Trail angel ‘Ravensong’ is a godsend for PCT travelers
It was the second week of October, 12 degrees in the North Cascades, with a wind-chill of zero. A dozen hikers were bivouacked near Mazama at Ravensong’s Roost, near the end of their 2,600-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mexican border.
At the refuge she’s run for seven years, Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart, a lifelong hiker and “trail angel,” chatted with the hikers, recommending lower-elevation routes to avoid snow and avalanche danger.
She handed out rope that hikers can wrap around their running shoes for traction, heavy-duty garbage bags that can be pressed into service as rain gear, and food and gear donated by the community. With a lifetime of experience in the mountains — Ravensong first set foot on the PCT at age 3 — she has earned credibility among long-distance hikers.
Ravensong hiked the entire PCT on her own in 1976, celebrating her 21st birthday on the trail. She is generally considered the first woman to hike the full trail solo. Since then, she’s hiked trails around the West and abroad, and tirelessly shares her knowledge with countless hikers.
Ravensong’s dedication to through-hikers was recognized on Sept. 28 by the American Long Distance Hiking Association West (ALDHA-West) with the Martin D. Papendick award, which recognizes the outstanding trail angel of the year. Papendick was the first person to hike the entire PCT, back in 1952.
Walking 2,600 miles, through deserts and alpine peaks, is a major accomplishment for anyone. But when Ravensong made the trek, few people were aware of the trail, and even fewer actually embarked on the journey. Ravensong was one of a dozen people to hike the entire route that year. With no organized network to assist hikers, she had to carry three weeks of food in the Sierras.
By contrast, last year almost 1,200 people completed the trek. The PCT Association issued 5,000 permits for through-hikers, 4,500 of those heading south to north. More than 7,000 people say they’ve hiked the whole route, 94 more than once.
Respite at the roost
With the onset of cold weather, many through-hikers had taken a break at Ravensong’s Roost. She provides a warm place to sleep, a shower, phone, laundry, extra food and connections with rides to help hikers complete the trail safely.
Ravensong gathered with the hikers around a campfire in a teepee as they shared stories about the trek. She talked with them about traveling as a group, decision-making and alternate routes. She reminded them to think not only about their own safety, but also about the potential for putting rescuers at risk.
This wasn’t the first cold, wet weather the hikers had encountered. One said he resorted to an oversized garbage bag for a poncho and sleeping bag in Oregon.
Some PCT hikers are veterans of long-distance treks. “The Appalachian Trail is a romance, but more in the story and culture,” said one. “On the PCT, it’s more the romance of the hike itself. It’s immediately gratifying.”
They adopt colorful trail names — Janis Joplin, Swiss, Big Money, Baby Step, Third Eye, Cartographer.
“Cartographer” was making the trek with his dog, Suzie Q, as a rite of passage after his wife died. A mapmaker by training, he ditched all his possessions and lives in the wilderness. “The trail provides,” he said. “It changes your life.”
After a cold night on Glacier Peak, Cartographer spent a few weeks at the roost to help Ravensong and other hikers. Before heading the last 60 miles to the Canadian border, he fitted Suzie Q with pink booties to protect her paws from the snow. (Cartographer, whose real name is Steven Stringall, and Suzie Q were reported overdue from a hike on the PCT last week. A few days later, Cartographer and Suzie Q safely returned to Mazama.)
“This trip has been really humbling,” said another hiker. “This trail always throws something at you. It goes from desert to glaciers.”
Hikers often reconnect at the roost. One guy ran into someone he hadn’t seen since California, Ravensong said. “The roost is like a heavy cultural institution right here,” said one hiker.
Running the roost
When Ravensong first started the roost seven years ago, what’s now a fairly comfy retreat — with a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping loft — was a former pig sty. The hook used to hang hogs after slaughter still dangles in an alcove where hikers hang gear to dry.
“Hikers made it what it is,” Ravensong said. People from the Methow Valley and beyond donated materials, and hikers plied their skills. One recently tiled the shower with forest scenes and the PCT logo.
Ravensong moved to the property from her home on the Rendezvous so she could be a trail angel. She also performs what’s called “trail magic,” helping hikers right on the trail.
She was surprised this summer when she got a call about the award. When she received the honor last month in California, Ravensong spoke about her reasons for helping hikers and the lifelong inspiration for the wilderness passed down by her mother.
She regularly gives talks about planning and safety for long-distance hiking. She also organizes groups of women, helping them share their experiences and strategies for remaining safe on the trail.
She keeps a log of hikers with contact information in case they don’t show up when expected. She often goes out on her own to search for a missing hiker.
“My role is education, not just shelter and warmth,” Ravensong said.
Ravensong started hiking as a toddler with her mother. By age 14, she was learning mountaineering. Ravensong continued the tradition with her five children, hiking the full length of Washington state with each one.
At the roost, Ravensong serves hikers from the PCT and the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which goes from the Continental Divide in Montana to the Pacific Ocean.
Ravensong still has the backpack and sturdy leather boots she used on the PCT. Although she mostly toted hiking gear — including a heavy ice-axe in the High Sierras — she also carried a dulcimer her mother sent her.
“Today, a lot of people hiking the trail think about the movie ‘Wild.’ They have no experience, but think they can do it. They don’t understand the dangers,” Ravensong said. “Wild” is based on the memoir of a young woman who embarked on the trail with little hiking experience.
Ravensong gets out on trails as often as possible. “I’ve got that striding-out habit. It’s a different pace I have — a ‘wog’ — halfway between a walk and a jog,” she said.
About the Papendick award
Ravensong received the Martin D. Papendick award, which recognizes the outstanding trail angel of the year, on Sept. 28 from the American Long Distance Hiking Association West (ALDHA-West).
“Ravensong has been making the world of long-distance hiking a better place for more than 40 years. The example she set as the first woman to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo back in the 1970s surely inspired countless hikers to put their fears aside and have grand adventures of their own.”
“Today, her home in Mazama — not too far from where the Pacific Northwest Trail and Pacific Crest Trail cross in the Pasayten — is a refuge for hikers on both. Perhaps even more importantly though, her expert knowledge of long-distance hiking, and the terrain of the Methow, has helped thousands of adventurers stay safe and stay found in one of America’s most wild and rugged places.”
– Jeff Kish, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association and board member of ALDHA-West