The Pacific Northwest Trail is not a day hike. The 1,200-mile trail runs between the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast and includes national parks, national forests, forest service roads, state highways and trails, some abandoned or forgotten. The hike is guaranteed to test this author’s mettle as it includes cross-country routes, airy ridge walks, dirt roads and highways through scenery that could only be described as “depressing” where fresh water is sometimes hard to come by and rain a frequent companion. It took Chris Townsend about two months to complete this journey.
So why would anyone commit to such a long-distance hike? Just ask Chris Townsend, who hails from Scotland with several long-distance hikes under his belt including the Pacific Crest Trail. Townsend’s account, called Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, is an experienced hiker’s version of the good, the bad and the ugly. He provides a colorful description of the hike and how he soldiered on despite mishaps, route-finding challenges, meeting an assortment of characters interspersed between periods of solitude and rapture in which his head rang with poetry through old-growth forests and flower-scented meadows to dusty logging roads, clear-cuts and along littered highways with little room to walk.
The PNT is still a work in progress. Few have hiked the entire trail which began as a vision in the 1970s by Ron Strickland (Strickland hiked the trail and wrote the first Pacific Northwest Trail guidebook).
Townsend’s adventure begins in Glacier National Park; though he had hiked in the Rockies before it was the undeveloped stretches of the trail that Townsend particularly enjoyed; most of the sparsely-signed trail would be new to him and it would be his first visit to the Olympic Peninsula.
Townsend reads wherever he goes, this trail is no exception – he enjoys the writing of Edward Abbey and Doug Peacock, both veterans who hiked alone not only for the beauty of the wilderness but to assuage the angst of modern life. Being alone is no problem for Townsend; he writes “I am there to experience the natural world in all its aspects and I find this easiest to do by myself”.
Townsend also describes the emotional aspect of a long distance hike; it gets harder to come back and the transition from wilderness to civilization can be jarring. We still remember our shock after a 10-day trek in the Olympics to hear that our country had gone to war.
He enters Idaho and spends a night in Bonners Ferry before resuming his trek into the sprawling Selkirk Mountain range. His account of a night in the little town of Metaline Falls near the Canadian/US border brought back memories – lodging was almost non-existent when we stopped there years ago – there we’d spent a night in an asylum turned motel and found it mostly deserted and spooky. Townsend had a more positive experience with lodging and meals in Metaline Falls before hiking into the Kettle Mountain range.
Though Townsend found some stretches of the hike depressing he writes that any trail will provide “enough inspiration and joy to outweigh the uninspiring and deflating sections …” such as dirt roads through second-growth forests, clear-cuts and roadside litter.
At Hart’s Pass he encounters bad weather and lack of views before reaching Whatcom Pass, the high point of the PNT in North Cascades Park. After crossing the Chilliwack River, he hikes through the Mount Baker Ski Area and laments missing out on the heralded view of Mount Shuksan at Picture Lake, finding the closed ski area “desolate, strange and dead”.
When he reaches the Chuckanut Mountains he camps at Lizard Lake before descending to the popular trailhead on Chuckanut Drive where the PNT is well-signed with a large stone marker. From there it’s “only” 223 miles to the Pacific Ocean.
He takes the Keystone ferry to Port Townsend and hikes along State Route 20 to reach the Olympics and Olympic National Park. The meadows along Hurricane Ridge are vibrant with fall color though he must descend into the deep Elwha valley via the steep, dark Hurricane Hill trail. His longest day of hiking is here (32 miles). From Boulder Creek Campground he hikes through stunning scenery including Olympic Hot Springs, Appleton Pass and High Divide to Seven Lakes Basin with its heralded view of Mount Olympus before descending into more rain-forest along the North Fork of the Bogachiel River.
He hikes through Forks and camps before taking on the Pacific Coast. There a tide-table is a must and it’s not easy going; hikers contend with seaweed-slimed boulders, some of them the size of telephone booths that either needs to be climbed or squeezed between as well as negotiating a deteriorating rope ladder over a headland and rain-swollen stream crossings.
It is only by long-distance hikes that can one truly compare the “feel” of these national parks and forests. Townsend finds North Cascades Park and Olympic National Park “less organized and controlled” than Glacier National Park. Not surprisingly he also experiences a mix of emotions when he reaches the end of the trail at Cape Alava. He feels “elated, relieved and sad at the same time” and “forgotten are the highway walks and bad weather”. As any hiker knows good memories outlast the bad.
Some may find this account something of a verbal brush-bash but the text is broken up nicely with colorful maps and superb color photographs. Anyone considering a long trek or hike (or having survived one) will enjoy this book and find the Appendices especially useful as Townsend talks about what he took with him and plenty of additional resources. This book will either scare you off or inspire you to hike this trail from end to end.