Polallie Ridge and Spade Lake, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Three days of school had passed, which meant that it was about time to take an excursion into the wilds of Washington and see how the local flora and fauna were dealing with the changing seasons. Despite the immaculate weather, there were only two cars in the Salmon la Sac trailhead parking area when I started up the Polallie Ridge Trail at 3:30. Immediately the trail grunted me up hill, without switchbacks to help. Without views to help. But the autumnal smell and the gaudy colors of the blue berry and huckleberry bushes, along with some plants not known to me, gave the place a friendly feeling. Indeed, after this weekend the snows would not be far behind, sealing off the Alpine Lakes high country from soft hikers like myself.
September 23-25, 2005
The trail gained 2400 feet of elevation, in something like two and a half miles, and then began dropping steeply down. This didn't look very promising as a ridge route. I lost a couple hundred feet and then climbed up another 700. Down into another basin, and up the other side. I was soaked in sweat and the air was rather chilly when I finally reached Diamond Lake, four miles from the trailhead.
A small pond, it was just the right size to be intimate and cozy and in the summer would make an excellent swimming hole, once warmed by the sun, that is. However, at 5:15 in late September, it was rather cold and my damp body needed more warmth now that I was no longer moving. To my surprise, I spotted a man on the other side of the lake wandering about. I began searching for a campsite, but didn't get very far. John was a ranger and was out for a routine patrol, doing some trail work and cleaning up campsites, along with making sure what few people that did come out didn't do anything foolish. John had the Look. He was as comfortable here as he was sitting in a warm house and had spent enough time in the wilderness to Know. To have that Knowledge that only comes with experience and time. You can't read about it or listen to someone talk about. You have to go out and see for yourself. The Look was easy to spot, if you knew what to look for.
We chatted for a while and then he showed me around the lake and the various camping options. I ended up in a beautiful spot above the lake with a lot of eastern exposure, which is good to have when you know that mornings will be chilly. I began to set up my tarp and he parted for the night to return to his camp at an equally lovely spot thirty yards away, but out of sight. I started to shake a bit from the chill air and quickly put on a down jacket and my balaclava before starting water heating for tea.
After drinking my tea, and a little whisky, I ate dinner and drank a little more whisky while watching, indirectly, the sunset and reading Demian, a slightly odd novella by Hesse. Hesse made a boon companion in the wilderness, just like Abbey. Some authors work in the outofdoors. Some do not. Henry James comes to mind in the latter category. I lost most of my light to read by, but declined to get out my head lamp just yet. It was the right time of day, and although I couldn't see the setting sun behind the western mountains, a faint trace of cloud in the air above me could. I watched the cloud change colors and wondered what the people I knew back home were doing. Some were traveling this weekend, others tending their children. They would be miserable here. I would be miserable there. This wasn't as important as the hope that all of us were happy in our own way.
The sun finally dropped off the face of the earth and I lost sight of my cloud. Burrowed into my sleeping bag, I read Hesse for another hour under the dull light of my LED headlamp until I began to loose track of the narrative. Time to sleep I thought. Turning out the light, I caught a few pinpricks of the eastern stars before sleep came for me once more.
It was sometime in the early morning when I opened my eyes for some unknown reason. I opened my ears to listen for the sound that might have brought me out of my slumber. Hearing nothing, I was a little unsure why I had woken up. Laying flat on my back, I arched my neck and rolled my eyes backwards and took in the evening sky and realized what it was. Above me the moon was not to be seen and the sky was the color of pitch. Except for the thousands, millions of sparkles in the sky. The Milky Way spread out across the dome of night, visible like a wispy cloud is during the day. Bright stars, small stars, twinkling stars. A show was being performed above me. I wondered if I was the only audience member, or if perhaps some one else in the Cascades, or the Olympics, Sierra, or Rockies had also been awoken and was now watching this thing. There were plenty of people awake back in the Seattle megaplex, but the show didn't play there. I watched the sky for a while and thought of Bowles and his Sheltering Sky. In this place, at this time, he seemed a fool.
I had slept for a few hours more before something woke me up again. I immediately knew the cause, because it was all around me: The eastern aspect of my campsite was bringing the most lovely orange-turning-to-pink light to me. My food bag sat next to me and I didn't have to get out of my bag to start water going for tea. As the water heated, I watched the sun rise, again indirectly, and couldn't imagine that there was a more beautiful place in the world to wake up in. My mind knew that there was, because I have been to those places. But right now my heart didn't know that fact.
I passed John on my way out to the trail and we talked some more. He was heading to Waptus Lake for the night and then out on Sunday. I hoped to see him then, as we were taking the same trail out to Salmon la Sac. But today I was on my own. The "ridge" trail continued to roll, up and down, up and down, climbing through two basins and gaining another, perhaps, 1500 feet of elevation, though gentler than yesterday. The day had warmed nicely when I broke out of the forest and out to a a grassy knoll where a fire lookout used to stand. The view was rather exquisite.
The powerful mountains just north of Snoqualmie Pass, by which the PCT runs, including might Lemah, still held snow. Even in a miniscule snow year, with a hot summer, they still had the white stuff. Summit Chief gave way to the jagged spires of Bears Breast, which dropped into sandy Mount Hinman, more of a desert peak that a Cascade mountain. And finally lumpy, dumpy Mount Daniel, one of the highest peaks in the Alpine Lakes outside of the Stuart Range. Behind me, most of Rainier was quite visible.
Well to the east and to the north a jagged sharks tooth peak sprung up and I sat in the sun to ponder what it might be. It dwarfed everything else in the area, not only because of its size, but also because it was sitting out by itself, all lonesome. I couldn't tell what it could be without getting out my compass and trying the navigation thing, which I was far too lazy to do in this beautiful place. Beauty sometimes breeds laziness. Sometimes vigor. Maybe I was just lazy.
I decided that it was Mount Stuart, and then decided that it wasn't. Stuart was surrounded by lots of big peaks and there was nothing remotely large around this one. I put my map away and sat still for a while, enjoying my place in the sun. In a playful mood, I set out down the trail after a long rest, whistling some obscure tune from time to time when it struck me that the trail needed a human sound. It wouldn't be long before the snows came and the land would sleep for eight months with little human contact. I dropped into yet another basin and then climbed up to a junction with the PCT. I had been here over Memorial Day weekend with two friends and remember the fight with the snow that we had then. Now, everything was well baked by the sun.
After the rigors of Polallie Ridge, the gentle grade of the PCT almost annoyed me as it took its sweet time dropping down toward Waptus Lake. Almost, but not quite. The shimmering blue of Waptus was as beautiful now as it had been then. And just as it had been when I hiked through on the PCT.
When I finally reached the bottom and crossed over the inlet of Waptus River on a stout bridge, I was quite ready for a rest. Not physically, but the last two miles of the descent seemed to take forever as they were buried in a forest that had not yet gotten the message that the season was now autumn. I light sounds of the river were soothing and I sat for sometime on the bridge eating a few bits of food and looking over my map, enjoying the security that low elevation brings.
Eventually I put my map and dreams of future trips away and simply gazed upon Bears Breast, now towering over me. Having seen many bears, I was unsure how the mountain got its name as it seemed to have little resemblance with any thing even remotely ursine. Maybe it looked different from the north. Or, perhaps hunters shot a bear and ate its breast here some time in the distant past.
I would not solve my mystery sitting on the bridge and knew that if I wanted to get to Spade Lake, I would have to start walking eventually. As I strolled down the PCT, I thought about simply stopping at Waptus and finding the great campsite that Sandy, Rich, and I had enjoyed several months ago. John had expounded on the beauty of Spade Lake, but warned that the trail up was rather difficult. Ordinarily I wouldn't have paid any attention to the warning as most rangers call easy trails hard. But John wasn't the sort who would lead me astray. John knew. And so I was a little scared as I thought about what sort of trails I would call hard. I was also intrigued.
The climb up to Spade Lake began immediately. It began steeply. It began with a vengeance that is ordinarily contained within few things in this world. Scorned women come to mind. Steep, narrow, and with downfall, the Spade Lake Trail was hard from the first step, soaring nearly two thousand feet in something like a mile and half. Having gained most of the elevation necessary, one would think that the remaining two miles would be easy. A nice simple traverse. Instead, the trail climbed and dropped, never gently, as it traversed along toward the lake basin. I was nearing the end of my endurance. Or, rather, I was nearing the point after which I would cease to enjoy the hike. Sweat poured off of me and I could feel an ache in my thighs, which hasn't happened for many years now. I found a rock, stopped, and took a self portrait to record how I looked at this moment.
I rested for twenty minutes, after which I felt that I was sufficiently far from the danger point to hike the rest of the way to Spade Lake. The trail stilled bumped up and down, though now over loose scree and talus. The traverse led through several clear areas where Waptus, and its river valley, gleamed and called out to me to return. I had to go to Spade now that I was up here.
Tired, hungry, and cold, I finally passed the micro lake that I knew was just before Spade, but I was surprised that I could not yet see the biggun yet. There were no tracks anywhere and it was clear that this place didn't see much use. Or, at least, it hadn't seen any recently. I picked my way through the rock, still wondering where the lake might be. Climbing up onto a smooth section of rock, I found the answer: The Lake was below me, hidden from sight by high cliffs. I stood and gawked for bit, but remembered that I was hungry and needed to eat something more substantial than a candy bar.
It took me nearly twenty minutes before I found a route down to near the lake. Near the north end, the spot was flat, mostly bare rock and dirt, and just large enough for me to thrown out my sleeping bag and sleep under the stars. I was too close to the water to satisfy the LNT ethics to the word, but I was fulfilling my obligations in spirit. There would be no trace of my presence when I left in the morning. Besides in a few weeks snow would bury this place and I wanted a view of the Daniel complex as the sun went down.
The wind was blowing rather strongly here, sweeping down from up high, and I needed to put on my warm clothes once again, despite it being only 4:30 in the afternoon. I made three quarters of a liter of hot and sour soup to warm me and leaned against a rock watching the surface of the lake dance in the wind.
When I lost the sun behind the mountains, I also lost quite a bit of warmth. The temperature quickly dropped to the low 40s as I began a dinner of split-pea soup, bulghur wheat, and dried vegetables. A larger meal than I ever ate at home, especially after I added cheese, jerky, and cookies. I needed the calories for warmth. Dinner finished, I moved on to whisky and Hesse and waited for the sun to light up Daniel in alpinglow. Such things never last long and I had to look up after reading each paragraph to judge the progress of the the light on the mountain. Pages went by, chapters ended. And finally I got the red I wanted. It lasted only a few minutes and was then gone.
Laying in my sleeping bag in the amphitheater of rock and water, reading Hesse and drinking cheap Canadian whisky, seemed to be the height of luxury. A space heater might have been nice, but it would have detracted, I suppose, from the atmosphere. As it was, I couldn't think of anything that I lacked. I couldn't think of anything that I'd rather be doing at the time. Being immersed in beauty, completely submerged in the totality of the place, was healthy for the soul. I hoped I might be a better person because of it.
There was no sunrise for me this morning, only a grey light that got less and less gray as I drank tea from the comfort of my sleeping bag. I had to hustle this morning as it was a good 14 miles out to Salmon la Sac, and then a two hour drive home. I had an evening meeting in Olympia and couldn't wait on the sun. It seemed wrong, somehow, to run away from Spade Lake, but it was all that I could do for now. The sun was barely lighting up the top of Daniel when I shouldered my pack and retraced my steps down the trail, plunging to the PCT and then sprinting out along the Waptus Creek Trail. If this was to be my last hike before the snows, the last trip when I could enjoy Nature in a relaxed way, if it was to my last outing before I would have to confront the cold side of the environment and do battle to survive, at least it was a good one.
From Lakewood, drive I-5 north to SR18 and take this to I-90. Drive I-90 up and over Snoqualmie Pass and then down to exit 80, which has a sign for Salmon La Sac. This is the Bullfrog Cutoff road. Drive the Bullfrog to the hamlet of Roslyn and continue on SR903 to where it ends at the Salmon La Sac campground, about 17 miles from the Bullfrog. Drive over the bridge then on a dirt road for about a mile to the trailhead. Note that in the winter, you have to park alongside the roadway, before the bridge, and walk in to the trailhead. It takes about two hours to drive from Lakewood.