Archive for August 2013

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUGUST Part 1: Aasgard Pass and the Upper Lakes

August 30, 2013

The_Enchantments_Summer-239Clouds that look like the cooled breath of a dragon above Dragontail Peak

My right ankle kinda collapsed under me as I stepped on a rock in the trail, then my left foot sought stability as I pitched that way. I didn’t find it, and instead plunged off the trail and fell down the slope. Fortunately, it was a short fall and I wasn’t hurt, but it was still another reminder that I am getting older. Everyone gathered around to help pull me up to the trail, but I was more embarrassed than shaken. And my camera–the most important part of me–was fine.

That was on the last day of the hike, about two miles short of the finish line and just short of where I had fallen last fall on the same route. I must let my guard down when I approach the end of the hike and am tired.

Five of us had set off on this hike seven days before, on a beautiful Sunday morning after the drive from Seattle to Leavenworth, Washington. Karen and I drove together, and the other three drove in another vehicle so that we could have two cars, enabling us to start at one trailhead and end at another. There was Sue, a retired geomorphologist; Terry, a retired lawyer; and Phil, a retired state department official who had worked in embassies around the world. Plus Karen and I, who are still working. I was the oldest in the group by a year, but all of us were in our ’50s and ’60s.

We left one car at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, then drove to the Lake Stuart Trailhead. Scores of cars were parked at the trailhead, but we found a good parking place and set about organizing our gear for the first day’s hike, which would take us up Mountaineer Creek for several miles, then up to Colchuck Lake, which is a stunning aquamarine lake located just below Aasgard Pass–our killer destination for the second day.

The_Enchantments_Summer-6Crossing Mountaineer Creek on a rustic log bridge

Karen and I had heavier packs than the others, thanks to my camera gear (it isn’t fair to Karen, but I don’t have a Sherpa or a pack mule). My pack weighed in at 57 lbs., the same as my pack weighed last fall on the same trip. This time, I had a lighter tent and sleeping bag, but I was bringing a star-tracking gizmo for long exposures of the night sky, and that added about four lbs. of weight. I had briefly thought about bringing my underwater camera and a dry suit, but the reality of carrying about 30 lbs. more gear hit me like a big wet trout upside the head–though I might have made my nephew carry it all if he hadn’t canceled out of the trip. Karen’s pack weighed 42 lbs., and we were glad that we had done some rigorous training hikes all summer.

We were tired upon arriving at Colchuck Lake. Actually, we were tired whenever we arrived everywhere, so maybe I’ll just assume you know that. After inspecting our Enchantments Permit, Wilderness Ranger Carly of the U.S. Forest Service recommended a beautiful campsite on Little Colchuck Lake. We nestled our four tents among the fir trees (Karen and I shared a tent; the others each had a one person tent), then we set about hanging our food to defeat any bears. We went to bed early, having taken our little blue pills (more on that later) and cooked our Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried dinners. A few raindrops spattered the tents.

The_Enchantments_Summer-23Colchuck Lake is a stunning aquamarine pool, surrounded by high granite mountains

The next morning, Karen found that every time she brushed up against a fir tree next to our tent, she got a sticky load of pitch on her hands and clothes. Let me tell you, pitch is a bitch in the back country, because we didn’t have the right solvents to remove it.

We pumped drinking water from Little Colchuck Lake, then cooked our breakfast of black bean soup, doctored with dried peanut butter for protein and ground nuts for texture. After two cups of Taster’s Choice freeze-dried coffee, I was good to go.

Little_Colchuck-Pan-2Little Colchuck Lake reflecting the sunset; shown here are the end of Enchantment Peaks on the left, Aasgard Pass in the center, and Dragontail Peak on the right

The_Enchantments_Summer-53Reflections in Little Colchuck after a brief storm

Our vertical gain on the first day was some 2,100′ in about five miles. The second day, which would take us up Aasgard Pass, would only be about two miles, but what a two miles! The first stretch of trail took us through a boulder field at the upper end of Colchuck Lake, in which we climbed over and under and around huge boulders. It was tiring and challenging, but then we reached the slope that would lead up to Aasgard Pass, which ascends 2,300′ in about one mile. This, for those not used to hiking, is steep. Really steep. Muscle-killing steep. Did I say it was steep?

The_Enchantments_Summer-94-2Working our way through a boulder field at the upper end of Colchuck Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-109Arctic Fireweed and shadows on granite, viewed while resting on the Aasgard ascent

The ascent would have been far, far easier with lighter packs and if we had been more accustomed to the roughly mile-high altitude, but we took our time. We were passed by a lot of people, including a 76 year old man. Later, a 20 year old young woman with thousands of sparkly gold sequins shimmering on her stylish black day pack left us dazzled in the dust.

The_Enchantments_Summer-119Stream that paralleled our ascent of Aasgard

My shirt was soaked with sweat, and my face was smeared with SPF 45 and Deet, which melted down into my eyes as perspiration streamed down my forehead. Both Karen and I ended up with blood trickling down our sweaty legs from run-ins with granite. It was fun. Karen commented how stupid we were to attempt this climb, but we soldiered on, eventually reaching the pass, where Phil calmly waited for the rest of us after having surged on ahead, beating the rest of us by two hours.

The_Enchantments_Summer-106When skin and granite collide

Fortunately, we enjoyed some of the sights as we ascended. There were Arctic Fireweed plants blooming–a species we had first seen in northern Alaska during a backpack 29 years before, when I had carried a 78 lb. backpack on my then-145 lb. frame (we’re not going to talk about my current weight, thank you, but suffice it to say that my pack-to-body weight ratio now looks better, at least on paper). A Mountain Goat mother and child sauntered by, wondering to themselves why the climb was so difficult and why we were producing so much sweat and so little pee. More on that later.

The_Enchantments_Summer-158View back down to Colchuck Lake from halfway up

By late afternoon, we had reached the pass, briefly rested, and surveyed the Upper Enchantments. This stark and amazing basin sits below the towers of Dragontail Peak, which looks like it could be one of the dark and jagged mountain ranges surrounding Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. We found a campsite about 1/4 mile from the pass, right along Lake Freya and, more importantly, just a few steps from a great open-air toilet hidden among the larches and granite just above our campsite. A tarn ringed with granite boulders was perfect for obtaining water.

The_Enchantments_Summer-249We set up camp among granite boulders in the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-627Karen dipping water for coffee and tea from the nearby tarn

The_Enchantments_Summer-660Mommy taking a drink while junior waits, at the tarn we also used for drinking water

Some of our group had diarrhea, which I blamed on the stress of two days of climbing. In any event, when older people travel together, the talk often turns to regularity or lack thereof. Which brought about one of the frequently used acronyms on the trip: TMI (too much information). Three members of our group said they had experienced an odd sensation of shivering or hypersensitivity that they blamed on their bodies’ electrolyte balance being tipped because of the extreme exertion.

Enchantments_PortraitsThe Aasgard Adventurers: (clockwise) Sue, Phil, Terry, and Karen. I’m hidden behind the lens.

The_Enchantments_Summer-256Last sunlight on McClellan Peak, with one of the lakes of the Upper Enchantments in the foreground

That night, the sky cleared off and we enjoyed the Milky Way splayed across the vast dome overhead, at least when we got up after midnight to attend to nightly rituals. We saw the advance contingent of Perseid meteors streaking across the sky, with no moon in sight and just a hint of the lights of civilization to the east.

The_Enchantments_Summer-609Our four tents illuminated at deep twilight, with the jagged skyline of Dragontail Peak rising in the distance

The_Enchantments_Summer-292Sunrise light on Dragontail Peak

The_Enchantments_Summer-633Karen viewing the morning light from atop a granite outcrop

The_Enchantments_Summer-638Our beautiful camp in morning light

The next morning, human visitors arrived to use the nearby toilet and goat visitors arrived to enjoy our company. I think we counted about ten different Mountain Goats, including mothers who were still shaggy from shedding, their small young of the year, yearlings, and a big male. Throughout The Enchantments, these creatures come around daily to see where their human guests have peed, so that they can lick up the golden liquid or the salty traces of it. I don’t know if these animals need some minerals contained in the urine, or if they are simply peeaholics, addicted to the pleasant taste of the salt.

We had learned from a sign at the trailhead that it is best to pee on granite, since peeing on bare soil will encourage the goats to dig up the soil. What we learned, in reality, was that peeing on slabs of hard granite causes the pee to splash back up–on legs and shoes. Yuck. Well, nobody ever claimed that backpacking was a clean and tidy affair.

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The_Enchantments_Summer-320The Mountain Goats came and went on their own schedule all day long; often we saw a mother and her young of the year, but there might also be a yearling tagging along, or sometimes a big male

Around camp we also saw two Hoary Marmots, who may or may not have been dreaming of getting into our Fritos. But the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, who look a lot like big chipmunks, certainly did try to raid our food. One of them even made off with a bag of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries before Karen chased after him and convinced him by overwhelming force to drop the bag. Too bad, he thought his raid had been a triumph.

The_Enchantments_Summer-577Hoary Marmot checking out our camp

We chose to camp a second day in the Upper Enchantments, so that we could better take in this austere landscape, with all its lakes and ice and granite. It was a perfect day, and we simply wandered in the high country. There were waterfalls and ice cave entrances to explore, and streaks of watermelon snow (red algae) on the snowfields. A few small icebergs floated on Isolation Lake, calved by snowfields along the lake. This was also a day of relative ease, after the struggles of the past two days in climbing up here.

The_Enchantments_Summer-395-2Terry exploring the glacier-polished granite of the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-313The stillness of Isolation Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-317Still still

The_Enchantments_Summer-671Glacier-forged landscape of granite, snow, ice, and meltwaters

The_Enchantments_Summer-515Entrance to an ice cave at the lower end of a snow field

The_Enchantments_Summer-377This is how we hung our food: we gambled that bears wouldn’t be in this barren location and that we mostly had to keep the food away from ground squirrels

The_Enchantments_Summer-465Suncups with an intense concentration of “watermelon snow,” which is an algae that thrives on summer snow remnants in the high country

The_Enchantments_Summer-385Channels of intense watermelon snow reflecting on a lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-420Karen videotaping above tumultuous mountains waters

The_Enchantments_Summer-492Elephant Head, a classic wildflower of wet meadows in alpine and subalpine habitats

The_Enchantments_Summer-476Mountain lake in the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-479Ripples and sun patterning a mountain lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-507Granite and reflections of the blue sky in a zen garden

The_Enchantments_Summer-256Last sun on McClellan Peak

The_Enchantments_Summer-267Smoky sunset from our campsite; there were several large forest fires in the mountains around Leavenworth and Wenatchee

That night, I set the alarm for 1:00 a.m., so that I could work with my new AstroTrac star tracking device. When I got up, I found it was a warm evening with perfectly clear skies. I walked back toward Aasgard Pass by the light of my headlamp, then set up my tripod and set about figuring out all the equipment. By the time I returned to camp, it was 3:30 a.m., and I was exhausted, knowing that morning was coming in two and a half hours.

The_Enchantments_Summer-617-CombThe Milky Way splayed across the heavens above Dragontail Peak

The next morning, our plan was to hike down to the Middle Enchantments, where we would camp for two more nights. We hiked down the trail, and three of us took a side hike to see a lake that Karen found on the topo map. This lake, named Lake Ladgunn on our Stark Enchantments map, proved to be the most beautiful lake in the Upper Enchantments. It was a bit higher than the others, and it still had substantial ice on the surface. It was magical, with its isolation and stunning colors and textures of ice. One American Pipit loudly called out to another of its kind from the surface of an iceberg. On the route down from the lake, Karen found a White-tailed Ptarmigan–it was the first I had seen in Washington in 24 years.

The_Enchantments_Summer-688Hiking down the valley of the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-423Identifying peaks

The_Enchantments_Summer-563Reflections of waves and sun on the face of a permanent snowfield, once a glacier, along Isolation Lake

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The_Enchantments_Summer-674Ever-present Mountain Goats, our high country companions

The_Enchantments_Summer-694Lake Ladgunn, the hidden lake we investigated off the trail

The_Enchantments_Summer-705Ice and reflections of watermelon snow at Lake Ladgunn

The_Enchantments_Summer-697Glacier-polished granite with the aquamarine waters of the little lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-711Fanciful floating ice with its own shadow

The_Enchantments_Summer-714Melting ice and reflections

The_Enchantments_Summer-744An American Pipit stayed on the remnant lake ice for as long as I watched

The_Enchantments_Summer-762The stunning alpine setting of Lake Ladgunn

The_Enchantments_Summer-826White-tailed Ptarmigan with Arctic Fireweed

We then walked to the lip of the Upper Enchantments, where there is a granite bluff looking out over the expanse of the Middle and Lower Enchantments. Here we enjoyed our lunch of cheese and crackers and dried raspberries and chocolate. While eating, a young woman in her early twenties breezed up to the cliff and started immediately chatting with us, while her boyfriend explored the area. She was in aerobics clothing, and was trim and athletic and pretty, without a pack, and without a bit of trail sweat or dirt within yards of her. If she had been a step closer, we probably could have caught the scent of her morning shampoo. While we thought it was a significant accomplishment to get this far on the trail, she and her boyfriend had started at 7:00 a.m. at the same trailhead where we started, and now, five hours later, they had come all the way up to and over Aasgard Pass and across the Upper Enchantments to where we were eating lunch. She made all of us feel inadequate!

The_Enchantments_Summer-754Sue and Karen with iconic Prusik Peak in the distance

When people do the whole 20+ miles of The Enchantments in one day, it is known as the “Death March,” but this girl didn’t even look tired at the halfway point. We deemed her “Wenatchee Girl,” because that’s where she volunteered that she lived, and we compared our aging and tired bodies to her trim and athletic youthfulness for the rest of the trip.

And that is where I’ll end today’s part of the tale. In Part 2, I’ll describe our descent into the Lower Enchantments, where we encountered the magic of Alpine Larches, goats and more goats, and screeching upon plunging into a glacial lake with snow still clinging to the shore.

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,  Mountain Goats, and Forests of Gold.  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) 

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

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL: Still Living the Dream

August 4, 2013

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Hiking down from Trap Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail on a perfect summer day, I saw a single hiker ahead, trudging up the trail toward me. It was a man of roughly my age, carrying a heavy backpack. When we met and exchanged greetings, he asked if I was with the Forest Service. I said no, but I realized that I was wearing a light green shirt and dark shorts, and it did look a bit like a U.S. Forest Service uniform.

Then he remarked on my “Michigan” baseball cap, with its indigo color deeply faded by many days in the high country, but the maize embroidery of my alma mater’s name still bright. He said he had gone to the University of Michigan as well. He asked when I attended and I said I was there from 1968 through 1972. He said he was there from 1970 through 1974. He asked what I had studied, and I said I was in the School of Natural Resources. Turns out, he was too, so our paths would have crossed many times during the two years of overlap. Alas, neither of us recognized the other’s name, but I would have been two years older, and our classes would have been different.

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In the 1960s and early 1970s, most of us entered the School of Natural Resources because we loved being outdoors and dreamed of a career that would keep us close to the forests and lakes and mountains that we loved. I loved hiking and fishing; others loved hunting ducks and deer, but all of us had the wilderness in our souls. The school had a feeling of camaraderie at the time, and I think most of us thought of ourselves as natural resource students first, and University of Michigan students second. In addition, both of us were at the school when the first Earth Day happened, so our environmental interests coincided with the awakening feeling that caring for the environment should become an urgent national priority.

He asked who my favorite professor had been, and I answered S. Ross Tocher, a charismatic man who taught park planning and nature interpretation, and who introduced me to photography and spurred my buying of a good quality camera. Dr. Tocher gave me a start on my careers in interpretation and photography through his classes, and asking me if I would like to participate in an arboretum design for Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, along with a landscape architecture student. This was the first time I participated in a project at a professional level, and it was thrilling. Tocher later moved to the Puget Sound region and spent his retirement years about ten miles from where I now live, though we didn’t get reaquainted in later years, something I now regret, since this great man passed away several years ago.

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My new trail acquaintance had spent the early part of his career working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Monte Cristo Ranger District in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. He wasn’t a forester, but he recalled asking his forester colleagues if the timber harvest they were hauling out of the woods was sustainable. That would have been in the early 1980s, when logging was increased dramatically on Forest Service lands. They laughed and said absolutely not, but there was nothing they could do about it. One of their agency’s goals at the time was to make sure that all the old-growth timber on the district was harvested by 2010. They didn’t quite reach their goal, despite a valiant effort that left much of the Pacific Northwest with a brush cut, because the increasing scarcity of the Spotted Owl intervened and effectively cut off the harvest. Thank God and his little owl.

I told my new friend about my zigzag career path, having worked as a nature center director in upstate New York and as a freelance nature photographer in the years since, as well as shorter stints with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. I even did three summers of challenging work fighting forest fires in the California mountains.

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He spent the latter part of his career working for Seattle City Light doing environmental projects. And he spent lots of his own time in the mountains, enjoying the glorious yearly summer respite between spring and autumn rains in this moist region.

This conversation got me thinking about others I went to school with and the paths their lives have taken. Most I lost contact with, of course, but I’ve run across the names of some through the years in various ways. My roommate at forestry summer semester went into the Peace Corps and spent five years working on natural resources in Columbia, before the drug trade turned it into a terrifying place for outsiders. He later became a craftsman, creating a company that forged decorative bronze bells. I ran into him at an art show some 15 years ago in Cleveland, where we each had a booth.

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Another friend, for whom I was an usher at his wedding, went to graduate school, and later became a professor in Arizona. I heard him talking on NPR’s All Things Considered a few years back about tourism, his specialty. Another worked at a nature center, then departed for grad school and spent the rest of his career in Wisconsin doing graphics and photography for a university.

I was in college at the peak of the hippie era, and some of the guys I knew followed their passions in completely different directions. One formed a band performing in the style of old western music: they had an NPR program for many years and did a gig at the White House for Ronald Reagan (this guy also started the “Paul is Dead” rumor that swept the USA like wildfire–though Paul McCartney just gave a dynamite performance for 45,000 people in Seattle a week ago, so the report of his death was a bit premature, or else he’s had a great imposter for 40+ years). Another man–a man with a talent for talk–became an agent booking country and bluegrass acts out of Nashville. Still another became a restaurant manager in Cleveland.

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Our lives and careers have taken many routes. But as my new friend said as we departed: “It’s good to see some of us are still living the dream.” Indeed. I cannot imagine a life without spending a great deal of time outdoors in beautiful country. I invited him to join us on a week-long hike in The Enchantments, but he declined. He had other plans, and another route through life.

One last thing: the man remarked twice to me: “I can’t believe how young you look!” Well, take off the baseball cap and you see the lost hair that once flowed long and blond, while the sunglasses mask skin damage from so many days spent outdoors in the days before sunscreen. I like my disguises and have no illusions of youthfulness.

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We departed. He headed up the trail toward the pass and I headed down the trail to join my wife and our friend on the hike back to the trailhead. Old times and early ambitions were coursing through my head as I thought about forks in the road I’ve taken. Some with regrets, but most just are what they are. At this point in life, I’m as happy as I’m likely to be, and things have turned out pretty well. Life is our own personal version of the Pacific Crest Trail, filled with adventures on a long and wandering route through space and time.

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me 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.