There it was. Finally. Northern California, aka NorCal.
Saying goodbye to the Sierras was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was happy to ditch the heavy extras in my pack: ice axe, bear canister, microspikes. On the other hand, I would really miss the mountains, the views, the many unspoiled mountain lakes and streams and the feeling of being miles and miles from civilization.
So, what about them NorCal blues?
I’d heard that many PCT hikers throw in the towel in NorCal. Too boring, too hot, you’re passed what most consider the highlight of the PCT but still nowhere near the end. Hell, you’re not even halfway yet, and still in your first state. Those were the reasons I had heard beforehand. And yet, I didn’t come across anyone that actually quit for any of those reasons. And really, why would you?
After conquering all those mountain passes, NorCal affords you a great opportunity to take it just a little bit easier. The same amount of miles per day, with less effort. Or more miles with the same effort, whatever you want. And boring? No way. Sure, there’s less of an alpine environment, but I kept getting surprised by the versatility of the landscape. Fields filled with wildflowers as far as my eye could see. The mere fact that I had managed to make it this far also filled me with joy and hope.
Without consciously knowing why, I hadn’t really researched much about any section after the Sierras beforehand. I guess I didn’t want to jinx myself. If you make it through the Sierras, chances are that you’ll make it all the way. And so I hadn’t dared to hope I’d make it this far. And now, here it was. NorCal. Ready to surprise me.
Black as soot
There were fewer rivers and other water sources, so I had to increase the amount of water I was carrying again, but it wasn’t much compared to the earlier water carries. Temperatures rose higher than they did in SoCal, both during the day and at night. There was still no rain, and the risk of wildfires slowly started to sink in.
On a fair few sections along the PCT, you hike through areas that have been hit by wildfires in previous years. I’d seen sections like that a few times, but nothing to the scale of the Dixie Fire burn zone. In July 2021, a forest fire started that would eventually destroy more than 963,000 acres and two villages. It took them until October of that same year to finally extinguish the fire.
We walked through a burn zone for days. Little to nothing was left there. The burned black stumps of trees were often left standing, but in the areas where the fire had burned the hottest, nothing grew back. Many blowdowns blocked our path, forcing us to perform acrobatics trying to pass over, under or around them. The path was covered in ashes. Every day, I ended up streaked with black, and blowing my nose would reveal chunks of black as well.
The reality of climate change
Dead branches without leaves offer no sun protection, so temperatures often rose exponentially in these burn zones. Crossing into a healthy, unburned forest would offer divine shade and coolness for a welcome change.
Many hikers decided to bypass the Dixie Fire burn zone for all these reasons, but I was determined to hike all the miles I could hike. And besides, this was also part of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The burned trees pointed their accusatory fingers at the reality of climate change. In one of the burn zones, I and other hikers were interviewed by a New York Times journalist who wanted to know what effects we saw climate change have on the PCT. All we had to do is point to the area around us.
In the coming years, there will only be more burn zones along the trail, and this will increasingly become the trail’s reality, sad as it sounds.
‘I want to hike the PCT now, while I still can and while the trail still exists’, a fellow hiker told me.
And indeed, I realised that as well. If you’re reading this because you also want to hike the trail ‘one day’, don’t delay and do it now. No time like the present, right?
The areas that are burning down now might need decades or even hundreds of years to return to what they used to be. And perhaps they never will be the same again, because what once was there, might not be able to withstand the hotter climes and increased droughts.
And sure, even those blackened skeletons and stumps had a beauty of their own. On the scorched remains of their bark, a white fungus materialized. At a glance, those hundreds of white specks against a black background almost made the trail look like a starry night. Some tree stumps secreted a red sticky substance that made it seem as if the tree was bleeding. And the remains of the trees that had fallen over provided a safe haven for an abundance of insects.
Forest fires are a part of nature and bring regeneration to the forest, but the scale and speed at which everything is burning down right now is frightening.
The locals seem to view ‘fire season’ as a part of life already. They don’t ask themselves IF there’ll be a fire, but WHEN there’ll be a fire. Most of them seem pretty matter-of-fact about it. The small town of Chester in California is right in the Dixie Fire burn zone. The map shows you how tense life must have been here at the time of the fire: there’s a lake on one side of town. Everything else around the town was burned away.
A lady giving us a ride back to trail, tells me that it was an extremely close call. Just before the fire reached the town, the wind direction changed and the fire was diverted. Another nearby village wasn’t that lucky. Green Valley has been wiped off the map completely.
In comparison, our PCT hiker problems are small beer, of course. Hiking through a burned area or even having to skip a small section might suck for a bit. But I’m carrying my bed for tonight on my back and once I return home, I can be fairly sure it’ll still be there. Locals here know that at any time, their home can be in the path of a devastating fire and they can lose it all in the wink of an eye.
Ashes on my tent
Still, I get a little taste of what it must be like just after I finally leave California. On the day I cross the border into Oregon, I wake up in the middle of the night to the soft patter of rain on my tent. I smell smoke and, still half asleep, think that perhaps I set up my tent next to a fire ring or a charred tree trunk.
Ever so slowly, I come to my senses and realize the smell is too strong for any of those options, and that the patter can’t be rain, because my tent is still dry.
The sound is being produced by ash particles floating down from the sky, and the smell is the smell of a forest fire.
Other hikers camping nearby have woken up as well by now, and one of them climbs up a hill to get some signal. He manages to find some and comes back with the news that the fire has been called in already and is small and reasonably far away.
We crawl back into our tents, but nobody is really comfortable with the situation anymore, and I end up packing up and hiking out in the dark, around 4 am. I walk in smoke and a light ash rain and decide to tie a wet bandana over my nose and mouth to reduce smoke inhalation.
The amount of hikers on the trail slowly increases. Most of them have started walking that night to get out of the area as soon as possible, and when we reach a mountain top with cell phone signal just after sunrise, the news trickles in. The fire has expanded rapidly in the last few hours. It went from 300 acres when we first heard about it, to 18,000 acres the following morning, just a few hours later. Before it was extinguished, over 60,000 acres were destroyed.
The trail closes as we walk out, I am among some of the last hikers that reach the road on foot. People behind us are being evacuated out of the area.
When we reach Ashland, our new reality needs some time to sink in. Because of the closure, the town rapidly fills up with hikers as they get stuck in or before the closure and make their way around it to Ashland. We all pile up in the small town. All the beds are filling up and the supermarkets run out of hiker food.
The sky has turned a hazy orange, the heat is oppressive and ashes are falling down from the sky all day. More thunderstorms are predicted for the coming days, and they might start even more fires. All this forces us to stay in town a bit longer than planned, trying to figure out our next move.
I and two tramily members eventually decide to keep going while we still can.
This wouldn’t be the last time we were going to run into trouble due to fires, but that’s a story for another day (or another page: click here).