Pacific Crest Trail Backpack

Heather Lake, Desolation Wilderness, Pacific Crest Trail

Heather Lake, Desolation Wilderness, with the Carson Range in the distance

Dave told me about his plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) more than a year ago. I said I’d like to join him for a week or so. Dave lives north of Sydney, Australia, so this communication, and those that followed, was by e-mail or Skype call. I was serious about joining him and read Chris Townsend’s Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles to get an idea of which sections of the trail I might like (I’d already read Wild).

By the time Dave set off from the Mexican border on April 24th this year, I was leaning toward Washington in September. But hiking the PCT does not permit firm itineraries, and Dave was always going to be a moving target. Sure enough, in June, Dave found the High Sierra blocked with lingering snow and swollen streams. He skipped it, planning to return in late summer. Between June and the last day of August, Dave hiked from northern California to Canada.

By early August, I was confident enough of Dave’s Sierra schedule to book flights and time off. We targeted meeting at South Lake Tahoe and hiking together to Donner Pass. Even so, it was touch and go until the last minute whether Dave’s schedule and mine would coincide. Just before I left home, Dave called to say he’d run into the first snowfalls of the season and might be delayed.

In the end, on Sunday, September 24th, I drove my rental car to Echo Summit and started hiking south. After about a mile, I met Dave hiking north. Dave took a “zero day” in South Lake Tahoe on Monday and I set out on the PCT. Monday and Tuesday, I hiked alone—18.5 PCT miles. On Tuesday, Dave covered those miles in one day to catch me up at Fontanillis Lake.

DATES: Monday-Friday, September 25-29.
START: PCT Mile 1090, Echo Summit, south of South Lake Tahoe.
FINISH: PCT Mile 1153, Donner Pass, west of Truckee.
ROUTE: PCT north, plus an unintended—but rewarding—excursion to Half Moon Lake.
SECTIONS:
MONDAY: Echo Summit to Heather Lake—10.5 miles.
TUESDAY: Heather Lake to Fontanillis Lake—8.0 miles (plus unintended side-trip).
WEDNESDAY: Fontanillis Lake to Mile 1127—18.5 miles.
THURSDAY: Mile 1127 to Mile 1144—17.0 miles.
FRIDAY: Mile 1144 to Donner Pass—9.0 miles.
TIME: 9 a.m. Monday to about midday Friday.
TERRAIN: The only real difficulties were some rubbly sections of trail, and a few long ascents (made tougher by the 7,000-9,400 feet of elevation). Otherwise, the PCT was rarely steep (lots of switchbacks) and nearly always dry. In places, it was a near perfect trail. Just one stream involved wet feet.
MAPS: Downloaded and printed from Halfmile’s PCT Maps (California Section K).

WEATHER: Sunny until the very last miles; temperatures from upper 20s to maybe lower 60s.
WILDLIFE:  Around South Lake Tahoe, before the hike, several coyotes. On the trail, a mule deer and very little else. On Friday, we saw scat, possibly mountain lion.
PHOTOS: Here.

CAMPSITES: All good, but the first was the best—right on the shore of Heather Lake.
MEALS: Freeze-dried meals for supper, cold stuff otherwise. Backpacker’s Pantry Chana Masala was the best.
UPS: So many, but Monday’s and Tuesday’s Desolation Wilderness scenery was spectacular.
DOWNS: Nothing really, but I was very tired on Thursday evening.
KIT: Pleased to have the right stuff to deal with some blisters that had developed by Thursday.
COMPANY: Dave, with whom conversation and silences were equally comfortable. The PCT, particularly in Desolation Wilderness, provided just about the right amount of company, neither empty not crowded.

Granite Chief Wilderness, PCT

Dave somewhere in Granite Chief Wilderness

Silver Lake Wilderness Backpack

Silver Lake, Silver Lake Wilderness, Adirondacks

Early morning on Silver Lake

Last July, I posted that I was going to backpack in Silver Lake Wilderness “at the drop of a hat” sometime in August, September, or October. I meant that I would go at short notice, when weather and free time aligned. It didn’t happen. It would not have happened last week either unless something else had fallen through. I was booked, you see, to spend the week of May 15th in Maine’s Baxter State Park. I had my hikes there all picked out.

Now, the people at Baxter State Park are helpful and friendly, and they did warn me that my part of the park might not open on time. It was, they said, all a question of how soon the snow on the park roads melted, and how soon after that the roads dried out. Four days before my planned departure, they called from Millinocket to say that the road to South Branch Pond would not be useable. Fortunately, I had a Plan B ready to dust off, and headed instead for the Adirondacks.

DATES: Monday-Wednesday, May 15-17.
START & FINISH: Godfrey Road, Upper Benson NY (43.252824, -74.345014).
ROUTE: Short side-trail (yellow-blazed) to Northville-Placid Trail (NPT, blue-blazed), then NPT to Whitehouse. Return by same route.
DISTANCES:
MONDAY: Godfrey Road to Mud Lake – 12.5 miles.
TUESDAY: Mud Lake to Whitehouse, then back to Silver Lake – 11.6 miles.
WEDNESDAY: Silver Lake to Godfrey Road – 7.0 miles.
TIME: Just over 48 hours (9:45 a.m. Monday to around 10:45 a.m. Wednesday).
TERRAIN: No big elevation changes (entire route between 1,300 and 2,100 feet up), but trail often rough, overgrown, and blocked by blowdowns and other obstacles.
MAP: The one that came with Adirondack Trails: Northville-Placid Trail guide.

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Trailside sculpture

WEATHER: Mild and breezy on Monday; hot and sunny on Tuesday and Wednesday.
WILDLIFE: Standouts: moose scat, wailing loons, calling owls.
PHOTOS: Here.

ACCOMMODATION: Mud Lake lean-to (Monday) and Silver Lake lean-to (Tuesday). At Silver Lake, to escape the evening bugs in the lean-to, I pitched my tent, but did not put on its fly (to catch a breeze and see the stars). About 10 p.m., I was woken by rain, and had to move everything quickly into the lean-to. It turned out to be a feeble shower, but I wasn’t to know that.
MEALS: Mountain House for dinner, otherwise cold fare (of which cheese and tortillas were the best).
UPS: Many, but I’ll settle for waking in the middle of the night to find the moon shining on Mud Lake and flooding the world with its light.
DOWNS: At times, bugs – no-see-ums? – were a nuisance. When combined with heat and fatigue, they made for a few no-fun stretches.
KIT: I need to lighten my load for future outings. I was weighed down with too much stuff I did not use.
COMPANY: None at all, and no cell coverage, for 48 hours. Two young women, trail-runners, passed me near the end (the sudden noise of them behind me had startled).

West Branch Sacandaga River, Silver Lake Wilderness, Adirondacks

West Branch Sacandaga River, my turnaround point

Taking a Hike – Franconia and Wildcat

It has been a good autumn’s hiking, with four days in New Hampshire with my eldest the definite highlight. Three of those days were the subject of my November Taking a Hike column:

Fall in the White Mountains at Hersam Acorn
Enjoying fall in the White Mountains at The Hour

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Mount Washington from Bear Notch Road, Bartlett NH

Now I am left trying to shake off the feeling that the best hiking is over for a while. Part of it is, whatever the calendar may say, fall is over. The days are short, the leaves are gone, and temperatures, in fits and starts, are heading for cold. I am starting to accept – perhaps I shouldn’t – that a planned short backpack in the Adirondacks will not happen this year. There are plenty of reasons, or excuses, not to go – desk work; yard work (the leaves, in fact, are not gone; they are in my gutters); the hassle of packing; the hassle of unpacking afterward. Then there is the prospect of a night out in a pre-winter wilderness, although I resist the thought that this should be a discouragement.

Everything does not hang on the Dacks though. Except when there is deep snow or dangerous cold, winter is the second greatest hiking season around here. I need to buy a new pair of gloves and pull ideas together for some winter day-hikes to look forward to.

carter-notch-hut-from-wildcat-mountain-and-in-its-shadow

Carter Notch Hut beneath, and in the shadow of, Wildcat Mountain

Wildcat Mountain Backpack

Presidential Range from Wildcat Ridge

From left, Huntington Ravine, mounts Adams and Madison.

Yesterday, the Falling Waters Trail to Franconia Ridge had been busy, well past the tipping point for “too much company” – Columbus Day, decent weather (off the ridge), leaves to peep at down below. After we finished our hike, Katie and I decided we wanted more solitude, and we wanted to backpack. We chose, after a cursory glance at the map, the Wildcat Ridge Trail to Carter Notch Hut. Two years ago, I spent a memorable night at the hut (In and Out of the Wild River Wilderness). Now as then, the hut was in self-service season, meaning we would get a bunk, use of the stove, and none of the hullaballoo of an AMC hut in full-service mode.

It is 5.1 miles to Carter Notch Hut along the Wildcat Ridge Trail. The map showed several steep bits. Even so, after we had stepped across the stones in the Ellis River to get started at about 10:30 a.m., we thought we would reach the hut hours before sunset at 6 p.m. We climbed and scrambled steeply for an hour, enjoying magnificent views of Mount Washington to the west. The day was cloudless, and every crease in the mountain was visible in sharp focus. We reached a ledge with huge views and thought we had broken the back of the 1.9-mile climb to the first of Wildcat Mountain’s summits (romantically called E Peak). In truth, we were barely half way there.

The next section was tough for being unanticipated – short ups and downs, followed by the slow, steep slog to E Peak and, just beyond it, the top of Wildcat Mountain’s ski runs. It had taken us four hours to cover 1.9 miles. Even allowing for a long break, some shorter ones, and a water-pumping stop, it was slow progress. We met a hiker near E Peak who said that the descent to Carter Notch was steeper than the climb we had just completed. He had not attempted it himself.

After a leisurely lunch, we set off along the forested ridge, a walk of significant ups and downs over Wildcat’s rough D, C, and B summits. We reached A Peak – Wildcat Mountain proper, 4,422’ – about 4:50. Notwithstanding the intimidating prospect of the descent to come, we were elated to finally see Carter Notch and the hut nestled in it 1,100 feet directly below.

In the end, getting down to Carter Notch proved the easiest part of the day. The trail descended 1,000 feet in little over half a mile, but the footing was mostly firm and straightforward. We pushed open the door of the hut a little before sunset. Then we ate, slept, rose for sunrise, and did the whole thing again.

DATE: Tuesday/Wednesday, October 11-12.
START & FINISH: Glen Ellis Falls parking area.
ROUTE: Wildcat Ridge Trail to Nineteen-Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch Hut and back.
DISTANCE: 10.2 mi roundtrip.
TIME: About 7.5 hours each way with long breaks.
MORE PHOTOS: Here

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West view of the Carter Range from Wildcat Mountain.

Do Know Where, Don’t Know When

Brooktrout Lake, West Canada Lake Wilderness, Adirondack Park, NY

Morning on Brooktrout Lake, West Canada Lake Wilderness, Adirondacks

Usually, when I plan a backpacking trip, one of the first things I decide is the dates. There are good reasons for this. My trips must fit in with family commitments and, though I do not have an employer, my work projects. Backpacking can even require reservations (backcountry campsites in the Great Smoky Mountains and “huts” in the White Mountains, for example).

Fixed dates, though, have one big drawback – you are stuck with whatever the weather gods decide to serve up. On longer trips, weather risk cannot be avoided, but bad-weather days are also likely to be compensated by periods of fine weather. On shorter outings, the elements can set the tone for the whole adventure.

So, I am trying something new.

I have decided that my next backpack will be in Silver Lake Wilderness in the Adirondacks. I will hike up the Northville-Placid Trail for 16 miles and return by the same route. I’ll be out for three days. (A few years ago, my youngest and I hiked in nearby West Canada Lake Wilderness. The pictures in this post are from that trip.) I am making all my preparations as usual – studying maps and guides, getting the necessary gear together. But, this time, the goal is to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, whenever my diary is clear and the weather forecast is good. Everything will be packed and ready, except for items which really must be packed last-minute (perishable food mainly, and gear I will need for day-hikes in the meantime).

So, off to the Dacks in August, or September, or maybe October.

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Backpacking West Canada Lake Wilderness

Bigelow Range Backpack

West Peak from South Horn, Bigelow Preserve

West Peak from South Horn

This was my first backpacking trip in 20 months. Maybe the hiatus is not such a big deal. Apart from a six-week trek the length of Scotland five years ago, I have been just an occasional backpacker. Recently, I’ve heaved on the big pack just once or twice a year, mostly for 2-3 night outings in New Hampshire’s White Mountains (see In and Out of the Wild River Wilderness and – four posts starting 9/30/13 – The Pemi).

I would backpack more if I had the time. Going out for several days requires greater preparation than a day-hike, and getting to backpackable places takes longer. But it wasn’t time that stopped me last year; it was a bad left knee. This Maine trip was intended to discover if my knee was up to supporting a 35-40 pound pack again. I chose a route that I hoped would be a good test but not knee-suicide. Thus the climb over rough terrain, but only for the one night.

Ten days after returning home, my knee is just fine. Next up, a 2-night backpack!

DATES: June 1st and 2nd.
START & FINISH: East Flagstaff Road at Round Barn Campsite, Bigelow Preserve (just east of Stratton, Maine).
ROUTE & MAP: Safford Brook Trail to Appalachian Trail. AT west to Horns Pond. Back by same route. I used the map that came with the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.
DISTANCE: 16 miles total, plus short side-trails to lookouts.
TIME: A little over one mile per hour including breaks (somewhat faster on the return leg).
TERRAIN: On the “out” leg, a cumulative elevation gain of about 3,750 feet. AT very steep in sections, and awkward underfoot (e.g. angled boulders). Limited scrambles. Safford Trail easy to moderate.
WEATHER: Mostly sunny and warm; but cool, even cold, summit winds.

MEALS: Trail food; Alpineaire Mesquite BBQ Seasoned Chicken with Beans & Rice (dinner); oatmeal and coffee below West Peak (Day 2 breakfast).
PHOTOS: Here.

HIGHLIGHT: The views along the Bigelow Range from the various peaks.
LOWLIGHT: If I must think of something, campsite mosquito activity.
WILDLIFE: A red squirrel; trout splashing in Horns Pond; something large, but unseen, moving in the lower-elevation forest on the second morning (maybe a moose).
WORRIES: That I’d kill my left knee again.
BEST BIT OF KIT: Well, my stove gave me the most happiness, but I’d probably have missed my boots more.

MEMORABLE PEOPLE: Alain from Quebec, who was excellent company at the end of Day 1; Erin, the friendly and diligent Horns Pond Campsite caretaker; the four AT thru-hikers who had set out from Georgia in January!
PEOPLE BEST FORGOTTEN: None.

Avery Peak, Bigelow Preserve

Mist below Avery Peak

Bears on the Brain at Jacques Lake

Looking north from Jacques Lake outflow

Looking north from Jacques Lake outflow

Jacques Lake is in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It is not a big lake, but it sits in the spruce forest beneath massive, bare-rock peaks. There is a primitive campground at the lake’s northern end, 7.5 trail miles from the park road. When we told the warden (as Canadians call rangers) in Jasper town that we were thinking of spending a night at the campground, he said something like “A group encountered a nuisance bear up there a few days ago. They ended up taking refuge in the warden cabin. There’ve been no reports since, so you should be OK.”

So when my middle daughter (nearly 14 back then) and I set off for Jacques Lake the next day, bears were on our mind. It was a rainy day. We’d covered our packs in blue trash bags, and Caroline, a photograph reminds me, had on a red poncho. We had hardly walked any distance at all when Caroline said “Dad, it’s a bear!”.

The trail was swinging left, and Caroline was walking on my right, so she saw the animal before I did. I had a split second to imagine an enormous grizzly before the fluffy little black bear came into my view. I would not have been surprised to see stuffing falling out of a torn seam behind its ear.

On the trail to Jacques Lake

On the trail to Jacques Lake

But it was close, perhaps 20 yards ahead; and it showed no fear of us, even edging a little closer. Spraying this cub would have felt about as good as kicking a puppy, but even so I unholstered my pepper spray. Mama had to be around. Then cub ran into the undergrowth, from which we continued to hear its movements for a while as we pressed on for the Lake.

The rain eased off as we walked through the afternoon, and angular gray peaks sticking out of forest and cloud did their best to distract us from bear-thoughts. We sang as we hiked though (at least, I did; it was hard to get Caroline to join in the sing-song).

The campground was indeed of backcountry standard. A rough-hewn table and a pulley system for hanging food are the facilities I remember. There was no privy, for sure. On the hike in, I had kept the warden cabin in mind for insurance against nuisance bears. We wandered over to it before supper, but found it unoccupied and locked. We were on our own.

Fresh mid-August snow above Jacques Lake

Fresh mid-August snow above Jacques Lake

The night passed wet and cold, but undisturbed by wildlife. In the morning, there was fresh, mid-August snow on the peaks. Caroline was looking at the scene while I fiddled with gear at the rough-hewn table. Suddenly she said “Look, Dad!”. This time, I thought, it will be that enormous grizzly. I looked up, toward the outflow of Jacques Lake, and saw a large cow moose standing in the rain and the river, ducking for food. Relief and excitement at once.

(I am still grounded from hiking by a bum knee. Reliving old hikes is the next best thing.)