Alpine Lakes Near-Hike

I find larch trees fascinating. I still think back to 1983, when I took an October vacation into central Oregon and was occasionally surrounded by the golden trees. I had no idea that so many were out there! As autumn began in 2000 I began to think about the larches (aka tamarack), and where I could hike among them. The central Washington Cascades are renowned for this very sight, making the Enchantment Lakes annual calendar material and targets for countless hikers. Many nearby ridges are just as larch-endowed, however, so I made plans to drive north on the Columbus Day weekend to see what could be seen. The weather was perfect, and I had an extra meal left from the earlier Sierra backpack trip. Since all my gear had worked flawlessly less than two months before, I did not rigorously inspect everything. With the cooler weather, I added a bargain-priced fleece bag to my pack to add warmth to my 20-degree bag. I also bought a large poncho that I planned to try erecting as a tarp, which would save me the weight of tent and raingear on future trips if it worked.

The weather was cool but excellent, and the forecast offered two days of greatness before turning for the worse. I was unable to get out of work as early as I had hoped, and I worked my way east and north toward Wenatchee and Leavenworth with a touch of apprehension. The ranger had suggested several trails, but I had hoped to reach the station in time to grab a spare ticket to the Enchantments if any were available. I missed the ranger by only minutes, so I reverted to the original plan and drove upriver to the Chatter Creek campground. On the way I passed a Honda Insight hybrid car, the first I had seen on the road, and later would see a PT Cruiser on this rough road - very strange! The campground was entirely deserted, and several camps were downright gorgeous in their fall colors. I selected one, dragged out my gear, and promptly began to fail.

The first issue was the poncho. It may have been extra-large for its purpose, but was too small by half for a decent lean-to. I tried propping it with my walking-stick from several angles, but this experiment was doomed to fail. I reluctantly put up the tent and reconciled myself to carrying more weight. I ate my store-bought food and looked around for firewood, but recent damp weather had left everything too moist for kindling. I returned to the car at least a half-dozen times, scurrying between pack, a large cardboard box, and the floor of the van every time something else couldn't be found. This chaos did not bode well. At last I settled in for the night, ready for nearly anything. Even so, I was chilled for much of the night even though the frost was light - the humidity here was nothing like that at 10000 feet in the Sierra!

The next morning, I was again scrambling for gear - nothing was in its proper place! I considered skipping breakfast and snacking my way up the steep hillside but thought better of it; after all, if the stove wasn't working I had better know about it now. As if it read my mind, the stove chose this chill morning to ignore my attempts to pressurize it. I spent ten minutes pumping, priming, and cussing, all to no avail. I mentally explored my options, but none of them could rescue the trip beyond a drive back to town for a new stove. I knew nothing about recent stove designs, and in desperation I turned again to the stove to try a few more tricks. Nothing worked.

At this point I turned to plan 'b' - make a monster day-hike out of it. I could not simply give up the trip, but I was willing to make a 15-mile loop into the golden trees despite my troubles. At least the pack would be light! I rearranged everything yet again, drove to the trailhead, and began working my way up the cruel slopes. The scenery unfolded nicely across the valley, but the sunlight was weak and cold. My enthusiasm began to chill as I climbed, wondering about the value of reaching larch-country just in time to turn around again. About a half-hour into the climb, I decided that I was nuts to continue - the reward would not justify this dash, and I risked being out with insufficient gear if trouble arose. I reluctantly turned back, looking for a way to salvage something from this trip. By the time I reached the car, I had it: it was time to visit Mts. Baker, Shuksan and the North Cascades.

I had wanted to visit Mt. Baker for longer than I've enjoyed the larch. Every time I travel Interstate 5 toward Canada I feel its pull, but the winding route takes a little too long for my schedule so I postpone it again. This time for sure! I made yet another mess of the van, headed for US highway 97 and turned north. I had crossed the North Cascades highway many years ago, and I looked forward to those views as well. At the head of the Methow valley I could even see those lovely larch trees shining near timberline, but the road never quite reached them. The views along the crest are spectacular, but once on the west side one is assaulted by hydro projects and company towns that just don't fit the geography. By midafternoon I was on the freeway, soon to jump off and head up the Nooksack River towards the high country again. Since I had no stove, I fueled up my car and self before heading into the hills, anxious to see the peaks before dusk.

The drive seemed interminable as I raced the setting sun, but finally I reached Austin Pass with a half-hour to spare. The late-day sun was brilliantly reflecting off Mt. Shuksan, while Baker was a silhouette against the fading light. I strolled about the tundra and old snowdrifts, shooting the scene with SLR and digital camera, until the light began to fade. I moved down again, unsure where to camp, when I drew alongside Picture Lake and its gorgeous reflection of Shuksan. I had no tripod -- this was a backpacking trip, after all! -- but I stood as still as possible and squeezed off a few final shots.

I then drove to the North Fork Nooksack junction, where I drove to a trailhead and parked. I rearranged the back seat in the van and settled in to sleep.

Morning came with fast-moving clouds, and I returned to Austin Pass to see Mt. Baker in better light. Sadly, it wasn't much better, but I took several more photos before heading for home. The return trip was surprisingly short, and I reached home well before the rain began. Once home I set up the stove for further examination: not surprisingly, it lit the first time and behaved as it always had. Rather than hurl it against the nearest hard object, I went shopping - only to find a $10 repair kit! I rebuilt the thing and found it now had much better pressure, so I will let it live a while longer. Its reliability had always been its strong suit, so its failure on this trip was truly baffling.

2003: success at last!!