Monday, July 4, 2016

Wanderings: Lake Twenty Two

Imagine the most spectacular forest you've ever hiked through. Were there old-growth trees so tall their tops were hidden in the depths of blue sky above, so enormous that it would take half a dozen people wrapping their arms around to encircle the trunk? Was there a broad whitewater creek crashing through the trees, over a bed of smooth boulders and tumbling over towering falls? Were there impressive rock formations tripping up your feet or shouldering their way onto the trail? Was there such a profusion of native plants that within the space of a few footsteps you could identify a dozen different species?

If you recognize this forest, you may have hiked the trail to Lake Twenty Two. If not... let me know where your forest is, so I can check it out too!

Last Saturday, I hiked the Lake Twenty Two trail with my dad, stepmom and sister, in celebration of my dad's 60th birthday (happy birthday, Dad!). The trail was tougher (footing-wise) than we'd expected, but the scenery was even more fascinating than I could have imagined.

As soon as we left the rapidly-filling parking lot just before 9am and set out into the forest, I could tell this place was different. There were so many big trees, so many different plant species... it was such a healthy, varied, and decadent forest, so unlike the second-growth forest that dominates most of the landscape in our region.

It wasn't until we returned to the parking lot at the end of the hike and I read the informational poster in the trailhead kiosk that the mystery of the unusual scenery was solved: the 790 acres of land around Lake Twenty Two is a protected Research Natural Area (RNA). Designated in 1947, the Lake Twenty Two RNA is a sample of virgin forest set aside by the Forest Service to study the effects on water, wildlife, and timber in this tract of land as compared with other areas that have been logged or actively managed. This place offers a glimpse of what the forests in our region once looked like prior to logging activities that forever changed the landscape a hundred years ago.

We hiked through the lowland forest under a persistent drizzle, the sounds of the Mountain Loop Highway fading as the trail ascended and curved around a hillside. Eventually the roar of traffic was replaced by the roar of the Stillaguamish River, which also eventually faded into silence so all we could hear were our trekking poles tapping against stones and water dripping from tree branches overhead.

A short way in, we came to a wooden bridge stretching across Twenty Two Creek, the outlet stream of its namesake lake. The water emerged from the verdant forest over a crashing falls, its whitewater quickly calming into an inky black pool before running beneath our feet, crashing over a ledge, and disappearing back into the forest.

Crossing the bridge, the trail continued gently upward through a forest of massive old-growth cedar trees, occasionally meeting back up with the creek and some impressive waterfalls. The footing transitioned several times between wide log-and gravel steps (so nice to walk on!) and rain-slick rock formations that I guessed were basalt (not so nice to walk on!). Salmonberry, blueberry, and thimbleberry bushes grew close to the trail, along with a proliferation of devil's club, deer fern and a few shy columbine peeking out here and there. Shallow streams frequently crossed the trail and we picked our way carefully across them. I pictured a saturated sponge just lifted from the sink, water running between my fingers - this is what the landscape was like, streaming water down the hillside.

After some climbing, we came out onto an exposed talus slope. It was still drizzling and any views we might have had from this vantage point were completely clouded out: we were socked in. We climbed switchbacks through dripping vine maples and bigleaf maples, stepping cautiously over the slippery, rocky terrain.

Eventually we reached the end of the talus and re-entered the forest, commenting with surprise that we'd gained so much elevation - 1,350 feet - and hardly even noticed it. The trail leveled out, and we knew the lake was just ahead, around the next corner. A dozen corners later, we emerged out of the woods onto the wooden bridge spanning the outlet of Lake Twenty-Two, with the lake itself lying quiet and steely in front of us. Mount Pilchuck rose from the lake's far end and disappeared into the low clouds overhead. It was so quiet, save for the mystifying sound of rushing water. Where was that coming from? Peering through the low foggy ceiling, we could just make out the faint waterfalls streaming down Pilchuck's face, their crashing waters reaching our ears as a soft roar.

We located a lunch spot along the lakeshore, and by the time we were done eating, the sun had broken out and illuminated the landscape around us: the vegetation glowed green and sparkled with raindrops, the glacial lake water beamed brilliant turquoise, the rocky cliffs of Mount Pilchuck were thrown into sharp relief against the deep blue sky. It was a truly spectacular scene.

By this time, the lake was getting more crowded as dozens of other hikers reached the end of the trail. Thankful for the warm sun drying our hair and clothes, we left the lake and headed back down to battle one more time with the talus slope and increasing trail traffic. Although there were more hikers to contend with on the way back, we enjoyed the additional benefits of clearing skies and sunny weather: a trail that was no longer slippery, and a view that was no longer socked in. We finally realized just how high we had climbed as we gazed over green forested hillsides, and peered down to the Stillaguamish River in the valley far below. Fluffy white clouds lifted from the hilltops. It was another awe-inspiring sight collected on this trail and carried with me long after we left.

Lake Twenty-Two might have just taken the number one spot on my list of favorite hikes. There exists a stark difference between this trail and so many others I've hiked, because of the fact that this area is protected old growth. It's not only in the way the place looks, but also in the way it feels. There's an energy, a wisdom in the atmosphere, of which you become sensible in the midst of that forest and on the shores of that lake - an uncommon beauty that leaves you wanting more.

I'm grateful for this forest's protected status. Those who decided to protect this place back in 1947 had the intent of setting it aside for research, but in doing so have also provided the opportunity for future generations - such as mine - to glimpse a piece of our home we hadn't even known we had lost. This foresight to protect nature is so rare, but so needed; especially in present times with the environmental issues and changes we're now facing.

If you go: as with any weekend hike these days, go early! The parking lot still had plenty of space when we arrived just before 9am, but was overflowing when we returned around 1:00pm, and I suspect it had been that way for a few hours. You'll need your Northwest Forest Pass, so don't forget to bring it! I found my trekking poles to be useful on some of the more rugged terrain, so bring yours if you have them. Also bring some bug spray... there are mosquitoes at the lake that seem to have especially potent bites and left me with a large swelling on my hand that looked like an extra knuckle! And it should go without saying, but please remember to Leave No Trace: stay on the trail (it appeared that some people had a hard time with this...), pack out your garbage, and for goodness sake, don't leave your orange peels in the bushes.

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