APPALACHIAN TRAIL MEMOIR

In 1970 I hiked the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a college friend. The trail was filled with adventures that I look back on with nostalgia.

The Appalachian Trail winds through the lush forest of the Great Smoky Mountains

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.”

Memories of the vast forest

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!

The high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever

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.

To see the photography of Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com and follow his work at Lee Rentz Photography on Facebook.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

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!

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

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.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

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.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

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.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

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!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

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.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

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.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

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.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

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.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

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.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

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).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

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.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

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

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Hiking the Upper Dungeness Trail on Father’s Day Weekend

The valley of the Dungeness River is a place of silence, interrupted mostly by the rushing of the river and the dreamlike songs of Hermit Thrushes high in the towering Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Dungeness River in Olympic National ForestThe Dungeness River rushing through the forest

Our weekend backpacking trip led into Olympic National Forest, located on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. This is a lush place, with mosses and every shade of green, as well as a river tinted aqua with glacial flour. It is also a place of silence, where the occasional sounds are the rushing of the river and the dreamlike songs of Hermit Thrushes high in the towering Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Our hike took us about three miles in, where we set up our tent at Camp Handy. The next morning, we hiked up 1,800 vertical feet to Boulder Camp, then later hiked back down to camp, packed up, and hiked out. Rather that give a sight-by-sight account of the trail, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Western Hemlock Grove in Olympic National ForestGiant Western Hemlocks tower above the Upper Dungeness Trail

I would, however, like to give a shout out to all the Dads who took their families backpacking on Father’s Day weekend. At Camp Handy, there were four other groups in addition to Karen and me. One was a Dad with a teenage daughter, who stopped and chatted with me about where his daughter could learn photography. The second were two men with four young daughters. The third were two men with two young sons. And the fourth was a father with a pre-teen daughter.

This was wonderful that all these Dads were teaching their daughters and sons about backpacking in a beautiful place. All these kids would have come away with new skills and a healthy attitude about experiencing the great outdoors.

I think back to my own father, and all the weekends he spent on Boy Scout trips with his three sons. He was a scoutmaster for several years, and he influenced scores of boys with his interest in nature and his leadership. Thanks Dad: wherever in heaven you are!

And a hearty thanks to all the Dads we saw bringing their children into the wilderness!

Pacific Rhododendron in bloom in Olympic National Forest

Pacific Rhododendron in bloom in Olympic National Forest

Pacific Rhododendron in bloom in Olympic National ForestBlooming Pacific Rhododendrons line the trail; these are as elegant as the garden varieties that flower so beautifully in the Pacific Northwest

Mossy Rocks Bordering a Tiny Stream in Olympic National Forest

Mossy Rocks Bordering a Tiny Stream in Olympic National ForestThese aren’t rolling stones, because they’ve gathered a great deal of moss

Rustic Boulder Shelter in Olympic National ForestBoulder Shelter is located in a place where giant boulders have tumbled down from the cliffs above (not seen in this picture) and where avalanches have repeatedly mowed down a wide path of trees. It must be a place of uneasy sleep.

"Give me Shelter" Graffiti in Boulder Shelter in Olympic Nationa

Grafitti in Boulder Shelter in Olympic National ForestIn Boulder Shelter: a riff on the old Rolling Stones tune, and an unhappy lady hiker!

Snowman at Boulder Camp in Olympic National ForestKaren led in the making of snowman “Boulder Bob”

Rustic Log Bridge Crossing Dungeness River in Olympic National FA rustic log bridge using a giant Olympic Peninsula tree spans the Dungeness

Oak Fern Thriving on the Floor of Olympic National ForestOak Ferns all turned at precisely the right angle to the available light–like the precision solar collectors that they are

Massive Avalanche Path in Olympic National Forest

Massive Avalanche Path in Olympic National ForestAvalanche path below Boulder Camp, with Mt. Mystery and Mt. Deception distant in the upper picture

Ghoul Creek and Cow-parsnip in Olympic National ForestThe shape of the leaves echoes the shape of the rapids, at least to my eye

Slime Mold, Leocarpus fragilis, in Olympic National ForestSlime mold Leocarpus fragilis growing on the forest floor among hemlock needles; these little yellow sacs will eventually turn brown, crack open like eggs, and release the spores that bring more little slime molds

Moss and Lichen Covered Rotting Log in Olympic National ForestGreen mosses and the bluish wood rot produced by Fairy Barf lichen (lots of little chunks, you know) on an old log

Camp Handy Shelter in Olympic National ForestShelter at Camp Handy; good for those many days of incessant dripping on the Olympic Peninsula

Camp Handy Shelter in Olympic National ForestLooking out from the Camp Handy shelter across the meadow to the willows lining the Dungeness River

Jeffrey's Shooting Star Flowering in Olympic National ForestShooting Stars were in full and glorious bloom

Vanillaleaf Flowering in Olympic National ForestVanillaleaf in bloom; this lovely ground cover is said to have a strong vanilla scent when it dries out; alas, my nose cannot detect this supposedly delicious fragrance

Western White Pine Needles and Cone in Olympic National ForestWestern White Pine

Emerging Leaves of Common Cow-parsnip in Olympic National ForestEmerging leaves of Cow-parsnip

Dungeness River in Olympic National Forest

Dungeness River in Olympic National Forest

Dungeness River in Olympic National Forest

Dungeness River in Olympic National ForestThe Dungeness River plunges rapidly, and with beauty, from the Olympic Mountains toward its desired union with the sea

Royal Creek in Olympic National ForestRoyal Creek rushes down from Royal Basin, where we’ve had some wonderful alpine experiences in the Olympics

The Upper Dungeness Trail Through Woods in Olympic National ForeThe trail leads through the beautiful forest between Camp Handy and the trailhead

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

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 1: The Long Ascent

The Enchantments is among the premier backpacking destinations in the Pacific Northwest, and is especially wonderful in autumn, when Alpine Larches are golden. This is part one of an account of a week-long hike into this high country of Mountain Goats, wilderness lakes, and granite peaks.

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) 

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