“So I’m thinking about walking around the fire” is how it started.
In Lima a week earlier, I first learned that the Trail Creek Fire had closed 30 miles of the CDT, a span so negligible in Dad’s mind that his working plan when he reached the closure (in 200 miles) would be to skip it. I’d pick him up south of the fire and deposit him north as though nothing had happened. But the fire grew, as fires are wont to do, and after a chance encounter with a Forest Service ranger, we learned that they would soon be closing over 130 miles of trail, just north of (what would have been) our next meetup. This news warranted a zero day—his first thus far—on day 35.
Once outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, Dad took off, hiking nearly 22 miles in a single day. Though our 12th meetup was supposed to be 3 days after I left him in the park, he ended up hiking to a point where I could reach him after only 2. This set in motion the potential to slackpack every day for the following 5 days. And then on the 6th day he nero’d (with a full pack).
Last year, Dad treated slackpacking as a novel luxury. For the uninitiated, this meant he’d swap out his fully-loaded backpack for a small daypack with water, snacks, and his inReach, but only on the rare occasions when I could meet up him on the same day. It wasn’t until after we were stuck in the snow in the Jeep that I “weaponized” a series of high-mileage slackpack days to get him to the finish line. With this latter approach in mind, Dad hoped he could make up for the perceived miles he lost to the blowdowns in the Wind River Range (in terms of his daily average), since it appeared that I could safely reach him every 19–23 trail miles over the course of our next 5 meetups.
While on the phone with the Yellowstone Backcountry office, I learned that the area around Heart Lake, through which the CDT passes, is off-limits for 3 months—from April 1st through June 30th—so that mama bears can be with their newborn cubs undisturbed by humans. At his typical pace, Dad was set to enter the park on July 2nd, right after the restriction was lifted (as if we had planned it—we hadn’t). The problem (and there’s always a problem, isn’t there?) was that upon leaving Brooks Lake Campground after our 7th meetup, there were 45 miles of trail before he crossed into the park, and then another 27 miles before he got to the Heart Lake Trailhead. In other words, he had a total of 72 miles (or 5 days) to hike before reaching the next spot where I could drive up to the trail.
There was a 68-mile stretch of trail through the Wind River Range (between the Big Sandy Trailhead and the Green River Lakes Trailhead) without any points I could access by Jeep. In the best of times that would take Dad about 5 days, but we knew these were not the best of times. While recharging in Pinedale, we learned that there were definitely more blowdowns heading north, but how thick and for how long remained uncertain.
With Dad’s preferred maximum food carry of 3 days in mind, I came up with a plan to resupply him on foot at about the halfway point. Starting at the popular Pole Creek Trailhead (aka Elkhart Park), I’d hike 11 miles on the Pole Creek Trail up to where it bisected the CDT into two roughly equal halves, the first almost 35 miles, the second 33. I planned to carry the food he needed for the second half, camp with him overnight, and then the next day, hike back to the Jeep on the Pole Creek Trail while he continued northbound on the CDT. Given the overall difficulty of the terrain, Dad decided to allocate a conservative 3 days for each half. I brought him back to the Big Sandy Trailhead on Father’s Day, and we planned to meetup on the CDT 3 days later—on what would be his 72nd Birthday.
On the morning of the fourth day of our return to the Continental Divide Trail, Dad sent me the following inReach message:
“It’s taken me 1 hour and 45 minutes to go one mile. I might not make it today. Pack one day of [food] for me and head toward me. Bring your tent.”
Receiving that just after turning on my inReach at 9 was very alarming. The night before he was camped only 9.4 miles away, which under normal circumstances would take him just under 4 hours to complete—I’d expect him to saunter into camp around 10 in the morning. But I knew that things were not exactly normal when he sent me this message the previous evening:
“I’m hiking through BLOW DOWN HELL. It took me hours per mile. I’m stopping for the day due to sheer exhaustion.”