Episode 16: Entering the Rainforest
Bridge of the Gods to White Pass (2310.6)
On the first day of September, with our bellies full of salmon, Centerfold, Little Spoon and I crossed the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State, beginning our last section of the PCT.
A man driving a logging truck waved, a huge fishing boat passed below our feet, and immediately it began to rain. It wasn’t the unpredictable, windy rain of the desert or a heavy East Coast downpour. It was Pacific Northwest rain – a soft drizzle that, like the moss and fungus it inspires, steals its fingers slowly into everything. Windowsills and insulation are no match for the dampness. It melts into buildings and keeps your clothes from drying, filling soft cottons, couch cushions, any fabric with an intractable sponginess; it bubbles the paint on houses, destabilizes hair, creates an environment of chaos that only a particular breed of people can tolerate. The houses of the Pacific Northwest have fireplaces and boot dryers and the people have a certain detached awareness, often mistaken for ennui, that they are not in control of their surroundings.
The pervasive wetness is not the only dominating character of the Northwest; with sustained water comes a seemingly unchecked growth. In contrast to the passive aggressive weather, the flora of the area is a full-frontal explosion of life. Even in the cities, there is no controlling the plant life. Moss grows on cars, mushrooms burst out of broken plumbing, thorny berry vines embarrass statues of solemn men and landscaping crews are employed like soldiers to protect skyscrapers from the guerrilla warfare of shrubs. It’s quite a show.
But in the woods, away from the hum of traffic and false lighting, this display couldn’t feel more natural. The rain is almost soundless and very polite; it introduces itself slowly. As we were heading out of town, a man in Cascade Locks told us, “You’ll know it’s raining when the rocks are wet.” He was right, shortly into our hike back up, we noticed the rocks had gone from grey to dark grey, although we hadn’t realized it was raining. The rest of the day was like that. Moisture beaded up on our rain jackets, although we never knew where it came from.
We were in the rainforest. After thousands of miles of harsh, arid climate, this was our reward. The whisper of the rain made us listen closer to the birdsong and small mammals scurrying, the rustle of little life in the undergrowth dominated our awareness. Although we were conscious of the change happening more gradually, as we hiked through Northern Oregon and along Eagle Creek, it also felt as though we had walked into a different world by our act of crossing the Bridge of the Gods. It was as if the Columbia separated two dimensions rather than two states. Everything was green, including the trees. Their trunks were lined with a carpet of moss and long strands of lichen – Old Man’s Beard and Witches’ Hair – dangled from the branches.
But some changes were hard to adjust to. The change in humidity meant that our clothes no longer dried out while hanging from the back of our packs, and the grey skies put an end to our mid-day tent-drying sessions, something that was sorely missed now that we woke up daily with beads of condensation inside the rain fly. Also, the temperature was much colder. Our skin had become spoiled by dry cold, and the humid chill of Washington seemed to cling to our bones. With the changing season breathing down our necks, we started hiking faster.
The first night, we didn’t sleep easy. We made camp on an exposed ridge and soon heard the light patter of rain turn heavy in the dark. All night it came down and wind bullied our tent.
The next day, I’m a little ashamed to admit we didn’t leave camp until the afternoon. Centerfold was up and out early, somehow, but we stuck around and wallowed in our wet safe haven. It was the first real rainstorm we’d weathered on the PCT. All of the other storms our tent had seen had been a mixture of snow and hail, but this was rain. Invasive, messy, uncontrollable rain. And as we sipped coffee and dreaded unzipping our rain fly, it wasn’t letting up.
When we finally did get out and face the weather, it was a lot better than we thought. As with all things in the Pacific Northwest, it was a lot easier once we accepted that we were going to get wet. After that, we had fun. It was cold but not too cold to stay warm by walking, so we pushed through without much of a break. I was, admittedly, a little glad and maybe even smug to pass by several other tents that apprehensive hikers had neglected to break down yet. We knew it was going to be a long state and Centerfold had left hours before us, but we still felt good having broken through that ‘first day of rain’ funk. As if to confirm that we had made the right choice, the sun came out. Walking through a huge field of yellow grass, golden light broke through the clouds and, for the first time that day, dressed the surrounding plant life in something other than green.
That night, the rain started again. It seemed to be growing colder every day and our tent was getting to be pretty soaked. We realized that two nights of rain in a row did a number on it, and started to get a little nervous about the upcoming three weeks. The next morning we dutifully woke up and busted out the miles we needed to get close enough to Trout Lake to hit it the next day. It was actually pretty easy since we barely took a break. Even in the middle of the day, the sun barely peaked out of the cloud ceiling, so we weren’t too tempted to stop.
That night we camped by Blue Lake where a couple of very nice weekenders let us share their tent area (even though they wouldn’t let us take their large fluffy dog for warmth). It was freezing that night and neither of us slept much. Tiny field mice have broken down our defenses, chewing an impressively huge hole in our bug netting (which, in this climate that perpetually hovers near freezing, has sort of outlived its purpose anyway). It was cold enough that I didn’t even bother to get out of my bag when I heard their little feet in the tent. A few nuts were a small price to pay for keeping my heat.
We managed to leave early enough to make our goal: hiking 24.5 miles to Trout Lake in before the cafe closed. We knew we were going into town so we stopped ten miles out and basically ate all of the food we had left. With the day’s turning colder, we’d been eating more food than normal and realized after day one that we had to start rationing, so this was a much-needed picnic. A huge group of hikers passed us while we were gorging ourselves – including Gazelle, Hammer, Roadrunner, Clockwork, and Squirrel – and they stared at our spread with amazement, hunger, and what might have been a little disgust. It was pretty funny but we made it to the road pretty early. We were worried we wouldn’t get a ride since the road seemed completely dead. The first two cars that passed us by kept going and we started walking. Less than a quarter mile later, we saw the cars pulled over. They re-arranged their family to make room for us and drove us straight to Trout Lake.
The reason we had to stop at Trout Lake wasn’t food-oriented. We could have pushed through to White Pass and would have made better time doing that, but there was no way I was going to miss visiting my favorite town in Washington. Trout Lake is where I met Toe Touch and Camel, where we all worked at Northwest Service Academy (now Mount Adams Institute). Going to Trout Lake was like coming home. Bev at the general store gave us a big piece of huckleberry pie covered with cream, we loaded up on smoked salmon and John Schuman cheese, and stopped for huckleberry milkshakes before heading back to a friend’s house. The next day, we stopped by the rummage sale and saw a familiar face, and made sure to get a huge breakfast from the cafe. It was really hard to leave, so we forced ourselves to throw out a thumb and caught a ride in about five seconds from the first car that saw us, again. Trout Lake is such an amazing community, and it’s part of the beginning of several small towns and outposts that exist mainly because of the Pacific Crest Trail and its proximity; Places where thru-hikers are recognized and welcome. If it weren’t sunny out, we never would have gotten away from Trout Lake’s huckleberry siren calls.
Hiking out of Trout Lake, Mount Adams guided the way. The trail makes a huge loop around Adams, letting hikers appreciate it for miles before they head back into the dense tree cover. Adams is the first mountain over 10,000 feet that I climbed. It was the first time I camped in a four season tent, the first time I dealt with altitude sickness, and the first time I saw the atmosphere, like a curtain, dark above me. I still remember seeing the shadow of Adams against the sky at sunset, and the sun rising over Mt. Saint Helens. Leaving Trout Lake behind, we watched the clouds pass across Adams for miles, closing and opening our window to it. I can’t imagine a better way to say goodbye to the place where I first fell in love with the Northwest.
We made it 13 miles before camping, which was a pretty decent near-o. I didn’t mention it earlier, but we’re trying to make it through Washington by the 26th, which means we’ll have to average roughly 20 miles a day. Twenty miles isn’t hard to hit every day, but it is hard for us once we factor in town time and our resupply stops. We’ve taken almost a month of zeroes during this trail. I know that’s ridiculous, but it’s one of the things we also wanted to be able to do while hiking this summer – make time for our bodies to rest and actually see every town we pass through. But now that the weather is turning and we’re all feeling the pull of home, we’ve decided it’s time to speed up. So the next day, when the 24 miles we had planned on turned into 27 miles, we didn’t mind too much.
The day was freezing and we stopped only to filter water. We also left our tent at 10:30 AM because we knew we weren’t going to get much downtime that day. We figured we could push 24 miles to a stream where we would surely find camping. In Oregon, there’s camping everywhere. Basically, any water source is going to be ringed with camp spots. We learned the hard way that this wasn’t necessarily true for Washington. Approaching the rugged Goat Rocks range, we found ourselves running uphill with the panic of an unexpected night hike until we found a large camping area three miles later.
The next morning, we hiked through a layer of clouds up to The legendary Goat Rocks. Up to this point, Washington has been a coniferous ocean. Hundreds of forested acres stretch out in front of us, envelop us in a needled cocoon permeated only by rain drops. The clouds have been omnipresent during this time, floating in the valley and misting overhead. Water transfers to our clothing from the huge leaves and fronds that spring out of dense undergrowth. Sometimes, as we hike through the fog, I feel like I forgot to bring a machete to this magical place that borders on the prehistoric. A dinosaur could rear its head out of the distant mist and it wouldn’t seem strange for a second.
Which is why Goat Rocks is a welcome, but shocking change. When you enter Goat Rocks, you’re transported to a Highland paradise. Miles of rocky, craggy mountains whose jagged edges rise up bare above the clouds. It is at once austere and lively, with the rockslides giving way into lush green valleys blanketed in green and dotted with alpine lakes. After nearly a week in Washington we thought we understood the landscape, but Goat Rocks was like a sudden portal into Scotland. Even the trail itself changed drastically in a matter of miles, turning from soft, smooth trail to a rocky knife edge. Going up and over Mount Snowy, huge hunks of shale slid under our feet like dinner plates while we hobbled over a trail which shrunk to no more than three feet wide in some sections. To either side of us, clouds blew over a valley thousands of feet below the sheer cliff edges. The ‘Knife Edge’ of the Goat Rocks is possibly the most beautiful section of the whole PCT, and we spent all day creeping along it, taking pictures and remembering why we started this trail four and a half months before.
Our day through Goat Rocks was the shortest full day of hiking we’ve taken since perhaps the Sierra range. But we didn’t want to rush it. So far, that’s what Washington has been all about for us. It’s the end of the line, our last state, and we want to finish this trail the way that we’ve hiked it the whole way: always willing to stop and enjoy the view. In three weeks we’ll be back in our normal lives, searching the inside of our eyelids for the places we tried to imprint there forever. I hope that we succeeded; I hope that these mountains stick, that we will go back to our lives behind glass and over concrete knowing we have this other world locked inside our heads, waiting to visit.
In the morning we hiked our remaining ten miles into White Pass, putting us more than 150 miles into Washington in 8 days. Centerfold had gotten there a day and a half before and we finally called him out on trying to finish with us. We’re pretty sure he’s going to wait around for the rest of this state because he’s a sentimental softie, but only time will tell. In the meantime, we’re only 70 miles from the midpoint of Washington, Snoqualmie Pass, and less than 400 from the end of the trail – and we plan to make those miles last.
Other links to check out:
Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski)
The Camel of Corvallis’ Instagram
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca)
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey)
Toe Touch’s Blog
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