Backcountry crucible

A few years back, I go to a nature writing retreat in the North Cascades. I think it’s a writing retreat set in nature, but it’s actually a writing retreat about nature. I grew up going camping with my family, and my hardcore backpacker dad was known to shake us out of our road trip malaise with a well-timed and hearty, “Look at that mountain! Isn’t it beautiful?!”, but I haven’t yet adopted his love and knowledge of nature for myself. So you can imagine my dismay when, with just a prompt and a pen, my fellow writers conjure up stunning essays about the animals and plants around us, calling each by its name and weaving in poignant personal revelations, while I stammer nervously about wood nymphs and cliché dusty shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees. Even though I wear a Patagonia fleece borrowed from my roommate, I can’t hide the fact that I’m out of my element. No one seems to mind, though, and there, tucked amongst the evergreens overlooking the sparkling waters of Diablo Lake, their words invite me to discover vine maple, huckleberries, osprey, and their vehement dislike of George W. Bush. I am moved by their knowledge of and reverence for our world and its creatures, and I know I want that, too.

Old habits die hard, though, and when faced with the choice between going for a walk or reading a book, I choose the book every time. My mind travels to far off lands, but my body remains sedentary. The theme returns: I live vicariously, exulting in adventure, but only on the page. I want to expect more of myself. Appropriately, it is a book that gets me started. Or several books, rather. I study what Genesis says about the first woman, and how she’s described with the Hebrew word ezer, which means warrior. I read Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy The Wise Man’s Fear, with its Adem mercenaries, the best of which are women. I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and I’m inspired by this young woman, about my age, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo. I start kickboxing and MMA classes. I see pictures on Instagram of a friend on a backpacking trip with a group of other women. I want to do that, I think. I e-mail an old friend of mine, the same one who loaned me the Patagonia fleece, a woman I know to be an avid backpacker, and I say, “please invite me sometime.” A month later, she does. Sooner than I expected, I have a chance to find out what I’m made of.

For some people, heading into the backcountry with a 40-pound pack and miles of uphill hiking is not a big deal. For me, though, this is trial by fire. I don’t really know what to expect. I haven’t been backpacking in 17 years, and that was a one-night deal with my very experienced father. Not much was required of me. This time, I am going into the Olympics with just two other women, none of us over 5’5”, and I have to pull my weight. We get to the Sol Duc trailhead after lunch on a Thursday, parking the van and laying out our gear yard sale style. A group of high school students and guides arrive just after us and delve into a hideous routine of icebreakers and rhymes reminding them to bury their poop. Meanwhile, we divvy up the food, the tent, the stove fuel, change into our hiking shorts and boots, and maneuver our packs onto our backs. I need help getting mine on and buckled, but soon we set off down the path.



Our first day is just three miles, but my waist belt isn’t tight enough, so all the weight is on my shoulders, and the three miles might as well be a hundred. I wonder how I’ll possibly survive seven miles tomorrow. It’s beautiful, though. We pass Sol Duc falls and head uphill through towering pines, moss-covered rocks, and giant ferns. I’m in pain the whole way, but determined not to complain or hold us up. After what seems like hours, we arrive at our campsite, Canyon Creek #3. I shrug off my pack and revel in the unbearable lightness of being. We set up the tent, filter water from the creek, rig a tarp since we know it’s supposed to rain, change into wool leggings and Tevas, and make dinner: rice noodles with chicken and peanut sauce. We take turns sipping from the flask of bourbon I brought. I pee behind one tree and brush my teeth behind another. We’re all beat so we turn in and try to read, but it’s not long before we darken the lantern. It immediately starts to rain, and I flip from side to side on my Therm-a-Rest all night long, trying to get comfortable. Somehow I fall asleep, and I awake actually feeling refreshed.

Before we emerge from the tent, which has kept us completely dry, the rain stops. We spend a leisurely morning sipping instant coffee and eating rehydrated eggs under the tarp. I’m in charge of the Jetboil I borrowed from my dad, so I feel useful. We talk about motherhood, theology, old mutual friends, and we revel in the beauty of the forest. This is my favorite time of the trip. Soon it’s time to get started, and we pack up the wet tent, don our hiking clothes, boots, and packs once again, and set off uphill. I get my waist belt tightened and the load is a hundred times more bearable than yesterday. A mile up the trail we see Deer Lake and stop to filter water into our bottles and CamelBaks for the day’s supply. The lake is a mirror, surrounded by trees, and it’s so lovely. We keep going, and after a few miles we emerge from the forest into an alpine meadow. This is what I’ve been waiting for. You can see for miles. We expected rain, but it’s sunny with a perfect amount of wispy clouds hanging low over the peaks. As we climb higher, the views become increasingly stunning. It’s so beautiful it hurts. It’s lucky I can only look up every once in awhile. I mostly watch my feet. My Patagonia fleece-lending friend insists we choose trail names. I’m Meadow, she says. I’ll be Forest, says the other. I’ll be Fern, I say. We call each other by these names for the rest of the trip.


Expect_lake view

Midway through our day we make a wrong turn and have to retrace our steps, a detour of about a mile, but a steep mile. My knees kill me on the way down and my lungs on the way back up. We pass a park ranger, though, who tells us that campers are bailing because of another weather system moving in, and he says we can head on to our third night’s destination if we want, which is only another mile or two past our intended campsite and which would allow us to avoid packing up wet gear twice. We could stay in one spot and rest or explore from there. So we push on to Heart Lake, summiting at 5120 feet at Bogachiel Pass, for a distance of nine and a half miles. A half mile from camp I think I’m going to die, but I make it. It starts to get cold. We quickly set up camp, filter water, and eat dinner, but it starts to rain and we’re exhausted. The lantern is lit in the tent even less than the previous evening, and I toss and turn even more since I hear the tarp flapping all night long in what the Peninsula Daily News later calls “hurricane-force winds”. Our tent is pelted with rain and buffeted by wind, but we remain dry and warm. In the morning we down our coffee and oatmeal and pack up in the rain, intent on punching out the last eight miles instead of cloistering ourselves in the tent all day.

At first the wind is so strong it’s ridiculous. Soon, though, we’re back amongst the trees, and it’s wet but not cold, and we’re protected from the gusts. We sing songs from The Sound of Music, slightly staggered since we can’t hear each other with rain hats and hoods over our ears. It’s all downhill, and it’s nice at first after all the uphill hiking we’ve done, but after awhile my calves are threatening to cramp and my knees are aching, I’m soaked through to the skin, even with rain gear on, and we’re nearly running at times. We don’t stop for eight miles other than a couple minutes to wolf down a pepperoni stick, half a KIND bar, and some water. We pass a family of four, the 10-year-old son’s face revealing what my body is feeling. I can’t do anything but look at my feet. The trail is rocky, crisscrossed by thick tree roots, and inches deep in rain runoff in places. I can’t think. I can only put one foot in front of the other and try not to fall, try not to notice how much my knees and shoulders hurt, how much I have to pee. I just want to get to the end. It’s already finished. I’m having an out-of-body experience. I just have to get to the end.

Expect_rainy forest

All of a sudden, we’re in the parking lot hoisting our packs into the van and hugging each other. I can’t talk I’m so tired. We strip off our wet clothes and Meadow turns on the heat in the van. She speeds out of the park, past the sawed off carcasses of giant cedars that have fallen across the road in the storm. We return our bear canisters to the ranger station in Port Angeles and check into a bed and breakfast Forest found on TripAdvisor. We take baths and head to dinner at Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim. We’re giddy as we drink Rosé and gorge on non-freeze-dried food, and we talk over what we just experienced. It felt like giving birth, I say. You can’t stop. You just have to keep going knowing the end is in sight. And as soon as it’s over, even though it was painful, you want to do it all over again. And now I know that I’m powerful. I’m capable. I have what it takes. I can do hard things. I can expect more from myself.

RACHEL WOMELSDUFF GOUGH Writer, learner, backpacker, slightly deadly chicken farmer. 

Expect_Rachel selfie


  1. Yay!!! North Cascades!!! :):):):) I moved to The Methow Valley two years ago and stayed with my super fit and insane aunt and uncle for the summer to start. I was hiking that mileage at 220 pounds, but I wouldn’t stop. It was horrible. Ha!!! But awesome… I can relate! I also have chickens. 🙂 keep on keepin on!!!


  2. some great writing friend. that second leg over the pass is no joke! and the storm, i was holding my breath thinking this story might turn tragic. so glad it ended the way it did. bilbo would be proud 🙂


    • I know, right, Shauna? I was thinking the same thing. It’s like when my dad tried to teach me how to drive on a ’70s Honda stick-shift. He said anything after that would be easy, except I never mastered the stick-shift, so the analogy breaks down there. So, yeah.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s