Posted tagged ‘cascades’

MY LAST HIKE IN THE ENCHANTMENTS

November 1, 2014

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes WildernessSunlit Alpine Larches with the cloud-shrouded flanks of Mt. Stuart in the distance

The place is profoundly inspiring. Ragged ridges slice the sky. A pale sun dances off aquamarine tarns. Golden larch needles tickle my arm. Towering Mt. Stuart creates its own clouds. Mountain Goats greet us like long-lost friends. Is there anywhere as enchanting?

We drove from the Seattle area to Leavenworth, in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, on an early October day. Our backpacking permit from the Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest allowed us four nights in a lesser-visited part of The Enchantments that included Lake Stuart and Horseshoe Lake. Our goal was to hike to Lake Stuart, camp one night, then hike the unofficial route up to the real high country of Horseshoe Lake, then spend three nights there among the golden Alpine Larches.

We drove up the steep access road to the trailhead, which wound through patches of scarred trees where forest fires had raged in recent years. In fact, two years previously, we had been blocked from this access road by a big wildfire.

At the trailhead, we joined scores of other cars in a big parking lot. When I got out of the warm car, I was immediately struck by the chill in the air. We were used to warmer weather all summer for our hikes, and this was a change. Even so, I started the hike wearing shorts and a nylon shirt, knowing that I would heat up immediately as we climbed the trail toward Horseshoe Lake. After eating a trail lunch of crackers, cheese, cookies, and dried mango at the trailhead, I donned my 47 lb. pack and we headed up the trail.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USACrossing Mountaineer Creek on a high bridge on the way to The Enchantments

It was a long slog upward through the evergreen forest and along Mountaineer Creek. Hikes ascending through dense forest are never my favorites, but they are almost always necessary to get to the more desirable high country. And let’s face it, the long trek through the forest makes the high meadows seem even sweeter by comparison.

The afternoon went by quickly as we climbed the five mile trail toward Lake Stuart. Eventually we reached the shores of the lake. Swaths of bright green horsetails in the lake’s shallows were glowing in the late afternoon light, against the mountainsides in deep shade. I was immediately inspired by the scene, grabbed my camera, and asked Karen if she could set up the tent while I photographed. The downside was that I was chilled in the cold and windy mountain air after the sweaty hike up the trail. This is a time when I should have immediately changed into warmer clothes and ingested some calories but, no, I just HAD to get those photographs! As a result, I was really cold when I eventually got back to camp. Too cold to even fix a tripod that needed repair. In these circumstances I get the symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease, which cuts off blood flow to the fingers and leaves them ghostly white and unable to work properly.

Edge of Lake Stuart on Tranquil Morning in Alpine Lakes WilderneHorsetails at the edge of Lake Stuart, with snowy Mt. Stuart in the distance

Swamp Horsetail Massed along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsThe Swamp Horsetail colony had an incredibly bright yellow-green color

After a good backpacking dinner of dehydrated Pad Thai, I felt revived, but was still a bit chilled, and that’s how I would feel all night. To cut weight on this trip, we brought our lightest weight tent; unfortunately, the tent achieves much of its weight savings by using insect netting instead of solid nylon walls, so the wind on this breezy night blew right through the tent. We also skimped on sleeping bags to save weight, given the favorable forecast, but ended up wearing nearly all our clothing inside the summer-weight sleeping bags. Oh well, the first night was to be the coldest.

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes WildernessStorm light on Mt. Stuart that first evening; the mountain is so high that it makes its own clouds, which dissipate just downwind from the mountain

The next morning, we awoke early, knowing we had a difficult day ahead. Lake Stuart was still. We discovered that our latest technology–a UV blasting Steripen for sterilizing drinking water–had stopped working. Fortunately we had a backup plan: using iodine tablets and an iodine neutralizer that we carry for just such situations. It worked just fine.

Mt. Stuart Viewed from Lake Stuart in the Alpine Lakes WildernesAfter the tumultuous weather of the previous evening, morning dawned cold, clear, and windless

After packing up, we walked to the end of the lake, then started following a route throught the woods. This is not an officially maintained trail, so the hiking was difficult, with lots of fallen trees to climb over or crawl under. Eventually we came to a big open wetland filled with cottongrass and The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWet meadow along the route from Lake Stuart to Horseshoe Lake, with Mt. Stuart towering above

other boggy plants. Skirting the side of it, we began searching for a horseshoe tacked to a tree that would signal the place to start climbing the mountain. We ran into two older (well, older than me!) guys crashing through the woods behind us. One knew exactly where the horseshoe was located, and told us how to get there. He said that he first came to The Enchantments with his older brother (the guy with him) in 1959, when he was 12 years old, so he had a long love of the place.

Stuart_and_Horseshoe_Lakes-126The horseshoe marking the start of the rough route up the mountain to Horseshoe Lake

Upon reaching the horseshoe, we celebrated; after all, some people get lost at this point and never make it up to Horseshoe Lake. The trail ascended. Steeply. Over and under endless fallen trees. Some steps up onto granite were so steep that we had to help pull each other up.

We reached our first golden larch. Then another. The path rose into a huckleberry meadow glowing with red leaves. Sparkle off distant water. We were there!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAApproaching Horseshoe Lake through an autumn huckleberry meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe view from our campsite across the narrow lake to Mt. Stuart

After a brief break, we split up to search for a campsite. The lake was small, and we chose an established campsite on a peninsula jutting into the lake where there were two flat spots for our tents. We set up our tents, established a line to hang our food from a tree branch, and soaked in our good fortune at having an entire high country lake to ourselves. The Alpine Larches were at their peak of color and the granite spires soared above us. No place on earth could be better.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USALast light on one of the mountains surrounding Horseshoe Lake

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpenglow on the flanks of Mt. Stuart

I stayed up well beyond dark watching the fading light, then photographed the scene using my headlamp to illuminate the larches against the deep twilight blue of the sky. A 60% waxing moon gave light to the landscape.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA granite knoll next to our campsite; it had Whitebark Pines and Alpine Larches growing from cracks in the stone. We watched the stars blink on as twilight turned into night.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA waxing moon appeared over Mt. Stuart. On our last night, we saw the headlamps of a pair of climbers high on a cliff below the summit; the climbers were bivouacking high on the mountain for a morning attempt to summit the peak.

The next morning we were again up early; after all, who wants to remain in a cozy sleeping bag in the presence of such beauty? Well, it depends how cold it is outside; fortunately the morning was chilly but not frigid. Karen and I have a typical trail breakfast of dried bean soup spiked with PB2, a powdered peanut butter product, and ground almonds. It is good and gives enough energy for the day of exploring. I don’t function without my morning coffee, and little tubes of freeze-dried work just fine in the wilderness. My companions preferred tea.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOur campsite, which may have been the prettiest campsite we’ve ever had–and that’s saying a lot!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAJunko filtering water along the shore

We made our plan for the day: we would hike along the lake shore as far as we could, then explore toward the base of the ridges surrounding this big glacial cirque. We hiked for a while, then had an early lunch atop a granite outcrop overlooking the lake and Mt. Stuart.

After lunch, we wandered down to a wet meadow that had recently melted out, though first we had to negotiate a boulder field that included a lot of scrambling and climbing over big rocks. When we reached the meadow, we found a beautiful meandering stream, with its banks bordered by a few summer subalpine wildflowers that we didn’t expect to see in October. The Shooting Stars and Red Bell Heathers and White Bell Heathers and Yellow Arnicas brightened the day.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe wet meadow and snowfield where we saw summer wildflowers in October, as well as our first Mountain Goat of the trip

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThis stream meandering through the wet meadow flowed down into Horseshoe Lake

Karen Rentz Picking Huckleberries in The Enchantments in FallKaren and Junko picked a handful of late season huckleberries in the rock field just above the meadow; this rocky area was also home to numerous Pikas

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASummer wildflowers still bloomed in the high meadow, which had melted out late–probably in September

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren exploring a high heather meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren and alpine color

I found that the stream flowed down under a small remnant snowfield. I knew what this meant: there would be a scalloped ice cave where the stream flowed through. I found and photographed the cave. Then we set about building a great little snowman atop the snowfield.

Snowman Made from Natural Materials in The EnchantmentsWe built our traditional snowman atop the remnant snowfield, accessorizing with chartreuse Wolfia lichen and Whitebark Pine twigs–all locally sourced from sustainable and recyclable sources

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsThe sculpted, scalloped interior of an ice cave in the high meadow 

After playtime was over, we walked along the edge of the meadow, at least until I layed down to photograph a vivid magenta Shooting Star. After three shutter clicks, I noticed a white shape moving toward me from the mountainside. It was a female Mountain Goat, and she came down the mountain just to be with me. How sweet! Her presence consumed most ot the rest of the day, but I’ll get to all that in another blog entry.

Mountain GoatThis Mountain Goat came straight down the mountain to join us in the meadow, where it quietly fed as we watched nearby

It was getting late in the day, so we started hiking back to camp, with the Mountain Goat tagging behind like a kid sister. We enjoyed a hot dinner, and repeated the activities of the night before. We watched the stars and planets poke one by one from the deep twilight sky, and the now 70% moon washing the landscape in pale silvery light.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHorseshoe Lake was lovely as we hiked back to camp from the high meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThat night, I again photographed the lakeshore with the aid of light from my headlamp

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe moon was at about 70% full above us

We slept well, then awoke the next morning to a cloudless sky. During breakfast, we suddenly spotted a group of four Mountain Goats running and bouncing (really!) along the shoreline toward us. They seemed overjoyed to see us. But, again, more on that experience in an upcoming blog entry.

Mountain GoatOne of a group of four Mountain Goats that came to our campsite early the next morning. There was an adult mother, her kid of the year, and two yearlings; all four constantly challenged other members of the small family for dominance. One time, I even saw the tiny kid try to stand up to one of the yearlings. She had to back down.

Mountain GoatOne of the goats stood atop a granite outcrop in our campsite, with Mt. Stuart in the distance

Hundreds of photographs later, we left camp to search for Jack Lake, the mythological body of water that we thought we had found the day before, but were mistaken. It turned out to be a real lake, small and lovely, ringed with golden sedges and golden larches. We ate our trail lunch on a granite bluff overlooking the lake, where we saw the four Mountain Goats and realized that they had wandered over to the hills where we were exploring. We also saw a couple of groups of hikers enjoying the larch-covered terrain.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USATiny Jack Lake basked in the color around it–the golds of sedges and Alpine Larches

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, going back to the wet meadow of yesterday to check on our snowman–it had fallen into scattered dirty snowballs–and to photographs the Pikas living in the boulder field above the meadow.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThat evening brought a return of the wind and the unsettled weather that can be so glorious in the mountains

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe waxing moon behind a larch at night

That night the weather was unsettled, with some winds and clouds that made it less desirable for night photography, though I did manage to squeeze off a few shots.

The next morning was our last morning on Horseshoe Lake. As happened yesterday, the gang of four Mountain Goats showed up and demanded our attention, so we were late in leaving the lake for our hike out. When the goats lay down to chew their cuds, I finally decided that it was time to give it up, after having taken about 500 photos of the goats over three days.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe next morning dawned clear, still, and stunningly beautiful

Mountain GoatThe gang of four returned that morning for another photo session

Mountain GoatThe kid often fed at its mother’s feet, keeping an eye on the photographer while using its mother’s legs as a barrier from that guy with the camera 

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne last look at the loveliest of all mountain lakes

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren and Junko starting the hike out on our last morning

We hoisted our packs for the seven mile hike out. We knew that the infomal trail back to Lake Stuart was going to be difficult, even though it was all downhill. I asked Karen and Junko to count the logs crossing the trail that we had to climb over, step over, or shimmy under. That gave us something other than the physical difficulty to think about and, by the time we reached Lake Stuart, the total was 137 downed trees over the path!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAClimbing over and limboing under some of the 137 logs that lay across the “trail”

Beyond Lake Stuart, the forest started smelling like mushrooms, so our attention changed to searching for edibles. We didn’t find any of the Golden Chanterelles like we find in the Puget Sound lowland forests, but we did find some midnight blue-colored relatives of the chanterelles, as well as a few Hedgehog Mushrooms. The former weren’t very good to our palates, but the Hedgehogs were terrific when fried in butter.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne of the Blue Chanterelles that grew in dense clumps on the forest floor

We were tired and sore, but the parking lot came into view earlier than I expected. We encountered a lot of day hikers on our hike out, and the parking lot was still overflowing when we arrived. The drive home was long, but we stopped to get boxes of excellent apples fresh from the orchards.

When I titled this blog post “My Last Hike in the Enchantments,” I was thinking of Karen’s repeated statement that entering The Enchantments is always a hard hike, and she has now done it four times, and that is enough. However, my title also refers to what was simply my most recent hike to The Enchantments. And it was so enchanting, I prefer to think that I might return in the next few years.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA fond look back from the wet meadow just above Lake Stuart toward the high and stunning Enchantments

The Enchantments is a stunning landscape of sharp granite peaks and open country studded with small glacial lakes. With the explosion of backpacking in the 1970s, The Enchantments became overrun with hikers. Hundreds of hikers would be in the high country at one time, trampling the fragile heather meadows and lighting campfires fueled by fallen larch and pine boughs. The area was being loved to death. Eventually the U.S. Forest Service stepped in and established a permit system that controls the number of backpackers. Some freedom was lost in the process, but the beauty of the area was maintained.

We received a permit for our third visit in three years. A lottery is held in the early part of the year to determine who receives most of the permits, although some permits are available every day to hikers who show up at the last minute and a few permits are available immediately after the lottery for days that have not met their quota. This was my third trip here, and I would love to return.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

INTIMATE LANDSCAPES OF THE ENCHANTMENTS

October 24, 2014

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHuckleberry leaves glowed scarlet against the glacier-rounded granite

When I backpacked to Horseshoe Lake and Lake Stuart in The Enchantments in early October, I knew that I would be photographing lovely landscapes filled with rugged mountains, serene lakes, golden larches, and (hopefully) Mountain Goats. All of those scenes came vividly to life in a landscape so breathtaking, I could hardly bear to leave. I took hundreds of photographs of the Mountain Goats that joyously greeted us, and hundreds of photographs of Alpine Larches and dramatic mountainscapes.

But when I’m out in the wilderness, Big Landscapes are only part of what I seek. I also like the sun on my face, the scent of forest mushrooms in the air, the way scarlet autumn leaves play along a granite surface, the perfect reflections of golden sedges at the edge of a pond. In short, I love the intimate landscapes as much as I love the Big Landscapes, perhaps more. This blog post is a visual celebration of the intimate landscapes that caught my eye. Think of these as haiku, in comparison with the epic poetry of the vast and breathtaking scenes.

Swamp Horsetail Massed along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsSwamp Horsetails thrived in dense colonies along the shore of Stuart Lake; I was astounded at the brilliant yellow-green color when they caught the late afternoon and early evening light

Swamp Horsetail and Waves along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsAt the edge of our campsite, I photographed the reflections of the blue sky, mountains, and horsetails on the small waves lapping the shore (while I left Karen to set up the tent on her own)

Swamp Horsetail with Wave-distorted Reflections in Lake StuartLate in the afternoon of the first day, the sun broke out across Lake Stuart; here the waves reflect the sunlit cliffs and forests in a bright abstract pattern

Swamp Horsetail at Edge of Lake Stuart in Predawn LightEarly the next morning, before the sun rose, Lake Stuart was perfectly quiet, with the mountains across the lake reflecting among the horsetails

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAIn a wetland farther up the valley, along the way trail leading to Horseshoe Lake, the clumps of autumn sedges glowed a rich gold among the cottongrass

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe are familiar with Cottongrass from sphagnum bogs in the midwest and vast stretches of Alaskan tundra; it was good to see it again here in the wetland. It actually is a sedge rather than a grass, and the seeds float in the air to new destinations much like dandelion or milkweed seeds.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe climbed the steep trail to Horseshoe Lake, then broke into small huckleberry meadows with granite outcrops and views of the mountains above the lake 

Mushroom Associated with Alpine Larch Trees Near Horseshoe LakeThere were numerous large mushrooms, about four to six inches in diameter, that live in association with the Alpine Larch roots; these relatives of boletes MAY be edible and excellent, but there are two species with similar habits and one is less edible than the other, and we weren’t able to identify them in the field

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAutumn sedges in a wet meadow, in a photograph with an impressionistic feel

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAMany of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color; they stand with the Whitebark Pines as the last bastion of trees at timberline

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpine Larches have exquisitely soft needles that turn golden in the fall, then drop off when October winds scour the basin

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe camped along Horseshoe Lake; the next morning I photographed the granite outcrops and quiet lake before the sun awakened the scene

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAMost trees reach to the sky; this larch bowed down to the granite, apparently in response to heavy winter snows that piled on top of it

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAIt is rare that I see such photogenic sedges in the mountains, and I loved the pattern of the autumn-tinged clumps against a tarn reflecting the blue sky

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAChartreuse Wolfia lichen growing abundantly on a branch, with a selfie of my wrist

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAIn a glacial cirque above Horseshoe Lake, a stream winds gracefully through a meadow that just lost its snows from last winter in the last month or so; this stream flows into Horseshoe Lake

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsIn the cirque, a couple of remnant snow fields remained and, where the tiny creek flowed under the snow, an ice cave formed. Such caves can collapse, so I just crawled into the entrance to take a series of photographs.

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsThe scalloped patterns inside the cave were typical of others I’ve entered … other worldly!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHere it was October, and there were still some wildflowers blooming because the snow had melted out so recently. Shooting Star is among my favorite mountain flowers; it thrives in wet meadows, and I inevitably get soaked when I lay down to photograph it.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAGentians are more typical of late season wildflowers, but October is even late for them

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe talus slope above the wet meadow was alive with Pikas, those small rabbit-relatives who live among the rocks and put away cut greens in order to get through the long winter under the snow. They don’t hibernate, so they need plenty of food.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe stream through the meadow took a very meandering course; beyond the stream you can see the talus slope where the Pika live, as well as some young Alpine Larches growing among the boulders.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAGolden Alpine Larches and golden autumn sedges at Jack Lake; the richness of color is the last gasp before the high country is deep in snow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAClumps of sedges grace the edge of Jack Lake, as if carefully placed by a landscape artist

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne of the sedge clumps gracefully reflecting in Jack Lake

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAJust prior to our hike, a fierce windstorm apparently blasted through The Enchantments, because there were numerous fallen fresh Alpine Larch branches wherever we went

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWhen the granite cracks and weathers, soil accumulates in the cracks, giving huckleberries a habitat to explore 

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpine Larches and Whitebark Pines live to a hearty old age in the high country. When they eventually fall, the weathered wood shows one of the secrets of their strength: spiraling twisted grain that can withstand high winds and heavy snows better than perfectly straight grain

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASuch patterns also look good in black-and-white photography

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAI love photographing these fallen warriors, with their tough bones

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USALichens on the granite can be ancient and colorful; this pattern looked like it was left by an ancient civilization

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHorseshoe Lake is ringed with smooth granite outcrops; the perfect place for a human to dip water for breakfast or a Mountain Goat to take a sip

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne windy night the moon was bright behind the trees; I photographed the shadow of one Alpine Larch with the moon glow dancing off the waves around it and got this ethereal result

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAn impressionistic view of huckleberry leaves and distant larches

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA cloud catching alpenglow at sunset

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe Alpine Larches were awe-inspiring; the equivalent of Vermont’s Sugar Maples or Colorado’s Trembling Aspens

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASpeaking of aspens: on the hike out, we came upon a couple of Trembling Aspen groves trying to compete with the Alpine Larches for the camera’s attention; aspens are not nearly as common in the Cascade Mountains as they are in the Rocky Mountain West

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe found these blue-black clumps of mushrooms on the way out; it turns out that they are relatives of the chanterelles, but didn’t taste nearly as good, at least to our palates

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

I would like to thank my wife, Karen Rentz, and our companion, Junko Waibel, for all their patience during my epic time spent making photographs on this trip.

 

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 1: The Long Ascent

November 25, 2012

Alpine Larches reflecting in Leprechaun Lake, with McClellan Peak distant

Reflections of larches on tranquil Leprechaun Lake

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!).

Douglas Squirrel feeding on Douglas Fir cone

Autumn colors along the trail, with the rock climbers’ destination known as Snow Creek Wall towering above

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.

This forest burns frequently, leaving a patchwork of healthy green trees and fire-scorched snags

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.

Snow Creek raging through the forest at the place we chose to have our first trail lunch

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!

Bridge spanning Snow Creek in the forest of our ascent

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?”

“Nada Lake.”

“Not a lake? I thought we were staying at a lake?”

“We are: Nada Lake”

“We’re not at a lake?”

“No. Nada Lake.”

“What?”

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.

A Mountain Goat entered camp while we were taking down our tents, leading to an hour-long photographic distraction

The Mountain Goats were not afraid of us–they’ve seen thousands of backpackers coming up this trail and they undoubtedly prefer us to Cougars

Truth be told, the big reason that Mountain Goats like to hang around human campsites is to consume urine-soaked soil that backpackers leave behind–more on this in part 2 of this blog

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.

Mountain Goat drinking from tranquil Nada Lake in morning 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.

Torrent of water removed from Snow Lakes to supply the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in autumn

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.

Upper Snow Lake is among the ugliest lakes I’ve ever seen, at least in autumn when much of the water is removed for use in a fish hatchery

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.

Karen crossing an expanse of smooth granite, where trail builders used dynamite to blast small steps in the stone

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.

Snow Creek rushing down the granite toward Snow Lakes; this is the spot where we enjoyed lunch on our second day out

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.

From Lake Viviane, we got our first great view of Prusik Peak and The Tower–some of the iconic mountains surrounding the Enchantment Lakes

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.

Fallen Alpine Larch needles forming a pattern at the edge of Lake Viviane

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.

Our first view of the granite and golden larches surrounding Leprechaun Lake

Late afternoon light on Alpine Larches, reflecting in Leprechaun Lake

Ripples on Leprechaun Lake, colored by reflected deep blue tree shadows, orange reflections of Alpine Larches, and an aquamarine slice of sunlit lake

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.

Last light on Prusik Peak, the iconic mountain in The Enchantments

Behind our campsite, larches and a boulder field lit by a rising moon, with stars studding the sky overhead

The rising moon reflecting on the wind-rippled surface of Perfection Lake

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

Wispy clouds and stars above our campsite

Looking down the length of Perfection Lake toward Little Annapurna on a moonlit night

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.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov.

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


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