As a steady drizzle hung over White Pass Saturday afternoon, a motley collection of bedraggled Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers dried off at the Kracker Barrel Store, finally clear of the nearby Miriam Fire that has closed part of the trail through the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
A few hundred yards up U.S. Highway 12, scores of pickup trucks and tents lined the staging area where nearly 300 firefighters have assembled to battle the blaze that sprung up after a lightning strike July 30.
Henry and Morgan O’Brien, Seattle natives who are hiking the PCT, said they were surprised to see fire so close.
“It’s pretty crazy to see,” said Henry O’Brien. “We saw the fire burning when we were on the trail, off in the distance. We haven’t seen that before.”
Though the PCT is closed for several miles south of White Pass, hikers were able to get through via a series of alternate trails that skirted clear of the fire. While many PCT fire closures require long re-routes along roads, the detour is allowing thru-hikers a roughly equidistant path — and one that allows them to hike the iconic Knife’s Edge exposed ridgeline in the Goat Rocks.
“You want to see the views, but the reality of it is you do have to respect where you are,” said Mehdi Bayani, who traveled from Australia to hike the PCT this year. “There’s gonna be fires. You just accept it.”
The 4,200-acre Miriam Fire is just one of the seemingly omnipresent fires that have choked the West with smoke this summer. They’ve made for figurative and literal headaches for thru-hikers, closing sections of the trail and blanketing others with haze.
“We only had three clear days in Oregon, which was about three weeks (of hiking) for us,” said Morgan O’Brien.
The fires have forced readjustments for many hikers, including Randy and Tracy Laurie, who were hanging around downtown Centralia Monday, on their way home to British Columbia. The pair skipped a section from Mount Shasta in California to Crater Lake in Oregon due to the conditions.
“The trail was open, but it was really smoky, and it just wasn’t worth being out in the smoke anymore,” said Randy Laurie. “You couldn’t see anything, and it was starting to choke us up.”
The pair had planned to hike to the finish, returning to their home province at Manning Park, where their son works. But that homecoming was called off when another fire closed the last 25 miles of the PCT, denying this year’s hikers a finish at the iconic northern terminus on the border.
“If the trail was open, we would have continued,” Randy Laurie said. “We were on schedule to finish. It felt like without that actual finish line for us, it took some momentum away.”
The O’Briens said they’re hiking slow and monitoring conditions, as well as looking into an alternate route to hike to the Canadian border.
“We’d be OK with skipping 30 miles somewhere else, but it’s tough that it’s the last 30 miles,” said Henry O’Brien.
Bayani also said the fires have changed his hike, making his hiking partner ill.
“She started to vomit, and she was nauseous, and it was all because of the smoke,” he said. “We hitched from Etna (California) to (Ashland). It wasn’t any better in Ashland, but we got some masks and that did help a lot”
Christoph Hahn, a PCT hiker from Germany, said the gnarly conditions are inextricable from the thru-hiking experience.
“It’s just part of the trail,” he said. “We knew last year there were wildfires. This year, it continued. … It’s so easy to plan the trail at home on the sofa. Then you’re on the trail and like this, it’s just two days of rain. It’s something totally different.”
For all the clouds and smoke and detours, none of the hikers were downcast about their experience.
“We had an amazing adventure,” said Randy Laurie. “It restored our faith in humanity. You find all the good in people. … We’re proud of ourselves. We’re already planning the next adventure.”