Snow Lake and Gem Lake

It was raining, and the sound of water was everywhere as I pulled into the Alpental parking lot at 7:45am in the last-day-of-daylight-savings dark dawn. The swish-swish of the windshield wipers gave way to the drizzle patter of drops on my poncho and, somewhere unseen, the muffled white noise of water falling a long way down a rock face.

As I headed up the trail in the still dark, Water seeking sea level squished and splashed under my boots as it flowed down the bootworn stream bed hikers had inadvertently created for this purpose.

More ambitious flows rushed across the path in several places, taking a more direct path to the Snoqualmie River,

Cascade across the Snow Lake Trail

while in other places it was content to puddle in depressions along the trail. I gave up the notion of having dry feet for the next 6 hours, not bothering to rock hop across these puddles and torrents; why delay the inevitable when my boots irreversibly wet out?

Mist stuck in the branches of conifers and left dewey droplets hanging from the needles filled with refracted images of an inverted world.

There is something about being outside when the weather is telling us to stay inside, seek shelter. It feels like being in on a secret, being cold and wet out here when many others are inside choosing warm and dry.  

In fact, in this closed-in world, with no long views to distract me as I ambled along,  there was plenty of time to think about the impulse to on occasion go against the drive to safety and certainty, shelter and warmth, venturing to inhospitable places where discomfort is a given.  Then my phone buzzes, my girlfriend texting my from New York, and I think that it is not so hard to be wet and cold when I know that warm and dry is a choice I could be making. I’m on a popular trail, still despite the surroundings not even out of reach of a data signal.  Through breaks in the mist I can see signs of the Alpental Ski resort and hear sounds of the slopes being prepped for the coming season.

There was no grand view as I descended from the saddle into the basin of Snow Lake; no view of Mt Roosevelt or Chair Peak, though I could hear the waterfalls crashing down the face of the latter  

 But in exchange there was the kind of quiet that doesn’t exist on bright and sunny days and shapes surrounded by subtle tonal scale of grey negative space. And where there was color it was super-saturated in contrast.  

I saw a signpost indicating Gem Lake somewhere further along the trail, and consulting my GPS figured it couldn’t be more than 2 miles further on. With the early start and Snow Lake only a round trip of a little over 7 miles, I had tentative aspirations of doing more than one hike today, following this up with the backdoor route to Lake Laura(the trailhead only a 35 minute drive away) and on to Rampart Lakes, which I’d visited in the summer via Rachel Lake, when the mosquitoes were so rampant to stand still for the moment it took to take a picture was to lose a half a pint of blood.  But I was here now, and not knowing if I’d ever be back this way, I went on to Gem Lake instead.

My fingertips went periodically numb from the cold, so I drew my hands up in to the sleeves of my poncho and balled them into fists, my fingers wrapped around my thumbs, which suffered the most from the cold. I had gloves, and rain mitts, but they were packed away, I didn’t want to mess with them every time I took a picture.

The trail to Gem Lake went up another 800’, crossing Rock Creek on a log bridge, where I paused and waited as another hiker watched where the creek rushed between a gap in the rocks and roared down the mountainside to the middle fork of the Snoqualmie some 2000’ feet below.

At Gem Lake the persistent rain turned to almost but not quite snow, stinging my face, I followed the trail around the shore, detouring to seek out the campsites as a reference for future trips.  

I crossed a rockslide and followed the trail to where it continues to Wildcat Lakes, before turning back along the switchbacks where I could look down and see the 600’ of elevation I would have to lose and then regain to get there. It was still early, not yet noon, but I was cold, and wet and began projecting forward how much longer I would be cold and wet, so I turned back.  I’d worn a pair of water resistant but not waterproof soft shell pants, thinking that they’d be okay in the light rain, will to trade a bit of dampness for not being in the swampy steam bath a pair of waterproof pants would create, and they had been fine until I’d had to push through the dewey vegetation as I searched out campsites, dew somehow seeming to be wetter than any other kind if water and soaking me through.  

It was on my way down that my camera started to malfunction.  It is supposed to be, like my pants, weather resistant but not water proof, and it should have been able to handle the brief times I had it out to take pictures before tucking it back under my rain poncho. I’d had it out in worse.  But the only reasonable explanation was water damage. I turned it off and continued hiking, trying to put it out of my mind. There was nothing to be done until I got back to the car, now 7 miles away.

As I passed Snow Lake, I began encountering more hikers.  I’d seen a few on my way in, but now I was running into all the people who didn’t want to depart in the dark.  

If I was a more chatty person I would’ve stopped and asked them why they were out here today; especially since quite a few of them did not have the ‘look; of a hardcore hiker. On a nice day when pay-off is obvious, I’m used to seeing such people;  wearing inappropriate footwear, not carrying water, etc. But today there were no views, the lake and surrounding peaks still hidden in fog and when you walked away from your car, you were committing to be wet and cold for the next 3-4 hours. So why are you here? It was a serious question, but I’m not the kind of person who stops people and aggressively questions their motivations when it was something that I still couldn’t quite answer for myself, so I just continued on my way down and back to the car, where I left the change of shoes and clothes in the grocery bag I’d packed them in and let myself be wet and uncomfortable for an hour longer as I drove home.

Upper Lena Lake overnight

The trail to Upper Lena Lake starts out on the trail to Lena Lake at about 700’ elevation, climbing steadily but manageably over a well-maintained Forest Service trail for 1300’ vertical in just over 3 miles. It’s a relatively easy walk, so Lena Lake is a popular place, and the campground was already near full when I showed up at 1130am.  I took the trail down to where Lena Creek ends in course from Upper Lena Lake and stopped to refill my water bottle for the onward journey. It seemed nice enough here but I was not unhappy that I wasn’t staying.

Upper Lena Lake is a bit further on. 4 miles and another 2600’ vertical feet further on. But it’s not the distance or the the elevation gain that make this trail challenging – Lake Angeles, where I was the weekend before, has an almost identical profile 2400’ in 3.2 miles. It is a rugged trail, though it starts off as a continuation of the Lena Lake trail – long, well-graded switchbacks. Soon enough though, rocks and roots and blow down start popping up, and the footing gets trickier. Then switchbacks become shorter and the grade more severe and even in the dry season, portions run wet with seepage. I put in work so I can do climbs like these with a relatively small amount of suffering, and when I pass people along with way, I feel a mixture of pride at the work I’ve put in to get to this point, humility remembering when I hadn’t and so suffered, and into the future when I will inevitably run up against the limits age imposes on me and will suffer again.  

 

For a time, I hiked in the shadow of The Brothers Mountain.  The Brothers are visible from Seattle, a lumpy double peak 90-some miles as the crow flies from Seattle.  Looking at them whenever the clouds allowed, I’d intended to climb them, at least as far as it was possible to walk without climbing gear or skills.  Half-way up the trail to Upper Lena Lake, I knew that it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. A full pack and tired legs would not be making the climb tomorrow on my way back.  

I didn’t count, but I’d guess there are 6-7 significant blow-downs that required crawling either over or under, sometimes on hands and knees. Only one can really be passed by going around. The final push is perhaps the steepest, but at least it has the benefit of being dirt and not loose rock. Finally you reach the signpost with a map of campsite and the rules an regulations.  A bit deflatingly, you can only see Upper Lena lake though the trees when you arrive. After all that work, I’d hoped that I’d come over a final crest and see the view of the lake opening out before me as I exhaled one last bit of effort.

But it’s only a short walk to a view.  When I arrived, the campsites clustered around this point and the northeastern end of the lake were all occupied.  I had the choice of seeking a spot on the northwestern or southeastern shore. I chose the south. Unlike Lake Angeles the weekend prior, I wasn’t worried about finding a site, as Upper Lena Lake is on quota, and besides, the effort to get here lends itself to a level of self-selection.   The trail drops steeply to the shore either way you choose to go, but to the south, the drop is near vertical. I didn’t quite have to scoot on my butt, but it was close. The map indicated three sites, but no way to know if they were occupied without scouting. Site 8 was small, but with an excellent view over the lake.  There was a bear wire nearby. Closer to the site than I would put it if I were hanging myself, but it’s where the trees were. I had no need of the wire, as I packed my own bear canister. I started my backpacking career in earnest in California over 10 years ago, where nearly everywhere I went required a canister. I started out with an individual sized BearVault, which suited me just fine with regards to capacity, weight and price.  But not long after, a bear or bears in the Rae Lakes area figured out how to open BearVault. The lid of a BearVault functions l similar to a child safety cap on a pill bottle. You push in a tab and twist. Through each calculated experimentation or accident, a bear figured this out. While BearVault introduced a new line with two tabs that were beyond the manual dexterity of even a smart bear to open, my old version of the BearVault was now permitted in some places, and not permitted in others.  I was also graduating to two to three night trips occasionally, and needed more capacity. So I allowed myself the indulgence of a carbon fiber Bearikade. Ten years later, it has been worthy expenditure. It carries everything I need on any trip I might take at a weight penalty of perhaps 26-27 ounces over a bear bag hanging set up, so I just carry it everywhere, and sleep better knowing I won’t have to worry about losing my food.

I knew there was one more site further south down the shore, and because I couldn’t just dismiss the notion that maybe that site would be even better than this already spectacular site, I ventured further.  The trail followed the shore, bending around a small arm of the lake. I looked around and saw that the main body of the lake was disappearing from view and decided that any campsite further along wouldn’t have any better views, so I turned around.  I would have no room for complaint if in the interim, someone else had showed up and claimed the perfectly acceptable site I’d left behind. But I was lucky in this case that no one had. As I put my bag down, I notice another site, closer to the shore that I’d missed passing by earlier.  It also had the benefit of being further from the bear wire, and both campsites would share it, so if someone else ended up occupying that site, I’d have visitors quite nearby any time they needed to access something. So I moved down.

I was camping on the ground this time after spending the last two overnights in my hammocks.  I find the hammock more comfortable ergonomically to sleep in that an air mat on the ground, but I haven’t solved the issue with a cold backside yet.  I’m fine with a thin closed cell pad underneath me to around 50 degrees, but below that I get chilled. I don’t want to buy an underquilt, for weight and dollar reasons, and I’m not sure if a thicker pad would work(I live in an apartment, so no backyard to spend experimental nights out in) and even then, at that point the comfort starts to balance against the added weight of the hammock set up.  

With camp set up, I went to explore the Northwestern shore. More campsites were tucked away out of site of the trail.  I made my way to the southern end of the lake, where the trail ended in a mosquito clouded meadow, and then doubled back to the spur trail to Scout Lake. I hadn’t really looked at my map, but I imagined it to be maybe 2-3 miles away.  I had no idea of the type of terrain between here and there but it was 430pm, and I am not a sit around camp type. I set off up the trail, giving myself 30 minutes before turning around.

 

It crossed over a stream and climbed quickly and muddily for a bit, through damp meadows with small, reflective ponds and clouds of gnats,  A short spur trail led to a view down a deep fold in the wrinkled mountains to views of Jefferson Peak, Mt Pershing, Mt Ellinor and Mt Washington 5-7 miles away.  Crossing one meadow, I passed three people returning from Scout Lake. I asked and they told me it was still a couple miles further on, and required a steep descent, which is what I assumed but was still hoping for a different answer.  I continued on for the full 30 minutes I committed to, ascending further, hoping for another grand view that was not to be before turning around and heading back to camp. A crack of thunder helped encourage me to stop seeking and head back.

Back at camp, the mosquitoes, which hadn’t been bad before, were now out, so I got out my headnest and put on my wind jacket  and rain pants as a second layer of defense. My hands were the one place where I had bare skin, and so where the mosquitoes could get me.  I didn’t want to put DEET on my hands, even the backs fo them, as I sweat, and consequently wipe my eyes. I had asked a couple I passed descending how the bugs had been the night before, and they said not too bad. Maybe we had different ideas about what ‘Not too bad is’  Maybe there had been a breeze that knocked them down a bit that night. Maybe my campsite was in a particularly mosquito friendly location. Whatever the reason, they were not ‘not too bad.’ They were bad. I suppose ‘not too bad’ could be defined as ‘not thick clouds of them.’ but when I wasn’t moving, I could count on a good couple dozen of them to be whirring around me.  

I made my dinner around 7pm, eating my rehydrated meal by lifttng the netting for each spoonful.  After I had red wine and a snickers bar seated on my bear can while the sun went down over the ridgeline.  I watched the fish rise and make coccentric circles on the water, and a bat darting here and there eating bugs low over the surface. It reminded me that mosquitoes are part of the ecosystem and so I shouldn’t just wish death on the lot of them. The sky cloud over and cleared and the clouded over again before finally clearing as the stars came out after 10pm.  

I rose at 6am.  My kit is in a constant state of experiment and this time it had been my three quarter length quilt and a synthetic insulated jacket on a full length inflatable sleeping mat.  The sleeping mat was new, replacing a half length mat where my legs hug off below the knees and rested on my backpack as insulation against the heat sucking ground.  The quilt was finicky, sometimes too to warm and then chilly when I rolled oer as the open back was exposed.  I took off my socks at a point when my feet got too warm.  And I’ve never quite solved the pillow situation as a side sleeper, unable to find the right level of inflation for the blow up one I bring along.  Sleeping outside is not something I find enjoyable, it is just the price that is paid to reach certain places.

As I scooted out of my tent, several mosquitoes were there to greet me. The hope that they’d still be sluggish in the 50 degree morning chill was unfounded. I had my coffee while sun lit  the peak of Mt Lena and worked its way down the slope. Mist hovered over the far end of the lake. In no hurry to leave but with a desire to move to dodge the bugs, I broke down my camp and then went to explore along the southeastern shore of the lake.  I said good morning to the couple that had arrived around 8pm and set up and site #8, just above me. They told me that they were envious of my head net, as they hadn’t even eaten dinner after setting up, choosing instead to just get in their tent to hide from the bugs.   

At the end of the trail, in the shadow of Mt Bretherton, I found the solitary campsite near a small meadow. It was occupied, and must have been since I arrived yesterday since I’d seen no one passing. Wildflowers caught my attention; Avalanche lilies, western pasqueflowers, sitka valerians.  I returned to camp and loitered for a bit longer, taking some pictures and looking, swatting away the bugs. Available time plus the effort to get here makes it unlikely I’ll visit here again. Travel of any kind is largely made up of arrivals and departures and the knowing that each time you are somewhere could be the last time your are there, so I stood there for awhile trying to take something away from this particular place. I don’t know what.  I think I was trying to will the place to do something to me, initiate some kind of change, like my own version of a religious transformation. Give me peace or whatever. As if a sense of peace is something I could carry away with me. I suppose I try with my pictures and videos. Turning away eventually, I tell myself enough just to know that this place exists whether I am there to witness it or not.

The descent is a long series of jarring step-and-brake-momentum-repeat that expends nearly as much energy as the climb. I passed people going up, and only told them how far they had to go if they asked.  I personally wouldn’t have wanted to know, unless I was really close. Better to believe that the destination is just over the next rise, around that next switchback. Most of them still had a ways to go, so I just said good morning and kept on my way.  

Rampart Lakes

There’s a series of three lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, just south of Yosemite National Park. They lie just below the sheer, jagged peaks of The Minarets. Minaret Lake, the southernmost of these, and the most easily accessible from the town of Mammoth Lakes, is one of my favorite places on earth. Pictures of Minaret Lake hang on my wall as reminders.  The Minarets represents= my ideal of alpine beauty, and I would go once a month if I could. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been some places(though not yet many in the Cascades) and Rampart lakes have now earned a place alongside them as somewhere I will always want to return to.

Continue reading Rampart Lakes