Around Glacier Peak, Day 3: The Way by Swann’s

July 29, 2019
Upper Indian Creek to Baekos Creek
Indian Creek “Trail,” Indian Pass, PCT, White Pass, Foam Creek Trail, White Chuck Glacier, Glacier Gap, More PCT

1.

I let myself sleep in, and only wake once the sun’s bushwhacked its way down through the valley and into my little clearing. The birds have been singing for hours.

I eat breakfast over my maps. It’s only three miles from here to the PCT, but I have no idea what condition the trail’s in, and after yesterday my legs aren’t looking forward to too many more brambles.

But the tread, it turns out, eases as it approaches the PCT. The trail switchbacks up Indian Creek’s ancient glacial wall, first through overgrown meadows and avalanche tracks, then through beautiful old forest. Puncheons and turnpikes begin to appear, then drain dips and rock walls and even a bridge. By the time I reach the PCT at Indian Pass, it’s almost as though I’ve been on a proper trail.

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2.

The PCT’s tread is so easy that the walking’s like floating through a dream, and I get to dreaming about the last time I was here, almost exactly three years ago today. I was on my first solo trip—a month-long walk the length of Washington—and finally getting the hang of things after nearly three weeks. On that trip I cried the first night, then listened incessantly to audiobooks the next several days to keep from feeling lonely. It wasn’t until a week and more than a hundred miles later that things finally started to feel okay, that I started to listen to music, or to silence. I made friends along the way, we shared camps and traded food and room-stacked in White Pass and leapfrogged through Norse Peak. I rented a room in Snoqualmie. Everyone else just stopped for a few hours, but they all used my shower before leaving. Six hikers. I wish I’d written down their names—I only remember one now. The bathtub floor was black before I even got in.

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3.

I’m roused from memory by a big group of volunteers on the trail above the White River, all swinging pulaskis and clipping through minor brush, all wearing bug nets on top of their helmets. It takes me a second to find my place in time, but when I do, I thank them all as deeply as I can muster. Tell them about the contrast between this and Indian Creek, try to say something about the years their days create.

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I follow the PCT for several enchanted miles, past Reflection Pond and acres of blooming flowers, and fall again into memories of those endless, numbered days four years ago on my first walk through here. It snowed my first night in Glacier Peak that year, and the trails were just brutal: like the Sierra, but with poorer tread and soaking brush. But it was also the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I walked for miles in the blooming fields of flowers without thinking or worrying about anything. No fear of the past or future. A clear day with no memories, my mind not part of the weather. And it was right there—right here, actually, right on the path I’m following now—that I decided I had to come back and circle the whole mountain.

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Walking now, I feel the same thing—a clear day and cloudless mind—and the intervening time seems to collapse in on itself.

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4.

At White Pass, I turn off the PCT and onto the main climber’s route for Glacier Peak, here called the Foam Creek Trail. It’s at least as well-worn as the PCT, but made more from roots and rocks than manicured tread.

The trail bumbles up and down along the headwaters of the White River as views open to the south and east: Indian Head, Clark Mountain, my route so far. I get passed by a climber who’s straight up running in her plastic mountaineering boots. She looks back slightly after passing and happily shouts: “Single day summit!”

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After a couple miles, I cross a steep gully into the White Chuck River drainage, then climb through the ghosts of glaciers to Glacier Gap, where one foot faces the White Chuck and the other faces the Suiattle River, which I won’t see again for several days—after I’ve made it most of the way around the mountain.

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5.

I slide down from Glacier Gap on bits of rock and soft summer snow, then stop by a small seasonal tarn to eat and plan my next move. The PCT’s a thousand feet below, in the White Chuck Basin, and there isn’t really a trail between here and there. But the terrain’s easy enough, and I settle on a snaking route that parallels the PCT.

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The route turns out to be the most fun I’ve had in months: steeply along a series of waterfalls, then through fresh talus, then along the edge of a marshy glade full of new blooming flowers. Every so often something almost like a trail will appear, but I’m never sure if it’s human or animal or just a mirage, and anyway the going’s so easy that there’s no need for trails at all.

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Eventually I end up walking along the east side of White Chuck River, waiting for an easy spot to cross. And I find one at the northern edge of the Basin, just above where the water drops steeply into deep forest. From the crossing, I climb up toward the PCT, and meet it at an old camp I remember from years ago.

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There are already two people there—southbound thru hikers drying their shoes in the sun—and they call out to me. “Are you Robin?” I laugh, and ask how they know. “We met your wife just about ten miles north of here. She’s hilarious!”

6.

From the end of the Basin, the PCT drops down a few thousand feet into the most beautiful old growth forest. The main access route to this part of the trail—up through Kennedy Hot Springs—washed out decades ago, making this stretch one of the most remote along the entire PCT. And it feels remote. I amble through bands of ancient cedar and pine, through avalanche shoots and long stretches of mud. The evening’s coming, and it seems most hikers are in for the night. But the deer are all out for dinner, frolicking above, always just barely visible.

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I reluctantly stop at Baekos Creek, knowing that this is may be the last good spot for quite a while, and set up in a clearing a couple hundred feet south of the water. As I’m setting up for dinner, a man about my dad’s age limps by, obviously looking for a spot. I call out to him, offering to scoot my tent over a bit to make room for his. He waves the idea away, but returns a few minutes later, having found nothing. He shouts from the trail, as if asking permission to enter. “I might take you up on that offer after all.” I shout back. “I hoped you would!”

7.

The man—Jim—is an old 65, heading south from Rainy Pass to Stevens, one ten-mile day at a time. He’s carrying two weeks’ worth of food, and a pack probably big enough to carry two weeks’ more. We chat idly as he sets up his funny little bivy, then more as he plops down with a Lifestraw to drink from a dirty tin cup that looks older than I am.

There’s this strange sudden intimacy that happens out here as the sun starts to set. He tells me about his wife dying a few years ago, a move to the Philippines shortly after to start again. How he comes back to his “home mountains” every summer. “At my age, you have to keep up with old friends.”

He asks about kids and I tell him about my dad, how he took us out when we were kids. “You know, I never had kids either,” he smiles. “Never had the time. Neither of us ever wanted them anyway.” A long pause. “But,” he looks up sadly, then takes a long drink from his Lifestraw, “but it would be nice to have a place to stay and someone to visit when I come back here.”

8.

We say goodnight just before full dark. Before heading to his bivy, he rummages through the depths of his pack for a small notebook and pen. And I can just read what he’s writing, upside down: the date, and my name, and the name of the creek that will sing us to sleep.

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