We started calling the PNT the Hunger Games of Trails as it seemed that there was a Game Master or Trail Master that was watching over us. Whenever things became a little too routine or easy the Trail Master would turn up the difficulty dial. At the same time the trail stayed true to our maxim that “The Trail Tests, The Trail Provides” which we learned on the Great Himalaya Trail. There were challenges from the beginning to the end. Record breaking heat, lightning, hail, wild fires, smoke, long detours around fire closures, bushwhacks, route finding, wildlife encounters, long water carries with poor water sources, long stretches between resupplies, blowdowns, freezing temperatures, rain, and hiking in the dark when the only time the tide would be low enough to traverse around headlands was at midnight. At the same time there was incredible scenery, inspiring other fellow thru-hikers, the magic of trail angels appearing from nowhere, and the incredible support of our friends to help us succeed. It was also cool knowing that according to the Pacific Northwest Trail Association that less than 300 people had accomplished what we were setting out to do.
It all began on 5 July 2021 when we were dropped off at the King Street Train Station in downtown Seattle and took the Empire Builder Amtrack to East Glacier. We had tried to get permits in the lottery for Glacier National Park for a week earlier but 8 July was the starting date they gave us. The train left in the late afternoon and took us through incredible scenery overnight and into the next morning. The ride was often like a trip through the movie “A River Runs Through It” with mountains, conifers, green fields, and a wide deep river running alongside the tracks. It was a little frightening how long we were on the train but it also made us giddy. We knew that with every clickity-clack of the train wheels that was distance that we would have to hike back. It was also the last time we had to wear a mask for the next 58 days. We spent a day in East Glacier meeting other hikers who were mostly doing the Continental Divide Trail but a few that were PNTers. On the morning of the we had arranged for a ride to the start of the trail. Mountain Chief Cab Company is basically a family business by members of the Blackfoot tribe who informed us that since the east side of the park was closed last year due to COVID that they don't remember seeing as much wildlife as this year, including the bear population. We even saw a baby bear from the car as we went to pick up our permits at Two Medicine Ranger Station.
The PNT begins at the Belly River Trailhead which is located at the Canadian border on the eastern side of Glacier National Park. The Park Service had us crossing the park over the next 4 days though the distances were less than what we had wanted. This ended up working out as our bodies were not in hiking shape with heavy packs and the trails were very overgrown. We were also assaulted by some of the worst bugs of the trip. The route along the Belly River to Bowman Lake over Stoney Indian and Brown Pass was not that scenic compared to other hikes we had done previously in the park since we usually were in the trees. It was hot, we were at altitude, packs were heavy with 8 days of food, and I soon had blisters as my feet transitioned into hiking mode and the heavy back dug into my lower back. In East Glacier we had met fellow hiker Swat and Deathwish and on the second day we met Savage, Mo, and Daisy. These 5 would form our hiking bubble for the first part of the trip along with Athena who we would soon meet. Off and on we would see them for the rest of the trip though sometimes it would be weeks in between encounters. This took us into Polebridge which was a great tiny spot of a village with a hostel, general store/bakery, and bar/restaurant. Everything a hiker could want for the night before we pushed on to get to our first real resupply at Eureka after crossing the Whitefish Range. Along the way we did not see any bears but from the frequent large piles of bear scat we could tell that there were many grizzlies in the area and other hikers reported seeing them usually right before we would get to that spot. This section had long distances between water supplies. This would be a common issue on the eastern half of the trail. We had no issues here except along Mount Locke where we came across two guys who had run out of water and were stuck on the ridge. They had hit the SOS button on their GPS devices and were waiting for Search & Rescue to come rescue them on horses with water. We gave them some of our water which then put us on limited rations for the rest of the day. This was also the first section where we experienced how bad the blown down trees could be from previous fires.
At Eureka our friend Krissy Moehl met us and joined us on the trail for a night. Both of us went into ‘get rid of everything unneeded’ mode so playing cards, a traveler’s game set, harmonica, and some extra food and clothes were all sent home with Krissy. Towns were always a whirlwind of getting supplies (either at the store or picking up a box from the post office that we had mailed General Delivery), laundry, showers, and eating as much real food as possible. Within even this first week we started to develop ‘hiker hunger’ which is one of the reasons we started calling the trail the Hunger Games. It is just not possible to carry enough calories compared to the amount that were being burned all day. This hunger would progressively get worse the deeper into the trail we got. Even after eating a we still would be hungry. It was not unusual for us to order a meal, eat it, and then order a second meal.
Leaving the days started blurring into a continuous stream of forests, mountains, trails, roads, sections of bushwhacks, and wildlife sightings. We saw moose, tons of deer, turkeys, osprey, bald eagles, skunk, and a lot of bear scat. There was some smoke haze that interfered with long range views from the ridgelines but really wasn’t that bad and made for pretty sunrises and sunsets. After 10 days or so we could feel our backs, shoulders, and feet adjusting to what was going on and we felt stronger each day even with the continued heat wave. We would get up early in the morning to try to use as much of the cool air as possible to get miles done before the afternoon heat would make us slow down.
In Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho we started to experience the wonderful generosity of the trail angels along the path. Bonner’s Ferry is about 18 miles from the trail and there is a woman named Debbie who will often drive back and forth a couple of times a day to pick up and return hikers to/from the trail, give them a tour of the town, and help with resupply and finding accommodation. We would find people like her in several of the towns doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. We found that some of the trail angels actually get competitive with each other about wanting to help the most. In Northport, WA we found Josh and Jamie who have opened up their entire house to the hiking community on the trail as a place to crash, do laundry, and make communal meals. On a hot day crossing the Kootenai River Valley I was fantasizing about whether I would rather have an ice-cold Coke or ice-cold Pepsi. Suddenly a pick-up truck came roaring to a stop next to us and a woman jumped out proclaiming “I am so glad I was able to catch you!”. She then proceeding to pull out a cooler that contained ice cold Pepsi, bubbly waters, plain water, and amazingly enough, ice cream sandwiches. We had campers along the way find out what we were doing and then proceed to make us giant breakfast burritos with piles of bacon and mimosas. Multiple people along the way would offer us rides which we always thanked them for but declined. In there was a church that had opened its doors and even had a freezer packed with chicken pot pies for the hikers. We have now slept in a church twice while on big hikes. Snacks and beers were always appreciated when offered by a variety of people along the way. It was amazing the number of people that helped us in both little and big ways along the trip. In some respects, this was one of the coolest parts of the hike and reminded us that people are good. One of the most interesting people we met along the trail was “Nomad” Chris. He was like meeting a nomad in Africa. He has been moving across the landscape for the last 4 summers with his herd of 23 goats (there used to be 25), 2 yaks, 2 Bacterin camels, a dog, and a llama. He lives off goat meat (hence the missing 2 goats), goat milk, and what he forages from the forest. His clothing and bedding are from hides and his shoes looked like sandals made from cardboard and twine. We spent several hours chatting him up and Kathleen rode the bigger of the camels. He was very interested when he found out about our camel training with the Bedouin in Jordan and asked us a ton of questions too. Definitely one of the most surprising and unexpected encounters we had along the trail.
The trail was only designated a National Scenic Trail in 2009 so it is still new and developing. As a result, there are still large sections of the trail that are road. Some of this is 4-wheel drive and abandoned road, some forest service or logging roads, but there are also many miles of pavement. There are also sections where there is no trail and you just have to bash your way through the bushes and forest. The longest of these was in Idaho and took us 7 hours to get through. This was the one spot where I took a bad fall over a down tree, tore my pants, bloodied up my shin, and created a swelling that lasted 6 weeks before gradually resolving. The trail would always want to escalate on us. It was as if the Game Master saw that we had mastered a certain skill and then would amplify it. Once we mastered the bushwhack suddenly in eastern Washington we came to a spot where the bushwhack was literally on fire from a lightning strike the night before. It was less than an acre and there was already a National Forest Service fire crew on it when we arrived but out path went through the middle of it. The pavement miles included highways with narrow shoulders and fast-moving cars. This also seemed to get more dangerous as we went along with the worst being Route 20 out of Port Townsend as we tried to get to the trail that would take us into the Olympic Mountains. We spent several hours of that day jumping in and out of the ditch on the side of the road. The blow down situation also amplified as we progressed. We had sections in Montana and Idaho but the grand test was in the Pasayten Wilderness on Bunker Hill. We didn’t count them but another hiker had. There were 1250 blow downs (trees that had fallen across the trail) +/- 25 in an 11-mile section of trail. This was exhausting and frustrating to go through. It was one of those days where you could get angry or cry but we chose to laugh. We invented categories for the types of blow downs. The basic categories were Hurdles (which you could step over), Straddles (and who doesn’t love to straddle some wood once in a while), Runarounds (where you had to walk around the obstacle), or Limbos (where you went under the tree). However, this was the PNT so the Game Master amplified the obstacles. In this section we were dealing with Double and Triple Hurdles, “the Crotch Ripper”, the Complete Runaround (a runaround that was so far that you would lose where the trail actually was), and our least favorite, the Army Crawl (trying to crawl face first in the dirt or mud with a heavy pack is miserable and physically really hard). There was even the Scissors which was where you went over and under two different logs at the same time but the upper log is unstable and wants to collapse to cut you in two. It made us truly appreciate the work that goes in to keeping these trails open by the volunteers.
The first half of the trail was a struggle against the heat and scarcity of water. Entering the thermometer at the gas station read 114 F. This was also one of the 5 days of really bad smoke we had. There were times where it was obvious that the only water we had was heavily contaminated by the cows in the area and we hoped that our water filters would do the job that they were meant to. We went through several water filters as they would rapidly become clogged in these poor water conditions. We also had numerous scares when a large black creature would start running and bashing through the woods. We always initially thought it was a bear but most often was a black cow. By the end of the we had run into 6 black bears. On one of the days entering Oroville, we startled a bear out of the bushes that was within 20 yards of us, had to scare a large timber rattlesnake off the trail about 1/3 of a mile later, and then passed through a narrow rock canyon that had two dead deer and a dead calf all near each other so we were pretty certain that the area was a mountain lion ambush spot. None of the wild life encounters we had scary. All the bears either ran away or ignored us as they continued to eat. The rattler warned us to stay away with his rattle. The mountain lions probably saw us but we never saw them. Once we got to the western side of the Pasayten wilderness we entered the rain belt where rain and cold started to become our biggest worry. The week before we got there it actually snowed several inches in the Pasayten and a hiker became hypothermic. We didn’t have snow but rain, wind, cold temperatures, and having to push through wet vegetation kept us on edge and very careful about trying to keep our gear as dry as possible. The section through the North Cascades National Park was particularly like that and kept us from enjoying the views due to the low cloud cover. Our rain systems worked so while our feet, legs, and arms would get wet, our cores remained mostly dry so besides cold hands and feet we never had any life-threatening issues.
The section through the Cascades and Puget Sound helped remind us what amazing friends we have. Krissy Moehl had been our fixer all along and would buy groceries and mail our boxes to us when we needed. She updated our friends and family regularly and would make hotel reservations for us when needed. She joined us on two different occasions – once at the beginning in Eureka and then joined us for the last few days on the Olympic Coast. She made our life incredibly simpler than it might have been. Jeff List surprised us on the trail with extra calories, schlepped 60 pounds of food and gear to us for a resupply, fixed our broken tent pole, threw us a party at his house, and delivered one of the resupply boxes to us by car. He also was a big part of our success. Gretchen Walla resupplied us and then also met us at the Mount Baker ski area with food, beer, a canopy, and great company. Monica and Christian Ochs opened their house to us and fed us as we stopped in Anacortes for a couple of nights. Rich White, Ellen Beecroft and Seth Wolpin also intercepted us a along the trail providing food and good company. Ma and Pa Moehl also provided us shelter, a shower, an excellent meal, and good conversation for a night after being outdoors for 19 days. Eric and Kelly Bollinger brought us a feast on Holman Pass one night. My eyes literally rolled into my head from the pulled pork tacos that were so good along with a baguette, goat cheese, fresh veggies, whiskey, beer, and more! We were also taken in for a night by Kathy and Ras Vaughan. They knew just what a thru-hiker wants and needs from experience. It was another amazing meal and a nice place to stay as we walked down Whidbey Island. they had some good advice for gear and tips that they had learned on some of their adventures. Even though we had never met Kathy in person it felt like we were old friends.
The PNT saved the best for last. The Olympic Mountains and Coast were the most scenic of the entire trip. Scenery-wise the trail just kept getting better and better as we progressed further west. The Trail Master also saved the best for last. The Olympic Mountains were a series of high passes. Each day we would climb up over one or more big passes with a lot of vertical gain and then climb back down into the next river valley. The views from the passes were expansive and beautiful. We had worried about the potential bad weather but for the most part it stayed perfect early Fall conditions. There was a day of rain as we passed through the Rain Forest (of course, it is a rain forest after all) and a day of light rain on the coast. The climbs were difficult and our packs were heavy since we had left Port Townsend with 11 days of food. On the coast there are several headlands that can only be passed at low tide. The Trail Master and luck had it that the only time the tide was low enough was at midnight. Both on the evening entering and exiting Kathleen’s birthday we had to wait for the sun to set. We would sit in the rocks watching the moon and stars come out as the ocean slowly sank away from us until it was low enough to navigate the rocky terrain by headlamp. A last bit of adventure to end the trail with. Krissy and our other trail friend Link were with us for the last days as we arrived at Cape Alava which is the westernmost point on North America. 1248 miles and 70 days after starting at the edge of the Great Plains we had reached the end of the trail when it was no longer possible to walk any further west.