Rachel Alexander and her mother, Shelly Sundberg, stand on top of Kodiak Peak during a hike from their backpacking base camp in Meander Meadow. (Rachel Alexander / The Spokesman-Review)
Photo: Rachel Alexander/TNS
Photo: Rachel Alexander/TNS

Hiking with mom: She still sets pace for daughter

I’ve covered hundreds of miles of trail hiking and backpacking with my mother over two decades, but one thing never seems to change — I struggle to keep up. 

No matter the trail or season, my view on the way to our destination is the same: her backpack, floating a switchback ahead of me.  

Three years since our last trip together in the Cascades, we met last weekend for a backpack in the middle of Washington. The trail she picked was to Lila Lake, an alpine meadow area near Kachess Lake, east of Snoqualmie Pass.  

When we met up Saturday morning, it was clear our plans would have to change. Wildfire smoke hung thick in the air, giving us headaches within 10 minutes of arrival. We consulted an atlas of the state and called my fiance and dad, asking them to send us a picture of the state’s air quality map.  

The picture was grim. With smoke coming from multiple fires burning in central Washington and Oregon, the only places with reliably clear air were on the Olympic Peninsula and north near Bellingham.  

I couldn’t help wondering if I’d waited too long to get back in the woods. How many trails would be closed next summer because of fires in the area? How many more acres would transformed from hemlock and pine to charred stumps?  

She suggested a new route, plucked from a mental encyclopedia cultivated over thousands of miles on the trail: Meander Meadow and Cady Ridge, a 16-mile loop in the central Cascades, east of Stevens Pass. The air wasn’t perfect, but it looked to be hovering around moderate quality, which was good enough.  

We reached the trailhead at 4 p.m. We had six miles and 2,000 feet of climbing to go to reach the meadow, where we hoped to find a water source and make camp.  

As we walked, the summer day we’d left turned to fall. We’d missed wildflower season by weeks, but were treated to a canvas of orange mountain ash berries, ripe blueberries and ferns as we ascended. An autumn chill settled over the valley as the sun began to set, and I started to seriously doubt my ability to climb the last two miles to our camp at 5,000 feet.  

My 56-year-old mother was sweaty, but unfazed, stopping only to wait for me to catch my breath.  

“I knew you could do it,” she told me with a smile when we arrived in camp. My hips protested.  

The sun had passed over the ridgeline and we could see our breath in front of us. I pitched the tent as she pumped water and cooked a stew of instant rice and beans topped with a beautiful indulgence: a perfectly ripe avocado.  

On Sunday morning, the smoke was worse. We’d seen it floating above us while we hiked up, but it was settling into the meadow, giving everything farther than a mile away a gray haze. Our plan was to keep the same camp and day hike to the top of Kodiak Peak, where under normal conditions we’d be treated to a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding Cascades, including Glacier Peak.  

As we readied camp to leave, a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder sprinted past our camp on the trail. He and his hunting partner had camped near us the previous night and had started to hike out when they spotted a black bear. A minute later, three shots rang out in quick succession, followed by a fourth a minute later. The man’s partner soon appeared in our camp, confirming the kill.  

“We’re going to eat it,” he said, leaving two vegetarians standing bewildered, trying to fathom how exactly one field dresses and packs out a 300-pound bear.  

We set out for Kodiak Peak, noticing the smoke grow thicker as it began obscuring the sun. We passed a few hikers: young couples or groups of friends, and solo men. After hiking two miles, we reached the summit, which was exposed and windy. But even the particulates hanging in the air couldn’t hide the beauty of Glacier Peak.  

Shelly Sundberg greets sudden fall-like weather as she hikes up a trail toward Kodiak Peak in the Cascades during a day hike with her daughter from a backpacking base camp. (Rachel Alexander / The Spokesman-Review)
Photo: Rachel Alexander/TNS

The rain began just after we returned to camp and ate lunch. From 3 p.m. on, we sat in the tent, reading and swapping stories of other hikes and book recommendations. During a brief interlude in the precipitation, we talked each other into an ambitious plan to rinse off in the creek. We stripped naked inside the tent, then ran down the trail in flip-flops and Crocs, splashing water on our armpits and thighs to rinse off the day’s sweat. Shivering, we returned to warm, dry clothes inside.  

Sometime during the night, the rain turned to snow. Though the tent was now pitched in a puddle, we’d stayed miraculously warm and dry all night.  

We awoke to a meadow with a powdered sugar dusting, and more still coming down. Apparently we’d streaked through fall and gone straight to winter.  

With a muddy tent shoved into my pack, we began the 10-mile walk out, which would take us along the Pacific Crest Trail for a bit before meandering along Cady Ridge and eventually down through the forest and back to the car. The snow stopped and started half a dozen times during our walk, and much of the trail had become a bog. By mile three, my boots were squishing every time I took a step.  

As we descended, the snow line along the ridge we’d come from became clearer. Trees above glistened a silver white in the bits of sun that poked through clouds, while below the meadow was still a fall mix of green and red. Mom stopped to take pictures. She ate blueberries with such gusto it seemed she was auditioning to be reincarnated as a black bear.  

We were wet and covered in snow, mud and rain, but still warm in our wool and polypropylene as we descended. At last, we found the car. I celebrated by wringing a small, muddy puddle out of each wool sock.  

As we hiked, Mom told me about the loops she wanted to do again, the mountain lakes and meadows she wanted to see with me before her knees and feet gave out. I told her to make a list, and I’d do the best I could do work through it over the next few summers.  

She was home in Seattle about an hour before I made it back to Spokane. The next day, she reached out to ask how my body was feeling.  

I could barely walk without a limp. “Super sore,” I replied, before inquiring about her muscles.  

“I feel just fine,” she responded, conceding her thighs were a bit sore.  

As is her custom, she filed a trip report on the Washington Trails Association website. Her verdict? “A pretty gentle loop hike.”

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