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Lake Stuart from the little beach at my campsite. Mt. Stuart (9415′) is the peak in the background.

I purchased overnight camping passes for the Lake Stuart Zone in the Enchantments area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington state. It’s due east of Seattle and north of Mt. Rainier. It takes me 4 1/2 hours just to get to the trailhead, but I can’t help myself: it is so beautiful there.

Interstate 90 in Washington state, heading east of Seattle first thing in the morning Tuesday.

I’ve been through the Enchantments several times, and always from the Snow Lakes trail which approaches the Alpine Lakes from the east. It’s a long through trek, and I have never had the stamina to go all the way through to the lakes on the west side. This year I simply began on the west side!

I think it is a nice touch that the U.S. Forest Service always makes these signs asymmetrical.

At a fork in the trail, I saw signs that left me puzzled. At first glance, “foot log” and “horse ford” sounded like landmarks I had never heard of. I had no idea what trail to take until I calmed down and took the words literally. A log for foot traffic, and a place for horses to ford.

Viola! “foot log,” otherwise known as a log bridge for those traveling on human feet.

One lovely thing about the west side approach is that the Stuart/Colchuck trailhead is higher in elevation than the Snow Lakes trailhead, so I climbed the first 1000 feet (or more) in my Jeep. That was pretty sweet. Once I began hiking, much of the trail was a rather gentle slope, and a couple of steep spots a few miles in. Nothing like the grueling switchbacks at the start of the Snow Lakes trail.

The trail beside Mountaineer Creek.

Look at these scrumptious red roots. Or branches. What are they? Gorgeous, that’s what.

Autumn is the most glorious flamboyant season, don’t you think?

I saw several of these cones on the trail. I don’t think my photography captured it, but they are a deep dark purple.

I’ve said before, my hike pace could best be described as “mosey.” I’m solid on the uphill stretches. Slow, but steady, I can just keep going up, up, up. But steady includes a lot of stops to look at all the waterfalls and pretty foliage and the squirrels and interesting pine cones.

It feels good to be on a trail again. I have not hiked much the last couple of years. My theory is now that I live in the wilderness practically, I don’t have the driving need to escape people and hit a trail as much as I used to. In any case, however wild my own property may be, it’s nothing like truly being in the mountains.

While pausing in a meadow with fireweed going to seed, a gust of wind came and filled the air with flying seed pods. Look closely, and you’ll spot the faeries.

Finally! First glimpse of the mountains. These are exactly the moments I live for on the trail. I get tired, I wonder how far I’ve come, how far there is to go, whether I should stop and rest, and then…. I get a view of mountains. This inspires me.

Another mile along the trail and blam! This, people. This is what it’s all about. My tanks are filled and I’m gushing.

I met a bold, fat chipmunk that practically climbed onto me while begging for food.

And this was a pika that might have been shy around me on another day, but this day rather had to get an urgent message to his buddy across the rock fall.

The pika was so hilarious I watched him for a full five minutes, and listened to another one shriek back at him. He would give a series of short, sharp, shrill shrieks, then occasionally would spew a jumble of high-pitched syllables strung together. I talked to him for awhile, saying, “Hey! Do you see me? Are you not afraid?” Nope. Not afraid. He had to talk and my presence was no deterrent. As I watched him, I imagined the following conversation. Very shrill and urgent:

“Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve!” Silence.¬†“Steve! Steve!”

From 50 yards away across the boulder pile, the reply: “Tony! Tony!”

“Yo!-I-can’t-play-tetherball-Mom-says-I-have-to-do-my-chores-but-I’ll-come-over-as-soon-as-I’m-done!”

“Tony! Tony!”

“Did-you-hear-me-I-can’t-play-now-but-wait-for-me-ok? Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve!”

Listen, when your hiking pace is “mosey,” it involves a lot of imagination.

Suddenly I spotted a sign that said “No campfires beyond this point.” And I don’t know what crazy person ever starts campfires this time of year, but to me this sign means “the lake is pretty close.” And sure enough, only a little while later, the trees parted and there it was.¬†Only 4 1/2 miles along the trail, an elevation gain of 1665 feet, and I hit Lake Stuart.

Lake Stuart

(Can’t you just hear Anne Shirley saying, “That is not the right name. I think it should be: Lake of Shining Waters.”)

At the far end of the lake, looking back.

I love how the sun lights up those pale green grasses and horsetails in the water.

Many spots were occupied, but when I found this lovely little beach, I knew it would be my home for the next couple of nights.

Um, yep, that would be my campsite. Recurrent theme for camping in the PNW: always gorgeous campsites.

I admit, I crashed early. You know with my exceptional gastronomic tastes, I always bring a pack filled with amazing food, which means: HEAV-VY! I get so wiped out when I have a full pack.

For supper I mixed up the easiest thing on the menu, taco salad. Fresh chopped lettuce, corn chips, beans, tomatoes from the garden, green chilis, hominy, sour cream and salsa all stirred together. An obnoxious chipmunk came to raid my bowl while I left it on the beach and went to get the wine. I was impressed to see that the prize it chose was a big chunk of taco-spiced lettuce and not the chips!

Looking down onto Nada Lake, I see the sun has finally touched the spot where my tent was. Too late Mother Nature! I got tired of waiting for you and moved on.

Looking down onto Nada Lake, I see the sun has finally touched the spot where my tent was. Too late Mother Nature! I got tired of waiting for you and moved on.

My night was soooooo cold, even though I finally bought a new sleeping bag for this trip. I don’t have a thermometer, so I do not know the low temp. The forecast was for mid-30s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in the 20s. My old sleeping bag is rated to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but it has lost much of it’s down and warmth. It will be my summer bag now.

In the morning I unzipped the tent and little snowshowers fell as ice broke from the zipper. I hopped around shivering while I made my first cup of coffee, then carried the cup back and got into the sleeping bag to read a book while I waited for it to warm up a little. After an hour, it began raining inside the tent. It wasn’t until I packed up the tent that I saw why: my body heat had caused condensation between the rain cover and the tent itself. Then, that layer of moisture had frozen into thin strips of ice all over the top of the tent! As the day warmed, the ice was melting onto me.

The best way I could think to get warm was to start hiking again, so off I went, wet gear and all.

Luckily there were more switchbacks right away. Ha! Who would have thought I would say “luckily there were switchbacks?” Soon I was in the sunshine and high above my little peninsula. Soon after that, I could feel my feet again.

I took this picture for you: so you could see how steep the climb is between Nada Lake and the Snow Lakes.

I took this picture for you: so you could see how steep the climb is between Nada Lake and the Snow Lakes.

It was a climb of only 500 feet in less than two miles to reach my next camp site, so a super easy climb day for me on Wednesday. I had planned to go the extra mile (heh heh – literally and figuratively) to camp on the far end of Upper Snow Lake, which is as far as my permit would allow. However, once I arrived at the lake, I saw that I would not be able to access the water, and I need water in camp.

The trail reaches both the Upper and Lower Snow Lakes at the same time, as it comes out between them. I passed between the two lakes by walking on a stone wall built by the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. There is an aqueduct that runs underground from Upper Snow Lake into Nada Lake, and this is opened as needed. The water is used to keep the valley streams flushed with cold water in the hot summer months to keep the salmon population healthy, and is also used on crops by farmers. I have never seen a mountain lake drained in this way, and it’s disconcerting to see. It is far too low for a human to attempt getting close enough to touch the water in Upper Snow Lake. I am curious as to whether the lake refills to the top each season, or if what I saw is the result of drought.

Upper Snow Lake - drastically diminished due to feeding the crops and salmon in the valley.

McClellan Peak rises above Upper Snow Lake. The water level is drastically diminished due to feeding the crops and salmon in the valley.

Lower Snow Lake is at normal levels, since it is not part of the Fish Hatchery system.

Lower Snow Lake is at normal levels, since it is not part of the Fish Hatchery system.

The dam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes doubles as part of the trail.

The dam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes doubles as part of the trail.

Ice beside the stone wall shows that it was still cold even after I reached the Snow Lakes.

Ice beside the stone dam shows that it was still cold at the Snow Lakes.

Lower Snow Lake had plenty of water, so I stopped between the two. I happily dumped my heavy pack in the shade (to keep the perishable food cold). Not quite ready to decide my campsite, I set up the tent so that the sunshine would melt the remaining ice and dry it out. Then I grabbed my camera and followed the trail to the end of the lake, looking for a campsite closer to the trail that would lead up to the higher lakes.

I walked to the other side of the lake (references say it is either 1 mile or 1 1/2 miles to the end of the lake, so that gives you a sense), but found no campsites with water access. I did, however, find other things that amused me. I had been passing multiple signs stating “toilet” with an arrow, and this struck me as highly unusual that someone would take the trouble to construct a toilet at 5500 feet in the mountains. I followed one of the trails and found one.

A mountain toilet. You lift the lid, and sure enough there it is! I find this hilarious... though probably necessary in this very popular wilderness area that fills with inexperienced hikers every summer.

A mountain toilet. You lift the lid, and sure enough there it is! I find this hilarious… though probably necessary in this very popular wilderness area that fills with inexperienced hikers every summer.

I also was delighted to see a few pikas and what is likely the first ptarmigan I have ever seen. Dogs were banned from this trail in 1982 in an attempt to bring back ptarmigan populations.

A pika holds still and poses for me.

A pika holds still and poses for me.

I took a dozen photos of this lovely bird. However, the light was very low and it would not hold still, so most are too blurry to use.

I took a dozen photos of this lovely bird. However, the light was very low and it would not hold still, so most are too blurry to use.

A fascinating fungus.

A fascinating fungus.

Bleached white log beside the aqua-coloured water that was continually captivating to me.

Bleached white log beside the aqua-coloured water that was continually captivating to me.

The view from the far end of the lake, back toward the stone dam, near where my tent is pitched.

The view from the far end of the lake, back toward the stone dam, near where my tent is pitched.

Once I decided I would have to camp back at the other end of the lake, I turned around and made the trek back to camp. I organized my gear, read more in my book, climbed around rocks and beaches, and generally enjoyed myself. The chipmunks and whiskey jacks were distinctly interested in me, and like all the other misbehaving outdoor adventurers they had met before: I shared a few peanuts with them. Yes, do not follow my example folks. Feeding the wildlife: very bad behavior.

The light makes grasses in Lower Snow Lake glow.

The light makes grasses in Lower Snow Lake glow.

An area that would be underwater if Upper Snow Lake were properly full. The cracked mud makes interesting patterns.

An area that would be underwater if Upper Snow Lake were properly full. The cracked mud makes interesting patterns.

Another pika. Cuteness.

Another pika. Cuteness.

A woodpecker pecks only on the shaded side of the tree - specifically to thwart my photography efforts.

A woodpecker pecks only on the shaded side of the tree – specifically to thwart my photography efforts.

Whisky Jack says,

Whiskey Jack (aka Grey Jay )says, “Yo! Toss me something good to eat, lady!” When I didn’t, he hopped all around me as I sat on a rock, eyeing my clothing for crumbs.

The chipmunks and whiskey jacks mounted a joint attack force and my resistance was futile. I shared my peanuts to their great appreciation.

The chipmunks and whiskey jacks mounted a joint attack force and my resistance was futile. I shared my peanuts to their great appreciation.

One of my many guises

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