“Suzanne,” I said calmly, my headlamp shining into her unadjusted eyes, “I don’t want you to freak out, but I need your help getting a mouse out of the tent.”
She sat up with lightning quickness.
I had felt something brush my shoulder and crawl across my chest a minute before. I turned on my light to see a little lump of grey fur dart between our sleeping bags to the end of the tent – the end of the tent where Suzanne’s head was. Working together, we corralled the mouse to a corner and then flipped him out the door, where he landed on the granite, paws down, and scurried off into the night.
I harbored no hard feelings. How can you, when the view out your tent looks like this?
I yogied one of Suzanne’s Snickers only three hours into our trip. It was 7:00PM, we were 6.5 miles into our 8 mile hike and I was flagging. We were climbing up to the Necklace Valley in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness on a trail that could compete in steepness and rooty-rockiness with the Ruckel Ridge trail in the Gorge, loaded with four days of gear, soaking wet. We had climbed into the cloud layer that was forecast to burn off in the afternoon, but waited until that night. The mist commingled with the rivulets of sweat to soak everything. I was glad for my garbage bag pack liner and the oversized pack cover I threw in at the last minute at the trailhead.
I stowed my camera early. It was too dark for photos anyway. The primordial forest, thick with green understory and towering trees, blocked what little light was peeking through the clouds. We hiked briskly, chatting amiably, and watched people foraging for mushrooms in the lower elevations. The forest forest floor was literally popping after the first really good rainfall of the season. Chanterelles, boletes, and amanitas were sprouting quickly, some useful enough for things other than being sauteed in butter and garlic.
The trail through the upper Foss Creek valley is enchanting: old growth trees, moss and lichen blankets, waterways threading through alder stands and thick shrubs, hobbit-like boulders, root houses, logs and stumps. It’s a magical place and home to otherworldly creates, I’m sure.
“This place would disappear in one season,” I commented to Suzanne as we wandered the 12-foot high corridors of vegetation.
I was thinking about the post-apocalyptic state of the wilderness again, a hobby of mine.
We got to Jade Lake just as the last bit of daylight was gobbled by a cloud and started looking for campsites in the darkening gloom. The forecast said 30% chance of rain, followed with days and days of sunshine. But as we wandered the rabbithole of social trails in the lower Necklace Valley, wading through knee-high berry bushes laden with ripe fruit and dew drops the size of oysters, the sunny forecast felt a long, long way off.
We found a flattish, dryish site near Emerald Lake and went about setting up camp in a practiced and efficient way. I set up the tent and got the gear out of the heavy mist; Suzanne went to filter water for our noodles and clean up some of the pesto that exploded in her pack on the way up. We changed into some dry clothes and cooked a much-too-large dinner by headlamp, both of us taking pulls off a bottle of cabernet that Suzanne had hauled up the trail.
The sky above us started to clear and reveal the Milky Way, which was poised directly over us. The moon set, leaving Suzanne to find a suitable bear hang by headlamp. I cleaned up and got ready for bed, occasionally yelling words of encouragement in the direction of the crashing and snapping branches coming from the darkness below.
We battled condensation throughout the trip, but none like that first night. Even with the beaks peeled back and the netting partially unzipped, the Tarp Tent was dripping both inside and out in the morning. But, as promised by NOAA, the sun came out and soon blasted over the rim of the valley to bake our gear dry.
We lollygagged that first morning. Hell, we lollygagged every morning. That was the MO for this trip. A loose framework of relaxation, exploration, and modification. We had originally considered making a loop of the High Alpine Route that connects the Foss Valley with the Necklace Valley, but decided instead to set up a base camp at the Tank Lakes and use our days to explore and scout routes for future trips. It was a wise choice. I’m sure that we could have successfully completed the High Alpine Route, but I’m glad to have seen the potential routes for myself so I know what to expect next time*. (*This trip was 100% Suzanne’s baby. She did all of the research and trip planning. I, happily, just showed up, ate her Snickers, and drank her wine. But not having any idea of what I was in for did leave me a bit…off-kilter.)
After packing up all of our sodden gear, we strolled up the main trail to the end of Necklace Valley. Before long, we ran into two backpackers coming down the trail.
“Where are you heading?” the friendly man asked.
“Tank Lakes,” we said.
They were going there, too.
“Are you absolutely sure you’re going in the right direction?” he asked.
“Yes,” we said. “We are absolutely sure. See? We have a map.”
We showed him the map.
“This is an awesome map! Where did you get this map?”
They were navigating from a photo of a diagram from a climbing guide on their smartphone. We had a second set of printed maps (7.5 minute quads stitched together and cropped to our area of interest) so we gave it to them. They were planning to do the High Alpine Route; they would need the maps more than we would.
We continued up the valley with our new friends following us to what we thought was the right drainage. A cairn reinforced our hunch. We climbed over the blocky granite boulders to an open, rocky ridgeline, which we followed to the saddle above Lower Tank Lake. The unforgettable view unfolded before us.
We dropped into the Lower Tank Lake basin and headed west to the slabs for lunch and to dry out our shoes and gear.
We spent an hour or so clomping around in our flip flops, looking for the perfect campsite. There were many great spots to choose from but one specifically called to us: the REI catalog campsite.
Suzanne was super excited.
We had this place all to ourselves.
We spent the afternoon exploring the pika and marmot-filled meadows and slabs below Lower Tank Lake. The clouds jousted with Mt. Hinman, the Bears Breast, and Chimney Peak before coming into our basin and obscuring the moon. Despite the clear skies above us, everything started to dampen and condense. We climbed into the tent at dark, prepared for another moist night, but everything was bone dry by the time the mouse came to visit.
Our objective on Day Three was Otter Peak. We dawdled through breakfast and then headed north to the base of the ridge and Upper Tank Lake. Instead of heading up the ridge from here, we climbed a drainage to the east side of the ridge and traversed along the base of the ridge to a fin of blocky talus above Tahl Lake. We scrambled up this steep, blocky fin to gain the ridge a small saddle. The hiking was easy along the ridgeline from this point, up, over, and around little treed promontories, to Otter Peak proper.
As expected, the 360-degree views from Otter Peak were remarkable. We could see as far north as Mt. Baker (and Canada!), and had especially excellent views of Glacier Peak and Mt. Rainier. We didn’t have a small-scale map showing all of the context around us, but we were able to identify all of the neighboring lakes and points, especially in the Foss Valley. If you squinted, you could see the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains in the west.
We snacked on top of Otter Peak and tried to dry out the summit register a bit before signing our names and then heading back down the ridge. Suzanne was game for exploring more of the ridgeline but we got to a very steep and exposed section of the ridgeline and decided to turn around and return the way we came up. We scrambled down to Tahl Lake and found a protected cove out of the wind to swim and jump off large boulders into the deep blue pool. The rest of the afternoon was spent doing “nothing” which, as we all know, is backpacking’s best kept secret.
We wanted to stay another night at Lower Tank Lake (as opposed to heading down into Necklace Valley to shorten the walk out) so we set our alarms for 5AM which, by our calculations (formulated while doing nothing), would put us back at the car at noon. Factoring in time for a burger, ice cream, and Seattle traffic, we figured we would be back in Portland by 6PM. And right we were!
We packed and breakfasted by headlamp and started walking at the strike of 6. It was a glorious morning, punctuated with a lovely sunrise view of Glacier Peak, and by handfuls of huckleberries for second breakfast in Necklace Valley. I stopped for one last photo at the saddle, before dropping down the rocky ridgeline to Necklace Valley.
So long, Tanks for the memories.
Necklace Valley and Tank Lakes, September 7-10, 2013
Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington
4 days, 3 nights
34 miles (estimate including side trips)
6,000′+ EG (estimate including side trips)
Northwest Forest Pass required
Free wilderness permit required (self-issue at trailhead)