If you agree that Mount Baker would be a fine addition to the National Park System, please let your national congressional representative or senator know your feelings. National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” and it is time to expand the system to include all the other great areas that represent the best nature of America.
Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.
I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.
We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.
After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.
After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.
After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.
After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”
One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.
Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial.
On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!
We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical.
The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.
On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get.
A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?
These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted.
We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.
On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked up with three young men. Actually we had seen the young men earlier, and one was pulling a two-wheel golf bag cart up the trail–filled with bottles of beer! That explained all the hootin’ and hollerin’ from their campsite during the night. They had a big and blazing campfire that I’m sure was set in the traditional Appalachian manner: dousing the wet wood with gasoline, standing back, and tossing a match at it to watch it explode!
The next morning, a wet fog had settled over Silers Bald and we couldn’t see a thing through the thick sky soup. Another hiker came up to us while we were on the rock; he was thin and maybe 40 years old. He asked us how much we hiked in a day and we responded that we hiked about eight to ten miles a day. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he averaged over thirty miles a day and that his best day was 43 miles. I’ve never had the ability or the body type to do that kind of hiking, and it wouldn’t work with all the times I stop to take photographs, so in retrospect I’m not impressed, though at the time I thought he was superhuman.
By that time on the trail my feet were sore. Even though we washed our socks and dried them by the nightly fires, the trail had done its job on my tender feet. I had a blood-filled blister the size of a half-dollar on one heel, so I limped my way along the trail to the trailhead. We hitched a ride to a campground, where Dowell made friends with an older woman (she was probably 25) who was a teacher, and she took us the next day to go for a hike to a waterfall. That was fun, and this was a more trusting time in America, when people weren’t as afraid of each other. She drove us to the Gatlinburg bus station the next day, where we caught the bus to Knoxville. I distinctly remember the fat bus driver telling us and a couple of other hikers that he didn’t think backpacking was very sporting, so he wasn’t very impressed by us. Oh well.
In Knoxville we had just enough time to walk to Mary’s apartment for a meal, then walk back to the bus station where we boarded the overnight bus to Cincinnati. The atmosphere on the bus was electric, because many of the rural Kentucky and Tennessee passengers had just come off an experience attending a Billy Graham crusade that took place on May 28, 1970, in Knoxville. They felt inspired and chatty, talking about their churches and children and chickens.
We arrived in Cincinnati the next morning, where Dowell’s mother fussed over and treated my blood-filled blister, then we drove out to the family cabin in rural Ohio, which was a rustic place done in the Appalachian style with a long covered front and back porch. Dowell took me fossil-hunting in the nearby creek. In his high school years, he had been an avid fossil-hunter and actually had at least one scientific paper to his credit. The next day I flew home and began preparing for a summer semester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Epilogue: I just finished writing this a bit over 50 years after the experience, surprised at how much of it still felt fresh in my mind. Early experiences can be like that, imprinting themselves on a still-impressionable young person. I lost track of Dowell a year or two later; I only know that he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I went on to get my degree in Natural Resources, and later worked in that field and in photography for the rest of my adult life.
We were staying in a log hut during a Seattle Mountaineers trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, one of the dramatic high country huts in the Canadian Rockies, when it snowed one night. The next morning, Karen led an effort to create a snowman that reflected the changing seasons. It had a rain hat and a warm woolen scarf, as well as an evergreen mouth, a traditional carrot nose, and eyes of still-flowering purple asters that a Pack Rat had cut in front of our cabin. Making this “Hippy Chick” snowwoman took our minds off the Grizzly Bear tracks that were left overnight on the trail that went right by the hut.
The guy staying in the hut next to ours had been camping about a mile away, but a bear invaded his camp in the night and scared him, so he moved into the cabin. Perhaps our snowman worked as a talisman to ward off hungry grizzlies.
When backpackers unexpectedly encounter a group of, ahem, older hikers, making a snowman along a trail, they are delighted. After all, snowmen take us back to the days of carefree childhood, when playing in the snow was simply what we did in the winter, bundled up in snowsuits, woolen mittens, and warm boots. During those winter days of long ago, those of us growing up in northern climates would also make snow angels and erupt into spontaneous snowball fights–reflecting the sweet and agressive sides of our childhood natures.
Karen Rentz started creating snowmen during backpacking trips at least a decade ago. Gradually her friends came to expect that when they came to a remnant snowfield during a summer hike, they were going to be roped into making a snowman, and that it was a fun distraction from the exertion of hard hiking. Almost everyone pitched in, gathering hemlock cones and fallen lichens and twigs and leaves and whatever other natural materials were at hand, sometimes supplemented–long enough to take pictures–with mittens and hats.
These are sweet-tempered snowmen, unlike the snowmen that sprang from the mind of Bill Watterson’s Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (which I still miss): Calvin and Hobbes. Karen’s snowmen usually smile through a twig mouth and they have funny hats or hair and are gentle spirits, reflecting her soul.
All snowmen are ephemeral, of course, and that is part of their charm. When Karen and friends make a snowman, it some times lasts an hour or two, perhaps for another day or two, with sunshine and gravity taking their inevitable toll. But the short lives are okay, for none of us lasts all that long on this earth, and they are a reminder to stop and smell the roses: for that alone, making a snowman is worthwhile.
On Mount Townsend we built this snowman on the top edge of a very long snow slope that descended several thousand feet at a steep pitch, so we had to be careful not to slide off. On this spot once stood a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout cabin built in 1933 to watch for fires in Olympic National Forest, but it was destroyed in 1962.
This Mount Townsend snowman was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. We found the old spoon at the edge of the snow field, and believe that it was lost when the lookout cabin was destroyed. The eyes, nose, and buttons are made of small rocks that had been broken off the bedrock when water trickled into cracks in the rock, and then froze. These rocks originated millions of years ago on the Pacific Ocean floor, then were thrust up above the ocean to form the rugged Olympic Mountains. But enough of geology. The hair is made of fallen branches of Mountain Hemlock.
While backpacking in The Enchantments of Washington State, there was a bit of remnant snow at the time the golden Alpine Larch needles were falling in October, so we gave this hula snowgirl a Hawaiian skirt, thinking about how much warmer it would be to be hiking in the islands.
We built this snowman along the Pacific Crest Trail, at the very place we met a hiker who had already come all the way from Mexico and was going all the way to Canada. He was unique in that he was quite a dapper hiker, wearing a Panama hat, a neatly trimmed beard, and a necktie (really!); he said he was between jobs and wanted to be ready in case someone wanted to interview him for a job along the trail. Hey, I’d hire him for his sense of humor!
This Pacific Crest Trail snowman had pretty lupine flowers for hair, Mountain Hemlock cones for a nose and buttons, pine needles for eyebrows, and a happy twiggy smile. This snow field was located in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a place where there once towered a volcano on the scale of Mount Rainier. It sits directly between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the founder of the national forest system who worked in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Karen and I were driving through Yosemite National Park one fine autumn day and came upon a patch of snow that hadn’t yet melted from an early autumn snowfall. So, we just had to make this cute little snowman with Lodgepole Pine cone eyes. One of our photos of this snowman was featured in an article about quirky snowmen on NPR’s website several years ago.
We hiked with two friends around Gold Creek Pond in October of 2012, when the first heavy snows were starting to blanket the Cascade Mountains above Seattle. The last of the autumn leaves were still vivid, but the first major snow of winter had deposited enough snow to make a snowman. Gold Creek was also enjoying a Kokanee Salmon run, so while Karen did most of the work on the snowman, I did some underwater photography of the salmon, which were the color of burgundy. The underwater photography was so cool that I returned the next day to do some more. By then, the snowman was looking a bit under the weather, but I would be too if I had to stand in the same place all night. The second day, a young gold miner walked by and chatted with me (remember, this is GOLD Creek Pond); he carried some mining equipment–as well as having an exposed pistol on his belt. Mining is a serious activity, and that fall the price of gold was shooting upward, so a guy had to be prepared for outlaws.
Karen and I hiked up to Melakwa Lake at the end of July. It was a cold, foggy backpacking trip to one of the high mountain lakes located closest to Seattle, and at the beginning of the hike the trail leads under a beautiful elevated section of I-90 (it is elevated to allow avalanches to pass safely underneath). We created this handsome snowman, which we named “Misty Melakwa,” atop a remnant snow field. The hair is of a Mountain Hemlock branch that had turned yellow, perhaps after being buried for nine months under the snow, and the buttons and eyes are of hemlock cones. The spiky hat is a piece of old, weathered wood that might have been a hard knot from a rotted tree. “Misty Melakwa” has a bit of the devil in him, or so it looks from the crooked smile. Melakwa was an Indian word for “mosquito,” so we’re glad the weekend wasn’t warmer, allowing those pesky devils to swarm.
During a hike to Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park in August, we started making a snowman a little ways off the trail on a remnant snow field. In this national park, the volunteer park rangers are adamant about staying on the trail, and we were several yards off the trail. I saw a ranger coming up the trail, and figured I would head her off at the pass by chatting with her about the trail. But she saw my comrades making the snowman and wondered what we were up to. I guess she figured that a group of older people making a snowman in late summer was a harmless, though slightly eccentric, activity so she let us off with a warning: “Please make sure you take a giant step onto the snow field to make sure you don’t crush any tiny plants about to emerge at the edge of the snow.” Duly noted. And done. (Though it should also be noted that a group of volunteer rangers was gathered off the trail around the lookout in lawn chairs, where they were having a party.)
A trail shelter at Boulder Camp in Olympic National Forest was our destination for this day hike. The trail shelter must have enjoyed divine intervention, because giant avalanches had frequently thundered down the surrounding mountains, but always seemed to miss the hut. We built this friendly snowman, with his carefully parted lichen hair, as a talisman to bring us good luck during our visit. He certainly looks friendly, and he is standing atop a tree that had been toppled by a long-ago avalanche.
Boulder Camp is located in the deep Upper Dungeness River Valley below Marmot and Buckhorn Passes in the Olympics. There aren’t very many of these shelters in Washington State’s mountains, but they do provide a dry place to get out of the rain when the weather takes a turn.
With hair and arms of Wolf Lichen, this snow woman is dancing atop a precarious snow bridge over a tiny creek. Wherever a creek flows under a snow field in the mountains, it melts the snow from underneath. Careless hikers can plunge through the thinned snow if they’re not careful, and that’s probably what happened to this little snowman after we left. RIP, tiny dancer!
A happy snowman made by Karen Rentz and Linda Moore along the Grassy Knoll trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood points into the sky in the distance. His happy feet look to be made of Douglas Fir branches, with cones for toes.
Our most recent snowman, made in October high in The Enchantments above Horseshoe Lake, was in a meadow that still sported a few late summer wildflowers and lots of Pikas running around gathering winter hay in the meadows around the rocks. Pine hair and chartreuse lichen details make the snow guy look a bit crazy. This was created by Karen, Junko, and me.
Reason #1 for carrying an orange trowel is to scrape hardened snow off snowbanks in order to build a snowman. Reason #2 is, well, digging holes for #2. This happy hiker gal was enjoying the cool snows of summer in Mount Rainier National Park.
The Snowman Project will be continued, as long as there is snow to shape and trails to walk and bodies that can make the journey.
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.
After two nights in the Upper Enchantments, we descended along a stream that ducked in and out of a steep snowfield, eventually reaching Talisman Lake, and then descended further to Perfection Lake (aka Rune Lake). We passed the campsite where we had camped last fall, and the tent area was flooded to perhaps 4″ deep with recent snowmelt. From the placement of the rocks in the campsite, it looked like our camp last fall was the last time it had been occupied (we had used rocks to secure several of the tents).
Taking a long drink of cool water
Then we hiked around the lake toward a campsite on Sprite Lakelet that we hoped would be vacant. Karen had noticed this site last year, and thought it would be a wonderful place to camp. It was indeed vacant, and we set up camp in this beautiful site among the Alpine Larches.
As a precaution against possible raids by bears and other hungry creatures, we hung our food each night; on the first night, it took two of us to lift the bags, but they got progressively lighter every day.
Sprite Lakelet sits just below an extensive snowfield, but we decided to go swimming, and it sure felt good, or at least really, really cold. It was a “one yelp” dive before I was ready to climb out and dry off.
That night I got up at 12:30 a.m., and climbed the granite hill behind our camp. I stayed up there in the dark for 2 1/2 hours, trying to get night pictures of the stars over iconic Prusik Peak. I succeeded, but there sure are a lot of techical steps to get just right in order for the night pictures to work out. It doesn’t help to be trying it in the middle of the night, after inadequate sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, we took a hike to Crystal Lake, where we explored the lake shore and an ice cave above the lake. Sue, the geomorphologist, interpreted a delta at the head of the lake and how it was formed. I spent quite a bit of time photographing trout along the lake.
Ice cave at the mouth of a snowfield covering the inlet stream to Crystal Lake. I climbed into the mouth of the cave, but just barely, since there is always the threat of a catastrophic roof collapse.
That night, after dinner, I noticed five goats bedding down around our campsite. We had previously noticed that there were goat beds around camp; these are places where Mountain Goats have pawed up the soil to loosen it, effectively making a soft bed. These beds are used repeatedly, and some of them were located just a few feet from Sue’s tent. Once the five goats settled in to chew their cuds, we thought they might be there all night, but then another group of goats came along and that led to a fascinating chain of events that I’ll describe in another blog. Suffice it to say that this was one of our best insights into animal behavior ever.
For the first time, I was challenged by a big male as I was taking pictures from atop the tallest rock along that section of the stream. He was coming straight toward me with head a bit lowered and eyes intent on me, so I backed off. Quickly. Never occupy the high ground unless you are prepared to defend it with your life. I wasn’t.
That night, we had cloudy skies for the first time since the brief showers on the first night, meaning that I didn’t have to spend half the night working with my camera gear. That was probably a good thing, because I needed a good rest before the strenuous hike the next day, though Wenatchee Girl (see previous weblog post) probably covered the distance in two hours and looked fresh as a spring breeze afterwards.
We packed up the next morning for our hike out of the heart of The Enchantments, and down to Snow Lakes. This was not an easy hike, as it led down over numerous steep descents on sloping granite, where we had to use our leg muscles continuously in order to step down safely.
Descending a steep snow field; since I carry a tripod in my hands, I don’t use trekking poles and am at a disadvantage in descents like this–which is my excuse for falling more than everyone else. On one snow field descent, Karen fell twice and finally ended up sliding down gleefully on her butt!
When we finally reached Upper Snow Lake late in the afternoon, we were tired, so I started looking for a campsite. All were occupied, but then I noticed a faint trail leading toward the water. I asked the group to stop while I investigated, and quickly found a wonderful place to set up all of our tents on a sandy beach.
We had a cool swim, which reinvigorated us, then we set up our tents. Phil was a bit apprehensive about whether it was safe to camp on sand, after his experiences in New Zealand. There, everyone avoids sandy beaches at all costs because of the sandflies or sand fleas. In New Zealand, these irritating insects were first called sandflies by Captain James Cook, who said:
“The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.”
Actually, in reading about the sandflies, I believe that they may be the same as what we in the USA call blackflies. Karen and I have encountered swarms of them in the Adirondacks and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Or they could be more like the no-see-ums that are the scourge of the earth, but you don’t see or feel them when they bite. But several minutes after biting, the itch becomes intense.
Phil’s apprehensiveness here was appropriate. I used Deet on the beach, but I was bitten six times on the forehead–below the baseball cap bill and above my eyeglasses–where I didn’t apply the Deet because I don’t like it going into my eyes. Nearly two weeks later, these six big red bumps still itched like crazy, despite my daily treatments with Benadryl. I suspect that these were no-see-um bites; I’ve always had a really strong reaction to these creatures, and we did get a major rip in the no-see-um proof netting of our tent at Sprite Lakelet, so believe I got the bites overnight, when my face was the only part of my body exposed. Or maybe they’re smallpox.
After dinner on the insect-infested beach, a green-clad Forest Service Ranger suddenly appeared through the brush next to camp. We were apprehensive about whether this was an okay campsite, but he assured us that it was. He checked our permit and I asked him a few questions.
Me: Why are you carrying a shovel?
Ranger: It’s for poop; I don’t like picking it up with my hands. It is also for fighting forest fires.
Me: What’s the weather forecast?
Ranger: There is a 20% chance of thunderstorms tonight, with a greater chance after 11:00 a.m. tomorrow.
Me: Has there been any major news from the outside that we don’t know about after a week out here?
Ranger: It has all gone to hell. If I were you, I would ration whatever food you have left and head straight back into The Enchantments!
With that, he vanished up the lake to warn others of impending doom.
After our tough day, I suggested that everyone take their little blue pills. One of the female members of our party said that little blue pills come in several prescriptions, and asked if I was thinking of Wenatchee Girl. I said “I don’t need THAT kind of little blue pill” and Phil said “No guy would ever admit to needing THAT kind of little blue pill.” Okay, so I forgot that Viagra is a little blue pill. I was thinking of Naproxin Sodium, the generic pain pill that is also little and blue with effects that can last all day. I certainly don’t need the other kind of little blue pill. Really.
We went to bed, confident that we could get up early and head out before the thunderstorms hit. Little did we know …
At 10:15 p.m., the first flash of lightning was visible over the High Enchantments. Soon after, the first rain splattered the tent, and I got up and went out to my pack to retrieve delicate photo gear and bring it inside the tent. Karen saw me go outside, then saw the strobing of the lightning and thought that someone had gone outside and had their headlamp on “strobe.” Though why they would do that is beyond me.
A bit later, torrential rains hit our tents, and we endured five long hours of lighting, thunder, and deluge. This was the biggest thunderstorm we’ve endured in the mountains in 20 years. I would try to drift back to sleep, but soon Karen would be up and finding new places in the tent where water had gotten in. It was a REALLY long night.
The next morning, we assessed how our equipment had done. Our tent had let water in at the base and along some of the edges, probably because when nylon gets wet it stretches out and needs to be restaked. But during a torrential rain with lightning crashing doesn’t seem like the best time to go outside and play with tent stakes. So we got a bit wet. Our comrades in their one person tents ranged from completely dry to somewhat wet. We all set out our sodden stuff to dry a bit, but most of the drying would have to be done at home.
Karen reassessed our hike out, and realized that it was longer and required a steeper drop than we had first thought. It was going to be seven miles with a 4,100′ vertical drop. Doable, but tiring. We left camp by 9:00 a.m. and made good time at first, but then there were a lot of rocky stretches of trail where we necessarily slowed to maintain safe footholds.
When we got down near Nada Lake, Sue and I walked over to see the immense jet of water spraying out of an 18″ pipe, coming out of Snow Lakes and destined for a fish hatchery and irrigation downstream. Near the pipe, I glanced up and saw a Pine Marten staring at us from the sharp granite of a big boulder field. I raised my camera by instinct, and managed one grab shot before the creature vanished. Pine Martens are relatives of weasels, but are much larger. This was only my second or third confirmed sighting of one of these animals, and my first in the Cascades.
The rest of the hike out was uneventful until I tripped and fell off the trail, injuring my pride but not my camera or my body. Fortunately, we all got safely down to the car, and then went out for a wonderful milkshake and meal at ’59er Diner, where every waitress is named Flo and every waiter named Joe, and the men’s room is a shrine to Marilyn Monroe.
Driving back to Seattle took us through the heaviest rain I’ve seen in Washington State, and cars were pulling off the road because visibility was so reduced. I didn’t pull off because I didn’t think I needed to: after all, I had taken my little blue pill.
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, Forests of Gold, and Aasgard Pass and the Upper Enchantments. 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
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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
3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!
Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.
There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)
For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.
We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.
We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.
We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!
We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.
We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.
We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.
Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.
Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.
Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!
When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.
Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.
I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.
The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.
This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.
At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).
The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.
For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.
Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.
Standing before the ice cave entrance, I felt the menacing breath of the ice age upon me. Outside, the day was sunny and mild; inside the cave entrance, the atmosphere was dark, with a thin fog carried by the breeze coming down the long and icy corridor. The wind smelled of elemental rocks and ice, and carried a message of unrelenting cold.
Ice caves, as they are known here in the Pacific Northwest, occur where a creek tumbling down a mountain cuts under a snowfield. An ice cave gradually enlarges as the summer wears on, and it eventually collapses and disappears with the melting of the snowfield. The summer of 2011 was colder than normal, and there was a heavy snowpack from late mountain snows last spring, so some of the snowfields will remain and will grow in thickness with new snow in the cold seasons ahead.
The walls of ice caves become scalloped, much like the sun cups that form atop snowfields. The flowing stream, warmer than the frozen snow and ice, causes melting. And the patterns and colors are extraordinarily beautiful. In fact, I could become addicted to photographing every ice cave I found, except for one thing:
ICE CAVES ARE NOT SAFE!
The constant melting and collapsing along the route of the stream is exceedingly dangerous for humans. This point was brought home to me several years ago when my wife called and said she had been on a backpacking trip and was one of the first on the scene of a tragedy. A woman from Seattle had ventured into the entrance of an ice cave, and the roof suddenly collapsed, sending tons of ice down on her head and completely burying her. Despite the heroic efforts of hikers to dig her out using an ice axe, she was dead. This kind of tragedy has happened with regularity during the years I’ve lived in Washington State, and it serves as a warning to me.
Despite the look of my pictures here, I did not venture more than five feet into an ice cave, and I was crawling on cold earth with my feet in a frigid stream. Overhead, the ice layer was up to maybe six inches thick, and I made a calculated risk that even if the ceiling collapsed it didn’t have far to fall and wouldn’t have the momentum to kill me. To further hedge my bets, I had the camera on autofocus and autoexposure and shot blindly, by instinct, rather than trying to contort myself impossibly (and thus disturb the walls and roof of the cave) to look through the viewfinder. I used the LCD to check my results, and adjust my angles and exposures accordingly.
By the way, the beauty of these ice caves is an ephemeral beauty, since they normally disappear each year. Almost none of them have names, since they are essentially invisible to most hikers. In fact, the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington State’s Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest is the only named ice cave I can think of. These caves are off-limits to hikers because of deaths that occurred in 1998 and 2010, though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the vicinity of the ice caves so that people can see the entrances.
There is another type of ice cave I would love to photograph: an ice cave through a glacier. Mt. Rainier had a spectacular ice cave near Paradise that lasted for decades, but it disappeared in the late 1980s with climate change and the retreat of Rainier’s glaciers. This cave was immense and was flooded with an eerie blue light that I associate with nuclear reactors. Alas, I’ll have to go somewhere else to see such a sight. Perhaps Iceland.
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com
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