Thu, Jun 27, 2013 at 4:05 PM
“Ok – it’s going to be HOT on our trip around the Loowit. It’s going to be AWESOME, but it’s going to be HOT, so prepare yourself mentally. There isn’t a lot of shade and you will get disgusting. I will be disgusting. We will both be disgusting and sharing a disgusting tent. And it is going to be AWESOME! THIS TRIP WILL MAKE US BEST FRIENDS FOREVER!”
We were having a freak early summer heat wave. Portland was cracking back-to-back 90 degree days and there weren’t any clouds in the sky. We had planned this trip a while back with out of town folks and only intended to cancel if it was raining or snowing; we didn’t come up with a heat wave contingency.
“Bring a long-sleeved shirt!” I fired off in one last email. Little did I realize that we would all bring the same outfit.
I think that the Loowit Trail is the most challenging circuit in the Southern Cascades, mostly due to its lack of vegetation and good water sources, and constantly changing trail conditions. It’s hot, dirty, dynamic, tough on feet, and unbelievably awesome, in the truest sense of the word. This is the third time I’ve hiked the Loowit and even though I think that every time is the last time, I find myself drawn back to its moonscape terrain and technical challenges. In fact, I think I like it more now than I did the first time. I think I’ve finally fallen in love with this dirty, nasty mountain.
“Is that a GoLite pack?” I ask Jim, who is lashing gear to what looked to be a large blue stuff sack with arm straps.
“Yeah, but with this much food, it’s more like a GoHeavy pack,” he said as he stuffed in half a leftover veggie pizza.
This was my first backpacking trip with Jim and Sandii. We had met about six months earlier on a hike in northern Idaho. After spending a few hours with them, I knew that they were destined to be adventure buddies. They had Mt. St. Helens on their bucket list and I knew they had the grit necessary to enjoy the Loowit, so Suzanne and I planned to meet up between Jim’s RAAM ride and the STP and hope for the best weather. In a normal year, late June would still be snowy, the flowers still sleeping beneath the matted grasses. Lucky for us, it hasn’t been a normal year. The meltout is about two to three weeks ahead of schedule.
We started at the June Lake trailhead and hiked clockwise. It was hot in the parking lot, but the real sweating started at June Lake, which wasn’t looking lake-like in the least, with its low waterline and reddish hue. Our original plan – a Windy Ridge start – had us camping at June Lake on the first night. Instead, we got to hike past it and start climbing the 2,000′ to Monitor Ridge because the road was still closed. We hiked through old growth hemlock forest, across beargrass-speckled lava fields, and up a still-snowy ridge to meadows below Monitor Ridge where the beargrass grew in thick clusters and the views of Mt. Adams were worth the extra off-trail hiking to photograph them.
I had left my big camera at home. I know myself well enough to know that I would have only taken a few photos because of the heat and that I wasn’t up for the extra care and feeding the big camera needs in a hot moonscape. Instead, I took my crummy Olympus Tough with a half-dead battery. I didn’t know the battery was half-dead until the first photo. I nursed the battery through the whole trip, but ended up taking only 30 photos. Like the old days, with film.
I regretted it only once, maybe twice. We decided to camp the first night on Crescent Ridge, about 12 miles from June Lake, loading up all of our water containers for the dry camp. We ate dinner at sunset on a large boulder that overlooks part of the S. Fork Toutle River canyon. Above us, on Crescent Ridge, I saw two little white specks, which turned out to be a small herd of mountain goats. I don’t have any photos of those mountain goats. Or the epic heat wave sunset as seen from the boulder. Or the hummingbirds that were buzzing us between gulps of nectar from the blooming huckleberry bushes below us. Or the cool breeze that washed over our dirt and salt-crusted bodies after a long day of hiking in the sun.
But I was with people who did have big cameras. And that allowed me to simply sit on that boulder and drink in the sunset and the mountain goats and the Absolut Mandarin that Suzanne carried. I get to have those sights and smells and burny tastes embedded in my memory, which is almost as good as having a great photo of a mountain goat in pumice at sunset.
“Why do we love this?” I asked Suzanne earlier that day, as I flopped into the shade of a stunted white bark pine at the top of a re-route that dropped us 200′ down the mountain into a canyon of loose boulders. I was sweating and dirty and hungry for the cheese that had been slow baking in my pack all day. She sat, composed but red from exertion and sun, snacking and reading the trail guide on her iPhone.
She looked up from her phone and smiled, eyes bright. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I do. A lot!”
We wanted to cross the S. Fork of the Toutle in the morning. The afternoon heat renders snowfields into raging creeks and rivers, carrying rocks and ash and debris angrily down the mountain. We saw mud flows ooze across hillsides and crossed roiling chocolate rivers in the heat of the afternoon. Snow banks melted before our eyes. Cool, clear water turns warm and thick as the day goes on, browngray with ash and pumice and grit that clogs filters and crunches in your mouth. We would dip our bandanas in streams and wipe our hot faces and dirty legs, the silt in the water chaffing our cheeks and neck, the friction of a thousand steps slowly raising prickly welts on our thighs and arms.
At night, after the sun ducks behind high ridges, the creeks regress. The flows slow, then stop, then disappear into the earth.
When I hiked the Loowit before, there was only one spot that scared me, one place that gave me sewing machine legs. It was a steep, crumbly climb out of the S. Fork of the Toutle canyon. On past trips, I scrambled up the chute, nearly pitching back under the weight of my pack, desperately flailing at the top to haul me and my backpack over the mossy lip of the canyon. This time, there was a rope. I can’t tell you how much I loved that rope. I have no words for that rope.
The second time I regretted not bringing the big camera was around 2AM on the Plains of Abraham the second night. We pitched our tents below Windy Pass, out in the open and vulnerable to wind and sun and stars. I woke at 2AM, thirsty. Above me, through the mesh of the tent, I could see a billion stars clustered into the Milky Way, the thick part of the band stretching directly over our tent. I wished for my big camera and my tripod, but settled for waking Suzanne and telling her to look up before falling back into a deep comfortable sleep.
Walking across the devastation zone was like walking in an oven. Out on the open plain, it’s hard to imagine thick forest. It’s hard to imagine bright green meadows and clear, cold creeks. It’s hard to imagine wildflowers and birds and calm. It’s hard to imagine what it was like before it was nothing at all.
We ate our last lunch of the trip in the shade of an overhanging boulder in the middle of the trail. We passed the dredges of our food bags to one another – winter squash and apple fruit leather; an oozing, blob of cheddar cheese; a melted glob of trail mix – and let the heat settle in around us. We were able to get clear water from a dribbly snowfield west of Shoestring Canyon, but that was the only good stuff we saw that day. Water is precious on this trail.
This trail can strain great friendships and break good ones. We found it strengthened our own. We laughed while we struggled, found joy in the misery, and embraced the mountain’s challenges and oddities. Best yet, we built a strong foundation of shared experiences and good stories, the base of all great and lasting friendships. Trail friends forever.