PCT 17: The Northern Terminus

After spending one night in Stehekin I awoke knowing I would be back with Bunyon and my parents by the end of the day! I just had to take the bus from Stehekin back to the trail and then hike the 20 miles to Rainy Pass where they would be waiting for me in my parents Westfalia pop top VW.

While on the bus we stopped again at the Stehekin Bakery where I stocked up on several more giant cinnamon rolls and grabbed an extra one to share. The hike was relaxing and beautiful while following a valley up before diverting to a side canyon and the pass. I passed several beautiful lakes and the weather held. As I approached the pass I noticed several signs that were warning of a snow storm predicted to hit that night. I looked at the sky and watched as the snowflakes began to fall and the thickening clouds blotted out any semblance of the sun.

A beautiful view of Howard Lake while leaving Stehekin and Lake Chelan.

As I approached the road I saw the van parked right by the trail and I walked over to give out hugs and cinnamon rolls. My parents had some awesome food to share and they had met several other hikers who were looking for a hitch ride into town to avoid the snowstorm that was going to hit in a matter of hours. My parents old dog, Sage, was also there and she excitedly hobbled up to me as I arrived.

Jumping in the van we drove down from the top of the pass as my parents told me of their road trip experience as they headed up towards Methow Valley and the northern most paved road access to the PCT. Looking out the window we could see the snow beginning to stick to the ground as the temperature dropped. It was looking to be a nasty storm for so early in the season.

We dropped off all of the hikers and wandered into town to the local cider house to celebrate being back together! The storm was supposed to last for a full 24 hours so we decided to camp in Methow valley on National Forest land and wait it out while Bird caught up.

My parents had already scoped out some great camping spots and we enjoyed some New Mexican food prepared by my mom in the cold.

A full day later Bird arrived and we excitedly caught up as she told us about her time in the last section and her visit with Ultra to Seattle. We even had a chance to play Settlers of Catan at the Cider house where we were becoming regulars after only having been in Methow for two days.

Bird Practicing her wood choping.

When the time came for us to return to the trail the mountains were now thoroughly covered in snow. Bunyon had gotten off trail at Harts Pass and didn’t feel the need to redo the 30 miles between Rainy Pass and Harts Pass so Bird and I borrowed a few extra layers from my parents to be extra comfortable and set out with a big group of other hikers who had been waiting out the storm.

My parents dropping us off at the trail head for Rainy Pass

The weather was cloudy but there was no more precipitation so the hiking was beautiful with the freshly fallen snow. The views were stunning and we both loved moving through the landscape with the trail well marked by the footsteps of hikers who had gone ahead in the last 12 hours. Unlike the Sierras, with many feet of snow to post hole through and the mashed potato tracks that were hard to follow at most times, the snow now was easy and enjoyable.

We worked our way along and eventually set up camp at a low point so that I could set up on dry ground since I didn’t have a proper pad to sleep comfortably on snow.

Many other hikers were in the area and there was an air of anticipation with everyone knowing that the end was so close. Many hikers had jumped ahead to Rainy pass from further south on trail to avoid the bad snow in the more remote sections between Stevens Pass and Rainy Pass. With the end so close we were all giving it our best effort to finish the trail before another big storm came through making it much more difficult.

The next day after our dry camp we climbed back up to the tops of ridge lines and walked north towards Harts pass and my parents. They had driven up in their van despite the nasty conditions and were providing trail magic in the form of hot soup to the other PCT hikers coming through the area.

Once we arrived Bunyon was there and ready to go so we gave my parents a big hug and set out to finish up the PCT. There were 30 more miles till the Canadian Border and we were planning on tagging the border then working our way 30 miles back to Harts Pass where my parents would pick us up to make our way home.

Bird, who already had a walking entry permit for Canada, decided at the last minute it would be more meaningful to come back with us and enjoy the last few days on trail with old friends instead of rushing with public transit through Canada to get back to Seattle for a flight.

Bunyon took off to get a head start since she hadn’t hiked in over a week so Bird and I pushed to catch up and make our way towards the culmination of the last 6 months.

Once more there were many other excited hikers around and the trail was very full since so many people had come back on trail at the same time with the snowstorm creating a bottle neck. Once more we were shooting for a low point to set up camp and avoid setting up on snow and we were joined by nearly two dozen other hikers all with the same idea.

We set up in a tight area with the sound of many other people in tents excitedly talking about the next day and the end of the trail. We had one more obstacle in the form of Rocky Pass to get up and over for the following day and we had been warned by a ranger that this would be the most likely place to face difficulties with the new snow.

We were some of the last people out of camp since we weren’t trying to push all the way to Manning Park in Canada, 10 miles north of the northern terminus.

Rocky pass was beautiful and the trail didn’t prove to be too bad for us. Having no traction devices we took our time and set our sights on making camp at a lake 6 miles before the northern terminus so we could walk the last 6 miles with minimal packs and then have a camp already set up when we made our way back.

The views of the north Cascades surrounding us were stunning and we soaked in every moment knowing that in a few days we would be sleeping in a bed indefinitely only having memories of the woods and mountains as our home. To be in a bed in a room felt almost like an alien concept after the utter comfort we had with our tents at this point. No more unzipping the tent to the views of plants and tress around us, no more fresh mountain air during every waking moment. So many thoughts ran through our heads, the only sure thing was the recollection of all the miles that had already passed. The many amazing people we had met along the way and of all the other hiking friends we had made who had already finished the trail, or were planning on finishing in the future.

The approach to the terminus was just a walk through the woods and far less scenic than the ridge line walking only a few miles south. As we got closer we could hear the distant woops of other excited hikers ahead of us and we arrived to the terminus to see a big group of other hikers all soaking in their moment at the northern Terminus.

There were many familiar faces of people we had met over the last few months and we were all celebrating in our own way. Almost all of us had brought some kind of alcoholic beverage to enjoy on the border and we sat with a million thoughts flowing through our heads.

Some people were laughing, others crying. Some sat just looking at the ground with their thoughts a few thousand miles away. Some asked, “what now?” and others said “finally!”.

Bunyon, Bird and I still had 30 more miles to hike so it didn’t feel like the true finish yet but we knew that we would think of this moment often in the months and years to come. I reminisced about all of the days of the past six months summarized by standing at an unassuming wooden structure in a clear cut section of woods delineating a political boundary. The journey was very much the adventure, the destination was never really the point. I also knew that 194 miles were still waiting for me in the Sierras for a future time with far less snow and a relaxing pace to put the final seal on my PCT hike. Somehow leaving something for the future gave me excitement and staved off the melancholy.

After our turn taking pictures with the terminus we parted ways with the other hikers and started making our way back south towards our little lake camp. The darkness stretched out and we found ourselves hiking after the sun had set. We met other hikers excitedly pushing to camp near the terminus or just before it so they could have their own moments the next day. When we finally arrived in camp we were all rather quiet and tired and made dinner to go to bed having 24 miles to cover the next day back to Harts pass and my parents.

Breaking camp for the last time on the PCT went by methodically from the months of habit we had set for ourselves. We enjoyed seeing the beautiful views from a different perspective of hiking south and ran into many other hikers congratulating us since we had already made it to the end. We even stumbled into several hikers who we had been good friends with months ago in an earlier time on trail. Bird ran into her old trail family friend Scout, who I had last seen nursing some serious sunburns in the Bishop Hostel of central California. We also ran into Bernard and Dirt who we hadn’t seen since the Sierras. It was amazing to see some other March starters finishing around the same time as us! We March starters are a strange bunch and our own micro culture on the trail. Being forced to go slow in the beginning because of Sierra snow pack, we all got a taste for a different and slower way to do the PCT and this is something many of us took to the end.

Our last few miles were greeted with one of the most beautiful views of the whole PCT. The snow stopped, the clouds parted and the whole valley below us glowed with intense gold and yellow! We were in a hurry but even then were stopped one last time to soak it in, extra miles, a bonus day and a beautiful goodbye from the mountains that we made our home for the last six and a half months.

Around one of the final corners my dad came hiking up giving out hugs and congratulations and we hurried in the dropping temps to my mom, and dog Sage. We piled into their van and quickly drove down as the snow began again and the sun set for its last time on us on the PCT.

We spent one more night in Methow valley where my parents surprised Bunyon and I with a hotel room as a congratulatory present for finishing up with the PCT this season. We sat in the hotel room drinking Scotch that my dad had excitedly brought to share with us and we made plans to drive Bird to Ultra’s house so she could get a ride with him to the airport. While in Seattle Bird treated us to some Ethiopian food as a thank you and we sat enjoying the taste of a cultural difference after months of backpacking food.

Enjoying some Scotch in a warm hotel room in Methow Valley
Happily relaxing in an Ethiopian restaurant on our way to dropping Bird off

When we parted ways with Bird it was a sad moment and I couldn’t help but think of all the other people on trail we had hiked with, becoming intimate friends and sharing in so many highs and lows. Happy Feet was still somewhere out there making his way north after having visited with his family in the Seattle area. Town was off in Florida most likely planning and dreaming for his next trips. Weatherman was traveling around the South West and planning on going to teach English in Japan. Enigma was back with his family in Albuquerque most likely watching more climbing competitions online as one would watch paint dry. Bolo was back in San Francisco enjoying his new job at an outdoor retail store enjoying being in the same place for a bit after years of traveling. Perhaps snowcat was still nursing his hurt foot and setting plans to start the PCT again from the southern terminus in 2020. Cathywampus was in Canada perhaps also planning her through hike the following year. Shaben was somewhere in the world perhaps riding bikes and doing wonderful dances for some lucky person. Professor was perhaps back in California after some trail injuries but still hoping to get back into the through hiking life after all was healed up and a new hiking season had arrived.

As I sat looking up at the Cascade Mountains from the window of a van while heading home I couldn’t think of a better way to finish such a trail other than with good friends and my family.

One thought on “PCT 17: The Northern Terminus

  1. Anonymous

    Wow – Great Blog Daniel. Well done summarizing this adventure. You easily conveyed what it felt like to live that way every day and how it felt to leading to, and at, the end. May this be only one of many prominent life’s adventures you’ll experience during your time here. Cheers!

    Like

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