The long way back down the mountain

Posted by Ken Campbell July 13, 2009 2 Comments 1125 views

It’s 6 AM on a Saturday morning. The sun is already high in the eastern sky but the tall fir and cedar trees block the direct rays; the light that reaches me here at the Heart o’ the Hills Campground has been filtered through their branches, and the air is still cool. It is a peaceful scene. I am the only person stirring at the moment, and I’m waiting for the water to boil, anticipating that first cup of coffee.

I am sore this morning. After the hike to Hurricane Hill with Mary and Micah yesterday morning, we parted company at the lodge. It was Micah’s nap time and I was looking forward to seeing the trail between Hurricane Ridge and our camp site. From the lodge to Heart o’ the Hills is about 10 miles, and I’d planned the hike this way because I was under the impression that, since I’d be starting at the top, it would be mostly down hill. Smart me, clever me.

There is a man at the next camp site over, sitting at his picnic bench and staring at his fire. As I walked to the restrooms earlier, he asked me for a lighter… something about he’d lost his, burned it up, something hard to make out. He had a can of Busch in his hand and on the table was a letter he was writing, in sloping cursive on an unruled sheet, and a pouch of rolling tobacco. There was a drama here – I could tell – but it was none of my business. I just got him a lighter, handed it over and went back to camp.

I thought he wanted the lighter to have a smoke but he had something more in mind. It wasn’t long before he was scouring the area for dead branches and carrying back armloads of blasty boughs. Combustibles. With all the downed trees here at the campground, there is plenty of fuel. The blaze he has going now is a big one, a real caucasian fire… it must be warm over there.

From the northeast corner of the parking lot at Hurricane Ridge, there begins a trail. I started here, climbing the asphalt path among groups of other day-hikers. Above the top of the ski area, the crowds disappeared and, although I would see other hikers at various points throughout the day, the route was not overused. I climbed for longer than I thought I would, but the views of the mountains and the straits kept me enthralled. My feet felt light and solid. I took off my shirt and hiked on in the heat of the sun.

The trail from Hurricane to the Klahane Ridge is up and down, like a walk on the edge of a pie crust. Swichbacks and skidding stone pathways, far more work than you might expect. More than I had expected.

At one point, I came across a group of 4 or 5 hikers who were trying to get off the trail to the right. The undergrowth was thick and the hillside steep, but they were all moving with dispatch, with a sense of urgency. “There’s a big goat coming,” one of them said. “You better get off the path.” Beyond the hikers, and moving toward me, was a large mountain goat, his wool mottled and hanging, radio collar around his neck. Behind him came his tribe, his women and children, six of them, all told. His pace was steady, his gaze resolute.

I joined the others in the underbrush by the trail, as far from the big fellow’s route as I could get without falling down the slope. He watched me as he passed, glowing yellow eyes and an old face. The rest of the family followed, the younger ones sprinting skittishly past and the others holding a steady, unhurried pace. Once they had passed, I got back on the trail.

Once I had made it through the goats, up the endless switchbacks (and past another, even larger, alpha male mountain goat that was blocking my way – but that’s another story for a different time), after all this, I finally got to Klahane Ridge. Vistas opened up on all sides, a 360-degree panorama of all that is right in the world. Port Angeles looked like a toy town, and the huge ships in the straits looked tiny and insignificant against the deep blue water. On the south side, the backdrop of jagged mountains changed as I walked on, as my angle of view progressed. From time to time, my trail cut across areas where the snow had yet to melt away completely. It seemed incongruous and a little odd, to be sweating in the July heat while crunching through the snow, but it felt right somehow, just the same.

Down from Klahane Ridge, past Lake Angeles and back to camp: it’s all downhill at that point. I relished the descent at first, no longer grunting my way up the slope, done with fighting gravity. By the time I got to where I could see the lake, however, I was singing a different tune. At least my knees were. I slowed down to minimize the wear and tear on my joints. The trail was steep and the footing was treacherous at times, but I eventually made it to the lake and took a well-earned break.

Lake Angeles is cut from the mountain in a way that it reflects their colors and their edges, even their moods. The little island in the middle adds to the beauty, as if that were possible. This is a very special spot, a high country lake in a hidden fold of the mountain, on a Friday evening, and I had it to myself. I sat on a log near the north end of the lake, drinking in the view with the last of my water.

From the lake to the road is just under 4 miles, on a steep but well-maintained trail. I could tell when I was getting close to Heart o’ the Hills by all the blown down trees, scattered around the hillside like discarded sticks. I am glad I was not in these parts on the night that storm went down. I can only imagine the explosions, as giant trees snappped in the wind, would have been deafening. I thought these thoughts for a few minutes and then I was there, done, back on the main road just outside the campground. Dinner and family, cold beer and a warm bed, just ahead.

But I am sore this morning.

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