Climbed up Tired Creek Trail to Polallie Ridge. This is one of my favorite viewpoints on the Cle Elum Ranger District, and well worth the perspiration to make the ascent. One of those rare days I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. No people, only one illegal fire ring and a small pocketful of trash. Shirtsleeve weather. Quiet except for the tick-tick sound of leaves dropping and a few resident birds muttering to themselves. The crunch of snow under my boots. A little bit of drainage digging and brush cutting. And oh, that intoxicating light and air!
Bureaucratic dust from the sixteen day government shutdown is beginning to settle. Obscurity still hangs in the air, but at least some of us are able to go out to the woods for a little while to start catching up. Brent and I closed the Fish Lake guard station today–hung shutters over the windows, loaded two empty propane cylinders into the truck, took one last look around to make sure all is shipshape prior to the snowfall that closes the road. Then we went up to the Paddy-Go-Easy Pass trail to dig the drainages.
It’s always good to buckle the backpack and start walking. Our eyes go to the angled ditches in the trail that divert running water off the tread. They are partially filled with soil and rocks that have been carried down by gravity. We scoop this material out and cast it aside, clearing the way for the next round of erosion. Over the years the trail crew has learned that maintaining these features prevents the loss of trail tread. We like doing drainage.
Besides being free to work, I am also free to let my senses loose in the trees. The air is unusually warm, kept that way by a bubble of high pressure that has parked itself over the Northwest. The blue sky days are strung together like beads of water on a twig. I am always struck by the quality of October light in the mountains–sun that angles through the trees casting deep shadows while also illuminating the landscape with a brilliant glow. Frost has killed tender leaves and changed the colors. The slant sharpens by mid-afternoon, and we walk down towards dusk. Transient beauty brings and upwelling of sadness, as poignant as the cries of wild geese flying south. The forest is letting go of another growing season, gathering for a time of dormancy. My body is slowing down too, ready to be inside when it’s dark, ready to curl up, tail over nose for a nap. But that rich light penetrates golden cottonwood leaves on the drive home, filling my head with brightness. And I want to stay awake for that, at least till snowflakes swirl on the wind.
The unexpected gift of time off work in October has let to a spate of what I call “Extreme Nesting”. In a fit of single-minded focus, the living room has been freshly painted, book collection dusted and rearranged, deep corners exposed to daylight and cleaned. I washed the blinds. A box of heirloom apples was transformed into sauce, pies, and dried slices. When the fog burned away Sunday morning, I’d had enough for awhile and went to a favorite trail to stretch my legs and see if the larch trees were turning golden.
It wasn’t until I was on the trail (with an incredibly light pack–no radio or tools) that I realized how much incessant chatter was running through my mind. I’ve been thinking about power struggles far away. I’ve been thinking about the meaning of public service. Spending much of my adult life running around in the woods has not led to prestige or wealth, but I’ve found joy and companionship. I’m a Dirt Person, someone who works with her hands and stands up for the land. It’s a personal requirement that I contribute to something larger than myself, and I take stewardship seriously. So it rankles to bear witness to stewardship set aside for power plays among the supposedly high and mighty. How I’d love to get them out here for some nice humbling physical labor!
I took a break by the creek to write in my field notebook:
Watching clear creek water ripple over a rock to plunge into a gravelly pool. The way the light is at this moment, I can see the foaming and swirling under the surface, a white cloud of bubbles rising and sweeping downstream. The creekbed is shallow below the bubble pool and the water smooths out.
The water plays a constant chord–the bottom note is a deep rushing made by small cascades upstream (right ear). The middle note is most obvious to my left ear because it is angled toward the downstream rapids. On the top of the chord is the burbling burgle of the water dividing around the obstructing rock, dark and shiny with algae. I see and hear individual bubbles popping. The pool is where water and air collide and mix.
The early October sky is a rich semi-opaque blue. If I were choosing pigments on my watercolor palette, I would combine cerulean blue, cobalt blue and a little cobalt teal with a little creek water until the depth of midafternoon appeared. The blue is diluted near the horizon, purer toward the center. As I sit here, there is nothing except air between the top of my head and heaven.
I’m in shirtsleeves, comfortable in the mild sunshine and upslope breeze. The rock under my butt is solid and cool, maybe just a little damp from the deluge of rain and snow earlier in the week. A few yellowish leaves sdrop from the mountain ash near the stream, but other than that there’s not much evidence of autumn in the plants. September was warm, without the cool nights to bring on the color.
The turbulence in the pool fascinates me, and I stare at it without thinking. It is chaotic, the patterns of movement not regular or predictable. This is how liquid behaves when gravity tugs on it. Swirling, churning, spinning, flowing and upwelling in sporadic eddies.
The human mind is a seeker of pattern and meaning, and I am looking for order. I see it–the creek is contained between rocks and gravel deposits. This container changes over time, depending on storms, snowmelt, drought. In my mind’s eye, I picture the dendritic (branching) pattern of streams draining the mountains: small Beverly Creek flows into the Teanaway river which flows into the Yakima which flows into the Columbia which flows into the Pacific Ocean–small to large, but the same shapes. There is an order here, predictability.
But it is the disorder–unpredictability–that I can’t stop looking at. My senses return again and again to the bubbles rising in the pool. It is the same as watching dancing flames, or waves breaking on the beach. Each movement is similar, but never identical. I watch to see what will happen next. As I’ve been writing the light is changing, shadows darkening the far side of the creek. The darkness creates contrast, illuminating the oxygenated bubbles under the rippling surface.
It’s not hard to find the metaphor among the chaos and order of nature. It’s all around us, all the time. Things are more complex than we can imagine. Possible outcomes vary because of sensitivity to initial conditions, because the earth is dynamic. Order and predictability help us to feel secure in the big bad world. We feel safe when we know what’s coming. One of my reflections on a summer in the wilderness is how I don’t want to live in a predictable controlled environment. I like that sense of not knowing what will happen next. I’m pretty sure the sun will come up in the morning, but I’m not sure what the weather will be like. I will respond to whatever conditions arise, and part of my operating procedure is to be ready for rain and sun. Whatever happens, I’ll use what I have with me, what I can scrounge, and my innate creativity to survive. I’ll use my native intelligence, my wits, and I won’t be bored, ever.
But I didn’t come out here to think myself into a corner. Time to crawl down out of my head into the body and climb the hill. Let the thoughts and conjectures bubble and flow downstream while the legs and lungs carry me up.
There was snow at the top. I stepped out of the sun and into the shade on the north side of the ridge. Mt. Stuart and the Enchantments were frosted with white. Space opened around me, and I followed the trail someone else had broken through the foot deep snow. This is a magical place, and I would not stop until I was in the presence of what I sought.
Alpine larch (Larix lyalli) grows in the inland mountains of the greater Northwest, particularly in the Wenatchee mountains. It is extremely cold-hardy and can survive where no other conifers will grow. Those dry rocky ridges where snow forms cornices in midwinter–that is where the alpine larch can be found. Unlike most conifers, larch are deciduous. Perhaps this is their evolutionary strategy to cope with the harshness of high elevations. When the days shorten and nights cool down, the chlorophyll drains from their needles and the larches flare golden for a couple weeks. Then the needles fall.
There was a hush, a stillness. Three ravens passed over while I was climbing but they were quiet now. The sun slipped behind Iron Peak. I turned to go back down, having found what I was looking for and more.
The satellite photo showed the big mass rumbling south from the Gulf of Alaska. The rain started on Friday. It rained most of the weekend and was still raining this morning, Monday. One of those mornings when you cast a bleary eye up to the heavy sky, fill the thermos with hot soup, pull the hood of the raincoat over your head and plunge out the door.
We had ambitious plans for the day. But when the road was covered with two inches of slushy snow and we were still ten miles from where we needed to start our hike, the plan changed. It would be a good day to clean some drainage ditches on the Waptus River trail. We hunkered into our rain gear and packs, then set out. The Cooper River roared–haven’t seen water that high since springtime runoff. Rainwater flowed down the trail. With the slice of a shovel at just the right place in an earthen berm, water will flow out of a puddle and off the trail. The same tool can hack out a blob of dirt and rocks plugging an angled drainage dip. Standing with a shovel in my hand watching water run takes me straight back to childhood in rainy southwest Washington. You went outside to play in the rain, or you didn’t go outside. Manipulating running water by digging ditches and building dams was early practice for a task I now get paid for. So gratifying to watch a small stream change course. There is a feeling of play for me, a sense of connection to the runny-nosed half-damp child that I was. And still am.
A mile from the trailhead, I looked at my companions and listed our options: keep going or go back. We opted for lunch in the truck and the afternoon to dry ourselves and our gear. Still raining and 35 degrees is perfect hypothermia weather, and who needs that? Walking back, I watched the water running out the ends of the ditches, observed the sloppy consistency of the snow, the vine maple colors only now beginning to change. Thought about previous October days working in shirt sleeves. Is winter early this year? Time will tell.
Deeper into autumn, four days past the equinox. Cooler wetter weather has people hunting for rain gear and delving into the warm hat collection. Soaked to the skin on the crest yesterday, today we elected to go further east into the rain shadow.
The sky cleared sporadically as the wind gusted from the northwest. Fine drizzle fell at times, but we ate lunch in the sun. Every day the colors seem to shift to less green and more gold and red. Wolf tracks (pretty sure) in the rain-pounded trail, and scat on a rock. Ravens sailed past ridges, barely in control of their flight and squawking hoarsely.
Would not be surprised to see a dusting of fresh snow on Mt. Stuart tomorrow.