When we woke up, we were relieved to find that our tent was still in one piece. Overnight the wind had shifted direction hitting our tent point blank. Our rain fly popping from loose to taught created a loud, sporadic noise that left us in a shallow sleep for much of the night. Sunlight hitting our tent was just want we needed to convince ourselves that it was time to get moving regardless of the quality of our sleep. Checking our phones with the little bit of service that we had we were notified that Jason had finished CCC, his race around Mt Blanc. We were extremely thrilled for him.
After packing up camp, we climbed back up to the top of the ridge and picked up the trail. The smoke had cleared opening up a three hundred and sixty degree view of the mountains around us. The sun was peaking up to the East, and the air felt fresh. We practically skipped down trail as it descended to our next water source. We followed switch back after switch back down into a gully. We could see the other side of the mountains fold as we lowered towards the water. Once we arrived we stopped to filter some water for the rest of the day. A couple going southbound passed, we exchanged trail beta, and then they continued on up what we had just come down.
As we emerged into more open land the first bit of smoke started to move in. We passed a man nestled up in a bundle of trees eating lunch. He looked like Robin Williams in the face and kind of sounded like him as well. We later learned that they called him Maine Man. We kept going until we were ready to stop for lunch. Crossing over one more stream we took our shoes off on the other side to let our feet air out and shoes dry out while we ate lunch. We were listening to the quietness that had become relevant once more. No birds. No wind. All of a sudden we heard aggressive wrestling in some bushes by the water followed by a voice with a northeastern accent say, “I’m not a bear!” Maine Man stepped through the bush and up onto dry land. We spoke briefly about our plans and where we planned on making it that night, and then Maine Man turn starting back down trail.
We sat for another ten minutes snacking. The smell of smoke was beginning to return forcing us to pack up and keep moving. It’s hard to relax when you are breathing in that shit. So we got up and headed down trail. By the time we walked away from our lunch spot, the sun began to disappear begin the smoke becoming bright red. Our midday afternoon darkened to the color of an eerie dusk. The blue drained out of the sky replaced by the color of coffee when it stains something that you hold dear. The air we were breathing in scratched like tiny little shards of glass being swallowed... without the aid of a swig of water. As we hiked up trail through a valley climbing back up to the top of a saddle, everything was quiet. There weren’t any birds to fill the somber air with song. There weren’t any beetles scurrying across trail. No signs of life were visible. We were in another burn area, and this time it was evident that nothing had survived. The fire must have burned so hot that it absolutely destroyed the soil extinguishing any sort of life... for now. It was tough to find beauty in a place this barren. It wasn’t like the desert, with its beauty resting in between the cracks of dry earth. No, this place felt like death.
Our conception of time became skewed. We were no longer connected to the sun’s position in the sky. We hiked a little further before descending over the saddle in the hills. This new valley did not look much better. Tiny white flecks were falling on us. They were as fragile as snow. Now that ash was falling on us, we knew we must be getting close to the fires. The flakes grew bigger and fell steadily. We realized it must be six or seven o’clock by this point and found a flat spot right off of trail to eat dinner. It was hard to eat but we needed the boost. With a mile or more left to camp, we tried to be quick. Ash was still falling on us and landing in our food. Critter found her last pack of Patagonia Provisions salmon in her food bag. This seemed like a perfect pick-us-up. It was delicious, of course, and just want we needed to put a smile on our faces.
When we finished we packed up our bags and headed down trail just as the sun was leaving our valley. Not two hundred yards down trail from where we ate did we hear a loud grunt and growl followed by the huffing stomps of four big paws. We looked to our left to see a giant male grizzly bear running away from where the trail met the tall golden brush. Standing almost as tall as Garbelly, the grass framing trail showed the hump on the top of the bear’s back and his ears sticking straight into the sky. We froze in our tracks and began to make noise. We struggled with figuring out where he was now that we startled him, and we did not want to startle him again. We stood tall and talked loudly to each other as we started walking again. Another grunt and growl filled by loud paw stomps and the bear headed away from us. Now we could see he was headed in the same direction as we were. We were unintentionally scaring him into camp. We stopped and tried again to figure out where he was. We began walking again and this time the silence had returned. He must have changed direction and taken off up the hill to our left. As discombobulated as we were from the smoke and threat of fire, he did not seem threatened by us. He had more pressing matters to worry about- seeking safety. A mile later and we saw the sharp angled lines of Maine Man’s shelter tucked off trail in a flat area by the river. Our headlamps were now on as we passed his camp before we too cut down off of trail to find a place to sleep. All the trees were burned to a crisp so camping was not really ideal in this area. However, somehow by one large fallen log lay a flat spot just big enough for our tent. In case a tree fell in the night the log would theoretically break the fall, right?
We were not concerned about the bear visiting us during the night. We were concerned about tomorrow. How would the fires change over night? How close were we getting? What did fresh air feel like, smell like, taste like?
Garbelly and Critter