Monday, September 1, 2014

Patjen Lakes

In 2011 the small Shadow Lake Fire started southeast of Mount Washington and little or no resources were devoted to the small fire until it swept over the Pacific Crest Trail (hereafter referred to as the PCT) and burned all the way to popular Big Lake. It was OK to burn the PCT because that only affects hikers and "Who cares about them?" (Says I, with just a hint of bitterness). However, when the fire threatened the large youth camp near Big Lake, considerable resources were quickly marshaled towards a more serious firefighting effort and the developed eastern shore of Big Lake was saved.

Degenerative tree disease
Because of several other fires in the Mount Washington Wilderness over the years, the wilderness today consists of pointy Mount Washington and acres of scorched earth and dead trees. There is probably not a single live tree in the whole wilderness. However, life bursts at the scorched seams despite all the death and destruction. Personally, I find that a burn zone has a special beauty all its own and I am not averse to hiking in one.

Waving plumes of dry beargrass
All this ashy rumination about forest fires came about because of a recent hike on the PCT in the Mount Washington Wilderness. There was ample opportunity to ponder the aesthetics of burnt forest near the Hoodoo Mountain ski resort on a hike in the Shadow Lake Fire zone. The hike would head south towards Mexico, although I would wind up just several thousand miles short of the southern terminus of the PCT. It was a game try, though.

Fireweed loves a good burn zone, too
As previously stated, life abounded. Fireweed, aster, common yarrow, and goldenrod were still blooming here and there along the trail. Because of the tree-killing fire, sun-loving bracken fern had laid claim to large patches of open forest floor. Bracket fungus, affectionately known as "conks", were slowly eating away at the dead and decaying trees. Sulphur butterflies congregated on the occasional damp spot on trail, sharing gossip as they licked wet soil. The trail was lined with dried plumes of beargrass flowers, long since gone to seed. Woodpeckers were everywhere making their woodpecker music and judging from the quantity of their tapping, the dead forest obviously is full of happy peckers. And more importantly, young trees were sprouting everywhere, fully engaged in the process of replenishing the burned forest.

Cause and effect
The original plan was to hike up the PCT and get as close to Mount Washington as possible via trail. However, an intersecting trail with a "Big Lake" sign called out to my inner hiking attention deficit and I wound up taking the right turn to see what the Big Lake shiny object was all about.

Well-used trail to Big Lake
The youth camp at Big Lake is an important resupply stop for PCT hikers making the 2,500 or so mile trek from Mexico to Canada. Signs with detailed instructions for hikers about picking up supplies and where to camp and when to shower greeted me at the camp trailhead. Apparently, they are glad to help the through-hikers as long as they are not seen, heard, or smelled.

Why we hike
A short walk through the camp brought me to the shore of Big Lake and there was a stupendous view to Hoodoo Mountain, Hayrick Butte, and Three Fingered Jack, all rising dramatically across the blue waters of the lake. The trail map showed a trail contouring around the lake to the intersection with the Patjen Lakes Trail but the burn interjected its ugly sooty head into things when the trail petered out  in a tangle of fallen trees and thorny brambles along the lake.

This plant has the gall
Not being familiar with the layout around this part of the Cascades, I backtracked and hiked back up to an unmarked intersection just short of the PCT. Several more unsigned and unmapped trail intersections left me more confused than usual, but a series of left turns kept me heading in the right direction as Big Lake was eventually left behind.

It burns us!
After rising gradually for a mile or so, the trail crested a ridge covered in dead trees and headed gently downhill. Mount Washington was actually fairly close but it was hard to get a good look at the pointy peak due to the millions of ghostly trees in the way. There were several patches of dead saplings bent over where they died, you could practically hear the trees scream as they writhed in indescribable agony.

Oh deer!
The ambiance improved considerably at the first of the Patjen Lakes. The lake was surrounded by a grassy meadow and Mount Washington reflected nicely in the lake's waters. A deer grazed in the meadow but it was keeping way too still and was making no attempt to steal my hiking poles. It was a decoy and I waded through the grass, clouds of grasshoppers flitting just ahead of me, for a closer look and photograph of the decoy.

Patjen Lake, without the laughing hyena sound
Returning back to the trail, a short walk brought me to the second lake where it was time for lunch. Across the lake was a woman who loudly laughed like a hyena at EVERYTHING her male friend said. Seeking a more peaceful outdoor experience, the first lake was revisited for a less noisy laze.

Eminently beautiful
There is a third Patjen Lake but the guidebook made it seem like it was more wet spot than lake so I called two out of three and headed back to the trailhead. It was a pleasant walk listening to the staccato tap-tap-tap of hammering woodpeckers and the soft sighing of the breeze sifting through dead branches as shadows lengthened in the afternoon. Despite all the fire carnage, the hike had been eminently beautiful.

The first Patjen Lake
For more pictures of this fire-addled hike, please visit the Flickr album, and don't play with matches and "Oh, the irony of that statement" says my mother.

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