September 6 & 7, 2017
Day 82 and 83, N Fork Sauk River to Sitkum Creek to N Fork Sauk River, miles; 2500-2510
Miles ridden; 36, minimum elevation; 2028, maximum elevation; 6475, total ascent; 9379, total descent; 9290
The goal for these two days was to get to the Suiattle River trailhead 53 miles away. I had been told repeatedly for the past couple of years and the past couple of weeks in particular that a horse could not get through this section due to all the windfalls. On the other hand we have been told the same about several sections of trail, all of which we were able to get past, except the Chimney Creek trees. Gillian Larsen had reported getting through in 2016, but not without tremendous difficulty. After 2000 miles I was going to go have a look at the very least. Knowing that a pack horse in thorny demanding territory just makes things worse, I loaded Mercedes up with the bare minimum it would take to camp out overnight and up the trail we went.
Shortly after regaining the PCT the trail gets a bit daunting before it crosses Red Pass. When one does gain the pass, they are rewarded with another “oh wow” moment. Looking to the west, over the Sauk River, the colors are all blues and dark greens, to the east, across the Whitechuck River Basin, all brown, reds and light greens. After the trail crosses the basin it drops back down into the forest where after 10 miles I began to encounter the wind falls.
For the first mile I was able to navigate around all the obstacles until I came to what I believed was the log that had been described to me that had no go around. I tried to find a way around; the ground was so steep I needed to hang on to bushes and small trees to stay on my feet. It got to the point Mercedes couldn’t stay on her feet either, she slid 75 feet down the steep mountain side, fortunately stopping when she hit the trail. Rather than risk her further, I decided to cut my way past. I cut my way through two smaller cedar logs and made three more cuts on the root wad over a couple hours to make a path wide enough to get Mercedes through.
We went around the corner to find an even larger tree and root ball followed by half a dozen or more huge, three to six feet in diameter, windfalls over the next half mile. Additional huge windfalls off trail blocked passage uphill to the rim rock and downhill to a sheer cliff. There was even a bog high on the side hill, Mercedes nearly to her belly then almost took another fall extricating herself, guarding one possible bypass route. Either it was drier when Gillian went through or there were more windfalls since she did, probably both. At any rate without more equipment I didn’t see any way to get Mercedes through. At that point I threw in the towel sending Janis a message to meet us back at the Sauk River in the morning.
Mercedes and I spent an uneventful night, she getting some grazing done, both in the evening and morning. Then we got to ride up through the Whitechuck basin in the early morning light. The Whitechuck River is on the opposite side of the basin from the PCT and is visible only in a couple places though it can be clearly heard, like a jetliner going overhead. Some awful pretty riding.
We are trailering around the windfalls to the Suiattle River Trailhead, where I will return to the trail in the morning.
September 9, 2017
Day 84, Suiattle River to Miners Creek, miles 2141-2145
Miles ridden; 19.5, Trail time; 8:13, speed; 2.4, maximum elevation; 2905 minimum elevation; 1611, total ascent; 3324, total descent; 2125
There was another stock rig at the Suiattle River Trailhead when we got there. There were reports from hikers coming out that there had been a pack llamas meet pack mules incident somewhere up the trail and there had been a horse or mule fatality, with some animals stuck on the side of a cliff, the story wasn’t clear. We had passed Search and Rescue rigs on the way in, and during the night the remaining rig left the trailhead so we never actually talked to anyone who knew what was going on. Last we heard someone had gone to town to try and locate slings to get the trapped horses out. I wondered where the llamas had gone, no one seemed to know. Mercedes has seen llamas before, she was curious and alert but not overly nervous, but not knowing how BG would react I wasn’t anxious to meet them on a narrow trail.
After trailering around the bad section of trail I was more than ready to continue to Canada. Some days though are fated to be a trial. The plan called for me to ride Mercedes, my favorite riding horse, and pack BG, the shorter, easier to load horse. We had practiced, not much, but way more than any other pack/riding horse combo I’ve used. Our first practice, at home, was a bit of a fiasco but subsequent trials went well enough. Steven’s Pass was a wreck, but I’m blaming that on a rolling rock.
The Suiattle River trailhead debacle I am totally blaming on BG being stupid. She was good for the loading and tying, she was good for the leading from the hitching rails, but when I got on Mercedes and tried to start down the trail she got all excited, wanting to do circles around us. So I got off and practiced walking around the parking lot, keeping her back, she seemed to get the idea, got back on Mercedes, practiced some more in the parking lot, to the amusement of a couple of hikers, all seemed good, took off down the trail and for the first two miles where the trail was wide she was perfect. As soon as the trail narrowed on a rocky ledge she became the witch from hell, trying to pass, knocking the boxes against the rock and trees, nearly knocking Mercedes and I off the trail into the abyss. I had to completely repack her three times, readjust the load several times, up and down the trail we went, crashing and banging, cussing and sweating, working herself into a frazzle. Three times we stopped until pulse rates returned to normal, starting out slow and easy and then, BOOM, BAM, CRASH, she would start up again, squealing and trying to buck the packs off, worst pack horse ever. In four hours we had made less than three miles, knowing there was dangerous trail ahead I once again turned around. By now Mercedes was all freaked out and worked into a lather too, I couldn’t safely lead BG from Mercedes so I ended up leading her, on foot, with Mercedes bringing up the rear, even that was a challenge.
I finally got back to the trailhead and was exchanging texts with Janis about our next step. As it would take some hours before Janis could possibly return I thought I had nothing to lose by switching roles, pack Mercedes, ride BG. A simple, yet elegant solution, in their new roles each horse performed perfectly. We let Janis know there was no need to return and back on the trail we went. Due to the lateness of the hour we didn’t make many miles, but we did make at least some, enough so that we would easily make Rainy Pass in the next two days.
I passed some Forest Service personnel who had hiked in to evaluate the mule/llama wreck. They wouldn’t share much information other than the llamas had left the trail on the high side to let the mules pass. The mules then panicked and fell off the trail taking the riding horses with them. Only a couple horses survived, some mules died outright and some had injuries so severe they were put down. A horrendous accident, I can only express my sympathy to the unknown packers. It could so easily happen to any of us. No seems to know where the llamas went.
The trail to the PCT followed the Suiattle River upstream. A steady, gradual grad for six mile, one hardly notices that you have gained 1000 feet. Once on the PCT there it is only a slightly steeper, gaining 1000 feet in three miles to the mouth of Miner’s Creek where we made camp. The hillsides are covered in big timber; since the windfalls had recently been cleared I had more appreciation of the trees than I did a couple days ago. The horses were happy to get some feed after the long day. The deep forest precludes any grazing; hopefully we can find something better tomorrow.
September 10, 2017
Day 85, Miners Creek to Stehekin, miles; 2545-2572
Miles ridden; 25.8, trail time; 9:46, average speed; 2.6, minimum elevation; 1522, maximum elevation; 5941, total ascent; 4123, total descent; 5404
As the trail dropped down to river level the evening before I could see a haze in the distance, by morning the smell made the cause of the haze obvious even before I could see how much thicker the smoke was. The trail was mostly dirt as it wandered in and out of the forest. I know from past experience the mountain-scapes were spectacular too. Today, though I could sometimes see their outlines, the peaks and ridges remained mostly hidden. What joys we could find would have to be found much closer to our position on the trail.
Yesterday’s easy traveling trail gave way to a more precipitous climb up Miners Creed and on to Suiattle Pass, almost 3,200 feet in seven and one half miles. From the top of the pass it is, almost, all downhill to Stehekin, 4,500 feet in 20 miles. While the upper elevations of Suiattle Pass and Sitting Bull Mountain may offer some remarkable vistas on a clear day, it was the South Fork of Agnes Creek and Agnes Creek that were the highlights of today’s ride. The horses appreciate all the grazing and the many creek crossings were value added to the scenery. The ford of the South Fork near Glacier Creek is an especially pretty spot, a wide shallow creek with a gravel bed and a large meadow, it was easy to imagine staying for a few days.
Swamp Creek has a bridge that is large enough for stock, but must be structurally compromised as it is posted closed to stock with a sign indicating a stock crossing downstream. There may have been a trail down to the water at one time, it must have been washed out. Now there is a ten feet or more vertical drop to fast moving water of unknown depth. Upstream from the bridge there was a better place to enter the stream, only a three foot drop to shallow water, but no place to exit on the far side, although I thought I could ride under the bridge and get out at the original ford.
A good plan other than as we got closer to the bridge the stream got shallower, the clearance between my saddle and the supporting logs got closer. Hunkering down as much as possible over BG’s neck we started under only for me to get stuck, jammed between the pommel and bridge. Mercedes seeing daylight under the bridge crowded BG until the pack boxes shoved BG’s rump forward jamming me even tighter. Unable to breathe, suffocation becoming a real risk, I managed to slap the end of the lead rope at Mercedes’ nose enough that she took a step sideways, more to get a bite of the creek side willows than as a response to my feeble efforts and I was able to steer BG out from under the bridge. The ten foot bank didn’t look so intimidating after all.
As the hour neared four, the horse were stopped in a small meadow taking a grass break, when a hiker hustled by followed closely by another who stopped and exchanged pleasantries for a minute before explaining that he was trying to get to the High Bridge Ranger Station in time to catch the last bus into Stehekin for the evening, and felt pressured to keep moving. Soon we were passed by a third hiker who also had that little bit panicky I’m going to miss the bus look on his face. Shortly after the girls and I were on our way too, as we caught up to the hikers they would turn and see us then take off running to stay in front so they wouldn’t lose any time waiting for me to pass. Not too long after that I passed another solo hiker, “what time is it?” she asked. “About a quarter to five.” “That is an hour and a half to do 2 miles, what are they all worried about?” “I dunno” I replied, but thinking to myself the thought of fresh food can do funny things to a man after 2500 miles.
There were a bus full of people waiting there when I rode up to the High Bridge Ranger Station, actually a little residence cottage, small barn and packer’s corral. Eyeing the corral I asked the Ranger if there was any stock water available. “No” he says “and there is no camping here, you know about the camping restrictions in the Park?” Taking a wild guess I replied “only in designated campgrounds.” “That’s right, and you have to have a permit for the campsite you want to use, the next one is five miles north.” He stated rather officiously. Looking at the house I asked “No water here at all?” Pointing to a water cooler type jug he said “You can use that, but you will have to refill it from the river.” A tough pack up a steep, rocky trail from the river fifty feet below that I declined.
Not wanting to make waves at this point in the day, and knowing the park boundary was only a quarter mile south on the trail, though water access there was poor, I took a shot at riding down the road towards Stehekin where I found a nice large flat meadow with plenty of grazing for hungry horses and a not too bad though rocky trail to the water. It was obvious that others with horses had camped here before, why the Ranger couldn’t just have told me that instead of getting so puffed up about the rules, I don’t know.