SEPTEMBER 4-17, 2020

Entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, on the Paddy-Go-Easy Pass Trail.


Circumambulate (v.) to circle on foot, especially ritualistically or ceremoniously

“A vacation is external. A pilgrimage is internal. An adventure combines them.” –Eddy Harris, Mississippi Solo

The route began to visit me in dreams. Tourmaline lakes tucked in bowls beneath jagged peaks blanketed my sleep, as my mind ambled through meadows of wildflowers and scrambled over fields of talus. Over the course of a year, it evolved from dashed lines on crinkled paper maps into a journey that would lead me through one of the most magnificent landscapes on the planet—which awaited right in my back yard.

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness encompasses over 400,000 acres in Washington’s Central Cascade Range, and it is the unceded territory of several Coast Salish Tribes and the P’Squosa (Wenatchi). Aptly named, a plethora of lakes are strung like gems across its great expanse, the deep blues punctuating the steely gray mountains capped in lingering snow. Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail snakes through here and is one of the most remote, and arguably most beautiful, sections of the entire trail. Beyond this well-trodden path, though, one finds secret lakes accessible only by bushwhack and forgotten trails which the natural world slowly reclaims. It’s possible to venture into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and not see another soul for days, giving you a sense of having this wild world to yourself. I love this place, deeply.

When I started dreaming up a solo wilderness adventure, my first thought was to devise a route that touched each designated wilderness area in Washington. A cursory look at the map, though, suggested this was a bit ambitious for a single-push excursion. Having too much wilderness to cover in one epic trip is a good problem to have; when I lived in Indiana, there was exactly one designated wilderness area to visit in the state. How, then, to narrow my focus?

Much of the western edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness has become a friend to me. I cut my backcountry teeth there, and I feel it as a strong acquaintance. Revising my plan, I dove into maps, my eyes tracing dotted lines and connecting them into one grand and epic route. After a year of daydreaming, map ogling, research, and reflection, I perfected my vision in what I have titled my great Alpine Lakes Circumambulation.

Pilgrims circumambulate sacred places, from the Kaaba in Mecca to Gang Rinpoche in Tibet. Pardon the cliché, but the natural world is a sacred place for me, and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is particularly so. Excursions into this place have impacted me in profound and meaningful ways, and it has propelled me on a personal journey of self-discovery in the wild. I designed this route to trace the perimeter of most of the wilderness area, with the idea of circumambulating a place that holds great significance to me.

While the mountains of exotic locales pull me, when it comes down to it, the call of this wilderness area that is a mere 60 miles from my front doorstep rings even stronger. A significant part of my rationale for this route resided in its close proximity to home; it’s a way to demonstrate that adventure awaits close by. It is not hyperbolic to claim that the Cascades hold riches that I could not exhaust in a lifetime of exploration. Furthermore, as an environmentalist and a scholar/creator working within the environmental arts & humanities, the global climate crisis is at the forefront of my thoughts and actions. I strive to reduce my footprint on the planet, and a journey this close to home is one way to live this imperative.

Let’s start with the numbers. My Alpine Lakes Circumambulation is a 160-ish mile loop that entails over 47,000 feet of elevation gain, and roughly the same amount of elevation loss. To stretch battery life, I didn’t track the actual route on any devices. These numbers come from averaging the distances and elevations from my CalTopo route and the Green Trails Maps.

I’m a sucker for loops and simply love the idea of circling back to the place you began, returning as a new person. When I look at maps, my eyes scan for loops, and I have spent the past year perfecting this loop of all loops. It went through eight drafts (nine, if you count the route I actually traversed). While I didn’t touch every corner of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I did circumambulate a significant portion of it. After much thought, I cut out some of the westernmost sections of the wilderness area, mostly because I knew that area well and wanted to explore more new-to-me parts. Also, I remarkably obtained a Core Enchantments camping permit four days before I embarked and had to modify the route at the last minute.

ALC final draft: my actual route and camps.

You can take a closer look at the actual route here.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I’m a seasoned trail runner. I can put in big miles with ease and am accustomed to spending a lot of time on my feet during big, tough pushes in the mountains. That said, this often entails a pretty small pack with the bare essentials and, at most, 24 hours’ worth of food. This adventure would challenge me to slow down—and the heavier pack would demand it. It would be my longest self-supported endeavor, and I planned to spend 14 days covering the same amount of ground and elevation change that I could knock out in a few days, if running supported. This journey wasn’t about how far and how fast, though. While I enjoy going hard, watching the sun rise and set, then rise again (and maybe even set again) before I sleep, this journey allowed me to stop for the night to kick up my feet, and it ensured that I wouldn’t miss a single sight along the way.

I’d never embarked on a solo excursion precisely like my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation before. While I have experience in all of the component parts, I had never designed a route of this length, packed all of the supplies I need for two weeks into one pack, set up food caches, and set out into the wild alone. This is what I found so appealing about this endeavor. It took all of the skills that I have gained and practiced over the past three years, and it asked me to put them all together, by myself.

The route would also challenge me. I would be alone with my thoughts for an extended period of time and journey without companionship. I was curious to see what that’s like. I mean, even Thoreau went home for dinner a few nights a week and his mother did his laundry. While I would encounter other hikers out there, it would only be in passing. How will traveling up to 20 miles a day while weighed down with all that camping gear and food feel compared to my usual zipping along with a little runner’s vest? What is it like to encounter a bear when alone? Should I not think about the fact that my trail name is Cougar Snack? What would it be like to lay down at night with nothing but the sound of my own breathing and the mountain breeze to accompany me? I was quite excited to find out.

In short: this would be a true adventure.

“Stop looking at this Alpine Lakes Wilderness map and pay attention to me!!!” -Sparkimus

It amazes me how far I have come in such a short span of time. When I moved to Washington, I was terrified of encountering apex predators, and even sleeping in a tent 10 feet from my car made me anxious. Going into the mountains alone never occurred to me. Climbing a mountain seemed impossible. I was particularly afraid of the forest at night, even when accompanied by others. While these days you might find me sprawled across the trail at 2am taking a dirt nap so that I can finish an epic push through the mountains, remnants of that fear remain. Experience has helped me become more comfortable in the wild, but there are moments when I have to remind myself not to be scared. There are also moments when I acknowledge that it’s ok to be scared.

That’s something that resonated with me in Kyle Dempster’s film, The Road from Karakol. I viewed it when the world of outdoor adventure was new to me, and the fact that such an experienced adventurer could find himself in a situation where he was scared—and was able to admit this out loud—was a revelation for me. I had felt like an imposter trying to forge my feeble way into the wilderness, and that moment in the film helped me to realize that even the most seasoned outdoorsperson has to confront fear at times. I appreciated his honesty, and that moment has stayed with me. Going in, I knew there might be moments on my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation that frightened me, and that’s ok. What’s important is that I felt confident that I would approach any such moments with poise, not panic.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the important role the award named in honor of Kyle Dempster, the KD Solo Adventure Award, played in the development of this journey. I spent months working on my application, refining my route and articulating my vision. This resulted in an 8-page, single-spaced, application. While Kyle’s family and friends decided not to give the award in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was so grateful to have the opportunity to develop and submit an application for it. (It bears noting that I didn’t break any state or national mandates or health guidelines during this excursion into the wilderness.) I managed to find other sources of funding for the excursion, and I went forward in the spirit that the award seeks to foster: a passion for adventuring solo in wild places, with a leave no trace ethic, and a promise to employ creative storytelling to share the adventure with others. I hope that this journey and story live up to Kyle Dempster’s example.

What follows is a trip report that is, admittedly, more of the play-by-play variety. You won’t be surprised to learn that it is rather long (you’re welcome to just scroll through and look at the photos!) I’m in the process of working on an article and a live story based on my experience, both of which will entail more art than reportage, and both of which will be substantially shorter. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s an in depth look at the daily details of my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation.

Day 1: Cathedral Trailhead to Sprite Lake

Mileage: 4.77mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +3229’ -438’ /Highest Elevation 6173’ (all distances are approximate)

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Have a lot to think about on this trip but it feels good to feel good in this moment.”

Here I go! Photo credit: Rich White

After a year of thinking, it was finally happening. My friend Rich dropped me off at the Cathedral Trailhead; he would pick me up there in two weeks, and I wondered who I would be then. Butterflies fluttering inside me, I heaved my ~35 pound pack onto my back and started down the dusty Cle Elum River Road, toward the Paddy-Go-Easy trailhead. With this arrangement, I would get the 1-mile road walk out of the way, so that my journey would end on trail. I’d been curious about Paddy-Go-Easy Pass and was excited finally to see it for myself. Somewhere I read that the name came from a miner who used to say to his mule as he ambled down the slope, “Go easy, Paddy; Paddy, go easy.” 

Blue skies ahead mean the pass is near!

It was early afternoon and hot, hot, hot. The trail snakes through a burn, so it was largely exposed to the sun’s rays. Wildfire smoke rolled up the valley, clouding the scenery and laboring my breath. It’s a steep haul up to the pass, and it ended up taking me 3 hours to cover 4 miles. A smile spread on my face when I could see blue sky and knew the pass was nearby. I wasn’t prepared for the view that would greet me there; cresting the pass, The Cradle knocked the wind out of me. What a mountain! It’s like an island of granite floating in a sea of lesser peaks. Even the wildfire smoke couldn’t obliterate this stunning vista. I was four miles into this journey and already it was blowing my mind with beauty.

My first view of the Cradle, from Paddy-Go-Easy Pass. What a mountain!

Just below the pass lies lovely little Sprite Lake, my destination for the night. Winding down on boot track, I heard a man’s voice loudly echoing off the surrounding rock. It turned out to be a solo guy talking and laughing to himself, which was a bit unnerving. Solo dudes in the woods are more intimidating than bears. I decided to camp up above the lake, both for solitude and to keep some distance from this guy. Plus, you couldn’t beat the view.

Camp 1, above Sprite Lake.

My first major blunder of the trip came hours into Day One. In an attempt to hang my food bag from a snag, the rock and rope caught in a crack in the branch, and they wouldn’t budge for anything. After much tugging, I had to accept that there was no choice but to cut the rope. I climbed up the snag as best I could, given that it was a brittle dead tree just waiting to snap, and cut the rope as high as possible. It broke my heart to leave a trace right out of the gate.

Looking down at Sprite Lake from my camp.

I spent the early evening walking around Sprite Lake, collecting water and cleaning up in the outlet. My grand plan had been to scramble up two peaks that rise above the lake, Paddy-Go-North and Paddy-Go-South. This would be the first of many plans bagged on this journey. I was wiped out and opted instead to do a modified mini-scramble up high enough to watch the sunset to the west. For some reason, I wore my Crocs for this endeavor, but they held up. The smoke started to clear as the sun set behind Mount Daniel and Cathedral Rock, and I thought about how my adventure would end in their shadow, two weeks from now. It was a thrilling thought.

Sprite Lake, with the ridge of Paddy-Go-South Peak to the left.

A few more parties arrived in the late evening, one young man gasping out loud when he saw Sprite Lake. Yes, agreed. It was disappointing not to have the place to myself, but it was a holiday weekend, and it seems the secret is out on this alpine lake.

In bed by 8:00 p.m. No need for a rain fly, I was able to watch the last embers of daylight fade and peaks silhouette from the comfort of my tent. No podcast, no book, just me with myself and this perfect twilight.

Day 2: Sprite Lake to Little Lake Caroline

Mileage: 17.5 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +5729’ -5545’ /Highest Elevation 7237’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “No one condescended.”

The next morning, I awoke from the most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had in a tent, and perhaps one of the most peaceful of all time. What an incredible feeling that was, after months of restless nights with a clenched jaw. The waxing gibbous moon’s high beam woke me in the night, but I simply smiled and went back to sleep. After a spectacular sunrise, I packed up and hit the trail a bit later than planned.

Sunrise on Sprite Lake.

Today’s route started downhill along a brushy section of trail. I’d heard this trail could be difficult to find through the meadows, but I managed just fine. With bushes of berries and bountiful brush, I made sure to let the bears know I was passing through. For reasons that escape me, I hummed “Singing in the Rain” as my bear warning song. This would remain my go-to make-noise-through-brushy-bear-country-song for the duration of the journey, sometimes with modified lyrics. To mix things up, sometimes I would instead declare in a deep sing-songy trill, “Comin’ through! Mean no harm to you! I’m just passin’ by! Won’t stay the night!” After two weeks of singing this out loud to yourself, you begin to feel a little bit like a lunatic.

Hitting the trail.

About an hour in, a dull pain near my Achilles grew louder. Stopping to assess the situation, I found that my socks had snuck down and my skin was rubbed raw, to the point that blood had soaked through the backs of my shoes. This was an entirely new (to me) phenomenon; not even during a 100-miler (wearing the same socks) had this happened. I cleaned up in the creek, grabbed some moleskin, and covered the wounds. Note to self: don’t put moleskin directly on open, bleeding wounds. This would be a perpetual problem throughout the trip. I next sacrificed some precious TP to cover the wound. Later, I would use the one band aid in my first-aid kit. It was a hard-learned lesson; never again will I backpack in ankle socks or step foot on a trail without a load of band aids in my kit. 

Skipping along through an alpine meadow.

It wasn’t until I reached the Jack Creek Trail that I saw other humans. I encountered four parties in total, all of whom smiled and said, “Good morning!” I was pleasantly surprised that not one person asked, “Are you out here alone? Does someone know where you are?” There was no condescending to me, no questioning of my credentials or of my choice to be out there alone. This was a most welcome change from previous solo excursions in the wild.

I was enjoying hiking alongside Jack Creek so much that I nearly missed the junction with the Jack Ridge Trail. I just happened to consult the map and saw that I was standing right at it. You could be forgiven for missing the Jack Ridge Trail; I suspect no one has ventured up it in quite some time. It was a brushy beast, a slog of switchbacks and blowdown. The day was steamy, even in the trees. My enthusiasm admittedly flagged a bit on this big climb, but, as always, I perked up once gaining the ridge. Here, again, I missed the junction with the trail that would take me down to Trout Lake. Soon realizing my mistake, I backtracked and found the little-used trail. Getting off the beaten track was a key objective for this journey, and I was certainly accomplishing that!

Finally on top of Jack Ridge!

It felt good to move downhill after a monster climb, but I also knew I’d be climbing again before long. Whenever my thoughts took that direction, I reminded myself that I was making forward progress, even if I was losing elevation (which I would, inevitably, soon have to regain.) This would become a daily, necessary reminder.

Sure enough, I soon reached the Eightmile trail junction, where a long uphill push would lead to Windy Pass. It was physically and mentally challenging to confront a big climb at the end of a big day, and it was the first of many occasions on which I pondered whether it was better to end the day with an uphill push or to begin the day with it. By the end of the trip, I decided it’s best to end the day with the big climb, because you can smell the barn and will feel sweet relief at the top knowing that camp and dinner are near (as opposed to starting the day with a climb out the gate and no immediate physical reward for it.) My brain started to unravel a bit on the way to Windy Pass, and I talked out loud, giving myself a pep talk. Not having seen anyone for many hours, the remoteness of this place pressed itself upon me—in a good way, even if slightly intimidating.

Alpine meadow en route to Windy Pass.
Layers of mountains in the distance. Looking west from the top of Windy Pass and back at the ground I’d covered that day.

As with any mountain pass, the universe rewards your effort. Reaching the top, I paused to take it all in. To the west, I could see all of the ground I’d covered that day, which is really something to behold. All around me, layers of mountains spread out in every direction. To the east, the places I would soon go revealed themselves, most prominently the Stuart Range. Up along the ridge from the pass stood Cashmere Mountain. I would have to table that scramble for another day. Cashmere is a truly gorgeous mountain, though, so I feel quite incentivized to return.

A beaut of a ridge leading to Cashmere Mountain.

There was a new spring in my step as I turned downhill from the pass toward my final destination for the day, Little Lake Caroline. I was now in an area where a permit is required for overnight camping, and I was so grateful to have one. The perpetual anxiety about finding a campsite ramped up as I ran down. It was a holiday weekend, and I feared there would be campers all over the lake. Solitude would be ideal, but at this point, I just wanted a place to lay my head. This is a constant source of anxiety that I’m struggling to overcome. It accompanies me on every backpacking trip, especially when I have a particular camp location in mind. It just doesn’t do you much good to stress yourself out about the possibility that there won’t be a campsite for you. The sun was setting, and I moved forward with great urgency.

My first view of the Enchantments and the Stuart Range.

My memory of the remaining distance was off, and the short jaunt turned into another mile plus of hiking, which gave me more time to fret. The fretting was all for naught, though, because Little Lake Caroline was entirely deserted when I arrived. Whew! Other than the 4 parties I’d seen in the morning, I hadn’t encountered another person the entire day. It’s exactly what I was looking for, and such a tremendous privilege to have these wild places to myself. I chose a nice little spot with a lake view, made camp, ate a hasty meal, and crawled into bed exhausted.

At 17+ miles (and just under 11 hours), this was the longest distance I’d ever backpacked in a single day. In my journal, I took note of the importance of getting an earlier start from now on and of picking up the pace on the downhills and flats. I shook my head at how much I’d minimized the difficulty of this endeavor. Just because you can run 17 miles like it’s nothing doesn’t mean backpacking it will be the same.

The Humbling of Ellen would become a major motif on this journey.

Camp 2, at Little Lake Caroline.

Day 3: Little Lake Caroline to The Enchantments

Mileage: 13.9 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +5198’ -3713’ /Highest Elevation 7847’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “My plan: use recorder as deterrent.”

Today I was up with my 6am alarm to find waiting a kind message from my friend, Sudeep. While I went to the wild for solitude, it was admittedly nice to receive words of encouragement unexpectedly, this one all the way from Nepal. Since I had the tracking function going on my inReach, friends and family were able to follow along on my journey. It was nice knowing that people were watching from afar and sending good energy my way.

Despite my best efforts, the morning routine from wake up to trail took an hour (this would be true throughout the trip.) I soon reached Lake Caroline, where campers were just beginning to stir. From there, the trail leaves the forest and enters a large burn, the ghosts of trees left in an open expanse of dry, brittle flora. The upshot is that the Stuart Range was in full view, and I grew excited knowing I’d soon be up there in the aptly named Enchantments.

Hiking down through the burn toward Eightmile Lake.

Taking my own advice, I tried to cover ground quickly while losing elevation. This impulse competed with a shooting pain in my right shoulder, which grew impossible to ignore. It would start in one spot and then spread down into my arm, sometimes so painful that it took my breath away. This was another problem that persisted the entire two weeks. I was surprised that it showed up so early, and that it stubbornly remained. It forced me to take mini breaks along the way, stopping to ease my pack onto a tall rock or tree stump, shifting the weight off my shoulder for a moment. I’d give myself two minutes to regroup, let the pain subside, and then move on. This was incredibly humbling. My M.O. when running or doing other big pushes was not to stop, and here I was stopping about every mile for a two-minute break. The necessity of it was frustrating, and the differences between running long distances, and backpacking them, were slowly sinking in.

Cruising down past Eightmile Lake, I soon reached the trailhead, where I encountered two rangers. I did not envy them having to manage the masses who had flocked here for the holiday weekend. We chatted and I told them about my route. Both men grinned and nodded in admiration, the younger of the two exclaiming, “That sounds awesome.” The other ranger shared with me his favorite campsite near Little Annapurna, which felt like a secret gift. I thanked them and then waded through the surreal gaggles of humans.

The rangers at the Stuart Lake trailhead were an entirely different matter. I should cut them some slack, because it must have been an incredibly stressful duty to stand there and try to manage so many people at once. The first ranger, seeing my backpacking gear, asked to see my camping permit. She immediately told me there was a problem, because I was entering the Core Enchantments after my permitted entry date. When I protested, pointing out that the Core Enchantments permit covers the entire permit area, and that I had been in the permit area since the start date, it just wasn’t computing for her. I’m not one to get angry, but I wasn’t going to let this ranger ruin my trip. I had followed the rules and was growing increasingly worried that this ranger was going to halt my trip on Day Three. She countered that I couldn’t leave the permit area and then come back, to which I replied that I hadn’t. She wasn’t following, so, clearly irritated, I spelled it out. “I came from Paddy-Go-Easy Pass. My car is not here. My car is in Ronald, Washington. I came here on foot. I’ve been in the permit zone since the beginning of my permit dates and have just reached the Core zone now, on foot.” The other rangers soon stepped in on my behalf and said it was fine, and one of them said, “You came from Paddy-Go-Easy Pass on foot? That’s awesome! I would have never thought to come from all the way over there.” The first ranger finally grasped what I was doing and said all was good. I guess not many people choose to hike to the Enchantments from so far away, so she didn’t know what to do with me.  

Crisis averted, I joined the throng making its way to Colchuck Lake. After days of seeing so few people, being suddenly thrown among the masses was jarring. My empathy for the rangers being at their wits end expanded when I saw what they were dealing with. There were people with music blasting from phones. Many did not wear face coverings. No one knew to yield to the uphill hiker. I saw entire groups with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This is an 8-mile hike that folks were attempting with no food or water. It’s a tricky line to tread, as I’m a strong advocate for expanding access to the outdoors but am also taken aback when I see people do so without understanding basic trail etiquette or safety. It speaks to the role of privilege in outdoor adventuring, as many people venture out without knowing how to do so safely. On the hike in, I thought about what could be done to educate newcomers to the trails. No good answers came to me, but it’s a worthy question to pursue further. I try to address this in the courses I teach, but that has a limited reach. As more people turn to the outdoors as a refuge, it will be an important conversation for the outdoor community to have. How do we invite more people to explore the natural world while also empowering them to do so safely?  

Finally, I arrived at Colchuck and saw Aasgard Pass looming in the distance. Thinking I was descending down to the trail that wraps around the lake and over to the pass, I made haste to reach the crux of the day. I kept losing elevation as well as sight of the lake—and kept going for longer than I’d like to admit. Something didn’t seem right, though, so I sheepishly asked someone walking toward me, “Are you heading to or from the lake?” “To the lake,” she replied. Who was the idiot in the woods now? I was. I was the idiot in the woods now. It’s funny because I once marveled at how the great PNW adventurer Christof Teuscher had managed to ascend Aasgard only to then descend it (he was delirious after attempting the Alpine Lakes Grand Tour route with no sleep and I think he’d run out of food at that point.) How do you go up something and then back down it and not realize your mistake? Well, I just found out. Maybe the greater Colchuck/Aasgard region is like the Bermuda Triangle of the Cascades.

Colchuck Lake, with Aasgard Pass and Dragontail Peak (right) behind it.

Moving in the right direction, I wrapped around Colchuck and soon stood in the shadow of Aasgard. So many hikers and climbers were passing me in the other direction, and I must admit that I started to feel a little intimidated by the climb, especially since it was pretty late in the day and no one else was heading up it now. Reassuring myself that I’d climbed it before, I pushed forward. Of course, climbing it with a heavy pack is quite different than wearing a running vest, which even the WTA website notes: “Seasonal hazards exist, including streams that melt the snow out from the bottom up, and you’ll need route-finding experience, agility, and excellent balance. Those lucky enough to score a permit for the Core Zone should consider these factors when you’re thinking about heading in over Aasgard Pass for an overnight. While it may be considerably shorter mileage-wise, the trail up Aasgard can be treacherous if your center of balance is compromised by a pack loaded with overnight gear.” OK, I was a tiny bit uneasy about going up Aasgard with a loaded pack.

Aasgard Pass gains 2,000 feet in under ¾ of a mile. As the WTA description notes, it’s steep, and you must scramble parts, route find, and negotiate streams and patches of rotten snow. There’s also a false summit to tease your sense of how far you’ve come. On the plus side, the views get more unbelievable with each step up you take, which gives you a good excuse to pause for a breath. I settled into a rhythm and took my time to find the best path up.

Starting up Aasgard.

Soon, I encountered climbers and day hikers coming down the pass, which I hadn’t expected. My body tensed as I anticipated their comments. “Getting a late start up, aren’t you?” “Where’s your boyfriend? “How does he feel about you being out here by yourself?” All of this, and more, I’d heard before, and heard it often. It is, hands down, the worst part about adventuring solo as a woman. The condescending remarks couched in concern, the mansplaining, the questioning of credentials—it’s something that I am the recipient of nearly every time I go into the woods alone. It’s not just me; many solo female adventurers report similar experiences (a March 2021 article in Backpacker addresses this problem.) Even Seth was sending me inReach messages that from his perspective maybe expressed well intentioned concern about me climbing Aasgard but instead read like votes of no confidence. I was primed for a fight with some dude on this mountain pass.

And then, the universe completely surprised me.

Zen mountain goat taking in the views (laying on rock at bottom center of photo.)

A mountain goat chilling on a boulder caught my eye, and I stopped to watch it. The goat seemed to be completely relaxed, maybe even entertained by the humans, hanging out on its rock and taking in the view. Continuing on, a party of four men soon appeared, and I told them not to miss the goat below. The group included two young men, probably in their mid to late teens, and two men who were probably in their 50s. They asked where I was going and where I had come from. I pointed behind us, saying, “That’s Windy Pass, by Cashmere Mountain. Below it, is Little Lake Caroline. I came from there, and I’m heading up into the Core.” One of the older men nodded and said, “Then you’ve come a long way, and you’ve had a long day.” He said this with a tone of admiration. The other man then added, “I’ve got mad respect for what you’re doing.” This floored me. What an example they were setting for the two young men in their party. They didn’t condescend or question me, and they didn’t feel threatened or emasculated by a woman doing something difficult. Instead, they expressed admiration and respect. This exchange went a very long way in restoring a little bit of my faith in men of the outdoors. 

Pausing on Aasgard to look back at Cashmere Mountain and Windy Pass.

I crossed paths with several other parties and was soon stopped by another man around my age. His friends continued their descent as he stayed to talk with me. We chatted about our days, and when I described my route, he looked at me and with steady gaze and said, “Wow, that’s badass.” His tone also suggested, “and hot!” He kept extending the conversation, apparently reluctant to go. At one point, his friends stopped, looked back up and stared at him for a moment, and with a wave of resignation continued to descend without him. It seemed like he was stalling to see if I would invite him to come bivvy up top with me. Alas, this was a solo journey, so I had to let this silver fox go. Our brief encounter nevertheless showed me that there are some men out there who can appreciate a solo woman out in the wild; not all of them will project their own insecurities onto you.

After two hours of climbing, I reached the top of Aasgard Pass. ¾ of a mile in two hours! Pausing, the Cascades unfolded before me. I could see all the way to Windy Pass and beyond. There were jagged peaks poking the sky, and a gorgeous pyramid-shaped mountain that was just so striking. There really is nothing like gaining the top of a mountain pass. You’ve just exerted yourself to the max and probably had some mental challenges as well. When you summit, the work is done, and the visual reward stands before you. Turning to what lay ahead, the out of this world beauty of the Enchantments Core was there to greet me.

Entering the Core Enchantments.

The Enchantments have the well-deserved reputation of being among the most stunning places in Washington; there’s really nothing else quite like it. It’s a basin surrounded by jagged peaks and dotted with turquoise lakes. Mountain goats rock hop like mythical creatures. Waterfalls cascade over granite and snow lines the shores. Due to its popularity, and the fragility of the ecosystem, one must have a permit to camp, and only 24 people are allowed to do so each night. Chances of getting a permit in the lottery are 2%. While I had once run through in a day, this was my first overnight in The Enchantments. I’d lucked into a last-minute permit through the online “walk up” system and was so glad to have this opportunity.

Now it was time to find a good campsite. I saw what looked to be a nice spot on an isthmus between two lakes but realized upon closer inspection it wasn’t really a site. Following a goat trail, I continued past those lakes and landed on a perch overlooking the entire Core. To my right was a stream that turned into a waterfall. Prusik Peak, Little Annapurna, and McClellan rose in the distance, and Dragontail stood sentinel behind me. Alpine lakes sparkled below in the magic hour light. Pinch me.

Camp 3, perched above the lakes of the Enchantments.

There was just enough room for my tent on the perch, and it was solid granite, so I had to get creative with using rocks to stake out the tent. This creativity extended to lining the interior with rocks as well. The wind had picked up and was whipping furiously, threatening to whisk away my tent if I wasn’t in it. It was all a bit nerve-wracking, but the view was too incredible to pass up. I cleaned up in the stream and then kicked back to soak in the view.

The lake outlet stream, next to my camp.

Some newbie campers made for great entertainment, as they attempted to hang their food bags on trees that were barely taller than me. The campers stood on tip toe and slung the bags on the top of the small evergreens, not quite understanding that this would not protect their food from the largest threat out there: mice. Of course, I would also need to solve this problem myself and opted to do the slightly less stupid thing by wrapping my food in a few layers of bags and stashing it in my tent. I wasn’t sure if goats were attracted to the smell of human food, so I concluded that I’d just keep the recorder handy so that I could belt out some awful, loud sounds should a goat drop by for dinner.

There’s absolutely nothing like being done with the day’s miles, being clean, fed, and cozy in a sleeping bag, falling asleep as the stars emerge in twilight. Despite the wild wind whipping, I dropped off to dreamland feeling quite content.  

Day 4: The Enchantments

Mileage: 1.76 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +270’ -854’ /Highest Elevation 7858’ (highest point on route)

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “I want to believe that I can love an experience like this, even if alone in every way.”

Once again, moonbeams awakened me in the night. I peeked outside the tent and saw the fuzzy band of the Milky Way belting the sky. The next time I opened my eyes, bands of scarlet, orange, yellow, and purple rimmed the horizon. To the east of the Enchantments the landscape flattens, so from my perch, I could see way off into the distance without obstruction. Snug inside my tent, I witnessed the sunrise in its entirety, which was one of the most magical experiences of the trip. From moment to moment, the colors changed, now deepening, now softening. Anticipation built, waiting for the sun to make its appearance. You could feel it coming, slowly, and then there it was, first a sliver of fiery orange, then a half sphere, and then a complete orb breaking the dawn. In the changing light, the surrounding mountains and lakes shifted in texture and color. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this everyday occurrence that felt instead like a miracle.

This sunrise will forever remain with me. Photo taken while laying in my tent.

After an easy morning on my perch, I packed up for a short hike further down the basin in order to get another view for my second night in The Enchantments. First, I stopped at the privy, which gets hauled out by helicopter when full.

One of several privies in the Core.

Trekking along, I heard a small animal make a soft, squeaky noise, which I thought might be a baby marmot. Coming around a boulder, I stumbled upon a grazing goat, and then the source of that little voice appeared: her kid! The mountain goats of the Cascades look like wild, mythological creatures. They are shaggy haired and fine horned, and the kids are absolutely adorable. The kid came clambering over the boulder to the safety of mom. I took a few steps away so as not to disturb them and watched these beautiful goats for a few minutes. This really is an enchanted place.

Mama goat and her kid. Note that I zoomed in for this photo and did not approach them as closely as the photo might suggest.

Continuing onward, the usual campsite anxiety kicked in. I thought about camping at the site near Little Annapurna that the ranger recommended, but then decided that I wanted a lake view so headed toward Perfection Lake instead. I forced myself to relax and slow down to enjoy the scenery, but my eyes also scanned for others toting packs in this direction.

Hiking through the Enchantments Core, reminding myself to slow down and take it all in.

It was a short way to Perfection Lake, and there was a site right off the trail near a stream and with a decent lake view. There were also a few tents pitched nearby. Spotting a boot track, I dropped my pack to “reserve” this spot while I hiked out to see if this path led to a better place. That’s one camping lesson I have definitely learned: always spend a little extra time looking around to make sure you choose the best campsite.

My efforts were rewarded, as I came upon an unbelievable site perched above the lake, with a front row view of the ever-aesthetic Prusik Peak. Squealing with delight, I ran back for my pack and laid claim for the night to this most enviable piece of Earth. The location provided solitude and incredible beauty, a perfect combination. The plan had been to spend the rest of the day summiting Little Annapurna and exploring the basin, but I ended up taking an easy day in camp. It gave me the opportunity to wash my clothes, read, use the solar charger, and lounge around basking in the glow of this landscape.

Camp 4, above Perfection Lake with the striking Prusik Peak as backdrop.

I thought I’d treat myself to a hot lunch since the day had turned cold and windy, but the result was spilling my ramen all over the ground instead. You can imagine how fun it was to clean that up. I would now have to carry out a plastic baggie full of limp noodles and dirt. Leave no trace! To compensate, I ate my Pad Thai dinner for lunch (and ate Oreos topped with almond butter for dinner.)

View from the other side of my camp, over Perfection Lake. The Chessmen and McClellan Peaks in the background.

Later in the day, a couple showed up and asked if they could share my campsite with me. I pointed to a lovely site directly below, right on the lake. “It has an even better view than this site, and that way we each have our solitude.” The woman, intense rudeness in her voice, insisted they wanted to camp right here, using a giant boulder on my site as a wind block. I was, admittedly, not very welcoming and made my irritation clear. When she angrily insisted that they wanted to camp right on top of me, I shook my head and said, “Well, I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do.” I didn’t own the place, but it struck me as quite thoughtless to come into the wild only to camp so close to another party, especially when there are many other sites available. They left to retrieve their packs, and I figured now was a good time for some recorder practice. My chilly reception must have been enough of a deterrent, though, as they never returned. I didn’t like how this incident brought out a possessiveness in me. I think the woman’s tone, coupled with the fact that it was entirely unnecessary to camp so close to me, raised my hackles quite a bit, but this is not the person I want to be in the outdoors. In that moment, protecting my solitude felt more important than generosity. Yet another item for reflection.

In the evening, wildfire smoke rolled in. The blue skies dimmed, and the atmosphere quickly changed. The wind picked up and tiny flecks of ash fell like snowflakes. It became difficult to breathe. I pitched the fly as added protection and hoped that the strong gusts would blow the smoke on its merry way. With no fire alarm from Rich, I reassured myself that this was the smoke of distant blazes. The temperature continued to drop, and the wind had a bit of a bite to it. A larch on a ledge above the lake flamed gold, and I shivered at these unmistakable signs of autumn.

Wildfire smoke begins to roll in.

Day 5: The Enchantments to Icicle Ridge Saddle

Mileage: 19.29 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss +2336’ -6631’ /Highest Elevation 7201’

Favorite lines from today’s journal entry: “Cricket symphony all around.”

Everything was shaking. Bolting up, I opened my eyes only to be swooshed in the face by a curtain of fine grains of dust. It coated my eyes, face, nose, and mouth. The tent poles bent in toward me, and a roaring filled my ears as I spat and rubbed my face. The smell of smoke infiltrated my senses, leaving me coughing and trying to figure out what the heck was happening. It was completely disorienting.

A windstorm. It was midnight, and the Enchantments were howling like it truly was the witching hour. You could hear the wind off in the distance, moving down the basin with vengeance, building in sound and fury as it made its way to my perch. That built anticipation for the moment when a gust would pound the tent, the poles caving in on themselves. Using my feet, I propped up the poles, bracing with each gust. The fly flapped like crazy and sounded like an amplified grocery bag whipping violently. It wasn’t scary, but sleep was impossible in such conditions. While I spent the night trying to prevent my tent from imploding, I marveled at the power of the natural world. Gasping at the raw beauty we encounter in the mountains is quite lovely, to be sure, but there’s also something about experiencing its harsher side as well. It’s nothing personal; the wind would whip whether we were there to witness it, or not. It’s just a little astounding when the natural world reminds you that you are a tiny and insignificant speck that cannot tame or control its force.

The upshot of the intense winds is that they ushered out the wildfire smoke, dawning a clear and sunny morning. Perfection Lake sparkled in the sunlight and Prusik Peak punctuated a bluebird sky. There were many miles to cover today, so tired or not, I needed to get moving. As I made my way around the lake, I chatted with another party of campers down below, who’d spent the night in similar fashion. We found some camaraderie in our shared dusting-eating and pole-bracing night.

Blue skies return above Perfection Lake and Prusik Peak.

I struck a balance between slowing down to enjoy being in the Enchantments with needing to press forward and cover ground. While I have mixed feelings about ducks and cairns, the Enchantments seem like a good place for them. The ecosystem is quite fragile, and it sees a lot of visitors, so I think it’s a good thing to have stones marking the way and keeping foot traffic on a single path instead of creating threads of social trails. As day hikers scrambled up from Snow Lakes, looking quite spent already, I’d say, “You’re almost there, and it is so beautiful!”

The beauty of the Core Enchantments just doesn’t quit. The larches were beginning to don their autumn gold.
A cairn marking the way out of the Core, with the Snow Lakes visible below.

Soon, the last of the day hikers had passed, and it was just me. Even the Snow Lakes were more or less deserted by then. With much frustration, I made my two-minute stops to appease my screaming shoulder. Near Nada Lake, I encountered a mama goat and her kid. They were busy browsing brush along the trail, and there was nothing I could do to convince them to snack elsewhere. Each time I tried to shoo them away, they just moved further down the trail. I didn’t want to get too close or find myself between mother and kid, so I decided to try going up off the trail to skirt around them. By that point, Mama had enough of this rude human intruder, and she shuttled her kid off the trail and out of sight. 

Looking back up at the Core from the shores of the Snow Lakes.
Looking down at Nada Lake, below the Snow Lakes.

Leaving the lakes to wind down the endless switchbacks, and lost in my own little world, I startled another mama goat and kid. At the same instant, a trail runner, speeding along and likewise lost in his own thoughts, startled me. He paused briefly to watch the goats and chat with me about his thru-run, then pressed ahead to complete his route. Clearly annoyed, mama gracefully bounded up the steep incline off the trail, mewing kid on her heels. I realized with some amazement that I didn’t envy the trail runner, who would soon be sipping a beer and eating hot food, resting his tired feet. I was happy and content to be on a longer, slower adventure.

Admittedly, there was some relief in finding that the switchbacks weren’t quite as interminable as I’d remembered, and soon enough I was crossing the bridge over Icicle Creek. Pausing for a short respite, I ate some Oreos and almond butter by the creek side, drinking deeply and catching my breath. Over four road miles lay between me and my food cache at the foot of Icicle Ridge, so I didn’t linger long.

Not only did I have those four-plus road miles, but there would be another three miles of climbing up to Icicle Ridge after that. The day grew shorter, and I moved my feet with some urgency. The pavement felt foreign, as did the cars whizzing by. A man and young girl passed me on bicycles, and the man smiled and said, “You’ve still got a spring in your step!” “It’s because I still have a long way to go!” I replied. An elderly man stopped his car in the road and asked me where I was going. He seemed concerned and wasn’t quite understanding my replies to his queries. Finally, he said, “You can use the phone at O’Grady’s down the road to call for help.” I smiled and said, “I don’t need help. I’m out here on purpose,” waving as I walked on. 

The downhill grade and nontechnical footing propelled me down the Icicle Road rather quickly, and before I knew it, the turn for the Icicle Ridge trail head came into view. It was time to recover my first food cache! There was also the slight chance that Rich would be there to offer me a root beer, and while this was intended as a solo journey, I was excited at the prospect of a cold, bubbly beverage and a friendly face. Alas, he wasn’t there, and so I pressed on to locate my cache.

It’s funny how you can note landmarks, take photos, jot down descriptions, make a short video, drop a way point—and then everything looks the same when you return. Those distinctive trees and rocks that I felt sure would point me back toward my well-chosen hiding spot became, a week later, nearly indistinguishable from their neighbors. I had a good general idea of where to look, and the way point helped, but I misremembered some of the landmarks and bumbled around in the woods for a bit. After some harried thrashing, I caught sight of one of my actually distinctive landmarks and ran over to find the bear barrel and gallon of water I’d left there a week earlier. I added six days’ worth of food to my pack, left my trash in the barrel, and filled every water receptacle available. There would likely be no water sources on my path for the next 24 hours, so stocking up was essential.

This, of course, made for one helluva heavy pack. I staggered a bit under the weight as I turned to climb steadily upward for the next three miles until gaining Icicle Ridge. Thoughts of the bear seen here a week ago, blocking the trail and turning hikers around, converged with fears of the ridge being a party spot for local hooligans. In my mind, 3 miles wasn’t a long way to hike for a party spot, but upon reflection, my guess is that your average teen is not going to hike that far uphill carrying loads of booze. At the time, though, this concerned me, and I asked the two pairs of hikers who passed me on their descent if it looked like a party spot. None of them thought so.

Reaching the saddle, it was clear my fears were a bit unfounded. I pitched my tent, secured my food, and ambled out to the summit for a view of Leavenworth. Town lights twinkled on in the dusk as wildfire smoke settled over the manufactured Bavarian village. This would be the closest to civilization I would camp on this trip, and it’s interesting that this made me more anxious than even the most remote site on the rest of my journey. It’s telling that I fear humans more than I fear the wilderness.

Camp 5, on the saddle of the east end of Icicle Ridge.

As I lay in my tent, the sound of voices coming up the trail gave me pause. Frozen and listening hard, human voices became the barking of distant dogs. I relaxed and savored the sound of crickets singing in the evening, a sound we don’t hear on the west side of the Cascades and which I miss from the Midwest. An animal called in the distance; I wasn’t sure what it was, but its wild sound soothed me to slumber.

Looking down at the lights of Leavenworth from Icicle Ridge.

Day 6: Icicle Ridge Saddle to Cabin Creek

Mileage: 13 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +5175’ -3088’ /Highest Elevation: 6896’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “It’s still a journey, and adapting is part of the adventure.”

Talk about character building. Day Six was, hands down, the most challenging day of this journey, in every conceivable way. It was also the most impactful. I might even, in hindsight, go so far as to claim it as my favorite.

The day called for an early start, as I planned to traverse Icicle Ridge all the way to Lake Augusta. Much of today’s hike would move through a burn, exposing me to the beating sun. There was the slim possibility of getting water at a spring along the way, but I wasn’t taking any chances and loaded nearly a gallon onto my back, wishing that I didn’t know a gallon weighs eight pounds. It promised to be a hot one, and the wildfire smoke continued to billow along the ridge. Most of the trail would be at a steady incline, and a good 7 miles of it would be on unmaintained trail. I knew it would be tough, but I also failed to fully grasp what I was in for.

Three trail runners attained the saddle as I packed up camp, huffing for air. They smiled a good morning, then turned around, grateful for their descent. They would be the last humans I’d see for nearly three days.

I set out for the long, steady climb up Icicle Ridge. The early morning air spoke of the day’s heat to come, and the wildfire smoke’s presence grew ever more acute. The trail wound up and up, never letting me attain the crest, never quite gaining the sky. The weight of my pack forced me to take numerous brief breaks to relieve my back. After hours of nothing but climbing, I finally gained the top of the ridge. From there, I could see the Enchantments and the ground that I had covered the day before. The smoke obscured the views, but I could make out enough details to identify peaks and appreciate their beauty all the same.

On top of the ridge, the backside of the Enchantments come into view.

At one point, I stopped and made myself admit out loud that this was hard. On top of the smoke, climb, and heavy pack, you could add the concern about water. It was a delicate dance between keeping hydrated and not blowing through my supply too quickly.

As I walked through the burn, it was a study in contrasts. There were fallen trees, bleached by the sun. The trail was sandy dirt. Charcoal coated the ghost trees left standing. But there was a lot of new growth, with new trees and those spared by the flames as well as flowers and grasses tenaciously managing to carve their niche in this site of devastation. I thought a lot about Hemingway’s story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” As the main character, Nick Adams, makes his way through a burn, he notes the cones of Jack Pines littered on the ground and the saplings that were emerging. Fire is essential to the life of a Jack Pine. It is only through contact with fire that the pinecone will open to release its seed. Fire brings about death, but it’s also necessary for new life. Nick Adams had been through the horrors of war, and he came to that place in search of healing. The Jack Pines, one might argue, are a sign of life finding its way through the chaos and destruction. It’s a promise of hope and renewal for Nick.

This was on my mind as I traversed the burn, thinking about my own search for meaning and healing out here in the wild. I could see a range of flora eking out an existence. I wasn’t sure if these plants came back stronger because of the fire, or if fire was necessary for their chance at life, but I could clearly see that the plants did come back. They were a study in resilience, a wilderness lesson.

Hiking through the burn on Icicle Ridge, new life emerging.

Reaching a spot that offered a clear view up and down the valley, I paused to rest and appreciate where I was. Spotting a distinctive mountain out in the distance, I worked out that it was the back side of Cashmere. On the other side of it, just beyond my view, was Windy Pass. A thrill surged through me. How incredible to stand there and look back at where I had come from over the course of several days. This vantage point threw into perspective my objective to circumambulate something sacred. I could see my circular path around these mountains, and it lit me up to be here in this moment, on this journey I’d been dreaming of.

Looking back at my route. Cashmere Mountain is the tallest peak on the right.

Eventually, I came upon the trickle of a spring. I took the opportunity to refill all of my water bottles while also drinking deeply from this welcome source. There were still many hard miles to cover, and keeping hydrated would be key to a good day. Refreshed, I carried on through the otherworldly landscape of charcoal, snag, and sand.

You might easily break this particular day into two parts: that before the Fourth of July Trail junction, and that after. The map indicated that for the next seven miles “trail overgrown; hard to find.” From the comfort of my home, this didn’t seem like such a daunting proposition. I love to bushwhack and route find, so I eagerly anticipated the adventure this section promised. Feet on the ground, it was an entirely different matter.

The dividing line of the day: the intersection of Icicle Ridge and the Fourth of July Trail.

Initially, ducks and cairns marked the way through a stark and sandy landscape. Faint boot track occasionally appeared. The footprints of another person pointed my direction, and I took a strange comfort in seeing them. I started to refer to the prints as being those of “my buddy.” At times we took different paths, but my buddy’s prints would always reappear on course with my own steps. Until they didn’t. Then, I knew that I was entirely alone.

The open ridge steadily gave way to stands of trees. There were no cairns in sight, and the hint of boot track came and went. Mostly, it went more than it came. When I caught sight of a track, reassurance swept over me. When I lost it, concern snuck in. Soon, the stands of trees grew into dense forest. There was no trace of my buddy or of a trail. Where the map indicated there should be trail was nothing but heavy brush and thick evergreens. The ridge descended, its slope growing steeper. The sun dropped toward the western horizon. My water drew down.

I pulled out the GPS to check my location and to assist me in finding the trail. It only served to fuel my frustration, as there simply wasn’t any sign of trail where it said one should be. Minutes later, the device’s batteries died. Stupidly, I hadn’t swapped out the old batteries before starting this journey, and I had brought only one set with me as a backup. Given that this was only Day 6 of 14, I was reluctant to use the spares so soon, but reason prevailed, and I put in the fresh pair. This moment called for some navigational assistance, and the enfolding, dense forest with no distinct landmarks meant that map and compass would not be of much help in determining my present location.

My hands trembled slightly as I replaced the batteries, the realization of how remote and alone I was slowly sinking in. The perfect word to describe the moment escapes me. I wouldn’t say I was entirely lost, and I wouldn’t say I was truly scared, but I was a little bit of both. There was still a lot of ground to cover, daylight and water were in short supply, and there was no trail. Being off trail wasn’t an unfamiliar circumstance to me, but I’d never been so remote and so alone. There was no one else for miles in any direction, of that I could be sure. True, I had a satellite device, which I could have used to message Rich and ask for help. But what kind of help could he even really offer? He would be able to see my location and could look at a map and offer suggestions, but none of that would ultimately be of much use when viewed from the actual location on the ground. In that moment, the stakes felt high. It wasn’t a life-or-death situation by any means, but it was nevertheless a serious one, and I did need to find a way forward and get to water.  

What is most remarkable to me as I reflect back on this particular juncture in my journey is that I didn’t panic. We can theorize how we might react in a given circumstance, but we can’t truly know for sure until we confront it. While there was a small sense of fear in the background, I was able to quiet it and remain focused on the task at hand. I didn’t send out a lifeline. I didn’t crumple or cry. I simply looked at the map, determined the general direction I needed to trend, and hiked on. It felt good to see that this was my response, and I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to test myself in this way.

Before I could start congratulating myself, though, there was still the matter of getting to a water source. I knew that the “trail” eventually dropped down off the ridge and crossed Cabin Creek, and that there was, supposedly, a campsite there. I noted this location on the GPS map, and then aimed in that general direction. Sometimes thickets of trees and brush drove me off course; at other times, the grade became too steep and cliffy, and I had to find another way forward or use some veggie belay to get down sketchy slopes. Every so often, I paused to check my location and correct my trajectory. The going was slow, but as in all things, I made relentless forward progress.

Emerging from the forest, I reentered a burn along the top of the ridge. While the going was downright treacherous—walking beneath dead snags that could topple at any moment; exhausting side hilling on loose sand that gave way under foot and consistently threatened to send me cascading down the side of the ridge; crawling over blowdown after blowdown—the upshot was that I could now see down into the valley and what must surely be Cabin Creek meandering through an alpine meadow below. In the distance, a copse of trees seemed the likely location of the promised camp along the creek. Now, I could simply aim for that beacon. Easier said than done, but catching sight of my water source gave me a lift.

Looking down at my goal: the forest at the edge of the meadow.

At one point, after sliding over some blowdown, I felt something catch my leg. Not thinking anything of it, I continued on, only to feel something dripping down my thigh. Reaching a hand to pat my leg, it came back covered in blood. Looking back at the tree, I saw a slick of bright red smeared across the trunk. Finding water felt like the more pressing cause in the moment, though, so onward I went, leaving a trail of blood like an advertisement to the apex predators in the neighborhood. “Here I am, a wounded animal! Just follow the red arrows to dinner!”

From time to time, pink flagging appeared to mark the way to Cabin Creek. I followed it when possible, but it was so sparse and intermittent that stopping to look for it became more distraction than aid. As such, I opted to set my sights on just getting down to the valley in the best way possible. Eventually, I stumbled into that beacon forest and found myself at Cabin Creek. It was a sight for thirsty eyes. I gulped the little water remaining in my bottle and set about the work of filtering more.

The plan had been to camp at Lake Augusta tonight. Before departing on this adventure, I sent Rich and my brother, Al, a detailed spreadsheet with my daily mileage and intended camp locations for each night. Smiling, Rich cautioned, “I wouldn’t get too wedded to this schedule. Stuff happens.” His words rolled around in my head as I assessed the waning day that barely held twilight at bay. There were still 4 miles between me and Lake Augusta. On good trail, I could cover that ground relatively quickly, but if the next few miles were anything like what I had already experienced today, there was no telling when I would arrive. Here, I had a flat spot to pitch my tent and easy access to water. It had already been a mentally and physically taxing day, and more of the same rigor was not wildly appealing at the moment. For a classic Type-A figure such as myself, veering from the Master Plan was difficult, but common sense told me it was better to call it a day in this good location rather than attempt the unknown. In my journal that night, I would humbly acknowledge that “adapting is part of the adventure.”

Finding a flattish spot, I made camp and felt the tension slowly leave my body as I put my energy into creating a home for the night. I marveled at how truly remote this place was. My guess is that this was the farthest I’d ever been from the next closest human. There was something special in that knowledge, and it was remarkable to feel a sense of comfort and pride in that remoteness rather than fear. I did have a sense of other forest occupants being nearby, and I thanked them for tolerating this interloper crashing into their home.

Camp 6: flat + near water = good enough

After dinner, I wandered across the creek in search of a good tree from which to hang my food. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I found an established campsite on the other side, complete with log “chairs.” Oh well, I was already set up in my impromptu site. Food secured, I settled in for a hard-earned sleep, drifting off with thoughts of all that the wilderness had taught me this day.

Day 7: Cabin Creek to Lake Edna

Mileage: 11.1 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +5392’ -3629’ /Highest Elevation: 7304’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “First day of not seeing another human.”

It was a slow-moving morning. I was worn out from the previous day and felt like I was coming down with a cold. Admittedly, I was also stalling a bit, not quite eager for more thrashing and bumbling about. According to the map, I would now be back on trail, but the information I’d gleaned from other trip reports suggested otherwise. The established campsite with its log chairs gave the impression that others made their way down here, but how they did so escaped me. Their route, if there was one, eluded me.

On my way out of camp, I dodged endless bear scat landmines all over the place. Looks like I had spent the night in bear heaven. There was about 50 yards of boot track leading out of camp, and a couple of pink flags, but these quite quickly disappeared, replaced by the most insane thicket I’d ever encountered. Today was going to give yesterday a run for its money.

How do I even begin to describe the impenetrable wall that stood like a fortress before me? I don’t know what species of tree or bush it was built of. I kept referring to it as slide alder, but that’s not correct and doesn’t come close to the size and challenge of this stuff. It resembled slide alder in that it was like a tree masquerading as a bush, but the branches were much thicker and taller. Most were about twice the circumference of my arm; others were even thicker. The branches burst out in all directions from a low, central trunk, then drooped down to the ground. They stood so close together that they became one blurred mass of bark and leaf. Going around, over, or under appeared impossible. My breath caught in my throat, and then I laughed out loud. What else could I do? The task of going forward felt so incredibly absurd, and I absolutely could not imagine how I was possibly going to get through it. All I knew for sure was that I would have to figure it out.

The Fortress of Foliage.

The tree bush fortress extended as far as I could see in either direction. Again, a laugh of complete exasperation tumbled out of my mouth. “I don’t know what to do.” I stammered this out loud several times. My options: go back to Cabin Creek and call for help, or find a way through. Once again, the situation pressed upon me my complete isolation. Going back wasn’t a real option. What help could anyone else provide? The only way I was getting to the other side was to rely on myself and get myself through. Thrashing through the thicket would have been difficult even without a pack, but having all of that camping gear and water on my back made it all the more challenging to negotiate. Add to this the sharp incline, and I was in for the bushwhack of my life.

Abandoning the useless GPX tracks, I dove into the chaos of flora and chose whatever path offered the least resistance. “Least resistance” was relative. At times, the tree bushes gave way to tightly packed evergreens, which, ridiculously, felt like a brief respite. At times, I paused and again muttered, “I don’t know what to do!” but always I forged ahead anyway, understanding that there was no other choice. Another wilderness lesson.

Over two hours later, I crossed to the other side. Standing above the fortress of foliage, I stopped to catch my breath and marvel at the accomplishment. I whooped in joy and laughed somewhat maniacally. The adventure of the day before had prepared me for this mentally, even if the physical test was new. My sense of self-reliance and confidence in my ability to navigate the challenges of the wilderness on my own surged. Now if only I could apply that to the trials of everyday life.

From here, I could see across the valley to the burn on the other side that I’d traversed the day before, and the meadow of Cabin Creek nestled lush below. Turning around and confronting the route to come, I could see that I was now on another burn, consisting mostly of a sandy slope even steeper than yesterday’s. At this point, there was no need for trail or tracks. The main objective was to gain the ridge. From there, I could navigate more easily over to the Hatchery Creek Trail junction. So, I made my way up, sometimes sliding backwards on the loose sand but not really caring after the trials of the tree bushes. Occasionally, I even saw my buddy’s footprints, which allowed me to believe there wasn’t actually a trail up and out of Cabin Creek that I had somehow stupidly missed.

Looking across the valley, back at the burn I’d traversed the day before. Camp 6 was in the forest on the edge of the meadow, on the right.

Three hours, and a mere quarter mile, after leaving camp, I reached the top of the ridge. I stopped for a quick rest and lunch, then moved cross country through the austere landscape. Trying to find the trail seemed like a waste of time and energy, so I simply pointed in the direction I needed to travel and kept to the top of the ridge, snaking through the burn and happy for the open country it provided. 

Reaching the junction with the Hatchery Creek Trail, there was promise of good trail onwards to Lake Augusta. I tripped merrily along the easygoing path, coming out of the burn and winding down into meadows of the Dr. Seuss-like Western Pasqueflower. What a study in contrasts! I soon arrived at Lake Augusta, where I stopped for a snack, refilled water, and consulted the map to assess my options.

The Western Pasqueflower looks like a bloom straight out of Dr. Seuss.

The tourmaline water and comfortable solitude of Lake Augusta tempted me to stay. The off-trail travel was wearing on me, and this tranquil shore sang like a siren to my fatigued body and mind. Stopping now would further derail my schedule, though, so onwards I must go. Lake Edna seemed like a worthy goal. There would be an alpine lake to call home for the night, and I could make up some lost ground by continuing on. It was roughly 6.5 miles away, and, presumably, good trail would take me there. Be careful what you presume in the wilderness.

Quiet solitude abounds at Lake Augusta.

Topping the pass above Lake Augusta, I paused to appreciate one of my favorite types of mountain experience: looking backwards, forwards, and to the present in one 360-degree rotation of the body. Here I stood, on an unnamed mountain pass nestled between two unnamed peaks. My present. Slowly spinning round, the past of steep burn and blowdown that led down into Cabin Creek came into view, followed by the emerald oasis of the meadow. My eyes then scanned up the fortress of foliage and stark slopes that I’d traversed this morning. There was the relatively easy-going ridgeline leading to the Hatchery Creek Trail junction. Lake Augusta was just out of view below, while Big Jim Mountain stood sentinel above. Here’s an unnamed peak beside me now, dissolving into focus  that which lies ahead in my near future. Far in the distance, Mount Daniel’s snowy head caught the sun. In the foreground, the ridges and peaks of the Chiwaukum Mountains unfolded like layers of a fringed, vertical cake.

This span of Icicle Ridge seems not to draw many visitors. Folks sure are missing out. I ambled through alpine meadows where wildflowers held on to summer and rambled past lonely alpine lakes embraced by evergreens. Wetlands absorbed the trail in places, once again calling on me to aim in the right direction and hope for a path to emerge. I climbed rocky slopes, rising above tree line, only to crest the ridge and contour along the sides of mountains that loomed over forested valleys.

One reason to visit this section of Icicle Ridge: traipsing through meadows ringed by peaks.

Descending into one valley, I heard the squealing alarm whistle of marmots below. It reminded me that, as connected as I might feel to the wild, I’m still an interloper here. I’d never heard marmots express such terror at a human’s approach. Some stood tall on boulders, alerting others to my presence in a frenzy of shrieks. I whispered that I meant no harm, that I was only passing through, and picked up my pace in order to exit their home with haste.

Descending into the Valley of Marmots.

After leaving the marmot village, the trail entered a forest, where it promptly abandoned me. The day was growing short, and heavy brush overwhelmed the once blank space where trail had been broken. Here I was again, in the thick of bear country with only a wisp of trail to guide me. While swimming through shrubbery, I sang out loud to signal my presence to bears. In my hurry, I tumbled and somersaulted down a slope, catching myself with a veggie belay from a tree. Shaken, I admonished myself to stop rushing around like an idiot and to try and calmly, yet briskly, move forward. There was something about the deep, dark forest that made the hair on my arms stand to attention, some ungraspable phantom that I could neither name nor see but only sense.

At the junction with the Index Creek Trail, it was decision time. Sunset was closing in, and there were 2 miles, and a monster climb, between me and Lake Edna. Here, there was a flat spot to pitch a tent and a water source. I could be forgiven for stopping; it had been a long day already. Something inside me wanted to go for it, though. I wanted the satisfaction of meeting my goal and the reward of an alpine camp. Plus, something about this forest made me uncharacteristically uneasy. Onwards, and upwards.

Back above treeline before dusk.

I’m a notoriously slow climber, but the waning daylight, coupled with the drive to finish the day as imagined, spurred me up that mountain. There was a bit of a thrill in racing the sun, and a giddiness overcame me as my feet flew up above tree line. Views obscured by evergreens gave way to ridges washed in magic hour alpenglow. Even in this haste, it took me 90 minutes to cover these last 2 uphill miles; in this particular moment, that felt like a triumph. All told, it took me 4.5 hours to hike the 6.5 miles between Lakes Augusta and Edna, which says all you need to know in order to comprehend the rugged path that lay between.

Lake Edna greeted me with the peace of dusk. With no camping permitted within 200 feet of the lake, I found a spot just below it. The wind was rising, so this perch would offer a bit of a windbreak, not to mention a panorama of peaks to steal your breath. A summit shadow rose on the flanks of a neighboring ridge. The sunset played rose and purple in the sky. I ate my dinner and reveled in the relief, and pride, that comes with the conclusion of a tough day in the mountains, and in the sense of wonder that comes with laying down to rest cradled in the arms of such unfathomable beauty.

Camp 7, below Lake Edna. One of my favorite camps of the trip.

Day 8: Lake Edna to Lower Doelle Lake

Mileage: 7.3 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +2228’ -3097’ /Highest Elevation: 7062’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “This feels like true wilderness these past 3 days.”

A fiery orange sunrise awoke me. Nestled in the coziness of my sleeping bag, I lay there and reflected on just how fortunate I was to be witness to such a stunning opening of the day. Sunsets are great, but they simply can’t compare to the miracle of dawn breaking over mountains. You feel the sun’s approach, the swirling colors on the horizon subtly shifting each moment from deep and rich to light and bright. You sense the sun’s coming presence, but also have this in between space in which it has not yet made its appearance. That moment of promise, of anticipation, of hope, lights me up inside. This was going to be a great day.

Watching sunrise from the comfort of my sleeping bag.

The night before, I’d done some calculations and thought through a reroute, given that I was behind schedule. This would entail skipping two elements of the route that I’d most been looking forward to: the Doelle and Thunder Mountain Lakes. It pained me to alter my course so drastically, but trying to cover all of that planned ground would lead to days of such great length and distance that it could very well detract from the pleasure of being out there. Plus, my off-trail shenanigans had wiped me out, and the prospect of more wasn’t appetizing. From what I had read, the trip down to the Doelle Lakes would be largely off trail, tricky, steep, and seldom done (especially heading down to them instead of up and out from them.) Therefore, at Frosty Pass, instead of taking the boot track over to the Doelles, I would head down the Frosty-Wildhorse Trail and over to Josephine Lake.

Leaving Lake Edna.

The trail was eye-popping gorgeous right out the gate. In the moment, this was my favorite day of the entire trip, and this stretch of trail is unrivalled by anything else I’ve ever trekked. When I reflect on this adventure, and dream of going back, it is to this section of Icicle Ridge, in the vicinity of Ladies Pass, that I long to return.

Life is best in the high country.

The trail ambled up and out of the Lake Edna basin toward Cape Horn, to which I whispered a promise to summit next time. It wandered along the sides of slopes, contouring below jagged peaks. The trail then followed the crest of the ridge through the most spectacular high country of the Cascades. Alpine meadows took on the russet reds, golds, and oranges of autumn as streams meandered through them in lazy, looping curves. Rounding a bend, Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) came into view for the first time on this journey. The sweeping view encompassed everything from Mount Daniel in the north to Mount Stuart in the east. “This is what I came for,” I reverently said into the voice recorder app on my phone.

The snowy summits of Tahoma (left) and Mt. Daniel (right).
High country panorama. At the junction of Chiwaukum Creek Trail.

There was no other option but to pause after gaining Ladies Pass. It was all too much. While there was a big day ahead, I decided that there’s always 5 minutes to stop and appreciate a great view. I had also developed the habit of eating a second breakfast, so I pulled out the trail mix, took a seat, and marveled at this remarkable vista. I determined in that moment to return here and share it with others; it was too beautiful to keep to myself, and it’s the type of place that you want to experience with people you love. Those 5 minutes sitting at this pass will stand as a highlight.

The view from Ladies Pass. It is absolutely beautimous (thanks, Tim Scharks, for that word.)
Ladies Pass is so pretty, it gets two photos.

From there, the trail contours along the flanks of Ladies Peak (another summit I promised to come back for), with a view of Lake Florence below. This alpine lake appears to have the best vantage point of any lakeside camp in all of Washington. Yet another promise to return and enjoy it. It was here that I started to notice a lot of cougar tracks and scat. It wasn’t something to fear, but I did take note. Not having seen another human in days—not even human tracks at this point—it did underscore my remoteness. It was just me and the cougars out there. Channeling Cheryl Strayed’s mantra—and understanding full well that humans are not on the menu for cougars—I told myself that fear was not an option.

I’m definitely coming back for you, Lake Florence.

At Mary’s Pass, Dakobed (Glacier Peak) came into view. All the mountains were out! I took a seat to relieve the weight on my sore shoulder for a moment and enjoy the view when three older men rambled up the trail. They were headed back to Lake Flore after a night at Lake Mary, claiming Flore was the best camp they’d ever had in their decades of hiking the Cascades. Duly noted. The trio asked about my route and were impressed by it, never once asking a remotely condescending question. After describing my harrowing experience of Cabin Creek, and based on what they’d heard about it, all three laughed and agreed that it wouldn’t be a failure if I skipped the cross-country section to the Doelles.

View of Lake Mary from Mary’s Pass.

There were many pauses over the next mile to snap photos and gasp out loud at the magnificence of this section of the trail. I feel that I’m out of fresh superlatives at this point in my recounting. As I walked, the thought of rerouting nagged me. Finding the route down to the Doelles was probably the section I’d most been looking forward to. By the time I reached the junction at Frosty Pass, I’d made a decision: “If it’s less than 18 miles tomorrow to reach Glacier Lake from Lower Doelle, then I’ll stick to the original route.” A quick consult of the map, and the math added up: 17.9 miles. Ha!

There was plenty of daylight left, so even if the next few miles entailed more insane bushwhacking, I’d have time to reach Lower Doelle Lake before dark. My heart beat wildly, drawn to the Doelles and the adventure that getting there promised. I sent a quick message to Al and Rich to let them know I was scrapping the reroute and forging ahead as planned, regardless of what lay ahead. After Cabin Creek and the Fortress of Foliage, I could do anything.

I would have missed this view had I re-routed.

You might say that the result was anticlimactic, as there was good trail most of the way and little route finding or bushwhacking, but this would fail to characterize this last stretch of Icicle Ridge. It was less traveled, but not impossible, and it continued in the same vein as the rest of the day: contouring trails, sweeping vistas, mountains galore, and autumnal alpine meadows.

Dropping down into a forest, the sound of a creature coming around the bend startled and stopped me. At first, it registered as a bear, but soon I realized it was a man and his dog. He’d also been surprised to see me there; it’s not a trail on which you expect to encounter others. He asked, “How long you out for?” but seem deflated when I replied, “Two weeks.” “Oh,” he said almost sheepishly, “I’m just out for one.” It was a bit of an awkward exchange. He advised me to be careful coming down the mountain, as there were many little tracks and some cliffed out. I thanked him but never actually found out what he was referring to, as I didn’t encounter this myself.

The meadows below the Doelle Lakes.

The meadow below the Doelles lost the trail here and there, so I headed in the general direction and then started making my way up a rocky section, where I beheld Upper Doelle Lake. It was surprising to see a large horse camp here. I scouted around for other sites and decided to check out Lower Doelle before committing. It was an easy decision after I dropped down to the lower lake. It lay nestled in a bowl beneath the scree slopes of Bull’s Tooth and Chain Lakes Peaks. The aquamarine water was crystal clear and so inviting. Giddy, I pitched camp up above the lake amongst a stand of firs. Thanks to the low mileage and relatively easy trail, I had most of the day left for relaxing and attending to things like solar charging, laundry, reading, eating, and…a bath!

The crystal clear waters of Lower Doelle Lake, with Chain Lakes Peak as backdrop.

Washing up in a creek or lake outlet each night was refreshing in its own way, but nothing compares to a full-on submersion in an alpine lake. Tossing clothes on a rock, I dove in and luxuriated in my first real bath of the journey. The pleasure of plunging into those crisp waters after more than a week on the trail is beyond description. Floating on your back in a lake you claim all to yourself, as the sun warms you and the mountains cup you, that is the ultimate privilege of the wild, and it is sheer bliss.

I was grateful for this day of beauty and rest.

Camp 8, at Lower Doelle Lake and with the Bull’s Tooth in the background.

Day 9: Lower Doelle Lake to Glacier Lake

Mileage: 17.9 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +4210’ -5291’ /Highest Elevation: 6240’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Got to use Eagle Scout privy this morning. Great view!”

Well, that day of rest closed with restlessness. I fell asleep to the soft sounds of robins welcoming the evening. It’s always a surprise to see them in the mountains, as I think of them as Midwestern backyard birds. It was so comforting and peaceful to drift off to the notes of their song. Later that night, another sound wrenched me from sleep. I couldn’t quite place it. It wasn’t a growl, and it wasn’t a grunt, but it was something in between, and it came from what sounded like a very large nonhuman animal. Cougar tracks and scat ran rampant around the Doelle Lakes, so it didn’t seem like a stretch to suppose that was who called now. I fell back to sleep, only to be shaken awake again by the same eerie cry in the dark. The third time it sounded, I was still awake, and knew that it hadn’t been a dream. Admittedly, I was a little nervous. It was a chilling sound, and the mammal making it was nearby. I reassured myself that never in the history of the world had a cougar ever attacked someone sleeping in a tent. A bit on edge, despite having statistics on my side, I blew through some precious battery power by playing a podcast in the hopes of lulling me to sleep. While I never heard the cry again after the third time, sleep came only in fits and starts that night.

Thanks to the Eagle Scout who built this privy.

Robins returned to wake me in the morning. Shrugging off the restless night, I readied for the big day. It was a real treat not to begin my day by digging a cat hole. Instead, I was the beneficiary of an Eagle Scout project privy. It sat on a rise above camp and faced the Chiwaukum Mountains. You couldn’t ask for a better view while taking care of your morning business.

Morning at Lower Doelle Lake, with the Bull’s Tooth and Chair Lakes Peak above.

As I climbed out of the Doelle Lakes basin, Dakobed came back into view. Wildfire smoke started to roll in, but it wasn’t too thick at this point, and the vistas on the ascent were just stunning. I waved farewell to these gem lakes, glad to have had the opportunity to meet them. Coming over the gap, the Chain Lakes appeared below, the shores lined with tents and hammocks. It’s the extra climb up from there to the Doelle Lakes that keeps the latter a more private experience. There were several parties camped at the Chain Lakes, and the scent of their hot breakfasts and coffee teased my nose as I passed through.

Hiking up and out of the Doelle Lakes Basin. You can see the faint, snowy summit of Dakobed peaking its head above the ridge.
Descending to the Chain Lakes.

On the Icicle Creek Trail, I encountered two bear hunters with bows and arrows. It pissed me off to no end. Who kills a bear? And what particular breed of asshole does it with a bow and arrow? Surely that’s not often a one-arrow-clean-shot kind of kill, and it seems unlikely that these boys planned to eat the meat. The endeavor struck me as a macho, ego fueled, trophy hunt. I shot a snarling look in their direction, and then made as much noise as possible along the trail. Salmon berry patches, loaded with fruit, lined this section of trail—a bear’s paradise of plenty. I hoped that today they would grab lunch elsewhere and evade these hunters and their arrows.

Hiking down from the Chain Lakes. Not all trails were high alpine rambles. A lot of my journey was spent on forest trails such as this.

The Icicle Creek Trail deposited me onto the Pacific Crest Trail. My objective for this journey was to avoid the PCT as much as possible, choosing instead less traveled trails, but this part of the route necessitated it. While I would cross paths with many more people here, it was nevertheless a gorgeous section of trail. As I made my way past a series of lakes and climbed to Trap Pass, the day grew strange. The smoke descended and thickened, blotting out the sun and mountains alike. You could tell that the sun was there, but the smoke filtered it, making high noon feel more like dusk. No birds chirped. It was quiet and still and spooky.

Along the way, it struck me that I was living my dream. “I’m doin’ it!” I stammered out loud, almost in disbelief. What had been lines on a map and calculations in my brain was now my reality. It seemed a bit funny that this only now occurred to me, but there I was, regaling in the fact that my footsteps carried me down paths I had only known as names on maps and as figments of my imagination.

Perk of the PCT: boulder fields have trails through them.

My anxiety about finding a campsite kicked in with each party I met. PCT hikers were grouped around each lake I passed, and I worried that Glacier Lake would be crawling with them. At the top of Trap Pass, I passed a party heading my way; after a few brief pleasantries, I hightailed it down the other side. I was in such a hurry that I didn’t even think about the fact that my original plan had called for turning off on a boot track here and climbing up to camp at the Thunder Mountain Lakes (Next time!) It’s interesting how my shoulder pain always faded in moments like this. I raced with some urgency down the switchbacks, at times catching the other hikers’ voices above me, which only spurred me on faster.

Reaching Glacier Lake, I found a large party of loud young men camped at the south end of the lake. I picked my way along the eastern shore, hoping for some privacy. I managed to tuck my tent into a tight little spot right on the bank of the lake. The young men, thinking they were alone, let out wild, primal yells, each trying to outdo the last. Then, they discussed in earnest where to stash their bear barrels. It seemed like it was their first night out in the backcountry, so I cut them some slack and hoped they were enjoying it. One of them stumbled into my camp with his bear canister in hand and startled when he saw me. He became incredibly polite, asking me about where I’d stored my canister (“I hang my food.”) and where I thought he might put his. I gave him some tips on securing food, we exchanged some pleasantries, and then the boys were much better neighbors once they realized they were sharing the lake.

Look closely to see a smoke-filtered sun disk reflected in Glacier Lake.

Another hiker and her partner showed up soon after, asking me about a site for them. I gestured toward one on the other side of me that seemed promising. They were taking a week to hike the J Section of the PCT, and this was their last night. “I’ve been out for 9 days and have no idea what is going on in the world!” I said. She was in much the same position, and we were both grateful for this brief escape from the rest of the world.

After cleaning up, I settled into my tent, hopeful for a good night’s sleep. I’d busted my butt to get there, covering the 17.9 miles in 8.5 hours, and was worn out. Sleep came fast and deep.

Camp 9, on Glacier Lake.

Day 10: Glacier Lake to Fisher Lake

Mileage: 12.35 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +3428’ -3462’ /Highest Elevation: 5939’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Did my best thin log river crossings ever.”

Morning found me hiking toward the Surprise Gap Trail, where I would leave the PCT and climb up and over Surprise Gap. I’d originally planned to camp at the summit of Surprise Mountain, which I’d visited earlier in the summer. It has the perfect little platform to pitch a tent and enjoy expansive views up into the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Alas, that, too, must wait for another day. So, too, would the Surprise Gap Trail, it turned out. Where the junction should have been, I saw nothing but talus. It was clear that a trail work crew had obscured the trail and lined the junction with large boulders that discouraged you from leaving the PCT. I knew this was a decommissioned trail, but I thought there would still be traces of it.

After lots of looking, no sight of trail or boot track materialized. The going would be rough, boulder hopping and talus whacking up a steep slope to the Gap. I needed to reach the Tonga Ridge trailhead by 11:00 a.m., so I reluctantly gave up on the planned route and regrettably stuck to the PCT. My disappointment made the climb to Piper Pass even more challenging. Even Rich, who hadn’t messaged a peep on this journey, sent one saying, “You missed the Surprise Gap trail!” Sorry, Dudefriend. Next time we’ll go find it together.

Surprise Gap, minus trail.

Along the way, frantic NOBO (northbound) PCT hikers stopped me, pumping me for information about smoke to the north. They could not compute my reply that I hadn’t been on the PCT for very long and didn’t know about conditions further to the north. That there were other trails in the area that one might choose to travel seemed not to register with them. Some repeated the question, clearly confused. All of them seemed a bit panicked. They struck me as quite needy. They wanted as much information as possible in order to continue their trek. This is partly why I wanted to avoid the PCT; being remote and self-reliant was more appealing to me than engaging with others on the trail. Admittedly, I had my own personal fireman keeping an eye on the wildfire situation for me (that morning, Rich also sent an update saying no fires were near me), so I shared that info with the thru-hikers.

I pressed forward to get off the PCT in the hopes of not being further accosted. The Deception Creek Trail was just the remedy, as I didn’t encounter another person. It’s a lovely trail that winds through a deep forest along the banks of the creek, which I crossed several times using some exceptionally narrow logs (having terrible balance, this is always precarious for me.) Someone has been showing this trail some love, as the blowdowns had all been sawed and there were nice little camps along the way. Most of the trail was cushy, cruisy, and downhill, so I made good time. When the trail began to climb up toward Tonga Ridge, I saw a memorial to a woman named Faye Ogilvie, who had been an active member of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Protection Society and who had worked to preserve these wild lands. I’d love to learn more about her.

One of several thin logs crossed on this day.

At precisely 11:00 a.m. I popped out onto the forest road at the Tonga Ridge trailhead to see a white VW Westie waiting for me. The decision to meet up with Seth was made a few days into my trip. At the time, I was trying to determine whether or not to return to that relationship. If I was going to, then I wanted him to support me in my endeavors, so I made the decision to allow him to join me for a night on the trail. I turned down his offer to bring me anything specific (I would have loved to ask for new socks and band-aids, but I resisted because I wanted the trip to be self-supported.) I decided anything he chose to bring would be considered “trail magic,” which I would accept. He had chips, salsa, and bubbly water waiting, all of which I gladly partook.

While Seth cooked up a veggie burger, I retrieved my second food cache, which was exciting to find exactly where I’d left it over two weeks earlier. I demolished the burger as well as some nondairy ice cream. Both were fantastic, but the tastiest treat was actually an apple. It was so fresh and juicy and apparently what I had been craving for so long.

Appetite sated and my food stores replenished, we hiked up the Tonga Ridge Trail. My original plan had been to sleep out under the stars on top of Mount Sawyer, but the smoke and lack of water led me to change plans. While it would add a few extra miles, I chose Fisher Lake as a good alternate. There would be water, and you can’t go wrong calling an alpine lake home for the night. There was no one else there, so we chose a nice site by the lake and had the place to ourselves. We read in the hammock and tested out the echo on the surrounding cliffs.

Camp 10, on Fisher Lake.

That evening, my gut came to realize, even if my heart wasn’t quite ready to believe it, that this would likely be our last night out camping together. Having a supportive partner was incredibly important to me, so I felt like it was the right decision to give it a try and see how this went. Ultimately, it wasn’t going to work, though. I could feel that in this moment. There was part of me that wondered if I should have broken the 100% solo aspect of my adventure, but the fate of this relationship was something I had needed to find out for myself.

Fortunately, this journey had already shown me how truly happy I can be wandering through the wilderness and sleeping in a tent alone.

Day 11: Fisher Lake to East Fork Foss River

Mileage: 19.2 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +1654’ -4322’ /Highest Elevation: 5197’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “Shows I have developed my own way to do things [when setting up camp].”

Rain clouds broke open the morning and sent us scrambling to pack before the drops soaked our gear. After a quick concert on our recorders (the only time I played the thing this entire trip), we parted at the Tonga Ridge Trail junction, me heading west and he east. There was a multi-layered sadness in the parting. I was happy to be up on this ridge, though, even if I was sorry to miss Mount Sawyer. “Next time!” became my refrain on this adventure. The fall colors were coming on strong, and the trail made its way along the spine of the ridge, offering occasional views of the surrounding mountains. The smoke obscured these vistas but still left a sense of the grandeur a clear day would reveal.

Parting shot, Tonga Ridge Trail. Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Much of the day would entail a road walk. At least it was all downhill, so I could make good time, but it was nevertheless a bit boring, zigzagging down endless ruts of gravel and dirt. At a road junction, I found a bit more trail magic. A cairn led me to a Bodhizafa beer, hidden beneath a swath of tree bark. I pocketed it for later. Soon after, Seth drove by and asked if I wanted another burger. “Is that a real question?” Of course I did. He met me another mile down the road, lunch prepared. I also accepted a parting gift of an apple and some chocolate peanut butter cups, and then we waved a final farewell.

The road eventually led me to the Necklace Valley trailhead. My goal was to make it another 5 miles up the trail to a riverside camp. It was going to make this a 20+ mile day, but I figured it was far enough away from the trailhead that I could avoid any people of ill intent (although it seems like most of the problems stay at the trailhead, with car break-ins being a notorious issue here.)

Sometimes, there’s a sturdy bridge!

About three miles up the trail, rain seemed imminent, and I was tired. Right when I needed it, a footpath materialized, leading down to the banks of the East Fork of the Foss River. There, I found a nice camp with a river view. Below it, the clear mountain water cascaded over large boulders, sounding like small thunder. I’d covered over 19 miles, so it seemed fair enough to call it a day.

East Fork Foss River, right below my camp.

Not having touched alcohol in months, that one IPA gave me quite a buzz. I sipped it riverside, luxuriating in the cascading current and the warmth of the hops. From there, I made my way over to a throne made out of stones, where I sat to enjoy some vegan cheese-its, my camp-making reward. Toss in the extra apple and peanut butter cups, and I felt like a queen there on my stone throne.

The rain came at last, so I crawled into my cozy tent and listened to it patter on the fly from the comfort of my sleeping bag. There was a lot to occupy my thoughts, but I chose to return my focus to my solo journey and leave the rest to be dealt with upon my return.

Camp 11, above the East Fork Foss River.

Day 12: East Fork Foss River to Emerald Lake

Mileage: 5.7 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss: +3435’ -814’ /Highest Elevation: 4879’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “This truly is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

Lingering rain called for a lazy morning in the tent. There wouldn’t be many miles to cover today, so taking it slow was permissible. Recalling the hike down and out of the Necklace Valley a year prior, I also knew that it was going to be a day of nothing but climbing going up valley. The humidity didn’t help, and this leg turned out to be a bit of a slog. Fortunately, the vine maples were showing off their autumn coats, and Bald and Silver Eagle Peaks soared in the distance. I stopped a lot to take it all in (and to catch my breath.)

Sulphur Shelf mushrooms (aka Chicken of the Woods).
Sometimes, there’s a rotting log.
Autumn arrives in the Necklace Valley.

The Necklace Valley must surely get its name from the aquamarine lakes that string its length like liquid gems. At the eastern edge, Mount Hinman stands sentinel. Typically, it’s jam packed with campers, but arriving the Tuesday after Labor Day meant I’d probably have the place to myself. The goal was to reach Al Lake, in honor of my brother Al, who was my nightly emergency check-in. I followed a boot track in its direction, but to no avail. It was kinda rough going, and farther out than it appeared on the map, and there was no guarantee of a campsite there.

Entering the Necklace Valley, with Mt. Hinman in the distance (Next time, Mt. Hinman!)

I retraced my steps and headed over to Opal Lake, making my way around its banks to the far side. When the trail gave way to boulders to hop, I gave up and turned around. Having noticed a nice site above Emerald Lake, I backtracked, feeling a bit defeated. At least I’d have a nice flat spot on a ledge above an alpine lake, even if it seemed to have earned its name from the green algae that blanketed its surface. My brother’s birthstone is the emerald, so it seemed like a fitting enough tribute.

It was amazing how much the day had taken out of me, with the climbing and humidity. I’d also taken a nasty fall along the way and had a killer blood blister on my hand where I’d broken the fall. At least I didn’t hit my head. A young man startled me as I was settling in to prepare dinner. He encouraged me to break camp and head over to the prettiest site in the valley above Opal Lake. It seemed that I had turned back just shy of this perfect place. My new friend kept insisting that I go there, for both its idyllic setting and its distance from the trail (and the privy.) I appreciated his suggestion, and on any other day I’d probably have followed his tip, but I was just done for the day.

Camp 12, above Emerald Lake.

We had a nice long chat, and he repeatedly expressed admiration for my route and journey. He asked, “What’s the name of your book, so that I can look for it when it’s out?” Flattered, I explained that it was a work in progress without a title yet, but I gave him my name so he could look it up. His name was Justin Birch, and he was delightful company. We exchanged some of our favorite secret places in Washington (for some reason, it felt right to share some secret spots with him; he was one of those people you just instantly trust and like.) Once again, a positive interaction with a man in the wild helped me to feel that there are men out there who aren’t going to mansplain or condescend to a solo woman. As Justin turned to make his way up to the Tank Lakes we waved goodbye, and I hoped that our paths would cross again someday.  

Sitting on a ledge perched above Emerald Lake, I ate my dinner and noted with a tinge of sadness that my nights were few in the mountains. In fact, the next night would be the last of this adventure. I reflected that the journey had both gone by quickly and also felt like a small lifetime. I smiled, feeling already this had truly been the greatest experience of my life, and I warmed with the knowledge that it would be the first big adventure of many more solo wild experiences to follow.

Day 13: Emerald Lake to Lake Ivanhoe

Mileage: 5.9 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss:+2251’ -2331’ /Highest Elevation: 5979’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: “I will miss the life I’ve led on this adventure, but I also know that it isn’t over. It is just beginning.”

When I’d gained the top of Aasgard Pass, I told my brother Al not to worry, that I had navigated the crux of the route and all was good. Icicle Ridge forced me to reassess what, exactly, the crux of this journey was. La Bohn Gap made me realize that there was not one crux but several cruces to confront. Approaching the Gap was one of the most intimidating experiences of this entire adventure. La Bohn Gap sits at the top of a steep, shitty, scary-ass gulley; there is no other way to say this. It shook my nerves.

Going up the gulley of doom to La Bohn Gap.

According to the map, there’s a trail up to the Gap, leading to the La Bohn Lakes. A short, trailless section follows, and then, apparently, there’s a trail leading down the other side to the Chain Lakes and on to Williams Lake. If this journey had taught me anything, it’s that trails on maps don’t necessarily guarantee trails on the ground.

Cautiously, I picked my way up the gulley, showing off my uncanny ability to choose the loose boulders to step on. My footing options were loose scree, medium-sized talus, or larger boulders. When possible, I went for the larger boulders, as they seemed to offer the surest footing. Knowing this was ankle-turner territory, I moved slowly, each step careful and deliberate. Pausing to look up toward the Gap, my heart leaped into my throat. “How can this possibly be the way up?” It was so stupidly steep, cliffed out in some places and just generally treacherous in others. With a number of trail runners having completed the La Bohn Traverse, I knew this route would go and that it saw its share of people, but it boggled my mind that they had gone up and over this thing. A friend had done so just a few weeks prior, but I’d intentionally not asked him for any beta, wanting instead to find my own way.

Feeling isolated, knowing the closest person was Justin Birch up at Tank Lakes—and that he wouldn’t hear a cry for help—I decided to send Seth a message and said I’d let him know when I got down the other side. I just wanted someone to know where I was at that precise moment and to have some eyes on the tracker, and I didn’t want to worry my brother. That I did this speaks to how much this gulley sketched me out.

Pausing on a rare flat spot to look back and catch my breath.

Soon, some trees edged the field of boulder and talus. Thinking this would be better footing, I made my way over there. It was still steep, but there were trees to offer a veggie belay, and it didn’t feel as dangerous as the gulley. At times, I caught whiff of a boot track, but mostly it was a bushwhack up. While still sketchy, it felt safer. On the rare occasion, a cairn pointed the way. I kept looking for the La Bohn Lakes and could not imagine how a lake could possibly perch on a slope like this. A hard turn to the northeast, and away from the gulley, brought with it a tremendous sense of relief. The going was still tough, but it became clear that I would skip the worst of the gulley as I made my way over to the La Bohn Lakes.

At the La Bohn Lakes (left) with Bears Breast Mountain in the hazy distance.

Reaching those crystal pools, I paused for lunch and to calm my nerves. The wind blew fiercely, but I was so happy to be sitting down on relatively flat ground, that it hardly bothered me at all. Of course, in true Ellen fashion, I began congratulating myself much too soon. Catching my mistake, I said out loud, “Remember: the mountains have big ears.”

Reaching a notch that would deliver me to the Middlefork Valley, a sea of boulders sat waiting for me. It should not have been such a surprise that the Chain Lakes Trail no longer existed (note that these are a separate set of lakes also named the Chain Lakes.) There was no veggie belay by-pass on this side, so down I went, one boulder at a time. The scrambling was in many ways much more difficult on this side of the Gap, even if it wasn’t quite as steep. The boulders were much less settled, and they rocked under my footsteps. At times, I had to just laugh at how ridiculously difficult and dangerous it all was. At others, I felt a tinge of pride in the fact that I was figuring it out and making my way through on my own. I realized that going solo means that sometimes you have to go even slower, because a bad step can have even bigger consequences.

Dutch Miller Mine

The Chain Lakes offered another brief respite. Here, I found an old mine (the Dutch Miller Mine, I learned later, which held a range of metals and minerals, including “a small bonanza of rich copper ore.”) My guess at the time was pyrite, given the golden rocks that littered the ground. Some previous visitor had lined up a display of minerals and mining tool specimens. It was strange to see this scar on the land in such a remote spot. Apparently, it was the remoteness of this mine that ultimately made it not profitable to prospectors.

Minerals from the Dutch Miller Mine on display. You can see my route down from La Bohn Lakes in the background.

While the wildfire smoke lay thick in the Middlefork Valley, the distinctive spires of Bears Breast Mountain emerged in the distance, quite striking despite the hazy filter. A light boot track led me optimistically onwards, until a cliff stopped me in my tracks. Below, Williams Lake beckoned. This cliff would not go, though, so I retraced my steps and continued down the boulder field. This went on for hours.

The endless boulder field.
Williams Lake below. There’s a cliff between me and it, so back to the boulders I go.
Looking back at my route. I came down the boulder field to the right side of the area with trees, and before that had scrambled down the gulley that wraps around behind there.

At long last, I reached another light boot track in a small forest. While still steep, the veggie belay offered some comfort, and walking on dirt was far less taxing—both mentally and physically—than boulder hopping. Of course, the wild always reminds you not to get too cozy. Enormous piles of bear scat littered the trail, and I sang out loud to let them know I was just passing through and wouldn’t eat their blueberries. I’d expected some relief, and a trail, at Williams Lake, and I’m not sure why I was once again surprised not to find one. There was another mine here, complete with rusting rail car tracks. At this point, I just wanted to find a trail, so I didn’t linger to investigate.

The mine above Williams Lake.

While the slope had leveled out, I now found myself on the north side of the lake in a marshy meadow that also had giant boulders strewn about. I felt a bit at my wits end and longed for a trail—this coming from the woman who once proudly boasted, “Bushwhack is my middle name.” I guess there can be too much of a good thing. Still singing to the bears, I waded through this mucky maze for quite some time before finally reaching the west side of the lake, where I found a decent boot track. By the time I was on the south side of the lake, I was on a bona-fide trail. My tune changed to a new song, dubbed, “the happy song you sing when you find a trail.” I belted it like a maniac.

It had taken me 6 hours to travel these 3.5 cross-country miles. Happy trail song, indeed.

Soon, I intersected the Dutch Miller Gap Trail and was now in familiar territory. I’d come down from Dutch Miller Gap the year before on my Kendall Dutch Red Bonkers Loop. Here, you find the source of the Middlefork of the Snoqualmie River, just a meandering trickle that you can leap over in an effortless hop. I ascended toward Dutch Miller Gap with a new spring in my step, knowing Lake Ivanhoe waited just beyond.

Regardless of the revisions to this route, I always knew it would end with the final night at Lake Ivanhoe. The lake had captured my imagination when planning my Bonkers Loop the year before, and it had not disappointed when I made its acquaintance in real life. I’d arrived at that magic hour, with the soft light of dusk kissing the cliff walls and peaks mirrored in the unreal blue waters. I’d longed to return and spend the night at this beautiful place, and now here I was. Lake Ivanhoe was as stunning as remembered.

Lake Ivanhoe comes into view.

I found a sweet site on a peninsula that juts into the lake and made camp one last time. The blue of these waters was unlike anything else I’d encountered, and I sat on its shore, reflecting on my journey. I wondered what it would be like to reenter the other world, as I’d come to think of it. What would it be like to take a hot shower? Sleep in a bed? Have instant, potable water with the turn of a tap? Eat ice cream? Have a conversation with humans? Hear world news?

The immensity of my journey, both internal and external, pressed itself upon me. It was the accumulation of everything I’d learned in the past three years, put into practice. The route asked me to think on my feet and keep my head when things got sketchy. I learned to trust my gut and believe in myself. The journey revealed to me the pleasures that come with going solo. My confidence grew, yet I came to appreciate the difference going solo makes and understood the need to move with a larger dose of respect for the wild.

Of all the lakes I visited, Lake Ivanhoe has the most beautiful, jade green water.

I knew in this moment that my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation would be a touchstone for me, that it was, and would always be, one of the most important and profound experiences of my entire life. At the same time, it would also take time to process it more completely.

These thoughts swirled around in my head as I lay down to sleep, content and full.

Camp 13, on Lake Ivanhoe.

Day 14: Lake Ivanhoe to Cathedral Trailhead

Mileage: 18.55 mi / Elevation Gain & Loss:+3124’ -4415’ /Highest Elevation: 5607’

Favorite line from today’s journal entry: Alas, I did not write a journal entry on the last day.

Breaking camp, one last time.

After sharing some heartfelt words of gratitude with Lake Ivanhoe, the creatures whose homes I’d traipsed through, and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it was time to head home. My final night wasn’t quite as restful as hoped. The local pikas were squeaking wildly well after dark, which unsettled me. Typically, they cry out when alarmed, so the fact that they kept doing so led me to wonder if there was something lurking around that spooked them. This, in turn, spooked me. The mystery remains unsolved, but I learned that it is possible to grow tired of the adorable peeps of pikas.

Still crossable!

I crossed the dilapidated bridge over the headwaters of the Waptus River and began the long, switchbacked descent to Waptus Lake. A year prior, I’d struggled up this endless zigzag, and it was a nice change to be cruising downhill instead now. Enjoying the assist from gravity, and lost in my thoughts, I was caught off guard by the unmistakable sound of a bear crashing through the thickets. My first bear sighting of the trip! I’d wondered if a bear and I would ever cross paths along this route. There’d been plenty of scat but no visible bears until now, my last day on the trail. This one was small, probably a yearling newly off on its own. In true black bear fashion, the only thing I saw was its cute little butt as it fled down the mountain through the trees. Given that the trail would switchback for the next few miles, I laughed at the potential comedy of errors if the bear continued to run down to the next turn in the trail, and we played this game all the way down the mountain. It must have altered its course, as I never saw it again. I’d always wondered what it would be like to encounter a bear while solo. Now I knew; in this case, it was exciting but also not scary at all.

Eventually, I reached the PCT. After some thought, I decided to alter my route at the last moment. Originally, I’d planned to leave the PCT at the far end of Waptus Lake and take the Trail Creek Trail. The thinking was that Trail Creek was the path less traveled. Having run that trail the previous summer, I knew that it would offer solitude but not the most interesting scenery. The PCT, on the other hand, is quite beautiful along this leg and worth the extra mileage. I also planned to run Trail Creek the following week with Rich on another adventure, so that sealed the deal: I would change course and take the PCT to Cathedral Pass.

Wildfire smoke continued to engulf the valley, and its effects on my breathing started to compound. Nevertheless, the dramatic scenery, and the thrill of soon completing such a significant goal, propelled me forward. Along Waptus Lake, I saw two deer and found a giant wild turkey feather; these seemed like good omens. I took the feather as a souvenir. The blueberries were at their best ripeness, and I gleefully snacked along the way. An electric excitement buzzed through my entire being.

Happy hiker. I took a rare selfie in the hopes that a photo would capture the electricity flowing through me.

The climb up to Cathedral Pass was a bit of a slog. I remembered how much fun it had been to run down it the year prior, but climbing was a different matter. The spire of Cathedral Rock came into view and pulled me forward. I sent a message to Rich letting him know I was about 2 hours out and proceeded to daydream about the ice-cold bubbly water and root beer I knew he’d have waiting. I tried not to allow myself to imagine him also bringing a veggie burger and waffle fries, but after the thought emerges, it’s like saying, “Whatever you do, don’t look at the pink rhinoceros on the other side of the room.” Of course, you look.

On the pretty PCT near Deep Lake.

Reaching Cathedral Pass was a bittersweet victory. There were now only 4.9 mostly downhill miles between me and the end of this journey. The heat and smoke had taken a bit out of me, but, smelling the barn, my legs rallied and rolled down the trail. I’d only seen two hikers on the PCT—the first people I’d seen in two days—so the reroute still provided solitude and felt like the right choice.

Nearing Cathedral Pass, with Cathedral Rock welcoming me.

At Squaw Lake I encountered a small crowd of campers. One man gestured to me and said, “Ask her; she looks like she’d know.” The two hikers he’d said this to asked me about campsites further up the trail, and I encouraged them to check out a nice little spot up by Cathedral Pass. It felt a little odd to interact with people.

Really smelling the barn now, I trotted down the trail and chanted a mantra of “Root beer! Root beer!”, rolling my Rs and rocking into an easy jog. I knew this section of trail quite well and the anticipation of emerging from the forest to find a friendly face waiting built to a crescendo. When the trail bottomed out and turned flat, my feet kicked it up a notch. After crossing the bridge, I let out a coyote yip and leaped when Rich’s call came in reply. The trees cleared, and the trail deposited me right back where I’d started two weeks earlier. I’ll never forget the first sight I saw: Rich grinning big as he raised his arm high in the air to display the takeout bag that surely contained a burger and fries.

Back to the place from where I started, but as a new person. Photo credit: Rich White

Jubilant, I came in for a big hug and shed a few tears of pure joy. Rich handed me a moist towelette to clean up and offered me both a bubbly water and a sarsaparilla (which I love even more than root beer.) The bag contained an Impossible Burger with vegan cheese, waffle fries, and BBQ sauce. He even brought a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I dove into this delectable feast. You perhaps have no idea how delicious this meal was, and my words will fail to convey the depths to which I enjoyed it. It might seem strange, but the lettuce on the burger was the best part. After a couple weeks of dehydrated food, the crisp freshness of the lettuce was out of this world.

One of the greatest meals of my life.

I was happiness personified, and sitting with a great friend and munching this wonderful meal was the perfect conclusion to this epic adventure. Well, let me correct that. The shower that I took a couple hours later was the perfect conclusion. Rich said, “You’d better not come out of that shower in less than a half an hour.” He handed me a scrub brush (much needed), and I marveled at the incredible scent of the bar of soap. Being out in the wild, rinsing off in creeks, and wearing the same clothes for two weeks helps you to appreciate the little things in life. Like the simple, clean scent of soap. I can’t imagine that any shower in the rest of my life will ever compare to that one. Clean and content, I curled up in front of the wood stove like a cat and fell fast asleep.


It is important first to acknowledge that this land known today as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is the unceded territory of several Coast Salish Tribes and the P’Squosa (Wenatchi), who have been its historical stewards since time immemorial and who continue to be so.

You will have noticed that wildfire smoke ensnarls nearly every photo here. It is important to acknowledge that the increased frequency and severity of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere) are a direct result of human-caused climate change. As humans, we will need to confront this global crisis head-on, and immediately, if we don’t want to hike exclusively through burns in the future.

If you’d like to get out into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I highly recommend Nathan and Jeremy Barnes’ excellent guide to this area. They provide all the info you need to get out for a great day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip.

Thanks to everyone who worked to establish the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and who continue efforts to conserve it, particularly the Alpine Lakes Protection Society. The ALPS publishes a great map of the area, as does Green Trails Maps (east and west maps.)

Big thanks to my brother, Al, for being my Safety Captain throughout this journey. He was there each night to make sure I checked in to confirm that I was still alive. Thanks for being there for me when I needed you, bro.

Thanks to everyone who followed along on my inReach MapShare and for your kind words of encouragement. It was comforting to know others were watching from afar and cheering me on. I felt your good energy out there.

Sorry, Terry Parks, that I wouldn’t let you join me at Lake Ivanhoe! I hope our great Pasayten adventure was an acceptable substitute.

A heartfelt thanks goes to Rachel Pargeter for taking care of my kitties while I was away on this adventure (and others that followed.) It was a relief knowing they were in good hands.

Special thanks to my Mom, who knew I wanted the solitude. It must have taken everything in her not to send me messages. (Sorry, Mom; I didn’t realize others would send me notes!)

Professional Development Funds from the University of Washington Tacoma provided funding to purchase essential gear for this adventure, including my sleeping bag and pad, backpack, and tent. A sabbatical also provided much needed time away from teaching and service in order to embark on this adventure and to have time dedicated to writing about it.

My deepest gratitude goes to the best Dudefriend out there, Rich White. He was there with me at Roslyn’s Basecamp in April of 2019, sipping chai and dorking out over maps, when the idea for this route first came to me. He graciously offered his advice, support, and encouragement from day one. He looked over each draft of the route and gave his insights; shared in and fostered my excitement throughout the planning process; talked me through resupply options; dropped me off at the trailhead; kept an eye on wildfires; waited with burger and bubbly stuff in hand; and drove my smelly butt home at the end. I couldn’t ask for a better friend.

Gear List

All of my gear, minus the food in my two caches.

It’s pretty incredible that you can carry on your back everything you need to survive in the wild, plus a whole host of other things that make your time there more comfortable, including a few luxuries that aren’t necessary but are oh so appreciated. I have my students create gear lists in which they label each item as either a necessity or a luxury, and it’s always fascinating to compare what one sees as a necessity and another sees as a luxury. I spent the summer of 2020 honing my pack and feel that I really got it dialed in. There are perhaps a few luxuries on here, or a few things I might not pack again, but overall, I’d say that I kinda nailed the gear list for this trip. What follows is everything I carried on my back through my Alpine Lakes Circumambulation. Rich’s guestimate of the fully-loaded weight was 35-40 pounds.

The entire contents of my pack, ready to make camp at Little Lake Caroline.


  • Nemo Azure 20 sleeping bag (I absolutely love this bag!)
  • Therma Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad (this pad is awesome!)
  • Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 20-litre compression dry sack (carried my sleeping bag and doubled as a food bag at night. Probably not the best thing to hang food in, but it kept my pack lighter.)


  • Big Agnes Tiger Wall Platinum 2 tent (with footprint and fly, plus stakes and poles. I love this tent so much!)


  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (55 liters) (my go-to pack.)
  • Hyperlite Versa (don’t call it a fanny pack! Clipped into the belt of my pack. Perfect for stashing snacks, phone, GPS)


All clothes not being worn were packed into a Hyperlite stuff sack pillow which, you guessed it, doubled as my pillow.

  • 1 Patagonia Solar Hoodie (my new favorite summer clothing item; treated with Permethrin to repel bugs; wore it every day)
  • 1 Patagonia tank top (pretty much wore it the entire time)
  • 1 Patagonia short sleeve running shirt (barely wore it; probably wouldn’t bring again)
  • 1 Oiselle running shorts (mostly wore these)
  • 1 Arcteryx softshell pants (wore these a bit, sometimes over my shorts so I could take them off once I warmed up. Treated with Permethrin.)
  • 2 pairs Brooks Ghost midweight running socks (never again! These socks are great for road running; terrible for trekking. Learned this on Day 1 and regretted this gear choice more than any other. Almost brought only one pair; glad I at least could swap between two.)
  • 1 pair Darn Tough synthetic hiking socks (for wearing around camp; should have switched to them while hiking.)
  • 1 pair Patagonia underwear (yep, just one pair, laundered in streams)
  • 1 Patagonia sports bra (barely wore since the tank top had one built in)
  • 1 Patagonia midweight base layer bottoms (barely wore but good to have)
  • 1 Patagonia midweight base layer top (barely wore but good to have)
  • 1 Buff (the most versatile piece of clothing, now serves as a face covering as well)
  • 1 Patagonia Houdini jacket (good for cool mornings)
  • 1 Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody (wore at camp each evening)
  • 1 Patagonia Torrentshell rain jacket (mostly good for added layer and against wind)
  • 1 Marmot Precips rain pants (good for starting with a warmer layer in the morning that was easy to peel off and have shorts underneath once I warmed up)
  • 1 pair Lululemon lightweight gloves (barely wore)
  • 1 pair OR midweight gloves (overkill)
  • 1 Patagonia winter hat (barely wore)
  • 1 ball cap (my Cascade Crest 100 hat, of course. Wore it pretty much always.)
  • 1 pair Goodr sunglasses
  • Timex watch


  • Altra Lone Peaks (out of the box and onto the trail. They were solidly worn in by the end. My go-to trail shoe.)
  • Crocs (perfect for wearing around camp even if they look ridiculous. Thanks to Jen for gifting me a pair in my favorite color, Sea Foam Green.)

Essentials Bag

Everything fit in a medium Hyperlite stuff sack.

  • Compass
  • Gerber mini Paraframe serrated knife
  • 2 Lighters
  • Waterproof matches
  • Headlamp (Black Diamond)
  • Extra batteries (6 AAA for headlamp and 4 AA for GPS)
  • Gorilla tape
  • Gear Aid tape
  • SOL emergency bivvy sack (unnecessary since I had a sleeping bag)
  • Phone cord
  • USB cord
  • Battery bank
  • Small first-aid kit (hadn’t broken the seal until this trip, after 5 years)
  • 1 pair Latex gloves
  • Pills (Tylenol, Imodium, Benadryl)
  • Katadyn water filter (just the actual filter, not the bag. I’m done with these things; they clog too quickly.)
  • Aqua Tabs water purification tablets (one sleeve as backup water treatment)  

Personal stuff

A few luxuries. All packed in a large Hyperlite stuff sack; could have used a medium size sack.

  • Book (a collection of essays titled Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild, edited by Susan Fox Rogers. I rationed the essays, one per night, with a few nights that allowed me a real treat of reading two. The perfect book for this journey.)
  • Glasses and hard case
  • Toiletries (quart-size ziplock containing small bottle of contact solution, contacts case, travel-size toothpaste, folding travel toothbrush. Regretted not bringing lotion.)
  • Maps (the route required two maps. I picked up the second map from Food Cache 1.)
  • Rite in the Rain small field journal
  • Fisher space pen
  • Recorder (as in, the obnoxious instrument you played in kindergarten. Used once.)
  • 12 wilderness wipes (to supplement creek and lake baths)  

Water and Cooking Supplies

Water mostly came from streams or lake outlets. I had two one-gallon jugs of water stashed with each food cache because both were located on dry ridges.

  • Jetboil
  • 3.5 ounce can of fuel (did lots of research to reassure myself that one can would last two weeks)
  • Sea to Summit titanium spork
  • 32-ounce Nalgene bottle
  • 50-ounce water reservoir
  • 2-liter Hydrapak collapsible bottle (compatible with the Katadyn filter)
  • Rope for hanging food bag at night (~50’)
  • Gallon-size ziplock for trash (3 total; left old, picked up new at both food caches)


Carried 4-6 days’ worth of food at a time, contained in a Hyperlite pod. I had two food caches stashed en route.

  • Breakfast was either a Pop Tart, Clif Bar, or Pro Bar Meal.
  • Snacks included a rotation of trail truffles, Swedish fish, dried mango and apricots, trail mix, dark chocolate (Endangered Species and Theos), vegan cheese crackers, roasted & salted almonds, Cocomel caramels, Hippeas vegan white cheddar puffs, nut butter filled Clif bars, fig bars, Oreos (regular and mini).
  • Lunch was a Justin’s maple almond butter packet and a vegan Jerky (Thai peanut or mesquite lime). Attempted to make ramen for lunch once; spilled all over the ground when cooked.
  • Dinner was a dehydrated dinner (a rotation of Backpacker’s Pantry’s Pad Thai, Three Amigos, and Kathmandu Curry, and Outdoor Herbivore’s vegan cheddar mac, pesto noodles, African peanut noodles. My favorite? Cheddar mac!)

#2 Bag

Everything contained in a small Hyperlite stuff sack

  • The Deuce ultralight backcountry trowel
  • 4-ounce hand sanitizer
  • Quart-size ziplock with 4-6 days’ worth of TP (12 squares per day. Oof. Won’t go so minimalist in this department in the future!)
  • 2 quart-size ziplocks, one inside the other, for carrying out used TP (leave no trace! I packed out all of my TP, even if there was a privy.)

Miscellaneous Other Stuff

  • Black Diamond Carbon Z trekking poles (best poles out there)
  • Anker 21W Solar Panel (worked great!)
  • Garmin Etrex 32x GPS (still learning how to use it but fun to add to my navigation quiver)
  • Garmin inReach mini (don’t leave home without it)
  • iPhone 8 (mostly for taking photos but also used for Gaia GPS app)
  • Small camp towel (not sure I really needed it)
  • Bear spray (more to protect against bad humans, not bears)
  • 4-ounce hand sanitizer
  • Sun Bum lip balm and travel-size sunscreen

Food Caches

It was exciting to set up the two food caches, something I’d never done before. I set out on September 1st, heading north toward Highway 2, where I turned east. A very long and winding forest road led to the Fisher Lake trailhead. There was no one around, and I made my way down the Deception Creek trail until I found a tree stump that would make for a good landmark. I jumped off the trail and hid the bear canister and water jug under some fallen pine boughs, taking photos and a brief video as reminders of the location. Looking at the photos now, the trees look completely indistinguishable. It was exciting to think that, two weeks later, I would hike past here and retrieve my second food cache.

View en route to dropping off Food Cache 2. Not a bad way to spend a day!

From there, I continued east over to Leavenworth, where I stashed Food Cache One near the Icicle Ridge Trailhead. There were quite a few people around, and I was pretty nervous someone would see me. I went way off trail and disguised the cache with dead leaves and branches. This one was a bit nerve wracking, and instead of excitement, I felt a bit anxious that it wouldn’t be there waiting for me in a week.

Food Cache 2. The dead branch over the buried cache was my fool-proof landmark.
The dead tree stump along the side of the trail was a better landmark for Food Cache 2. The cache was a ways off the trail from here.

I drove home on I-90, completing an 8-hour driving loop. Without setting up the caches in this way, I would have to carry 2 weeks’ worth of food or have someone meet me along the way. I wanted to go self-supported, so this was the only viable option, as carrying all of that food at once was not appealing.  

Food Cache 1 (bear barrel and gallon of water already buried.) At the time, that dead wood over the rock seemed distinctive.
Trail above Food Cache 1. That big rock and two trees are really good landmarks, right? No. The cache was quite a ways off the trail from here.