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Where There’s Smoke

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. 

African Proverb
Marmot preparing for winter nest

Two weeks ago, Laurie, our friends Trev and Kim, and I started a 55-mile, seven-day hike—but thanks to a forest fire, it wound up to be 77 miles over eight days. This summer lived up to the modern adage that in the state of Washington there are five seasons: Fall, winter, spring, summer, and fire.

Our planned route covered 55 miles to the west of Glacier Peak, the fourth highest peak in Washington. We were optimistic we would have great views of this remote mountain. Most of our route would be on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which stretches 2,653 miles in length, from the Mexican to the Canadian Border 

We delayed the start of the hike one day because easterly winds were blowing smoke from fires on the east side of the mountains. Our hope was that an expected shift in the winds would provide clearer views. 

Mountain huckleberries

Early the second day we made a steep ascent out of a river basin to join the PCT and were rewarded with great views, vast fields of ripe huckleberries, and marmot sightings. As we headed north, we started to encounter PCT thru hikers—hardy adventurers who were hiking border to border. They had earned trail names like Jukebox, The Dude, Captain Ahab, Mystic, and Wiseman.  

On this trip we were totally off the grid. No signal for email or phone calls. On day four we started to hear unpleasant news from other hikers—the trailhead where we had parked our Subaru was closed, due to a forest fire. The PCT was still open but the spur to our car was closed. We considered our options. We could turn around and go back to Trev and Kim’s car which we had left on a trailhead to the south or we could continue north. Best case, in three days the fire would be out, and we could continue to our car. If not, we would be forced to extend our route by 22 miles and one to three days to reach Stehekin, a remote village on the north end of Lake Chelan in eastern Washington.

We decided to go for it. 

Two days later we reached the cutoff to our car. The area was thick with smoke that stung our eyes and the trail was closed. Now we had to push ourselves to reach Stehekin. Because it was only noon, we hiked another ten miles to a campsite high up on the trail. It turned out to be an eighteen-mile day—nothing for a real thru-hiker but a stretch for us. 

That night as we slept in our tents, rain fell hard for over four hours. We were not looking forward to hiking in our rain gear. But blessedly, it quit before we got up and broke camp. And we were rewarded with clear views. We had planned to push all the way through to our destination, but the trail conditions were difficult, and we were exhausted. We settled for another eighteen miles—striking distance to High Bridge, where a shuttle bus would take us to Stehekin and a slice of civilization.

Friendly marmots

The next morning, we got up early and set a fast pace to finish up the last five miles and catch the early bus. We made it in time to join three thru-hikers on their way to a break from the trail. 

By challenging ourselves we took only one extra day to make up those extra 22 miles. We stretched our food, supplemented by plenty of huckleberries, and even arrived with rations to spare. That afternoon we took a boat to Chelan where we caught a bus to Wenatchee and a hotel. In the morning we rented a car to get our friends to their car. Then we headed up to the fire zone where we hoped our car was still okay.

Stehekin Village, north end of Lake Chelan

When we reached Stehekin and phone signals the day before we found out that our car was in one piece, but not out of danger. Three miles from the trailhead we met the incident commander for “The Downey Creek Fire.” He warned us that the fire was still active, and they had even had to move our car out of the way of a burning cedar that was eventually going to fall. He drove Laurie to the Subaru. Fortunately, it started right up and she followed him out—without delay.

She said it was the most surreal thing she’d ever done—driving through a still active forest fire. Our car was the last one out.

Although the four of us hiked alone—we were far from alone. On the trail we got reports from other hikers who were connected via Garmin devices that had the ability to get weather reports and updates. “Jukebox” let me send a text to my brother so we could let our family know we were okay, and to cancel a scheduled dental appointment. “The Dude” gave us screen shots from her phone of trail sections we didn’t have on our maps. And when we reached the shuttle bus the driver, Jerry, was able to advise us on how to catch the boat to Chelan and best options for car rental. On the boat one of the crew members found us the schedule for the bus from Chelan to Wenatchee where we could rent a hotel room and a car. And eat. And shower. And sleep in a warm, dry bed. 

More adventure than we had planned, but an amazing one.

Lessons learned:

  • When Trev asks me to download extra detail on the route and alternate route to my GPS, don’t miss the email about it.
  • Give the family a better route plan in case of emergency.
  • Consider one of those satellite communicators for longer, remote hikes. 
  • Extra food. It’s heavy, but beats going hungry. 

Related Posts:

Actual route in green, planned route in red

11 thoughts on “Where There’s Smoke”

    1. Not a part of hiking we’d like to repeat. We’ve had smoke a number of times–but this was the closest we got to the actual fire.

  1. Wow, indeed!! After reading about all those planned and unplanned adventures,
    not being a hiker at all, I am content to just read about yours! I am always glad you are a dedicated Toastmaster in my Tacoma #13 Early Birds club!

  2. Your journeys always inspire me! Thanks for sharing the details and pictures.

    I am a HUGE fan of satellite phones. My brother was in the remote Smith River area with friends when he fell and seriously broke his leg. A HUGE snowstorm came up so helicopter rescue wasn’t possible and it took 12 hours on snowmobiles and 4x4s to just reach him. He’s alive today because someone had a satellite phone and the rescuers were tenacious.

    Happy you were able to navigate the fires safely.

    1. Yes, getting injured in the back country adds a big level of risk. The sat phones are expensive but we will have to look seriously at one. Might do a sharing option with friends.

  3. Hello Dennis, that’s an impressive adventure and set of lessons. I’ve read a little bit and wondered alot about Glacier Peak, the hike without the fire would be impressive. Aaron Marler asked me yesterday what you were up to… of course
    I had no idea. Glad to read that you and Laurie are OK.

    1. I’ll check into the geology YouTube you mentioned about that area. And tell Aaron “Hi” for us. Would be great to reconnect with him.

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