DAY ONE: September 15, 2013
Topic of the Day: Perfume
September 15 through 25 is a buck hunting season in the wilderness areas of Washington state. We call it “high hunt”, and it is traditionally a time to patrol the backcountry. I have heard stories of legendary exploits (the guy who carried a chicken nine miles on his saddlehorn to eat in camp, and all the drinking), but this was my first time on solo patrol. I got a late start at the Cathedral Pass trailhead, and had a sweaty climb up the trail. Turned off on the Squitch Lake shortcut. As the name implies, Squitch Lake is a swampy area, and the official trail has been rerouted to higher ground. I followed an elk path through the lush grass, tiny treefrogs the size of my little fingernail bouncing ahead of my boots. As I emerged into the open and saw the lily pads floating on the open water, the perfume hit my nostrils: a rich fruity scent. Vaccinium deliciosum, the lowbush huckleberry drew me to red-leaved bushes. It had to be break time. I dropped my pack and started sampling the round berries. They are dark purple with a bluish bloom, releasing from the twigs into my fingers. A few were mushy from heat followed by rain, but most of them were perfectly ripe and bursting with juice. I forgot what I was supposed to be doing and simply ate. At one point I looked down to see bear poop next to my foot. Hm, I thought. Smart bear, finding berries. Wonder where it is right now?
Eventually I came to my senses and looked around for hunting camps. None evident (no bears either), so I lifted my pack and continued on. As I dropped down Trail Creek, the sky to the west was darkening with roiling clouds. The weather forecast mentioned thunderstorms with abundant lightning. My thoughts turned to where I wanted to be when all hell broke loose and changed my destination for the evening. Camp was made near a small meadow where I could shelter under lodgepole pines away from any standing dead trees. After supper, I secured my gear in anticipation of wind and rain then sat in the tent reading. The grumbling started around 7:50 as night fell. It came over Polallie Ridge to the west and echoed up and down the Waptus valley. I watched the flashing approach, and delighted in the strobe effects of suddenly illuminated trees. It was below, down the valley and overhead, in the clouds. And loud. I counted the time between the flash and the crash–one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three BOOM! A mile away, or less. The wind sighed through branches and the first drops of rain pecked the tent fly. I retreated inside to the sleeping bag and drowsed as the storm made its way northeast. It rained hard, and I was glad for my preparations. I slept dry in my cocoon.
DAY TWO: September 16, 2013
Topic of the Day: Bear Sign
Emerged from the cocoon to a damp drippy world. Cobwebby clouds hung low, muffling the sound of water droplets. After breakfast, I stuffed the wet tent into its bag and pulled the cover over my backpack. Hiking in rain gear is cumbersome and soon I was perspiring inside the swishing nylon. Long ago I learned that you never stay dry in the woods, but if you keep moving at least you will stay warm.
I hadn’t been to Michael Lake since 1992, when the trail crew camped in the area to install log waterbars. That’s a long time, and this trail has fallen off the list of high priorities for maintenance. It’s not even on the medium priority list. So I was curious to observe the conditions for myself. Turns out I barely remembered anything. It was a long uphill pull on rocky tread. When I stopped for lunch, a bit of weak watery sunlight shone down so I hung the tent fly and my raingear on branches. Before long another shower swept through and I continued hiking. I met two wet miserable hunters who were heading out. After whining “Am I ever going to get there?” to myself for the hundredth time, I dropped down into a basin that cupped a deep blue-green lake. Encircled by a rugged ridge and sweeping talus slopes, Michael Lake reflected the blue-green of the water-drenched conifers around it. All day I had seen where a bear had gone ahead of me, turning over rotten logs to hunt for grubs. This time of year, the omnivorous black bears are fattening up on whatever they can find. Huckleberries are a favorite, but there are other sources of nourishment as well. While choosing my campsite, I came across the perfectly turned log above. It seemed best for me to find a place that had been used by humans before.
When I spotted the dry ground under a clump of Engelmann spruces, I knew I had found it. The branches hung low, creating a semi-cave. There was a root to sit on. I hung all my wet gear inside the spruce cave, and spent the next hour dismantling an illegal fire ring, In the Alpine Lakes, fires are prohibited above 5000 feet elevation to protect the subalpine habitat. This is the highest forest, with a short growing season. Trees occur in groups rather than continuous stands, and may only grow a fraction of an inch in a year. This sort of place cannot sustain lots of wood-gathering for campfires. Besides the lack of wood, subalpine areas also recover more slowly from any kind of disturbance. The scars from a fire will remain visible for years. So I have no qualms about tearing a fire ring apart and hucking the rocks into the brush. I have a special bag for carrying charcoal and ashes away, and I carefully sift out the foil and broken glass and other unburnables. The final step is to camouflage the site so that it looks as if there never was a campfire. I fill the hole with rocks, soil, even horse turds. Then sprinkle a layer of needles and duff to blend with the surrounding ground.
The only flat place for the tent was under a white pine tree, so that’s where I put it. Everythingh else sheltered under the spruce tree. I filtered water for the evening, then wandered around with a plastic bag. The huckleberry bushes around camp were bent over with ripe fruit. I was not the only one harvesting. Birds and ground squirrels were eating as well, erupting out of the wet bushes when I came too close. Up in the rocks, pikas were calling in their squeak toy voices “Eeeeep!” I watched, but saw no dark lumbering shapes of bears.
DAY THREE: September 17, 2013
Topic of the Day: Disbelief
I got up once in the night, and sleepily saw that mist was hanging down to the ground. Felt the fine cool droplets on my face. In the morning, the clouds had risen to the level of the ridge around the lake. The water was still. I heard rocks falling above camp–some animal moving along the ridge. There was no hurry to leave so I ate breakfast, had a second cup of tea, packed up. Took my radio, shovel, and trash bag along the fisherman’s trail to see what there was to see.
A lawn chair?! Really?
It was as if the campers had just been there. I saw the scuffled marks around the trees where they had tied their horses and the melted plastic in their fire. Off to one side I found a discarded pair of romeo slippers. One sole flapped loose and the leather on the other shoe was blue with mold. I hefted them in my gloved hand–several pounds of weight.
I dismantled everything, leaving the meadow in a more natural state. (This fire ring hole received horse turds.) Found more huckleberries, which I ate as a reward for virtuous stewardship of wild places. I thought about the trail ahead of me, and the companionship of a lawn chair and shoes. It was clear to me that since the campers didn’t pack everything out then I would. When I bought my backpack, I made sure that it had plenty of straps and pockets for tying on strange loads.
My crew of inanimate objects and I set forth, heading for the Waptus River. In spite of the weight there were still moments to observe and wonder…
DAY FOUR: September 18, 2013
Topic of the Day: Ranger Haiku
After seven miles, an elevation drop of 1500 feet, and a river crossing I arrived at the log jam. I could see a shower hissing its way down the valley and scampered to get the tent set up. There was another clump of spruce trees with dry ground underneath so I felt fortunate to have a good place to hunker. I slept listening to the river and rain. My feet were dry.
As always, there was a fire ring to clean up. My micro trash recognition skills are so finely tuned that I can tell a piece of decayed foil on the ground from a shred of lichen. They are remarkably similar. The creative mind being what it is, I did my work while stringing words together. The day before, I had started writing a letter in my head To Whom It May Concern about why I don’t like them. It had much to do with the weight of soggy romeo slippers and a lawn chair added to the load on my back. How could I transform my rant into poetry? Ranger haiku!
Dull silver ingots
lumpy pebbles in fire ring.
Your melted beer cans.
There’s more where this came from. But thinking of haiku made me remember how poignantly the changing seasons are interpreted in Japanese art. Fall is the time of rain and sadness, of the longing cries of migrating geese, of transient shining slivers of beauty. Nothing lasts, but how beautiful the world is as things come and go!
As I traveled down the Waptus River trail, the ground was drier. It hadn’t rained as much. I could see scraps of blue sky through the trees and vine maple leaves just beginning to turn red. A few red and olive sockeye salmon hovered in the Cooper River pool–they’re back! Before I knew it, I had reached the trailhead and laid my pack down in the back of the truck. Driving to the ranger station, I noticed the absence of people. Not many cars parked at dispersed campsites, no piles of garbage along side the road, no campfires. The woods are relatively quiet, even for hunting season.
Upon my return, I weighed my pack with the trash still strapped to it. Sixty pounds. Know I know. The romeos and lawn chair were deposited into the dumpster, having been carried eleven or twelve miles from Michael Lake. No regrets. That stuff doesn’t belong in the wilderness.
And now I’ve been home for a couple of days. The sleeping bag has been aired and loosely stuffed into its storage bag. The rain pants have had the mud washed away, and the tent is dry once more. Will I go out again? Probably, but I don’t feel the urgent drive to get to high country. The season is changing; has changed. There are other things that want my attention. And honestly, I am ready to slow down and reflect. Enjoy the coziness of home and get ready for the long winter that’s coming.