Wonderland Actualized

I’m back from the woods! Yes it was great! No we didn’t get too smoked out!

Here’s the full trail report.

Dramatis Personae

If you’re not familiar with the tradition of trail names, now is the chance to educate yourself!

First is Bagel, so-named because she packed a bagel in each food cache. These “dum-dum carbs” powered her through our hardest days.

Bagel and me – different trail, same mountain in the background.

Here is Santa, famous for his bulging hang-bag full of treats. His return from the bear pole each morning would be greeted with a rousing chorus of “Here Comes Santa Claus” or “The Man with the Bag”.

The book is “Radical Acceptance”, if you’re curious. Turns out Santa is into Eastern philosophy.
Santa spent his “luxury weight” on a film camera. Gotta work for the perfect shot!

And I am known as Dad, because I carry the map, know what the hell we’re doing, and drive everyone everywhere. Plus it’s only one letter away from my actual name. I shaved down to the dad-stache after being awarded the title.

The party assembled

Additional roles included park rangers (overwhelmingly friendly and chill – the impression I get is that woods cops aren’t the actual worst like city cops, but our party was all white so it’s hard to be sure), other backpackers (friendly in the morning, tired and terse in the afternoon), day-hikers (oblivious), trail-runners (out of breath), and a few boomers driving oversized RVs.

On the Trail

9 days of hiking is a lot. 93 miles of hiking is a lot. There are many ups and downs, both physically and emotionally, and I struggled to find a way to convey the experience. There’s not one thing that sums it up, and giving a play-by-play would be boring both to write and to read. The best thing I could come up with was a series of tableaux – that’s how it presents itself in my mind. I hope they make some sort of sense.

Climbing slowly through the fog out of the Carbon River valley, pausing to catch my breath, and watching the clouds burn off over about 2 minutes leaving a beautiful clear day and a perfect view of the toe of the glacier.

Seriously, no more than 2 minutes apart!

Chasing after Bagel on her first dum-dum carbs morning as she pounds up the ridge below Skyscraper Mountain, and getting a perfectly crisp early-morning view of Rainier, followed by views north all the way to Glacier and Baker once we round the ridge.

Listening to jazz on the trail. I’ve been learning the piano this spring, and my teacher says if I can’t play for 9 days then I should view this as an opportunity to do some listening.

Jazz albums tend to have excellent names.

Catching up with Santa, who has paused for a water break in Berkeley Park, under a ridge where the Wonderland intersects with several other trails. We have a good view of the Mt. Fremont Trail just under the lip of the ridge above us. “29… 30… 31” he says as I walk up, pointing. “I can see 31 people just on that mile-and-a-half stretch of trail”. It is Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we are coming up to a major access point for the park (White River), and due to COVID no one has anything to do other than hike. The next several miles are very crowded.

Spotting deer and mountain goats in the same morning!

Slogging up the 2000 ft climb to Summerland with a full pack at the end of a 13 mile day, and the immense relief when a hiker going the other way lets me know it’s just 3 more switchbacks to the top.

Reading out loud. Each night I read a few chapters from The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, thoroughly butchering all the made-up elven words and names. I love reading out loud – it’s a great way to bring a group together, and it gives me an opportunity to bust out my teacher voice.

Waking up to pee and spotting Rainier glowing in the moonlight, then waking up early to catch it in the pink of dawn.

My crappy phone camera couldn’t handle the moonlight but it sure did snag the dawn.

Summiting the 6800 ft Panhandle Gap, being almost blown off the mountain by the wind rushing between the peaks, and spotting a mountain goat and kid somehow surviving in this desolate place.

Eating lunch in the beautiful sunlight at the group shelter at Indian Bar, and dipping our swollen feet in the cold clear water of the creek as we filled up our bottles.

Realizing my water bottle has fallen out of my pack, and having to backtrack over almost a mile of steep terrain to find it.

The relief of a “rest day” between Nickle Creek and Paradise River after 2 brutally hard days, “only” 9.5 miles and 2000 ft of elevation. The reduced difficulty is important, but almost as key is the change of scenery – instead of climbing huge ridges with outlandishly, demandingly beautiful views, we recover from sensory overload with a quiet day climbing steadily through a narrow canyon and enjoying the fall colors just starting to appear on the opposite slope. Of course, we finish with a big climb up to the big view of Reflection Lake, but by then we are ready.

Obligatory Reflection Lake pic.

Sitting on the porch at Longmire sipping coffee (real coffee, not instant!) and waiting for the restaurant to open for lunch (fresh food!).

Recognizing different groups of backpackers keeping a similar cadence along the trail. Maybe we would be at the same camp two nights in a row, then leap-frog each other up a steep climb, then loose track for a few days, then suddenly be at the same camp again. It was good to see some familiar (masked) faces.

Realizing we’ve found our second dry camp in a row (why didn’t the ranger we met this afternoon tell us the lake is dry when she checked our permit?), drawing the short straw to slog a mile back up the trail on aching legs to pump water for the night, and seeing one of the most splendid sunsets I can remember.

Finishing our second 13-mile day and finding it much easier than the first. Seems like your body really does get conditioned as you go.

Pulling a plastic half-bottle of wine out of my pack on the last night and toasting to the Wonderland, then getting remarkably silly after just one cup each. Turns out not drinking for a while and cranking your metabolism up to max for a week lowers your tolerance!

Sitting and reading on the last night when I feel something scuttly crawl over my foot. I turn on my headlamp and what do I see? Mice! A whole bunch of them, clearly living off of hiker droppings. We hang the backpacks on the bear pole with the food to avoid getting a salty strap gnawed through in the night. The mice end up getting into our food despite it being hung – either they have figured out how to get around the skirt on the pole, or a lucky one hitched a ride in one of our packs. They only get into the trail mix, and eat everything but the raisins. Typical.

Deciding on a silly name for each of our campsites:

  1. Carbonara River, at which the party dreams of pasta
  2. Camp Oopsie, at which several minor mishaps occur
  3. Lightbox Camp, from which we observe Rainier in the daylight, moonlight, and the pink glow of dawn
  4. Nipple Creek, at which the crew is very tired after a long day on the trail and takes the obvious joke (from Nickle Creek)
  5. Mediocre Paradise, which is not all it’s cracked up to be
  6. LA, which is dry, crowded and a bit smokey
  7. Land Before Time V, next to a lake so dry it would be comical if we didn’t have to walk a mile to get water
  8. Camp Serenity, at which the group shares an inside joke from TGE (we read 5 whole chapters that night!)

Driving back down into rural Pierce County, filled with Trump signs and apocalyptic smoke, and wondering if we should just turn the car around and head back to the woods.

Takeaways

Hiking the Wonderland Trail was a lot of work. It involved a ton of logistics, from getting permits to planning training hikes to prepping and distributing food caches. And of course, it was intensely physically demanding – probably the most physically difficult thing I’ve done in my life.

It also involved a lot of luck. Getting a permit? Luck. Avoiding injury during a long summer of training? Care, but also luck (in fact, one of our party had to drop at the last minute due to a ruptured Achilles). Wildlife not eating our food until the last night? Luck. No rain or freakishly early snow? Luck. No wildfires in the park? Luck. Smoke from the CA / OR fires holding off until the last day to get really bad? Luck.

So I guess I would say I’m grateful to have been so fortunate. Fortunate that the stars aligned, and fortunate that I had the time and money and experience and strength to take advantage of the opportunity. Fortunate that I had good friends who could share in the journey.

Hiking the Wonderland also hammered home the reality of global warming and climate change like little else I have experienced. Rainier is in severe drought again this summer, and many creeks and lakes shown on the map were dry. At the same time the glaciers are in full retreat, flooding the major rivers with silty meltwater, washing out bridges and making crossings difficult. I remember standing on Emerald Ridge over the Tahoma Glacier and being able to measure its retreat year-over-year by the quantized heights of the saplings colonizing in its wake, looking down at perhaps a mile of valley that was permanently under ice until a decade ago.

Santa crossing a raging torrent.

And of course there’s the smoke – we had some early in the trip from the Yakima fire, and then the last day-and-a-half we were hit by the smoke from the CA / OR fires. The forests and mountains that I love so dearly are literally on fire. An area the size of New Jersey has burned already just this year, and the fires are barely contained. The skies being filled with smoke and ash is not something that used to happen, and now it’s practically every year. It’s remarkable when it doesn’t happen. I don’t know what more convincing evidence you could ask for that something is terribly, frighteningly wrong with the balance of our planet.

So I guess that’s another reason to be grateful – grateful that I get to experience this magnificent trail as it is now.

And finally, I’m really glad to be back in a place where you can get clean hot water with the turn of a tap, you don’t have to go to bed at 8:00 just because the sun has gone down, and by pressing a couple buttons on your phone and trading in a few imaginary economy points you can get a real live pizza delivered to your apartment in like 45 minutes. There’s certainly something to be said for modern technology.

But… I think I will go out again this weekend. At least for a day hike.

2 thoughts on “Wonderland Actualized

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