May 23-25, 2015
Krista and I spent Memorial Day weekend walking through clouds in the Mt. Margaret Backcountry, on a trip we’d vaguely planned to accord with the 35th anniversary of the eruption. It’s amazing to see what’s left, what’s coming back, and what scars still dominate the landscape even after all this time. It was Krista’s first time in the area, and it was particularly nice to see it all through the eyes of someone who’d never seen it before.
Our route was as follows:
- Saturday: drive from Portland to the Norway Pass TH, then take the Boundary and Lakes Trails to camp at Shovel Lake.
- Sunday: our long day. Take the Lakes Trail down the Coldwater Creek drainage to the Coldwater Trail, take Coldwater to its junction with the Boundary Trail at St. Helens Lake, then take the Boundary Trail past Mt. Margaret to camp at Bear Camp.
- Monday: our very short day. Take the Boundary Trail a couple miles back to the Norway Pass TH, drive south, stop for a ridiculous amount of food on the way home.
We leave Portland around six and stop for a shameful, calorie-filled breakfast in some small town just off the freeway. The fast food place is curiously crowded for as early as it is. Old men shuffle around in overalls, sit together in small bright metal chairs, talk seriously in low gruff voices. There’s a sign on the coke machine admonishing customers not to bring back old cups and fill them. You have to buy a new drink every time you come. It makes me laugh until I think about the area around here. This all used to be timber country. It’s not anymore. They saved the woods, in part for people like us, and of course more so for the animals who rightly own the place. I think it was the right choice. But now there are these communities all across the northwest, where broken old men drive their rusting trucks to McDonalds – the best restaurant in town – to sit in too-small chairs, staring gravely into black, bitter coffee. There’s not much to do anymore. No money. The northwest was built on timber. Maybe when we decide to end something like that, on which so many communities and lives have been built, we have an obligation to help them start something new.
We eat in the car as we meander past the Swift Reservoir up to the Monument. We pass nearly all the way through Cougar before realizing it, then the road begins winding up the mountain into persistent fog that makes every turn a surprise. I always forget how damn curvy the road to Norway Pass is.
We make it, a little car sick, to the nearly empty trailhead around nine without once seeing the mountain, and begin the wet walk through the fog toward Norway Pass.
We can’t see very far, and so we see what’s close with uncommon acuity. The flowers near the trailhead, around 3000′, are going strong.
I’m listening to an interview with Letterman’s Executive Producer about his last episodes and for some reason it’s making me intensely… something. It’s such a strange thing to know that you’re doing something for the last time. Rare to have real, final goodbyes. I wonder what it felt like that last time, driving to work, putting on the suit, listening to someone warm up the crowd.
For most of this term, I thought it was going to be my last term teaching at U of O, and maybe my last term ever teaching. Driving to Eugene in the mornings, I’d think about what I was going to say on the last day, how it was going to feel. At the end of every term, I spend a couple minutes of the last class thanking the students for their work, telling them that I understand that what I’m asking them to do, what we’re doing together, is a little unfashionable. There’s something untimely about asking people to sit down and struggle through books written two-hundred years, about telling them that things shouldn’t be clear the first time through. Nothing’s pithy and nothing’s simple. Very little of it is going to be of any direct use to anyone in their careers. But still, I think it’s vitally important. And I tell students that, and I tell them how much I appreciate them giving me the time to make my case. Driving to Eugene this term, I often thought about making my case one last time. What would I say? Would it even be worth making my case one last night?
It turns out I’ll be teaching for another year, which means that goodbye gets to wait a while. But listening to the interview, I can’t help but think about it. The wonder of Letterman for me has always been that, even when he’s not funny – particularly when he’s not funny – he’s still himself. Doing the last one well, I think, means doing it as you always have: as yourself. Even if no one’s laughing. Of course it’s always worth making your case one last time.
In short order, we hit the Lakes Trail junction and Bear Pass, where things open up a little, and we’re treated to our first real views of the surroundings.
Here I am, looking like a dork near Grizzly Lake:
And here’s the lake, without the riffraff:
After Grizzly Lake, it’s back into the clouds, but, nicely, also back into the flowers. As usual, all the good pictures are from Krista:
We take a quick stop at Obscurity Lake for a snack, then ascend again into the clouds. I love the area between Obscurity and Panhandle Lakes. If you were looking for a quick, short, one-night trip, you could do a lot worse than to spend a night at either.
ACTION SHOT, near Panhandle Lake:
We stop again at a creek for a late lunch, where Krista runs around taking pictures of early afternoon dew on the lupine.
I didn’t even know what lupine was a couple years ago.
Watching her, I think about Letterman again. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it wrong. How exciting it must be now to face a life unfilled with recurring commitments. I’m terrible with change. When I was little, I kept a blanket until it had huge holes all over it, because I couldn’t imagine anything better. In college, I lived for almost a year without reliable hot water because I got used to it, didn’t want to call for maintenance and start a process that might also result in, I don’t know, them fixing my window too. (The bottom pane of the window above my bed was basically unattached to the frame, which meant that, when it was windy, it would fall on top of me. It made for several sprightly evenings, especially when I was with an unwarned sleeping companion. “Oh, didn’t I tell you about this? Also, in the morning, should you want hot water…”)
So this is trite, but maybe, a lot of the time, endings are also beginnings. I think about the types of things that now fill my life: philosophy and music still, of course, but also cooking. And now hiking. And now history too. A lot of it’s just come about in the last few years, in shapes I never could have predicted. The first time Krista and I went hiking a couple years ago, it was a short, timid, uncertain thing. We were exhausted afterward. I had a headache. I didn’t want to do it again. Ever. And now… well, now I’m sitting here drinking creek water, carrying a few days worth of food, thinking there’s no place I’d rather be. This capacity to start new things, to remake life in unprecedented shapes, maybe that’s the compensation for the fact that things also end. Hannah Arendt calls it “the miracle that saves the world.”
A short, steep walk away from lunch and we hit the Shovel Lake junction. I get there first, and lie down on a fallen long, the surface of which has been polished smooth and white, almost like marble. It’s warm, too, and I drift off for a moment listening to Courtney Barnett.
Krista joins me a few songs later, and we descend down into the Shovel Lake basin. It’s so foggy that we can’t see the lake, the ridges above it, anything more than a few feet ahead of us. Upon entering camp, we’re greeted by this guy. The skull’s on top of an unnatural lump, which looks alarmingly like it might contain an elk corpse.
There are two tent platforms at Shovel Lake. The first, larger one we come to is a little too close to the possible burial for comfort, so we choose the other. We set up our tent and, after a while, the fog clears. Hey, there’s a lake here!
Given the uncharacteristic clearing, I take a quick stroll around the lake to see what I can see. You can’t make it all the way around without significant scrambling, but there are nice views, especially west(ish) shore.
When I get back Krista’s asleep. We cook and eat slowly, as fog roles over Whittier Ridge and a mountain goat with two kids grazes on the steep slopes above us. As the sun’s setting, we walk our bourbon out to the lake and around the snowmelt streams. We turn in early, planning to head out early the next day.
We wake up Sunday to clear, blue skies, which… quickly revert to cloudy. It seems to be their natural state. We do, though, get a good view of the lake as we head out.
On the way in, there was just white there.
Back on the Lakes Trail, it’s back into the fog, and a few flowers. Nothing like lower down, but still nice.
Shortly after rejoining the trail we pass Snow Lake – a small exposed thing with an equally exposed campsite – then enter the Coldwater Creek drainage. Things momentarily open up again, providing lovely views up into the Coldwater headwaters.
The trail after Snow Lake gets pretty rough. Seems like it doesn’t get a lot of traffic. There are several washouts, some of them looking quite settled, and a few spots where the trail has eroded into almost nothing. It’s never exactly sketchy, but I would definitely hesitate to bring kids or people averse to scrambling up there.
The trail also seems to be a little longer than indicated on the Monument maps. They say four, I’d guess more like six. In any case, we’re very happy to finally reach Coldwater Creek, and the fledgling alder forest around 3000′.
We eat a quick breakfast at the Coldwater Creek crossing. We’d expected there to be easily accessible water, but, to get to the creek, we have to follow an elk track down a steep bank, then hold our bottles out precariously in the rushing water. It’s wonderful.
Then we ascend up toward Ridge Camp,and the clouds again clear, affording views back up the drainage at where we’d been…
…and up toward where we were going…
…and down to Coldwater Lake.
Some of my favorite views of the trip come just after we pass Ridge Camp, looking over the Coldwater drainage at Balcony Lake and up toward Large Marge.
The Coldwater headwaters, the west side of Whittier, Coldwater Peak, Margaret, everything…
We play this game all day: as we approach Coldwater Pass, the clouds come back. Apparently they’d just been taking a long lunch break.
Notice Krista in the bottom left, for scale:
We walk through whiteout to the junction of the Boundary Trail. We’re both bonking a little – something about the viewless fog changes the mental game, makes you feel like you’re on a treadmill. Are we even moving? Didn’t we already see that tree, that snag, that washout? Where’s the line between white ash and white sky? There are birds chirping, though. Ahead of us then behind us. We’re moving, even if it’s not clear where to or from.
After what seems like hours, but which is actually only something like forty-five minutes, we make it to the junction with the Boundary Trail, where things clear once more, and we begin to circle St. Helens Lake. The mountain’s still being bashful, but the lake views are lovely. We really, really need this.
And the mountain even decides, for a moment, to show us a little shoulder.
Traversing closer to Spirit Lake, there are these little hummocks on the shore that I’ve never seen before. Apparently they form here because the soil’s so unstable, always moving and mounding into new shapes. Krista says rightly that it looks like alien burial or birthing grounds. Maybe both.
The last couple miles over Mt. Margaret and into camp are a little tough, as more clouds come in and we cross snowfields where we can’t see the other side.
At one point we lose the trail. It ends in a snowfield. There are a couple footpaths kicked in, but neither of them make any sense. One ends at a clump of trees and the other doubles back on itself. I think about how quickly things can go wrong. If we were dayhikers trying to get back to the car tonight, this could be disastrous. It’s going to be a cold, wet night. For us, though, as it stands, even the worse case scenario isn’t so bad: we have water and there are flat spots near the obvious trail’s end, so, if worse comes to worse, we can just set up camp here and continue on in the hopefully clearer morning. But that still doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, so I walk around the field’s periphery looking for signs of where the trail continues. Eventually I see it. I recognize that pass! I was here with my dad last year. We paused there to debate route options. I jubilantly return to Krista, and we make our way onward.
Despite having a strangely slow day, we make it to camp with a bit of light to spare. The lower tent platform at Bear Camp – which is seemingly right in the middle of the trail – is already occupied, but the upper (and, for my money, better) platform is free. I’d been worried about water, but there are streams and snow everywhere. Like a foggy paradise. I make some couscous as Krista takes a rest in the tent. We share an appetizer of dried mango, which we devour like ravenous wolves, eat the rest of dinner quickly, and fall asleep mid conversation.
In the middle of the night we wake up to pee, and our headlamps catch the most surreal thing: water vapor, rivers of it, passing by in the wind. It’s like we’re in the middle of a wave. It’s bitterly cold, but I stay out for a little while, barefoot in my running shorts. It’s one of the wonders of modern life: standing in the center of a storm, then returning to safe shelter, no permanent harm done.
The wind blows through the tent all night so consistently that it lulls me to sleep. Yet we wake up in the morning to totally blue skies. Although we’d planned to sleep in, it’s so bright that I can’t help but round around camp taking pictures.
After a wonderfully drawn-out breakfast, I ramble back on the Boundary Trail to see what we missed last night. It’s amazing how much a little light can change things.
Coming back to camp, I take an elk track through the snow up a small peak just east of the Boundary / Whittier Trail junction, which has the most marvelous view of the Boot Lake basin. Apparently the thing is closed to entry to allow for research, which I full support. Still, it looks beautiful down there.
I get back and we walk the easy couple miles back to the car. The clouds even allow us a final parting shot of Spirit Lake from Norway Pass. Sort of the story of our weekend: when we walked by the first time, none of this was here. It’s gorgeous. The spring flowers are still mostly lower down, but they’re coming quickly up the slopes. They’ll be here soon. Maybe we’ll come back to see it.