When Fire and Smoke Strike along the Pacific Crest Trail… (Plus more photos from Section P)

Smoke from the Carr fire out of Redding plus smoke from a nearby Susanville fire impact the PCT near Chester, California

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!

I met “Steady” from the Netherlands when I was hiking into Lassen National Park. “My trail name is Steady,” he told me, “because I am slow but steady on the trail.” He immediately wanted to know about fire closures along the PCT. Like so many through hikers, he dreamed of making the whole trail without any interruptions. The dead trees in the background are the result of a past fire.

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.

Avoiding the Carr fire hardly puts through-hikers in the clear. Numerous other mountain fires rage in California and Oregon. We came across this sign just a few miles outside of Chester on our way to Susanville. It is a sign of the times.

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.)

The early morning sun in Chester had been turned red-orange by smoke from the fires.

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.

This happy fellow who had its own spring seemed to pose for us. It was used to being admired by through-hikers.

And this fat caterpillar was not about to stop its consumption of a leaf because of our attention.

Have you ever seen a rock like this? I could only wonder about its mineral composition and the forces of nature that had created it.

This woman, whose trail name was Mama Bear, had been traveling with her cubs since Mt. Whitney, a distance of several hundred miles.

Wendy and Tim were doing an excellent job of representing Australia. They were hiking down the PCT and hoped to hike across America. Tim, who hailed from Sydney, had previously hiked from the southernmost point in Australia to the northernmost point, raising money for suicide prevention. Wendy hailed from Queensland.

We met Rowan later. She was also from Australia and was hiking in memory of her twin brother who had died. Another brother was also hiking with her. Rowan works as an actress in Sydney.

A beautiful small stream where we met Rowan, made an excellent camp site for Jay and me.

Shooting down into the water, I caught this photo.

PCT trail signs come in many flavors depending on the particular national forest, wilderness, park, etc. I liked the sentiment that someone had expressed on this one.

It seemed to go along with this Zen-like garden a spring had created.

There is nothing calming about this sign. It’s for Bloody Run Trail. Given how the tree is consuming the sign, I thought of running myself.

Also in the slightly weird category are these pitcher plants we found where the frog was hanging out. These guys, a young one and an old one, are carnivorous plants that eat insects, which are trapped inside the ‘pitcher.’ Another name for this plant is the cobra plant, given the shape of the plant and its ‘forked tongue.’

This unusual flower went with the pitcher plant.

There was no lack of ‘old friends’ when it came to flowers along the trail. Yellow lupine decorated this one.

A close-up of the Lupine.

Recognize this little beauty? It is a wild hollyhock.

I caught this cow parsnip backlit by the sun, but I had to sit on wet ground to do it.

A morning-glory if I am not wrong. Strange leaves, it seemed to me.

A shooting star flower. Hundreds grow in our backyard.

The back side of this tiger lily was quite attractive…

But not as pretty as the front.

I took this photo of Jay as we were hiking down into the Castle Crags Wilderness. No smoke here!

Around the time I took the photo of Jay, we ran into Bill Whitaker. Bill had started his hike at Castle Crags and done a little over 10 miles in two days. He was planning to hike on to the Washington/Oregon border, a long ways at that pace! He was 68 years old.

We also ran into Bilbo, Ducky and Shoe. Their approach to the trail was to take a couple of hours off everyday at lunch, which was a quite civilized approach to the PCT. Bilbo was from German, Ducky from Utah, and Shoe from Canada, representing the international nature of those who hike the trail.

“Watch out for rattlesnakes,” a through trekker told us. Jay, who was in the lead, didn’t have to be told twice. In fact he found two. Neither seemed to be interested in a photo-op and disappeared into the brush even though I invited them to come out. Can you find the rattler here?

Jay and I at the end of the trail where Peggy was waiting for us. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I’ll conclude with this photo of ‘Aunt’ Peggy and Jay at Railroad Resort RV Park beneath the Crags.

Next up: Peggy’s photos of Etna and Dunsmuir, two small towns that through-hikers visit on their way through Northern California.








56 thoughts on “When Fire and Smoke Strike along the Pacific Crest Trail… (Plus more photos from Section P)

  1. Hope the smoke clears soon. Sure that you’re putting the time to good use while waiting. Plenty of beauty around. Nope, can’t see the rattler. Wouldn’t do well on the trail 😉

  2. Mother Nature is fickle. What she denied the west, she dumped here. I have a hay field that thinks it’s a pond and I haven’t been able to mow large sections of my lawn since April, they are too soft to even walk on. Farmers struggled to plant and what they were able to get into the ground has been ruined by water.

    Love flowers photos…

  3. Nice photos! I live near Ashland and have come to think of wildfire season as our 5th season of the year, right between summer and fall. For now I’m hanging out in Portland under blue skies breathing clean air.

    • We are right there with you, Karen since we live near Applegate Lake on Upper Applegate Road. Our approach over the last few years has been to escape during the ‘fifth season’ as well. Unfortunately, my escape this year has just taken us into more smoke. 🙂 –Curt

    • And thank you, Anne. Except for the hard core PCTers who are going to hike straight through come snow, fire or high water, most seem quite flexible when it comes to jumping around. Good thing. –Curt

  4. What can I say, Curt, you still amaze me! I’m relieved that Jay is with you too. I agree that the leaves on the morning glory look strange, unreal, like plastic. Stay clear of the fires and say Hi to Peggy!

  5. I’ve been thinking about you as the fires cut their path through so much of the west. Yosemite, as you write, has closed several routes and most people stay away since the air is really bad. I don’t know of anyone who has been evacuated because most people I knew have moved away over the last two years when fires became a serious issue. The air all over the Central Valley is bad and people who suffer from asthma have left if they can afford to. Be very safe and I hope that you’ll be soon on the trail again, under clear pure skies.

    • Fascinating plants, Gerard. I hung out and admired them for quite some time. The frog there amused me as well. Never know what’s coming next on the trail, but I can always count on the beauty. Thanks. –Curt

  6. All this smoke is getting a bit too common here in the West. Your blood red sun looks just like one I saw in Portland last year during the fire in the Columbia Gorge. We’ve been visiting the Pitcher Plants up in our playground in the Rogue-River-Siskiyou NF. They are some very strange plants. I think the flowers are quite handsome though.

    Still with you, but the eye surgery cut my screen time way back. Hoping to catch up some day! O_o

    • Glad you are still here, Gunta! Just look at the photos if the eye strain becomes too much. And aren’t pitcher plants wonderful— unless you are an insect, of course. 🙂 The smoke continues to be horrendous. –Curt

    • Thanks, Beth. Both the beauty, and the danger, continue. I’ve backpacked for years with all the normal hazards of backpacking: snow, river crossings, dangerous trails, wild animals, etc., but the smoke and fires are new to me. Give me a bear any time. –Curt

  7. Glad to hear you can (and do) avoid any dangerously smoky sections; that would give me quite a scare to be anywhere near that stuff. Love the frog in particular of your more whimsical photos! Stay safe!

    • Thanks, Lexi. I liked the frog, too. 🙂 The fires and smoke are dangerous, and obviously they aren’t going away. I may head up to the PCT in Washington where the fires aren’t so dominant. Every time I turn around in California, there is a new one. And the smoke is almost impossible to escape. –Curt

  8. I hope all’s still well for you. Carr fire’s 47% contained at this point, but Mendocino’s still bad, and now there’s fire in SoCal: Orange/Riverside counties. You’re smart enough to make good decisions, and to be flexible with your plans.

    The photos are wonderful. Did you see the little insect inside the tiger lily? Those little “gifts” always are wonderful.

    • I missed the insect, Linda. 🙂 There is so much to photograph, that it’s amazing I ever get any hiking done! Safety is a primary concern. I’ll have more about the fires on today’s blog. They are getting a little ‘too close and personal.’ Not sure what my decision is going to be next. I’ll decide after my hike this week with my grandson Ethan. Thanks. Curt

  9. I was sorry to hear about the fires this summer! Stay safe and have fun Curt!
    Beautiful photos, the nature is amazing out there (excluding the smoke).
    I cannot stop noticing that there is a real traffic jam on PCT, so many hikers 🙂

    • Thanks, Christie. The beauty makes photography easy! And I agree on the traffic jam. It’s slowed down in California, now ,however, with most of the though-hikers in Oregon and Washington. –Curt

  10. Glad you ended it on a lighter note, but those fires…so worrisome. And the health impacts are hard to put your finger on day to day while you’re breathing it. I hope for the clearest possible skies for your future hikes. I spotted the rattler!

    • Yes! Hoping for the cleanest possible skies. Been much better this past week.
      I tried to talk the rattler into coming out of the brush for a better photo but he refused and I wasn’t willing to go in. 🙂 –Curt

  11. Amazing! Thank you for sharing this journey with us! 🏵

    On Thu, Aug 2, 2018 at 8:00 AM, Wandering through Time and Place wrote:

    > Curt Mekemson posted: ” 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” >

  12. Pingback: French Friday: Pipi in Paris … and Elsewhere – Evelyne Holingue

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