The trail climbed away from the highway, rising gently at first, then more steeply, through the forest. As we climbed we met Sidetrip, named for his penchant for taking side trips to explore the surrounding area and to climb peaks. Today's destination was Mount Thielsen, a tall, rugged, volcanic peak usually visible in the distance as it towers over Crater Lake. We were still talking about it when it came into view, rising steeply above the forested ridge and coming to a sharp, jagged point.
We climbed the northwest ridge of Mt. Thielsen, then traversed below it. Several snow patches lingered on this shady, northwest slope. Sierra took several boot skiing runs on a larger snowfield that covered the trail. Several smaller patches provided her with cold, wet ammunition.
The trail descended to the clear, cold waters of Thielsen creek, then resumed climbing until it reached the highest point on the Oregon/Washington PCT (7,560 ft): a sandy meadow on top of a beautiful saddle with extensive views of the surrounding peaks.
Afternoon transitioned into evening as we dropped toward the Maidu Lake trail junction, the start of the PCT reroute around the Butte Fire. Sierra danced and skipped on the trail ahead of me.
As I neared the trail junction, I realized Sierra had drifted out of sight. Unsure whether the trail closure and reroute would be marked, I began running down the trail to catch up with her, afraid that if the closure wasn't marked she might just continue down the PCT toward the fire.
Rounding a corner, bright signs reflected in the darkness. Trail Closure! Active Fire! PCT Reroute! Bright pink ribbon blocked the trail like the finishing tape at the end of a marathon. A folder full of maps was attached to a nearby tree. The good news was that the start of the reroute was clearly marked. The bad news was Sierra was nowhere in sight.
When I last saw Sierra, she was ahead. But it seemed impossible to me that I would not have caught up with her after running the last quarter mile down the trail. Setting my pack by the closure I ran back up the trail, then ahead down the reroute, calling her name. Hearing no answer, I decided to wait by the junction, periodically calling her name into the darkness.
"Sierra?" I called again and again. "Mom? Where are you?" a small voice finally responded. Racing back up the trail, I saw three headlamps descending toward me: Sierra, followed by Sidetrip and Cheetah. Sierra had set her pack next to the trail to make a brief stop, and I had not noticed it in the dwindling light.
Relieved, the four of us hiked on toward Maidu Lake together. Just as we spotted the silvery reflection of water through the trees, Cheetah spotted something else: a greenish brown spotted toad, crawling across the trail with pudgy legs extended.
Maidu Lake was beautifully fringed with trees and high swampy grass. The lake reflected a sky full of stars in its still waters. We set up camp in the trees near the shore, happy to be safe, together, and stopped for the night.