The Waptus Trip, Part One

Waptus River

This week was much anticipated, as I joined the trail crew for their first camping trip of the season. Last year I didn’t go to Waptus Lake, so was really determined to get there this time.

After dropping crew members off at the Cathedral Pass trailhead, Jon and I headed up the Waptus River trail. The river is first visible (and audible) at about three miles. It tumbles through a carved canyon. Further upstream the valley opens and the river gets quieter. We put on mosquito nets for the last few miles, and crossed the horse ford.

Jon crossing the Waptus River

Rolling into camp is like coming home after a long day. It is home. Tom and Tiff had started to set up camp, and soon John and Ethan came in. We talked on the radio to Rick, Sam and Jared who were still making their way down Quick Creek. People splashed in Spinola Creek to wash off the dust and sweat, and dinner was started. Tents were set up. I made biscuits in a hot skillet and people ate them right out of the pan. There was laughter and sharing stories of the day. Dinner was devoured and the dishes washed. The sun set behind Summit Chief Mountain and the air cooled. No-see-ums came out, along with their mosquito buddies. Nighthawks flew over camp eating bugs. Hermit thrushes sang good night, and Spinola Creek murmured into a night that never got truly dark.

The next day was a day of rest for me, and the crew re-opened an old ford across Spade Creek. The Pacific Crest Trail bridge is washing out and is no longer safe for horses. They cut brush and logs, posted signs, scouted ahead. I had dinner underway when they returned, then went to visit the lake while the dishes were washed.

Sun setting behind Summit Chief

Wednesday I joined the crew on the PCT. We worked above Spinola Creek all day. Seems like there’s always a lot to do on this stretch–from logout to tread repair, and of course the inevitable brush.

PCT after brush cutting

The day was warm, and the patches of shade were welcome. We’ve all experienced heat exhaustion over the years. Temperatures in the low 80s are perfect for triggering it. It’s not so hot that working is unbearable, but it’s warm enough to sap your energy and create a hydration deficit. When we got to a place the crew calls “The Cleft”, we climbed up to filter water and take a break. Snowmelt trickles straight down a narrow gouge in the cliffs, and gathers in small pools. Close examination of the rocks revealed leaf impressions. Imagine–this place used to be a lake or coast where sediments gathered and deciduous trees dropped leaves. Tom said he would look in his geology books to find out how long ago.

Leaf impressions in slate

I went down ahead of the crew to have my time in the creek and get started on dinner. One of the perks of the job is “bathing” in mountain streams. There is nothing like finding a private spot to strip off the filthy work clothes and get cleaned up. Sticks and needles that have fallen down the shirt and stuck to sweaty skin are rinsed away. So is the brown dusty line above the socks. Bug bites and scrapes are soothed. It’s cold–you don’t want to stay in for long. It feels good to get out, towel off, and stand in the still warm air. That’s refreshing. Clean clothes, and back to camp.

Twilight lingers. Moon sets over Polallie Ridge. Crew sits around talking and laughing and slapping at bugs. People wander off to tents. I lie in mine, listening to nighthawks and hermit thrushes and the creek. Voices finally fade and sleep comes.

Waptus is the Yakama word for “wing feather”. It’s my word for wilderness home, adventure, camaraderie, memory.

Cumulus and lodgepole pines

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