The lyrical words of wilderness ranger Ryan Lawrence:
I’ve always liked Richard Ford’s description of Maine: breathtakingly beautiful, irritatingly remote. You could say the same thing about the North Cascades, even if Seattle isn’t too far away, closer than Boston is to the Maine wilderness.
Still, once you leave the city limits, remote is what it is, and the hum of city living gets muffled through the tailpipes (although no matter where I drive, there’s always a Minicooper huffin’ and puffin’ behind me, one headlight over the center line itching to pass. I’ve been told I drive like a granny, so there’s that.)
One of the places I’ll be ranging this summer is the Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness. To arrive there from Entiat, where I’m stationed, I hug the Columbia heading north on 97, Merlot vines on either side soaking up the river, to Lake Chelan (“the greatest lake in the world” according to John Fahey who wrote the book on it) waving the joggers and coffee shop hoppers, their burdens as light as bikinis, which there are plenty of too. I follow the Methow River west on 153, near the marvelously named town of Twisp, the valley buckled and browned and full of barns, with an occasional sight of a Cascade spire, and I think about the history that’s passed here, Natives looking down from a hill, cracked hands tugging at a frigid rope, burning coals and echos of rifle shots in the valley. An orchestra would be appropriate to complement the images in and outside my head, something bright and pulsing, with a bit of dark to it as well, Hans Zimmer-ish, but instead I get “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, courtesy of the one station available, The Key 98.5, where the dna of rock’n’roll lives on, the best station by a damn sight, etc., a rock channel flinging shovelfuls of AC/DC and Foreigner and Whitesnake. Listening to the radio is a habit borne of relying on an auto every day, and my conscious mind takes a siesta when I reach for the dial. I can’t help it, and I frequently lament the repetition of it all, the lack of novelty, and despite my best intentions, I soon find myself belting out “Angel Is a Centerfold” (my blood runs coooold . . .)
Eventually I hook onto a dusty forest service road, which lets me wind pretty far up into the highlands. Those roads, hoo boy. More often than not, they’re full of bedrock-deep ruts and rocks small enough to overlook but big enough to jar a tooth loose. Oh yeah, there’s a death-bringing cliff right outside my window. It seems sometimes like I’m in the ocean, the bow of my forest service dingy bouncing up and down. A little Motley Crue is the perfect soundtrack for all of this and I just happen to have some, courtesy of The Key 98.5, from the Columbia basin to Canada, from Seattle to Spokane, etc. Statistically speaking, the drive is the most dangerous part of the job (but the views are great). Catastrophe is just a speeding downhill Subaru away.
I was excited (maybe also relieved) to finally set foot on a Sawtooth trail. This is more my speed, I thought. I toured a number of glacial lakes, including the Eagles, Boiling, Cooney, Cub, and the Martins. As I approached them, I couldn’t help but feel a little of their magic, how calm they were, and wonder why more people can’t, or don’t, witness their beauty. I really didn’t want to leave any of them. It felt a little like speed-dating, I imagine, with me getting a glimpse before moving on: towering old growth around Martin Lakes; soft meadows and hoary marmots at Boiling; broad snowy boulders surrounding Upper Eagle. In each ice-covered peaks reflected in chrome-slick water.
One lake though, Sunrise, resisted my advance. I took an unorthodox route toward it, that is, a route not on any modern map. Let me explain. I took a trail southbound, planned to turn west, then loop north to reach Sunrise’s southside (or her moonside I guess). Thing is, that north trail didn’t turn up when I expected it. I kept heading west, thinking that maybe I hadn’t gotten to it yet. Don’t get me wrong, it was a pretty trail with a pretty name, with a meadowed valley straight out of The Sound of Music to my south, but I wasn’t really appreciating it (the irony in the potential headline, “Ranger Lost on Summer Blossom Trail”, is worth appreciating, however). I was having an argument in my head, and I was starting to think I didn’t know where in the hell I was. When something’s not the way it should be, on the trail or off, it can cast doubt on everything else.
At some point, after another three miles, I knew I needed to turn around. I arrived back at the point where I thought that north spur should be, thought about giving up and backtracking even farther, doubted my location, the month and the year, my name. Yep, thought I might be lost. Might’ve been, but allow me to quote my dad here: “You’re not lost until you’re out of gas.” And I had plenty of food and water.
I again verified some peaks and my bearing, and decided that that trail HAD to be here. It was getting late, clouds dark as Cab grapes were wrestling over my head, hitting me with bursts of rain. I was at 7600 feet, near a ridge, exposed. Missing the mark meant trouble, that I knew for sure.
For the twelth time I scanned the hill to my north. Right there, I said. I had made out the faintest of tread, a comma of grassless dirt. A place where feet had been before.
The “trail” was straight up, and I’m not ashamed to say I had to stop and catch my breath several times. More rain. I was certain that that lake would be over the rim, and yet those termites of doubt were still gnawing into me. I finally hauled myself to the top and crested the ridge, there she was, Sunrise Lake in all her rocky, desolate, hard-to-get glory.
You are . . . so beautiful . . . to me played in my head. The needle jumped off the record, though, with the crack of thunder. I now had to descend, and the south arc of Sunrise’s bowl was a straight drop, and its west side was almost as steep, and snowbound, but I remembered the advice given to Rocky: Hit the one in the middle. So I stayed between the steep spots and the slippery spots best I could, and finally made it down. I had enough time to set up my shelter and down a handful of trail mix before the storm broke. Buckshot-sized hail beat against my rainfly, but my anxiety had melted away like the mountain snow, replaced by the warmth of victory. Don’t stop. Believing. Hold onto that fe-e-e-ling.
“Yeah, you were on an old trail. Doesn’t exist anymore. You gotta take Foggy Dew, from the northeast, to get to Sunrise,” said Mason, my supervisor and fellow ranger, when I made it back to the station. I looked at my sepia-toned map again: 1990. That was a great year for Seattle grunge, Bordeaux, and the 49ers, but 1990 is not a good year for a wilderness map in 2013. I should’ve known something was up, as all the hikers pictured on the map looked and dressed like a mustachioed Richard Simmons, their backpacks looking like inflatable rafts.[gdl_gallery title=”Wilderness Soundtrack” width=”180″ height=”180″ ]
If I’d taken the easy way? Well, Sunrise Lake wouldn’t’ve looked as good. Or as beautiful. To me.