The Waptus Trip

Back from a week at Waptus Lake…38 miles covered on foot in five days. Several miles of the Pacific Crest Trail were cleared, as well as associated trails. It’s always a highlight of the trail crew season, a sort of pilgrimage. This year the weather was warm and clear, but not too warm. Nights cooled enough for pleasant sleeping under the stars.

Pam, Sam and I came across this beauty between Waptus and Deep Lake. We have a term for logs like this: “Project Log”. A Project Log means that we take our packs off and plan to stay awhile. It means that we walk up and down, looking for a good place to cut it, and analyze the bind. Where is a safe place to stand? In this case, there were ferns and brush on top of angular rocks in the avalanche chute. Where will we move the chunk so that it ends up off the trail? If it’s not safe to cut, how many pounds of explosives will be needed to blast it? (Quick calculation = 75 pounds, plus time and expense to bring the stuff in…not worth it.) I was proud of my crew when they announced that they were not afraid, and we decided to go for it.

The prep and first cut took an hour. Our five foot crosscut saw was sharp, and we paced ourselves. Five wedges were pounded in to keep the kerf open. The last few inches were single-bucked since it wasn’t safe for a sawyer to stand on the downhill side when the big tree started cracking as the weight shifted. We took turns, and it finally dropped with a thud and rolled into the trail. High fives all around. After lunch, we started the second cut. A party of six backpackers and a springer spaniel came down the trail. We had met them the day before–a couple of dads and four boys of various ages. They were excited to see what we were doing, so we let them pull on the saw and sweat in the sun. They asked a million questions about our work and what it’s like. We talked about swimming in the lake, and how nice some watermelon would be right about now. When they finished struggling with the saw, we took over with smooth strokes and again finished with a single buck. The log released, and we all heaved and slid it off the trail on a strategically placed runner. Lots of whooping as it crashed down. I measured across the cut diameter and read 37 inches on the tape. Our new friends went on their way, and we climbed up to cut more logs.

At the end of each work day, we converged on our base camp near Spinola Creek. Tools were leaned against a tree, packs dropped, boots and socks removed. Stories from the day were told. We all have our ways of cleaning up. Mine is to get a towel and clean dry camp clothes, and wander off to a private place along the creek. If a person is going to experience cold mountain water, it’s best to do it before the sun gets too low and the temperature drops. Peeling off the sweaty clothes is a high point of the day. Splashing in the water, noticing the new bruises, scratches, and streaks of pitch. Drying off to sit on a rock, soft air around skin…this is my time. Wordless time. Alone, I merge with the rush of the water, the quality of light, the buzzing calls of flycatchers in the tree canopy. My body is finally at rest and it feels good. After a time, I pull on loose dry clothes and make my way back to camp to see about supper.

I feel lucky to have camped with congenial companions over the years. A trail crew works together and lives together. It’s a fairly intimate situation. You end up learning a lot about the person on the other end of the crosscut saw because you can feel them–the weight of their pull, their strength, whether they are tired or hurting or feeling energetic. The best saw partners are exquisitely sensitive to each other and can speak just a few words to make adjustments. Verbal communication is necessary. Good partners fall into an easy rhythm, and when it’s going well it’s a beautiful thing. When you’re in the back country, you watch out for each other. A small injury or heat exhaustion can have serious ramifications when you are far from a road and town. What happens to one person can affect us all. We end up knowing more about each other than we might choose, but that can teach compassion and tolerance. A little kindness and understanding go a long way.

We also have fun together. After the hard work, mosquitoes and other tribulations, camp is the place for some goofiness. Delicious food items are pulled from the pack boxes to share. Conversations veer off on tangents. Somebody starts laughing and soon we are all doubled over with tears streaming from our eyes. The moon rises over Polallie Ridge, and the nighthawks are cruising over camp on pointed wings. They are insect eaters, and I for one am grateful.

Spinola Creek murmurs a lullaby all night. Sleep is deep. I wish I slept in camp every night, hearing the water running. Once I woke to hear tiny gnawing sounds outside the tent, but was too tired to feel concern. The moon flooded the ground with silver light and long shadows of lodgepole pines.

Somehow the days passed. Every day we left camp with tools and a plan. Our commutes were on foot. I always like the hiking time. My body walks while I open my senses. I’ve been on these trails many times, but I always notice something new. This time I was delighted by the sound of waves. In the Cascades, the sound of running water is nearly always present. But walking along the shore of Waptus Lake, the water lap-slaps in rhythmic waves as wind moves through the big glacial valley.

One morning I noticed this delicate feather on a vanilla leaf. It’s the height of summer, with flowers blooming everywhere. Yet this feather is a reminder that the neotropical birds have raised broods of young, and most of them have fledged. Perhaps some of the adults are moulting now, shedding old feathers so that new ones can grow in time for migration.

Spending time at Waptus always makes me think of change. All the changes I’ve seen in the twenty-odd years I’ve been going there: trees falling, creeks moving, bridges washing away, spruce budworm outbreaks, wildfires. Changes in the crew line-up, in the packstring, in the locals who hang out at the lake. I am aware of time passing, and it does not seem to be in my favor. I don’t like to think of that. But what we resist persists, so I turn to face the changes. Why, I wonder, does it seem that nature changes so gracefully and we humans have such a hard time with it? What is it that makes us cling to notions of stability? A need for comfort and security? A desire to avoid the knowledge that we too change and someday will die?

The wondering keeps my mind busy while my feet are walking. Life, death, one big round and round. I’ll never get it all figured out and that’s fine. I’m here to clear trails and bear witness to change and find joy in the little things. Right now the twinflower (Linnea borealis) is blooming in the forest, lightly scenting the air with a faint honeysuckle sweetness. What could be more pink and cute, yet tough and thriving? It grows all around this latitude, in Canada and Sweden, Alaska and probably Siberia. Think of all these flowers, blooming right now and trailing between the roots of conifers…

Well. Enough of this rambling. Re-entered the civilized world yesterday evening. Time for rest, rehydration, laundry. Time to prepare for the next wilderness trip.

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4 thoughts on “The Waptus Trip

  1. What a lovely post. You have a tough and grueling job but I think you are a lot like my son who told me a long time ago. Mom, I’m never going to have a job that I don’t love. I can tell you love your job. I can tell you love your job. JoAnn

    1. Someday I will write about the relationship we have to our work. It can be a love/hate thing, and there’s more to it than getting the paycheck. For better or worse, most of the time I do love my job. Can’t beat the view from the office.

  2. Your post speaks eloquently of the central importance of community and learning to live and work together, which I fear is so lacking in contemporary society today. I’m glad your trail mates are practicing this lost art daily! And your photos are lovely.
    Kate

    1. Thanks, Kate. We do seem to have lost sight of the greater good these days, which feels like a real loss. I keep thinking of the last lines of that Gary Snyder poem “For The Children”:
      stay together
      learn the flowers
      go light

      More is possible together.

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