" No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength." ~Jack Kerouac
Setting out on the trail with my huge backpack felt foreign and familiar at the same time. Before long, however, it was as though I had never left (minus the blisters and wet clothes). Since we were near an easy access area, there were plenty of day hikers to join me the first couple of miles and for that, I was happy. The trail started out gently climbing up and down for about 1.5 miles in a forested canopy before I reached the first of many great views; Eagle's Cliff.
|Mom said it looks like an Angel hovering above, I'm sure it was!|
|Mt. Rainier from Eagle's Cliff|
|First chance to take my pack off and cover with myself with bug spray. It was the perfect place to take a break.|
I left the cliff and headed further on down the trail. It was very forested and provided some great shade for an otherwise pretty warm day. At an intersection of Spray Trail, I got a little confused (the actual Wonderland Trail is way better marked than the Spray Trail alternate route). A sign pointed one way to Eagle's Roost Camp and the other way to "Water". That was all it said. It didn't mention that 'Water' happened to be one of the most gorgeous falls on the whole trail! I didn't need water yet so I went toward the camp thinking the main trail went that way and passed by the camp. What I found were some tents tucked quietly into the woods and a stinky, nasty toilet. Anyone who has read my previous posts about the Wonderland Trail might remember that when a sign reads "Toilet" it usually points you in the direction of a wooden box with a seat on top....that's it. Although, I could have made use of the "facilities" at that time, I just couldn't bring myself to sit on top of a box that was infested with giant flies....a tree was more preferable.
At that point, I realized I should have headed toward "Water". I hiked the steep trail back to where I had come from. Rounding the path, I could hear rushing water and I headed in that direction. My 'friend's' son who I saw at Eagle's Cliff passed me going in the opposite direction and he let me know the falls were "Awesome!" Climbing down some steep rocky steps, I reached Spray falls and was taken back at the beauty that I could never quite capture on camera. The falls began to descend 400 feet above and it pooled several times before falling again. Like a tiered wedding veil it fell in different levels. High above I could see how, if you could access the area, you could pass under the falls and view the world from behind it, for that however, I had to use my imagination. To my delight, there sat my friend, silently enjoying the mist and the cool wind that came up from far below. There, too, we offered to take each others picture:
|In front of the beautiful Spray Falls|
All around me I could see where perhaps only a week ago, the wildflowers may have been at their peak, but now most of them looked tired, and dried up. Erosion preventing stairs had been built into the dirt with logs and I climbed them methodically. I met people frequently with a friendly greeting usually spoken in passing, but I remember passing one couple in particular, and the man exclaimed, "Welcome to flower heaven!" I guess the Bear Grass that was still in full bloom was pretty and the occasional bright Indian Paintbrush were spectacular in and of themselves, but I thought to myself, "I'm not sure I'd call this 'flower heaven'." I agreed, however, and said, "Beautiful!"
But as I continued climbing to elevations where the snow had taken longer to melt, the flowers popped in vibrant color from every direction. They crowded the path and covered the meadows. The brightest pinks, and the deepest purples were highlighted by the sun. The passer by had been quite accurate in saying that this was flower heaven. It was the most fragrant 1.5 miles I've ever hiked. It was here that my backpack was christened, "Violet".
"Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it." -Mark Twain.
This quote came to mind in the meadows of Spray Park as the fragrance of so many flowers filled my senses. Forgiveness is something I realized I was working through on this journey, and my backpack seemed to crush me at times....so somehow, in the jumbled and mixed up way my mind thinks while I am hiking, Violet got her name.
Finally, I was able to give my lungs and legs a break as the trail crested upon reaching an elevation of 6,400 feet. It was in this barren area that I lost Spray Trail. Permanent snow fields abound amidst pumice and talus stones....not a tree in the near vicinity. My joy at being able to hike downhill at last was overshadowed by the fact that I had no idea which hill to hike down. I wandered in confusion trying my best to scout any sign of previous hikers footprints. I saw a few here and there, but nothing that led to anywhere specific. I scanned the panoramic scene around me for the usual winding trail, but saw none. The air was unusually still for such an open ridge, there is almost always a breeze coming up from somewhere, and the sound of silence was deafening. I felt like I was on the moon. Not a person in sight. At this point I decided it was time to call on my Heavenly Companion to guide me in the right direction. "Holy Guardian Angel, lead the way, help me find the trail!" I pleaded with anxiety beginning to rise in my chest. "PLEASE!"
With that final plea, almost instantly, my eyes focused on a bird almost completely camouflaged by the rocks. With a little research, later on, I discovered it was a White-tailed Ptarmigan. I hadn't seen it before, although it felt like I had been wandering the same area trying to get my bearings. She stood only feet from where I was, as still as could be. I stood still also, a little in awe. I stared at the bird for a moment as she held her gaze in a fixed direction. Wondering why she wasn't moving, or even looking in my direction, I looked to where she was looking. That was when I saw the hiker, himself almost camouflaged by his surroundings. He was carefully coming down from a steep rocky decline on the other side of a snow field. I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving as I knew my cry for help was answered. I snapped a few pictures of the bird (and the babies she was hiding with her) and headed in the direction of the hiker.
|If you look carefully you will see her two little chicks!|
"Where are you headed?" he asked.
"Not tonight, though, right?" he said.
"Yeah.....why?" I was getting nervous.
"Are you supposed to be on the Spray Trail?"
"Uh-huh." Now I was really nervous.
"Oh, that's down there," he said, pointing in the general direction I had come from. "Right now you are on a climbers trail. If you keep heading in this direction you'll just keep going up. A buddy and I have cross-country permits for two nights to be out here."
A long story short, he got me started in the right direction and I eventually found the trail again. In the end I met another trail "friend" and realized the true care of my own Guardian Angel.
After finding the trail, I did indeed begin to descend. The tell-tale sign of a change in elevation evolved with the drop of every thousand feet or so. Somewhere between 6000 and 5000 feet elevation the trees began to appear again. First, the tough but scrawny and wind-shaped sub-alpine fir, then the mountain hemlock and soon I was back into the shadows of the tall Douglas firs and cedars....and thankfully so!
No sooner had I reached the cover of the forest canopy did the groaning and growling thunder tear apart the cocoon of silence that I had been wrapped in as I hiked the last two miles alone. Now, a sense of fear set in. The sky had become much darker and the storm, according to "Mississippi" was only four miles away...then three miles...and two. I was so grateful that the storm held off until I was off of the open and desolate top of Spray Park. Every flare of lightning had me holding my breath and counting, "One Mississippi...Two Mississippi..." and every crackle of thunder made my heart race. One thing I noticed as different about being in a storm in the mountains is that the sound of thunder, while retaining the low grumble I was familiar with, had a specific sound of true electricity...a cracking, popping sound like when you place the red wire of jumping cables on the positive terminal of your car battery.
I prayed that evening....hard. I begged St. Philomena, whose feast day it was, to make the storm go away and to keep me and all those on and around the mountain safe. I don't remember how long the storm lasted, but it did move on. The sky lightened and I felt not even a drop of rain that day.
The guide book said, "from Cataract Valley Camp you will begin the seemingly long descent of 1.6 miles to the Carbon River below." That is where I was when the storm ended. The author wasn't joking when she said 'seemingly' long. That was the longest 1.6 miles I had ever hiked, especially with the knowledge that once I reached the Carbon River I still had 1.2 miles to go! At Cataract Creek, I stopped for water and to my surprise I happened upon an older couple who were doing the same. I was so happy to see other human beings, but I left not really considering our encounter a 'friendly' one. The woman spoke not a word and the man spoke plenty for the both of them. He ranted on and on about how, 'there was NO WAY that was only 8 miles from Mowich Lake,' (I agreed) He threw off his pack, kicked a few rocks and was too worked up to even sit down and relax before his final stretch. He acted out exactly what I was feeling inside and on top of it all, twilight had set in and it was getting dark fast.
I didn't say much, purified my water and continued on my way. When I reached the Carbon River a woman was waiting at the junction for the couple I had encountered. She told me they were her parents. I confided my nervousness at having to hike over a mile in the dark and laid subtle hints hoping that maybe I could set my tent up at their site. She didn't take the bait, so I hurried on my way.
I reached a place that I used to love to hike to as a teenager, the Carbon River suspension bridge. But on account of being in a hurry, having to pee and the fact that the sun was quickly dipping below the horizon, crossing the bridge was actually a little nerve wracking. The sound of the rocks grinding under the angry Carbon River mimicked the rumble of thunder from earlier that day. I hurried across as quickly as I could considering that, as I swayed back and forth, I was trying to hold onto the cables and my trekking poles at the same time.
As is the usual case when you reach a river valley, the only way to go was up. So I put on my headlamp and began the rocky climb... the sound of the rushing water my invisible companion. I knew that if it wasn't dark I could see the massive Carbon glacier; the lowest reaching glacier on Mt. Rainier, but all I could see was the rough, stoney trail five feet in front of me. I sensed that to my left was a steep, rocky hillside and to my right an increasingly long drop to the river below...no trees to break a fall. The air was dry but a cool breeze blew toward me from glacier itself. Besides the sound of the raging river, I could hear occasional chucks of ice breaking off and falling from the glacier. It was an eerie sound coming from the raven-black abyss.
I was exhausted. Fear was no longer with me as I sat down on a rock that jutted out from the hillside. I leaned against my backpack and closed my eyes. The sounds, the refreshing cool air, the blackness of night, it was all comforting and, in the mind-set of fatigue, I seriously contemplated just sitting there and falling asleep. I may have done so if I didn't see what I saw next. Above and ahead of me I saw a flashing light. I knew someone was trying to let me know it wasn't far to camp. I gathered my energy and continued on. It still seemed like quite awhile before I began to hear the lovely sound of a nearby creek. That "bubbling brook" sound that they try to capture and jail inside a CD to help people relax. Once I heard that, I knew I really was near! Upon reaching Dick Creek I saw the light flash at me again. I flashed my headlamp back to let them (whoever them was) know that I had seen them, then I quickly filled my water bottles and found my way to camp.
I said thank you to my fellow campers and then set up my tent. After laying out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag I crawled out of the tent and went to talk to my neighbors. Them were three 20-something men from Boise, ID. We conversed for about half an hour about the hikes we had been on and the hikes we all had ahead of us. They were traveling in the counter-clockwise route around the mountain and were able to tell me precisely what I had to look forward to, and I did the same for them. We joked, laughed and relinquished the moment and when I went to bed that night, I realized that I had made some great trail friends who, like the last mile I hiked that day, could possibly remain faceless due to the mask of night.
Two things I was grateful for as I lie inside my sleeping bag that night: 1) although it had rained a bit on my fellow campers that day, I didn't see a drop of it (thank you St. Philomena!) and 2) if Mystic Camp was available when I went to get my permit I would have had 3.6 extra miles to hike that day....in the dark!!
|My favorites, Avalanche Lilies; my 'cheerleaders'.|
|Really cool outcropping of shale.|
|Yes, Flower Heaven, indeed!|
|One of the snow fields I had to cross going through Spray Park.|
|The arrow points to the "Mowich" or deer head that the Natives named the lake after.|