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Pacific Crest Trail: Northern California

Leaving the Sierra behind was sad and joyous at the same time. I knew I had seen some of the most spectacular sights I would ever see on the trail, but I was 315 miles closer to Canada and starting on a new section of the trail, Northern California. That means new views, new terrain, and new adventure.

The 15-mile days through the Sierra quickly turned into 20+ mile days. With a rapidly approaching end date, I knew I would have to shift into a higher gear. And without the snow and high altitude, I knew NorCal would be the best place to start. But now that I've started picking up more miles on the gentler ground, my joints have quieted, and my feet are starting to yell again. It most likely didn't help that my shoes were already worn out, and I would end up hiking an additional 400 miles in them before being able to replace them. Postal delays seem to have extra lousy timing. It's just one example of having to roll with the punches. Blisters that I have never had to deal with on trail before quickly popped up with the increase in miles and hotter temperatures. I can't complain too much because they had been at bay for 1,100 miles, unlike many other hikers who have been dealing with blisters since day one.

Although we were able to give up our bear canisters at Kennedy Meadows North, that doesn't mean bear activity decreases. Actually, I saw my first bear in Northern California. It was along a section of trail where we had been warned to look out for a momma hawk protecting her young. Someone had even been dive-bombed by the hawk and ended up with a gnarly cut on his head. So I minded my business with my head down, moving quickly, when suddenly a black bear appeared around the bend. It was drinking water from the steam where I was planning to stop. I panicked and forgot what to do in bear encounters. After 100 yards of backtracking and hoping the bear would disappear, I remembered that I needed to make noise and be noticed. Clanking my trekking poles together and loudly saying "hey bear" twice seemed to do the trick, and off the bear went. I skipped that water source and moved on to the next to be safe. After encountering a second bear about two weeks later, I can say they don't seem to want anything to do with us. Still, they appear very intimidating, especially when they emerge from nowhere.

There are several campgrounds in more populated areas of wilderness where bears are commonly spotted and even seen getting into trash and food because of poor storage practices. More land managers are making changes and taking precautions to end these interactions. Desolation Wilderness is one of these locations and quickly enforced bear canister regulations in the middle of July. Thankfully, I had already made my way through this section. Still, like Lassen Volcanic National Park, many hikers will have to decide if they want to hike through the entire stretch without camping or carry a bear canister. And like Lassen, I'm sure many will choose to hike through the 25 miles all in one go.

On the other side of the country, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy just announced that hikers should utilize bear canisters for the entirety of the trail. Bears are getting more curious, and rodents are also starting to chew through gear to access hiker's food. With the proper use of a bear canister, these incidents will diminish, and hikers can sleep easier at night. It wouldn't surprise me if the Pacific Crest Trail Association soon followed in its footsteps. While I don't necessarily love the bulky container, I think practices should be the same across the board, keeping wildlife wild.

NorCal blues is a statement many hikers hear tossed around before the transition from Sierra to Northern California. I stayed strong and thought surely it can't be as bad as everyone makes it out to be. Honestly, after traveling through 95% of NorCal, I've been less impressed than I thought I’d be for several reasons. This is the first section of the trail where I needed to distract myself with music/podcasts. The heat wave wasn't letting up, and although it was a nice change of pace from the strenuous Sierra, the terrain got pretty monotonous. Often I felt as if I were walking in circles and would never get out of California.

Vast stretches of logging forests surround the PCT in Northern California. It brings more exposure and fewer camp spots. The mountainsides are covered in bulldozed swaths and blowdowns. In the distance, large logging trucks can be heard traveling down the dirt roads. Nothing about these portions of the trail says calming wilderness experience to me. Many of the tent sites listed on FarOut were no longer usable. And there were long distances between flat spaces where hikers could camp. Most of this flat space was located along dirt roads where turnouts had been transformed into campsites. I never particularly wanted to camp along the side of a road, but with uncertainty about how far the following location would be, I made it home for the night. Thankfully, most of these roads are no longer used or not highly trafficked, so it's relatively safe.

Within the last few years, a significant transformation of the PCT has been the surge in wildfires. With the hotter, drier climate during summers, much of the West has been experiencing more wildfires and larger ones. When beginning the PCT journey, hikers must accept that there will most likely be itinerary changes due to the fire season, along with significant sections of the trail being covered in burn scars from previous year’s fires. Old burn sections can be challenging to navigate.

Highly exposed burn areas can be scorching because there is no shade protection from tree canopies. Under the canopy of a coniferous forest, temperatures can be as much as 15 degrees cooler than in unshaded areas. So hiking through the Dixie burn section in a heat wave was not ideal. Instead of a cool, refreshing breeze, it was like opening an oven in my face. Except in place of a yummy-smelling casserole or gooey pie, it was the sad smell of burned wood. The typical vibrant shades of greens were replaced with shades of brown, and sounds of life were replaced with an ominous silence. There were occasions when a woodpecker in the area hammered away. Its jackhammering beak reverberates through the forest, causing it to sound like a construction zone.

Not only can heat be a cause for concern, but there are also safety concerns when hiking and camping in burn areas with dead trees. Dead trees can topple over at any given moment. The most common sound while hiking through the burn was the cracking of little branches as they snapped free from the tree trunk and fell to the ground showing just how brittle they are. Thankfully, I haven't yet encountered a falling tree, but there were times when the wind would pick up, and all I could think about what getting whacked. That's when I would usually pick up the pace a bit. Safe camping practices mean that you are aware of your surroundings when camping. Looking up is crucial in ensuring you are not setting up camp under dead trees with the possibility of them blowing down during the night. This can be more challenging when most of the forest is burnt up, and healthy trees are sparse. With the help of FarOut and hiker feedback, it was easier to look ahead and see what safe camping options were available. It allowed me to plan my days better, knowing just how far I would need to hike to get to an open area with no trees or a covered area with healthy trees.

Air and water quality are also causes for concern in burned forests. Ash that covers the ground is stirred up as hikers walk, filling the air. Breathing this air most likely isn't very good for a person, and I know many hikers who got a scratch in their throat while hiking through the larger Dixie burn portion. It tickled my nose, but I didn't notice much difference otherwise. Many have also questioned the condition of the water, speculating that fire retardants have entered these sources and are very unhealthy. This is all assumption since we don't know what sources could be affected. I like to think that my fancy Sawyer Squeeze removes all harmful particles from my water before I drink it. This is perhaps ignorant, but I'd rather live a full and fun life than constantly worry about ways I might be poisoning myself.

The ash and fine sand that easily finds their way into your socks and shoes are more of an annoyance than a safety concern. Mixed with the heat, this is the perfect atmosphere for blisters. Before now, I could wear one pair of socks for several days straight, but after only one day, they seem to become 80% ash/dirt and only 20% merino wool. Keeping the socks pliable and not stiff is important in protecting against blisters. When socks are stiff and full of small ash/dirt particles, they rub your feet constantly as you hike, like sandpaper. While I could never get my socks 100% clean and ash/dirt free on the trail, changing my socks every day and rinsing the pair I wasn't wearing seemed to help keep new blisters from forming. It also felt much nicer in the morning to put on a "fresh" pair of socks and not the same cardboard stiff pair.

While Northern California may not be the most exciting portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, It does contain the halfway point, where a concrete monument stands, pinpointing a massive milestone for both northbound and southbound hikers. It's what motivated me through the approximately 150-mile stretch of burn. 1,325 miles is a grand feat, and while there are still 1,325 miles to go in the journey, I felt an overwhelming amount of pride in what I had already accomplished.

After the midpoint, my focus shifted to completing NorCal and reaching the Oregon border. At this point, 367 miles seems like a piece of cake, and I was ready to start counting down miles. It was going to be a race to the finish line. Could I complete the rest of the trail before September 15th? Setting new goals along the way has kept me motivated and allowed me to see what I can achieve. Pushing my body to new limits drives me. Endorphins pulse through me as I often beat the goals I set for myself. I can see how people get addicted to this feeling.

As weeks progressed and the distance between me and the Oregon border shortened, the heat wave stuck around, bringing temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Moving north of Castella (mile 1501.2), lower temps looked to be on the horizon if we could make it through the next few days. There had even been overcast and partly cloudy skies for a couple of days. During the day's heat, I would turn my head to the sky to see if a cloud would soon shield me as I moved from shade to shade. As a Texan, it was tolerable heat but certainly not optimal. Nearing Etna, thunderstorms could be heard through the mountains, but precipitation hardly fell. I didn't know what these storm events meant at the time but soon found out.

On July 29th, 2022, news about the start of the McKinney fire broke. Starting as a quarter-acre fire with a moderate rate of spread, the McKinney fire was soon blazing out of control at a rapid rate and covered 30,000 acres on July 30th. Many evacuation orders and warnings were quickly put into place. Part of the evacuation orders included Seiad Valley, my next resupply location. Along with the evacuation orders, the PCTA closed the trail between Etna and Mt. Ashland. Those already amid the fire closure were pulled out by search and rescue and returned to a safer location. From my hotel room in Yreka, California, I could see the smoke plume high above the hillside, looming close enough to make me feel uncomfortable. Without delay, we decided it would be wise to make our move toward Ashland, Oregon, sooner rather than later. The new plan was to hike north from Callahan's Lodge towards Crater Lake and through the remainder of Oregon. Overnight the McKinney fire continued to grow. At 53,00 acres on July 31st, smoke and ash covered Ashland, and plans continued to evolve.

Thunderstorms in the area ignited fire after fire. Some unaffecting the Pacific Crest Trail, while one prompted a new trail closure just north of Crater Lake. With high temperatures, winds, and dryness, thunderstorms produced thunder and lighting but not enough precipitation. Looking ahead at the forecast, thunderstorms were predicted almost every day along the portion of the trail I was planning to travel. My gut told me it wouldn't be smart to continue my hike through the thunderstorms, and with new fires starting so close to the trail almost daily, I made the tough decision to skip Oregon and go straight for Washington.

Time and miles were flying. I can't believe I was so close to finally crossing into Oregon. With 1,691.7 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail traveling through the state of California, it can feel as if you'll never escape it. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has different plans and has postponed my hike through Oregon. Being a purist at heart, I am discouraged that my continuous footpath north was interrupted. Still, I acknowledge that my safety is more important than a linear path. If all goes well, I plan to pick my journey back up on the border of Oregon and Washington, heading north in hopes of reaching the northern terminus in early September. Ideally, I will be able to complete Oregon within 2022, but that may be a task I have to complete in future years.


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