ITT – Intensive Trail Therapy: Flapjack Lakes

One of the most frustrating things about being diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lower leg has been the fact that it’s not that bad of an injury.  While painful for the first two weeks, to the point where I couldn’t walk or even raise and lower my foot, my leg has felt pretty healthy since mid-June for day-to-day, normal use.  Of course, the PCT is not normal use.

Given that my recovery was happening in Washington, I opeted to reverse course and head south from the Canadian border three weeks after my initial diagnosis.  I was excited to get back out to the trail, albeit under different conditions from where I left it, but the call of the hike was pulling me out there.  Unfortunately it was too soon.
The details of my three day hike up to Canada and back from Hart’s Pass in North Cascades National Park are for a later post, but the aftermath of the hike left me hobbled for another week, my lower leg still in pain though there had been none for a week prior, and now my feet, and knees aching from compensating for that pain.  I was a mess, and terribly defeated.  I returned to Olympia and my parent’s house lost and ready to give up entirely.  I had no idea how to get back to where I was before my disasterous week in the Sierras.

I still wanted to hike.  My three days in the Cascades had inspired me more than anywhere before to photograph the beauty out there, but my body wasn’t cooperating.  I needed a plan to get back.  I needed to find a way to be sure the pain wouldn’t derail me again.

A week later I was feeling good again, but was wary.  In the month I’d been off trail I’d seen several other hikers forced to leave from injury, including my friend Eric, one of the Warrior Hikers who I’d grown close to since leaving Campo.  Eric had hurt his knee coming into Tahoe, and had himself been forced to return to Olympia to recover at his house not two blocks from where I was staying with my parents.  People were dropping like flies off the trail, but I was determined not to be away for ever.  I needed to get back out.

It was Eric who introduced me to the term ITT, Intensive Trail Therapy.  Looking to heal as he hiked, Eric’s plan was to rest until he felt better then use the physicality of the trail to work himself back into hiking condition.  I liked the sound of it.

But first I needed to test myself physically, to determine whether my body could even stand up to the rigors of day hiking, let alone distance hiking.  My parents live an hour from Olympic National Park, one of my favorite places to hike, so I picked a trail not far from their house, a 15 mile out and back hike up to Flapjack Lakes, off the Staircase section of the Olympics, an area I’ve become very familiar with over the years, and a longtime nemesis of mine.
In 2012 I attempted my first distance hike up the North Fork Skokomish Trail, and was soundly beaten by the mountain on the way up.  I’d made it 18 miles into the trail when I gave up and turned around, and was so exhausted and beaten up by the experience I hardly moved for two days after.  The reasons for turning back: too much weight, snow, and pain in my knees.  These seem to be recurring problems for me.
Flapjack Lakes had long been on my list of destinations, though I’d always thought of it as an overnight hike.  Though only 7.5 miles from trailhead to lake, the Olympics have a way of exaggerating distances, whether through poorly maintained trails, high elevation gains, or weather, 10 miles seems like 20 in those mountains.  My choice of this 15 mile trail, however, was based on my confidence, or hubris, that that distance had been my minimum on the PCT, and I was hiking during the height of summer in Washington, when the weather was warm, the days long, and the trails abundant with berries (a deciding factor for me, for sure).
I set out at 11:30 from the Staircase ranger station, along the mostly level trail for about 3.5 miles til I reached the junction to the flapjack trailhead.  I felt good, strong, fast.  I passed day hikers and blew past them, and felt no small amount of pride at being a stronger hiker than when I’d hiked this section in the past.  The fact that these other hikers were old women and small children meant nothing to me, I was a strong hiker, damn it!

It took me an hour and a half to reach the junction, well ahead of my PCT pace, but I had no weight on my back beyond my tripod and camera, so I didn’t read too much into it.  I turned up the hill, and was immediately confronted by the Olympics I knew and loved.  The trail climbed up several hundred feet right off the bat, up long switchbacks that drained my enthusiasm quickly.  Combined with the increasingly rocky, root-strewn nature of the trail, and I was starting to question my decision to hike up to the lakes, still some 4 miles away.

Thankfully the trail leveled out for a time, but not for long, and soon I found myself climbing one of the worst sections of trail I’d ever attempted.  To call some parts of it a trail would be generous, as I clambored over rocks and roots, and generally hated my life.  Oh there were highlights, a bridge crossing Madeline Creek, bumblebees on lupines, a waterfall that I spent far too much time (nearly an hour) shooting pictures of, but the trail was pounding my legs, and I still hadn’t reached the difficult section of the trail.

After the water the trail rose precipitously, in some sections seeming to shoot almost straight up the mountainside.  I rolled my ankles and twisted my knees, and just when I thought I’d overdone it…the trail leveled out and I was rewarded with the most glorious possible reward.  Huge salmon berries, the size of my thumb and subtly sweet on my tongue, lined the trail, and I gorged myself on all I could find.  They were delicious, and though I was sore, and tired, I felt buoyed, pushed to get up to the lakes which couldn’t be far away.

Sure enough, I reached the twin bodies of the Flapjack Lakes around 4:30, after another half mile from the berry patch, and was rewarded with an amazing view of the Gladys Divide, a craggy mountain spur along the southeast section of the Olympics, and took pictures along the lakes edge while eating mountain huckleberries straight off the bush.  It was peaceful and very rewarding.

I left the lakes at 5:30 and started my descent, and was pounded by the impact of my feet down the trail.  Everything ached and hurt, my feet felt ruined, my knees like jello, and my muscles were tight and burning, and I was regretting my life.

I pushed on, though, the thought of a burger pushing me onward.  All I wanted was to get to my car and to find somewhere where I could find a greasy, delicious burger and a milkshake to fill my belly.  It’s the simple motivations that often work best.

By the time I reached the North Fork Trail, I was exhausted, and it took me another two hours to reach my car, seemingly far longer than it had taken to get up just eight hours earlier.  I passed two hikers on their way to the lakes as I descended, and felt sorry for the poor bastards and their 50+ pound backpacks.  I tried to warn them about what they were getting into, but they didn’t listen.  Such foolish pride…
I reached my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat, taking off my boots and stretching my aching feet.  I was not ready for the PCT yet, my body was still not cooperating, but I figured out some important things about the causes for my pain.  My boots, heavy waterproof Merrell’s, duplicates of the ones that had carried me from Campo to Kennedy Meadows, had so little cushioning that impacts (like those that had caused my stress fracture in the first place), sent shocks of pain straight into my legs.  Also, my lower leg was perhaps the only thing that didn’t hurt, a signal that maybe the stress fracture had healed in the week since I’d retreated from the North Cascades.
As I drove back and pulled into Five Guys for a well-deserved burger (with everything, naturally, and cajun fries), I knew I wasn’t ready, but found myself encouraged that maybe, just maybe, I could make adjustments to get me back on the trail in the not too distant future.

Day 22 – Big Bear and Beyond

It was a dusty, windy dirt road that led up to the trail from Big Bear, and it took some time for Susan and I to make it to the trailhead, though I found I would’ve given anything for it to last a little longer.  I was saying goodbye again to her, and had already said goodbye to my family, and was once more setting out into the solitude of the trail.  It was surprisingly hard, but I was also looking forward to the sights to come.
I had spent the three days off with my family and Susan, going out to dinner, looking over my photos for the first time in three weeks, going to dinner and watching movies, and generally enjoying myself.  Though I’d taken time off in Idyllwild, this was my first real experience stepping away from the trail for a time.
My parents had rented a hotel room near Big Bear Lake, the resort town on the west end of it’s namesake, and, being a few days ahead of schedule, I found myself enjoying the restful atmosphere the town had to offer.  After San Jacinto, Susan and I had agreed to meet the following weekend to attempt a summit of Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California, and a longtime goal for both of us.  On the way up to Big Bear I’d been laughed at many times by other hikers for hiking on my day off, but I didn’t care, it was a chance to hang out with Susan for another day, it was worth it.
My dad, excited to be caring for Smeagol, had taken to carrying the little guy in a mesh pocket hung from a cord around his neck, where his body heat helped keep the mouse comfortable.  He fed my little hitchhiker milk from a small syringe, and doted on her (as he soon deduced) endlessly.  Smeagol went everywhere with us, to dinner, to the store, to the movie theater.  I was happy because she was saved, as I’d hoped she would be upon getting her to my Dad.

Hiker hunger had set in upon getting to Big Bear, or more accurately the day before I arrived.  There is a profound need to eat copious amounts of fatty, greasy, not at all healthy food when one hikes for any great length of time, and I found myself burying my face in huge bacony burgers, buffalo chicken calzones, breakfast pastries, ice cream, and any number of things that ordinary people try to eat in moderation.  There was a scale in the bathroom of our hotel and I’d lost 12 pounds since my arrival at Campo, the calorie sucking hike was doing its work, and I was starving.
On my second day in town I ran into Stacey and her friend Just Jules, a hiker from New Zealand who I immediately gravitated toward.  Having lived in Wellington for a year, I find myself immediately drawn toward the kiwi accent, or even the chance of talking about the islands.  I need to go back one day, for certain, but that’s a future adventure.  Stacey was happy to see me again, as we’d only briefly talked in Idyllwild on my day off there before going our separate ways.  She’d come down San Jacinto the day after I left Ziggy and the Bear’s, and found herself trapped by the oppressive heatwave that I’d fortunately just missed.  Temperatures in the Palm Desert were hitting 105, and with no shade and little water for large sections of that trail, I could see why it had proved too daunting for many a hiker.  Over a dozen hikers had left the trail from Ziggy and the Bear’s, and Stacey and Jules had taken the offer of a ride from Legend, a Trail Angel I’d yet to meet, and bypassed the 50 miles up the mountain to spare themselves the pain.  I didn’t blame them, and as we sat eating ice cream and discussing life and the trail, it all seemed to have worked out well for us.
Susan arrived early on Saturday morning, and I was beyond excited to see her again, though it’d only been a week.  We hopped in the car when she arrived and grabbed a quick breakfast before making our way down to the start of the San Gorgonio trail, a large, waterless canyon that sat at the base of the nearly 12,000 foot peak.  There were signs all around warning of a need for a special backcountry permit to access the summit, which we did not have, but we persevered, climbing out of the wash for nearly a mile of rock strewn switchbacks, which left both of our legs burning.  We were sore, and neither of us were particularly enjoying the process, so when we came upon a ranger at the National Forest boundary, who asked us pointedly to see our permits, we politely apologized and reversed course, no harm, no foul.  The summit would be there another day.
So my third day in Big Bear was spent exploring with Susan, and it was wonderful.  We had lunch with Mama Goose, newly arrived in town, and my parents came to join us.  We grabbed fudge at the local fudge shop (a real gem of a place, and one I’ll be revisiting for sure), and explored the surrounding mountains by car.  Susan and I are suckers for abandoned places, so when we discovered an abandoned boy scout camp, we were excited to explore it, wandering a sage-covered meadow, laying in the grass of an archery range looking for shapes in clouds, and generally enjoying each others company.  We met my parents for dinner and spent the night joking and telling stories (mostly at my expense), and it was lovely.
But all good things must end, and I found myself stepping out of her car, fully laden pack on my back once more, kissing her goodbye and fighting tears that didn’t want to be held back.  We said goodbye, under the assumption that we’d see each other again in three weeks, and I set out, putting some distance between us before I was slammed by a wave of emotion I’d not expected.  It’s hard saying goodbye to people you love, even for a time, and Big Bear had reminded me of that love, of it’s presence and the reasons for it, and now I was alone once more.
The trail was easy, thankfully, and I turned my attention on putting in miles in the 7 hours I had left before dark.  I hiked through the pines of the mountains to the north of Big Bear Lake, looking down on the water and town I’d just left.  There were wildflowers in abundance along the trail, and lizards everywhere, and soon I was happy to be back out and walking.

I wound along the mostly level trail, slowly descending from the ridgeline.  A few miles in I passed the meadow Susan and I had found the day before, and was hit again by a wave of emotion, but I pushed it down and soldiered on.
The area north of Big Bear was marked by a series of large burn areas, from the all too frequent wildfires that hit the area.  Soon I was out of the trees and hiking down a barren and rocky hillside, catching my first glimpse of the San Gabriel mountains to the west, the mountains that stretched north of my home in Los Angeles, and was again confronted with a powerful emotional reaction.  In a week I’d be the closest to home I’d been in a month, it was exciting, and I was anxious to get there.  I descended into Little Bear Camp and used the surprisingly well maintained toilet there, a solar affair behind a wood plank wall, a luxury out on the trail, and continued on, until I got to the dirt road crossing near Holcomb Creek.
I had seen the truck parked at the road as I came down from the mountain into Little Bear Camp, a white pick-up that I presumed belonged to some local out for a day of hiking, off-roading, or hunting.  I found myself nervous as I approached it.  Though I had no reason to doubt the intentions of anybody on the trail, thoughts nevertheless sprang into my head of redneck shenanigans, and harassment from locals.  Whether it was due to some inborn prejudice (it was) or just general social anxiety from a month removed from society (it was), I was filled with a decidedly anxious feeling as I approached the dirt road.
Compounding my anxiety was the fact that I couldn’t see where the trail led after the road.  I stepped onto the well graded dirt and pulled out my phone, scanning the map and trying to judge where the trail picked up again.  The white truck was to my right, not 10 feet away, the driver sitting quietly watching me, the idiot hiker, lost and filled with nervousness.  As I looked at the trail, and my map, he rolled down his window.
“Looking for the trail?” he asked, and I said yes, nervously laughing off my lack of route-finding ability.
“It’s about a 100 yards up the road, past that fenceline and down along the creek.  Just walk up that way and you can’t miss it,” he said.
I thanked him and he smiled, starting to roll up his window again.  As he did I asked if he was out hiking.
“A little yeah, just got back to my car.  I was out saying goodbye to my dog.”  He said, stopping his window halfway up.
This was one of the heaviest hitting, and most beautiful moments I’d come across on the trail, and I offered my sympathies.  “How old was he?” I asked, knowing the pain of losing a pet, and having just helped Susan through her own loss not 6 months earlier.
“Fifteen, but he was strong til the end,” the man said, and continued.  “I’d bring him out here all the time, he loved hiking this section.  He’d always jump right out of the car and run straight into the creek, it’s really cold water, especially on days like this.  It’d take hours to get him out.”
I listened, entranced, as he finished.  “We buried him last week, but I kept his collar.  I figured it would be nice to leave a piece of him here in his favorite place.  I hung the collar on the fencepost next to the sign up there, you’ll see it when you hit the trail.”
I again offered condolences and thanked him for his help.  Not for the first time, nor for the last, were my preconceptions proven completely wrong upon talking with someone on the trail.  As I walked on, and past the collar, hanging from the trail sign as I stepped down away from the road, I was buoyed by the beauty of the moment, and it both lifted my spirits and opened my eyes to the sights on the trail ahead.
I followed the creek, past large, placid pools, dammed by beavers, it seemed, the cool dark water calling me.  I considered jumping in, but left it alone, instead filling my water bottles and pushing forward.  The sun was getting low, and I wanted to get a few more miles in before stopping.  There was a crossing not three miles ahead, and reaching it would set me up perfectly for a hike into Deep Creek the next day.
I walked through another burn area, big boulders dotting the landscape, and new manzanita and wildflower growth lining the trail to either side.  I stopped for some time by one manzanita, in full bloom and covered in bees, and took pictures far longer than I should have, but it was peaceful, and I felt inspired to capture the beauty of the moment.
The sun was almost down by the time I hit the crossing of Holcomb Creek, and I set up my hammock quickly before eating dinner.  It was disappointing to be back on trail rations, but there was nothing to be done for it.  I dressed for bed and climbed into my hammock, and went to sleep as the full moon rose over the small canyon.  It had been an eventful first day back on the trail, but I was happy to be back out.

Day 17 – the Taming of Smeagol

I woke up with a start in my sleeping bag alongside the whitewater river, the sounds of other hikers leaving pulling me awake.  The Germans were packing up their tent, but KC was crossing the river and waving goodbye as I rose, the sun already cresting the hills to the east.  I had hoped to beat the heat of the day up over the next series of up hills before my descent into Mission Creek, but I’d failed miserably.

Still, when I’d finally packed up and filled my water bottles, I was not too far behind the crowd, and still ahead of the major heat for a time, so I made good progress.  I crossed the river and made may way through the gravelly wash to a small ridge, which I climbed relatively quickly, despite the still significant weight on my back.  As I crested the rise I got my first clear look at Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California and the target of my next adventure with Susan the following weekend.  There was a scattering of snow on its rocky summit, and it didn’t look too imposing, though it towered over the surrounding mountains, but I knew it would be a beast to climb, but that was still four days away, I had to get to Big Bear first.

Whitewater Wash
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I descended from the ridge, enjoying the downhill, and was watching the trail when I almost stepped on a baby mouse, it’s eyes closed and gait wobbly.  It was clearly helpless, driven from its burrow by some disturbance, and was sure to die either from the heat of the upcoming afternoon, or by the jaws of some passing snake.  I dropped my pack and pulled out the plastic tub I’d eaten the applesauce out of the day before, and scooped the little guy up.  It’s eyes were closed, and it was too skinny, but I hoped, if it could survive the next few days, I could bring it to my Dad, who had a long history of caring for animals, particularly mice and rats, through his career as a behavioral researcher.  I pored a little water in the tub, and some gravel for it to feel comfortable, and tucked the little guy away in the safety of my pack, where I hoped he’d be sheltered and protected from the heat and jostling the upcoming hike would undoubtedly bring.

Smeagol on the Trail
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I felt proud of myself, though I knew it was a long shot to get him to survive.  At my next stop, a mile or so in, I sat beneath a juniper and ate breakfast, tossing in a bit of cheese for my little hitchhiker and even showing him off to The Portland Sisters, who passed me as I ate and played with the little guy.  We chatted about their ordeal on the mountain, of which they seemed slightly and understandably embarrassed, and my little friend, who I had named Smeagol, because he looked like the character from Lord of the Rings.  They continued on, and I packed up my breakfast and followed a short time later.
Gorgonio Looms
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The trail led up another ridge, which offered beautiful views of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto, and even Palm Springs in the distance.  I took several photos, of course, and found cell service at the top, a welcome chance for me to check in with my family and look at the upcoming weather.  The temperatures were due to rise drastically over the next few days, and I was glad I would be in the mountains before the desert heat rose over 100 degrees.  I pushed down the other side of the ridge, into what promised to be a rare luxury on the trail to that point, a twelve mile stretch with regular flowing water.  I was beyond excited at the prospect.

Twin Summits
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I hit Mission creek and took a break under the welcome shade of an overhanging cottonwood, possibly my favorite tree, because of the life sustaining water it invariably represents nearby.  The creek was small, barely a trickle at some points, but it was clear and cool, and part of me wanted nothing more then to sit with my feet in the water and let the day pass me by.  I was passed by several hikers, most who I’d run into before, including The Engineer, Nails, whose name came from her multiple lost toenails, and Butt Plug, who got his name from an unfortunate case of constipation some days prior, and was dealing with some other unfortunate and uncomfortable issues that had him considering the name Butt Trouble.  I showed them little Smeagol and we chatted, and as soon as they moved on to find a shady spot of their own, I pushed on, knowing that I’d never make it to Big Bear if I didn’t keep walking.
The trail wound along the creek for a several miles, occasionally climbing above it to show off the winding green snake of its riparian, tree lined banks, often dipping down along and sometimes in the creek itself.  It was easy to lose the trail at several points, and the rocks and mud made it slow going, as I slipped and tripped my way up the increasingly narrow creek bed.
The creek itself was vibrant and welcoming, and the narrows of the canyon u walked through was beautiful, white sandstone rising above the willow and cottonwood lined creek bed in gnarled and craggy outcroppings, the mountains in the distance towering over it all with their piney crests.  I kept ascending, but it felt an easy, if time consuming, walk.
Bend in Mission Creek
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I passed a trail crew as the afternoon grew long, and stopped and chatted with them, thanking them for their hard work to clear and maintain the trail.  I’d come to appreciate the efforts of the PCT trail crews to that point, from the experience on San Jacinto, where the side trail had been rocky and hard to make out in comparison to the easy to follow PCT, and my knowledge of other trails in Southern California, few of which I would consider to be immaculately maintained.  The hard work of the volunteers that help keep the PCT such a lovely and easy trail to follow should be commended, and I was happy to have the chance to thank these few in person.

Afternoon Light on Apricot Mallow
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The sun began to sink below the mountains to the west as I pushed further upstream.  I took a break and checked on Smeagol, and found him cold, wet, and lacking in energy.  I took him out and cleaned his tub in the creek, before building a nest of toilet paper for him and tucking him in.  I hoped he would at least be warm and dry in the coolness of the upcoming night, though I was starting to have my doubts.

Prickly Pear in the Canyon
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I pushed on, filling up my water bottles at what I was told by another hiker to be the last crossing of the creek (it wasn’t), and kept walking until it got too dark to see where I was going.  I set up camp in a small wash, and put smeagols tub in a nest of my dry clothes inside my tent.  I went to sleep with the moon shining brightly through the fly of my tent, apprehensive about the impending climb the morning would bring, as I ascended over 4000 ft over the next four miles to the ridge line that would take me to Big Bear.