THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 1: The Long Ascent
Karen and I set up camp by the light of our car headlights, as choking smoke shrouded Eight Mile Campground along Icicle Creek. Lightning had ignited forest fires in Washington State’s western Cascade Range near Wenatchee and Leavenworth; with the year’s dry summer and early fall, conditions were perfect for the fires to run with the wind–which they did. This would have been a good place for a face mask; instead, we coughed the night away.
Our purpose in coming to Icicle Creek was not to car camp–if we had come for that, we would have fled the next morning to fresh horizons with clear air. No, we were here for a seven day backpacking trip into a promised land called The Enchantments. We had won a permit in the yearly lottery for access to The Enchantments, and we were not about to give it up, smoke or no smoke. We planned to meet three other hikers the next morning.
There are two major access routes into The Enchantments: from Aasgard Pass and from Snow Lakes. Unfortunately, the Aasgard Pass route was closed by the U.S. Forest Service, because the Cashmere Mountain Fire had scorched through the forest above the access trail, leaving steep slopes bare and subject to tumbling boulders and falling trees. Our original plan had been to hike in via the Aasgard Pass route and out via the Snow Lakes route, leaving a car at the Snow Lakes trailhead to shuttle us back to the second car. But with the closed trail, our only choice was to go in and out by the Snow Lakes route. That worked for us, and leaves us in anticipation of the even steeper Aasgard route on a future hike.
The next morning, much of the smoke had dissipated, and we went into Leavenworth for breakfast, then back along Icicle Creek road to the trailhead. There we met our hiking companions, and did the last-minute packing for the hike. We are all photographers, so our gear added up to quite a bit of weight, with cameras, lenses, and tripods. Adding the weight of a week’s worth of food, and we all felt like Grand Canyon pack mules. My gear weighted 57 lbs.–enough to make me wish I had been doing weight training.
This is not a trail for wimps. It goes up and up and up, relentlessly for 6,000 vertical feet of gain over about ten miles. There may have been a time in my distant past when I could easily do 6,000 feet in a day, but not any more, and we planned to do the ten miles over two days.
That said, there is a hardy breed of northwestern hikers who do The Enchantments as a day hike, starting at say 3:00 a.m. and going in by headlamp, hiking the beautiful high country in the middle of the day, and then heading down to the second trailhead in the dark. This is unofficially known as the Death March, though it is also called the Enchantments Traverse. Its popularity is partly because it is a really macho hike to brag about, with over 20 miles of steep trails and the huge elevation gain and loss, and partly because a lottery overnight permit is not needed by someone day hiking the whole route. The Death March would kill me in two ways: the physical way, as well as the awful realization that my photography would necessarily be limited to a few snapshops along the way. Though I guess I could strap a GoPro camera to my head and take pictures automatically every half-second of the hike and of everything I turned my head to look at.
Our group included Karen, my partner (to use the preferred PC Seattle term for “wife” or other similarly close or ambiguous relationships), as well as the youngsters with us known as Heidi, Jeremy, and Ed. At the trailhead we discussed the hike and the fires with the wilderness ranger, who arrived as we did our final packing. He also wrote a parking ticket for a car without a proper permit, and later we would see him exiting the wilderness, sick as a dog, then several days later reentering the high country to do his patrol work.
At the trailhead, we also talked with a couple whose car looked like it had been hit by a meteorite, with a smashed front end, hood, and windshield, asking them about what happened to it. They said that while crossing part of Wyoming, they had hit a Moose that suddenly wandered onto the road in the dark. The car hit the Moose dead on, and the Moose went up on the hood and off to one side. It apparently gathered itself up, shook itself off, then walked on, dignity intact. Karen said they should put a sign on the car saying “The Moose Won!” The car’s front end was being temporarily held together with rope, and the radiator looked like some vital organ that was stuffed back in the body after a knife attack. I shouldda snapped a picture …
Finally done chatting and packing, we shouldered our dead weight and ambled down the trail. We crossed Icicle Creek, then quickly started ascending switchbacks through a conifer forest. Up we hiked, entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness–the huge wilderness area that includes The Enchantments. We stopped to photograph a Douglas Squirrel munching a Douglas Fir cone near trailside Douglas Maples (sometimes not much imagination is used in naming stuff!).
We passed a huge cliff face known as the Snow Creek Wall. We hadn’t heard of it, but apparently it is on some bucket list of 50 best climbs in the world, so there are often climbers dangling off the granite wall. In fact, collison-with-Moose-man was on his way to climb this wall, and not much deters a climber from his targeted climb. We could see climbers on the wall, tiny against the vertical granite, and we could see the tracery of their ropes.
The trail passed through an old burn, with snags of Western White Pines and other conifers standing starkly against the slightly smoky sky. There were open boulder fields, where thousands of years’ worth of tumbling boulders had met their angle of repose. This is steep country, and there were places where a tall pine would be growing up through a boulder field. Such pines inevitably had bark and wood that was smashed to splinters on the uphill side of the tree, where a boulder or two had tumbled down slope and collided with the tree trunk, leaving the tree looking much the worse for wear, but still alive. At least trees have the strength to resist most boulders–not so, flesh and blood. It was a warning to keep our senses alive in the wilderness.
After a morning of hiking, we stopped for lunch along raging Snow Creek. With the several month absense of rain in these mountains, we couldn’t understand how a creek could be flooding its banks and scouring the roots of trees along its path. There wasn’t even supposed to be much snow left in the mountains, and the glaciers have almost disappeared. We wouldn’t know the answer until the next day.
For Karen and I, lunch consisted of our regular trail food: crackers and cheese, almonds, dried Michigan cherries, and Canadian maple creme cookies. Two of our group had hot lunches; using their Jetboil equipment, they were able to quickly cook a hot meal. Jetboils use Isobutane-propane canisters and can boil a full container of water in a couple of minutes. There are days in this high country when a hot lunch would help keep a hiker warm, but it was unseasonably warm on this autumn day so we weren’t cold.
After lunch and a short rest, we struggled into our pack straps and again started the long grunt up the trail. We met several groups coming down, and they said it had been really smoky from the forest fires. They said we would probably have The Enchantments much to ourselves, since most of the hikers were leaving. That proved to be true. When we picked up our permit, it seemed that few other hikers had claimed the permits for which they had successfully won the lottery and paid a fee. The Seattle television horror stories about the fires and the limited access to The Enchantments had scared away most of the backpackers. All the better for us!
The rest of the day was tiring, but eventually we reached our destination, Nada Lake. Which of course brought up an impromptu Abbott and Costello-style routine.
“Where are we camping tonight?”
“Not a lake? I thought we were staying at a lake?”
“We are: Nada Lake”
“We’re not at a lake?”
“No. Nada Lake.”
And so on, until I collapsed in giggles as if I was eleven years old all over again.
We set up camp on both sides of the trail, with four tents for five people (my partner and I shared a tent, but nobody else wanted to be partners). It was just a few steps to the lake shore of Nada Lake, and we filtered water while sitting on a granite slab sloping into the lake. Tall peaks reflected on the still surface of Nada. Our dinner consisted of a Backpacker’s Pantry meal, in which we simply poured boiling water into a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai, stirred, then waited about 20 minutes for the meal to rehydrate. These meals are amazingly good–far better than our standard Lipton fake beef stroganoff (made with lumps of gas-giving TVP) back in the 1970s, when we started backpacking. Now, we buy Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals when they’re on sale at REI or elsewhere.
We were beat from the hike, so we went to bed soon after dark, our headlamps slicing the darkness as we went about our preparations for bed. I brought my hiking book, “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I usually read for only a few minutes before sleep during a backpacking trip, so the first time I read the book it took me 20 years. Really. Now I’m starting it again and hoping that I can backpack long enough to finish it a second time. This book is about a journey of Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller to try and observe the Snow Leopard (and the more common Blue Sheep) in the Himalayas. It reads like a book of zen discovery of the moment, and although Matthiessen never sees a Snow Leopard throughout the course of the book, it doesn’t matter either to the author or the reader. This is one of the truly great nature and zen books, and I especially enjoy it when I am on my own search for photographs and meaning and perhaps a Cougar along a wilderness trail (I have yet to see one, but it is the search that counts).
The next morning, we awoke early and started breakfast. A couple coming down the trail had gotten an early start, and they said there were two Mountain Goats just around the bend in the trail from camp. And so there were. A nanny and kid, sauntered into camp as if they owned the place. The nanny investigated the edges of our campsite, while the kid promptly ascended big boulders just behind camp.
When you get a pair of Mountain Goats coming into a camp full of photographers, the cameras come out and the photographers start clicking off hundreds of exposures. We got caught up in the moment, which stretched into at least an hour as we photographed. The highlight was seeing mother and child goat come down to drink from Nada Lake in beautiful light.
We did our final morning packing, then started up the trail. As we approached Snow Lakes, we heard a thunderous roar from Snow Creek. Drawing closer, we saw a huge jet of water coming hard and fast from the area of the lakes. Then it dawned on us that this was the source of torrential Snow Creek that we had experienced yesterday. Each autumn, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes enormous quantities of water from Upper Snow Lake in order to provide sufficient water to the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery in the valley below. The fish hatchery’s mission is raising Chinook Salmon, which are important to the region’s Indians and sport fisherman. The loss of water from Snow Lakes is necessary and required in order to accomplish the mission of the hatchery. It is an unfortunate tradeoff in terms of the wilderness experience, but I can understand the reasoning.
Our route led across a dam between Lower and Upper Snow Lake. Near the dam, we encountered a group of five Mountain Goats, including two kids whose white coats looked like they had been playing down and dirty in the mud along the lakeshore. What’s the matter with kids today?!
Upper Snow Lake looked like it had lost 90% of its water to the fish hatchery, and consisted of steep, bare, terraced banks of raw soil sloping down to the bit of water that was left. It was SO UGLY that I’m glad we decided not to camp there. We hiked the mile to the upper end of the lake as quickly as possible.
Then we started the ascent into the real high country. The forest started opening up a bit more, and eventually the first Alpine Larches appeared in all their golden glory. Oh, did I mention that the reason we and every other hiker in Washington want to go to The Enchantments in autumn is simply to see the Alpine Larches at their peak of color? No? Well, it is. We timed our lottery dates to coincide with the peak color, or so we hoped.
As we climbed higher, we hiked over broad expanses of bare granite, sometimes giving each other an assist over a ledge or boulder. It often turned into more of a scramble than a trail, but fortunately it wasn’t icy–sometimes autumn trips into The Enchantments can be icy and snowy. Although these elements can add interest for photographers, they can be treacherous.
My left foot hurt! While jogging several weeks previously, I tripped over a sisal door mat (don’t ask!) during a four mile route and fell hard, sprawled on the ground. That night, I got up from my Lazy Boy and almost fell over from the sudden intense pain. It turned out to be Plantar faciitis, an inflammation of the back bottom of the foot. Hiking with the pain was a necessary side effect of getting into The Enchantments, but I did stretching exercises each day–some of them suggested by a woman we talked to at the trailhead who had dealt with Plantar several years before. When we stopped for lunch, I immersed my bandaged foot (protected by a plastic bag) in the icy waters of Snow Creek, and it immediately felt better.
After a long lunch break, we began the final ascent to the high country. Eventually, we came over a lip of the granite and were at Lake Viviane, the first of the storied Enchantment Lakes. We photographed the lake and its larches and the towering mountain known as The Temple, with sharp Prusik Peak at one end. It was all so stunning, especially after the two days of grunting and trudging up ten miles of steep trail through dense forest.
We could hardly tear ourselves away from Lake Viviane, but we realized that the day was getting a little long in the tooth and we had a mile to go before we could sleep. We hiked over a granite ridge between Lake Viviane and Leprechaun Lake, and were surprised to see a granite slope so treacherous in bad weather that trail makers had put a series of rebar “staples” in the granite so that people could walk without slipping away. Our day was dry, so it was no problem.
When we reached Leprechaun Lake, the lighting was so stunning that we all immediately dropped our packs and began photographing with complete focus. The Alpine Larches glowed bright yellow-gold against the smoky blue of the mountains behind. It was some of the most beautiful light I’ve seen in Washington’s mountains.
Eventually the light faded, and we followed the trail toward the place where we wished to camp, Perfection Lake. By that point, I was really tired and ready to be there. Other members of the group went on ahead and found the Perfect Campsite by Perfection Lake, and we set up camp in the fading light. It was getting chilly, but a hot meal revived us. After that, I had half a chocolate bar and felt energetic enough that I was able to prance around in the darkness for nearly an hour taking night pictures of the lake, the stars, and the larches under a full moon. It was a magical time.
I used a headlamp to illuminate the Alpine Larches in the foreground, and moonlight lit the granite of Little Annapurna and other peaks in the distance; if the photo here was shown larger, you would see a lot of stars in the sky
After that, I read a page or two of The Snow Leopard and drifted off to sleep, shrouded in a cloud of warm down.
You’ll have to wait for the second installment to see what greeted us when we crawled out of bed on the third morning of the hike.
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date)
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website