Trail Update Number Eight. The Oregon “Challenge”
For many hikers, reaching the border of California and Oregon is a momentous occasion. After well over a thousand miles of hiking, it is the first state border crossed. Mentally, this can be quite a boost. You finally feel like you are getting somewhere! Also, the trail tread in Oregon has a reputation (deservedly) for being super cruisey and conducive for making bigger miles. Finally, Oregon also has a reputation for being the least scenic (we’ll get to that in a minute) of the three states and worth simply cruising through. Whatever the case, there are many hikers who attempt to get through the state as quickly as possible – some with the lofty goal of two weeks (something like 35 miles per day)! Others simply want to maximize their mileage compared to what they may have been doing earlier in NorCal.
For me, I had no interest in either. First, I had a couple of planned zero days to visit with family and friends. Second, Oregon really has some great scenery and for me it would be a shame to miss it in service of “crushing miles.” So I knew it was going to take me a bit longer than “normal” to get through the state.
New month, new state!
We crossed into Oregon in the afternoon on July first. Within minutes, we were greeted with some great trail magic. It’s one thing to receive it at a road crossing or near a population center, but we were in the middle of nowhere, so it was completely unexpected – and very welcome! The saying goes that “the trail provides.” For me personally, this could not have been more accurate. The previous day had been very taxing and I was having a hard time recovering. The additional nutrition and refreshments were exactly what I needed in order to get back up to speed. Good thing, too, as I had a big day planned for the 2nd. Most of my trail friends were planning on taking a zero or two in Ashland to celebrate July 4th. My plan was to continue on in order to get within a reasonable distance from Klamath Falls where a friend from back home (who had recently relocated) would pick me up for a couple days of R&R. The trail in that first section had a lot of poison oak! It was that and knowing that I was entering mosquito country that prompted me to switch from wearing shorts with calf sleeves to full pants. My rationale was that a bit of discomfort in the area of heat would be well worth not dealing with poisonous plants or vampire insects.
It was the first stretch north of Fish Lake that I was first thrust into what would subsequently be known as “mosquito hell.” Southern and central Oregon are blessed with hundreds of small lakes and ponds along the trail. While they are incredibly scenic and provide a great water source for drinking or taking an occasional plunge, they can also act as a breeding ground for the bloodthirsty little monsters. I am from the Midwest, and while we do deal with all sorts of biting insects, the sheer amount of mosquitoes at any given time was as impressive as it was horrifying. I had my first real introduction when I camped on the shore of Scout Lake, a beautiful body of water that had zero development around its shoreline. I was the only soul at the tent site that evening, and for good reason. While the view was peaceful, the swarm that greeted me within seconds of arriving was anything but. I donned my headnet and my puffy jacket (as armor) and went about the business of setting up my tent. But the real surprise was when I got in. By the time I had tossed my gear inside and climbed in, an entire squadron of the beasts had assembled inside, awaiting my arrival. I spent twenty minutes in battle, finally emerging victorious, but there was a price: I had to sleep amongst the corpses of my enemies while listening to the drone of those would-be attackers who were waiting for the morning skirmish to begin at first light. I had learned my lesson: once the tent is up, throw the entire pack in and follow it as quickly as possible (shoes and all) to minimize the number of followers. There would be some, of course, but in numbers that are more easily dealt with. From this point forward until well past Crater Lake, this would be the daily process: pack up all gear possible inside the tent, have all snacks needed for the day in the hip pocket, don protective clothing including shoes, exit tent and pack it, remove jacket and begin hiking as quickly as possible. Stop just long enough to gather/filter water but do all eating and drinking on the move, only lifting the head net high/long enough to get a bite or a swallow. And at camp get set up and inside ASAP. If you think this sounds terrible, you would be correct. It’s not so much that the mosquitoes exist (ok, it kind of is!), it’s the fact that they are relentless and allow you not a moment of rest. Want to stop and eat? Nope. Enjoy the view of a mountain reflecting in a lake? Hardly. Simply take a break to rest your legs in the middle of the day? Not a chance. And dig a cathole? Best to put repellent on EVERYTHING you don’t want bitten! For the better part of two weeks, it was either hike (with all skin covered) or be in the tent. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t enjoy the scenery at all, I could, but there was none of the lingering in these amazing places that we had grown accustomed to doing.
But it’s not all mosquitoes!
Oregon, like much of the trail, also has some amazing and unique scenery. From Crater Lake (arguably one of the most beautiful places in the country) in the south to Eagle Creek in the north, the landscape is blessed with all sorts of geologic features that are pleasing to the eye and also incite the imagination. Like Crater Lake, for instance. While it is beautiful in its own right, how different did it and the surrounding landscape look before it essentially collapsed in on itself? Or the lava fields? How did they form in such a relatively flat manner? Or the obsidian? Why just that one place? And how? Or on a darker note: all these volcanoes…when is the next big event?! Of course, all (or at least some) of this is information that can be looked up, but in the moment it’s fun to think about.
It’s the people.
I’ve heard the statement about the trail that goes: “Come for the views, stay for the people.” As a self-proclaimed introvert, I was quite skeptical of this at the beginning. But gradually I began to understand the idea that we are all a community of like-minded people on the trail. And because of the completely absurd nature of our journey, are really the only ones who truly understand each other. To us, all the aspects of trail life seem completely normal: lack of bathing, drinking from lakes and streams, being exhausted and in pain, eating junk food until you reach a town and then binging on as much “good food” as possible until heading back to the trail. Of course, there’s more, but you get the idea. One memorable moment came at the Elk Lake Resort. Several of us were gathered at a picnic table, having a few beers, listening to live music, in a beautiful setting, lake in the foreground, mountains in the background, talking, laughing… and at that moment I realized that this is what it’s about. It’s one thing to hike the trail and experience all it has to offer. But it becomes special when you’re able to share it with others. Especially those who have experienced it right along with you.
Oregon was also great for me personally, as it gave me a taste of home. First of all, one of my daughters lives here with her fiancé, so I was able to visit with them. Second, as mentioned earlier, I was able to visit with a friend who had recently moved here. Finally, and best of all, my wife flew out with our youngest daughter to visit with me for a bit. It was great to take a zero day in the city of Bend to reconnect, as it was the first time we had seen each other since I left for the trail in March. By this point in the journey, I was starting to feel tired. The aches and pains were adding up and to be honest, I was a little homesick. Seeing my family (or most of it; our son was unable to join us) gave me the motivation I needed to steel my resolve to finish.
I got back on trail after our time together in Bend. And it was like a miracle had occurred. No mosquitoes?! Just a few miles south it was a living mosquito hell, but now, almost nothing! I gingerly took off my head net, expecting a surprise attack… nothing! Could this mean that I could really enjoy my hike? I was currently traveling through the Sisters wilderness and encountered some of the best hiking of the trail. Super smooth tread, barely any elevation change, and some amazing mountain views of the Three Sisters. I walked by small lakes, crossed streams and passed through sections of forest, marveling at the scenery before me and reveling in the peace of mind that comes without the constant attack by the mosquito army. Life was again good. That’s not to say that it’s all easy as some of the terrain can be brutal, but it was like a weight had been lifted and I could again enjoy being outdoors.
As we traveled north, the terrain began to change. The climbs began to get longer and the views seemed to get more expansive. A day or so before getting into the Mt Hood area, we passed over a relatively high ridge. From here we had a splendid view of Mt. Jefferson to our south. But even more exciting was the view to the north. There was Mt. Hood in the foreground, but further ahead was Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens. Washington!!! Mileage-wise we were still a ways off, but the fact that we could see into our final state was a definite boost to our spirits! A few days later, we were at the famous Timberline Lodge, enjoying the breakfast with our sights set on the border and the final leg of our journey.
The final day on trail in Oregon involved an alternate route (which was originally the actual route) off of the PCT. It would descend into a canyon and follow Eagle Creek while taking us past (through) Tunnel Falls. I wasn’t sure what to expect other than the falls themselves, so I was pleasantly surprised once entering the canyon proper. The creek carved its way through the stone walls, which are literally vertical at times. It tumbles down waterfall after waterfall as it makes its way towards its eventual junction with the Columbia River. Tunnel Falls actually is located on one of the side creeks that flow into Eagle Creek. At this point, the trail is literally carved into the side of the cliff above one of the aforementioned waterfalls. At the junction of the side canyon, the trail makes a sharp turn. Immediately after the turn, your entire field of vision is taken up by tunnel falls. I have seen pictures and videos of it from past PCT hikers, but I wasn’t ready for how big the falls were! They cascaded from at least 75 feet above the trail and fell equally as far to the canyon bottom below. It was truly a sight to behold! And then I saw the route the trail would follow… For the record, I don’t do great with heights. I am ok on hills, mountains, ridges, etc., but when it comes to sheer drops, let’s just say it’s not my thing. But that’s where the trail goes and unless I wanted to do an insanely long backtrack, I was committed to the route. I pulled up my big-boy pants and made my way along the cliff and through the falls. While I was admittedly quite nervous, it was also exhilarating at the same time. And of course, I did stop for a couple pics! What was also surprising about this area was how long and technical the trail was. Usually, when there is a feature such as tunnel falls, that is the only thing that is worth talking about and the rest is simply about accessing said feature. But the trail before and after the falls was incredibly scenic with other waterfalls and cliff side walking with great views into the canyon. It was a great hike in its own right and one could easily spend a day here exploring (as evidenced by the number of day hikers). The final stretch into Cascade Locks was an easy cruise along a multi-use path that was lined with ripe blackberries! Oregon was giving me a great send-off! And there it was. The Bridge of the Gods. One of the last symbolic measurements of the journey. On the other side of the Columbia River was Washington, the final state of the journey. At camp, there was a sense of excitement and relief. Could it be that we are going to make it? We still have over 500 miles to go, but now that we’ve come so far, it doesn’t seem like a lot. But 500 miles? That’s most of the length of the desert section that seemed to take forever! Now we’re looking at it as if it’s just a short jaunt. And the terrain is harder. There is more elevation change, it’s steeper and the trail tread is much chunkier. But we’re seasoned hikers now. A twenty-mile walk was a big deal then. Now, it’s a relatively easy day. Our kits are dialed, resupply strategies figured out, movements much more efficient. We’re, tired, we’re sore, some battling with injuries, we’re homesick, our gear and our bodies are starting to break down. But we’re also machines. Adding miles to a day is more about time than energy. A climb that gains a thousand feet doesn’t feel too bad. Need to do 30 to get to town? No biggie, just get up a little earlier. Campsite full and need to move on? No problem. We’ve become resilient. We’ve become fast. We’ve become strong. Five hundred miles to Canada? As long as there are no outside influences to derail us, we’ve got this. It’s just a matter of time. See you down the trail.
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