Brush-bashing, Cougars and Lightning, Oh My!

A young woman's first solo trek in the North Cascades wilderness.
Tess Wendel Tess Wendel
March 09, 2014
Brush-bashing, Cougars and Lightning, Oh My!
Tess Wendel on a solo backpacking epic

During college I had the privilege to work as a Park Ranger in the North Cascades in the village of Stehekin. I had many adventures during my two seasons there, but the most memorable was a solo trek on the Company Creek/Devore Creek Loop.

Normally I would have grabbed a friend to join me on the trail, but none of my coworkers had the same days off and I was itching to see how I would fare traveling alone in the backcountry. I grabbed my ten essentials, some food and a light emergency shelter (I wanted to practice going ultra light) and headed out. I hadn’t heard of anyone (locals, visitors, or forest service crew) hiking this particular trail for the past few years. I knew the trail would probably be a bit brushy but thought “how bad could it be?”

Like most trails in the North Cascades, the loop goes straight uphill. My pack was heavy, and I'll admit to some heavy breathing, but not a big deal. About two miles in I encountered the heavy brush - lots of slide alder mingled with stinging nettles. I tried to hold my arms above the vegetation and shimmy my way through to no avail. My sweat stung as it mixed with the nettle burns.  Now was time to get serious. I took out my rain jacket and rain pants and tried to ignore my stinging arms in the sweltering 80 degree weather as I plowed through the intense bramble for another half-mile.

At the 5-mile camp I stopped for a quick bite, watched the butterflies dance on my pack, before setting out to ford the river. The trail finally flattened out and I could concentrate on the interesting animal tracks I was seeing. Using my newly acquired park ranger identification skills I knew I was tracking a cougar and deer. After another mile or so I encountered a VERY fresh deer carcass. Feeling my heart flutter and stomach drop, I quickly grabbed the ice ax from my pack and started singing loudly to myself. If anyone had come along they would have heard a very timid version of Aretha Franklin’s I Will Survive - don't judge!

With no additional animal encounters in another half mile of singing, I put my big cat fears aside, reattached my ax, and concentrated on getting to my destination. The trail meandered up and down through a beautiful basin filled with wildflowers and little creeks. After fording a couple more streams, and getting my feet quite wet, I made it to 9-mile camp. I went to bed early knowing I’d have a big day the next day crossing Hillgard and Ten Mile Pass to make it to Bird Camp. 

I awoke feeling invigorated and ready for more exploring. I had only been hiking for an hour when the trail disappeared into a creek bed. After spending a minute or two walking up and down the hill staring at the rocks and stones, I realized the only thing to do was to keep heading in the direction of the pass and hope I’d stumble upon the trail again. No sooner had I decided to forge ahead than I realized more and more debris was covering the hillside. Multiple avalanches must have torn through during the winter - tearing up trees and moving rocks - every other step included a stop and dodging tree limbs while trying not to bump and scrape my own limbs.

Going was very slow. But I figured I was almost halfway through my journey so it made more sense to continue rather than turn around (plus I had a backcountry reputation to maintain - no one likes a quitter). Unnervingly, my lack of certainty about the trail location was dwindling. My heart started to thump. All of the sudden I couldn’t remember exactly where I had come from. Then I heard a 'woop woop, woop woop' sound ahead, causing me to jump out of my skin. I proceeded forward carefully only to be startled again by a squawking pile of feathers blowing up in my face. The noise emanated from an angry mother grouse and her family.  

Time to take a breather.

Honestly, I felt like giving up. Instead, I ate a chocolate granola bar.

It was slow going but I eventually found the trail again, scrambled to the top of Hillgard pass, and let out a cry of elation. Beautiful views surrounded me and before me lay an open clearing where I could eat lunch without the possibility of any cougars sneaking up on me. Unfortunately, it was already after 2pm and I had another 7 miles to go.

Must keep trucking, must keep trucking.

The trail appeared and disappeared as I approached 10 Mile Pass. With no avalanche debris to worry about I moved quickly. The only thing moving more quickly were the dark clouds gathering above. The weather had been mild- nothing troubling - but as I reached the second pass the wind picked up. It got darker and darker. I hustled down the trail and could hear a light rumbling from above. I threw my poncho over my pack as I booked down the trail hoping to get to camp before the rain came. By some miracle I managed to get to Bird Camp around 5, set up my shelter, and stash my pack and sleep gear inside right before the rain came.

Soon afterward the sky began to light up in flashes and the thunder echoed through the valley. I tried counting "one thousand, two one thousand" between booms. The thunder and lightning were almost overlapping. I was in a  valley, sheltered among trees, and therefore really had nothing to worry about... but being huddled in my wimpy emergency plastic shelter with nature’s most powerful forces surrounding me had my adrenaline rushing. I decided it’d be worth it to turn my park radio on which was flooded with fire crew calls. I learned later people in Stehekin were sitting on the porch looking at the lightning hit the ridge above where I was camping and watching trees explode into flames. A total of seven fires were reported after and during the storm. 

I slept well, got up late the next day, and hiked out. I wish it had been totally uneventful but I continued to lose the trail now and again. During one particular stretch while navigating some vine maple I took a tumble and lost my very expensive park radio*. Not realizing I had lost my radio I continued on my journey, which ended with a wild canoe across the lake to Stehekin. My mantra of 'just keep trucking', turned into 'just keep paddling'. I tried my best to ensure the boat was hitting the waves straight on so I wouldn’t flip and dump myself (and my gear!) into the freezing waters of Lake Chelan.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to fling my pack on the ground, take my shoes off, and pop open a well-deserved beer.

*Those radios aren’t cheap, my supervisor opted to get up super early the next day, boat back over and hike the three miles up the trail to search around in the brush with me to find it. Which we did, thank goodness.


Add a comment

Log in to add comments.