I went on my first backpacking trip a few weeks ago in Snoqualmie National Forest to Necklace Valley. My story may be of interest to any readers with a similarly low level of backpacking experience, or even to the seasoned enthusiast might reminisce about their first backpacking trip.

I started at square one. My knowledge of backpacking was limited to the meaning inherent in the name: “to backpack is to camp out of one’s backpack.” That is to say, “to backpack is to schlep around the wild under the weight of an Australian Shepherd on one’s back.” After an overnight journey into and out of Necklace Valley, I relate to the inexperienced backpacker four simple, sensible tips:

  • lining the inside of your backpack with a big garbage bag is a superb way of keeping your stuff dry,
  • bandanas are and will always be cool (a bit about handy bandanas: Tie them around your forehead and protect your eyes from dripping sweat. Tie them around your neck for easy face-mopping access. Dunk them in a river for a refreshingly cool touch. They dry fast.),
  • checking trail conditions with rangers is a smart thing to do before heading off, and
  • wearing shorts with pockets is much more practical than wearing shorts without pockets.

Of course, most backpackers already know these things. But not all are aware that Snoqualmie National Forest is home to

  • nearly 200 species of birds,
  • Devil’s Club; described by Boyfriend as sporting “millions and millions of death spikes filled with Satan’s saliva” and yet boasting medicinal powers,
  • at least one snake (we saw it),
  • at least one cougar (we did not see it),
  • a burned cedar with towering, twisted wood reminiscent of Trajan’s Column,
  • food (wild strawberry, huckleberry, Oregon grape, thimbleberry, elderberry, blueberry), and
  • unicorns (endangered).

In an effort to remember everything important about my journey, I recorded everything in my pack deemed non-important. Below is a list of items that are not essential to survival, at which the minimalist backpacker will scoff:

  • hairbrush
  • novel
  • glow-in-the-dark Frisbee (I couldn’t find my flashlight),
  • contact solution and case,
  • deodorant (not essential to my survival, but arguably to the survival of others), and
  • a jar of pesto.
And, to top off my apparent obsession with lists, I jotted down my fears:
  • lack of experience will slow me down compared to Boyfriend and his dad, and
  • pooping in the woods for the first time.
A disclaimer. The advent of defecating in the wild for the first time, while truly a fearsome feat to many, was not so much a thing of terror as a thing of resigned acceptance. That is to say, I wanted to backpack. I wanted to get out there badly enough that I would face and conquer the inevitable event of bowel movements. Mostly, I dealt with the anxiety by sort of procrastinating on it: I’d let time pass, and the closer my colon came to the deadline, I’d be motivated enough to do whatever needed to be done.
Crossing the East Fork Foss River footbridge

We set off from the parking lot in late morning. The first five easygoing miles ended at a pleasant campsite on a crystal clear river. My first fear had been quelled: my relatively young bones kept me up with my older and more experienced companions. However, the remainder of the climb to Necklace Valley, 2,550 feet up over the distance of two miles, was approximately equal to summiting 1.8 Empire State Buildings, or the height of 26 full-grown blue whales stacked from tail to nose tip. When I wasn’t gawking at sunbathed mountain peaks and gushing waterfalls, I still had to focus on not falling on my face or on those behind me.

Reflections on the trail

I learned I prefer walking in front of the group, or at least far enough behind someone else to see several yards ahead. In this fashion, my brain can subconsciously calculate my breathing and precise muscle movements in order to move across the terrain with optimum efficiency. However, all cranial control was lost by the time we stumbled into view of the first lake at 6:30 in the evening.

Jade Lake

Jade Lake was a lovely relief. However, the only two agreeable campsites around it were already occupied and a friendly backpacker said we’d have little luck around any of the other lakes. (The third site, more or less an island in the river, looked like it would drown were it to rain). Luckily, we spotted a soggy patch of land further up the trail, devoid of any lake views but conveniently near a brook.

Snow, leftover from the spring, sat melting in an obstinate patch just above us. We pitched two tents on the ground that was the least muddy. Boyfriend whipped out his Coleman stove and we feasted on cheese-filled gnocchi with pesto sauce, washed it down with red wine and savored chunks of dark chocolate.

Crystal clear pool

Boyfriend’s dad set up a bear-safe food storage using a bag, a tree limb and a simple pulley system. We settled into the tents, safe from the hungry mosquitoes, and my thoughts drifted only few minutes before the warmth of my fleece-lined sleeping bag rendered me unconscious.

The next morning, we hiked to another lake. A few hours in, my digestive system reminded me of its existence. I distanced myself from the water, scraped out a cavity in the earth, and triumphantly returned to the group. For the newbies: the idea of pooping in the woods is much worse than the act itself. It’s better not to think too much about it. Or if you must, just play Nike’s motto in your head: Just do it.

Owl Lake

Around midday, we packed up and headed back down. Even though it took us less time, the return trip felt ages longer than yesterday’s hike. I flopped like a zombie into the parking lot and beached myself on the gravel by the truck while Boyfriend’s dad fished for the keys. Boyfriend had the genius idea to leave three Gatorades in the truck for the end of our trip.

Rock pile

Overall, the trip was a success. I recommend Necklace Valley for a first-time backpacker with a decent level of endurance and a persevering attitude. I look forward to returning to the wilderness the next chance I get.

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