Elk Lake to Shelter Cove Resort (46.4 PCT miles + 2.2 bonus miles)
The trail entered a burn zone just as we reached the Elk Lake trail junction. This gave us a great view of the large lake and a similarly-sized neighbor, but I secretly dreaded walking through a long exposed stretch of burned forest on this hot day. I was relieved to find that the PCT turned to re-enter intact forest and that was the last of our burn. We were also apprehensive about the southern end of Three Sisters Wilderness, as the map showed it to be filled with lakes of every size. This seemed a little too reminiscent of the area just north of White Pass in WA, which we refer to as the dreaded Valley of the Mosquitos. We realized it was too long to get through in one day, but made a mileage goal of 30+ to at least put us near the edge for tomorrow. We passed our usual steady stream of NOBOs, and some were wearing headnets, but didn't have much conversation with any as they all seemed to be in a hurry and we had many miles to go. We were pleasantly surprised to find that many of the lakes were quite scenic, there was minimal marshy area, and there didn't seem to be more than a few rare mosquitos. We wondered if the slight breeze may be working in our favor, though it didn't seem significant enough to make a difference. In any case, after a first few gun-shy miles we actually started to enjoy this beautiful region with its gentle terrain, plentiful ripe huckleberries, plenty of wildflowers, and tree-ringed lakes around every corner. One of the most beautiful was Dumbell Lake, with two large aquamarine blue sections connected by a narrow isthmus. There was a large flat camping area in the trees that we would have loved to use if it weren't much too early in the day to camp.
The miles passed quickly, which was helpful given our aggressive goal. We appreciated the forest shade on what would have otherwise been a blazing hot day. We were hiking through an area with several smaller grass-filled ponds just before an open talus slope when I saw something big on the trail in front of us. My first thought was Emu?! Once I realized that this was ridiculous, I looked more closely at the huge bird on long spindly legs with the dramatic feathered head and thought it looked a bit like an enormous Great Blue Heron. But just a bit. By now, Macro had caught up and I asked him if he thought it might be a crane. Neither of us has ever seen one that looked like this before, but we decided it must be. It had a distinctive and beautiful call, and a bright red crown and grey body. It hurried along the trail towards the talus. I walked slowly trying to get a good picture of this amazing creature, but it spooked and took flight over the marshy pond. It was spectacular to see in the air, and we looked carefully for the next several miles to see if there might be others, but it seemed to be the only one willing to show itself. Later we looked it up and confirmed that it was a Sandhill Crane, which has a range including SE Oregon.
We continued to see NOBOs in headnets, but were not bothered by mosquitos ourselves. We even passed a guy wearing pants made entirely of bug netting over his running shorts, and agreed that it seemed like a bad omen. By mid-afternoon I was getting tired, though we had covered only just over half of our intended miles. We stopped for a short break in the shade near a creek, and soon a NOBO came along and sat too. We learned his name was Sunrise Chatterbox (don't camp near him if you're not a morning person?), who started at Campo in late March but has taken several weeks off-trail for various reasons. He asked about mosquitos heading north, and said they were pretty severe for the next 17 miles south. We told him it seemed like that, since we just saw a guy in bug pants. He said that would have been Big Bear. I remarked that he looked kinda scrawny, maybe we should have taken him for those pants since he wouldn't need them over the lava. S.C. said we might not believe it, but that guy started the trail fat. We all laughed, because while fat is all relative, every thru-hiker loses weight and nobody ends the trail fat by any reasonable definition.
Macro and I discussed whether we should apply bug repellent before hitting the trail but decided we'd wait until we needed it. We then proceeded to have another surprisingly uneventful 10 miles of hiking through the land of many lakes, pretty forest, intermittent ripe huckleberries, and a slight breeze. Sadly, no more cranes or any other charismatic megafauna. We had just 5 miles to go to reach our first campsite option, which would be just under 31 miles. Given the late hour, this seemed the most reasonable as we would probably reach it just around dusk. Not long after we made this decision, I started getting mosquito bites on my arms and they swarmed my face. Macro wasn't as bothered, and if we kept moving it remained tolerable. I had to stop picking huckleberries, because even that small delay resulted in several bites. We passed several marshy areas and flung verbal epithets at them, calling them mosquito breeding farms and the like. But it was getting late and we didn't want to stop and they didn't seem horrific, so we kept hiking. In the final 3 miles we started coming across consistent blowdown, nothing difficult but each time we slowed to navigate a down tree the mosquitos came in for the kill. We joked that the mozzies probably put the trees across the trail themselves. My Achilles' tendons had been bothering me a bit all day, and the final 2 miles to our lake was all uphill. This, combined with being tired, combined with the mosquitos, combined with the late hour just about put me over the edge. We passed 2 small lakes in this stretch with decent open campsites and I so wanted to stop, but knew that any miles not hiked tonight would just have to be hiked tomorrow. Every hiker we passed had a headnet and an embattled look, and the people already camped were ensconced within the safety of tents. I just wanted to be there myself. Finally we reached Stormy Lake, just as it was getting dark. The minute we stopped hiking we were swarmed by the little buggers, so we wasted no time in setting up the tent. I donned rain gear (the best protection) and headnet to cook dinner by headlamp, and we ate in the tent. We drifted off to sleep to the sound of buzzing all around the mesh above us.
Day 41 was another clear one. We got ready in the tent and prepared to do battle for the final miles of the wilderness. We slathered ourselves in picaridin lotion and readied our headnets, and kept extra layers on until we were ready to start hiking. We made good time through the rest of the lakes district, and with our preparations weren't too bothered by the mosquitos (though there were plenty of them). We crossed a road just beyond the wilderness boundary then soon entered a large burn zone coinciding with a long and moderate climb. Even early in the day it was hot in the exposed sun. We knew we'd be entering a long stretch with limited on-trail water and few campsites, and wondered how many NOBO thru-hikers we'd see, so we started counting when we passed our first few in the burn area. Our estimate is that we've seen 20-40 daily for the past few weeks, though we haven't counted before. We did see a handful of weekend backpackers, surprising to us in this dry and not terribly scenic (by our estimation) area. We had another 30+ mile day planned, so we tried to make good time by keeping our stops short and infrequent. Once we finally passed the burn zone we crossed another road and went by enormous blue-green Charlton Lake, the last on-trail water we would see for the rest of the day. We didn't have any long vistas, but walked through reasonably nice dry forest with many long contouring traverses interspersed with a few prolonged but civilized climbs. We crested the hill just beyond the Maiden Peak ski shelter, and began the quick descent towards Rosary Lakes. This string of 3 green lakes below a dramatic rocky knob looked like an oasis after hours on the dusty trail. We took our 4:30 snack break with our feet in the upper lake, and it was all I could do not to dive in for a swim.
We had decided to camp at Shelter Cove Resort just south of Willamette Pass, then follow the OR Skyline alternate route from there. It seemed a bit less scenic than the official PCT, but given the scarcity of camping and water options this allowed us to hike days of decent yet not ridiculous mileage. The trail from Rosary Lakes to Hwy 58 is an easy downhill jaunt, and we crossed the road with under 4 miles to go for the night. We spotted a bag under a tree near the road crossing, and looking closer we found a can of Rainier and a bottle of Sierra Nevada and a note confirming it to be trail magic! We figured that no Rainier will ever taste as good as the ones we got from Aardvark in Snoqualmie Pass, so we took the bottle to share over dinner and left the can for the next hiker. We could see enormous Odell Lake through the trees but the trail seemed to meander forever to get there. My Achilles' tendons were even more sore today, and had been a bit swollen last night, and I was starting to worry about them. Fortunately, the downhill didn't seem to bother the much so we charged along, thinking it possible that we might reach the resort before the store closed. We turned off the PCT to the Shelter Cove Trail, and found the final 1.8 miles to be rolling up and downhill along a forested slope thick with ripe huckleberries but even thicker with mosquitos. We couldn't stop for the fruit and my tendons were seizing up. I couldn't believe my bad luck, especially when we looked at the time and realized that we would not get there in time for ice cream.
Speaking of food, many people have asked what we eat on the trail. We spent much time and effort putting together resupply boxes for nearly the entire trail before we left and have been very happy so far with both the quantity and items in these boxes. Especially when supplemented by treats from family and friends (thank you!!), finds from hiker boxes, and a few things bought in town or at on-trail resort stores, we eat much better than any hiker we have met so far. While packing up the tent on Day 41, I took a picture with all of the day's food lined up. Breakfast is granola or a granola-esque cold cereal mixed with dried or freeze-dried fruit and powdered milk, served with hot water. I have coffee, and Macro has tea. We eat every 1-2 hours throughout the hiking day. On Day 41 that included half a package of tortillas (bought in town) with leaves from the last third of a bunch of kale (ditto) and tuna, Pro bars, yogurt-covered raisins, homemade plum fruit leather (thanks mom!), GU chews and Clif shot bloks, additional protein/cookie bars (thanks Macro's mum!), and some ginger candy. Dinner that night was miso soup for an appetizer and a main course of dehydrated vegetable soup with the addition of the chopped kale ribs from lunch, dehydrated hashbrowns, and pouched salmon (thanks dad!) & served with the rest of the tortillas with dark chocolate for dessert (thanks Macro's mum!). And there you have it, one day in the food life of these two SOBO thru-hikers.
Our total of NOBO thru-hikers we passed on-trail today was 39, surprisingly high for a day we both considered light on hikers. Maybe we've underestimated in past days. We crossed the RR tracks then followed the road into Shelter Cove. It struck us that we rode the train on these very tracks just 6 weeks ago, on our way to the border to start this journey. Near the store (closed 20 minutes ago) were a few tables filled with hikers, all NOBOs and section hikers. They were all finishing up dinner or getting ready to hike on or camp for the night. I struck up a conversation with Dreamwalker, a Portland native section-hiking OR with her 67-year old dad, who has 2 artificial hips! When I asked if there was a hose where I could rinse off my legs she told me the shower building was still open. I said that was OK, I didn't have any quarters and she promptly took up a collection at the table to present me with 6 quarters, sufficient for a 3 minute shower. That is some trail magic right there! I limped over to the shower building with my rotten Achilles' tendons, found a stall with a sliver of soap on the shelf, started the hot water, and completely changed my outlook on life in the next 3 minutes. Upon getting out I glanced in the mirror to discover that I had contracted measles, but only on the backs of both arms between my elbows and shoulders. Looking closer I realized there were hundreds of mosquito bites in just this area, the place that is not covered by clothing but cannot be seen. This was the result of those final few miles to Stormy Lake last night. Ugh. Well, at least it isn't contagious. I took plenty of ibuprofen, we enjoyed dinner at the picnic tables (supplemented by Macro's finds from the hiker box and our trail magic beer), and we headed off to our tent in the hiker area of the resort.
On the subject of feet, I have reached an uneasy détente with mine. They always hurt a little, but they rarely hurt a lot. I make an effort to take care of them with self-massage (I carry a lacrosse ball, which works wonders in the arch area), stretching, and at least 2 short off-the-feet sit-down breaks each day. I rotate insoles every few days and stop to re-lace or otherwise adjust if something seems amiss while hiking, even if it isn't convenient. This Achilles' tendon thing is new, and I wonder if it is related to the fresh insoles I picked up in Bend and have worn for the last few days (without a break-in period, of course), or whether it is just a result of continued use over regular daily miles. Day 41 was the 2nd of 3 planned 30+ mile days, but after that we have an on-trail Nero scheduled in the Mt. Thielsen wilderness so they'll get a little break then. I may go back to my old insoles tomorrow in hopes that they will quiet down a little more quickly. In any case, I have made it this far in life and on trail with this pair of feet and have no intentions of stopping now. I'm sure this problem will work itself out with a little effort, as most do.