Backpacking trip to Indian Heaven Wilderness, 28-29 August 2017

It’s done! I have finally accomplished something that I was worrying that I’d never do: an overnight backpacking trip.

Yes, I know what you’re going to say: “Isn’t that…barbaric?”  Yes, the beauty of the bicycle is that it becomes your pack mule, rather than you becoming a pack mule. And it’s not like I’m giving up bike touring anytime soon. But here’s the thing: In this part of the world, there are so many beautiful places in nature that are not accessible by anything but foot. I can get to some very nice places with a bike, but anything that says “Wilderness” needs to be accessed via foot. (Well, and horse, but I don’t own one.) Now if I lived hours from any appropriate outback experience, I may never consider backpacking. But when I can go a couple blocks down the street and see those mountains in the distance…

Anyways, I wasn’t going to make my first backpacking trip a solo expedition. My friend Steve was coming along. Besides being a three-speed aficionado, he’s done quite a bit of backpacking around the northwest. We decided to do something that would be beautiful, but not too tough. Indian Heaven seemed appropriate. It’s a wilderness area in Gifford Pinchot National Forest (the national forest along the Cascades in southern Washington, south of Mount Rainier to the Columbia River, and containing both Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens), along a high volcanic plateau. The elevations of the hike ranged from 4,000 feet to just about 5,000 feet. And late August would promise loads and loads of wild huckleberries growing everywhere!

But of course, in the weeks and days leading up to the hike, I was nervous. Would I enjoy it? Would I make it?

I had been preparing for the eventuality of the hike for almost a year. While I had all the basic gear necessary for camping, I still needed two very important things: hiking boots and a backpack. I got a set of Alico Tahoe boots back in November, a very nice pair of traditional looking Italian hiking boots. I have worn them a bunch since then, so I knew they fit. I got a Gregory Stout 45 backpack in spring. 45 litres of capacity seemed right down the middle, not ultralight, not kitchen-sink, so perfect for what I’d want to do. But I hadn’t tested the bag out loaded until the Wednesday before the trip. It was…tough. I just walked five miles from my house to St. Johns, but I was beat and blistered. I needed something else. Wisely I decided to order a set of trekking poles. If anything, it would help me distribute my weight and be easier on my knees.

So how did it go? It went great! The skies were hazy, due to the wildfires in the area. But it didn’t seem to affect Steve and I that much. And it didn’t affect the views too much, as there aren’t really many views in Indian Heaven. We caught a glimpse of Adams on Monday, and saw the hazy outline of St Helens on Tuesday. But what Indian Heaven offered was abundant trees, high meadows, lots of lakes, huckleberries, and other hikers. Y’see, the Pacific Crest Trail runs down the middle of the wilderness, and we’d spend almost half of our seven mile one way hike on the fabled route.

We hiked in from Thompson Lake Trailhead on the west side of the wilderness, and called it a night at Bear Lake. It was a great camping spot, as the waters of the lake were clear and just the right temperature. Besides being the source of our (filtered) drinking water, it was a great spot for a swim. And there were a few other hikers camped out by the lake as well. We talked with a few of the PCT thru-hikers, who had been traveling since May, starting at the Mexico border! They had to skip a lot of the trail in Oregon, due to the large amount of wildfires along the Cascades.

Tuesday was simply a return trip to the truck. We had a leisurely breakfast at camp, where I made huckleberry pancakes. The return seemed to go faster, mostly because we stopped less since we were itching for the reward: pizza and beer at Backwoods Brewing in Carson. And it was a great reward! But I was so damn tired after it all, more tired than I’d ever been bike touring. It was futile to resist the urge to collapse into a heap when I got home. And it took a couple more recovery days to feel normal again.

Will I go backpacking again? Of course! I’ve just scratched the surface for options in these parts. And while much of the hiking needs access to a vehicle (a major hindrance to this carless person), there are many options that can be accessed by bus. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go out again this year, since there’s not much more of a season for this stuff. (Bike camping gives you more lowcountry options for the off-season.) Plus, so much of the Cascades seem to be on fire, at least in Oregon. One fire is pretty much in the Gorge, which is where most of the accessible backcountry would be. But next year, next year…



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