Through The Smoke To Camp Kiser / Mt Baker

Last year I took the boys on an overnight hike on the Ptarmigan Ridge trail near Mt Baker, with our goal being Camp Kiser, a climbers camp on the NE side of the mountain. We made it about 4 miles before it got dark, so we found a great place to camp on a ridge above Goat Lake. One of my goals this year was to make it up to Camp Kiser – unfortunately with a busy summer, and school now in session, I did this as a solo overnighter. I had the time set aside, but with the wildfires and subsequent smoke in Washington State, I knew the views would be diminished. Also, I worried about hiking 5 miles each way through the thick smoke.

Starting off from the Artist Point parking lot, I could see that there wouldn’t be much to see beyond a mile or so from the trail. Normally you can see Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan, but both were hidden behind thick orange/brown smoke. Still, what could be seen was still pretty amazing, so I hit the trail with enthusiasm, and wondered if by the end I could actually see Mt Baker. About a quarter of a mile in I paused for a bit of water and found myself somewhat short of breath and started to think of a plan B or even a plan C. I knew I could shorten the hike by camping overnight at the Chain Lakes, or I could just bag it all together and turn around and give it a try another day. I decided to give it a bit longer though, and would make a decision once I reached the junction of the Ptarmigan/Chain Lakes trails.

Thankfully, once I got there everything was fine and the smoke wasn’t bothering me anymore – the temperature was okay (probably mid-70’s or so), so I decided to press on. There were a few other hikers along the way, in both directions – normally there would be dozens more, but the smoke was definitely keeping people away. My plan at that point was to hopefully make it to Camp Kiser, but if it got dark I knew there were a few other options to spend the night. With this area, if you plan to overnight, you need to make it at least a mile past the Ptarmigan/Chain Lakes junction. At that point there is a nice area with a few flat spots to camp – if you are looking for an easy overnighter this area is great, only 2 miles from the parking lot. But I still had a fair amount of daylight left so I pushed forward.

There were a couple of areas that required snow crossings, but with decent boots and poles they were relatively easy, and even a slip and fall wouldn’t (likely) be catastrophic. Before long I made it to the spot I camped at with the boys last summer – there was a lot more snow here than there was last year, but again, crossing it wasn’t bad. I noticed that nearby Goat Lake was still covered with snow and ice. At that point the trail rounds Coleman Pinnacle, with a mile or so left before Camp Kiser. This is probably my favorite part of the trail, with lots of blueberry patches, a couple of decent overnight spots (including one by a large snowfield – great for water or cooling down beverages).

The Camp Kiser area reminded me so much of Iceland – just rocks and fine dust. There are a few decent sites to set up a tent, including a large spot that is so perfectly flat I thought it was actually a concrete pad from a distance. There was a bit of wind so I found a spot off the ridge that was protected a bit. It was fairly dark by now so I set up my tent using my headlamp, then made dinner – a Good To-Go meal, which was the first of three that I have tried that I actually thought was really good (the Thai Curry). The others were so-so – I appreciate the natural ingredients they use, but they just didn’t taste very good. This one was pretty awesome though! Along with a can (yes, a can!) of House Wine it was a somewhat refined backpacking dinner. It was a great, quiet evening – without even a nearby stream to make noise, it was amazing how perfectly quiet it was.

I got a fairly early start the next morning – I woke up around 6:30 and made breakfast and lounged around for a bit, before breaking down camp and heading back around 9. There were a few hikers making their way up, all day hikers. I did have a funny moment though – I rounded a blind corner on the trail and saw a somewhat large, dark, furry creature with it’s back to me blocking the middle of the trail. It startled me, and my first thought was – crap, this is a bear cub! My heart quickened and I started to reach for my can of bear spray, when at that moment the creature turned around and it was just a big, furry dog with a jolly look on it’s face and tongue sticking out. It was off leash and it’s owners were a ways away. So I was startled for a second, but it was friendly so I gave it a pat on the head and made my way forward.

Passing the Ptarmigan/Chain Lakes junction there were lots of hikers, even though the conditions were still just as smoky as the day before. It slowed progress a bit, but I was still able to make it back to the car at a 2+ mile per hour pace. Overall, despite the smoke, it was a fun, and scenic overnighter. I did think about hiking up from Camp Kiser to the Portals, but will save that for a clear day.

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