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Dodging fires on the PCT

Our carefully planned section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail through Southern Oregon disintegrated three weeks before our first steps.

Last August, my hiking buddy David Jordan and I sauntered from the Oregon-California border to Fish Lake, covering about 82 miles in five days — Phase 1 of our plan to incrementally walk to the Columbia River in roughly five-day bites.

So picking up this year where we left off last year, our next departure point should have been Fourmile Lake, with a trek through the Sky Lakes Wilderness and Crater Lake National Park to a trailhead off Highway 138.

But as soon as the Red Blanket fire outside of Prospect took off in July, we figured our August hiking plans were in jeopardy.

In less than a week, those suspicions were confirmed: The Pacific Crest Trail was closed through much of Crater Lake National Park. And the pesky Spruce Lake fire that we spied July 30 while driving through the park landed a second punch to our itinerary.

Charting a new course wasn't easy with fires burning in every direction. Along with many other Rogue Valley residents enduring smoke-induced headaches, itchy eyes and sore throats, we were tempted to chuck the journey and wait 'til next year.

Nonetheless, we assembled our packs, tested our water filters, pored over InciWeb and weather sites and decided to simply start where we had planned to finish, and go instead to Odell Lake on Highway 58, covering PCT trail miles 1,845 through 1,905.

What I had liked about our original course was that it wasn't heavy on elevation changes. What we got instead was intensified ascents and descents — hard on the engine on the way up, and murder on the knees and feet on the way down.

We left Medford at about 2 p.m. Aug. 23, and wondered what we were headed for as we motored through ever-denser smoke in the Rogue region. We parked at the trailhead on Highway 138 and hit the connecting trail at 4:30 p.m., nine miles from our Day 1 campsite along Thielsen Creek.

The first through-hiker — folks, usually 20-somethings, attempting cover the entire 2,659 miles from Mexico to Canada in one season — we encountered was a recent Columbia University evolutionary biology graduate who grew up in Brooklyn and had a decided disdain for the East Coast elitist society in which she grew up. Searching for clarity during her journey, she admittedly found none. We parted at a water cache provided by trail angels.

Through-hikers move at different speeds than ordinary humans, and they generally know the people a day ahead of them or a day behind, because they group and regroup over the course of weeks and months on the trail.

Last year, we asked through-hikers about shoes, equipment and any suggestions they might have for future efforts. My heavy boots may have worked well on the volcanic rock around Fish Lake, but they were way too heavy for 1,000-foot climbs. This time around I found $200 hiking shoes for less than $100 and reduced blister activity exponentially.

We ate like kings in 2016, with our wives driving to meet us and providing dinner at Grouse Gap and Howard Prairie, mixed in with cafe meals at Callahan's, Hyatt Lake and Fish Lake. This year, we went with dried fruit, trail bars and PB&J. I did grab a black forest ham sandwich at Subway, which served as dinner the first night and an on-the-move brunch the second day.

As we ascended the western flank of Mount Thielsen, we met hikers from Portland and Wisconsin, one a recent college grad, the other in between college stints. We learned last year that 30-plus miles a day was the norm for through-hikers, with a few 50s thrown in to keep ahead of deadlines and weather conditions. Those fellows were soon way ahead of us.

Where we were supposed to gaze down on glittering Diamond Lake, all we saw was smoke on the water. Thielsen, always impressive on the drive north on Highway 230, was captivating, so our reasonable pace was slowed for photo ops.

The trail loop from Diamond Lake to Thielsen's summit overlaps the PCT for a while before heading skyward on the western slope. Switchbacks dropped us from an elevation of 7,334 feet to less than 6,900 feet at Thielsen Creek, fed by Lathrop Glacier and the remaining snowpack. It was the only point in this section where we might have had wet feet, but deft use of trekking poles and rocks kept us dry.

We met a Portland couple who took a shuttle to the trailhead and were hiking for two weeks. They had lots of gear, including a domed tent, and were the only party we left in the dust.

Smoke became less of an issue as we moved north, although one fellow traveler who was heading south told us he started at the Oregon-California border and was on his way north before encountering a trail closure near Sisters. He was tired of side-stepping fires, so he had turned around.

Five miles into our second day, we passed a marker indicating the highest point of the trail in Oregon or Washington at 7,560 feet. The National Geographic maps we carried countered with 7,572 feet. But what's a dozen feet among the spectacular surroundings above us, including red-rocked Tipsoo Peak?

A Trillium Charter School graduate from Portland, who owns coffee shops in Utah, overtook us and we chatted about his educational experience for a few minutes.

The rest of that day was somewhat forgettable, other than to remember no sane person would ever venture off the PCT to Miller Lake. With Maidu Lake a mere three-quarters of a mile to the west of the trail, we decided to go to Miller Lake, a three-mile trek into the smoky abyss. Needing water, we ditched our packs and dropped down to about 5,700 feet so we could fill our bottles from Evening Creek.

Regaining the trail a couple of hours later, we found a dozen through-hikers lounging in the shade. Most of them passed us during the next few hours as we pushed on to Six Horse Spring, where we spent the night. By pushing on to Six Horse Spring, which didn't produce enough water to fill our bottles, we cut a day off our journey.

At Windigo Pass trailhead, where Forest Service Road 60 crosses the PCT, we elected to take the old Oregon Skyline Trail alternative route for a few miles rather than crest another 7,000-foot summit on the flank of Diamond Peak. We spent that next night outside a horse camp near Crescent Lake.

We tagged along with a Boy Scout mom, who has worked with crews maintaining the PCT. She had been dubbed Magellan because the Corvallis resident gave great directions as they ventured in and out of fire areas in the Southern Oregon Cascades.

Perhaps there are spectacular views from the ridges surrounding Diamond Peak, but it's hard to top the panoramic perspective on the far side of Diamond View Lake reflecting the snow-capped mountains to the west.

Our final day was the first day of elk bow-hunting season. We encountered a pair of hunters who were headed for untrailed area on the far side of the lake. Although we saw some bear tracks last year and elk tracks a little farther up the trail this time, we didn't see anything bigger than a chipmunk either trip. Even so, if the hunters nailed an elk, packing it out would be an arduous task at best.

As we made our final descent to Odell Lake, we paralleled Trapper Creek, a whitewater flow that cooled the surrounding hills on its way to the lake. It was tempting to climb down to the creek, but our final destination was at hand.

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.


Morning clouds above Mount Thielsen can be seen from the banks of apine-fresh Thielsen Creek. [Photo by Greg Stiles]
Greg Stiles takes a break along Trapper Creek, which flows from the Diamond Peak Wilderness Area into Odell Lake.