The Dog Days Of Washington
In late July 2021, the PCT in Washington was buzzing. Vaccinated section-hikers were enthusiastically exploring again; NOBOs were eager to reach the northern terminus; SOBOs were excited to finally start. Mostly though, the buzz came from all the mosquitoes. July started with a heatwave, which rapidly melted the winter’s above-average snowfall. By the time I began hiking south, every mosquito everywhere had apparently hatched. And thanks to temperatures that remained abnormally high, the little flying f*ckers didn’t go home at night. No matter how early I got up, they were waiting for me.
Admittedly, I should have carried insect repellent. However, I didn’t want to use my bear canister for stuff I couldn’t eat. As a result, any time I was outside my tent, I either had to keep moving or accept the inevitable. To make matters worse, most days there was no hint of a breeze. Even if I was nowhere near a water source, it simply meant being surrounded by a cloud of flies rather than mosquitoes.
The flies were well organized and had obviously spent some time dividing up their territory and duties. The small flies kept to the shade, and it was their job to harass me when I stopped for more than 30 seconds. About 10% of these flies were biters: not painful, just annoying. The big flies patrolled the open meadows. Their task was to keep me moving by buzzing around my head for distances up to a quarter of a mile.
The night before my first resupply, I camped at Lake Valhalla. The mosquitoes there were the worst yet, and I probably should have kept moving. However, the soles of my feet felt like they’d been pummeled with a ball-peen hammer for ten hours, and I’d had enough. Also, with Stevens Pass not far away, I didn’t want to camp too close to the highway. My campsite was on a slight slope, and only after I pitched my tent did I realize that my feet would be pointing uphill. I’d always avoided sleeping like that because I thought it would feel weird. This time, I was too sweaty and too tired to care. I could hardly wait to get out of my rain gear and lie down.
As usual, the heat didn’t fade much after sunset. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’ve ever broken a sweat simply by brushing my teeth. I slept well though, in part because the high-pitched whine of the mosquitoes drowned out all other background noises. The next morning, my feet felt better than usual, which I eventually attributed to sleeping with them slightly raised. (I experimented with feet-raised-or-not on subsequent nights, which seemed to confirm my theory.)
I broke camp and hiked in my rain gear for the first half-mile. Once I was out of mosquito range, I stripped back down to shorts and t-shirt, then ate breakfast. If not the most important meal of the day, it’s consistently in my top five. Unfortunately, that morning all I had left was a few spoonfuls of peanut butter.
With a rumbling stomach, I arrived at Stevens Pass about 8:30 AM. Nothing was open yet, but a helpful guy working at the loading dock retrieved my resupply box. It contained the four days’ worth of food that would get me to Snoqualmie Pass. I’d also packed as many extra snacks as my bear canister could hold, but many of them never actually made it into the bear can. While snacking, I charged my phone and checked the PCTA website for trail closures. I also replied to texts/emails and booked a night in the hotel at Snoqualmie Pass. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible for me to be more excited about the prospect of staying in a hotel. However, the anticipation of a hot shower and a soft bed gradually increased in the days that followed.
Many of the seasonal water sources were already dry, and I ran out of water late in the day after leaving Stevens Pass. I made a mental note to check the Guthook/Farout comments more carefully in future. Fortunately, I happened to pass a small patch of snow, and scraped off the top layer of muck. After filling my Vecto with the (mostly) clean snow underneath, I carried it in my hand while the snow melted. Using the Vecto as a cold compress was very refreshing, and it melted the snow more quickly. Two birds with one stone. After picking the droplets of tree sap out of the water, I filtered and drank it. Not a huge amount of water, but enough to get me comfortably to the next source.
The amount of wildfire smoke increased as I continued south. A brief thunderstorm didn’t do much to cut through the haze, but the wind would occasionally change direction and clear things a little. The poor visibility was disappointing, but it could have been worse.
Although I was eager to reach Snoqualmie Pass, I camped early the day beforehand. (I wouldn’t be able to check in until mid-afternoon, and I calculated that I’d get there with plenty of time to spare.) My campsite wasn’t far from the trail, and I watched the procession of hikers heading north. I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I’d stopped so early, but guilt was the least of my problems. The campsite had no shade, and it would be several hours before the sun dropped behind Chikamin Ridge. Vecto-slushie to the rescue! The campsite had a small patch of snow, and that afternoon I made a large dent in it.
After a long traverse, Kendall Katwalk was the highlight of the following morning. The I-90 soon appeared through the haze, but even at a brisk downhill pace, it took a long time to get there. I passed a black bear foraging less than 100 yards from the trail, but didn’t pause for long: a cold bottle of Mountain Dew was calling my name.
As expected, I arrived at the Summit Inn too early. I ate lunch at the gas station next door and chatted to “Late Show,” a rare southbounder. She soon finished packing her leftover pizza and headed off into the bright sunshine. I continued to wait in my dwindling patch of shade.
After checking in and collecting my resupply box, I took a shower and did laundry. And by “laundry,” I mean I rinsed out my clothes using my bear canister and a tiny bottle of shampoo. Then I watched a few Youtube videos and took a nap. And by “nap,” I mean complete loss of consciousness. It was close to eight p.m. when I woke up, and the local eateries had stopped serving food. My consolation prize was a gas-station sandwich, assorted snacks, and a six-pack of Alaskan Amber.
Thanks to the beer, I woke up in the middle of the night needing to pee. I also had a major case of disorientation and sleep paralysis. A pair of glowing red eyes stared at me, unblinking, in the darkness. I had no idea where I was, how I got there, why I couldn’t move, or what on earth this crimson-eyed creature could be. My mind raced to retrace my steps, while my muscles fought to regain the ability to move. It was several seconds before everything clicked into place. I guess my imagination still occasionally gets the better of me. This time, it was the standby lights on the TV and cable box in my hotel room. Next time, it’ll probably be the sound outside my tent in the middle of the night.
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