Billy Goat Loop Fail (July 18-19, 2020)

If you look at a map of the North Cascades mountains east of North Cascades National Park, it’s hard not to notice how many trails there are. Every drainage seems to have one. The connect every which way, forming all manner of possible routes for a weekend (or longer) excursion. I’ve explored the mapped trails between Ross Lake and the PCT extensively and was curious if similarly grand, though perhaps less manicured, experiences were available just a few ridge lines east. As other plans for the weekend had fallen through, I decided to eat the 5hr drive to Billy Goat Trailhead on Friday night.

Trip reports were sparse, though I found one mentioning that the Hidden Lakes trail was clear. Another recently reported a successful “Billy Goat Loop” (not the route described here) but didn’t describe trail conditions. I decided to go outbound towards Sheep Mountain up the Larch Creek Trail with the whimsical goal of playing tag with Canada by visiting Border Lake and, after a connection via Bunker Hill for which I couldn’t find a trip report, Monument 85. Hopefully, the relatively level Hidden Lakes Trail would carry my back to my car early enough to be home before work on Monday. This seemed like it would put most physically demanding parts of the route for which I also had the least information, as early in the trip as possible. If things got tough, it would be easy to turn around. What I worry most about on any new loop is not being able to close the loop and having to hike out over half the distance after having used over half the time. If you hike enough, eventually, you get to face your fears.

Yellow (right) – Billy Goat & Larch Creek Trails – Excellent travel
Purple (right) – Park Pass & Border Lake Trails – Mixed quality
Red – Boundary Trail – Very difficult to follow in places
Purple (left) – Monument Trail – Northern part doesn’t really exist. Connection over Pasayten re-routed.
Orange – Hidden Lakes Trail (not maintained) – Disappears south of mapped intersection with Boundary Trail
Yellow (left) -Hidden Lakes Trail (maintained) – Intended return route. Couldn’t get there from Boundary Trail
Green – a route extension for a 3rd border touch – Didn’t attempt.

Friday, July 17 – Prologue

I pulled in to the Billy Goat Trailhead just after dusk, having beaten the estimated arrival time by half an hour. Doing 15 over on the highway when the speed limit is 60 doesn’t change your arrival time that much. Doing 15 over on a dirt road where 15 is the safe driving speed changes your arrival time a lot. I did slow down after a minor loss of traction.

My plan had been to camp near the trailhead so that I could pack up in the morning and be sure I wasn’t missing anything. At the end of the parking lot where there might have been campsites, there was a large tent, which looked like an MSR Hubba Hubba, and it was a shaking. I figured that if there was some hubba hubba going on in the Hubba Hubba, the tent occupants wouldn’t notice if I slipped by looking for a campsite further down the way. It turns out that the tent’s single occupant was just arranging a bulky air mattress while his friend cooked dinner. I introduced myself and wound up chatting with Noah and Milo. Noah had hiked down the Hidden Lakes Trail and knew it to be clear as far as the Tatoosh Trail intersection as of three weeks prior. He also knew that there wouldn’t be any snow which was a relief as I’d brought microspikes and an ice axe because of some large white patches on the low-res satellite imagery I’d studied in preparation for this trip. In the end, there weren’t any more flat spots so after hanging out for a while, I returned to my car for the night.

Noah (right) and Milo (left) gave me beta from their trips in the area.

Saturday, July 18

As I became conscious, laid out in the back of my station wagon, it was clear that while there were stars in the sky, the edge of the world was just beginning to get lighter. If I were at home, this would mean turning over and going back to sleep. For some reason, it’s just not easy to do that on a big hiking day. Maybe it’s because dawn and dusk are the best hours for hiking. Maybe it’s because air mattresses just aren’t as comfortable as spring mattresses with foam toppers. Either way, I fumbled around until I’d changed into hiking clothes, packed up my bag, and filled out a self-service trailhead permit. About a mile after starting up the hill, I realized I’d left my hiking poles at the car. Along with being useful hiking aids, I use them to set up my tarp at night and so the smart thing might have been to go back and get them. I hate hiking unintended miles and so I just kept on.

Billy Goat Pass and Three Fools Pass passed quickly as the sun rose slowly behind the eastern ridge line. Much of the area was an old burn and so the lack of direct sun was a blessing. The trail was well maintained and the rich ground cover made up for the spindly trees.

Billy Goat and Three Fools Passes have been burned but have gorgeous ground cover.

After Three Fools Pass, the trail descends to a stream where the Diamond Jack trail continues up valley. The Larch Creek Trail crosses the stream and after a quick jog west, heads north at an incline so shallow it feels flat. The East Fork Pasayten Trail splits off after you leave the burn area and are contouring along a densely treed slope. Looking up both Diamond Jack and East Fork Pasayten Trails, it’s clear that there Larch Creek Trail gets singled out for special treatment from trail crews.

About half way between Three Fools Pass and Larch Pass, I slipped on a rock and fell crossing a small stream, but in such a way that I didn’t get wet. It was one of those falls where you don’t get much of a chance to save yourself and I was fortunate to be wearing a backpack. On of my fingers tore slightly under the nail which, combined with hands swollen from not having anything to do (usually not a problem with poles), meant my hands were the source of most of my displeasure. On hiking trips, it’s usually feet and shoulders that hurt. I guess variety is the spice of life.

Larch Pass did have larches. It was about 11:10am and I took my first sit-down break there since starting at about 4:40am. I was making little voice recordings thinking I might post them and save myself the time writing a trip report. Usually they captured shallow, momentary thoughts. Just as I would finish recording, I’d think of something else I wish I’d recorded. For all their lack of narrative and detail, they capture some interesting impressions. At Larch Pass, I said that, “the mountains are soft and the trail is soft.” Thus far, the trail had been well maintained and not tightly compressed or rocky. The mountains tended to be round, like hills, not jagged and rocky like the classic pictures of the North Cascades. One side would have fallen off and form the head of a drainage but the other looked like a walk-up. The mountains were also generally covered in grass or dirt, perhaps with some amount of stones mixed in, but not edifices of rock. While I don’t know the geologic processes made these mountains, perhaps this softer shape is because I was on the east of the range and whatever tectonic, volcanic, or glacial forces created the North Cascades aren’t as strong here.

Larches at Larch Pass

The trail just after Larch Pass descended to a signed turn-off to McCall Basin. There was only the slightest hint of a trail at the turn-off, something that would soon become a theme of this trip. However, the meadow spreading down the basin and up to the turn-off for Corral Lake, was incredible. While I had intended to walk at whatever pace came to me and found that pace was much slower until Peeve Pass for all the pictures I took.

McCall Basin. Not what most people would call a trail.
Easy trail in beautiful surroundings. The colors were much more vibrant in person.
Looking south-ish above McCall Basin. Corral Lake Trail to the left.

Sand Ridge, which starts near the Corral Lake turn-off appears to have a trail up it which wasn’t on my map. The Larch Creek Trail runs through the bowl under the ridge and up to a point near the end of the ridge before dropping to Peeve Pass. If I’d been in a more exploratory mindset, I might have tried to see if it went since it would have provided sweeping views of the area. My voice recordings for the area use “awe” and “a whole lot of pretty” to describe it. There was a trail coming down off the ridge at the other end, so I expect that it goes.

Looking east over the meadow below Sand Ridge.
Looking north towards Sheep Mountain. The trail goes right, under the near knob, to Peeve Pass, then takes the Park Pass Trail on the west side of Sheep mountain. After a quick jaunt on the Border Trail, you’re in Canada.

Peeve Pass is one of those odd passes which you descend to instead of climb to. It’s been burned recently and while plants are beginning to come back, the ash on the surface makes digging a cat hole easy. I turned left for a short jaunt on the Boundary Trail to the Park Pass Trail. It’s a good thing that there’s a sign for the Park Pass Trail because, the trail itself isn’t really visible.

Do you see the Park Pass Trail? (purple trail on in the top-right of the map which opens this post)

I thought that this might stop my first attempt to tag Canada just short of the border. Fortunately, after walking a dozen or so yards, it’s pretty easy to see the cut of a trail in the earth where it crosses a streamlet. Usually, trails are distinct in color from the surrounding dirt but the fire made everything a uniform grey. While plants are a little less likely to grow on the trail, there were plenty of them coming up through the trail floor. When they grow up, they’ll obscure the subtle cut of the trail in the side of the hill and make it impossible to follow. While it’s easy enough to follow for now, I hope a trail crew gets there in the next few years before we lose the Park Pass Trail completely.

Near the start of the Park Pass Trail. Good luck following this once the plants fill in.

While the Park Pass Trail is still in good condition north of the fire scar, I was looking for the turn-off to the Border Lake Trail and if I hadn’t had a GPS, I wouldn’t have realized that I’d walked past it. There is a turn-off in the area but it leads a short distance to what must have been a camp full of discarded metal cans before the fire swept through. The terrain here is open and gentle and I could see what was probably a trail (and not just where water carved a trail-looking rut) and so walked to it. This turned out to be the Border Lake Trail which brought me to the border, then disappeared.

The clear-cut along the US/Canada border. Not a trail.

At this point, I was split about whether I really wanted to go to Border Lake. I’d tagged the border which was my primary objective and didn’t particularly care to climb a hill. Still, I’d gotten this far and wasn’t likely to do that again just to visit Border Lake so I took a bearing with the GPS and followed it to a low point on the ridge. A trail materialized just below the top. Just over the top, a lake materialized. The combination of gentle, open travel on one side and sudden drop-off on the other is quite dramatic, even if the features are slightly rounded.

Border Lake.

I ate lunch on the ridge above Border Lake. I’d brought hard boiled eggs and avocado and didn’t want to let these perishable, crushable, delicious foodstuffs stay in my backpack any longer than necessary. Unfortunately, I’d also been snacking heavily and so was significantly stuffed on the trip back to the Border Trail.

At elevation, chip bags expand. How do chip manufacturers distribute from stores at different elevations?

I hadn’t committed to a specific itinerary, knowing that it might be hard to predict trail quality and conditions. Feeling lethargic after a big lunch, I didn’t want to be ambitious, and decided to work my way at a comfortable pace as far as I felt like going.

The Border Trail clearly had receives less maintenance than the Larch Creek Trail but was easy enough to follow through meadows and burn areas. In some places it was very well maintained, in other places it was a relatively indistinct. There were several unmarked side trails which I mistook as the Quartz Lake Trail. Clearly, this area has more to offer than an official map would show.

An unmarked split in the trail. The spur trail doesn’t have an obvious destination (peak, camp, etc…)

The gem of the afternoon was a walk along a level section of trail high on the south side of Quartz Mountain. The views swept from west to east. The travel was through alpine meadow and few trees interfered with the view. The camera on my phone can’t zoom in on the rest of the Cascades which guarded the horizon with variations in color and form. The two words most immediately in my mind were “divine” and “sublime”.

A panoramic shot looking south from the amble along Quartz Mountain.

This slice of heaven ended abruptly, in classic Boundary Trail fashion, at an intersection where the trail forked. One forked looked grey and little used. The tan trail in good condition bent slightly uphill and disappeared within 10 feet at a cairn. Which to follow? The GPS said follow the cairns. It felt schizophrenic.

An abrupt end to an excellent trail. Instead of trying to continue left on a lesser trail, Boundary Trail follows cairns.

As the slope began to roll over, the trail picked up again and carried quickly down to stream where where the climb to Bunker Hill started. The fire damage early in the climb was significant. There were also a significant number of cut logs. The trail would have been very difficult to follow but for a significant presence of cairns which had been placed liberally and creatively to mark the way. Before a trail crew had cleared those logs, it might have been impossible to follow the trail as opposed to making your own way. Perhaps the significant quantity of blowdowns had been left for so long that the trail didn’t receive enough traffic to beat the plants back.

Looking back on a short climb where the trail disappeared under regrowth from a fire. The visible cairn marks the top of the climb.
A cut tree and a cairn. Double guidance!

I’d been moving slowly and breathing hard due to a heavy stomach from a late lunch. Attaining the top of the ridge which climbed slowly to Bunker Hill took much more effort than the map would have implied. The dramatic views last seen on Quartz Mountain returned along with a clear trail and I was relieved.

It was now a little before 7pm and I’d considered the top of Bunker Hill as a potential place to stop for the night. The views wouldn’t hurt and there were several campsites sheltered in small stands of trees. Four cement blocks with what looked like metal axles were on the east side of the summit which makes me wonder about the history of the area. Perhaps they were footings for a fire watch?

Cement blocks with iron axles. History unknown.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t been thinking ahead and was down to a little less than a half liter of water which would not have been enough for dinner, much less the night. There were two hours of daylight and a little less than 6 miles down to the Pasayten River. While good campsites may appear in the most unlikely places, the map showed only one area which appeared to flatten out. The route seemed to mostly follow the nose of a ridge and so it seemed unlikely to have water until the Pasayten. Six downhill miles in two hours with the motivation of waning daylight would be clearly doable on a normal trail but the Boundary Trail seemed to appear and disappear as it pleased. Also, the front of my left-leg just above the ankle had be aching when stepping downhill. If the sun went down, following it might be very difficult to figure out where to go. Camping on the top of Bunker Hill would have been and been a pleasant experience but with so much daylight, it seemed better to try to do something about the water situation. The trail ran above what the map showed as a seasonal stream and so perhaps there’d be water there. If I got to the flat area without finding water, I decided that I would camp and not risk losing my way in the dark. Decision made, I stood up with the grace of a rusty robot and continued on.

There’s are two routes down from Bunker Hill. On my map, there’s a climbers route marked in small dots on which comes up from the south. It follows a long, broad, soft ridge rising up from the valley which I’d seen on on my approach. It looked enticing, though maps show things getting more complicated below the treeline and that’s what I was hoping to avoid. My intended route followed a different ridge west along the official Boundary Trail and is marked in a bold line. In a classic case of the map not matching the ground, the climbers route was a deep, double rutted line and the main route was invisible where it turned off, marked only by a cairn.

“Sketchy climber’s route” goes straight. “Official Boundary Trail” turns right. An arrow made of sticks and cairns mark the turnoff because there is no trail.

At the point where the main trail turns invisibly off the secondary route, the ridge to the east began forming and on it were several patches of snow. Above the patches of snow were sheltered campsites. I’d brought a stove on this trip and so had everything I wanted: water, a sheltered camp, and a beautiful view. While there was more daylight, I’d logged 14+ hours on my feet and my left leg was hurting in in a “repetitive stress injury” way not a “tired and sore” kind of way. More miles might make tomorrow easier but they weren’t going to improve the situation now so I put down my pack. Camp routine followed: I melted water, cleaned my feet, ate dinner, tied my tarp up between a few trees, enjoyed the sunset, then crawled under my tarp and neslted into my bug bivvy and under my quilt.

Tied the ridge off to trees because I forgot my poles. Pitched close to the tree on the right for better wind protection.
Looking west from Bunker Hill at sundown.

Sunday, July 19

I slept well and woke easily at the first hint of light. The morning was dry and warm. This made packing up so much easier than when dew or frost makes everything damp and sloppy while your fingers hurt when you need them to be dexterous. By 4:30am I was following cairns across a broad slope by headlamp. At one point I felt the hoof-falls of a herd of deer through the soil of the ridge as they galloped away, just smudges in the dark at the edge of a clearing. As the edge of the sky turned the color of egg yolk, I picked up a trail again.

The trail ran downhill steeply at first, then shallowly across the drainage under the ridge where I’d camped. There was a stream here and an established campsite. It was comforting knowing that I’ve have had a good situation the night before, even if I hadn’t made the decision to camp where I did.

After that, the trail began degrading. There was a critical left turn onto the ridge which sloped to the Pasayten which I almost missed. I did miss a turn which happened just where a large log had fallen, making it look as though the trail continued underneath. For a while I wandered in an open forest of blowdowns and snags, generally following my GPS until suddenly a section of trail reappeared.

The trail is degrading but still pretty easy to follow. The blowdowns are so thick that one fell on top of a previously cleared log.
The trail here is more imaginary than real. Go where you think it leads and hope to find confirmation.

Eventually, signs of the trail became faint again and at a critical moment, I was unable to find another cairn in my direction of travel. On the GPS, the trail took a hard left down a narrow, steep gulley then began to traverse a steep hillside. I’d seen a few places where there might have been trails diving over the side and I could see what might have been scuffs in the dirt from people (or deer). Nothing was clear but the GPS really did seem to indicate that you turned off the gently sloping ridge here, only to meet back up with it later. I’d have been better served by just following the ridge.

The gulley was very steep but mostly grass covered which made for more solid footing. I slipped twice where bare dirt slid under foot from the angle. I naturally lean back away from perceived danger which reduces traction and makes me more likely to slip. Trees were frequent companions which I used to steady myself. I couldn’t quite stay on the line the GPS indicated and decided to find the easiest way and meet back up with it later. As the the trail on the GPS’s map began to travel across the slop and not just down it, I was very glad to have brought stiff shoes intended for kicking steps in snow as they held better for the steep traverse.

Eventually I came to look across a dip where the trail was supposed to cross and contour below a small knob. I saw what might have been a hint of the scar of a trail on the knob but it didn’t seem to come from anywhere or go to anything. I have plenty of experience chasing lines in the dirt which turn out not to be trails and so ignored it. The GPS showed me as being below the trail and so I planned to walk along a bench of sorts and wait for the trail to come down to me. Some deadfall pushed me up a dozen feet or so onto the knob and… I saw a cut log. Looking along the path it indicated, I could see trail. This was a most welcome surprise. Measuring on a map now, I looks like I was off trail for a little over half a mile.

Found the trail again. The

The trail from here was easy to follow. One of the advantages of it cutting across a slope is that you know it probably won’t go to the right or left very far. There were some blowdowns and eventually the trail degraded under wetter conditions as it switch backed down to a water crossing. I was actually quite happy that the water crossing wasn’t overgrown or excessively muddy. The trail just climbed out and contoured out of the drainage.

This brought me to an unexpected, unwelcome, and foreboding sign. It was a three-way intersection between the Hidden Lakes Trail (Not Maintained) and Boundary Trail Re-Route, but was about a mile earlier than expected, apparently because the Boundary Trail had been re-routed. I was expecting to cross the Pasayten River near the site of the Pasayten Cabin and then turn north on the Monument Trail to tag the Canadian border again. Would this re-route connect? What did it mean that the Hidden Lakes Trail was not maintained, especially given the poor state of the Boundary Trail which apparently was maintained. The Hidden Lakes Trail was supposed to be my route home.

What I probably should have done at this point, was to try and take the Hidden Lakes Trail back to my car. If it didn’t go, then I’d learn that as soon as possible and so would have as much time go retrace my steps the long way I’d already come. I considered the option but, the sun hadn’t yet crested the mountains and the Hidden Lakes Trail seemed like it should run a pretty clear course along the Pasayten River. I’d worked my way past so many blowdowns that it didn’t seem like it could be much worse. Maybe the Not Maintained was just a warning because it was a more popular trail and the rangers were trying to scare less experienced hikers. I turned onto the Boundary Trail Re-Route and hoped for the based.

The Boundary Trail Re-Route brought me quickly to the Pasayten which might have been difficult to cross given that we’d had a cold spring and the snowpack was still melting. However, the ford was well chosen and after grabbing a pair of sticks to substitute for the hiking poles I’d forgotten in my car, I crossed and found that the water went only just above my knees and didn’t press hard.

A well chosen crossing.

The trail from here wound its way to the edge of a bank of earth and climbed out. I guess this bank represents how wide the Pasayten gets at flood stage or some previous course it had taken. The trail was clear and turned south on top of the bank. I took that left turn and walked for several minutes expecting to find an intersection with the Monument Trail to take me the 1.5 or so miles to the border. Not finding an intersection, I checked the GPS and discovered that I was on the Monument Trail. Retracing my steps to the point where I’d the Boundary Trail Re-Route had climbed the bank, I was stymied that there was no indication of a northbound trail.

The Monument Trail where it intersects with the Boundary Trail Re-route. This was taken after I’d come back on the Monument Trail and knew where to look for it.

I wanted that to tag the border and expecting that a trail might pick up if I persevered just a little bit, I picked the most promising looking line through the grass and followed it, pushing my way through closely packed trees. As I was about to give up, I discovered an old, degrading trail! I followed this north feeling very satisfied with myself. Unfortunately, it too quickly degraded and I found myself making forward progress by walking on blowdowns and taking hints from cut logs which indicated old trial maintenance. Eventually, I looked around and saw nothing but fields of blowdowns. Previously, the hints of a trail had followed an embankment but as that degraded, there was no guidance as to where to go other than to follow a bearing due north. I was here for a hike, not a bushwhack and given the concerns I had about the Hidden Lakes Trail, I didn’t want to burn precious time. I turned around and worked my way back, getting lost in the process and having to use my GPS to get back on course.

The spot where I gave up on my bid to reach Monument 85.

Back on the Boundary Trail Re-route, I cruised south for a mile or so to the point where a trail on both my map and GPS crossed the Pasayten. The Boundary Trail in this area had been hacked through a forest of blowdowns and while this made it a very clear trail to follow, it also made it very clear where there was not a a turn-off. There was no side-trail, connector, spur, or other indication of trail where the GPS said there would be a way over to the Pasayten Cabin (apparently now burned down) and then across the river to the Hidden Lakes Trail. I jumped up on a log at the top of another embankment, looked across the river valley, and saw only fields of blowdowns. Stymied for a second time, I walked quickly back, crossed the Pasayten at the re-route and took the Hidden Lakes Trail, making a voice note that I really needed this to go otherwise it would be a very long day.

The Hidden Lakes Trail, while clearly not maintained, was easy to follow, certainly compared with the descent from Bunker Hill. There were some blowdowns and the trail was narrow here, overgrown there, or eroding off a slope in another place, but there was never a question of where it went. Then, just south of where the GPS indicated an intersection with the trail which crossed the Pasayten, the one I’d failed to find on the west side of the Pasayten, the Hidden Lakes Trail descended to the river level and disappeared into grass, blowdowns, and moderate trees. I pushed forward several dozen yards but nothing materialized. I climbed back up to where it had contoured above the river valley and couldn’t see anything which looked like a trail.

From here it was about 5.5 mi to where I had assurances that the Hidden Lakes Trail had been cleared. Bushwhacking in a river valley has been as slow as 0.5mi/hr for me. It was now after 9am and I didn’t want to risk 11hrs of hard travel. The brutal calculus was now that it was much more of a sure thing to return the approximately 30 miles by which I’d come. This was helped by the fact that I thought there were only 5,000 or 6,000 ft of elevation gain which felt like a big effort but not unreasonable. Looking now on Caltopo it appears to be more like 10,000ft of gain which is a very big day no matter how you cut it. While frustrating and anxiety inducing, I’d realized this was a possibility and so the decision was quick to make. I turned around felt a fresh purpose in my stride. Then, just after rejoining the Boundary Trail, I saw a well built, weathered man with an unusual backpack (clearly not from a common backpack vendor), coming towards me. It was around 10:20am and I hadn’t seen a sign of humanity since passing some tents the previous morning. On the Boundary Trail, I’d only been able to discern a single other pair of footprints in the mud.

The only other person enough to be on the Boundary Trail this weekend.

As we approached each other, I asked the man if he had come in by the Hidden Lakes Trail and happened to be on his way out, hoping desperately that I might follow him along some easy way which I had failed to discern. In describing his route, he explained that he’d come in on the Boundary Trail and not known about the re-route. When he got the the non-existent turn-off, he’d used his GPS (something he uses rarely), to bushwhack across the boggy fields of blowdowns to the old bridge. The bridge is out and he showed me a picture of the footings. He mentioned finding a three-way intersection and some flagging which hinted that the Hidden Lakes Trail might be more real than I’d determined. The going had been very difficult and he’d gotten a pair of gloves from a horse packer at his destination to protect his hands on the way back.

As the conversation continued, it turned out that we’d both hiked the PCT. He said his trail name was Bink, which I recognized but couldn’t place and I told him that I’d been DQ. He mentioned having hiked the PCT several times and having had the speed record before Heather Anderson. I was floored. I was trying to figure out who’d had that record between Scott Williamson and Heather Anderson, and a dumbfound look must have given me away. “Scott Williamson” he said. Oh, I thought. “I’m Isaac” I said and tried not to look too star struck. I’d heard Scott’s name a number of times in the long trail community and read about him in The Pursuit of Endurance. I remembered him being portrayed as a private person, so tried to make some conversational opening whereby it would be appropriate for him to leave if he wanted, but he stayed, smiling a wide smile and throwing his head back at points of common understanding. I asked about how the PCT had changed over the years. We wound up trading beta on trails near the Canyon Creek Trailhead just east of Olympic National Park. His memory was fantastic and he pulled out maps to show me notes he’d made, sometimes as long as 10 years before.

As the conversation wound down, he double-checked that my plan was to hike out a 30 mile day via the Boundary Trail. I explained that at this point, I needed a sure thing and wasn’t willing to risk that I might have to do 5.5 miles of the bushwhacking through terrain similar to what he’d had to do when he crossed the Pasayten. We commiserated over the state of the Boundary Trail, and he remembered that the Park Pass Trail hadn’t been visible from the turn-off. It was validating when someone who I respected for their athletic ability and grit thought I was a little crazy too. He ended by asking if I had enough food and wishing me well on my way trip back to the car.

Scott’s maps with handwritten notes from his previous trips. Some were 10 years old and very well cared for.

Shortly after parting ways, I crossed the last stream for several miles until the drainage below the summit of Bunker Hill. I checked that I had sufficient water by pressing up on my water bottle in its pocket and feeling how heavy it was. It felt full so I continued without drawing water. When I pulled it out for a first drink, it had about four mouthfuls. The mindgames and bodily awareness which happen when you’re worried about water are fascinating. I monitored every bead of sweat, how quickly my clothes dried, how cool the sweat made me feel, how thirsty I felt, and on and on. This was eventually mixed with finding my way up the trail which had eluded me on the way down. Following it in full sunlight helped, though several times I had to stop, look around, and retrace a few steps before determining which way to go. It was in this section where my my climbing muscles ran out of free vert (“free vert” is related to an odd effect where my legs hit a point where they rapidly go from feeling strong to weak; once weak they never return to strong for the rest of the day as though my “free vertical gain” had been spent I’d have to do real work for any remaining uphill travel). While the burned out snags did little to provide shade, they allowed me to see the top of Bunker Hill from a distance and monitor my progress with precision.

When I finally came to a little stream in the bowl under the summit, it felt like salvation. I rested heavily and drank a lot of water, initially in small sips. Having been out of water had made me lose objectivity about my condition and it was a little concerning to have a second measure of exhaustion tell me that I’d been quite depleted. I ate a light lunch, remembering how hard it had been after an oversized lunch they day before. In addition to stopping for a conversation, I had not made quick progress uphill. My left leg was now bugging me, even on the uphills. It was about 1:40pm when I left and I made it a goal to be back at Peeve Pass and the easy travel of the Larch Creek Trail by 5pm, something which seemed like an easy goal under normal conditions and I secretly hoped to make it by 4pm.

Salvation from thirst and anxiety.

The trip back over Bunker Hill and Quartz Mountain were beautiful but the need for constant progress was in the back of my mind and I tried to take fewer pictures. Still, the flowers were out and I noticed some things I hadn’t before. On the beautiful traverse behind Quartz Mountain I sat down and had something of a pity party while I released my left leg from the ache it felt on every step. If I hadn’t forgotten poles, I could have managed my leg better. However, when hikes stop being fun for me, it’s usually something external to the route or conditions, something about expectations. In this case, as was the case on the Hayduke before I let myself skip a section, adversity had extended the trip and the need to be back to my employer at an appointed time weighed heavily on me. My calculated finish time for the day swung between 11pm and 4am. Then there would be a 5hr drive home which would have be salted with just enough naps to safely operate a vehicle. If this had been an open-ended thru-hike, I might have just stopped for the night to prevent further injury and revel longer in the natural beauty. I checked the time. In two minutes it would be 4pm, the pre-determined end-time of my rest stop. Pity parties are useful when you need to accept your fate and the rest noticeably improved the ache in my left leg but progress was the medicine I needed and those two minutes meant I could get a head start.

How did I not notice this on the way out?

I reached Peeve Pass ahead of time at 4:50pm (goal of 5pm) but still feeling slow because I was so close to a low-ball goal. Turning on to the well kept Larch Creek trail was an emotional relief because I didn’t feel subject to the vagaries of trail condition. There were five climbs between me and my car. The new goal was to finish the first three before sunset. This wound up being easy since my leg stopped hurting on uphills and the first three climbs were relatively close. Since I wasn’t moving fast and was at peace with my fate, I got to enjoy the same country which brought the words, “awe” and “whole lot of pretty” to mind on the way out, but was now improved by the light of golden hour.

The big things were pretty.
The little things were pretty.

The descent southbound from Larch Pass was long and despite being gently graded, aggravating to my left leg which I was now processing as pain, not just soreness or ache. I tried to run at a shuffling pace as that keeps my foot in a more consistently flexed position instead of flexing and unflexing as with a walking stride. This worked for a bit then became slower than walking, so I alternated between walking to recover energy until I wanted to shuffle along again to reduce ache.

My mind was wrapped up in this back and forth and projecting finish times when I heard, “Isaac” shouted after me. I shuffle-ran back a few dozen yards and found Noah and Milo, the friends I’d met on the night before starting this fiasco. Since I was going to have a late finish anyways, really wanted a break, and knew that conversation would help my mental state, I sat with them for 10 or 20 minutes and traded stories from our weekend. It sounded like they’d gone up the trail I’d seen ascending Sand Ridge and had gotten the same sweeping views I’d seen when traversing along Quartz Mountain. They didn’t keep me long but I moved on with spirits much improved.

My immediate goals were now to get to the turn-off for Dollar Watch Pass before sundown and to find a place to poop which would make the chore as quick and easy as possible. I succeeded on both counts.

Night came at the stream from which the trail climbs to Three Fools Pass. I’d stopped to draw water, to refill the snack pockets on my pack, and to put on my headlamp. Without being able to see much outside the headlamp, I found myself taking the climb slow since I couldn’t gauge how much distance was left. My leg didn’t hurt and my mind entertained flights of fancy. It was pleasant and peaceful and I was working through the last 6.3 miles.

The final descent from Billy Goat Pass was very trying. Despite being 1.8 miles and downhill, I stopped twice to sit down. I was having to brace for the pain on each left footfall and was trying not to slip into guarding behavior or bad form. Additionally, the soles of my feet were both aching from pressure and the lacerating feeling of the fine fibers of my socks being mashed into them like a net made of cheese wire. I think this was due to having picked control-oriented shoes with thin, stiff soles and almost no padding. They would have been a good choice if there’d been snow but now they left me wanting the shoes which I’ve come to think of as trail slippers.

I reached my car at 12:37am and was oddly controlled, arranging my gear for the drive while standing instead of immediately collapsing into a seat. While relieved that the worst was now over, this seemed oddly like an aid station in a long race. The next leg would be the drive home and after that a day of work. Somewhere in there, I’d need to sleep. A key detail was to put my socks in a plastic bag where they couldn’t stink up the car. Unfortunately shoes were too large to fit and my feet would have felt horrible in plastic so I let them dry for a time before coming to terms with the level of stench I’d be living in until I got home. As I pulled out of the trailhead, the balls of my feet hurt enough from using the brake that I let the dirt road carry me away at the fastest speed I could rationalize as safe. The long anticipated caffienated soda was ineffective and just a few miles later, my head began to swim with sleep. I pulled over, leaned back my seat, laid my quilt over me, and passed out.

July 20, 2020 – Epilogue

It took three naps to get home. The longest was when I pulled off at the Canyon Creek Trailhead after having watched the sun rise over the North Cascades.

When I reached cell phone service, my phone exploded with the contents of the busy weekend I’d missed and I tried to reply to the time sensitive ones and let my emergency contacts know I was safe. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to tell the not to expect to me until Monday morning.

I pulled into my parking spot around 9:40am and managed to be showered and working from home by 10am. Late, but not usually so in the software industry.

It was about two days before I was walking normally and had to back out of a trip to the Enchantments the following weekend to let my leg rest. Since running doesn’t hurt it as much, I ran 12 miles to officially finish the GVRAT on the same day as my mother. This probably set the recovery back but some things in life are important.

Finally, a big thanks to Noah, Milo, and Scott for their conversations on this misadventure. I didn’t give any of you this blog’s URL, but if any of you happen to find this please know that your brief companionship was a significant boon to my spirits in a rough moment. I hope to see you out there again some time.

What’s the Best Wetsuit to Hike In? (July 11, 2020)

I started this blog during my first thru-hike so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself for both friends and family. As there’s more to life than thru-hiking, I eventually decided to preserve memories of overnight backpacking trips here as well. Today we take the next step in this blog’s devolution: day-hikes, gear-reviews, and guest posts.

My earliest distinct memory of Michael was that we both attended an annual backpacking trip to the Olympic Coast arranged by our then church group. Much has since changed for both of us. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we never drifted apart. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that last weekend we could be found walking through the local mountains in wetsuits with drybags on our backs. I’ll let him tell you about that.

Hi, my name is Michael Moshofsky and I am honored to be the first guest to author a post on IsaacTakesAHike. Isaac and I have been friends going on 7+ years and during that time we have experienced a number of adventures together.

One of my favorite memories was when Isaac almost ran me over with his car… During the winter before Isaac hiked the PCT, he wanted to gain some experience hiking a snowy trail during a rainstorm. He is always prepared! Well, his usual hiking friends were smart enough to check the weather and didn’t agree to join. I was dumb enough to not check the weather until the morning of the trip and was already committed. Anyway, Isaac’s car got stuck in the snow, so I volunteered to get out and push. I walked to the front of the car and started pushing. The plan was for Isaac to gun it in reverse to get us out of the snowy ditch that we were stuck in. It turns out he was mistakenly in “Drive” rather than “Reverse”. I survived and have been on many adventures with Isaac since!

For our latest adventure, Isaac and I decided to hike ~13 miles and swim 5 alpine lakes along the way. This was inspired by some of Isaac’s friends, Ella and Claire, who thru-swam the Enchantments last year [Ella’s write-up]. Isaac and I are also training for the Panama City Ironman coming this November, so we wanted to find a fun way to get some much needed swim training in.

The adventure started with an audible given road closures, but we quickly got hiking after starting our departure from the Denny Creek Trailhead. Our first alpine lake, Melakwa Lake, arrived just 4 miles later. We proceeded to put on our wetsuits at the water’s edge with campers watching in horror. It wasn’t even 9 am yet. The water was cold. Snow still lined some sides of the lake. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get in. The cold hurt, but I did conquer my fear after being inspired by some heckling onlookers.

Sleeves make wetsuits much harder to put on. Doesn’t Isaac look awkward?

This is where our first wetsuit question occurred: sleeves verses no sleeves? My wetsuit was purchased primarily for use during triathlons. For that use case, I prefer sleeveless. In this situation, having sleeves is much more desirable.

We were also faced with a second question: thickness? In terms of warmth, thickness is to be desired. However, I had a much easier time both storing the wetsuit and taking it on/off. During the hike we thought this was due to it being thinner. It turns out Isaac’s was 4/3mm and mine was 5/3mm. It was probably lack of sleeves, capri length legs, and a longer zipper which made my transitions faster.

Isaac in Melakwa Lake. Despite it being summer, it was too cold to put our heads in.

After a short (~100 yards), but chilly, swim. We were faced with our next dilemma: to hike in the wetsuit or to transition back to normal hiking attire? I chose to wear my wetsuit with the top folded down in front and a t-shirt on. Isaac transitioned back to normal clothes, strapping the wetsuit to the outside of his bag. My reasoning for wearing the bottoms was that it would give me a chance to experience hiking in something similar to woman’s yoga pants without the funny looks. Though, I still received some confused and funny stares from hikers along the way…

Hiking with a wetsuit top off.
Drybag-backpack with Isaac’s wetsuit folded up under the exterior shock cord loops.

From this experiment, we learned that your socks and shoes get much wetter when hiking in your wetsuit.

Our second lake was Lower Tuscohatchie Lake. The water was much warmer and we swam 600+ yards. Afterwards, it was a longer trek to our next destination, so I opted to transition back into my normal hiking clothes. We were reminded that after summits the best views are from the center of lakes. Unfortunately, neither one of us was brave enough to risk dropping our phone to snap pictures mid-swim.

Our third lake was Pratt Lake. It would be our first lake where we would be required to pull our gear in our bags while swimming. We were prepared. We both brought the drysack-backpack that we received as a part of the Victoria Ironman 70.3 from 2019 – another one of Isaac and my previous adventures. The bags worked flawlessly. They were so buoyant that seal was hardly tested because it remained above the water line. Note, we cleverly used the backpack straps as a waist harness and trail line: one strap went around our waists while the other was used to attach to the trailing bag. Another tip, bring a plastic bag for your muddy shoes. I had one while Isaac was left with a muddy bag interior. Pratt lake added about 700 more yards to our ledger.

Muddy shoes. Bring a plastic bag so that mud doesn’t get in your drybag during the swim.
Towing a drybag while swimming point-to-point across Pratt Lake. No, we didn’t swim north, this was posed.

Isaac used a second drybag inside his drybag-backpack. It wasn’t needed, but I recommend this strategy and will steal it in the future myself.

Russian nesting drybags.

After Pratt Lake, we both changed out of our wetsuits for the hike up to a ridge along a mountain and into a new drainage. At our fourth lake, Rainbow, we met an extremely nice couple who graciously let us use their campsite as a launching pad into the lake. We swapped some hiking stories given that they had just run across a black bear the previous day. Rainbow Lake was a short 50 yard swim. Together, we decided to hoof it to our fifth and final lake in our wetsuits. Isaac went all out and wore the entire thing from ankle to wrist.

Hiking in a wetsuit – not generally recommended.

We determined this strategy was not so pleasant for the groinal region and do not recommend others try it. Also, this is where the wetsuit’s thickness works against you as your body starts to overheat.

When we arrived at our final lake, Mason, we were greeted with a full audience given the popularity of the destination. All of the campsites near the water were full, so we were forced to put into the water next to a group of tents and hammocks. A confused onlooker unzipped their hammock to the two of us standing a few feet away in wetsuits. We again pulled our drybag-backpacks behind us to one-way swim the lake. We exited the water at a hidden and unoccupied campsite- the best camping location at Mason lake. Isaac knew about this campsite because he had discovered it while swimming on a previous trip. You really only know that it exists if you adventure by water. Mason lake added another 250 yards rounding the day out at a total of 1,700 yards (or about a mile). Note, that it was a mile swimming the more difficult “heads-up” versions of freestyle and breaststroke given it was too cold to put our heads in the water.

So what is the best wetsuit for hiking? If you aren’t asking this question, you’re missing all the fun!

Desolation Double (July 3-4, 2020)

The Desolation Double is a trip up the East Bank Trail and Lightning Creek Trails along Ross Lake in the North Cascades up to the Canadian border (~32mi) and back. The reason it’s not called the East Bank Out-and-back is because you summit Desolation Peak at 6086ft (~10mi) going both ways. If you’re doing the official Desolation Double as an Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge, you’re supposed to read a book by Jack Kerouac because he spent time in the fire lookout on top of Desolation Peak. I tried to do that once it wasn’t worth doing again.

My introduction to the East Bank and Lightning Creek Trails was in summer 2018, when testing my legs after ACL surgery. I did an out and back to Canada, the knee held together, and my hiking ambitions took flight. A few weeks later, my friend Ella and I failed the Desolation Double after bivvying with insufficient gear on Desolation Peak’s false summit in unexpectedly bad weather. The southern part of the route overlaps the western side of the Devil’s Dome Loop, which I’d done in 2017 as a last hike before ACL surgery, and was part of my Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass Loop trip in 2019. So, really, this adventure wasn’t about getting out and enjoying nature because I’d enjoyed this particular bit of nature quite a lot. Memories, however, are worth revisiting, particularly when done with friends on a ridiculous, arbitrary adventure of our choosing. Technically what happened is that Ella wanted a training route and the Desolation Double matched the distance, grade, and elevation of the route for which she was training. I was invited and it turns out I’m a “yes” man for this kind of thing.

Thursday, July 2 – Prelude

I picked up Ella after work. There had been some negotiation over timing largely based on what we thought our employers would accommodate. One way or another, the goal was to get to Canyon Creek Trailhead in time to have a relaxed evening and go to bed early. Friday morning would come early (for me at least, apparently Ella did 4am wake-ups for years).

Canyon Creek TH was a strategic basecamp. Our journey would be largely within North Cascades National Park which requires permits for camping and parking. Permits require showing up the day before your a trip or wasting several hours on the morning of the trip. Given current events, it would seem apropos to analyze the privilege this requires to do long weekend trips in national parks. Since we weren’t getting away from work early enough to get a permit on Thursday night, we chose to stay just east of North Cascades National Park on USFS land. This would add three miles of walking to get to the East Bank TH where the Desolation Double starts. Unfortunately, the bridge across the creek at Canyon Creek TH was out so those three miles would be road walk.

The drive to Canyon Creek TH was a little under three hours and we pulled in around 8pm. Despite it being Independence Day weekend, we had the place to ourselves. To underscore how unexpected that is I have to point out that this is one of the most popular weekends of the year for camping and the campsites here are about 15 yards from the parking lot and 5-10 from a sizeable creek. We’d eaten on the drive to avoid the time pressure of having to cook in camp, so I set up my backpacking hammock (which took several attempts as I’m not good with knots), Ella set up her tent and we were done. Camp was seemed strangely empty without more gear strewn around. At some point Ella said she’d tried to lying in my hammock and it made her sick. Fortunately, she suppressed the desire to vomit and got out. With nothing else to do, we stood by the creek. We were silent except for rare observations like how difficult it was to keep your eyes in one place as the mid-stream turbulence flowed past. Your eyes would always try to follow it. The rushing noise of the water acted as something of a sensory deprivation tank. You didn’t notice anything or perceive anything except the water. The light faded. I turned in. Ella took a seat by the stream.

Eleanor, my 2001 Saturn station wagon, in all her glory. Despite it being July 4th weekend the parking lot was empty.

Friday, July 3

I thought wake-up time was 4am but I woke up to Ella’s voice calling through the fabric walls of my hammock that it was 3:40am. Sleeping near a stream is always peaceful. Fortunately waking up was too.

Packing up didn’t take long for me since I was just bringing a running vest. Ella wanted to use the trip as a training for an ambitious upcoming endeavor and so she carried my quilt, sleeping pad, and pillow to add weight to her pack. The idea was that we’d meet Ross at the border and he’d have shelter for me. I thought the backup plans was to squeeze into Ella’s tent if Ross didn’t show. Bringing anything for me was hedge against Ross not showing because he could have provided my sleeping arrangements in full. As we realized later, there had been a miscommunication and Ella had only brought her bivvy. Ross would have to be there.

Breakfast was brownies my mother had sent as part of a care package after I ran my first 100 miler. This is something of a callback to 2016 when my mother gave away so many brownies to PCT hikers, including Ella, that people would run into me and say, “Oh you’re DQ? Your mom is wonderful. She makes great brownies”. Just to be clear my mom’s brownies are made with Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix and love. This is aught to be the definition of “special brownies”. I’ve made brownies with Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix and they just weren’t the same.

Breakfast of champions.

The three mile road walk from Canyon Creek TH to East Bank TH was a breeze. It was light enough that I didn’t turn on my headlamp and so forgot about it. The road seemed downhill which made me think that it might be a bit annoying to end a long trip with an uphill. Oddly, when I would come back this way at a run to finish the trip, it would seem downhill as well.

A remake of our starting photo from 2 years before in which I first realized Ella is taller than me.

From the trailhead, we just followed East Bank Trail, chatting the whole way. The greenery was luscious, the trail was easy, and we kept a good pace for the 16ish miles to the base of Desolation Peak. The East Bank Trail’s most defining attribute is how unmemorable it is. This creates an effect where you always, always, always underestimate the time it takes to get anywhere. The effect is compounded when you’re talking since you’re less engaged with the trail.

The two bridges south of Desolation Peak are probably the most notable points of interest on the East Bank Trail.

The turn-off up Desolation Peak is a little complicated because of how the trails intersect and wrap around the mountain. We made the same wrong turn as we did last time, but at least we were quick to recognize it. Also, it helped that it wasn’t dark. The hike up Desolation peak is something like 4.7mi long and 4200ft of vertical gain. However, it starts with a long flat section so the climb is compressed. We passed a old man and young man hiking together with some of the largest packs I’ve ever seen. One appeared to have a full sized camp chair. After that, the difference between my full running vest (probably 5lbs) and Ella’s full training pack (probably 25lbs) kicked in and I took off ahead of her.

Deer seem to have an affinity for the trail when traversing steeper sections of the mountain.

When coming down Desolation Peak, it would be odd to realize how little of the uphill I remembered because it seemed to go quickly. I think I spotted the tree where I’d sat down after bonking after midnight in the fog and rain on our previous Desolation Double attempt.

Between the camp and false summit of Desolation Peak looking south along Ross Lake.

There was enough mist and fog that the views from the top of Desolation Peak were mystical but not grand. I’m developing a theory that Clif Bars (>90% of the calories I’d packed) are fine for low-exertion activities like walking along the gently rolling East Bank Trail. For high-exertion activities like hiking quickly up Desolation Peak, they become unpalatable and I had no appetite for lunch. I’ve also recently realized that it’s much warmer to take off sweaty layers, dry out, and then put on warm layers than to put on insulation immediately over sweaty layers. I suppose this is obvious in hindsight but it’s a little odd to start the warming-up process by taking clothes off. I walked around fire watch house with my shirt off, flapping my arms for better airflow and hoping that the heat from my uphill effort would dry me off. There was an older couple from Grand Coulee at the top and I’m not sure what they thought of me. Apparently, I wasn’t so odd that we couldn’t take each other’s pictures.

Ella made it up a little over 20 minutes later and my appetite had returned enough to choke down some Clif Bars. She had potato chips and we compared calorie counts. Much to my surprise, things came out equal so I think I might try to crush up potato chips into a baggie the size of a Clif Bar the next time I need compact calories.

Lunch at the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. I’m choking down a Clif Bar while Ella dines on potato chips.

The hike down felt like it took a long time. It was strange to think that we’d climbed all that way up.

At the bottom of Desolation Peak, the trail goes east and becomes the Lightning Creek Trail to wrap around the side of the peak away from the lake. It’s a little disappointing not to walk along the lake which would be a much shorter way. It looks like there may have once been a trail to do that, so I’m curious about the history. The east side allows access to the Castle Pass Trail which connects to the PCT. Also, the trail to the east starts by climbing, not exactly what I wanted to do at the moment but at least it wasn’t down.

As the trail turned north again, we ran across a group heading south which stopped us to say that there were blowdowns completely covering the trail so that it seemed impassable. Ella had beta from a friend that the trail was a mess so this wasn’t a surprise. The forest began to change to consist of denser, smaller trees. Less light got through and the feeling grew more sinister.

Initially, we hoped that somehow the group we’d just encountered been mistaken because it’d been so nice walking on cleanly cut, well graded trail. The first blowdown we encountered had fallen onto the trail long-wise so we joked that it was completely covering the trail and since that matched the description we’d been given, perhaps that had been the worst of it. Shortly after that, we were forced to bypass several brief sections where the trail was covered and the steep hillside provided better travel. While the worst bypass was the first one, it slowed us down enough that we started to become concerned about when we’d make it to Canada. We’d told Ross to expect us between 8 and 9pm and been about on track for 8pm. If this slowed us to 2mph, we’d be getting in well after dark and it would be hard to connect.

The worst of it. Not so bad since there ultimately weren’t many of these to bypass. God bless trail crews.

After descending to Lightning Creek, we found the shack and bridge had dodged the falling trees. The blowdowns became less frequent, though one small bridge had received glancing blows from three trees. We started encountering some cut trees and thought we might have reached clean trail again. Then we ran across more blowdowns, some of which had been cleared. What criteria had they used to decide what was cut and what wasn’t? Why would a trail crew decide to skip past some blowdowns which were much worse? I don’t know but I’m thankful for the logs we didn’t we didn’t have to approach like a jungle gym.

Look! We’re past the blowdowns! Oddly, this turned out not to be true.

Not being sure what pace we’d be able to keep and with limited daylight on my mind, I found myself floating ahead of Ella. It helped that my running vest made it easier to duck under or vault over logs. Separating on the climbs and bypasses had broken up the running conversation which had dominated the first part of the hike.

Nightmare Camp (sign on right) looks like a nightmare came true.

Just before crossing Lightning Creek to get to Nightmare Camp (yes, that’s the actual name), there’s a sign which says “Hozomeen 6.1” and “Ross Lake 8.7”. We were far enough into the hike now that while this differed from what we calculated based the track Ella had been keeping on her watch, we weren’t sure what to believe. This sign seemed to indicate we had farther to go than we’d thought. With uncertainty from the blowdowns, our finish time might be as late as 11pm, but it certainly seemed like we weren’t going to be finishing in daylight.

The last climb on the route is from Nightmare Camp up to a small pass. From the topo map it looked to be 600-700ft. It moved oddly, jumping from one flat bench, carrying on for a flat bit, then jumping up again. At their edges, the flat benches seemed to fall off steeply into the river valley. It made me think of a mossy, treed version of so many parts of the Hayduke. At one point the trail climbs the arm of ridge. Then it traces up a narrow ravine with a picturesque little stream in the middle. It isn’t clear when you’ve reached the top. The grade becomes gentle, the ravine widens, and at some point you realize it’s tipped over and you’re walking slightly downhill. It’s a strange climb because each section is so distinct as though it had been assembled from mismatched pieces. This makes oddly memorable compared with most of the route whose uniformity leaves relatively little impression per mile walked.

About the time we passed Willow Lake, Ella decided to challenge the distance we’d guessed based on the sign before Nightmare. In 2018 when hiking this route (minus Desolation Peak) to try big miles on my new ACL, I’d run out of daylight near Willow Lake and based on the mileage marker at Nightmare called it for the night, giving up on the attempt to make the border. The next morning I’d decided I really wanted to touch the border and managed to do so and make it back to my car by dark despite having come up short the day before. Back in the present, I didn’t want to put too much stock in the idea that we might be close enough finish before nightfall, but it seemed to jive with my memory that this section was shorter than the sign indicated.

Shortly after Willow Lake, we passed through some area which triggered a strong memory of being “almost done”. The trail sloped gently but constantly downhill, the hill rose on the left, the vegetation was luscious and well watered. My mind kicked into home-stretch mode. Of course, the end dragged out for longer than I remembered but the end is always the longest part of any trip. Finally, though the trail passed a rocky section with sparse trees and deposited us in a dirt parking lot by a greying cabin. It was before 8pm and still light out. This was a huge win emotionally and a great relief.

From here, it was just mile or so road walk to the Canadian border. There was plenty of soft light to see by. The road wasn’t paved but it was hard enough that I carried my poles. There were campsites and we started looking for a place where we might be able to camp. Due to a miscommunication, I didn’t have a shelter and it was looking like it would drizzle in the night. There were a few spots with dense trees, picnic tables, and if necessary, the camp toilets had long eves. I really hoped we’d find Ross.

We were low on water and had expected to draw from a stream which appeared to cross the road on the map. When we got there, it wasn’t conveniently accessible, but we would need water for the night so we decided to draw from the lake if we had to. Then we saw a spigot by the road. I turned the handle and water came out. I put my soft bottle under it but the liquid was milky. Perhaps it was stale? We let the water run for a bit then tried again. Still milky. I decided to taste it anyways and while it wasn’t quite like the streams we’d been drawing from, it seemed clean. Ella expressed great displeasure having to fill up with milky water. A minute or two later, I looked at her bottles and they were clear. It was just a little aeration.

A spigot with milky colored water (from aeration) does not make Ella happy.

The road carried us along as we played, “where should we camp if we can’t find Ross?”. Eventually, it passed a small cabin and reached a gate closed across the road. This was the Canadian border. Nothing to really prevent cross border access and it I don’t remember seeing anything about not crossing into Canada. This was good since the plan was to meet Ross in the Ross Lake Campground a few hundred meters on the other side. As we approached the gate and we began wondering what came next. There was a figure in Canada who might have been Ross but their gait wasn’t right and when they turned so we could see them in profile, there was no rich beard gracing their chin. There was, however, a bright-orange piece of tagboard with “Isaac & Ella” written across the top. I pointed this out and Ella lost her shit. She convulsed with inarticulate sounds of happiness interspersed with exclamations of “I love him” and other joyous expressions. I don’t think I’ve previously witnessed such intense expression of positive emotion.

Until this moment I didn’t know that humans could express such happiness. Probably my best candid photo ever.

Ross had left us directions to his van (he’s vandwelling at the moment). We stepped over the gate and found a short trail down to a boardwalk. We stopped just long enough point this out to some people who were failing to mount the steep, muddy bank to the road. A few steps later, we made out a figure dressed in dark colors like the person at the border. This one had Ross’s confident gait. I might not have Ella’s depth of emotional expression but I there was some volume behind the salutation I used to the figure’s attention. Ross turned towards us and restraint was required to draw close at a measured pace and give a large, warm, dignified hug instead running up and tackling him.

Ross showed us to his van and had recovery food out immediately. We wanted to hear about his adventures in Betsy, his van, and he wanted to hear about our day. It was so good to finally sit down and just be done. We’d been walking for something like 18 hours and other than lunch had stopped only long enough to draw water. Instead of sleeping rough with minimal rations, our journey had brought us to the comfort of a friend cooking dinner and trading stories in a shelter with running water and recessed lighting.

Ella book-ends the day with brownies while Ross makes dinner.

Ella and I had been planning to fore an early bedtime on Ross so we could get an early start the next day. Of course that didn’t quite happen but after a dinner of freshly cooked stir fry, a tour of the van’s features, and a hasty clean-up, Ross drove about a kilometer to where we could park for the night. I rolled out my sleeping pad on the floor next to Ross’s bed/bench where he slept. Ella laid out with her head almost between the seats but managed to fit. It was a little after 10pm when we turned off the lights and drifted off in the coziness of a well insulated space. Of course this meant we all overheated since we’d brought quilts intended for use in highly breathable tents but that didn’t change the fact that we were happy. Very, very, happy.

Saturday, July 4

I’m not sure when the alarm went off but this morning but it was a little bit slower. We out of the van and walking around 4:30am. Ross had packed most of this stuff the night before and so there was a little bit less of his usual last-minute packing routine where something gets forgotten (pointedly, he remembered his bagels this time). Some of this packing had happened while I was laying down and he was opening and closing a drawer which cleared my by a very small margin. Every time he was about to open it, I’d see a little smile creep across his face.

Since we’d parked a short distance up the road, we had a bonus walk to get to the border. There were signs posted warning about non-essential travel, but I think getting home counts as essential so we stepped over the gate like the callous international criminals we are.

Getting home the way you came is certainly a form of essential travel.

Ross had packed his gear into a running vest with a rolltop compartment large enough for minimal overnight gear. It looked like a fat running vest and so, since I enjoy objecting to the term “fastpacking”, decided to call this “fatpacking”. Much dissension followed since it’s obviously a fat vest, not a fat pack but I think I now prefer the term fatpacking to fastpacking.

Since Ross hadn’t hiked with us the day before, we alternated between trying to terrify him about all the blowdowns and reassure him that it wasn’t really so bad. He claims not to have been training much recently and so was worried about keeping up. Of course, this is a guy who for whom not training meant he did >67mi at the Quarantine Backyard Ultra before quitting instead of timing out. Ross kept up just fine.

Initially we were all hiking together until Ella dropped back with that “I’ve got to dig a cathole” look. As experienced hiking partners, Ross and I just kept walking. This understanding that it’s OK to separate and rejoin and trust that your hiking partner with wait somewhere and that you’ll catch up without really knowing when that’ll happen is one of the cultural differences between shorter outdoors trips and thru-hiker culture. We certainly enjoy each other’s company but given the amount of time you’d have to spend tied to another person, it’s easier to let people go at their own pace trust them to be responsible.

As it turns out, I too had to dig a cathole and after drawing water hiked a distance off trail, away from the water, and did my business. I was fortunate enough to have chosen a sheltered spot as it started raining during the process. When I made it back, Ella had passed and Ross waited for me. We walked and talked about topics varying from gloves to old movies. My left knee had started hurting when stressed on the descent into Nightmare and I could feel my right leg getting tired compensating. Given that Desolation Peak was still ahead, this was a little worrying. We caught up to Ella just as she reached Nightmare Camp. In her low for the day (on trips with Ella, you will always play Highs and Lows), she said that she’d hoped to stay ahead of us until after Nightmare. I thought her low would have been what she later shared, that she’d dug a cathole and not been able to poop. Anyone who’s felt the need to dig a cathole and then actually done the unpleasant chore of digging a proper one knows that it would feel like a terrible waste if it weren’t necessary.

At some point while catching up to Ella, Ross and I encountered a pair of women Ella and I had passed the day before on their way north near Willow Lake. They were the only people we’d seen on the Lightning Creek Trail. They had real backpacker backpacks and were working their way through a large mass of deadfall by handing their packs over and under the logs. I felt a little sheepish being able to just hop over and under things with a light-weight, low profile vest. We asked if Ella had passed. They said she had. We asked about their trip. They’d done ~30mi from the Ross Lake dam up to Hozomeen Lake. They hadn’t been moving quickly the day before and so it must have taken them the full day and speaks highly of their capabilities. At some point walking another mile isn’t just about muscular strength, but the soreness of your feet. They also mentioned having had to wait for three hours to get a permit on Thursday for such a rarely used campsite as Hozomeen Lake. In my mind, this validated our decision to have started and ended just outside North Cascades National Park instead of dealing with the bureaucracy. I was kind of surprised that the women didn’t tease us a little about having running vests while Ella carried a full backpack. Apparently they’d told her, in, I suspect, commiserating tones, that our packs were stupid. It is strange being on such an asymmetricly loaded trip, but Ella wanted training and I was still in recovery mode. What I was very pleased not to receive was any crap implying that men should be rough and tough and carry heavy stuff. I’ve had bystanders or people I pass comment on me not conforming to that version of masculinity and while I find their small-mindedness amusing, it detracts from the experience.

Ross next to the picturesque little stream early in the descent to Nightmare.

Looking back on it, we didn’t push the miles which took us to the base of Desolation Peak as hard as we had the day before. We’d had a debate about whether northbound or southbound was preferable on the route. I’d picked southbound because you got all the blowdowns and climbs out of the way and could cruise the second half without pressure. Apparently we hadn’t felt any pressure on the first half southbound and this logic would wind up reversed. When we started up Desolation Peak, I somehow thought that it was 10:30am which seemed a little slower than yesterday but only by the same amount that our start had been delayed. Ella said something about probably getting down around 5pm but I didn’t really process it and only later realized that we were much farther behind schedule than I’d thought. Ross and I took off up the switchbacks deep in a conversation about the trade-offs involved with living in small towns.

Ross and I eventually fell into separate paces. I passed a pot bellied fellow in mountaineering boots who told me his friends were up ahead and to tell them that “Paul was on his way up”. I did eventually catch his friends spread between the false and true summits and passed the message. Ross and Ella made it up and we had lunch. More Clif Bars for me, though Ross gave me a gummy worm to mix things up. Neither Ross nor Ella had seen someone matching Paul’s description which was a little worrisome. Eventually Paul’s friends decided to head down and our little trio had the views to ourselves. Things were clearer than the day before but there was still a cloud later with some low drifters which tended to obscure things just when you tried to take a picture. Just after we started down, we saw Paul’s friends coming back up, this time he was with them.

Looking North-west-ish from Desolation Peak along Ross Lake. Ross Lake is looooooong.
Happy hikers.

We left the summit a little before 2pm and weren’t back to the base until about 4:30 or 5pm. Ella would fall back then catch up at a run. It seemed intentional, like she was practicing running downhill. It had taken us 6 hours to get to the turnoff to Desolation Peak on the way in so we were looking at a 10:30 – 11pm finish. What happened? I like finishing with light in the sky and so this realization put me out of sorts. My pace quickened and I wasn’t much for conversation. I’d get ahead but not far. Ross would catch up at water crossings before I’d filled my water bottles and try to sleep before Ella showed up. While usually out of sight, she was never more than a minute or two behind. She and I would mime laughter to each other watching Ross sleep or meditate, then I’d wake him.

Ross was sleepy.
Ross receiving enlightenment.

The one notable event in the first miles south of Desolation Peak was when we saw a bridge jumper climb over a No Jumping sign to dive into the water. There was a small boat waiting for him below.

See the person on the left side of the bridge? They’re climbing over a No Jumping sign.

Somewhere before Rainbow Point, Ella said that she thought there were just six miles after the next camp. This seemed too optimistic to me, but between two GPSs, some approximations from the map, and sloppy mental conversions between kilometers and miles, it was anyone’s guess. At May Creek it looked like were were still on pace to finish after dark. Ella proposed having dinner, which she’d been carrying as a training weight, in an hour or so. Some time later, I asked if we could try to have dinner at the East Bank Trailhead since chasing daylight would be a major motivator. At Roland Creek, I was feeling full of energy. I tend to get a second wind around evening and was eating well. I stopped by the trail sign. Ross pulled up and tried to nap standing up. I pitched him on the idea of me running the ~9mi remaining (my estimate) to the car and bringing it back to the East Bank TH so that he and Ella only had to hike ~6. They didn’t object and neither did Ella, so off I went.

If anything, the fact that I was running, and uphill for the first two miles (a detail I’d forgotten about from our hike in), just goes to show that walking and running are fundamentally different. At one point, I kicked a rock which didn’t move and so I moved from vertical to horizontal. Fortunately the ground was soft. I stopped once before the descent to pee and check the GPS. If all went well, I’d get to the East Bank TH around 9pm, still within daylight. From there, the road to the car wouldn’t require a headlight. Given the option, I have a strong preference against headlights.

This wasn’t my first time racing daylight to the East Bank TH and so the run was full of memories. The shape of the trail and it’s relation to the river in the deep ravine below and WA 20 on the other side were the primary memory triggers. I’ve read stories where blind people would feel someone’s face with their finger tips to recognize the person. This was like me tracing a familiar path along the face of some wilderness. The angle at which you can see the bridge. The hope it gives out. The short climb out on the other side destroying that hope. It was all familiar. I exited the East Bank Trailhead around 9:10pm and turned left onto the road. It was still light.

The road run felt downhill which was odd since it had felt downhill to walk to the trailhead from the car. The pavement was much harder under my feet than the trail had been and while initially I made good time, I’d burned through the energy which had kicked off this endeavor and was too focused on the better food at the car to eat anything more. Eventually, I passed a sign which I’d remembered driving past shortly before Canyon Creek TH. The next turn didn’t have Canyon Creek TH. The turn thereafter had a large pullout which aped the shape of Canyon Creek TH and an interpretive sign which I’d forgotten about. I was empty and decided to walk so I could check the GPS and catch my breath. The GPS said it was around the next bend. Of course. I jogged it in, opened my car, and drank a lot of sugary, caffeinated, carbonated beverage.

Canyon Creek TH was not full but now held a number of other cars. Dark had fallen so I put on my headlamp and went to check out the camping options. We’d either have to encroach on another site or set up in a flat non-campsite. I drove back to the East Bank TH and there were Ross and Ella! It was funny to have a joyous reunion when I’d only just left them but showing up in a different mode of transport changed the dynamic. Ella hadn’t started making dinner so we rearranged the contents of the car so Ross could have a seat and drove back to Canyon Creek.

Ross and I established a camp around an fire ring which was a little close to another campsite. In exchange for food and shelter yesterday, we were putting Ross up tonight and I felt like quite a car camper handing him a duffel bag with a tent, sleeping bag, and air pad instead of a tightly optimized ultralight pack. Ella made dinner in her Jetboil by the car and despite it being relatively simple fare, it tasted amazing. After 12 Clif Bars, I think my body wanted anything with salt, fat, protein, or soft texture and that pretty much described dinner: ramen, tortellini, a salmon packet, potato chips, hummus, and olives. We sat eating in the folding chairs I’d brought to mimic the post-hike hangout Ross had put on a few weeks before when we overnighted at Deep Lake but it was dark so we didn’t linger before going to bed.

Sunday, July 5 – Epilogue

Ross was going to run back to Canada and so we couldn’t wait around all morning. I’d brought a skillet and omelette ingredients and so got up a little before 6am to try and make my first skillet-on-the-fire meal. As usual, I overestimated the quantity of meat and vegetables so I became something of an egg-dish instead of an omelette. Despite being an early morning, I’d risen without an alarm and didn’t feel rushed or tired. The fire had started easily which wasn’t surprising given the pre-treated log and quantity of denatured alcohol used in doing so. Ross’s tent had been pitched with one stake in the fire ring so I moved pulled that out and then put a folding chair in front of the entry so he wouldn’t wake up and roll out into the fire. The one thing I hadn’t brought was a pot holder. While casting around for something suitable, Ella tossed me her hiking skirt which had dried overnight. I guess even our attempts at car camping have the marks of being hiker trash.

This morning went very well.

Packing up camp is surprisingly easy when it just involves throwing things into large bags and carrying them a few yards to the car. I could get used to this car camping thing.

We dropped Ross off at the East Bank Trailhead to start his run back to Canada where Betsy (his van) was waiting. He repacked his bag. We had some last minute small talk. Hugs were exchanged. Promises made to stay in touch. Yada, yada, yada. Finally, he got up, started his watch and took off with a loping gait. 7 hours and 28 minutes later he was home again.

Ross, about to run 32 miles to get home just because his friends invited him on a 44 mile walk the day before.
What a guy.

All Pictures

Rachel Lake Overnight (June 26-27, 2020)

This was a quick trip done on Friday-Saturday to avoid incoming rain. Rachel Lake is a very popular destination, about four miles one way. It’s a gentle walk along the outlet stream until the head of the valley then climbs quickly to the lake. High ROI the entire way.

Friday Afternoon

Anda picked me up after work without ceremony. Our goal was to get to Rachel Lake before sunset and between the drive and the hike there was no daylight to waste. Late starts have forced us to shorten our trips in the past.

This was my first time to Rachel Lake and while I knew it was popular, it seemed like every turnout on the dirt road to the trailhead was occupied with a car. There was only one parking spot in the lot. Day hikers were milling around everywhere.

The first thing I noticed on the Rachel Lake Trail was how closely it follows the outlet stream from Rachel Lake. This means that you’re almost immediately rewarded with a picturesque, rushing water to reward you willingness to step onto a dirt path. No delayed gratification here.

Representative of much of the hike.

While the trail is gentle at first, it climbs and eventually begins to switchback. This remains close to the stream.

Even as the trail climbs it cleaves to the stream.

Shortly after starting the climb, a hiker coming down hill stopped to mention that the trail would get hard to follow. There was a little ambiguity in what he was saying but it sounded like the problem was that the stream overran the trail and it was hard to pick which branch of stream to follow.

The trail seemed easy enough to follow, despite several stream crossing, diverging social trails, and a small waterfall.

Anda crossing the waterfall.

There’d been a few places where you could make a wrong turn, but there were always clues. Usually the clues were obvious like branches across the social trail telling you not to go there. Eventually, the stream wound up flooding down the trail. The adventure came when we tried to divert onto a social trail to stay dry. We returned to the main trail at a point where several branches of the stream converged and it might not have been clear which one was the trail, if any where the trail at all. Ultimately, the scuff marks on the edge where hikers had tried to keep their feet dry gave a pretty clear indication of where to go.

A superposition of creek and trail.

Eventually the trail turned off the waterway. After nice viewpoint to look back down the valley, we started hitting patches of snow. I’d been expecting snow on the lake, but not on the edges and this was a little concerning. By the time we got to the lake, the trail was pretty well buried, only peaking out here and there to provide hints that the footprints we were following were not those of someone lost. When we came to the lake, however, the low ridge retaining the lake seemed largely dry of snow and devoid of people – our plan to avoid the crowds by coming in early season had worked.

A picture of Anda taking a picture of Rachel Lake.

It turns out that there were plenty of people, they were just occupying the campsites. We found them as soon as we started looking for a place to set up. Despite most campsites being occupied, people were polite. We actually had to lower our voices because everyone else was making so little noise. Such good manners in the outdoors community! The one exception to the general peace was a fellow whose dog would bark when people got too close. His dog looked like a slightly larger version of Anda’s dog (which she hadn’t brought) and so this potential disturber of the peace became a friend over a serendipitous and socially-distant supper conversation.

Saturday Morning

Anda sleeps late by my standards so I had a chance to explore a little and eat breakfast before finding the door of her tent open. The sun was up, though behind clouds. Since Rachel Lake sits above a valley and is retained by such a thin berm, there are nice views away from the lake as well.

Looking down the valley before the rain came. The shore of Rachel Lake is about 25yds opposite this view.

Rachel Lake is longer than it first appears and while the outlet stream is small, it was a little tricky to cross without getting wet since snow covered the far bank and crossing required standing on a wet, narrow log. Rain, which had been corralled to the west by the mountains, finally came. It was haltingly at first but made the return trip a little wet.

Creek, trail, or climbing wall? you decide.

Things had dried out by the time we were back to the car. A new set of day hikers and overnighters swarmed past us, making me glad we’d visited outside peak times. We were on the road home by noon, an oddly early time to be done with an adventure, but sometimes its good to enjoy the little things in life.