Monday, September 21, 2020

Echoes of Summer

 I collapsed in a heap at the shores of Echo Lake. How had a simple eight mile hike taken so much out of me? True, the last three miles are straight up, gaining  2300 feet in what the guidebook calls optimistically a "steep, eroded trail", but it had taken me two hours to gain those three miles. Was I finally getting slower? Was age finally catching up?

I couldn't deny that the hike was worth it. I've only been up here a handful of times, mostly because I have to wait long enough for the three miserable miles to recede into memory. This lake is only snow free for about two months, and sure enough some snow still hung on from last winter, and probably the winter before that. It feels like a long way from anywhere.

Motivation has been a little hard to come by these days. Not to get out in the wilderness, but for exercise in general. I've never lacked it, so it's puzzling why I don't feel like running or riding my bike. And today motivation failed me as well. My intent had been to set up a camp and climb the goat trail to Billy Jones Lake, and then pick a cross country route to the fabled Granite Lake, a place to where only three people I know of have been (and one is gone from us, I miss you, Ken). But because of my slothful pace, it was almost two pm. With the sun setting at seven, I knew that it would not be smart to embark on an unknown route this late. It was likely I could do it, but I didn't want to race the darkness. Granite Lake would have to wait for another year.

Ruby views the Matterhorn.

As I set up camp, I thought about how lucky I was this year. Unlike last year, when a huge snow dump closed the mountains to hiking in September, we've had mild weather through the month. A determined wind reminded me that winter is on the way, though. This year, I have been dreading it. Though it is a #firstworldproblem, I most likely don't have my mid-winter escape to the Grand Canyon, or a spring Arizona Trail hike, to look forward to. The months ahead look a little bleak. This wouldn't be so if we got good, consistent snow, but with climate change, we get cold and ice for months before a good base sets in. Those are the months where I will sit and wonder why I didn't go for Granite Lake.

Another perfect campsite

But, you have to save things for another year. Instead, I lay on a big flat rock reading a predictable romantic comedy (I can't really read serious things right now). The sun was almost warm enough to pretend it was the beginning of summer, warm golden months to come. 

Ice in Granite Meadow 

But I'll get through winter, I always do. Without a winter escape, I'll have to come up with something else. I already sort of feel like writing again, which I haven't during Covid times. 

Gaining the trailhead the next morning, I realized that I had been wrong. Because the unmaintained trail has swerved over time to bypass downed trees, it is actually longer. A mile longer! So my pace wasn't as dreadful as I had imagined. Irrationally happy about that, I bounded to my car, leaving the mountains until next time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Hunting for Lake Elusive

 It was another day of terrible air quality. I lurched around the house with a headache; without air conditioning and the inability to have windows open, the air inside wasn't much better. My state was burning. I had to escape. 

Clearing a few hours on my work calendar, I headed to the mountains (the trailhead is only six miles away, so I wasn't becoming part of the problem). My goal was to find the elusive Unit Lake, one of the few named lakes remaining on my list. 

The smoke was thick as Ruby and I climbed the dusty trail. A few horses passed by, kicking up rocks and dust. Annoyed, I thought about turning back. But at three miles in, a wind kicked in, and traces of sun began to appear. Things were looking up. Plus, the trail was almost empty, finally the tourists clearing out. Soon, the snow will fall, so I had to take advantage of the still-warm weather.

The river was low enough to hop on rocks, and I climbed the final three miles to Horseshoe Lake. There was only one other group there, and I found the perfect campsite on a rock outcrop far from them. The lake was the perfect temperature for swimming and the smoke had cleared to reveal a pale blue sky. It felt good to breathe again.

It was time to hunt for Unit Lake. I had forgotten the guidebook, but I had my map and Gaia GPS, so I headed confidently in the direction I assumed was right. It quickly became clear that even though this lake was only a half mile from the trail, it would be no easy stroll. I crashed through the woods until darkness caused me to retreat. Unit Lake 1, Monkey Bars zero.

The next morning I headed back, convinced that I would find the lake. I climbed up through a rocky cliff, crawling over downed trees. My phone battery drained rapidly (does anyone else have this issue with Gaia GPS?) and my map was nearly useless in the deep forest. I was about to give up when I saw the glimmer of water through the trees. Somehow I had climbed too far above the lake, but there it was. 

Good enough, I thought. It was time to embark on the nine mile trip back to the trailhead, and climbing down to the lake would add considerable time to the journey. Sometimes you just have to call it. 

Does this count as visiting the lake? Probably not. Probably I need to go back. The goal of visiting all the named lakes in the wilderness is arbitrary and I can make up my own rules. I have only heard of one person who has been to all of the lakes and he didn't go down to a few that he deemed too dangerous. So maybe this counts. 

I arrived at the trailhead, enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. I was back in the land of smoke. It's supposed to rain on Friday. I hope it does.

Sunday, September 6, 2020


Growing up, whenever I saw someone running, I knew who it was. There were that few of us. There was K, who loped around the neighborhood in shorts with, inexplicably, nylons. There was B, an older man with a distinctive shuffle. A few others. Then there was my family. 

We were an athletic family. We backpacked before it was fashionable, canoed, hiked, and of course ran. A day without some form of exercise was unthinkable. To this I owe my motivation today. 

I went to my hometown recently. There are lots of runners now. We wouldn't stand out anymore. But I think back to the many icy, wind battered, snowy miles we covered and we weren't doing it for Strava or the Gram. Nobody knew our pace or how far we went. I like it that way. 

My parents are private people so I won't say more than this. I feel deeply ashamed of complaining that I can't always do what I want this summer because I have to work, or it's smoky, or there's a pandemic. What I am seeing from them is courage in the face of adversity. I can only hope that someday I am half as brave.

Yoga class at dawn

Now, running is harder than it used to be. Stuff hurts. I am not fast. But I can still do it. I'm grateful for every step. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

I'll clean my house in the winter

 Like flipping a switch, fall has come to the mountains. We awoke to a breeze with a bite and temperatures in the low thirties. It was clear: summer is gone.

We had backpacked into a lake accessed by a steep user trail, descending from the main trail to a place few people visit. As usual, cars had been parked way down the road, but we knew nobody else would be here. To get to this lake requires a lengthy climb and then a rocky, slow descent. I won't name the lake here; it is on the maps. If you want to get there, you can. 

Old miner's cabin on the way to the lake

A fire the year before reached the lake, burning to the water's edge. The usual campsite was surrounded by terrifying dead trees, and some had fallen already. A steady wind convinced us to pitch our tents in a safer spot. It will be a long time before this lake heals. I showed my companion the piles of white ash, a sign of severe fire. It was likely that no seed bed remained in these places, and even though we have had a wet, lush summer, nothing has come back yet. However, this place is resilient, and perhaps in my lifetime it will be safer to camp here again. 

It was perhaps one of the last lake swims of the summer, so I had to do it. We read our books and thought about all the places we have been. In a Covid silver lining, I have now hiked almost every trail in this wilderness, and have about 12 named lakes to get to, having been to 57 (not all this year). We agreed that next year is the year for travel, should that be a possibility.

Shivering in our puffys, we packed up the next morning for the slog back out. On the ridge we pondered the possibility of descending to the unnamed lakes far below. It was likely even less people had ever been there. Of course we wanted to go.

But not today. We rolled into town late on a Sunday afternoon. I walked into my house in dismay, realizing just how unclean it was. Don't get me wrong, I vacuum on a regular basis, clean the kitchen and the bathroom. But I knew that a deeper clean really was needed. But who has the time? I'd rather be outside, and with fall kicking in, time was getting short. I'll clean my house in the winter.

Sunset at the lake of burnt trees

Monday, August 24, 2020

temporarily misplaced

 I've sort of had it with life, I thought grumpily as I ascended the Bowman trail. I ticked off a list of things I was tired of: behavior on social media, people recreating outside of their areas, bad things happening to good people, summer leaving too fast. I could have gone on, but a family descending stopped to talk. As we discussed routes, I noticed the wife looked really familiar. "Are you...K?" I asked. It turns out I had gone on a kayak trip with her in Alaska circa 2005. So strange! Feeling more heartened, I turned away from the crowds and onto the less traveled route.

I thought nostalgically of Southeast Alaska. Kayaking through a myriad of small islands. The indescribable smell of the sea. Rain that fell soundlessly, a curtain of mist. The people who shared their hearts with me. But like all things, that time passed. I was glad I was here now.

Arriving at John Henry Lake, I assessed the situation. A man stumbled around in a head net, and his partner was already in the tent. Mosquitoes hung in a dense cloud. Oh hell no, I thought, and fled.

This meant adding on about eight miles to the day's total and a massive descent to 5,500 feet. I arrived near dark but it was worth it: a lazy river wound through a lush meadow, and except for a few voices at a campsite I never saw, nobody else in view. 

The next day I ambitiously arose to climb a thousand feet to a lake, descend that thousand feet, and climb another three thousand feet to a final lake. Why do I do this to myself? Maybe because I feel summer ending fast, the inevitable stranglehold of winter approaching. Try as I might, I can't love winter as much as some. I'm not a big fan of winter camping, being stuck in a tent by five, and I don't enjoy being inside four walls all night, every night. I don't like icy roads, nowhere to run, and freezing because my only heat is wood heat. While I get that some of these are choices, and I would hate living in Florida more (been there, done that), I mourn the loss of summer every year. 

But it was still here, so I climbed the deserted trail to Green Lake. The lake itself was underwhelming, and that is just because there are so many more that are spectacular. Back at the meadow, I packed up camp and headed out, an annoyed Ruby at my heels. She hates her backpack and will run when she sees me taking it out. I get it, it is much easier without a pack.

Green Lake

We arrived at Bear Lake at one-thirty. It was easily enough time to move on, but the lure of swimming and reading a book was too much to resist. Besides, we had covered thirteen miles, which for a leisure backpacking trip seemed sufficient. Later one other group arrived, but fortunately kept their distance. They did, however, have an illegal campfire.

Ruby at Bear Lake

Not suspecting any problems, I climbed out of Bear Lake on the user trail the next morning. On the ridge, a thick fog covered the landscape. Where was the trail down? I sighed. For some reason, I can't ever find it going down. No worries, I would just scramble down another way. (it is all rocky, so I wasn't leaving a trail. Leave No Trace.)

Here, I made a critical error, down-climbing too low. I wasn't lost, I rationalized. I knew basically where I was...but where was I? My GPS was unhelpful, showing me for some reason heading away from the main trail (the user trail isn't on it). Up in this basin, everything looks the same. I fought a small feeling of panic. That was ridiculous; I could see Lookout Mountain in the distance. I just needed to find the main trail. Finally I caught a glimpse of Wood Lake, a landmark I recognized. Now the trick was to contour higher without getting cliffed out. 

Which was harder than it might seem. A few gorges lay between me and the main trail, which meant I had to climb up, then climb down. I wasted about an hour doing this. Where was little Hobo Lake? I knew it was around there somewhere. Finally I arrived; I was back in familiar ground.

Little Hobo Lake

On the beaten path, campers were illegally set up in a meadow right by the lake. Why, why why. I didn't like the moments of feeling lost, but there were some advantages to the wild country I had just wandered through. Most of the newbies are at least sticking to the main trails. There was still plenty of space to get lost in.


Monday, August 17, 2020

don't post about it

 Recently a friend chastised me for putting a pretty picture on Facebook. I shouldn't do that, he said, because people will go there and trash the place. While I understand the sentiment, my Facebook page is private and limited to people I already know. I don't accept "friends" who don't have backcountry ethics. However, I am aware that this blog isn't private, and I could be doing the wilderness a disservice by posting about it. I'll have to think about this. Respond in the comments if you have thoughts.

Anyway, last weekend's adventures revealed the good, the bad and the ugly. The good: we tromped into a wild and remote basin. It was crisscrossed by elk trails, and old hunter paths, but basically we felt like the only humans on the planet. Note that I am not telling you where it is.

Then we climbed to intersect the main trail. The humans there were still sparse, and we met some nice ones. The bad: we saw a pretty large group heading to Jewett Lake. Also bad: a nice guy we met said there were five other parties at Glacier Lake the night before. Five! Before this year, you MIGHT have one other group there. We continued on to Dollar Lake for the night.

This is a fairly well-known destination, and it is rather easy to get there. Sadly, in the year that I had not visited, toilet paper and poop have proliferated. The bad: some of it was right by the campsite. I mean, seriously people! Walk a little! Bury your poop! Facepalm, I don't know why this is so hard for some to get.

It was still beautiful, though. I have to believe that the wilderness will survive our assaults on it. At least the winters are long and cover our multitude of sins.

Monday, August 10, 2020

where other people don't go

 "I thought we were the only crazy ones out here," a man hiking in jeans and carrying an external frame pack said. We stood on the Trail Creek trail, which plummeted from 8400 feet to the Minam River at 5000. The trail hadn't been cleared in years, with huge trees across the tread. I thought about the old days, when pack strings probably traveled this trail, heading up to Traverse Lake. Soon this trail would be gone, with just a few enthusiasts like us on them.

wild country

It had already been an interesting trip, starting with a three thousand foot climb through some of the prettiest alpine country in this wilderness, then down the little-used Granite Creek trail, dropping almost four thousand feet to the river. I regretted every luxury item I had brought along, though these are few. At the river, we jumped into the icy water. 

Sky Lake

Earlier, as we approached the trailhead, the line of cars spilling out of the trailhead and far down the road was terrifying. It's hard to see a once undiscovered place become discovered. Horrified, we sped to the lesser-known places, forever banished from the lovely Lakes Basin. I don't know why people like camping within sight and sound of others, so even though I love the Basin, it is forever lost, at least before Labor Day.

Echo Lake

But this hike, an ambitious 50 mile loop, guaranteed that we would mostly be away from crowds. I guess that's what I have to do these days. I was reminded of my wilderness ranger days when we would encounter Boy Scouts, miserably trudging on a fifty-miler. Loaded down with huge flannel sleeping bags and jugs of water, those kids were certain to never backpack again. 

Traverse Lake

How is it August already? I'm sad that summer is almost done so soon. An alpine summer is the loveliest thing, and we had such a rainy spring that fire season so far has been non-existent. The temperatures have barely been above seventy degrees, and the nights are cold. It has been just about perfect, and it is hard to let go.

But not yet. A few more weeks are left. We are already looking at the maps, finding the old trails. The places where nobody else goes.