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The Wonderland Trail: Part I
Volume 62: Sun August 28, 2005
A short account of Rick and Ryan's gallant attempt to thru-hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier
Last year, as many of you might remember, I tried to thru-hike the Wonderland Trail, tried being the operative word. An extraordinary knee pain that left me nearly crippled, despite my valiant attempts to hobble on through the obstacles. It was not enough, however, to get me around that mountain, and I vowed to conquer it the next year.
For those keeping up with the math, this year is now that "next year," and I went back to revisit that mountain. I went back to finish the job I did not finish last year, and this is that story....
This time around, I'd be traveling with a partner: My brother-in-law, Rick. We did a brief overnight backpacking trip earlier in the year just south of Big Sur where I entertained him with my wild days on the Appalachian Trail and the awful days hobbling around on the Wonderland Trail. When he learned I'd be returning in August to conquer the mountain that had bested me, he asked if he was welcome to join the adventure and the rest, as they say, is history.
My hike, as it were, started in Seattle. My car, I'm sad to report, doesn't work especially well, and since Amanda was out of town working—pesky things that jobs are—I needed a rental car to get me around the next afternoon. I needed to make a quick drive around the Great Mountain first—both to pick up a wilderness permit for the hike and to drop off food caches along our route. So my hike actually started with a three-hour hike into downtown Seattle for a rental car. Oh, I could have taken a bus, but I could call the walk "training" and save the $1.25 taking a bus would have cost to boot. =)
And at the end of the day, I found myself in charge of a brand new Subaru—an upgrade, actually, because they were out of economy cars—with a bizarre gear shift that the lady at the rental car company had to explain to me how to use. I drove back to Amanda's place where I then prepared two food caches, loaded them into the trunk, and went to sleep early for a very, very early start the next day.
At 5:00 in the morning, it was time to get up. Oh, it was awful! I like to get up when I feel like getting up, and five in the morning is definitely not the time that happens. But campsites along the Wonderland Trail are in limited supply, and I wanted to be one of the first in line to get a permit. I ate a quick breakfast and was out the door.
The one bright side to getting up so early—Seattle traffic is still wonderfully light at that time of morning. I made it to Longmire in a record two hours—a trip that can take significantly longer had it been during the morning rush hour traffic. I arrived a few minutes after the Wilderness Information Center opened and a couple of groups of climbers were getting permits for their climb to the top of Mount Rainier. Bunch of wimps!
I say this because over 5000 people every year make it to the top of Mount Rainier. It's typically done by most people over a measly three days—one day of training, one day to Camp Muir (base camp), and summit day. And get this—from Paradise, following the route most people who summit Mount Rainier go, involves a paltry 9000 foot elevation gain. Thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail is a far more difficult and strenuous activity—only two to three hundred people a year complete it, usually in a period of about ten days, and it requires well over 20,000 feet in elevation gain to complete. What more proof does one need to see that the Wonderland Trail is the far bigger challenge? =) (Please note, however, if or when I ever climb to the top of Mount Rainier, I'll have a very persuasive argument about why that feat is the bigger challenge!)
After a brief wait, I was at the front of the line. I selected an itinerary that would last 12 days—far slower than I would have preferred, but after last year's fiasco, I decided slow, boring days were far preferable to long, painful days that could knock me off the trail for a second year in a row. But alas, the Indian Bar camp that I had requested was already full. Oh, well, I'd just have to book it to Nickel Creek instead and have one particularly long day.
I asked the ranger about fishing regulations since Rick was planning to try his luck with the fish and was told that if there's not a sign prohibiting it, one is pretty much free to fish as much and wherever they want. I even picked a couple of campsites near some lakes just so Rick could spend the afternoon wrestling with fish, including one at Snow Lake more than a mile off of the Wonderland Trail.
Having been told last year that the Devil's Dream campsite was especially mosquito prone, I also checked with the ranger about the bugs or any campsites I might be better off avoiding. "The bugs are bad everywhere," the ranger explained in an ominous voice.
I pushed him a little more on that—I didn't really believe the bugs were equally bad on every single part of the mountain—but he stuck to his story. The bugs were bad everywhere, and there was no escaping them. At this point, I was kind of getting annoyed because he was not being especially helpful at all, and is eyes kept saying, "Stop bothering me, can't you see I have more important things to do like scratch my butt?" I finally gave up trying to get any useful information out of him.
It also occurred to me to ask about any trail conditions I should know about—snow, blowdowns, or whatever—and was assured the trail was in fine shape and we shouldn't have any troubles.
Before I left, I also checked out the weather report posted for Mount Rainier—sun or clouds every day for the next week! Not that a weather forecast a week out is particularly accurate, but it was reassuring that the forecast didn't include so much as a hint of rain for the foreseeable future. A good omen, indeed!
With permit in hand, I walked back to the rental car to get the food drop. I wrote the date we would be hiking through Longmire and who it was for on top, then taped the lid to the rodent-proof container—a requirement, it seems, for all food drops. I carried it back to the Wilderness Information Center, dropped it off, and said goodbye.
I'd been making excellent time. It wasn't even 8:00 AM yet, and I'd already secured our permit and dropped off one of the two food drops. I decided a detour was in order: Paradise.
Okay, I won't make any 'died and gone to heaven' jokes, but I'd heard many stories about the amazing sites and views to be seen at Paradise, not far up the road from Longmire. This would be my first visit to the area and it was actually on my way (for the most part) to Sunrise—the other food drop I was planning to make—so with plenty of extra time available, a couple of hours at Paradise seemed like a good way to spend the morning. The Wonderland Trail doesn't go through Paradise, so if I wanted to see it, now was the time.
The narrow winding road climbed in elevation, but I was rather startled when I came across what looked like an alien space ship that crash landed in the woods of Mount Rainier. This unexpected sight, I learned, was the Paradise Visitor Center. The people who designed the building were clearly under the influence of drugs—I can think of no other explanation for this bizarre and alien-looking thing to mar the landscape.
The visitor center wouldn't open for another couple of hours, so the hike would come first. I took a picture of a trailhead sign—I didn't have a trail map of the area, so I figured a picture of the map at the trailhead might be useful to have on the digital camera to find my way around. Then I started hiking upwards. I wasn't really sure about the route I'd take. The map looked rather convoluted with trails criss-crossing in every direction with no noticeable order involved, but I finally decided to stay on the Skyland Trail since it would make a decent-sized five to six mile loop. A respectable hike to see a the area.
The wildflowers at Paradise were nothing short of spectacular even though I was later told they had already passed their peak the week before. And I was delighted to see Mount St. Helens off in the distance with its clearly defined crater. I can't count the number of times I've seen Mount St. Helens—I could even see the mountaintop from my place every morning when I was working in Portland! But except from the north side of the mountain, the actual crater isn't visible and I'd never been to the north side of the mountain. So I was quite excited about actually seeing the crater for the first time, and hoped it might have a burst of activity while I was there to see it erupt. Alas, I'm sorry to say, it did not, because otherwise this day's adventures would have been FAR more interesting than it really was!
The morning was amazingly clear—I could see Mount Hood well over 100 miles away to the south, though at that distance it was nothing more than a hazy shape on the horizon. And Mount Adams looked so large and imposing it seemed like you could have reached out to touch it.
It was a beautiful hike. One part of the trail was still covered in snow—a rather steep section when I got a closer look at it. Wow, it really was steep looking. Another couple was there too, looking at the snow and considering how safe it was to cross. I guess it didn't pass muster for them because they decided to turn around. I hated the idea of retracing my steps and decided to go for it. I followed a trail a previous brave hiker had kicked into the steep slope, leaning to the left so I had the additional support of my arm as a 'third leg' and could help catch my fall if I started slipping down the slope. The couple that decided to turn back watched me a bit, and I jokingly asked if they were waiting to see if I made it across okay, and they jokingly said they were. =) At least I think they were joking—but at least if something did happen, there were people around to run off to get help.
The melting snow had formed a small stream in the trail that previous hikers had created through the snow, and my shoes began to fill with ice water. I stopped halfway across to warm up my quickly freezing left hand that I was using to help keep my balance—I hadn't thought to bring gloves on such a short hike! At this point, I was kind of wishing I had decided to turn back like the other couple, but no sense in thinking about the past. I continued my three-legged walk through the snow pack and finally made it to other side safe and sound, though with soggy feet and a numb hand to show for my efforts.
Later, the trail passed a monument marking the Stevens/Van Trump campsite. On August 17, 1870, these two men were the first people to summit Mount Rainier (or at least the first two to give a detailed account of summiting the mountain!), and the monument—conveniently shaped in the form of a chair—marks the location of their camp the night before they summited. An Indian guide named Sluiskin offered to lead them as far as this site at which point he refused to go any further because he thought it was suicidal to do so and tried to persuade the men not to continue any further. When he realized it was impossible to talk them out of this suicidal mission, he made them sign a written statement to the effect that he was in no way responsible for their deaths. Sluiskin waited two days for the men to return—not that he really expected them to survive, but just in case. Stevens and Van Trump did have their share of difficulty and ended up spending the night in steam caverns in the crater at the summit to survive a storm. Van Trump suffered a "serious injury" at some point along the way, the nature of which I never did learn, but they both survived and returned to Sluiskin two days later. At first Sluiskin thought they were ghosts or the walking dead—certainly not living at this point!—and later overjoyed that the two men had in fact survived.
The rest of the hike was uneventful, and by the time I made it back down, the visitor center had opened. I definitely needed an inside look to this bizarre place. Inside, I learned the building was destined to be destroyed within the next couple of years. It was built in the 1960s (I told you drugs had to be involved!) and for some inexplicable reason, the building was not constructed to support the weight of the 20 feet of snow that accumulates during the winter. As evidence of the massive amounts of snow that falls here each winter, they displayed a photo of the Paradise Inn—a beautiful, well-constructed structure nearby—where the snow pack was so high you could walk in through the third story windows. The record snowfall at Paradise is a whopping 1122 inches of snow during the winter of 1971-72—a world record, as it turns out. That's 93.5 feet of snow! An average year gets about 630 inches (52.5 feet) of snow. It seems absurd that nobody considered snow a major factor in the design of the building. So the building does not collapse under the weight of the snow, they devised a system to heat the roof. A furnace burns 500 gallons of diesel fuel per day during the winter to keep the roof free of snow.
It seems the National Park Service, using their excellent sense of hindsight, finally decided the building needed to be replaced with a new one that 'complements' the environment, is structurally sound against the weight of the winter snow pack, and doesn't require 500 gallons of diesel fuel per day to keep from collapsing. Once the new visitor center is up and running, this old one will be torn down and removed. It is quite possible I will never see this building again for the rest of my life and, trust me, folks, that's a good thing. *nodding* What were they thinking?!
My wandering at Paradise had come to an end, so I returned to the rental car and started the drive to Sunrise. It was an excruciating drive. I had the unfortunate luck to decide to drive around the mountain during a bike race or rally or whatever they preferred to call it. There are no shoulders on these narrow, winding roads, and there were hundreds—perhaps thousands!—of bicyclist clogging up these roads. Some were nice and biked along the edge of the road to make passing them quite easy. Others made it difficult to act and acted like they owned the road by riding in the middle of it. The most infuriating—for me, at least—wasn't the bikes, however. Bikes, as a whole, were pretty easy to pass. Since they traveled so slow, it was relatively to pick up enough speed to pass them. It was some of the cars with drivers that absolutely refused to pass a bike. More than once I wanted to pull out my hair when they refused to pass a bicyclist because while a bicyclist was easy to pass, a car was a bigger challenge.
I accidentally scared the crap out of one poor bicyclist when I inadvertently hit the horn while adjusting my grip on the steering wheel. Actually, it scared the crap out of myself too since I wasn't expecting the horn to sound! I made sure to keep my hands well clear of the horn after that incident, but I waved feebly at the poor bicyclist as an apology, though I'm not sure if he realized that or not. This bicyclist was even riding as close to the edge of the road as he was able—I would have preferred my accidental horn honking go to one of the jerks filling up the middle of the road if it had to have happened.
At the turnoff for Sunrise, I was happy to say goodbye to the bike race and once again drove up the mountain. That's when I saw it: The Phone of Failure. It was from that phone next to the ranger station, nearly a year ago, I had called Amanda to tell her the bad news: I would not complete thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail. I had failed. Seeing the phone depressed me a bit, and I hoped the next time I used it, it would be a very different message I'd have for Amanda.
Nobody was manning the ranger station where the food drops were located, so I left the drop next to the door with a couple of bicyclists (not part of the race!) who offered to keep an eye on it while I went to the visitor's center to find a ranger to take the food drop. At the visitor's center, they told me to bring the food drop to them there and they'd take it inside to the ranger station later, so I hoofed back to the ranger station to pick up the food drop just to carry it back to the ranger station.
That completed, I drove back down to the bike race, annoyed at how many there were. Did they ever stop?!
I followed them until a few miles short of Enumclaw, a small town that's really the first real case of 'civilization' after leaving Mount Rainier. I filled up the tank with gas and gave Amanda a call—she was home on a layover at the time and could pick me up from where the rental car had to be dropped off. The rest of the drive back to Seattle was mostly uneventful. The last three blocks took nearly twenty minutes to navigate because the traffic and streets were so screwed up. About five minutes later, Amanda arrived to pick me up.
And the rest of the night, I prepared my pack for Mount Rainier and the Wonderland Trail that would begin the very next day.
Today was the day. I took my last expected shower for the next 11 days, ate breakfast, and caught an express bus to Sea-Tac Airport. Rick was supposed to arrive at some time "around noon," and Amanda would arrive on a flight at 12:40 to wisk us up to our starting point on the Wonderland Trail.
That was my first problem—finding Rick. I wasn't sure what airline he was using nor the time of his arrival. I tried getting ahold of him the evening before to get the details and plan a location to meet, but we didn't connect up and now he'd be arriving and I wasn't sure how to find him. I knew he'd be flying in from San Jose and arriving at "around noon," but that was it. So I arrived at the airport just after 11:00 and checked the arrivals board for any flight coming in from San Jose.
Southwest had one that was arriving in mere minutes! I decided to wait by the baggage claim—with all the backpacking gear Rick would have, it was obvious he'd have to check some of his luggage. A knife, matches, or perhaps even a stove that security may not look kindly on. I had warned Rick against bringing fuel for his stove—it wasn't allowed in carry-on or checked baggage at all, so I'd bring all the necessary fuel.
I waited at the baggage claim for 20 minutes but struck out. No sign of Rick. I tried calling my mom asking if she had any information about the flight Rick would be flying in on (Rick didn't have a cell phone for me to call him directly, and I didn't have a cell phone for him to call me!), and she was stunned he never called me with the details. She also didn't have any information to help me locate Rick. I told her about my plans to meet up with Amanda at the check-in counter for her airline at 12:40, and if Rick happened to call her hoping to learn my location, tell him to look for me at that time at that location.
Back at the arrivals board I looked for more flights from San Jose, and an Alaska Airlines flight was up next. I trotted down to the baggage claim and claimed a seat. The minutes ticked by and no Rick appeared. I wandered around the baggage claim a bit thinking maybe Rick was wandering around looking for me. At 12:40, I checked the arrivals board to see if Amanda's flight had arrived it and it was ominously blank. No arrival time, no delayed message, just a blank spot providing no information about her flight. I assumed this meant the flight hadn't arrived yet, but I decided to go up to the check-in counter for her airline to look for Rick. If he had arrived and called my mom hoping for insight on where to find me, he might be there!
And, I'm happy to report, I did find him just as he started walking away from that location. And to my surprise, Amanda was already there as well! Not sure how she did that little trick since the arrival boards never showed her flight had arrived and could only write it off to her magical flying abilities. Or perhaps the employee that updates those arrival boards fell asleep on the job. We are talking about U.S. Airways, after all.
Rick, as it turned out, hadn't talked to my mom, but Amanda spotted him wandering around the airport looking for me. He also, as it turned out, didn't check any baggage and didn't even realize there was a downstairs or that the baggage claim was down there. I was right about him having some banned things in his pack, however, including a small knife and a lighter, but he figured if security took it, they took it. No big deal. They didn't find the items, however, and he avoided the hassle of checking a bag.
Now that the three of us finally found each other, it was time to head to the Great Mountain. Amanda left her bags with us and went out to retrieve her car from the employee parking lot while Rick and I waited outside for her to pick us up. I filled Rick in on Mount Rainier—where we'd be starting from, the fishing regulations, and the number of days between food drops. Since I hadn't talked to Rick since I had picked up the permit, he didn't even know our itinerary yet! In fact, he hadn't even seen a map of the Wonderland Trail before!
On the drive to the trailhead, we stopped at Wendy's for lunch—our last 'civilized' meal for the next several days. Then we continued on to the trailhead at Mowich Lake at the end of a long, narrow, gravel road. There was a small walk-in campsite where we'd camp for the night. Not knowing exactly when Rick would arrive, how long the drive would take (traffic can be a real bear!), or how late his flight might be, I figured it was best if we didn't plan any actual hiking that first day. So the three of us would camp at the walk-in site at Mowich for an early morning start on the trail the next morning.
We set up camp. Amanda set up the tent by herself—I usually set the tent up but Amanda planned to do some camping later in the week and wanted to make sure she knew how to set it up without my help. So I watched her with great amusement trying to figure out what pole goes where. She got the tent up, though, with no coaching from myself, so kudos for her. =)
I was in charge of dinner for Amanda and myself. Rick was on his own—he was a vegetarian and ate all sorts of bizarre stuff. Amanda and I decided on eating the mac and cheese. Mostly because we had lots of REAL cheese and bacon bits we could add to the mixture. I used a soda-can stove to cook with—one of two I had recently made, though I hadn't decided which of the two to take with me on the trail.
Rick explained a couple of his other odd backpacking habits—such as washing his clothes every day along the way. That's a habit he picked up to clean his clothes of poison oak which Rick was extremely allergic to, and even though I told him he'd be hard-pressed to find poison oak on the Wonderland Trail, he planned to keep clean. Amanda joked about him being a "pretty boy." This would also be the longest backpacking trip of Rick's life. He does overnight trips on days off from work, and explained his longest backpacking trip to date was perhaps 30 miles. We'd be doing more than three times that amount if we complete the Wonderland Trail successfully.
The dinner was great, however, we learned the denatured alcohol I purchased was absolutely awful. I knew it the moment I lit the fuel and I could see the orange flame flickering out of the stove. An orange flame, I knew from past experience, meant a dirty flame. And a dirty flame meant a black, soot covered pot bottom would be the result. I typically don't use much fuel—a single small water bottle would last two weeks while on the Appalachian Trail, but Rick used his fuel liberally. He liked his drinks hot and usually preferred a hot breakfast, so I bought a large, one-gallon can of denatured alcohol for him. Some of it I had already used for fuel bottles in the food drops, but this was the first time we had tried burning the fuel and it was nothing short of awful. There was nothing we could do about it at that point, but I vowed never to purchase the cheap denatured alcohol again. (It was the True Value brand in case you were wondering. Go with the name brand stuff—I didn't imagine there could be such a difference in the quality of denatured alcohol—never on the Appalachian Trail did I run into this problem!)
Fortunately for me, I still had a fuel bottle with good denatured alcohol left over from my Wonderland Trail hike the year before so the rest of the trip I'd have the clean-burning fuel. Rick, unfortunately, would have to deal with the sooty pot for the duration of the trip.
After dinner, I put the two soda can stoves through a series of tests. Filled them up with identical amounts of fuel and let them burn out to see which lasted longest and burned more efficiently. I lit the better of the two on fire and timed how long it burned for. We had nearly a whole gallon of this stuff we wouldn't be carrying on our backs, and without the lovely campfire (campfires were prohibited along our entire hike!), the stove fire was our substitute. We burned it all—minus the small amount Rick used to fill up his fuel bottles that would actually be carried on the trail. Lots of fun! =)
Fighter jets roared overhead. Nothing like going to a nice, quiet national park to become one with nature, huh?
Rick left to try his luck at catching fish in Mowich Lake—just because he's a vegetarian doesn't mean he didn't enjoy catch and release fishing. I continued burning fuel. Amanda just shook her head.
Rick came back an hour or two later, completely sopping wet from head to toe.
"What the heck happened to you?!"
It seems Rick's favorite fishing lure got caught on a rock or log or something way out in the lake, and since it was his favorite lure, he went out to retrieve it, clothes and all. Amanda and I laughed at his antics. For all his efforts, Rick didn't catch anything.
Amanda and I retired to the tent were we watched Fun With Dick and Jane on her portable DVD player. Later, we had to explain to Rick that it wasn't porn—really, it wasn't!—but a comedy from 1977 back about a couple of down-on-their-luck folks (Jane Fonda and George Segal) who turn to a life of crime to fund their high-flying life style. Amanda insists that I also mention they're filming a remake of the movie starring Jim Carrey, so if you hear more about this movie soon, that'll be why.
After the movie finished—happily, before the batteries ran out on the DVD player—it was dark and we went to sleep. The next morning, we'd begin the hiking.
Today would be a short, leisurely day. I planned for the first few days of our hike to be fairly short and easy—concerns of my knee problems echoing in my mind. Rick was up ridiculously early, a habit he would continue throughout the trip. I took my time. Our destination for the day was the Carbon River Campground—less than ten miles away. I was familiar with this stretch of the trail since I hobbled along it the year before slower than my grandmother could have done when she was in a wheelchair, and the distance would actually be shorter than I did on the bum knees!
I explained the Rick that he actually had a choice of routes to Carbon River Camp. The 'luxury route' was up through Spray Park, a breathtaking alpine meadow with views of the snowclad Mount Rainier towering overhead. The official Wonderland Trail, by comparison, was rather dull and hidden in an old growth forest with few views and no flower-filled meadows to admire. I had done both the year before and knew of what I spoke: Only a fool would stay on the official Wonderland Trail instead of the far more scenic Spray Park route.
We were fools. =) Having done the Spray Park route the year before, I was more inclined to be a Wonderland purest this year. In addition, it had slightly less strenuous terrain and I was hyper-worried about my knees. So I chose to do the Wonderland Trail option, and Rick—despite my protests he was making a big mistake ("When will you ever get the opportunity to see Spray Park again?!" I would exclaim)—followed along with me.
As we were packing, Rick chatted with other nearby campers and gave away one of his two soda-can stoves to a couple who thoughtlessly didn't bring any. They thought they could cook over an open fire but didn't learn until they arrived that, darn it, fires weren't allowed. He also helped them break down their tent—an apparently borrowed piece of equipment they never thought to learn how to use properly. =)
With the good samaritan stuff out of the way and our packing done, we said goodbye to Amanda and started our first few steps of our Wonderland Trail thru-hike.
The hike went without incident. The trail followed along Mowich Lake, then dropped steeply down to Ipsut Creek—or as Amanda likes to giggle, Upsh*t Creek. Shortly before reaching camp, a ranger hiking out stopped us to chat a bit and check our permit. All was in order, and we made it into camp with several hours of daylight left to kill.
We set up camp in campsite 1. While setting up my tarp, I saw a small, mole-ish critter running in and out of nearby holes. I stuffed the holes with rocks in the hopes of preventing them from running across my face in the middle of the night. Rick thought it was a waste of time saying, "You know how many back doors that thing probably has?!" I agreed, but explained I hoped the back doors were closer to his tarp than mine. =)
I also discovered the reason for Rick's choice of the less scenic, Ipsut Creek route: knee trouble. Rick did a trail run nearly a month before doing quite a job on hurting his knees, and it hadn't completely healed yet. And apparently, he slept in some position the night before that inflamed one of his knees—so he followed my lead along the official Wonderland Trail hoping it would be the easier route on his knees. Which is probably was.
Another one of my "just-in-case" initiatives included a roll of bandages to wrap around my knees if they started hurting. My knees felt perfectly fine, so I offered the medical help to Rick for his wounded knee. Then he went off to soak his knees in the nearby river.
Rick decided to wake up at an absurdly early in the morning, declaring that the earlier he started, the more time he'd have to hike into camp in case it was needed due to his knee pain. I slept later and got up in my own due time, ate breakfast, and packed up. The trail started over a rickety suspension bridge with a sign warning to cross one at a time and not to jump up and down while crossing.
Shortly beyond the suspension bridge, I passed by Dick Creek where I noticed a small clip-thingy sitting on the ground next to the stream. The kind of thing that might be used to secure a bandage that might wrap around one's knee. The kind of thing that Rick's knee bandage was using. Hmmm.... I picked it up and continued on my way.
The trail climbed towards Carbon Glacier, an enormous block of snow and ice creeping down Mount Rainier. From a distance, the glaciers don't look especially thick. In fact, it can be hard to recognize it as a glacier at all since it was so well-covered with boulders and other debris. Looked more like the surface of Mars than a glacier! Only where the glacier came to an abrupt end could you see the two hundred feet of snow and ice peeking out from under the layer of debris.
Shortly before Mystic Lake, I caught up to Rick and asked if he lost one of the clips that secured the bandage to his knee. Turns out, he lost both of them! I had to tell him the bad news—I only found one clip. Never noticed a trace of the second one.
We walked on together to Mystic Lake chatting about the suspension bridge, Carbon Glacier, flowers, bears, and the usual such things you'd expect a hiker to notice. At Mystic Lake, Rick set up his tarp for shade and waded into the lake. I stopped long enough to admire the view, take a few pictures, and eat a quick lunch.
Rick suddenly turns to me and says, "I can't believe Amanda called me Pretty Boy!" and shakes his head in disbelief.
I was surprised at the unexpectedness of the statement. We hadn't been talking about Amanda. She said that comment two days before almost in passing. And NOW Rick is bring it up?
"Yeah, she's got strange names she comes up with. Probably that southern upbringing!" I wasn't really sure how to respond, truth be told.
"What do you think she'd say if she knew I brought hair gel?"
My eyes popped out. "You brought hair gel?!" I asked in disbelief. "Pretty Boy, confirmed!" and started laughing. "Hey! That could be your trail name! Pretty Boy!" I laughed some more. Rick wasn't laughing, though.
After finishing lunch, I picked myself up and started to go.
"Hey, Pretty Boy!" Rick turned to me, still not appreciating the joke. "You do realize with your tarp set up like it is, it looks like your camping here."
"I'm just saying, there's a ranger cabin a few hundred yards up the trail and when the ranger comes walking by, he's going to think you're camping here. You look just a bit too comfortable. And camping right next to the sign that says 'No Camping.'"
Rick didn't take my observation seriously, though, and it didn't really much matter to me anyhow. After all, despite appearances, he really wasn't planning to camp there. I also warned Rick that if he needed more water to get it from the lake and not at a campsite a half-mile further down the trail. The water comes from the lake anyhow, and you have to hike a surprisingly long way down a side trail to even reach it. I knew this because I had gotten water there the year before on my failed Wonderland thru-hike and regretted the extra and totally unnecessary walking.
Rick tore out the first several dozen pages out of the book he was reading, Guilty As Sin by Tami Hoag. This would become a regular habit throughout the rest of our hike. Rick would read several dozen pages, then tear them out and give them to me to read. Then I'd read my sections and throw them away at garbage cans along the way at every opportunity I could.
With the first section of the book secured to my pack, I continued on.
At one point, the trail became rather sketchy. The original Wonderland route had clearly fallen down an embankment into a raging river below and the trail was rerouted over and around steep inclines, precariously hanging cliffs, and on more than one occasion I scooted around with the help of my hands using trees or the steep terrain to help secure my balance and an untimely demise. The trail was so poorly define in some sections, they tied pink ribbons to tree branches to mark the route.
At Winthrop Glacier, I stopped to rest and admire the awesome power of nature at work. Large boulders and rocks clashed against each other underwater, and in certain parts of the river you could see them jump out after a sudden collision before racing down the river again. I was fascinated to no end. On the glacier itself, on two occasions, I saw large rock slides crash down along the face of the glacier. Wow. It's not often you can actually watch erosion in progress—the endless tearing apart of Mount Rainier by glacier.
The glacier-fed rivers—I might also mention—have a milky, whitish look due to rock ground into powder by the glaciers. The powder is affectionately called glacial flour, and nobody likes to drink out of these glacier-fed water sources because they are so incredibly dirty. It probably won't kill you, but it's not that crystal clear, great tasting stuff you always read about on water bottles everywhere either.
For over an hour I watched Winthrop Glacier carving out Mount Rainier. I threw large rocks in the raging river below, which swallowed the rocks so completely it was as if I had tossed in a penny instead.
Finally, I continued on. The trail passed another nice waterfall, Garda Falls, before climbing a steep, unrelenting mountain and into Granite Creek Camp. I set up my tarp in site number two—the same site I stayed at the year before when I finally had to admit that the Wonderland Trail had beaten me. There were only two sites, and the other one was taken. It didn't seem like good luck to camp in the Camp of Failure, but—same as the year before—I had no choice. Granite Creek was the campground on my permit and the other site was already full. On the plus side, at least my knees weren't hurting this year!
The flies were relentless. Almost immediately they came out in attack formation by the hundreds. I fought back valiantly—at one point killing three with a single strike of my hand. I covered up with long sleeves, long pants, gloves, and a mosquito net for my head. Fortunately, the flies weren't biting—the one good thing I have to report about the incident. After killing about thirty of those little buggers, it gets old, so I stopped and began reading Guilty As Sin.
Rick, a.k.a. Pretty Boy, walked into camp hours later, admitting to me that a ranger kicked him off of Mystic Lake. She thought he looked a bit too comfortable and was camping alongside the lake. After a quick interrogation where he explained he would be camping at Granite Creek that night and the permit was with me, she still made him leave. Rick seemed shocked that the ranger thought he was camping on the lake, which made me laugh even harder since I had warned him he looked like he was camping.
Rick also admitted to walking to the water source for the Mystic Lake Campground—despite my warning to avoid doing so. It wasn't deliberate on his part. The trail junction that led to the water source and the Wonderland Trail isn't marked which way is the Wonderland Trail and Rick picked the wrong direction. I did draw an arrow pointing the correct direction in the ground with my toe when I passed that point since I knew he might find it confusing, but by the time Rick reached that point he either didn't notice the arrow or it had been obliterated by hikers who passed through before him.
So I laughed some more. Rick complained about the flies and even killed a couple before he surrendered to their attacks. I caught my second wind and started killing them in earnest. Dozens more met their deaths—I lost track of the actual number, but it was nothing short of a massacre.
Who won? It was a tie, really. For every fly I killed, they sent in reinforcements to fill the gap of the fallen soldier. A brave and hearty bunch, those flies were. I can admit that. By sunset, I was reaching my limits, but so were they. Apparently, flies go to bed at sunset.
I thought back to that ranger who issued my permit and grumbled at his complete lack of help when I asked about campsites that were especially buggy. "It's all bad," he told me. Mowich Lake and Carbon River weren't bad. Granite Creek was bad. And that dumb-ass ranger probably couldn't find his own ass if a fly stung it.
Rick's knee was still hurting him, so we decided to hike into Sunrise early the next morning and see if we could adjust our itinerary to add in a couple of extra days for padding. With those plans in place, we went to sleep.
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