Friday, December 6, 2019

Day 18: Battle With the Blowdowns

August 2: I woke up and--as quietly as possible--ate breakfast and packed up gear. Ryan was still sleeping on the floor of my room and I didn't want to disturb him any more than was necessary. Just before leaving, Ryan was awake and I gave him the room key saying that he was welcome to stay until checkout although I wasn't exactly sure when checkout time was. Probably 10:00 or 11:00--those are usually the standard checkout times.

I left the room just before 8:30am--the time I had arranged for Gypsy to pick me up. I would have preferred to leave earlier and get in as much hiking when the temperatures were cooler in the morning but I still needed to mail my laptop ahead to the next town and the post office didn't open until 8:30.
I couldn't leave town before 8:30--that's when the post office opened and I could mail my laptop head.

Gypsy was already there when I came out and I hopped into his vehicle and off we went. The first stop was at the downtown post office which was opening just as I arrived. I mailed my laptop ahead then it was time to hit the trail!

Gypsy wanted to take a scenic route to the trailhead where he had first picked me up two days earlier that wound up following some gravel roads. At one point, we saw a gorgeous bald eagle sitting at the top of a tree alongside a river as if waiting for a fish to show itself. Gyspy told me about a fisherman he saw a couple of days earlier that would catch a fish and throw it into the air and an eagle would swoop down from overhead to grab it. It sounded really cool and I wished I could have seen the scene.

The scenic route took about an hour longer to get to the trailhead than the direct route, and while I enjoyed the conversation with Gypsy, I was anxious to get on the trail and get hiking. I was a little disappointed it took so long. Gypsy didn't realize it would take as long as it did either. It was still faster than walking, though! And probably faster than trying to hitch a ride! =)

This is Gypsy!

Eventually we reached the trailhead. Gypsy offered to drive me up past the road walk section, but I turned him down. Yeah, it was just a stupid road walk, but it was part of the trail and I was going to walk it.

We shook hands, took some photos, and I headed off up Highway 1. The first 8 miles of the day would be a road walk on mostly paved roads and temperatures were becoming uncomfortably warm. The forecast later in the week had temperatures hitting 100 degrees in Bonners Ferry, but they'd be in the 90s until then.

There was also almost no shade at all during the road walk as it passed through farm country. Except for that short section on Highway 1, though, at least the roads weren't busy with a lot of traffic.

An hour into my hike, a young girl driving a small buggy pulled up next to me asking if I was hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail.

"As a matter of fact, yes...."

Her name was Jess, if I remember correctly, and she lived in a farmhouse just up the road and saw me walking down the trail and jumped into the vehicle to chase me down. She liked having hikers sign her register (I was the 18th for the year--if I remember correctly?) and she offered me a cold half-liter bottle of kiwi-strawberry flavored water which I was happy to take. She asked about any other hikers who might be behind me and I told her about Ryan who would likely pass by later in the afternoon unless he decided to take a zero day in Bonners Ferry in which case he'd likely be passing through tomorrow morning.

This is Jess, who hunted me down on the trail to sign her hiker register and to give me a cold 1/2-liter bottle of kiwi-strawberry flavored water. (Those mountains in the background are the ones I'd have to scale later in the day.)
We talked about the trail a bit and I tried to convince her to do a part of it someday. Start in "Glacier NP and walk home!" I exclaimed. That would be cool. She could literally walk home! She didn't seem too interested in actually hiking the trail herself but seemed fascinated by the people who did. Then she told me about a trash can ahead where I could throw out the bottle and any other trash I had--then she was off, and I continued my walk.

I passed by a guy who was working on some farm equipment and he greeted me warmly and asked something about if his daughter had treated me well. "Yes, very friendly!" I replied. =)

I continued walking and a half hour later the father whose name I never got drove by on his way somewhere. He stopped briefly asking if I'd like a ride to the end of the road walk--apparently a lot of hikers take him up on the offer although many (including myself) did not. Nope, I wanted to walk the whole distance. No skipping sections--not even road walks!

He continued on in his truck and I continued onward on foot. At the far end of the valley, the trail reached the edge of the farmland and followed along a tree-lined road providing a lot more shade than before. The shade was a welcome relief.

Just before the road walk ended, the trail passed Parker Creek and the last good, reliable water source for 16 miles. I took a long, two-hour break by the creek waiting until the heat of the day died down a bit before the long 4,000-ft climb up Parker Mountain. I also cooked dinner now while I had plenty of water available.

It was here when I realized I had made a horrible, horrible mistake.... In my haste to leave Bonners Ferry, I had left all my cheese in the min-fridge at the hotel. Shoot! Argh! How was I going to survive without cheese?! I had purchased three packets of individually wrapped cheeses (I only meant to get two but ended up with three by accident)--and now I had none of it! I hoped Ryan found it before he left so it didn't all go to waste.

I took a two-hour break by Parker Creek--just before the big climb back into the mountains.

After the rest, I started the long slog up Parker Creek Trail. It was steep and relentless. A few blowdowns blocked the route but I navigated over, under and around them without too much trouble.

Pushing onward, I was mostly in shade which was a welcome treat on an otherwise miserably hot day. The slope I was climbing was an east-facing slope and late in the day with the sun moving toward sunset in the west, then east slope was almost entirely in shade.

An hour into the hike up, however, the trail reached an old burn area and took a severe turn for the worse. Thick pockets of blowdowns started blocking the trail. Not just a tree here and there, but dozens of them, piled and twisted together forming impenetrable masses of burnt wood. One early section took me five minutes to get around and I thought I was home free before the trail turned a corner and there was another impenetrable mass. Argh!

The blowdowns in the burn area were awful!

It was an utter nightmare! I couldn't possibly count the number of blowdowns blocking the trail, but they undoubtedly numbered in the hundreds. Maybe even into the thousands for all I knew. At times, I could look around and see hundreds of trees that had toppled like grass after being inundated by a nearby flooded creek. The fallen trees were so thick, I sometimes lost the trail completely.

At times, there was literally no way to get around the fallen trees and I scrambled over them--a positively dangerous activity. One slip or fall and you could impale yourself on a broken limb or find your leg plunging into a hole in the trees breaking it.

I had a couple of close calls.

One of them, I fell head first into a jumble of fallen logs and reached out my hand to prevent my head or eye sockets from being impaled by broken branches and it tore up my hand pretty well. Another time I fell back and I was like the proverbial turtle on its back. I couldn't get up or flip over without unbuckling my backpack and taking it off first.

Fortunately, this was the worst injury I suffered. It could have been a lot worse, though!
Another snag caught my pants and tore a giant hole in it and branches continued to scrape and rip at my clothes.

It was terrible. Absolutely god-awful terrible. One of the worst sections of trail I had ever suffered. I looked for anything that might shorten the horror. The trail had switchbacks back and forth up the mountain and I tried cutting switchbacks. I still had to climb over blowdowns, but it was a shorter path than following the switchbacks. At times, I was able to travel over a hundred feet without my feet touching actual ground the entire time.

I was glad I had my SPOT device with me. It was the first time on the hike where I felt that investing in a GPS device that could signal for help was definitely a good idea. I just had to make sure I could still activate it in case of a life-threatening injury. If I knocked myself unconscious or paralyzed myself with a broken back, it would be useless. If I had a hiking partner, at least one of us would still be able to signal for help. I really needed a hiking partner for sections like this--just for safety's sake. I wondered if Ryan was somewhere not far behind me.

At one point I finished scrambling over a mass of blowdowns and reached the actual tread of the trail again and I broke down and cried. I was absolutely miserable. At that moment, I wanted to quit the trail. I was lonely and definitely not having fun. And I felt this scrambling was positively dangerous.

Can you even see the trail under all those blowdowns?!

How much longer would these horrible blowdowns continue? Turning back was an option I considered, but I knew the horrors that were behind me. What if the worst was mostly behind me and the easiest way out now was ahead? I had no way of knowing so I continued pushing forward.

When I started up the Parker Creek Trail, I had a goal in mind--a campsite listed in my guidebook--but the blowdowns slowed me down dramatically. If I was making one mile per hour, I'd be surprised. I was probably doing a half-mile per hour. The sun started setting and I knew I wasn't going to make my goal for the night so I finally stopped at a section of the trail that was mostly barren of trees. There wasn't a lot of blowdowns only because there hadn't been many trees to begin with, and the area was a little breezy which helped keep the mosquitoes at bay.

But I wound up camping directly on the trail because there was just nowhere I could find that was flat enough and not covered with rocks and fallen trees to set up camp.

The view from my camp was nice. I could see far up and down the valley I had trekked across this morning. I imagined Jess and her family sitting down for dinner and her telling stories about the strange hiker she saw passing by today. They were probably right down there in plain view. If they had a telescope, they could watch me wallowing in self-pity. I wondered if Ryan was out there, camped at the base of the Parker Creek Trail not having any idea about the horrors that he would soon be facing.

I had never felt so lonely or angry with a trail, but I was glad to have a break from the battle with the blowdowns. I wasn't sure how much more of the blowdowns would be further up the trail, but for today, I was done with them. They had won.

Back on Highway 1, the road walk that started the day.

Kootenai River
The valley around the Kootenai River is lots of farmland, but the trail will head into the mountains in the distance.

At the edge of the farms, this road finally had a few trees to provide some much needed shade.
The first blowdown seemed like just a minor obstacle. Little did I realize the horror that was approaching....

Looking back at the farms I just walked through. The trail came down from the mountains on the other side of the valley, crossed the valley, then up the mountains I'm in now.
The blowdowns definitely numbered in the hundreds, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if more than a thousand of them blocked the trail. It's going to take a massive amount of work to clear this trail!

The view from my campsite of the Kootenai River valley was quite pleasant!


R said...

It seems very sad to me that the PNT people gave no warning to hikers of the obstructed trail.
You are a hero in my mind, for engaging in this battle, and not sure I agree with you that the blowdowns won.

Arlene (EverReady AT 2015 said...

Definitely a tough day. You are a tough cookie! Now I have to wait til Monday to see how many more blowdowns were ahead. And everything seems better the next morning. ;)

Gypsy said...

Hi GT, it was my pleasure to help out a fellow thru-hiker but I am so glad I did not do that section with you. Sweets and I ran into a female PNT thru-hiker at Cathedral Lake, I dont remember her trail name but she also was from the Seattle area like yourself. She swore that the climb up Parker Peak traumatized her for the rest of the hike and believed she had developed PTSD because of all the blowdowns. You pulling that off by choice would get you the highest badge of honor in the Scouts.

Ryan said...

Hey, Gypsy! Yeah, it was truly one of the worst experiences I've ever had on a trail. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. I'm still traumatized by it! =)