Hiking the PCT through fire season

Tim Holt
Pacific Crest Trail hiker Dan Amundson outside Ammirati's Market in Castella, where he was waiting for the Post Office to open.

You have to give Dan Amundson credit for dogged determination. He’s been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in sections, starting from the Mexico border four years ago. Last year he’d made it all the way to Burney Falls when his knee gave out and he had to be rescued by helicopter.

“It was pretty embarrassing,” he acknowledges.

Just a couple of weeks ago he started back at Burney Falls. He didn’t get very far when he was blocked by the Hirz Fire. He got to Ash Camp on the McCloud River only to discover that the next 30 miles of trail, from the camp to Castle Crags State Park, was closed. (As of this Monday, an additional 25 miles of the trail, from the state park to near Gumboot Lake, had also been closed.)

After hiking northward on a narrow side road for a few miles, he got picked up by a “trail angel” from Dunsmuir named Tony who was shuttling hikers around the fire.

I caught up with Amundson while he was hanging out at Ammirati’s Market in Castella. He had hiked down from his campsite at the state park and was waiting for the Castella Post Office to open, fretting over whether a food package that had been delivered by express mail at 8 p.m. the previous day would be waiting for him in a post office that closes at 3 p.m. And there was also the matter of a swollen jaw that may or may not need medical attention.

Wildfires were just one of the challenges facing this older hiker.

Nowadays wildfires are one of the major challenges facing just about every hiker who sets out on the PCT. Earlier this season, the Klamathon and Hendrix fires closed portions of the PCT just above the Oregon border. Farther north, hikers had to detour around a number of fires raging in Washington.

But wildfires this season are “not quite as bad as last year,” says Jack Haskel, the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s trail information specialist. But he notes that over the past several years there’s been a trend toward “more frequent fires, a longer wildfire season, and larger fires.”

As with the Hirz Fire, trail closures may be imposed due to firefighting activity on the fire’s perimeter, not to immediate danger from the fire itself. (As of this writing there was the strong possibility that the rapidly expanding Delta Fire could force closure of a section of the trail northward from the state park.)

In general, says Haskel, “it’s rare for a hiker to do a pure northbound hike, one with no diversions, all the way to Canada. To do it, you need to be lucky and fast. The fires get worse as the season progresses.”

Even a hiker who manages to avoid wildfires can get thrown off the trail by heavy snows in the Sierras or dangerous crossings at raging streams.

PCT hikers can cope with the vagaries of fire and weather using a technique called “flip-flopping.” For example, they can start hiking northward from Castle Crags early in the season to avoid the Sierra snows, make it to Canada, catch a ride back to their starting point, and head southward to Mexico.

I recently met two young women in Dunsmuir who were doing exactly that, although they’d already gotten blocked by a fire in Washington just before they got to the Canadian border. As they headed down south, they were also going to have to figure out how to get around the Hirz Fire. Like other hikers I encountered, they spoke about the whole situation with cheerful resignation, as just part of the whole trail adventure.

Hikers can check the Pacific Crest Trail Association website for up-to-date information on trail closures, and, in many cases, suggested detours. Sometimes, though, where there’s no alternate trail and only dangerously narrow roads with no shoulder, they’re going to have to stick out their thumb or catch a bus or train.

For Dave Harrison, who with his wife Vicki runs the $25-a-night Hiker Hut in Etna, wildfires that close portions of the PCT “are nothing new for us.” They’ve seen hikers rush out the door to beat a trail closure that was set for noon that day. Or sometimes the hikers just wait the closure out. The Hut, after all, offers comfortable bunk beds, a washer and dryer, wifi, and even loaner bikes for cycling around the town and environs – and the companionship of other hikers while you’re waiting out a wildfire closure.

A PCT hike is, among other things, a test of one’s persistence, resourcefulness and flexibility. Wildfires are just one of the challenges that requires all those qualities. One way or another, you’re going to find out if you have the can-do attitude that can get you from Point A to Point B, no matter what.