The Early Bird Gets the Shaft

You would think I’d learn. I’m this big “guidebook author,” this alleged “authority” on hiking and bicycling in the Pacific Northwest. The problem is that I don’t always heed my own advice. Especially the advice against hiking too early in the season.

Most outdoor folk understand that spring brings change to the mountain landscape. Babbling brooks become raging rivers. Trees that were last fall’s trailside sentinels are this year’s roadblocks. Mosquitoes and blackflies hatch and look for fresh prey. And spring brings mud. Thick mud, slick mud, black mud, icy mud — if the Eskimos have 26 words for “snow,” early-season hikers need a 126 for “mud.”

And speaking of snow, I’ve turned around more times than I care to admit when winter’s leftovers blocked my route. Sometimes the turnaround comes in the car before I ever reach the trailhead. But — sometimes — I press on. Patience has never been my strong suit.

My quintessential “this-may-be-too-early-in-the-season” experience involved Lizann, Mount St. Helens, and the Boundary Trail from Bear Meadows in June.

I’d like to believe that June is a “summer” month. But in the Cascade Mountain Range, June is decidedly “early-season.” You see, the Cascades are a tall set o’ hills. Even stubby little St. Helens, with her head all blown off from her 1980 tantrum, tops out well over 8,000 feet.

My plan for the day’s route said “at the junction with Strawberry Mountain Trail, turn left and continue ascending.” It didn’t mention what to do if you couldn’t even SEE the trail under the icy, hard-packed, dirty snow. But Lizann and I forged ahead. Within a mile, on a segment of trail described as “gently hugging the hillside,” the two of us were not-so-gently hugging tree trunks, slithering over and under muck-and-sleet-covered deadfall like reptiles. We hadn’t planned on using a shuttle car that day, but when we found ourselves (soaked, filthy, and exhausted) at a trailhead some 6.3 miles distant from our car, a shuttle sounded like a darned good idea.

Trailwise, I used my resources: I stuck out my thumb. For the first time since my college days in Europe, I became a hitchhiker, hoping against hope that some early-season tourist would take pity on the wretched spectacle of our mud-covered, overtaxed selves. (Thanks again to the nice German tourists who picked us up in their spotless rental car and moved their groceries so we’d have room in the back seat.)

Snow-covered trails aren’t the only hazard of early-season hiking. A few weeks after the Mount St. Helens fiasco, I found myself hopping out of my car at a trailhead in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in shorts and a tiny jog bra/athletic top only to find the air SWARMING with mosquitoes. That presented a unique set of challenges. Here you had Exhibit A, the hiker, with approximately 80 percent of her body exposed,outside of Exhibit B, the automobile. Exhibit A needed Exhibit C, her clothing, which wasinside Exhibit B. Opening Exhibit B (which happens in this hypothetical example to be a hatchback) filled the interior with Exhibits D through Z, the “10,000 hungry flies and mosquitoes” from the “Off” insect repellant commercials.

Apparently these little TV stars take their spring vacation in the Gifford Pinchot, because they were all present and accounted for, and I was the main course at their family reunion picnic. Amid much dancing and prancing and carrying on, I managed to extract a few items of clothing and cover my welt-ridden self with an itchy layer of polypro, much to the amusement of a passing party of equestrians, who were no doubt local, therefore in-the-know and slathered with Deet.

If I had waited two weeks, that particular part of the woods would have been dried out and perfect for hiking, the fresh hatch of mosquitoes having moved on from their snowmelt breeding grounds. But where’s the challenge in that?

Next time, I’ll tell you about theotherpiece of advice I give out freely, but fail to follow: “spend PLENTY of time training for long-distance bicycling events.”

Sally O’Neal Coates’ books include “Great Bike Rides in Eastern Washington & Oregon,” “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the North Cascades,” and “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the Central Cascades,” all from Wilderness Press. She lives and writes in southeastern Washington State.

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