Charlton Lake (my mile 1296, trail mile 1925) to Santiam Pass (my mile 1465, trail mile 2000)
“The trail provides” is one of the many sayings often uttered by PCT thru-hikers. Nowhere has that been truer for me than in Oregon, which I pieced together in sections after getting forced off trail by an Afib episode at Charlton Lake. Exiting from a dirt road with no transport connections in the middle of nowhere created a huge logistical headache, but I managed to overcome it – with a lot of help.
I booked a room at The Graduate Hotel in Eugene after I was discharged from hospital, and resolved to take a zero the next day while I considered my options. Tidbit and I hung out at the hotel bar, which is decked out like a shrine to the Oregon Ducks. We made friends with the bartender, a nursing student named Nancy, who offered to let us stay in her spare room for our second night in Eugene.
We went to see Rocketman the next day, then caught the bus back to The Graduate. It was the grand opening (it had recently been converted from a Hilton), and we got free food and drinks out in the courtyard. I even met Puddles, the Oregon Ducks’ mascot.
By this point I’d decided to get back on trail, but we knew getting back to Charlton Lake was going to be difficult. Instead we caught a bus to Bend, where we stayed with a local trail angel named Heinrich who we’d met hitchhiking at Crater Lake just a week or so earlier. Heinrich took us to the Bend REI, where I picked up my third pair of Altras. After more than 600 miles my second pair was falling apart, and my right ankle was paying the price.
The next day Heinrich took us to see Smith Rock, a local climbing mecca. Afterwards he drove us to Santiam Pass, a busy highway crossing about 75 miles up the trail from where we’d exited. We began the long climb through a hot, exposed burn area into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. After 14 miles we made camp by the shore of a pretty alpine lake.
We decided to slow our pace for the next section and average only about 20 miles a day to Timberline Lodge, on the slopes of Mount Hood. Somewhere around the base of Mount Jefferson I hit 1,326 miles – the midpoint of the entire trail.
I should have savoured the achievement, but the experience of the past week had left me feeling low. I was acutely aware that my A-Fib could come back at any time and end my hike. I was also unhappy about skipping another section, which only made it more difficult to finish the trail before I miss the weather window at the end of the season. Mosquitos were also swarming us at every turn, sapping our energy and souring our mood. Still, we pushed on.
As if sensing my flagging morale, the trail provided me with plenty of pick-me-ups over the next few days. The area north of Mount Jefferson was full of beautiful clear lakes, which looked magnificent against the backdrop of the dramatic snowy peak. After a long climb I got my first view of Mount Hood from more than 50 miles away.
Tidbit and I came across some snow fields on the descent, so we decided to have some fun. We glissaded down the slopes (albeit pretty slowly), and I found a Complete Cookie still its packaging at the base of a slide. Later that day we arrived at Olallie Lake, where a trail angel named OG was grilling hamburgers for a small group of hikers. He made us two each, which we supplemented with cookies and cider from the nearby resort store.
We experienced more trail magic the next day at a horse camp, where a local woman had set up a mini cafeteria for hikers in a pop-up tent. We made our own sandwiches, ate homemade brownies and drank a few cans of soft drinks each. We camped that night on the shore of Timothy Lake, where I found an unopened can of PBR on a rock. I don’t even like beer that much (I’m a terrible Australian, I know), but in that moment it tasted delicious.
The next day we took a short side trail to see Little Crater Lake, a 40-foot-deep, spring-fed lake that’s so clear you can see the bottom. We pushed on toward Timberline Lodge, where we’d planned to camp. Tidbit decided to skip the long climb up to the lodge, and yogi’d a ride from a couple of day hikers at a trailhead car park.
I really enjoyed the climb, which offered spectacular views of the Mount Hood summit for the last few miles. The last mile or so was a tough slog through soft volcanic sand, but the views made it worth it. I arrived at Timberline just before sunset and set up my tent between it and the mountain. The lodge is a beautiful historic building, constructed during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal. It was also the set for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. We ordered pizzas at the bar, then spent some time exploring.
In the morning, after stuffing ourselves at the breakfast buffet, we caught the bus down to Portland where a rental car was waiting for us. The plan was to drive all the way back to Charlton Lake, where Tidbit would drop me off. I’d hike the 75 miles back to Santiam Pass, plugging the gap I’d created when I got off trail. Then, I’d try to hitch a ride back to Portland. We camped by the lake before saying our goodbyes in the morning.
I spent the day walking from lake to lake, stopping at one particularly pretty one for a midday swim. I camped alone at Dumbbell Lake, on a small peninsula. I went for a short swim as the sun went down before retreating to my tent to escape the growing cloud of mosquitos.
The next day I reached the Three Sisters Wilderness, where the trail left the dense forest that characterises most of the PCT in Oregon, and entered a chain of wide-open plains. It was a nice change of scenery. I hiked for 26 miles – my longest day in a while – so that I would have a shorter hike into Big Lake Youth Camp the next day. The summer camp puts on a nightly dinner for hikers, and I didn’t want to miss it.
I left my campsite early the next morning and soon passed the last of the Three Sisters. The smooth ground under my feet gave way to jagged volcanic rock, and before I knew it I was in the middle of a lava field that stretched as far as I could see. I spent several hours slowly picking my way through the field, praying that I wouldn’t aggravate my right ankle. I eventually made it through, and the trail returned to the forest.
I reached Big Lake in time for dinner, and was greeted by camp counselor PCT Mama. Every southbounder I’d met for the past few days had made me promise to stop in at the camp, and now I saw why. The camp has a whole building dedicated to hikers, with showers, laundry facilities and a kitchen. At dinner time I followed a group of other hungry hikers into the dining hall, where we joined a few hundred Seventh Day Adventist kids for taco salad.
All of us hikers camped on a black sand beach just outside the summer camp’s property. In the morning, we had eggs and pancakes with all the campers. The camp doesn’t charge hikers anything for all of this, but does accept donations.
My plan for the day was to hike the last five miles to Santiam Pass, then stick out my thumb on the highway to get back to Portland. I’d never hitched that far before, and was worried it would be difficult to get a ride away from the trail corridor. Just as I was about to leave Big Lake, a trail angel walked in and asked if anyone needed a ride to the interstate, which was more than halfway to my destination.
I knew I could get a bus to Portland from any of the towns on I-5, so I accepted. It meant I’d skip the five miles between Big Lake and Santiam Pass, which is the first time on this trail I’ve skipped any section with no intention of returning to it. After everything I’d been through in Oregon, I just didn’t care.
I arrived in downtown Portland in the afternoon and rejoined Tidbit, who was staying in a hotel. We later moved to a couchsurfing host’s place on the east side. I spent a couple of days hanging out with Tidbit before I headed to the airport this morning and boarded a plane. I’m writing this from the skies over Crater Lake, on my way back to California to finally hike the Sierra.
Tidbit is staying in Oregon for now due to some commitments, but will join me at some point after the Sierra. The Sierra is supposed to be the most spectacular part of the whole PCT, and it’s coming right at a time when I need some motivation.
The trail provides.