June 11 (~08:00 – ~20:00)
Tentsite before Whitewater Creek Trail junction – Red Lake (off-trail) (approx. 19.3 mi)
Total PCT miles: n/a
Weather: Sunny and warm.
I’m oddly in love with my campsite. It’s burnt but it’s spacious and I had a great rest here. I’m camped just before the turnoff to the Whitewater Creek trail, and any hesitation to remain on the PCT after all, is quickly dissipated once I start walking, and hit snow immediately. It’s nothing too fear-inducing – I put on my spikes and walk on top of it, but it’s still snow. I don’t know what it’ll be like several miles further up. And I know I want to be out of it. I just can’t deal with anymore.
I almost miss the turnoff to the Whitewater Creek trail, and find it still closed from the previous year’s fires. The barrier tape is buried under the snow, and I step across, not liking the idea of going into an area I’m not supposed to, again. But the trail surprises me – it’s in perfect condition. After the initial snow I move up the mountain and into a quiet, burnt forest.
After a few miles I link up to the Triangulation trail, where the forest slowly goes green again, and then the Crag trail. Less than 3 miles but no longer maintained – and that becomes painfully clear. The trail conditions vary from merely overgrown to lined with beautiful pink flowers to overwhelmed with downed trees and bushes, which get worse the closer I get to the end. I stop caring about scratches and cuts and force myself through the debris of dead and burnt forest, my white shirt covered in charcoal, my legs red from being grazed mercilessly.
The final challenge proves the river crossing just before hitting the forest road – my first real river crossing, and I’m not even on the PCT. The Breitenbush River is swift and thigh high, and I can barely reach it through the jungle of forest. Giant trees have fallen across, but they are too big to climb and walk across. I have to bushwhack back and forth for some time to find a smaller tree lying across the river, which I hold onto tightly as I wade across. Then, the effort to find my way back to the trail on the other side. Once I reach the trailhead, I am a complete mess.
Finally I’m out. I’ve walked less than 7 miles along these trails and it’s taken me a record 6 hours. Just the idea that I can continue along a forest road now takes a huge weight off my shoulders. When I first considered leaving the Mt Jefferson snow behind me, I considered hitching ahead. But I knew that meant it would be a logistical nightmare to return to hike just this section, and I’d probably end up having to skip it. However, if I roadwalk around, I’d still have done the section, I’d still end up with that continuous trail going up the country. So I decided to opt for the long walk around.
I connect to the forest development road, but first stick to a parallel trail that runs through the woods next to it. Then I think, screw it, I’m sick of walking through the forest, and I switch to the road, a deserted gravel road that is spacious and feels oh so amazing to walk on. Something simple, without any obstacles. It feels like bliss.
After a few hours I join Forest Road 46, a sealed road with little traffic. Two people stop and ask if I’m okay, very willing to turn around and drive me to wherever I need to be, but I decline appreciatively. I’m going to roadwalk back to the PCT, I’m going to walk around the snow. I put in my earplugs and listen to the few songs I have on my phone, eager to focus and increase my speed. But even though I enjoy the flat, hard surface, my feet are sore. They are raw from the wet socks of the previous days and every step burns my soles. I feel like I’ve been walking a lot more miles than I have, and annoyingly, the road does a continual ascend I keep underestimating.
It’s already early evening when I finally reach Mt Hood National Forest, and I walk the very last, slow and painful miles up to the start of Red Lake trail, where I barely manage to shuffle my way to its eponymous lake, and call it a day. I’m only a short hike away from the PCT now, a short snowless hike. I’m almost there. I set up next to the lake where the mosquitoes are vicious and the biggest ticks I’ve ever seen terrorise me by walking across the netting of my inner tent. I huddle inside all night. I’m looking forward to being back on the PCT.