Three Thousand Words

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then three pictures are worth three thousands words. I couldn’t choose just one from this past week’s work–all three of these contain the essence of the Pacific Crest Trail for me.

We camped and worked in the mountain hemlock forest. As difficult as they are to cut when they fall across the trail, I am still attracted to them. The old ones are towering and stately, with their branches high overhead. There isn’t much underbrush. Mountain hemlocks thrive in cool damp conditions, and are well-designed to handle the heavy snow that falls in the maritime climate. This kind of forest only occurs in a narrow band along the spine of the Cascades. When I go there, I know I am in a special place.

The trail leaves the forest and enters an open area of talus slopes and avalanche chutes. Wildflowers still bloom–nights have not been cold enough to freeze them. Many of the earlier bloomers have gone to seed, but there are still paintbrush, lupine, arnica. Also a couple kinds of huckleberries, and a person is obliged to do a taste test when passing by.

This is the famous Kendall Katwalk, where northbound hikers get the first look at the North Cascades. Photos do not do it justice–you can’t feel the sense of space, the plunging glacial valleys nor the expanse of sky. The mountains just keep going on from here. The Katwalk is a bench blasted out of the side of the ridge. Plenty of room for hikers, but packstrings are warned to cross carefully.

When my heart went kaput in 2009, I cried because this was one of the places I thought I might never get back to. Standing there the other day, I remembered being very sick and barely able to walk. But I am now upright and breathing, able to climb into the mountains again and so grateful I don’t know how to express it. Life can knock you down at any time. If you can’t get up, you lie there till your strength comes back. Then you get up and move slowly till that gets easier. Holding places like this in your heart helps. Having good friends helps. The body and mind are capable of amazing feats of recovery. Life is fragile and persistent, and if you want to live nothing can hold you back.

I stood on the Katwalk, speechless and grinning and hugging my friends. I love the mountains. I love life, every bit of it.

PCT People

We’ve been working on the Pacific Crest Trail north of Snoqualmie Pass again. Some years the PCT makes the trail crew work hard for every mile, and this year is the hardest in my memory. “Nothing is easy,” we say to each other over the top of yet another hemlock log as we hack and chop and hurl tree detritus off the trail. Today we reached the three and a half mile mark, having spent days and days clearing a stretch of trail that usually takes one or two days.

The opportunities for people-watching are outstanding. We park our crew rig next to their cars at the trailhead and pile out with our packs and tools. Then the commute continues as we make our way to where we left off last time. We step aside as hikers pass us. They’re in shorts and tank tops, with little bitty packs and light shoes and trekking poles. Half of them have canine companions. Most of them are talking, and their voices carry for a long way. The trail climbs and climbs in long traverses that switch back and forth up the side of the glacial valley.

We have to watch out for people as we work. “Hikers,” we announce when we hear the voices and pull our tools out of the way so they can pass. Most folks can be relied on to say one of two things: 1) “Are you with the WTA?” (Washington Trails Association, a volunteer organization that does trail work), or 2) “You guys sure have your work cut out for you!”

1) Most folks are surprised to learn that the federal government actually has enough money to pay employees to cut logs on a National Scenic Trail. We explain that Congress doesn’t give the Forest Service money to maintain trails–we compete for grants funded from gasoline taxes and administered at the state level. I like to point at the Forest Service emblem on my hard hat and state that I am a paid professional. Volunteer organizations do a lot of important trail work, and we consider them vital collaborators. It’s been my experience, though, that volunteers come and go over the years. There needs to be long-term consistency in managing a trail program, and development of high level skills. That’s apparent this year, when the blowdown is so heavy and complex. Besides, it’s inhumane to ask volunteers to work eleven or twelve hours a day outdoors day after day, but some of us will do that for pay.

2) We are well aware that we have our work cut out for us. “Or not,” say Jon. Cutting out is what we are there to do. One guy came down the trail yesterday and announced “I counted 45 trees down in the next two miles!” He was gleeful. Some people want to know what knocked the trees down. Winter storms. Microbursts and saturated soil. Some people are fascinated by our tools, the crosscut saws and axes. “Did you carry these up here by hand?” demanded one lady. We look at each other in wonderment. How else would we get our tools up the trail? She glares at us ferociously, as if she can’t quite believe it. Dragged by two dogs on a leash, she stumps off muttering “Our tax dollars at work.”

No way of knowing whether that was a condemnation or a compliment.

Most people are nice, smiling and thanking us for our work. The ones with the slightly bigger packs and the intent pace are on their way to Canada. The through-hikers, who started in Mexico or some other southern point are on their way north. By the time they get to the central Cascades, they are smelling the end of the trip. This year’s crop of through-hikers have been through a lot, with the epic snowpack to struggle through from the Sierras north and much blowdown. I wish them safe travels with all my heart.

We cut the last log of the day and heave it off the trail, then take a short break. It’s time for the afternoon commute. We continue to see people. One woman takes pity on poor bug-bitten Sam and offers herbal lotion to repel mosquitoes and soothe itchy bites. But mostly the trail is quiet, and we descend in peace until we hear the roar of the freeway that crosses over the Pass.

At the trailhead, we try to match the cars with the hikers we saw. Who do you think drives the Lexus? No doubt the Dodge van belongs to the family who was trudging uphill with their backpacks wrapped in plastic trash bags. And which one of them has enough chutzpah to have vanity plates that read MR WOW?

It’s been great working conditions. I know Sam is ready for the bugs to die, but other than that annoyance the days have been warm and clear. Not too hot or windy. And we are slowly making progress. Slowly. We’ll go back tomorrow, then leave the PCT to the hordes of folks who will be hiking it over the weekend.