THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 3: When We Walked through Forests of Gold
Our goals for the two days in the Lower Enchantments were modest: we wanted to explore the shores of Inspiration Lake and Talisman Lakes, and hike up to Gnome Tarn to get the classic and oft-repeated photograph of Prusik Peak reflecting in the tarn. Distances are not long up here, so our day hikes were to be at a leisurely pace, allowing us to photograph these Indian Summer days to our heart’s content.
One hike took us to Prusik Pass. When we reached the pass, there was a cold torrent of wind funneled over this low place on the ridge. We had to put on extra layers, and we watched as the forest fires on distant ridges blew up in billows of fresh smoke. I was photographing when I heard a sudden shout of horror: one of our group had his camera on a tripod, and a sudden blast of wind tossed it right off a ledge onto the rocks below, damaging an expensive piece of equipment. I learned a quick lesson by his experience, and clung to my gear as the wind howled.
From Prusik Pass, we bushwhacked up and over a ridge to get to Gnome Tarn. The tarn was diminished in size by a seasonal drought, so the shores were extensive and muddy. Clouds skittered across the sky in the high winds, sending their shadows racing to keep up. A Peregrine Falcon zoomed overhead. Below us, a pair of male Mountain Bluebirds, the color of sky captured in feathers, were a perfect complement to the golden Alpine Larch needles where they foraged.
Since the shore was so muddy, I laid down atop a plastic bag and waited patiently or impatiently for the sun to light up the peak in between long periods of shadows. I also waited for the wind to subside, so that the ripples on the tarn would diminish, making for a better reflection. With my companions, I waited … and waited … and got chilled almost to the bone. But the peak was finally revealed enough that I got some good pictures of The Enchantments’ iconic peak. Toward dark, the clouds grew thicker, and several of us decided that the peak had passed. The most persistent among us (not me) hung on longer, and got the best pictures of the day. Oh well; it’s always hard to know when to hold em or fold em in poker, and sometimes photography is the same way.
We cooked a late dinner of Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai and crawled into our tents. Or at least most of us did, I stayed out in the dark to try and get a few more pictures. The sky had cleared substantially by now, though there were still some clouds racing by. I was struck by the look of all four of our tents lit up by headlamps, so I asked everyone to cooperate for photos of the group of illuminated tents looking like fragile, glowing nylon fairies in the night. Then I noticed the clouds over a distant ridge; a full moon was rising and backlighting the clouds that were racing over the ridge.
The next morning was to be our hike into the Upper Enchantments, which I’ll describe in another blog post, but before beginning that hike we went about our regular morning activities. These included a pre-dawn hike up the rocky slope behind camp to Inspiration Lake, where there was lovely dawn light on the surrounding peaks–and where the outhouse was located. Actually, it was not really an outhouse, since the vault toilet had a seat, but no walls. It was more like a throne with a great view through a sheer curtain of golden larch needles. It was beautiful enough to encourage us to “Skip to the loo …” Sitting there, I knew I was missing some great light, so I tried to speed things along, and eventually finished and ran down to where I had left my camera and tripod. Fortunately, I was not too late and was able to capture the red glow on the ragged peaks towering over the lake.
Each morning was cold in The Enchantments; after all, we were in the mountains in October, when the golden Alpine Larches were spreading the word that the end of warmth was near. One of our group was a young guy with not much meat on his bones, and he shivered and lay wide awake all night. He said: “It was almost the worst night of my life.” When I asked him what night had been worse, he replied “Well, I can’t think of any.” He decided he had gotten all the great pictures he needed, and decided to hike out on his own, two days early. It’s a good thing he got out when he did, because the next morning it was 16°F, which makes me shiver just thinking about it. It was so cold that it was painful to brush our teeth, and the water bottles were nearly frozen solid.
We met occasional hikers in the high country, with more as the days sped by and people realized that The Enchantments weren’t going up in flames. I often wear a University of Michigan baseball cap, which advertises my alma mater. It is amazing how many people I encounter in the Pacific Northwest who grew up in Michigan, went to the University of Michigan, then moved out West for better economic opportunities. It is a real brain drain for Michigan, but that is another story.
Anyway, on one morning near Perfection Lake, there was a pretty, young woman hiking alone. She struck up a conversation when she saw my cap: it turned out that she had grown up in Ann Arbor and had recently gotten her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School and was now doing her emergency room residency at a Seattle hospital. Her mother from Michigan had hiked as far as Snow Lakes with her, but the steep climb from there was too much for her Midwestern legs, so she stayed back in camp. The bad part about meeting a new young doctor, as I get older, is the nagging feeling that “surely she can’t be old enough to be a doctor!”
Old and young Alpine Larches, blazing gold, were everywhere in the Lower Enchantments. As the week wore on and the cold and high winds took their toll, more and more needles lost their color and fell, but there were still concentrations of intense gold.
I grew up in the Midwest and have lived in the Northeast and the Rocky Mountains, so I am well-acquainted with autumn colors: Red Maples burn with scarlet intensity in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; Sugar Maples glow brilliantly in Vermont; and Trembling Aspens shiver with golden light in Colorado. Here in the Northwest, autumn color was a bit of a disappointment until I learned about the timberline Alpine Larches. These are unusual, in that larches are a decidious conifer that somewhere along the evolutionary path strayed from the law that conifers are evergreen. Even here in Washington, the Evergreen State, they drop their needles.
For a tree living at timberline, where snow falls by the foot rather than by the inch, there are certain advantages to losing needles. The trees don’t have to carry as heavy a snow load with all the needles gone, so branches are less likely to break. Without needles, the larches don’t have to feed hungry Mountain Goats all winter. The trees don’t suffer as much from the dessicating effects of frigid winter winds. Perhaps most important, the vital amino acids, which are the building blocks for healthy needles, are safely tucked away in the roots and trunks of these trees living on the edge.
The other trees growing at timberline were the Whitebark Pines. These pines were more scattered than the larches, and have a fascinating co-evolutionary relationship with Clark’s Nutcrackers that I described in an earlier post about Clark’s Nutcrackers in Banff National Park. We observed several of the nutcrackers flying through The Enchantments, commuting to their favorite trees. Whitebark Pines are threatened by White Pine Blister Rust, a disease imported from another part of the world, and by the Pine Bark Beetle, which has exploded in population as our climate has warmed.
Huckleberry leaves were scarlet, but there weren’t many berries to sample: it was another bad year for the bears. Mountain Bog Gentians bloomed in our campsite, and there were occasional purple asters along the trails. I associate these species with the last gasp of the dying summer in the high country, but it’s nice that they provide a bit of vivid purple to the landscape.
We camped on Perfection Lake, or was it Rune Lake? Both names are used. The U.S. Forest Service originally established the place names of The Enchantments, and used such workable but rather dull names such as Perfection Lake, Inspiration Lake, and Isolation Lake. But the names got complicated when Bill and Peg Stark began visiting The Enchantments starting in 1959, and gave new names to the lakes, tarns, and peaks, based upon the legend of King Arthur and Norse mythology. Thus Perfection Lake also became Rune Lake. Inspiration Lake became Talisman Lake. Gnome Tarn is a name of their creation, as is Aasgard Pass. The place names of The Enchantments are now officially a blend of the two naming conventions, and there is enough overlap to cause plenty of confusion. Which makes the experience more fun. Myself: I love all the mythological names.
On these golden days in the Lower Enchantments, there was plenty of leisurely time for watching a pair of Meadow Voles leap from their grassy nest, and examining the texture of ice forming on the edge of a pond. Sometimes, people get so wrapped up in hiking long distances in the mountains that they fail to stop and smell the gentians. Not us: we revel in these long days of nature observation and photography.
A highlight was twice seeing a Douglas Squirrel race by, along the shore of Talisman Lake, with a big mushroom in its mouth. Mushrooms are a favorite food of squirrels, and they often store a mushroom among the twigs of a shrub, perhaps to dry it out for later storage or perhaps to let the rain leach out toxins. I’m not sure which, but I find the behavior fascinating. Can it really be instinctive to temporarily store a mushroom in the open? Other wildlife was scarce; the marmots had apparently already entered hibernation. We saw a single Pika and found its stored haypiles near our camp.
Karen crossing a log bridge over the outlet for Talisman Lake; we had a long stop here while I temporarily repaired my broken pack waist strap with duct tape (the kind young man who gave me the tape laid down on this log while waiting for my time-consuming repair to be completed, and he somehow rolled off the log into the stream and got soaked!).
In the next and final installment of “The Enchantments in Autumn” story, I’ll go above timberline to the Upper Enchantments, which has a stark beauty all its own.
For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my other blogs about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent and Mountain Goats. There is also a good web site that is based upon the autumn experiences of the Starks and another couple called 50 Years in the Enchantments.
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)
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