Digging Deep: Crossing the Kettle Range “Cakewalk”

Story and photographs by Aaron Theisen

The Kettle Range is the backbone—and heart—of northeastern Washington.

A mosaic of closed-canopy forests and open, sagebrush- and wildflower-filled meadows rapidly rebounding from past wildfires, the Kettle Range features a half-dozen of eastern Washington’s highest peaks, from the summits of which one can gape at distant shimmering vistas of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. Winding over and around the length of the range is the 45-mile Kettle Crest National Recreation Trail, the granddaddy of long-distance trails in eastern Washington.

Nominally a “ridge-running” route, the Kettle Crest Trail still tallies up about 8,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain over its length. While one could easily spend several days traversing and savoring the Crest, there is also something magical in watching the full light of a long summer day rise and fall across these wild mountains in one unbroken chain of footsteps from trailhead to trail’s end. For the past few years, several friends and I have done just that – a one-day hike of the Kettle Crest, which we have deceptively dubbed the “Kettle Crest Cakewalk.”

Our journey begins a little before 6 am at the southern terminus of the Kettle Crest Trail near White Mountain. As the sun enters the purple pre-dawn sky, the granitic rocks glow with collected and reflected sunlight. Lupine, Indian paintbrush, buckwheat, aster and yarrow stir in the breeze. This spectacular region of the Kettle River Range has long been an important place of spiritual power for local Native American tribes and remains an important landscape for the adjacent Colville Indian Reservation, and it’s easy to see why. These mountains seems to reflect far more than the sum of their components – rock, flower, tree, light.

It is the little spots on the trail that always leave such a big impression in my mind: the rocky bench, with its eastward views of Twin Sisters Roadless Area, right before the trail begins to climb around the west side of Scar Mountain; the open, grassy meadow trailing down the west face of Profanity Peak, with views of the Curlew Valley; the serene grotto of giant Douglas-fir trees underlain by grass and lupine as the trail ascends out of Long Alec Creek. The Kettle Crest Trail offers plenty of quiet nooks in which to pitch a tent or rest aching feet.

At 15 miles, roughly six hours in, we reach Sherman Pass, at 5575 feet the highest year-round auto-accessible pass in the state. In the parking lot, packed by backcountry skiers in winter but quiet this August morning, we retrieve gallon jugs of water stashed the day before. None of us is tempted to linger; we have a full three-day-weekend worth of hiking to finish in the next 12 hours.

We remain in a constant state of inexorable forward motion. The photos I take are invariably blurry, because I do not pause long enough to rest my shutter finger. By this point, the usual reasons one might enjoy a long backpacking trip -concepts like “fun,” “enjoying the scenery,” “relishing others’ company”- have given way to work.

Every backpacking trip I’ve been on reaches a moment where conversation stops as each person descends inside him – or herself. Invariably it’s about halfway through the last day of the trip. On the Cakewalk it’s at about 3 pm, not long after Camelbacks and water bottles have been topped off at the little spring in a wet meadow near the intersection with the Jungle Hill trail, about 22 miles into the hike. On the ridge run from Jungle Hill to Wapaloosie – arguably one of the most spectacular stretches of the trail, with views to the Selkirks in the east and sagebrush at our feet – the group stretches like taffy. I’m glad for the solitude. After hours of following so closely behind another hiker, staring at her boot heels, I’ve begun to get vertigo. I need open trail in front of me.

Ten hours into the hike and almost 30 miles north of White Mountain, we reach the summit of Copper Butte, one of the Kettle Range’s other trophy peaks. Were one to pause long enough to enjoy the view, one would see in the distance the Cascades, Selkirks, and Midway Mountains, and – stretched out below – the pristine roadless lands of the western Colville National Forest, the lodgepole pine forests of Twin Sisters, the deep canyons of Jackknife and Hoodoo, the Douglas-fir and maple of Owl Mountain.

Hiking the entire Kettle Crest all in one day provides the opportunity to marvel at the sheer variety of terrain through which we’ve passed: high-elevation meadows on White Mountain, expanses of ghost-white snags and flower fields on Snow Peak’s side, aspen groves and sagebrush on Columbia Mountain, the dark forests near Sentinel Butte, on the north end. Mere steps take us from one habitat to another; it’s like eastern Washington on fast-forward.

Descending Copper Butte, through the packed and sun-parched rock of another old burn, my legs protest. The logistical impossibility of bailing down one of the numerous feeder trails in the next few miles steels me, although I let the temptation linger. I’ve completed two Ironmans, and in some ways, this is more difficult – after over a dozen hours of the same repetitive forward motion, swinging one leg and then the other, the body literally aches for a change

Pushing headlong into the dark, I’m more intensely aware than I’ve ever been of the slow drain of daylight from a landscape. As we flip on our headlamps, our focus shrinks, from a ribbon 45 miles long and 20 inches wide to a bright smudge six feet in diameter.

To keep myself going and pass the time, I begin performing repeated mental calculations of how much is left – a task that would seem to get tedious quickly were it not for the fact that I come up with a different figure every time.

You know that dream when you’re trying to run away from a monster but you never gain any ground? The last several hours begin to feel like that, except there is no monster – just mind and body rebelling against the foolishness of the pursuit. The last eight miles – a solid day hike on a normal day, but a nuisance to be suffered through on this one – seem to stretch across the continent.

I begin to jog, although at this stage “jogging” is a relative term, and I gain only a fraction of speed. Nonetheless, I rejoice, after 14 hours of walking, in trying out another movement.

Finally, the northern trailhead, at Deer Creek Summit, appears. In the dark, there is no climactic buildup. The hike simply ceases to continue. Likewise, in the dark I realize that, despite the feeling of total isolation of the last seven hours – a feeling, it turns out, that everyone shares – none of us was more than 15 seconds in front of or behind anyone else. It’s amazing: 50 feet of open trail feel like an uncharted and un-peopled world. In wilderness, the solitude is perhaps more psychological or spiritual than physical.

At an average pace, it takes roughly 16 hours to hike the entire Kettle Crest in one day. It takes roughly 12 hours after that to pivot from “Why in God’s name did we ever think this was a good idea?” to “You know how we can do it faster next year? Run.”

Care to do it yourself? Driving directions for the northern trailhead: From Republic, drive 3 miles east on SR 20 and turn left on SR 21. Continue for 18.4 miles to Curlew and turn right on Boulder Creek Road (County Road 602). Drive 11.2 miles to the trailhead at Deer Creek Summit. For the southern trailhead: From Republic, drive 17 miles east on SR 20 to Sherman Pass. Continue on SR 20 for 3.5 miles and turn right onto South Fork Sherman Creek Road (FR 2020) at milepost 323. Follow FR 2020 for 7 miles, bearing right onto FR 2014. Continue for 4 miles and turn right onto FR Spur 250. Continue for 4.2 miles to the trailhead. Supplies are available in Republic.

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