Start: Mile 1597.3, Elevation 5980 feet – Off trail in Etna
Finish: Mile 1616.0, Elevation 6585 feet – Campsite on north-south saddle
Total mileage (including detours): 19.5
Total elevation: Gain +4138 / Loss -3533 / Net +605
It was difficult to get back on the trail today. I had adjusted to the comforts of hot food, no timelines, and abundant company. In addition, a heat wave was still hovering over the area, and it was supposed to be in the high 90s in Etna today. That said, I knew it would be cooler on the trail and I’d enjoy being back outside, so I was set on at least getting a few miles under my feet.
I managed to sleep until 8 a.m. despite the loud screeching of a bird near my tent. Like yesterday, I ambled down to the coffee shop to start my day, catching up on emails and writing more on my blog (which I neglected yesterday in favor of hanging out with other hikers). I had a lot of notes about my hike from Dunsmuir to Etna, and I was excited to finish up my posts on San Francisco so I could start sharing my photos and experiences.
I kept plugging away at my blog until about noon, when a trail angel named Chris pulled up to the Hiker Hut in a large pickup truck. Chris’s father had grown up in the area and moved his in-laws (Chris’s grandparents) to Etna later in life. Chris moved back himself when he was older to take care of his parents, one of whom had dementia, and start a handyman business.
Chris dropped me off at the trailhead about 12:30 p.m. along with Noodle, Pit Stop, Coffee Break, and Fluffy Soup. It was hot already, especially as we climbed along an exposed stony ridge for the first two miles. Noodle and I charged ahead of the others and soon hit a saddle at mile 1600, where we could see Mt. Shasta to the southeast and a fire to our west. The fire, donned the Island Fire, had threatened to close the PCT at one point but was now mostly contained. It was still far off from us, and we could neither smell smoke nor see any haze around us.
The next six miles stayed on the west side of the ridge, so we could see the fire as we circled around it. It got hotter as the day wore on, but we also gained elevation, which mitigated the rising temperature and humidity. With a slight breeze cutting across us, Noodle and I talked about her blog and the pitfalls of revealing personal information and acknowledging weaknesses.
Around 3:45 p.m. we stopped in the shade to eat and rest. While we sat there – me eating nuts and dried fruit, Noodle killing a bag of Lifesaver gummies – we heard singing and then saw Fluffy Soup round the curve. She joined us for a bit and we made idle talk, then Noodle and I roused ourselves about 4:30 p.m. to get back in action.
It was hotter yet, but still manageable, even uphill in the sun. We got even closer to the fire, but soon dipped into the shade and began to pass streams, lake outlets, and marshy meadows, all of which helped cool us down. These also brought soft ground, flies, and the melodic songs of unseen birds. Between the trees I could spy the same snow-topped ridge in the distance to the south that I couldn’t identify several days ago. Even without a name, it was beautiful.
Noodle and I arrived at Fisher Lake at mile 1611 about 6:30 p.m. This was where Noodle planned to call it a day, set up her tent, and wait for the others. We took a moment to explore the lake, and Noodle found that it was stirring with life. In particular, there were hundreds of strange creatures that looked like a hybrid of lizards, frogs, and fish swimming around the shallows. Likely juvenile frogs still developing their legs, these animals – which were dark brown with salmon pink underbellies – mostly scanned the surface of the water, darting up to swallow anything they found interesting. A few of them explored the crevices between submerged rocks. I watched them for almost 30 minutes as they used their floppy limbs to maneuver themselves around, then tucked their flippers away and propelled themselves around with broad strokes of their long tails.
It was tempting to set up camp along with Noodle, but it was early and I felt recharged, so I kept going about 7 p.m. on my own. The next two miles felt like I had transitioned back to an earlier time of the year closer to the beginning of spring. First I passed through nearly a dozen snowmelt-fed streams that poured over the trail, splashing me as I dashed past. Next, I made my way over the snow itself, which collected in banks in the shadier pockets of bowls. There were only two large banks, and I managed to skirt much of them anyway by bushwhacking through the brush.
At mile 1613, I zig-zagged up the bowl’s edge to a ridge with expansive vistas. In addition to Mt. Shasta to my south in the direction from where I had come, I now could see a huge bowl to my north. This bowl had large spiky mountains at its upper edge, which led down to rocky slopes then snowy gullies and finally a blue-green tarn. Even though it was far away, I could hear the water tumbling through the rocks above the tarn and out of the lake down into the valley below.
I was now on the shady side of the ridge, and with the sun setting, I no longer worried about the heat. In the cool of the evening, I watched the sky as it softened from blue to yellow to orange. Occasionally I’d get to saddles where I could see Mt. Shasta again, lit up purple. I hammered out my final miles in this fading light, setting up my tent in a wooded saddle at mile 1616.
I stayed up late in the night, trying my hand at photographing the stars. I had never done it before and it was harder than I realized. First, it was difficult to line up the picture since I couldn’t see much through the viewfinder. Second, it was hard to find a balance between the picture quality (which required the shutter to be open longer) and not having the stars leave a trail behind them (which happened if I left the shutter open more than about 30 seconds). Last, because I had no tripod, I had to find ways to prop up my camera using tree limbs, sticks, and rocks. After about an hour of experimenting, I called it quits and went to bed. I would get another chance to hone my craft in a few weeks after the full moon had come and gone.