Ranger Diary: Waptus

Waptus Lake sunset
Waptus Lake sunset

DAY ONE: July 10, 2013
Topic of the Day: Thirst

We hike in 9 miles to the lake. By now the trail is familiar for this year–logout started in May so we’ve done a couple day trips to get to the five mile point. Then we got a report that there were only four more logs before the lake, and that a volunteer cut them. So our hike today is mostly a commute, a long walk. The climb over Cone Mountain marks five miles, and is one of the worst parts of the trail. Katie the packer has asked us to see what we can do about a rocky narrow trench in a boulder patch. We get to the spot. Seems like filling it in is the thing to do. We drop our packs by the side of the trail and look around for breadloaf-sized rocks to pile in the bottom of the hole. We are in the direct sun and lush vegetation hangs over the sides of the trail. Seeps of water from the hillside trickle into the trench. It’s as if every pore in my body has opened. Just one of those middle-aged woman wacky temperature regulation moments? No. I look over at Sam. She could be my daughter. Beads of sweat have popped out on her tan forehead and she has a look of mild distress on her face. Wow. It’s really hot. We’ve brought along collapsible buckets and ferry loads of gravel from deposits that have washed down to low spots in the trail. Bucket by bucket, we fill in around the larger rocks, imagining horse hooves going over this place. At last it’s good enough and we put our pack on to keep moving into shade.

Heat is an energy drain. The heart works harder to pump blood around the body, sending it to the surface to cool. That surface is sweaty, the body’s attempt to discharge the excess heat. Air movement across damp skin does cause cooling. The fluids exuded as sweat must be replaced. There is a powerful need to drink water. Thirst.

Nine miles to camp, and I have drunk 7 liters of water. Once I am thirsty, I am running on a deficit that can take days to replace.

DAY TWO: July 11, 2013
Topic of the Day: Teamwork

With five of us, we plan for an ambitious day–push up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) toward Deep Lake. Brent offers to scout ahead and has a report by 11 o’clock. There are nine logs, all small. Jon decides that he and Angela can take the crosscut saw over to the Waptus Pass trail, where there are bigger more complex logs. While Brent and Sam finish the logout with large pruning saws and a double bit ax, I get going on the brushing. The PCT climbs up the Spinola Creek valley, crossing several avalanche chutes. The snow slides are frequent enough to prevent conifers from being established. Instead, a variety of vegetation flourishes in the openings. Bracken ferns sway overhead. A mixture of thimbleberry, huckleberry and salmonberry obscures the trail tread. You can’t see where to place your feet. I’ve got a brush whip, a sharp serrated blade on an arch at the end of a wooden handle. By swinging this through the stems, centrifugal force lops the soft-stemmed plants. We all love to do this job–the results are immediate and gratifying. After throwing armloads of wilted ferns off the trail, you can look back to see a neat swath through the green.

By the time Brent and Sam return, I have done 500 feet. Working together, we are far more efficient. We take turns with the whip, while the non-whippers fling piles of brush away and follow with pruning saws to cut woody stems and any stragglers. When it’s time to head back to camp, we’ve cleared 1200 feet and gotten the worst of it. Good job, crew! Feels like we did some good out here today.

Mountain goat fur on huckleberry along Pacific Crest Trail
Mountain goat fur on huckleberry along Pacific Crest Trail

DAY THREE: July 12, 2013
Topic of the Day: Microtrash?

Cloudy, cooler. The trail crew packs up to hike out. I’m staying for four more days. I’ll spend the day patrolling campsites along the lakeshore. A wilderness ranger is similar a backcountry motel maid–after people spend the night and leave in the morning, the ranger/maid goes in to clean up. Instead of making beds, I observe two elements of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics: Minimize Campfire Impacts and Dispose of Waste. I’ve noticed that people who drink instant hot cocoa in the backcountry are prone to throwing the wrappers into the fire. These are lined with foil, which does not burn. I hunch over the ashes picking out little wads of silver with gloved fingers. This is what John calls the “Hot Chocolate Wrapper Nightmare”. I find other bits of trash as well. A sliver of mylar energy bar wrapper, twisted bits of nylon string, a wisp of tissue paper. Microtrash.

From my field notebook:
“Watching for microtrash as I patrol campsites, my eyes become sensitized to the shape and color of things that are not twigs, needles, leaves, small rocks, flakes of bark, etc. I pounce on the non-orghanic such as a twist tie or weathered bit of duct tape. As I walk through the forest, several times my vision has been arrested by a scrap of white or blue. Must be a piece of litter. But when I stoop down I see


Discarded from the nest, half an eggshell as big as the end of my index finger lies on the ground. I found one with a tiny piercing, a hole from the egg tooth of an embryo.As the shell parted and fell away, the embryo too its first breath and became a hatchling. A baby bird.

This is all happening right now over my head in the moving boughs of conifers. The forest canopy is an avian nursery. I think of the dome of sound that rests over the summer woods–all those birds, resident and migrant–creating songs, buzzes, chirps. They are here exercising their biological imperative.”

I’ve brought the brush whip, and clear 600 feet in a place we call the Snag Patch. The thimbleberry is prolific.

I see no one all day.


DAY FOUR: July 13, 2013
Topic of the Day: Reward

Spade Lake trail. I’ve worked on it but never climbed all the way to the lake. This trail is infrequently maintained and is suitable only for hikers. It ascends 2000 feet in 3.4 miles. Strenuous. Adventurous. Sweaty.

Heather at Spade Lake
Heather at Spade Lake

Sometimes you have to stop and smell the heather. Take your boots off and soak them in the lake. Bask on a rock. Filter some water and drink. But only after removing foil from the remains of an illegal campfire (fires prohibited above 5000 feet to protect the subalpine ecosystem).

Totally worth it. 9.6 miles for the day, and two hours late back to camp.

Thinking about where I was three years ago, four years ago. Caught up in a medical adventure, not knowing if I would ever make it to Waptus Lake under my own power again. Scary and depressing. As I recovered from heart failure, Waptus was my first backcountry trip. Wanted to see if I could do it. Wanted to heal.

I did heal. Even now, sometimes I am so damn grateful to be upright and breathing doing what I do, loving what I love. I’m lucky. The gratitude bowls me over, leaves me speechless.

What about you? Where do you feel most alive? And grateful?

DAY FIVE: July 14, 2013
Topic of the Day: Organism

Morning light penetrates my eyelids. My tongue feels swollen and stuck to the roof of my mouth. I crawl out of the tent, heat water for tea. Pick my way over the cobbles to Spinola Creek and splash cold water on my face. My eyes still feel gummy. I put on my boots and pack then head out to check a nearby campsite to test my energy level. My skin is slick with sweat, my head feels the first throbbing of an ache, my bowels cramp. A grown-up voice in my head advises that today is not the day to climb up to Lake Vicente. This is heat exhaustion and the best thing I can do is go back to camp to rest and rehydrate.

The human body is a living organism. Cells are bound together into functioning tissues and organs, animated by a mysterious spark of energy. The body has its own intelligence. Our culture has taught us to separate the mind and body, and we are accustomed to operating out of our heads. Often we have the (mistaken) assumption that we can overpower the body by sheer force of will. Just ignore the hormones and neurotransmitters that the body uses to communicate and get on with whatever we want to do. How many times have I paid the price for pushing the body further than it wants to go? I know I can endure, but I want to be more discerning about when it’s truly necessary.

Spending a few days in the backcountry living out of a pack brings me closer to my organism. I have fewer resources to cope with extreme situations, and help is hours away if I do something foolish. So I stay in camp and tend to the body, which thirstily drinks water, savors salty pepperoni and cheese for lunch, and drifts off into a light nap during the hottest part of the day. My camp reading is Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian cop thriller that I picked up at the Roslyn Library book sale. I finished it and went to bed early. Got up once in the night and put my glasses on to stargaze. There was no moon, a star-prickled sky, and one long glistening meteorite.

DAY SIX: July 15, 2013
Topic of the Day: Transition

Feeling much better today. It’s go-home day, and I pack up with the fond wistfulness I always feel when it’s time to leave Waptus. On the one hand, I look forward to being home to clean myself up and loaf around, eat nectarines and salad, and see my animals and garden. On the other hand, I know that I will emerge from the wilderness with finely-tuned senses. Merging myself back into society, witnessing the behavior of other humans and interacting with them can be a shock.

Remind myself that I’ve done this many times before, and it’s different every time.

The miles unfurl beneath my boots. My pack squeaks softly with each step. One leg in front of the other. Mosquitoes chase me from Trail Creek over Cone Mountain, then thankfully disappear as I make my way downriver. After six days, the earworms have died. I stop for lunch at a campsite, and find a fire ring to dismantle. Also a sweet swimming hole–a slab of rock that gradually slips into the river where the current is slow and the pool is deep. The water is so clear that I can see the details of the gravel at the bottom. The shallow water takes on a golden cast and turns to aqua blue out in the current. It’s sooo tempting…I filter drinking water and keep going. The air is still and hot and I can feel myself zombie hiking. My feet are on autopilot and my mind is a million miles away. I bring myself back to listen to the chuh-durp of a tanager in the treetops. It sounds as hot and lethargic as I feel. I meet hikers at Hour Creek. They are on their way in. I meet another pair of hikers near the wilderness boundary. Only a mile to the truck now. The birds are silent except for the occasional tseep-tseep of ruby-crowned kinglets deep in the brush. As I approach the Polallie Trail junction, I hear screaming. It’s human. I remember my mom talking about listening to my sibs and I when we played outside as small children. She said there was happy screaming just for the fun of making noise, and then there was scared hurt screaming. What I hear is happy screaming. The trail brings me next to the Cooper River, where there is a big pool below the trail. Two large women in bathing suits are standing knee-deep in the water. One of them holds a chihuahua in her arms. The women are encouraging two others perched up on a rock bluff to jump. All I need to know is that no one is in trouble.

I reach the truck and open it. Hot air puffs out at me, stale from being closed up. I’ve stashed a canvas bag with sandals and a dry shirt. As I make my way to the toilet to change my shirt, a guy comes out. He is so drunk that his eyes are unfocused. He has missed the hole and peed all over the concrete floor. Someone has left a bag of garbage in there. I come out and the drunk guy asks me how to get down to the river. My explanation sounds incoherent even to me. I can’t wait to escape.

The dry shirt feels good next to my skin as I drive back to town. There’s traffic. Houses. People. The ranger station. I park, and drag my pack out. Throw away the garbage that I have carried out from Waptus and the toilet. The office is utter air-conditioned chaos. I fill my water bottle and carry my paperwork out the the picnic table by the fire warehouse. There’s a sense of urgency about downloading my notes into various reports before I hit the wall of fatigue that looms about three feet from my head. The trail crew comes by and we share stories and laugh before it’s time to go home.

The day after returning from a trip is rest and rehab time. I allow myself to float in that in-between state of not quite feeling all the way back. It takes awhile to make the transition.

The Waptus Trip

Back from a week at Waptus Lake…38 miles covered on foot in five days. Several miles of the Pacific Crest Trail were cleared, as well as associated trails. It’s always a highlight of the trail crew season, a sort of pilgrimage. This year the weather was warm and clear, but not too warm. Nights cooled enough for pleasant sleeping under the stars.

Pam, Sam and I came across this beauty between Waptus and Deep Lake. We have a term for logs like this: “Project Log”. A Project Log means that we take our packs off and plan to stay awhile. It means that we walk up and down, looking for a good place to cut it, and analyze the bind. Where is a safe place to stand? In this case, there were ferns and brush on top of angular rocks in the avalanche chute. Where will we move the chunk so that it ends up off the trail? If it’s not safe to cut, how many pounds of explosives will be needed to blast it? (Quick calculation = 75 pounds, plus time and expense to bring the stuff in…not worth it.) I was proud of my crew when they announced that they were not afraid, and we decided to go for it.

The prep and first cut took an hour. Our five foot crosscut saw was sharp, and we paced ourselves. Five wedges were pounded in to keep the kerf open. The last few inches were single-bucked since it wasn’t safe for a sawyer to stand on the downhill side when the big tree started cracking as the weight shifted. We took turns, and it finally dropped with a thud and rolled into the trail. High fives all around. After lunch, we started the second cut. A party of six backpackers and a springer spaniel came down the trail. We had met them the day before–a couple of dads and four boys of various ages. They were excited to see what we were doing, so we let them pull on the saw and sweat in the sun. They asked a million questions about our work and what it’s like. We talked about swimming in the lake, and how nice some watermelon would be right about now. When they finished struggling with the saw, we took over with smooth strokes and again finished with a single buck. The log released, and we all heaved and slid it off the trail on a strategically placed runner. Lots of whooping as it crashed down. I measured across the cut diameter and read 37 inches on the tape. Our new friends went on their way, and we climbed up to cut more logs.

At the end of each work day, we converged on our base camp near Spinola Creek. Tools were leaned against a tree, packs dropped, boots and socks removed. Stories from the day were told. We all have our ways of cleaning up. Mine is to get a towel and clean dry camp clothes, and wander off to a private place along the creek. If a person is going to experience cold mountain water, it’s best to do it before the sun gets too low and the temperature drops. Peeling off the sweaty clothes is a high point of the day. Splashing in the water, noticing the new bruises, scratches, and streaks of pitch. Drying off to sit on a rock, soft air around skin…this is my time. Wordless time. Alone, I merge with the rush of the water, the quality of light, the buzzing calls of flycatchers in the tree canopy. My body is finally at rest and it feels good. After a time, I pull on loose dry clothes and make my way back to camp to see about supper.

I feel lucky to have camped with congenial companions over the years. A trail crew works together and lives together. It’s a fairly intimate situation. You end up learning a lot about the person on the other end of the crosscut saw because you can feel them–the weight of their pull, their strength, whether they are tired or hurting or feeling energetic. The best saw partners are exquisitely sensitive to each other and can speak just a few words to make adjustments. Verbal communication is necessary. Good partners fall into an easy rhythm, and when it’s going well it’s a beautiful thing. When you’re in the back country, you watch out for each other. A small injury or heat exhaustion can have serious ramifications when you are far from a road and town. What happens to one person can affect us all. We end up knowing more about each other than we might choose, but that can teach compassion and tolerance. A little kindness and understanding go a long way.

We also have fun together. After the hard work, mosquitoes and other tribulations, camp is the place for some goofiness. Delicious food items are pulled from the pack boxes to share. Conversations veer off on tangents. Somebody starts laughing and soon we are all doubled over with tears streaming from our eyes. The moon rises over Polallie Ridge, and the nighthawks are cruising over camp on pointed wings. They are insect eaters, and I for one am grateful.

Spinola Creek murmurs a lullaby all night. Sleep is deep. I wish I slept in camp every night, hearing the water running. Once I woke to hear tiny gnawing sounds outside the tent, but was too tired to feel concern. The moon flooded the ground with silver light and long shadows of lodgepole pines.

Somehow the days passed. Every day we left camp with tools and a plan. Our commutes were on foot. I always like the hiking time. My body walks while I open my senses. I’ve been on these trails many times, but I always notice something new. This time I was delighted by the sound of waves. In the Cascades, the sound of running water is nearly always present. But walking along the shore of Waptus Lake, the water lap-slaps in rhythmic waves as wind moves through the big glacial valley.

One morning I noticed this delicate feather on a vanilla leaf. It’s the height of summer, with flowers blooming everywhere. Yet this feather is a reminder that the neotropical birds have raised broods of young, and most of them have fledged. Perhaps some of the adults are moulting now, shedding old feathers so that new ones can grow in time for migration.

Spending time at Waptus always makes me think of change. All the changes I’ve seen in the twenty-odd years I’ve been going there: trees falling, creeks moving, bridges washing away, spruce budworm outbreaks, wildfires. Changes in the crew line-up, in the packstring, in the locals who hang out at the lake. I am aware of time passing, and it does not seem to be in my favor. I don’t like to think of that. But what we resist persists, so I turn to face the changes. Why, I wonder, does it seem that nature changes so gracefully and we humans have such a hard time with it? What is it that makes us cling to notions of stability? A need for comfort and security? A desire to avoid the knowledge that we too change and someday will die?

The wondering keeps my mind busy while my feet are walking. Life, death, one big round and round. I’ll never get it all figured out and that’s fine. I’m here to clear trails and bear witness to change and find joy in the little things. Right now the twinflower (Linnea borealis) is blooming in the forest, lightly scenting the air with a faint honeysuckle sweetness. What could be more pink and cute, yet tough and thriving? It grows all around this latitude, in Canada and Sweden, Alaska and probably Siberia. Think of all these flowers, blooming right now and trailing between the roots of conifers…

Well. Enough of this rambling. Re-entered the civilized world yesterday evening. Time for rest, rehydration, laundry. Time to prepare for the next wilderness trip.