From Busch Lake at mile 2309 to Sheep Lake at mile 2334
We got up and on the trail early. Our motivator for the day: trash cans twenty something miles away. We hikers are silly people sometimes. But it did give us reason to get up and get going. The trail stayed level through the first part of the morning as it continued to pass by at least a dozen different lakes. About a mile after camp we saw our new best friends--maybe. They were still in camp, and a ways from the trail, and we weren't sure if it was Silky Smooth and Blackout. We hiked on, figuring that if it was our new best friends they would catch up soon enough.
We met a southbound flip-flop hiker (that's someone who hikes one direction then goes to the opposite end of the trail and hikes the other direction) who Portrait had met before. Ten Speed was in a rush to get over Goat Rocks before bad weather set in on Monday. I had heard something about weather coming in on Monday while in Packwood, but it didn't seem like there was anything we could do about it, and we didn't have something really cool just ahead of us.
We kept putting off getting water--some days it just seems too heavy to carry, or the source just isn't good enough for two hikers that don't treat their water. We crossed a number of bigger creeks, perhaps the same one a number of times, I'm not really sure. They seemed too big to drink from--we prefer small streams and springs. One creek was a ford--and hikers will spend any amount of time necessary to avoid having wet feet. We did find a way across by a log over the creek.
Right after the creek crossing the trail went up for four miles. The climb came billed as the hardest climb we would have to do for the next five days (Portrait's opinion, not mine). I didn't think the climb was bad at all It wasn't full of switchbacks which can tend to be annoying because I tend to feel like I'm not making any progress, but instead the trail went up in one long graceful climb. We were passed by two other hikers, Wise Man and Christian, but for once that didn't bother me.
We were about three miles into the climb when Portrait brought us to a stop. He said he had seen something black and large on the hill above us, and that could only mean one thing: bear. I looked up at the hill and saw nothing but huckleberry bushes turning the colors of autumn. Portrait directed my gaze to a lone pine tree and we waited. He tried to quietly take his camera out of its plastic bag to be ready for photos. He just barely had it out and ready before the bear broke from its cover and hustled away up the hill. I could hear Portrait's camera clicking away behind me. The bear paused once, like he was thinking about going back to his meal, but then he took off. I mostly only saw his tail end and Portrait said he only had pictures of a dark blotch on the hill.
It was still exciting to see a bear, and it was all I talked about on the last mile of up hill--and the last mile until lunch time. We had lunch with a view at the top of the climb. Mount Adams had slid into the background while we were focused on Goat Rocks and Rainier. Right at the top of the hill where we had lunch was the boundary of Mount Rainier National Park. We actually mistook Mount Adams for Mount Rainier, which became embarrassingly funny when Mount Rainier loomed into view ten steps from our lunch spot. The mountain was huge--far bigger than we had seen it before. We were close enough to see the small crater on summit of the mountain. It made Adams look small and insubstantial behind a layer of haze. Mount Rainier looked crisp and right there. We took a lot of pictures--good thing too, because the clouds started to move in soon after.
We had hiked another few miles when we started to hear thunder. Portrait felt a few drops of water so we stopped so he could put his camera away. I ate a snack and made my rain jacket handy at the top of my pack--just in case Monday's weather decided to come early. Mount Rainier's summit had already buried itself in a thick coating of clouds. We continued to hear thunder as the sky grew darker. A storm seemed a little unlikely with all the weekenders were were seeing. It seemed to me that if a storm was coming there would be less people camped out at the different lakes we passed. Dewey Lake, which was only a few miles south of a large scenic byway was hoping with weekends. We asked one weekended who looked shiny clean compared to our ragged appearance if he knew the weather forecast for the night. He said there was a twenty percent of overnight rain. We all looked at the sky, clearly doubting the prediction.
After Dewey Lake the trail climbed for a bit. We passed crowds hiking in, most likely going to the lake, as we tried to hike out of the National Park. We were walking through more hills covered in bright red and orange huckleberry plants. I jokingly told Portrait I was on the lookout for another bear. When I heard the crunching of underbrush and the huffing of a large animal I wasted seconds not comprehending what I was hearing. I finally looked in time to see a bear just as it ducked behind a lone pine tree--like the morning's bear. Portrait saw him just before he vanished. We both stood still and absolutely quiet waiting. I slowly and carefully (and quietly) got out my camera and was able to get it turned on and zoomed by the time the bear sauntered out from behind the tree. He threw a glance at us over his shoulder while I snapped his picture, and he seemed unconcerned by our presence--perhaps he could feel the end of summer as strongly as I could. I switched to filming him while he grazed. The bear seemed so intent on his meal that I actually wondered if we were going to have to leave before he did so that we could keep hiking. It seemed like a shame that we would have to ruin the moment because we couldn't stand there until a black bear ate his weight in huckleberries. Something did spook him, and I don't think it was us, but whatever it was, it sent him huffing and snuffing at a full run towards the trees (and away from us and the trail). Portrait and I looked at each other, grinning.
The trail finished its climb, not nearly as interesting after the foraging black bear, but it was nice to get to the top so we could see the road. After a mile we could see the parking lot, then the pit toilets with their tell-tale chimneys, then we were close enough to recognize Doc and Blue Jay at their car. We hiked down, said hello. I showed off my bear pictures and talked about Goat Rocks for a bit then I walked the road to the parking area. I had hardly built up any trash to get ride of, unlike the last couple of sections, but I still got rid of my small pile. Portrait and I had a snack while sitting on the rock wall near the trash cans. We were keeping it short to avoid night hiking--we had another mile and a half to get to the first listed campsite.
The trail followed the road, but up on the hill so it was mostly out of sight, if not out of hearing range. It didn't seem like the trail was going to give us any earlier camping than what was listed--too much side hill. I had been wondering if there was going to be a cooler on the north side of the road, and when I didn't see one tucked into the undergrowth right away, I forgot about it. Then there it was, about a half mile away from the road. It was light--a bad sign. It was full of empties and a log book that only had a few entries in it. We signed so our new best friends would know we were ahead and then moved on.
We arrived at Sheep Lake just as darkness fell around us and lightning flashed across the sky. Sheep Lake wasn't as busy as Dewey Lake had been, but it was still full of weekend campers. We didn't want to waste what little light we had, and whatever time we had before the storm came crashing down, so we set up camp next to a couple of weekenders that seemed quiet. We put the tent up first--we usually eat first and decide if we want to cowboy or tent after dinner (and we nearly always pick cowboy) but it seemed prudent to have the tent up if it started to pour. The storm held off while I cooked and ate a grand dinner and then crawled into my sleeping bag.