On the Trail Again: 50 Years Later

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As hikers whizzed past us with their ultralight packs and trekking poles flying at their sides, we plodded along with our 50-year-old backpacks.

“You’re carrying too much weight,” a male hiker in a hurry shouted as he turned to acknowledge us.

Perhaps we were, by his standards. But our hike was not about speed. My younger brother, Philip, and I wanted to enjoy the mountains as we reprised a hike across the North Cascades we’d first made a half-century ago. We are no longer young, both septuagenarians—I’m 73 and he’s 70—so we preferred to saunter, as naturalist John Muir recommended, rather than hike.

Philip’s daughter Rachel and her friend Kaitlin Gemar, both 33, joined us after a high-school friend of Philip’s, who had accompanied us 50 years ago, bowed out for health reasons. It would be special for Philip to experience the hike with his daughter.

As in 1968, Philip and I hoisted green REI Cruiser packs on our backs. These external-frame packs were old friends. We’d borne them—not always together—as we’d hiked across the Cascades, to base camps for climbs of the highest peaks in Washington and Oregon, up the gold miners’ Chilkoot Trail in Alaska, and along mountain paths in the Alps and Norway.

Through it all, they’d held up well, although I had made some repairs through the years. We had seen no reason to replace them, so we didn’t.

“I love your packs,” a young man said to us as we were about to ford a river near the end of our 34-mile hike. “Real retro.”

Yep. I purchased mine for $22.95 in 1968, the same year I joined REI as proud member 86,748. Philip joined the co-op earlier as a teenager and holds an even lower number. But it is our soon-to-be 86-year-old Uncle Dave (Nesvig) who holds the family’s bragging rights. He joined in 1949 and was issued a membership card with the number 2,166.

When our dad died, Uncle Dave asked for a memento of his brother. We sent him a painting of our dad. If Dave precedes me in death, I’ve already let him know what I want: his REI membership card as a keepsake.

Philip and Jonathan Nesvig. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Nesvig

We knew our hike would be strenuous, so we planned a four-day trip, making it a day longer than in 1968 as a nod to age. Our starting point was at the end of a gravel road along the Suiattle River about 25 miles east of Darrington, and our goal was Holden Village, a former copper mine that is now a Lutheran retreat center. It lies 12 miles by road above Lucerne on Lake Chelan.

We began our west-to-east hike in a forest of tall cedars and hemlocks along the Suiattle as gentle rain fell, bouncing off the fern fronds and leaves of low-lying plants along the trail, and finished in a smoky haze from distant forest fires.

This wasn’t the anniversary hike we had envisioned when we began planning it late last year. We hadn’t counted on the rain or the pain we would encounter along the trail as we climbed and dropped more  than a mile in elevation.

On the first day, we found that a spring storm had toppled more than a dozen huge cedar trees across the trail, and they became obstacles that required us to squat ever lower to pass under them, reminding me of doing the limbo. On the last, Philip got down on his hands and knees. I passed, taking off my pack, then crawling under.

After a fairly gentle hike of almost 7 miles, we camped at Canyon Creek and prepared for the day ahead: killer switchbacks up Miners Ridge that would take us almost 4,000 feet higher over the course of 11 miles to Image Lake.

I remembered this segment from 50 years ago well, and I feared it most. It would have been tough under normal conditions, but a steady drizzle added to our discomfort. We quickly pulled out our ponchos to protect us and our trusty packs from the unrelenting rain.

Glacier Peak rising above Image Lake. Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Nesvig

As we slowly ascended, a fog crept in among the trees, enveloping the pale-green lichen clinging to the trunks of hemlocks and draping over their lower dead branches like tinsel hanging on a Christmas tree. As we gained elevation, blueberry and huckleberry bushes lined the trail, giving us easy access to treats.

“Yum!” Rachel exclaimed after popping a couple of blueberries in her mouth.

But there was little else to celebrate. The cold rain and falling temperature–it was in the 40s–took their toll, numbing our fingers and soaking our shoes and socks, as we reached the ridge at 6,100 feet. We still had a mile to go through puddles and across a stream, where I slipped on a rock into the shallow water, before reaching our campsite. We were drenched, dead tired and shivering after hiking for nine hours.

After setting up our tent, Philip and I immediately jumped into our sleeping bags to warm ourselves. We got an added boost when he pulled a small plastic jar of Scotch from his bag and offered me a swig. “Skål!” I offered as a toast. I suppose, given our Norwegian heritage, that a shot of aquavit might have been more appropriate. But there I was, worried about hypothermia, and the Scotch, with a hint of peat, not only tasted good but warmed me.

Our feet gradually warmed, the shivering stopped, and we slept well, despite a pelting rain at times.

We awoke to a partially blue sky, and then, cloud-shrouded Glacier Peak emerged. “Look at that,” Philip said. “We’ll see it after all.”

This was the view we had come for: We wanted to see the 10,541-foot snow-covered volcano rise above tree-lined Image Lake. After hanging up our clothes and laying out our gear to dry, we headed up for a swing around the alpine lake. The view proved spectacular until clouds once again clung to the summit.

It was here where, 50 years ago, we had eaten chili from cans, fed white gas into our metal stoves and slept on bunks in a lean-to with chipmunks scurrying over our bodies.

We had long since jettisoned the heavy stove and cans of food from our packs. The packs were lighter, but save for a couple of repairs, we hadn’t done anything to improve comfort. The padding in my shoulder straps had long since broken down and no longer provided protection, while one side of the belt, which was never padded, had come loose the day we left Image Lake. Fortunately, I managed to reattach it and, with the right amount of tension, it stayed.

Philip and Jonathan Nesvig. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Nesvig

The final two days of our hike left us tired, although weather conditions improved. We got a late start on day three after drying out our gear and clothing and, because of a detour prompted by a forest fire, were forced to scramble over a large boulder field before reaching 6,440-foot Cloudy Pass and dropping down to our campsite as darkness fell.

We descended past Lower Lyman and Hart lakes on our final day as a hot sun pushed the temperature into the 80s. I drank more than a half-gallon of water but couldn’t prevent leg cramps, and I limped across the finish line, which Rachel had defined at Holden by holding out her trekking poles horizontally.

After our adventure was complete, Rachel reflected, “My dad got really teary-eyed at the end when he knew he made it, so that was really special.”

(Don’t tell Philip, but so did I.)