Up until now, I’ve been lucky in avoiding fires on my hike down the PCT to Mt. Whitney from Southern Oregon. Certainly this was true of Section P that I have been featuring in my last few posts. Jay and I had a couple of days of minor smoke from fires near the Oregon border, but as my photos have shown, most of our trip was either beautifully clear or only slightly hazy. My luck continued all the way through Lassen National Park to Highway 36 and Chester (close to half of my trip). The Carr fire near Redding and several other Northern California fires have changed that.
It seems like the whole West is burning, a phenomenon that has become all too common. And it’s no stranger to those who hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Tinder dry forests, excessive heat, low humidity, strong winds, lightning, and people careless with fire are all factors. A small blaze can quickly escalate into a conflagration that consumes hundreds and even thousands of acres. Through-hikers and section-hikers pay close attention to the latest news. First, because of potential danger. Pushed by strong winds, forest fires can move quickly and threaten life. Second, and much more common, fires force trail closures. Dreams of hiking the whole trail straight through are often frustrated. Global warming is taking its toll on the PCT!
Smoke is also an issue. Visibility drops quickly. Distant vistas that the PCT is famous for and that trekkers love disappear. Of even more concern, air pollution becomes a health threat. The fine particulate matter created by smoke can make its way deep into your lungs. As the American Lung Association notes: Wildfire smoke can be extremely harmful to the lungs, especially for children, older adults (which I vaguely resemble at 75) and those with asthma, COPD and bronchitis or a chronic heart disease or diabetes. Unhealthy air from the Ferguson Fire was a major reason for evacuating Yosemite Valley this summer.
During heavy smoke episodes, people are warned to stay inside and avoid exercising outdoors. The harder a person breathes, the deeper smoke is pulled into his or her lungs. As you might imagine, staying inside and avoiding exercise are not options for people out on the PCT. In fact, through-hikers are exercising way beyond what is normal, especially when hiking up a steep trail or backpacking 20-30 miles a day. (I’ll add my 13-15 miles a day here— grin)
Many of you have expressed concern over how the numerous fires in Southern Oregon and Northern California are impacting my journey. The Carr fire that has garnered so much national media attention, is a case in point. As of this morning the fire has consumed 89,000 acres and is threatening Redding. It has even created its own weather system, including fire tornadoes. Fortunately for me and others hiking the PCT, it is about 50 miles west of the trail. We don’t have to worry about the flames, at least not yet. Hopefully, the fire will be contained by the time you read this post.
The smoke from the Carr fire was something else.
When Peggy drove me over to the trailhead on Highway 36 yesterday morning (July 28) for the next segment of my trip, the smoke was so thick that visibility was severely reduced. Smoke from the Carr fire to the west had been joined by smoke from the Susanville fire, about 30 miles to the east. With a 2600 foot climb ahead of me in temperatures likely to climb into the 90s F and possibly low 100s (32-37 C), I was not a happy camper. I would be working hard, hot, and breathing smoke. So, I decided that there was another solution: Give the smoke 2-3 three days to clear out a bit or pick up the trail farther south. While most through-trekkers prefer to hike straight through, nature often has other plans. High snow in the Sierra’s, for example, often forces people to skip that section and hike it later. (I had already skipped one section of the trail where 100 degree plus F heat combined with no water for 30 miles.)
I can always come back and do the trail or make up the distance in a less smoke-choked area, if one exists in California or Oregon or Washington. My goals are to enjoy the wilderness and its beauty, hike a thousand miles, and follow the PCT as much as is possible, hopefully ending with Mt. Whitney. But beyond enjoying the wilderness, there is a lot of flexibility in my plans. My trail of choice for the moment is to follow the PCT from Carson Pass on Highway 88 to Sonora Pass on Highway 108 and then do the section just north, hiking from Donner Summit to Carson Pass.
But enough seriousness, now it’s time for some fun— brought to you courtesy of my being off the trail for a couple more days. In addition to beautiful scenery and wood sculptures, the trail from Etna Summit to Castle Crags was filled with flowers, some interesting characters, colorful rocks, a seemingly tame frog, pitcher plants, and a very colorful caterpillar. Here are some photos. Enjoy.
Next up: Peggy’s photos of Etna and Dunsmuir, two small towns that through-hikers visit on their way through Northern California.