I arrived at the docks early — eager to begin what would be my first tour as a backcountry ranger. Moored before me with engines running was the Lady of the Lake, a one-hundred foot passenger boat specifically designed the make beach landings along the fifty-five mile inland fjord named Lake Chelan. Third deepest lake in the U.S., Lake Chelan is lined with rugged snow-capped mountains, sheer cliffs, forested slopes and waterfalls. A fellow backcountry ranger and I checked in our oversized backpacks strapped with axes, saws, trimming tools and enough food and supplies for four days, and the boat began to move over the waters. Traveling up-lake the mountains grew taller, the cliffs became steeper, and the air became cooler as a crisp breeze and dark clouds began to prevail.
Our assignment for the next few days was to hike the entire seventeen mile Lakeshore Trail, perform light trail work, and interact with the public—you know, ranger things. This was Memorial Day weekend, and hundreds of people were expected to be hiking the trail over the next few days. The boat dropped us off at the small community on the far northern end of the lake, and we quickly began to hike in hopes of avoiding the turning weather. A few hundred steps from the dock we were already outside of the isolated town, setting off into the wilds for the next few days. Quickly we began to see trail work that should be completed, but decided to hike to our campsite for the night and travel back the next day without our heavy packs. I quickly became entirely absorbed in my surroundings. The trail was lined with green grasses and a multitude of flowers. The cerulean hue of the lake pierced through the trees, and the craggy peaks reached to scrape the darkened sky. My world was in bloom.
Soon the trail left the edge of the lake and gained several hundred feet of elevation, offering even more splendid views. The rain was beginning with claps of thunder in the far distance, so I reluctantly decided to hike a little faster. We reached our first campsite, a location very popular amongst backpackers, and only saw one other camper to our surprise. The rain had scared them all off apparently. I set on a sheltered flat overlooking the lake with views of peaks rising seven thousand feet over the lake.
I woke up to the filtered sunlight illuminating my tent, ate a quick breakfast, and hit the trail. We had seen several downed trees the day before which we now planned to focus on because the visitor interaction of our agenda seemed to be a bust. Crystal clear skies, the lake beneath us now exhibiting a rich deep blue that seemed to absorb all light that touched its surface, and an inviting breeze that made hiking no chore at all – I felt at home and marveled at my fortune. We cleared out several logs, left several more that were too big for our folding saws, and ate a comfortable lunch near a stream that had washed out part of the trail that would need to be assessed by our supervisors before it could be repaired. Oh well, I guess we would have to come back. Just like the previous day we only saw a handful of hikers, each of which delighted in the opportunity to talk with us and ask questions. People love meeting a ranger in uniform on the trail it seems. One woman claimed she had counted about forty species of flowers, which I jokingly thought must be an underestimation. We hiked back to camp, met a few more friendly and talkative campers, and I finished off my day by watching the sun set from the lake shore. The sky caught fire, the peaks bathed in orange light, and the music of the mountains serenaded me to sleep that night.
The next day was the longest day of hiking of our trip. Eleven miles over rough terrain and much hotter temperatures than the previous two days. We were hiking to the southern terminus of the Lakeshore Trail and this was to be our last full day and night in the wilderness. We cleared a log, trimmed back some heavy brush and made lunch in a shaded watered ravine. The heat was really getting to us now. About halfway through our lunch a few hikers joined us and seemed to be in a hurry. They were planning on camping where we had the previous two nights and wanted to beat the rush. What rush? They informed us that over a “couple hundred people” had gotten off the boat at the southern trailhead and were now heading north. The beginning of the horde – so much for our peaceful and secluded trail. Over the next few hours we split up and continued hiking south. Every minute or two I would see a group of happy hikers, but towards the middle of the pack the people began to be less cheery. One group had a couple small terriers with them that ended up having to be carried by hand due to the heat. I saw a child telling his dad he didn’t want to hike anymore when they were only three miles into their hike. I said good luck to the kid and decided to not mention how much trail was left. A woman became vocally upset with me that the Forest Service had not put up signs describing exactly how far the nearest water was from the last stream. I couldn’t really think of a way to say “that’s what a map is for” without sounding sarcastic so I opted to just tell her how far I thought the nearest stream was. In a fire burn, a group of six was sitting single file in the “shade” of a burned tree trunk. I encouraged them on to a better spot only a couple hundred yards further along. But even though the struggle was so apparent for so many, it was very evident how grateful almost everyone I spoke with was to be out in such a beautiful area. I saw strangers sharing water with each other, heard people laughing about the heat, and received a warm smile from even the most tired and out of breath individuals. I always notice that experiencing the beauty of places like this brings out the best in people – feel that mountain joy.
On our final day we climbed up a steep rocky trail that connects the Lakeshore Trail to a network of other trails and repaired a section of trail that was washing out. I took a cold swim in the lake (43 degrees Fahrenheit!), and we caught the ferry back down the lake. I felt a bit of sadness as we were leaving, as often happens to me as I’m ending a backpacking trip, but reminded myself that I’ll be back up here all summer.