PNT Day 7: Thunder

Today’s miles: 8.3

Total miles: 61.3

Morning comes with a nice cool breeze and though I want to sleep longer, I get up because I don’t want to miss the hours before the sun comes fully over the mountain to do its daily baking. I’m out of camp around 6:40, noting that the large group is still asleep, and that they finally hung their food bags closer to their own camp (and possibly not high enough).

Today is a very short, easy day, a consequence of my revised permit. I hike alone in the soft mossy forest on gentle rolling trail and then take a long series of steeper dirt switchbacks down. The sound of Thunder Creek is never far. I pass one campsite, then another, and stop in for second breakfast, sitting in the food prep area and waving good morning to a sleepy-eyed camper who stayed here last night. This area is near one of the park’s major car campgrounds, just off Highway 20, and is popular for overnight and weekend trips.

White slug as long as my hand, leaving a big trail of sparkly slime.

Off again for the second half of my hiking day, meandering through the forest and letting my mind wander. I turn at a noise behind me. A hiker strides up, asks where I’m heading. We’re both eventually headed toward Hannegan Pass, but then he says, “Have you heard about the fire north of Copper Ridge?” My heart sinks. His friend joins us as he shows me on the map where a fire started just a few days ago. I’d planned to take the Copper Ridge alternate on my way out of the park, hiking the higher section of the loop because it’s one of the most beautiful places in North Cascades (so I’ve read), and because I deeply, wholeheartedly love a ridge walk. But it sounds like that’s no longer a safe route. We commiserate, and then part ways as they bound off ahead of me.

I contemplate this news over my next mile. If it’s safe, I can just take the official PNT route through the lower section of the loop — further from the fire and with less climbing — and be grateful I can keep hiking. I should have wifi access at Ross Lake Resort tomorrow when I pick up my resupply box, so I can check trail alerts and fire updates then. I need more information before I can make a real decision.

Clear trail today.

The trail through here is very well cared for and not strenuous, so I’m hiking quickly, though I don’t need to today. I see a few day hikers and then catch up to the two guys from earlier. “Hey, Apple Juice,” the one says, “man, now I really want some apple juice.” “Yeah, sorry, I get that a lot,” I reply. I pass another group of day hikers and then a large group of middle-schoolers out on an overnight trip. I’m only a couple miles from the car campground and the road that I’ll either walk or hitch to the Ross Lake trailhead.

Again I’m confused about my campsite, because I only see a sign for “Group Camp” which is not my campsite’s name, and in fact not any campsite’s name. But it must be the place. It feels like Lothlorian back here, little tentsites nestled beneath tall trees and soft moss. I pick one that’s likely to be shaded most of the day. It’s not even 11am. I walk toward the river for water and encounter a small mink, right on the trail. It’s watching me, but makes no move to leave, even when I step toward it once or twice. I wonder if it’s injured. Finally it turns and walks down the trail, and I follow it at some distance until it moves into the underbrush. It looks a little awkward, but I’m not sure it’s actually injured. Very strange for it to seem completely unafraid of me, though. (Also: it is very, very cute.) I gather water under the tall bridge and eat lunch in the food prep area, shooing away a one-eyed chipmunk that’s getting too close.

Mink! Just hanging out on trail.

Then I rest. I prop my feet up in my tent and read, doze, look at my maps, finally patch the hole in the knee of my pants. For several minutes in the afternoon a thunderingly loud aircraft flies back and forth overhead. It’s not a helicopter — it sounds more like the military drills I always heard in San Diego.

Around 6:15 I hear very distant thunder rolling. I wonder if it will rain tonight. I listen to the thunder for a long time, trying to decide if I should preemptively close my tent doors. I get out to check the stakes and put rocks over a few of them, and close one door while I’m up. By the time I’m back inside and have escorted a small spider out, the thunder has slowed. Down here under the trees I can’t tell if the dim evening light is regular, filtered through many layers of leaves, or the sign of impending rain. I read my novel and listen. Occasional thunder. A trilling bird. A woodpecker at work. Thunder a bit louder, closer. Long rolling rumbles, not sharp claps. No lightning flashes. Soon the rumbles are precisely overhead, so I know whatever this is, it’s moving. Maybe it will pass over me before the rain dumps. More birds chirp, and isn’t that a good sign? Wouldn’t they be silent if a big storm was imminent? I feel safe tucked in the forest, but it’s not fun to be in a storm, and rainy nights always find me lying awake worrying about leaks. Also, selfishly, I particularly don’t want it to rain tomorrow, when I was looking forward to an afternoon at Ross Lake and the chance to text Cyn on the resort’s wifi signal. It will be my only chance for another week.

It begins to rain, just a wee bit at first, then a smidge more. But sometimes I’m not sure of it’s really rain or just the wind shaking loose hundreds of tiny dry pine needles from way above. I close the other door anyway. Thunder continues, very loud now. Around 8:30 I see bright flashes of lightning, and I’m grateful to be camped so low and protected, but I’m still anxious. I feel very alone. The lightning at least gives me an assessment tool: I count seconds and listen, the storm roughly half a mile away, but gradually farther and farther, until it is around three miles away and the thunder’s volume has lessened, largely replaced by the wind rushing through the treetops. I feel tentatively relieved, and try to sleep.

Lothlorian for the night

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