On Being Exhausted… Hiking along the PCT at 75 between Castle Crags and Burney Falls

We rarely stress about water in our everyday life. If we are thirsty, the nearest faucet is usually a few steps away. It becomes a precious commodity along the PCT, however, where your next source may be 15 miles down the trail and what you have to drink is what you carry. This welcome sight is Squaw Valley Creek, which was my destination on day one out of Castle Crags. I didn’t make it.

Although I am now off the trail and happily settled into our home in Southern Oregon, I have several more posts to put up on my backpack trip this summer. Today, I am covering the first half of my trip between Castle Crags and Burney Falls.

Peggy waved goodbye to me as I started up the PCT east of Castle Crags. I had spent two days in the Dunsmuir area happily stuffing myself and it was time for me to hit the trail again. She was less nervous than she had been in the beginning when her 75-year old husband disappeared into the woods for a week. “If you don’t come out on time, I am coming in after you,” she had declared ferociously. But each time, I had hiked out more or less when and where I said I would after backpacking 70-100 miles. Still…

I knew I had a significant climb ahead. I’d dropped several thousand feet coming down from the Trinity Alps to Interstate 5 and now I had to regain altitude. I also knew that there was limited water along the way, which is par for the course on the PCT. The trail was shaded and well-graded, however, so I started off at a decent pace. I met a fellow out walking a big shaggy dog that wagged his tale vociferously at me and then a number of through hikers hurrying north toward Canada. Or maybe they were hurrying for the good food, cold beer and hot showers that Dunsmuir promised. I suspected the latter.

At one point, I found a number of pinecones beside the trail that had been carefully organized to spell out 1500. Curiosity brought out my camera, and then I realized that the 1500 represented the number of miles that the PCTers had hiked from the Mexican Border. I would have been arranging pinecones too! The hikers were a couple of hundred miles past the half way point. It was all downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill from here on. You get the point. Which brings me back to my own uphill climb.

I had determined that these pinecones represented how far through hikers had traveled since the Mexican Border.
Not far beyond the pinecones, I came on a tree with another type of marker, this one represented time. Someone, probably the rangers from Castle Crags State Park, had counted the rings in a tree all the way back to 1765. This tree was a baby when the American Revolution was still brewing and when my Mekemson ancestors had only been in the country for 10 years.

After about three hours, I began to run low on energy. This wasn’t surprising considering my age, but it seemed to come sooner and go deeper than usual. It was like I had been hit by the proverbial ton of bricks and I was carrying them all in my backpack. I shifted into granny gear and dug into my mental reserves. “Ok, left leg, move! Good job.” It helped for a while, but Squaw Creek was still several miles away.  I loaded up with five liters of water at Bear Creek. I certainly didn’t need the extra 11 pounds, but a vision of dry-camping on top of the Girard Ridge had insidiously inserted itself into my brain. My map showed that an old, abandoned road provided a flat space.

Eventually I arrived and futzed around for an hour finding the best campsite, setting up my camp, and cooking my dinner. I am not the fastest person in the woods when it comes to camp chores, and being exhausted didn’t help. I’ve already told the story of falling asleep when I was cooking dinner. It was scary. My super-hot, MSR propane stove could have turned the kindling dry forest into a conflagration within minutes had I knocked it over. Three major forest fires that happened afterwards in July and August within 50 miles of where I was camped highlighted the potential danger. They ended up burning over 300,000 acres, and one, the Carr Fire, was one of the worst in California history. I would breathe its smoke for weeks.

I vowed to go to bed as soon as I had done my dishes, reviewed my photos from the day, and completed my journal. But first I had to find a tree, a big one. Nature demanded it. This required getting up, a fact my body was not happy about. It had settled into not-moving. I rolled over onto my knees and pushed up with my arms, glad that no one was around to witness the effort. I wandered through a campsite I had rejected and followed a trail up the hill behind it to find the perfect place for my business. Location, location, location as they say in the real estate business. I like guaranteed privacy and a view. Walking back, I was surprised to discover that a through-hiker had settled into my rejected campsite, unpacked, set up his tent and was boiling water for dinner. “How in the heck did he do this?” I declared to myself. I would have been lucky to unpack in the same amount of time. But, in fairness to myself, I had taken longer than normal up on the hill.

I had found my ‘perfect place’ and dug my cat hole only to discover I was 10 feet away from the trail. Not good. A bird’s eye view of Curt’s naked butt does not meet my definition of privacy. So, whining a bit, I went in search of another location. This time I found a slight hill with a good view. I was unbuckling my belt when a thought crossed my mind. My ‘hill’ was a mound about six feet long and three feet across. It bore a striking resemblance to a grave! Now, I am not overly suspicious, but pooping on a dead person’s home almost guarantees a haunting, a spectral visit in the dark night, if such things exist. And I had met a couple of ghosts in my life. There was no whining this time. Faster than a ghoul can say boo, I had apologized and was 50 yards away digging another hole.

My next day wasn’t much different than the first. My reserves were so low I didn’t bounce back. I still struggled with the uphills and ended up dry camping again. The third day, I added struggling with the flats and downhills as well. I got up early with thoughts of making up for lost time. It wasn’t to be. I arrived at Ash Creek camp on the McCloud River around 10 a.m. and decided that was it for the day. Hiking farther involved a ten-mile climb. It’s a good thing Peggy wasn’t around. I might have bailed for the week. Fortunately, my 22-hour layover provided enough time for my body to recover. I managed the 10-mile uphill climb to Deer Springs in good shape and even stayed awake through dinner! But my dawdling meant that I had 45 miles to hike in the next three days. That’s a story for my next post. Here are photos from my first four days. Enjoy. Tired or not, there was still a lot of beauty along the route.

Hiking along the high ridges of the PCT may mean a lack of water, but it provides terrific views— both of where you are going and where you have been. This is Castle Crags that I had just hiked down with my nephew, Jay.
A closer look at Castle Crags.
I am ever so grateful for the wildflowers like this pine drop that entertained me throughout my journey regardless of how tired I was.
What the wildlife had been up to also entertained me. For example, who had chomped down on this bird and left its feathers behind.
But to a thirsty guy, nothing could quite matches up to the beauty of flowing water. These are small rapids along Squaw Valley creek.
I was fascinated by the large umbrella plants growing along the stream.
Another photo of umbrella plants…
And a final— looking more umbrella-like.
Rock sculptures along the trail are guaranteed to make me pause. This was just above the McCloud River.
The McCloud River and Ash Creek camp provided a welcome respite from hiking for me.
Looking downstream on the McCloud River from a footbridge that was a few yards away from where I was camped.
Hiking up toward Deer Springs after my stay at Ash Creek, I saw a junco fly out of a grassy area. Closer inspection revealed its nest and three babies.
A closer view showed that the baby birds that were filling up the nest and still lacking in feathers.
I liked these heart shaped leaves. Peggy had also taken photos of them in Castle Crag State Park.
This large cedar had been hollowed out by fire. I was surprised that it was still standing.
Especially given its size.
This doe appropriately greeted me when I arrived at Deer Creek Spring. After I rinsed out some clothes and hung them up behind my tent, she repeatedly came over to check them out. It became annoying when she woke me up. I went out around 10 p.m. and retrieved them. They might have been missing in the morning!
I found the butterflies flying around and landing on my pack and gear more interesting than the curious deer. Check out the orange eyes on this one!
I’ll conclude today’s post with these brave souls who were willing to check out my boots. There is no way I would have gotten near those socks. They were banished outside my tent at night.

NEXT POST: I finish my journey to Burney Falls where Peggy has been hanging out taking photos of the falls and bribing through-hikers with food and beer to carry messages to me. 

51 thoughts on “On Being Exhausted… Hiking along the PCT at 75 between Castle Crags and Burney Falls

  1. With each post I am more and more in awe of you, Curt. Despite all your complaining about losing energy and being old – you made it fella!! Just look at the territory you covered, the picturesque memories in your mind and pictures and a boss who would clean your clock if you didn’t come out!!!

  2. Amazing Curt. We just finished a couple days at Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, and I was complaining at how tired I was after just standing around, walking around a flat field and riding a little in a balloon. The most strenuous thing I did was get out of bed a little early.

    • About 4 a.m. if I read your post right, Ray. 🙂 Sometimes standing around can be more tiring than walking around. And the balloon ride… pure fun. I am jealous about the Albuquerque film fest. –Curt

  3. Awesome, Curt. It’s unsettling how fitness and getting older are wrestling with each other. You are an example of not giving up till you drop. I have not fallen asleep while cooking but put on the news on the Telly, and I am gone.

    • There is always a battle, Gerard. My goal is to keep moving and having adventures as long as I can, even if they are on a cruise ship. 🙂 News on TV just irritates me for the most part! I swore I would never shout at the television but sometimes it’s hard not to. –Curt

  4. It’s always the inner strength that carries you through isn’t it? And clearly you have a ton of it. Great huge reservoirs of strength that most of us could only dream of. For all your bone weariness I bet it was worth it! So impressed.

    • Very much worth it, Alison. Each turn in there trail brings new inspiration, and experience has taught me that the toughest mountains can be conquered, one step at a time. Thanks! As always. –Curt

  5. I’ve never done this kind of hike — even in the shortest version possible — but I know exhaustion, and it makes me appreciate your accounts of setting up camp and such even more. There’s nothing romantic about working on the docks, and there are great advantages to coming home to a real bed and running water, but bone-weary is bone-weary, and being able to judge how far to push and when to stop may be one of the most important trail skills there is.

    I loved the pine cone marker. It made me think that, at some point, you might as well just keep on keeping on, because going back wouldn’t be any easier!

  6. I suspect that at my comparatively tender age I’d be equally exhausted – or more. What’s the old cliche? It’s not how well the bear dances, but that it dances at all?

  7. I can feel the sheer effort behind all your travel posts, Curt, but this one more than most! Phew! Still, they’re a great advert for going without TV, etc. I suppose you make notes each evening and then write them up at leisure. Either that or you are Mister Memory …

    • It can be hard.
      I rely on my journals, photos and maps to jog my memory, Dave, although some experiences are so memorable I don’t have to write them down, like the time I woke up with a bear standing on top of me several years ago. 🙂
      I didn’t miss the TV. 🙂 –Curt

  8. Hi Curt. Im new on here. I totally am inspired. Ive always wanted to hike at least some portion of the PCT. I lovecthe Trinity Alps. Maybe I could try up there. Love your creativity and pics.
    Blessings on your journey.

  9. Wow, wow and wow! Both for the guts to just keep going when you’re running on empty. and the amazing scenes and photos! I’m pretty close to feeling a bit worn out from the travel we’ve done lately, but… you’re inspiration… then again, you make me feel tired, just thinking about those never-ending ups and downs! 😀

    Glad you’re home and hopefully resting up just a tad before your next adventure.

  10. Next time I feel tired on a long uphill, I am going to channel you and your resolve (and common sense, even more importantly). Good for you for stopping and resting when you knew you really needed it, and then getting back out there and churning out those miles day after day. You’re a beast!

    • Trying about sums it up. 🙂 There is always something of a sense of accomplishment when meeting a challenge like that, however, AC. I’m glad I can still get out there and do it. –Curt

  11. Although the scenery is to-die-for, I’m glad you didn’t konk out. But you could have. I would have been quite worried. Fortunately, you’re a been-there, done this kinda guy, and you survived, but weaker folks might not have. Your post has all the angst you felt in it, and I worried about you just reading it. Fortunately, you have a happy ending to write about.

  12. Oh I bet you have really found places of reserve strength and stamina you did not know you had. This is quite the feat Curt, and aren’t those butterflies and umbrella plants interesting. Thank you.

    • I think I used them all! 🙂 Good thing I had lots of experience backpacking, JoHannah! There were lots and lots of butterflies this summer and I can never get enough. The umbrella plant leaves were huge. –Curt

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