Seeing a mountain lion near Mt. Shasta, and a trip off-trail
After Chester and the halfway point, I started hitting my stride. Finally the grade and elevation (and my fitness) were such that I could hike 25 mile days regularly, and being closer to Canada than Mexico was GREAT for my morale.
I ran into Loveline, who I’ve been leapfrogging with since before Echo Summit & South Lake Tahoe, in town, and we hitched back to the trailhead together. Sometimes it’s easier for a man to get a ride when there’s a woman with him, so I was happy to be his “ride bride”.
The trail took me into Lassen Volcanic National Park that day. I covered 19 miles between 11:30 am and 8:30 pm, including meal breaks. Felt good to be hiking faster. I took the optional Boiling Lake Alternate route past an honest-to-gosh boiling lake — I could see bubbles bursting in the dusky beige lake, and at points on the trail could feel the heat coming up through the ground.
The next day I hiked on the easiest terrain ever (maybe 200 uphill feet all 26 miles of the day) to Old Station, a tiny fishing resort town. I hung out at the gas station / store there, eating ice cream, drinking pop & beer, charging my phone, and catching up with hikers I hadn’t seen in ages. Loveline & I opted to hike out that evening to get further down the trail towards Hat Creek Rim, an upcoming waterless stretch. We made it a few miles out and camped on some lovely pine duff.
The next day was the famous Hat Creek Rim. This is an approximately 30 mile stretch of trail with no natural water sources — like Southern California all over again. Local trail angels maintain caches in the area though, including one I’d been told I could rely on, about 17 miles from where I started that morning. Because of this, I didn’t feel too desperate about hiking quickly. When I got to a viewpoint on the Rim (with a view of Lassen and the first view of Shasta), I hung out for an hour chatting on the phone with my sister and husband.
Instead of being a hot hot slog, that day was quite nice. I seem to be more heat tolerant than many hikers — I’ve still never chosen to hike a hot section during the night, and Hat Creek Rim was no different. I maintain that night hiking is a choice that works for some, even many, but is not as necessary for all as PCT hiker culture seems to promote.
There were several water caches along the trail, and Trail Archangel Coppertone was hanging out Road 22. This was my 7th time seeing him, and my sixth ice-cream float. He knows my name now (goal achieved!), and is always fun to catch up with. I chilled with him for a bit, then hiked out, heading for the next water cache about 10 miles away. I thought I might find a few other hikers there, and was feeling ambitious about miles.
Around 8 pm, shortly after passing the 1400 mile marker (!!!) I was hiking along, admiring the intermittent views of Mt. Shasta with one headphone in, when I thought I heard a growl.
Now, I think I hear growls pretty often. I’m a bit of a Nervous Nelly on the trail at this point, seeing bears in every boulder and hearing cats in every creaking branch. This growl seemed less of a hallucination though, and spooked me enough that I took out my ear bud, put away my music, and hiked fast until I got to the water cache. It was dusk when I pulled up, but I only found one other hiker, a fellow I’d met recently, cooking dinner. I mentioned hearing the growl and feeling a bit spooked, and the guy laughed and said “Ha ha, don’t you worry, there aren’t any mountain lions around here.” He then continued and told me that “all the dangerous animals don’t like the dark” and that I had nothing to worry about.
If you’re wondering what women are talking about when they talk about sexism on the trail, some of it is encounters like this. We wonder, does he think all other hikers are idiots, or just the women? Would he be saying patently false statements about predators to another guy? (Bears & cougars don’t like the dark? WHAT?) Am I projecting my fear of sexism, or is this rational?
This self-doubt didn’t last long, as he was just plain douchey. Besides advising me on the local animal situation, he liked to talk about his time on the AT, and how easily he hiked 30 mile days.
Ugh, NEXT please.
By the way, dude: the entire PCT is mountain lion habitat.
I have no issue with other hikers not being afraid of animals, but as solo woman night-hikers, particularly small ones like myself, are pretty much the only hikers who cougars might go for on the trail, if you’re not in that demographic, don’t belittle our caution.
Best part was, I saw one just 45 minutes later.
Not wanting to hang out around this guy, I hiked on, hoping to find my friends pretty soon. The most incredible sunset of the trail illuminated my path for a while, but by 9 pm I had my headlamp on to help prevent tripping. The yellow Supermoon rose behind me to throw my shadow directly on the trail. As I walked along, I turned my head from side to side, scanning with my headlamp for reflective material on a tent.
Around 10 pm, my headlamp caught the eyes of a beast off the trail to the left. I stopped and stared at it. It stared back. I knew without having to think about it, that it was a mountain lion. The eyes were feline, and too high off the ground for a bobcat (~3′). It turned its head from side to side a few times, showing one eye at a time, and bobbed up and down some. It didn’t come towards me, or make any noises.
I stayed still, doing my best to not feel fear, stinky fear, and we watched each other. I hoped it would go away, and when it seemed clear that it was happy where it was, I decided I needed to make a move. I told it in as stern a voice as I could muster, “Alright, cat. I’m going to hike on, and you’re going to stay here, okay? Do you understand? You’re going to stay right here.”
At that I moved out, looking back a few times to see its eyes tracking me, but not moving in space. About five minutes later, I thought I saw the eyes again on the same side of the trail, though I wasn’t sure. Regardless of certainly, I kicked up my pace as fast as I could walk without running, and started weakly singing. For some reason, in my lizard brain, it seemed like a bad idea to play music on my phone (which I had downloaded expressly for this purpose), so I just mussed through all the indie tunes, Disney songs, and Chrismas carols I could half remember.
After another hour of hiking, I was drawing close to the end of the waterless stretch. I could see the lights of the trout hatchery at the end of the section, and had just made the plan to camp next to the facility in the bright electric lights, when I came across Loveline’s tarp. I stumbled into his camp, blathering about the cougar, feeling ever so grateful to find another human. After pitching my tent, I managed to get to sleep after several hours of mentally winding down.
The next day I let myself sleep in, and didn’t hike out until 8:30 am or so. After hiking about 5 miles, I came across some trail magic from fellow hiker Tortuga’s wife, daughter, and friends. They fed us *real food* — turkey sandwiches, bell peppers, apricots, cherries, caesar salad, brownies. I was in heaven. To sweeten the magic even further, they offered to slack-pack us (i.e. drive our packs while we walked) to the next highway.
I accepted the offer happily, and took off running. On the trail, I’ve been dreaming about running. I’m clearly getting enough exercise out here, but nothing that satisfies the desire to move fast and free. I got about a mile down the road before I came across yet another trail magic set-up, the Wild Bird Cache. There were beers. There were sodas. There was even a solar shower than I would have been tempted by if it hadn’t been an obscenely hot day.
After downing a beer and reclining in a chair for half an hour, I ran and walked the rest of the way to the highway where I retrieved my bag, and continued on the last mile to Burney Falls State Park, where I had a resupply box. Loveline & I created a little hiker ghetto on the side of the surprisingly nice general store. Five or six other hikers joined us, charging our phones in the electric sockets, sorting our boxes on the picnic table, and satisfying our food cravings (lime popsicles! quarts of milk! hot dogs!).
I relaxed for several hours, then hiked out five miles. At Rock Creek, I had the best foot soak of the trail — the creek was deep enough to dangle my legs into from a perfect rock seat. Right up the hill from the creek was a set of tent sites, complete with 3 bars of AT&T service. I got to chat with Russell that night from my tent.
The next day started smoothly. The trail crossed forest service road after forest service road, and did a lot of climbing, but all with reasonable grade. Mt. Shasta showed his face from time to time, and there were delicious springs. Around 3 pm, I came across Japanese hiker Mr. Cup taking a break, and sat down to do the same. When I turned on my phone, I texted my husband, and he asked me to call. Turns out my grandmother was in the hospital after a cardiac event, and it didn’t look real good.
I am loving this hike (most of the time, especially now that I’m past halfway), but family is more important to me. No question. By some amazing twist of fate, I was only ~5 miles from Hwy 89, and had friends up in Grenada CA who I’d been planning to visit when I got to Castella on I-5 two days later. I stayed at that cell reception location on the trail for a few hours and between calls & texts with my sister, Russell, and my friend Zan, made plans to hike another 4 miles to Bartle Gap, where a forest service road met the trail and then continued to Hwy 89. Zan’s husband drove out to get me, and we intersected on the dirt road, past some bear tracks.
I had tentatively planned to camp with Loveline that night, in our mutual animal protection way, but he had already passed me, so I had no way of letting him know I was hopping off. Such is life. The only hiker I passed was Mr. Cup, who gave me a liter of water, and wished my grandmother well. Thank you, Mr. Cup! That water made the last few miles so much better.
Zan & her husband Stephen put me up for the night, then Zan & I drove up to Portland with her twin babies (she was going there anyway). Getting to snuggle adorable babes was the perfect way to spend the anxious time, wondering about Grandma. Now I’m staying with my mother in my hometown. My grandmother had a minor heart attack and a fall, but is recovering well. I’ve been able to visit with her every day, and that makes this all worth it.
It is strange as hell being off the trail. I stayed in Portland the first night here, and was quite overwhelmed by all the people and cars. I grew up here, so the landmarks and landscapes are familiar to the logical part of my brain, but the hustle & bustle are profoundly unfamiliar to my trail eyes and ears. I walked three miles home from the rehab center to stretch my legs one day, and found myself flinching at every car that drove by. Eesh. Shades of post-trail experience, perhaps? This has at least been a good time for my legs to rest and blisters to heal.
I headed back to the trail on Sunday, getting back on at Bartle Gap at 1451. I’m sure I’ll be behind most hikers I know, which makes me a bit sad. Though I haven’t joined a group or made any permanent trail hiking companions, I do like seeing friends daily. Guess it’ll be time to make some new ones. I’m a tad nervous about getting to Canada later in the season now, since many hikers are already up around Ashland already, it seems, but if I hike steady and strong, I’ll be fine.
Happy hiking to all,
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