Originally planned as a 200 mile trip, my daughter's recovering hip, rehabbed enough to get the go ahead for hiking, had us entering this foray with different criteria: plan on 10 days max and venture into the heart of the Pasayten wilderness as far as current fires, physical limitations and trail conditions allowed before looping back. The meager stats (101 miles, 16,000' of elevation gain) don't do justice to the difficulties we faced….pea sized hail and thunderstorms at 7000', trails and phantom trails with meager tread, river crossings, soaking head high grasses and fireweed leaving our lower bodies in a constant state of saturation, and hundreds of blowdowns and deadfall to name a few. But what a trip!
Day 1: Canyon Creek Trailhead to Jakita Ridge creek (11 miles/4000')
We drove out the day before the trip started (Aug 17) in order to get an earlier start on the 18th, enabling us to drop into the Marblemount Ranger station. Knowing that we had to be out by August 27th at the latest, we got a permit for Roland Creek camp on the East Bank Trail on Ross Lake for Aug 26th, which would leave us about 10 miles on the last day. As it turns out we exited prior to this date so the permit was worthless. After truck camping in the parking lot we ventured off with unusually heavy packs. 10 days of food for two people…..really weighs a lot. The trail head is at 1900' and we faced a 4000' climb right from the get go, essentially heading counter clockwise on the Devil's Loop, a 50 mile trip that circles Jack Mountain.
Within 45 minutes we were greeted by a hiker descending in the opposite direction who's first words were, "I've been hiking all night, my wife broke her arm in two places." I recently acquired a DeLorme InReach, specifically for this trip and solo off trail hikes I'm doing this year, and asked if I could message someone for him as he indicated his wife needed to be choppered out (no cell phone coverage at the trail head). After some discussion we decided that since the trailhead was right on Highway 20 and he was so close, he would continue with his plan to hitch back down the highway to call for help and arrange rescue. He had left her with plenty of food and water in a tent right off the PCT, about 17 miles away. More on this later.
After a few hours of laboring up trail 738, it was obvious my daughter was having difficulty. It was hot. She was suffering. We both wondered if our outing was going to be derailed on day 1. I was carrying the bear canister and she had the Ursack, so we redistributed the weight where I took all the food, subtracting maybe 10-12 pounds from her pack and adding it to mine. She is not used to seeing me bent over at a switchback panting, but this load of probably 40 pounds was really making me suffer. Better me than her, and as it turned out the lighter pack she was carrying alleviated her problems so I just had to suck it up. We eventually reached the high point of 6000' in Devils Park and passed an Outward Bound group as we descended. When we came upon a creek that afternoon with a few flattish meadows, it was obvious to both of us that we needed to call it a day. Turns out the OB group stayed in the same area so a wilderness experience it was not. I could care less since I was relieved of my pack burden.
Day 2: Jakita Ridge creek to past Deception Pass (8 miles/1000')
Packed up. My daughter has to help me put on my pack. Our goal was to make it to Sky Pilot Pass, and we ended up camping just short of it. Both day 1 and today we met a few hikers on the trail and commented that the Devil's Loop must be a popular hike. While talking to a couple we noticed a chopper heading in what we assumed was the direction of the lady with the broken arm. Not long after it returned from whence it came, and we assumed a satisfactory outcome for the couple.
Day 3: Deception Pass to Rock Creek Camp (13 miles/1000')
The weather was cloudy but no rain, and when we came to Canyon Creek we decided to do laundry. We touched the PCT at a four way junction but continued east on Trail 472A. At some point I noticed that the West Fork of the Pasayten river was on our left, and this did not jive. We backtracked through a marsh and came to the junction we had missed, looking rather obvious from this direction. The rest of the afternoon was spent in forest showing major signs of bark beetle infestation and surprising new growth. Rock Creek Camp was deserted and we hung our laundry on trees at a sweet spot.
Day 4: Rock Creek Camp to Middle Hidden Lake (13 miles/3000')
This day had us entering the 2006 Tatoosh Fire zone, a huge one that burned 48,000 acres in WA and continued up to Canada for another 19,000 acres there. After fording Lease Creek we marveled at the stark beauty of the burned and charred remnants of the forest with never ending fireweed on the floor, lavender against black. We headed upward towards the Tatoosh Buttes, more than 20 miles from the nearest trail head.
Buttes vs Beauts
Buttes: an isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top. In some regions, such as the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, the word is used for any hill
Beauts: something nice
The open views and flowers continued to amaze us as the clouds darkened steadily on our climb to 7200.' Thunderstorms were in our general area and we tried to discern distance and direction. Reluctant to leave tree stands for high open areas, we hunkered under a large fir until the rumbling abated and lightning ceased. Just as we put our packs on the pea sized hail started, and we retreated to the tree once again, my daughter extremely happy with her umbrella and me with my ZPacks pointy hat, protected from the pelting peas by 3/8 inches of foam. When the peppering finally ceased and things eased up, we continued on the OBVIOUS trail to the OBVIOUS buttes in the distance, the direction and contour matching our map. But something was not quite right. Out comes the GPS and after much discussion on what a butte is it was determined that we were going too far towards what we though the buttes were. Turns out the dramatic landscape we were headed for was a beaut, so we went back and rejoined the path that took us downward toward Big Hidden Lake at 4300.'
We were a bit behind schedule what with waiting out the thunderstorms and our little foray towards the beauts. In communicating with my wife via InReach texts we knew the trails were closed further eastward and the Billy Goat trail head was closed due to fire, so our plan was to head north from the Hidden Lakes and loop back west. My wife had warned about the weather with flash floods and slides possible. While we were hiking in the dark, a clatter and din near us had us tuned in to the sound of rocks rocking and trees falling. As we looped back around a contour we stepped over a fresh smelling spruce which I assumed was part of the racket. In the dark we planned on camping near Big Hidden Lake, but we instantly found ourselves in a nightmare. 10:30 PM amidst 7 foot tall fireweed and choking grasses, instantly soaked with no time or place to don full rain gear, barely able to make out trail under our feet. A "trail closed" sign caught our eye for the section heading toward Middle Hidden Lake, so we decided to stay on the trail north along Big Hidden. This lasted all of two minutes when the trail disappeared into a downed branchy mess. Only two options, try to schwack through the jungle and regain the trail north, or head back south toward Middle Hidden Lake and hope that a described camp was still there with information published before the fire. My daughter and I exchanged harsh words here in the stress of the moment but she followed me down the trail. Dark, soaked, tired, and trying to find a flat spot to pitch a tent where there was none, or where the thicket of the ground cover was ridiculously high. Thankfully, within about 20 minutes my daughter noticed a horse camp sign on a tree and I followed a side trail over a couple of blow downs to a satisfactory camping spot. After the routine of setting up camp and hunkering down, my daughter was still feeling chilled so I draped some of my quilt over her sleeping bag and put my arm around her until she fell asleep. No matter how much we advance in age, she is still my baby.
Day 5: Middle Hidden Lake to the Pasayten Airstrip (13 miles/<1000')
We slept in due to a midnight bed down. When I got up in the light I could see structures through the trees, and it turns out we were on the periphery of the horse camp, consisting of 3 cabins with porches and an outhouse, along with hitching posts. No one to be seen, though, and this and the next day brought this more to light. I made my daughter a hot breakfast and hot chocolate, stealing from one of our dinners as she was complaining of a sore throat. To bail out now would mean a two day walk to the Slate Creek trail head, more than 20 miles away. Turns out the sore throat was due to her not setting up her pillow the night before. We packed up under cloudy skies and walked north toward the blow down that stopped us the night before, this time clad in full rain gear. In daylight the schwack around the mess was doable and we set off north along the hidden lakes on trail 477. It was raining off and on, a condition that would last all day. We expended a tremendous amount of energy dealing with hundreds of blowdowns.
2 hour delay
We were hiking next to the East Fork of the Pasayten River to hook up with the Boundary Trail (533) and continue our loop back west. More wary of detours, we set out to determine how to cross the East Fork and then the main Pasayten. Some confusion as to where the trails lead or end in this area was agreed upon and we came to the crossing of the Pasayten River, where the sparse trail ended in concrete piers as the bridge had burned in the 2006 fire. We scoped the ford and although wide it didn't look too deep, but upriver was a blow down that spanned the entire course. We decided to schwack there and cross via the log, which worked out well. However, reacquiring the trail was work. GPS showed the junction where there was a gravelly washed out area. I swept in a box pattern and finally acquired the trail, went back and got Cassie and we were back on tread, sparse but evident enough. Unlike the morning hike up trail 477, the Boundary Trail 533 had many less blow downs and we were following horse trail and droppings that looked rather fresh. After another trail side dinner we set off for the Pasayten Airstrip (built in 1930 but long since abandoned) unworried about navigation since the trail was evident enough. Turns out we were about 2 kilometers from the Canadian border here, with my wife wondering where we were heading and did we have our passports (from InReach position report). We eventually came to a Soda Creek sign, moved and replaced some fencing, and climbed a short distance to the level area near the airstrip and made camp.
Day 6: Pasayten Airstrip to Rock Pass (8 miles/2500')
After gathering our laundry from the trees we transited the airstrip and came to the Pasayten Guard station, and indeed there was a couple there with 6 horses, volunteer FS trail workers. Turns out they were responsible for our better jaunt down 533.
Trails in Danger
My conversation with them was interesting. They were clearing blow down with hand saws and had trees falling behind them. In sum, they said that it was near impossible to keep up with this dead forest….exemption for power saws? If the trails become impassable for stock due to blow down and fewer hikers venture forth, the trails could just disappear. Believe me, the tread is so sparse on these "maintained" trails in such huge stretches that sometimes a few bent grasses is your only hint something's there. Hundreds of blow downs, some easy but some requiring 2 minute detours or energy sapping gymnastics to get around. It is virtually impossible to do higher mileage in these conditions. The Canadians went in after the fire and cut the dead fall down, preempting the inevitable.
We took off from the airstrip and paralleled Rock Creek westward on trail 473, heading for the PCT. 8 miles in one day? Wet, grabbing grasses. Canada thistle, stopping every 10 minutes to painstakingly remove spiky balls from our skin, packs and clothing. Blowdown. Blowdown. Spiky balls. Flies. Every step was an effort. The next two days Cassie and I will cover 17 and 18 miles respectively, and we both agree that those days were so much easier than this 8 mile stretch.
We finally reached the PCT and headed south. Manicured, wide, easy stepping, we could hardly believe our feet and ease. It was like driving the worse parts of the roads to Mt Adams and suddenly merging onto I-5. They even line the outside border of the trail with nice rocks. Giant switchbacks and easy grade. Once we went the short distance to Rock Pass, we decided to make dinner there and camp at 6500.'
Day 7: Rock Pass to Dry Creek Pass (17 miles/3300')
Up early today, and the first hikers (not including the horsemen) in 4 and a half days. Trail crew widening an already wide trail. Talked to a thru hiker……"yeah, I'll be done at 3" (me) uhh….September 3rd? (him) No, 3 PM, it's only 16 miles to the border." I keep forgetting how far north we are. Congratulations to the thru hiker, and shortly we leave the PCT and repeat the only trail for this trip, the 8 mile section between the PCT, over Holman Pass and Deception Pass to intersect with Devils Pass. Oh, and that tent from the broken arm lady? Gone, as were the bear canisters. All that remained in the campsite were a pair of boots.
Sure our packs were lighter, but the easy trail made all the difference. As we headed CCW on the Devils Loop, of course we managed to enjoy sideways rain and chilling winds at 7000' going over Devils Dome. My daughter was cranky because she was in need of food, but there was no place to stop and prepare anything until we crossed the dome and found a meadow. Miraculously, the skies cleared, the wind died, and sun kissed our faces as we enjoyed a hot dinner. Striding lightly, we found an airy campsite just before Dry Creek Pass at 6100.' It was a good day.
Day 8: Dry Creek Pass to East Bank Trailhead (18 miles/+1000'/-5300')
Wow, we got up even earlier to completely clear skies, on the trail at 7:05 AM. Today we drop back to 1900' and transit the East Bank Trail on Ross Lake. We were still marveling at the wonderful trail and how easy it was, how much ground we could cover with an uninterrupted stride. We stopped at the bridge crossing Devils Creek on Ross Lake when a border patrol boat idled by. I waved and the Border Patrol officially endorsed ZPacks, "Nice hat!, where'd you guys come from?" (me) Oh, we just ambled down from Canada, eh. Would you like a Moosehead?" Well, at least that's what I wanted to say but told them the truth instead.
The rest of the day was a stroll on nice trail with us discussing how our food was getting sparse if we had spent two more days out, but we were glad to be home a few days early for Cassie to pack for school and me not to be jammed up against work.
Whilst stopped at a creek to get our drink on, a nice fella from DC strolled by with a rod and reel and we struck up a conversation. He was between contracting work and was driving across the US, visiting parks (Olympics next) and camping and fishing the whole time. He pulled out a map and we showed him where we had been, and he commented that he'd be glad to give us a ride to the Canyon Creek trailhead where our vehicle was to save us another 3.3 miles of hiking. We thanked him and off he went, but when we got to the bridge at the East Bank he was sitting there having a snack….no brainer, it was 5 PM and we didn't need to hike 3 miles next to the road, offer accepted. Thankfully the truck was untouched so we set up our truck shower, clean but me not clean shaven we headed down the road. An emergency stop at Cascadian Farms had a 16 oz double shot mocha in my hand and an ice cream cone in Cassie's. Inhaled food at Denny's in Mt. Vernon and home.
My original plan was a solo 242 mile trek based on Woodmansee's "Cougar Traverse." Then Cassie and I cut it to 200 miles. Then the reality of her physical condition had us in a flexible state of mind. In truth, I don't think the Cougar Traverse is possible in 10 days as Mike's book was published before the Tatoosh fire. There is no way I could do 20 plus miles a day on those trails (and I'm talking the "maintained trails" versus "hard to follow/unmaintained" on Green Trails). I feel no great longing to return to the area but Cassie and I are interested in the complete Boundary Trail, perhaps next year (533). In retrospect it was a trip to remember and the difficulties now make for good stories. I am lucky that my 19 YO daughter's schedule and mine matched up to be able to spend time together on a trip like this, as one never knows when the opportunity may arise again. I'm looking forward to an easy lope around the Wonderland Trail in September, put in perspective (manicured trails, great signage, easy access) by this trip into the heart of the Pasayten.