38 years after her solo hike, ‘trail angel’ helps at end of Pacific Crest Trail
Mazama’s Carolyn Burkhart was one of first women to solo the border-to-border trek.
The Wenatchee World
Northwest travel guides
MAZAMA, Okanogan County — There were no cellphones when Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart, at age 21, hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone in 1976.
She wore heavy mountaineering boots, carried a 50-pound pack and went for days at a time without seeing another human being.
It took her six months, and when she finished on Sept. 30, 1976, she was one of 12 hikers who had signed the register naming those who completed the entire journey that summer.
Today, several hundred hikers attempt the trek from Mexico to Canada each summer and, depending on the weather, a few dozen or a few hundred may finish. Many of them call home regularly to report their whereabouts and arrange for food drops. Some wear running shoes instead of boots, and their journey is usually shared with many other hikers along the way.
But despite the differences, Burkhart said some things haven’t changed in the 38 years since she completed this arduous walk through California, Oregon and Washington. That includes the need for trail support. To make the entire trip, Pacific Crest Trail hikers need outside help to be successful.
Burkhart said she relied on her mother to send packages of food to post offices or ranger stations, where she picked them up along the way. She believes she’s the first woman to complete the trail solo, although one other woman who finished the trail from Canada to Mexico in October 1976 also claims the title.
Now, at age 59, Burkhart still hikes, but she’s also a trail angel — one of many people who help PCTers along their journey.
Help near trail’s end
From her home in Mazama, Burkhart is helping hikers on the last leg of their journey, through Okanogan County to the Canadian boarder.
“Most people don’t realize this is the village for the northern terminus on the Pacific Crest Trail,” she said. It’s a natural location for PCT hikers to stop, and for a community to welcome them, she said.
This year, Burkhart opened Ravensong’s Roost in Mazama as a resting place for hikers.
It uses her trail name, Ravensong, just as other PCT hikers use trail names when they talk about each other.
Her partner, Judith Moore, said Burkhart got her name because she can talk to birds — and Burkhart demonstrated with a throaty raven’s call.
Located on Highway 20 near the turnoff to Mazama, Ravensong’s Roost consists of a dry garage, complete with a loft for sleeping, an outdoor bathtub, and a covered area for sitting. It’s free, and is open in September and October, when most through-hikers will need it.
Hikers are learning about it through word-of-mouth. And those who stay are pitching in to help improve the accommodations. Right now, they’re working to enclose the garage so hikers will stay warm and dry.
“I think it’s the best location,” said Michelle “Handstand” Maruska, a hiker from Meadville, Pa., who had just completed the journey and stayed at Ravensong’s Roost on Monday night with her partner, James “Machine gun” Sarnoski, and another hiker, Jon “Dogger” Potter, from Wheeler, Mich.
“You can hit it at Rainy Pass before making the last leg, or do like we did and finish, and then make it back here,” she said. “We’re done. This is it for us, so it’s like a celebratory thing.”
Chat and directions
In the morning before they went on their way, the hikers chatted with Burkhart, who listened to their adventures and talked about her own experiences on the trail. She directed them to the Mazama Store or Mazama Country Inn for coffee and breakfast, and offered ideas for where to stay if they wanted a longer visit in the Methow Valley. The community is embracing the idea, she said, with some offering new services for PCTers who need to shower or wash their clothes or pick up packages.
But in addition to developing services for hikers, Burkhart wants to make sure hikers are prepared for what’s ahead. And at this time of year, it’s often snow, and sometimes the possibility of avalanches.
Last year, before Ravensong’s Roost was open, she loaned her home to hikers who became stranded after a snowfall in early October. The storm prevented some hikers from finishing their journey after walking nearly 2,600 miles.
Others refused to give up, including Jim “Legend” Hagen, who is originally from Minnesota, and who came to Mazama this week to help Burkhart improve Ravensong’s Roost.
“It snowed for four days, and these people helped me to get to Canada in six feet of snow,” he said. “Without even knowing me, I spent seven days here. They made arrangements to get me to Harts Pass.”
Hagen said it took him 20 more days to hike the last leg — a hike that should have taken six days.
This isn’t Burkhart’s first effort at giving back to the hiking community. She’s on the board of the American Long Distance Hikers Association, and has given talks on hiking with children, drawing from her experiences of hiking with her own children from the time they were young.
She also hopes to develop a map showing alternate routes back to civilization from the Canadian border, so hikers won’t have to backtrack.
The hikers at Ravensong’s Roost on Tuesday said they loved the idea of another route back, grumbling good-naturedly about coming back along the same trail.
With new restrictions at the border and no official border crossing on the trail, hikers who don’t have special permits have to walk 30 miles back to Highway 20 after reaching the border monument.
“It’s not the 2,650 miles, it’s that 30 miles back that was tough,” joked Maruska.
Potter said those 30 miles took him much longer than he expected — largely because he kept stopping to talk to the hikers who were nearly at the end. “I just kind of floated back. I was taking my time,” he said.
When Burkhart completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 1976, there were no restrictions at the border. Throughout the journey, she stopped at towns along the way, calling home to let her mother know she was still safe.
On her last stop before the border, she arranged to meet her parents at Manning Park in Canada. Burkhart arrived on time, but, not realizing how long the drive would take, her parents were several hours late. Without cellphones, Burkhart knew just to wait.
After all, she said, her mother gave her the passion to hike and had been her own personal trail angel throughout this trip, mailing her packages at every stop, and even hiking with her through part of her journey through Chinook Pass. Just as any PCT hiker knows today, you can always count on a trail angel to come through.