Sunday, July 25, 2010

Of Bugs and Water

Our Mountaineers group started on the PCT going north from Stevens Pass via the Smithbrook Rd trailhead. There were some bugs in the parking lot, as there often is, and I accepted some bug spray from my carpool mate, a rare event for me. We reached Union Gap at 4700' without much pain or suffering, though I noticed a few mosquito bites on my elbows where I had forgotten to spray. After a short break, we headed down to Lake Janus, passing many flowers which were identified by our hike leader: Blue and Pink Bluebells (together on one stem), Star Solomon Seal, Paintbrush, Lupine, Valerian, Tiger Lily, Marsh Marigold, Queen's Cup and Pink Heather. It was nothing too spectacular since they were sparse in numbers, but made for good reasons to stop, identify and take pictures.
looking toward Scorpion Mt
Star Solomon Seal
It was 3.2 miles to Lake Janus and we were given a big welcome... by the mosquitos. They zipped around in a frenzy, so overjoyed to see a bunch of healthy, hot hikers; we were fresh meat. Soon, I could take it no longer and tore my clothes off, throwing myself into the lake, where I realized I had become bait for the fishermen bobbing around on the serene water waiting for a bite. I managed not to be lured in by their lines and had a really nice swim in perfect-temperature water while watching my fellow hikers get bogged down in the mud on the lake's perimeter trail. 

We finished lunch and bid farewell to our blood-sucking friends, making our way the 600 feet back up to Union Gap. It was mostly in the shade so it wasn't a problem, though the day had grown warm and my cool-down swim was long gone. At the Gap, we saw some horse packers and their beasts seemed happy to have someone to scratch their heads and help them swat the bugs away. I wondered how many mosquitos one horse can feed.
Back at the trailhead, the mosquitos were taking their last dips into human blood and when we departed for the city, one of them endured the cool of the air conditioning until nearly Index, when my carpool mate clapped her hands in excitement and squished the little bugger.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Trail That Mike's Crew Fixed

There were four of us at the Independence Lake trailhead, off the Mountain Loop Highway, standing around, waiting to get organized for some trail maintenance. I was a little worried, mostly because I might be perceived as a wimpy city chick, but also because I really had to pee and there was no privacy to be found. I took care of the latter (there is a purpose for mini-vans) and the former ended up being an unnecessary concern.

The WTA organizes work parties all over the state's national forests and parks to volunteer in the role of trail maintenance throughout the year. Our leader, Mike, a WTA foreman and volunteer, spends his summers from Tuesday through Friday out in the woods, taking groups of volunteers, newbies and seasoned alike, to a trail that the local agency has designated as needing work. Last year, WTA's volunteer hours numbered 94,000 and that saved the Forest and Park Service an estimated $900,000! As budgets get cut, the WTA's efforts are even more valuable.

OK, enough with the background, lets get to work. We donned hard hats, were given shovels (also a great leverage tool for moving rocks), pulaskis (an axe / adze combo) and buckets for transporting rocks. There were three main areas to work on: placing a step into a slippery area, relocating tread and obscuring a system of roots and removing a large rock that was sticking up in the middle of the trail. There is a lot of planning and energy that goes into every feature of a trail so doing this type of work is very illuminating. Mike explained each project and we set to work. My task of putting in the step ended up being easier than he had thought, mainly because I went about it the way a woman would. The difference is: a man would move rocks, cut through huge roots, each one becoming its own small project, to get the step in precisely the right spot. A woman would see that there was an easier way, requiring less overall effort, by changing the slope slightly, then avoiding moving heavy rocks or sawing through living things, placing the step with finesse and finding the right rocks to support it. Either way works; it's just about how much energy you want to expend.

The next project I helped with involved one huge rock, already excavated by a crew earlier in the week, that had been sticking up out of the trail bed. Zack had already dug the hole deeper and we were able to move it to its side so it could effectively be buried below the trail. The next step involved going to the creek and collecting small rocks to cover over the huge one that would allow soil to fill in the cracks and make it into a solid trail surface. I thought my wimpiness would surely come into play here, as I could only manage to carry the bucket half full of rocks, but Zack could load his up all the way. I think it may have evened out as I made more trips back-and-forth. Soon, though, we amassed a pile of rocks, tossing them into the hole, filling up the space and then covered it in soil. Mike was impressed; we had made the trail level and solid and no one will ever know about all the work under the surface. Who knows what we could have buried in there! Alex related a saying from his town of Rockport, "a good friend will help you move, a really good friend will help you bury the evidence".

Another highlight of the day was taking a quick (and I mean quick!) dip in Independence Lake, less than a mile from where we were working. The water was clear green and I wondered if it was very cold. I didn't put my feet in until I had my clothes off and by the time I got to a rock to push off into the water from, my feet were numb. Three strokes out, three strokes back, out of the water and into the sun.

We hiked out and enjoyed cookies and soda in the blazing sunshine and talked about what other trails we might like to work on. For an added incentive, aside from the feeling of accomplishment and cookies, working 2 trail parties on federal lands nets you a yearly trails pass.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mountain Wanderlust

It all started with a little whine. When Brian got my message about how I just had to get out of town and into the mountains, he quickly returned my call and we began planning our escape. My wanderlust had been restricted lately due to responsibilities, injury and poor weather but the need was building and I was getting cranky so we packed up the car and headed north and east on Monday morning. Our camping destination was Newhalem, home of Seattle City Light in the North Cascades National Park and also where there was a great car-camp area and a visitor's center and views to the Picket Range.

I got out of the car to check out our chosen spot, #37 (my lucky number) and my eyes had to readjust to the brilliant greens of moss, ferns and leaves of many different shades. It was as though the forest was aglow – it was the right spot to be in. Once we set up camp, we headed out on a walk, first along the Skagit River which was moving at a dizzyingly fast speed, then into the woods, then up Newhalem Creek, over to Ladder Creek Falls and back through the booming metropolis (not really, just a small store with fresh fudge and SCL housing) of Newhalem and to our home for the night. Several hours of easy walking with cameras and tripod, shooting as we went.

It was dinner time and I suggested we eat out... at the Diablo Lake overlook along Hwy 20. I have done a lot of cycling along that highway, up and down in both directions (in the same day, even) and so I am always amazed when I drive it because it seems tough even in a car with 160 horse-power, though we were going a bit faster. The overlook turned out to be just right for dining: light wind to keep the bugs away, lingering sunshine from the west, views to Colonial Peak and Paul Bunyan's Stump to the south and Jack Mountain to the north, all from where we were perched, beneath a pergola. We opted for the no-cook dinner of tortillas with pesto, mozzarella and prosciutto which seemed to excite the raven population which was either going to wait for handouts or would dive-bombed their intended treasures, we weren't sure which.

After returning to our camp from dinner, we weren't long for sleep and all I had to do was read about some backpack trips I'd like to do from the WTA magazine I had brought along and eyelids started to droop. In the morning, it was incredibly clear but cool at our corner of the woods so we drove to breakfast at the Visitor's Center, firing up the Pocket Rocket for oil-dark coffee and oatmeal in the sunshine. The sun warmed up quickly and we shed clothes, then broke camp and packed up for an easy day of hiking, though we weren't sure yet where.

We considered Ross Lake overlook and there was some confusion about where exactly that was, since there is a large parking lot for the Ross Lake Resort, but it's not an overlook so we kept going and going... and going. Soon, Brian commented that the overlook seemed like it should be within a few miles and I casually mentioned that we were long past Ross Lake and it's only, oh,
about 20 miles to Washington Pass and it's so lovely out and what a scenic drive and ooh, aah, check out those peaks and, hey, I've hiked that trail and that one, until suddenly, we were turning in to the Washington Pass Overlook.

At the risk of sounding like all we did was drive, take strolls and eat, I will admit that we pulled out the cooler and found a seat with a view of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spire and had lunch; it was that time of day. Then, we headed up the trail that was supposedly closed, but the man with the machine was on his lunch break, so we were free to wander, which is exactly why we came in the first place. We quickly made our way to the highest point and sat down, feeling dizzy. It wasn't just from the altitude – the mountains rose up in front of us so close and clear and sharp that the sight was one that made me dizzy (and for the fact that I could see straight down to the highway below, about 800 feet or more). It was so beautiful and just what I needed, like the antidote to city living, a mountain girl returning home.