PNT Day 11: The Cold Rain

Today’s miles: 14.1

Total miles: 115.9

In the night, some smallish woodland creature walks near my tent, waking me up. I turn over noisily in hopes of startling it off, and then fall back to sleep. Later, I half-wake to a tentative gnawing sound that is very much like the sound of my former cat Pim chewing on something she knew she should not be chewing. Because of this, and because I am not fully awake, I impulsively clap very loudly, which is what I would do when Pim was being naughty. This wakes me fully and I’m suddenly not at all sure if clapping was a good idea, but whatever was chewing on my tent stake (I think?) stops. I pull my fleece shirt over my ears so I can’t hear any other investigatory noises.

It is raining in the morning and I don’t want to get up. Not a ton of rain, but still. I drag myself out of the tent and have everything packed by 7:30. Late! I’m glad I brought this double-wall tent because I can keep the inner part dry in my pack and just stuff the wet fly in my mesh pocket.

Almost immediately I am climbing. My hamstrings protest after yesterday’s steep climb, but I keep at it. At least I feel sure the trail will be clear, since this is part of a very popular loop in the park (the upper portion of the loop is closed because of that new fire). Just as I’m thinking this, a trail runner comes around the corner and scares the crap out of me.

Brief break in the trees

Up, up in the rain. It’s still not coming down too hard, but it’s not just misting. I can feel that it’s cold, but I’m working hard enough that I’m warm inside of my wet clothes and rain jacket. I’m also in the trees. After about two miles, the woods open briefly and I reach the park boundary. Farewell, North Cascades National Park; hello, Mt Baker Wilderness. I climb another mile, to Hannegan Pass, which I imagine has spectacular views of mountains and glaciers when everything’s not socked in like today. At the top I quickly eat a snack, but I’m getting cold. I start my descent.

Looking back while climbing Hannegan Pass

It feels like the longest descent in the world. I pass several day hikers and trail runners on their way up, and I just keep going down down down. In the rain. And the cold. Seemingly endless wet downhill until I see a small trail crew who tell me I’m almost there, and at last reach the trailhead. To my immense relief, there is a three-sided shelter with an old picnic table. One piece of graffiti on the inside says DAN IS GAY, and I think, “Same, Dan — good on ya.” I sit under its cover and eat lunch, noting that just as I arrived, the rain stopped and sun came out. But it’s short-lived, and by the time I set off again, a soft rain has returned.

Refuge at the trailhead

Now I walk a little over five miles on a forest service road, in varying amounts of rain. At least it’s dirt and crushed gravel, not pavement. In the final mile, the rain really steps things up. I reach a tiny day-use park with a pit toilet, and check my maps. Now I have to deal with Highway 542, which every trail note and guide recommends hitching. It is extremely twisty with almost no shoulder, and cars are zipping along it in the rain and fog. Great.

I brave a few tenths of a mile, enough to walk to a car campground that my guidebook says has walk-up sites. I guess that’s technically true, except you have to choose a site that’s not reserved, and they all are. I retreat to a picnic table under the gazebo, where a large family is playing a spirited game of Rummikub. I am soaked to the skin, freezing, and without any place to camp. If I was on trail I would simply put up my tent and get into my warm dry things. If it wasn’t raining buckets I would try to hitch. But I’m in this limbo space. I sit, shivering, and quietly despair as the rain pours.

Finally, becoming seriously afraid of how cold I am, I awkwardly turn to the family and ask if any of them were planning to drive up to Mt Baker this afternoon. They weren’t, but one of the dads offers me a ride anyway. (We affirm we’re both vaccinated and agree to wear masks in the car.) I’m almost overcome with relief. “We’ve all read Wild,” he jokes, and all the adults agree that no one should try to roadwalk Hwy 542. In the car, he tells me all the places he and his kids have backpacked in Washington, and I try to keep up my end of the conversation but I’m starting to shake and my teeth are chattering behind my mask. Not good.

At the end of the road, we find a sign for the Heather Meadows Cafe, and I know two things: first, that my trail picks up just at the end of this parking lot, and second, that I am going to drink hot beverages in that cafe. I thank my benefactor many times (Josh if you ever read this, your kindness was a lifesaver) and rush inside out of the rain. “Could I please have something hot?” I ask the cafe clerk. I buy lentil veggie soup (deeply delicious) and a big cup of hot cider. There is cell service here and I text Cyn with shaking hands. Over the next hour, I gradually warm up and feel buoyed by the ability to connect with Cyn (and a second cup of cider). The rain tapers off. I reinstall my PNT app and it works again.

I’m reluctant to leave, but the cafe is closing. I set off in the heavy fog, on the Wild Goose Trail (seriously) and then on the Lake Ann Trail. When the latter begins to wind down around a mountain, I know there will be no camping options for a while. I backtrack and search around, finally just settling on a crappy little stealth site that’s not even very stealth. But it’s raining steadily again now, and I’m scared of hypothermia — I know I had a close call earlier today. I reason that it’s after 7pm and raining, and no one will be around.

On the Wild Goose Trail
Excellent trail marker for Wild Goose Trail

I manage to mostly keep my dry things dry as I set up, and tuck my quilt around me as the rain dumps down. It takes me a very long time to fall asleep.

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