Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Day 101: Dead Fall Lakes to Rocky Knoll

Click, click, snap, click, crunch, crunch, crunch. The deer continued to graze around our camp throughout the night.  When we woke, a sea of tiny spiderwebs blanketed the meadow.

Several neighboring campers woke when we did, and I was surprised to see them down at the lake, taking pictures with our friends Shutterbug and Northstar. Little did we know that the group we had camped near the night before were all friends of Northstar and Shutterbug who had hiked in to meet them!

Down the trail, we soon reached a beautiful spring bordered by wildflowers: fire engine red paintbrush and columbine, pennyroyal, a mixture of yellow flowers, and bright white clusters of cow's parsnip. We met a few early morning day hikers, then hiked with Paws for awhile.

Suddenly we heard a crashing in the bushes near the trail. The three of us watched, frozen in place, as two brown cubs streaked across the trail, mother bear barreling along behind them. The mother bear chased the two nimble cubs up a nearby tree, then paced protectively beneath them.

Wondering what had frightened the powerful mother bear, I suddenly realized: we had. The cubs must have wandered too close to the trail. The mother bear likely became anxious when three hikers wandered up, and chased her cubs to safety.

Our trail meandered through forests and meadows, following the contours of several ridgelines. Just beyond a saddle on one of these ridges, we passed a swampy area by an underground spring. Mixed in with a colorful array of wildflowers were bright green cobra-shaped plants: the California pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that traps insects.

Continuing down the trail, we passed several large deposits of serpentine. Smooth and glossy like obsidian, in shades of green ranging from pale mint to deep emerald, serpentine gets its green color from the mix of minerals in the rock. Reaching a rocky knoll of pale green serpentine, we decided to camp for the night.

Unfortunately, a swarm of yellow jackets soon encircled our camp. Although we could not find the hive, some species live in the ground, entering and exiting through tiny holes that can be difficult to find. We ate dinner on a nearby rock outcropping, only returning to our camp to sleep when we were sure that the yellow jackets had returned to their hive for the night.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Day 100: Castle Crag Cliff to Dead Fall Lakes

From our high, rocky perch we watched the progress of the sun as the light slowly worked its way down the ridge across the valley. The tall Castle Crags peaks blocked the morning light from our own camp, leaving the morning breezy and cool.

We climbed to a saddle and traversed across two ridges, leaving Castle Crags' rocky peaks behind. Once we climbed above the trees, Mount Shasta came into view, rising above the surrounding mountains.

We stopped for lunch on a beautiful ridge with a view of both Mount Shasta and the Trinity Divide. There we met Monique (who Sierra quickly renamed Colorful), a 70 year old New Yorker who has always wanted to hike a section of the PCT. She finally said to herself, "If not now, when?" and planned a hike from Castella to Ashland for her 70th birthday present.

Reaching the next road crossing, I stopped to read a note left under a rock.  Houdini warned future hikers not to leave their packs by the road when walking to the nearby spring. Someone had stolen Houdini's pack, including all of his gear, during the few minutes it took him to hike down the road for water.

The next road crossing brought more cheerful news. A trail angel had left two large buckets full of chilled Hansen's sodas!

We reached Toad Lake in the late afternoon. Mount Shasta was reflected in the lake's still waters, bathed in the sun's soft golden rays. We hiked on, planning to camp on the ridge where we would enjoy both the sunset and the first rays of morning sun. But the ridge was rocky with no flat camping, leaving us no choice but to hike on.

By the time we found camping at Deadfall Lakes, it was dark. As I set out our tarp to camp, I noticed a pair of eyes gleaming at me in the darkness just a few feet away. A doe grazed in the meadow by the lake. She ignored us and continued eating. We fell asleep to the sound of the doe steadily munching and crunching her way through the meadow.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Day 99: Castella to Castle Crags Cliff

We slept late, luxuriating in soft mattresses, cool sheets, and warm quilts. Jill sent us back to the trailhead (2,130) with freshly picked cherries and homemade brownies, a special treat.

It was already hot when we began hiking, and we appreciated the cooling shade of the pine forest. We stopped for lunch on a grassy knoll. As we munched on delicious brownies and sweet cherries, we were grateful for Jill's thoughtfulness in packing them for us.

Continuing down the trail, the vertical gray granite cliffs of the Castle Crags came into view. The beautiful peaks were suggestive of high stone castle walks with rounded turrets, and it was easy to see how Castle Crags had gotten its name.

Hearing something crashing through the thick brush next to the trail, I spotted a black bear. He pushed through the manzanita and eyed me indignantly, as if to ask what I was doing blocking HIS trail. Then he continued barreling his way through the thick brush. When he was a safe distance away, the bear climbed up onto the trail, turned, and headed southbound, without even so much as a backward glance.

The miles passed slowly as we plodded up the long, hot climb. Very slowly. Ahead up the trail, a craggy granite rock outcropping jutted out over the valley below. Most of the cliff top was rocky, but a single sandy flat spot promised soft, comfortable camping.  Sierra set up camp and cooked dinner, allowing me to recover from a hot, tiring day.

After the sun set, from our high perch (approximately 5,400 ft), we could see the dark silhouettes of the Castle Crags and surrounding forested ridgetops. We also recognized several prominent constellations, although many of the stars were overshadowed by a bright, waxing moon.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Day 98: Saddle Above Squaw Valley to Castella

The trail climbed onto the ridge (4,640 ft) and I breathed easier with blue sky above and a hint of open space through the trees. Following the ridge, the snow covered flanks of Mount Shasta soon came into view, and we were amazed at how close it seemed. Then, traversing around to the other side of the ridge we were treated to our first glimpse of the rocky Castle Crags across the valley.

The miles went by quickly, and we soon found ourselves down on the valley crossing underneath Highway 5 (2,130 ft). My sister-in-law's friend Jill invited us to stay with her in Mount Shasta for the night, and quickly made us feel right at home.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Day 97: Grizzly Peak Ridge to Saddle Above Squaw Valley Creek

We woke to a puddle next to the tarp, and discovered that Sierra's Platypus water container had a small gap along its zip lock closure. Sierra's pack was soaked, and we stopped to wring out sodden gear before packing up and hiking on.

The trail continued to traverse the strep, brushy hillside, occasionally dipping into the forest or onto the exposed flank of colorful, rocky Grizzly Peak. After several miles, the trail plummeted into deep woods of tall pine and fir trees.

Butterflies flitted about us as we hike. Orange and black butterflies with several different patterns, pale blue butterflies, black and white zebra swallowtails, yellow and black swallowtails, and several other varieties. Dragonflies in a variety of colors and sizes swirled above our heads.

We spent most of our day meandering through a dense forest with thick undergrowth, including a healthy crop of poison oak. As we dodged plant after plant, Sierra said the trail felt like a slalom course of poison oak, only in a real slalom course we would be trying to hit the gates, rather than trying to avoid them.

The dense foliage and steep canyons posed additional problems when it was time to camp for the night. We had planned to camp near Trough Creek. But as we approached the creek I realized we hadn't seen a campsite since the top of the ridge, and the narrow trough-like canyon that held the creek wasn't likely to offer much in the way of camping either.

Sierra began searching for a campsite as I gathered water.  She soon found a tiny flat space, not much longer than I am tall, near the creek. I am most at home in the high alpine areas of the mountains or the wide open spaces of the high desert. Camping on a tiny platform surrounded by dense foliage, I felt a bit claustrophobic. Things soon went from bad to worse as we realized our tiny camp was crowded with hundreds of inhabitants we had failed to notice in our initial inspection. Numerous daddy longlegs made their home by the creek, along with several other varieties of insects and spiders. Our unprotected tarp became their superhighway, and night turned into nightmare as we sat trapped in an enclosed space with hundreds of insects and spiders crawling over and around us.

It was too much. We packed up and hiked on by headlamp. Huge, silvery spiders wove reflective webs across the trail. Thousands of tiny green eyes reflected back from brown spiders in all sizes. Mountain scorpions froze, seemingly paralyzed by the sudden light, while crickets hopped away quickly to avoid it. Bats swooped in to scoop up the feast of insects.

We finally found camp on a rocky saddle four miles down the trail, making it a 28 mile day.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Day 96: Ridge to Grizzly Peak Ridge

We followed the exposed ridge back into the forest. A tangle of ferns and wildflowers, including tiger lilies, thrived in the cool, damp forest.

The tall forest of older trees gave way to a young forest of young white firs, replanted over a jumbled pile of thinner logs and branches left behind when a wide swath a forest was cut down.

The trail disappeared back into older forest, concealed by a dense undergrowth of manzanita and brush growing over the trail. The trail was only distinguishable at ground level, where fewer roots grew out of the once clear path. Pushing through the thick brush made progress slow, tedious, and at times, painful as stiff branches scraped and poked against our legs.

But then the trail climbed up onto the exposed ridge again. Across a field of magenta flowers and fledgling white firs we saw Mount Shasta, towering over tree lined ridges and grassy valleys into the swirling puffs of white cloud floating through the sky.

Dropping from the ridge we passed a sign warning about logging activity along the next section of trail. Large swaths of forest were cleared, with large machines knocking down the tres, churning up the soft, red earth, and plowing under the brush, shrubs, and other plants in their path. Tall stacks of thick logs appeared at regular intervals. But less desirable branches still littered the upturned ground in a messy, tangled jumble.

The trail climbed away from the clear cut, then meandered from one ridge to the next, slowly moving closer to Mount Shasta with every step. Afternoon slipped into evening, but campsites were nonexistent as the trail traversed a steep, brushy hillside. We watched the sun set behind the mountains, illuminating the clouds in hues of orange and pink. Still we hiked on. Finally we found some flat ground next to the trail, just large enough for our sleeping pads, and stopped for the night.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 95: Rim of the Lake to Ridge

Waffles. We woke thinking about the delicious, syrup-drenched waffles we planned to eat at the Burney Falls Camp Store, having fallen asleep dreaming of waffles the night before.

Shortly after reaching Burney Falls State Park, we crossed a bridge over a rocky, dry riverbed. "So much for the side trip to see Burney Falls," I thought. But as we neared the junction to the camp store, I heard water. A lot of water.

Crossing a second bridge, we marveled at the large volume of water where less than one mile upstream there had been none. We soon learned that the river starts as an underground spring and is pushed above ground by solid underground rock formations that block its path. Then, less than a mile downstream, it cascades over a rocky cliff into a deep pool of water, creating a wide, mossy waterfall. As we watched the waterfall, two spotted fawns watched with us for a moment, then scampered out of view.

"We haven't sold waffles for three years!" the camp store employee informed us. So much for our guidebook. Disappointed, we carried our resupply out to the picnic tables where we sorted it while eating another cold breakfast.

The trail continued through the forest to Lake Britton Dam. Climbing up after crossing the dam, we passed a dense tangle of thorny blackberry vines. Most of the berries were still green, and even the black ones were not yet fully ripe and tasted sour.

We stopped for lunch at Rock Creek, hiding under the bridge for shade. After the creek the trail passed through thick, overgrown brush and manzanita, then back into the forest.

We climbed out of the forest onto the ridge just in time to watch the sun set behind mountains. Mount Shasta, to the northwest, was bathed in alpenglow. We put down our tarp to cowgirl camp, then enjoyed the final orange glow of sunset before drifting off to sleep.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day 94: Cache 22 to Rim of the Lake

The heat began to rise the instant the sun crested the horizon. By 7, I wore short sleeves, and was dreading the intense heat to come. As we continued to follow the rim, Mount Shasta remained in constant view ahead up the trail. We passed another milestone, 1,400 miles, and continued hiking.

Approaching a dirt road, we heard laughter up ahead. Subway Steve was there. He passed out cold drinks, fresh Subway sandwiches, pies, fruit, and candy. We sat there eating and talking with Subway Steve, That Guy, and several other hikers for almost an hour. Two miles later we reached a small cooler with more trail magic: icy cold water and sodas.

Reaching Rock Spring Creek, I was dismayed to find what was reported to be our only water source filled with algae and sludge. Nevertheless, with no other options, I pushed through shrubs and thorny blackberry vines to gather water from a place where the water flowed more strongly.

Below the creek, the trail led to an asphalt road near a PG&E facility. No signs indicated where the trail continued. After trying various trails and running into dead ends, I finally knocked on the door of a portable building with a truck parked outside. A man wearing a PG&E t-shirt answered.  He laughed when I asked for directions, knowing how unclear the trail is through that area. He offered us Gatorade, then pointed us in the right direction.

Reaching Highway 299 to the town of Burney, we found still more trail magic as someone had left a bag with several packages of Chips Ahoy cookies. From the highway, the trail meandered through the forest, then followed the edge of a high ravine with a river below. We stopped for the night in the forest above the ravine, not far from Burney Falls State Park.

Just before crawling into the tent for the night, Sierra noticed a large nest made out of sticks perched on the flat top of a tall dead tree. The nest appeared uninhabited, so we could only speculate as to what large bird had once called the nest home.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Day 93: Plantation Road to Cache 22

Clouds blocked the morning sun, and the air felt cool as we started to hike. Our feet moved easily down the flat, forested trail, only slowing occasionally for sections covered with a deep layer of fine, ash-like, volcanic sand.

Despite the implied promise of cooler weather brought by the clouds, the day warmed up quickly. By 9:00 a.m., it was hot, and we dreaded the blazing afternoon to come.

We discovered a small underground cavern, which offered temporary relief from the heat. Then we continued on to the Subway Cave, an underground tunnel formed by cooling lava. Inside the cave, the air was cool and damp. The cave floor, walls, and ceiling were all rough and bumpy, comprised of black porous rock formed by the quick cooling of the bubbly, hot lava.  The Subway Cave also provided water fountains and spigots, allowing us to refill out water bottles before the next long, hot, waterless section of trail, making it well worth the mile-long sidetrip.

Dark clouds gathered in the sky behind us as we continued on to the hot, dry Hat Creek Rim. A near constant rumble, like the roll of the timpani during a steady crescendo, quicker our steps. Lightning flashed in the valley below. A sheet of rain fell from the clouds to the valley, and a puff of smoke rose from the ground to meet the rain as it fell. Ahead, snow capped Mount Shasta blended into a swirl of clouds. As the sky opened above us, we donned raingear, but in the oppressive heat the raingear drenched us just as surely as the rain would have.

Eventually the clouds parted and cleared, leaving the air hot and muggy. Despite our thirst, we began rationing our limited water stores, thinking about how many more miles of the long dry stretch we had yet to come.

Late in the afternoon we reached the metal Hat Creek Rim Fire Lookout Tower. A light green forest service fire truck was parked in front.  A team of firefighters were monitoring the lightning strikes in the valley. One of the firefighters offered us chilled water and Gatorade from his personal ice chest. We gratefully accepted.

Happy and hydrated, we pushed on to Cache 22, a water cache near Forest Service Road 22.  Several other hikers were already camped there, including Legion, Steady, The Darkness, and Three Bears.  Subway Steve also stopped by, passing out some final trail magic before heading into town for the night. Despite lingering clouds, we threw down a tarp to cowgirl camp for the night.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Day 92: Drakesbad to Plantation Road

Driving back to the trailhead, a tiny, spotted fawn crossed the road in front of our car, as if heading into town to go shopping. More deer hid in the woods next to the trail. Several quail bobbed their way across the road as well.

Back on the trail, we meandered over rolling hills through the forest. Crossing several creeks, we appreciated how plentiful water is today, knowing how scarce it would be on the hot, dry Hat Creek Rim tomorrow.

Just after lunch we passed a swampy tree-lined pond, and then Twin Lakes, deep blue lakes ringed by lush green meadows and surrounded by trees. Day hikers suddenly appeared, carrying nothing but small water bottles, and we wondered where the closest trailhead was; obviously nearby.

After spending the morning in deep tree cover, I caught my breath when I again caught sight of Lassen, across a lush meadow. At such close range, the mountain is imposing, completely dominating the landscape.

Leaving Lassen Volcanic National Park, we began descending through brushy manzanita, then back into forest. Former roads or firebreaks of cleared trees crossed the trail at frequent, regular intervals. Reaching a large creek, I noticed that many of the river rocks were actually porous, bubbly volcanic rocks, worn smooth over time. Not long after we passed the river we found a flat, soft bed on pine needles and stopped for the night.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Day 91: Happy Birthday Sierra!

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday Sierra,
Happy birthday to you!

We enjoyed a zero day in Chester to celebrate Sierra's ninth birthday today! Back on the trail tomorrow...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Day 90: North Fork Feather River to Drakesbad Guest Ranch

The trail crossed the North Fork of the Feather River on a new wooden bridge, then climbed through a shady, densely wooded forest. Passing only occasional shafts of sunlight, our fingers soon felt numb. We tried in vain to warm them by rubbing them together or tucking them under our arms.

Our fingers eventually warmed with the exertion of the climb, and by the time we entered Lassen Volcanic National Park I was wearing my short-sleeved shirt. Passing a beautiful rich green swamp, I soon realized this was a mistake, as mosquitoes swarmed around me and began nibbling on my exposed flesh.

The stench of rotten eggs filled our nostrils as we approached the junction to Terminal Geyser. With the geyser less than a half mile away, we decided it was worth the short side trip. As we descended down the steep trail, we glimpsed steam through the trees.

Huge clouds of steam rose from the geyser, and a steady stream of water trickled down from the geyser next to the trail. We watched the geyser from a safe distance from behind volcanic boulders through several cycles of large, billowing steam clouds. The hot stream flowing from the geyser contained a colorful palette of red and tan sand, blue pools, green algae, and white minerals.

Farther down the trail, we passed Boiling Springs Lake, reported to be the second or third largest hot springs the world. Fine red volcanic sand and white minerals surrounded the opaque, mint green lake water, which is heated to 125 degrees by steam rising from within the earth.

We reached the Drakesbad Guest Ranch by lunch. PCT hikers are like human garbage disposals for Drakesbad, allowed to eat any excess food at the salad and sandwich bar after the resort guests have eaten. PCT hikers are also allowed to shower and use the natural hot springs pool. Loaner clothes are provided for hikers who wish to do laundry.

The PCT hiker picnic tables, which kept us segregated from the regular guests, felt a bit like the kids' table at a large family gathering. Nevertheless, the resort staff treated us well and provided us with large quantities of delicious food.  We shared a table with Northstar, Shutterbug, Ace, Skippy, and Blueberry.

Jeff met us just after lunch.  Together we headed into Chester where we will be taking a zero to celebrate Sierra's birthday tomorrow.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Day 89: Butt Mountain Ridge to North Fork Feather River

Crack! The sound of a rock crashing against another rock woke me in the night. I lay still, barely daring to breathe, listening for night sounds. Snap! Crunch! Snap! Crunch! I sat bolt upright, frozen in place, as I listened to heavy footfalls crunching over the dead branches in the woods.

Carefully unzipping the tent, I clutched my headlamp in my left fist, waiting for the noises to approach our tent so that I could shine the light and see what was out there. I heard the soft breathing of Sierra next to me and Chili and Pepper in their tent. I heard the roar of the wind in the trees overhead. But no more footsteps.

No sunbeams warmed our tent when we woke. A patchwork of gray and white clouds covered the morning sky. A fine mist fell from the clouds as we began to hike. Off in the distance, Lassen Peak was surrounded by dark clouds but lit by a bright shaft of sunlight. As I admired it, the sky opened and began pelting me with large raindrops. But no sooner had I put on my rain jacket than the rain stopped, a cycle that continued throughout the day.

Rounding a corner we saw a cement marker next to the trail, a monument marking the halfway point of the trail. We all laughed about how the marker is misplaced: (1) the marker states it is at mile 1,325, which is not the halfway point of the trail (now 2,665 miles), and (2) the marker is actually placed at mile 1,326.5. But we celebrated anyway, excited to have made it this far.

Reaching Highway 36 to Chester, we enjoyed trail magic left by Piper's Mom. But leaving the crossing we lamented the lack of signs and the lack of easily identifiable landmarks on the Data Book. Worse, we reached a sign that read "North Fork Feather River 1.8 Miles" when the Data Book indicated we still had more than four miles to go. Three guesses which one was right...

We trudged on and on, with only occasional glimpses of Lassen Peak.  Most of the time the top of the peak was completely obscured by swirling gray clouds. Finally, we reached the new wooden bridge over the North Fork of the Feather River, and stopped to camp for the night.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Day 88: Frog Springs to Butt Mountain Ridge

The trail dropped down to a forested northbound ridge. We followed the ridge through the forest, passing occasional open meadows. We had not hiked far when we met four southbound hikers who, fed up with the snow, had skipped the section from Belden to Old Station last year. Now they were back to complete their final section.

We stopped at Cold Spring, the last on-trail water source for a long stretch of ridge walking. Reminiscent of the desert, we loaded our packs with many pounds of water before continuing on.

The trail continued to follow the ridge through the forest, passing occasional tree lined meadows. In one such meadow, we met a forest service employee, searching for a goshawk nest. Loggers will soon be working in the area and the forest service wants to ensure that the goshawks' nest, if not their habitat, is preserved.

Reaching an exposed section of ridge we heard a voice, "Behold, Mount Lassen!". Chili and Pepper were munching snacks under a tree near the trail, still laughing at having surprised us. Ahead the snow patched flanks of Lassen Peak were clearly in view.

The terrain became more volcanic, with large reddish brown outcroppings of volcanic rock. From the exposed ridge we once again had a clear view north to Lassen Peak, becoming larger as we approached. Reaching a dirt road, we saw the older Steady's husband Steve (aka Subway Steve because he often brings Subway sandwiches to share with hikers) standing next to his Suburban, passing out trail magic to hikers.

The trail continued to meander all afternoon, zigzagging over a labyrinth of ridge tops, slowly moving forward like knights on a chess board: two inches to the side for every inch forward toward Lassen Peak and Canada.

Eventually we reached the top of the final ridge for the day. But everywhere we looked the ground was littered with rocks or covered with thick, low manzanita shrubs. Finally we saw Chili and Pepper, just setting up in a small clearing. We set up nearby, and settled in for the night.