It’s been eight hours of uphill hiking carrying a week’s worth of food and supplies, and I should have made Buckner–my third day’s campsite, on the far side of my second mountain pass–by now.
Getting to Buckner was a slog. I’d left home at 2 a.m. with an Uber to the airport, then the four-hour flight to Seattle, and finally another six hours in my rental to the Easy Pass trailhead. Five and a half hours hike over Easy Pass that first day, passed out too tired to eat at my first campsite, and then another ten hours of hiking west on Day 2.
Day 3 I’d added up the miniscule mileage numbers on my map and calculated that at my pace I should hit Buckner at about 5 PM, but 5 PM had come and gone and I was still walking up until I finally saw a campsite cairn that did not say “Buckner” on it. It said “Thunder Creek,” which was not on my map, and I said “fuck.”
I’d happened to hit the North Cascades trails at exactly the moment when the snow had melted down low and the plant life had exploded with nothing to restrain it, so the trail was basically invisible, hidden beneath a thick knee- to waist-high cover of vegetal exuberance, and exuberance is a lot of work to get through. By the time I hit Thunder Creek, all I wanted to do was find a flat spot in the shade and rest, but there was no flat shady spot to be had. I finally just laid down in the brush to collect my thoughts and was immediately swarmed by hundreds of flies. The little buggers didn’t bite, they just wanted to touch me. I tried putting my mosquito net on over my hat, and although it kept them off of my face, it was too disconcerting to have easily 50 flies covering the net, inches from my face. And so lying there, with hundreds of flies covering my face and body, I said “fuck it; I can’t stay here.” I decided I’d keep going up toward the pass for one more hour, and if I wasn’t sure to get over before dusk I’d turn around and camp lower down. You don’t want to go over a mountain pass in the dark.
Lord of the Flies
I should digress here and talk about the bugs. I’ve hiked enough now to understand that one week earlier or later on a hike can change everything bugwise. In North Cascades, I hit the apex of the black fly life cycle. There were mosquitos, but they were slow and incredibly lazy: they’d dawdle around, slowly finding an opening to land on my fly-covered hand, and then just sort of look at it before deciding to suck my blood. I’d smash them for going a step too far; the flies went about their business, unperturbed.
For six days, the flies inexplicably did not bite me. As long as you kept moving they’d leave you alone, but the instant you stopped they would swarm you. And that is all they did; I guess they didn’t like my taste. On my fifth day I ran into a trail crew clearing the winter’s fallen trees from the trail south of Buckner (which is about as isolated from any access to the outside as you can get there) and stopped to talk to one of the lumberjacks. We talked for about 10 minutes, both of us completely covered in black flies. I was used to them by that point and wore long sleeves and pants and a hat anyway, although he was standing there in a sweat soaked t-shirt. I finally said “well, I’ll let you get moving. They really swarm all over you when you stand still like this, but at least they don’t bite.” There was a pause as he just stared at me and then said “you say they’re not biting you? That’s interesting. They’ve sort of become my nemesis lately” and I realized his exposed skin–where you could see it beneath all the flies–was covered in little welts. So I moved on, thinking how cool it was to run into a lumberjack in the middle of the wilderness who used the word “nemesis.”
On the seventh day something changed. I don’t know what, but I was forewarned. I was sitting there, eating a dinner of re-hydrated Chili Mac with Beef. The flies were as usual crawling all over me, but otherwise left me alone. And then suddenly, as I’m raising some Chili Mac to my mouth, a fly dove hard straight into my spoonful of food. His impact literally buried him in the food, so I dug him out with a fingertip, flipped him on the ground, and accepted that backpacking lowers one’s dietary standards and swallowed my food. And then as I went in for the next spoonful, another fly dove into the bag of food, again hitting so hard that it disappeared beneath the surface. Again I dug him out, flicked his shattered body on the ground, and thought “this is getting weird.” I also thought that flicking little gobs of Chili Mac with Beef on the ground all around your campsite is a great way to wake up in the middle of the night with a bear outside your tent looking for the rest of the Chili Mac, but it was getting late and decided to try and clean myself up a bit in nearby freezing Fisher Creek. “Do not stink above ground” John Wesley preached.
At the creek I refilled my water supply for the next day, and during the time it took to filter four liters of water I’d attracted a particularly large and diverse maelstrom of flying insects: mosquitos, a few different types of bees, of course hundreds of black flies, one or two really big and evil horseflies, and then a lot of something else that seemed to be hatching out of the creek. I was used to them by this point, but the instant I’d stripped off my filthy, sweat-stained clothes and turned to lay down in the creek, every single one of these hundreds of flying bloodsuckers landed on every available centimeter of skin and sunk whatever passes for teeth in an insect into me.
I was shocked, and suddenly a little scared. Being totally naked and alone in the middle of the woods when something out of control happens will do that to you. “What the . . .? Now you want to bite me?” Literally covered with flies, so many I could barely open my eyes enough to see where I was going, I hopelessly swatted them away and stumbled barefoot into the freezing water.
“Freezing” is not hyperbole: the snowpack feeding Fisher Creek was not more than 1/4 mile upstream from where I was, and the water I was frantically trying to submerse myself in had been snow only a few minutes earlier. The water was at the most 10 inches deep, and all I wanted to do was lay my entire body in the rushing water long enough to scour the filth off. I’d taken my mind off of the task when the flies hit, and so was mentally unprepared for the shock of laying down in that ice bath. I sort of stumbled around over the rocky bottom before I was more-or-less safely immobile in the rapids, and as I sunk as much of my skin area under the surface as possible, I saw off to the side two little rafts of dozens of flies holding together as they were carried off of my skin and down the creek, too shocked by the cold to fly off.
Over The Pass and Back
Fleeing the flies toward Buckner, when I hit my one hour reckoning point I was within sight of the top–too high now for the flies–and found a wonderful little flat spot with water where I could stop and put some calories down and collect my thoughts. I raced sunset over the top and down the other side, and as I pitched my tent alone at Buckner realized that I had rushed through the entire reason for my coming to North Cascades.
On the way back two days later, I was in the pass just after dawn. I spent a lot of time up there, just me, with all those mountains as far as I could see in every direction. When you get into backpacking at the beginning of your mid-life crisis, it’s because you’ve suddenly realized that you still have a lot of things you want to do and see, and your time is not without limits. And so those first ten years or so, it is all new and breathtaking and exhausting, but worth every step. And then in your 60’s, you start thinking about how hard you’ve worked and about being comfortable, and you realize that liking being comfortable is sneaking up on you. There is a period of introspection, of asking yourself “do I keep doing this because I said I would and now I’m just being stubborn?” You ask yourself if these periodic checks that you are still alive are necessary, and you wonder if you can still feel the magic that makes it all worth it.
There was a moment near the end of my trip, at a spot called Skagit Queen. The Skagit Queen was a silver mine, worked around 1900. There’s not much there now but some rusting heavy equipment that looks like it was used to pump water up from Thunder Creek to process the ore. The Skagit is way up there, and you look at that stuff and think about the work it took to get it there, how inconceivably hard the miners’ lives must have been, and you wonder what alternatives these people had in their lives that made this seem like a good option.
Camping alone near Skagit Queen, you’d think you were in Rivendell. There is a shallow and wide glen, filled with immense trees hundreds of years old. Through their branches, the obscured sun never directly reaches the ground, which is cool and covered with moss and ferns and decaying trunks of other centenarians which themselves fell generations before you were born. I was going through my usual morning routine of making coffee, packing the tent, loading my gear for the hike out. There was this noise–a bird I thought–quite loud although I never saw it. Somewhere in the shadowy green of this impenetrable forest, the bird would make this extremely loud trilling whistle. It sounded like the noise a hummingbird makes when it flies near you, but much, much louder.
I sat down for a moment with my coffee, letting the work to be done wait, and I realized that this hummingbird, or whatever it was, was gradually making its way around the perimeter of the glen. Every couple of minutes, I’d hear its trill a few degrees further around the circle, marking its territory I suppose. I just sat there holding my coffee, taking in this mine and the people who had been there a hundred years ago, these enormous and ancient trees, all of this overwhelming green life, and this unseen creature slowly working its way clockwise around me, the center of its circle. At that moment I could understand how once people believed in forest fairies and changelings and magic.
Of course, I was only assuming that it was a bird.