Wednesday, July 31, 2013

PCT 2013: The Hat Creek Rim

For as long as I have been preparing for the PCT this year, I have been hearing about the Hat Creek Rim; and seldom has it been encouraging.  Many areas are discussed as beautiful, scenic or boring.  But the "Rim" is challenging, hot and dry.  So a part of me has been dreading this section for several months now, and even more so as I have traveled through hot and dry sections of the trail.  And even once I started to hike, and especially as I got closer to the Rim, north bound hikers, if they mentioned the Rim, did so in terms that suggested it was something to survive rather than to enjoy.  Even the day I left Burney Falls to head for the Rim, I encountered an older couple that described the Rim as the worst spot on the trail.

From what I have been able to read, the Rim was formed a million or so years ago along a fault line.  Rather than having the two sides of the fault slide horizontally, or pull apart / subduct, the two parts slide vertically.  The westerly side of the fault dropped down as much as 1000 feet in places for at least the 20 miles that the trail follows, and apparently several miles beyond.  The result is about what you would expect to see on a cartoon or disaster movie where suddenly the ground breaks in half and one side is thrust up into the air, leaving a shear vertical cliff.  The difference here is that one side fell rather than being thrust up; there is a million years of rubble at the base of the cliff, raising up nearly half the distance of the drop area; and the fault line is somewhat jagged and stepped in places.  The whole thing is pretty tough to describe, but is pretty cool to see.

The big challenge with the Rim is that the ground is so porus that any surface water just seeps through; down to a creek that flows some 1000 feet below the surface.  The Rim is dry!  But not as dry as one might think.  There are at least two ponds on top that are close to the northern portion of the trail, one of which you pass within 50 feet of.  But these ponds are in cattle country and look like something you would use only if you could boil, filter and chemically treat; and then only as a last resort.  The area is fairly heavily vegetated, which suggests that there is at least a limited amount of moisture available to maintain the growth of drought resistant plants, and animals.  The one thing missing when I went though was much in the way of flying bugs, which were only rarely encountered.  While the country was pretty alien to a western Washington mossy-back, it was beautiful in its own way.

According to the guidebook there is a 30 mile stretch along there trail where there are no natural water sources.  And that is true.  At the north end of this stretch are the lakes and streams around the Crystal Lake Fish Hatchery.  And at the south end is Old Station and the Subway Cave.  In order to make it through this stretch you need to either carry 30 miles worth of water, depend on water caches, or have someone periodically meet you with water.

There were a surprising number of water caches along this stretch. My favorite was actually between the hatchery and Burney Falls.  The Wild Bird Cache included a picnic table and several comfortable cloth foldup chairs, a large well stocked cooler, water, a trash can, and a camera and trail register where you could take your own picture and leave a note.  This one was easily the best cache I have seen so far.  Second to it, and arguably much more needed, was the 22 Cache.  This one was actually mid way along the ridge and also included water, a cooler of drinks, chairs, a trash bag and a register.  And it included a three sided shelter composed of dry brush stacked up to provide some shade.  I didn't count the water jugs piled up there, but it was literally a large pile of clear gallon jugs.  In addition, I encountered 4 other smaller caches of 4 to 20 gallons of water, some dry and some stocked.

My strategy was to take it slow, meet up with Mrs Eeyore a couple of times to get more water and rest, and just make the best of this difficult stretch.  I left Highway 299 near Burney Falls about 7 AM and headed south, meeting lots of thru's along the way.  I paused briefly to visit with folks at the Wild Bird Cache and then went on.  I was surprised when I came to the fish hatchery area.  I had not expected to find so much water in the area.  But since I had plenty of water, and Mrs Eeyore was waiting ahead, I went on.  I got up to the Cassel Road sometime after 2 and we drove back to the picnic tables at the hatchery for lunch and drinks and then back to Burney for a milkshake.  And, yes, I know that I am spoiled.

I left the car again about 4:45 and headed south again, planning on putting in a few more hours before calling it a night.  About 4 hours later I found myself at road 22 in near dark conditions and setup for the night, actually sleeping on the ground because I had been assured there were not enough trees to hang from; which was almost true.  The trip along the northern half of the rim had been one of my favorite places this year.  Yes, it was dry and hot, but no drier or hotter than other stretches in the Marbles or Trinities further north.  The scenery and views were breath taking, the sun setting over the western horizon was glorious, and I was able to tackle it refreshed and fueled with a milk shake.  It was kind of a magical time for me, when all of my fears for this section of the trail vanished into joy.

The trail south initially follows the edge fairly closely but eventually heads away from it to go around a couple of large canyons.  I was hurrying along this stretch, trying to get back to the rim before sunset, when this large black figure moved out into the trail in front of me.  In all my years of hiking, large black figures only mean one thing, a bear.  But now it means one of two things, with cows being added to that short list.  Old Bossy was apparently as startled to see me as I was to see her.  She quickly trotted up the trail a piece and then off the trail where she turned and watched me go by.  I encountered several of her sisters in the next few minutes and, fortunately, their reactions were all the same.  They would look hard at me for a moment, and just when I was sure they would charge, they would turn tail and run away.

At one point Gussy and Bessie were walking the trail ahead of me, and after a few minutes I realized I was gaining on them.  I was trying to figure out how to get around them (tap them on the shoulder with a trekking pole and ask permission to come around), when Gussy heard my poles clicking behind her, looked back and then charged past Bessie.  So Bessie looked back to see what all the excitement was about and saw a large predator with hamburger on his breath and also charged off trail and into a small gossip group (is 6 a herd) who all became equally excited and started dashing around.  I almost fell onto the trail laughing to think that I was responsible for a mini stampede.  I'll never watch a cattle drive in a movie the same way again.

Until the moon came up, the stars were amazing.  I have seldom seen the night sky so lit up.  And that was good because I didn't sleep well.  Shifting from a hammock to the ground was not a pleasant experience.  I know I will have to overcome that if I am going to be able to finish this trail, but this first night was not a good start.

I was up and walking as soon as it was light enough to see the trail.  A mile or so south of road 22 the trees quit, pretty suddenly.  Still lots of brush, but hardly any trees; apparently there was a fire here in the not too distant past.  A few miles further south the trail intersects a small dirt road where I met Mrs Eeyore for breakfast and then went on following the trail as it generally followed the edge of the rim around the encroaching canyons.

By early afternoon I was approaching the end of the rim trail and passing through an area that had burned and been replanted.  I am uncertain of the logic of some of the plantings though.  The newly planted trees were in the middle of a cleared circle, and sometimes that circle encompassed the trail itself.  I saw quite a number of seedings that were literally planted right at the edge of the trail.  As those Ponderosa Pines grow they will force the trail to shift to one side or the other.

All in all this was a very enjoyable stretch of trail and is one to actually look forward to, so long as one is prepared for the conditions.  It helps to have your own personal support team to help, but it is quite possible to have a successful and enjoyable trek along the Rim without that support, so long as you are prepared for what is coming.

Only 1417 miles to go, plus a few in Washington.

Chainsaw practice?

The Wild Bird Cache between Burney Falls and the Crystal Lake fish hatchery.  A very nice setup.

Just south of the hatchery is what appears to be the power station for a dam.  There is a big stream flowing by with a nice bridge over it.  And at least one pelican has taken up residence.

The cones under this Ponderosa Pine dwarfed my size 15 shoes.

An interesting trail register just north of the Cassel road.

Rigged for sun, or rain.  The loops on my ULA pack have come in very handy.  Eeyore gets the one on my left shoulder, and the umbrella gets the other three.  Bounces around a bit. But it is nice not having to hold the umbrella.

Mt Lassen to the south.  Will be there soon.

It is hard to get good pictures of the rim, but this one is towards the north end and looking south.

A tree at the edge of the rim with the setting sun behind it.

The shadows are growing long toward the end of the day.  My legs are not really this long.

Old Bossy giving me the evil eye, after she has run away from me.

The rest of the herd stampeding away from a hungry carnivore.

Plenty of water up on the Rim.  At least if you have had all your shots and boil, filter and treat the water first.

Sunset over the Hat Creek Rim.

The sun is gone, leaving the mountain blowing smoke rings.

Cache 22 is just a few yards south of where the trail crosses road 22.  This is the primary cache used by Rim hikers.  A number of us spent the night just north of here on any flat spot we could find.  Fortunately I was the first one in, just before total darkness descended.. 

Sunrise the next morning.

This wind farm is visible when descending toward Rock Creek above Burney Falls, as well as a few locations along the Rim.

I love these pale thistles with red flowers.  They really stand out from the rest of the foliage. 

Another picture of the south end of the Rim.  This is taken from the upper level and shows a lower level that is pretty common at the south end.

Some of the old snags in the area are so interesting.  I would guess that landscapers would give a pretty penny for some of these old dead trees.

One last shot of the Rim, looking north from the south end of the trail.

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