Friday July 1st, 2022, 1530-1920
Whistler Canyon Trailhead @ HWY 97 to top of hill, WEBO mm 578.8, Segment 5 Okanogan Highlands
10.8 miles, Gain 3300′ , Loss 500′, elevation 3750
I’m glad I downloaded the section overview maps from the PNTA website beforehand, because this should help followers understand ‘what the flip’ I’m doing for this hike. See the highlighted section of the Okanogen Highlands above? After a whole lot of back and forth on what to do about record levels of residual snow in the Cascades and Rockies, this was where my PNT thru-hike began: in the middle, working my way east. Once I made it back to Glacier National Park, I’d repeat my train\bus\ride travels to pick up the trail in Oroville and go west for the remaining half. Confused? It’s actually a relatively straightforward flip-flop, similar to what’s commonly done from Harpers Ferry on the AT. I think it’s the east-west versus north-south thing that confuses people.
This strategy actually makes a whole lot of sense for this trail. For starters, Eastern WA is known for being hot & dry and is relatively low in elevation. So what better a section to knock out when it’s not as beastly hot and with decent water sources from recent rains and snow melt? This way, I also hoped to avoid miles of postholing, sliding, and swollen rivers in the high country. There’s also a fair amount of road walking in the middle sections, which I saw as a good opportunity to build my trail legs, harden my feet, and not feel too disgruntled about not being on actual trail early on. At this point, I was so eager to walk that I’d even take a road… preferably dirt and with little traffic… though this seemed dubious with my bad timing of starting July 4th weekend…boo.
I postponed my start for several days in Whitefish MT to align with a ride from Spokane on the 1st. After posting my flip-flop idea on the FB page, a PNT veteran reached out to me, offering a ride from Spokane all the way to Oroville. This was too good of an offer to pass up and close enough to my original planned start date. FB may be a toxic time-sink in most regards, but it’s great for linking up with others on the trail!
My flip-flop journey began as I boarded the westbound train around 9 pm the night before. I was set to arrive Spokane at 1:30 am…a 5 hour ride. I also gained an hour as I traveled into the Pacific coast time zone, but this was NOT an extra hour I wanted as it just meant I gained more uncomfortable, sleepless time at the seedy Spokane train station. The train ride was pretty good and I did manage to get a little sleep having 2 seats all to myself to spread out on. Trains offer tons of leg room and reclining seats…unlike airplanes. Before I knew it, the conductor was tapping me on the shoulder to get up for my stop.
The train actually arrived early (a first!), leaving me with even more crappy time in the station. All the bench seats had built in arm rests, preventing a person like myself from laying down. I contemplated walking half a mile to a nearby park, but as soon as I stepped outside, I saw a collection of, shall we say interesting characters milling about the dark spaces of the downtown. I quickly turned around and made due with an uncomfortable seat. The security guard asked me if I was waiting to be picked up, to which I replied truthfully “yes”. My ride was set to meet me at 1030 am that morning.
Just before 5 am, it was light enough to brave a venture outside. I walked the desolate streets to the park, half-heartedly looking for an obscure spot to lay down to catch some more zzzs. All I saw were areas where there were already people sleeping or signs of heavy use…feces and trash. The downtown area, like many cities these days, was struggling with an ever increasing homeless population. As safe as I feel sleeping out in the woods, I would not feel safe sleeping with my stuff anywhere in this city. So I just walked around for awhile, taking in some sights of an old world’s fair. Ah, the promise and sparkle of the future. Then I went to Starbucks to smartly mill about for a few more hours.
As promised, Natasha (trailname: Poppy) picked me up on time and eager to go. She was leaving on a rock and mountain climbing expedition and riding with her to Canada was her friend Corey. There was just enough room for me in the back and we were on our way north! This was a very great ride, as not only did they deliver me directly to the trailhead, I also got to pick Poppy’s brain about the PNT for hours. She had done a bit of a flip-flop herself last year, having to skip around because of all the fires. She was a wealth of knowledge and we talked each other’s ears off. I just love meeting fellow female thru hikers! It’s so empowering.
We made a pit stop in Republic so that I could drop off spare food with a trail angel, Karrie. She worked at the food co-op, so this worked out perfectly for picking up lunch and dinner. As I still had a cup of rhubarb compote left over from breakfast (and Judy’s gigantic batch the night before), I bought a delicious scone from the co-op. Man did this go well with the compote! Yhhhum! I also filled Poppy’s gas tank, because it was the least I could do for her generosity and support. Getting a ride all the way to the trailhead was amazing luck!
Even though I was technically starting from Oroville, I didn’t even make it to the town. I was so eager to get on the trail this day that I asked Poppy to just drop me off the trailhead 3 miles south of town. I didn’t want my first miles to be a boring highway walk, after all. Poppy and Corey bid farewell at the trailhead, honoring me by taking my compulsory starting photos at my first PNT sign. I was lucky there was one, as the trail is still largely unmarked. This trailhead even had a brand new PNT information board that was oh so nice! As well as a trail register, where I was able to document the start of my hike. I was surprised to see that 4 other hikers had signed in on June 28th, 3 days before…so maybe I wasn’t the only one doing this flip-flop? Perhaps I would catch them and not be all alone for weeks. Neither of the official PNT termini have such an information board or register, so what a better place to be starting?
Except that now I had an 8 mile climb ahead of me, with over 3000′ of gain. I immediately stopped at a picnic table to change into my hiking dress, as I’d already noticed the heat. I took a glance at my thermometer and it read 100 in the sun, 94 in the shade. Ouch. Well I thought, in trading for the snow and flooded creeks, I got the heat and uphill. But these things I was accustomed to. So I started off at a good, steady pace, glancing at my phone to see that I did 3.5 miles in 1 hour…all uphill. The first few switchbacks were pretty easy but very hot. I was glad for my lightweight clothing and also my tiny pack. I’d ditched the bear spray, microspikes and ice axe, so I was back to my summer weight. But I did have lots of bug gear (spray, head net & shirt), which I shortly found was very necessary. I left the dry slopes behind for a wet watershed, chocked with green.
As I pushed through this verdant tunnel, I stirred up hoards of mosquitoes. The spray on my arms sufficed for awhile but I really should have donned my shirt and net. The way they were bouncing off my arms, it felt like it was raining. I knew to expect this for weeks to come so I tried not to dwell on it. Still better than snow or fires. But I longed for the top of the hill, not because I couldn’t handle the effort or was tired, only so I could move a little faster to shake these buggers. Everybody’s new favorite 80’s song Running up that Hill by Kate Bush (of Stranger Things season 4 fame) was playing through my head. If only I could make a deal with God, I’d ask for no mosquitoes. They give a whole new reason to be running up that hill.
I got sweet relief at the top of the ridge, along with sweeping views. Starting out, I’d taken note of the ominous thunderstorms on the horizon, above the Pasayten wilderness. But nothing had materialized overhead, other than a few clouds and a nice breeze. The temperature had gone down to a comfortable 70. I’d planned to stop to camp near a picnic table with a beautiful view, but it was still early and I felt energized, despite a lack of sleep. I also hadn’t picked up any more water, having started with less than a liter.
Continuing on, I passed by some really boggy areas impacted by cows. The bugs were of course very bad here too. I gathered some water as it flowed across the trail, but it was pretty gross-looking for the PNW, full of algae and smelling of cow. Since I would consider it an excellent source in Arizona or New Mexico, it would do for this first night. Just after this, I got an inkling I should check my map, and sure enough, I’d just missed a turn. Trail spidy-sense runs strong in me after my previous route-finding missions. This came just after I’d looked down at my feet to see a fat rattlesnake slithering across the trail. It coiled quickly and rattled its tail at me vigorously. Because of my wrong turn, I ended up walking back past it twice, searching for the obscure trail. All the while it rattled but at least had moved off into the bushes. Minus the water and mosquitoes, if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was back in Arizona!
At last I reached my high point for the day and was ready to call it quits. My lack of sleep had gotten the best of me and I was feeling rather weird. Perhaps I was a little anxious about the rattlesnake and bugs, plus the many miles to come. I knew I just needed a good night’s sleep. I found a nice dry tentsite that was somewhat open and relatively free of critters…though the mossies still found me in short order. I ate my town wrap outside my tent but retreated to its inner sanctum rather quickly. How I love my tent. Just as I was getting ready to go to sleep, I heard the rhythmic thumping of a large animal walking by. Deer, elk, perhaps even a moose? Nope, just cows of course. I was one with the cows again, a sure sign that all is right in my world.