Circling South Sister

September 3, 2016

1.

As Robin and I approach the Green Lakes Trail parking lot, we see a glimmering row of cars lining the side of the highway. Boo. After a futile loop through the lot – just in case! – we pull back out and take our place in the ditch.

While we fasten gaiters and cinch our packs on, a steady stream of cars continue disappearing into the lot only to appear a few minutes later to claim their own stretch of gravel ditch.

Ah, the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Alpine last call is in full effect.

2.

Robin and I have a plan for surge weekends: go far and go obscure. After some awkwardly paced leapfrogging with other hikers, we hang left at the Moraine Lake trail junction and are met with instant solitude, like we just pulled off a freeway onto some forgotten side road.

We enjoy coffee and cook breakfast where the pines taper off before the large pile of lava rising far above our heads. This is our tradition, a way of imprinting a handful of places intimately as we’ve taken to hiking longer days and covering more miles, always on the move.

I stare at Robin, resisting poking him to make sure he’s really there. It’s only our second backpacking trip together since he’s returned from being swallowed up on the Washington PCT for a month. 10 years of talking daily made four weeks with only scattered and fleeting communication seem much longer, but now here he is, a little bonier and a bit tanner, but still my Robin. And I’m so glad.

3.

While Robin was away, I took my first solo backpacking trip, not far from where we sit now. Backpacking is something we have done together, and it felt important to know I could do it alone. And of course I could, right? I am a capable and experienced hiker, but there is still a layer of weird gender dynamics that colors such simple activities and I wanted to push past it. An intern at work had looked me in the eye and said I was stupid and asking for trouble, following up with telling me I needed to take a knife or gun to ward off other people. This is not an uncommon response.

So I drove the McKenzie highway at 6am one morning, shouldered my pack at the Obsidian Wilderness parking lot, and headed up the trail. I kept feeling like I was forgetting something, like I’d left Robin back at the car, or more accurately, needed to catch up to him at the next trail junction where he always waits.

It was silence behind me, silence around me, and silence ahead of me. I breathed in the trail dust and pine sap, and walked forward.

I had been concerned about my speed without Robin being the pacesetter, but to my surprise I made record time up the first section of trail to the lava beds, and again to the PCT junction. Turning onto the PCT sent a charge up my legs. I faced north and imagined Robin along this same path winding its way through the trees and mountains, his feet and mine falling together but separate. Feeling close, I turned south and shortly arrived at Arrowhead Lake, an off-trail lake high up on a plateau.

I set up camp at the site Robin and I had stayed at before, a spot tucked above the lake along the cliff edge with expansive views of Middle and North Sister and the wilderness below.

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I sat on the edge for hours without moving, soaking in the quiet and feeling the stress of work and future uncertainties unspooling and dissolving. I wrapped myself up in the silence like a blanket, comfortable and confident.

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That night, I left the rainfly off the tent and peered up at the moon, wondering where Robin was and if he was looking at it, too. I fell asleep making lists of all the places we could go when he returned, and dreamed of another thru-hike, together again.

4.

Once back on the trail after breakfast, Robin and I soon arrive at Moraine Lake. South Sister feels shy and won’t come out from behind her cloud cloak, but the views are still pretty amazing with the broken sun patches lighting up the mountain’s flanks.

“Pretend you’re on K2!” Robin yells as we climb out of the lake basin. I strike my best dramatic sufferfest pose.

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The trail soon descends to the Wikiup Plains, which run underneath the Rock Mesa to the SW of South Sister. It feels like summer just started but already the grass is toasted and brown, with a ground cover taking on rusty hues. Robin swears that on a clear day the view of South Sister is stuning, but she’s still in hiding.

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We join the PCT and run into a couple of women paused by the side of the road adjusting their socks and taking a break. They had joined from the west along the traiheads approaching from the west, which they described as awful, shrubby, with no views to speak of but plenty of wasps. I make a mental note to scratch that trail off the mental list of things to try in the area.

Soon the PCT re-enters the forest. Robin and I pause for lunch by Mesa Creek in a posh, well-used campsite that looks like it could fit 10 tents, and, when the northbound PCT herd is coming through, probably does.

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Our tortillas are barely out of the package when a large bird swoops in a few feet above our heads. A second takes position behind us in some undergrowth. They go by many names (Grey jay, lumberjack, venison-hawk, and whiskyjack), but the most descriptive is the Camp Robber.

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“I see you like tortillas. I, too, like tortillas.”

The birds get close. Very close. Too close. Close enough that one tries to land on my head while I eat, resulting in me inexplicably yelling “Hi-YA! Hi-YA!” like I’m in a martial arts movie, but with flailing and falsetto instead of precision chops and punches. The birds begin what feels like a coordinated attack with one dive-bombing to distract while a second and third hop up from behind. Not ok. Lunch devolved from serene brook-side to Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock.

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Artistic rendering of our lunch by Mesa Creek.

So much for a relaxing lunch. Back on the trail, Robin is in the zone and soon powerhikes ahead of me, disappearing around a corner as I almost run right into a ranger rejoining the trail.

“Are you hiking with that guy?” he asks.

“Yeah, that’s my husband. Unfortunately, he has our permit!”

“I tried to flag him down, but he was too fast!”

“Tell me about it!” The story of my life.

“You two thru-hikers?”

“Ha! No! Not today, at least.”

“Really? You must be section hiking, then.”

“No, I wish! We’re just out for the weekend.”

He stares at me, confused. “Really?”

“Really.”

It occurs to me that we might not look like average weekenders. Our packs are pretty tiny at this point, we roll in trail runners, Dirty Girls, and a vibrant array of running shorts. I gave up long ago on trying to keep my hiking shirts clean and no matter how many times I wash them, the permanent cuff of dirt and sunscreen grease edging my sleeves only gets darker. We also stopped packing deodorant at least a year ago. All combined, I see why he was perplexed, and take it as an extraordinary compliment.

The ranger and I discuss our itinerary before he wishes us a good weekend and heads south down the PCT. Living the dream, I think to myself as I continue up the trail. The ranger is living the dream.

Something moves in my peripheral vision. I glance left and see a black form bounce behind a tree. Yes, bounce. Moments later, it springs forth again, poking its head out from behind a fallen tree stump.

WHAT. IS. THAT.  I mouth to myself, frozen.

The animal reads my mind and lopes out from behind the stump in full view, not 20′ away. Unbelieving, I find myself making eye contact with a charcoal silver fox, with the floofiest tail I’ve ever seen tipped in snowy white. The fox continues its previous business of bouncing all over the stump, springing vertical in the air and pouncing on imaginary things. I have never encountered a wild animal playing before, and it is magical. There is simply no other way to describe it. The fox makes a few more stump summits before looking sharply to the right and slinking away.

I am still frozen and completely emotionally overwhelmed.

(I was unable to will my hands to operate the camera, but thanks to the internet here’s a close approximation of my handsome new fox friend.)

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I snap out of it and have to tell Robin, immediately. I power walk/jog/shuffle until I see him sitting ahead waiting for me, and proceed to gush about the fox, all punctuation and tonal control leaving my elocutionary skills.

“ROBINOHMYGODISAWAFOXOHMYGOD.”

“You saw a what?”

“ISAWAFOXITWASBLACKSILVERISHANDITWASPLAYINGANDOHMYGOD.”

Etc, etc. End scene.

Not far ahead, we find a choice campsite in a stand of pines behind Reese Lake, our stopping spot for the night. The temperature starts plummeting and it’s evident that it will dip below freezing soon. Again I lament feeling like the season is over before it began and we fall asleep early to get a running start on staying warm.

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5.

Frost covers everything this morning and a cloud is drifting across the meadow, bringing a slap of dampness to the cold.

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We pack up fast to warm up and head deeper into the pine grove behind us on a faint unofficial trail that will take us through the Frazier Uplands and over the saddle between Middle and South Sister, through the Chambers Lakes.

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There’s a path through here…somewhere.

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Up and over the final hump above the Frazier Uplands, we get our first look at the Chambers Lakes. We haven’t seen anyone all day.

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All morning a large mass of clouds has been chasing us, first through the Frazier Uplands and now in these small lake basins. We hurry ahead to capture photos before the views are gobbled up by the predatory fog. Near the western side of the Chambers Lakes, it finally caught up, pushing us out of this moonscape towards Camp Lake below.

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Looking back. Oof.

We eat lunch at Camp Lake, a veritable hive of human activity. It’s clear that it was a packed house for Labor Day weekend, and even as busy as it is now, we’re only catching the tail end of the crowds judging from the number of people we see packing out. It is a lovely lake, and I get why it’s so popular. Camp Lake is perhaps made even better by the handfuls of gummy raspberry and blackberry candies I’m pounding to get pumped for the next climb.

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We cut southeast away from the lake and off-trail up an unnamed ridge. It’s a labyrinth of windblown scrubby pines whose dense tangle of branches are often impassable, but in time we wise up and start following the deer paths, which rarely lead us astray. The view from the top rewards us with solitude and isolated expanses as far as the eye can see.

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Robin runs to the top of some higher knoll for more pictures as I wait with our packs, shedding mine for a moment to hide from the gusting wind by laying in the soft shale behind some volcanic-looking boulders. I wriggle my shoulder-blades in and soak up the sun’s warmth from the stones while watching clouds whirl into existence right above. They appear so close that I could raise a finger and stir them up, pulling my hand back with a tangle of cotton webbing my fingers.

In time we continue down the other side, circling around as close to South Sister’s snowline, riding the line where the snow-fed creeks begin. Up this high, it is still lush and green with healthy bushes of pink Lewis’ Monkeyflower blooming along the streams, an unexpected blaze of spring while everything else is shifting toward autumn.

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We find a campsite just north of the West Fork Park Creek with striking views of Broken Top sitting across the way like a wave of clay frozen mid-surge. Or a claw, a grasping hand. Every angle a different silhouette, a different story.

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As the sun sets, we attempt to cook dinner. The temperature again is dropping quickly and we notice a ring of frost around the gas canister. We scarf down dinner then tuck into bed, our breath escaping in little puffs.

6. 

Everything is again frozen this morning, including the creek Robin fetches water from.

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Winter is coming.

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Our hike out is swift and we soon emerge in the flat sandy meadows above Green Lakes. I watch a herd of deer in the distance, while Robin eyes a group of hikers with enormous lawnchairs bungee’d on the the back heading up the way we came. We take bets on how many people we’ll see between Green Lakes and the trailhead. Robin goes for 150 and I consider pulling a dirty Price Is Right $1 bid by guessing 149 and below, but decide to bet with honor today. I go for 100, figuring it’s only a few miles from Green Lakes to the parking lot. How many people could there possibly be?

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A lot. A lot is how many people there could possibly be. One right after another going down, coming up, it doesn’t matter. It’s a Disneyland line the whole way. It’s clear to me that I’m going to lose the bet, so in a desperate bid I try to make a clause meaning that children under the age of 12 only count as half a person (I stand by this logic, but judging by the side-eye our debate gathered, other adults may not agree). Math still not in my favor, I bump the half person tally up to people 21 and below. No dice.

Even with the Half Person Cheat of 2016 in effect, we sail past 100 not even halfway to the car. My next hope is that we get above 150, then we tie. Robin starts jogging to reduce the number of people we pass, but the Labor Day gods were against him, too.

When all was said and done, we passed 260 people in a little over two miles.

We banter and tease each other’s loss on our way to the car. These last two trips with Robin back have filled me with a new appreciation for hiking with a partner again, specifically with him. The silly games and competitions, the lengthy soliloquies about shared taco cravings, the effortless way we divide the camp chores to help and support the other. It is so good to have him back, but I also know we’ve emerged this summer with a mutual understanding for the need to occasionally break out alone.

And we will always kiss the other on the cheek, dutifully send resupply packages if needed, and wait at the other end of the trail with a bag of Doritos and a hug.

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