Planning for the unexpected along the PCT… Peggy’s Perspective: Part II

Smoke along the PCT near Chester, CA in the summer of 2018.
Curt’s extensive experience backpacking, didn’t prepare him to deal with the smoke and fires along the PCT last summer. This photo was taken near Chester, California.

Curt knew I would be nervous without detailed planning of trails, mileage, rendezvous points, and alternatives. With 50 years of backpacking experience including planning, organizing and leading backpack treks for 30, he is something of an expert on the subject. Having a GPS/Spot Gen 3 tracker along was a new experience for him, however. He could upload his location each night via satellite and I could track his progress on my maps. He could also use Spot to signal for emergency help if needed and carried a cell phone, which he could use in the rare times he had cell service or if he had to hike out for some reason.

Then there was the unexpected— lack of water, smoke, fire, and possible injuries on the trail plus my challenges on the road of finding campgrounds and spaces near trailheads, power outages, limited cell service, and RV repair issues. 

The first part of the trek introduced us to water shortages! Following mountain ridges over much of its length, the PCT is noted for its limited supply. The mild winter of 2017-18 with its lack of snow fall in the Siskiyous, Cascades and Sierras made it worse. Streams that would normally have been running through July were dry. Springs were sometimes a mere trickle. Even though we had downloaded the most recent information from the PCT site on water sources, the situation was changing rapidly. Our first day on the trail from Mt. Ashland proved the point.

We had planned a 10-mile day since it was our first day out. There had been sufficient water over the first seven miles. It wasn’t the case when we came to our planned camp site. Curt parked me in a pleasant location and took our water bottles down into the canyon where a stream was located. And came back empty. The stream was dry. “The map shows that there’s a spring in about a quarter of a mile off on a side road,” he announced. “We can camp there.” I loaded my pack and away we went. The spring was also dry. Have I mentioned that I was getting grumpy? Our options now appeared to be hiking three miles back or three miles ahead on the trail. “Let’s try farther down the canyon,” he suggested as a third alternative. I dutifully followed along. Fortunately, we hit water in a half mile. Curt’s experience with all-things-woodsy had paid off. The creek, by the way, was the headwaters of the Applegate River, which runs past our front yard.

We had just set up our tent when crashing thunder announced a deluge. I made it inside dry. Curt came in soaked. Mother Nature was having fun at our expense!

The greatest surprise and challenge was fire and smoke. The thought of making a fast exit ahead of a fire was always on our minds, but smoke was the main problem. Curt’s many years of working with the American Lung Association had educated him to the danger. “Wildfire smoke can be extremely harmful to the lungs, especially for children, older adults and those with asthma, COPD and bronchitis or a chronic heart disease or diabetes,” ALA warns. “I resemble one of those categories,” Curt said. Older people are to stay inside and avoid strenuous exercise. Ha!

Fires started to impact the plan as soon as Castle Crags and smoke changed the trail plan totally in Chester when we couldn’t see a hundred yards into the forest. As Curt has shared on his blog, he had to alter his journey to avoid the worst of smoke and fire. Was I worried? Yes! The most difficult situation encountered was at Sonora Pass. I awoke the morning I was to meet him there to learn that a new fire had started on the far side of the pass. As I waited, I watched the smoke billowing from the fire grow larger and larger. When Curt hadn’t arrived several hours after I expected him, I became quite concerned. Fortunately, a long skinny fellow with the trail name of Bone came hiking up to our RV.

Sonora Peak as seen from Sonora Pass where I was waiting for Curt. He’d be coming around the peak to the right.
I hiked up the trail for a couple of miles hoping I would meet him along the way. No luck.
My worry about Curt being late increased substantially as smoke from a new fire filled the air.

“You must be Peggy,” he said. When I responded yes, he told me that he had passed my missing buddy on the trail. Curt had asked him to pass on the information that he was fine and should be along in an hour or two. Much relieved, I settled in to wait and invited Bone to charge his cell phone in our van and have a cold beer. After Curt’s safe arrival (he tells the story in his blog), we drove to an RV campground for the night and learned that the pass and the PCT trail had been closed after we left! 

Bone wearing his Portland Blazer T-shirt with a small guitar attached to the back of his pack. Note how skinny Bone is, thus his trail name.

While Curt was facing challenges out on the trail, I also had my share doing back up. As I mentioned earlier, I’d had lots of experience in camping with the RV. But I was a newbie at camping alone. Fires and lightning caused outages at campgrounds and RV parks, cell phone service was often spotty, And Quivera, our RV, demanded attention.  Internal lights, the awning, and the air conditioning unit all had issues. 

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. We’d just find a shop that serviced RVs. But the local shops had a common response: “If you have a problem, call 30 days in advance for a reservation.” Does anyone else see a problem here? Repairs were up to me. Fine. The awning jammed, my solution? U-tube! I fixed it. Internal lights out? I read the manual, rewired the one I needed to read by and decided to let the other three go. AC servicing:  well, other than pumping out playa dust from Burning Man— a forever problem— it was still working. Why worry? 

There was a good ending to my efforts to find an RV service shop. I stopped by Camping World in Rockland near Sacramento and talked with the service staff. One of them walked out with me, confirmed that I would need to replace the awning eventually but told me bungee cords were a great temporary solution. He then replaced all the lights for me. Last but not least, he told me how to flush the AC with a hose. There was no charge for his good advice and help! 

Next up: I will talk about the help that was generously offered to me along the way and a unique way of communicating with Curt: The Trekker Telegraph. Bone was a good example. 

27 thoughts on “Planning for the unexpected along the PCT… Peggy’s Perspective: Part II

    • It is part of the reality faced by through hikers now days, Ray. And while the fires are dangerous, I have yet to hear of anyone dying on the PCT because of them. The forest service closes trails quickly if their is danger. The smoke is much more pervasive, and also serves as a health threat. –Curt

    • It was as much of an adventure for Peggy, as it was for me, MB. The time on her own seemed very valuable to her. And I appreciated both the great backup and the fact that she was able to join me on sections of the trail. She was excited to share her part of the experience. –Curt

  1. Wow. What an adventure. This is what I love about blogging; I’m experiencing this all vicariously through you two. I highly doubt I will ever take a hiking trek like this, but love hearing about it and imagining it. Thanks for sharing the tales!

  2. The fire was my main concern too, Peggy. Curt kept telling me he was safe, but I remained wary. Awfully nice of the man at Camp World to help you out! It’s great you’re giving us the ‘behind the scenes’ look at such a trek!!

  3. I’m very much enjoying Peggy’s side of the trek. The fires were very much my concern as well. They seem to be getting wilder and thicker these days. I’m not sure which is worse… being in the ‘thick’ of it, so to speak or being the one waiting and worrying. You two are certainly something special!

    • Thank you! Even now, looking back, I am not sure what was more worrying. Fires change your perspective in so many ways, even walking through forests decimated by fires in years past is thought provoking as one observes the new growth but the loss of giant beauties in the forest. Peggy

  4. The people you meet along the way can make or break a trip. Fire and water are the things to look out for — huge destructive power. Your water issues are the opposite of what we normally have. Love that you’ve become a YouTube fixer — isn’t it the best!

    • Yes, it was. Curt and I had planned for lots of options along the way and I was confident in Curt’s skills, knowledge, and common sense to keep himself safe….however. The lack of communication did not help. Thank goodness for the discovery of the Trekker Telegraph! Peggy

  5. It’s such a pleasure to read your story of Curt’s journey Peggy. I think you’re both quite amazing! I immediately related to you camping/RVing alone, like me travelling alone last year when Don couldn’t come with me. It’s just not the same! You are obviously extremely resourceful!
    I’m catching up on your posts now as we’ve just been away for a couple of months (Paris/India/Kyoto – stories will eventually be told).

  6. Curt, Peggy gives real insight to your trip! The fires looked horrendous and dangerous, no wonder she was worried … and good to know you’re not following any of the advice! Thank goodness for Bones … always love hearing about the folk you meet! I had to smile at her description of you and your skills ‘with all-things-woodsy’. Perfectly said! 😀😀

    • One of the advantages of having Peggy as my primary hiking companion, Annika, is that she has a good understanding of what is like to be out on the trail and is aware of the care I take to be safe. She also knows that the dangers I/we face out there are less than the dangers we face driving down a crowded freeway at 60-70 mph. So she can worry, but not panic and take appropriate action if necessary.
      Bones was like so many of the other people I met along the way: a character and a good person. Thanks much. –Curt

  7. Peggy, your mention of the Trekker Telegraph made me laugh. It’s obviously an analogy to the Coconut Telegraph that’s so much a part of cruising in the islands. To be honest, there are a lot of similarities between trekking and cruising: the hunt for water, or spare parts, or news of “missing” cruisers being the most obvious. Well, and the helpfulness of people to one another, too.

    What’s most amazing is thinking about the ways that early trekkers communicated with each other. They did well, actually; I still remember the tree in Council Grove, Kansas, where travelers on the Santa Fe trail left letters, advice on trail conditions, and so on. GPS is certainly a great addition — but it’s not the end of anxiety!

  8. Fire is so scary in the mountains. I remember hiking once where the skies were perfectly blue when the sun went down, but orange the next morning, and got more orange as the day went on. I had no idea which direction the fire was, and could only retrace my steps and hurry back to my car in hopes that it would work out. It must be much more nerve-wracking to be the one with the support van, watching the ridgeline for Curt, and waiting.

    I also love how you figured out how to solve the problems yourself. I go through a period of frustration and anger when something goes wrong with my equipment and I don’t know how to fix it (like my riding lawnmower every spring). But like what you describe, sometimes you don’t have a choice. Then I feel like a rockstar when I get the part in the mail, pull up a YouTube video, and fix it! High fives to you!

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