PCT Update #5 - Northern California

2019-06-15, by Natalie Pendragon

adventure backpacking pct

This update comes to you from mile 1501, which may seem a bit ludicrous given that only a few short weeks ago, my last update came to you from mile 652. Well, I'm here to spin you a tale of how we got here, and you're in for a treat, because it involves not just the usual hiking, but also trains and cruise ships!

Chapter 5.1 - More Snow than we Bargained for

While writing the last update about the hike into Walker Pass, Andy and I were fervently trying to come up with a plan to deal with the Sierra Nevadas. As I've perhaps mentioned or alluded to already, 2019 is an extremely snow heavy year. That's a bit problematic everywhere along the trail, but it's VERY problematic in the Sierras, which are the challenging, snowy, high-altitude portion of the PCT even on a normal year.

The challenge this poses is several-fold:

  • ubiquitous snow, which means you hike substantially slower than you normally do. Which means you have carry more food than usual, to support you for longer between resupply points. Which of course increases your carry weight, which slows you morethis is giving me flashbacks to my undergraduate physics work, when I had to learn the rocket equation!.
  • less traffic, which means instead of a couple hours of hitching to catch a 5, 10, or 20 mile ride into town, you might just have to hike that 20 miles into town. That's another full day of hiking!
  • water crossings, which due to all the snow, and resultant snow-melt, become substantially more vivacious than usual. This could mean the difference between stepping through or over an ankle-deep trickle, versus trying to find a way across 20 feet of frothing rapids.

Due to all of this, and in particular the danger posed by the last point about treacherous water crossings, we decided to take a couple weeks off, and see if some snow melted. It would also give our aching bodies a bit of much needed recovery time (I had some ankle, knee, and foot pains that were getting bad). So, we thought we'd do the logical (did I say logical? I meant ludicrous) thing and take an Alaskan cruise. Our trail friend Euro said it best when he laughed and asked us, "So you're escaping the snow to pay to see more snow?"

Chapter 5.2 - All Aboard!

We began by taking a train all the way up to Seattle. Amtrak serviced this trip via the coastal starlight line, which was beautiful. There's a certain magic to cross-country train trips, and it only gets better when you get to see things like the Sierra Nevadas and Pacific Northwest. It even crossed the PCT at one point in northern California, which Andy serendipitously woke up for and noticed. He shook me awake, and as I groggily focused on his smirking visage, he made a joke about being back on trail. Har har har.

The cruise itself was everything we needed, and probably even a bit more. The most strenuous thing we had to do was brave the buffet line. I had randomly learned of a brilliant character named William Sidis shortly before the cruise, so I spent several a lazy hour reading a biography of him (it's entitled The Prodigy, and gets a recommendation from me). We also took a couple new board games we picked up at Cafe Mox in Seattle, because anyone that knows us know we don't go far without a board game or two! Other highlights included Alaskan ocean kayaking, high tea at the Empress in Victoria, and the miniature museum, also in Victoria. The miniature museum has a working miniature lumber mill that someone constructed over the span of decades, and miniature replicas of childhood homes that took their creators similar amounts of time. Some of the miniature homes had working hot and cold water, flushing toilets, and thousands of roof shingles, each hand-cut from the shingles of the original home. Wow.

Towards the end of the cruise, we availed ourselves of some free WiFi, and tried to figure out what we were doing with our hiking lives. From what we could gather, the snow in the Sierras hadn't abated much, and moreover, a lot of the trail north of the Sierras, all the way up to Canada, had snow as well. One section in northern California, near Redding, seemed to have a few scattered reports of hikers making it successfully through (our research consists of a convoluted game of "telephone" with the other hikers, and scouring social media for any recent posts by hikers about their experiences... it's not an exact science by any means!). So, two train tickets to Redding booked.

Chapter 5.3 - Hikers, Trails, and Snakes, Together Again

We spent a few extra days in Seattle (it's so green and LUSH out there compared to NYC!), then caught our train to Redding, and a car to Old Station (population 51). With slight concern about whether or not our legs and bodies would remember and tolerate the way of the trail, we began hiking. Within hours, northern California had differentiated itself from the 650 miles of desert hiking in southern California - both positively, and negatively. Positively, in that there were new trees and plants, interesting bits of volcanic residue, and generally just more green things everywhere. Negatively, in that now mosquitos were everywhere, and near-invisible spider webs crossing the trail (naturally they all seem to be right around face height) were also everywhere.

We pushed on through these new conditions for a few short days to get to the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. Along the way we got to hike a quarter mile underground in a lava tube, enjoy some great views of snowy mountains on the horizon (a peek of what awaits us in the north!), and I had a VERY close encounter with a snake. Andy was hiking several feet in front of me, and my theory is that as he passed, the snake, still hidden to us, got a bit spooked and decided it wanted to get away from the big scary human. Well, the direction it decided to go to get away from the big scary human was right across the trail. Right about the time another human (yours truly) was about to put their foot down on that very swatch of trail. So, I stepped on this mystery snake, it got a bit wrapped around my foot, all in the span of about half a second. I immediately scream, start jumping around, and nearly have a heart attack. I'm pretty sure the snake was doing exactly the same, in its own way. Luckily it wasn't a rattler, or even aggressive for that matter - it clearly just wanted to get away, and did so as FAST as snakily possible.

At a water crossing, we briefly made the acquaintance of a very exuberant Frenchman named Pascal. He had a bushy white moustache and always seemed to have a smile buried underneath. Andy and I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how he had gotten the trail name Pascal - was it religion-based? Was he a mathematician? A Renaissance man? If we saw him again, we decided we would ask.

Chapter 5.4 - The Bear Room

Sporting a few mosquito bites each, we neared our goal - The Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. We came across a sign that promised: Showers! Laundry! Hot meals! Free WiFi! Ice cream!

This was clearly a place that knew their demographic, and how to advertise to them. We arrived, and were promptly instructed to go wash our hands in the goat room (I never did see any evidence of goats). We did laundry, and the owners of the ranch cooked us a delicious a delicious hot dinner and breakfast. They were also quite religious, and had constructed an enormous wooden ark on their property. I really wanted to go play inside and on it, but was kept busy with laundry, homecooked meals, a shower, and playing with their 1yr old Great Pyrenees, Duke. That gentle giant of a dog came up to my waist, and I never did discover the limit of how many pets it would accept. Andy appreciated Duke as well, but he's a bit more of a cat person, and I think the bulk of his animal appreciation went towards the ranch cat, which hunted its own food by night, and snuggled human laps by day.

Pascal stopped in at the ranch for a shower and some odds and ends from the ranch's makeshift hiker grocery store. He hiked out immediately afterwards, and didn't stay the night, but we had enough time to say hello, and ask about the origin of his trail name; it turns out Pascal is simply his real name! If we wanted to call him something else as a trail name, he said "Old Frenchie" would do.

At dinner, we ate with a group of 4 sobo (southbound) hikers, and swapped tips with each other about our respective upcoming sections. We told them about mosquitos and lava tubes to the south, and they told us about snow to the north. Lots of snow.

Chapter 5.5 - Minor Snowing Pains

A few days after the ranch, during which the mosquitos somehow managed to get even worse, we finally arrived at the snow. We camped right at the edge of it and woke up early to tackle all ~5 miles of it early, before the midday heat made it soft, slushy, and more dangerous. Crunchy morning snow with microspikes is almost always your best bet!

Not 10 minutes into hiking, who do we see but our good friend Pascal! We spent the next 6 hours as a trio, slowly hiking our way over the snow. We snacked together, we made snow angels together, we got ripped pants climbing over a field of prickly Manzanita trees together, and eventually we celebrated the end of the snow together. It was an exhausting day, but good to have a new friend with whom to meet the challenge! I'm pretty sure we just gained an adventuresome retired Frenchman as a friend for life.

Andy and I had plans to get to the next town a day before Pascal, so we parted ways once again, and set off.

Chapter 5.6 - The Bear Room, Reprise

I could tell you more about the intensifying horde of mosquitos that definitely happened, but I'd rather tell you about the bear that may have happened. We approached campsite the night before town having noticed several instances of bear scat - momma bear and baby bear by the looks of it. We made a point of doing a good bear hang with the food that night, to keep the food out of bears' reach, and went to bed.

During the night, I heard several things. First, a tree falling - first the creaking and splitting of wood, quickly increasing in intensity for a few short seconds, followed by a gigantic THUD. It was scary in its own way too - it was the first time I considered how many trees always surround us, and how dangerous it would be for one of them to fall near us. And here this whole time I've only been worried about bears!

The second thing I heard was a crunch off to the side of the tent, followed a few seconds later by two softer, rhythmic crunches. It sounded like it could have been a bear or two, but for my own sanity I convinced myself it wasn't, and went back to sleep. Waking up in the morning, the first Andy says is, "I heard something BIG near the tent last night."

"How do you know," I ask, memories of the crunches coming back, along with a few goosebumps.

"Well, there was a loud crunch, followed by..." (I'm sure you can imagine the rest of his description, at this point!)

I suppose we'll never know for sure (maybe it was just a deer, and paranoia playing tricks on us), but we, and our food, were safe, so we packed up camp and started hiking. It was the morning of town day, which always feels a bit like Christmas morning, so the anticipation of and excitement for good food carried us on quickly, leaving thoughts of bears and other such dangers in the forest behind us.

Chapter 5.7 - Dunsmuir

And here we are in Dunsmuir! It has a board game cafe that serves breakfast all day, and a brewpub, so leaving will be a challenge. Leave we must though, and later this morning we will be taking a car/bus/something back down to Old Station, where we will begin hiking south. We're doing what we can to find passable sections of the trail, and we can't go north past Dunsmuir due to excessive snow, according to our research, and reports from the hikers we met back at Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. Hopefully by the time we hike a few hundred miles south, more snow will have melted and we can flip back up here and continue our northbound hike. Eventually, all of this should connect up into a contiguous line of hiking, even if we didn't hike it all in one continuous direction.

And finally, a picture of Pascal, who we crossed paths with yet again, this time finally able to relax a bit and dine together!

Happy trails and until next time,