At Panther Creek, we found that it was a fee campground with a camp host. Because it was late when several of us arrived, and the campground host was nowhere to be seen, we were not sure of the amount of the fee, but with so much woodland space surrounding the campground, no one wanted to pay a camp fee just to camp on the ground, so the hikers dispersed into the forest, each to find his/her own campsite. Laptop and Trout headed off somewhere, and I never did get a chance to sample their gourmet mushrooms.
Cookie was camped at the best place in the whole area, a flat piece of ground just before one crossed over Panther Creek bridge. After checking out the Panther Creek Campground and deciding not to stay there, I backtrack up the trail a few feet from where Cookie was camped and carved out a tent site in the soft vegetation of the forest floor and set my tent up.
The night before, when I set my camp up, the moon was shining and the stars were out, so I didn’t bother to set up my tent. At midnight, the rain started and lasted throughout the night; the best I could do was to pull my tent out of its stuff sack and pull it over me like a tarp. I stayed fairly dry and slept until 7:00 a.m. This night, I was not taking any chances, so up went the tent.
No one was moving as I silently slipped out of camp this morning; I had three thousand feet of elevation to climb, and I wanted to get an early start and make as much mileage as possible before the day got hot; my goal was to hike ten miles before ten.
This stretch of forest trail is 149 miles long; it will end at White Pass where I have a resupply package waiting for me. I’m getting tired, really tired, and my hunger is insatiable. I eat everything I can get my hands on, but I also have to ration my food so that I have enough to last the eight days it will take to reach White Pass.
This is Washington, so it rains every day; never really hard, just a drizzle; sometimes I have to walk through clouds of mist. The vegetation is generally wet so I wear my rain pants to try and keep my pants somewhat dry. At night in my tent and in my sleeping bag, I wear my hiking pants and rain pants in an effort to keep warm. The weather is changing and it’s getting colder; the farther north I travel I often wake up at night from the cold, and have to rub my shoulders, chest, and arms to get warmth back into my system. My clothes are wet, my sleeping bag is damp; I long for a warm room and a chance to dry out my clothes and equipment. After twenty-two hundred miles, I still struggle up the mountains; I still count units of eight steps to ensure I’m making progress. I’m a veteran hiker, with hopes I can finish the trail before the snow begins to fall; I can feel it in my bones that it’s going to start sooner than later.
The forest canopy is never-ending; occasionally the trail will cross over a crest and the surrounding mountains can be seen, but then the trail plunges back into the dark forest where sunlight is reluctant to shine. The twenty miles I hike today won’t be much different than the forty miles I hiked over the last two days. It has become same o', same o', and because of the monotony of the trail, many hikers plug in their iPods and then put their bodies on autopilot as they plod along.
On a lonely stretch of the trail, I came close to a ridgeline and spotted another hiker heading for the ridge. It was only a few feet off the trail, so I followed him, thinking it might be a good place to stop and have lunch. The sun was shining and the warmth of the weather felt good on my body. The hiker’s name was Puddle Jumper, and the two of us sat on the ground and enjoyed lunch together.
Puddle Jumper tells me he’s from the area and is going into Trout Lake via Highway 23 which is not too far up the trail. He said he called his mother, and she’s going to pick him up at the road crossing and take him into Trout Lake and treat him to huckleberry pancakes. He also said the huckleberry muffins and huckleberry malts are well worth the thirteen-mile trip into town.
After our visit, we both hit the trail again, but the seed of enjoying huckleberry pancakes, malts, and muffins has been planted in my head, and I know I’m going in. I have determined to more fully enjoy the last few hundred miles of the journey, and food, for me, is one of the most pleasant ways to enjoy the trek.
Having made the summit of Huckleberry Mountain, the trail descended to the base of a substantial lava flow called Big Lava Bed, and eventually it passed the edge of Blue Lake where I stopped to rest and fill my water bottles. I take a moment to study my maps and discover I’ve entered a wilderness area called Indian Heaven Wilderness, and it abounds with huckleberries as well as huckleberry harvesters.
Most huckleberry pickers gain access to this part of the mountain via Forest Service Road 24, which comes up from Trout Lake. Huckleberries are a cash crop for many people. I’ve encountered families on the trail and individuals who come to the mountain to pick berries for their own consumption, but I’ve also encountered what I would term professional pickers, mostly people of Asian ethnicity who pick the berries as a way of earning a cash flow. A gallon-size Ziploc bag of huckleberries will sell for a minimum of forty dollars a bag
At Forest Service Road 24, I stopped to dry out my tent, ground cloth, and sleeping bag, and while I waited, I made myself two bagel sandwiches complete with cream cheese, Swiss cheese, and slices of hard salami. In the half hour that I was at the road crossing, a number of vehicles moved up and down the road, with the drivers intent on finding a place to park so they can stake their claim to a berry patch.
This area of the Sawtooth Mountains is the world’s largest huckleberry field, and Native Americans have been harvesting the berries here for countless generations. After roads were built into this mountainous region, several campsites, notably Surprise Lakes Campground, Cold Springs, and Meadow Creek Campgrounds along Forest Service Road 24 were established for Indians only and they have exclusive rights to the berry harvest east of the road.