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Hiker finds awe and ecstasy on the PCT

I was standing, half exhilarated and half terrified, on a ridge known as The Knife. Ahead of me, the trail followed the ridge, occasionally veering to one side or the other over steep drops to emerald green valleys. In front of me, Mount Rainier rose sharp against the blue sky.

I was alone, and a careless step could send me tumbling down hundreds of feet.

I’d planned for this trip on the Pacific Crest Trail for nearly a year, and I knew what to expect. So I walked on, keeping my eyes on the trail when I was scared and letting the views soak into my soul when I felt more confident.

By the time I’d descended into the basin below The Knife, I was euphoric. Hiking often does that to me, but passing along The Knife was one of my proudest hiking moments. I knew in advance it would challenge me. I prepared for it. I did it easily. And I loved it.

Really, that sentiment sums up any outdoor adventure. Pick something that will challenge you. Train for it. Go do it.

The Knife was just a small section of my trip, even if it takes up the biggest place in my memory. Overall, I hiked about 74 miles on the PCT, starting south of the Goat Rocks Wilderness and ending up at Chinook Pass at Mount Rainier National Park. I hiked alone, often only seeing about a dozen people per day. It was a blissful solitude.

Along with my triumph on The Knife, the journey left me with countless small memories to savor.

Sensational swimming

Along the way, I swam in a lake nearly every day. Dumbbell Lake, north of White Pass on Highway 12, was my clear favorite. The afternoon I arrived, I was pleased and surprised to discover I was the only person there.

After I set up camp — while trying and failing to protect my blood from the voracious mosquitoes — I took a swim in the lake. The sun was low in the sky, the air was warm and the water was mild. It was heaven to float alone in the lake. As I soaked, I noticed movement on the opposite shore. A doe and two fawns had come down to eat and drink. I floated in the water and watched them for at least 10 minutes until they vanished into the forest.

After my swim, the wind picked up. I took my dinner onto a finger of rock that stuck out into the lake. The wind kept away the mosquitoes, and I found a rock that fit my body exactly. It was like sitting in a recliner — I even had a footrest. I never wanted to leave. Eventually the wind died down, and the mosquitoes chased me into my tent. Quite literally chased me. In the few seconds it took me to get inside, 24 swarmed in with me. I know there were 24 because I counted as I dispatched them. Some bit me before I managed to squash them. My tent now has tiny little blood stains as a memorial.

It was worth it, though. Even with a bit less blood, I went to sleep happy in the knowledge that, next morning, I’d get to find new wonders on the trail.

Beautiful basin

Surpassed only by The Knife, Cispus Basin was my favorite section of trail. The trail climbs to 6,400 feet at Cispus Pass and then drops into the wide, bowl-shaped basin. As I descended, the sun lit up the countless small streams that flooded down to form the Cispus River.

I stopped at the first big stream and dropped my pack. I plunged my hands into the water, body bracing for the cold. Instead, all my muscles relaxed. The water was cool, but not cold. I splashed my face, rubbed off the dirt and sweat, and let the sun dry my skin. I balanced on a rock in the middle of the stream and water flowed all around me.

When it was time to walk on, I made no effort to rock-hop across any of the streams. I stepped right in, and each time the perfect temperature of the water was like a gift.

At the last stream before I left the basin, I stopped to fill up my water bottles in a huge waterfall just off the trail. I walked right up and filled my bottle from the torrent.

I walked out of the basin very wet and very happy.

A bit of magic

That night I slept at a well-established camp. After I set up my gear, I went looking for water. I followed a trail and found a tiny, fairy-tale stream. Water trickled from one perfect pool into the next. I filled up my water and went back to make dinner.

Not long after dinner, I was vaguely staring at the view when I realized I could hear water. Loud water, coming from the direction of the tiny stream. I went to have a look. The rivulet had become a rush. Water gushed from one pool to the next in a frothy torrent.

I was entranced. It felt like magic.

After a while, the logical part of my brain decided that the sun had probably hit a patch of snow and started it melting. The next morning, with the sun still behind the hills, the creek had returned to a trickle, confirming my theory. Actually, even with a logical explanation, it still felt like magic.

A lot of the trip was like that. During six days by myself, I had plenty of time to think and marvel at the world. It was a privilege. I appreciated every day.

When I finished the trail, I had two minor blisters, a huge appetite, countless mosquito bites and memories to last a lifetime.


Backpackers pack up their camp in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, with Mount Adams rising up to the south. Jessi Loerch / The Herald
Lupine blooms along one of the numerous small lakes along the Pacific Crest Trail. Jessi Loerch / The Herald