PCT 2019: Day 169, Middle Fork Feather River to West Branch Nelson Creek

Standing watching the fires burn

So far on this thru-hike, there have only been four days in which I walked 25 miles or more. One of them was yesterday, and now I was aiming to do another.

In fact, I want to hike that many or close to it for the rest of the week.

DateTuesday, October 22, 2019
WeatherVariable cloudiness with temperatures from the mid-30s to low 70s
Trail ConditionsMostly easy, though one long climb and many ups and downs
Today's Miles25.7
Trip Miles2615.4

I slept well last night. With a river running near my campsite, I felt like I had a white noise machine with me. The restful sleep helped me recover from yesterday's long hike.

Still, I needed a little extra time to get going this morning. When I left camp at 6 a.m., that was 15 minutes later than yesterday.

After packing my gear, I walked a short side trail up from the campsite to the trail. A long, steel bridge was just a few yards from there, which took me across the Middle Fork of the Feather River.

In all, there are four forks of the Feather River. They all join together with the Fall River, about 75 miles north of Sacramento at Lake Oroville. That is a reservoir impounded by Oroville Dam, which is the tallest dam in the U.S. It is 77 feet taller than Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

Immediately after the bridge, the trail began a four-mile climb, going up 2,000 feet in that distance. By the time I reached the top, the day was already starting to get warm.

I could tell this was going to be a warmer day than the last few had been.

The sky looked smokier than yesterday morning. Several fires were now burning in California. The nearest one was more than 100 miles away in Sonoma County.

After starting the day with a steep climb, the trail continued with another climb that was not nearly as steep. In the next 12.4 miles, it climbed another 1,900 feet, with several small ups-and-downs along the way.

Forest Service roads crossed the trail at several spots on this section. They provided easy access to the trail, which made it a popular spot for mountain bikes. That was a problem.

Mountain bikes are not allowed on the PCT. Signs had been posted at every road crossing to say biking was prohibited. That didn't seem to be a deterrent, however. Many signs had been vandalized, with the no-biking part scratched out.

I began to see tire tracks on the trail and they looked fresh. Before long, I came upon some mountain bikers who had stopped for a break.

"Since when were mountain bikes allowed on the PCT?" I asked them sternly and sarcastically.

All of the bikers glanced at each other but stayed silent. Then one answered, "Is this the PCT?"

I knew he was just playing dumb and I didn't play along. "Please find a different trail. Thanks," I answered as I walked by.

This kind of disregard for the trail bothers me. I am not "anti-mountain bikes." In fact, I have frequently enjoyed riding on single-track trails.

The PCT is different, however. It is maintained for the exclusive use of hikers and horse riders. There are plenty of other trails in the area for mountain biking.

Most likely, the bikers I saw presumed thru-hiking season was over and thought they wouldn't be caught.

There were a couple moments of excitement in the afternoon. One was when a fighter jet buzzed the trail.

Another was when I passed a day hiker with two dogs. One of the dogs snapped and snarled at me. Thankfully, the man held it back on a leash.

One dog bite on the trail was enough, thanks.

The trail went as high as 7,000 feet on a couple of the ups and downs. This section provided a few more views, including a good look at Mt. Fillmore.

You might expect this mountain was named for the 13th president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, but it wasn't. It was incongruously named to honor a naval officer.

When I discovered late in the afternoon I had cell phone service, I decided to call Kim to see how her travel plans were going.

While talking to her, I looked up and saw smoke rising from between Mt. Etna and Beartrap Mountain. It was straight ahead and looked to be not far from the trail.

Mt. Etna was just 1.3 miles away when I first saw the smoke. Beartrap Mountain was 3.6 miles away. That was close enough to be a little alarming.

Still, I had not seen any signs about a fire closure posted on the many roads I passed. This fire didn't appear to be large, so I hoped it wasn't on the trail.

The last 4.5 miles of the day were mostly downhill. I had decided to push to a campsite near the West Branch of Nelson Creek. That would give me another day of more than 25 miles. I knew I wouldn't get there until after dark, but at least I would make my mileage goal.

The trail passed Mt. Etna and Stafford Mountain before dropping into a valley. Beartrap Mountain was on the south side of the valley.

Ahead stood Gibraltar Mountain. It was given that name because someone thought it resembled the Rock of Gibraltar, a formation at the end of a peninsula on the Spanish coast.

When I still had about an hour to reach the campsite, I met two firefighters. They were returning to their truck, which was parked on a forest road.

I expressed some concern about seeing the smoke. The daylight was fading now, but they were glad to stop and tell me about the fire.

They said it was started by lightning on September 17. It was burning on Beartrap Mountain at about 7,000 feet.

The firefighters told me they had been making regular trips to check on the fire and make sure it didn't get out of control. They were using natural barriers to limit the fire’s spread, and for now, they weren't concerned about it spreading. They considered this a positive fire because it was a natural part of the forest ecosystem.

When I thanked them for taking the time to explain what they were doing, they said they enjoyed talking to PCT hikers.

I arrived at the campsite at 7:15 p.m. A tent was already set up in one spot, so I pitched mine about 25 yards away.

The hikers were in their tent but not yet asleep. When they heard me outside, one of them shouted a greeting to me. Though they remained in their tent, we began a conversation.

I learned they were flip-flop thru-hikers who were almost done with their hike. They only needed to get to Chester to be finished.

Then one of them asked my name. When I answered, "Gravity," she shouted, "Gravity?! We're Tumbleweed and Fable!"

We were all excited to discover this. It was the second random time we met on the trail since we first camped together in Washington. We last met on Day 137 in the Sierra.

I thought I was the last thru-hiker in this part of California, yet here was a lucky meeting with two of my friends. The trail proved its magic once again.

Since I came down from Oregon
There's a lesson or two I've learned
By standing in the road alone
Standing watching the fires burn

From “Pride of Cucamonga” by Bobby Petersen and Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead)

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"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.