Even if your night’s shelter is uncertain
and your goal still far away
know that there doesn’t exist
a road without an end —
don’t be sad
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The Spider Gap – Buck Creek loop is one of the most popular trips in the north Cascades. For 40 miles the trail winds through the Glacier Peak Wilderness. It takes the traveler through low, emerald valleys and atop high alpine ridges.
The trail along Phelps Creek is well used by hikers and hunters. It is a wide horse road, leading through thick woods. When I arrive in the middle of the week there are three different groups heading out, but no one else going in. It looks as if I have hit a lull in the summer crowds.
At the head of the valley the forest thins, giving way to wide meadows, good camps, and the remnants of avalanche slides. Two grouse hunters were tramping through the meadows, and one person hunting the opening of archery season for deer. None of them had so far had any luck.
From Spider Meadows my route climbs up the first of many ridges. I was aiming for Spider Gap, a small pass between towering rock, carved by the small but powerful Spider Glacier. The trail is steep. The noontime sun strikes it hard. Trees are soon left behind in the valley bottom, and any shade left with them. An occasional cooling breeze gives reason to stop and gaze back down to the valley of Phelps Creek below.
Soon I hit talus. Soon after, the source. Spider Glacier: narrow but long, and uphill to the Gap. I put my trekking pole into the pack, trading it for an ice axe. The year’s heavy snow and late melt-off means that the glacier is still covered with a coat of snow. I progress slowly, but the snow allows for a relatively easy walk up without the traction devices that would be necessary had I been walking on the ice itself. All the way up, I think to myself that I should have done the loop in reverse, so that I could glissade down the glacier rather than walk up it. (Later, I shared my observations with others I encountered on the trail. None seemed to agree. “You have a different idea of fun that I do,” said one.)
At the head of the glacier and the top of the gap I drop pack to hydrate and take in the views. This is surely mountain goat country – bare, carved rock and spiring peaks abound. Peering down the other side I spot the ever diminishing Lyman Glacier and the relatively young Upper Lyman Lakes. My goal for the day is the lower Lyman Lake, hidden in the trees beyond.
Snow fields occasionally cover the rocky north facing slopes on the other side of the Gap, but I can see faint outlines of a trail where the snow has melted, traversing the western slope of Dumbell Mountain. Ice axe still in hand, I make my way in that direction.
As I reach the opposite side of a field of snow, I find myself among scree and boulders. No longer can I make out the previously spotted trail. I peer ahead, but I cannot see its relief anywhere along the slope. I’m not sure what the trail was making for, anyways. When I did see it, it looked to keep the slope of the mountain, heading off perhaps to Rubin Creek on the other side. It is definitely not the obvious route given the topography. A few hundred feet below me I can see Upper Lyman Lakes, and the bare fields surrounding. It looks easy enough to just walk along the edge of the lakes, following the drainage down to lower Lyman Lake itself. Simpler than fooling around on the side of the mountain.
So I begin the descent, lowering myself down large boulders, occasionally loosing my footing as I kick loose small rocks that go tumbling down. After some time I reach another snow field, steep and perhaps forty or fifty feet down to the other side. I could go around it, but it has been slow going, making my way among the rocks. “Ballsy,” I think, but what’s the point of packing an ice axe if you aren’t going to really use it? I carefully step onto the snow, sit down, and push off.
The late season snow is hard packed and crusty, more like ice, which makes for a faster acceleration than I had planned. I cannot dig in with my heels or the spike of the axe enough to slow the descent. Nearing the bottom, I’m forced to roll over and arrest with the pick of the axe to avoid flying into the talus below. That done, and feeling quite pleased with myself, I merrily make my way down the remaining hundred feet to the lakes below. Reaching the bottom, I spot good tread, and even a few cairns here and there. I don’t know what route the path took down from the Gap – it certainly wasn’t the same as mine – but there it is.
The tread soon turns to trail. Clouds begin to move in and, as I make my way to the lower lake, I feel drops of rain on my face. The trail descends into trees, reaching Lyman Lake itself soon thereafter.
At the lake there are a few other people already camped. I find a likely looking spot and pitch the tarp before the rain increases. It does not last long, soon diminishing to only occasional sprinkles. That and the accompanying breeze are enough to keep down any bugs.
A downed Hemlock tree next to my camp provides plenty of slightly-damp wood. I break off a few branches and after three minutes of processing have enough to fire up the Inferno. After dinner I have plenty of fuel left over, so I boil some water for hot chocolate. The fire is still going as I finish the drink, allowing me to heat a bit of water for cleaning and then dry the pot before putting it away. Then to bed.
I rise early, break camp, and walk a couple hundred feet through the woods to the shore of the lake. Breakfast, and water, and then I’m gone. I want to get on the trail ahead of the others, whom I assume are doing the same loop as I. The trail winds along the shore of the lake for a short while before breaking off to head north and west. It climbs out of forest, into the meadow below Cloudy Pass. Here I spook deer and marmot, the latter collecting grass for their winter holes. (Already, the temperature dropped to freezing last night.) I spotted blue sky as I woke, but now Cloudy Pass is living up to its name. Looking back, I see clouds moving in to veil Lyman Lakes and the Gap.
Low clouds obscure the country by the time I reach Cloudy Pass. Descending to the other side I catch tantalizing glimpses of massive walls of rock all around me. I rather enjoy this hiking, walking through the mists in country that is new to me. It is fitting for the second day of September, being in stark contrast to the sweaty hikes under strong sun that defined much of August.
After Cloudy Pass, I avoid the descent all the way into the valley bottom just to rise again by taking a shortcut along the side of a steep ridge to Suiattle Pass. At the top of the pass I look forward and can see mammoth slopes of snow obscured by trees and clouds. Glacier Peak is in front of me, but still only allowing glimpses of its noble flanks. I step onto the Pacific Crest Trail and descend lower into thick trees, reaching the junction with the trail to Miners Ridge. Here the classic loop continues south along the PCT, but I intend to make the detour to Miners Ridge and spend a night at the famed Image Lake. There, the summit of Glacier towers over the lake and is reflected in the still waters, giving the lake its name.
It is late morning now. The sun has begun to burn off the clouds as I start the climb to the top of the ridge. Mining artifacts from the sixties liter the trail, making for interesting archaeological pauses. (The ridge was largely saved from being destroyed by copper mining thanks to William O. Douglas.)
As the trail climbs, the day warms, and the trees are once again left behind, revealing meadows which carpet the upper slopes of the ridge. The clouds are all but gone now. Under a blue sky, green fields roll out before me and, to the south, Glacier Peak, the Wilderness Sentinel, stands in all its glory, surrounded by its court of lesser peaks.
The trail leads along the southern face of the ridge and descends to the small basin that holds Image Lake. There are good camps just south of the lake, where I drop my pack. It is just shortly after noon now, but I plan to spend the night here so that I may catch the sunrise over the lake the following morn. The rest of the day is spent exploring the basin and taking in the views.
Buck Creek Pass
I rise at half past five to a clear dawn. Down comes the tarp, and I throw my things into the pack and walk slightly up the ridge on the north shore of the lake. As the sun rises, it sets fire to the summit and upper glaciers of the peak. I eat breakfast as the show progresses, and soon the whole of Glacier is red with the dawn. That’s my cue to leave. I pack up again, and retrace my steps east along the southern slope of Miners Ridge. There are plenty of deer out browsing, or perhaps they are just watching the sun rise.
At the bottom of the ridge I come to the end of my detour and once again gain the Pacific Crest Trail. There, the trail descends further to Miners Creek, re-entering thick old growth where the morning light has barely yet penetrated. After the creek is crossed, I leave the PCT and head south, aiming for Middle Ridge and Buck Creek Pass.
I spend the rest of the morning in the old growth forest. The trail begins to climb, soon opening up to expose the avalanche-scoured slopes of Middle Ridge. The shady trees are left behind just as the sun reaches its peak. Views of the aptly named Fortress Mountain dominate the route.
I stop for lunch at the top of Middle Ridge. The bugs, which have hitherto not been bothersome on this trip, encourage me to cut the break short. I descend once more, this time steeply into the valley of (not so) Small Creek. There is shade down here in the forest. I drop my pack again, this time for a more relaxing break.
There is one more climb ahead of me: up steep, dusty slopes to Buck Creek Pass, the last high point of the loop. It’s a slog to get up there under the early afternoon sun, but, once gained, the pass offers close-up views of the eastern slopes of Glacier, rising steeply up from the deep Suaittle valley. Flower Dome, Helmet Butte and Liberty Cap surround the meadows here at the pass.
I see two groups camped at the pass, but it is early yet, and after yesterday’s short day I want a longer hike today. The trail leads down to Buck Creek. I follow, into the last valley.
The trail chooses a long and gradual way down to the valley bottom. It is the weekend now. I pass many people on the way up, likely looking to sleep at the pass. I think that it will get a bit crowded up there tonight, and I’m glad that I chose to come down to the cool and largely empty valley.
It’s late afternoon and I figure that I’ve come seventeen miles or so from Image Lake. Another four or five miles and I’ll be at the Buck Creek trailhead, which I don’t want to reach until tomorrow. Branching off the trail, I head close to Buck Creek and soon find a clearing large enough for my tarp. I decide on an early dinner, followed down with the last of the trail mix. Afterwards I entertain myself with a fire built up around the stove.
The night is not as cold down in the valley as it was in the high country around Lyman and Image lakes, but it still gets down close to freezing. I wake early, shivering. The sun won’t reach down here for a few hours yet. Quickly, I complete the morning routine and regain the trail, looking to generate some heat with movement.
I’ve only been a couple hours on the trail when I reach the trailhead outside of the small town of Trinity (which looks to consist of three buildings). I’m not yet done with the loop – three miles remain, on dirt road, until I reach the Phelps Creek trailhead. I shed a few layers at the Buck Creek trailhead, which the sun has begun to warm, and meet a man preparing to take a mule train up to the pass. Then, it is the dusty road. An hour later I am back where I entered the Wilderness, satisfied in my experience of these mountains.
The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
As always, there are more photos on Flickr.
These here is God’s finest scupturings! And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones! And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones! And there ain’t no churches, except for this right here! And there ain’t no priests excepting the birds. By God, I are a mountain man, and I’ll live ‘til an arrow or a bullet finds me. And then I’ll leave my bones on this great map of the magnificent…
Mountains lie all about, with many difficult turns leading here and there. The trails run up and down; we are martyred with obstructing rocks. No matter how well we keep the path, if we miss one single step, we shall never know safe return. But whoever has the good fortune to penetrate that wilderness, for his labors will gain a beatific reward, for he shall find there his heart’s delight. The wilderness abounds in whatsoever the ears desire to hear, whatsoever would please the eye: so that no one could possible wish to be anywhere else. And this I well know; for I have been there.
Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan and Isolde
Up the Foss River. Trout Lake to Copper Lake to Big Heart.
Cross-country along the High Route. Big Heart Lake, Angeline, and Chetwoot.
Down and out along the Foss.
We have packed everything we need for the trip in a backpack. If the backpack is light, we will walk more easily. With a heavy pack, we walk with bended knees, and a slower pace.
Having a lot of belongings takes a toll. Things can determine how we live, requiring monthly payments, maintenance and repair.
When we can carry all our life’s necessities on our backs, we can go where we want.
On a journey, we sleep on the ground. We cook food over a fire. Life is simple. Everyone who pursues simple life, does so by choice.
On a journey, whatever we can’t do without is a life necessity. This is the question raised during the journey by actual situations, what is needed for a society based on life-necessities. Is there something better than what we experience in our daily life, and if so, what is it? Why do we practice simple life? Does exertion have any positive value? Almost everything in simple life requires more exertion that our daily life.
Having nice things and being comfortable has become the norm in our society, which consumes steadily more resources so that we can live more and more comfortably. This is characteristic of an industrial growth society.
When we take with us only our life’s necessities, our equipment must last, it must be of high quality.
Roger and Sarah Isberb, Simple Life “Friluftsliv”: People Meet Nature
Avagdu and I pulled into the trailhead around 7 PM. After getting our gear together, we decided to take advantage of the long summer evening to log a few miles. The trail into the Red Buttes Wilderness climbs steadily through pine woods. It’s dry and dusty with the lack of rain. But that’s to be expected. We’re back in California, after all.
Occasional glimpses of large slides and the valley below can be had through the trees. Soon enough, the sun sets behind the hills. I remove the headlamp from my pack and throw it around my neck. Avagdu stops a minute later to do the same. There’s another hour or so of good hiking to be got yet.
Our destination this night is Echo Lake. I don’t think it’s too much further down the trail. After I wet my feet in a stream crossing, I figure we must be close, but the sun is down, the moon not yet risen, and I’m worried I’ll miss the spur trail that goes off to the lake. Shortly after the crossing we’re surprised by a small wilderness camp: a shelter made of 4 upright posts and a few pine boughs for a roof, a table, a bit of firewood, and what is either an attempt at a chair or a Nessmuk-style fire. I can’t tell which. It’s an impressive setup. “Someone Ray Mears-ed it up,” Avagdu says. The only thing we can’t figure out is why the shelter is lashed together with duct tape rather than cordage. Or why the bundle of firewood is wrapped in duct tape.
It’s a bit after 10 PM now. We decide to take advantage of our luck and spend the night here. The shelter doesn’t look waterproof, but there’s no other flat ground around. It doesn’t feel like rain tonight anyway. There’s enough room for us both to throw our bivvies down underneath.
I had eaten before reaching the trail. The meal is still sitting in my belly. Forgoing dinner, I go off to hang my food. Avagdu decides to cook a small meal for himself – out of hunger, or just so that he’ll have a few less ounces to carry tomorrow. While we’re sitting around the fire pit, I spot a small mouse scurrying around the shelter. He seems disappointed that new tenants have moved in. Particularly because we had moved the old sock (his bed, I think) from the ground of the shelter to the table. After sniffing around for a while he scurries off.
We’re off early in the morning, with expectations of a short climb before arriving at the lake for breakfast.
Things don’t go as planned.
The grade steepens, as expected, but the trail keeps going on. Eventually we break out of the trees into a muddy meadow. Snow patches begin to appear. Somewhere in the meadow I loose the trail. By 10 AM we both feel that we should have reached Echo Lake. The mileage posted at the trailhead was only 4 miles, which we’ve certainly accomplished by now. I’m getting hungry, so I decide to stop in a patch of trees for a bowl of oatmeal. We both eat. After cleaning my pot I get out the map. It’s a large, ungainly thing. I plot our position and get a bearing to the lake. Not too far off, but I still don’t trust the mileage. It’s definitely further than 4 miles from the trailhead.
We climb up higher. The snow is constant now. We end up on a small knob above the lake. Echo Lake is surrounded by snow and looks to be still partially frozen over. Neither of us feel like venturing down for a visit. Our route now takes us up out of the basin onto the Siskiyou Crest. If we went down to the lake we’d just have to climb back up again. So we decide to forgo the lake and instead head higher, aiming for the saddle between Red Butte and Cook and Green Butte.
The slope we’re climbing is facing north. I hope that once we get over to the other side the snow will be gone. Or at least less. Before leaving for the trip I hadn’t been able to find any recent reports or conditions for the area. I figured we wouldn’t be getting very high and, hey, it’s California (the whole state is a desert, right?), so we didn’t plan for much snow.
I’m wearing my Merrell Trail Gloves, which aren’t exactly ideal for kicking steps. But going uphill isn’t too much trouble. We reach a bare scree field, climb it, and gain the saddle. I’m pleased to see that both the top of the ridge and the south slope are covered not by snow, but by Manzanita.
Just on the other side of the ridge is our goal: the Pacific Crest Trail. We’ll be on the PCT for the next few miles, which ought to help us make up for time lost in the snow. The PCT is the superhighway of the mountains – wide, tame, and well groomed compared to most wilderness trails.
Our route takes us west along the ridge, toward Red Butte. Only a few yards down the trail we come upon a group of three camped on the ridge. They had planned the same route as we, but also did not expect the trail to Echo Lake to be so long nor the snow to be so prevalent. It had upset their schedule. They no longer had time to complete the loop. Instead, they decided to spend some time enjoying the view from the ridgetop before descending and heading out.
The trail is wide and dry. It goes on for a bit before intersecting an old logging road. Just west of the junction both road and trail continue into a snow-filled basin. So much for dry feet! There’s a good stream of snow melt flowing here which we use to fill up our reservoirs, not sure where the next good source will be.
From there, the trail climbs over a ridge and down into another basin, which holds Lily Pad Lake. The road parallels the trail and ends in the same lake basin. I choose to follow the road, which is easier to spot under snow. The basin provides views of the other side of Red Butte, the namesake of this Wilderness.
Once across, both road and trail take a steep route up and out of the basin. I decide to take a route slightly longer but easier given the snow. Once gaining the other side, we’re once again in mostly dry territory with only occasional patches of snow. I find the PCT and follow that for a bit before loosing it in another snow field. On the other side, I find the road. Good enough.
The road ends at a fence made of stacked rocks. From there we can look down into this new basin and see the PCT. Lily Pad Lake sits below it. Both hold more snow. The ridge on the west side of the basin has more snow and looks steeper than any field we’ve yet encountered. We must climb that, but not yet. It’s early afternoon and my stomach calls for lunch.
It’s windy up on the ridge. There’s a small notch in the rock fence where I setup my stove, keeping it out of the wind. A pot full of noodles, a few mouthfuls of granola with dark chocolate chips, and I’m feeling copacetic in the sun. But we’re not getting any closer to the other side of the basin and Avagdu has finished his crackers and MRE peanut butter. It’s time to move on.
Climbing down from the end of the road we regain the the PCT. It is soon obscured by snow. The slope is indeed steep here – steep enough that I don’t feel safe crossing it without an ice axe or traction devices. But there’s a bare spot above. I make for that, where we can cross above the snow field and then come back down on the other side. I’m having flashbacks of last year in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
We make it to the top, and across, but before heading back down to where we need to be there’s a finger of the snow field to descend. Avagdu goes first, sitting down on the snow and attempting a controlled descent that ends up being a glissade to the other side. I do the same.
It’s not much further till we reach a similar obstacle. But this time we can’t go up and around the snow. The only choice is to go straight across. I lead this one, slowly kicking steps across the field. It’s easier to cross on a diagonal line, heading slightly uphill. Eventually I end up above where I need to be, with Avagdu behind me. Below, the snow continues for 30 feet before reaching the trail, which at that point is bare. It’s a steep glissade without an ice axe to control the descent. The best option looks to be to sit and attempt to crab walk down, kicking in my heels to make steps as I descend. This works till about halfway, where a step fails and I slip, sliding down the rest of the way. It’s close – I almost miss the bare spot and end up in a tree well further down the mountain – but I’m able to slide enough to the right that I make it, with no problem other than cold hands from digging into the snow.
Meanwhile, Avagdu is above, watching the performance with some amount of trepidation. He sits down for his turn and I attempt to guide him in, instructing him to kick steps with his heels and aim for the log on the trail. The beginning is good. Then he slips and starts the glissade. He’s further to the left than I was, but he’s reaching for the handholds on the exposed trail and it looks like he’ll make it without trouble, until his reach turns into a somersault. Luckily the somersault takes him in the right direction and he crashes into a branch of the log or a bit of rock. I can’t see which. Later, he says that whatever hit him did so on his heavily padded hip-belt, which probably saved him some discomfort and bruising on the hip.
After a well deserved breather and a bit of water, we continue. It’s not too much longer before, predictably, the trail once again crosses into snow and enters a steep slope. This time it looks like we can go up and around along a tricky scree field, but a group of large boulders prevents me from seeing what is held in store for us on the other side.
We go for it, carefully making our way across the scree along the edge of the snow. It’s the most difficult part yet. On the other side, I climb up the group of boulders to getter a better view of the route above. It’s not a good sight. We’re almost at the top of the ridge, but directly across from us is another steep, snow covered slope. There’s no way around it, above or below, and I don’t want to attempt another crossing so steep without more tools. Directly above us is steep as well. We might be able to make it, climbing with both hands and feet, but there look to be a few cornices up there at the top. That makes me uncomfortable. Avagdu has come around by this time and points out a possible route, saying that there’s a few trees along there to break our fall. I start laughing. That’s exactly what I look for when I’m scouting out a route, but hearing it voiced out loud is somehow humorous. “Yeah, don’t worry, there’s some ground down there to break our fall!”
Another look around. It doesn’t look good. I still can’t see over the top of this ridge, so even if we make it up I’m not sure what waits for us further on. More of the same, likely, which will upset our schedule.
I suggest we turn around. Avagdu agrees. If we’re careful, we can take Avagdu’s suggested route a little further along, which will put is in intermittent trees. We can glissade from tree to tree, hopefully avoiding any big wells, and make it down to the bottom of the basin. From there, it’s a simple matter of crossing the basin (while avoiding a fall into the lake, which is still partially obscured by snow). The other side of the basin is clear of snow, so we can switchback our way up till we hit the trail or road, and then backtrack to the saddle between the two buttes where we first climbed up out of the basin and Echo Lake.
We reached the spot where we first joined the PCT. The camp belonging to the group of 3 is gone. They must have packed out ahead of us.
I scout out the ridge a bit, checking to see if there’s a better way down the north side than the route we took up. There doesn’t seem to be anything. Looking down from the spot where we finally gained the ridge on the way up, our path looks steeper than before. Funny how that works.
Avagdu and I both relax for a bit, enjoying the view and watching a few clouds roll in. The slope isn’t getting any less steep. After chucking a few rocks down to see where they land, we decide to go for it.
We descend the bare scree field and are back in the snow. Luckily, we can glissade down this time rather than having to climb up. It’s quick, and fun.
Just below where we now know Echo Lake to be we come upon the remains of an old fire ring. There are flat spots around that will make decent spots for us to pitch our tarps, but with the lake on one side and the muddy meadow on the other it looks like it will become too buggy for my tastes. We opt to continue down further, crossing the meadow and descending back into the woods.
At 7 PM we reach a spot with wide flat areas at the base of a cliff. There’s a small trickle of water in the back and the trees are sparse enough to let the sunlight in and allow some views of the sky. This will do for camp.
An abundance of dead wood lies on the floor. The novelty of actually picking dry firewood off the ground rather than having to break it out of trees encourages me to start collecting the makings of a fire. While Avagdu is pitching his tarp I take a spade-shaped rock to dig a small pit. Then I build a basic lay. Soon the flames are jumping.
The night brings heavy rain. The noise on the tarp is enough to wake me up a few times during the night. In the morning I wake but don’t rise for a couple hours, hoping that the rain will soon die down. When it turns to a light sprinkle, I venture out. Our camp has certainly become wet. Avagdu is up and about. He didn’t pack much in the way of insulating layers, so he’s chilly and wants a fire. All of the wood is now sodden. Even that up in the trees is wet, none of the branches being thick enough to protect those below them. It takes some doing, but eventually, with a bit of splitting, feathering, and a few other tricks, we rekindle the fire.
After breakfast the rain picks up again. Neither of us want to sit around outside getting wet, so we retreat to the tarps. The rain puts out our unattended fire.
We have no firm plans for this day. By late morning it appears that the rain won’t give up. We decide that rather than staying in the wet woods all day, it will be better for us to head out and continue on our road trip back up to Washington. A few hours on the road today will make us more likely to accomplish our goal of being in Portland for a meeting on the morrow.
As we break camp the rain continues. We descend lower into the valley. The rain becomes heavier. The sky seems like a torrent by the time we reach the bottom, and both of us are wet. The trailhead is reached shortly after, and there: shelter and some dry clothes.
I leave the mountains, sure in the knowledge that I will return. Perhaps to a different range, but to mountains none the less.
Give him a far reach of eye, the grasses rippling, the small streams talking, buttes swimming clear a hundred miles away. Give him… the clean, ungodly upthrust of the Tetons. They were some.
Arriving at Rialto Beach just past 1:00 PM, I took a few minutes to stuff my food into the bear can I had borrowed from the Ranger Station on my way out. The cans are required to keep food secure not from bears, but from marauding raccoons. This was to be the third year I had hiked the Olympic Coast in Winter and, outside of the Sierra Nevada, these have been the only times I’ve carried a bear can. Still, thanks to the warmer temperatures along the coast, even with the can my pack feels light compared to what I must carry this time of year when high in the mountains.
High tide had been at 11:30 AM. It is still high enough to make beach-walking difficult. I opt to make my way through the thick trees and marsh instead of braving the beach. There are no cars in the parking lot when I leave, but I surprise two people panning for gold along a small creek. Neither are talkative. When I ask if they had found anything, the one only replies “a little”. I don’t know if that is the truth, or if he was just anxious to get me gone.
I spend an hour in the woods. The tide is low enough now that I can make my way down to the beach, exchanging thick trees for wet sand. Occasionally I have to run up the beach and jump on top of driftwood to escape from the occasional wave, but for the most part the way is easy going between Rialto and Hole-in-the-Wall.
The area is thick with Bald Eagles. Every 15 minutes or so I spot one in a tree, or landing on a sea stack, or one flying over the ocean. At one point I see two eagles eating on a large fish head that had washed up on the beach. (I don’t know what kind of fish, but the head was close to the size of a football.) The two are eating just on the other side of a large boulder. We don’t notice each other until I come around the rock, at which point they jump and fly off. At a distance of about 10 feet, that’s the closest I have ever been to an eagle.
At Hole-in-the-Wall, the sandy beach comes to an end for a good while. Now begins the obstacle course that defines a walk along the wild coast. Piles of driftwood, tide pools, slippery rocks, and tall headlands all present a much different challenge from the steady plodding that characterizes walking in the mountains. The various balancing tricks, pull ups and push ups that are required make one thankful for a well packed backpack.
After rounding one headland I come upon two deer, out looking for whatever seafood it is that deer fancy. They don’t seem too concerned about me, but eventually bound up the steep cliff as I close in.
Around the next headland there’s an octopus lying in the sand. It has been partially eaten by something.
The tide is out now. I walk blissfully along a rare sandy stretch of beach that doesn’t require much attention, and find myself surprised by a dark brown spot ahead of me. My first thought is Marmot, but they belong in the mountains, not the coast. Then I think Badger, but the tail is wrong and they also had no business on the coast. An Otter! I couldn’t identify it at first, as I had no experience to link it to. This was the first time I had seen an Otter – leastwise, on land and in the wild.
The Otter is slowly flopping down the beach, throwing his front arms forward and then pulling along the rest of his body. His legs wiggle a bit but are clearly useless on land. I approach slowly. He turns his head and looks at me, slows and then finally stops as I approach. I don’t know if he isn’t concerned by my presence, or if he is tired from inefficient land movement. Perhaps he thinks the best course of action is to play (sorta) dead.
I’m able to get within four feet of the Otter, where I stop to admire his fur and watch his whiskers twitch as he sniffs me. It would be easy to approach close enough to touch him – a tempting thought – but I don’t think he’ll appreciate that. Instead I try to make conversation. “Hey, you’re a mammal. I’m a mammal. We both have nipples.” At this the Otter’s concern seems to grow, so I leave him and continue around the next headland. I don’t want him to have to cut short his time on the beach on my account.
My tide chart has sunset scheduled for 5:00 PM, which is drawing near. I’m still in an area with the ocean on my left and sharp cliffs on my right. The map shows that it is a long way to the next suitable camp spot. I resign myself to hiking for a short while in the dark. At least the tide won’t be coming in till 7:00 PM.
I walk along, and watch the sun set over the edge of the world.
At 6:00 PM I come to an area where the cliffs on my right give way to a clump of trees. I make my way inside and find a spot to pitch the tarp. After dinner in the dark, I crawl into my bag and go to sleep. The roaring of the tide wakes me once around midnight, but, unlike the last time I spent the night out here, my camp tonight is well above the high tide mark.
The tide gives me trouble the next day. It is about an hour later than the day before, with high tide hitting at 12:30 PM. I was hoping to wake up early and log a few miles at low tide around 6:30 AM, but I end up not waking till 9 AM. At that point the tide is high enough that I could barely get anywhere before high tide, at which point I would be able to go nowhere at all. I decide not to make any move until after high tide, though that means a later start than yesterday, and so a longer hike into the night.
It is a gray morning. Rain steadily falls from the sky, coupling with the ocean mist to give all a good soaking. I lie about, enjoy a slow breakfast, read some and write some. By 1:00 PM my patience is gone and I decide to see if any progress can be made. After breaking camp I find that I can scale partway up the cliff that starts on the north edge of my clump of trees, and traverse along that a way. From there I’m able to hop along a few large boulders that stick up out of the ocean, but I can’t get far. Eventually I have to stop and sit out the tide atop a group of rocks. It always goes out slower when you’re waiting for it.
An hour passes and the tide has gone down far enough that there are occasional stretches of bare sand between waves. This allows me some progress. I watch the waves go up and down for a minute, try to get a feel for the timing, and dash along the briefly-bare beach, clambering up the next pile of driftwood or large boulder before the waves come. Sometimes I make it, sometimes the waves catch me. More than once I make it to the top of a rock, but the wave hits with enough force that the water bounces up and splashes me. I’m wet already from the rain, so in the end it makes little difference.
The gray morning turns into a gray afternoon, which passes without difference. I don’t notice it getting dark until only a few minutes before sunset. I’m no more than halfway to where I want to be, but why pack a headlamp if you’re not going to use it? The next two hours are spent along the usual obstacle course of driftwood, headlands, and barnacle covered rocks, made even more interesting due to the dark. But after I pass them, the last hour and a half is along another rare stretch of sandy beach. I make up for lost time by running stretches. With a pack on my back and soft sand underfoot, running is a challenge, but it keeps me warm. Still, I don’t arrive into camp till 8:30 PM.
The rain continues into the next morning. I breakfast on the westernmost point in the contiguous US, turn south, and retrace my steps for a couple days back to Rialto Beach.
"In the static mode an observer may unify the pieces of a puzzle, but only as a blueprint -- kinetics adds the third dimension of depth, and the fourth of history. The motion, however, must be on the human scale, which happens also to be that of birds, waves, and clouds. Were a bullet to be made sentient, it still would see or hear or smell or feel nothing in land or water or air except its target. So, too, with a passenger in any machine that goes faster than a Model A. As speed increases, reality thing and becomes at the pace of a jet airplane no more substantial than a computer readout." - Harvey Manning, Walking the Beach to Bellingham
I can’t think of a better way to spend the winter solstice than breaking trail in fresh powder.
Days and months are the travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by... I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind -- filled with a strong desire to wander... I walked through mists and clouds, breathing the thin air of high altitudes and stepping on slippery ice and snow, till at last through a gateway of clouds, as it seemed, to the very paths of the sun and moon, I reached the summit, completely our of breath and nearly frozen to death. Presently the sun went down and the moon rose glistening in the sky. - Basho