The Last Backcountry Trip of the Season

“Is that it there?” asked the helicopter pilot.

My eyes were busy taking in the landscape, hurrying to connect peaks and drainages into the familiar map in my mind. The speed of the aircraft was 105 miles an hour. I walk at two to three MPH, and rarely have the vantage point I had in the front seat next to the pilot. A flight is a wondrous opportunity to see the ground below, but I always feel a mad rush to take it all in.

“Yep,” I replied into the microphone on my flight helmet.

This was one of the fires sparked by lightning on September 8. Deep within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it was a low priority for attention. Days passed while it crept and backed down the slope, occasionally flaring up enough to send smoke over the ridges. As the helicopter circled, I scribbled the fire’s shape on a contour map I held on my lap. Look and draw, hold details in memory long enough to get down on paper–my art training comes in handy.

After the reconnaissance flight I came home to pack. The packing routine starts in June, and by October I am thoroughly tired of loading and unloading my backpack. Not till the next morning did I overcome inertia and get all my gear in place. John and I planned to hike in to observe the fire for a few days. The upper Cle Elum valley was nearly deserted, and we had the golden meadows and deep blue shadows to ourselves.

After quickly setting up our tents near a meadow in Trail Creek, we found a cross country route to a high point where we could observe the fire. The upper part was black and cold, with the only real activity at the bottom of the fire where it had backed down to the heavy timber above Trail Creek. It had not moved significantly since I’d seen it the day before from the helicopter. Our mission was to map the burned area, estimate the acreage, note the intensity of the burn, and make other observations to include in a summary report. By 5:30 PM, we had to leave our perch to hike back to camp before dark. No long lingering sunsets in October. We finished our supper wearing down jackets and wool hats, leaning back to find the first stars emerging.

By morning, frost had crisped the meadow next to camp and we were eager to get moving just to warm up. The sun painted a golden band of light on the ridges above us. John is an excellent wayfinder, and after looking at the map together, I was content to let him pick the way up to the viewpoint we’d agreed on. My eyes were on the forest we hiked up through, searching for details that would tell the story of the wood that the fire burned in. I found evidence of a previous fire in the shreds of charred wood and fire-scarred old trees. The subalpine firs that made up much of the stand were about the same size and age. Huge old logs were rotting into the ground. A fire had burned through Trail Creek 75 to 100 years ago. Most of the trees were killed and stood as snags. Eventually they fell to melt into the soil that the new forest grew in. My guess is that the fire across the creek was burning in this duffy old wood on the ground. As we climbed higher, more sky was visible through the trees until we finally emerged on a rocky knob. There was no higher ground, and we actually descended to find the best viewpoint.

Neither of us had seen Waptus Lake from this angle before, and we stood for awhile just looking. The names of mountains and rivers make the lyric of the song I sang to myself for the whole day: Summit Chief, Chimney Rock, Lemah, Escondido Ridge, Quick Creek, Waptus Pass, Polallie Ridge, Cone Mountain, Goat Creek…we settled in to our fire-watching routine. We discovered another lightning strike just down the ridge, and ran like little kids to look (you can see it in the right-hand foreground of the photo). Sure enough, a little fire had torched a few small trees and burned itself out. This is how the day passed: the fire smoldered, the wind changed and carried the smoke in different directions. Hawks of all sorts flew over us and passed us, soaring upward on thermal currents. A family of ravens came from east to northwest to play in the air way above the creek. The sun’s angle lowered and shadows grew across the fire. When it was time, we packed up and made our way down through the yellow Cascade azalea and red huckleberry brush to the main trail.

Another cold night, colder than the previous one. We were slow to move, but the chilly air forced me off the ground to seek sunlight. The trail was frozen as we searched for yet another viewpoint. Often it seems like wherever you want to go, game animals have been there already. We found a deer trail and followed it to a bluff where we hung out. John is ready to be a solo fire watcher, and we reviewed the language to describe fuels and fire behavior. The fire enticed us to stay with a little flare up, but it was time to go. Lunch in camp, then packing for the hike out.

I fell into a state I can only describe as meadow bliss. The pack on my back felt lumpish and familiar (45-50 pounds?), but I wasn’t really aware of it. All I knew was that the weather forecast was changing, and I was leaving the mountains. This perfect day was only here now, and I wanted to experience it as fully as possible. I scrabbled my notebook out of my pocket and wrote while I walked: Mushrooms–fungi emerging from bone-dry earth, displacing soil & needle litter. sweet cicely arnica trailing raspberry lupine fine grasses fir seedlings. Breeze in boughs husssshhhhh ussshhh mmmmmmmmm sunwarmed blue-green needles stomata open, releasing balsam scent. Seed heads, gopher holes spruce cones scales flung open like a hundred cabinet doors paperwinged seeds flying. Gray jay. Shovel clangs softly on huckleberry brush. Ravens live here and they echo above the mountain hemlocks.

We stopped at Squitch Lake for no reason except it was beautiful. A special place, John calls it. I didn’t want to leave. And if I had to leave, I wanted to come back. We lingered, knowing that there was more trail ahead. Put packs back on, stepped into the shade.

Even in the shade colors glow. I framed a few more photos, marveling at the tapestry woven seemingly at random. Every direction I turned was a new composition.

The trail descends along a timbered north-facing slope, which seems especially dark this time of year. No sun penetrates to the ground. We walked down stony switchbacks, and I imagined the glacier that shaped the valley. The slope is on the lateral moraine, that ridge of rocky detritus left by the retreating glacier. There is no way to make the trail smooth, even if a crew shoveled rocks out of the tread every week till the end of time. Irregular cobbles just keep appearing, and bigger rocks are buried in the trail. John calls them icebergs, because only the tops show. The intrepid trail worker who decides to dig one out had better have some patience and time.

On the final traverse, my eye fell on a mushroom that had been plucked from the ground. When I picked it up, it was light and air-dried. I liked the creamy color, the waves of the gills, the intricate design. The whole trip had been filled with wonder and curiosity. We got to the truck and prepared for the hour and a half drive back to the ranger station. Even worse than packing is the transition back to civilization. It starts with the trailhead, then the truck. One has to move at a different speed, and more assaults on the senses lie ahead. After time in the wilderness, life becomes not simple. So we are pretty quiet, not talking much. We still look at the colors–vine maples in avalanche chutes–and I’ve run out of words. I’ve already used flare, flame, glow, ablaze, scarlet. All I have left is the looking.

The truck came to rest at the ranger station. Now I felt tired, the kind of tired where I don’t know what I wanted more–a hot meal, a hot bath, or just to fall into bed. Eventually I had all three.

It’s the second day after coming back. This afternoon I finally finished dumping out my pack and putting gear away. It’s raining.

In the backcountry, it’s raining. The Trail Creek fire will not be able to stay alive. The leaves will not be able cling to twigs a moment longer. The fire will let go. The leaves will let go. And I will let go of another season as winter comes a step closer.

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