July 31, 2019
Mica Lake to East Fork Milk Creek
So here’s the thing about crossing the Milk Creek drainage on the PCT: it sucks. At least, I remember it sucking. When I came through a few years ago, it was in the middle of a long, hot day, and the overgrown, eroded switchbacks almost killed me. My friend cried at the bottom, I presume at the thought of going back up.
I haven’t been looking forward to it.
So we sleep in and I do some serious procrastinating packing things up, then take too long at breakfast and try to convince Krista it might be a good idea to, like… maybe set up a zip line across?
But eventually the time comes, and we start, reluctantly, down into the canyon.
For the first few hundred feet down after leaving Mica Lake, the trail switchbacks gently through open meadows of blooming heather and lupine, crossing small streams and a minor fork of Milk Creek. We stop for water, and a last view of the lumbering old Milk Lake Glacier.
Then it’s steeply down through thick forest. I put Daydream Nation on my headphones and cruise, happy to have someone else here—to have Krista here—to share the ugh.
A thousand feet below the lake, the trail leaves the trees to cross an overgrown avalanche track and the outlet streams that flow from the Milk Lake Glacier. It’s hot and muggy but also somehow threatening to rain. We hurry through the track to find shade on the other side, then down another few thousand feet, as the trees give way to willow and the trail finally finds the creek.
We stop for a while at the crossing, eat snacks and watch another glacier—the Ptarmigan this time—lurch at the head of the valley.
Krista looks puzzled. “This has been fine.” I told her it’d be terrible.
The way up is a bit less fine, at least at first. The way’s rocky and overgrown to the junction with the old, long-abandoned Milk Creek Trail, but then mysteriously things gets better the further we climb. Someone’s straightened out the tread since the last time I was here, and the brush, though bad, is nowhere near the jungle I remember it being.
We climb through the early afternoon heat into the cool old forest that clings to the northern slopes of the Milk Creek valley, then through increasingly open meadows to the unnamed pass that separates the main and east forks of Milk Creek.
At the top, I feel as confused as Krista was at the bottom. It just… wasn’t that bad.
We stop near the pass for lunch, and to think through the rest of the day. We’d been imagining making it another dozen miles, down to the Suiattle River, but neither of us really feel like pushing, and anyway my favorite basin in the world—the East Fork Milk Creek—is just a few miles away. So we decide on another easy afternoon, finish up our leisurely lunch, and start to wander, more ponderously this time, north along the ridge.
As we go, I think about how different this time felt from last. And I wonder what’s changed. Krista’s here, which of course helps, but there’s something more too. Last time I was so concerned with keeping to my schedule. All I really thought about was the campsite at the end of the day. I checked my maps constantly, wondering how many miles I had to go. This time, I didn’t look at my maps once. I just walked.
I don’t know where, but somewhere in the last few years I stopped thinking so much about the end of the day, stopped ceaselessly comparing where I am to where I want to be, and started just walking—sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes with more joy, or less—but just walking, and trying to be content. Trying to imagine myself as Sisyphus happy, just out for a walk in the hills.
After a few miles we drop into the East Fork Basin, and it’s every bit as beautiful as I remembered. More so, maybe, as this time I get to see the whole thing through Krista’s eyes too.
We set up camp a few hundred feet below the trail, near the confluence of several minor forks of the creek, then watch a surreally slow sunset on Kennedy Peak and the snowy ridges that seem to stretch out in every direction. The clouds clear near last light, and the stars appear. Then the moon, bright enough that we don’t need out headlamps for one last evening stroll—one last bit of beautiful walking, just for walking’s sake.