The best of times, the worst of times

by Gillian Larson | posted: September 14, 2016
Shyla looking at a dog on the trail

Today started out well, with some really beautiful scenery, but then it turned really hellish later in the day. After a smooth day's progress yesterday, I woke up optimistic that I might avoid some of the terrible downed trees that made my ride through this section in 2014 one of the hardest challenges of that year (and that's saying a lot, as we had a lot of challenges!). The great advantage of this year's ride has been being able to plan more appropriately to deal with what is coming. For instance, I already knew that the terrain throughout Washington and the likelihood of lots of downed trees meant that I did NOT want a pack horse through this part of the trail. A second horse would just create a second set of complications, and because of the narrowness of trail or the need to squeeze under or through or around obstacles, the panniers on the pack saddle would cause even more difficulty than those faced by a riding horse. I did not want to have to unpack the panniers and then reload them again multiple times during the day, in addition to simply the stress of making sure the horses both got through safely. So knowing that this was coming is one of the reasons I sent Takoda home after we finished the Sierra section.

the view near Reflection Pond
looking back south along the trail

It also helped tremendously to know where to cache food at different road crossing along the way, in order to lighten the load that Shyla would have to carry each day. If I could cache food somewhere to pick up as we rode a section, then I didn't have to carry it all from the very beginning. I got pretty good at also sometimes having my camp set up at a location, then driving to a trail head and riding back to the camp as the first day's ride. That way we had to transport even less weight--only what we might require for that first day (I never go anywhere without my saw, for instance!).

White Pass

So I was hopeful that perhaps this section had been cleared, at least in part, since our last time through two years earlier, but I was also prepared for the worst if it wasn't. And we definitely encountered a lot of the "worst." Partway through the day, we entered the Glacier Peak Wilderness where there is a huge backlog of downed trees and several years' worth of deferred maintenance. It is my understanding that chain saws are not even allowed in this wilderness area, which is one of the reasons for the poor conditions, as the work has to be done by hand, with cross saws, due to the high fire danger (and the many bad fires in this part of the state in the past few years). Perhaps that is not true, but if it is, the intensity of the labor required would be one reason why so much of the work hasn't been done. As you can see from the photo below, many of the trees are massive, and on the steep hillsides, getting around them is a real difficulty. Not only is it tremendously hard to scramble up and down the terrain, but of course there are simply more downed trees and brush and additional obstacles in the way as we attempt to do so.

a jumble of fallen trees

I recognized many of the trees from two years previously, and although it was frustrating to realize that nothing had been done in the interval to clear the trail, it also helped because I remembered some of the routes I had found around the trickiest places. In the two pictures below, for instance, you can see a tree lying lengthwise in the trail itself and several other branches leaning up against the end of it on the left side (in the first picture). We got past this by walking alongside the long tree and then slipping UNDER the branches on the left of it. The fact that it looks too small to squeeze under just shows how BIG the trees actually are.

Looking north at a tangle of trees

The picture below is the same obstacle, looking back at it after we got by to the other side. Now the branches we slipped under are on the right side in the photo. The two logs that are across the trail between there and where I am standing were ones that we jumped OVER to get back onto the trail.

Looking back south at the same tangle

Having to deal with things like this is one reason why it takes a very special horse, and especially a very good sense of teamwork between horse and rider, to be successful on the PCT. This is not something that every horse would be willing or able to do (and I am even glad that Shyla is relatively small in stature, as that helps us get under some things where other horses might not fit). It is also why I feel so angry sometimes when hikers (or perhaps even riders) think that going on horseback is one way to make it "easier." Certainly, if you pick your sections carefully and are not trying to do a whole thru-ride, it is possible to go for a nice day ride or section ride, and having the horse to carry you and planning for only short daily rides would make for an enjoyable experience. But if the goal is to cover the entire length of the PCT in one season, then there is no way to average less than 25 miles a day (and that is on average, meaning many days are going to be much longer) and you can't "cherry pick" where you want to go. In that case, I think the same kind of physical stamina is required of a rider or a hiker. If one is not in the right physical shape to be able to walk the PCT, then one really shouldn't attempt to ride it either, or at least not in a thru-ride. Just as hikers have to gauge how much of the trail they can realistically handle, riders have to do the same, and perhaps the burden of responsibility is even greater to be wise about one's choices, because it is not just you who will suffer the consequences if you choose poorly.


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