First backpack of the year (don’t sit down)

It’s Memorial Day Weekend. Everyone is itching to get out of Seattle. We want to get away from holiday crowds and go backpacking. But all the high trails are still snowy. Instead, we choose to go off the beaten path. Way off.

I ask about bear activity. I’m advised: “No bear. Maybe rattlesnakes.”

We leave at 7P.M. Friday, “to avoid traffic”. Our fearless driver’s traffic app details the shortest route–by half an hour–to get to near Lake Wenatchee by 11P.M. I was hearing another friend’s voice in my head: “Never trust an app that tells you going over Stevens Pass is faster than going over Snoqualmie Pass.” 5 hours later, we’re still behind slow-moving traffic outside of Wenatchee, arriving at our trailhead’s full campground at 1A.M. That’s expected. Three extra hours of traffic? Not so much. We hastily set up tents on a nearby forest service road’s narrow shoulder, passing out until 6A.M., when each straps on 40lb packs and hike 7 miles to a “less-used” camp. All of this, to avoid crowds.

And we do avoid crowds. At 7:30A.M., Saturday, we note only one vehicle parked at the trailhead. We hike for miles along Mad River Trail #1409, air filled with the heavy scent of wildflowers, seeing no one.

Beauty abounds along the river
Ponderosa pine forest

Snacks emerge after a formidable ascent to a ridge. Time for a well-earned break. Perfect spot for a camp, too. And, still no other hikers yet. All plop their gear and asses down on a mammoth fallen Ponderosa pine log, silvery from age, riddled with cracks and holes. It’s sunny, with a light, cool breeze. Cotton candy clouds glide past. We sit silently and eat our energy bars, taking in the beauty.

But do you REALLY want to sit down?

Then someone feels a burning sensation on their side. Ants. Lots of ants: tiny, biting black ants, larger red and black ones, and giant carpenter ants. Everywhere. On our hiking poles, in our food bags, on our packs–on us! We dance around, wiping off the tiny marauders, reminding ourselves to not sit on logs. On go packs, and we trudge toward our camp, stinging from our experience. Soon, the dense Ponderosa forest punctuated by madronas opens into a burn. The change yields heat, humidity, and myriad of charred wooden skeletons. Different sections have burned at different times. A sea of silver poles in various forms of upright. More miles pass.

Tree cemetery

GPS confirms we’ve hiked over 6. So where is this camp? I spot an old fire ring, far below us, on an overgrown floodplain of the river. No one sees any spur trail down to it. We agree to cross-country hike down, with our packs, about a quarter-mile or so, to the camp. My cohorts’ experience hiking cross-country bolsters my courage to navigate vegetation that’s well over my head. We charge down the 45-degree slope.

Down, down, down

After pushing through thick brush and around blowdowns for several minutes, it becomes clear this is not going to be easy, and, potentially dangerous with branches pointing up at us like spears ready to impale. I fall several times, puncturing myself at gut level on a branch, then lacerating my shin 3” on another. We all are scraped up and tired by the time we make it down to that damn fire ring. Looking around, we realize that the ‘camp’ is long overgrown–not really a camp at all–and we now have to climb up and out through that same nasty brush to get back to the trail.

Time for another quick snack. No sooner does my buddy put their pack down—on a hornet nest—and we all start running in separate directions. Once they get the aggressors off, Benadryl is taken to offset any reaction. We’re all trying to calm down. However, upon inspecting the many hornet stings, a tick is spotted on their arm. Out come tweezers. Thankfully, it hasn’t attached well and is easily extricated. Now we’re paranoid. In a half hour, we’ve managed to get scrapes and cuts of all sizes, my friend bit by a potentially disease-ridden tick, still in pain from multiple hornet stings on top of ant stings earlier. We hope they don’t go into anaphylactic shock. What’s next? Emergency air lift?

At least the flowers are pretty

Navigating the brush, being very careful not to step on many logs, we emerge from the thicket, back on the trail, hiking only a another minute before finding the ‘camp’ is just a spur trail off the main. The entire area has burned for miles, looking like a bomb hit. It makes sense why we’re the only folks out here besides a lot of bugs, deer, field mice, and a hungry hawk. By this time, we’re too exhausted to forge on, camping in the wide spots of the side trail.

Looking down at ‘camp’ along the river

And, we’re cutting short the hike–choosing to turn around in the morning. We have huge amounts of food and alcohol to consume, to drop pack weight: chips, salami, cheese, 500mL cans of German beer, airplane bottles of vodka, whisky, and a nalgene of spiced rum. Our abundance turns us from hikers to inebriated karaoke singers, with aid of my friend’s portable wi-fi speaker. Camp is a dance party. Alas, our drinks are stronger than our motivation, and we all pass out before dark. “Don’t wake me” is the order for tomorrow morning, as clouds and rain have set in.

Sunday yields more rain, with wind. Our “good weather” has gone, the burn stretches for miles on both sides of the river, and it seems events are conspiring to drive us out instead of inviting us in to hike further. Daydreams of hot showers, comfy seats, beers, and clear roads cloud our minds. Once we agree on burgers from a local joint, we move quickly, making excellent time back to the car. Soon, we forget about our aches, stings, and scrapes, settling into food comas after our meals. We make up for the hideous drive out by coming back early, thereby avoiding traffic.

When I get home, it’s hard to believe what occurred–and in such short order. Or more importantly, what could have occurred. We had fun, though we agree it might not be a good idea to cross-country backpack downhill in heavy brush.

And, to check the logs we sit on.

I recommend the first 3-5 miles of Mad River Trail #1409. It’s open forest with spectacular wildflowers and the river is very cooling in such a narrow gorge. There are several excellent campsites as well. Once reaching the burn, turn around. Or, if you enjoy the openness of a burn, continue for many miles. Either way, DO bring a bite kit with you when hiking in areas with potential, especially if you react to bites.
All images and content copyright ©2017 Eric Schadel. All rights reserved.

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