What am I doing here? I kept asking myself. There was no end of reasons not to be.
For starters, I was walking south, not north, from Rainy Pass at mile 2588 to the picturesque town of Stehekin 18 miles away at the upper tip of serpentine Lake Chelan. For another, the weather was foul: a cold drizzle at times, threatening more at others. Smoke from surrounding forest fires deepened the gloom.
And the trail itself felt lonely and deserted. I could actually count individual footprints in the rain-mottled dust of the usually well-traveled route. The one or two north-bound hikers I passed told me the PCT north of Rainy Pass to the Canadian border 60-odd miles farther was closed by fire, and that they intended to get off the trail at the next road crossing.
Others seemed too tired and out of sorts to even speak. One, who I knew from 2000 miles back near the desert town of Tehachapi, blew by me without so much as a glance, grimly putting one foot ahead of the other and, presumably, so preoccupied with figuring out how to end his hike if we could not get to Canada that he had all but ceased noticing anything around him.
Depressed and by this time also out-of-sorts, I stopped at the North Fork campground ten miles from where I began, threw my food bag over a bear wire and went to bed on the bank of a gray and frigid glacial stream thinking I would likely turn around in the morning and call it quits on the PCT.
What a difference a day can make! I awoke at dawn under a full moon giving way to clearing skies, shouldered my pack and covered the next eight miles in time to meet the morning shuttle bus from the trailhead to Stehekin, which makes a mandatory stop at the justly famed local bakery for hot coffee and a 3000-calorie frosted cinnamon bun. This in itself was enough to buoy my spirits. Far better was that the sun, for the first time in weeks, was gloriously radiant. Two days of rain washed away weeks of smoke. The long lake, winding among snowy high peaks for 50 miles, positively glittered in alpine majesty.
If the prose sounds purple, it’s for sheer relief. Like many others I left the trail a few weeks ago in order to escape the smoke and forest fires. In the ebbing days of August, I decided it was now or never, crossed my fingers and flew to Seattle, rented a car and drove to Rainy Pass as my restarting point. It was a gamble, but from Stehekin it looked like a good one.
I pounded down a breakfast of eggs and pancakes at the Cascades Lodge, watched the morning ferry disgorge a dozen hopeful hikers, then returned to the trail to retrace my steps, this time northward. The sudden change in the weather made all the difference. Yesterday’s dismal trek through damp unending forest became, almost magically, an enchanted walk through lush valleys of giant cedars (many wider than I am tall) along often-precipitous cliffs above sparkling streams hundreds of feet below. Autumn colors – yellows, oranges and reds to the point of near-purple – exploded in the sunlight against the sheer walls of the surrounding mountains.
By the time I reached Rainy Pass, I knew what I would do. To bypass the fire that closed the PCT to the north, the Forest Service had established a detour along Ross Lake, 20 miles west on highway 20. From there you could take the reportedly beautiful East Bank Trail all the to Canada.
If we couldn’t complete the real trail, many of us concluded, this seemed an attractive alternative. According to a friendly ranger, there would even be a little border monument, an obelisk festooned with American and Canadian flags, there to greet us.