Ranger Diary: Cathedral Pass


DAY ONE: July 26, 2013
Topic of the Day = Righteous Indignation
One of the hazards of wilderness rangering is knowing the “rules” so well that it’s glaringly obvious when they are broken. Of course, I rarely catch people in the act of misbehaving so I almost never get to stand on my soapbox to edu-ma-cate wrongdoers. I’m always preaching to the chorus. I notice the feelings that arise inside of me when I see harm done out of ignorance. Righteous indignation, holier-than-thou, snobbish annoyance, a tendency to become a peeved Miss Backcountry Manners.

I walk for miles mulling over what to do about this. The feeling of righteous indignation is not pleasant. Obviously, I repair the damage. On this first day of my four day hitch, I find toilet paper blossoms in the heather near a campsite. And a deposit of human waste. I dig a hole to bury it. A well-informed camper would have used the backcountry toilet, or gone to a discreet place 200 feet away from water, trails and campsites to dig a 6 inch cathole to do their business. Some people are not well-informed. Or they just don’t care.

Same with the burned foil of hot chocolate wrappers I pull out of campfire ashes. Same with the way they walk on trails. The second element of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics is “Travel and camp on durable surfaces.” A trail is a durable surface, rock is a durable surface. Vegetation is a less durable surface, so why have hikers stepped up off a perfectly serviceable trail to create a parallel path? This baffles me, and I truly want to understand. Is it because the trail was wet? Because they didn’t want to step on loose rocks in the main trail? Again, all I can do is repair the damage by placing a line of rocks to encourage traffic to stay on the established trail. If people don’t walk on it, eventually the plants will grow back.

One of the purposes of wilderness is to have a place that is relatively undeveloped and uncivilized. Natural processes dominate, and humans are only visitors. I believe it is beneficial to us to spend time in big unsanitized spaces where we have to think about what we’re doing. I personally love the challenge of living minimally. I want to travel lightly through this place. I want others to do the same, mindfully. Stewardship means to care for something that doesn’t belong to you. In order to do my job of stewardship, I must allow callouses to form over my personal sensitivities. The righteous indignation wears off, and I matter-of-factly bury the shit, destroy the illegal campfires, fix the trails without judgment.

DAY TWO: July 27, 2013

Topic of the Day: Scenery

Mt. Daniel and Deep Lake
Mt. Daniel and Deep Lake

I pack up my camp at Squaw Lake and hike two and a half miles to Cathedral Pass, where I reset camp next to a tarn. Stashing most of my gear in the tent, I heft my much lighter pack and carry on to Deep Lake three miles away. Many parties of hikers are going to Peggy’s Pond, a popular destination. It’s just so darn scenic. I am not alone in my fondness for subalpine places. I’ve read that humans are hard-wired to feel comfortable in savannah-like environments. It is here that we climbed out of trees and began to walk upright, in part because we could see. Subalpine areas are not the same as deep forest. There’s an open feeling to the extensive meadows studded with clumps of trees. Being visual creatures, we like a vista.

While I hike, I consider scenery and landscape. My mind goes back to graduate school twenty years ago when I investigated American landscape painting. I was fascinated by the changing imagery of wilderness and encroaching development. Cultural values are reflected in the art we make and what we find beautiful. The idea of landscape painting came from Europe, as a way of inventorying resources or recording what an individual owned. Nineteenth century landscape paintings showed a changing view of wild places. Often these were allegorical rather than literal. Some were sublime, and some were luminous. Some sought to portray natural wonders as the frontier was explored, mapped, and settled. The invention of photography had a profound effect on how we see the landscape, and still does. The digital photos I snap on my hikes do not match my memories of the places. The photos are truncated views of a whole world and the camera interprets light and shadow differently from how I experience it. A photograph is representation, not the real place.

When I think of the word scenery, I think of a theatrical backdrop for some human drama. It’s the set where our story takes place. Thinking of the landscape in this way somehow diminishes it.

As I descend the Pacific Crest Trail to Deep Lake, I am looking at Mt. Daniel and the shimmering lake below it. Time to stop thinking. I hear streams hurling themselves downward from snowfields, a continuous roar warped by the wind that ripples the blue-green water. The sun is bright, reflected off the rocks and my back is damp with sweat. My legs move in a forward rhythm. I smell the mustiness of Alaska yellow cedar, the balsam of subalpine fir, dust on the trail.

When I reach the lake, I find a place to take of my boots to waggle my feet in the cool water. Ah. I filter a couple of quarts for drinking and eat a snack. The stiff breeze keeps the mosquitoes away. The sound of running water and wind is everywhere and I feel space around me. After some campsite work and note-taking, I climb back up to the pass. Afternoon is getting on, the light changes. It’s intoxicating to be up high where I can see for miles. I relish all of it as I cook my simple supper, write in my notebook and go to sleep as the first star emerges.

DAY THREE: July 28, 2013
Topic of the Day: Not Knowing

As planned, I hike back down to Squaw lake to meet a Washington Trails Association volunteer crew. With a roll of orange flagging and a Sharpie, I marked numerous trail jobs for them. I spend the day working with the crew. The Cathedral Pass trail was reconstructed in 2001 and it’s time for some heavy maintenance. The turnpike ditches need cleaning and the structures themselves are in need of more fill. Much of the day is occupied with picking up rocks and fitting them in the turnpikes. At lunchtime we all sit together, and I am surprised to learn that people have come from all over to volunteer–from the Midwest, from California. The conversation ranges far and wide. They are curious about my life as a ranger, and are especially interested in the natural history of the trees all around us–mountain hemlock, silver fir, Alaska yellow cedar. We go back to rock-gathering. Their work day finishes at mid-afternoon and we hike back up to the lake where they are camped. Some of them help me dig a new hole for the toilet. There’s a layer of organic soil and roots, then a layer of volcanic ash from the last eruption of Glacier Peak, then several inches compressed gravel and cobbles. We take turns pounding through it with a rock bar, then scoop out the rubble with our gloved hands. They don’t have to do this, so I am grateful for the assistance. At last I deem the hole deep enough and set the box in place. Good enough!

It’s late afternoon as I make my way back up to my solo camp. I’ve enjoyed the company and conversation, but am ready to relax. To the east, I notice a large white cloud billowing up behind Mt. Stuart. Impressive…it sure looks like a pyrocumulus. Some wildfires generate so much heat that the top of the smoke column turns into a thunderhead, a pyrocumulus.

Smoke plume behind Mt. Stuart
Smoke plume behind Mt. Stuart

I’ve heard nothing on the Forest Service radio about a large fire, so I don’t know what’s going on. There’s another large plume to the north of the first one. Could there possibly be two fires, and not a peep out of the radio? I convince myself that they are actually thunderstorms.

Anyway, I’m eager to get on with my evening. Before cooking my supper of tortellini with garden vegetables and pesto (the latter dehydrated at home), there’s time to swim in one of the tarns. My feet squelch through the ooze on the bottom then I let myself float forward and paddle around. The water isn’t deep and I don’t need much swimming to feel like a complete hedonist.

Tarn, with Cathedral Rock
Tarn, with Cathedral Rock

DAY FOUR: July 29, 2013
Topic of the Day: Leaving the Subalpine

As soon as I crawl out of the tent, the smell of smoke hits my nostrils. It’s drift smoke from some distant fire. The air is hazy as the sun rises. I feel unsettled–the smell of smoke always does this to me. Summer has just entered a new phase: fire season.

After eating breakfast on the rim of the ridge, I pack up camp and descend. One last look around at the meadows and trees…a familiar grumpy moment about always being on the move. One of these days, I promise myself, I’ll stay here and just loaf around in camp till noon. I’ll lie on my belly with my eyes three inches from the ground so I can look straight at the red heather flowers with a pencil in my hand and a sketchbook. I will listen to the Clark’s nutcrackers going about their business with grating calls and watch them fly from snag to snag. I will gaze across the glacial valley and study the map, naming all the peaks. I’ll have another cup of coffee and drink it slowly. I will do all of this when the mosquitoes have died off because now I am itching and scratching and I have to hike so I can get back to the ranger station and make my reports.

Which is what I do. I haul a few more rocks with the WTA crew and discuss the priorities for the rest of their week. I like those people. Their efforts make the trail better.

I am down in less than two hours. Drop my pack at the bridge across the Cle Elum River, and filter another quart for the ride back. I rinse my dirty arms in the cold river, and dunk the top of my head. Transition time…

I did see a pyrocumulus. It’s the Colockum Tarps Fire, along the Columbia River breaks east of here. It’s big.

Thunderstorms are forecast for this week. We’ll see what happens.

7 thoughts on “Ranger Diary: Cathedral Pass

  1. Saw and smelt smoke when I left after teaching my 1st workshop Sat., and enroute home after workshop the second on Sun. the clouds were dramatic. Today the valley was clear in the morning, and smudged by noon – air as visibly infiltrated by smoke as the smog layer is on the Wet Side.
    Tastes nervous-making.

  2. I alway get a little grumpy too when I see the crap that people leave at campsites. And the second trail right next to the real trail..ugh. I have been known to snap at other hikers for perpetuating a clandestine second trail, it really bugs me. My eyes get drawn to things that are unnatural in the wild. Trails and garbage are not wilderness.

    1. I despair when I think about how to teach our entire society how to slow down and be mindful. Wilderness is not a destination, it’s a way of being. Bigger than all of us.

  3. Day One
    Yeah Varily

    Day Three
    Did you hit that hard pan twenty inches down? On the last move we whaled on it for an hour and a half with a polaski, then decided it was deep enough.

    How about that south toilet at Peggy’s pond? It was barely usable three years ago. Tim has pictures.


    1. Bill,
      Yep, 20″ down. We had a rock bar to bust through it and several people to take turns whanging away. Good to get it done!

  4. Deb, thanks for your back country reports. I love your descriptions. It is the next best thing to back packing myself, which I can’t do because of my bad back. I can vicariously live the experience through you. By the way, I am annoyed to hear that there were toilet paper flowers and poop scattered near the trail and/or campsites. Back packers ought to know better. You are a better person than me. You seem quite pragmatic about it. My inclination would be to kick someone’s ass (if I could find em). Happy backpacking Deb. I look forward to more of your reports. Hugs, Hilary

    1. Hil, I am not a better person. I stomp around feeling really pissed off and thinking bad thoughts about people. Then I bury it. Glad you can come with me through the diary…

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