had cut the suggested alternate routes in almost half. I missed about a dozen miles of PCT trail, which required about two dozen miles of walking to get around. But I was back on the PCT!

Though admittedly, I wasn't entirely sure exactly where on the PCT I was located. I knew roughly, probably accurate to within two miles, where I was on the PCT, but until I could identify a specific landmark along the trail, I couldn't be certain exactly where I was located. If I started hiking north, the next definitive landmark I should hit would be Lemiti Creek. Then everything will be back to "normal." I estimated it to be about three miles away, but I could be off by as much as a mile.
Terrain typical of my cross-country jaunt.

About a half hour later, I reached a campsite, which even had campers in it. This was it! Lemiti Creek! Given my speed, I had probably come out on the trail about two miles away. I walked up to the campers--I wanted to talk about the fire closure. If they were traveling southbound, they might not even know about it. If they were traveling northbound--well, that didn't even seem possible. The only way they could have legally gotten to this point traveling northbound was if they did the cross-country stunt that I pulled, and the lady controlling the road access into Olallie Lake hadn't seen any other hikers pass by, much less any crazy enough to travel cross country.

The trio introduced themselves as Eric, Tracy, and Ramsey (the dog). I told them about my adventures getting around the fire closure, and they told me that I was the first person they had seen all day. Not surprising since the trail was closed to the south. I wouldn't count on any others coming through anytime soon either. I set up camp nearby and joined them around the campfire. They were out for the weekend, leaving for civilization again in the morning. They had also packed in way too much food and fed me dinner with lemonade. =) They wanted to set up a lemonade table for passing hikers out in the backcountry, complete with a homemade sign with the backwards E. I heartily approved the idea. =) They also had a guitar which they played all night long. I entertained them with stories of Sam McGee and such.

We were in the trees at this location, but we could see a small patch of the night time sky overhead. I had made a passing comment about how I usually like to camp out of the trees so I can enjoy the stars, pointing straight up and mentioning that the bright star overhead was Vega.
I found the PCT! YES! I made it!

Tracy sat up a little taller. "You know that's Vega?" She apparently knew that too, but was stunned to discover that someone else would know that. It's not a star that most people can identify.

I was still a little skeptical that she really knew that information, though--I know how rare it is to find someone who can identify such specific objects in the night-time sky, but she was already excited about it, then pointing out it was part of the Summer Triangle, along with Altair and Denub.

Holy cow! She really does know this stuff! An astronomy geek! Cool! =) I think Eric started tuning us out at this point. It all appeared to go over his head.

"Wait a minute," I told her, running off to my gear. I pulled out a laser pointer I had been carrying--easier to point stuff out in the night-time sky--along with my latest issue of Astronomy magazine. Astronomy geeks--you gotta love us. =)

The magazine didn't really do us much good since we really couldn't see much of the night-time sky from our location. Even the other two stars that made up the Summer Triangle weren't in view. But Tracy really liked the laser pointer, pointing it at trees and at Eric. I don't think she knew that laser pointers could be used to point at stars in the sky. (Well, she knew you could point AT them, but not that you could actually SEE the beam of light and precisely where it was being pointed.)

I think we agreed that ultimately, I was the bigger astronomy geek, but just barely, and only because I had the laser pointer. =)
Tracy, Eric, and Ramsey, enjoying the campfire.

I stayed up late into the night chatting with the two, way past my bedtime, but I really enjoyed their company. =) I had forgotten how much fun it can be camping with others--it seemed like most of Oregon and Northern California I'd largely been hiking (and camping) alone. I suddenly found myself excited to have others nearby to chat with, even if it would only be for the one night.

But eventually, we all went to sleep. The day was over. And I was back on the PCT. =)


Anonymous said...

The PCT near Olallie Meadows can be found by following the road past the cabin (you should have seen it) to the back of Olallie Meadows Campground where you will find the trailhead, and about 1/4 mile up the connecting trail. Double Tree

veganf said...

Vega was my pet star as a kid. I'd sleep on the porch in the summer and watch it for half the seemed to change in brightness, very different from most stars. I always located it via Draco's head which pointed right to Lyra.
I think anyone can be an astronomy geek these days with all the sky apps available...and I must admit they're pretty cool.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Awesome! Another Astronomy Geek!
But really how could anyone not know Vega?! That's too strange. It's one of the brightest stars in the entire night sky!
I used to have a very special rex rabbit that I named Lyra, just because of that beautiful constellation that always stood out to me.
My kids and I have been enjoying The Lyrids now for as long as they've been alive. Usually you don't see much, but I remember one year, it was non-stop action in the sky. We were whooping and hollering for hours all night ever time we saw one rip across the night sky. We didn't go to bed until the sun came up. Good times.


Hike On!
~Twinville Trekkers