Early in Oregon, it began to feel like the fires were dictating my hike. We were road walking/hitching around stretches of trail. Boxes couldn’t be sent to their planned destinations. And closures were changing every day so we had to constantly monitor fire reports. Breaks were no longer about resting, resupplying, and blogging; we were constantly thinking about logistics and contingency plans. Oh, and smoke everywhere, everyday.
In Cascade Locks, about to enter WA, I felt like I was in the home stretch though. There was only one more fire closure ahead, north of White Pass (150 PCT miles away), too distant to make a plan yet because things always change. It was the day after I stayed with Maddy and Kathy in Hood River; I was hanging around a trail angel house, Shrek’s Swamp. I blogged, went swimming in the Columbia River, did some weeding for Shrek; it was pleasant, the third clear day in a row.
That afternoon, I noticed a giant column of smoke billowing up from behind a very nearby ridge. It was close to where I knew the Indian Creek fire was burning, but that fire would have had to have a very sudden surge in size and strength to make that much smoke. For a few hours hikers and others watched the smoke billow, not knowing how close the fire really was. Eventually news got around that this was a new fire, only 4 miles from Cascade Locks, that was growing quickly.
I had been thinking of getting back on trail that afternoon, but my friend Atlas (who had done the 130 mile road walk detour around the fires in Three Sisters Wilderness and Mt Jefferson) said he would arrive that night so I had decided to wait for him. Because of the fire, though, many hikers in town were getting across the river to Stevenson even though official evacuation orders had not been issued. Then I got news that hikers on the trail were stuck between two fires and being held overnight to be evacuated tomorrow. Atlas was probably up there. He would probably not arrive that night, but I would wait until the stranded hikers were evacuated.
I went to bed. I woke early that morning to a couple surprises. First, Atlas! He did not want to wait to be evacuated- he had told me he would get to Cascade Locks that night. Also, if he was evacuated, it would break his continuous footsteps he had really suffered to maintain between Mexico and there. So he found a way to get to Cascade Locks via some poorly maintained (but still open) trails and walking on the highway. It was a pretty terrible night for him, so I was helping him to set up his tent and get some rest when the fire crews came by and told the trail angel that we were under Level 2 evacuation. The fire had crested the ridge and was slowing crawling down towards Cascade Locks. We all had to leave.
So, at 4:30 in the morning, Atlas and I (and other hikers camped at Shrek’s) packed up and stumbled across the Bridge of the Gods into Washington, the mountains being consumed by flames behind us. Not how I had envisioned entering Washington. From here, hikers hitched the couple miles into Stevenson where the Red Cross set up an evacuation center. We put up tents at the evacuation center housed at the Skamania County Fairgrounds, with a direct view of the burning mountains across the river.
Atlas needed to rest, do laundry, and resupply. We were focusing on these when we got some more bad news. There was a new fire ahead, burning on the trail in the Indian Heaven Wilderness 50 PCT miles north. Almost 20 miles of trail were closed. It would take extra time to research all the detour options and find maps. The feeling of being ‘in the home stretch’ was shattered. I felt like I would be dodging fires until the very end. I had also learned about a fire that was very close to the trail in the final stretch.
Thankfully, my friends Lydia, Polaris, Ladybug, and Rhino were at the evacuation center as well and they are the best at making plans. We got maps from the visitor’s center, current fire information from the Skamania County Sheriff who visited the evacuation center, and came up with a few options for getting around the East Crater fire in Indian Heaven Wilderness.
So finally, the day after we were evacuated from Shrek’s Swamp, Atlas and I got back on the trail in the afternoon. The air was dry and as heavy with smoke as I have experienced. Even at 4, when the sun was still pretty high in the sky, you could look directly at it, a red disc through the gray smoke. The light that shone through was orange, making a very eerie atmosphere in the forest. It felt like a different planet or our world in a different time, perhaps after the apocalypse.
From the place that we camped that night, we could see the flame engulfing the forested ridge across the river. We ate bread and hummus and cheese, and I discovered that the Steripen was broken. For the rest of the stretch I would have to use my backup Aquamira tablets to sterilize my water, or Atlas’ gravity filter.
It was so hot it was hard to sleep that night. The low was 70. The next day was also pretty sweltering- a steep climb before 9 had me sweating heavily. The smoke was still thick, and it was very windy, conditions where fires spread rapidly. Another north-bounder told us that the fire had jumped the Gorge into Washington. I had some cell service- the fire report confirmed this, but I couldn’t tell how close to us it was. All we could see was thick smoke.
I was pretty spooked. Out of all that I had experienced- extreme heat, dehydration, and water scarcity in the desert, treacherous passes and raging creeks in the Sierras, even being evacuated from Cascade Locks- I was more scared there than any other time on the trail. But no matter where the fire was, moving forward, north, was definitely the safest thing to do.
Eventually the trail took us below the ridge into green forest where the smoke was not so oppressive. I started to feel more relaxed. We had a nice long lunch break near a pretty creek. That afternoon, the south-bounders we encountered carried news that there were new closures ahead and we would have to get off the trail before we thought. This was surprising- I had checked the closure again the night before. But I had no cell service to check then.
That night I had some cell service, and there was nothing about new closures. Thats the nature of things once you get on the trail- lots of rumors. But when we got to Windy River Road, ~15 miles before we planned to start our detour, a local couple was at the trailhead giving information to our friends, Lydia and crew, about a new fire, as of last night, that closed forest road 60, which we had planned to walk on around the fire. There was no service but they said they confirmed with the Sheriff on their landline.
We changed the plan, instead detouring on forest road 30. This would mean just over 30 miles of road walking. But the road was scenic and very lightly trafficked. Atlas and I decided to keep pace with Lydia and friends. It was easier to digest new information and make plans with them. They walk faster than us, though, so we saw them just during breaks and making camp.
This road walk was really not too bad. The folks at Carson National Fish Hatchery let us fill us water and use their bathrooms. I restarted my Hungarian education- learning an important new vocabulary set: ‘I’m cold’, ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I’m tired’, etc. And then, ‘My legs hurt’, ‘My feet hurt’, ‘My knee hurts’, etc. I found an engraved sterling silver spoon on the road. Lydia found a beautiful fish hook and lure. We camped at a roadside sno-park with pit toilets and a picnic table. See, it was a really exciting time.
Even so, we were not at all disappointed when we got back to the trail the next day around noon. We had made such great time that we decided to do 14 more miles, making the whole day’s miles over 28.
From there we had a bunch of beautiful terrain ahead. The first morning after the road walk we were meandering through berry fields when a black bear popped out of the brush and scampered away from us! It was pretty cute. We climbed through long-ago burned forest now full of berries and dying wildflowers, eventually reaching a ridge with a spectacular view of Mt Adams.
The next day we entered into Goat Rocks Wilderness, known to be one of the prettiest parts of Washington. Unfortunately, around this time I started to not feel very well. My stomach was unsettled at first, but roiling by mid afternoon. It started to become clear that it wasn’t just going to pass. I felt terrible. But we were on the fifth day of the stretch, with 30 miles to go before White Pass. We really wanted to get there the next day, especially if I was sick. I took a break and Atlas took some heavy things out of my pack, but we needed to keep walking.
Meanwhile, as I felt more and more ill, the skies were darkening. The thick cloud began to let out a mist. It felt like the clouds themselves falling on us. We were damp. I couldn’t see through my glasses. The rain slowly got heavier. Everything changed gradually but at one point I fully realized my situation- It was raining, cold, windy, and getting dark soon. The nearest tent site was a couple miles away. I was cold and wet, I felt sick and possibly feverish, but stopping would put me in an even worse spot.
I just had to grit my teeth and take my small slow steps. The terrain was difficult, rocky and steep, and I couldn’t see more than 30 feet in any direction. Eventually we did make it to a spot to camp. I don’t want to think about how awful it would have been without Atlas. He set up the tent and fetched water and approached other hikers, asking for toilet paper (as I had used all of mine) and gave me diarrhea medicine and when I couldn’t get warm covered me and my sleeping bag with his. All I had to worry about was getting up to make miserable cat holes in the dark and rain- which was pretty awful.
Generally we always hoped for rain for the fires, but that morning we were very grateful when we woke to clear skies. We had ~22 miles to get to White Pass. I felt better than the night before, but still not great. I wanted so much to get to White Pass to go to Packwood to have a bed and a toilet, but I was not sure I’d be able to make it.
Atlas carried everything heavy in my pack so I could wear it with no hip belt. I didn’t eat or drink very much to try to keep the very uncomfortable feeling of imminent diarrhea at bay. And that day went as well as it could have. The weather was great and the trail was stunning, as beautiful as anything in the Sierras. I only felt a little sick- mostly just weak from not eating. I got a little bit of cell service to get in touch with my parents who helped us reserve lodging in Packwood. We made our way slowly but taking only short breaks, very aware that it would be very hard to hitch to Packwood if we got to White Pass after dark.
We made it to the trailhead around 7:30, after the sun went down over the mountains but before it was entirely dark. As we got there, a minivan was about to drive away. The window rolled down. It was Taylor- he (Front Seat) and his Swiss friends, Type II and Glacier (known to many as Taylor and the Swiss), were getting a ride to Packwood with his mom. They stopped and made room for us. What luck!
When we got to Packwood, 30 minutes away, we realized that Atlas had lost his phone and it was probably at the trailhead. Finding a ride back there so late was not what we wanted to be doing, but we did and found the phone and by 9:30 we were finally back in Packwood, exhausted and so glad for a shower and pizza and the zero day we would have.
Man, what a stretch that was! Here are some pics.