Like many recent adventures, this one started with a text from Ella.
I am guessing you don’t have interest in going camping this weekend. Ross and Clare are coming. You are of course extremely welcome if you do want to. Hoping to get to spectacle lake via salmon la sac
I had just finished the GVRAT the weekend before and so it’s understandable why she might have thought that I might not be able to walk, much less be interested in camping. For a reunion of the cast from last year’s Wonderland trip, however, I very much wanted to get back on my feet. Cue a storm of messages negotiating who actually is going to make it, when we’ll start, primary and backup destinations, route, etc….
Day 1 (Saturday)
On my way to the Salmon La Sac Trailhead, I realized we were probably going to be camping on snow and so would have wet wood. If we camped below the snowline, then we’d probably be at a campsite so popular it would be clean of legal tinder. This was supposed to be more of an easy weekend than a pseudo-thru-hike so I wanted a fire at camp and that would mean packing in my own firewood. Passing through Ronald, the last town before the trailhead, I saw a truck with bundles of firewood and a sign Firewood $5. I pulled over and checked my wallet. Three $1 bills and a few $20s. Payment was honor system so I left a $20 and took four bundles of wood, 3.5 of which are still in the back of my station wagon.
8am found me in the dirt parking lot trying to decide which luxury items to bring because the weren’t all going to fit into the pack which was once large enough to fit 6 days of foot, 2 days of water, and cold weather gear. Firewood definitely, but after that: insulated booties? camp chair? extra foam pad? group tarp in case it rains? Ella rolls up, we have an warm salutation and awkward negotiation to decide on covid-appropriate behavior. She recommends booties, and I strap the foam pad over the top as a lid of the bag which is now too full to close.
Some time before the 10:30am cut-off time we’d imposed for Ross (without his knowledge due to lack of trailhead cellphone service), he rolls up in Betsy, his live-in van. Betsy has grown up from the stripped down Sprinter I first met at the White River 50 miler last year. There was a gas range, hot water, electrical, drywall, soft-close drawers, and boxes of the tools he’d been using to do the renovations. We gave him a few minutes and found that there was even a backpack, camping gear, and two days of food which he packed up. Then we set out for Deep Lake because I’ve hiked past it several times and always wanted to actually camp there.
The trail rose gently through the woods towards Waptus Lake from which we’d turn north to Deep Lake. We caught up on current events and opinions. Ross and I tried to keep our feet dry by rock hopping the several places where water was crossing the trail. This was a little tricky because it’s still early in the season so many rocks and footlogs were slightly submerged or slick with spray. In contrast to our graceful demonstrations of balance, athleticism, and daring, Ella trudged through every stream, regularly soaking her shoes.
Around 1pm, we found an established campsite on the south bank of the Waptus River and decided to have a “first lunch” to be followed by a second lunch at Waptus Lake in twoish miles. The weather was better than forecast and the river was peaceful. Just like our last trip together, Ross had packed in a hurry and left some of his food behind, so I lent him a tortilla. Despite almost constant chatter while hiking and eating, we fell into a pensive silence for several minutes after lunch, enjoying full stomachs and calming surroundings.
The snow covering the trail had gone from patchy to a full, dirty, groundcover. There were tracks but we assumed they were destined for camping at Waptus Lake which might be on the south side whereas our objective was Deep Lake at the head of a valley which ran north from Waptus Lake. The fastest way there, according to our GPS apps was the Spinola Creek trail which was untracked. After a brief consultation, we took the road not traveled.
It turns out that the Spinola Creek Trail was untracked because it takes you to a bridge which has been washed out for so long that where we had turned off the main track, there’s a well worn, but clear, trail sign saying so. We wandered around in the snow for a bit until we hit the Waptus River and started looking for a ford. Eventually we found a former forest road which had a trail! That trail lead us first to a potential ford which we assessed as looking much shallower than it really was (a common trap). Continuing, we found a beautiful pair of solid, concrete footings, directly across from one another as though they had once held up a bridge just where the river narrowed and turned into rapids.
So we turned back and found a much more direct route back to the turnoff, along what seemed to be an abandoned forest road. It was a great case study in how, even though we’d followed the GPS for a bit on the way out, we’d completely missed the easiest way to go. After rejoining the tracks to Waptus Lake, we spotted another group through the trees. They were following their GPS and we were following their tracks but somehow we all made it to an easy ford of the Waptus River. People were dallying on the bank so I plunged ahead finally getting my feet wet (they were already wet from the snow). It was a little above knee deep and it’d have been a little more comfortable if I’d use good stream crossing tactics (cut upstream so you can walk downstream without fighting the current where it’s deepest). Ross took his socks off and you could see the cold shock on his face when he stepped in. I wrung my socks out and reshod myself while Ross put his dry socks followed by wet shoes. Ella had walked across and dubbed herself “Ice Queen”, deigning any foot care. In the group behind us, the first person got part way across then realized they’d forgotten their hiking poles and had to go back.
The trail resumed on shallow snow and ran flat almost until Waptus Lake where we turned off at a trail sign pointing to Deep Lake. It started up a forest road with patchy, untracked snow, and then became dry. Eventually, we wound up follow the GPS through the brush until we saw a bridge up and to our right. Dry trail! Then we turned left up a valley. It was strange to see a beautifully crafted bridge on the other end of the Spinola Creek Trail when we’d been blocked by a washed out bridge on the other end of that trail.
The dry trail continued up up to an intersection with the PCT. It was cause for celebration and nostalgia as we’d all hiked it in 2016 and it would take us north from Waptus to Deep lake. Shortly after that, there was a small clearing and we saw a large, glossy black bear. It was still for a moment and then sauntered off as I pulled the camera out.
From there it was back up on to the snow which grew deep enough to provide snow bridges over the small streams running down the hillside. It was while standing on one of these that I reached down to my hipbelt pocket to get my phone. The phone wasn’t there. My phone is too big to fit in the pocket so I’d been wedging three of its corners in and zipping it as closed as I could. This is a common issue with my model of backpack which was resolved in the next model. No wonder mine had been on sale. We noted the position and resolved to start a search from there back to the bear sighting on our way out the next day.
The snow was eventually deep enough to cover everything except a small rocky point where we stopped for a quick break and one last look back down the valley before getting to Deep Lake. It was kinda fun deciding whether to take switchbacks or cut straight up them since we didn’t have to worry about erosion. While the PCT is relatively well graded, we tended to wander up and down across the snow, leading to a new euphemism for pointless-ups-and-downs (usually an Appalachian Trail expression): “the alternate PCT experience”.
The trail splits to go around a small hill shortly before Deep Lake We tried to go right, down to the river, crossing it on a snowbridge, then rising slowly through a meadow to the east of the hill. We couldn’t find a way which didn’t dump us into the raging outlet stream from Deep Lake and wound up going over the hill. Sometimes it’s nice to travel on well packed snow since you don’t have to worry about the bushes whacking you when you’re off trail. Also, there’s boot skiing.
After wandering over what would have been a swamp if it weren’t buried in snow, we reached the final water crossing. Initially, it looked like we’d have to slide down a snowbank then jump into the river. I was kind of looking forward to trying it since it was shallow where you had to jump in but, perhaps for the better, we found a snowbank with a little bare dirt at the bottom just up from the egress point. From there, it was a flat walk to Deep Lake with a Cathedral Peak rising over it.
We found a small raised spot to set up camp. There were tress which was a comforting sign that we weren’t actually camping on the lake. Also, the GPS app had a tent sign there. Out came my luxury items: a foam pad to put my gear on without it freezing, insulated booties with dry socks (as the sun went behind the ridge above us, the snow hardened so these didn’t get wet), and three sticks of firewood.
The problem with having packed in the firewood is that we still didn’t really have any tinder or anything to make a base for the fire. My little swiss army knife wasn’t going to split much in the way of kindling from the logs. Ultimately, we found some large, sodden pieces of bark to make a floor which, if less then ideal, was at least better than trying to lay the logs on the snow directly. Burnable trash served as the tinder and some scavenged twigs broken off dead branches above the snow made for kindling. It took a long time and a lot of tending to build a core of heat strong enough to get the large logs to catch. Ella and I were on opposite sides and would frequently blow on our side of the fire to give it more oxygen. This would send a plume of smoke and steam into the other person’s face. Everything steamed, even the kindling and moss, so drying the fuel wound up being a key part of fire tending. We’d placed one log angled across the other two which sat on the mat of bark, hoping that it would trap some heat and eventually catch. It wasn’t until we put some small branches over the top log, that it stayed lit and we could spend enough time away from fire tending to actually enjoy the fire and dry our shoes.
The fire was so weak that despite initially having tried to use trekking poles to hold our shoes the way a marshmellow or hot-dog is roasted, we were able to simply hold the shoes with our bare hands. Done properly, this warmed our hands as well. The shoes would steam whenever they were brought away from the fire which was a delightful visual effect. Ross missed out on the fun, having turned in early to make up for the late night of driving. He might have been able to warm his feet up after all the snow and snowmelt.
Day 2 (Sunday)
Sunday was a lazy morning, aided Cathedral Peak which blocked the sun until it was high enough to crest the ridges above us. Breakfast in bed is a luxury in a normal house where building codes enforce the separation of sleeping accommodations and stoves (at least, so I assume, what other reason could there be?). In a tent you can roll onto your side and make breakfast in an open vestibule.
We packed up and wandered back through the snow, taking the other way around the hill from the afternoon before to avoid some of the soggier snow. I asked Ross for his early-life story starting and he started sharing an excellent biography starting with his parents. There’s something about walking which takes the pressure off talking. There’s no need to be funny, or engaging, to have a point or punchline. Your body enjoys the “alternate PCT” experience and your mind enjoys conversation and companionship.
As we came out of the snow onto the dry trail, we started to keep an eye out for my phone. Eventually, someone remembered a downed tree which I had crawled under and so had probably knocked my phone out of it’s insecure place on my hipbelt. Still, we checked other likely spots where I’d jumped over trees or between rocks. Ross and I were moving at a normal pace, but keeping a lookout. Ella was walking notably slower and her downcast face looked sad. She dragged her hiking poles like she was moping. Technically, this isn’t too strange since Ella doesn’t usually bring trekking poles and when they’re not necessary she does strange and playful things with them instead of carrying them in a balanced position or using them unnecessarily like a normal person. Still, she cut a sad figure as she looked for my phone.
When we reached the deadfall which I’d crawled under and probably lost my phone, I took my pack off so I could looks around properly. I was first on scene but nothing jumped out at me. I was about to crawl under and take a closer look when Ella arrived and immediately dove under the tree. After poking around for a second, she ecstatically exclaimed that she’d found it and passed it back out to me. I tried to get a picture of her still fumbling around under the log but was too late. We then got a delightful story from her childhood illustrating how much she loves finding things.
We followed the PCT down to Waptus Lake but missed the turnoff down the Spade Lake Trail as well as the intersection with the Waptus Lake Trail and so walked almost to the end of Waptus Lake before we turned around. The Waptus Lake Trail is set back far enough from the lake in places that you can’t see the water. The trail came and went under large clusters of deadfall so we got to wander around some, this time on logs and dirt instead of snow.
Eventually, we found a spot with a peek-a-boo view of the lake and a small entrance to it. We ate a first lunch. The temperature difference between the shade and the sun was surprising and we wound up putting fleeces on. The Ice Queen only needed hers after an expletive laden, short swim. Apparently there are limits of cold tolerance. Wim Hoff was discussed.
A quick jaunt brought us back around Waptus Lake, across the Waptus River, to that perfect lunch spot from the prior day, now occupied with a tent. We stopped and snacked. This time Ross balanced on a log on his back instead of his feet.
The trail from here out was dry and fast. A few of the rock hops turned out not to be safe in this direction so everyone got their feet wet. It was incredible how Ella and I had accumulated a number of small lacerations on our legs while Ross’s seemed almost untouched, even when he stumbled on a root and kicked his shin right into a pointed branch. I’ve contrasted Ella and Ross’s hiking motions before and this time I noticed Ella’s knees knocked and were starting to chafe. Ross’s legs were perfectly straight. I wonder if I move more like Ella given our shared magnetism for minor abrasion.
There was a fork in the trail which I didn’t remember and without looking at the map, would have chosen the way with a little more climbing. Fortunately, Ella wasn’t too lazy to pull out her GPS app and we dropped to an old forest road which carried us back to the road to the parking lot. A few minutes later and Ella acted out a end-of-hike tantrum. It’s a fun tradition for conveying how wonderful a medium hiking is for painting friendships. Another good tradition is Ross bringing out camp chairs, beer, and chocolate. Such a pity that you have to wait an hour after consuming an alcoholic beverage to drive safely. The light began to soften as we closed out another fun day in the great outdoors.
All Pics (includes Ella’s, not chronological)