An Interview with Two Eastbound Hikers
“Although most use of long-distance trails is for day hiking, the romantic lure and ultimate justification of such routes lie over the horizon.” -Ron Strickland, The Pacific Northwest Trail Guide, 1983
Even before trail founder, Ron Strickland had proven a path for the Pacific Northwest Trail, he imagined that “a tiny minority of PNT enthusiasts” would one day take in its glory in a single season. Our nation’s trails were seeing a surge of backpackers and hikers in the late ‘60’s, yet the pastime which would come to be known as long-distance hiking was still in its infancy.
The term, “thru-hiker,” now recognizable to anyone who has set foot in an REI store, was even more obscure, even among avid hikers. Yet in the following decade, backpackers would begin to dream of longer and more ambitious trips, having been inspired by visionary trailblazers of America’s newly minted National Trails System.
In 1973, the nation would marvel at an account of Eric Ryback’s “unprecedented triple crown” of hiking, published in the first issue of Backpacker Magazine. Although Ryback and dozens of others had already thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, he had also traversed the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, earning himself an unprecedented honorific and showing new possibilities for long-distance hiking in the decades to come.
For now, westbound hikers seem to outnumber eastbounders
at roughly fifty to one, but that could change in coming years.
As the story goes, Strickland was inspired to create a cross-Cascades hiking trail when he read the phrase, “tomorrow the Pacific Ocean,” published in the 1970 classic, 101 Hikes in the North Cascades, by conservationist and guidebook author, Harvey Manning. Later, Strickland and Manning explored potential routes together. From a prominence in the Cascades, Strickland caught sight of the Puget Sound across the Skagit Valley. In that fateful moment he imagined long-distance hikers walking west toward the sea.
Some forty years later, Strickland’s romantic route description still seems to hold sway over hikers: “the Pacific Northwest Trail starts like a drop of rain on the flanks of the Continental Divide and winds its way west, like a river that flows to the Pacific Ocean.” Whether Strickland’s words have proven too seductive, or the notion of finishing on the sandy shores of the Pacific has, nearly every thru-hiker on the Pacific Northwest Trail has walked west.
Yet, unlike a true seasonal migration, there are few reasons why PNT hikers can’t travel east if they choose. Glacier National Park’s trails do melt out a few weeks sooner than those in the Olympic Mountains, giving westbound hikers a head start. And it is also true that guidebooks and other navigation tools for the PNT are written assuming a westward trip.
Forty years later, the question remains; is it really better to hike west, or has the sun begun to set on this tradition? For now, westbound hikers seem to outnumber eastbounders at roughly fifty to one, but that could change in coming years.
HIKING EAST AGAINST THE GRAIN
I chatted with two experienced thru-hikers who tackled the PNT as a solo eastbound adventure. Like the rest of the Class of 2018, they would face a heavy snowpack and over seven wildfire closures to connect their steps and earn the right to call themselves end-to-enders on what has been called, “America’s gnarliest thru-hike.”
Griggs Domler is an accomplished long-distance hiker and software engineer from Connecticut. Ryan “Cappy” Stoyer is also from the East Coast. Stoyer is a gymnastics coach in Asheville, North Carolina who had thru-hiked both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails before setting his sights on the PNT.
“In that moment all my excitement for the countless unknowns of this trail washed over me. It wasn’t until that spot, 167 miles into my hike, that the full force of the adventure before me sunk in,” said Stoyer.
Q: What appealed to you about the Pacific Northwest Trail? Why did you choose it over other long trails?
Domler: I love the Pacific Northwest, so the route the PNT takes appealed to me quite a bit. I had already hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, so the PNT seemed like a great way to see the other parts of these states. In addition, the chance to hike a newer and less-used trail was also appealing. The PCT experience felt a bit crowded even in 2016, with good campsites all occupied at the end of the day, so I was looking forward to maybe a bit less traffic.
Stoyer: I first stepped foot on the PNT last July near Frosty Pass [in the Pasayten Wilderness] while on my way to begin a SOBO thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. From there I saw west into the North Cascades and knew that was where I wanted to hike.
I’m from the Southeast where most of our trails are a little steeper and rougher around the edges than much of what I encountered on the PCT. I also enjoy off-trail travel. I loved the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, but wanted to experience the region in a more challenging and engaging way than the PCT offered. The PNT boasts the remoteness and adventure I was after.
Q. Traditionally, hikers head west on the PNT. Why did you choose to hike eastbound?
Domler: I love the mountains, and I liked the idea of heading towards Glacier National Park as the grand finale. Don’t get me wrong, the Olympic Coast is beautiful, but personally I would look forward more to the mountains than the coast. I had also initially hoped to continue on to the Great Divide Trail in Canada (though timing and fires eventually ruled that out).
Stoyer: Equal parts strategy, stubbornness, and ignorance. 2018 was a high snow year for both Glacier and Olympic National Parks. The Olympic Peninsula had a warmer spring, presumably leading to more snowmelt and an easier start. Having talked to several westbounders who started days and weeks earlier than I did, in the end I think this tactic was a wash. I faced plenty of snow along the High Divide in [Olympic National Park] and was grateful to have my ice axe in hand along the way.
I also like the idea of avoiding crowds and hiking “bubbles” that tend to form when one goes with the flow. I figured I may as well embrace the PNT spirit of going against the grain.
“On almost every other trail I’ve met at least some other people headed in my direction… On the PNT I never did meet another Eastbound hiker in person,” said Domler.
Q: On average, it takes most people 60-70 days to travel the PNT from end-to-end. How much time did you spend on the trail?
Domler: [It took] 83 days in total. I took 9 zeroes due to injuring my knee in the dumbest way possible: walking along the dirt roads near Forks, WA, I was typing on my phone, with both hands, adding a comment on the Guthook app and tripped and fell in just the wrong way onto a larger rock knee-first. After that it became agonizing to bend the knee even a small amount so I went back to Victoria, BC to let it heal up. Lesson learned: complacency can get you, even on flat roads.
Stoyer: I hiked the PNT in 54 and a half days from June 30 to July 23.
Q: The PNT is a relatively new National Scenic Trail. What do you imagine the PNT experience will be like a decade from now?
Domler: I assume the route will continue to move onto more trail and have less road-walking over time, resulting in a more consistent trail experience, and I’m all for that. The other aspects of the PNT experience will depend on how the number of users grows over time.* If the PNT were to experience the same explosion that [other trails have] over the past several years I fear the experience might suffer greatly…
Stoyer: Hiking the PNT will always be wild and challenging because of the region it spans. I hope a more mature PNT will retain many of its signature bushwhacks while reducing those sole-pounding stretches on asphalt and forest roads.
*Author’s note: for questions related to the management of the PNT, including long-distance hiker capacity of the PNT, read the US Forest Service PNT Fact Sheet.
“I know it’s considered sort of a “rite of passage” for the PNT, but I’d be quite happy to see the bushwhacking go away,” said Domler.
Q: As an eastbound hiker, how did wildfire affect your journey? Were you ever concerned you wouldn’t be able to finish or would need to skip ahead to the next section of trail?
Domler: Fire was a big part of my hike. I was forced to take detours around four fire complexes, starting before Northport, Washington. The first three were fairly easily detoured around on mostly roads, and were actually shorter than the PNT route. My final detour was caused by the Boundary fire shutting down the PNT by Waterton Lake in Glacier National Park. This, coupled with another fire by Lake McDonald further south, forced a very roundabout route, walking to Apgar on road, then connecting up the Nyack river to the Continental Divide Trail, heading north and finally rejoining the PNT at the very end along the belly river, adding nearly 80 miles to this final stretch to Chief Mountain.
But beside the active fires was almost continual smoke from the eastern side of the Pasayten wilderness until Eureka, Montana. This was ultimately more disappointing than the fire detours, and I feel like I definitely missed some great views. Sadly this was an issue across most of the Western US this summer.
Stoyer: I walked around three wildfire closures this year. The Sheep Creek Fire, Davis Fire, and Coal Ridge Fire (plus the Whale Butte fire which closed the official detour around the Coal Ridge Fire). I can’t say how many additional miles these detours added to my hike, but it’s less than one hundred.
About 25 miles out of Eureka, Montana I came across a group of seven backpackers who told me that Polebridge — my next and final resupply — had been evacuated and there was no way to enter Glacier National Park from the West. I had just checked fire conditions that morning, but was told that these developments occurred that afternoon. With no way to verify these claims and just over one hundred miles of trail left, I had no choice but to take their word that my thru-hike was over and turn back towards Eureka. I was devastated. I decided to hike late into the night until I got to the last location I knew I had cell reception. Hours after the sun had set I read on Inciweb that Polebridge was under an evacuation warning — not an actual evacuation. Rather than continuing back to Eureka to replace the wasted resupply, I upped my mileage the next two days only to run into a fire closure in my detour route. I had to bail out of the Flathead National Forest and resupply in Whitefish — far from the PNT — before roadwalking to Polebridge.
“While I experienced plenty of sanity-questioning moments on the PNT, my most heart-pounding moments during this hike were actually on a side trail,” said Stoyer.
Q: Thru-hiking east on the PNT pretty much ensures a solo hike. Lone hikers have unparalleled freedom, but are left to deal with challenges on their own. Now that your trip is over, how do you feel about your decision to hike eastward?
Domler: This hike certainly did have a lot of solitude. On almost every other trail I’ve met at least some other people headed in my direction, maybe overlap for a time and get to know them a bit. On the PNT I never did meet another eastbound hiker in person, and I was surprised the ratio of east to westbound hikers was so low.
Hiking westbound might have been a bit easier, I remember a few trail junctions that certainly would have been easier to follow going west… Overall I really liked heading eastbound, it had a nice ramp-up from coast to mountains that I prefer and I was happy with my choice.
Stoyer: I wanted my PNT thru hike to be about independence and self reliance; hiking eastbound forced me to embrace this. On previous hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail it’s practically impossible to avoid hiking with and around others for days or more at a time. By hiking east I removed that possibility entirely.
Domler: “The PNT undoubtedly had the greatest diversity of animals of any trail I’ve hiked.”
Q: Did you have any animal encounters during your hike?
Domler: There were many. Seals, otters, bald eagles on the coast, then inland, many moose, elk, coyote, and black and grizzly bears. Plus of course all the smaller creatures of the forest and mountains. The PNT undoubtedly had the greatest diversity of animals of any trail I’ve hiked.
Stoyer: Despite living outdoors for nearly two months, I didn’t see a single brown bear, cougar, or even mountain goat. The closest encounters I had with any large animals were black bears in the Olympics. One day I stopped beneath a Sitka Spruce for a quick break and about thirty seconds later a black bear dropped out of a branch three yards from me and bolted off into the brush.
“There are some times on the trail when you’re feeling great and you crest a ridge and see the mountains spread out before you and it’s like nothing else in the world,” said Domler.
Q: How do you feel about bushwhacking and scrambling on the PNT?
Domler: Frankly I find bushwhacking annoying and tedious, so I avoided it as much as I could. There were perfectly fine alternative routes around much of it, longer by distance but almost certainly less time-consuming. The infamous Lion Creek bushwhack was maybe a little easier than I was expecting given how much I’d heard about it before I got there, but it was indeed very slow-going, especially the last very steep climb uphill through the brush. I know it’s considered sort of a “rite of passage” for the PNT, but I’d be quite happy to see the bushwhacking go away.
Stoyer: I enjoy off-trail travel of many kinds. Hiking the PNT will always be wild and challenging because of the region it spans. I hope a more mature PNT will retain many of its signature bushwhacks while reducing those sole-pounding stretches on asphalt and forest roads.
Q: On a PNT thru-hike, you visit rugged mountain towns and historic seaside cities, getting a snapshot of life in the Northwest. What was your favorite trail town to visit?
Domler: Northport, Washington was a standout due to how friendly everyone was. It really felt like the ideal of a tight-knit community of good people. It also helped that most folks seemed to know about the PNT and were eager to offer info on trail angels in town.
Stoyer: My favorite trail town is one I doubt many other thru-hikers went to–Mazama. Yes, it’s an extra 14 mile hike from Holman Pass where the PCT and PNT parts ways, but those 14 miles are as good as any found on either of those two trails. Mazama also shortens the trail’s longest resupply by about 30 miles, which let me enjoy a much lighter pack through the Pasayten Wilderness.
“Hiking the PNT will always be wild and challenging because of the region it spans. I hope a more mature PNT will retain many of its signature bushwhacks while reducing those sole-pounding stretches on asphalt and forest roads,” said Stoyer.
Q: Both of you took the red, congressional route between Oyster Dome and Mt Baker. What was that like and would you recommend it over the Cascade Rail Trail cutoff?
Domler: This stretch starts mostly on logging roads, up and over several mountains before reaching Baker. I saw very little traffic on the roads, a definite plus since they were dusty and dry. Mount Josephine had some great views down to the Skagit Valley, but overall the first part of this section wasn’t super interesting.
The highlight was getting to Mt Baker. I reached Park Butte near the end of the day and it was just stunning in the evening light. I camped by the Railroad Grade trail on the flank of the mountain and had an incredible view in the morning too. I couldn’t imagine missing this in favor of walking a rail trail.
Stoyer: Honestly, I didn’t know I had the option. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing. Mt Baker is an undeniable highlight of the trail. There were several bushwhacks in this section, but they were mostly alder saplings and blackberry bushes. I was the first to go through this new growth this year, but I think there were several other bushwhacks east and west of here requiring more mental and physical determination.
Section 7 also brought an early season ford of Swift Creek–fed by snowmelt from Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan. Facing waist deep whitewater while hiking solo wasn’t quite what I expected on this hike, but after persuading a [helpful] camper at Baker Lake to follow me to the crossing and watch, I felt comfortable enough to move forward.
Q: What was the most memorable moment you had on the Pacific Northwest Trail?
Domler: Hard to pick just one moment. The Pasayten Wilderness was incredible, as was Glacier National Park. There are some times on the trail when you’re feeling great and you crest a ridge and see the mountains spread out before you and it’s like nothing else in the world. The PNT had several of those moments along the way.
Stoyer: Hiking eastbound towards Constance Pass in Olympic National Park requires a four thousand foot climb in four miles. I had already hiked over twenty miles that day and by the end of the climb I began feeling lightheaded and weak. The sun was nearing the horizon as I trudged up the last stretch to the crest of the climb. When I finally reached the top I found myself eye to eye with Mount Constance, peaking in and out of wisps of clouds bathed in golden light. I stood alone, exposed in the wind, taking in the peaks and spires — the reward for my efforts. In that moment all my excitement for the countless unknowns of this trail washed over me. It wasn’t until that spot, 167 miles into my hike, that the full force of the adventure before me sunk in.