National Weather Service Point Forecast
September 13, 2008
I arrived at the trailhead at 2:00, a bit later than one would like, but plenty early to get to a reasonable elevation before dark. Makenzie, who is a dog and has little concept of time, was not in the least disheartened by our late start. At the Rainbow Lake trailhead, several campers and lots of men in orange were situated near a largely empty lot. It was more than 4 years since I was last here, but nothing had changed. I parked in the same spot I always had. The men in orange were loading up horses, and I quickly remembered that hunting season had begun. Not just bow season, where someone would really have to want to shoot you to do it, but rifle season, where an errant bullet might hit you from a mile away. Not a pleasant thought. Good thing there are lots of trees in these hills, dead mostly, yes, but still standing thick enough to stop a bullet. I threw a bright orange bandana around Makenzieís neck, and fished around in the storage compartment for my litter-cleaning vest, a bright orange polyester thing that positively glows. After finding it, I dressed my pack with it, and we were set. On to the fun.
The first part of the trail, which leads up to the Grizzly Helena Trail, went very quickly. It always seems like the first mile or so of a trail flies by, and then the trail lengthens, especially on the way back. Anyway, Makenzie hopped and skittered up this section in almost no time, with me right behind. The next section of the trail that leads to the Zirkel Wilderness boundary, is heavily wooded with aspen, and with leaves just tinging yellow under a bluebird sky, it was a very pleasant section. I lucked out with the weather, with a temperature around 70 degrees and not a cloud in sight.
We reached and passed the wilderness boundary, and the steady uphill grade continued into lodgepole pine, much of which has been destroyed by pine bark beetle. Red-needled trees are more numerous than green-needled now, and more will likely die off before it is all over. Itís not the prettiest thing to look at, but the advantages include more aspen, lots more wildflowers in the understory, and more wildlife as a result. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there are plenty of plants to fill in where the pines die off. Besides, the pines will be back. Already hundreds of little lodgepole seedlings dot the forest floor.
We reached Rainbow Lake in about 90 minutes, and my endorphines really kicked in. I felt euphoric, and happy to be exactly where I was. Itís a great thing to be out in the woods under a blue sky with a good dog and three full days of nothing much planned spread out before you. I saw one man on the trail around this point, on his way down. We nodded to each other as we passed, both of us not wishing to break the wonderful silence of the still forest.
The water in Rainbow Lake was as blue as I remembered. Itís a large mountain lake, and is framed wonderfully by the valley with Mt Ethel at the head. Wonderful place, but I didnít tarry long, and we swept up the trail to the head of the lake in no time. The route steepened significantly, and we followed a series of falls uphill. The trail was familiar in most places, even after an absence of 4 years. The last time I hiked the trail was on my way up to Rainbow and Slide Lakes in August 2004, with Andra, Makenzie and Frank, our boon canine companion who passed away only 2 weeks before. In fact, this was my first backpacking trip since he died of cancer, and I found to my dismay that I had an awful lot of time to mull on his absence. Too much. It was in this area that we camped several times in 2004, the year I discovered the Zirkel wilderness.
Moving on, steadily, I began to tire, and the weight of my pack on my hips began to assert itself. The forest thinned, and patches of alpine krumholtz appeared here and there. Meadows opened up between large expanses of rock, and somewhere around 10,500ft and 5:00, I veered off the trail to the south into the open sunshine and found a nice meadow sunken down below surrounding boulders to pitch the tent. The zipper gave me some static on one side, and I had to use pliers to bend it a little to get it to zip, afterwhich I taped the zipper to the catch so I wouldnít make the mistake of opening it again. The tent had 2 doors, now it has one. It's been camping with me for 12 years, so I don't begrudge this small sign of old age.
Clouds rolled in from over the western horizon, the view of which was largely blocked by the head of the cirque and massive Mt Ethel just to the southwest of camp. Mostly these clouds were small and colored orange and pale yellow, but some brought little beads of ice with them. It cooled down to about 45 degrees, and that was pretty chilly with the sun hidden by clouds. Luckily, there was no wind. I cooked Ramen noodles and had M&Mís for desert. Makenzie had some kibbles, and then brought me small rocks to throw for her in lieu of a tennis ball, which I really shouldíve brought.
By 6:30, the sun was behind Mt Ethel. I bundled up a little more, and took my water filter down to the creek nearby. Makenzie came along, toting a rock. While I was pumping water, Makenzie stiffened, dropped her rock and snapped her nose up high to smell the air. I took notice and tried to look where she was focusing her attention. She walked around some small willows and stopped, pointing. I got up and walked around the willows, and saw that she had discovered a porcupine, thankfully from a safe distance. I told her to stay, although she didnít seem anxious to run at it on her own account. The porcupine crossed the creek, and clamored up a rocky hill. All I had was my 28mm camera lens, but I snapped several photos anyway. He didnít seem to mind. I say he because it looked very much like he was scenting the fir tree branches as he walked along, making little mewing noises as he went. In a few minutes, he disappeared into the krumholtz, and I went back to filtering water, and Makenzie went back to coveting her rock.
The clouds held interesting light for quite a long time after the sun went down, and I walked around snapping photographs of the interesting sky until around 8:00, when I finally crept into the tent. Makenzie, who had not stopped moving in the last 6 hours, collapsed and almost instantly fell asleep on a folded fleece blanket. I laid down on my Thermarest and covered her with half the down sleeping bag while I took the other half. Experience has taught me that if Makenzie gets cold and doesnít sleep well, I wonít sleep well, so itís better to share the bag right away and avoid a sleepless night. Plus, she throws out an atomic amount of heat, so I get a benefit too on a cold night. Youíve heard the group Three Dog Night? Well, this was a One Dog Night in the woods. I read for awhile with fleece gloves on until my arms got too cold outside the sleeping bag, and then I shut off my headlamp and went to sleep.
Up the trail about ½ mile, very close to Upper Slide Lake, I saw two guys in hunting garb packing up their camp. I passed by on the trail, apparently unnoticed. Other than that, I saw nobody else that day. As the sun peaked into the valley, I got hot, and stopped to strip down to my short sleeve shirt. I reached and passed Upper Slide Lake, then took the steep switchbacks further west to a flat meadow filled with boulders and ponds. This is the farthest Iíd ever been on the trail, having taken this short extension from Upper Slide Lake in 2004 with Frank. Today, Makenzie and I continued on northwest another ¾ mile to the trail that splits off to Roxy Ann Lake. The path led downhill into the drainage to the north of the one we spent last night in. A rushing creek dropped over a nice falls, and the roar of the water filled the wide, wet valley. Near the head of the valley, few trees grew, and it was mostly open and rocky with patches of moss and tall grass, with some willows. But as we headed downhill, the soil deepened, and the trees grew ever taller, just as around Rainbow Lake. Cairns marked the route, but several times I stopped in confusion as to where the route went, wishing to stay on it as much as possible. I kept careful track of sections that were not clear so I could find my out again without getting cliffed out or blocked by trees. Many sections of the trail, especially up high, were very wet and my boots slurped and gurgled in mud and moss. It was vividly beautiful, however, and I enjoyed the solitude immensely. It felt like one of the more remote places Iíve ever hiked to, and I would have been extraordinarily surprised to encounter anybody else.
I reached the lake by 10:00. Roxy Ann Lake is circular, and very large, almost ½-mile across. A hike around the lake would really take some time, especially as there is no established trail around it, and the shoreline in several places is too steep to walk on anywhere near the water. I arrived at the relatively flat western edge, where a creek flows into the lake. I sat on a fallen log and rigged up my flyrod. I couldnít see any trout rising, but I decided to use a dry fly nonetheless. I urged Makenzie to stay out of the water, for fear of spooking the fish, and she took to digging at the mole tunnels in the field west of the lake. I set to work fishing near the inlet, and caught two nice rainbow trout within about 40 minutes. I rolled in my line after the second fish, and Makenzie and I made our way along the rocky south shore to what appeared to be a beach on the south side. The going was very difficult because the shore was extremely steep, and we ultimately had to head away from it several hundred feet to find a way to the south side. When we arrived at the southern shore, the fishing setup was pretty good, and I continued to fish under a perfectly blue sky. It had never warmed up much beyond the morning, probably only about 50 degrees by noon, but the sunshine and lack of wind kept it feeling warm. I worked the rocky shore, casting ahead of my slow walking pace, and in this manner caught 2 additional rainbow trout in the span of about 30 minutes. I enjoy eating trout, but being so far from the car and planning to spend another night in the woods made keeping any of these really impractical, so they all made it back into the lake to go tell terrible stories about their encounter with the human. Makenzie spent most of this time bringing me rock after rock in hopes I would toss one out into the water for her to chase. I didnít throw any of them, but this didnít seem to discourage her. Sheís very optimistic, and I have to say I like that about her. The wind began to pick up around 11:30, and casting became very difficult since it was blowing out of the northwest. This also made it feel pretty cold. So, I packed up my rod and we headed back to the west side of the lake, the faint trail and up the valley through the dead spruce and green fir trees.
We made it up to the trail junction in about 45 minutes, and stopped to have lunch on a large reddish rock mound that mostly sheltered us from the wind. I ate tuna and crackers and Makenzie snarfed down her bag of kibbles. I sat for a long while enjoying the solitude, the view, the silence. The sound of wind blowing through trees and over rocks always lends an especially remote feel to a wilderness excursion. With our bellies full, we headed on down to Upper Slide Lake, where I fished for another 2 hours and reeled in 5 respectably-sized Brook Trout. Makenzie again spent this time digging for gophers, and actually caught one, crunching it down, bones and all. I figure there are plenty of gophers around, so the ecosystem is probably not much disturbed by this intrusion of my canine, certainly no more so than the harvest of trout by hundreds of human anglers every summer.
The afternoon wore on, and the sun took on a fall tint of orange. I felt the irresitable urge to move on, and so we hiked on downhill to Slide Lake, the much-larger sister lake. Slide Lake is about ¼-mile long but only a couple hundred yards wide, and it lies at the base of a 1,000-foot crumbling cliff. The sun was low enough by this point in the afternoon that the firs cast long shadows out across the water, making it hard to watch for fish. I fished this lake too, without much optimism, but actually managed to hook 4 fish, though I only landed one Ė a very large rainbow trout, measuring about 14 inches. Around 5:00, I finally rolled in my line for good and ambled over the hill through slanted shadows cast by the spruce trunks towards Mt Ethel and my little tent pitched in the hidden meadow.
I made Ramen noodles for dinner and spruced them up a little with a foil packet of cooked chicken. Tasty stuff. Makenzie wolfed down almost all her kibbles. We took a walk up the hill, then down the hill, enjoying the scenery. The sun slid behind Mt Ethel by 6:00 and it got pretty chilly in the breeze that kept up all evening. From a rock outcropping that offered a great view down-canyon, I could see the large meadow and waterfall that Andra, Frank, Makenzie and I had spent so much time in on our last trip here in 2004. Memories of a good friend now gone seeped in with the darkness of the evening, and it was a rather melancholy night as I considered all the good times Iíd had hiking with Frank. His ubiquitous white hair still lay all about the tent, despite my habit of shaking it out after every use. The temperature dropped steeply that night, but Makenzie and I were both so tired we slept pretty much straight through to 7:30 the next morning, when the brightness of the morning finally woke me up.