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by Paul Bulgier, aka Slugman
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I have always been slow. By that I mean physically slow. I have tried to turn a necessity into a virtue, and use my slow pace to gain a better appreciation for nature and the wilderness. I usually hike alone to avoid being hurried or causing stress to another through impatience. That solitude has turned out to be a real blessing, one I seek out now as a matter of course.
My plan was to explore a small area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington State, about 75 miles from Seattle. Strong hikers might do it as a day hike, but at least four days would be needed for my type of trip. I chose the hike to Rachel Lake, Rampart Lakes, Lila Lakes, and Alta Mountain, due to the many side trips available. As I studied the write-up of the hike in "100 Hikes in the Alpine Lakes" by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning, I got the familiar butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling typical before a solo backpack. Since it was late October, this would be the last high-country trip of the year.
The first part of the hike was not too difficult. The path climbed gently next to a tumbling brook called Box Canyon Creek. There were several large boulders perfect for resting, sunning, and viewing nature. I stopped for a while to drink some water and have a snack. The stream below me cascaded noisily over numerous ledges and rocks. I spent a little time in quiet contemplation of the scene, stretched out my leg muscles, and then continued on toward the end of Box Canyon. I felt the butterflies return briefly to my midsection as I remembered what the book said of the next section of the trail: it gains 1,400 vertical feet in one "cruel mile".
Climbing the headwall of the canyon proved to be cruel indeed. The trail was in very poor repair, with small streams using it as their bed for much of the ascent. There were also several places where rocks or logs two feet or more in height had to be stepped upon or over in one go. The path was also so steep that I often felt like a human fly scaling a wall, rather than a backpacker carrying upwards of 50 pounds. I was distracted from the exertion by an unusual sight - a small stream came down the side of a rocky cliff and separated into hundreds of tiny waterfalls that graced a pool skirted by the trail. I stood entranced by this amazing display until heat loss made me continue upwards.
By the time I reached the top of the canyon headwall, I was exhausted. It felt as if every muscle in my legs, hips, and back were sprained. There was still a long way to go to reach Rampart Lakes, but I realized that I would not make it there that day. Luckily for me, a beautiful glacial cirque named Rachel Lake was just off the trail at this point. It has numerous campsites around its perimeter, and all of them were deserted. I walked to a remote site, about 1/4 mile along the lakeshore, and set up my tent. I had just enough energy to make and eat a large dinner. I then wrapped myself up in my down sleeping bag to stop the shivering, and fell immediately asleep.
The morning was clear, bright, and very cold when I awoke, reminding me of the altitude and the lateness of the season. Rachel Lake was as reflective and motionless as a mirror. All of the bushes and groundcover clinging to the cirque walls were in full fall color that was amplified by their reflections in the lake. Every shade imaginable of red, orange, and yellow burst upon my eyes like Fourth-of-July fireworks. Standing silent and still, it was easy to imagine that I was the only person in the world.
I decided to leave my tent and sleeping bag at Rachel Lake, and day hike from there to Rampart Lakes. I performed my morning chores, such as filtering the water I would need that day, and continued towards my goal. It was slow going at first, as my legs were very sore and the trail very steep. I soon warmed to the task, and in no time at all reached the top of the cliff behind Rachel Lake. The view across the lake, down the headwall of Box Canyon, and including the peaks that form the walls of the canyon, was breathtaking and a little scary. One slip and I would be a mangled corpse floating in the lake. I turned left and hiked the last flat mile to the edge of Rampart Lakes, came out of the trees and around the corner of a small hill, and was immediately entranced by the splendor of the vista before me.
Rampart Lakes, or ponds as they should be called, are nestled in a small saddle of land between two high ridges that meet, leaving the lakes a triangular area that slopes gently away from the spines before ending in a sheer cliff of over a thousand feet to the valley below. My first view of the lakes revealed a myriad of pools, ponds, streams, and waterfalls that I correctly guessed to be only a part of what awaited me. As I headed into the heart of the area I soon faced a problem: there were too many things I wanted to see first, paths cris-crossing here and there between clusters of basins, lakes, puddles, and meres. I desired to see it all, so I chose a path at random and started my explorations.
My decision to make the trip midweek instead of the weekend paid it biggest dividend then, as there was no one else there, not a soul. I wandered around in a state of rapture, taking in the wonders of nature undisturbed. I saw a small pond, fed by melt water from snow fields on one of the ridges, that drained into an even smaller pool via a stream only 20 feet or so in length. This basinís outlet was a tiny waterfall that fed a third pool, which in its turn gave up its water to a fourth. I kept going in more or less the direction of the place where the ridges meet. Here I found remnants of snow, probably an unusual sight since the year before set a record for snowfall. There were tiny islands in some of the lakes, each topped by its own miniature forest. The trees seemed to be playing king-of-the-hill, struggling to perch on the pinnacles of their humble atolls. I sat for a while on a large granite shelf above a quiet mere. Speckled trout floated lazily in the clear water below. An insect landed on the glass-like surface, inciting a fish to swoop up from the depths and capture it in one watery mouthful. I was amazed: I had thought the water to be shallow and the fish near the surface.
As I moved from one secluded nook to another within Rampart Lakes, I began to have an abiding awe for the spectacular wonders that existed in such copious quantity and amazing variety. I thought about what it would be like to be here on a summer weekend, with dogs barking, children yelling, and adults talking. It definitely would have marred the tranquility of the place, while also lessening the sense of adventure and accomplishment I felt having come alone. Even though the scenery would have been just as beautiful, my appreciation of it would have been less. As it was, I was able to absorb unhindered all that lay around me.
I returned to Rachel Lake in the dark using a headlamp. The stars were a tempting distraction when at mile-high altitude and no city lights. I stopped for a while at the ridge top and soaked in the heavens in all their glory.
The third day dawned pink and chilly, and I climbed the ridge behind Rachel Lake in a hurry to get warm. I turned right and headed over to Lila Lakes, a couple of small ponds set like jewels in the case of their tiny valley. I bypassed the trail leading down to the lakes, and made instead for some rock shelves overlooking the lakes and warming in the sun. It was a perfect rest area with a spectacular view in the distance and an intimate view just beneath me.
After a small lunch on the rocks, I backtracked to the trail up Alta Mountain. This is the steepest trail, at least at its beginning, that I have ever hiked. I felt like I was climbing a ladder made of dirt. The grade soon moderates, and the views opened up with the ascent. I had my first overview of the Rampart area, and it was worth the climb all by itself. Up and up I went, following a ridge with a drop on either side that soon became somewhat scary.
I reached the last of the false summits of Alta, and called it good due to the rather intimidating look of the scramble to the true summit. My flashlights were good and the trail easy to follow, so I decided to stay and watch some of the sunset from the peak. I ate my dinner in silence broken only by the wind, God my only company, and reflected on what I had seen in just three days: beauty, loneliness, winter's imminence, flora and fauna, endless vistas. I felt complete.
As the sunset dwindled to ruddy embers, I realized my time there was coming to an end. The rest of my journey was relatively uneventful, even though I stayed another night at Rachel Lake before hiking out the next day. What I came away with, what stuck in my mind, were the sublime wonders of nature in the raw, and the way the experience was amplified by the serenity of silence. While companionship is a basic human requirement, I will still be going to many more places of natural beauty in the most solitary way possible, by myself.
About the AuthorI am a father of three grown children, a slacker, a dedicated hiker who does 40 day hikes and 10 backpacks per year, an environmentalist, an American.
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