Friday, January 21, 2011

Flat Tops Wilderness, Day 4

Day 4: Imaginary Trails (Part II), Thunderstorms, and Lakefront Property (6 miles)

Along about midnight the sky cleared up, and the nearly full moon came out to light up the landscape, but by morning the sky was covered by thin wispy clouds. Thicker clouds were building in the southwest, but at least for the time being continued to blow off to the east. I was up at first light, and though I had not been party to the food hanging, the bright yellow stuff sack guided me like a beacon around the small hill, across the stream, up the other hill, and into the small woods and to the food-hanging tree. About that point, I began to wonder if bears see well enough to follow that bright yellow “Eat at MountainGuys” sign, and whether a bear might interpret it as a bright yellow “Eat MountainGuys” sign. As I struggled to carry all six remaining bags of food back to camp, I have to admit this was not a comforting thought.

By the time I returned with the food, happily uneaten by hungry bears, Oliver and Dan were still sleeping. There was a bit of ice on the top of the coffee water, but before it had melted both Oliver and Dan were up and about. Once again, camp was quickly broken, a quick breakfast of Peet’s coffee, hot cereal, and granola was consumed, and at 9:00 a.m. we were ready for the trail. That is not a misprint. However, the trail led right past our picnic site from the night before, and we still had to break up the fire ring. By the time that was done, it was 9:15 a.m.

The imaginary trail was well defined for the first two miles or so, but as we started down into the valley to meet up with the trail from Trapper’s Lake, our imaginary trail disappeared. Fortunately there were dozens of “trails” leading in all directions from the spot where the trail vanished, with one exception: there were no trails leading in the direction of the trail shown on the map. Once again, we were on our own. It was at these moments that Dan would engage in the most mystifying behavior. While Oliver and I would scan and argue and ponder the direction of our next move, Dan would politely look at the map but then say nothing, as if he didn’t want to confuse us any further. Like that would be possible.

 Not many landmarks on a 10,000 foot plateau.

Since we didn’t know exactly where we were, the map was not much help telling us where to go (though I imagine Dan had some thoughts on the matter). But by following a mixture of game trails, hunches, and that uncanny MountainGuy directional sixth sense, we were able to meet up with the trail that would take us to Deer Lake, our destination for the night. We even caught a glimpse of the Chinese Wall, a huge cliff face on the east side of a deep canyon that cleaves through the high meadow landscape.

 The Chinese Wall.

After two days of hiking through high meadows, this third day of hiking offered very different terrain. We followed the Chinese Wall trail briefly as it climbed over the spine of a small ridge, and then met up with the Island Lakes trail, which would take us on to Deer Lake. The Island Lakes trail wandered through the meadows for about half a mile, past a hunter’s encampment decorated with horse shit, garbage, and thinly-veiled animosity, and then steeply down into a valley of four lakes. The lakes were quite scenic, but the stench and hostility of the hunter’s camp was such that we wouldn’t have stopped there even if it had been our destination.

As we climbed down into the four-lakes valley, we could see that the clouds that had been building in the south had pushed in closer. Throughout the morning, we heard thunderclaps off to the south, and by the time we reached the valley floor, thunderclouds had moved in to the west and the north, as well. It was beginning to look like rain, and now and again the occasional lightning flash could be seen to the north and west, followed by booming thunder that echoed around the valley.

Our first view of Deer Lake came as we descended a steep trail down to the lake edge. The trail skirted the western edge of the lake, but we left the trail to find a spot to stop for lunch and to perhaps set up camp for the night. The camping options once again appeared grim. We stopped at a level site not too far from the lake, but it was small, exposed, and water access was poor because of the thick bushes along the lake edge.

With rain looming, Oliver and Dan began setting up a tarp. In spite of the gloomy weather, I was unhappy with the prospect of another night in a substandard campsite, so I set out to scout the western side of the lake. Earlier in the day we had mused about the perfect campsite: soft, flat sleeping spots, a level open spot for the fire, lake frontage with a stream burbling nearby, room to play Frisbee, and a good food hanging tree. Jackpot! There, on the western shore of Deer Lake, was the near-perfect spot: lake frontage, a small waterfall behind the campsite tumbling into the lake, decent sleeping spots, a great fire ring, and a small lawn that would be perfect for pitching the tarp. Across the stream about 100 yards away was even a snag that would serve as a decent food-hanging tree.

I let out the traditional found-a-great-campsite yodel, and by the time I returned to our resting spot, Dan and Oliver had repacked their packs and were ready to hike. Good thing, too. The trip around the lake was only five minutes, but by the time that we had claimed the site, set up our tents, and collected a bit of dry firewood, the rain had arrived. Oliver and Dan set up a tarp over the small grassy sward, and for this bit of heads-up camping, they are awarded the Tarp-In-Time Comfort Badge. (This is to be distinguished from the Tarp-In-Time Survival Badge, which is only awarded for extreme acts of tarping accomplished under severe conditions.)

 The comfortable tarp.

With the packs piled under the center of the tarp and each of us claiming a corner, we sat on the little bit of lawn under the tarp, watched the rain, and made a lunch of cheese and bread, dried fruit, buffalo jerky, trail mix and nuts, and chocolate. With no real wind, the tarp provided just enough protection for all of us to stay dry. The lightning and thunder moved in closer along with the rain, and two or three times the lightning seemed like it was right on top of us. Thunder boomed almost the same time as the lightning, echoing off the cliffs behind the lake and shaking the near unflappable confidence of the MountainGuys.

The rain continued to fall for about two hours, though the thunderstorm only lasted for an hour. That time spent under the tarp turns out to be one of my favorite camping memories. We were warm and dry, we had lakefront property, our own waterfall, and snacks aplenty. The only improvement on this situation would have been a hot cup of coffee. So we made coffee. I have a picture of this moment in my mind, as we reclined under the tarp, ate snacks, watched the rain and the clouds, and sipped hot coffee, though unfortunately, we have no actual picture of the moment since none of us was inclined to go out and take it.

But no matter how pleasant under the tarp, I grew restless after a time just sitting, and announced that I wanted to scout the perimeter of the lake. Oliver opted to join in. We donned our rain gear and set off, while and Dan and Ricochet elected to stay behind and keep and eye on things. Ricochet had not moved since crawling under the tarp at the first hint of rain, and did not seem inclined to move any time soon.

Oliver and I started around the south side of the lake, following a vague trail every bit as good as any other imaginary trail. The trail skirted the edge of the lake to the outlet stream, which drifted through a log-choked passage, and then down a waterfall into the valley below. Okay, maybe not a waterfall, but a water-tumble for sure. The slope was probably 70 degrees, and the valley floor was a long way down. We contemplated the hard climb either up or down, and took solace in the knowledge that this was not our trail.

 Lake frontage and a waterfall, too.

By the time Oliver and I returned to the camp, the rain had stopped and the sun was flirting with coming out. However, the brief flirtation with warm sunlight lasted only long enough for us to decide to go swimming. With uncanny timing, the rain returned almost as soon as we left camp in search of the perfect swimming hole. Dan and Oliver did find it, but I wasn’t there. The rain chased me back to camp, where I finished my coffee, ate snacks, and talked to Ricochet (who still hadn’t moved). Oliver returned about 15 minutes later, a bit damp, but cleaner for his swim. Then the rain came down. Hard. Good thing Dan was swimming or he’d have gotten really wet.

The rain stopped shortly after Dan returned to camp, the sun came out just before sunset, and we were able to light a fire with the dry wood that we had stored under the tarp. Dinner that night was Tortilla soup, fortified with bread crumbs. None of the bread fared well on this trip, except the bagels, which were gone the first day. The foccacia was dry and crumbly the by time we tried to eat it on day 3, and the loaf of rye bread was nothing but crumbs by the end of the second day.

The recipe was simple. Heat two quarts of water. Add crumbled beef jerky to reconstitute and bring to boil. Add tortilla soup mix and cook for 10 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips and cheese, and add habanero sauce to taste. Thicken with bread crumbs for a hearty stew.

With the moon coming up, framed in the valley below Deer Lake and behind a veil of clouds, we hung the food and got the camp ready for the night. About that time, it once again started to sprinkle, sending us scurrying into our tents. I could hear Dan and Oliver laughing as they got ready for bed, talking about the day and trying to work around Ricochet, who had plopped down on his spot in the tent and wasn’t moving any more. I felt a pang of loneliness, sitting all by myself in my tent, but it lasted only a moment. Then I hear the following:

Loud FART. Brief pause.

Dan: “Oh my God, Oliver, what have you been eating?”

Oliver (in pugnacious tone): “Same things as you.”

Dan: “Yeah, but I can’t do that. . . Wow. Open up the tent flaps. . .”

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