MEETING ANOTHER CHALLENGE: Jack Carter Takes on Pacific Crest Trail
A Sandhills hiker is taking on his second major challenge in two years as he begins a long trek through the far western states of California, Oregon and Washington.
In 2007 Jack Carter Jr., a native North Carolinian who has lived in Southern Pines most of his life, completed a 2,174-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. Now he has set his sights on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada as it crosses a desert, the glaciated expanses of the Sierra Nevada and provides views of volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range. The PCT has five distinct sections, each having unique climate, geologic flora and fauna.
Passing through historic mining sites, the route was first explored in the 1930s by teams of young men from the YMCA. Once the hike was proven feasible, trail pioneers lobbied the federal government to secure a border-to-border corridor.
Carter has planned his journey along the PCT beginning in mid-April south of San Diego and ending across the Canadian border sometime in mid-September.
"You have a limited window to hike the entire trail," he says. "You need to start early enough to escape the scorching summer temperatures of the Mojave Desert, and then you have to tackle the mountains of the Sierra Nevada where the snow sometimes doesn't melt until July 1, in order to get to Oregon and Washington before once again experiencing snow by Labor Day. The idea is to keep moving to hike the whole trail in a 5 1/2-to-6 month time period."
When Carter did the Appalachian Trail he started on March 21 and finished Dec. 7. Out of those eight months, he took about 60 "zero" days -- the days when he hunkered down in a motel or at a spot off the trail, too cold, or too tired, or with blistered feet, or when he just wanted to indulge himself by taking a little time off from hiking.
According to Carter, the average time a hiker can take off from the PCT is about 10 days.
"You just have to get up and keep going if you are going to finish," he says. "Physically, the Pacific Crest Trail is kinder, more forgiving and easier to hike as compared with the Appalachian Trail, where at places you have to go hand over hand up steep rock-faced heights. However, the PCT does present its own set of challenges."
From the Desert to the Mountains
The first lap of the trail is 700 miles across the Mojave Desert. The big issue in the desert, Carter observes, aside from the rattlesnakes, scorpions and other not-so-friendly creatures, is water.
"There are stretches on the trail where there is no water for anywhere from 20 to 60 miles, so preplanning is essential," he says. "Thankfully, 'trail angels' have been known to put out gallon jugs of water at strategic locations."
These so-called "trail angels" are a loosely knit organization of past hikers who provide assistance to current hikers' not only by placing water along the trail, but also by offering transportation to the starting point of the trail, for instance. In addition, by sharing their own experiences, the trail angels make the trek a little easier for new, or repeat, hikers.
At about 800 to 900 miles, the PCT reaches into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Carter says hikers have to be prepared to cross about a dozen snow-filled passes at 13,000 to 14,000 feet.
"You are cautioned to time your access through these passes at the point in the day when the snow is hard enough to walk on, otherwise you find yourself sinking into snow up to your hips," he says.
Another bit of advice given to PCT hikers in the Sierra Nevadas is to guard against bears stealing their food.
"We are warned that if the bears get the food in your pack, the rangers may escort you out of the area for the offense of feeding the bears," Carter says. "To get around this problem, most of the hikers carry a special 'bear cannister' to safeguard their provisions. An alternate procedure is to stop about 4 or 5 p.m. to cook your supper, then hike on for another 3 or 4 miles to camp down for the night. That way, you leave the food odors -- and, hopefully, the bears -- behind."
In Oregon and Washington, a difficulty that faces hikers is the fording of numerous streams, which can be from knee-deep to waist-deep and have a temperature in many cases of around 40 degrees from the snowmelt and rain.
"You'll come across more streams in one day than you encountered in the whole time you were on the Appalachian Trail," Carter says.
PCT hikers agree that the challenge of this particular trail is in the logistics -- anything from dealing with the lack of water to the scarcity of nearby towns to get resupplied. On the Pacific Crest Trail, sometimes the nearest signs of life are a small combination filling station and post office, so many hikers take advantage of the few fair-sized towns along the trail to purchase supplies and then mail themselves several food boxes to points farther along the way. The mail-ahead method is also used to supply other personal trail needs, such as razor blades, batteries and the 100 percent Deet mosquito repellent that is an absolute necessity on some parts of the trail.
Carter says that he doesn't know of anyone in the Sandhills area who has ever hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, although there are at least a dozen or more local hikers who have done the Appalachian Trail, sometimes multiple times. And he has renewed acquaintances from his 2007 trek along the Appalachian Trail through a series of hiker get-togethers.
The Appalachian Hiking Association holds an annual event in October, known as The Gathering, which he attended in West Virginia last fall.
"They put on seminars during the event about different trails and a broad overview of what you can expect," he says. "I listened to one that was presented by hikers who had just finished the Pacific Crest Trail, and I was fascinated by their descriptions. I thought, 'I can do that,' and I made the decision to take on the Pacific Crest Trail this spring and summer."
Then at another hiker gathering held in Nantahala in January, Carter met up with three fellow hikers he had encountered during his Appalachian trek in 2007. He discovered that the trio, from Georgia, the Outer Banks and Maryland, were also planning a Pacific Crest hike this summer, so they are joining forces, and have been in contact as they work out the plans for their trek.
A fanaticism about weight in their packs is always a consideration for thru-hikers. For example, one trick is to cut their tooth brush handles down to minimize weight and remove the labels and all non-essential accessories on other items to reduce the weight by as little as a gram. The optimum basic pack weight, including sleeping bag, tent, air mattress, clothes, first aid supplies and cooking gear, amounts to 8 to 10 pounds. Added to that is the weight of the food and water, and the total tops off at under 25 pounds.
One of the more unusual items that is part of Carter's gear for the Pacific Crest Trail is an umbrella for screening out the rays from the sun while going across the Mojave Desert. These aren't your standard golf umbrellas or even the miniature ones you can pick up at a department store. They are made out of Mylar -- a reflective substance -- weighing about 8 to 9 ounces, according to Carter.
"The Pacific Crest Trail seems to get into a hiker's blood," Carter says.
"People return year after year to hike the trail again, some as many as six or seven times. Most thru-hikers believe the real benefit is the interaction with the people you hike with or meet along the way. You become less materialistic, you learn just how little you need to survive and you become much more oriented to other human beings."
The sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization is a quality of life on the trail hikers frequently mention.
However, as Carter points out, "You make friends for the rest of your life. You all get together when you set up camp in a shelter in the evenings, and trade happenings, thoughts and hopes. It is a great opportunity to philosophize with the other members of the group, and is truly a life-changing experience."
Contact Pinehurst freelance writer Mary Elle Hunter at email@example.com.
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