Friday, August 30th
Ambrose and I drove up to the Gold Fork area, near Donnelly, ID, and parked at a place that we call the Dogsnout, because that’s what the road looks like on a map. Across from the trailhead I would be starting down the next day was a hunting camp that no one else ever seemed to use during the summer. We pitched the car camping tent (roomy, but too heavy for backpacking) in the dark and got ready to sleep.
That’s when Ambrose realized he had forgotten to bring a cooking pot.
I had a cooking pot, but I couldn’t let him have it. Usually we camp together, but this weekend was going to be my solo hike. I needed the pot that I brought. The compromise was that he got the top of my pot, which doubles as a skillet, so he could boil water for his food, and he would cut me a “top” for my pot out of a foil pouch from a freeze dried meal.
I was just grateful that Ambrose had forgotten an item vital enough to overshadow my forgetting my head lamp on our last trip. His mistake was the bigger one, so mine will be forgotten – that’s a true friend. Not that I haven’t forgotten a cooking pot before. In fact, when I did it last summer, we aborted the whole trip and drove home. I think we’re both learning (or in his case, re-learning) how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and mistakes so that they won’t ruin our trips.
I fell asleep more easily than I had expected to, what with the butterflies dancing in my stomach. Last year’s solo trip was much shorter, only about 5 miles round trip, and to a much more populated destination. Not only was the trail to Skillern Hot Springs ridiculously easy to stay on, close enough to the car to bail, and familiar to me, but I ended up sharing the campsite with two other people and two dogs (aka bear bait).
The chances of running into other people on this trail would be much slimmer, and would be quite a shock, considering we had never run into any other hikers on this trail in four summers. Though the trail showed clear signs of maintenance, we had only ever seen people on the section open to motorcycles, and those people were on motorcycles, not hiking.
Saturday August 31st
The alarm woke me at 6am, and I tried not to be too grumpy as I woke up and packed. Ambrose prepared coffee for us, using my pot, and cut me a pot cover before handing the cook kit back to me. I repacked my pack. We ate Mexican food leftover from dinner for breakfast, food that was part of our last hurrah before going back to low carb and low fat once the backpacking season was finished.
Then it was time to go.
Hiking solo is something that I want to do. I want to try myself, and discover whether longer hikes are something I might want to consider. While it would be wonderful to do those long hikes with Ambrose, at this point, we are exploring the idea of me doing the hikes and him being my support crew. So I need to get used to being alone on the trail, and feel confident that I can take care of myself.
Last year’s solo hike was a taste, and a test, and I found that I wanted more.
This year is about pushing my limits, on a trail less traveled. My first thru-hike, connecting trails that we haven’t done together. It’s exciting.
And yet, I almost cry to leave Ambrose behind.
|The trailhead that marked the start of my solo journey.
I pushed down the tears and began to walk, more quickly than I would have if he had been with me, but not so fast as to overexert myself. I knew I was in for a long day with my goal of reaching Stump Lake. Our previous excursions on this trail had not been short, or easy, and I was now carrying a load about 10lbs heavier than anything I’d done all summer.
I never thought of Ambrose and I as being particularly loud hikers until I came across a bird on the trail less than a mile from the trailhead. We almost never saw wildlife together on the trail, whether we were talking or not. I guess it made sense that two people were louder than one, but I still wished that he was there to share it with me.
|It was still pretty dark out as I started – I almost missed this bird in my path.
We had traveled this section of trail enough times to give names to its sections. There were four main stream crossings, an interminable hill, and a burned out area before we take the turn onto the trail that does not allow motor vehicles. We always ate lunch soon after that turn, because we always got there around noon.
|First stream crossing: Bridged Creek
|Second Stream Crossing: Nail Creek
|Third Stream Crossing: Forgotten Creek
|Fourth Stream Crossing: Shit Creek (yeah, there’s a story to that)
|The evil hill, going up to the left and down to the right.
|That first year we stopped here for a break. Ambrose went down the hill to get water and I collapsed. This year, I breezed right on by.
|Trail Junction 115
Compared to the first time I saw this area of the trail, it was lush and green. That first summer, there was almost nothing growing in among the tree skeletons. It still wasn’t a fully recovered area, but the improvement was amazing. I took a break at what we called the fire camp where we always had lunch – only a break, because I had been hiking for a mere two hours at that point, and it was way too early for lunch.
|Cut logs to sit on at the fire camp.
I did stop to dig a hole and admire the view. It ended up being nearly a half hour break, and I planned to stop next at 10:45am for my next break.
|Nicest view from a toilet (a.k.a. hole), ever.
I walked on with a steady, quiet pace, stopping often to take pictures. I had gotten an idea into my head of making a book with pictures of as much of the trail as I could record and writing in captions for my mom. Even if she makes it out to Idaho someday, she’ll never get to see the trails that I’m hiking, because they aren’t wheelchair accessible. I focused on that, instead of on the nervous energy in the back of my mind that was trying to remind me just how alone I was.
I hiked through the gravel of burned out and partially burned out areas, and almost missed a spot that I wanted to photograph for Ambrose. We had almost gotten lost there on our first trip, because it was a hill of gravel with no clear indication where the trail went. It could have gone around the hill, but what it really did was go straight up. This year, I was halfway up before I realized I had found it. It no longer resembled a bare patch of gravel, instead being full of growth and clear trail marks.
|The cut log and the buried log clearly pointed the way up the trail.
The boggy area before the return to live woods was hardly damp this year, but the water was plentiful enough to foster growth, if not to dampen my boots.
|The first year we were out here, we had to climb over that log – not easy when you’re 5’3″.
The trail went by quickly. I knew that part of it was due to my being in better shape than in previous years, but I couldn’t ignore the factor of not having Ambrose with me. I have proven myself to be faster than him, even as we both gain fitness, and, especially on the uphill sections, I reveled in not having to wait for him to catch up. Even though I didn’t want to push my pace too hard, I knew I was going faster and stopping less. Well, maybe I didn’t stop less, considering I managed to take over 800 pictures in two days, but I took less time in my stops.
I had the camera case fastened by a cord to the front of my backpack strap. All I needed to do was pull it out, turn it on, snap the picture and shove the camera back in the case. I hardly needed to stop until I was actually taking the picture. Some of the shots turned out blurrier than I expected, but I still have a ton of usable ones, if I end up putting them together in a book or photo book for my mom.
At 10:45am I took a break, just before entering the woods. I hardly took my pack off for it. I wanted to reach our lakes by lunch time. Ambrose said I should have lunch at the lakes – a part of me agreed, another part thought I wouldn’t make it that far in time, and another part scoffed that I’d make Stump Lake by lunch. I only voiced the opinion of agreement with Ambrose aloud.
|The border between the burned and the living forest.
It was easy not to get lost in the forest, because I knew what to look out for, and knew the trail well enough to keep focused on it. Before too long, I passed the spot where we camped that first trip. It wouldn’t work anymore, now that the tree we had our tent snugged against has grown to take over the space.
|I don’t know how we managed to fit our tent there!
I continued to make good time, even with all the photographs, and made it to our lakes by lunch time. I stopped for lunch by the only flowing stream we had seen on our last trip up here a few weeks prior. There were the lakes for water, but I would have had to unpack the cook pot to fill my water bags well. Instead, I took in the scenery with the sound of flowing water trickling by my ear.
|I took a video, but it wouldn’t upload.
I ate a berry bagel and some peanut butter mixed with crystallized honey, which formed a kind of make-shift fudge when blended. Looking back, I don’t think I drank enough water, and that’s what I’ll blame for what happened next.
I started out following the trail up a steep slope past our lakes, no issues there.
Then I reached the spot, where, just a few weeks ago, I had gotten “lost” and Ambrose had had to find the trail for me again. I even marveled, as I walked on, that I didn’t recognize this tree growing out a rock, though I found it very striking.
|Tree versus rock – who wins?
At this point, I should have turned back until I was sure that I was on the trail again. That’s the sensible thing to do, the reasonable thing to do. Instead, I did the manly thing and kept on walking. I figured that I could gain some elevation and then turn back and cut across the trail. No problem!
I kept going across country for some time, feeling overheated and a little scared to be off trail and alone. Then I had to dig a hole, and when I turned around, I discovered that I wasn’t really anywhere near where I thought I was.
|A close-up view that I shouldn’t have been looking at.
So, faced with the choices of go on and try to find my trail, or backtrack and try to find my trail, I chose the sensible route and began to backtrack, trying to find the trail when I cut across it, as I should have. But somehow, I didn’t find it, even though I had to have cut across it on my way, since I ended up right back at our lakes.
|I guess I couldn’t get away without visiting our lakes, even though I tried.
I spent one hour lost, by myself, knowing that if anything went wrong, there would be no one to help me, and no one would know exactly where I was. But I wasn’t thinking about those things at the time. I was thinking about how adventurous I felt to allow myself to get lost and try to find my way back. I was thinking about how I’d jinxed myself by not filling up my quart water bag again. About how my right hip was protesting under the weight of my pack and about how to keep it from starting to hurt enough to impact my trip.
I got myself lost, and I got myself found, all by myself, with no help, facing the possibility of wild animals and injuries and cliffs. I’m certainly chagrined that I got lost, but I don’t regret that it happened. It allowed me the opportunity to find my way back, and to know that I can do that.
When I found myself at our lakes, I didn’t stop again until I got safely past the point in the trail where I had stepped off of it, and by then I needed to dig another hole. I took my pack off and found a spot with my trowel. I began to dig, and soon hit some rocks or roots that were hard. I worked at the hard spot and was rewarded with a crack as my plastic trowel broke into two pieces.
Ambrose has been using a snow stake instead of a trowel to dig holes this summer. It saves weight, and is less prone to breakage than the trowel he has that is the twin of mine. But Ambrose and his snow stake weren’t there.
I continued to dig, using the intact scoop to make a wide and deep hole, and using the pointy part still attached to the handle to soften the dirt with satisfying stabbing motions. I made it work. I didn’t have a choice but to make it work. I finished my business and went on, keeping the scoop in my toilet paper bag and fastening the handle back in its place on the outside of my pack.
I went on.
|The last steep climb of the day.
As I hiked on, more slowly than before I got lost, with my right hip aching and threatening to activate a lurking ilio-tibial band pain, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was lost again. I felt like I didn’t remember seeing a dry riverbed right next to the trail, even though I was following trail markers. I was hot, sweaty, achy and ready to stop. I thought about stopping, knowing there was water at the lakes I could retreat to, but I didn’t think about it long.
And even though Ambrose told me he spent most of Saturday staring up the trail head to see if I was bailing out, I never thought seriously about doing that either. Not because I got temporarily lost, and certainly not because I found myself with a two piece trowel.
It was a sweet relief to gain the saddle near the Needles. The trail from there was mostly clear, and I should be less than an hour from Stump Lake and a much-needed rest.
There was only one spot that could cause trouble – the spot where we had gotten lost on the hunt for Stump Lake last year. We had successfully navigated it both ways on our last trip, but it was Ambrose’s find going this direction, not mine. Then I ran into a little help.
|Can you see it?
|How about now?
I always like to get pictures of animals on the trail, so when I spotted this little guy, I whipped out the camera and started shooting. Because of the chipmunk, I stopped at just the right spot to find the next section of the trail, and kept going without getting lost again.
|A view from the trail to Needles Summit.
|I finally made it to Needles Summit – I earned that selfie!
Once I made it to the Needles Summit, I had no more than ten minutes to walk, all downhill, to get to Stump Lake. I felt like kicking myself, because I could have made it an hour earlier without my getting lost detour, but it was all I could do to get my legs to keep moving. I felt every ounce of weight on my body with each step, especially on the balls of my feet and my right hip.
|A downed tree to navigate around on the way to Stump Lake.
If I was going to encounter people anywhere on the trail, I figured it would be at Stump Lake. It had the most developed camping site near the most beautiful spot on the trail – how could no one else want to visit it over the Labor day weekend?
|Stump Lake at last!
But no one else did. I had the place to myself.
The first thing I did upon arrival was to dump my pack by a tree and go lay myself down in the sun by the lake. For a few minutes, I experienced bliss. Off my feet, no weight on my back or hips, no need to go farther today.
Then I got up, because there was no one else to do what needed to be done. No one else to get the water while I did the tent. I was the only one on chore rotation. I filled my water bags, then begin letting my gravity filter fill my drinking bladder. I set up the tent, leaving the rain fly off so that I could enjoy the remaining warmth of the day. I set up my bear bag.
That took about an hour.
|View from the tent number 1
|View from the tent number 2
Then I lazed in my tent and began to read The Sound and the Fury. Around six, I realized I should probably make dinner, because there was no one else doing it. I made dinner, ate dinner, and read some more before falling asleep a little after 8pm – amazingly early for me.
I woke only once in the night, having to go outside to pee. It was the one time I felt really scared the whole trip. I had my head lamp on to the brightest setting, but I still couldn’t see very far in the darkness. I might have set a world record for speed peeing.
I did pause, just before going back into my tent, and covered my light so I could look up at the clear sky encrusted with stars before retreating back inside.
Sunday September 1st
The alarm woke me up at 6am. I turned it off and let myself drift back to sleep, listening for animals passing by in the hopes of catching some deer getting an early morning drink. Without realizing it, I fell asleep, thinking I was still listening, and dreamed that I heard barking dogs.
I woke again close to 7, and decided I could stay awake. I spent the next hour or so reading, luxuriating in the warmth of my tent, and enjoying my rare solitude. I didn’t have to answer to anyone else’s schedule. Ambrose expected me at Kennally Creek campground before 5pm. It had taken us three hours to get down from Stump Lake last time we were there, so I could spend the whole morning doing nothing and still not have to worry about time.
Hunger dragged me out of the tent around 8. I took down my bear bag, and started by making coffee. I thought I made more than enough to fill my 14oz Nalgene bottle, but I somehow ended up pouring only 4oz of coffee into the bottle once I boiled the mix. I poured filtered water into the bottle to fill it up and set up my grits and freeze dried scrambled eggs to soak.
|The bear bag hanging out.
I packed up while they soaked. Even though I wasn’t worried about time, I wanted to see Ambrose. In motion, I could avoid thinking about how much I missed him, but in the silence and stillness of the camp, I came close to crying more than once.
After my breakfast was cooked, I had to make use of my two-piece trowel again before I could eat. I need to remember never to eat Mexican food before a backpacking trip ever again. Sure, it’s tasty and full of carbs and proteins and fats, but it puts a strain on the trowel.
I ate, remembering how I had felt sick eating breakfast the last time we were at Stump Lake, but the sensation did not return. I finished and made ready to leave. By twenty til ten, I was ready to go.
|Good morning, Stump Lake!
|Goodbye, Stump Lake!
My body was sore, but my hip wasn’t acting up yet, and I decided that I wanted to go as quickly as possible, so that if my hip did start hampering my stride I would be farther along the trail. If we had taken three hours together, then I should be able to improve on that by myself. I decided that instead of counting all the trees that had fallen across the trail, I would take pictures of all 125 of them.
I did debate not taking any pictures at all, so that I would go faster, but I ended up deciding to continue taking as many photos as I could on this last trip of the season.
|Just one of many downed trees to detour around.
It was weird to be going “back” to the car along a portion of the trail I had not already traveled. I’ve gained most of my backpacking experience doing out and back or lollipop type routes, mostly because we only have one car. This was my first true thru-hike, short though it may have been (we estimated the total mileage over two days to be close to 14 miles).
I found that I rather liked not having to retread any miles. Especially miles multiplied by having to detour around errant tree trunks.
|These trees were step-overs.
|This tree was a step-over with care – those branches are just dying to snag my pants.
|This one was less step over and more step through – I think I still have some of those needles in my pack.
|There was no stepping over or through this mess. I detoured to the right and got my boots wet.
Every step over a tree sapped energy from me. It isn’t as easy as just stepping over a hurdle – when there’s a pack on your back that weighs close to a third of what you do, lifting your legs (and boots that weigh nearly 2 pounds a piece) to waist height is draining on all the muscles that help keep you balanced. For every fallen tree, I had to slow down, decide on my route, and then either bushwhack it cross country or maneuver myself and my pack over branches that varied in height from ankle height to just hip height. Anything higher than that, I didn’t attempt to go over.
|“Only the penitent man shall pass.”
And there is one fallen tree that is situated in such a way that going around looks like more trouble than it’s worth, and going over is out of the question. The last time we were up here, I managed to squat walk my way underneath it, but this time my pack was too heavy (or my legs too tired) to go that route. But I didn’t want to go down on my knees, especially the right one, which was still bruised from my bike fall.
So I compromised.
I went down on my left knee and kept a low squat with my right, half crawling forward under the tree until I judged myself clear of the overhead branches and managed to haul myself to my feet with a Herculean effort, aided by my trekking poles and a loud grunt.
When we had reached this spot on the way back together, Ambrose and I had been one hour out of Stump Lake. When I reached it, I was only forty minutes out. I felt a surge of energy as I realized that I might be able to beat two hours.
I stepped over a few more trees, but then I saw something that at first didn’t register. A cut log. Fresh wood shavings.
|Those cuts look recent!
After we had counted 125 trees on our way down, Ambrose contacted the forest service about them. He read that they generally left blow down on that trail in order to discourage motorcyclists from illegally using the trail, so I figured that they wouldn’t be doing anything about his complaint.
Was I ever glad to be wrong!
I encountered only a few more blown down trees to navigate around, which let me go a lot faster. I reached the Blackmare No Trail sign at one hour from Stump Lake. I wasn’t sure how many miles it was from the next trail junction, but I knew I could make it back to the campground in forty minutes once I reached it.
|I could see all the way across Lake Cascade from the trail.
|Another bird on the trail.
|Looking back at the Blackmare no trail sign.
I started to push my pace. If I could just make it to the junction by 11am, I might make it under 2 hours total. And if I made it by 11:20, then I could at least get back before noon. I was racing to set a bar for myself, to push myself as hard as I could without injury or mishap. I thought of Anish and her record setting PCT hike. I want to hike the PCT someday, but today I was also racing to Ambrose, who carries with him my sense of home.
It seemed to take forever to get to the trail junction, but I kept taking pictures anyway, even though not taking them would have sped me up.
|The trail was nice and clear!
|But I had to slow down for rocky sections.
|Just two miles to the campground!
|But there’s more rocks.
I reached the junction at exactly 11:20am, and I put it into high gear, after a quick break to slurp down some peanut butter and Nutella from a tube. I knew that I could do twenty minute miles if I pushed myself. There were points where I was tempted to run, but I didn’t want to risk my hip tightening up so I just walked fast and focused.
I focused so hard that when I saw someone walking up the trail I gave a little gasping shriek. The teenage boy was wearing a day pack, and trailed by two younger boys, a young girl and what looked like their parents. I didn’t linger or exchange more than a few hellos before leaving them behind. Soon after, I ran into three people and a dog, but I wasn’t so shocked that time.
I reached the junction at 11:40am, right on schedule. Just twenty more minutes of hard pushing and I could make it before noon. I was hot, wishing I’d started earlier so the sun wouldn’t be up yet, and thirsty even as I drank from my hydration bladder. I didn’t want to take the time to stop and dig out food, not when I was so close.
|The last bridge I had to cross.
I reached the last bridge quickly from the junction and took a precious few seconds to take pictures of the up and down stream views. I hadn’t gotten to take good pictures of this section of the trail yet, so I wanted to record it as much as possible. But that desire meant that I had to go even faster to make up for the picture stops.
I ran into two women riding horses, and leading two more, which gave me an unwanted but welcome rest as I stood off on the side of the trail. I knew better than to try to sidle close to unfamiliar horses. You never know when one of them will decide you look like an enemy that should be kicked or bitten.
|Of course, there were more rocks.
I thought about Ambrose, waiting for me at the campground. I thought of the car and getting to sit down in it. Since we began backpacking together, I have gained so much. I would never have dreamed of spending the night by myself in the middle of nowhere before starting on this adventure. I’d camped more than ten feet from a car only once in the twenty-seven years before we began these adventures. And now, here I was, by myself, pushing myself, being completely self-sufficient and self-motivated.
I wanted to cry for pride.
But instead I kept going. Not stopping again until I reached the trail head and clicked off the stopwatch. 2 hours, 14 minutes and 31 seconds. A new record.
|I saw Ambrose as I reached this spot, but he walked away before I could catch him in this shot.
It was 11:57am. I’d made my goal time.
Next year, I’ll beat it.