Reflections on escape fiction and inescapable history
A Trail on Life Support: the American Ridge Trail
—conditions as of mid-August, 2017.
It’s summer and for me, that always means backpacking. This time out it was to an area I’ve visited many times over the last thirty or thirty five years. The section of trail my shoes bit into on August 9 and 10 this year was a continuation of the piece my grandson, my neighbor Barrett, and I, failed to complete last year. That grueling grind year apparently did in Angelo’s backpacking aspirations for a while, and he declined to go this year. But, I hope he’ll return to it someday.
All that happened last year was that we ran out of water after dragging ourselves up slope after slope in the broiling sun. We’d slogged ever higher and higher to near 7000 feet, only to lose the trail across a grassy hillside and a and loosely
packed steep peak awaiting us on the far side. I recalled have trouble in the same rugged vicinity several years earlier and the trail had deteriorated noticeably since then. We were already parched and because we had no assurance we’d locate the trail ahead, or reach the next water source (Kettle Lake) before we were really in trouble, we turned around. The water issue caused us to descend off trail in the spot the map called Big Basin. We hiked far down and an hour or more later found water in a forest stream, but when we attempted to follow this creek down to BumpingLake to shortcut our way back to the car, we soon learned the terrain ahead was more vertical than horizontal and overgrown with dense, forbidding ground cover. This left little choice but to camp for the night partway back up and in the morning hike out by another route.
The following morning we opted to take the next descending trail down off the ridge, which left us at unoccupied Mesatchee Creek (horse) Campground along Highway 410. This put us over 30 miles from our car on the opposite side of the high ridge. Disharmony was in the air! The teen member of our party had a voracious appetite and quickly consumed the last of the food I thought I’d brought plenty of. The serious foot blisters he’d acquired also begged attention. The lack of a phone signal in that vicinity didn’t help matters. But then came the miracle. Barrett, who’d begun to trek down Highway 410 after the three of us had unsuccessfully stuck out our thumbs for a time, radioed that he’d found us a ride. A kindly woman and her grown son offered to take us back to our car in exchange for showing her the way back to the campground she’d left the rest of her family at that morning when she’d driven out to stock up on supplies. Her camp was actually along the way.
This year’s experience began and ended in the midst of a heavy haze from British Columbia forest fires. Our teen companion of the previous year and his iPhone had better things to do, so it was just Barrett and myself. We started out from the opposite end of the ridge this time and intended to connect to the missing part of the trail by approaching it from the other direction. Couldn’t miss, we thought! From the trailhead on the Bumping River Road near the junction of Highway 410 we expected to reach Kettle Lake by suppertime at the latest. Unfortunately, the trail did not cooperated. By early afternoon we were well into the considerable amount of water we started with because the weather was hot, the elevation gain substantial, and the walking difficult. Some of the trail was just plain gone. On our first encounter with the lost trail we had to scramble down a steep slope with loose material that used to have defined switchbacks. Surprisingly, a bit beyond we found the next two miles of trail had been freshly cleared of downed trees.
By mid-afternoon we were way behind schedule and still not very far along, but encountered a creek with a good flow of water that invited us stock up again and quickly cook up a meal. After wrestling with Barrett’s malfunctioning new lightweight gas stove for half an hour we finally managed to fix its pump. However, the two packets of mac and cheese the stove cooked up was almost unpalatable and much of it needed to be buried. In the late afternoon near Goat Peak, our GPS apps suggested to us that we’d sidetracked ourselves on a difficult elk trail. Another half hour wasted. So it wasn’t until six p.m., with some 3500 to 4000 feet of elevation gain behind us, that we were finally able to take a selfie at the top of Goat Peak.
Our water was again disappearing fast and we had miles yet to hike to reach Kettle Lake, so we hurried on down the trail that dropped 1000 feet in the next mile, with a lot of blow-downs near the bottom near the saddle just before the Goat Creek Trail junction. From there the trail repeatedly gains and loses elevation as it snakes along above and below 6000 feet. This would have been taxing enough even if the trail had been in good condition, but the many downed trees and the path’s repeated disappearance made for slow trekking. By 7:30 p.m., with the forest darkening, we found ourselves weary, almost out of water again, and still over three miles from Kettle Lake. As we pushed ourselves up one particularly long slope with our hiking poles a startling crash of thunder sounded just ahead of us. This was followed by two more booms minutes later. At eight o’clock, with just a few sips of water left and at least two miles to go, the descending darkness and the trail condition forced us to camp on the trail. That evening we whiffed a bit of smoke—smoke more like campfire smoke than atmospheric haze smoke–but thought little of it. At first light as we packed up, the smoke smell returned.
After about an hour of hiking that put us on the ridge top, Barrett spotted a smoky fire half a mile away in dense trees on a steep slope. To my surprise, I found I had a phone signal, and this allowed me to report the fire and its coordinates. As I wound up my call I noticed Barrett was already hustling along the trail. I guessed he wasn’t eager to find out what that fire was going to do, so I followed. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d forgotten to take a photo!
Just when we thought reaching the lake would now be child’s play because we’d simply follow what the map told us was series of switchbacks down a steep slope, we again lost the main trail and found ourselves on a side trail. We trudged back and forth for twenty minutes, repeatedly checking our GPS apps to align us with the red zigzagging lines on the map, but could not find the trail. In the end we gingerly sidestepped down the loose, steep scree and dirt slope, carefully digging in each foot . With some searching we eventually re-located the trail some distance below the slope in the forest. As we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Kettle Lake, we watched the first helicopters arrive in response to the fire. And we continued to hear them most of the day. [After arriving back home I learned that lightning strikes had actually started three fires in the general vicinity of where we’d camped, and a total of nine throughout the area.]
Given the terrible condition of this part of the Ridge trail, we decided not to
continue on for several more miles just to find where we’d lost the trail the previous year. We’d lost the trail enough times already and the effort no longer seemed worthwhile, particularly after it came back to me that several years earlier when I’d last gone through that stretch, I encountered a massive blow-down covering several acres. The trail at that time was completely obliterated for some distance and Ihad to bushwhack around it and find the continuation. Given what we’d just hiked through, it seemed unlikely that this remote part of the trail had ever been repaired. So we left the ridge to descending on the Kettle Creek Trail, which incidentally took considerable time to locate because the trail shown on our maps indicated a series of descending switchbacks heading west. Apparently the first mile or so was rerouted north from the lake years ago, but did not appear on hiking maps. We eventually noticed a largely hidden sign nailed to a tree, pointing out the trail.
It has been pointed out to me that the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the William O. Douglas Wilderness Area and the American Ridge Trail within it, has limited resources for trail maintenance. So it must choose where to allocate those resources. I have been phoning the Naches Ranger Station yearly, asking for more upkeep on this trail, but only the approaches, and small portions, have been fixed. The trail is in critical condition and badly needs attention. It would be a shame to lose this scenic trail, but that’s what will happen if it doesn’t receive attention soon.
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