Backpack Decision Time – Go With The Tried And True Osprey Atmos 65 Or The New Mountainsmith Zerk 40?

Last year I saw an announcement from Mountainsmith / The Trek that there was going to be a new “fastpack” available via Indie Go Go – the Zerk 40. Co-designed by the Real Hiking Viking, who had a whole bunch of long distance hikes under his belt, it was touted as the ultimate thru-hike pack. Lightweight, large enough with a 40 L capacity to carry everything a lightweight or ultralight hiker would need, but best of all, quick and easy access to water, snacks and other knickknacks needed throughout the day, so one wouldn’t have to stop and remove their pack to get to whatever they needed. I found out about it too late to get it at the early bird price of $100, but I was able to jump in and get one for $125 (these won’t be available until July 2019, but those that bought them through the Indie Go Go sale just received them in April). I was pretty happy with my Osprey Atmos 65 in nearly every way, except weight (it’s heavy) and capacity (65 L is a bit much). However, at just $125 I thought it’d be worth picking up a Zerk 40 to see how I liked it, and how it would work with my current gear.

I received it a couple of weeks ago, and had a chance to do a quick day hike, loading it with some extra stuff I knew I wouldn’t need to add some weight to it. First impressions were good – it seems strong, I like the rolltop access to the main compartment, and there are tons of pockets – double water bottle pockets on each side, pockets on each shoulder strap, and a huge, stretchy pocket on the back. I put it on and was immediately impressed by how it fit – it was comfortable, primarily due to the wide shoulder straps that take the bulk of the weight (as opposed to my Osprey pack, where weight is distributed to the hips). For heavy loads I think it’s probably better to have weight on the hips, but for a lighter pack I like the wide shoulder strap approach. In any case, the quick hike went very well – I barely felt the pack and I loved the large shoulder strap pockets and easy access to water.

My next test was to take the gear I had on the 2.5 week Chinook Trail hike I did last October, and see if it would all fit into the Zerk 40. Long story short, it didn’t all fit. Not even close. While I didn’t necessarily need 65 L of capacity, I probably needed 50-55 L or so. However, there were a few things I could ditch or downsize. I traded out a bear cannister for a food bag, ditched the camp shoes and sun umbrella, and took out a few other odds and ends. By doing all of that I was able to eventually get everything to fit, and probably could have added a few other small items if I needed to. However, the one thing I didn’t add to the pack was extra water beyond two Smartwater bottles – if I needed more than a couple of liters of water I’d probably struggle to get it in there. The real test though was to see how it felt with the pack on – it felt okay. At about 18 pounds it was fairly heavy compared to what most thru-hikers carry, but it is rated for up to 30 pounds and there is no way I’d want this on my back with 30 pounds of stuff in it. I’d be beggin’ for my Osprey. So having it on in my living room felt okay with 18 pounds of stuff in it, but I’d really have to take it out on a hike of 5-10 miles or so to truly test it for comfort. My plan is to give it a try on a few overnighters this summer and see how it does.

On the flip side there is my Osprey Atmos 65 pack – it is a great, solid and dependable pack that I’ve had for over a year now, and put about 350 miles on it. Amazingly it still looks, and almost smells, brand new. In all of my hikes so far I have included the brain, but this year I have removed it for weight savings and reduced capacity (I just don’t need that much capacity). For comparison sake I took everything out of the Zerk 40 and put it in the Osprey – there was obviously lots of empty space (perfect for extra water), but the true test was to see how it felt with 18 pounds of stuff in it. As I suspected, it was much more comfortable – since the pack weighs over 2 pounds more than the Zerk 40, the total weight was close to 20 pounds.

I don’t have any long hikes planned this year, primarily just overnight trips. My plan is to use the Zerk 40 as much as possible this year to thoroughly test it out. I suspect that for quick trips it’ll be easy to get the weight down to the 12-14 pound range and it should do quite well. For any future long distance hikes though, I think my plan might be to go with the Osprey, and just do what I can to minimize the load. It’s super comfortable, has great ventilation and with a lighter overall weight I think it’ll be the pack to go with for longer hikes.

First Go At Chuckanut / Blanchard North-South Thru Hike

The last two years I have made it my goal to hike every trail in the Chuckanuts – everything from the most popular trails, such as Oyster Dome, Pine/Cedar Lakes, and Fragrance Lake, to some obscure trails that I just stumbled upon using the Gaia app, such as the Secret Trail or the Fiona Ridge Trail.

As I have hiked through the Chuckanuts, and joined several work parties, the thought grew that perhaps there was a way to hike the whole area, north to south (or vice versa). There are several great east/west trails, and lots of trail through the Chuckanuts, as well as Blanchard Mountain, but nothing really in between in the Oyster Creek area.

There are some older maps showing a “Lost Lizard Trail”, which would connect the Lost Lake area in the Chuckanuts to Lizard Lake on Blanchard Mountain, making a north-south trail hike possible. However, I haven’t been able to find it, and through online research it seems like no one else has either. Best I can guess, it was a proposed route at some point that was never completed (non-existent “Lost Lizard Trail” below):

So i discovered with the Gaia app/website you could easily create a route using existing trails, roads, and even mountain biking and motorcycle trails. It took some work, but I was finally able to come up with a route that started in the Fairhaven district of Bellingham, and allowed you to hike about 14 miles in a southerly direction through the Chuckanuts, connect with Blanchard Mountain, and then finish on Chuckanut Drive at the base of the Oyster Dome trail.

I proposed this route to a few friends who seemed into doing it – 14 miles is a great day hike, but between work and family commitments, conflicting schedules, etc, it hasn’t worked out for all of us to get together to do it. So having a free day, dry, and temps in the low 60’s I decided to just go for it. I decided to drive to the Alaska Ferry Terminal in Fairhaven, starting at sea level, and working my way south from there.

The trail starts out pretty mellow, following Padden Creek initially as you make your way past the Fairhaven Historic District on the way to Fairhaven Park. You have to leave the trail for a few hundred yards, walking past the tennis courts, restroom and parking lot before getting back on trail at the Chuckanut Community Forest (or as locals refer to it, the Hundred Acre Woods). There are quite a few options for ways to get through this section, but with a goal of connecting with the Interurban Trail, I decided to take the Main Vain and Swamp Trails.

The Interurban Trail then connects with Arroyo Park and the Lost Lake Trail – in working on this thru trail, I had to decide between using the lower Lost Lake Trail, or the higher, rougher Ridge Trail. Since this was my first time, and not knowing what the middle section of the trail was going to be like, I decided to go with the easier Lost Lake Trail. In doing it this way, it isn’t a ridge hike, but it is a great north-south route.

One of the things I liked about this route was that it followed the east side of Lost Lake, which is one of the better sections of trail in the Chuckanuts, but for some reason they don’t show it on the trail maps. There must have been a decision at some point to de-emphasize that trail, and it seems to have happened at the same time they stopped permitting camping at Lost Lake. In any case, there is a large rock in the mid-section of the lake that made for a great lunch spot (enjoyed a can of Bitburger there as well).

I was excited for the next section – it was the middle connecting the Chuckanuts with Blanchard Mountain – no man’s land! After reaching the south end of Lost Lake, you hit a Y in the trail – going to the right takes you back towards multiple trails in the Chuckanuts, but going left takes you out of the area and into what I thought would be primarily logging roads. It wasn’t a great start, as the trail was quite overgrown – I had to use my trekking poles to push my way through. However, for trails that supposedly aren’t used that often, it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected.

Eventually the trail did merge with logging roads, crossing the upper section of Oyster Creek, past a pond called Easy Reach Pond (where you can’t really see any water – it seems to just be an overgrown swamp), and into a network of motorcycle / mountain biking trails. There was only one clear cut section, and it was rather small – for some reason I expected more clear cuts in this area.

This section was all pretty mellow – not too much in the way of hills, just easy hiking. However, that changes as you approach the base of Blanchard Mountain. I knew there would be some uphill hiking involved – after all I was at about 800 feet and I knew Lizard Lake is at about 2000 feet. The last section of logging road was a pretty gentle uphill, but then it met up with the British Army Trail – a trail that I’ve been looking forward to checking out. I’m not sure how it got the name, but it didn’t take long for me to decide it was because of how steep the trail was – it would be good training for any army! It’s a great trail though – it doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, but it’s likely because there really isn’t a proper trailhead at either end of the trail.

Eventually you get to the shores of Lizard Lake, probably my favorite lake in the Chuckanut/Blanchard area – it’s not the largest lake, but it is really nice and has probably the best campsite in the area. I haven’t reached the lake from this direction before, but I liked how it came close to the shoreline.

At this point I had reached the base of the Lily-Lizard Connector Trail, the last uphill of the route, so I took a breather and drank half a liter of water and refueled with a Snickers. However, I don’t think I was dreading this uphill as much as the final downhill section – 2000 feet of descent on the Oyster Dome Trail….

Well, this final section took much longer than I had hoped – distance-wise it was only a few miles, so it should have only taken an hour. However, after the previous 13 miles, my pace slowed down quite a bit as I descended. However, it was awesome to finally reach Chuckanut Drive, just shy of 9 hours after I started (this time included a 30 minute lunch break, and a couple of other 15 minute stops along the way).

Oh, if you are paying close attention you may have noticed that the Gaia GPS app said this would be a 14 mile through hike – in the end, it somehow ended up being 18! There was the extra bit at the beginning, from the Alaska Ferry Terminal to Fairhaven Park, but that likely is just shy of a mile. So somehow the actual hike was about 3 miles longer than I expected. It was fine, but I’m still not sure how or why the app was so off.

I am happy to have finally completed this route, and as sore as I am a couple of days later, I’m already planning to do it again, possibly this coming week. I am going to go in the opposite direction, starting with the steep uphill Oyster Dome climb, but I may veer off and take the Pacific Northwest Trail up to Lily Lake instead. Knowing my knees, I’m thinking it may be better to do it as an uphill climb and get it out of the way first, and then have the gradual downhill from the Lost Lake area to Fairhaven to look forward to. I am also thinking of doing the Ridge Trail from Lost Lake to Arroyo. These changes add a few miles, but I think after doing it I’ll be able to combine the two to come up with the definitive Chuckanut/Blanchard thru hike route.

I really can’t recommend this route enough – you really get to take in everything the area has to offer – great views, lakes, moderate uphills and downhills, and it also works year round (other than occasional winter snows). I’m not 100% sure how access works in the middle section, as parts of it are not DNR or state park land (maps just say it’s “Private Land”), but I didn’t see any signs saying you couldn’t hike through, and didn’t see any logging trucks or equipment. In fact, I didn’t see a single person from Arroyo Park until Oyster Dome Trail – probably because it was a Thursday, but I was surprised not to see anyone in the Lost Lake or Lily/Lizard Lake sections.

If you have any questions about this hike, you can send me an email at I would be more than happy to send GPX / KML file of the route to you as well.






Solo Overnighter To Lake Ann / Mt. Shuksan

I was finally able to do a Mt Baker hike that I’ve always wanted to do – the Lake Ann/Mt Shuksan trail. It’s just over 4 miles each way from Artist Point, which you start by losing about 1000 feet of elevation in a mile, then leveling out for 2 miles in a beautiful creek meadow, before finishing with a 1500 foot or so climb in the last mile through boulder fields and a small patch of snow. Found a great camping spot up an obscure trail above Lake Ann, with great views of Mt Baker on one side and Mt Shuksan on the other.

I got a late start, hitting the trail at about 5:30 pm – it was a bit of a race to get to the end, since it’s getting dark around 8pm or so this time of year. I figured I could do 2 miles/hour, which would leave me about 30 minutes of light to set up camp at the end. Thankfully, that’s exactly the way things worked out. I arrived at the ridge above Lake Ann right at 7:30 and had a choice to make. I saw a few tents around the lake (but just a few – this was a Tuesday evening), but I had read reports saying that above the ridge (just north of the lake) there were some great campsites with a view of Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan and the lake. There wasn’t much of a trail, but after 50 yards or so I did see a faint path up towards the campsites. I passed one level site and took the second one, which did have a great view. The next morning I explored a bit and found even better sites further up.

After a great night of sleep I woke to a sunny morning with the occasional sound of crashing rock on the steep face of Mt. Shuksan. After coffee and breakfast I packed up and went down to the lake to check out the view from there, and walked a 1/4 mile or so down the climbers trail towards Mt. Shuksan and Curtis Glacier. While the trail does go all the way to the glacier, from reports I’ve seen it’s steep and narrow, with a washed out area towards the end. I didn’t have time to go all the way this time, but hope to give it a shot sometime in the future.

The hike back was pretty uneventful – it was a warm day but my pack was lighter so it wasn’t bad. There were tons of people on the way up though – even though it was a Wednesday, the parking lot was full by the time I got back. Overall this hike did not disappoint, and was maybe slightly more difficult than I thought it would be.

Chain Lakes Overnighter

We (3 teens and I) tried to make it up to Twin Lakes, but between the heat, smoke and altitude our 4wd vehicle didn’t make it, so we came back down and decided to head up to Heather Meadows for an overnighter. Reading the regulations, there is no camping within the Heather Meadows area, so we tried to make it to the campsites at Chain Lakes, but if snow didn’t allow for it, our backup plan was to find a spot outside the area, but well away from the lakes.

The initial part of the hike was great – fairly level with just occasional, short stretches of snow to cross. The smoke was present, but gave the area a cool, orangey hue (I’d obviously prefer there not to be smoke though). Having not done this trail before, I thought it’d be fairly straightforward, and perhaps once the snow melts it will be, but once the trail started going uphill things got a little interesting. Patches of snow got larger, and about halfway up some routefinding was necessary. The slope wasn’t great, so we were able to make it up with just hiking boots (for me), and tennis shoes/runners with the kids, but poles and microspikes would have been handy. We never really crossed snow where a fall would have been dangerous, but still, for some it’s probably a bit too much for a couple more weeks.

We made it up to the top of the ridge separating Bagley & Iceberg/Hayes Lakes, but were surprised and disappointed to see it was all snow from there down to the campsites. We found flat spots in the snow nearby to camp. Due to the smoke we couldn’t even see Baker (it eventually appeared in the middle of the night). Shuksan was hard to see in the distance. The bugs were out of control, biting flies and mosquitoes, and in the morning I woke up to the sound of about 20 flies and bees flying and buzzing between my tent and rainfly.

Overall the trip was a success, but I want to try to make it to the Chain Lakes campsites in a few weeks, and also want to try the Twin Lakes area again (next time I’ll park at the Yellow Astor Butte trailhead and hike up though!)

Cedar & Pine Lakes – Surprisingly One Of The Steepest Hikes I’ve Been On

Earlier this spring, with all of the snow in the Cascades, I decided to make it a goal to hike every trail in the Chuckanuts – some like Oyster Dome I’ve been on at least a dozen times, but others I somehow haven’t done at all. The hike to Pine and Cedar Lakes is one I haven’t tried yet, despite driving past the trailhead many times in the past. Well it was a pretty cool hike – a classic Chuckanut route through forests, past streams and a fair amount of elevation gain and loss. The start of the trail starts off steep, or should I say – STEEP. This was one of the steepest sections of trail I’ve ever been on, steeper than any of the Mt. Baker hikes I went on last year, and just as steep as several sections of the Cinque Terre trail were this year. My wife was not happy – level river hikes are more her thing, some elevation gain/loss is okay, but this was just not fun for her. I didn’t even like it much, but I can handle just about anything so I made the best of it.

The scenery was beautiful though, with streams cutting into the mountainside, forming sometimes deep valleys that we would hike along. In fact, the hike was definitely more scenic than the destination – each of the lakes was okay, but not where we wanted to linger long. Muddy shorelines, bugs and a lack of great places to sit meant we only stayed at each lake about 5 minutes or so.

We made our way back to civilization by taking the Hemlock Trail north towards Arroyo Park – we initially planned on hiking all the way into Fairhaven for a pint at Stones Throw Brewery, but we were approaching 8 miles of hiking and getting a little tired. So we decided to make it a loop, hike into Arroyo Park, then walk along Old Samish Road back to our car. Lemme tell you, hiking on pavement after a long hike in the forest is not fun – my legs, knees and ankles started begging for mercy right away. But we made it in the end – overall I’m not sure when or if I’d go back (Lizard Lake is probably my favorite lake in the Chuckanuts), but it was a decent hike, a great workout and some lovely scenery to enjoy along the way. We did make it to Stones Throw in the end, but we drove…

Table Mountain – Last Hike Before Epic Snow Hits The Cascades

I’ve been skiing at Mt. Baker for nearly 30 years, and hiked many times at Artist Point, but never thought to do the short hike up Table Mountain, but I’m so glad I did. I only had a 6 hour window – living in Bellingham the drive is about 90 minutes or so each way, which left about 3 hours to get a hike in on an absolutely gorgeous day. This hike was perfect – about an hour up, an hour back and about an hour to have lunch and take in the views.

The hike to the top is short, somewhat steep, and probably not for those with a fear of ledges or heights. I felt safe, but a slip could make for a scary moment, and I’d never want to do this hike if it was icy or snowy. Mid-summer or early fall is the perfect time though. Once you get to the top it’s relatively flat, with a trail to a nice spot with tarns and a view of Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan. I lost the trail a couple of times, but you are essentially on a rocky tabletop and it’s easy to see where you want to go if you do go off the trail. When that happened though it was pretty simple to find the trail and rejoin it to the end.