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Ryan’s Great Adventures
Volume 50: Sat August 21, 2004
I know I promised more sordid details about Amanda high school reunion and the Carolina adventures, but that will have to wait until after I finish the Wonderland Trail. For now, though, I hope you don't mind this tale of danger, woe, and excitement....
The day started at 6:00am to the sounds of an alarm clock. Today, I thought, I'd be hiking the famed Wonderland Trail. I wanted to get to the ranger station by 8:30, when it opened, to get permits for the trip before all the sites I wanted were full.
I took my last shower which would have to do for the next week. Some last minute packing. Some last minute scrambling, as Amanda prefers to call it. And we were on our way.
I asked Amanda to drive so I could plan out my itinerary on the way to the ranger station. The drive was non-eventful even with the large topo map of Mount Rainier spread out on the passenger side.
And we got to the ranger station in Wilkeson just as it was opening, and only a small group of three people were ahead of us.
So we thought.
They were actually organizing a backpacking trip for 12 kids. The problem with that is that there are a limited number of campsites that can handle of group of that size. And those that can were booked months in advance by more intelligent specimens of the human race. The discussions between them seemed endless.
"What if we break the group into two smaller ones?" (A party of six still requires a group site at each campground.)
"Do only related people count as part of the group?" (This is SUCH a stupid question, I won't even deign to make fun of it. Frankly, I'm in awe of such stupidity.)
Finally, a half hour later, it looked like they got things worked out. Until the ranger, Eric, went to type up the itinerary. Their selection for their first campground was taken in the time it took to work out their plans.
Damn! Needless to say, they started the process over again. From scratch.
Even worse, I thought, was how many of the sites that *I* wanted were filling up with people getting backcountry permits at other ranger stations around the park?
The old man—with a goiter on the back of his head that looked like it was talking whenever he nodded his head—explained that he wanted to start on a trail where some of the kids could quit and get out easily if it turned out they weren't up to the challenge.
I wanted to shake his bony little frame and yell, "You, dumbass! If you wait until the last minute to plan a backpacking trip for a group of TWELVE, you better take what you can get NOW or you won't get anything at all! And neither will I at this rate!"
I held my tongue as the ranger explained just that—though in much nicer words.
"The kids will sure be disappointed if they can't do this trip."
Yeah, like the ranger can increase the capacity of the campsites at a moment's notice—for the kids....
Just tell the kids the truth: You're a DUMBASS and fucked it up for them!
Over an hour after starting this interminable wait, the dumbasses finally got a backpacking trip together, though it definitely wasn't what they initially planned on.
My turn at last, I explained to the ranger about the route I'd like to take. Took all of five minutes to get my permit and get on the road again.
My route was an extension of the Wonderland Trail. I'd take off from Sunrise, make roughly a figure 8 loop through the Northern Loop and Spray Park Trails taking me out to Mowich Lake, where I'd catch the Wonderland Trail back to Sunrise, crossing over where the Northern Loop and Spray Park Trails intersect. From there, I'd continue hiking the Wonderland Trail clockwise around Mount Rainier, coming out at Mowich Lake to complete the big loop where Amanda would be waiting for me ten days later to whisk me off the trail.
She's quite experience at that, you know. =)
We continued the drive to Sunrise along which we got our first views of this amazing mountain they call Rainier.
At Sunrise, I repacked some of my food now that I knew exactly where I would be and when. Rather than carry ten days worth of food, I decided to leave two food drops along the way. Sunrise was especially convenient since I'd be returning there in four days after completing the Figure 8. The second food drop Amanda was drive to Paradise and leave at the ranger station there.
Then it was time to hit the trail. Amanda and I said our goodbyes, she took some 'before' pictures of me, then I hit the trail.
It got off to a bad start. Besides the delay at the ranger station that caused me to get on the trail late—about five after noon.
The trailheads at Sunrise are not well-labeled. Actually, they aren't labeled at all. And for about five minutes I found myself hiking a route that seemed suspiciously like it was in the wrong direction.
After getting myself back on the right trail, I started enjoying myself a bit more. The sun was out. The mountain was as beautiful as ever. So close it seemed like you could touch it!
I was definitely still in tourist country as I past a number of day hikers while carrying my 35 pound pack. Nice, I thought, even after no serious hiking since getting off the AT eleven months earlier, I could still walk circles around the day hikers. =)
At one trail intersection, I talked with a couple who were fascinated at the thought I'd be hiking completely around the mountain. I was beginning to feel like a celebrity hiking this trail!
I continued along into a valley of wildflowers. Thunder rolling ominously in the distance. Another few miles later, I stop at a nice viewpoint and made myself a couple of peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
My, those are some mean looking clouds I thought. I better get a move on! I get up, put on my pack, just as the first drops of rain start to hit.
Two things hit me at this point. First, I need to put a few items in my pack into Ziplock bags before they get wet. The weather forecast I saw at the ranger station did NOT predict rain that afternoon, so I wasn't as thorough in waterproofing my pack as I usually was.
And second, I realized to my great dismay, in the hustle and bustle at leaving for the trail at six in the morning, I left my trusty umbrella behind. I had no protection from the rain!
I flash of lightning streaked directly overhead, and a powerful thunder shook the trees. Most exciting!
After getting my pack waterproofed, I headed back down the trail. The light sprinkle became a drenching downpour. I met a ranger hiking out from his backcountry station for the day, and he interrogated me about where I started from and where I was going. Then he asked to see my permit.
He looked at it for a minute or so, mentally picturing my route, before looking up and telling me that he'd never heard of anyone doing the route I had planned before. It was the best compliment he could have paid me. =) I always knew I was special, and it's nice to get confirmation. ;o)
We said our goodbyes and I continued down the trail. The heavy rain turned into a heavy hail the size of a thumbnail. It was an interesting turn of events.
On the plus side, hail would bounce off me onto the ground and melt, so it wasn't as wet. On the minus side, it STUNG! And I didn't even have my trusty umbrella for protection. But on the plus side, it could have been worse... I was in the thicket of trees that blunted the hail from hitting me at terminal velocity. Most of the day, I had been out in the open where the hail would have hurt much more.
Best thing to do was to hurry down the trail and my campsite....
Along the way, I met two girls huddled on the side of a tree with a large, heavy coat under their heads. I couldn't help but laugh at the strange sight, since I doubted the heavy coat could possibly protect them from the rain and lightning.
I walked up and 'knocked' on the coat. "Hello? Anyone there?" =)
They offered a space under the coat, which I declined because I was more interested in getting into camp to wait out the hail and rain. They asked about the campsite they were staying at—about a mile behind me—and I asked about mine—about four miles ahead. *sigh*
Eventually, the hail let up. Then the rain let up. And finally the thunder could be heard in the far distance.
I walked into camp, James Camp, grateful that my wet, soggy day was over. Upon setting up camp, I discovered one, very important thing I had forgotten to get in a Ziplock: The toilet paper. Well, that's gonna be fun the next time I have to do my thing in the woods....
I changed into dry clothes, then proceeded up to the group campsite to introduce myself to the only other people at the camp. I was feeling a bit lonely, truth be told, and wanted some people to chat with.
It was a group of eight people who signed up with REI Adventures from all over the country. I dazzled them with tails of my trail adventure. They dazzled me by pretending to laugh. It was good times for all!
Finally I said goodbye I went back to my campsite to call it a night.
The next morning I woke up to bright sunshine. Surely, I thought, this was a good omen!
I packed up and headed out. An hour out the trail climbed up and out of the trees to a phenomenal 360 degree view of mountains and glaciers and a wildflower display you'd always see in pictures of Backpacker magazine. Wow.
But it was also about this time I realized that this day's hike wouldn't be fun. My knees started to hurt. Bad. Especially the right one. I found that as long as I didn't bend them, it was no problem. So I started my 2,000 foot descent down the mountain awkwardly without bending my knees. It wasn't easy, and my time slowed to a crawl.
At the bottom of the mountain—I finally did something I'd never done before on a hike—I popped a couple of aspirin. On the AT, there were two places where my knees hurt, and my solution to the problem was to quit hiking. There was no permit system that required me to camp at specific shelters, so if I hurt, I stopped. That was not an option on this hike. I had to reach Eagle's Roost that night. My permit required it.
So I popped a couple of aspirin and continued on. The trail crossed a wonderfully, rickety suspension bridge with a scary looking sign warning that only one person at a time should cross, and heaven forbid—whatever you do—don't jump up and down on it!
I'd still be inclined to jump once or twice, except for my poor, broken knees didn't allow it.
Then it was heading back uphill—another depressing 3,000 feet straight up. Good Lord, I thought, the White Mountains weren't even this bad, and this time I'm flabby and and not conditioned for such strenuous hiking.
After climbing about 1,000 feet, I stopped. I just couldn't go any farther. I was running low on water. I hadn't eaten lunch yet. And I was becoming despondent that I was physically incapable of reaching my assigned campsite for the night. So I did what any hiker would have done: I took a nap.
I slept for what seemed like a half hour, and felt a hundred times better for it. I ate a Pop Tart and a stick of string cheese, and charged up the mountain.
I reached a campsite, Cataract Valley, where I filled up my water and startled a poor hiker sleeping in his underwear—the only hiker at the campsite. I seriously contemplated staying there for the night. It was a beautiful campsite. Mine was another five miles away—requiring an additional 1,500 feet of elevation gain, plus another 1,000 feet back down. But I finally pulled myself together and hit the trail once again.
Oh, how my knees hurt. After another two miles of hiking, I popped another two aspirins. I don't think they did a bit of good as a hobbled, stiff-legged, over the trail. The views from the top were nothing short of amazing. One hiker I passed predicted that I'd forget about my knees once I saw the view. They were wrong.
And finally, at 8:00 at night, over five hours behind scheduled, I stumbled into camp. Eagles Roost. I had made it! I set up my tarp and immediately went to sleep. I didn't even have the energy to make something for dinner.
Eagles Roost is aptly named, resting on the edge of a very steep cliff. It's kind of surprising that they built a campsite there at all, really.
I woke up the next morning sore, but optimistic. My next camp was just under ten miles away, and except for one precipitous 1,000 foot drop, appeared largely flat on the topo map. It was my plan to get into camp early, rest for the remainder of the day, and be as good as new for the next day.
I got a leisurely start—no rush for only ten miles, after all. I took my time breaking down camp. The first few days on a long-distance hike like this causes a severe lack of appetite, a fact that I forgot about while planning my food supply.
The previous morning, I threw away half my breakfast because I just couldn't stomach it. Eating nothing more than two Pop Tarts and a couple of cheese sticks for lunch, and skipping dinner completely. And I went to sleep not feeling the least bit hungry.
It was like that when I first started the AT as well, but I forgot. After three days on the AT, however, my appetite came roaring back, and I expect the same to happen on this trip.
Learning my lesson from the morning before, I prepared only half my allocated cereal for breakfast, and figured I'd make the other half if I was still hungry. I wasn't, though, and stored the other half for another day.
Then it was time to head down the hill. Mowich Lake was only two easy miles away, and I wanted to see it. This lake would also mark the end of my counter-clockwise circle around Rainier. I'd pick up the Wonderland Trail there and start heading clockwise around the mountain. It was at Mowich Lake I finally would 'start' my hike, and it was at Mowich Lake I would end it eight days later—if all went according to plan.
The lake was scenic, as to be expected, though much more crowded with tourists than I expected.
I found the Wonderland Trail and continued on to Ipsut Pass with a commanding view straight down a 1,000+ foot cliff. The same cliff I'd have to hike down. My knees begged my brain not to do it, but I did. I nicknamed it Up Shit Pass, and I doubt I was the first to think of that clever play on words.
The trail down this cliff was overgrown with flowers and three-foot tall weeds that scraped against my bare legs. The sun beat down without the protective tree cover as before. Twice I lost my footing as one foot missed the trail and my leg dangled over the side—while I desperately clutched to thorny plants to arrest my fall.
It was hell.
But I did make it down that precipitous slope, and I stopped by a babbling brook to rest. In the protective shade of some of the oldest trees in the park. I was in a rain forest now, an area that allegedly gets 140 inches of precipitation per year, among trees over 1000 years old.
And I took a nap. I deserved it!
I spent a half hour that way, sprawled out on a log begging for hikers to sprawl on it before continuing my journey.
The rest of the way was rather non-eventful. I met numerous day hikers who I watched with envy at their incredibly light packs. Whenever they asked how I was doing, I'd honestly tell them that I've felt better—a fact I figured they'd have picked up on with my stiff-legged walk.
I also met a couple of backpackers going the other direction, who I warned to turn back while they still could, but they laughed it off as if the advice came from a raving lunatic. Maybe it did. It's hard to tell.
The day hikers were almost universally fascinated by my hike around the mountain, asking lots of stupid questions like if I was really planning to wear tennis shoes the whole way. (I answered that one, "Well, it's better than going barefoot!")
These were the EXACT same questions I'd get from tourists while hiking the AT. Some things never change.
I limped into camp just after four in the afternoon—after eating just half a Pop Tart the entire day. I just couldn't stomach anything for lunch and forced that half-Pop Tart down my throat. I quit only because I felt like I'd throw it up if I forced the other half down—and that would truly be a waste!
After arriving at camp, Carbon River Camp, I set up my tarp and promptly went to sleep. I was assigned the group site, a spacious area with make-shift chairs, since that was the only site left when I made my reservations.
A little after four o'clock is a bit early to go to sleep—even by my exhausted standards—so I got up again an hour or two later and made dinner: One PB&J sandwich. It was all I could force down my throat.
I did my thing at the privy—an open-air experience that meant you didn't want to take your time or else you'd get caught on the crapper. Not on my to-do list that day!
Then wandered over to the water supply—at the base of a beautiful waterfall. That was a water supply with class! Then I killed another couple of hours reading and typing this adventure before it got so dark I went back to sleep.
I needed my rest anyhow. I had a long day planned the next morning.
I woke up early knowing it would be a long, painful day to Sunrise Camp. I ate my half-allotment of cereal, packed up camp, and headed out.
The suspension bridge I had passed two days before I had the pleasure of using a second time, completing the middle of the figure 8 loop I was making. Being well rested, I even had the audacity to jump and down a couple of times, though my knees did lodge a protest against the rest of my body.
Then it was up a steep, painful mountain passing within 500 feet of Carbon Glacier—the largest in the 48 states, so they say. It was impressive and disappointing at the same time. All that snow and ice you see in those beautiful pictures were covered with rocks, dirt, and debris. Except at the very end of the glacier where it melted off into the Carbon River, you couldn't see the snow or ice at all! Just a rocky, moon-like landscape. But still, it was interesting to see an active glacier up close and personal—even if it didn't match up with my preconceived notions.
Upwards and onwards—that would be my motto for the day. The trail continued through a nice meadow with stunning views of Mount Rainier before dipping (briefly) to Mystic Lake—as beautiful and exotic as its name implies.
I laid down and wanted to die. God how my knees were hurting....
Looking at my trusty topo map and calculating that at my interminably slow speed of one mile per hour, it was absolutely impossible to make it to Sunrise Camp before dark. If I could make it at all.
There was a ranger cabin .2 miles off the trail at Mystic Lake, so I wandered over to see if I could find myself a ranger and—hypothetically, of course—what would happen if I couldn't make it to my assigned campsite for the night.
Alas, there was no ranger in site, but damn! They sure got one phenomenal view from up there! A register was handing on the wall there which I read a couple of pages of, but didn't really care about signing myself, so I didn't.
The next campsite was five miles away—Granite Creek—a distance I knew I could make, even in my hobbled, handicapped state. I put on my pack and started on once again—and just started sobbing.
This was not what I had in mind, of course. I was now unable to reach my assigned campsite and had no hope of ever catching up to the ambitious schedule I had planned. And I thought about how sad Amanda would be when I called her the next day to say I had failed—I wouldn't succeed in my Wonderland hike. Not this year, at least. I didn't want to tell her that. I didn't want to call her and ask her to pick me up. And I just started sobbing. It was the low point of my trip.
But you know, when you're not having fun anymore, it is best to get off the trail. And hell, I wanted one of those Taco Time burritos so badly, I could have killed for one. (Well, killed a chipmunk, perhaps. They were annoying me anyhow.)
I started thinking about alternatives. What if I took a couple of days off to let my knees rest, then get back on the trail? Where could I pick it up? Of course, that really depended on how long it took my knees to recuperate.
I continued along the trail in a funk. What choice did I have? I'd try to squat at Granite Creek campsite, then hobble into Sunrise—an additional 5.5 miles away—the next day to call Amanda to pick me up.
The trail passed a second glacier, Winthrop Glacier, just as amazing and disappointing as the first one. Every backpacker I passed now offered me aspirin. I must be looking worse than ever, I thought.
And finally, I was at the Granite Creek campsite. The group site was full of those REI Adventure people I had met my first night out, so I hobbled over to say hi. Not like I could set up camp just yet until I knew which ones would be occupied by people who actually had permits for the sites.
We swapped war stories—mine consisting of the tortuous route with the bum knees. Theirs consisted of gourmet meals and slow, leisurely hikes.
Then one of them came by and asked me to leave. I was shocked. Stunned. She said it was their last night together, and they wanted 'alone time' to spend it together. Because the last five night just weren't enough, presumably. As if I was going to spend the night with them or something.
I was mad. I'm not even sure the others agreed with the sentiment—a few seemed rather happy to see me. It was just so rude I was tempted to spit on the woman.
I held back, but said I needed to make dinner anyhow, so it was probably a good time to leave anyhow.
I went back to one of the individual campsites and met up with a couple of hikers I had met at the Carbon River campsite while getting water. I told them I was waiting to see if the sites filled up or not before setting up camp since I wasn't actually supposed to be camping there that night.
They were very friendly, and even offered to let me squeeze into their campsite should the others fill. Well, at least I knew I was guaranteed a spot for the night! But I didn't want to crash their party either, and hoped the other campsite didn't fill. I was highly optimistic, actually, since every campsite I had stayed in so far had empty spots. And so far as I knew, nobody else was heading to Granite Creek for the night.
But of course, I was wrong. At sunset, deciding it was safe to set up camp, I did so. And as Murphy surely predicted, five minutes after I set up my tarp, a couple of hikers came in and dreams of a successful squat came to an end.
I introduced myself and explained the situation, and they didn't seem to mind if I shared their site. With only two people at that site, there was far more room than the other individual site bursting with four.
I amused them with wild trail tails of yesteryear—or tried to, at least, hoping they'd like the break of talking to each other every night. (It was their eighth night on the trail.)
We chatted until long after dark before heading to sleep, sleeping only because it was too cold to hang around chatting anymore.
As I was breaking camp the next morning, a couple of the REI guys wished my knees well. The leader of the group apologized for not offering dinner the night before. He knew it wasn't hospitable, but they were short on food and there were grumbling stomachs to feed.
Which didn't bother me at all—I'd rather have eaten my own food (I did eat some uncooked quesadillas the night before) instead of continued to carry it. Heck, with the lack of food I'd been eating, I'd have gladly given much of mine away!
The women that asked me to leave the night before didn't even say bye as she walked past. Definitely bitch material. *nodding*
The trail out of Granite Creek was wonderfully graded and easy to walk, so I made pretty good time coming out. Before long, it broke out over treeline to a beautiful sunny day with more phenomenal views of Rainier. I even spotted Mount Baker way in the distant horizon.
And a couple of hours later, I had made it back to Sunrise—where I had started my hike four days earlier. First thing to do: Call Amanda and ask to be picked up.
She was sad to learn of my predicament as I expected, but like the angel she is, said she'd be right out.
Then I went into the snack bar and ordered myself a chili dog and a fountain drink. I needed it! And OH MY GOD it was good.
The power went out briefly halfway through my meal—causing a brief panic among the patrons. Pretty silly, I thought, but then I'd been on the trail for the last five days where electricity was the least of my concerns.
The place was pretty crowded, and I offered to share the table I was at with a family of four who were camping in the area. I told them about my Wonderland woes—though they seemed more impressed by how far I had hiked rather than my failed attempt at the Wonderland.
I hobbled out of the snack bar—down the wheelchair ramp rather than the stairs—and to the ranger station to pick up my food cache. It was closed, so I went up to the Visitor Center where a kind-hearted ranger walked back to the ranger station with me to allow me to collect my food cache.
That done, it was time to hitch a ride to the entrance station for this part of the park. As luck would have it, I bumped into the nice group of four who offered to share their campsite with me the night before and asked if they could drop me off at the entrance station on their way out of the park.
I described Amanda's car to the driver and asked if he could flash his lights if we passed her on the road. I told Amanda to look for me at the entrance station first and if I wasn't there yet, I'd try to get her attention if we passed on the road.
At every red car that was coming from the other direction, they'd ask, "Is that it?" Then, as some sort of game, another one would reply, "No, that car is too new," or, "No, the car is too big."
We made it down to the entrance station without passing her. They dropped me off, and I had them cancel the next two nights on my permit but leaving everything else as it was originally schedule—for now. Then I sat down and started typing the rest of my adventures to date on my PocketMail device to kill time until Amanda arrived.
It seems Amanda and I must have crossed paths in that brief period of time I was leaving the parking lot at Sunrise and she was arriving, because an hour later she came down the mountain looking for me after not finding me at Sunrise. And I know we didn't pass her on the road—every car we passed had five sets of eyes scrutinizing every car we passed! And in the two minutes I left my post at Sunrise to get into the vehicle, Amanda must have just arrived.
Anyhow, we had finally caught up with each other and that was the important thing. I threw my pack into the back seat and strapped in. Amanda started up and car and drove off. We heard a thump on the roof as we passed the entrance station, but didn't think much of it until much later....
An hour back towards Seattle, Amanda pulled over to fill up the tank of her car, and I got to use the facilities since we were stopping anyhow. I went to get up, and I realized my PocketMail device wasn't in the fanny pack I had in my lap the whole time. Now where did it run off to? I looked down by my feet, and in the backseat where I had put my pack. Then Amanda's eyes bulged and she blurted out, "The thump! You put it on the car!" And I replied that was nonsense—I'd never put something like my PocketMail on the top of a car, because I forget stuff I put on the car. So I don't do it!"
But she insisted she SAW the PocketMail on the top of the car. Oh, *edited for children*! I know I didn't pick anything up off the car....
Then I remembered how my hands were full trying to get the backpack into the backseat, and I must have set the Pocketmail down on the car to make it easier. And I forgot it was up there as we drove off. This was horrible! Even if it survived the fall from the car—an iffy proposition at best given the fact it's not designed to fly off of cars at high velocities—it's already been on the road for an hour, probably run over by cars.
It wasn't looking good. Finally, we decided we'd go back and see if we could find it, then figure out what to do from there. So Amanda drove me back up to the entrance station—where we arrived two hours after having left it and the Pocketmail device.
"Look! There it is!" We saw the black, leather case for it on the shoulder of the road.
Amanda pulled over and I jumped out, but alas, the case was empty. The PocketMail device itself had to be nearby somewhere. Amanda parked nearby and we started coming the shoulder for it. Amanda found it.
I took a look at it and, miraculously, it appeared to still work just fine! It was scrapped up pretty good on one corner, but otherwise seemed little harmed from its ordeal.
Then we got back in the car and started driving back to Seattle—again.
The rest of the trip was non-eventful, and that pretty much is where things are at today. Is this the end of the adventure? I hope not! I'm still planning to get back on the trail tomorrow (Sunday) if my knees are feeling better. But I'll just have to see how things pan out.
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