UNDER THE VOLCANO
Four years on the Pacific Northwest Trail
I didn’t find the Pacific Northwest Trail, but thankfully, it found me. It came leaping out of the bushes in the form of a job opening, of all things – education coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA), an adventure-friendly position that brought me far and wide across some of the most definitively epic mountainous terrain in the North Cascades.
During my four-year stint with the PNTA (which ended in 2003), I learned that although the broad, snowy form of Mt. Baker is beautiful to gaze upon from a distance, it’s a real bugger when it comes to re-routing a 1,200-mile national scenic trail to connect the continental divide in the Northern Rockies with the Pacific Ocean.
My crews and I wound up spending well over half our billable hours working, camping and reconnoitering within yodeling distance of that steaming, 10,781-foot-tall heap of rock and ice – and, even though most of the infrastructure we helped build is no longer part of the official Pacific Northwest Trail route, I can safely state that not a fraction of the effort we expended was wasted.
The glaciated flanks of the second-most active volcano in the lower 48 weren’t always visible from our job sites, but they never stopped impressing us.
As explosive and potentially dangerous as Koma Kulshan is, the longer we toiled upon the high, panoramic vistas surrounding it, the more we overlooked its destructive tendencies and accepted it, unconditionally, as our Great White Watcher. A mysterious and gargantuan Great White Watcher, perhaps, but at least a fairly quiet one.
The sky up there could get pretty raucous – storm clouds were often gathering and weather conditions were constantly evolving.
When it stayed nice, we soaked up the sun and eased ourselves into an idyllic lifestyle that alternated between heavy labor and heavy relaxation. But when it got ugly, we got to clomp through the mud trying to keep each other enthused about whatever trail improvement project we happened to be working on and hunkered down as best we could.
Severe snow-rain-hail squalls frequently showed up out of the blue, and there was always plenty of thunder and lightning popping in completely uninvited.
One late evening while I was sitting around a campfire eating dinner with a crew of 24 at-risk high school students up on Canyon Ridge, a lone but suspiciously dark cloud came charging over the hogback behind us and shot a single bolt of lightning into the towering stand of old-growth timber right beside us.
Just as the near-simultaneous clap of thunder went pealing into our ears, the crown of a nearby 200-foot-tall hemlock suddenly burst into flame, raining a shower of hot, glowing embers over our heads.
Before we could start evacuating, a crushing, gale-force gust came blasting into the chaos, batting the frenzied embers into such a dizzying cyclone of eyebrow-singing sparks that it no longer seemed advisable to remain upright.
“We’re going to die!” somebody screamed, as we all dropped unceremoniously to the ground.
And then, just like that, it was over.
The forest was still on fire right beside us, of course, and nearly every last one of our tarps, group tents and camp chairs had been blown to kingdom come. But at least that nasty black cloud was gone.
Having proven their mettle against one of the most powerfully unpredictable atmospheric forces at work in the high country, that same crew of high schoolers were soon confronted by another phenomenon that makes its mark near Mt. Baker – the U.S./Canadian border.
We first caught wind that a hiker had gone missing somewhere on Canyon Ridge when a lone Forest Service ranger showed up to help spearhead the search a couple of days after he was reported overdue. Before we knew it, we were combing the slopes above and below the PNT alongside dozens of professional and volunteer members of Whatcom County Search and Rescue for a thin, brown-haired, bearded fellow carrying a large red backpack and a pair of telescoping hiking poles.
Somewhere during the early stages of that tedious search, I overheard one of the volunteers (a middle-aged EMT encased in a resplendent, weather-proof assemblage of Gore-Tex) ask one of our high school students (clad in a tattered pair of denim dungarees and a hickory shirt riddled with singes and scorched holes) the following question:
“Don’t they provide you with anything other than cotton to wear?”
“No way!” the girl crowed, beaming with pride as she waded hip-deep through a soaking wet corn lily meadow. “We don’t need fancy fabrics. We’re the trail crew!”
Although we didn’t find the missing hiker, toward the end of our third day of searching we received word from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that he’d come staggering out of the Canadian woods onto a remote forest road somewhere along the Chilliwack River and flagged down a logging truck.
Apparently, not only was this poor fellow half-starved, badly dehydrated and missing both his poles and his giant red backpack, but he was completely confused about which country he was in. X
Erik Burge has been building and maintaining trails in the Pacific Northwest since 1994. The freelance journalist is co-creator of “Bushwacked,” an adventure comic book series. View it at budburgy.com.