Ballard and Walker: PCT Thru-Hikers


September 11, 2000

That first night out of White Pass, the downpour didn't abate until nearly seven o'clock. We were both so cold and drenched, I wasn't sure we retained the motor dexterity necessary to set up camp. Luckily, at Buesch Lake we caught a whiff of campfire smoke. Seated on a log next to a fire pit was a man in full camouflage fatigues, rifle in hand.

Given our frigid state, we had no choice but to approach. I just hoped that in doing so we didn't look or sound too much like fat juicy elk. My bright red pack and Chigger's bright red nose must have helped in this regard because the hunter greeted us warmly and invited us to share his fire. Standing around the blaze, we traded introductions and stories.

The hunter, Travis, was a native of the Olympia area who spent a great deal of time out in these woods. This is elk and bear season and he was waiting for a buddy to join him so that they could stalk elk. One of these over-sized bambis would be enough to feed them both for the entire winter. As for bear, Travis didn't think them too difficult to kill but didn't care for the taste.

Besides talk of bear and elk, there was also discussion of cougars (mountain lions). Travis warned us about the increasing number and aggressive behavior of cougars in the area. Mountain lions are beautiful creatures (at least they look good on TV), and although I knew that their habitat included a significant portion of the PCT, I had figured we would be unlikely to see one due to their usually timid nature. But according to Travis and other hunters we have since met, the Washington cougars have gotten quite curious about humans. Travis had one such big kitty jump within ten feet of him last summer. He absolutely couldn't believe that we hiked with walkmen on. After hearing his story I made a mental note to turn down the volume on mine.

Meeting Travis was one of several lucky breaks that allowed us to escape the full wrath of the weather in Section I. Two nights after his fire saved us from a chilly and unpleasant camping experience, we managed to make it to Government Meadow and the Urich Shelter, a large wood cabin complete with a wood-burning stove. Arriving on its inviting porch just minutes before the start of an all-night downpour, we shared the cabin with three other hikers. One redheaded, red-bearded PCTer, appropriately named Weather Carrot, raised our hopes for a rays of sun by reporting that when he had hiked the Washington PCT in September of 1998 he had experienced nothing but beautiful weather. Well, so far, so wet. And although we got somewhat lucky in Section I, we still didn't see much.

The PCT guidebook boasts frequently of spectacular views of fourteen-thousand-foot Mount Rainier in this section. We joked that each time we reached one of these 'vistas' there was no evidence of Rainier, just a climate that got foggier and Rainier.

Our hopes were high that the conditions would turn as we left Snoqualmie Pass and started Section J. The guidebook had encouraging things to say about big J—"In all, Section J will challenge your legs, lift your spirit, and probably confirm your reasons for backpacking."

And while this 75 mile section started out great—with clear skies and a bold climb up to Chikamin Pass (where we actually took in our first, much belated, views of the elusive Rainier) it wasn't long before the weather gods turned grumpy. We made it to camp that evening at Lemah Creek under increasing clouds and a threatening horizon. Surprise, surprise, soon after we pitched our tent the night sky started pissing on us. And it just wouldn't stop.

The next morning came around and heaven's bladder still wasn't emptied. Angela and I treated the morning rain like a grade-schooler sick day. Lazily. We laid in our bags until 11am waiting for an end to the incessant pitter patter, eating several meals in the process. We finally realized that since Canada wasn't going to come to us, we had to eventually get moving, rain or no rain.

What ensued was a full day of hiking through rain, hail, and snow, at the end of which we set up camp amidst yet another deluge, with only a few lucky personal items spared from dampness. Not only were we as water-logged as swamp rats, we were also only 14 miles further north and a day behind schedule.

The sun didn't show its face during the next two days to Skykomish. Not only did our stuff fail to dry, it got wetter. Of course just about the time we arrived here in Skykomish, the skies finally cleared. Too little, too late as far as I am concerned—I already have penned my revised assessment of Section J to send to the guidebook people: "In all, Section J will drench your legs, soak your spirit, and probably confirm your reasons for staying home."


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