Thursday, September 8, 2016

September Backpacking in the Pacific NW: Rain, Sun, and Huckleberry Pancakes

Despite watching the mountain weather forecast for several days in advance of our weekend backpack trip, here we are at the trailhead in a steady, drippy downpour. 

Welcome to hiking in the Pacific Northwest, where we hike in the rain. Even east of the Cascade Crest (the "dry side") in Washington's William O. Douglas Wilderness, it's time to bring out our rain gear.

After last year's massive wildfires, this late summer rain is actually a blessing. 

We pull on rain pants and shells, cover our packs, and head on up the trail, dodging muddy spots as best we can. It is what it is, which is beautiful here in the damp forest. The air smells of pine, decaying trees, earth, and rain. (Yes, we can smell the rain here.)

My friend Mark has organized a mellow trip to accommodate someone with recent knee surgery, two reluctant teenagers, and several of us in so-so shape. The plan is an easy hike up to Twin Sisters Lakes, where we'll set up camp for a few nights and do day hikes.

Day 1
After driving the rough and bumpy dirt road (Julie calls it "a horrible maze of rockness") 7-ish miles past Bumping Lake and Goose Prairie, the trail up to the lakes is easy by comparisonjust 1.5 miles with only about 1,000 feet in elevation gain.

Ten of us are converging from Seattle and Missoula. Since the Twin Lakes area is popular with horsepackers, Mark and Andy quickly find a campsite that accommodates five tents. 

Our first night involves hovering close to the campfire, trying to dry out damp hats, socks, sit pads, and other gear without burning anything. With the drenching rain, it's safe to have campfires in designated pits.

Day 2
After a night with rain and wind buffeting our tents, our first morning is thankfully dry. Today we're hiking up another 1,000+ feet to the summit of Tumac Mountain, a volcanic cinder cone across the lake. (Amusing factoid: Tumac Mountain was named after two Macs, McDuff and McAdam, Scottish sheepherders.)

Tumac Mountain in the distance.
We lay about for a leisurely morning around the campfire, sipping tea/coffee/hot cocoa, cooking various versions of breakfasts. About 11 a.m.  our group sets off for the 2.25-mile trek up to the summit, the site of a former fire lookout.

We're on a high plateau about 5,100 feet in elevation, so the first 1.5 miles is relatively flat through picturesque meadows fringed with alpine fir and shrubs still wet with last night's rain.

The teens set a blistering pace...well, I set the pace because their parents insisted they follow an adult, but they want to MOVE. When the trail starts to really gain elevation, I relinquish the lead to Rick. (My intent isn't to let him brush the shrubs along the trail clear of moisture for the rest of us, but, well...)

Soon we lose the meadows and come out onto the gravelly, rocky upper reaches of the cone toward the summit. Thankfully the switchbacks get more gradual and less steep. And then we're on the summit.

Can't quite keep up on the last push to the summit.
View NE toward Pear Butte and Bismarck/Rattlesnake Peaks.
View east.
View NW to Twin Sisters Lakes.
While the panorama from up here is magnificent, clouds are obscuring the Big Kahuna due west (Mt. Rainier) and most of the Goat Rocks south beyond White Pass. But still, we all linger up here for over an hour in the sun, lunching, relaxing, taking photos, and signing the climbers' register. A previous comment on the register could just as easily be found in an online thread about the Presidential election. (Politics is not what comes to my mind here in this splendid wilderness. I'm happy to almost escape it this weekend.)

On the way down several us can't resist stopping to fill zip-lock bags with the abundant low-lying blue huckleberries. Earlier we passed some berry-infused bear scat on the trail, so we're not the only ones out here enjoying them.

Later this evening, after we've dined on things like mac & cheese, pesto pasta, rehydrated Thanksgiving stuffing, and chicken, the stars come out to shine.  There's nothing like a night sky brilliant with stars criss-crossed by the Milky Way, which so many of us rarely see in our urban lives.

I stop and gaze upwards for a while in a forest clearing before retreating to the warmth of the tent for another 10-hour sleep.

Mountain lake morning.
 Day 3
Now this is what it's all about. We awaken to clearing blue sky and soft sunlight filtering through the trees, mist rising off the lake like a freshly brewed cup of hot tea.  Out on the lake, the other nearby campers are out for an early morning paddle.

Now about those huckleberry pancakes...

I can't claim them. While I nibble on a half an apple and hard-boiled egg sandwich, I enviously eye Andy and Mark's pancakes slathered with real butter and maple syrup. But I plan on using my huckleberry stash when I get home.

Today I'm hiking out, ahead of most everyone else (work beckons), so after packing up, several of us go for an hour-long hike over to the bigger Twin Sister Lake for some last exploring. It doesn't disappoint, with numerous scenic inlets and some beautiful old growth forest hugging the shoreline. 

Early afternoon I say my goodbyes and head back down, too soon of course. Maybe it's not truly an accident when I do a full-on faceplant on the trail after stepping on a loose rock. (If only I had that on video.)

Mark mentioned heading a few miles farther east toward Naches on Highway 410 for "burgers on the outbound" at Whistlin' Jack, but we opt to head back west and stop for milkshakes at Wapiti Woolies in Greenwater. Again...doesn't disappoint.

There's nothing like a hot shower after a camping trip, but then there's also nothing like leaving behind city sounds for nature sounds, starry skies, all that fresh air, good exercise, and lovely scenery. 'Twas a wonderful weekend indeed.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
We turned off Highway 410 (Chinook Scenic Byway) 19 miles east of Chinook Pass and continued past Bumping Lake to the end of the road at Deep Creek Trailhead/Campground. The road was so bad the last unpaved 7 miles that it took us almost an hour in my Subie Outback. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here. The drive from Seattle to the trailhead took us about 3.5 hours (excluding a 30-minute stop in Enumclaw).

Probably because of the rain, we saw hardly anyone else. Just a couple across the lake from us, and a few other parties passed en route to sites at the bigger Twin. Surprisingly, we saw plenty of horse droppings but no horses.

Bug Status: In what is clearly prime mosquito-breeding habitat, with lots of little ponds as well as the lakes, we were mercifully spared this weekend. Some climbers on the register complained about the brutal bugs, but with the heavy rain and perhaps the beginning of autumn, it was a bug-free trip.

Camping Etiquette: We were chagrined to see so many wads of toilet paper left carelessly on the ground in the open woods around the campsite. I'll spare the details, but it wasn't pretty. Please bring a small trowel to ALWAYS BURY YOUR BUSINESS (better yet, bring a zip-lock bag and carry out the TP) and LEAVE NO TRACE!


Suezy Proctor said...


First, I have to ask…. did you get a new camera? The photos are exceptional – especially, Mtn Lake Morning, View East and (GOOD GAWD) Huckleberry pancakes! Oh, my goodness…I am drooling.

This is such a great post to me. It only emphases the truth in the mantra, “Never cancel anything on account of rain!” It brings a different experience with nature…yes, I love the smell of rain, but what self-respecting Pacific Nor ’wester doesn’t? The big bonus – no bugs! Incredible!

OUCH! So sorry about your full-on face plant. I just cringed reading that. YOU BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!!

jill said...

Thanks as always for your entertaining and thoughtful comment Suezy, that shows you actually read all the way through! And yes, I will be more careful. Fortunately I just got a minor knee scrape when I fell. :)