What I’ve been waiting for–trail time. We went to log out Andrews Creek trail, starting with full backpacks and crosscut saws. The crew kept talking about getting to Spanish Camp as if it was some sort of El Dorado, a Shangri-la, the most amazing destination in the world. There’s an old cabin there, a place where rangers have rested for decades. There’s a woodstove. Propane gas. A cabinet full of extra food. Spare tools. Our lives would be golden when we got to Spanish Camp.
It didn’t take me long to figure out getting to Spanish Camp meant that the hard part would be over. But first, we had to get through the hard part: fourteen miles to Andrews Pass. The entire drainage burned in the 2003 Farewell fire. What remains are ghost trees, acres of standing snags. The landscape is open and exposed to the sun. Pioneer plants such as willow, ceanothus and fireweed grow a couple feet a year, creating a lush tangle of vegetation.The soil is nearly devoid of organic material, being composed of sandy crumbled granite. While the aftermath of a large forest fire can seem sad and harsh, I assure you it is also full of sound and life. There is always the sound of running water, Andrews Creek and its small tributaries carrying snowmelt and spring runoff to larger streams. All kinds of butterflies sailed before us as we made our way through the brush. Birds made use of the snags for perches, nests, and feeding sites. I heard the echo-y notes of a hermit thrush melody, the rising notes of the Swainson’s thrush, the bright sweet-sweet-sweets of warblers in the brush by the creek, the careful hammering of a foraging woodpecker. The trail dust was full of pointy deer tracks. The rounded pellets of moose poop disintegrated under our boots.
I stopped counting how many logs we cut. Our main concern toward the end of that first day was finding a safe place to camp, some little spot where falling snags would not crush us as we slept.
We passed the first night unscathed by snags, but some of the trail boys had deer stomping around their tents. In the morning we split into two saw teams. I sawed with Michael, a wilderness volunteer with a powerful interest in plants. We were at leisure to discuss fire ecology, plant succession, etc. He knows a lot about mycorrhizae, fungi which form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and provide for nutrient exchange in the soil. I know the names of most of the common wildflowers. We talked and sawed, grateful when we found shade.
I am fascinated by the prevalence of aspen here. I took micro-breaks to listen to and watch its flickering leaves. It’s a mountain tree, one associated with high elevations, stream banks and moist pockets in the rocks. It is also a pioneer plant, known for being able to withstand wildfire and sprout back from the roots. Some of the aspens I saw looked like new seedlings.
I have known tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) since childhood and they are still a favorite. The morning of Day Three I stood next to the trail with my bowl of oatmeal, idly letting my mind and eyes wander before forcing them into the focus of the day. I noticed that a tiger lily bud looked different than when I had glanced at it just thirty seconds before. One of the petals had snapped up. Wow, if I had time, I could sit here and watch the whole bud unfold. I might even be able to hear the faint *pop* as the petals separated.
If I made the time to hold still and watch the world, feel it breathing around me.
Day Four. We still haven’t made it to Spanish Camp, and the trail boys are more fired up than ever to get there. “Once we get over Andrews Pass,” they say, “it’s all downhill. Only three more miles.” We decide to make a big push. Andrews Pass is at 6600 feet elevation and it’s a long slow ascent. The saw teams leapfrog, working on alternate logs. I pulled the camera from my cargo pocket to record the mark left by someone who had gone up the trail before us. I was a little sobered to consider that it could have been a grizzly bear–we in the Cascades don’t have to think about this as much as travelers in the Rockies or Alaska. But the claw marks matched the size of my own hand. Probably a black bear.
After a late lunch at Andrews Pass, we rapidly descended through subalpine meadows along the headwaters of Spanish Creek. The burned area ended. The sky clotted and the humidity rose. It rained. My feet hurt and my pack was heavy. The mosquitoes were biting. How much further? I was ready to be there, knowing the boys were ahead of me. I took my pack off and sat in the trail to eat a piece of chocolate and settle my thoughts. There was a conveyor belt in my head going round and round:”I’m too old for this, I’m too old for this…”
I stood up, hoisted my pack back onto my shoulders, felt the cool rain and kept walking. I’m not too old. I walked into Spanish Camp, where the boys had the cabin open.
What a cool old place–the logs are fitted together and chinked. Inside are four bunks and a collection of vintage woods stuff. Axes, horse gear, dish pans. History. And a good spot to rest for awhile. I set up my tent out by the river. Made a cup of cocoa and watched a magnificent two-point buck deer wander around. Watched the clouds coalesce and separate. Studied the map. Spanish Camp is 2 1/2 miles south of the Canadian border. The brown contour lines show the rounded humps of land that were formed when the last continental ice sheet retreated. There are a few higher steep peaks, but the forms are gently rolling. The forest is exclusively lodgepole pine and spruce. I made supper with some of the extra food in the cabinet–a package of mashed potatoes with a can of tuna and a can of green beans dumped in. All that mattered was plenty of calories.
My sleep was only briefly disturbed by the yowls of boys in the cabin, staying up late to play cards. I rested so deeply that I didn’t even wake up to look at the stars.
The next day, Day Five. Time to explore–we went to see if there were any logs on the trail to Remmel Lake. The temperature was perfect, in the 70s. The bugs were light. A person wanted to just gawk around, but there were logs to cut. Michael and I went back to the cabin to pack up. I wrote in the cabin journal: “The eternal plight of the trail worker is to work your ass off to get to some amazing place only to turn around and head back.” The rest of the crew (all two of them) cut logs to Cathedral Pass and caught up with us on the ascent back to Andrews Pass. The trail was open–seventeen miles from the trailhead to Spanish Camp, with a little extra beyond that.
Last night in the woods. We found campsites among the few subalpine larches that hadn’t burned in the Farewell fire. I set my tent on a bench of rock right above the divide where the last of the sun’s rays warmed the blooming red heather full of bumblebees. Oh, what a sweet spot. A pika squeaked below. Daylight lingered long after the sun disappeared behind Fred’s Peak and I watched it climb the side of Remmel Mountain. To the east, the air thickened and darkened and a quarter moon glowed.
Morning came too soon. The boys were packed and ready to go by 7 a.m. Why are you in a hurry to leave the wilderness, I wondered silently. Ah, they are young. I followed at my own pace, down the creek, past now familiar landmarks, into the hot valley of the Chewuch River.
After seven days out, I knew there would be disorientation, and there was. I was physically and mentally tired, unable to take in the details that awaited me at the ranger station. First things first: time sheet for the crew, time sheet for me. We will get paid for our work. There is time enough for phone calls and emails and budget another day.
A few days have gone by now. I’m caught up on sleep and laundry. Have delighted in fresh food–apricots! Raspberries! Salad with tomatoes and olives and feta cheese, basil from the garden…lemon sorbet. I’m still scratching mosquito bites and discovering new bruises. My days off are for lying in the shade with random books (yep, I read World War Z) and slapping around in flip-flops. The weather has turned record-breaking hot and there’s a Red Flag Watch for lightning tonight. The season is about to shift.
But no matter what happens, I have had my Pasayten trip. Once again I have had the chance to witness how life persists after cataclysmic change. That image of the sky-blue polemonium blooming against the silvered lodgepole snag and charred logs rests in my mind. Some metaphor about past, present, and future is on the tip of my fingers, but the words won’t come. So let the picture suffice. I was there. The flowers and snags and sky are there.