‘A new reality of the trail’
Navigating around a 110-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail closed in response to the McKinney Fire took the work of some angels.
“Trail angels” and other connections upon which PCT hikers rely helped to ease their transition from the trail after the U.S. Forest Service closed the trail between Etna Summit in Siskiyou County, California, and Mt. Ashland.
More trail closures lie ahead, with more fires burning along sections of the trail north of the Rogue Valley, making such interruptions part of a new PCT reality.
Three hikers breaking camp Tuesday at Jackson Wellsprings considered themselves fortunate to have escaped the closure with relative ease. All three insisted on a tradition of the PCT, going by their trail names.
Sad Spot, Bed Penny and Tinder were determined to continue on the trail and looked at losing a couple of hundred miles with sanguine acceptance.
“It’s becoming rare for people to be able to hike the PCT all the way through,” Sad Spot said.
“It’s just a new reality on the trail,” Bed Penny said.
The three hikers were scheduled to meet two of their friends, Melissa Villars and Jeoff Calkins, and hike part of the trail together outside Yreka when they learned of the closure.
Villars and Calkins already are living in their van traveling in the area and were willing to ferry their friends around the McKinney Fire and up to Crater Lake, where the group hopes to pick the trail back up again, despite a 60-mile closure up ahead due to the Windigo and Potter fires.
The hikers hope to get around those closures in the same way they have the McKinney closure, through close communication with hikers and reliance on help from those off the trail.
Sad Spot said he heard reports of a closure due to the fire from other hikers but didn’t believe it until the group ran into a huddle of hikers stopped and waiting for rides in an area 50 miles south of Mount Etna.
All of the hikers would need outside help to get out he explained. His group had their friends; the others had trail angels.
“A whole caravan of trail angels pulled up and just got everybody out of there.”
“Every year there’s a gotcha,” said Bill Exley, a trail angel of eight years, “and this year it was the McKinney Fire. This year was exceptional.”
Trail angels, Exley explained, help PCT hikers complete the arduous 2,650-mile trail by offering rides, places to stay or hiking into sections of the PCT with cold water, beer, soda or other sugars and carbs beloved by hikers burning thousands of calories per day.
Every year PCT hikers flip-flop — skip one section of trail due to unexpected conditions like fire or snow, then return and hike through that section later, Exley explained. But this year, he said, dozens of hikers were forced to abruptly change plans when a larger-than-normal section of trail was shut down by the McKinney Fire.
“I bow to all of the angels in Southern Oregon and even Central Oregon, who rose to the occasion and helped hikers,” he said.
Daryl Burks described himself as not a super angel, only kind of an angel, because he recently refused driving a mother and her teenage children from Ashland to Bend. But even restricting himself to ferrying hikers from Callahan’s Lodge to Ashland, Burks described himself as busy.
“There’s so many of them scrambling,” he said. “This summer was a little different. We had it sweet until this last week of July.”
Sunny J. Lindley estimated she has helped about 10 hikers over the past eight or nine days. Several have stayed at her home while they figured out how they wanted to work around the closure.
“In my experience, they’re very determined. They want to finish the trail. Everyone’s choice about how they want to navigate that is very different,” she said.
Despite all of them saying they expected fires, Lindley described them as rattled by the experience.
“They try to act invulnerable, but you can see it in their eyes,” she said.
Lindley said she remembered in particular three men, one from Italy, one from France and one from Austria, all exhibiting various levels of English comprehension and fluency.
They woke up in the night to find ash on their tents and were told to move; they moved only to be told again, Lindley said, stating she struggled to understand them as they told their story and guessed they probably struggled to understand the evacuation orders.
After a couple of days’ rest, all three men continued on the trail, she said.
“A lot of them, it seems like they’re seeking a transformation of some kind — that’s a unique mindset that prepares them to deal with a wildfire,” Lindley said.
A group of hikers resting beside the waterfall outside Callahan’s Mountain Lodge Tuesday said they escaped the fire through the help of trail angels and southbound hikers alerting them to the danger.
Despite the smoke, they were preparing to hike toward Crater Lake.
One hiker, giving the trail name Fly, said he and his fellow hikers understood what they were facing.
“Hiking up into Northern California in late July — oh, yeah, right in the lion’s den,” he said.
Another hiker, Fried Green, said she was working toward a “triple crown” — the title earned by hiking the Appalachian Trial, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. She already has hiked the other two trails; the PCT is all that’s left, and she would accept no gaps.
“I’ve got to connect my footsteps,” she said.
She and other hikers in her group will hike this section of the trail when it reopens.
The disappointment of the closed trail was a painful moment for Fried Green, confessing to a brief cry in her tent, but she said hiking the trail means rolling with the punches and accepting conditions as they are.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.