From Mica Lake, the trail dropped dramatically to the valley floor through which flows Milk Creek, whose head waters are Milk Lake, a small glacier-fed lake high up on the mountains and over a ridge, making it impossible to see from the trail. Milk Creek was a major tributary of the Suiattle River, which is one of two primary rivers (White Chuck River being the other) that funnels snowmelt off Glacier Peak and out to the Pacific Ocean, seventy miles away.
Milk Creek, like Kennedy Creek, has a tendency to lose its bridges. In 1973, there was a log crossing that was replaced in 1974 by a $40,000 permanent bridge, that in turn was wiped out by an early summer avalanche in 1975. (Schaffer, p. 302) There have been other bridges across this dangerous stream, the last one in 2008. This latest bridge is made of steel girders, held together by five-pound riveted bolts. Most of the heavy steel girders were ferried in by helicopter to the construction site and assembled here. There is no guarantee that this steel bridge will be in place when future hikers reach this spot.
From Milk Creek, the trail began an upward climb through an unbelievable number of switchbacks. All the way to the top, I counted units of eight, sixteen, twenty-four, sometimes going as high as ninety-six steps, before resting and starting over again. The climb was a grind, and very painful; I had to stop often to rest. The rain continued its steady drizzle and I was cold, and getting colder. My legs were like blocks of cement, and the effort to place one foot in front of the other was agonizing. At more than one point in the climb, I leaned on my trekking poles, head resting on my crossed hands and alternately cried and prayed. I was miserable beyond belief. I was alone and the loneliness was gradually starting to wear on me.
On the ocean, towards the end of the trip, loneliness, equipment breakdowns, periodically being drenched by salt water, which aggravated and pained the salt water sores on my rear end, akin to diaper rash that a baby experiences, and a longing for the trip to be over with, brought me to my breaking point. In this heightened state of agitation, the last wave that broke over the side of the boat, drenching me from head to toe in caustic salt water causing stinging pain in my derriere, shorting out for good my tape cassette player, my only source of entertainment in an otherwise dreary environment – put me over the edge, and I exploded in rage.
I began to shout and scream and rant and rave as loud as I could, and I commenced swearing, something I never do. I shouted and screamed and yelled every four-letter word I could think of, and I did it over and over again; for five minutes or more, I let loose a blue streak that would have put any salty-dog sailor to shame. I was so exasperated, so despondent and so discouraged; my frustrations had been building for weeks, and finally it all blew. I’m so glad there was no around to hear me; it was awful, but liberating.
The trail was in deep forest now which obscured most of the glaciers around the mountain. There was one more treacherous river to cross, the biggest of all in this North Country – the Suiattle River. This river crossing, too, had seen its share of shattered and destroyed bridges, and for several years, the only way to get across it was via a huge log that had toppled across the stream. To see pictures of this log and hikers crossing it, one may Google Suiattle River Bridge for YouTube videos of hikers crossing on the log.
From the Milk Creek Bridge crossing, I walked twelve miles to the trail junction where the old PCT headed down to the original Suiattle Bridge crossing. From this junction, it's 2.2 miles to the river and the spot where the 265-foot-long wooden Skyline Bridge once stood. It was completely destroyed by a massive flood on October 17, 2003, that tore through the canyon at locomotive speeds. Fueled by ten inches of rain over a vast area of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the PCT lost eight bridges that October.
It would be eight years before a new bridge over the Suiattle River could be built; until then, it was the log over the river or nothing. Those with confidence and good balance would walk across it; all others had to straddle the log with their legs and scoot across on their bums. The river wasn’t that wide, but it was fast and deep enough to easily swallow a hiker.
A new bridge site was located two and a half miles downriver, where the span would be shorter than the original Skyline Bridge, and bedrock was available right at the water’s edge for supporting steel pilings.
It took an hour to reach the new bridge, and what a beauty it is. Like the new Milk Creek Bridge, this one also is built of steel girders, assembled on-site. It took some arm twisting for the Forest Service to get permission to use helicopters in a wilderness area to bring in the heavy steel beams and other construction material, as well as permission to use chain saws and dynamite to facilitate the removal of tree root balls and boulders for an extension of the trail.
The Suiattle River crossing was the last major river crossing for the PCT; now the trail started a long descent down Agnes Creek Gorge, which terminated at the High Bridge River crossing over the Stehekin River. The trek down the Agnes Creek Gorge was unparalleled beauty; it was highly reminiscent of views down Kings Canyon from Forester Pass in the High Sierras, except that Agnes Creek Gorge “supports a much denser growth of flowers, shrubs and trees.” (Schaffer, p. 310)
Working my way down a long traverse on the side of the mountain, a lone figure appeared on the trail far below me. As we closed the gap between us, I noticed something familiar about the approaching hiker – the headband. Most hikers – male and female, wear a hat and only a few – mostly females, wear a headband. As we continued to draw closer, from the headband, I recognized the hiker as Nurse Betty, a hiker I hadn’t seen since McDonald's at El Cajon in Southern California, over twenty-five hundred miles ago. We were happy to see one another, and stopped in the middle of the trail to exchange information. Nurse Betty, who in the early stages of her hike, had been hiking with Cookie and Peter Pan, had made it to Cascade Locks, but recognizing that she was behind schedule and fearful that she might not be able to reach the Canadian border before snow began to fall, flip-flopped to Hart's Pass (she did so by hitchhiking) which was only thirty miles from the border, then continued north. At the border, she signed the register, took several selfies, turned around, and started hiking south. When she returns to Cascade Locks, her journey will be complete.