After three days assisting the trail crew on a construction project I was finally beginning a six-day backcountry ranger tour into Washington’s rugged and remote Glacier Peak Wilderness. I had hiked this trail before and knew it well, but a darkened sky and chill to the air gave the area a new foreboding ambience. The air quality had been poor due to nearby wildfires during the previous few days, and I was excited to have the incoming storm clear the skies and potentially subdue the rampant fires plaguing the American West. Coming to a clearing I stopped and took in the views of the peaks I would be hiking through the next week. The brush on the high slopes was beginning to turn to autumn reds and golds, and waterfalls cascaded down from glaciers and snowfields high above. I took a deep breath of the crisp air and felt as if I was returning home.
Climbing out of the valley floor on switchbacks that would eventually access the alpine high above, I spotted my first trail work for the week. The trail was pockmarked with cantaloupe sized holes that posed a tripping hazard to hikers. The mischievous mountain beaver (not related to the dam building variety) commonly digs large holes on these switchbacks. Regarding the subject my supervisor told me “fill them in, but the mountain beavers always win”. After an hour or so of working, I felt a few raindrops following some powerful gusts of wind and put on my rain jacket. A few minutes later I finished filling in the holes as steady rain and hard wind began to persist. I set a quick pace and began racing to the top of the switchbacks where I knew larger trees would shelter me. My heavy pants and worn out boots quickly became drenched and I could start feeling the cold sink in. I reached the trees but remembered I was supposed to perform an evening radio check-in, and had passed the only location to have radio reception on that section of trail. Reluctantly I took off my pack and headed back down the trail, but returned fifteen minutes later unable to find a signal due to the low clouds and rain. I was now cold, and began having unpleasant flashbacks to my close call with hypothermia the previous September while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I decided I would find a dense grove of spruce trees, heat up some water, and then hike as fast as I could the two or three miles to the camp at Lyman Lake. This worked well, and soon I was setting up my tent feeling as if I had escaped any chance of danger. The next few days were forecasted to be clear, and the dense spruce trees would protect me from the rain and wind for the night. I found an old tarp in the Forest Service cache, folded it over itself, and carefully placed it under my tent in hopes that my tent floor would be raised above the ground and I would remain dry. It was then that I saw the rainfly of the Forest Service tent I had borrowed was broken and I would be subject to rain pouring on my feet for the night. I placed a poncho over the bottom half of my sleeping bag, ate some dinner and fell asleep. I woke up at 2:30 AM and instantly felt the wet and cold – my sleeping bag was soaked. I yelled out a few curse words and went out into the rain to investigate the problem. A corner of the tarp I had “carefully” placed under my tent had unfolded from under the tent and had proceeded to funnel water directly underneath me over the last six hours or so. I folded it back under, placed a couple of heavy items to prevent it from happening again and returned to my wet sleeping bag. While rushing to get out of the rain and address the wet interior of my tent, I caught the bottom of my sleeping bag in the zipper of the tent’s bug net, and ripped a huge hole in the bottom of my down sleeping bag. After another barrage of curse words while feathers floated around my tent, I patched the hole, laid down trash bags beneath the wet floor and my sleeping bag, put on every extra piece of clothing I had, and tried to fall asleep. Around 3:00AM the rain stopped and about fifteen minutes later I heard branches breaking nearby and could feel the ground vibrate from the footsteps of some creature. At first I thought it might be the huge buck that had harassed me a few weeks prior in efforts to get my bodily salts, but then I heard the unmistakable heavy breathing and grunts. It was a bear, and I was in no mood to deal with a bear. I let loose a flurry of curse words and yelling, taking out all of my frustration on the poor bear that probably only wanted the blueberries growing in the meadow near my tent. I heard it scurry off, and I spent the next three sleepless hours shivering and thinking of what misfortunes lay in store for me that night.
The sun rose and I emerged from my cold shelter happy to have made it through the night. I felt pretty awful and the extreme cold of the morning through my soaking wet clothes did not help. I was planning to do restoration work on Cloudy Pass, and hoped the mile hike uphill would warm me up and lift my spirits. The puddles along with the wet plants resulted in my lower half getting extremely wet, and a fog bank on the pass kept me frigid. After a couple hours of work, I could feel the onset of a head cold and decided to go back to my tent and sleep. I woke up after a glorious four hour nap feeling great. The sun was out and I decided to make an early dinner. It was then I realized just how light my food bag was, and decided to take stock on how much food I had. I didn’t have enough — this trip was not going at all how I was hoping it would. I had forgotten to account for the extra day the trail crew and I had planned at the end of the tour, and I had eaten too many snacks during the construction project. I would have to skip three meals and minimize snacking. Lucky for me the blueberries were plump and ripe between five and seven thousand feet and I would be spending the next three days at these elevations. During lunch I would just forage for berries. If a five-hundred pound bear could survive this way, I knew I would be fine. I opted to start early on my new diet plan and went for a walk along the beautiful lakeshore munching down all the berries I could find.
The next morning I packed up my camp and hiked back up to Cloudy Pass to continue my restoration work. Cloudy Pass is a spectacular area. It has large meadows, uninhibited views of dozens of huge peaks, access to one of my favorite ridge walks of all time, and looks over turquoise blue Lyman Lake. Unsurprisingly, people want to spend a lot of time up here and so it has become very impacted. There were redundant parallel social trails near the pass, so I took it upon myself to close some of the unnecessary paths. I placed large rocks and transplanted alpine plants to a couple of the trails, and decided to take my lunch a mile up on Lyman Ridge where I knew the berries would be plentiful away from the route hikers usually take. The storm had blown the smoke out of the area and left me to clear views of the alpine wonderland.
After lunch I headed over to the Pacific Crest Trail and quickly found some work. Two small trees had fallen over the trail and I quickly took care of them with my handsaw. Two PCT hikers stopped and watched me as I completed the small task. The rest of the day I slowly hiked north on the trail using my handsaw to rid the trail of small brush and removed three sizable boulders from the trail. Around 4PM I rolled into my campsite high on the slopes of Sitting Bull Basin and watched the sunset while foraging around the area for berries. The day had been enjoyable in every way, and I was excited about the adventure I was planning for the next day.
Bannock Lakes lay in a basin only a mile and a half from the Pacific Crest Trail. Despite being so close to such a popular trail, the lakes are almost never visited and few locals even have heard of them. This is probably due to the lack of a trail and the two-thousand vertical feet separating hikers from the lakes. During the planning of my trip I decided I would take a day off in the middle of my tour to explore the seldom seen area. After talking to a few PCT thru-hikers that morning I hiked down into Sitting Bull Basin to the slope where I would begin my off trail adventure. I would have to hike straight up a densely forested slope to reach the saddle above the lakes. I had gotten only a vague description of the route from a coworker but I wasn’t very worried. To say the hike was steep doesn’t truly describe just how vertical the ascent feels. The compacted fir, spruce, and cedar needles condense in a way that creates a slick mat which was nearly impossible to grip or stand on. The only possible way to climb was to take giant running steps from tree to tree while stabbing the ground with both of my trekking poles to keep from losing traction and sliding out of control. Needless to say, after a few minutes of this I was exhausted and was considering turning back if the steep grade persisted. Eventually I found a small deer trail that made climbing much easier. The grade became less taxing and I found a half-eaten Mounds bar and decided to pack it out and potentially eat it if I became hungry enough. Soon the trees became sparse while blueberries and impressive views filled in the space. I was navigating a difficult steep section of large boulders and steep slopes when I began hearing the sounds snapping twigs. I froze, assuming it was a bear, but to my surprise an elderly gentleman walked by sporting knee high socks, a hardhat used in construction, an ice axe, with a Mounds bar in his hand. I would have been surprised to see anyone at this point, but seeing him was nearly comical. I took out the Mounds bar from my pocket and asked him if he had dropped it, to which he replied “Yes, and you didn’t even eat it!” I then inquired about the ice axe, as the only purpose this late in the season I could see would be heavy duty glacier travel. He pointed downhill and smiled while saying “It will help when it gets steep”. We parted ways after talking for a while and within twenty minutes I was looking over Bannock Lakes. Beautiful, undisturbed, and surrounded by large peaks and big glaciers, I instantly felt that the grueling climb was worth it.
It was cold and windy up on the ridge overlooking the lakes and I was soaked with sweat from the climb. I decided to let my clothes dry on a warm rock, but sitting there without clothes became quite cold as well. I decided to go explore the knob above the saddle while my clothes dried and planned to only be gone a few minutes. The ridge walking was easy and the views enticing so I reached the knob quickly and set out for another nearby highpoint. Working on my tan, I reached the top with views of all four lakes beneath me. I let out one of my spur of the moment wolf howls which usually happens when I reach some mesmerizing peak high above the forgotten world below. I have found there is a strong correlation between the difficulty of the climb and the loudness of the howl. While listening to the echoes I saw a large black blob begin moving quickly on a slope in the bowl below. “Woah, a bear! What a cool thing to see in such an amazing place!” was along the lines of what I was thinking. Then I realized the bear was headed directly to the saddle where my clothes, food, water, radio, and GPS beacon were. The saddle suddenly looked so far away and the bear was moving fast. With only my boots and sun hat, I began running down the talus slope while yelling in efforts to scare the bear away, while trying beat it back to my stuff. It was definitely closer to my daypack than I was and I began feeling the dread of what might next occur. Still running and yelling, I saw it stop for a second and look directly at me. I picked up a large rock and threw it off the ridge to make a loud cascading rock fall sound hoping this would startle the bear. This seemed to do the trick and it turned more uphill to cross the ridge in a different area. I made it back to my stuff and shortly after saw the bear disappear over the other side of the ridge. Glad to have my clothes back on I decided to head down to a blueberry patch just below the saddle and take my lunch. The blueberry bushes in this area were more berry than bush, so eating a stomach full of berries really didn’t take very long. Feeling that I had sufficiently stained my fingers and lips, I began looking at the surrounding ridgelines. On the far side of the bowl nearest to me I could see a large brown blob. This was a huge bear, at least twice the size of the one I just saw, and it was traversing the meadows enjoying its own private berry banquet. A feeling of comradery came over me, and I raised my fist in the air in solidarity. I studied the bear for a while enamored at its size. Grizzly bears are known to exist in the northern Cascades but are extremely rare. Its head was down most of the time so it was hard to tell if it was in fact a grizzly, but I would like to think so. I began my decent trying to follow the same general route I had ascended. I made it down most of the way without issue, but then reached the beginning of where “it gets steep”. I quickly realized I could not physically stand in most places without immediately falling at high speeds. Moving down in a sitting position, I still couldn’t get any traction with my feet. I starting using my trekking poles to slowly lower me down inch by inch from tree to tree. This seemed to be working but I was very worried that they would slip out from the needle mat or snap under the pressure. And then suddenly, one pole took a chunk out of the needle mat and I was moving down the slope at high speed. I slid without being able to slow for 50 feet or so before being able to grab a small tree with both hands. My wrists stretched, shoulders wrenched, hands bled, but I was stopped and somewhat safe. I really wished I had an ice axe and crampons. I could see a patch of thick brush to the side of me and decided it was much safer to slowly bushwhack through that than me stuck on the potentially deadly forest floor slip-n-slide. I made it down the rest of the way with only a few aches and pains, and ate my dinner out in the meadow at the base of Sitting Bull Basin. While going to fill up on water, I saw another black bear traversing the meadows near where I had camped the night before. A little bit of rain fell that night, but thankfully I stayed warm and dry.
The following day I woke up early ready for a full day of trail work. There was another section of switchbacks ahead inhabited by mountain beaver which I took care of in an hour. I used my handsaw as a machete and cut back the annuals and brush as I was hiking along, and was quick to folding it back up if hikers came by. I could imagine how intimidating it would be to come across a six foot three inch bearded man swinging a blade wildly into plants. Later in the day I spent a couple of hours working on the tread of a section of trail that was slanting dangerously off into the steep abyss. Throughout the day I spoke with a dozen or so PCT hikers excited about reaching the famous trail town of Stehekin. Stehekin is primarily known to thru-hikers as the last town stop on the 2660 mile trail and the home of the famous Stehekin Bakery. One thru-hiker asked me to describe the pastries in question, and right as I stated “…layers of cinnamon infused frosting goodness…” he threw his hands in the air and yelled “Oh lawdy! Have Mercy!” I hiked down into a densely forested valley bottom, dismantled a couple of old fire pits that were not allowed due to a fire ban, and made camp next to a rumbling clear stream in a grove of old growth cedars.
This was to be the last day of my official backcountry ranger tour and I was looking forward to the ten miles of mostly downhill hiking between me and where I would meet the rest of the trail crew later that night. The smoke was starting to come back at this point and I was happy that I had been so fortunate to experience the high alpine when it was so clear outside. Besides the occasional brush across the trails, the devils club bush I’d have to beat back, and a couple of fallen lodge pole pines, there was very little work to be done. I was making great time and feeling the same. Just over two miles from the end of my tour, I turned a corner and there it was. A black bear, twenty feet away, and looking right at me. I hadn’t encountered a bear this close so far this season and froze in my tracks. After a few seconds I banged my trekking poles together which startled the bear into moving. It turned around and climbed up the nearest tree it could find trying to seek safety. Now the bear was directly over the trail and I wasn’t about the walk directly under a fully grown black bear. I saw how fast it climbed and I assumed it could likely descend faster. In efforts to scare it somewhere else I started yelling and banging my trekking poles together. I could tell it was scared and wished I would go away but I still did not want to approach it. I decided to backtrack in hopes it would feel safe enough to climb down and leave. After five minutes I came back to find the bear still in the tree. I tried again scare it off, but it seemed to be very committed to that tree. So I went for it. Eyes forward and stride long, I passed beneath the bear and dared not look back until I was well past the tree. I looked back and up to see it looking back at me. I gave it a wave and said “take care there bear” and walked the rest of way down to meet up with the trail crew.