So fickle, fate.
First the gods of the PCT slam the door to a grand finale. The fire in the last 60 miles is a heart-breaker, for it means we hikers cannot get to the official northern terminus in Canada – the holy grail of the trek, at this point.
Then they offer up another twist. Hitting highway 20 from Stehekin, I drive down the mountain to the ranger station in the hamlet of Marblemount to get a permit for the designated alternative on the East Bank Trail along Ross Lake, 20 miles west. It doesn’t take you where the PCT would end, but at least you can say you walked to Canada.
Not wanting to repeat the 31-mile hike back to the trailhead, I also pay $200 for a boat taxi from the upper end of the lake, all arranged by a friendly ranger who lectures me on the dangers of bears in these parts. A shredded metal cooking pot, ripped apart by tooth and claw, is Exhibit A.
Just as I depart, he drops a bomb. “By the way, did you know the PCT to Canada just re-opened?” To my incredulous “You gotta be kidding,” he replies: “Yup. An hour ago. The fire died down so we opened a detour around it. You can now go all way to the terminus in Canada.”
He says this as casually as a deli owner might say he’s out of Pepsi but would you like a Coke instead. For a moment, I’m stunned. What to do? The PCT is again open. You can finish the trail as it’s meant to be. Yet I’ve just bought this boat ticket, non-refundable. And there’s my rental car, which I can’t exactly leave behind. Outside, I think things through, then opt to stick with my plan – more than a little heart-sick at this latest reversal of PCT fortune.
That same ranger described the East Bank Trail in glowing terms. Oh, yes, he said. It goes along the lake with great views of the mountains. It’s easy, too — “a family hike any kid could do.”
In fact, it turns out to be rugged, with sharp ups and downs through tangled woods very unlike the above-treeline grandeur of the PCT to the north. Here and there, the trail comes down to the lake, dotted with beautiful boat camps on rocky promontories. At spots it’s carved into the living rock, with spectacular views of snowy peaks to the north and south.
I encounter a dozen PCTers returning from the border, most surprisingly philosophical in hearing about the official trail’s re-opening. “I’m glad,” says one, after a sharp expletive. “Hikers after us will be very happy.” Says another with a shrug: “I’ve walked from Mexico to Canada. At this point, it doesn’t really matter where I finish.”
I envy their equanimity. By contrast, I seem to be coming unglued. After so many miles, the soles of my boots have grown thin. I feel every pebble and for the first time since Mexico worry about blisters. Will I hobble to the finish?
I stop to tape my feet beside the lake and, soon after, camp for the night in an empty horse corral by a fetid creek, home to swarming hordes of mosquitoes that drive me into my tent well before dark. They are ferocious and, heeding nature’s call in the middle of the night, I so rush that I trip over a log in the dark and tumble, bare-arsed, in a series of head-over-heel rolls down a ravine, narrowly missing outcroppings of jagged volcanic rock and shards of broken tree trunks that could easily have impaled me given the speed and force of my fall.
Shaken, I begin the last lap of my hike mindful of all the things that could yet go wrong. At Willow Lake, five miles from the border, I list them as a mental check on my rising adrenalin. I could trip on a root, typing this blog as I walk, and break an ankle. Or inadvertently inhale a piece of trail mix, my rushed lunch eaten on the go. Or put a foot wrong as I admire some view along one of the sheer drops that line the trail and topple into oblivion. That none of these things have happened to anyone I’ve heard about this year is scant consolation.
And then, almost abruptly, the trail drops down to a dirt road and the ranger station at Hozomeen Park on the far tip of Ross Lake. Turn right, walk another half mile, step over a closed barrier gate at the deserted border crossing – and there it is. A sign marked INTERNATIONAL BORDER and, atop a rocky outcropping in the middle of an eerily straight clear-cut through the primeval forest, a squat silver obelisk marking the border.
O Canada, at 2:30 pm on Saturday, September 1.
No one’s here. Three hikers who arrived before me were quickly driven away by clouds of mosquitoes. “Worst on the PCT,” one told me, offering his head-net. With the road to the north closed by wildfires in British Columbia, Hozomeen is ghostly empty, like the set of a movie where all humans have been abducted by aliens.
I stand there for a time, nothing but a vista of trees and the endless swathe of clear-cut marching east and west, then snap a selfie. Rather than a sense of triumph, I feel only faintly glad I don’t have to walk so much in the morning.
I leave the mosquitoes to their kingdom and go down to the lake for a swim, wash my clothes and spread them to dry on a wooden picnic table in the hot sun while waiting for tomorrow’s boat.
A favorable wind blows away the rising plumes of smoke from the fires to the north, and the lake glitters blue and gold against the mountains rising from the far shore. The leaves on the trees have begun to change. An autumn sadness tangs the air.
What was it T.S. Eliot said about big things ending not with a bang but a whimper? So be it.