I'll be frank; I had no idea what I was doing. All I had done up to that point were day hikes. I had contemplated climbing Rainier with RMI but thought that $350 was way too much. Hell, I could buy all the equipment I needed for that much and hike that Wonderland trail I had been using for my forays. With 7 days of vacation in August already planned, I started acquiring what I needed: pack, sleeping bag, pad etc. I planned on borrowing a pup tent from a friend. My flashlight was a D cell and had a big magnet on it so one could put in on a fridge or other metallic surface, surely handy on this trek. My knife was a big double bladed beauty with a burly sheath to hang on my belt. Oh, a poncho sounds good, this heavy duty 3 pounder looks to fill the bill. I don't want to run out of water, I better get this 1.5 liter container, fill it up and not plan on using it, just have it for backup. And this Whisperlite, what a marvel! I better take two full canisters of fuel though, because I have no idea how much it uses or the burn rate. Don't have to worry about clothes, these short shorts and cotton shirts will do nicely, and I can use this first generation Gore-Tex golfing jacket as rain gear, just in case I need a backup for that poncho. I better take these two reflecting tarps, to protect the floor of the tent and to stand or sit on so my tootsies don't get dirty. Don't have a camera, but my in-laws will let me use this SLR, which I can hang off my neck the whole time. I'll load up with all freeze dried food, this seems to be the only stuff backpackers eat. Now I'm ready.
When I actually put all these items together, I had no room left in my external frame pack. Wow, that old school pup tent really takes up some space (must have weighed more than 15 pounds). I couldn't pick up the pack to put it on, so I had to set it on something and back into it. But I'm in good shape so no problem. My wife dropped me off at the Fryingpan Creek parking lot and off I went. The first day was overcast and sometimes drizzly, and my route over Panhandle Gap to my first campsite at Indian Bar (9 miles total) offered no views. I got really lucky though in that I arrived at Indian Bar that afternoon and everyone there, including a ranger, set up in the shelter. The skies opened and a torrent pounded outside for a couple of hours, but we were snug under the shake roof. So were the mice. Luckily Hanta Virus wasn't invented yet. Realizing I lucked out on avoiding the drenching, I settled in to one of the bunks for the evening in my 5 pound Slumberjack.
Day 2 was uneventful and not too painful, being mostly downhill. My stop for that evening was Maple Creek, a total of 10 miles, and I arrived early afternoon and enjoyed basking in the sun and resting up. I do recall the bugs were out, though, and spent my time in the tent as evening approached. A couple who were hiking the trail on their honeymoon, obviously very experienced even to my neophyte eyes, came over to marvel at my tent. "Wow, I haven't seen one of these in years!" And this was 1987.
Day 3: Seems my math was sketchy, as I was planning on about 13 miles per day, but Maple Creek to Devils Dream was actually 17. It doesn't sound so bad to me today, but that 50 pound pack was taking its toll. I stopped at Longmire for some snacks then set off around 2 for Devils Dream. The climb out of Longmire had my legs shaking. I remember saying to myself as I struggled uphill, "Yeah, and you wanted to climb this mountain? Uh Huh." I pulled into Devils Dream at 6 PM totally spent, and with great difficulty I set up my tent and made dinner. I was startled by 4 or 5 deer that walked through the campsite, my mind initially racing at the origin of that thumping until I gathered up enough courage to look out of the tent.
Day 4 was also cloudy with no views, but thankfully no rain. By this time my shoulders and legs were really feeling the stress of that pack, and I don't remember much of the day except arriving at Klapatche Park (13 mile day) completely spent (emphasis added to emphasize how spent I was). I set up the tent and crawled into my sleeping bag for close to an hour and laid comatose trying to warm up. Someone was quite upset outside as they had a permit for Klapatche but all the sites were full. This was when the West Side Road was open and Klapatche Park was easily accessible. No one fessed up and the party left the camp totally pissed. A short time later someone packed up, probably the culprits, and exited the camp before dark. Perhaps feeling guilty or afraid of being outed by a ranger? Unsure, but I remember thinking, were that me I would politely ask to see everyone's permit in the campsites before giving up. In any event, I gathered the strength to get out of the bag and make dinner....let's see, how 'bout some freeze dried food? I did feel much better after that, and collapsed into my bag for the night.
Day 5....had me thinking that I needed to quit. Everything was taking a toll on my young but unprepared body and mind. Although I had avoided outright rain, my boots had been wet from the brush since I started and my feet were starting to macerate. But as I approached Golden Lakes the sun came out so I lounged on a large rock and put my boots in the sun, watching the steam rise in the light as they dried along with my feet. The sunny weather lasted the day and thoughts of exiting the trail diminished. My stop for that night was the South Mowich Camp, for a total distance of 13 miles. By now I was getting into the routine, donning and doffing my pack, making dinner, setting up the tent, and enduring the pain of that load. I was still carrying that liter and a half of water, "just in case." Once again I slept in the shelter with some others, all of us reading the notes that were etched in the logs. I had yet to pull my knife out of the sheath or find a metallic surface to anchor my flashlight.
Day 6: Another nice day and I was able to endure the climb up to Mowich Lake knowing that it was the most difficult part of the day. However, I reassessed that thought as I (taking the alternate route) continued climbing up through a socked in Spray Park, once again missing out in the view department. I dipped into the forest past Cataract Creek and came to the turnoff before the suspension bridge, hiking the short distance to the Carbon River Camp. In those days one could still drive to Ipsut Creek and there were plenty of day hikers on that section to the suspension bridge; the trail stayed right of the Carbon River the entire way (it's been closed and rerouted over the Carbon to utilize the Northern Loop Trail since 2006) and led right past the Carbon River Camp to the bridge. Another 13 mile day, the camp looked a bit different from today; I was actually on the trail crew in '99 or 2000 that went in to clear the old growth that got flattened in a localized wind, toppling old growth trees through the camp and surrounding area. Here they sit today, or remnants as cut up "cookies", slowly aging and acting as nurse logs. But then, the Carbon camp was just another woodsy enclave.
Day 7: The finisher! It wasn't until writing this post that I realized that my trip was actually 7 days with 6 nights. Over the years I've posted a few times that this first Wonderland trip was 6 days. No internet, digital cameras, InReach, Strava or GPS back then, just my lame memory for recall, and I wasn't much for keeping a log. And after 35 years trips tend to blend together. However, I do remember running into a couple that were running skosh on fuel and by this time I realized that I was carrying way too much. Of everything. I gladly donated the contents of my second canister and put a smile on their faces. For this last 13 mile day the big surprise was being greeted at the Granite Creek camp by my wife and buddy, the one who had lent me the tent. They had packed a bottle of wine and some great food, and Sean actually offered to carry my pack for most of the way back. A fine finish indeed for my first backpacking trip!
END: Well, I didn't actually do the entire Wonderland as I exited at Sunrise. In those days the trail ended at White River and trekkers had to walk the road for two miles to regain the trail before Fryingpan Creek....I couldn't see the point of this at the time, but it escapes me why I didn't plan on exiting at White River. I omitted 6 miles of the trail and turned in 87 vice 93. It wasn't until some time later that the park created the trail section between White River, crossing it and proceeding through a nice wooded section to join up before Fryingpan. If you've ever wondered why there is an offshoot trail from the Wonderland that leads to the road, that is where the trail used to end.
The lessons learned on this first trip launched my search for better gear, better techniques, better footwear, nutrition etc....a process that continues to this day. 28 years later (2015) I waltzed around the mountain in 3 days at age 60 with a total pack weight that was less than that old pup tent, including food and water. Nostalgia is great, but evolution is better. I do kinda wish I had that hair and flat gut, though.