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My friend Beckie and I had been talking about a moms-only backpacking trip for a few months, and our schedules finally coincided for us to get out last weekend. There was a catch, though – each of our families only has one car, so we needed a third person to come along who could drive. We had that person, and then she had some family stuff come up, and couldn’t come after all. My heart sank, knowing that prime larch season was happening up high, and we were going to miss it. But then I realized that Aaron didn’t have anything he had to do for which he would need the car while I was gone, except for taking the kids somewhere special. I took a deep breath to get up the courage to ask him if we could use our car, leaving him at home with the kids and no car. Amazingly, he said yes! He wanted me to go, and was willing to sacrifice to do it.
So Beckie and I hurriedly planned our getaway and discussed gear and location. I picked out Lake Ann at Rainy Pass for the beauty of the surrounding hillsides, the easy hike in, and the closeness to the paved highway. I thought if we had the time and energy, we could add in the loop up to Maple and Heather Pass. We left a little later than we had hoped to, with her husband’s warnings and fears of us being too cold ringing in our ears. The whole time leading up to the moment we left, we both were sure something would crop up to make us have to cancel our trip. We couldn’t believe we were actually getting away with this!
We stopped at the Ranger Station in Sedro-Woolley, and giggled like schoolgirls as we chatted with the rangers about our plans. Why did we feel so nervous and excited? It’s funny how easy it is to feel that we were imposters or something, just because we hadn’t done this in so long.
As we drove farther up Hwy 20, the sunshine and cloudless skies helped us relax and our worries receded into the distance. We stopped briefly at the Diablo Lake overlook, where we saw pikas with mouths full of dried grass running into their burrows.
Then we went on up to the Rainy Pass Trailhead. We got one of the last spots available in the parking lot. I hoped that most of those cars were just doing the loop and that we’d still be able to get a spot to camp at Lake Ann. It took us a bit to figure out how to get all of our stuff attached to our packs, but soon we were on the trail, hitting the switchbacks up the slope.
The trail starts in a mixed conifer forest, and gradually works its way up into the Lake Ann basin. We passed through a slide area that had bright red huckleberries, flaming orange mountain ash, and other drying flowers and shrubs.
We saw pikas scurrying around in the talus, squeaking back and forth to each other. After a mile the trail splits, and the Lake Ann trail goes off to the left, while the Heather and Maple Pass Loop continues upward to the right. After about a quarter of a mile you’ll see a campsite on the left, and the lake is another quarter mile beyond that.
The way the afternoon sun slanted through the valley made the crimson huckleberries light up as if on fire.
We got our first sightings of larches turning golden against the dark firs above the valley.
Gentians are in bloom, but most other flowers and grasses had dried to a crisp, making crackly whooshing sounds as we passed by.
We spent some time sitting on the shore of the lake, watching as the sun went behind Maple Pass.
We could hear voices floating and echoing, as many folks were still completing the loop far above the lake basin. After a snack, we went back to the campsite, set up our tent, and explored a bit. There is a marshy area next to the campsite; the water was pretty low from the lack of rain, and we had to walk out a bit to see if we’d be able to get water from it. As I stepped to the edge of the water, the ground started writhing under my feet.
Hundreds of tiny little frogs were jumping off the grass and into the muck. I stepped back quickly, wondering how many I had inadvertently trampled. A camp robber swooped down to the tree next to us, asking us for handouts.
More appeared in camp, chirping softly to each other.
Since the sun had gone behind the ridge, it grew markedly colder; we could even smell the cold. We put on layers of warm clothes and got the stove out to make a hot meal. I didn’t feel like stepping on even more frogs to get water, so I walked up the trail for a minute or two to a little mossy seep right next to the trail, where I was able to filter enough water for the evening and next morning.
At the trailhead there had been a sign with a photo showing the camp that we were in, with a bear rummaging through the tent and packs. It said to keep a clean camp and hang your food. Neither of us had ever tried to hang a food bag before, and we found it difficult to find a spot that even had any branches appropriate for hanging anything from. How do you hang your food from a columnar subalpine fir? We were happy there was nobody else around to watch us throw that silly rope up into the trees and try to tie it off. We were certain a bear would be able to reach our bags, but hoped at least the rodents wouldn’t find them. By 8:30 it was almost dark, and getting super cold. We weren’t tired, but we needed to go to bed and hoped to get warm in our sleeping bags.
I had been comfortable in my bag down to the mid 30s, so I thought it would be good for a few degrees colder. Well, as I laid there in the dark, I could feel the heat evaporating out of my bag. I layered clothing over myself inside the bag, using almost every bit of clothing I had, and still I was getting colder. I thought to myself, I know I won’t die, but it’s going to be a long and miserable night if I can’t figure something out. Then nature called again, and I got really cold when I had to go out. It was only a bit after 9. I didn’t have my glasses on, but I could tell the stars were amazing. If only it weren’t so cold, we could have watched them! Then Beckie said it’s too bad we didn’t have an emergency space blanket. Oh, but I did! I got mine out of the first aid kit and wrapped it around the outside of my bag. I also got out two chemical hand warmers and put them inside with me. Slowly I could feel the heat building up inside the bag, and I knew I’d be OK. Beckie was fine in her bag; a little cool, but able to sleep.
It was so quiet that night. I’ve never been anywhere so quiet. No wind, no birds, no insects; my ears strained for something to hear. At one point we did hear some voices echoing somewhere above us, but otherwise it was just a quiet, peaceful, frigid, long night.
In the morning we stayed in bed as long as we could, but eventually we had to get out into the icy air to answer the call of nature. Frost dropped down on us from the tent fly, and ice crystals sparkled on the bushes.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to be a mountain climber up in the ice and snow and wind. But we managed, and felt so proud of ourselves for surviving the night. Our food was fine, and we made a hot breakfast and coffee and cocoa. We watched eagerly as the sun topped the ridge and came closer and closer to our camp. Finally we were basking in the warmth and shedding layers.
We decided to walk up to Heather Pass to see the view before packing up and heading home. Lots of folks were already on the trail, and we joined them in a line up above the lake.
It was neat to look down and see beautiful Lake Ann and look up to see the colorful hillsides and the trail hanging above the cliffs.
The path is rocky and dusty, exposed as you get above the trees. We shed layers and soon made it up to Heather Pass, where we took one of the side trails up onto the rise. Words can’t describe how beautiful it is up there. We stopped at an overlook, taking in the peaks and ridges, blue sky, moon, yellow larches, red huckleberries, and green firs.
Lots of folks were up there with us. We could see over to Lewis Lake, where we could see a thin smudge of smoke in the air.
We thought someone was naughty and ignored the fire restrictions, but soon 3 rangers arrived with their huge packs and a radio. They surveyed the fire from there, radioed into headquarters, and prepared to hike in to check out the fire from up close. It would have been neat to stay and watch, but we needed to get back down to camp, and dodged the crowds on the narrow trail back to our site.
We laid our sleeping bags out in the sunshine to dry out the dampness from the night. We made lunch, and as we were packing up, a helicopter flew over us. We assumed it was to check out the fire. Then it came back over us, and circled around, getting lower each time, tipping slightly to get a better look. I thought it was pretty odd, until I realized that my space blanket was spread out on the ground, the orange side reflecting brightly amidst the brown vegetation. The folks in the chopper were probably wondering if we were trying to signal them or something. When I realized that, I quickly folded up the blanket and put it away. Soon the chopper came back over with a bucket of water this time. Back and forth it flew, gathering water to drop on the fire.
We were kind of sad to say goodbye to our camp, but we made pretty good time back down the trail to the car. There was one section that was kind of smoky from the fire above, and we got to watch the helicopter again as it swooshed by, water flowing from its huge red bucket.
There were signs posted at the trailhead warning of the fire, and that the trail to Lewis Lake was closed (though the Heather and Maple Pass loop was still open). A ranger was just pulling up in her truck, and we stopped and chatted for a few minutes. Turns out she worked with a dear friend of mine and knew her well. What a nice lady, Virginia the Ranger!
Our drive home was mostly uneventful, except for traffic through Marysville and Everett. The parking lot at Rainy Pass was overflowing; cars were even parking out onto the highway. We felt so grateful to have been able to get out, and for the support of our husbands. We were grateful for the gorgeous weather, trying something new, and living beyond our previous safe boundaries. We saw some amazing scenery and had a grand adventure. This trip made me insanely happy!