The understatement of the year is that 2020 has been a really weird year. You’re all living it, so you know what I’m talking about it. At first, it was about disappointments and inconveniences—kids home from school and in the house with me as I tried to work, races and travel plans canceled, parks and trails closed.
My little blog slowly seemed irrelevant simply because there didn’t seem to be much to write about. Life was on hold. At first it just seemed ridiculous.
Then the world turned upside down again after George Floyd’s death, and with it a growing awareness of privilege, the depths and facets of racism, and some intense one-on-one conversations with family, neighbors, and friends. I wished I could back in time and change each person’s pain. I felt guilty for my privilege. Frankly, it all made writing about trail running seem trivial—no, not just trivial. It felt wrong to write about trail running while the country wrestled with topics like slavery, incarceration, and discrimination.
All photos credit Unsplash.com.
But I did run this summer. I didn’t run fast, and I didn’t try to. My running was focused on time with friends in beautiful places, and we talked and talked and talked . . . about Black Lives Matter, parenting and homeschooling, COVID and quarantine and social distancing, our work and layoffs and furloughs and uncertainty, the elections, our nation’s angst, the world’s angst, our parents’ health, we talked about it all. We learned from each other, supported each other, and somehow kept each other moving.
“While we may technically measure this race in miles (or, “yards”), I’m always reminded that we actually measure it in memories, friends, laughs, and lessons.”
More recently, I think I’ve rediscovered how much the trail running community is a community and how much community helps with connection to the world and people around us. I first started thinking about it during Bigs Backyard Ultra.
As the race took place in locations around the world, people like me—from all over the world—were enthralled with the accomplishments of runners from Mexico, India, Belgium, Canada, and, yes, the US, as well as others. Amelia Boone, one of the American racers, said after the event, “While we may technically measure this race in miles (or, “yards”), I’m always reminded that we actually measure it in memories, friends, laughs, and lessons” [emphasis added].
Friends, laughs, lessons, memories. All the good things. The things that recharge you, connect you to the world, connect you to humanity. The things that allow me to return home, able once again to be a mom and to do my best to help the next generation be kinder, more aware, better people.
It’s made me think that maybe remembering and sharing my adventures here could offer that in some small sense to maybe even just one other person. That maybe I create a tiny bit of community for others here too. Maybe, through creating community, we inspire, aspire, and join together in this little way and do each other a bit of good.
Ultimately, the path I’ve found to working toward making a difference seems to come in these little ways. I work to teach my children to respect all people and to be aware of the harm so many have experienced, to be aware of history and how it continues to live in our collective souls. I try to share the beauty of our planet with others.
I hope I can write adventure reports and race reports more often. Maybe they’ll be more reflective, maybe they’ll just be about beautiful places. But whether it’s a trail run, or personal growth, maybe simply a sharing of things I’m learning or wondering, it’s all a journey. And I hope you’ll take it with me when it works for you.
I will try to include acknowledgement of the Native American peoples upon whose lands I journey, using Native Land as I go. This is part of my learning journey, and I hope if I need to update my information, you’ll kindly help me so I can update my acknowledgements.
Here are a few of the beautiful places I went this summer. I hope you found beauty wherever you went too. xoxo
UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge: WAS Up Loop in the Washington Cascades
Historical lands of the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Tulalip, and and Coast Salish people.
In 1986 I was attending the University of Oregon and dating my RA (I know, scandalous!). I had hiked and backpacked and car camped before meeting him, but he was a climber. Climbing had never been on my radar as something I wanted to do, but after listening to him rave about the sport, I took a rock climbing class offered in the UofO’s Outdoor Recreation program and then he and I started going to Skinner’s Butte after class a couple of times a week to climb together. As spring progressed my second year in Eugene, he asked me if I’d be interested in climbing Mt. Hood. I said “YES!!!!!” and at the end of May that year found myself climbing my first Cascade volcano.
I didn’t climb another Cascade volcano for 20+ years (but that’s another whole story about breaking up, moving back to California, and then reuniting with that same guy many years later). Yet, I’ve always held an affection for Mt. Hood and its striking profile … and perhaps some sentimental fondness for my first grand mountain adventure.
Now, with my (relatively) new obsession with long trail runs, I’ve shifted from going UP the volcanos to running AROUND them (including Mt. Rainier in 2018 and Mt. St. Helens in 2015 and 2018). In 2018 Timberline in a day was on my adventure list, but the season ended before I could fit it in, so I shifted it to the top of my list for 2019. Fortunately, it was also on the want-to-do lists of several of my friends.
In the spring we did a bunch of research and read a bunch of trip reports, and made some plans to head down in late July. Last-minute prep included finding a VRBO cabin in Government Camp with enough beds for all of us (score!), and we soon found ourselves traveling south on a Thursday afternoon for a fun Friday adventure. Even better, our friends Kelli, Mike, DeeDee, and Missy would be running the Wy’east Howl 50K/100K the same weekend we planned for our run, so we could cheer for them on Saturday.
About the trail
The Timberline Trail was built mostly by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The western portion overlaps the PCT (and we met and chatted with several thru-hikers), and the entire trail hovers right around treeline—which means we had lots of views! Distance varies based on which report you’re reading: the Forest Service says 38 miles, 40ish is the rule of thumb, and my Suunto tallied 42. Close enough.
The trail climbs in and out of glacial-fed drainages throughout its length, and with all those ups and downs we ended up with a bit over 9,000 feet gross gain. Each of those “glacier-fed drainages” includes some kind of river or creek crossing, and there are no bridges so they’re all either forded or hopped over using boulders and trees. Because of this, snowmelt levels are an important consideration when planning the timing of your trip.
There’s a lot of discussion online about whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise, and from where to start. We went clockwise, starting at Timberline Lodge. This meant we hit the trail’s high point (at 7,350 feet) at mile 30 and one of the reputedly tougher river crossing toward the end. FWIW, we all later agreed that counterclockwise and starting on the PCT near Ramona Falls would be the best way to go. (Take that advice for what it’s worth: We haven’t done it that way, so what do we know?)
On the trail
We hit the trail at 5 a.m. The sky was just starting to lighten but we still needed headlamps to see the trail.
As we wound our way west and then gradually northwest, we found ourselves in a sometimes-stark landscape that for me was a bit reminiscent of Mt. St. Helens. We headed down into Zigzag Canyon and our first stream/river crossing, and then worked our way up toward the intersection with Trail 778, which leads to Paradise Park.
We stayed on the PCT/Timberline Trail, skipping the detour through Paradise Park, and soon found ourselves at beautiful Ramona Falls. I don’t have our group photo, but click here for a link to more information and a photo of Ramona Falls. If you’re ever in the area and are looking for a day hike, I think it’s worth your time!
Soon after Ramona Falls, our friend, Kari, caught up to us. She wanted to join the weekend fun, but didn’t want to do the full route. It was fun to have her join us for several miles as we worked our way farther north.
At mile 14+, we hit the far northwestern point of our route and turned east, leaving the PCT behind as we made our way around the north side of Mt. Hood. This was our favorite part of the trip: the wildflowers were insane; at several points, we had views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and out to the deserts of eastern Washington and Oregon in one snapshot; and an old forest fire left acres of dead trees that somehow seemed mystical as they framed Mt. Hood. If you can only do one section of the trail, DO THIS PART!
Of course, there were more river crossings. Some required quick hops and skips to pass, and others involved a bit more planning.
We were soon looking forward to reaching Cloud Cap, where Kari would meet up with us again. This time, she’d have a cooler full of cold Cokes and Snicker bars, both of which were sounding pretty fantastic by then. Our last “hurdle” before Cloud Cap would be to cross the Eliot. This would be one of the highest running streams we would cross on the trail, but fortunately once you get to it, there’s a nice solid tree trunk creating a natural bridge that’s accessed with an easy big step. Getting there is a bit of a slide down loose rock and sand, and a sketchy traverse along the river’s edge.
As we carefully worked our way along the stream, a rock came loose beneath Marna and she was suddenly knee-deep in the water with a death grip on a boulder just above her. Sarah grabbed her arm and working together Marna was quickly out of the water. It was a very strong reminder that things can go wrong whenever you’re out in the mountains.
Once we were across the river, a bit of a scramble got us to a section of rebuilt trail. Look closely, and you can see a serious set of switchbacks going up the hillside.
Kari had been sunning herself on the opposite bank and joined us for the climb up to Cloud Cap. Her cooler of Cokes and Snickers made for a happy “aid station” as we hit mile 25ish. At this point, however, time was slipping by and we were taking longer than we had planned, so we bid Kari farewell and started heading south along the eastern side of Mt. Hood and up toward its high point at 7,350 feet along Gnarl Ridge.
The east side of the mountain was more of a moonscape than any other part. Rocky and barren, with thinning air, it held a different kind of beauty.
At the high point, we stopped to toast each other with a sip of whisky. After a long day and at a bit of altitude, it took my breath away, but added a touch of ceremony to our journey.
Our focus shifted to “let’s get this thing done” and concerns about hitting our final river crossing—The White River—in the dark. As we headed down from Lamberson Spur toward Newton Creek, we encountered several long patches of snow. Ana slipped and self-arrested with a trekking pole, but otherwise the section was uneventful and we maintained our “beat feet” focus.
Ultimately we ran out of day, and our headlamps were dug out of our packs. We kept consulting maps and calculating distance remaining, but for a while it seemed that no matter how much time passed, we were continuously five to seven miles from finishing.
Finally we spied the ski lifts at Mt. Hood Meadows (where Saturday’s Wy’east Howl would start and finish) and we saw trail flagging for the race. We joked about being glad we were going to finish before the next day’s racers were starting, and then again recalculated how much farther we had to go. I think we came up with five to seven miles again, but I’m not sure how much of that was because our calculations had become a farce even to us.
In our minds, our last hurdle would be the White River crossing, and then we’d have smooth sailing back to Timberline Lodge. The crossing itself was unnerving, as we couldn’t see much in the darkness. Vivian plowed right through it, but the rest of us felt iffy and decided to err on the side of caution by joining arms and crossing together. It ended up not being too bad, with the water up to our knees perhaps, but better safe than sorry, especially when you’re tired and not sure what you’re up against.
And then … well, and then we discovered our last two-ish miles would be on sand. Never-ending sand. And cruelly, the trail, which reconnects with the PCT just past White River, heads straight toward the lights of Timberline Lodge and then abruptly veers north, toward the mountain and away from the lodge. I had NOTHING kind to say about it until I later realized that it was noodling along the edge of a big ravine, and therefore it made sense to do what it was doing. As we finally approached the parking lot, a headlamp flashed at us and Kari called out, “Woot woot!” and once again became a very bright ray of sunshine bookending our adventure.
The next day we got up and drove out to the Wy’east Howl race course to cheer on our friends. Mimosas and costumes, along with a vicious game of Battleship, while lounging around in a meadow were a fine contrast to the prior day and afforded us time to digest and celebrate our friendships and to offer “Woot woot”s to Kelli and Mike, who we saw on course.
As I look back on the day on the Timberline Trail and subsequent day cheering racers, I think my biggest takeaway is depth. It takes a depth of training and experience to push yourself, to reach into one’s own internal depths for both physical and mental strength, in the outdoors. These experiences also deepen our friendships: as we’ve reached deep individually, we’ve all gotten to know one another—our strengths, our weaknesses, our moods, what to say when someone needs a kick in the behind—and have supported and been supported by each other. While I still enjoy a long solo day on the trails, the shared journeys hold more texture, more intensity, because of this.
The trail itself holds a special place in my heart because Mt. Hood was where Mike and I had our first big mountain adventure together. That aside, it’s simply beautiful—I can’t think of any part that I didn’t enjoy (except maybe the sand at the end).
All text copyright me. All photos belong to Sarah Brouwer, Marna Kaegele, Ana Hinz, Heidi Flora, or me.
At the beginning of 2019 a bunch of my partners-in-crime got together to brainstorm adventures for the coming year. One that stuck was to do the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge Olympic Coast route. As described on UltraSignup, “This [approximately 58-mile] route runs point to point between the Shi Shi Beach Trailhead in the north, and the Oil City Trailhead in the south. The Olympic Coast Route will test your logistical skills, as it involves timing tides, difficult creek and river fords, and nine miles of road to access the bridge across the unfordable Quillayute River. The Olympic Coast Route may be completed North to South, South to North, or as an out-and-back for the Epic Double.”
Heidi, Marna, and Sarah were committed immediately to the adventure, Ana was a maybe, and I waffled for a couple of months before formally jumping onboard a few weeks before the trip. After pouring over maps, tide charts, and other runners’ Gaia tracks, we set the date for mid-June.
“Olympic National Park protects over 73 miles of the some of the most primitive natural coastline in the 48 contiguous United States. The views of ocean, cliffs, headlands, islands and seastacks, coupled with the dramatic changing sea, provide a unique wilderness experience. Most of the coast can only be accessed by foot.” (National Park Service)
The route itself covers about 48 of those 73 miles, using the shore and, in several places, overland routes accessed by ropes and dirt scrambles. Ten additional miles are road miles that are required to get from Rialto Beach to Third Beach, which are separated by the unfordable Quillayute River. In the National Park Service map below, you can see the trail to Shi Shi Beach starting in the Makah Indian Reservation and at the bottom the Oil City trailhead, just north of the Hoh Indian Reservation. An X represents an impassable headland (where the overland routes have been built) and an orange • represents areas where a low tide is required to pass.
One challenge with a point-to-point route is the shuttle. The drive from Seattle to Shi Shi Beach, where we decided to start, is a half-day on its own. Add three hours each way on a two-lane highway to get from Shi Shi to Oil City and back, and you’ve got a REALLY long day of driving before a hard trip. In addition, there is very little parking at Shi Shi (although there is a local resident who offers parking space on her property for a minimal fee). We lucked out as friends offered to help with the shuttle: a huge shout-out to Wendy and Kari, who drove out to give us some pre-adventure cheer and support before heading to their own adventure on one of the San Juan islands, and to Ana (who ultimately decided this wouldn’t be her adventure after all) and Adam, who ended up doing tons of driving to make it all work.
We camped the night before at Hobuck Beach Resort. They don’t take reservations but have 300 spots available. We had a wide selection to choose from! At the campground office, we were also able to purchase our permit for using the tribal lands we would be passing through at various points during the trip.
With our schedule driven by the tides, we would start at 2 a.m. at Shi Shi Beach trailhead. This gave us some buffer time wise to allow us to make it past several key points that are impassable at higher tides, and would also get us to Rialto Beach and the 10ish-mile road section in the daylight. After regaining the coast at Third Beach at mile 41, we would then have 17 miles and two tide-critical passings to traverse before reaching the Oil City trailhead.
As we have done on other crew-supported trips, we carried a Garmin InReach with us and Adam and Ana carried a second. This would enable us to call SOS if needed. In terms of logistics, having the two InReach devices allowed us to communicate with Ana and Adam via device-to-device texting—super handy for when for keeping our crew updated on our progress with no cell service available.
Also as we have for past trips, we shared a multi-tab google sheet with route details and beta, tide charts, food and gear lists, etc. For this route, our route details included landmarks and distances, tide levels required for safe passages around specific points, and clean water sources. The ongoing irony with anything ocean-related is the abundance of water and the lack of drinking water!
I’ve never had a harder time figuring out where i was
We were pretty much on time with heading out, and we covered the two miles out to the beach quickly. And I quickly found running along the sand in the dark terribly disorienting: I could hear waves, but couldn’t see them despite my headlamp, and I didn’t have any sense of where I was going, how much progress I was making, or where landmarks were.
My inability to get a sense of where I was continued even after daybreak. There were some obvious landmarks—such as fording the Ozette River and the overland sections—but everything else just seemed like a treadmill with the same scenery going by. I am certain I drove everyone else crazy with my continual questions: Where are we now? What’s our next landmark? Where did you say we’re going next? Despite having my own trip outline in hand, Gaia running on my phone, and paper maps, I just never got it. It was the weirdest thing.
A result of my lack of orientation is it’s very hard to write this trip report. I usually follow the progression of the adventure when I write, but all I have is a start, an end, and in the middle, a collection of snapshots of feelings, experiences, and views.
The middle: magic on the coast (with a dose of reality)
The Olympic Coast is really remote and wild—something that is hard to come by nowadays. I saw more wildlife between Shi Shi and Rialto than just about anywhere I’ve been. We watched a sea otter floating on its back and then diving and playing in shallow pools near the shore. We saw so. many. bald. eagles! plus a million other sea birds. Of course, we saw raccoons (notorious food thieves that campers must beware)—especially at night, when their eyes glowed like little heathens in the light of our headlamps. One of our favorite things was that we followed the footprints of a small animal (raccoon?) and a coyote literally for 15 miles down the beach! We never saw them, but we invented a delightful story of two friends also out on an adventure walking south along the coast together.
The sea life—especially in the tide pools—was crazy. So many little creatures in a grand landscape.
The terrain was a mix of sandy beaches, little rocks, big rocks, wet rocks, rocks covered with seaweed. It was really mentally draining, because at no point could we just walk or run. Full-time attention on where we placed our feet was imperative. We also had to scope out routes as the tide came in and find our way over/under/through different rock formations. It was much tougher and slower going than just about anything I’ve ever done.
Despite the rough going, it was beautiful. Like breathtakingly beautiful. The sea stack formations, the rock carved by thousands of years of waves, the forested land coming up to the high tide line. The scope is difficult to take in.
In contrast to all this wild beauty, on many beaches we saw evidence of the human impact on our oceans. Some areas were blanketed in styrofoam, nets, floats, plastic bottles. For a time, a large shipping vessel motored its way up the coast. We could barely make it out on the horizon, but we could hear it and even feel the vibration of its engines throughout our bodies for a long time: it gave us a little window of insight into the impact “our noise” must have on sea animals, especially those who use sound to navigate, communicate, and hunt.
I ended up texting Ana and requesting a pick up at Rialto (mile 34ish), while Heidi, Marna, and Sarah continued on and in true warrior fashion, finished the damn route.
There are a multitude of reasons, all of which are my fault/rest on me. I think they mostly stem from my waffling about whether to go: I don’t think I was emotionally fully committed to the journey, so things I could have overcome instead became huge barriers to my continuing. In addition, my planning wasn’t as complete so I (1) hadn’t internalized the route and felt overwhelmed by what was yet to come on an ongoing basis and (2) made critical packing errors. Some are lessons learned (maybe all of them?), so I’ll share them here:
Sarah kept saying it would be cold on the coast, but the forecast was for a nice weekend. In the end, it was misty and chilly the whole weekend, and I was underdressed. Bring the right layers!
The challenges related to clothes were amplified by my body alternating between being overheated when we were scrambling over rocks or headlands and being cold when we were on sand. Bring the right layers!
By the time I got to Rialto, I was dehydrated. I didn’t appreciate how hard it’d be to get clean water, and I couldn’t get myself to drink marsh-stained water even after filtering it. It smelled like a peat bog, it looked like tea, and that messed with me. We also wasted a lot of time following streams inland, looking for clearer water, when it simply wasn’t going to happen. Plan hydration better!
My feet! Once my feet were wet, they stayed wet, and then they gradually got sandy too. I ended up very close to a serious case of trench foot, which I found really painful. Bring more socks! I had a spare pair, but in reality, I’m not sure what I could have done about this. I suspect I needed to suck it up and be stronger mentally.
Group pacing. I am comfortable with scrambling on rocks, and there are sections of the route where you are jumping rock to rock or climbing up and down or over and under boulders for long periods. I would clamber along, and then spend time sitting, waiting for the others. Conversely, there were times where the others were waiting for me as they trotted along sandy beaches and I huffed and puffed and whined about my feet.
Food. No, seriously, this was a duh! moment. I forgot one of my two food bags in the car when we headed out. I got really worried about having enough food for the length of time we’d be out there.
I remain humbled by this place where I get to live, by the challenges and opportunities I am given in the outdoors, and by the friendships I share with some really amazing, giving, and strong people. I am in awe of Heidi, Marna, and Sarah for completing the journey, but also just in general because they’re amazing accomplished people who are incredibly strong physically and mentally. I’m glad I shared a large portion of the journey, and—they’ll get this—while I am sad I didn’t complete the full journey, I’m still not sorry I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant stuffing my face with chips and salsa while they continued on. For me on that day, it was the right decision.
Yesterday, my friend Ana—of Will Run for Whisky fame—pointed out that winter is a great time to catch up on the past season’s race and trip reports. My kids and work have filled all of my nonrunning time, and I’ve missed the chance to reflect on my adventures so I’m giving it a try. I actually started this race report right after the race (um … yes, that was last April) and here was my lead:
“Running is stupid! I’m never running again!”
Ha! Well, that sounds like a typical ultra, doesn’t it?
It certainly wasn’t the mantra I had intended to have looping through my mind on this race, but it’s the one that stuck. That loop occasionally was replaced with a checklist of all the things I was going to unregister for when I was done. I think I ended up doing everything I had planned, so NEVER listen to yourself seriously when you’re struggling during an ultra!
The Badger Mountain Challenge—which offers 100- and 50-mile and 50K and 15K courses—is one of those small community races that is growing but still holding on to its roots. It has a great community feel, where you can tell many of the volunteers live locally, know each other, and come back every year to support the race and the runners.
It’s in the Tri-Cities area of south-central/eastern Washington, where Kennewick, Richland, and Pasco are all closely collocated at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake, and Columbia Rivers in the Columbia Basin. I was kind of geeking out, because I’m a total fan of the Mercy Thompson stories by Patricia Briggs. A few years ago, after running Beacon Rock 50K, I went home the long way so I could visit the “Stonehenge” memorial on the Columbia River just because there was a pivotal scene set there in one of the Mercy Thompson books. In the series, Mercy and all her buddies and enemies live in the Tri-Cities. So, gah, geekdom struck! I was hoping to see a fae or two, but no such luck. Then again, since they’re usually pretty scary in the books, maybe that’s just as well.
The course starts at the base of Badger Mountain at 7 a.m. After a brief section of double track, the trail narrows to single track and heads uphill. Aside from a small section early on, this trail is PLUSH! It’s smooth and very well maintained! We climbed our way to the top of Badger, and then headed down—this section was FAST. I didn’t have to worry about where my feet were going and I could just let go. Wheeee!
A quick road section connects the Badger Mountain trail system with Candy Mountain. After a quick jaunt through the parking lot there, and then through the first aid station, we found ourselves back on more pretty and well-maintained single track. This course chooses to go up everything it can, so of course we went to the top of Candy Mountain. There are grand views of the Tri-Cities and off to the next ridge line we would climb: breathtaking on the one hand, but also a little intimidating—as in, wait, I’m going up there, all the way over there?!
The descent down the far side of Candy Mountain was a loose, rocky, rutted, steep jaunt, which is my kind of trail. I spent a lot of it thinking about how much Ana, who was running the 50K the next day on the same course, would absolutely hate it. (She did.) At the bottom, we made a quick dogleg and then entered a long culvert (long enough it gets pretty dark inside) which allowed us to cross below a highway to connect with the next section of the course. I was with several guys as we exited the culvert, and they went the wrong way, so I did too. Doh! We quickly recognized our mistake, backtracked, and got back on course.
The next section is along the road for a few miles, and it was here I started struggling a bit—and hence the “I quit running” mantra I was chanting by the end. (I later found out that my problems were partially caused by a medicine I was taking that gave me horrible heartburn; this made me feel like my lungs were closing up and my whole chest was tight.) The road section scoots along a series of vineyards with both grape vines and hops—apparently Washington is a huge producer of hops, who knew?—which made it more enjoyable than the typical road run.
A right turn took us to the next section, which was a dirt road through the vineyards. Here, we began slowly ascending a bit until we hit the beginning of the jeep trails. I had heard that the couple-mile jeep trail section is deceptively tough, and it’s true. While it cuts along the side of a ridge it follows, it manages to find every steep up and down it can.
Once we finished with that section, we hit the Field Road aid station (which was the turnaround for the next day’s 50K), and then ran along another mile-or-so road section up to the McBee aid station. Here, my incredibly supportive friend, Sarah, was waiting for me to cheer me on. She had driven out from Seattle that morning (3+ hours, mind you) and would drive home that night after the race (another 3+ hours). I cannot tell you how important my friends are to me and how much I appreciate them!
Sarah had my drop bag ready for me, and I grabbed my jacket and gloves as it was just starting to rain. Then I looked up and realized what I was going to go up next. The “trail” was basically a deer track straight up the ridge. I was wishing for poles, and Sarah—whose van is a bit like Felix’s bag of tricks from the old cartoon—fished hers out of some cubbyhole. I was very grateful.
The climb up McBee Ridge wasn’t all the bad, but it was sustained and steep. The rain came down in earnest, so I just focused on my feet and the next bit of up till I was, well, up. At the top of the ridge climb, I took off for the out-and-back on jeep roads to Chandler Butte aid station and the turnaround. This jeep road was deceptive and frustrating, as it was coated in small rocks which gave it a cobblestone effect that made finding my stride tough. Once done with the out-and-back, I headed down from the ridge on a nice single track and switchbacked back down toward McBee aid station—a much gentler, albeit longer, trail than our route up.
Back at the aid station, Sarah joined me to keep me company for the final 18 or so miles. It was great to have company, and Sarah’s standard cheerfulness brought my mood up. Unfortunately, it did little for my stomach, which had been burning off and on for a few hours now. At Field Road aid station, I drank some ginger ale in hopes that it would settle things down, but just a mile later I barfed it all up. Oops.
I had regaled Sarah with stories about the jeep trails, and when she saw the ups and downs she started laughing. They really do find the steepest ups and steepest downs around! The way through the vineyards is a bit of a blur, but we finally made it back to the climb up Candy Mountain. The trail that was such a joy to bomb down earlier was now a bear to go back up, with my stomach unhappy and my legs a bit tireder. As I trudged up the trail, Sarah sang a song and told a joke, trying to make me laugh. I think I told her to shut up … or something a little less friendly. You’d have to ask her; she laughs whenever she tells the story.
The rain had been coming and going throughout our time together, but as we crested the trail up Candy, the sun found a hole in the clouds to shine through and we were treated to a vibrant rainbow that lasted 15? 20? minutes.
From there, we trotted down the buff single track of Candy and then headed over to Badger for our final leg. As we climbed Badger, Sarah noted that the rock types along the trail were remarkably diverse. I later learned that this is due to the Columbia Basin floods at the end of the last ice age.
As we neared the top, so did sunset. With the clouds still hanging in the sky, it was spectacular, reminding me that every run—no matter how miserable or hard, or remote or close-in to the city—always has a bit of magic. First we had the magic rainbow, and now we had a beautiful sunset.
We finished the run by headlamp, cruising down the beautiful Badger trails to the finish line. It took me a disappointing 13:30, but I finally have the 50-miler monkey off my back and some wonderful memories to carry with me.
After what was for me a very successful 2018, this was a rough start to 2019. Why? Well, I think I was cocky—resulting in my going out too fast and not being meticulous in my planning. In retrospect, I think I find the 50 mile distance the hardest of the 50, 100K, and 100 miler ultras, simply because it seems like it should be so doable compared to the others and therefore it requires some pretty specific race planning that I didn’t attend to.
Badger was also a reminder that there’s joy in every run, even the tough, “I quit,” “Why am I here?” runs. The rainbow and sunset, Sarah’s friendship, the new scenery, even getting to geek out on the locale all made for a special experience. I’m tucking that reminder away in my bag of tricks.
The day after my race, I volunteered at the Candy Mountain aid station. I got to cheer on the 50Kers—including Ana and her husband, Adam—and many 100 milers coming back from their second jaunt through the vineyards and jeep trails and up and down McBee. The other volunteers were all from the Tri-Cities Girls on the Run, which hearkened back to my sense of this event’s connection to the community.
Last week texts were flying as my friends and I tried to decide what adventure we wanted to tackle over the holiday weekend. Our first idea was discarded when we learned that our route was closed due to a wildfire in the area, and after some back and forth Marna and I landed on doing the Loowit Trail around Mt. St. Helens (another in the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge list of routes). Then Sarah had FOMO, and then Heidi jumped onboard, and then we convinced Wendy to come with us, and suddenly we were a group of five.
Mt. St. Helens is one of my favorite places in Washington. I vaguely remember news coverage of its May 1980 eruption (when I was in high school), but once I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2001 it was one of the first places I wanted to visit. Since then I’ve mountain biked up Ape Canyon, across the Plains of Abraham, down to the Windy Ridge Visitor Center, and back several times and three years ago I ran the Volcanic 50, which took me around the mountain on the Loowit. I’m fascinated by its landscape, which can shift from forest to moonscape in the matter of yards, and by its slow recovery to once again hosting glaciers up high and wildflowers, bushes, and trees down low. None of the rest of the group had done any of the trails, and I was excited to share it with them.
We started south on I-5 around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and decided to stop in Chehalis for dinner. Ha! What a mistake! An hour after we ordered, our waiter let us know we were still four tickets out in the kitchen and offered us each one small complimentary fruit cup to make up for the inconvenience. We felt really sad.
We had hoped to arrive at Marble Mountain Sno Park, where we planned to sleep, before sunset but ended up not even leaving the restaurant until sunset. You know what they say about best laid plans, right?
Anyway, we got to Marble Mountain Sno Park around 10 p.m., set up a mix of bivvy sacs and tents next to our truck, and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the middle of the night I had to go to the bathroom and when I stumbled out of my tent I couldn’t believe how many stars I could see. Seriously, it’s good to get away from the city and remember how grand the universe is!
The Loowit Trail is a 28-mile loop trail with multiple access points. We chose the June Lake Trailhead on the south side of the mountain as our starting point because, at 2 miles, it was the shortest “connector” trail. We hit the trailhead around 6:15 Monday morning, with the sun just starting to rise. It made for a glorious start, as our peeks of St. Helens through the trees were highlighted with early morning alpen glow. Once we hit the Loowit Trail, we headed west to start our clockwise trip around the volcano.
We were soon out of the trees, and our jaws dropped as we stood above clouds enveloping the valleys below us, with Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams visible to the south and east. Our first boulder field came up quickly, and we picked our way through the boulders by following wood posts that mark the trail periodically. With the black rock, the tan posts are fairly obvious and make for relatively easy route finding.
After the first boulder field, we passed the winter and summer climbing routes going up Tubal Worm Trail and Monitor Ridge and then reentered the forest. When I did the Volcanic 50, there were three separate ground wasp nests with very angry wasps ready to attack the runners. I was stung five times; I heard one woman report 15 stings! I was on the lookout for the wasps here but didn’t see any. But as soon as I mentioned that we were in the area where I had been stung before, Marna stumbled upon a nest and was stung on her leg. After the forest and wasps, we hit our second boulder field and worked our way to the west side of the mountain.
From here, the trail winds up and down, through sand and rocks and through forested areas. I don’t think the trail is ever flat. Fall colors are coming out now, and in some sections deciduous trees and bushes sporting reds and oranges contrasted beautifully with the black and gray of the surrounding terrain.
Our next milestone came at Sheep Canyon, where the trail has deteriorated significantly since I was last on it. It now features a steep and eroded descent that has been protected with a rope and ends with a 3+ foot drop off at the bottom. We “got to” climb up the other side with the aid of a rope as well.
The trail climbs for a bit after Sheep Canyon, and then we began the descent to the Toutle River. There is a lovely forested and very runnable section that switchbacks downhill until you near the river. The final drop down to the river also involves a rope, but this descent was shorter and not nearly as steep at the Sheep Canyon descent. The Toutle captured my imagination the first time I drove across it on I-5 and my husband described the flow and debris carried by the river after the 1980 eruption. In a 1981 USGS report, the author describes:
“The hydrologic effects of the May 18 eruption have been both widespread and intense. During the eruption, a massive debris avalanche moved down the north flank of the volcano depositing about 3 billion cubic yards of rock, ice, and other materials in the upper 17 miles of the North Fork Toutle River valley. The debris deposits are about 600 feet thick in the upper reaches of the valley. Following the avalanche, runoff from the melted glaciers and snow, and possible outflow from Spirit Lake, caused an extraordinary mudflow in the North Fork Toutle River. The mudflow shattered and uprooted thousands of trees, destroyed most of the local bridges, and deposited an estimated 25,000 acre-feet of sediment in the Cowlitz River channel.”
Fortunately for us, the Toutle was much tamer on Monday and involved just a bit of rock hopping to cross.
We filtered some water here, as water is scarce for the next 10 or so miles until we would hit a spring on the northeast side of the mountain. It’s another steep climb up from the river, and then more climbing took us up switchbacks through some trees. I had told everyone that there was a “sand ramp” after the Toutle and while I had forgotten about the switchbacking section the sand ramp was still there. Once we cleared the sand ramp, we enjoyed a nice runnable section that meanders up and down until the trail finally dropped us out in the blast zone.
I’m not a geologist or volcanologist, so I can’t adequately describe the events of the 1980 eruption. What I can tell you is that as I have traversed this section of trail, I have been overwhelmed with a kind of primitive understanding of the power of the volcano and how small and ultimately powerless we are in the scope of the world. I do recommend checking out this time-lapse series of satellite images from NASA Earth Observatory showing the gradual “re-greening” of the area around Mt. St. Helens and how the blast zone remains an austere place as nature rebuilds itself on its own timeline.
As we crossed the northern flanks of Mt. St. Helens we were able to peer up into the crater. We were treated to a little bit of geology in action as a rock slide avalanched from the crater rim and crashed down to the crater bottom. At points we were able to see Mt. Rainier to the north as well as Spirit Lake and all of the dead trees that still float in it today. The rocks themselves are mostly gray and black—some so shiny black that in the distance they looked white from the reflected sunlight—but are interspersed with terra-cotta-orange-colored rocks.
Next we climbed up out of the blast zone to the top of Windy Ridge. There are a few trails here that lead to Spirit Lake, up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, and to Loowit Falls (which we could see parts of from our trail and look like they’re worth a side trip in the future). Once we ascended Windy Ridge we could look out to the Plains of Abraham spreading east and south of us, and Mt. Adams was back in view and dominating the skyline.
We had a brief discussion about why the Plains of Abraham are named what they are. A route description on the Washington Trails Association site describes them here:
“Here spread out before you is the Plains of Abraham, a near-level expanse named not for the father figure of biblical fame but after the famed battlefield in Quebec City. An early adventurer here saw some semblance, but certainly the plains in Quebec sont plus vertes! In early summer, the pumiced plains are painted purple thanks to a proliferation of lupine.”
The descent from Windy Ridge down to the Plains were some of the sketchiest of the trail. There’s a faint path that makes its way down a steep scree slope, and with each step the path slid downhill just enough to make it feel tenuous. We all made it down safely and were glad to leave that section behind us.
The Plains are open to mountain bikes (we saw none), and I know it well from my past rides on the mountain. We made good time as it’s flat and runnable, and it’s so wide open that the views of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood (which was back again by this point) are simply in your face. This ended much too quickly after we passed Ape Canyon and the Muddy River.
Once again I had given everyone a heads up on what to expect—this time that there were ravines ahead. What I hadn’t remembered is how many ravines there are! It’s up and down on loose sand and rocks, again and again. About halfway through, we wished we had counted them so we could give future travelers a heads up and realistic expectations. Perhaps if you travel in a counter-clockwise direction and encounter these with fresh legs they aren’t so bad.
Finally out of the ravines, we traversed (with some ups and downs) through the absolute best blueberry patch I’ve encountered in the mountains. There were so many, and they were perfect—ripe, and sweet and tart at the same time. What a wonderful pick-me-up at this point in the day!
As we spotted fairly frequent piles of bear skat, we discussed how bears actually eat the berries. Considering how long it takes for a human (with fingers and opposable thumbs) to pick a handful of berries, how on earth could a bear get enough? This discussion fed a lengthy, end-of-the-day-goofiness string of theories, and continues to entertain us even a day later as we discuss a bear’s prehensile lips. Here’s what we’ve since learned: “Black bears are efficient berry-eaters, consuming up to 30,000 berries a day in a good year. They gather berries quickly, using their sensitive, mobile lips and swallowing them whole.” If you want to learn more, you can read about it here.
After the berries, we entered another section of rocks and boulders, although we now had a more defined trail that didn’t require the same degree of boulder-hopping that the earlier boulder fields had. We hit a section of forest with a soft, plush trail that felt like heaven, and then some more rocks and boulders, and finally another forested section and the intersection with the June Lake Trail. It was a relatively quick 2 miles back to our cars, where we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and into sweats and puffy jackets and comfy sandals, and then sat down to a quick feast of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.
As all of us have done the Wonderland Trail, it was natural to compare the two. They both go around a volcano. They both boast varied terrain. The Loowit Trail is quite a bit shorter—without the connector portion, it’s about 28 miles compared with Wonderland’s 93 miles.
However, I think it’s dangerous to compare them. We loved the constant gratification the Loowit Trail and Mt. St. Helens provide. The views are nearly nonstop, and the terrain is continuously changing. The Wonderland has long sections in the forest, where it felt like a lot of work for less return.
I think we must take each at face value. Running the Wonderland Trail is unique, and running the Loowit Trail is unique too. I absolutely love Mt. St. Helens, its stark demonstration of Earth’s power, and the opportunity the Loowit Trail affords those of us on foot to explore all its sides in a relatively approachable 30ish miles.
Stats (per my Garmin)
7375′ elevation gain and loss (gross)
Total time 13:41
Moving time 11:10
In 2015 I did this loop in 9:50. That time it was raining much of the time, and it was a supported race. I took about three pictures. This time amongst the five of us we probably took around 400 pictures! You gotta come do this one … the views are amazing!
All photos belong to either Sarah Brouwer or me. All text belongs to me.