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Several Thousand Steps on the PCT

Lightweight gear and food, and lessons learned along two hundred miles of the PCT from B to C (Bend, Oregon to the Columbia River).


by Ken Maddox | 2005-09-13 03:00:00-06


B is Bend, Oregon, and C is the Columbia River, a couple of hundred miles roughly north along the Cascade Mountains. And I'd know exactly how many steps, if I hadn't lost my pedometer the first day of the trip, which began at the Elk Lake trailhead on the Century Drive outside Bend. Since that loss was about the worst thing that happened, all in all I'd have to rate the experience a very good one.

The Start

Elk Lake lies on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountain chain, just south of the Three Sisters Mountains. Beginning from the Elk Lake trailhead, a trail leads 1.5 miles mostly west to connect to the Pacific Crest Trail. Although there is not much vertical change, the transition is pretty dramatic, from pine forest typical of the dry east side of the Cascades to fir forest typical of the wet west side.

The Pacific Crest Trail, in my experience, is generally a distinct foot highway, and so missing a dry junction in clear weather takes some doing. Not that I don't have what it takes to miss a junction, but this time I managed to recognize the connection and turn north into the territory of wild animals - this despite warnings from a few bitten and bitter trail veterans who warned me as they passed. It was early July, and the mosquitoes were fierce, determined, and thirsty, and fresh blood was all they wanted - I would do for either an appetizer or the main course.

These warnings reinforced the ominous sense I had gained while reading the Pacific Crest Trail Guide, in which the area just to the south was described as one of the two buggiest on the entire trail. Consequently, I was armed with mosquito repellant, mosquito head net, and an extra piece of mosquito netting designed so that I could cower under it in the hammock or under the tarp I was carrying.

And so I turned north onto the PCT, and within a few miles I managed to knock the pedometer off, only realizing the loss when I was several more hard-won miles down the trail. OK, perhaps not so hard won, but still I decided not to turn around, retrace several miles without assurance of finding the darn thing, and then once more run the mosquito gauntlet, having made three trips for the progress of one. If anyone finds a silver pedometer with the annoying habit of vocalizing, for example, "All clear" in an irritating mechanical voice, then you may certainly keep it with my compliments.

The trail runs north past a collection of lakes and out onto the Wickiup Plain. I rather quickly observed that early July came with some snow left over from an average to good Oregon winter and covered the trail. Despite the opportunity, I managed not to get lost immediately and even found every now and then the trail running through bare spots.

Temporarily Misplaced

Or so I thought. It turns out that near Mesa Creek there is a junction between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Oregon Skyline Trail, which largely parallel one another. In many places the older Skyline Trail was incorporated into the PCT, but in others it remains separate. Inadvertently, I drifted onto the more westerly Skyline Trail, which had its very good points. One good point was, well, I was on it. Next, it was lower and therefore less snow-covered. However, not to be deterred I took a rather early opportunity to make my way back up east to the PCT, only to get really lost in the snow. As best I am able to reconstruct, I passed somewhere close to Obsidian Falls (or so I think, because I stumbled across some obsidian in quantity). If there were falls nearby, they were well shielded by snow. Then I zigzagged here and there, over hill and dale, up and down and all around, until by some miracle I hit the trail again.

Only it turned out not to be "the" trail, but by good fortune another one called Glacier Way that connected back into the PCT. Almost immediately following the junction, the PCT emerged north from the snow, up over lava rock, and out from under the North Sister. The Sisters, like the other big mountains in the Cascades, pile up the clouds and consequent snowfall on their west sides as storms move in carrying marine moisture from the Pacific.

While wandering around lost, I had worried that I might have to bail out of the trip, as much of it ran at the same 6,000 to 7,000 feet altitude at which I was snowbound. So I laid elaborate plans to grope my way north to the McKenzie Highway, hitchhike out, and hope to find public transportation, a mode apparently dying more quickly than foot travel. However, once clear of the influence of the taller mountains, the trail was open and easy to follow even at the higher elevations with only patches of snow here and there.

Bugs, Oh My!

So north I went with confidence, taking the scenic route where the Skyline Trail passed by North and South Matthieu Lakes, so that I could tell my friend Matthieu, into McKenzie Pass. Ah, but confidence on this adventure was not warranted, and not unpunished. The mosquitoes, which had been lurking at the lower altitudes all this time, swarmed in to greet me. They reminded me of the flying monkeys scene from The Wizard of Oz, except they were less benign.

I slapped legs, arms, face, and then did it again and again for practice. Then I stopped (a mistake nearly always) and slapped on DEET. The mosquitoes seemed to respond; they appeared to regard the stuff as cocktails to be lapped before setting in to the flesh beneath, and so redoubled their efforts. It was too hot to pull on long pants, but I didn't want my legs to become two big consolidated welts, I also didn't want to stop to figure it all out.

It was then that an idea germinated. I wriggled along wishing I had something lightweight, airy, and mosquito repellent. I thought of netting leggings, netting chaps (along the lines of rain chaps), and finally: the netting skirt. Unlike the leggings or chaps, I could actually make the netting skirt, using the piece of mosquito netting I had with me. A crude but workable wrap skirt could be made simply by covering the relevant portions and securing the result with a piece of string.

Of course, by the time I had worked all this out the worst of the mosquitoes had passed, and I was approaching a collection of humanity, or what passes for it along the PCT. Consequently, it was a couple of days later before I put the concept into practice. And while it's true that rational folks would have thought better of it in the meantime, no such consideration nor reason intervened.

McKenzie Pass

At McKenzie Pass, I walked along the highway for a few steps to the Dee Wright Observatory. A very impressive lava flow spilled from the Yapoah Crater I had passed on the PCT a few miles back. Explanatory signs and trails through the lava give an impression of the workings of the inner earth when it becomes the outer earth.

From there the trail goes up through and down through lava rubble that came from Belknap and Little Belknap and then up on the slopes of Mt. Washington. All that piece of trail is dry as a bone. I wound up camping at the Washington Ponds, which the guidebook accurately described as hard to find. Fortunately, I found one pond while looking for the other.

North of Mt. Washington the PCT crosses the Santiam Highway, where a large fire devastated the forest through which the trail runs. For miles and miles and miles there is nothing left, except for here and there some green sprouts emerging from the charring and dust. The desolation makes one realize how rich a living forest is, with plants and flowers and berries and forest duff, shade and growing trees, and animal life among it all. In the burned area only a few pockets escaped the general conflagration.

In the area north of the highway, again the trail splits. I took the lower, and more watered, Skyline Trail rather than the upper PCT. I had already found that the fire and the loss of trees that resulted had dried up even the normally continuous streams.

The Netting Tutu Saves My Bacon

It was hot. For the first of two times I used the umbrella that I hauled along on the trip for shade. And then I decided to slip off trail into the inviting waters of Santiam Lake. It sounded from the guidebook and appeared to the eye, so cool, so refreshing, so alluring. In fact it was so warm, so bug-infested, but still, so much better than continuing to eat trail dust. The mosquitoes were so voracious that upon emerging from the lake I immediately applied DEET to everything that was or might ever be exposed.

I also left behind my bottle of DEET when I hastily packed up so as to get out of there with all deliberate speed. And, you may have guessed, several miles later I missed it, and didn't go back.

Fortunately, I had used one technique that saved my bacon - and the other edible parts. I had treated those pieces of clothing that were thin enough, and exposed enough to potential mosquito attacks, with permethrin. That included head and face coverings, shirt, shorts, and the extra piece of mosquito netting. Permethrin is a chemical nerve agent for insects. I found that it absolutely protected every piece of clothing, and every bit of skin under it from the pests.

A Pacific Crest Trail Section Hike from B to C in Several Thousand Easy - and Other - Steps - 1
The author models his mosquito-netting tutu on a subsequent trip along the Oregon coast.

Out came the mosquito netting, the crude wrap, and, in the wilderness where no eye saw, the guy in the net skirt. I think it gave a somewhat debonair ballet effect to my walking. It also kept the bugs off. An occasional, bold mosquito would find her way underneath, only to search frantically for a way out again. No bites, no pain, big gain.

I moved on north, eventually rejoining the PCT just before Milk Creek. I had pushed to get to Milk Creek, having read in the guidebook that the glacier-fed streams became less manageable the later in the day one crossed. In fact, the guidebook had specified 11:00 a.m. as the latest crossing time, but I didn't get there till noon. I reasoned that it wasn't really sun noon, just that artificial daylight saving noon, and so crossing should still be OK. It was, and I rested on the opposite bank, taking a noontime R and R.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Milk Creek was not the creek the guidebook had warned about. Rather, the warning was for Russell Creek, another four and a half miles along the trail. I got there at a time, daylight saving or not, that no right-minded guidebook author would have recommended. But ignorance can be a good occasion for those guardian angels that protect children and fools to earn their wing struts. I crossed, and only later discovered my confusion of the two creeks. Moreover, Russell Creek didn't seem very formidable. That guardian angel must have been on steroids.

Jefferson Park - A Highlight

From there the trail entered one of the highlights of the trip: Jefferson Park. It is truly lovely, and truly over-loved, no doubt. That early in the year there had been few visitors. There was a lot of snow around the trail so finding it was somewhat difficult. But of course, I was a veteran at getting lost, and so I did it with ease and good humor. The pass beyond Jefferson Park shared its stunning scenery. A sign in the pass notifying hikers that they were entering the Mount Hood National Forest disconcerted me: Mt. Jefferson loomed above, and Mt. Hood was nowhere to be seen, some 100 miles to the north.

To whoever put up the excellent cairns that guide hikers down from the pass north of Mt. Jefferson, eternal gratitude and applause! Out of the snow they stood, and very welcome sights they were. Even I could follow them, and was delighted to be able to do so.

The next portion of the trip passed uneventfully. There were plenty of water sources, few people, and healthy forests up to and around Ollallie Butte. However, not so many water sources occur north to placid Lemiti Creek, and from there to the Warm Springs River. In fact, water sources became determining factors for stops and stays until I reached Mt. Hood. The long north arm of Timothy Lake stretches out the trail along its shores. North of Timothy Lake, in the middle of what by all appearances was nowhere, I came across a nice gesture: by the side of the trail, someone had left several paperback books, which s/he had probably finished, as an impromptu exchange. One of them was an interesting little book highly recommended: Albert Schweitzer's Out of My Life and Thought. According to the copyright, the tenth printing of my paperback was in February 1961. How's that for the latest summer reading?

The trail crosses Highway 26 as it winds its way up from Madras, Oregon, and Highway 35 lay only a few miles farther. I took a little detour along the old PCT past Twin Lakes. I had grumped about what I thought was going to be a pull up onto Mt. Hood, but the trail was very well cut and pretty easy going - until I neared Timberline Lodge. There the trail comes out of the forest into the open, the sun was shining fiercely (it was noontime), the path was sandy and steep, and the portable shade of the umbrella was truly welcome. As was Timberline Lodge, where the air and water were pure, the bathroom dim and therefore apparently spotless.

I looked up a friend there and off-loaded a few extras that I hadn't eaten, beaten, or thrown away, then with light heart and lightened pack, shaved and spit-bathed, and set off for the final leg. Mt. Hood's Timberline Trail (which the PCT shares on Hood's west side) has its ups and downs. One of the ups is Paradise Park, reached by a side trail, and aptly named and beautiful any time of year. The bear grass was prominent when I was there. One of the big downs leads to the Sandy River. There I cleverly decided to jump from a tall rock on one side to the opposite shore. I succeeded in the first part: that is, I jumped from the rock. I almost jumped to the opposite shore, too. Landing both a bit short and a bit awkwardly, I got wet feet and glacier grit in my shoes, and a small knee sprain for my judgment. My current resolve is not to jump from any height onto loose river rock. Maybe that's why long-jump pits feature sand instead.

I took a scenic detour to Ramona Falls - well worth the trip - and then managed to cross Muddy Fork (properly named) in a peculiarly personal way. I got across the first arm easily - and into a thicket of willow. Hearing voices from hikers who had followed a more rational route, I was eventually able to bushwhack my way out, in order to cross the remaining two streams. Those crossings were uneventful, and from there the Timberline Trail led back to a junction with the PCT, which follows a much less scenic route farther down the Mountain.

The Finish

Off Mt. Hood to the north, the PCT makes its way across Lolo Pass, between Bull Run Lake and the lovely Lost Lake under Buck Peak, and then to Indian Mountain and Indian Springs (named by those who doubtless prided themselves on their originality, with whose descendents I apparently have fallen into entirely too much contact). I took a cut-off trail that leads to a trail joining Wahtum Lake (where the PCT goes) and Eagle Creek (where it no longer does), and turned toward the gorgeous and much photographed Eagle Creek. The Eagle Creek Trail is an ideal trail on which to end a hike, in my opinion, and since on this solo hike my opinion was the only one that counted, that is how the trek closed: down Eagle Creek to the Columbia, across to Cascade Locks, and back to as much civilization as the country currently offers.

Lessons Learned

  1. Tie the pedometer on.
  2. Carry back-up DEET.
  3. Read guidebooks carefully and try to understand them.
  4. Wear gauzy skirts only in carefully chosen society.
  5. Don't jump from tall rocks.


Gear, not counting food or water, weighed about 16 pounds, of which I wore about four pounds and carried 12. I took (weights approximate):

  1. Pack, about 2,600 ci (43 liters), padded back and straps: 1.5 lb
  2. Homemade bivy sack modeled on Equinox, silnylon floor, ripstop top, and side zipper: 8 oz
  3. Synthetic quilt: 29 oz
  4. Therm-a-Rest 3/4: 20 oz
  5. Silnylon tarp, 65" x 110" and stakes: 12 oz
  6. Lightweight hammock (for lounging, not overnight): 15 oz
  7. Umbrella: 12 oz
  8. Walking/tarp pole (old cross country ski pole): 7 oz
  9. Clothing: shorts, nylon shirt, head cloth and visor, trail running shoes, low socks, homemade ripstop gaiters to keep out particles, fleece pullover, rain jacket/windbreaker, rain/windbreaker pants, fleece cap, fleece socks, head net: 5 lb
  10. Miscellaneous line, flashlight, knife, creams and lotions, watch, spoon, glasses and retainer and case, mosquito repellent, iodine for water treatment, pain medication and more pain medication just in case, soap, small wash cloths, toothbrush, nylon clips, and a plastic mirror: 29 oz
  11. A couple of paperback books: 10 oz
  12. Two 1 L soda bottles for water: 3 oz
  13. Extra piece of mosquito netting: 2 oz


I ate from a very limited menu, which results in a weight of a little over 1.5 pounds per day and yields about 3,800 calories per day, or about 5 calories per gram. I took:
  1. Peanut butter (6 calories per gram): about 9 ounces per day
  2. Nutella (5.5 calories per gram): about 4 ounces per day
  3. Olive oil (8 calories per gram): about 2 ounces per day
  4. Dried apricots (4 calories per gram): about 4 ounces per day
  5. Whole wheat flour tortillas (3.5 calories per gram): about 5 ounces per day
  6. Jerky (3 calories per gram): about 2 ounces per day

A Pacific Crest Trail Section Hike from B to C in Several Thousand Easy - and Other - Steps - 2

About the Author

Ken Maddox took a first extended backpacking trip a few decades ago that included two peak experiences: traversing the Tetons, and meeting his wife. Linda was backpacking, too, headed the opposite direction - a situation that has recurred on more than one occasion. Ken is hooked on lightweight backpacking and on doing so without spending a fortune, which the family finances would likely not support, and Linda certainly will not. Ken lives in Hood River, Oregon in the middle of the Cascade Mountains, about 60 miles east of Portland.


"Several Thousand Steps on the PCT," by Ken Maddox. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-09-13 03:00:00-06.