Stehekin is a small town in the northern Cascades with no roads to it. The only way to access the town is to hike in or take a ferry or float plane across Lake Chelan. It’s 11 miles from the trail down to the town but there’s a shuttle that runs up and down the valley. There is a large corral by the road where the trail comes out. Last year, the owners of the lodge in town drove a bale of hay up to the corral for my horse and they were going to do the same for me this year.
It’s 104 trail miles from Steven’s Pass to Stehekin. I had originally budgeted 5 days to ride this section, but I lost a day a week ago when we got in late and were forced to take a zero. I wanted to be able to zero in Stehekin and take the shuttle down to the bakery. If I could do the section in 4 days, I’d still have a day to relax in town before riding the last 20 miles to the next road at Rainy Pass. Normally, that would not be a problem, but I was extremely worried about downed trees slowing us down given the trouble in the previous section.
Gillian and I met back up at the horse hotel in Ellensburg. She had filled in her gap in southern Washington and I’d filled in mine. We were both caught up to Steven’s Pass, so we planned to ride to Stehekin together. Ideally, we could have left a rig at Rainy Pass, but it’s an 8 hour drive roundtrip and we didn’t have a day to spare. I found a DOT lot on our way to Steven’s Pass and arranged to leave my rig there for 5 days. That would make it a 2 hour drive from Rainy Pass to pick it up instead of the 4 hours to Ellensburg.
We got up at 4am the morning of August 9th, loaded our horses in Gillian’s rig, dropped my rig in Leavenworth and drove to Steven’s Pass. We were on the trail by about 9am. The first day we covered 29 miles and camped at Lake Sally Ann. There were 15 downed trees but nothing we couldn’t maneuver over or around fairly easily. We got to the lake right at dark but there was hardly any grass and no trees for highlining. We let the horses graze while we unloaded them and made dinner. There weren’t any bugs and we were getting up at 4am the next morning so we decided to cowboy camp to eliminate the hassle of setting up and tearing down a tent. I tied my horse to a baby tree, Gillian tied her horse to a log, and we gave them their buckets and went to sleep.
The next day we covered 27 miles and it was a very long day. We had 51 trees to get around. It was insane but we took each one as it came and worked our way along the trail. If you don’t get overwhelmed by the number of trees one after another, you can see each one as an individual obstacle and create a path around. I have a folding saw but I’ve never actually carried it or needed it. I’ve never come to a tree I couldn’t find and clear a path around. This section is one of the most remote on the entire trail. It didn’t get cleared last year and no one had been out yet this year. Gillian decided she liked using an axe better and was carrying that so I didn’t bring my saw. I fell in love with her ax quick in this section. There were a ridiculous number of difficult trees and it was a much easier way to get rid of limbs so the horses could get over or the trees could be moved. We also had a few sketchy snow patches the second day but were able to pick safe routes through them. We got to our camp at Mica Lake at dark. There was virtually zero grass and nowhere to highline. Gillian and I both tied our horses to rocks and cowboy camped again. I hiked back up the trail and cut some grass for my horse to have overnight and again the next morning. Mica Lake was completely frozen over and it was really cool to see when the sun came up.
We got on the trail a little later the third day. We were so exhausted from all the 4am mornings. We had planned to go 26 miles but that proved to be impossible. We only made it 14 miles by dark and had gone around approximately 52 terrible trees. Our last tree we actually did in the dark. We needed to get a little further to water so we could camp, but this tree was huge and about face height where we couldn’t go under or over. It was also in a really bad spot with a huge tree graveyard as far as I could see with my headlamp in both directions. I tromped around in the woods on either side of the tree but could not see a safe way to get around – even way out and around. There were just so many trees piled on top of each other. It was pitch black dark so we were doing everything by headlamp. Gillian decided to try to pick her way around so she headed off into the madness with Shyla. I tied my horse to a tree. I cannot drag him into a situation where he will undoubtedly get cut. If I can’t walk the route and clear anything dangerous first, I won’t do it. I decided to follow behind Gillian in case she needed help. She made it a ways out but then she got to a point where it seemed impossible. There were so many dead branches and trees and sticks. One wrong step could fatally wound her horse. She left Shyla and hiked ahead a ways. I caught up to her at that point. She went back for Shyla and brought her along, but they were still very far from the trail. They came to a tree Gillian had planned to go over but Shyla sunk in and couldn’t get her feet under her and she clipped Gillian’s ankle with her hoof in the process. Shyla was thrashing around and could not stand so she just lay in the brush while Gillian sat and cried. She knew she’d gotten her horse into a very dangerous situation. It was just as risky to go back as it was to keep going forward. I hiked up and slowly found my way back to the trail. It wasn’t anything I’d ever consider taking my horse through, but I cleared what I could. It wasn’t any worse than what she’d already taken Shyla through, so I thought it might work to get her horse out of the mess. Gillian was able to get Shyla to leap up and turn herself around. They followed me as we made our way up to the trail with Shyla only getting a few cuts through that whole ordeal. But we still had a major dilemma. Obviously, there was no way I could or would take my horse through that nightmare. We went back to re-inspect the original tree. I was prepared to stay up all night and axe through that tree if I had to. First, I took all the gear off my horse. He’s a little guy so I thought there might be a chance that he could squeeze under but that didn’t work. His withers were just a little too tall. This might have been more obvious in the daylight, but there was a curved branch to the right that he could fit under after we removed a nub with Gillian’s axe. There was a tiny flat space after he went under the tree where he could get lined up. The main tree was resting on two logs that made stairs for him to get over. Valentino jumped up on the first log, over the main log, landed on the third log, and then down onto the trail on the other side. Woohoo! I saddled him back up and we went a short ways to the creek. We each found a root to tie our horses to and unloaded them. It was so late, we were exhausted, and both our feet were so raw we could hardly walk. We got the horses watered and fed and laid our pads and sleeping bags in the trail. Neither Gillian nor I could even walk between each other’s pads. We made a quick dinner and passed out.
We woke up at 5am on our 4th day. We had 35 miles to go if we wanted to get to Stehekin that day. After everything we’d been through, we had no idea if that would be possible. The previous days we had talked to several hikers who gave us (what turned out to be) very accurate descriptions and locations of the bad tree sections. We had 22 bad miles but then the last 13 were supposed to be clear. We knew if we could make it through all the trees by dark we could night ride into Stehekin and there was a corral and food waiting for our horses.
We loaded up and headed out for what was likely to be a very long day. We conquered 75 trees that day. Our last tree obstacle was an avalanche area. The first group was fairly simple in comparison to what we’d been doing. I hiked through the mess and found the trail on the other side while Gillian cut nubs off the trees the horses had to step over. The second group was a nightmare. Gillian went first and her horse was able to tromp through and then took a flying leap over the last trees. When Shyla landed, she rammed into Gillian and sent her flying into a tree. I was watching from a distance but they seemed to have made it through okay despite the ending, so I broke my own rule to walk the route first and I seriously regretted it. Valentino followed me through the first part but then we got to the huge blockade of three trees (the ones Shyla had taken a running leap over) and it was very unsafe. All of the trees had broken branches and the sharp nubs were sticking out from every angle. I stopped Valentino to assess the situation. I was so incredibly mad at myself for not checking things out the way I always do. Valentino was nervous and dancing around me with sharp branches all over the ground. I was so worried he was going to get cut. I moved a few branches from in front of us and then Gillian and I moved one of the trees a little bit but they were still too close to jump individually and too far apart to jump together safely. I can’t “go for it” and hope my horse doesn’t get hurt when I see a dangerous obstacle. Gillian was able to bear hug the three trees to bring them close enough that I felt okay asking Valentino to jump them. He made it safely to the other side. It was 9pm and getting dark rapidly but we had successfully overcome all the trees between us and Stehekin and were 13 miles away.
Then the real fun began. It started to pour – the wettest torrential downpour ever. Gillian and I threw on our rain jackets and pushed on down the trail. We had a long way to go. It was also pitch black dark and we were soaked. I could hardly see the trail because of the steam coming off my horse and blurring the tunnel of light from my headlamp. We went through miles and miles of overgrown trail. It was miserable. The first big creek crossing we came to was not obvious. The bridge was out but we could hardly see anything in the dark. We accidently went a short ways down a side trail but ended up turning around and fording the creek right near the bridge. The second creek had a one log hiker bridge and then a trail down to where the stock fords. I asked Gillian if she wanted to go first because there was a drop off to get into the creek and her horse loves water and mine hates it. Shyla decided this was the one creek she would not cross. I tried asking my horse to go first but I was not optimistic. It was so dark so I couldn’t see any bad spots in the creek or the other side. I asked Valentino forward and Gillian tapped him on the butt with her rope and he went, no questions asked. We dropped into the creek; he marched through and out the other side onto the trail. I was so proud of him! We just kept going and going and going in the dark. It seemed endless. At some point, it stopped raining but every wet leaf or branch soaked us with cold water. We FINALLY made it to the road above Stehekin at 230am. I love my horse. He carried me and led the whole way.
We had covered 104 of the most treacherous miles of the entire trail in 4 days. We went through badly eroded sections, very overgrown sections where the trail is about a foot wide with a drop off on one side that you can’t see because of the brush, steep, sketchy snow patches, and hundreds of downed trees. We had cleared countless mountainsides and then scrambled our horses up and down around trees. Our horses had jumped trees on steep slopes from every angle. We had literally moved multiple trees. One tree Gillian and I both climbed up to, put our feet against it and our backs against the rocks and pushed it off the cliff. That made space so our horses could walk around. Another bad tree section looked like pick up sticks. With a couple trees I would dead lift and she would push and we were able to moved them off the trail an inch at a time. We had crawled through spiny brush, hacked through trees, cut tons of branches, heaved and sweated and cleared trail to get our horses through. Our feet were blistered, our arms were scratched up, our hands were blistered and covered in pitch, and we were soaked and cold and hungry and tired. But we had made it to Stehekin and we were incredibly proud of ourselves.
Gillian and I pulled our horses up to the shelter to untack them. There were random items strewn all over: a pair of boots, 4 or 5 pairs of panties hung around, a couple packs, miscellaneous items on the bed, etc. But it was 230am and there was no one around. There were two tents nearby but we never saw a light even though we were making significant noise, so we assumed no one was there. We moved all the stuff and piled it under the bed area. Then we unloaded the horses and took them down to the corral. Our bale of hay was neatly wrapped in a tent fly. Gillian and I had both had boxes of feed sent to Stehekin that were also delivered to the corral and hanging from a tree. We cut them down and fed our horses. Then we used our two highlines to put up a barrier across the corral. Next, we had to carry buckets of water up from the river. I don’t even know how we were still functioning at that point. We got back up to the shelter at 4am, set up out beds and ate dinner. We finally laid down to sleep at 430am. It was so amazing for 30 minutes.