A couple weeks ago, somewhere on the Pacific Crest Trail in the mountains of northern Washington, I met another hiker walking south. By way of introduction, he pointed at the Leica binoculars around my neck. “You a birder?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve carried these binocs for the last 2,500 miles, all the way from Mexico.”
(Technically, it wasn’t quite correct. I did carry a pair of Leicas for the first 800 miles before losing them on a terrible, freezing afternoon in the high Sierra in central California. I had sent a desperate letter to the company, hoping for the best, and hiked another several hundred miles through northern California before Leica sent a new pair—for free! —which I carried through Oregon and Washington. Just to be clear.)
“Ah,” he replied, knowingly. “Figured as much. Not many through-hikers carry binoculars. Seen any good birds on your trip?”
My thoughts flashed back nearly four months to the southern California desert: the Loggerhead Shrike nest I’d found in a Joshua tree alongside the trail, the Lawrence’s Goldfinches flitting around a cedar oasis on Mount San Jacinto, the Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned Sparrows filling each dawn with their bouncy songs outside my tent.
Then I remembered the Sierra: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches keeping daily company through the most inhospitable passes and peaks, Pine Grosbeaks and American Dippers lurking in the valleys, Williamson’s Sapsuckers at my frozen campsites.
I mentally retraced northern California, a hot and dusty section where Vaux’s Swifts, Purple Martins, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees coursed through endless foothills. One afternoon, after hiking 30 miles, I had been rewarded by the sight of three Peregrine Falcons sparring right overhead as the sun set on a remote, rocky rim.
And, finally, Oregon and Washington, where Three-toed Woodpeckers and Varied Thrushes welcomed my arrival to the Pacific Northwest, and other hikers kept pestering me about “camp robbers” (Gray Jays) and “that ethereal song” they kept hearing but could not identify (Hermit Thrush).
But before I could answer, he was reflecting on his own experience. “I’ve been a bit disappointed, actually. There just aren’t many birds in the mountains, other than chickadees and grouse. It seems dead up here.”
I patiently explained that, while high mountains are a bit low on diversity—I’d only seen 13 species of waterbirds in 2,500 miles—many of the birds “up here” are special because they are found nowhere else. You’re probably not going to find a Clark’s Nutcracker unless you head for the hills. Quality over quantity.
What’s more, I said, it’s more satisfying to go birding in places that birders don’t usually visit. In Oregon, I’d found a Common Poorwill in a county with only three previous records of that species. Normally, local birders would have been there chasing down that poorwill the next day, for another tick on their county lists, but I had stumbled across the bird on a remote ridgetop 15 miles from the nearest trailhead. Nobody wanted to put in the effort, so I got a nice scoop.
About a month into the hike, I detoured to a small, ravine-bottom spring to fill up my water bottles, and just about whacked a female Anna’s Hummingbird off her nest with my forehead when I ducked under a low-hanging branch. She stuck tight, even while I pointed a camera just a couple inches from her face. A few minutes later, when she zipped off the nest to tank up on nectar, I saw why: two tiny eggs, each the size of a pinky fingernail, nestled inside.
I had to admit that the guy had a point, though. Birding on foot, in the mountains, is a slow-twitch activity. Many days passed without notable sightings, especially when I spent long hours hiking with head down, focused on mileage and the next resupply stop. Over the entire summer, I’d recorded 175 species of birds; not bad, but, back home, with a car and a couple of crazy friends, I once saw more than that in half a day.
Backpacking with binoculars is really about expecting the unexpected, and not necessarily just birds. While hiking alone in southern Washington, I rounded a corner to find a cougar (mountain lion) sitting calmly in the trail about 30 feet in front of me. The big kitty stared curiously as I stood stock-still, staring right back. With the binocs, I had incredible views of every whisker on the cat’s face as it posed for almost ten full minutes. Eventually, it wandered slowly off, and I breathed a long sigh of satisfaction and relief.
“So, was it worth it?” the hiker asked. “Walking the entire Pacific Crest Trail?”
I noted the past tense with a smirk, since more than a hundred miles remained to the Canadian border, and the official end of the trail. For the last week, people had been giving congratulations even though I wasn’t quite done yet. But I didn’t hesitate to answer: “Of course!”
More people have summited Mount Everest than walked the entire 2,665 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington. Now that I have, officially, finished, I can reflect on 123 days and 25 minutes of hard hiking from the comfort of a warm bed, with a hint of wistfulness.
Here’s my packing advice for long walks in the woods: Cut every corner possible, shave every ounce, and go with the lightest pack you can afford, but take one completely unnecessary item. Others I met chose musical instruments, books, or cans of beer for entertainment on the trail.
Me, I brought binoculars. Best choice ever!