PCT, Section J WA, Part 2
Peeking out at the suns light cresting over the surrounding mountains, we shivered out of our sleeping bags and our cold fingers fumbled on sand covered tents and gear. The only sounds were groaning muscles and the cascading water across Deep Lake. We explored the opposite side of the shore and started descending along Waptus River.
From the PCT, the Waptus River and Waptus Lake are frankly dull as all get out. Not wanting to leave the trail, we hiked through overgrown plants and tried to keep our pace quick with the goal of heading up the pass and out of the midday sun. It was pleasant hiking, hearing about all the places that Marta and CN had traveled to and all the fantastic food they’ve tried.
We quickly arrived at two beautiful water crossings with amazing fully built bridges back to back. The first I kick myself for not photographing, because the white sandy beach gave the water streaming from nearby Spade Lake an unreal crystal blue hue that I had yet to see in Washington state. The second was over the Waptus River that provided the most refreshing water of the entire trip. Cold, palatable, and swiftly moving. I could have stayed by these crossings all day. I snapped some quick pictures, one of nearby Bears Breast that I was more than sure I’d get a better view of once we started our ascent for the day.
I was wrong. So very wrong. This was perhaps my worst experience with gain ever, and our goal of missing the heat and sun was aspirational. While we had tree cover, I couldn’t catch a breath from my smoke permeated lungs, and my calves screamed the entire way. It was all I could do to take a break, and snap those memories in my mind, feeling so small among the peaks that began to emerge as the afternoon progressed. Negative thoughts flushed to the forefront, inadequacy weighed heavy, and this 15-mile day felt impossible. By 3:00 PM, when I met the others at the top, I flung my pack away from me and took whole minutes to form words.
I’ve always heard the phrase “the trail provides.” After this day I’m now a believer. I gulped down as much water as I safely could because the length of this day was determined by our camping near a water source, outside of the designated fragile zone of alpine meadow. We kept close together for the remaining few miles, and the sun began to give us a reprieve and sink lower into the sky. And just like that: we turned a corner and are bathed in the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen. We can see clear across a valley at even more mountains and was the realest magic. This dose of nature was what I needed, and that day, at that moment, the trail gave me a feeling I can’t describe, can’t stop trying to explain, and will find very difficult ever to forget.
We were beyond exhausted and nearly missed the spur trail to camp that night. Immediately I set to dipping my sore feet into the small pond and filtering as much water as I could drink. I was grateful for my instant ramen noodles, my warm hat, and getting to watch as the last crescent of the sun sank behind Lemah mountain. I typed out another text message to my husband that wouldn’t send and slept deeply.
Reflecting on the extreme highs and lows of the day before, I let Marta and CN know that I’d be setting off to hike down early. After passing another tent site (that probably had even more beautiful views than the one we’d stayed camped at night before) I entered a large burn area. I’ve hiked through small burns before, but when you enter a space that is so vast and changed by fire, it’s like landing on the moon. I thought of my parents, and my husband and all the people I wished could be there to see this with me.
I was passed by a couple of thru-hikers smartly ascending in the early morning, but otherwise, it was palpably quiet. Just as I was beginning to pick up speed and feel that yes, I had working legs, I ran into two sisters, Jill and Jamie, I’d been following along the trail on Instagram since they began in Campo! It was so cool to meet them, hear about how they were doing, and get to exclaim how big and impressive what they were doing was. Uplifted, I continued hiking, nearly running downward until Marta caught up with me and we chatted on our way to our first water source of the day.
CN met up with us at the water stop, and we vowed to take an official lunch break this day by Lemah River. It was a mostly uneventful morning spent together talking about just about everything on trail that felt more familiar to all of us. The spongey PNW dirt felt amazing after all the rocks we’d hiked on. While navigating a water crossing, however, we had our first gear fail. Or rather, I did: a small hole I’d repaired the day before on my shorts caught on a branch while descending one side of the water, and became a comically large gash underneath my back pocket. We crossed and ate lunch on the other side while I went through the stages of shorts grief at light speed.
Full, we headed towards another burn area and into the most surreal experience, even more so than the burn earlier in the day. This stretch appeared to be newer, and the midday sun and dried up water sources made it look even more remote. I also encountered dozens of hummingbirds and butterflies. It seemed absurd. The best way I can describe these couple miles was as a “known” place. It was too eerie to stop and too uncomfortable. I kept my gaze firmly on my feet and my ears on the words flowing out from a podcast and continued hiking up and up.
Our destination for this night was Spectacle Lake, a half mile off trail. The trail is in bad shape from erosion here, and our tired feet navigated rocks, roots, and sand to figure out where the million spur trails led. Guthook comments suggested that the best spots were on the peninsula, but it was unclear to us exactly how to get there. Eventually, we followed the edge of the lake, and I did my first ever attempt at bouldering with my 30+ pound pack on, panicking as items dropped out of it and I had to try to go up twice. Shaken, I was ready to make camp as soon as possible.
Spectacle Lake is aptly named. Once full of water we wandered around to explore the shore on either side of the peninsula. We were all not in the best shape that night for various reasons. I attribute it to the incredibly creepy and dry last few miles and clumsy approach, not to mention we all felt super gross from the amount of dirt we’d accrued. But our moods at dinner were of relief to be full of hot food, and we vowed to try to get up early the next day.