THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 3: When We Walked through Forests of Gold

Backlit Alpine Larches at Crystal Lake in The EnchantmentsGolden Alpine Larches reflecting in the turquoise waters of Crystal Lake

Our goals for the two days in the Lower Enchantments were modest: we wanted to explore the shores of Inspiration Lake and Talisman Lakes, and hike up to Gnome Tarn to get the classic and oft-repeated photograph of Prusik Peak reflecting in the tarn. Distances are not long up here, so our day hikes were to be at a leisurely pace, allowing us to photograph these Indian Summer days to our heart’s content.

One hike took us to Prusik Pass. When we reached the pass, there was a cold torrent of wind funneled over this low place on the ridge. We had to put on extra layers, and we watched as the forest fires on distant ridges blew up in billows of fresh smoke. I was photographing when I heard a sudden shout of horror: one of our group had his camera on a tripod, and a sudden blast of wind tossed it right off a ledge onto the rocks below, damaging an expensive piece of equipment. I learned a quick lesson by his experience, and clung to my gear as the wind howled.

Prusik Peak Viewed from Gnome Tarn in The EnchantmentsPrusik Peak reflecting in Gnome Tarn

From Prusik Pass, we bushwhacked up and over a ridge to get to Gnome Tarn. The tarn was diminished in size by a seasonal drought, so the shores were extensive and muddy. Clouds skittered across the sky in the high winds, sending their shadows racing to keep up. A Peregrine Falcon zoomed overhead. Below us, a pair of male Mountain Bluebirds, the color of sky captured in feathers, were a perfect complement to the golden Alpine Larch needles where they foraged.

Since the shore was so muddy, I laid down atop a plastic bag and waited patiently or impatiently for the sun to light up the peak in between long periods of shadows. I also waited for the wind to subside, so that the ripples on the tarn would diminish, making for a better reflection. With my companions, I waited … and waited … and got chilled almost to the bone. But the peak was finally revealed enough that I got some good pictures of The Enchantments’ iconic peak. Toward dark, the clouds grew thicker, and several of us decided that the peak had passed. The most persistent among us (not me) hung on longer, and got the best pictures of the day. Oh well; it’s always hard to know when to hold em or fold em in poker, and sometimes photography is the same way.

Prusik Peak Viewed from Gnome Tarn in The EnchantmentsPrusik Peak at Gnome Tarn, where sunlight and shadow fleetingly crossed the peak

We cooked a late dinner of Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai and crawled into our tents. Or at least most of us did, I stayed  out in the dark to try and get a few more pictures. The sky had cleared substantially by now, though there were still some clouds racing by. I was struck by the look of all four of our tents lit up by headlamps, so I asked everyone to cooperate for photos of the group of illuminated tents looking like fragile, glowing nylon fairies in the night. Then I noticed the clouds over a distant ridge; a full moon was rising and backlighting the clouds that were racing over the ridge.

Tents Lit Up at Deep Twilight in The EnchantmentsOur tents lit by faeries or headlamps at deep twilight after our cold photo session at Prusik Peak

Corona around Rising Moon in The EnchantmentsThe rising moon created a corona of light on the racing clouds

Corona around Rising Moon in The EnchantmentsThe full moon revealed briefly by a tear in the clouds

Alpine Larch Shadows by Moonlight on Granite in The EnchantmentsLater, the full moon cast larch shadows over smooth granite, and illuminated larches and peaks under the starry sky

The next morning was to be our hike into the Upper Enchantments, which I’ll describe in another blog post, but before beginning that hike we went about our regular morning activities. These included a pre-dawn hike up the rocky slope behind camp to Inspiration Lake, where there was lovely dawn light on the surrounding peaks–and where the outhouse was located. Actually, it was not really an outhouse, since the vault toilet had a seat, but no walls. It was more like a throne with a great view through a sheer curtain of golden larch needles. It was beautiful enough to encourage us to “Skip to the loo …” Sitting there, I knew I was missing some great light, so I tried to speed things along, and eventually finished and ran down to where I had left my camera and tripod. Fortunately, I was not too late and was able to capture the red glow on the ragged peaks towering over the lake.

Morning Light on Enchantment Peaks above Inspiration LakeEarly red light on the peak above Inspiration Lake

Karen Rentz Videotaping Inspiration Lake in The EnchantmentsKaren creating a dawn video of the beautiful light on Inspiration Lake–and thank goodness for that warm layer of down!

Each morning was cold in The Enchantments; after all, we were in the mountains in October, when the golden Alpine Larches were spreading the word that the end of warmth was near. One of our group was a young guy with not much meat on his bones, and he shivered and lay wide awake all night. He said:  “It was almost the worst night of my life.” When I asked him what night had been worse, he replied “Well, I can’t think of any.” He decided he had gotten all the great pictures he needed, and decided to hike out on his own, two days early. It’s a good thing he got out when he did, because the next morning it was 16°F, which makes me shiver just thinking about it. It was so cold that it was painful to brush our teeth, and the water bottles were nearly frozen solid.

Icy Water Bottle with Prusik Peak in The EnchantmentsIce formed overnight in our water bottles when the temperature dipped to 16°F

Mountain Bluebird Feather on Ice in The EnchantmentsMountain Bluebird feather on thin ice at the edge of an inlet stream for Perfection Lake; the ice surface had an almost featherlike texture and there were tiny air bubbles trapped in the ice

Needle Ice Pushing Up Through Soil in The EnchantmentsNeedle ice formed in wet soil on the shore of Perfection Lake

We met occasional hikers in the high country, with more as the days sped by and people realized that The Enchantments weren’t going up in flames. I often wear a University of Michigan baseball cap, which advertises my alma mater. It is amazing how many people I encounter in the Pacific Northwest who grew up in Michigan, went to the University of Michigan, then moved out West for better economic opportunities. It is a real brain drain for Michigan, but that is another story.

Anyway, on one morning near Perfection Lake, there was a pretty, young woman hiking alone. She struck up a conversation when she saw my cap: it turned out that she had grown up in Ann Arbor and had recently gotten her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School and was now doing her emergency room residency at a Seattle hospital. Her mother from Michigan had hiked as far as Snow Lakes with her, but the steep climb from there was too much for her Midwestern legs, so she stayed back in camp. The bad part about meeting a new young doctor, as I get older, is the nagging feeling that “surely she can’t be old enough to be a doctor!”

Old and young Alpine Larches, blazing gold, were everywhere in the Lower Enchantments. As the week wore on and the cold and high winds took their toll, more and more needles lost their color and fell, but there were still concentrations of intense gold.

Hiker with Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake in Autumn in The EnchOne of my companions looking across Perfection Lake toward Prusik Peak, with a vast panorama of golden Alpine Larches

I grew up in the Midwest and have lived in the Northeast and the Rocky Mountains, so I am well-acquainted with autumn colors: Red Maples burn with scarlet intensity in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; Sugar Maples glow brilliantly in Vermont; and Trembling Aspens shiver with golden light in Colorado. Here in the Northwest, autumn color was a bit of a disappointment until I learned about the timberline Alpine Larches. These are unusual, in that larches are a decidious conifer that somewhere along the evolutionary path strayed from the law that conifers are evergreen. Even here in Washington, the Evergreen State, they drop their needles.

Autumn Alpine Larch Needles along Perfection Lake in The EnchantAlpine Larch with golden needles and a cone, with the aqua waters of Perfection Lake forming a beautiful backdrop

For a tree living at timberline, where snow falls by the foot rather than by the inch, there are certain advantages to losing needles. The trees don’t have to carry as heavy a snow load with all the needles gone, so branches are less likely to break. Without needles, the larches don’t have to feed hungry Mountain Goats all winter. The trees don’t suffer as much from the dessicating effects of frigid winter winds. Perhaps most important, the vital amino acids, which are the building blocks for healthy needles, are safely tucked away in the roots and trunks of these trees living on the edge.

Alpine Larches along Leprechaun Lake in The EnchantmentsAlpine Larches along Leprechaun Lake

Autumn Alpine Larches Glowing along Perfection Lake in The EnchaPeak of color along Perfection Lake, aka Rune Lake

Looking up at Alpine Larches in Autumn in The EnchantmentsConvergence

Alpine Larch near Timberline in The EnchantmentsSeemingly growing from granite, this Alpine Larch looks like a bonsai; it has been stunted by the desiccating winds blowing near Prusik Pass

Shield Lake from Prusik Pass in The EnchantmentsShield Lake on the Lost World Plateau, shaped like one of the Red Delicious apples that nearby Wenatchee was always known for, viewed from Prusik Pass

The other trees growing at timberline were the Whitebark Pines. These pines were more scattered than the larches, and have a fascinating co-evolutionary relationship with Clark’s Nutcrackers that I described in an earlier post about Clark’s Nutcrackers in Banff National Park. We observed several of the nutcrackers flying through The Enchantments, commuting to their favorite trees. Whitebark Pines are threatened by White Pine Blister Rust, a disease imported from another part of the world, and by the Pine Bark Beetle, which has exploded in population as our climate has warmed.

Huckleberry leaves were scarlet, but there weren’t many berries to sample: it was another bad year for the bears. Mountain Bog Gentians bloomed in our campsite, and there were occasional purple asters along the trails. I associate these species with the last gasp of the dying summer in the high country, but it’s nice that they provide a bit of vivid purple to the landscape.

Autumn Huckleberry Leaves and Weathered Wood in The EnchantmentsScarlet Huckleberry leaves with a fallen Alpine Larch trunk

"I Love You" Message Made of Twigs in The EnchantmentsAwwww! 

Weathered Wood of an Old, Dead Tree in The EnchantmentsGracefully weathered lines of a very old Alpine Larch trunk

Fallen Alpine Larch Needles at Edge of Perfection Lake in The EnWhen fallen Alpine Larch needles gather at the edge of a tarn, the end of autumn is nigh

We camped on Perfection Lake, or was it Rune Lake? Both names are used. The U.S. Forest Service originally established the place names of The Enchantments, and used such workable but rather dull names such as Perfection Lake, Inspiration Lake, and Isolation Lake. But the names got complicated when Bill and Peg Stark began visiting The Enchantments starting in 1959, and gave new names to the lakes, tarns, and peaks, based upon the legend of King Arthur and Norse mythology. Thus Perfection Lake also became Rune Lake. Inspiration Lake became Talisman Lake. Gnome Tarn is a name of their creation, as is Aasgard Pass. The place names of The Enchantments are now officially a blend of the two naming conventions, and there is enough overlap to cause plenty of confusion. Which makes the experience more fun. Myself: I love all the mythological names.

Karen Rentz Cooking Breakfast in The EnchantmentsKaren cooking breakfast on one of our cold mornings

"Honolulu Girl" Snowman Made by Karen Rentz in The EnchantmentsSnow for snowmen was scarce, but Karen make “Hula Girl” from a remnant snowbank of dirty snow, along with a skirt of fallen larch needles for modesty

Autumn-colored Sedges in The EnchantmentsEven grasses can take up the spirit of the season

Autumn Campsite on Perfection Lake in The EnchantmentsCan you imagine a more beautiful setting for a campsite?

On these golden days in the Lower Enchantments, there was plenty of leisurely time for watching a pair of Meadow Voles leap from their grassy nest, and examining the texture of ice forming on the edge of a pond. Sometimes, people get so wrapped up in hiking long distances in the mountains that they fail to stop and smell the gentians. Not us: we revel in these long days of nature observation and photography.

A highlight was twice seeing a Douglas Squirrel race by, along the shore of Talisman Lake, with a big mushroom in its mouth. Mushrooms are a favorite food of squirrels, and they often store a mushroom among the twigs of a shrub, perhaps to dry it out for later storage or perhaps to let the rain leach out toxins. I’m not sure which, but I find the behavior fascinating. Can it really be instinctive to temporarily store a mushroom in the open? Other wildlife was scarce; the marmots had apparently already entered hibernation. We saw a single Pika and found its stored haypiles near our camp.

Inspiration Lake in Autumn in The EnchantmentsInspiration Lake, aka Talisman Lake, just above our campsite

Karen Rentz Crossing Log over Creek in The EnchantmentsKaren crossing a log bridge over the outlet for Talisman Lake; we had a long stop here while I temporarily repaired my broken pack waist strap with duct tape (the kind young man who gave me the tape laid down on this log while waiting for my time-consuming repair to be completed, and he somehow rolled off the log into the stream and got soaked!).

Autumn Alpine Larch along Inspiration Lake in The EnchantmentsAlpine Larch along Talisman Lake

Mountain Bog Gentian Blooming in The EnchantmentsGentians in bloom near our campsite

Alpine Larches at Peak Color with Perfection Lake in The EnchantRune Lake viewed from a high granite outcrop above the lake

Tree Shadows on Inspiration Lake in The EnchantmentsLarch shadows crossing the beautiful green waters of Talisman Lake

Little Annapurna from Prusik Pass Trail in The EnchantmentsTrail through a subalpine meadow, with Little Annapurna in the distance

Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake in Autumn in The EnchantmentsOne last fond look at the magic of the Lower Enchantments: Prusik Peak, Alpine Larches, and Rune Lake

In the next and final installment of “The Enchantments in Autumn” story, I’ll go above timberline to the Upper Enchantments, which has a stark beauty all its own.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my other blogs about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent and Mountain Goats.  There is also a good web site that is based upon the autumn experiences of the Starks and another couple called 50 Years in the Enchantments.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

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

October 19, 2008 The Owl and the Subaru

We heard through the birding grapevine that on 27 September skilled birders had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and Russia.


We heard through the birding grapevine–on a Pacific Northwest internet message board named “Tweeters”–that on 27 September skilled birders Khanh Tran and Tom Mansfield had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.  The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests–think scraggly spruces in endless bogs–across Canada, Alaska, and Russia.  Karen and I had seen one of these owls some half-a-decade previously in Washington, but our views had been fleeting and distant.  This one had been seen in the Okanogan National Forest, specifically in the Meadows Campground near Hart’s Pass, which is located above the stunning Methow Valley of Eastern Washington–in my opinion the most beautiful inhabited mountain valley in the entire state.  It reminds me of the best of Montana, and that’s saying a great deal.

We had camped among the wildflowers and dark spruces of the Meadows Campground twice previously, but several years ago the entire campground was incinerated by the huge Needle Creek Fire, which left over 99% of the spruces and firs as standing skeletons.  The U.S. Forest Service removed many of the dead trees, so now the campground has safe, open areas dotted with short stumps where visitors can camp, and the entire campground is surrounded by tens of thousands of standing dead trees.  It is eerie in the moonlight–just the place to hear the haunting call of an owl or a pack of wolves.

To get to Hart’s Pass and the Methow Valley, it is a 5 1/2 hour journey from our Bremerton apartment.  We started at 4:30 a.m., taking the ferry to Seattle, then driving north on I-5, then east on WA Highway 20, which is a stunning, but seasonal route through the Cascades.  The first heavy snow of the season will close the road until springtime.  But not to worry this weekend, which was forecast to have two days of late autumn sunshine, to be followed by snow after we left on Sunday night.  The Methow Valley was beautiful with brilliant yellow Black Cottonwoods contrasting with hazy blue peaks in the distance.  From there, we climbed the Hart’s Pass Road into the mountains.  This road is accessible to cars, but there is a half-mile stretch where the road is one lane wide, winding around blind curves with a 2,000 foot cliff on the outside of the curve and cliffs rising high on the inside of the curves.  Actually, the road had been originally blasted from solid cliffs with dynamite.  If you don’t like heights, this is not the place to be, especially if you meet a car coming around a blind curve and have to back up your vehicle around a curve to a safe place–which tends to be a wide place in the road a foot away from the cliff on what looks like soft soil.  Did I mention that there are no guard rails whatsoever?  

As we approached 6,200 foot Hart’s Pass, we kept our eyes open for a Spruce Grouse or the Northern Hawk Owl, but found neither.  Most of the vehicles we passed were pickups or SUVs with orange-clad men inside; it is, after all, hunting season up here in God’s country and the hunters are also out enjoying what may be the last great autumn weekend of the year.  At Hart’s Pass we turned toward Meadows Campground, a mile up the mountain at this point.  We soon found ourselves behind two creeping Subaru SUVs, and knew that we had found the birders hoping to see the owl.  We joined the chain as vehicle number three, and began inspecting every bird-shaped lump high in the dead spruces.  Then we pulled into Meadows Campground and almost immediately spotted the owl.  It was about noon at this point, and for the next hour-and-a-half or so we watched the owl flying around the area, zooming down to terrify a small flock of Gray Jays, then flying up to rest atop a dead spruce, bright yellow eyes alert and head turning around to view its domain.  It didn’t seem bothered by the watchers, and had been the star attraction here for several weekends in a row.  We watched the owl flying around, then it flew down to the ground and may have snagged a mouse, because it flew in a beeline away from the campground.  This was at about 2:00 p.m.

 

Meanwhile, more Subarus arrived, with birders eagerly anticipating seeing the owl.  We told them we had seen it just a few minutes ago, but it had flown off.  The patient birders hung around for several hours, their Subarus scattered along the campground road.  But the owl did not appear as the minutes stretched into hours.  Subarus crawled down the road to Hart’s Pass to see what else could be found.  Some birders were thrilled to see a flock of about 100 Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, a bird of high and wild expanses, near Slate Peak.  Someone heard a Northern Pygmy Owl along the road, but didn’t see it.  Karen and I drove to Slate Peak, about four miles away, to see what we could find.  Slate Peak has a fire lookout tower, and the peak itself has an unusual look because it was scalped back in the 1950s to create a Distant Early Warning radar installation for detecting incoming Soviet bombers.  Fortunately the nuclear bombers never came, and the fire lookout is now a lonely sentinel that has lost its original mission.  But the Alpine Larches were brilliant gold against the blue shadows of the mountainsides and it was a gorgeous afternoon.  We chatted with a determined woman who used a walker to trudge up part of the way to the lookout tower. 

When we returned to the campground at 5:30 p.m., two Subarus remained, keeping lonely vigil along the darkening roads.  Then we were the only ones left.  We had set up camp in the Meadows Campground earlier, and were prepared for a long night.  But then at 6:00 p.m. in the twilight, the Northern Hawk Owl flew back into the campground!  It stayed for several minutes atop one tree, then another, then flew off toward a ridge in the distance.  When an owl appears in the forest, and no Subarus are there to see it, does it really exist?

The night was cold and breezy.  We retired into our winter sleeping bags at 7:00 p.m., read for fifteen minutes, then fell asleep, wearing long underwear, an extra layer of fleece, heavy socks, and wool hats.  With all that, we stayed toasty for thirteen hours in the tent, awakening from dreams at 8:00 a.m. and stepping outside to heavy frost on the tent and on the car (it had gotten down to about 25 degrees F overnight).  Shortly thereafter, the first Subaru of the day arrived even before I had made my coffee.  The Subaru birders had stayed down in the Methow Valley at the Mazama Inn and were eager to see the owl this morning.  Alas, it was not to be.  We stood around chatting in small groups and watching the surrounding trees for hours, but no bird came.  Actually, there were birds that came begging, but they were Gray Jays and a Raven hoping for a handout.  Several of us obliged, despite the entreaties on Tweeters recently about how human food is not good for the birds.  But there is an undeniable delight in having a Gray Jay fly in and alight for an instant on your fingers to grab a piece of bread.  

As the day went on, the number of Subarus diminished and one Toyota SUV arrived.  Meanwhile, we decided to go for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads south toward Grasshopper Pass.  It was cold and the trail was icy in places, but the early afternoon was beautiful for our two mile hike.  We saw several Pikas gathering food and sitting atop their lookout rocks, loudly squeaking claim to their territories.  The Pika is a small rabbit-relative of timberline talus slopes that gathers a haystack of drying wildflowers for the winter.  We also saw a Clark’s Nutcracker probing a Whitebark Pine in hopes of getting a tasty pine nut.  Several Mountain Chickadees foraged in the conifers along the trail.  Many of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color, but enough golden needles had fallen that we knew this would be the last fine weekend of the fall.  This parking lot was filled with pickups, SUVs, and a minivan, with not a Subaru in sight.  There were hikers and hunters and trail-runners, and even a foursome of miners with hand tools and headlamps who headed upslope to do some probing in the old Brown Bear Mine.

We drove back down to the campground at 3:00 p.m., and all the Subarus were gone, apparently with no Sunday sightings of the great bird.  Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.  Now, I’ve mentioned Subarus a number of times, and I didn’t make any of it up.  On Saturday, six carloads of birders arrived, other than us, and all six cars were Subarus.  It should be named the official car brand of birders.  Or at least birders from the Seattle area.  We downscale birders from the hinterlands drive an all-wheel-drive Aztek (which, by the way, has been a terrific birding and backpacking vehicle; but alas, it is no longer made).

We then headed down the mountain; little did we know there were going to be two more birdy incidents for us.  I saw a small bird fly rapidly across the road that looked different from the other birds this weekend.  When I raised my binoculars, it looked back with a flat face and yellow eyes.  It was a Northern Pygmy Owl.  The first we had ever seen!  We watched it fly between several perches before it disappeared into the distance.  Unfortunately, it was too far away for a photograph, but I did record it briefly on video.  Then a flock of two dozen Gray-crowned Rosy Finches flew in.  I grabbed my camera and long lens, then headed up the steep hillside to spend a bit of quality time with the birds.  It turned out to be indeed a great experience, with some resulting really good close-up photographs.  A fitting end to a fine weekend.  And a seasonal goodbye to autumn in the mountains. 

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.