20 March 2016
Olallie Lake via Pratt Lake Trail, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
8.6 miles, 2884 ft. climb to 4100 ft. maximum elevation
I have forgotten why I started hiking. In this era of trade publications and social media, my connection to nature has been slowly edged out by the mass hysteria of selfies as well as my envious desire to achieve what others have done. I have witnessed herds of hikers affected with spring fever – from old timers training for the upcoming mountaineering season to newcomers heading out for the first time – attempting to reach the highest peak for the best views. Though it is officially spring, remnants of this precipitous winter remain prevalent throughout the Cascades’ higher elevations. As many a hiker-cum-mountaineer in the Pacific Northwest look to summit the region’s stratovolcanoes, they have come to North Bend in search of the nearest, and seemingly safest, trails to simulate their future endeavors. In recent weeks, an overwhelming number of hikers have marched their way up to Mount Si, Mount Teneriffe, Mailbox Peak and Mount Washington. The sheer number of people on these trails have detracted from the beautiful solitude and connection to nature that hiking was for me. It is not a criticism on them, for those are their goals, but rather an observation of me as I too was caught up in the act of reaching those heights.
Today is Spring Equinox, the first day of the new season. In this period of new beginnings, I wanted to reconnect to nature and once again feel the life these beloved mountains have unselfishly offered me. I found myself on this quiet morning in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness region of the Cascades, exactly where I first fell in love with the outdoors a year ago. Exit 47 along Interstate 90 is, arguably, the gateway into the summer odyssey of hiking and backpacking in the region, leading to family-friendly destinations like Franklin Falls and Denny Creek as well as challenging summits of Granite Mountain and Kaleetan Peak. I decided to revisit Olallie Lake this morning via the Pratt Lake Trail with hopes of enjoying a day of solitude and serenity.
There was only one other car at the trailhead when I arrived at 8:30am. A troop of men were heading out with gaiters, spikes and waterproof layers just as I began readying myself for the trek out. Accessorized in my own version of winter hiking essentials, I was prepared for my day’s adventure … or so I thought. The trail immediately greeted me with the previous season’s tidings of storm debris, from innumerable needle-coated branches to countless felled trees throughout the mountainside. However, spring subtly revealed itself through the many overflowing waterfalls and creek runoffs fed from the snow melt. Though I was alone on the trail, I could hear the lilting songs of birds above the roar of the highway during the initial mile of my journey. Lucky me, the peace I was in search of found me almost immediately.
After trekking through the deep forest cover for nearly three-quarters of a mile, I followed a quick, yet steep switchback into a clearing. There, I was granted my only glimpse of the southern snowcapped peaks – yet another lingering reminder that spring was still too fresh in this area to forget about winter. However, a view to the north offered me a lovely, but unexpected waterfall high above in the distant mountainside. When I was last here in October, during a hike to Granite Mountain, the summer drought had erased all trace of moisture along the trail much less showcase any form of flowing water. This majestic cascade was an opening gesture into spring’s return.
I finally reached the junction to Granite Mountain a mile from the trailhead. One could see the distinction between the rocky, winding entry beckoning expert hikers up Granite Mountain and the more well-worn trail descending into the forest toward the lower Alpine Lakes. Though I will be happy to see the spectacular views from atop Granite Mountain’s lookout later in the summer, my goal today was to enjoy the loveliness of the forest and the solitude of the snow around me on this moderate trail to Olallie Lake. Along the way, I crossed over a few more creeks overflowing with the early snowmelt. Even the littlest of waterfalls were splendidly fluid and gurgling with life.
I encountered the initial signs of snow at approximately 2500 ft. of elevation. The trail quickly turned from muddy brown to snowy white, until I was completely surrounded by deep powder. As I crossed over footbridges packed down with more than a foot of snow, I could only imagine how easy these paths would be to dance across in the summer. Not today, however, as the banks were two to three feet high in some areas. At about 2.5 miles into my hike, I came across the same group of men who had headed out just as I arrived this morning. They were returning from having recently hiked to the next trail junction a little further ahead. I continued past them and found myself just a short half-mile later at the Talapus Lake Cutoff Trail. There, I descended a steep boot path and followed the creek to the southeastern edge of Olallie Lake. I had been to these two lakes before, but only from the western Talapus Lake Trail, and only before winter had frozen them solid. As I set my pack down near the lakeshore, I could see thawing water move under the crusted snow atop the frozen lake. This was yet another hint that spring had arrived.
I had Olallie Lake all to my human self. Though I briefly shared my quarters with a gray jay, he moved on almost immediately after I opened my lunch canister. He either quickly realized I had no intention of sharing my leftover Vietnamese chicken salad or truly did not enjoy the pungent aroma of my fish sauce. After enjoying my coffee while taking in the last views of the snowy basin, I decided to head around the eastern shore of the Lake towards Pratt Lake Trail.
I followed snowshoe tracks from a previous hiker and carefully traced his steps so as not to fall waist-deep into the outer snowbanks. Once I returned to the main trail, I continued to follow the pink ribbons that marked the winter route. Unfortunately, I made it only until I reached the creek, where the next pink ribbon could be seen from a distance, across the impassable creek that lay far below the thick-cover of the season’s snowfall. From there, I turned around to return the way I came and as easily as I had entered the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
I was as much alone on my hike back as I was during my trek into the forest. I saw less than a handful of hikers sporadically throughout the trail during my descent. My journey was so quiet and peaceful today, leaving me with a sense of lightness and a renewed connection to nature … and to myself.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir