WINTHROP, Wash. (AP) — A 100-mile backpacking trip is a good start for sizing up a wilderness area as well as understanding what makes a century-old outdoors club tick.
The Spokane Mountaineers, celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, honored the centennial at the end of July with a weeklong hike. They chose Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, which includes 531,539 acres hugging more than 50 miles of the U.S.-Canada border north of Winthrop.
The plan called for hiking most of the east-west Boundary Trail 533, which includes sections of the Pacific Crest (PCT) and Pacific Northwest (PNWT) national scenic trails.
The number of club members interested in the trek dwindled as family and job conflicts arose and plans had to be changed because of wildfire closures. Daily mileages would exceed 16 miles on at least two days. Some trail stretches had not been maintained in the roadless area of 150 peaks higher than 7,500 feet, deep stream basins, high lakes and habitat for the largest population of Canada lynx in the Lower 48.
“It’s down to three plus my dog, Duke,” said co-leader Samantha Journot, a chemical engineer.
“The Mountaineers are ordinary people with jobs,” shrugged the other co-leader, Luke Bakken, a digital engineer for an online company as well as a bassoonist with the Spokane Symphony.
They checked for trail reports from hikers and Okanogan National Forest staff and settled on a route ranging from the open plateaus of the east side of the Pasayten to the rugged North Cascades ridges farther west.
Route: With Irongate Trailhead closed by fire at the time, they would start from Thirtymile Trailhead to Remmel Lake area, to Cathedral Lakes, picking up the Boundary Trail westward across Ashnola River, over Peeve Pass, to Ramon Lakes then Quartz Lake, over Bunker Hill, down through unmaintained hell and across the Pasayten River, up to Frosty Lake and then south on the well-groomed Pacific Crest Trail to a vehicle shuttled to Harts Pass Trailhead – 100-plus miles.
The number of people encountered in the first five days of the trip could be counted on two hands. They included first-day encounters with an outfitted group of women on horseback headed to Remmel Lake, followed by a packer hauling their gear on mules.
Only one human was seen during the next four days on the Boundary Trail.
Bakken, like most of the club’s 800 members, joined the Mountaineers to fill the adventure gap in his life.
He grew up in Spokane with little camping experience except for what he got out of Boy Scouts.
“By the time I was in high school, I was so involved with my music I didn’t have time for camping,” he said.
“I’m making up for lost time.”
He took the past season off from the symphony and immersed himself in the outdoors, training for three months in the Mountaineers’ annual Mountain School and advancing to lead several hikes and climbs this year, including trips to the Pasayten, Mission Mountains, Eagle Cap, Wenaha and Glacier Peak wilderness areas plus the top of Mount Athabasca in Canada.
Journot came to Spokane from the Midwest and completed the club’s Backpacking School in 2011 on a tip from a friend. She, too, has become leader for the club’s packed slate of outdoor activities.
“I backpacked before joining the Mountaineers,” she said, “but not like with a stove and a tent and good gear. It was mostly going out to try to survive and forget I was living in Ohio.”
Bakken joined the club when he realized there were no available outdoors enthusiasts in his circle of friends.
“I wanted to go backpacking and I got tired of waiting,” he said. “I read a story in the paper about Mountaineers hiking through the Glacier Peak Wilderness and said, ‘These are my people.’?”
The Pasayten trek gave the Mountaineers a full dose of wilderness experience, speckled with discovery and misery as they stepped over bear, wolf and lynx scats.
Bakken wore every piece of clothing in his pack and stuffed a hot-water bottle into his sleeping bag to supplement his lightweight gear through a couple of nights dipping below 40 degrees.
Every day had gorgeous scenery, especially near Cathedral Lakes, Baldy Mountain, Peeve Pass, Ramon Lakes, Quartz Mountain, Bunker Hill and all of the PCT.
They also endured a good dose of wilderness reality.
The sketchy middle portion of the Boundary Trail down from Bunker Hill to the burned out Pasayten River valley and up Soda/Frosty Creek was riddled with two days of pace-thwarting downfall.
By Day 5, Journot’s body was a walking scab of scratches, pokes and scrapes. A 27-inch inseam exposed her to far more punishment than Bakken, who could more easily negotiate some blowdowns with 5 additional inches of leg length.
Since 1998, the Forest Service has lost 39 percent of its employees assigned to land management, restoration and recreation, while it had to more than double its hiring of firefighting personnel, the Department of Agriculture reports.
Fire-prone forests, like those in Eastern Washington, are seeing more severe wildfires and higher costs. Budgets for roads, facilities, habitat and recreation services have been cut 15-68 percent.
This isn’t news to recreation staffers who deal with Pasayten trails.
“It’s a challenge to keep up,” said Betsy Peterson, of the Tonasket Ranger District that manages the east corner of the Pasayten.
In the past two years, her trail crew of up to 20 has dwindled to just four people packing cross-cut saws and pulaskis on 10-day hitches to maintain the trails.
Peterson said she tries to get all 53 miles of Pasayten trails on her district logged out during the course of a season, “but we’re lucky to provide full maintenance to 20 percent of the trails.”
The Horseshoe Basin area is a priority: “That stretch is the crown jewel of our district,” she said.
The east side of the Pasayten is far enough away from the Seattle population to avoid crowds. “This is the quiet side of the wilderness,” she said. “The most congestion we’ll get is at Horseshoe Basin around a holiday.”
Most of the Pasayten is managed by the Winthrop-based Methow Valley District.
“We have about 800 miles of trail on our portion of the wilderness, but we maintain only about 300 miles,” said Jennifer Zbyszewski, district recreation staffer.
“Our budget has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. This year we’re doing the work with a crew of four.”
The national scenic trail status afforded the PCT and PNWT give her more leverage for winning grants for trail work.
“We fund our trail crew through grants almost exclusively through the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office,” she said.
Both districts rely heavily on volunteers for trail work.
The Tatoosh and Tripod fires of 2006 and this year’s Newby Lake fire will have lasting impacts on the Pasayten trails.
“Intense fires cause immediate damage with trees falling down on trails,” Zbyszewski said. “Roots burn and leave holes in the trail. Water bars burn and make way for erosion and slopes are left bare and destabilized so there’s a lot of sloughing. Fires leave a lot of intensive, expensive work for decades.”
A small portion of standing snags usually falls in the first five years after a fire, studies show. Downfall accelerates for the next 20-25 years.
The stock bridge across the Pasayten River burned in 2006 and won’t be replaced in the foreseeable future since the estimated cost is $250,000.
The Spokane Mountaineers balanced on a log across the Pasayten River, which flows northward to its confluence with the Similkameen in Canada.
That was the easy part of the day, after they’d encountered numerous blowdowns and sketchy trails they followed largely by looking for remnants of downfall cut out by trail crews years ago.
The Boundary Trail from Sunny Pass north and to the west was initially routed by hunters, trappers and especially sheepherders in the early 1900s when there was a huge demand for wool to make military uniforms. Bands of up to 75,000 sheep were summered in the Pasayten.
Today the unmaintained sections are impassable to stock.
At Quartz Lake, the Mountaineers realized that in an emergency they were two or three days of hard hiking away from a road.
When they finally crossed Frosty Pass, the hikers seemed to enter a new world at the PCT, which is maintained to a high standard. They met more hikers on the trail and shared a camping area with a family of Canadians who caught foot-long cutthroat trout in Hopkins Lake, one of about 160 bodies of water in the Pasayten.
By Day 6, the Mountaineers were marveling at how quickly and compactly a backpack comes together in the morning, and how much easier it is to shoulder than at the outset. Bodies were trimmer, too.
They’d refined techniques and gear needs by trial and error and camp banter. They’d learned from navigation mistakes and were bolstered by good decisions.