CDT Day 12: Strawberry Creek to East Fork Pentagon Creek – Strawberry Field Camp to Cute Switchbacks Camp
Miles hiked: 17.5
Total miles: 184.4
Me: Spice, wake up. I think you should close your door.
Me: No, I really think you should close your door. We’re about to get dumped on.
We got hit by two crazy thunderstorms in the night that brought a lot of rain and lightning to our little slumber party. I was lucky that something woke me up before the first one got totally underway, giving us one precious minute to baton down the hatches. I was asleep before it was over, only to be woken again a few hours later by more pummeling rain and bright flashes. This time as well, I was back asleep before the end. Very cool indeed, but I was a little bit tired when the rooster crowed.
The morning dawned sunny-ish, a marked improvement over the last time I was awake. Our stuff was already starting to dry out by the time we packed up and got hiking at 8:50am. We finished the stroll down Strawberry Creek through the burn area, feeling like we’d been hiking through it for days. At a trail junction, we hung right to leave the official CDT to instead take the Spotted Bear Alternate. It adds in a pass while subtracting roughly 15 miles of walking. It has come strongly recommended from every hiker we’ve met, though I doubt if any of them have taken both routes. Every difference sounded like an improvement to us so we decided to go for it.
A mile from there we ran into Gooseberry Ranger Cabin, empty and locked. Spice checked the hiker register, counting 75 hikers heading south ahead of us, about half of them true SOBOs like us, the rest being SNOBOs who flipped up to Montana after hiking New Mexico. But it was just us at the cabin now. The silence was so complete there in the morning that I could hear the earth humming with life, with energy. It’s a phenomenon that I encounter sometimes when I’m deep in the mountains, and one that I can’t explain or describe differently. It’s just a low hum, almost inaudible, that I feel when the wind doesn’t blow and there is no one around to distract the mind. Me and the Earth. I was picking up the good vibrations.
After a thigh-deep double river fording, Spice and I got back to it, crushing easy miles through forest on essentially flat trail. The Obama facts continued to flow and I sucked down an endless supply of Jolly Ranchers.
High cloud pulled across the sky, cranking up the humidity and with it, the bugginess. It was muggy and buggy going through the forest. We hiked fast, covering many miles because it was too annoying to stop. It rained a little, which didn’t add any refreshment. A switchbacking climb next to waterfalls reminded me of traversing the base of Mt. Hood along the PCT. Same nasty humidity, same nasty climbing. At the top, we broke out into a meadow, complete with refreshing breeze. What a relief. We stopped right there for our first break since the cabin, still swatting bugs, but to a lesser extent. I crammed calories like a zombie, grabbing indiscriminately in my food bag for anything edible.
We were sort of above the treeline now, which meant there was fresh air to breathe and views to see. The trail slipped through meadow after meadow that clung to a wide shelf on top of one cliff and at the base of another. I finally felt like I was in mountains again after a few days of valley walking.
Isolated patches of charred forest came and went as the trail climbed endlessly. I was pooped, holding out for Dean Lake for a sit and swim. The mighty Pentagon Peak rose next to, then behind me, but still no lake. Until there was. Dean was big and beautiful, sitting in a gravel basin, rimmed by sparse trees and flowers. The views of Pentagon were sweet too.
Unsettled dark clouds skated by on an easterly wind and the sun was almost out. I didn’t waste time considering if it was sufficient to warm me up, I just jumped in the frigid water before I could cool down. Spice took a little longer, and made the right choice in the end. The swim was brief, but the clouds parted enough to allow me to warm up once more. Cleanish. Gentle hail blew in from somewhere, splashing in the lake, backlit by the sun. It was a strange and beautiful sight.
Switchback Pass (7792ft) was just a short climb away from there. We guessed that most of the switchbacks were on the other side. We crossed the divide next to stunted pine then started the long drop into the next valley. Giant, crazy, jagged peaks cut sharp ridges of black across the horizon. No detail in the evening light, but I was amazed by how rugged the terrain appeared. The scene reminded me of looking west from Harts Pass in the North Cascades in Washington. I had no idea big mountains like that were out here. Heck, I don’t even know what state they’re in! Montana? Idaho? Something to investigate later, when this whole walking business is over.
The pass earned its name on the way down. The sun was out and warm, the trail was dry for the first time in forever. We cruised. I was tired mentally, but physically strong. Spice was on another level completely. She sped away at a pace I couldn’t match and was way out of sight for most of the drop. She did stop occasionally to let me catch up and see if I was doing alright. I was. This was goooood walking.
A cute campsite buried in dense greenery appeared right where we needed it to at the bottom. A pack explosion, set up the tent, eat a lot, then sleep.