Hiking with a pack on again felt strange at first, and you can imagine there was a fair amount of bitching about how much stuff we were carrying as we headed out of Ashland. We had been sorely tempted to stay in Ashland another day, but after we did the math a couple of times we knew we had to leave, big miles lay ahead of us if we were going to make it through our last section in California and back up to Washington in time to finish. Big miles and long days.
That is why it worried us when we saw the first plume of smoke. It was right before we reached our camp, high above a ridge, white and ominous. It could have been a thunderhead, building high into the dimming sky, but the forecast hadn’t called for rain and there is just something slightly different about smoke. Bellow the billow was a hazy, spreading out over the hills, and as the sun shown through it its rays were turned from a clear golden to a firey orange, casting everything in a otherworldly glow. The only other time I had seen everything turned that color was when we had been hiking on the Wonderland Trail and smoke from fires in Eastern Washington had obscured the sun on the East side of the mountain for a day. When we made it to camp we check for LTE and began searching for fires near us. Our obvious concern was for our safety, our second concern was that we were going to hike right into a fire. There weren’t any fires in Oregon, but there was one that had just started over the border in California. We decided to keep an eye on it.
That night, as the air cooled, that thin layer of hazy smoke that had been hovering above us dropped down into the valley, and for about a two hour period we found ourselves in the smoke. I woke up, the stench of it burning my nose hair, ash covering everything in our tent, but after a couple of hours it passed us by and when we woke up in the morning it languished below us in the valley, trapped below us as we climbed higher.
By the time we reached the Oregon/California border the smoke was nearly forgotten, the air was clear and the sky bright blue. We had finally made it to the border. It didn’t quite have the drama I am sure people feel when they finally pass out of California but we have been circling it for a while now, so it felt like a huge accomplishment to finally cross it. We took a couple of pictures and wrote in the trail journal and moved on. Whole lot of pomp and circumstance. Everyone we passed was talking about the fire, but everyone seemed to think that it was mostly contained and that even though things were getting a little smoke-ier we would soon ascend a ridge and be above the smoke.
How wrong they were. As we climbed we were able to see the ridges and mountains ahead of us, until we weren’t, because they were engulfed by thicker and thicker white smoke. It drifted through in clouds at first but then it became so thick we could hardly see three hundred feet in front of us. At this point we started to get a little worried for our lungs. We had been keeping track of it through the PCT and CalFire and we weren’t particularly worried about it, it didn’t seem to be super close to us, but we also didn’t know what way it was moving or how fast, so we had been monitoring. That is why when, during a break we didn’t have LTE, we ended up on the phone with the PCTA. We had called my dad to have him check the PCTA website to make sure the trail was still closed and he informed us that the trail was soon to be closed and that the PCTA recommended that people not enter the area. Since we were already in the area we were in somewhat of a pickle. That is when we called the PCTA. To be specific we ended up on the phone with Jack Haskel, who is the only person I have ever talked to when calling the PCTA, so I am pretty convinced he is the only one who actually works there. Is it possible that the PCTA is a one man show? Highly unlikely. He directed us to someone at the Kalamath Forest Service who chatted with us about our safety and our options. He confirmed that the trail was going to be closing soon, but it wasn’t closed yet and he assured us we weren’t in any danger. He did recommend that we get to Seiad Valley as quickly as possibly though, so we added some miles on to an already swift schedule.
Eventually we did get out of the smoke, which was a relief because it was giving both of us headaches, and as we rounded a bend we were able to see the fire, basically on the hill next to us. Dwaine at the Forest Service had said the fire was plenty far away from us, but as we seemingly walked around it on the trail it didn’t feel very car away from us. We continued to move away from the smoke but from every turn in the trail we could see flames bursting out of the tree canopy. Nothing like a forest fire to get you moving. As we hiked into the night, as fast as we could towards Seiad Valley, the clouds and the smoke mingled until you couldn’t tell which was which, sunset turning both of them rosy pink, and dusky lavender.