This was the day that was supposed to be ending at Dick Creek, but we had to switch it to Cataract Valley, which added distance making it about a 12 mile day.
On top of that, our night’s sleep was not all that great. The sleeping arrangement included 4 bags, 2 each zipped together and open at each end so we could all be staggered on each side. However, that night we found out that this just didn’t work well for us. A few of the kids rolled around way too much and made it hard to keep everyone covered. We (mostly mom) had to frequently untangle and re-cover them during the night.
I knew we needed to start early and get a steady pace going, so I was up in the 5 o’clock hour and started breaking camp, re-packing bags, and getting us ready to go. It was a chilly night (this was probably the coldest camp site on our trip), and people were reluctant to crawl out of their cozy sleeping bags. As they started getting up and moving about, it was obvious they were cold and preferred to sit around hugging themselves.
It felt like we were moving at a snail’s pace getting ready, with mom and me doing most of the work. There was a lot to do, kids needing this and that, trying to organize people, and keep things moderately clean and get food distributed. We also needed to re-organize the packs so things were in their proper place.
At some point, the same buck from the night before reappeared, and we enjoyed saying hi again. Apparently he lives nearby.
After breakfast, we finished packing and all things considered got off somewhat early, around 8am, but I was doubting if it was early enough. 7am would have been ideal, 6:30 even better. We dragged our tired bodies back onto the trail and tried to convince ourselves that we were enjoying this. On the trail, we tried to take minimal breaks and not waste unnecessary daylight.
After passing Winthrop glacier, we got to cross the fast-flowing silty water coming out of it. The water was splashing up on the log, which made it a bit slippery, so we guided most of the kids across.
As we continued, we seemed to be wandering through a wide variety of different forests. At times it was rocky, with short scrawny trees. Other times plants and grasses grew in abundance.
Sometimes we were in the open; other times we were under dense canopy. As we passed through these different landscapes, I was amazed at all the variety, each place beautiful and unique.
A some point, our 11 year old crumpled to the ground, complaining about knee pain, in the middle of his knee, and he was almost in tears. We took a break, and after a time he got up and tried to walk. He found a way to continue without it hurting much, but if he straightened his leg, the pain was sharp. I was concerned, here we were, in the middle of nowhere, and this could be a big problem.
At that moment, I felt quite powerless and vulnerable, unable to help. No phone service, days from civilization, very few people, and there was nowhere to turn for help. Nowhere, except the truly legitimate source of help, God. My prayer life had been getting exercise the past few days, and this instance was no exception.
After a time, his knee began to feel better, and the problem seemed to disappear.
Around 2pm we made it to Mystic Lake, which was going to be our longest break of the day, plus our sock washing & drying time. As we were arriving at the lake, we caught a glimpse of Sandy leaving on the other side.
After our lunch break and some fun in the water catching tadpoles, we dried off and pressed on, our pace slow but steady. Looking at the map and calculating our time, we knew we needed to hurry. Mom started carrying our 3 year old for stretches, adding 30 pounds to her already 30 pound pack. I wanted to carry him too, but my knees wouldn’t have it. The best I could do was hold his hand to help keep him going.
Not long after leaving Mystic Lake, with our oldest kids up ahead, we came around a bend and out of a grove of trees into a little meadow. Mom and I had stayed back to help one of the younger kids answer the call of nature. Our 11 year old, in the lead, rounded a corner and almost ran into a bear about 10 feet away. The kids in front backed away while another kid came running back to us. “Why are you running!?” Mom wanted to know. “There’s a BEAR!” was the hushed but excited reply. “That’s a good reason!” mom responded.
We all retreated back into the trees and watched from a distance, but the bear didn’t give any indication we were there. He kept wandering back and forth near the trail, grazing on plants. I wish we could have enjoyed the encounter more thoroughly, but our tight schedule had us thinking more about how to get past the bear than soaking in the moment. We would have loved to stay and watch, but we knew we needed to get going.
After a few minutes the bear meandered a little further away from the trail, so we cautiously moved ahead with me in the lead, making noise, talking and singing to the bear. He continued to ignore us, and after we passed him by, we hurried on to put some distance between us all. Later bear, we’re outta here.
A while later, we met some hikers going the other direction, and after swapping stories, found out they had also just encountered a different bear in another meadow. Continuing on, we met this bear as well, across a little stream and in more dense foliage. Feeling a bit more bold, we made our presence known and barely hesitated as we walked past, wishing the bear a nice afternoon. This one also paid us no attention, munching away.
As the day wore on, our bodies were starting to develop new aches and pains. I was having some knee pain in my good knee (my problem knee was working like a champ), and I was having some off and on joint pain in my feet. Kids were struggling with blisters and feeling the weight of their packs, their young bodies being taxed beyond anything they had previously known. Mom’s feet were doing great, but her back and shoulders were killing her. I gave her some quick back rubs at various resting spots, but her muscles were tender. This long day was taking its toll emotionally as well. Fun and enjoyable was turning into hard and discouraging.
We reached the Carbon River suspension bridge around 8pm. It was still light out, but being down in a valley, the sun was behind the hills and it was getting steadily darker. Cataract Valley was still about 1.6 miles away, and our pace would crawl as this last stretch was all uphill. We took a short break as everyone crossed the river one at a time (save the younger kids), I re-taped my feet and helped some other people with blisters, and then we started up the hill. As we entered the canopy, darkness closed in around us, and we began using our headlamps as necessary.
Our 3 year old was getting really tired by this time, and mom’s back was really giving her troubles. She was running low on strength, both physically and mentally. We kept pushing up the trail, but in the growing darkness, it was difficult to judge time and distance. We started picking up the pace, to try to and make it to camp before it got really dark.
After what seemed like an hour of hiking, we were really feeling the burn, and steadily wearing down while trying to push the pace. We had been straining hard for a good distance with no breaks, and we were hot and sweating from the exertion. The temperature was dropping, and I knew we needed to be careful, as wet and cold is a recipe for hypothermia. We needed to get to camp.
Our headlamps were now on full time unless we stopped for a break. The tree cover was getting thicker as we climbed, and the last bits of light had disappeared. Most of our attention was fixed directly in front of our feet on the trail so we didn’t trip over roots and rocks.
The sound of water was getting louder in the distance, and I was hoping it was the camp, but as we continued on, the sound came and went. I was starting to wonder if we had somehow missed the turnoff, since our focus was so much on the trail right in front of us. We had to be close, or we had missed it.
I and a few of the older kids pressed ahead, with mom and the younger ones lagging behind. At some point we stopped for a break, breathing heavily, waiting for the others to catch up. We could see our breath. By the time they arrived, mom was sounding anxious and in pain, her back going into spasms, and our 3 year old ready to sit down and fall asleep. Mom was afraid she couldn’t go on without her back locking up, and concerned the youngest would collapse. She was near tears. Her worries were pouring out, and then she started to cry, which cascaded into just about all the kids crying as well. I told them somewhat sternly “You’re wasting your energy by crying. If you cry, it clouds your vision, and you’re going to trip and fall.”
With emotions hanging on a thread, mom and I discussed if we should consider just setting up camp in a flat spot off the trail. We pressed on, looking for a level spot, any spot, even on the trail, but most of all looking for the camp. It couldn’t be far. Or, we were walking deeper into the forest and away from any established camp or water source. As we walked, there just didn’t seem to be any flat spots, and beside the trail the ground was strewn with too many branches and uneven ground to pitch a tent. We continued on, and I took the 3 year old.
A short time later, I looked up, and saw lights in the distance, tents glowing in the dark like big soft light bulbs. “Lights!” I called out with relief, and around me the crying erupted anew, but these were tears of joy. I promptly turned again and said, “No crying. If you cry, you don’t walk.” The crying quickly subsided. We had made it! Oh, the relief. Thank you God.
With new strength we pushed into camp and shed our heavy packs. We had made it! Site #1 was open but had some gnarly roots in the middle of the tent pad. Everyone stopped to wait, while I checked if there were any other open sites. I found #5 open, and it looked much better. So, we all moved over.
The rest of the night was a blur, as we set up camp in a hurry and had cold food for dinner, getting everyone ready for bed, trying to dry off our sweat soaked bodies, and putting on dry clothes. We were exhausted, and morale was very low. Almost everyone hated backpacking at that moment.
Soon, we were all in bed, and sleep came quickly.
> NEXT: PART 4 – CATARACT VALLEY TO EAGLE’S ROOST
< PREVIOUS: PART 2 – WHITE RIVER TO GRANITE CREEK