On the PCT: Rae Lakes

I’ve got a confession to make:  I didn’t fall in love with the Sierra.

I really thought I would.  I’d been dreaming of seeing the region’s granite peaks, alpine lakes, high elevation meadows, and giant sequoias for years.  I’d been astonished by the beauty of pictures of the Sierra and listened as dozens of thru-hikers described the way that the region captivated them.  I’d expected that it would be the highlight of my journey.  It wasn’t.

Or, at least, it wasn’t initially.

Hiking north into the Sierra from the desert, I’d expected to be overwhelmed by the green of the mountains, by the abundance of life that would surround me, but that wasn’t the case.  The first several days north of Kennedy Meadows were home to this unique high-elevation desert-treed hybrid.  I imagined that more hiking would take me into the heart of the forests of Central California.  However, the Pacific Crest Trail is aptly named; it doesn’t often traverse valleys, and, as a result, it avoids areas where life is most plentiful.  As the PCT headed deeper into Kings Canyon National Park, I found myself struck by the starkness of my surroundings.

It’s not that there weren’t green things around; there were.  But, there weren’t forests.  The trees were far apart, and there was no understory, even where sunlight reached the ground, which was surprisingly sandy and pebbly.  The scale of the scenery remained expansive.  Granite peaks towered over the trail imposingly, and valleys stretched on for miles.  Rocky paths took us up foreboding mountain passes, bereft of alpine flowers.  I’d thought that when I found myself in the wilderness that once mesmerized Ansel Adams and John Muir I would feel that I’d “come home to a place I’d never been before.”  (Bonus: This is the summer of my 27th year, so it would have been perfect!)

The fact is that the Sierra, beautiful though it may be, is not my home.

This is what I came to appreciate after I, tired and dizzy from Lyme, fell near Rae Lakes, breaking my big toe and spraining my ankle in the process.  Thanks to the help of Pine Nut and two members of a hiking group called “The Fellowship” (who played “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to determine who would carry my pack), I made it 1.6 miles over the next two days.  There, Pine Nut and I set up camp at Middle Rae Lake, where we had easy access to water for drinking and foot soaking, a bear box for storing the scented items that wouldn’t fit in our bear canisters, shaded “durable surfaces” to lay out our tents, and a ranger station 0.4 miles away.

Alpine Shooting Star and Middle Rae Lake

Alpine Shooting Star and Middle Rae Lake

On the day after we arrived at Middle Rae Lake, Pine Nut went to ask the ranger about the nearest exit to civilization, in case I needed to take advantage of it.  After talking with Sam Webster, she returned with details about the trail to Road’s End — and a book to take my mind off my toe, ankle, and progressing relapse of Lyme disease, The Last Season.

Written by Eric Blehm, The Last Season is the story of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger who went missing in the Sierra, just a few miles from our camp.  As I dove into the book, thankful for the distraction, I soon learned the book was so much more than that:  It was the tale of one man’s love affair with the wilderness I was living in.

Without any reason to rush the reading, I savored the excerpts of Morgenson’s journals that Blehm included in his book.  I read Morgenson’s descriptions of the gentian in alpine meadows, the silver bellies of fish jumping out of the water for bugs, the magical alpenglow on the cathedral peaks.  And then, as I sat on a rock next to the lake, alternately soaking and elevating my foot as I read, I witnessed each of Morgenson’s favorite parts of the wilderness firsthand.

I also read about how Morgenson, having dreamed of exploring Alaska and the Himalayas for years, excitedly packed his backpack and realized his dream.  I read of how he was astonished and impressed but how, upon returning to the Sierra, he wondered why he’d ever left, as the mountains he’d grown up near were the mountains that had captured his heart.  It struck me that someone felt about the Sierra the way I do about the White Mountains, and that made me feel fonder toward the wilderness surrounding me.

And, as time went on, I began to channel a bit of Morgenson’s love of the Sierra.

Middle Rae Lake

Middle Rae Lake

It didn’t hurt that I came to know Middle Rae Lake well as I rested beside it.  I knew the way the shadows moved across the campsite.  I knew the best places to go to avoid mosquitoes and the peaks that shown most beautifully after sunset.  I knew the marmot family that were our neighbors and the chipmunk that came calling every night just before dinner.

A summer spent thru-hiking is characterized by near-constant movement.  Hikers are always hiking onward or heading to town; there are too many miles to hike before the snows come to allow us to stay in any place long.  Because of its rarity, one of my favorite pleasures on the trail is sleeping in the same place twice.  As we took a 1.28-mile nero and two zeroes beside Middle Rae Lake, the Southern Sierra began to feel a bit homey to me.

When it became apparent that I needed medical assistance, I packed up and hiked on, but not without wishing my goodbyes to Rae Lakes.

No rain, no pain…

There’s a popular saying on the Appalachian Trail: “No rain, no pain, no Maine.” It suggests that a hiker who chooses not to walk through rain or pain will never get to the trail’s northern terminus in one year. I think I was under the impression that all of the rain veteran hikers spoke of was going to fall before I got to Maine, but that wasn’t the case. What they didn’t tell me is that I’d be met with a whole lot of rain in Maine — and pain, for that matter.

And, when the water falling out of the sky isn’t enough to soak you, Maine is riddled with river and stream crossings and trailside ponds.

Before I go further, it’s important to point out that I love hiking in Maine. Even through the rain and pain, I appreciated the rugged natural beauty of the state on my thru-hike, and I have spent part of each of the last four summers hiking in it. The Hundred-Mile Wilderness is one of my favorite places in the world, and I intend to continue hiking it as a summer tradition (whenever I’m not on another long trail).

One of the greatest things about hiking in Maine is visiting its glacial ponds. The AT passes by a couple dozen of these ponds, sometimes going so close that hikers walk on the sand at their shores and other times passing out of view of the ponds, which are accessible by short side trails. On warm and sunny days, these ponds, with their silence and stillness, make ideal swimming holes. Lying on their hidden beaches and swimming in their brilliant blue waters evokes a sense of complete solitude, peace, and blessedness. My favorite non-mountainous spot on the AT is on the shore of one of Maine’s ponds.

But, Maine is definitely not all sunshine and rainbows.

The sign at the south end of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness

The sign at the south end of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness

In that state, the Appalachian Trail crosses numerous large streams and rivers. Before you say it, I know, they’re nothing like the swollen streams from Sierra snowmelt, but they can still be dramatic.

The first time I walked through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness (which wasn’t in 2012 because of my broken foot), it had been a very rainy summer. Before entering that famous stretch of trail, I’d spent a sunny afternoon resupplying and talking on the phone at Greenville and had just climbed into the SUV in which I was hitching back to the trail when the skies opened up.

I walked up to the “Welcome to the Hundred-Mile Wilderness — Prepare to die” sign in a deluge. Having waited two years to see that sign, I instantly got choked up at the sight of it, but my tears were indistinguishable from the raindrops coursing down my face. I snapped a picture of the sign with my waterproof camera and entered the Wilderness.

A soggy trail in Maine

A soggy trail in Maine

After wading down the trail for three miles, I spotted the shelter where I intended to camp. There was one problem: The shelter was on the other side of a ravine, through which was gushing a very narrow, whitewater stream.

I stuck one of my trekking poles into the water, working to push it down rather than letting the water force it sideways. The ravine was rocky and clogged with logs and branches; I was worried that I’d get my ankle wedged under debris as I tried to cross it. I considered camping on the south side of the little ravine, but the allure of being under the roof of the shelter in the deluge was too great. Acknowledging that I had the attention of a boy who was camping with his dad at the shelter and would take notice if I was washed away by the surging stream, I stepped into the water, which flowed around my waist, and climbed onto the opposite bank.

When I returned to the Wilderness the following year, the stream in the ravine was flowing gently, and I almost didn’t believe that crossing it had been so treacherous a year earlier.

Preparing to cross a gentle stream in Maine

Preparing to cross a gentle stream in Maine

That has been the case with many of the streams in Maine that I’ve repeatedly hiked through. During wet seasons, I have carefully forded streams that reached to my waist or higher — or camped on the south side of them and waited for the water to subside a bit — but, in dry times, those same streams were barely mid-shin deep.

Conversational blue blaze: More than anything else in the woods, water crossings used to terrify me. I’d fallen into a frigid stream in New Hampshire in 2010 and been pinned under a rock for long enough to scare myself; since then, I’d had a petrifying fear that approached phobia status. I didn’t get a chance to test my fear on the bridges of the southern Appalachian Trail, but I had to face it head-on in Maine. At first, I’d only crossed streams if other people were around. Then, I’d come to the curious conclusion that I was actually less nervous if I intentionally walked into the streams, rather than attempting to rock hop over them. Finally, I became the capable stream crosser that the number of miles I’ve hiked would seem to indicate that I am.

And, that is a huge improvement, as it allows me to enjoy all that the Maine woods have to offer.

A sandy beach in the Maine woods

A sandy beach in the Maine woods

Q&A: How to Avoid Getting Giardia

Earlier today, I was talking about the PCT with some friends of my family, and they started asking me about the terrifying wildlife I might see along the trail. Their worries were of encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and bears. Honestly, it’s not those creatures that make me anxious; if my battle with Lyme Disease has taught me anything, it’s that it’s the little guys that you’ve got to be afraid of: ticks, the air-borne fungus that causes Valley Fever, and Giardia. DSCF7268

I’m of the opinion that, anytime you’re dealing with living creatures, it’s impossible to speak in terms of absolutes. I doubt that a certain series of behaviors could completely prevent the contraction of Giardia; however, there are some behaviors that can mitigate your risk.

First of all, there’s personal hygiene. In thinking about how to be clean in the woods, I’m reminded of Disney’s Mulan: “Just because I look like a man doesn’t mean I have to smell like one.”

I know a couple people who, when they’re backpacking, are capable of looking like they just stepped into the woods for a day-hike. Most of us aren’t that lucky. Fortunately, you don’t have to look like part of an REI ad to lessen your risk of contracting Giardia.

At the risk of sounding like a preschool teacher, the best thing you can do is keep your hands clean. Clean them after cat-holing and before eating. Wet Ones and alcohol swabs are perennial favorites for many hikers; just be certain to pack out any wipes you use.

That said, the fact is that your own body’s cooties are far less likely to make you sick than those from another person. And, that’s why there’s a saying on the trail that Booksmarts taught me back in 2011: “The communal gorp bag is poured from, not reached into.” If you’re fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of some trail magic from another hiker, don’t stick your hand into the bag to extract some Reese’s Pieces, blueberries, or Swedish Fish. Instead, pour out a handful.

Since Giardia can be water-borne, choosing water sources carefully goes a long way toward reducing a backpacker’s risk of getting sick. I remember meeting two young guys early on my hike of the Appalachian Trail who were excited to get to a river that we were due to cross later that morning, since that’s where they were planning to fill up their water bottles. I questioned their plan, suggesting drinking from any of the little streams and springs we’d be passing before then, but they explained that they love quick-flowing, large sources of water.

In my mind, the Potomac, which flows very quickly and is very large, is not the paragon of water sources.

Small sources draining small watersheds can be very good water sources. It’s important to consider the watershed that is supporting a given water source. Does the land around the water seem healthy? Is there a good plant cover (i.e., grasses, herbaceous plants, etc.) that filters rainwater? Are there any dead animals or obvious animal fecal matter in the vicinity? Are there cow pastures or herbicide/pesticide-laden farm fields upstream? Be water-aware, and you’re likely to find good drinking water.

Most thru-hikers will agree that one of their favorite things about long-distance hiking is tasting water from mountain springs. Fresh, cold water is such a simple gift, but it’s something we certainly appreciate. Some springs have dramatic flow rates, where water gushes out of rock (sometimes through a channeling pipe, soda bottle, or curled leaf. Other springs just look like puddles of water.DSCF3592

While stagnant water is not a preferable water source, the puddle-variety of spring, with a steady stream of “new” water bubbling up from the earth, is great.

Now, I say all this, and in a couple months I’ll be departing on the Pacific Crest Trail, where water sources include a cattle trough, several horse- and cattle-frequented streams, and cisterns where chipmunks have drowned. A number of ultralight hikers insist on hiking sans water treatment, but I know that my compromised immune system would never tolerate that.

I definitely have enjoyed live water when I have seen a spring’s source or in some unfrequented high elevation streams; however, Giardia and its partner-in-crime, Crytosporidium, have been cultured and contracted from even these sorts of water sources, as several of my hiking friends and this blogger can attest to.

Some hikers feel that being cautious about hygiene and water sources takes some of the fun out of backpacking and leaves them feeling out-of-touch with the natural world. I appreciate that perspective, but, especially because of my tendency to get sick easily, I’d rather take risks in climbing Mount Whitney, attempting consecutive “marathon days,” crossing snowmelt-swollen streams, and meeting new people while hiking and hitchhiking. And, I’ve really had it with microbes.

Fellow hikers, have you had any run-ins with microbes while in the backcountry?  How do you avoid them?