Friday, August 28, 2009

Backpacking to Mirror Lake

mirror lake
Cool Kid at Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is a gem. It's an easy mile from the trailhead on a beautiful trail. As a result, it can get very, very busy, and as a rule you don't want to be there on a summer weekend. So I took another day-cation last week and Casey and I set out for the promised end-of-summer backpacking overnighter that I'd promised him.

mirror lake
Ready to go!

We took the truck so that we could drive the last half-mile, which is definitely for 4WD, high-clearance vehicles. Casey's pack was 10 pounds and mine, 32.

cottonwood lake
Cottonwood Lake, on the way

Cottonwood Lake is halfway to Mirror Lake. It has good fishing and a great campsite so of course it was difficult to explain to Casey that we were going to put those heavy back packs on and keep going. Casey spotted the head of what looks like a 14" trout in the water.


Arriving at Mirror Lake, we talked with this young man who had the unwashed, spacey look of the long-time-out backpacker. When asked where he had come from, he replied "Lake Tahoe." He was walking the amazing Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Canada to Mexico. His final destination? Snoqualmie pass. "Do you realize you are only 5 miles away!? You'll be there tonight! There's a pizza place right there!" I told him. It was inspiring to bump into this guy right at the tail end of his trip.

mirror lake
The shore of our campsite

Casey and I chose a nice corner campsite, tucked right up against the mountain. You can see the new $25 Wenzel Starlite solo tent (3 lbs) that my friend Vlad had recommended.

Wenzel Starlite Tent
Our Campsite

Dinner was Satarain's Red Beans and Rice. It took a long time to make, and but when it was done, we both wolfed it down. "This is best soup ever!" Casey said. He fell asleep quickly in the tent -- we didn't even have time to play cards -- and I lay awake for a long time, happy at how things had turned out so far.

mirror lake,pond
View down the adjacent valley

The following morning, we dressed and started a morning adventure: bushwack around the lake. It took an hour, but it was a manly way to get the heart pumping. After breakfast I inflated the trail boat and let Casey try to paddle it around. He's too small still, so I got in with him and we fished together for a while (unsuccessfully).


I let Casey swim ashore (in his lifejacket) to pursue a frog, while I kept fishing. An errant cast across my body caused my flyline to hook my sunglasses behind my ear and flip them into the water. I watched my prescription aviators sinking slowly in the crystal clear water and decided I was going to go get them. I could still see them in what looked to be five feet of water. I pulled off my hat, sandals and lanyard and slipped over the side of the boat. The water was FREEZING. I opened my eyes underwater and the true lake looked nothing like it did above! First, it wasn't five feet deep, it was ten. I looked forward and saw a whole underwater cathedral stretching out in front of me. I swam down, retrieved the glasses and shot back to the surface.

On our way out, a group of forty Russian teenagers was coming in. They were quite lively and friendly. To their credit, the teens had hiked the long way in (5 miles) with giant packs. They were a church group (Salvation something) and I hope they had a good time, but I'm so glad that we had chosen the previous, quiet night for our backpacking trip. Casey and I stopped in at the general store in Easton and ate cheeseburgers, while a visitor came in with a giant gerbil that was licking a lollipop.

I don't know if Casey will remember our first backpacking trip, but I think I always will. It was good trip and went off without a hitch.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Upper Canyon of the Yakima River

yakima river
Excited to get fishing

The gift that keeps on giving: we used the third of four "nephew-sitting-weekend" coupons that my lovely sister Patti gave me for Christmas. Casey got to spend the weekend in her busy house with all kinds of young people while Amy and I had a guided float down the Yakima River (from South Cle Elum to the Thorp Bridge).

Scott Wilson,Yakima River Guide
Scott Wilson, guide

Scott Wilson guided us in his driftboat. We only seem to get really good guides and Scott was no exception. Affable, knowledgable, knew every rock in the river, I swear. Summer time is "Hopper Time" on the Yakima. The only real bugs in the water are stoneflies and grasshoppers who are unluckly enough to fall into the water. As Scott drifted us down the river, we'd cast our foamy flies toward the banks where the trout sit waiting.

Yakima River,upper canyon
Summer of the Pink Flyrod

Amy raised fish after fish but for some reason they just didn't "stick" on her line. She probably had 30 trout rise to her fly and then either refuse or miss it. She's a trooper though and didn't complain.

yakima river,upper canyon
Come to papa

I switched to fishing a big streamer (a long weighted fly that looks like a fish) under a floating indicator and had better luck that way. First cast, missed a fish. Second cast, got this nice rainbow. Caught a few more like that one, though we didn't stop for pictures of those.

yakima river,northern pike minnow
Northern Pike Minnow

The streamer also caught two northern pike minnows, which are rough fish unworthy of a true angler's attention. Scott threw them back but not before one of them puked up a giant leech onto our cooler. Gee Thanks! BTW, last year I caught one that was about three times the size of the one in the picture on a fly smaller than dime.

Puked Leech

Scott was patient and put up with my steady stream of questions. Here are some things I learned from him:

  • A good mayfly imitation is the Purple Haze.
  • You can use Deer Hair for a mayfly tail (much easier than the Fibbets I use)
  • How to fish a streamer under an indicator (this never worked for me until now)
  • That there is such a thing as the Banana Superstition

yakima river
The River

Eighteen miles is a long day on the river. About halfway through we were all hot, tired and kinda grumpy. But we got a second wind and the day ended well. The Yakima is such a beautiful river. If you're looking for a trip, I think you can book Scott through the Yakima River Flyshop in Cle Elum.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mason Lake, Alpine Lake Wilderness

This is it. This is what I've been waiting for all year. A day when I can get away and push myself beyond my comfort zone. This is the day that I'll think about all winter long.

Mason Lake

Mason Lake is about 30-acres: its round, its pretty and has good fish. The hike is ambitious: 2000 vertical feet of gain over three miles with a 20 pound pack.

ira spring  trailhead
Trailhead, almost empty

On a weekend this parking lot will be jam packed. But on a Tuesday morning, you might be the only person on the trail for hours. The first mile follows an old logging road that is dwindling to a trail.

ira spring trail damage
Trail Damage

Check out the damage to the trail. Everywhere I go this year I see the destruction from last winter. The little dog is Dudley (or something) that Casey gave me to take with me on the hike. An 80 year old man in an NOAA hat passed me on a steep section of the trail. I tried to catch up to him but the wily octogenarian had TWO trekking poles and I only had one.

alpine lake wilderness
Looking down to views of Snoqualmie

As you gain in elevation, the views of the south fork of the Snoqualmie get better and better. That pointy thing is McLelland Butte, which I hope to climb with Casey someday. As you near the ridge you can start to see over the mountains opposite to views of mount Rainier.

Myself and the little dog
With Dudley the Dog and GPS in pocket

I arrived at the lake at 2:00pm. A young couple, gosh they couldn't have been more than 22, had set up camp there. Nice kids. Good-lookin' too. They said the octogenarian had been by an hour earlier. Sheesh! :)

mason lake,alpine lake wilderness
Mason Lake

I inflated my boat, changed my boots for sandals, and lazily floated around the lake. Aside from the occasional airliner, the only sounds were birds chirping, fish rising and that college girl laughing in the distance. There was no breeze and the sun was hot. A couple of fish took pity on me and hooked themselves on my fly. Nothing special: 11" rainbows. Here's one with a gold-ribbed hare's ear in its mouth.

rainbow trout

Though I fished hard I was never able to hook up again. No matter, this trip wasn't really about the fish. Changing sandals back to boots (fresh socks, that's thinking ahead), I loaded all the gear back into the pack.

Local Wildlife

As I put my boots on and munched some trail mix one of those birds (camp robber? gray jay?) came and looked me right in the eye. On a hunch I grabbed my video camera and took this little video.

little mason lake,alpine lake wilderness
Little Mason Lake

Little Mason Lake is just a 1/3 of a mile away on an unsigned trail. I made the quick trip to take a look. The small fish jumping there will be pan-sized in 2011 :) On my way back past Mason I said goodnight to the young couple who were then kicking back in a hammock with their heads close and their legs all tangled together.

ira spring trail,alpine lake wilderness
Mount Raininer the Distance

The descent back to the car from Little Mason is 4 miles. Took just about 2 hours -- plenty of time to reflect on what a great idea it was to move right next to the beautiful Alpine Lake Wilderness. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Denny Creek Waterslide

denny creek
I-90 from the Denny Creek Trail

Looking for a treat for the kids? May I recommend the Denny Creek Waterslide. Casey and I had time for a short hike on Sunday so we chose this destination -- he claims it is now his favorite hike EVER (of course, thats from a sample of 4 hikes in his whole life).

denny creek

Its about a 20 minute walk through the woods to get to the "waterslide", which is a section of Denny Creek that runs over portions of bare rock (granite?). The water has grooved channels in the stone, some of which you can ride down if you are so inclined. Its a fascinating area, one that will be sure to intrigue children for hours.

"There's a lil Jackpot at the end!"

In the video above you can see Casey sliding through a child-size channel in the rock. I dropped the digital camera seconds after taking that video and it bounced into the creek and took the same little ride that Casey did. Found the camera and were able to save the pictures but the camera is dead. We were both soaking wet and cold, but quite happy when we left. Delightful way to spend an afternoon.

denny creek,waterfall
Me and Casey

If you go, drive to Exit 47 and turn Left (N) over the freeway. Turn Right at the T toward the Denny Creek Campground then immediately Left onto road #5800. Drive about two miles and then turn Left again on road #5830 (well marked). Park anywhere and then walk to the end of the road to begin the trail at the portable toilets. Walk about a mile or so you'll come to the waterslide area.

denny creek

Its a great little introduction to hiking and wonderful place for kids.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lake Laura

fly fishing,lake laura
Looking back toward the trailhead

If you look on a map, it appears that you can drive very, very close to Lake Laura. And, in fact, with a 4 wheel drive vehicle and some chutzpah, you can! Amy, Casey and I spilled out of the truck at the trailhead into the same frustrating fogbank that has been shrouding the ALW for the last week. I'm still not very good at the "Ultralight" thing -- my daypack weighed 23 pounds.

fly fishing,lake laura
The Best Hiking Partner I've ever had

The GPS showed a mere half-mile to the lake, but what I failed to realize was that there was 700' vertical gain to be negotiated in there. I have never seen a hike as steep as this one. For long, long sections it was more of a dangerous climb than a hike. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the slope was greater than 45 degrees for several brutal stretches.

lake laura,fly fishing
Atop the island in the middle of the lake

The lake itself, if you can reach it without injury, is small and pretty. It sits in a little bowl, surrounded by hundred-foot cliffs on three sides. Casey and I bush-whacked our way around it stopping to cast the flyrod to rising fish. He asked to try and I let him and you know what? For the first time ever, he liked it. I tried not to get too excited about this development but praised his natural back cast and hope that a seed got planted in his mind somewhere.

alpine lake wilderness,lake laura
Pink Flyrod Sighting

Amy fished from shore for a while, then tried to start a fire but everything up there was just WET WET WET, including Casey and I after our circum-navigation. I fished from my boat, never catching anything but I did see a 13" fish cruising the shoreline. These alpine lake fish are harder to catch than I thought they would be. Challenging!

lake laura,alpine lake wilderness
Looking back across the lake

When we got home we were all so exhausted from the climbs and the cold that we napped and ate and napped and ate and then went to sleep. If you go: be careful -- take the established trail, not the back way like we did. I could very easily see someone falling and getting hurt on this dangerous climb.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Olallie Lake, Alpine Lake Wilderness

talapus lake trail
Talapus Lake Trail

Everything is coming together this year in my quest to be an alpine lake ninja. I acquired three critical pieces of equipment (GPS, a Trail Boat and 7pc packable flyrod). I trained all winter long so I'm in better shape than I usually am (which isn't saying much).

Talapus Lake
Talapus Lake, on the way to Olallie

Sunday was a milestone: my first ever solo backpacking / fishing trip. First ever? It's true; Amy and I have been together 17 years (basically all my adult life) so the few camping trips I've done have been with her. Or with Casey.

me and my pack

Here's a picture of me with my 45lb pack. 45 pounds??? Yes more on that in a minute. After a lot of thinking, I chose Olallie Lake as a destination; its close, relatively easy and I've never been there before.


The hike itself isn't too bad. However, with a 45 pound pack the 3.5 miles and 1,100 feet of vertical gain felt like a LOT more. I was glad to get to Olallie and set that pack down. Being a summer weekend, the best camping spots at the lake were taken, but I found a pretty good one.

Claiming my campsite

After setting up camp, I inflated my trail boat and puttered around the lake. I caught fish after fish but they were all less than 6" long; resident wild rainbows.

A solitary dead tree in a field of flowers

I got wet getting out of my boat -- I'm much more careful not to pop it after last time. Cloud after cloud rolled in and my wet pants never dried. In fact, soon everything in my camp was wet with the moisture of the passing fog banks. I shivered all night in my tent.

Wet Woods

I learned several important things on my exploratory trip. Mainly that 45lbs is too much to carry comfortably. The 3 person tent is not just too heavy (6 lbs), its also too big; it felt cavernous and cold. The two person sleeping bag is also too heavy (4 lbs) and too big.

I got home and immediately started cataloging my gear and researching lighter replacements. It appears that one can spend as much money on going lighter as they want to, but I've decided to compromise; I've spent $100 on a new tent and a new sleeping bag and that will save 5lbs on my next trip. See, I could have spent $500 to save 7lbs.

Stay tuned for more, better reports.