This weekend’s hike came from an odd set of constraints. I needed back-to-back long training days to get some miles on my feet before an upcoming race. I haven’t done a big overnight in a long time despite them being such a big part of my life last year. I wanted to go to eastern Washington but there’s too much smoke which is a pity as it’s not even august yet. Mt Rainier was clear but I’ve done the Wonderland Trail twice. I drove down to a ranger station before work for a walk-up permit but discovered there were only three campsites left in the park, none of them on my intended route. What eventually developed, and was only finalized on the drive to the start, was a trip from the Skookum Flats Trailhead NE of Mt Rainer to White Pass. This would connect a bunch of trails in Mt Rainier National Park which I haven’t walked, let me revisit a beautiful section of the PCT, and let me spend the car rides with my girlfriend who was going down to spend the weekend in the area anyways.
Saturday, July 24
I woke up as the sky was lightening at the Skookum Flats North Trailhead where I’d cowboy camped in the bushes after getting dropped off in the dark the night before. Packing up was quick since gear was light enough to jog with and the easiest way to lighten your load is to not bring much stuff (and if I’m being honest, lighten my wallet by paying for things which are priced inversely to their weight).
The trip started with a jog up the gravel road to the Huckleberry Trailhead. At some points there was alpenglow at the end of the long rows of trees making it seems as though I was on a road to a ruby kingdom.
I’d actually jogged for the first 45 minutes and the road had been (slightly) uphill and was feeling like things were going well so instead of going up the Huckleberry Trail, decided to walk the extra four miles to the Lake Eleanor Trailhead. I’ve been wanting to connect from that trailhead to the Sunrise area for as long as I’ve seen it on a topo map, and it parallels the Huckleberry Trail but one valley southwest.
The road was steep enough that I used it as an excuse to walk instead of run, though I tried to put on a good show of running when I heard a car coming. Some part of the motivation for this trip was supposed to be the need for training and if pride or vanity were going to be the actual motivation for that training, then so be it.
Eventually, I saw some cars parked at a pullout and started looking around for a trailhead kiosk. One of the hikers gearing up from the back of their vehicle called out to ask how far I was going. I replied that I had a permit for Deer Creek Campground (the 3rd to last campsite available in the entire park as of the previous morning), but needed to find the Lake Eleanor trailhead first and hoped it wasn’t too far. They gave me a humorous look and pointed over my shoulder. I turned around, saw the sign pictured below next to a small, muddy trail which looked completely unlike what the start of most popular trails look like (how would the Lake Eleanor Trail not be popular if it it went the way I expected it too?). I thanked them and hiked off.
The Lake Eleanor Trail does go to Lake Eleanor which is just south of the northern border of Mt Rainier National Park. The trailhead itself is outside the park which I guess explains its relative under-development. Lake Eleanor a medium sized pond crowded by trees and is an OK destination. The real prize, however is that after another mile or two, you get to walk through Grand Park (a high plateau) facing Mt Rainier. See below.
Grand Park was exactly as grand as I expected it to be. Jogging across it seemed a pity when compared to the pair setting up their high backed backpacking chairs in the shade of a tree with a full view of the mountain. That said, I was a harder target for the mosquitoes.
Eventually the trail descended into a valley. I hadn’t looked closely at this part of the map since it wasn’t my primary route. It was lush and hikers were now on the trails. Marmots too.
The climb out of the valley wound its way up to the last traverse of both my Wonderland trips. On those trips, I’d noticed a trail coming up from the valley and pitied those who had to climb it instead of already being at the top. Now it was my turn to make the climb.
This brought up an opportunity to do a side trip I’ve seen but never had the chance to do, a fire watch tower overlooking the area to the northeast of Mt Rainier. There were many people on the trail and at the tower, but the views merited it. At one point I saw a couple standing back-to-back taking pictures in opposite directions. I had my first lunch overlooking most of the route I’d traveled this far.
Back at the intersection just west of Sunrise where I’d turned north to the fire watch tower, I saw a volunteer I recognized. He’d been greeting people, offering directions, and making recommendations when I’d passed through two years before. He had to young boys with him this time as well, also dressed in park service uniforms.
Looking around at the trails on offer, I realized there was another opportunity for a side-trip which I’ve been curious about since last passing through and just assumed I’d never really get around to taking. This trail went up some ridge that rolled down from the mountain and so I hiked up and along the first two of those rolls before taking a break and then descending to the White River campground as soon as the opportunity presented itself. This hiking thing was getting hard.
Looking back up at Mt Rainier while descending to White River presented a very different view from when I’d been crossing Grand Park. The shift in perspective made me feel like I was going around the mountain.
The White River Campground was packed with cars. One driver asked if I was about to leave so he could take my parking spot. Despite this, the picnic tables in the day use area were mostly available and so I ate and laid down with my feet up for 30 minutes. I was now in the phase of the day where I had to decide how much of this was for training (ie I should push myself to actually run the upcoming flats) vs fun with a side of miles (ie walk and enjoy an afternoon free from stomach issues). Part of the problem with not having resolved that question before the trip started is that I never take the more demanding option in the moment. I made a few weak attempts to jog after lunch but decided to accept that fact that I just didn’t care to.
Despite looking adjacent on the map the Owyhigh Lakes Trailhead is not actually connected to White River campground by a trail. There’s a road which solves this problem for cars. It would solve that problem for hikers too, except for the cars.
I had some kinda of poorly specified stomach/head issue and on the well graded climb up to the Owyhigh Lakes. This stuff plagues me a lot in endurance situations and since it wasn’t a race, I just sat down in the middle of a switchback and let my body sort things out. Several groups passed and I didn’t care to move. Nothing fixes vanity like a long, yet incomplete day of hiking.
After the switchbacks, the trail broke out into sloping alpine meadows. There were some lakes but they were relatively small. I skipped the side-trip up to Mt Tamanos which I’d mapped out as an alternate in case I wanted extra miles and elevation gain (ha!), but it did look like a good day trip for the future.
Eventually, the trail rolled over a verdant divide and a stream picked up. I love these little changes where one moment, all the rivulets and streams flow in one direction and then next they flow the other way. The trail here was clearly less used, though maintenance was still good. I tried a little jogging as it was all downhill. My map noted a large waterfall on the descent but from the trail but it wasn’t easily visible. Just before camp, I crossed a river which sported some small falls and enough variety in its rocky banks to be quite interesting.
At Deer Creek Camp, I dropped my pack and then went to offload some extra food which I didn’t want to carry the next day. The only other site was occupied with a few young road trippers with some great stories to tell. Against the ranger’s expectations, the area was mosquito-light and I was able to wash up and fall asleep in peace.
Sunday, July 24
I was a little slower out of camp this morning. I’d left breakfast to cold soak and it was disgusting. The trail from camp was a reasonable climb with short spurts of unreasonableness where the trail cutters apparently decided that there wasn’t room for switchbacks. I’d misunderstood the topo lines on the map and was worried about the angle of the terrain coming until I suddenly saw a car and realized that the first part of the climb was over.
The trail from where I first crossed the road up to Cayuse pass wasn’t much used but was in good shape. When I got to the top, the sun had risen making for gorgeous, rich varieties of green. Less wonderful was the lack of a trailhead toilet. I’ll avoid detailing what happened next.
I was now on the PCT and was due at White Pass by 5pm. This is one of the easiest sections of the PCT in Washington and while I jogged a little (I was feeling behind, but didn’t have a good count of miles remaining), I mostly just enjoyed it and tried to constantly reposition my hat to keep the sun off the sunburn I’d acquired yesterday.
A highlight of the morning was taking a break to connect with some southbound thru-hikers. There’s been a lot of interesting weather this year and it was interesting to hear how it’s affected different hikers.
On a long descent, I stopped to collect water by a small stream where another set of northbound thru-hikers were taking a break. I congratulated them on their upcoming finish. They gave me the wonderful information that I had 4 fewer miles than I’d thought. They also let me use their DEET based bug spray which was key for the moments when I wasn’t moving. Ideally, I’d have applied it to my face after taking a lunch break.
I was feeling depleted as the trail climbed through verdant, bright fields, with clear streams and ponds. Any honest assessment of the trail was that it was an easy section but I had to keep unbuckling my vest on the uphills to take deeper breaths. Maybe something to remember for race day.
The final descent to White Pass was familiar from a recent trip I’d take with Lydia where we introduced her young nieces to backpacking by taking them to a lake with so many mosquitoes that it was preferable to spend the entire afternoon in the tent.
I reached White Pass a little ahead of schedule and walked the gravel trail around Leech Lake to the Kracker Barrel to relive some memories from my thru-hike (guzzling large quantities of soda). There was a high school track team moving in fine form despite running uphill which put my slow, ponderous downhill steps to shame. Oh well.
One final point of amusement. As I climbed an embankment behind the Kracker Barrel, I was greeted with an ultralight cuben fiber tent, a sure sign that thru-hikers were about. I found several resupplying and enjoyed some good trail talk until the ride home.
Lydia and I have been to Ross Lake once already this year, this time we were going with her housemate, Brenda, and Brenda’s boyfriend, Isaac, who I’ll call IQ so you don’t think I’m referring to myself in the third person. We wound up visiting some campsites I’ve seen on the map and wanted to explore. We also got a lot better at canoeing.
Friday, July 2
Instead of hauling a canoe up to the North Cascades, we opted to rent from the Ross Lake Resort which meant we didn’t have to put in on Diablo Lake, then portage. Instead, we hiked down directly to Ross Lake Dam, then crossed it and took the trail to the floating resort. Still, had were packed heavily for a canoe trip, not a backpacking trip, and so when the trail turned out to be a little longer and slightly hillier than we’d expected, we were mildly disconcerted.
In the building to rent a canoe, there was fellow who’d forgotten his belt and was using a dog leash to hold up his pants. Another fellow, who looked like the resort’s owner, smiled and said, “they should sell belts here”.
A canoe was waiting for us tied up to the dock. A resort employee helped me pick out a life jacket and paddle, then we paddled out through the logs strung together to create a ring around the resort.
Brenda and IQ had started the day before and our plan was to meet them at Cat Island whenever we got there. We traced a familiar route out from Ross Lake Resort and turned north past Cougar Island (which was actually an island on this trip as the water was 50ft higher), and took our first break a Rainbow Point a few hours later. We’d been warned that a wind tends to come up in the afternoon and so were hurrying to get as far as possible before that might happen.
On our previous trip, I’d mostly steered with what’s called the “C stroke”. When paddling on the right side, the C stroke moves the nose of the boat to the left. If the canoe was a little too far to the left as would frequently happen after paddling for several normal strokes, my only remedy was to switch which side of the canoe I paddled on.
On this trip I started experimenting with dragging the paddle behind the canoe for a moment like a rudder. Lydia told me about something called the “J stroke” and described the technique. Eventually, my paddling morphed into something resembling the J stroke and we were able to keep the canoe going relatively straight despite not switching sides frequently.
Playing with the strokes got us to Rainbow Point which is where Brenda and IQ had started their day. We ate a quick lunch, watched some Forest Service employees survey erosion control devices around the dock, and hopped back in the canoe to paddle some more miles before the wind might pick up.
Ross Lake had risen about 50ft to “full pool” since we were last here. One of the consequences is that many familiar landmarks (“watermarks?”) looked different. A waterfall which had seemed incredibly tall remained dramatic but without being quite so awe inspiring.
We reached Cat Island in the early afternoon having avoided any bad weather or wind. I’ve seen Cat Island from the Desolation Peak trail several times and always thought it would be fun to camp there. It’s not far from the main land but the shore facing it is steep and so you’d have to jump in to swim over. Canoeing was much easier.
We passed an outcropping of Cat Island (which IQ dubbed “Kitten Island”) and landed on the northeast side by the dock. At first, the island appeared deserted, despite us having seen another red rental canoe (a “red tomato” as we called it), though with a little exploration, we found Brenda and IQ on the south side. We’d left our bags at the first campsite we encountered and when we returned to fetch them, discovered a deer attempting to gain access to our food. Maybe the park should rename their metal food storage containers, “deer lockers” instead of bear lockers.
After bringing our bags down, I brought the canoe around to a little cove and IQ helped me pull our “toasty tomato” out alongside theirs. The rest of the day was spent lounging, hammocking, resting, relaxing, and reading.
Saturday, July 3
Our destination for the day was Silver Creek, a boat-in campsite at the north end of the lake. I’ve wanted to visit since I first saw it on the map and wondered about the lonely, disconnected dot in the top-left. It was a shorter distance than on Friday but the wind picked up. Lydia and I haven’t practiced rolling a canoe and so we weren’t really sure whether the chop was fun or concerning.
The plan had been to meet up at the Boundary Bay camp for a mid-morning snack, but we failed to spot the campsite from the water and so passed the point on the north side of the “bay”. Not being familiar with now much roll the canoe could safely handle, I found myself steering with the waves (but not around the point) when things got uncomfortable and only turning north (maybe 45 degrees off direction of the waves) when the waves were calmer. I was concerned that if we got too close to the shore, we’d have to run perpendicular to the waves to get around the headland. This would mean making it as easy as possible for the waves to tip the canoe over. As it turns out, then angle of the waves shifted enough that we made it around without having to have too much excitement.
After rounding the point, we realized we’d completely missed Boundary Bay and had no idea where Brenda and IQ were. However the water was calmer. By the time we’d finished talking through options, another Toasty Tomato was visible rounding the headland. Brenda and IQ seemed to have had more fun than concern and so we set off together from east side of the lake to the west side aiming for a delta of sorts which we expected to be hiding the Silver Creek Camp.
Crossing Ross Lake is talked about as though it’s a risky proposition under certain conditions but we were able to run with the waves and so despite pitching and slapping a little, the lack of rolling made us feel more comfortable. Silver Creek turned out to be sheltered from the southerly wind as it was on the north side of the bulge of land where the creek entered Ross Lake. By lunch, we’d arrived and tied up to the dock with a view looking northeast into Canada.
The Silver Creek Campground appears to be the least used of any boat accessible camp I’ve seen in North Cascades National Park. Conveniently, this meant that firewood was available on that short paths from dock to tent side. We had read, lounged, explored a nearby cove, practiced rolling the canoe, and played a dramatic game of Farkle after dinner. Despite starting with a little excitement, this was the lowest-key day of the trip.
Sunday, July 4
Happy Independence Day! We were up early anticipating a long paddle with the potential for headwind and waves in the afternoon. The sky was lightening and the sun hadn’t crested the eastern mountains. The water was almost glassy, the wind calm, the moment serene.
We reached our first rest stop, Little Beaver camp, shortly after the sun had crawled down the western slopes and touched us down on the lake’s surface. We pulled over by the sign which said Little Beaver at a set of concrete blocks which appeared almost eroded out but might once have supported a floating dock. For a bit, we thought the camp was abandoned and I wondered why it was still on the map. Nature called, and the search for an outhouse revealed (and due to dog barks, may have awakened) the entire camp. A short side-trip up a nearby inlet just after we departed revealed that the entrance to Little Beaver camp was actually just inside the mouth of the inlet and the camp’s infrastructure was very much intact.
We were going to cross the lake and stop at 10 Mile Island for the next break but having been there before, decided to pull up early near Ponderosa camp. We made good time on calm water. I used the last of the toilet paper in the outhouse then awakened (probably) most of the camp shouting to Brenda and IQ that we’d altered course. We had a snack and made our escape from the pirate-themed camp (they had a jolly roger) before anyone discovered my treachery.
From there it was a straight shot down the east bank of the lake to McMillan’s. The wind never picked up. We learned that holding a straight line meant that we were able to keep up with Brenda and IQ’s more powerful strokes because their coursed meandering more. We were at McMillan’s by noon and I went for a swim before setting up camp and the morning’s sweat could dry. For some reason, once I’m dry, I lose all motivation to swim even if I’m covered in salt deposits. Other revelers were around and some briefly stopped by our dock to pick up an alcohol assisted sunburn.
Otherwise, this is how the rest of the day was spent.
Monday, July 5
Our last morning of the trip was lazy. IQ made the best egg dish I’ve had in the backcountry. After shoving off, we spent some time paddling in circles so Lydia could practice her J stroke as I’d been hogging the canoe’s stern for the last three days.
There were just a few hours to paddle back to Ross Lake Resort. The wind we’d feared the day before came up and it was nice to be close to shore as it felt like we might have been at a standstill if we didn’t see ourselves creeping past nearby rocks and trees.
Actually reaching the resort felt like a satisfying end to a long trip. It was an end in the sense that we returned the canoe and settled the bill, with some question as how we should get back to the car. Instead of hiking around to the dam, we took a powerboat across to the trail which went directly up to the road. It was strange finish, to hike out with day hikers, backpackers, and other boaters. Some were outbound, others returning. Some were touristy types with fresh clothes and gear, others with gear and skin indicating longer adventures. Every trip has a unique narrative but on this trip, the end was a reminder that we were just a few more members of the outdoors community, some of whose names were inscribed on plaques mounted on the walls of the Ross Lake Resort going back to the early 1900s.
I was signed up for the Sawtooth Ridge 50 miler over July 4th weekend. There was enough elevation gain that finishing before the cutoff might have been a questionable proposition. I won’t find out this year, however, because I withdrew in favor of other plans for the long weekend. Still, I resolved to hike the course on my own as I’ve wanted to hike in the mountains east of Lake Chelan but didn’t get to last year due to horrible smoke conditions. In the days leading up to this year’s race, the race directors sent an e-mail warning about snow on the course but then wound up canceling a few days after this hike due to to heat (the heat wave set records), so I might still get to run the Sawtooth Ridge 50 miler in its inaugural year.
Friday, June 25th
I pulled in to the Foggy Dew campground after dark. There’s a traditional car camping situation south of the road but I was intending to start at dawn so taking up a campsite (and paying for it) seemed to be a waste. There was an overgrown lot on the north side of the road with a number of RVs, trucks, and canopies which I circled several times trying to figure out if all the motorbikes meant I might be parking amidst a gang of some sort. Ultimately I parked as far out of the way as I could and while I was getting ready to sleep, I saw a small posse heading in my direction. I went out to inquire about the parking situation and they turned out to be a trail crew made up of motorbikers. I hadn’t realized that these were motorbike trails. The fellows were friendly, gave me some tips (I should be more worried about snow than heat and that the trails were steep) then left me alone.
Saturday, June 26th
I became conscious about as the sky was beginning to lighten and was packed up shortly thereafter. Gear for this trip was relatively minimal as I was expecting warm weather so my pack initially felt light as I walked quickly up the road from where I assumed the race would have started.
The route turns off the road at an S curve and goes up a series of switchback cut for bikes. The dirt is loose and the trail bed tends to form a U making your foot roll as it lands.
Near the top of the ridge, I was on lookout for a trail coming in from the left (west) as it would be the return leg of the route meeting up with this trail before descending to the start/finish whence I’d came. The fork happened far enough from where my phone app said it would that I realized some of the trails might not be mapped in detail.
The ridge was covered in trees and brush so I only had peek-a-boo views of the sun cresting the hilltops above the valley as I began to descend the north side. The trail here showed evidence of having been maintained some time ago but had too many logs down to be considered runnable. One of the trail crew who I talked with after this hike told me it used to be called the Sheep Trail and had been used by fire crews to access one valley from the other. Access to the other valley is now most easily done via a dirt road. Just before crossing a knee deep stream, the trail disappeared and I was left to find that road on my own.
I scrambled up an embankment following a social trail which petered out at the top. Looking around, there was some flagging to my right (downhill) so I began to move towards it. The next piece of flagging seemed to indicate a route back down the river cut I’d just escaped.
I checked my GPS and decided to pick a line in the opposite direction of the flagging. After pushing through some trees, I came across a scar torn through the bushes. It was road, though clearly unused for some time.
I couldn’t help but think that the experience crossing Foggy Dew Ridge was an excellent way to put racers on notice as to the nature of this course as it’s not trivial to fit ~18,000 ft of climbing into 50 miles. That nature, however changed again with the road. The unused road led to a well used, dirt forest road which climbed either moderately or steeply depending on its mood, but always climbed. I found the road and it’s regularity to be an emotional release and pulled out a snack as I walked, realizing I’d been going several hours without refueling.
The road lead to a well used trailhead and a nicely maintained trail. This trail continued the constant climb through the trees but less steeply. It brought me to a campsite at a stream which I understood was intended to host an aid station. The Sawtooth Ridge 50 Miler clearly presents a challenge for course designers as there are long stretches which don’t come near roads. This campsite had a sign I’d never seen before, “Motorcycle Camp”. I’m guessing that the trail crew I’d seen the night before maintains many of these trails and so makes them easy to ride. Perhaps the plan is to bring the aid station supplies in by motorbike. While I appreciate the uninterrupted solitude of hiking in designated Wilderness (federal law prohibits mechanical aids – even trail crews have to use crosscut saws instead of chain saws), I found myself smiling at the thought that there was a place for dedicated group of motorbike enthusiasts to maintain a pleasant outdoors experience for themselves in a manner which also created good hiking experiences. I’ve been quick to slur “dirt bike” into “dirt bag” in places where two wheelers rip up beautiful, sensitive ecosystems and it felt like the motorbike community here was redeeming that image.
It was late morning and I ate a first lunch by a stream which ran through the camp. The early start and continuous walking were beginning to catch up to me, and I had many more miles to go.
From the motorcycle camp by the stream, the trail broke from the cover of the trees and started working its way upward through a field of granite. The views opened up. I put on my large sun hat as this was supposed to be the start of a heat wave there seemed little prospect of shade ahead. At one switchback, I heard rockfall in the small cut which the trail had reversed to avoid. I assume it was triggered by the rapid melt withdrawing the snow’s support from a precarious boulder.
The view from my second ridge top of the day was of a lake below a semi-circular ridge. It was an idyllic view with a dainty little trail cutting across the meadow beside the lake. I was trying to hike quickly but found myself taking too many pictures to exceed an ambling pace.
The route switch backed down to the lake, then ran below the ridge for several miles, skirting alpine bowls. There were a few footprints and one set of tire tracks. The trail split in many places into a double track as frequently happens when the main trail channels water and so travelers form a second trail beside it just a few inches higher and drier. However, these two trails forked and I followed the footprints. I should have followed the GPS as I had to turn around when the trail ended at a campsite in a picturesque meadow. I’m still not sure exactly where I turned wrong as I ended up the proper trail by cutting down a dry creek bed.
After passing a sign to the “Angel Stairs” trail which I was glad not to take as the name seemed to imply a long, steep climb, I found myself looking up at a low point on a ridge which would be the Prince Creek aid station in the race. Below it was a hillside covered in snow. While there had been some patches of snow thus far, the route had been easy to follow. I decided to try to stay on the switch backs under the snow and spent a great deal of time being excessively pedantic about staying “on trail” only to give up at the end and cut straight up the snowfield.
Apparently, more deer had passed this way than people. The ambition of the race directors to hold a race in such a remote area is fantastic.
The race director’s ambition became more obvious at the top of the ridge. The map showed a three way intersection. I could see the trail I’d come up, if only because I’d just come up it. I couldn’t see any trail to the right. I could see a sign for a trail to the left but no trail to go with it. This was supposed to be the the most critical juncture of the race. Racers would pass through here twice. It was also the last full aid station and the only break in the final 24 miles.
Having now reached four of the six aid stations, I assumed that I was about two thirds done with the route’s mileage. That would be about 30 miles by 2pm which is excellent work if I do say so myself. The problem, however was that I felt spent and after spending some time with them map realized that there were about 25 miles to go. While this was a two day hike, I’d wanted no more than 15 left over for tomorrow. 10 miles after 2pm would normally be a reasonable proposition but I didn’t know if there was any more natural water on the course. Poor planning on my part; I’d glanced at the map and seen some valleys which I assumed would have a river in them. However, looking these new hillsides, it seemed clear that I’d underestimated their steepness, solar exposure, and it was quite possible that all the water had run off. The map appeared to show a traversal across steep hillsides not below the bowls I’d been walking through which had collected streams. Pictures of Lake Chelan tend to show brown slopes not lush hillsides.
Eventually I struck out towards the trail to the left and eventually trail tread materialized. The map showed it meeting up with another, very steep trail in half a mile and I figured I’d try to go that far and decide how ambitious I was feeling. Apparently the answer was, “not very” because on encountering a rivulet next to a tree, I filled my belly with a second lunch, my bottles with later, and napped for about an hour. The sun kept moving and shifting the shade so it wasn’t much of a nap but it was nice to be off my feet. I did eventually get up and hike as far as an intersection with a trail which went straight up the still hillside above. The way ahead appeared pass through a large fire scar as far as I could see. I had a flight to catch the next evening and my faltering ambition failed for good. This would an 50km trip, not 50 miles.
I turned around and decided that after hiking hard this far, I’d have an easy afternoon and finish up the next day. I boot skied down the snowfield, and hiked back to the “Angel Stairs” trail, then sat down under a tree, ate a third lunch, and tried to doze off again.
The Angel Stairs trail turned out not to be quite so steep as I’d imagined but I took pictures as an excuse to go slow. The vista near the top was an overview of the latter half of the hike. I love these views which allow you to reflect on the distance you’ve traveled. The reverse view was of Merchant Basin, where the fall line trail I’d turned around at descended and then climbed up to meet the race course. It’s an alternate route which was so immediately inspiring that I found myself wondering when I could get back and walk it.
An enjoyable irony at the top of the last climb was a sign declaring itself at the summit… with the actual summit visible a short distance away. However, the mileages on the sign were a nice check as I’d been measuring things on my phone’s map app in only the most approximate way.
I decided to camp for the night at Cooney lake, expecting an easy hike downhill to wrap up the day. Of course when I got to the top of the descent over the lake, I had to boot-ski down a snowfield steep enough that to find the way down, I had to sneak right up to the edge and peek over to be sure it wasn’t actually a cornice.
There were hints here and there where the trail peeked out from under the snow, so I played hide-and-seek with it until I found a campground just east of the outlet stream. The view was great and despite the heat wave happening somewhere, temperatures were perfect for the fleece, gloves, and beanie I’d brought.
Dinner was cold soaked breakfast and dessert since I wanted sugar and crunch not salty, soft noodles. I wandered around the campground and found the toilet which was facing passerbys and had a snow patch in front the way some thrones have a stool. Having the place to myself seemed ideal given the circumstances.
Sunday, June 27
I’d slept under my poncho tarp and so while I had a full setup to tear down, I was still out of camp pretty quickly. No need for breakfast as I was still full from the night before. I guess when you eat an oversized breakfast for dinner, it still counts as breakfast.
I found a set of footprints in the snow leaving camp and followed them to the trail. I’d been hoping to use this as something of a training hike but without much mileage today and most of it downhill, I figured the only training to do was to try running. However, when I got to the point where the GPS said to start ascending Foggy Dew Ridge instead of following the valley bottom, there was simply no turn-off (I actually overran the point despite looking for a turnoff). I walked the trail several hundred feet before and after peering into the woods and found nothing. Then I tried cutting straight uphill until the GPS said I was above the trailand looked around for anything resembling a path through the trees. There was one pile of rocks which might have been a cairn but anything which might have been a route turned out to be an example of humans’ ability to see things which aren’t there.
I gave up looking for the Foggy Dew Ridge Trail and ran the rest of the way out along the valley bottom. A motorbike had been up the trail and cleared out the deadfall, making my journey easy. “Course like water” is what running on a slightly downhill trail with a few roots and rocks feels like and so I repeated that phrase to myself until the trailhead came into view.
Since I’d found the toilet at Cooney lake amusing, I noticed that the trailhead toilet was labeled, “USE AT YOUR OWN RISK”. Apparently the Forest Service doesn’t keep as close an eye on these trail as the motorbike crews.
Running the few miles back to the car from the Foggy Dew Trailhead was smooth and fast. Emotionally it was a great finish despite the roller coaster of a course.
I took the afternoon off work so Lydia and I could get up to the North Cascades National Park Ranger Station in Marblemount in time to get permits before they closed. Unfortunately, I hadn’t packed and so we were about 10 minutes late leaving my place. The plan was to borrow a canoe (the Slick ‘Nanner) from a friend of Lydia’s. Lydia had some concern that strapping it into her kayak carrier upright wasn’t safe (most canoes are carried upside-down on cars). The straps felt tight and the connection seemed solid, but Lydia felt her car pulling to the right as she drove and so we took state highways instead of the interstate. After a while, I took over driving to experience the effect the canoe was having. It was less than the tire alignment problem my first car had had for over a year when I first bought it (I didn’t know what “tire alignment” was and just assumed the car was that way) and so I wound up driving most of the way.
Our schedule had been tight and so with the slower drive, we were going to get to the ranger station after it closed. Instead, we took our time and stopped by a restaurant in one of the rural towns on the way. Normally, I drive right through bent on getting to a trailhead or back home as quickly as possible so the change actually made for a pleasant afternoon. For sleeping accommodations, we explored a forest road which we’d been down the previous winter on a snowshoe trip (which didn’t happen because the road got dangerous once it left the river bottom). Back then, I’d noted some campsites off to the side and thought it would be fun to come back some day and stay at one. This was that day. Surprisingly, they were all occupied and we wound up pitching the tent on a spur road which ended in an unused gate.
Saturday, May 29
I know that getting walk-up permits for campsites in North Cascades National Park can be competitive and so we were up a 4:45am to get back to the ranger station by 6am to stand in line for when it opened at 7am. It turns out they had a take-a-number system, so maybe we could have just grabbed one the night before. Also, we made good time and were there at 5:30am. The first competitor, a ski touring / mountaineering group didn’t arrive until 15 minutes later. No one with a boat showed up until after 6am. We cooked breakfast in the parking lot, then rearranged and packed things into Lydia’s giant blue dry bag. This being a canoe trip, we weren’t worried about bulk or weight. When things didn’t all fit, we just put them in extra dry-bags.
Being first in line did have it’s privileges and we got our preferred itinerary without contest. The one question was whether to put in at Diablo Lake and portage one mile around the Ross Lake Dam or carry everything down from the road directly to Ross Lake. Lydia has issue with her leg at the moment and so we decided on the portage as it was described as a well graded forest road instead of a windy and rocky trail (we’d hiked down to Ross Lake Dam before and could confirm). Then it was off to the gas station for gas, but really to buy a toothbrush since I’d forgotten to bring one. It took several trips to get down the short trail from the Colonial Creek Campground parking lot to the water. Not a good sign for the portage. As we paddled away under idyllic conditions, we noticed a boat launch which would have made the put-in easier. Coming from a hiking background, it’s strange to think that the goal is to not walk.
We passed under a bridge and then through a narrow boat passage in some kind of floating cordon. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a canoe and I was in front so I decided to paddle four strokes on each side and told Lydia she could do the steering. She was fine at steering but it turns out we were both bad a navigating. As a dam and floating building appeared, I started looking for a place to pull out and start the portage thinking I was look at the Ross Lake Dam and the Ross Lake Resort. Of course, the Ross Lake Resort was supposed to be on the other side of the dam so I was a little confused but memory is known to be faulty. Also, the dam looked a little wider than I remembered Ross Lake Dam looking and the water was kinda high on it for being the down-stream side. Lydia identified the building as a a nature center on the map and we had to pull a >90 degree turn to get into the arm of Diablo Lake which would take us to Ross Lake.
The arm of Diablo Lake which reaches out to Ross Lake, is a channel with steep sides. There were red boxes on the right and green boxes on the left, both with what appeared to be lights on top. I assume they were for navigation of some kind. There were also waterfalls. It was quite enchanting. A power boat passed us, slowing well before crossing paths and then speeding up thereafter which we appreciated as the wake might have rocked the canoe more than we’d have been comfortable.
There’s a small dock which you come on suddenly at a turn in the lake (which sounds odd to say – there was no current like a river) shortly after a waterfall. It felt kinda like a secret place with just one road leading down to it and no visible buildings. We pulled the canoe out, pulled the bags out of the canoe, and debated how best to carry the metal mixing bowl of muffins (a canoe trip has it’s advantages, like bringing 30 muffins and a cake). Our first attempt at the portage was for us to put as much gear on our backs as we could, then carry the canoe together by grabbing the front and rear crossbars and walking in tandem. We were having to set it down ever ~100ft or so due to tired arms.
A truck passed, slowed down to get a good look at us, then drove off. Lydia’s leg pain started. We’d gone maybe 10% of the way. New tactics were needed. We ditched the canoe in a rocky drainage ditch (pun intended) and carried all the gear we could, deciding to make two trips.
At an intersection, we descended to the Ross Lake Dam and dropped the baggage. Then we realized there wasn’t a way to get to the water from the dam itself. Damn! (sorry, that never gets old). In the pictures, we’re smiling, but you’ll notice that there aren’t any pictures from this point on the trip. We had lunch at the dam instead of at the lake as we’d hoped. We carried our gear back up to that fateful intersection and I scouted the correct route to the water. If only the signs pointing to the Ross Lake Ferry had been so obvious when we first passed. I went back and got the canoe which, oddly, was easier to carry by myself. The trick was to hoist it upside down with the middle crossbar laid across the shoulders.
In the end, we made it. Four hours to travel one mile. A rough introduction to portaging, though I expect that most introductions to portaging are pretty rough.
As I was carrying the canoe down the final stretch to Ross Lake, I passed a car with a boat trailer. The driver was still there when I came down with the dry bags and we started arranging the canoe to put in. It turned out that this good natured fellow owned Ross Lake Resort. He motored off and just as we were about to put in, returned with beer for us. I guess it counts as trail magic even though we were on a road going to the water (lake magic?). He drove off to some errand and we left a muffin as a thank you on his foredeck.
Finally, at 2:30pm we shoved off and could begin the paddle up to Spencer’s, the campsite we’d selected for the night. The water was glassy. The sun was bright. It seemed a great reward after the struggle of the portage.
Ross Lake is oddly like a pond in that the wonder seems completely immobile. Flotsam will remain unmoved as you approach and pass. Waves seem to move the water up and down but don’t push it anywhere. So, despite there being water everywhere, we pulled off to a small cascade to get something fresher for drinking.
As we paddled, we noticed that brown forest service signs like you might see by the road were posted at boat-in campsites. There was something humorous about about it. They’re sensible, as campsites are tucked up in the trees and so hard to spot from the lake. It would be easy to boat past your destination. While it’s easy to follow the outline of the lake on a map if you know roughly where you are, we’d already made one navigational error despite having ideal conditions.
Ross Lake was still in the process of filling up for the year and about 50 feet below it’s full depth. This meant that the boat ramps at many of the campsites were well above the water. We beached the canoe on a beach of coarse sand and tied it off to a stump. Having learned from the portage, it only took us two trips to bring everything up to camp, not the three it had to get the gear down to the water at the start of the day.
In the late afternoon, while we were sunning ourselves on the boat ramp, we heard voices and spotted two inflatable kayaks dragging a third inflatable dingy with backpacks in it. These would be our neighbors for the night. I have an inflatable kayak and can say that paddling a canoe was a much better experience, especially because we didn’t need to tow a baggage raft and weren’t worried about popping our boat on the stumps and rocks near the shore. Their portage had been easier though. The fellows were pleasant and accepted our remaining beers as gifts from fellow adventurers.
Lydia found sticks and and stripped them with her hatchet to roast sausages for dinner. As a modern suburbanite, I’ve barely used a hatchet and am just learning the childish joys of whacking things with one.
Sunday May 30
This was a slow morning. The mountains above Ross Lake block the rising sun until it’s high enough to crest them and so the tent doesn’t turn unbearably hot shortly after daylight.
Our unique chore was gathering firewood for the next two days. Per the ranger who gave us our permits, collection of firewood, even dead branches, isn’t allowed on the islands where we’d be camping. The islands are small and so it’s reasonable to think that they’d quickly be stripped of anything burnable if foraging for firewood were allowed and so there would be nothing to return to the ecosystem for those islands. Driftwood is fair game but we hadn’t seen much of it at Spencer’s so we set about collecting enough firewood for the rest of the trip. Despite being connected to the mainland and relatively near two other camps, there’s no trail to Spencer’s so it still has the feeling of being on an island even if the rules are different. We piled the fuel on the groundcloth from under the tent so we could wrap it into a bundle and keep it relatively dry from the water which gets into the canoe as when we move the paddles from one side to the other.
Our first aim after loading the canoe was to find running water to filter for drinking. The stream we found was cut into the banks of the lake despite the water level being low. I took this to mean that it had been this way before Ross Dam was put in. It seemed like a special experience to see part of a stream which only existed a “low tide”.
Our destination for the night was 10 Mile Island which is about half way up the lake. Again, the water was calm and the day was warm. As we paddled north, we got a glimpse of Hozomeen, the dual-peaked mountain at the north end of the lake which is notable from Dharma Bums.
Video of paddling towards Hozomeen on a glassy lake.
On the way, we explored up Devil’s Creek. This was much anticipated on my part, as I’ve hiked across the beautiful suspension bridge above it many times and always wished I could explore the deep, narrow inlet.
It turns out that Devil’s Creek doesn’t got very far back before it becomes a shallow, creek draining over rocks which aren’t navigable. However, this arm of the lake is incredibly deep for such a narrow crack in the rock. The walls actually appear to widen underwater instead of forming a continuously narrowing V.
When we reached it, 10 Mile Island, wasn’t an island because the water level was low enough that it’s connected to the near shore. We beached on a muddy, gravelly, shore below a kiosk visible from the water. Unlike Spencer’s and many of the boat-in campsites we’d passed, there was no boat ramp here. Lydia went on a walk around the island to find one and never did.
During lunch we decided that we’d brought a huge amount of food and should prioritize the heavy stuff – which happened to be all the vegetables, sauces, and dips. Lydia assembled the healthiest meal I’ve ever had in the backcountry. Somehow she manages to make healthy food taste good, which is something I’ve never mastered. This lead to the decision that more paddling trips should be in our future, just ones that don’t require portaging so we can bring things like almond milk and butternut squash soup like we did on this trip.
The sky had grown overcast and the air felt heavy like it was about to rain. Still, it was early enough in the afternoon that I wanted to try and explore up Lighting Creek. The route to Canada which starts on the east side of Ross Lake crosses a bridge over Lightning Creek, then follows high above the creek almost all the way up the drainage before taking a pass to the northeast after the ominously named Nightmare camp (on previous trips Nightmare camp has looked like a nightmare because it’s in dark, dense woods and is full of deadfall).
We hauled the gear up to camp then I set out by myself in the now empty Slick ‘Nanner. Sitting in the rear seat, it felt like the front wasn’t always in contact with the water. It handled very differently from when loaded, and was much more influenced by local currents. I had to spin around backwards at one point to get out of the small bay formed by the neck of land connecting 10 Mile Island to the shore.
Despite bouncing on the shallow undulations of the lake and the canoe always pulling to turn right, I made good time up to Lightning Creek. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Devil’s Creek, but I got to play a little bit with the current where the stream entered the still water. Like Devil’s Creek, this inlet didn’t go very far back.
The weather held and the trip back to 10 Mile Island was smooth, notable only in that I spotted some hikers sitting on a beach watching me paddle by. I tried to stare back just as pointedly to make things fair. Seeing other people, even if rarely, changes the feel of this trip from wilderness experience to playing in a large park.
There are two campsites on 10 Mile Island and we’d taken the better one. The other had a working bear box (unlike ours) but had grass growing up through the tent area which means it’s rarely used. Maybe that’s a consequence of there being no boat ramp. However, as with the camp at Spencer’s, the toilet appears new. It’s a made with coated metal framework and recycled plastic boards which look like the same material used in decking. The toilet paper dispenser was even full. Definitely the best latrine experience I’ve ever had in a national park.
We stayed up until the stars were out, sitting in our backpacking chairs next to a fire from the wood we’d carried in. Paddling trips are so luxurious.
Monday, May 31
For this morning’s water collection, we paddled across the lake and drew from a long cascade which we’d spotted the day before. As this was the start of our return journey, we decided to paddle down the other side of the lake to pass by a number of waterfalls we’d previously only seen from a distance.
We were planning to stop at the Big Beaver beach, a campsite which we suspected to be particularly popular. On the way there Lydia’s leg started acting up so we pulled over for a snack on a rocky point.
Big Beaver turns out to be where two creeks drain into Ross Lake. There were was a couple on the beach next to the lake but no one by either of the creeks.
We beached the canoe on a soft, slightly muddy beach near the outlet of the second creek. It’s water was clear and came tumbling down dramatically like Devil’s Creek had at the point where we couldn’t navigate farther. Despite having just had a snack, we ate lunch, prioritizing whatever seemed heavy. This time it was dolmas and sauce. Those things go down fast. Since we were expecting not have water on Cougar Island for the night, we drew water again before setting out for our last campsite.
We’d seen the boat ramp to Cougar Island on the way outbound and it seemed to be on a steep, rocky shore. Instead of tying up near it, we saw two canoes on a shallow, sandy beach and tied off next to them while we scouted for the campsite.
I happened across several people at the first campsite who apologetically cleared out with little prompting. They were just passing through for the day. We got to talking and it turns out they’d been the other car with canoes on top on Saturday morning when we’d gotten permits at the ranger station. They’d carried everything directly to Ross Lake down the hiker trail and recommended it, though they also had their gear packed neatly in backpacking backpacks which might have made our experience easier too.
We’d gotten to camp relatively early in the afternoon and spent the time lazily. Lydia strung up a hammock, journaled and napped. I put out a chair and read nearby. Later we played in the lake, though I found it too cold to get very far in. This is strange because I have no problem charging into an icy stream crossing and usually have good temperature regulation. Lydia gets cold easily and yet loves icy dips.
Dinner was a funny affair since we’d already eaten all the heavy food and finally had to open packets of tuna and concoct more traditional backcountry fare.
After dinner we lazed by a fire, watching the colors in the trees, water, and mountains soften as the sun declined behind the western mountains.
Tuesday, June 1
Packing up this morning, we made a point to consolidate as much as possible for the upcoming portage. Some things were still left out loose and not everything could fit in the giant blue drybag, but having finished the firewood and overeating in service of weight reduction, two drybags disappeared into the larger sack during consolidation.
Of course, we had had to stop by a stream to filter water and this morning we had our choice of three streams just across from the island.
The paddle back wasn’t notable. We chose not to explore up Ruby Arm as it didn’t seem likely to offer anything we hadn’t seen at Devil’s Creek or Big Beaver. Some time, when we’re more accomplished canoeists, it might be fun to try to put in at the East Bank Trailhead (less distance to carry gear) and get flushed out Ruby Arm into Ross Lake in the swift current.
The portage back to Diablo Lake only took one hour, forty minutes this time with a lighter, consolidated load and the experience of how to move everything efficiently. However, I wasn’t able to figure out how to settle the canoe quite the same way onto my shoulders and it wound up resting on my neck which was sore for several days thereafter. Yet another reason to avoid future portages.
The paddle back out Devil’s lake was pretty. There were a surprising number of people given that it was a a week day, even after a holiday weekend. When taking out, we used the boat ramp this time, and left sodas in the lake to cool while we packed everything into the car for a relaxed drive home.
This was a short over-nighter with my girlfriend, Lydia. She’s can’t walk as far as she’d like at the moment and so the relatively flat walk out to the river which starts the end of Icicle Creek Road seemed an ideal way to spend a night in the woods. This also made for a good excuse to dig out the 80 liter (or more?) backpack I got for $5 at a garage sale as my plan was to carry gear for both of us. I was training for a ruck race which I’ve since taken off my race calendar, so the heavier the better. It’s so big it has load lifters. I haven’t used a pack with load lifters in some time. We even too the pack’s brain off since it wasn’t necessary, though that was a bit unfortunate when it started to sprinkle.
The hike felt more like a walk in the park. We were on the lookout for mushrooms. Lydia has an intense desire to find Morels. One of the mushroom hunters she follows apparently mentioned finding some near pink Trillium. I don’t really know plants so Lydia had to point out what Trillium was. It seems to come in variations of white and purple so I’m still not really sure what a pink Trillium looks like.
As with the moose antler episode, it turns out that Lydia is much more observant than I am and did find a morel (video). It had been detached from the ground somehow which apparently makes them no good to eat. It’s a pity because Lydia’s fascination with morels seems to stem from their delicious taste.
Eventually we reached the campsite at the intersection of Icicle and French Creek. It was our intended campsite because the bridge was out. At least it was out enough to prevent us from trying to cross that way.
Instead we lit a fire on a rock just below the confluence and sat in our backpacking chairs. The sound of the river downs everything out and so it’s easy to lose yourself in the experience. At some point conversation fell off, then a smile welled up across Lydia’s face. “I’m happy” she said. The hard cider might have helped, but it was a hard moment not to be happy even in the drizzle. When it was time to put the fire out, we simply knocked it into the river.
The sound of the river made for an excellent night’s sleep.
Sunday, May 23
The next morning, I attempted to ford the river since I wanted the experience of attempting a difficult crossing. My understanding is that river crossings is the second leading causes of death in the back country (bears, combined with all other predators, and still are less of a concern than insects – reference). Given that there is rarely a need to ford a river except when backpacking and backpacking trips tend to take you far from support, it’s a rare opportunity to practice a river crossing in relative safety (the car only being 1.5mi away). Some times fording looks much scarier than it actually is and I thought this might be one of those cases. Ultimately, I couldn’t quite get across because I couldn’t find solid footing mid-channel (video) and was too cold to try properly on another line. The water is all snowmelt right now my feet felt like they were on fire they rewarmed on the departing hike.
I’ve never done trail work and since we’d brought a hatchet, I decided to try to clear a log while Lydia looked for more morels where she’d found one the previous day. While I did hack through the log, it then fell on to the trail and I couldn’t drag it away. I’d already picked up two blisters and so I wasn’t about to try hacking through the log again to remove just the section on the trail. At least it was only shin high and easy to step over, not thigh high and requiring gymnastics.
The rest of the walk back was short and easy. Lydia had finished her mushroom hunting and I caught up with her shortly before getting back to the car. The whole trip was unexpectedly refreshing given the short distance and extreme popularity of the nearby trail system (ie the Enchantments).
This was a short trip which I’ve been wanting to do since I realized that snowed-in forest roads were great for routes for cross country skiiing. Mowich Lake is an incredibly popular summer time destination, so much so that when some friends and I showed up there with reservations in 2019 on the Wonderland Trail, we wound up having to camp in the parking lot.
April 4 – Saturday
WA 165, the road up to Mowich Lake, alternates between well graded dirt road and pot hole city. It’s almost as though the pot holes were intentional since the road doesn’t have washboarding, washouts, sliding or any of the other myriad infirmities which befall forest roads. Just before Evans Creek ORV Area (I previously assumed that the point of an ORV was that you didn’t need to take it to a playground), the ruts in the snow were just deep enough to threaten impassibility at any moment. Several trucks were parked along side the road so, when a clear spot presented itself, I chose to take it. It turns out I could have made it another ~1.5mi by car and so instead wound up carrying my skis. When skiing forest roads, there’s always a trade-off between having to carry your skis to better snow and being confident you’ll be able to drive away the next day.
The skis went on and off a few times as I tried to guess where continuous snow would start. Once I found it, the trips up to the lake was pleasant a ski of about 7 miles.
The snow was deep enough to provide easy passage over obstacles like gates and fallen trees. This is spring snow which is compacted and I wasn’t sinking in far enough to worry about my skis catching on sunken obstacles.
It’s hard to go out in the winter outside a resort and not think about avalanche conditions. I was solo (a big no-no in avalanche terrain). The road cuts across slopes angled such that they are prone to sliding. However, the snow was compact and settled. Until I neared the lake, the snow on the slope above the the road was quite thin. There were some pinwheels but they were old. By the time I was near the top, the slopes above me were relatively short. Also, being on the road meant that unless something propagated off the flat road surface (unlikely due to settled snowpack), there would be no trigger for an avalanche. All in all, I have no idea if I’m correctly apply my Avy 1 training but tried to be conscious of the risks since I’m new to off-resort winter recreation.
The clouds were heavy and so there wasn’t much of a sunset, but I caught a glimpse at a switchback. The setup was such that I couldn’t tell as I was approaching the switchback if the road went straight and descended, wrapped around the hill upwards, or switched back. It just seemed to disappear after a crest. Once I got there, the answer was obvious but it was a little like the anticipatory thrill of approaching a pass and knowing you might see a whole vista on the other side.
Getting to the Mowich Lake itself was a bit anticlimactic. First was the parking area which I recognized as a large flat expanse at the end of the road. The trails to the lake 50yds or so away aren’t discernable under the snow but there’s a large stream of open water whose snow banks were 5ish feet deep despite the water itself not looking very deep. The lake was less interesting: just an empty, flat white expanse. I couldn’t tell where the edge was and so stayed above it near trees.
I’ve heard people say that there’s a ranger cabin at Mowich Lake. I looked around for one and nothing obvious stood out. The toilet facilities might look a little like a ranger cabin. They were buried above their doors. The roof had kept enough snow out that you could have sheltered in the pit it formed.
As the light faded, I set up my tent. I’d only brought thin shepard’s hook style stakes betting the snow would be compact enough to use them. One pulled out before I had set it properly but otherwise the stakes seemed to hold. I compressed the snow before inserting them, then punched them and the surrounding snow some more before adding more snow on top and compressing it. I’ve heard you’re supposed to wait 15 minutes for the stakes to refreeze in the snow but I wanted to get in the tent so I didn’t give them that long.
For the first time I tried putting my boots and fuel can in the trash compactor bag I used as a water proof pack liner and then putting that in my sleeping bag to keep it warm. It was took a while before I could find a comfortable position for them. I should have scraped my pot with snow before melting drinking water in it. I ended up filling my water bottles with freshly melted salty ramen water. Oh well.
April 5 – Easter Sunday
I woke up to what I thought was the sound of rain on my tent and decided not to look outside. The forecast was for maybe rain and maybe snow so I decided to deal with whichever later.
My boots stayed warm enough to get into easily this morning. I’d brought bread bags to keep my fresh socks dry but they leaked quickly. Maybe good enough for an emergency trip out of the tent in the middle of the night but breadbags seem not to be as waterproof as they appear.
My tent survived the night despite being held up by trekking poles and guy lines (no traditional tent poles), something I’d never tried in snow before. This trip’s experiments generally seem to have gone well.
When I did open my tent door, I was delighted to find softly falling snow. I like snow and I like rain but I don’t like snow and rain.
The ski back to my car was just a couple of hours and picturesque most of the way. Initially the snow was grabby on my skis and the angle of the road wasn’t steep enough to let me glide. On the way in I’d used a walking technique since my legs are were still weak from the previous week’s endeavors and so I’d hoped the downhill on the way back would let me glide more. Eventually I was able to get some glide with each step but never got to the point of sliding without propulsion.
I’m no longer Christian but I still have an attachment to the impact it had on my life. This being Easter, some of the downhill travel was spent reflecting on this. Outdoors experiences have filled some of the emotional gap in my post-religious life with awe, wonder, and sometimes gratitude. Other experiences haven’t been replaced. Happy Easter.
The 50k version of the Badger Mountain Challenge was my first ultramarathon. It was a “long” 50k and now appears to be labeled a 55k. It seemed only fitting that my first 100 miler would be the full version of the same course. It’s a 23.5 mile outbound run over hills, ravines, and up onto a ridge. The return is 26.5mi because it comes off the ridge in a soft, shallow descent. 100 miler racers get to see the course once by day and once by night.
The course starts with two hills offering sweeping views of the Richland, WA area: Badger Mountain and Candy Mountain with an aid station at the base of Candy about 5mi in. After a steep descent off Candy’s west side, a tunnel conducts you under the highway, which is followed by about 3 miles of running on flat asphalt which begins to skirt vineyards. The Jacob’s Road aid station is relief from the monotony which continues for another 4ish miles in a section described in the race director’s opening speech as “the endless vineyards”. “The course always has vineyards on one side and sage brush on the other. If you’re ever running with vineyards on both sides, go back and look for [a course marking]” the speech continues.
What comes next is called the “Jeep Trails” which is accurate in that they do appear to be jeep trails. “Dragon’s teeth” might be more appropriate given the the angles at which you descend and ascend to cut against the grain of a series of about 5 gullies which vary from about 100 to 300ft deep. The Orchard aid station comes after the third descent and seems like a strategically placed lifeline in case a runner fails to adapt to their sudden encounter with the violent roller coaster of the Jeep Trails.
After the Jeep Trails, comes a short section of road which turns under a bridge then climbs steadily to the McBee aid station. This sits at the base of a wicked climb of about 1,100 ft in less than a mile which at points is steep enough that you can’t tell how close you are to the top. Atop McBee ridge, a rocky, hard-packed dirt road runs several miles out to Chandler Butte where an aid station provides a respite before returning you around. The trip back to the bottom of the ridge starts by running the way you came while trying not to stub your toes too often. Instead of descending the steep climb, there’s a gradual, soft single-track which brings you down over about 3.5 miles. From there, just get back to the start line the way you came (about 19mi) and you’re half way done.
The race manual warns to be prepared for temperature swings from of 40F, wind, hail, snow, etc… citing recent years when finishing percentage was close to 1/3 or 2/3. I carried a lightweight raincoat, full weight fleece, sunglasses, beanie, and gloves. Between those and the buff and heavy tights I wore the whole time, the elements weren’t much of a factor. I overheard some runners complaining about the cold and wind on McBee ridge (it was cold enough to see your breath) but frankly, we seemed to have had an easier year.
A Good Start – Friday Morning to mid Afternoon
Due to COVID-19, runners started in waves of 10. My wave was at 7:34am. The race director gave the same speech I’d heard him give to the last several waves, then we waved through the starting line without much fanfare.
The climb up Badger was gentle. It’s a usually steep enough to keep me at a walk with opportunities to jog briefly on some of the flatter swtichbacks. The sun was rising over Richland and the view was sweeping but enjoying the view meant looking away from the course and I was full of energy and excited to be marching as fast as I could. The hill is short – a little under 1,00ft – and so it didn’t feel long before the hill rolled over in to a traverse and then descent. Like any footrace, the opening miles are something of a sorting process as groups of similarly paced runners begin to fall in together. That effect was dragged out due to the waved starts.
The climb up Candy was similarly gentle and felt relatively short. Training and experience have done much in this regard as I remember feeling as though I’d gone a much greater distance at this point in my first ultra. While charging down the steeper and mildly technical back side, I caught up to a fellow named Kevin who I hit it off with and slowed slightly so we could run together as company would be welcome in the monotony of the Endless Vineyards. A woman I’d been leapfrogging caught up. Her name was Natalie. The three of us coordinated fist pumps when we saw a photographer and generally passed the time in conversation until the Jacob’s Road aid station.
At this point, I was attempting to use aid stations as collection points only. I’d extract my soft bottle from my vest and have it open when I reached the station. We had to wait to have our bottles filled by a volunteer – we held the bottle, they held the pitcher – to avoid contact. I’d then ask for two gel or gummy packs (“ask, don’t grab” as one sign read), and then be on my way. Eating and drinking were done in motion. Resting was to be done by slowing down, not stopping. This got me out of the aid station quickly, but left me looking to make new friends.
That connection was easy to make. A fellow I’d seen on the way up Candy (I’d nicknamed him the Jolly Green Giant because he was tall and wearing a green shirt with only one arm through) was my next target for conversation. His name was Ryan and we made good time through the vineyards while talking about running. When the ground suddenly fell away into the first of the ravines which make up the Jeep Tracks, we both seemed to take a boyish delight in bounding down the steep, uneven dirt. Ryan tripped, rolled, bounced up, fell back into stride then joked that it wasn’t a trail run until you’d taken a fall. He was a slightly stronger runner but I’d only fall behind a few steps and was able to catch up in the transition back to running after each climb.
After leaving the Orchard aid station, Ryan overtook me. I thought he’d gotten out ahead and I wasn’t expecting to see him again. In fact, they’d had his preferred energy drink and he’d wait a little extra to get it. After finishing up the Jeep Trail together, he said he wanted to eat and change out gear at McBee and so took off ahead.
The McBee aid station was busy and my stay was brief. I saw Ryan but he was still swapping out gear so I left without him. The climb had been visible as I was approaching the aid station. Runners were like a line of ants slowly crawling up a steep mound toward some common destination in the sky. Soon this was my fate. One great convenience was that footfalls had worn steps into the hard dirt which had resisted erosion enough to remain firm underfoot. This made the experience a little more like stairs and less like the loose Jeep Trails. At some points the angle was steep enough that in places, the “runner” (we were all walking) would disappear “over the top” but when you got to that top, the hill just kept going up. Ultimately, though, hills don’t get taller and so through consistent application of forward motion, I got to the top where there was a pile of walking sticks for public use – the kind of think you’d use for climbing a steep hill.
McBee Ridge is wide and rolling with a dirt road embedded with fist-sized rocks which didn’t move when I accidentally kicked them. I’m sure there was a beautiful view but I was mostly watching my feet. While the climb had gone quickly, it had left me with some pain in the right hip which only came out as I tried to reorganize my limbs for horizontal – instead of vertical – motion. I was also getting hints of a recurring issue I have on my right buttock near the tailbone – an ache which can occur on each step and a Sports Medicine doctor once told me might be related to my sacrum as part of my body compensating for an impingement in my right hip socket. For the first time in the race, time seemed to pass slowly. The Chandler Butte aid station wound up being one bump farther on the ridge than I’d thought. Still, I was in a good frame of mind when I got to the psychological quarter-way-point of the race.
The return along McBee ridge started with seeing Ryan, Kevin, and Natalie, all less than two miles out from Chandler Butte. While the out-and-back style of the course is repetitive, it provides for greater social opportunities. Seeing and acknowledging people you ran with earlier is one of the great joys of an event like this. The greatest connection, though, was when I overtook Lance, a mile or two before the descent from McBee ridge. It took a few minutes of chatting to put it all together but we hard run a section of the 50k together two years before. We’d run out of energy, eating something (I distinctly remember “deploying my emergency Snickers”), and then suddenly being able to run again – both at the same time. We hadn’t remembered each other’s name or much of want the other looked like which is why the connection wasn’t instant but it was an incredible connection to make. We’d both been planning on running the Badger 100mi last year as our first official hundreds and both wound up running unofficial 100s instead. He’d done 147 laps around his neighborhood for charity. Eventually, we spotted the soft single-track which would take us back to the McBee aid station at the bottom of the ridge. I let it carry me like a dream and pulled away from Lance.
The descent off McBee ridge and the return along the valley to the aid station was the only section of the course without any hint of a wind. There was vegetation, which had been sparse elsewhere and this held the heat. It wasn’t a particularly hot day but it was approaching the heat of the day and I was beginning to feel warm. I was wearing heavy tights for warmth from the morning and had a buff around my neck which I’d need at the aid station. My stomach was beginning to be upset. I’d only eaten gels and gummies. I was beginning to get sore legs. The pain in my right-front hip was now on the side and the sacral issue was slight but persistent.
Back at the McBee aid station, I kept things brief like I had at all other aid stations but thinking my stomach needed something besides engineered food, I asked if they had “real food” (runner language for something you might eat if you weren’t on a run). Grilled cheese was on offer but that didn’t sound right. Instead I asked for two packs of energy gummies and a the volunteer gave me a concerned look and asked if I’d been eating enough. “Two pack of gels after every aid station” I replied. Part of the art of ultrarunning is diagnosing and fixing things which go wrong. For example an upset stomachs can be due to too much or too little food and exacerbated by heat. Unfortunately, the line between too much and too little is a hard one to determine for me 200Cal/hr is too little but that takes a long time to manifest. 300Cal/hr is too much but I have less experience overeating. Was I just hot? I felt warm but wasn’t sweating. It was disconcerting to know that my discomfort was showing in my demeanor. I jogged down the road feeling crummy and decided to start my return through the Jeep Trails by slowing to a walk. Something wasn’t right in a “this will spiral out of control if you don’t deal with it” kinda of way. I was questioning why I’d ever signed up for this event and was pretty sure I never wanted to again. I’d just cancel everything else I’d signed up for and tell my friends it just wasn’t worth the pain when ultrarunning had only ever been a replacement for thru-hiking.
When I walked in to the Orchards aid station less than two miles into the Jeep Trails, I announced I needed a reset, found a chair, and asked for water I could pour on myself, and ice I could put in my hat. In this context, “reset” was a well understood code word for, “I have a problem and I can’t leave until it’s fixed.” Fortunately, I was the only runner present and had the attention of all three volunteers. One gave me ice for my hat. Another came over with a pitcher and after refilling a dixie cup which I immediately drained several times, asked if I wanted the water of my head poured slowly or all at once. These volunteers had clearly seen this kind of thing before. The only real food they had was grilled cheese so I nibbled a slice trying to figure out what was wrong with my stomach. The pain in my right hip wasn’t as present since I’d walked in but it had prevented my body from relaxing while in motion since each step required bracing either mentally and physically and I’d had to focus on not favoring the hurting leg and so cause more problems through bad form. As I now began to relax, I realized I was about to cry and leaned in to the feeling. I realized that I was beginning to notice things in the world again – I’d had tunnel vision. I’d taken my sunglasses off at some point but hadn’t noticed that it was brighter until I’d started crying. A volunteer came over to check on me and I told them that the right thing was happening and I just needed to cry it out. After the crying, it was clear to me that I’d been over eating. My stomach wasn’t completely settled but now I could tell that it was full not empty. It turns out that two packs of gummies is 320 Cal and I’d been ahead of schedule and so hitting the aid stations faster than one an hour. Lance and Ryan both came through and both asked if I was heading out – an invitation to join them. I declined, explaining that I needed to take it slow for a while. I filled one of my 500ml bottles with ginger ale and decided to walk to the next aid station, 5.5 mi and two steep ravines away and then re-evaluate.
When my watched next beeped, it said I’d taken 30 minutes to do the mile containing that aid station. As one of the volunteers said had, “that was pretty quick for someone who was talking they way you were when you came in”.
My the time I’d returned to McBee aid station from the ridge, I had built up a lead of 45min over the 10hr pace I wanted to hold for the first 50 miles. This was my first race with time goals.
A-level goal was 20hrs which I’d picked because it was a simple projection from my training runs without accounting for fatigue. I considered it out of reach but wanted to go out chasing it because I’ve traditionally run ultras for enjoyment, not time, and quickly learned that going out fast was a quick way to kill the enjoyment. While going out easy means you have fun, it also leaves you wondering if you might have been able to go faster.
B-level goal was 24hrs. 24hrs is a common target for newer ultra-runners. It’s too fast to walk the whole race (except perhaps for perfectly flat courses) or spend too much time at aid stations. Badger claims a 13,000ft gain over 100 miles which is toward the lower end of 100 milers but also claims a course which is more difficult than at first glance. There’s a special buckle for sub-24hr finishers.
C-level goal was just to finish before the 32hr cutoff.
At first, I tried to let go of the goals. I needed to relax, let my body stabilize, and get out of the Jeep Trails and into the Endless Vineyards where the hard, level road made moving easier. I was able to climb and descend methodically. My muscles were still strong, just a little sore. My stomach was feeling better but was still skittish. Ambition began to creep back in. I’d built up enough of a lead that I might still be able to finish the first 50 miles in 10hrs. That might not mean anything about the second half. In fact, it might mean pushing too hard and throwing away my chance to recover and go sub-24. Still, if I could finish the first half in 10hrs, then maybe I could walk the second half in 14hrs? I got out of the steep, soft Jeep Trails and onto the hard, flat asphalt of the Endless Vineyards and started walking as fast as I could.
The Long Walk – Friday afternoon
I walked the next 30miles except to jog downhill on the easy grades of Candy and Badger mountains. I stopped at aid stations to sit and eat until my stomach was ready for the next section. I was back to basics: stay healthy, stay happy, walk hard.
I made it back to the Start/Finish aid station (cruelly named as it’s the half-way point for the 100 milers) and spent half an hour eating a “real dinner” (four quesadillas) and cleaning my feet (minor blisters but lots of dirt). I’d made it in about 9:57 elapsed time and held off a 50 mile runner who had started to close on the final descent, but the mile which contained dinner cost 40 minutes.
A strap which held my running poles onto my vest had broken on the return trip over Candy and since I now had to carry my poles anyways, I was glad to be walking. It’s not clear exactly why poles make walking faster on flat ground. There are certainly circumstances where they don’t. You’re not as nimble with them which is a penalty on technical terrain. Badger doesn’t have much of that, though. On the flats, I think the rhythm and forward shift of my body keeps me an a more aggressive mindset than without them. While poles are certainly practical to reduce stress on the legs during climbs and descents, their psychological benefits may help shift the average pace up just a little. I usually don’t feel like listening to music which many people lean on for moral support and so it was the click-clack of my poles on asphalt and the shoom-shoom of my poles in dirt which kept me walking quickly as night fell atop Candy Mountain and I walked outbound again past the Endless Vineyards and through the Jeep Trails to arrive at McBee aid station for the third time.
Night on the Ridge – Friday night to Saturday early morning
I think it was shortly before midnight when walked in to McBee aid station. I stopped this time, asked a real food, went with the offer of butternut squash soup, and extracted from my drop bag a liter of my chai my girlfriend had made. I’d been babying my stomach throughout the afternoon. Only run on the downhills. Don’t leave an aid station without the stomach’s permission. Butternut squash soup was a new offering available only at night and at the better stocked aid stations. I’d been saving the chai for the night knowing both that its light, sweet taste would be tolerable with even the most upset stomach after a day of drinking sickly sweet soda and chemical tasting electrolytes. Caffeine wouldn’t hurt either. Lydia puts 3-4x the recipe’s recommended number of tea bags into the pot of spices when brewing her chai.
The McBee climb went well despite lacking fresh legs. The walk along the ridge was windy an brisk but I felt clear-headed and focused. Just before Chandler Butte, I saw Ryan who recommended the butternut squash soup. I had more of it. The return along the ridge also went well. The lights of the city in the valley to the north were bright but I was mostly in the pleasant flow of quickly placing my feet without stubbing my toes.
Since before the McBee aid station, I’d been running calculations to determine cutoffs for each aid station such that, if I arrived after the cutoff, I would have to run if I were to have a hope of finishing in less than 24hrs. The idea was to walk as long as possible on only run when I had a clear deadline to justify the effort. I also had to adjust the distance on my GPS watch against actual distance on the course as my GPS watch recorded 52 miles in the first half of the race and continued to creep ahead. Just after starting the descent off McBee Ridge, I realized that I’d missed a mile in my calculations and walking as long as possible was giong to put me in a tight spot. With the most runnable section of the course under my feet, I decided to see how it felt and surprisingly, it felt good. I overtook the runner who I’d allowed to start the descent before me on account of his intention to run it and my intention to walk it. Along the valley I overtook a couple whose headlamps I’d seen turn off the ridge and start the descent. I even overtook Ryan and a friend of his. I stubbed my toe and almost fell while doing so. I was glad he knew me because having someone suddenly curse loudly behind you in the dark might not make you amenable to them.
Back at the McBee aid station, I felt good. No nausea or hip/butt pain, just sore muscles. More butternut squash soup. Drain the chai. Off and running.
Running it In – Saturday early morning to sunrise
I didn’t push it in the Jeep Trails and I stopped at each aid station to sit and make sure my stomach was ready for the leg to the next aid station. I was ready to drop to a walk if my legs showed signs of tiring but they jogged along, knocking off miles at 11 to 12 minute intervals.
At Jacob’s Road, the old lady who brought me two cups of butternut squash soup said she’d run the 100 miler two years prior and explained that while next climb was steep, the wind was at your back so it wasn’t so bad. Even the wind, once any enemy, was going to be willing me home.
The pre-dawn light at the top of Candy Mountain was beautiful. It was the first time I stopped to take a photo instead of trying to manipulate my phone while running.
I stopped at the final aid station at mile 95 to eat a little. In another race, I once had my stomach turn over during the last four miles which should have been a sprint and so wanted to play it safe. With one hour fifteen minutes still on the clock, 5 mile and 1,000ft (rounded up) to go, a sub-24hr finish was mine to loose, not mine to gain, and so precautions were in order. Unfortunately, the final aid station was snacks only, no butternut squash soup. I asked for a pack of gummies and a volunteer brought one, then jokingly asked if I wanted a beer. There’s a long history of alcohol near the end of ultras and I was feeling good and cocky and so went for a shot. He poured me a dixie cup of Rainier which I drank. Then he asked if I wanted whiskey. I assented, but only one finger’s worth. He poured it. As he did, Ryan came running by the aid station. Ryan is tall with a strong build. His stride was easy and powerful. He carried long running poles balanced in the middle in each hand which drew clean arcs as his arms as though they were weightless (mine draw a linear motion through the air like XC skis to minimize the weight of their bounce). It was a glorious sight. He called out his bib number once, loud and clear without breaking stride. The volunteer who’d just poured me a whiskey said I should go catch him. I said nope and shot the whiskey. Surprisingly, this and the beer put the perfect feeling of fullness and satiation into my stomach. I thanked the volunteers and jogged off to walk up Badger mountain for the last time.
It was now shortly before 7am and the 50k had started. Runners in yellow bibs were making their way down Badger Mountain as I went up. Many said, “good work” with much more enthusiasm than we 100 milers had used in encouraging each other. A few young women whooped and shook their hands in the air as they passed. A middle aged woman stopped, took my arm, pointed at the sunrise and said that it was coming up just for me. That last one was a little much.
Just before the climb leveled into a traverse, I quickly looked back and spotted one or two runners working their way up below me. They looked to be walking and so I figured my position was safe as long as I ran anything which wasn’t uphill. A few minutes later, I heard loud, thrashing, rhythmic music, footsteps and a young man in bright green pants used by road workers ran past. He had been running uphill and continued to do so. I chased for about 50ft but even when the rolling traverse descended, he didn’t merely let the hill carry him as I did, but attacked it, increasing his pace. For a second time in the last leg of this 100 mile race, I was thoroughly impressed.
As I began the home stretch, a long set of switchbacks down Badger Mountain, more waves of 50km racers passed. Some were running uphill as fast as I was running down (3rd time I was impressed). One runner (who was hiking), I recognized from the 100 mile race – I’d seen her outbound from the 50mi as I was coming in to it. She’d finished sub-24hrs and then put on a 50km bib and started up Badger for the 3rd time. “Didn’t you run the hundred?” I called out as we approached each other. “Yes” she replied as we passed. People are incredible (4th time).
Eventually, I made it down to the concrete at the bottom of the hill. I got to sprint hard for the 20 yards up the finishing chute to the finish line. I held my poles over my head in one fist and whooped and hollered. The race director asked when I’d started, I told him, and after consulting his clipboard, gave me a sub-24hr buckle.
I’d hoped to congratulate Ryan but I didn’t see him around the finish area. I did see the young man in construction pants and gave him a hearty retelling of his finish from as I’d experienced it. He returned the compliment saying how hard he’d had to work to catch me. After making the acquaintance of Kevin, Natalie, Ryan, Lance (again), and others not mentioned here, it was wonderful that even at the end of the race you could connect via mutual admiration and appreciation for a shared experience.
The Chewuch River Loop is an easy going snowmobile trail which is infrequently traveled and so made for great skiing. Because of the tracks they leave behind and loud, smelly nature, snowmobiles are your friend if they were in the area, but aren’t now. The weather was perfect but there weren’t any large views because the trip was in a forested river valley along a snow covered (most of the time) forest road. Notable events included finding a moose antler (aka “moose paddle”), learning why you shouldn’t light a canister stove in a closed vestibule, and encountering horseback riders in the snow.
Saturday (January 16, 2021)
Lydia and I arrived at The Eightmile Sno Park without having settled on which of the routes we’d discussed, we were actually going to ski. The discussion dragged out a little as neither of us really wanted to leave the warm car but eventually we settled on doing a loop from the Eightmile Sno Park, counter-clockwise starting by skiing the road we’d just driven in on. This would get the bad skiing out of the way first as hopefully the rest would be the “Groomed Snowmobile Trail” which the WA State Parks map promised.
As cross country skiers, we have a love-hate relationship with snowmobiles. They’re loud, smelly, and hog the trail. However, their treads and skis groom the snow and make for a much better XC ski experience than when breaking new trail. Our hope was that this route would be less popular, but still popular enough.
We got out of the car around 10am and things started well enough. The toilet at the Sno Park was open. The herd of snowmobiles which were idling when we’d arrived took off up a different trail. While there wasn’t the groomed trail south along the road as the map implied, the road initially had enough snow that I didn’t feel like I was damaging my skis.
Unfortunately, the plows had down their work well. While that had made driving in easier, it made skiing less fun.
There was a thin layer of ice which usually kept the skis from making direct contact with the asphalt. When we turned east to cross the Chewuch River though, the road had been sanded which made for a feeling like skiing on sandpaper. I’m surprised my ski bases aren’t worse off. It also made for a loud sound like a zipper.
This road skiing lasted until the Boulder Creek Sno Park where a shoulder of the road had been left covered in snow and a clear snowmobile track was present. We took this shoulder which disappeared shortly at a one-lane bridge over a drainage coming in from the east. There was a little snow on the road as the road returned to the bottom of the river valley.
We were now well into the section where the the groomed snowmobile track was supposed to have picked up. The road skiing was hard on Lydia’s knee, still sore from the road walk on our previous adventure. We decided to go for another 20 minutes and if conditions didn’t improve, we’d abandon the endeavor and ski the 4-5mi back to the car instead of sticking it out for another ~18mi over two days. About 15 minutes later, the plowed road turned west toward the river. I was ready to turn around early since it seemed obvious that this wasn’t going to get any better when I realized that the plowed road wasn’t the main road. It turned onto private property. Another road continued straight, through a fence, but was snowed under with signs of a single snowmobile’s passage. That was our route.
The snowmobile track was soft underfoot, each kick (and yes, we could glide now, if only a little) sinking in subtly like walking on a deep carpet. The sun was shining. It was blissful after the miles of skiing on barely covered asphalt.
We ate lunch a little later sitting on the bank of the Chewuch with a view up the river back to the Eightmile Sno Park on the other side where we’d started. To avoid sinking in to the deeper snow where we ate lunch, I tried to get off my skis and onto my backpack and from there flop over to my foam sleeping pad. I’d only brought running gaiters which didn’t have a strap underneath and didn’t want snow up my pants or trapped under the gaiters melting into my shoes. Unfortunately, when reversing this sequence of acrobatics after eating, I slipped when trying to go from backpack to skis and so fell in anyways. Oh well.
The going continued to be pleasant. The skiing was easy. The light was soft for the few more hours we had it (sundown around 4:30pm). Lydia guessed that the trees we were passing were Ponderosas. My botanical knowledge allows me to differentiate between a tree, bush, and grass.
We hadn’t seen anyone for a few hours and the snowmobiles we’d seen at that time had been loud enough to give us plenty of warning. About half an hour before sundown, I spotted two snowshoers without packs rounding the next bend toward us. I interrupted Lydia with this development which turned out to be a good thing because she was just about to loudly proclaim how loud we could be that evening with no one around.
The snowshoers were a middle aged couple who owned a cabin up the road, near a spur where we’d intended to camp. They said no one else was in the area and people wouldn’t mind if we set up a tent. They were quite friendly and it seemed like they might have invited us to their cabin if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. They were responsible for the lone snowmobile track which had eased our passage thus far. The unfortunate implication of this was that the track might not go for our entire route.
Lydia and I continued and just before sunset the snowmobile track turned left on a spur road just as the plowed road had turned left earlier in the trip. The land was slightly sloped so we continued a short distance to the top of a gentle rise, breaking a shallow trail through a 1/8″-1/4″ thick crust of icy snow over several inches of loose powder. As we only went a short distance, this was fun as the crust made the sound of breaking glass when shattered by a ski in motion. My skis would sometimes get stuck under the crust and scrape on the bottom side before busting through. It was a little difficult to find a flat spot to camp because the crust had filled in holes and bumps but once broken, the powder would compress to match the undulations of the forest floor. I’m used to tents which are set up with trekking poles and guy lines making them difficult to move. It was very convenient to be able to pick up Lydia’s tent with it’s internal tent poles and reposition it around obstacles as we found them.
As a new winter camper, I took part particular pleasure in sticking our skis into the snow as tent stakes the way tents look in photos from intense expeditions. With the snow so powdery under the crust, conventional stakes could not bear much tension even after compacting the snow and waiting 15 minutes for them to solidify.
Lydia had gotten in to the tent first so I could use her skis as the back stakes and only have to flounder around knee deep snow of the tent’s vestibule after using my skis as the front stakes. Since I was occupying the vestibule anyways, I figured I’d melt water for drinking since our plan was to cook in the vestibule. I zippered the flap shut, sat down in the tent’s door (having a sunken vestibule makes getting in and out of a winter tent much easier than a summer one), connected a gas can to the stove (carefully placed on a foam pad so the snow wouldn’t cool it and reduce the pressure), and then tried to light the stove. Melting snow was taking a while so I started a second stove. The gas pressure in the first died down and so I used the flame from the second stove to heat the gas can for the first (just enough to melt the ice – gas cans cool themselves to below freezing). Thus, I survived my first bad idea involving gas and fire.
Re-lighting the stove took several attempts. My lighter had trouble catching. Then suddenly, WHOOSH. I’d had the gas line open while trying to light the stove but the vestibule door shut. The air-gas mixture must have been perfect all I saw was a flash and felt a strong heat hit me with a soft thud then dissipate. Closing my eyes must have been an unconscious reaction otherwise they might have been burned but they were immediately open again trying to figure out if any of the lingering flames were the tent itself on fire. If the tent were on fire, I needed to forget fire fighting and get out of the tent and get Lydia to do the same. After a second or two’s assessment, the tent itself didn’t seem to be on fire so I righted the stoves (a liter of almost melted water was lost), trying to move quickly. I remember batting some small flame with my gloved hand and it went out. Then, I realized that one of the fingers of my glove still had a candle sized flame that hadn’t gone out when I’d batted out the other flame, so I yanked the glove off and threw it out under the edge of the vestibule into the snow. Situation in hand, I set the pots on to melt more snow.
Over a dinner of rehydrated rice and mushrooms, Lydia told me that the right side of my face smelled burned but not the left side. Whenever I rubbed it, little flakes would fall out of my beard. My eyebrows were still attached, though a few strands felt fused. I’d blown myself up, just like in the cartoons.
Sunday (January 17, 2020)
I’d brought a dry bag and kept my boots and fuel can in it at the bottom of my sleeping bag which made it easy to get going in the morning. I’m not used to splitting a tent with someone and when I’m by myself, my stuff and I tend to expand to fill all available space. I was pleasantly surprised that Lydia and I didn’t seem to get in each other’s way while packing up and making breakfast. The only hard part was getting the short distance back to the road on the icy snow where the scales of our skis didn’t catch. The trick seemed to be redefining skiing as an upper-body exercise since planted poles didn’t slip. Also, balance is hard with a loaded pack.
We were now on a section of road which had not seen a snow mobile recently and so were breaking through the same crust I described yesterday. The joy of pretending I was a bull in a china shop, breaking glass with each step, quickly wore off. The going wasn’t hard, it was just slow and loud. Even a one sentence observation required stopping and then waiting for the other person to stop before speaking.
After about half a mile or so, some snowmobiles passed us going the other direction. Odoriferous though they might have been, the skiing became much easier as the trail was now broken. Shortly thereafter, we came to a place where an open stream was crossing the road. Fortunately, it was shallow enough and ski boots sufficiently waterproof that our feet stayed dry.
After skiing a little farther, we came on a sign warning us about the hazard we’d just crossed. I’m used to water on roadway in the spring runoff. It was unexpected in the winter and made me wonder how often that part of the road is dry.
The entire morning, there had been a set of tracks in the snow which I’d assumed were boots from someone walking. They’d been walking a long ways. It turns out that I’m not very observant because they were probably moose tracks. At some point, I noticed Lydia had stopped a bit back and was waving a moose antler. I had skied right by it. Lydia had been watching for a moose the entire trip and while I believe they live in the area, I so rarely see large, rare fauna, particularly in the same areas where I see hunters, that I wasn’t expecting anything. Maybe I rarely see megafauna because I’m not really looking.
A little farther along, a forest road forked east and was covered in snowmobile tracks. This herd of snowmobiles had left most of the road ski-able, not just a single track, almost as though a groomer had come through. This wider track carried us over the bridge at the north end of our loop and onto the sunnier road on the west side. Notable was that the moose tracks were deeper than the snowmobile tracks, at least until they dove over the edge of the road down to the river.
We ate lunch at one of the few views of the mountains above us. I managed the skis to pad to pack transition a little better this time.
The big event of the afternoon was when we encountered two horse riders. I typically think of horses as needing a solid surface, but they only seemed to be sinking in to just above the tops of their hooves. One of the horses was skittish around skiers and so its rider got off and talked with us for several minutes to let the horse calm down before it would move past. A little while later, the riders passed us, headed back south this time. They were galloping but the skittish horse stopped hard and bucked, dislodging the rider, though the rider never lost hold of the reins. “It’s times like these you’re glad for the snow” the not-now-a-rider said getting back up. We talked again for a few minutes before they were able to pass and take off galloping again.
As we entered the later miles of the trip, there were signs. Signs for camp grounds and day use areas. Signs for roads and signs for speed limits. There was even an interpretive sign confirming Lydia’s supposition about the trees being Ponderosas. There had been some mounds of neatly stacked tree branches we’d seen the day before. Perhaps they were left behind as burn piles by forest crews waiting for conditions under which a burn might be more controllable.
The final stretch was along a farm whose fields were covered in lumpy but untouched snow under a hill of ragged rock where the snow looked like frosting on Frosted Flakes.
And finally, we were back to Eightmile Sno Park. The toilets were still open and any trip where you don’t have to use a blue bag is a good trip in my book.
The original plan was to open 2021 with a ski around Crater Lake. Car breakdowns, ambiguous weather, and uncertain avy conditions lead to cancellation. With rain forecast to carpet the Pacific Northwest, including the areas where it should be snowing, Whidbey Island seemed to be an island of relatively low precipitation. Satellite imagery showed extensive beaches and maps showed trails on them. It might be a little blustery but that seemed to be the least bad option for a New Year’s adventure.
Friday (January 1, 2021)
With only ~13mi of beach to walk, Lydia and I didn’t feel the need use get an early start despite the relatively few hours of daylight. We parked around 9am at a small beach front parking area at the southwest tip of Joseph Whidbey State Park. Immediately, plan and reality diverged. We were supposed to walk south with the open water of the Sound to our right but this part of the coast was private with the surf breaking almost at the back porch of the poorly maintained houses. I’m not sure why these houses had been built between a thin strip of land between a pond and the Sounds – it seemed like an obvious flood risk, especially with a sign which said to expect water and debris in the road at high tide. Still, they were there so we walked the road.
At the next beach access… there wasn’t really much beach. But there was a sign saying to stay away.
So the road walk continued. The silver lining was seeing a bald eagle in a tree less than 20 yards away and just above eye level. Still too far for a good picture (see for yourself), but that’s the advantage of being there in real life.
The road walk continued over the rise and down to Hastie Lake road. We weren’t going to Hastie Lake but since it got us to the water, and even a walkable beach, we decided that the Sound was actually Hastie Lake. Notable was that while this was private beach (and not much beach at that), trespassing was OK. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that on a sign.
The reason that the beach was private became obvious shortly. There were pipes running down from the bluff above, sometimes in bundles like tentacles. These pipes had liquid coming out of them. I didn’t smell sewage so hopefully they were just fancy downspouts to avoid erosion.
The beach walk was beautiful as the weather remained nice. This was the one part of the trip which went as I’d planned, though the beach was much narrower than expected. The sun even came out a little.
Eventually the bluff above sloped down to another beach access. This had a sketchy ladder and driftwood bench which looked as though they should have blown away long ago. We walked past them only to realize that the small park another hundred yards or so at the north tip of Fort Ebey State Park wasn’t actually accessible without getting our feet wet. We doubled back, climbed the ladder, and had lunch on the surprisingly sturdy bench.
Multiple maps show trails on the beach around Fort Ebey State Park so I can only assume that the lack of beach meant that the tide was unusually high. Either way, it appeared that, having not been able to continue at the northern point of the park, we wouldn’t be able to access the beach elsewhere. We walked a road to a loop which touched the water at the end of Libbey road only to find that it was the point we hadn’t be able to reach earlier.
At this point, we looked at a map and decided to walk the road and trails to WA-20 on the far side of the island and then loop back, mostly via the Kettles Run trail. The route was largely through Fort Ebey State Park and so wasn’t busy as there was a paved path alongside the highway. Some of the trails which we didn’t take had funny names like Escape, Confusion, and Humpty Dump.
The return back across Whidbey Island from WA-20 to the western coast was along the Kettles Spur trail. There were piles of brush stacked in the dense, low trees which arched over the trail to give the feeling of a malicious fairy tale setting. The cut brush must have been recent as we passed a cleared deadfall which still smelled sweetly of recent cutting. It had been turned into two benches.
The trail wove through some private land then dropped to a popular beach access. It was about 2pm and no one was along the beach outside the parking area despite there being long walkable stretches north and south. This was a more committing section as it appeared that the waves were hitting the cliffs (ie there was no beach) in a distant section of the beach to the south and there didn’t appear to be an exit along the ~2mi until the bluffs descended back to the water. There was a 0.5mi stretch designated as a private beach which contained a narrow, rugged footpath to the top of the bluff which we noted as an escape route in case the beach disappeared. Fortunately, the tide was going out and so we weren’t worried about reduced travel options. I only wished that it would go out faster so I could walk on the firmly packed wet sand at the water’s edge.
Most of the the time we walked near the top of the beach on small rocks, loose under foot, which had been piled up by the waves. We decided that “trudge” was the most accurate word to describe our bipedal motion. “Slog” sounded wetter and muddier. With the wind up and footing tricky, I spent a lot of time looking at the rocks under foot. It struck me that they were quite varied in color: mustard, green, blue, purple, and sometimes red. Other than the mustard colors, these were different from the bluffs which were a dark tan. I wonder if they were carried from a distant area or represented unseen geology.
Clouds rolled in and out ominously, appearing to rain in the distance. Wind picked up and briefly turned a light rain into drops which stung when they blew under my hat’s brim and into my eyes. Dark comes early in the winter – about 4:30pm. Overcast skys can make that seem like it’s happening much sooner. Having measured our pace between the two signs marking the half mile of private beach, it seemed like we were going to get to camp about dark. Fortunately, that included a walk around Fort Casey State Park, and when we got to the camp at it’s northern edge, we opted for an overland route to explore the WWI era fortifications.
Clouds cleared a little and so it actually became more light just before sundown and this lightened the mood. I’d gotten a reservation at the campground on the south side of the park (I’d have preferred dispersed camping but that didn’t seem to be an option). After having wandered along the line of fortifications, a spur trail appeared to lead steeply down the hill to an area with a bunch of RVs. We took it about half way down the vertiginous hillside only to find that what started as clearly a path definitely did not “go” except that it “went” into a patch of thorny blackberry bushes.
After having found a proper route to the campground, I went through the unfamiliar steps of registering for our site, despite having gotten a reservation online. A kindly state parks employee explained it all to me, including where to put my vehicle’s license number (ha!).
Normally I feel cozy and protected in the tent I’d brought – a two person ultralight model sold at REI. In a campground surrounded by RVs and people, I suddenly noticed that the rainfly was transparent. Should I change into my sleeping clothes in the bathroom? It felt strange cooking dinner on my single burner camp stove at the picnic table while no one else seemed to be outside except for those reclining in folding chairs by fire rings or visiting with neighbors. As night fell, people used flashlights instead of headlamps. Such a strange new way of camping.
Saturday (January 2, 2021)
Some time in the middle of the night, the wind started. It was strong (weather.gov says +/- 20mph) and knocked the tent around, bending the ridge pole and pressing the walls in against my side so that insulation of my sleeping bag compressed and I could feel the cold seep in. At one point, I got out to check the stakes and guy lines. All were solid. The tent had simply been designed along the lines of bending and not breaking.
The wind was still blowing the next morning. Here’s a photo of the tent with Lydia still in it. You can see her knee pressing against the rainfly on the upwind side where I used to be.
I typically camp surrounded by tress and bushes which break the wind, even if I can hear it whistling and shaking them. This whole RV campground was built right on the water with no defensive perimeter. The Sound had been relatively calm the prior evening and now breakers were rolling in a few dozen yards away. Seems like a good place to test mountaineering tents.
Given the aggressive surf, Lydia and I decided to walk roads and trails back from Camp Casey. So much for a beach hike. Cars were a regular nuisance. When we got to Fort Ebey State Park, we stayed on the road because the beach didn’t run the entire length of the park above the water. Maps didn’t show access to the bluffs above part way through. If we hadn’t gone southbound the day before, we might have tried to go a mile or more before having had to turn around.
Coming back through the Kettles Spur trail, where the fragrant, freshly cut benches were, we saw that someone had written THANKS with small pine cones. We were thankful for a convenient spot to stop and have lunch. While we were eating, a man passed by and from a distance asked to take our picture because his brothers and nephew had cleared the tree and cut the benches the day before. It was an incredible small-world connection and we asked him to pass on our appreciation of their work.
The high tide and waves even made the first section of beach we’d walked the day prior look impassable, so we closed out the trip with more road walking. The silver lining was that we found an excellent farm stand which sold pie and the richest chocolate milk I’ve ever drunk. Payment was honor system and I didn’t have exact change so now I have a winter squash as well. And some jam (very sweet despite being “low sugar”). After that the rain started.
About a half mile from the car, we found a place for Lydia to stop because of a shooting pain in her left foot for which she’d been pausing every hundred yards or so. I was experiencing a sharp, building pain in my in my right knee. I assumed this was because we’d worn thin shoes expecting to be walking on soft sand and instead gotten hard top from walking roads. Fortunately, my knee didn’t hurt when running, so I got the car and brought it back as the rain increased. Not exactly walking the beach off into the sunset.
Not every trip goes as planned and this certainly was one of those that didn’t. I’ve always been fortunate in the resilience of my hiking partners as nothing ruins a trip faster than a sullen or complaining attitude. On this trip good spirits reigned despite things going off the rails immediately. Good spirits continued despite this adventure staying off the rails. And so it is that 2021 starts on a note of gratitude.
After last year’s successful Thanksgiving trip to Mt St Helens, I wanted another go ’round. Having the made the 11 mile trip up to the Olympic Hotsprings as a final long run before the Moab 240 this year (in flipflops because I forgot running shoes), I thought it would make an accessible trip, good for a group of friends in cooler weather. The hike is about 9 miles along a paved road which isn’t passable to cars due to a short washout. The final two miles are on a wide trail which is clearly a former forest road. This means the group can walk side-by-side for easy conversation. The consistent grade and surface make for easy walking. Most of my invitations were ultimately declined (not surprisingly between Thanksgiving being a family-first holiday and COVID) but Ella, my go-to hiking partner, managed to wrangle her friends Briana and Fran into coming at the last minute. The trip was a smashing success.
Thursday (November 26, 2020 – Thanksgiving)
The trip started with some last minute packing in the Madison Falls Trailhead parking lot. Briana is an experienced bike packer but this was going to be her first backpacking trip and since I’d forgotten to bring my extra full sized backpack, Ella’s spare frameless, hipbelt-less pack was going to have to suffice. Given that she was carrying a two-person tent and a bear can, it was going to be something of a trial by fire. Ella had to sit on the pack to make it all fit.
We set off down the road. The first mile was spent adjusting pack straps, stopping to change layers, and figuring out how to access snacks. My participation in the shakedown portion of the trip was to reposition a cellphone holder I’d purchased since losing my phone out my pack’s hipbelt pocket earlier this year (Ella found it).
The road starts broad and well maintained. It’s hard to imagine it washed out. Eventually the road has to cross the river and at that point, there’s simply no bridge. The footings are still there and appear in good shape. It’s such a clean break that it seems strange that bridge hasn’t been repaired.
We took the well used, unofficial bypass route along the riverbank (per signs: Warning! Unstable!) to avoid a short climb.
The bypass trail shows you a collapsing shelter on the bypassed section of road. Maybe the repairs would require more than just airdropping in a bigger bridge. It seems like an entire section of road is vulnerable to flooding.
The other side of the washout shows more damage. Maybe it’s not as simple as replacing the bridge with a bigger one. There area past the washout has a number of buildings, including a ranger station so I’m curious what the maintenance plan is.
A little while later you reach a bridge which hasn’t washed out. This answers the question of how to get across the river.
From here the road began to slowly climb. It was wide and we walked four-across falling naturally into stride.
The next stop was a small overlook and one of the few viewpoints on the hike.
Conversation seemed to dominate the experience to the point where walking might or might not be happening depending on whether we were waiting for someone to water a tree or grab a snack. In one case, I’d dropped back, the ladies had stopped, and didn’t restart when I caught up.
The talking was so constant as the road meandered upward that if one particular thread of conversation involved only the two people on one side of our line, the other two would start spinning their own. We fell into pairs and drifted apart and reconvened at the end of the road without significant time seeming to have passed. From the end of the road, a wide trail which appears to be a former forest road continues. There are a few rivulets, a rock hop (Ella tried to eschoo her traditional crossing technique of pretending there’s no water), and one footlog. These would block a car but aren’t an issue for pedestrians.
From the footlog, the campground is a short distance. You can see how both trail there and to the trail to the hotsprings were former forest roads. That makes for two generations of infrastructure loss due to wash out. It is incredible to think that once you might have been able to drive to the hotsprings. I certainly don’t mind using 11mi of easy walking to reduce use so there’s more for me, but it seems a pity to lose access through deferred maintenance.
We set up camp on arriving to avoid having to do so in the dark after dinner, then went to find a hotspring for our Thanksgiving feast. At this point, having scouted the pools previously was a great boon. The best pool was take by a friendly older woman we’d passed on the way up and who must have passed us back when we were setting up camp. She was by herself and had set up a tent by the pool and so I guess she was making the best of having to celebrate alone.
After a quick tour of the offerings, we set up at the second best pool which conveniently happened to be near camp. A number of the pools have been damaged which goes with the theme of deferred maintenance. I wonder if there’s something preventing trail crews from working on them since it seems like public hotsprings would be both an easy sell for volunteers and a much beloved destination which would many would want maintained.
When setting up at our chosen hotspring, it was a little hard to figure out where to put packs and food since the pool was fed by a seep which seemed to be coming from everywhere. We balanced what we could on rocks but between the seep and an intermittent mist, everything got wet.
Initially I’d been worried that if I got wet, I’d be cold after getting out. The air temperature wasn’t that cold and the spring was very hot and so I wound up going in as did most others. You actually had to get out from time to time to cool off dried quickly without toweling.
Ella has a interest in fashion and loves taking photos (“pics or it didn’t happen”). She broke up the stereotypical Thanksgiving table argument I was having with Fran about whether college dorms rooms should all be single occupancy, by getting us to pose under the fairy lights. Then she took a bazillion pictures. Many looked a awkward. Maybe that was due to the painfully hot natural heat vent where we were being posed (beauty is pain, right?).
While the fairy lights illuminated one end of the pool, the end where Briana had set up lacked area lighting so she mounted a headlamp sideways to illuminate the surrounding area. I thought it was hilarious, like one of fake arrows you can put over your head to look like it’s gone through.
Eventually things wound down and we packed up. I’d left my insulation layers out when I’d taken them off and they’d all gotten damp. Fortunately, the hotsprings left quite an afterglow and fleece handles the damp well. In any case, warm, fluffy sleeping bags awaited us back at camp. Eventually, actually I put on more damp layers to dry them with body heat. Briana’s socks had gotten wet but she was enamored with their ability to hold heat anyways because they were wool. Everyone wound up warm and cozy.
Camp was set up with our tents facing each other and we talked until about 10:30pm. We finished the wine and when the others went to hang the bear bag, I went to relieve myself only to discover that I couldn’t stand without leaning on a tree. I didn’t drink during that traditional time of regrettable introductions to alcohol known as college and like to feel stable on my feet. Usually walking back to the bar or fridge is a moment to check whether I should be getting a soft or hard drink. I’d been reclined as we passed the wine bag and while I noticed some effect, had no clue that I’d gotten stumbling drunk. Ella tells me my stories started being padding with nonsense. Apparently I’m a happy drunk. Other than having to retension my tent because I leaned on it too hard, things could have been worse.
Friday (November 27, 2020)
I heard an alarm go off and be quickly suppressed while it was dark. When my tent walls did begin to lighten, I was feeling good and got the bear bag so we could have breakfast. Ella had packed in the only stove. Fortunately, she gets up early to make herself tea and so obliged my request for hot chocolate.
I got back in my sleeping bag to enjoy breakfast in bed and after Fran and Briana woke up, we pretty much repeated the previous evening but in daylight: snuggled in our sleeping bags talking and eating. No alcohol this time, we’d finished that the night before.
It was something like 11:30am before we packed up camp. The sun had long since risen but with cloud cover, it stopped getting brighter after the first hour so there was no cue that it was almost lunch.
The trip back was pretty much the same as the day before – always talking, usually walking, sometimes eating. Everyone got to connect with everyone both in pairwise conversation and when we marched in a single rank. The timing of our trip had been excellent as we saw many more people heading up to share the hotsprings than had been present when we were there. We also took a little time to poke around the buildings trapped on the wrong side of the washout.
We made it back around the washout and to the cars. Ella did not throw her traditional post-hike tantrum, but maybe that’s because there was still the ride home to let the good vibes drain away slowly. It had been a Thanksgiving to be thankful for.