Tales of the Trail: Along the Pacific Crest Trail

The following story first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.

On April 10, 1996, Jim set out from the Mexican border on the Pacific Crest Trail. Exactly 5 ½ months and 2766 miles later he finished his trek at the Canadian border, having traversed the length of California, Oregon, and Washington. The following tale is an excerpt from his journal written in the Cascades the third week of September. This was published in the Fall 1996 issue of Wild Wind.

I am up and going early this morning. I’ve gotten used to the rain and snow, but it’s dry today. The clouds are hung high, draped over the skies like a wrinkled tarp. They cloak these mountains in a dull, steel grayness, adding a chill to the air just by their somber mood. And the canyon is cold. The ground is frozen solid, the snow patches as hard as granite. Ice coats the log and the rocks I’d planned to cross the creek on. The stream tumbles down from the glaciers above. Ice to water, to ice. It’s slick as, well… ice. It’s quite some time before I find a safe place to cross.

     The trail wanders in and about the shoulders of Glacier Peak, traversing one high basin, then another. As I top the first side ridge and scan the open slopes before me, I note a large black object moving slowly across the steep mountainside. It’s a black bear. Though nearly half a mile away, the sighting thrills me. I wonder if it’ll still be there when I get over to the trail above it.

     The ice and snow on the trail crunches and cracks as I make my way around the big bowl, in and out of little pockets of stunted trees. I’m halfway thinking I may frighten the bear away with all this racket, but as I step from the last stand of forest he is still down there, moving steadily over the slope, sniffing at this and pawing at that.

     I’m so intent on watching the big bear below me, that it’s quite a surprise when I realize someone else is watching from above the trail! It’s Mama Bear with two cubs, and she’s very much aware of this strange critter with the load on its back. A scant 50 yards separates us, but the cubs are another 40 yards up the slope, chasing and tumbling over each other heading toward the trees.

     I stop in my tracks, waiting and watching. Mama Bear peers down at me. A curious look passes in a flash before she goes back to her huckleberries, raking them into her big mouth, catching them adroitly with her smooth tongue. I must say she has her priorities right. My own tongue has been purple for days from chowing on all the tasty berries covering these mountains. Once the cubs are out of sight and Mom has her rump to me, I continue along the trail. Soon she’s out of sight as I crest another side ridge and come down into another high basin. For a moment I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Another bear! I pass well above it on the trail, stopping to watch it through my telephoto lens. For a time I almost have myself talked into believing it is a grizzly bear. But no, as much as I’d like to see one of the rare Cascade grizz, this is another black bear.

     I walk on, higher and higher. The snow gets deeper and the air gets colder. The peak is no longer visible as the clouds have dropped a bit. But I can still see for miles to the north and west. As I approach Fire Creek Pass I’m crunching through 6 inches of snow and the wind is stinging cold.

     I crest the pass and find a place in the rocks to stop. Time to put on some warm clothes and gobble a Thunder Bar. The view is spectacular. The Pacific Crest Trail is often like that in this country. I’d like to linger, but it’s too cold. Got to move.

     I head down, coming to a narrow ridge separating two more basins. Leaving the trail, I walk over for a better look into the western bowl. I can’t believe this! Two more bears! These are both on the smaller side, but clearly enjoying the berry season here in huckleberry heaven. Seven bears in the space of a few hours. I’m a lucky man.

     The trail leads me down, down, down, through a boulder filled basin, past Mica Lake, down a few thousand feet to the murky waters of roaring Milk Creek. Then it’s back up a couple thousand more feet of elevation to a high ridge and another vast basin. The clouds are hanging ever lower and a few sprinkles are falling, but I’ve got bears on my mind. I stop every hundred yards to scan the slopes. Dozens of marmots; fat and sassy ones, but no more bears.

     To the west a dense wall of clouds is approaching. I know it’s more rain. And I accept it. No use fighting the weather. I’m seven miles from the river where I’ll camp and nearly 5,000 feet of descent. Down I go, humming along, down, down, down, back into the big old growth, the lush mossy forests that radiate a vibrant sense of green and growing.

     By the time I reach the Suiattle River the rain is a steady patter on the bill of my hat. I cross the bridge into a dark climax forest. The big firs and cedars offer some protection from the rain, but they also cut out the limited remaining light. I find a window of cleared ground above the bank of the river and set up my tent. Then a hasty dinner and a few camp chores before slipping into my cozy shelter and dry clothes. The welcome warmth creeps into every nook of my chilled bones as the guitar tops off the day and the tent rings with song  and images of the trail, the mountains and … bears.

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