When life gives you lemons, rent a kayak (Part 1)
I’ve been saying since my very first day on the PCT that time has been flying, but my god did the second half of trail pass by at the speed of light. It honestly feels like yesterday that I hit the 1,000 mile marker, then I blinked and it was September and my hike was over.
I spent August jumping all over the place: I did the first 300 miles of Washington, went down to Cascade Locks for Trail Days, southbounded 240 miles of Oregon in a week, then jumped back up to Washington at the end of the month. I wanted to write a blog post about my time back in Oregon: I had challenged myself to do it fast and it quickly became my hardest week on trail, pushing high 30s and 40s with my friend Veto. But when I sat down to write about it I realised it wasn’t that interesting for people to read. Yes, it was a crazy, difficult week, but mostly it was just me forcing myself out of bed early, taking the shortest breaks possible and night hiking every evening. I’m proud I did it, but the details aren’t that thrilling and I already shared a decent amount about it on my Instagram stories. So instead I’m jumping right to my last 2 weeks of trail, which were anything but boring.
I found myself back up in Washington at the start of September, with only 200 miles of trail to go, feeling unsure if I was ready for this life to be over. My reward for pushing myself through Oregon was that I got to rejoin one of my past trail families for the final stretch. It felt so good to be reunited with them, after having hiked separately since the end of NorCal. I had always known they were the group I wanted to finish with, even if I went off to have my own adventures in between, so I was very happy that I had managed to make it happen.
We set out on the 2nd of September from Steven’s Pass, in high spirits for the last 10 days of trail. Only 15 miles in, our joy was shattered as we crested the top of a climb and saw a plume of smoke in front of us. I had naively thought that being done with Oregon meant being shot of wildfires, but alas, no.
We continued hiking, deciding the wildfire was not close enough to be an immediate danger, but sent out some Garmin messages to get more info. The news we got back was not what we’d been expecting: the final 20 miles of the PCT had just been closed because of other fires up by the border. This wasn’t where we were yet, but it felt like pretty much the worst news we could have received. Somehow it felt like those final miles were more important than anything else. We’d been walking for four and a half months to get to Canada and now we weren’t going to be able to do that. No monument, no nothing. Would our hike even feel worth it if we couldn’t reach “the end”?
I didn’t allow myself to accept it in that moment. We were still a week away, maybe the fires were small? Maybe they’d move the other way? Maybe, just somehow, those last 20 miles would reopen.
So we kept hiking north and stayed optimistic, because worrying and stressing about it wouldn’t achieve anything. We chose to believe that we would make it to Canada, because we had come too far not to.
Blowdowns and gratitude
I knew this section of trail was supposed to be some of the most beautiful, but I didn’t get to experience that all too much. We spent a lot of time surrounded by clouds: there was one full day where we didn’t see the sun at all. I think we missed some really great views of Glacier Peak that day, but honestly I’ve seen so many incredible things over the last few months that I didn’t mind missing out.
We did eventually get some slightly clearer skies one morning, but then quickly descended into a valley thick with clouds. The trail was narrow, with waist high bushes on each side which were heavy with condensation and last night’s rain. As I pushed through them my legs and feet were immediately drenched with icy cold water. I had stupidly let Veto convince me to ditch my rain pants at the last stop, so I had nothing to cover my legs and keep them warm. I kept moving, cursing Veto and all ultralighters. Soon my hands too were freezing, which was even more concerning. I didn’t have gloves, so I pulled the sleeves of my raincoat down over my hands to protect them.
And then, just when I thought I couldn’t get more annoyed, I hit the blowdowns. There’s quite a few sections of the PCT that are notorious for having a lot of fallen trees to climb over. Often people would talk about them before we got there so I knew they were coming, but somehow no one had told me about this section. It wasn’t just the number of times I had to break my flow to climb over a tree, it was the difficulty of doing so. Each one felt more challenging and complicated than the next, some of the trees were huge, 8ft high barricades, with another equally giant tree sat on top of it. They slowed me down massively and had me hating this trail, and actively wishing for the end.
But then we stopped for second breakfast at about 11am, I got some food in me and chatted to my friends, and someone mentioned that in a few miles we would be hitting the 100 mile countdown to the border. I couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t be 100 miles from the end. That was nothing. That was maybe 5 days if we went slow.
By the time I stood up from my break, my anger had dissipated. How could I be angry about being cold and climbing over trees when I had so little time left? I didn’t want to be done, so why was I wishing away the miles? I should be savouring every step, every moment.
Drowning our sorrows
The next day we got the shuttle down into Stehekin. This isn’t so much a town as a post office and a general store on a lake, which is only accessible from the outside world by boat. I arrived, connected to the internet for the first time in days, and was of course slapped in the face with the reality that the last 20 miles of trail really were closed.
I had been trying to prepare myself for this over the last couple of days, but as my stomach sank and my whole being felt broken and sad, I realised I hadn’t fully processed what this meant. It sounds dramatic, but it was devastating. I had spent so much time thinking about the northern terminus. It had kept me walking every single day for more than four months. The thought of getting there, touching it, falling down on the ground and knowing that I had made it, that I walked from Mexico to Canada on my own two feet. That was what had kept me going.
We tried to make ourselves feel better by talking about why it mattered. Not being able to walk the last 20 miles didn’t take away the thousands of miles that we had walked. It didn’t diminish the achievement or the experience as a whole. But we felt the need for an end of some sorts. We couldn’t just stop one day and say, “okay, I’m done now.” We had to be walking towards something.
So, our natural instinct was to drink. The general store was all out of beer (clearly every hiker coming through that week had been having the same day as us), so we bought a bottle of premade margarita each and we drank. We swam in the lake and talked with other hikers, we sat on the porch and texted people. And then my friend Pippin, who was about a week behind me, told me about a lake. Ross Lake is 20 miles west of the PCT from Rainy Pass. It’s a long, thin lake that goes northwards: all the way to Canada. The trail along the side of the lake was closed because of fires to the east, but at the bottom of the lake, there’s a resort that rents out boats. Surely on water, we would be safe from the fires?
It seemed like a crazy idea, one we didn’t even know if we could do safely, but we all knew we had to try. I got on the phone to the resort, booked our group some kayaks, and Billie Goat (the only American in our group) tried to sort out a backcountry permit for the lake. If the resort was open, and the rangers were giving out permits, then maybe it was possible. By the time we went to bed that night we were pretty sure we were going to kayak ourselves into Canada.
Leaving the PCT
We left Stehekin the next day a little hungover but full of a new energy. We were suddenly excited once again for the end of trail, excited to get to the Canadian border by kayak. This new plan did however mean that we would be leaving the PCT at Rainy Pass, some 30 miles before the closure. At this point we didn’t really mind though, we weren’t going to be able to hike the whole trail, so what did those 30 open miles matter?
Instead, we now had only 20 miles left ahead of us. We had talked about spending our last day hiking as a group, but as we climbed out of Stehekin we all spread out as usual. We weren’t very good at hiking together for long periods of time anyway. Actually, it felt more fitting that I spent my last day on trail alone. Although I very rarely camped alone, I had actually spent the majority of my time on this trail hiking alone. It felt good to go at my pace, to let my thoughts wander, to dance along the trail to my music knowing that no one was watching.
I tried to take some time to process that by the next morning I would be stepping off the PCT and not coming back. It still didn’t feel real. All I knew was that this life, getting up and walking day in and day out on this tiny patch of dirt, felt right and normal. It made me a happier, more carefree, and more confident version of myself. As much as I was excited to be done, to be able to say I had done it, I also wasn’t. I felt like I could keep going a bit longer.
We woke up on the 8th of September only two miles from Rainy Pass. Our sleeping bags were covered in ash and the sky was an apocalyptic yellow, full of smoke. It made me feel better about getting off trail. We walked in silence to the road, all feeling our own emotions. I didn’t cry, but I came close as I saw the highway for the first time. We took some pictures with the road sign, to show where our hike ended.
Then we went up to the car park to see if we could find beers that a friend might have hidden there for us the day before. Instead we found something better: trail magic. A mother and son had just set up a full spread of food and drinks and we dug in, drinking cup after cup of coffee and tea to keep our hands warm. We told them they might have lots of dazed hikers coming through today, finishing their hike at this random, meaningless road. We started a log book for them and signed our names.
And then we went back down to the road and stuck out our thumbs to try and get a ride away from the PCT, but towards a new adventure: a kayaking adventure. An adventure to get to the Canadian border.
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