Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness

I've been a bit too busy having the adventures to blog about them, so here is a much overdue recap of my only backpacking trip of the summer.

In search of trail that is not snow laden I decided to go east. A trip to the map section of REI revealed to me a wilderness area I hadn't known about–the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. This tangle of mountains, rocks, trees and wild is snuggled tightly in the lee of the North Cascades south of Highway 20. It's bounded by Lake Chelan and gives way to dirt bike havens in the Okanagon to the east.

I bought my maps, plotted a 54 mile route and set off. The Twisp River road wound me up a valley and I turned off onto a dirt road which became rougher and rougher. My little Elantra was steadfast however, and she earned my respect when I managed to work her across a washout that still had water flowing across it. We may have scraped bottom, but nothing broke.

I arrived at the trailhead at 8pm. Not wanting to sleep in the car I changed and threw on the backpack. I walked a short distance up the trail and camped along the river.

I slept very uneasily that night. It had been 10 months since I'd slept under the stars and I was nervous. Old fears of animals and things that go bump in the night plagued me. As dawn began to gray the sky I gathered my stuff together and set off walking the sleepiness from only a few hours rest out of my body.

I crossed a creek early, freezing my feet. They rubbed and slipped around in the shoes as I climbed and climbed. Nearing Eagle Pass I entered a glorious meadow complex. Early morning light filtered through the scattered trees and poked past the peaks to strike my back. I called "Hey!" for bears routinely as I made my way toward the snowy pass.

"He-ey!" I called. Someone called back in a musical tone. I was surprised since there had been no other vehicles at the trailhead. They called again. I stopped walking. Something was not right.

A series of melodious, raw, non-human calls sounded a short distance from me in the meadow on the other side of some trees.

"Hey?" I called timidly. The back of my neck was prickling.


I had already gotten my ice axe out to assist with the hard snow scramble up to Eagle Pass. I felt comforted by the cold metal in my hand. I called again...nothing.


The word was bounding through my brain.

It's rare that I hear something in the wild that I haven't heard before and even though I didn't know what made the sound my instincts were screaming at me. Wolves.

It can't be. It's daylight. I'm only 7 miles from a trailhead. I don't even think they are here. I'm imagining things.

I continued to ears on heightened alert. I would stop and turn quickly every so often, just in case I glimpsed the mysterious caller. At the top of the pass I gazed down on empty meadows. Something had been there with me.

I strolled down the other side, eventually turning on the Fish Creek Trail. I clambered over log after log and waded through brush. In a giant burn I stumbled through hidden trail with washed out footing and wondered if I would be the only person to travel those miles this year. Ahead I could see the canyon where Lake Chelan lay. I waded through thimbleberry thickets at each creek gully, announcing my presence loudly to any bears that might be feasting. The sun beat down and finally the trail was free of brush. In the sandy soil were clear, fresh bear tracks. My "Hey!"-ing became more frequent.

I reached the Lakeshore Trail and felt like Dorothy landed in Oz. It was wide and brush free. Open pine forests  spread to the shores of a deep, blue, enormous lake. Well built bridges spanned creeks. Boy scouts trudged by. This was not the land of wolves and bears.

The trail rolled along and I was at the "massive blow out" on Meadow Creek. The boy scout leaders had warned me that the drainage was obliterated and I'd have to bushwhack 1/4 mi down to the lake to cross and then back up to regain the trail. I walked down to the mudslide carnage, looked at the creek, stepped across, got some water, began rehydrating my lunch and kept walking. I might have gone 100 feet down from the trail. The lake wasn't even 1/4 mile away. Oh, Boy Scouts, bless your overestimating souls. At least you feed thru-hikers.

A short way down the trail I found a warm, flat rock to sit on and eat my lunch. My hip, knee, and feet were screaming at me. Yes, I'd only covered about 21 miles for the day, but I had also spontaneously gained 24 lbs. I knew I had blisters, but my feet hurt so badly I didn't know where. Once lunch was over I continued on, basking in the 90 degree temps and blessed, relentless sunshine. The never ceasing wind blasted down the lake, whipping my hair and dress around and wicking the moisture from my skin and lips so fast I felt I could never have enough to drink again. It was heaven.

The miles rolled by. A rattling just off trail reminded me that I was near 1,000 ft. It's been a while since the rattlers of the southern Pacific Crest Trail, but I remembered the sound. I rolled into Prince Creek, mile 30, around 5-judging by the sun. I plunged my bare feet into the icy creek, ate and drank. I looked at my maps.

7,000 ft climb to Oval Pass.

Well, shit.

I packed my things and put my pack on. Time to log some more miles and get some of the climbing out of the way. My body was not going to hurt less in the morning.

I climbed and climbed. I felt the difference as I gained elevation. I passed through climate zones, one after the other. The cliffs and warmth and vegetation whispered reminders of canyon country in my ears. I heightened my awareness for mountain lions lurking above. I dropped to Prince Creek, a wide and fast moving river. Here I was reminded of the ironic humor of wilderness. The sturdy, pack stock crossable bridge was long gone. Only the pilings and stackes of rotten lumber spoke of its existance. Darkness was gathering. I plunged into the mid thigh deep cold and picked my way across the slick, rounded boulders. I fought the current and came out the other side barely pausing. I was in thickety bottom lands. No way in hell I was camping there. I squished along at a fast pace, winding up the switchback laden canyon. Trees were down. I clambered over and around them. At some point I gouged my knee. I glanced down and saw blood gushing down my leg, but I'd definitely been worse hurt so I didn't really stop to investigate.

Dusk was deepening. I was beginning to worry. The trail was brushy and the trees were branchless. There was no place to camp. I rounded a corner and saw a giant erratic. "I could sleep on that." I circled around it. A tree with a solid branch for bagging food was nearby, but the top of the rock was not flat. I sized up the branch and decided I could just sleep in the trail. I walked a few feet to pee and then I saw it.

A campsite.

I slept well that night, cradled by a 3/4 moon and a million stars, and lulled by the rush of Prince Creek.
As I  was cramming my blistered feet into my shoes the next morning a young man walked by. I knew right away that he was trail crew, even sans uniform. We chatted briefly and then went our separate ways. I discovered his camp just a 100 yds from my own. 2 miles down the trail I ran into his partner, a young woman who greeted my with "I know you! Did you hike the PCT?!"

Oh, what a small world it is.

We played the 6 degrees of Separation for Thru-hikers, swapped trail condition info and went our merry ways. The terrain was beautiful. I crossed meadows and strode through pine forests. Even the continual climbing made me joyful. There was no one else. As I embarked on the cross country section of my route I was continually surprised by the steepness, remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain. By the time I sat down for lunch on the barren scree of Oval Pass I was in love.

To descend from the pass I had to negotiate a 70 degree slope of thin icy snow and loose scree. It was too early to glissade so I took my ice ax to the scree and jammed it into loose soil and sliding rock. Precariously anchored I picked my way down and around then onto the snow where I kicked shallow steps into the resistant iciness. As the route leveled I hopped onto snow and sneaker skied my way down canyon. The drop was significant and steep even once I'd regained trail. Before I knew it I was passing my first night's camp and strolling into a still deserted trail head.

It was 3pm. I'd already covered 17 miles that day. I threw my pack into the trunk and freed my feet. My entire second to last toe on one foot and pinky toe on the other were surrounded in inch thick blister. I couldn't walk without pain. My glutes and hips were aching from the strain of a pack. My lips were chapped.

I laughed and guzzled the water cache in the passengers seat.
"Running has made my feet wimpy!"

I collapsed into the seat for a long drive home. I was a very happy girl who'd just basked in, immersed herself, and conquered–although, not without being beaten–a new wilderness.

Heaven is on a trail where the wild things live and grow and humans only wander through.

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