I think we can all relate to and prepare for living unconnected and in natural grandeur, but we don’t think about the wonderful gift of living in the here and now… so rare in today’s world.  That’s what stays with me from time in the wilderness… and draws me back to it.


Hiking with Horses
Ampitheatre Mountain – Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness- Photo by Gary Flickr.com

The last time the massive, nearly 1,000 vertical granite face of Amphitheatre Mountain struck me with awe was in 1964. I was 16 and on my last annual family vacation to the far reaches of Washington’s rugged Pasayten Wilderness – then designated as a primitive area. I later served as a fire lookout on both the northern and southern border of the Pasayten and had returned to do a backpacking trip in the area, but the prize – Upper Cathedral Lake and its backdrop of Amphitheatre – were only grand memories.

At 66 and out of shape, I knew my opportunities to revisit the lake were numbered, so I wrote to a few adventuresome friends asking if any would join my somewhat reluctant wife and me for a week in the Pasayten. We would ride horseback 20 miles into a dropoff site near Upper Cathedral, spend the week hiking daily to points of interest, and then have the packer return and take the gear out on the final day. Four friends agreed.


The Intrepid Six

One replaced hip with the other not functioning well, two knees slated for replacement, an overweight guy with a torn rotator cuff and three physicians with a bag of pain relievers to keep us going made up our gang of six. We still thought of ourselves as backpackers, but the bad joints that had come with our social security cards told us otherwise. Our goal was to reach Upper Cathedral Lake first through 12 miles of recent burn along Andrews Creek, and then undertake the final eight miles through virgin forest. The constant, steady climb along the creek was a killer for man and beast, but the last eight miles were glorious, with vast mountain meadows, fir and pine forest and sweeping vistas of the primitive areas in Washington and British Columbia.

The trail was often more of a rocky gully from spring runoff than it was a trail, with uneven boulders and a fine layer of dust forming the stairway through a burn so total that miles passed before even a lone spruce survivor was found. Fireweed, willow and lodgepole pine that had sprouted and grown since the Tripod Complex fire of 2006 were about the only sizeable living plants in the understory of hundreds of thousands of grey-weathered poles that posed like grave markers in a cemetery of ash and stone.

Hiking with Horses
Greying, dead tree trunks were the only over story for the first twelve miles of the Andrews Creek trail – Photo by Linda Knutson

In the four hours of travel it takes to climb to Andrews Pass, the only sign of wildlife we saw were two does at the pass, and they seemed stunned by the devastation, standing just feet from the trail, not moving or showing much sign that they knew we were passing. It was eerie. The only relief in that long, lonely stretch of deep canyon were heavily fruited huckleberry bushes and wild raspberries that ran from the trail to the creek bed – that and the crashing flow of the fast-moving creek that remained unchanged after the Tripod destroyed nearly every living thing in its drainage.

Backpacking up Andrews Creek simply hadn’t been an option for us, so we had chosen to hire Cascade Wilderness Outfitters to ferry us and our gear into and out of our main camp.

Horses? Even worse, mules? Backpackers hate them! Poop on the trails, flies, trail damage, the smell! We had been negative toward horseback riders on wilderness trails, too. But life is a compromise, and we, perhaps selfishly, chose to ride. We did stay off the Pacific Crest Trail and avoided all but a short stretch of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which should offend fewer Seattle Backpackers readers, but not all.

Hiking with Horses
Using horses and mules to transport supplies allowed 80 pounds per person, something unheard of for backpackers – Photo by Linda Knutson

The youngest of our party, Marge Henderson, turned 60 during our trip. She and her husband, Mike Maples, two of the physicians, were in excellent condition, but both with busy careers. They joined us to take advantage of the time saved by using livestock. They hiked separately once we were at Upper Cathedral, wanting to go longer distances than the rest of us, but returned to the group campsite at the end of each day.

For Ron Sell and his wife, Linda Knutson, the week meant hiking in territory neither had seen, though they had previously hiked the wildflower-rich Horseshoe Basin to the east of the Cathedrals. World-class gardeners, the couple found this an irresistible opportunity to see more of the wildflowers that cover meadows throughout the Pasayten. But bad-knees-Ron, especially, would not have attempted Andrews Creek by backpack. At 70, he could still easily out-hike me when not burdened with a pack, but it would not have been possible for him with one. He and his wife, like me and mine, knew that as older hikers, we needed to take advantage of every year we could to still do any hiking. If surgery was part of the schedule, it had to be worked around.

Hiking with Horses
Ron Sell made the best of a comfortable boulder, catching a little siesta in the afternoon

For Vicki, my wife, getting to the Cathedrals was to see the area I had been talking about for over 40 years of marriage. And for me? I had to go one more time and, at 50 years to the week, the first week of August 2014 seemed like the right time.

We’ve all met hikers in their 70s and 80s who have the ability to backpack as they did in their youth, but the numbers are small. Using horses and mules makes the deeper reaches of the Pasayten accessible for older hikers to do the hiking they most enjoy and don’t want to give up on just yet. Plus, the added cargo possible allows for full-sized air mattresses, real food and copious amounts of wine and beer – comforts that are more essentials than luxuries as one ages.

Hiking with Horses
At the end of each day of hiking, our group made it back to camp for an evening of friendship near the shore of Upper Cathedral Lake – Photo by Linda Knutson

Even with horses, there was the stiffness and pain of hours in the saddle, but the discomfort was bearable because we knew it would make reaching the Cathedrals possible. The glory of Upper Cathedral Lake and especially the dramatic face of Amphitheatre Mountain are life-time experiences Pacific Northwest hikers should not miss at any age – even if it takes a horse or mule to make it possible.

 A Note from Group Member and Photographer, Linda Knutson:

Because of physical infirmities, Ron and I can no longer do the backpacking we did in our younger years.  But we love camping in the wilderness and by having a horse packer haul both us and our gear into the Pasayten Wilderness, we were able to still have this experience. Ron had only ridden once before back in his college days, over 50 years ago, so he was a true greenhorn.  I hadn’t been on a horse for about 20 years, and now had an artificial hip, so we were both concerned how we would do.  As it turned out, the trip was truly amazing in every way. First of all, we survived the ride in, though we were a little stiff and sore the next day after almost seven hours in the saddle. We camped in a beautiful spot overlooking Upper Cathedral Lake just two miles from the Canadian border where, for over half the time we were there, the only other living creatures we saw were mountain goats.  Having pack mules haul our gear allowed us to have an incredibly comfortable camping trip.  Thunderstorms, amber evening light on Amphitheater Mountain followed by brilliant sunsets, fresh rainbow trout, delicious meals, daily hikes, hot showers before dinner and the ever-present mountain goats who each morning visited our camp with their kids and appeared to be as curious about us as we were of them are just some of the indelible memories from our trip. Plus a most unforgettable ending where we had to be evacuated a day early because of new wildfire activity in the valley 20 miles below.

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