Wanderings: Blue Lake (again)

Foggy hike to Blue Lake

More and more of my Wanderings are including (again) in the title, and I'm grateful to have found so many lovely places to which I can return over the years. I first hiked to Blue Lake in September of 2015, and since that first magical trip into the land of larches and fall colors, I've longed to go back for a second experience.

My chance came when my sister asked if I'd like to hike Blue Lake with her, because she HAD to see the larches. She'd been eyeing the trip reports for the last few days, and those much-pursued trees were now sporting their golden foliage in the North Cascades. A scant few days later, we were on the road at bleary-eyed 6am (okay, 6:30am after the obligatory stop for coffee and the return trip home to retrieve the lunch I'd forgotten in the refrigerator) headed north on the long 2.5 hour drive to the trailhead. After traveling north on a nearly-empty I-5, we cut eastward and drove toward the sunrise on highway 530. As we moved upward in latitude and in elevation, I watched as the blurred scenery flashing past the window gradually transitioned from late-summer green to full-on autumn hues of red, orange, and yellow.

Nearing the summit on highway 20, we were unexpectedly also introduced to yet another color... winter white? As the low-hanging clouds briefly parted to allow a glimpse of the rocky peaks above, my sister and I gleefully pointed out the golden larches bristling from the sheer slopes. There was also a dusting of snow on the peaks! But wait... squinting through the windshield, I noted the elevation at which the snowline began, and the elevation at which the larches began. They were the same. Hey, good news! We might be hiking in the snow today. I was grateful I'd thought to toss my gloves and warm hat into my backpack.

Arriving at the foggy trailhead later than anticipated, we parked in the still sparsely-occupied parking lot, geared up and set out for the trail with an eager Ruby-dog leading the way. A light dusting of snow covered the trees as fog drifted through, and I brushed some slush from the trail register lid as I signed us in. The boardwalks heading into the forest at the beginning of the trail were slick with slush.

Despite having hiked this trail only once, three years ago, this place felt familiar at once. We climbed through a gloomy forest, my feet anticipating the terrain to come as we emerged into an open meadow resplendent in fall foliage, still cheerfully-colored despite the thick fog pressing in. I pointed to the white abyss upslope and informed my sister that she couldn't see it, but that's where we were headed.

The trail led us back into the dim forest for some more climbing amidst the chattering chipmunks, splattering of melting snow dropping from branches overhead, and the sound of traffic on highway 20 below which was gradually extinguished by the softening, insulating fog that continued to thicken around us. Eventually, the fog muted all but the sounds in our immediate vicinity: Ruby's collar jingling softly, nylon jackets rustling, our footsteps resounding hollowly against the trail that, although slick with mud on the surface, was dry and dusty an inch or so beneath. Recent rains (and snow) had yet to quench the earth parched from another summer drought.

The quiet was so profound that I could hear my own heart beating (okay, it was racing... I am still quite out of shape), which is a sound we don't normally hear without the aid of a stethoscope. The sound was unnerving. The quiet of the fog -- all that it obscured and all that it revealed -- was unnerving. I scraped some slush from a fir branch and rubbed it onto my flushed, feverish cheeks, letting the icy water drip down my neck.

At this point, the trail leveled out and we traversed the face of the slope. I knew we would emerge into larch territory soon. As the canopy above thinned, the snow underfoot thickened, and by the time we saw our first larch, it looked like Old Man Winter had sneezed a blanket of white over the colorful autumn scene.

My sister was delighted at the first sight of the tree with its golden needles. We had found one! After considering the tree for a few moments, she tilted her head and commented that it was kind of funny-looking. Larches are an odd sort of tree. They seem to take it as a personal challenge to grow in the most peculiar postures. We encountered a whole grove of them with wavy s-curved trunks, reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss book. One, apropos of nothing, decided to grow upward in a sweeping curve. Yet another stretched out in a perfect horizontal line. My sister pointed to a heavily cone-laden larch and informed me that it was covered with ovaries. Ah, the joys of hiking with a biology teacher.

The grove of Dr. Seuss larches

Continuing through the snow and larches and dense fog, and missing the stunning mountain views we should have been witnessing by now, we didn't hear Blue Lake's trickling outlet stream until it was right before us. Peering to the left where the lake should be, I saw nothing but a wall of white, and my stomach sank. I had hoped the clouds would begin to thin and break up by the time we reached the lake, but it was firmly socked in.

What a beautiful... lake?

Foggy dog

We made our way to the narrow lakeshore and dumped our packs, taking a break to stretch, give Ruby-dog some water, and stare into the whiteness where the lake should have been. Once a boisterous group of teenage girls departed, the utter quiet settled around us. It. Was. So. Silent. Talking in whispers, I felt as though we were in a church sanctuary or reading room of a library, where even a sound as slight as the rustle of a nylon jacket became abrasively disruptive. Stand still. Breathe softly. Don't speak. Listen to the drifting fog, dripping snow, whisper of gray jay wings in the damp air.

Gray jays. Charismatic and adorable, these inquisitive birds are accustomed to being fed by hikers. Once they spot you, they fly over one at a time, landing in nearby branches until you're surrounded. It would feel menacing were the birds not so fluffy. It wasn't long before the usual mob of three to four gray jays flew over to investigate us at Blue Lake, waiting for an offering of food. It has long been my goal to get one of these birds to land on my hand, but I wasn't about to violate leave no trace (LNT) principles by feeding wildlife, as so many other hikers do to entice the birds. So I extended my empty hand toward the nearest jay, and waited in anticipation as he looked intently at me, hopped closer, and then flew up and landed on my hand! I scarcely registered the gentle weight of his feathered body and the feeling of his rough-skinned toes wrapped around my finger before he realized I had no treats to offer and flew away. A feeling of elation simmered inside my chest as the jays winged away into the fog, wings whuffing softly in the silent mist.

Feeling the familiar chill that sets in once you loiter too long, we shouldered our packs, took one last wistful look toward the still socked-in lake, and headed back down the trail to get the warm blood moving through our bodies once again. Making our way back, I gestured to where the stunning mountain views should have been, the sight of golden larches flushing the nearby rocky peaks with warmth. All that was visible were the persistent clouds and fog. My sister loves the mountains, so I felt a bit sad that she was missing out on the great views this trail had to offer, not to mention the actual lake for which the trail is named. The views, the fall colors, the gorgeous deep blue lake and the soaring surrounding peaks had all been so enchanting on my first visit a few years ago.

Pondering this as we descended back through the gloomy forest, I came to the conclusion that the trail had been enchanting today as well, perhaps more so for the fog, snow, and silence that limited our perception of sights and sounds to those in our immediate surroundings. Without the distraction of dazzling distant views, we were better able to appreciate in full detail the scenery along the trail. I mean, had we been gawking at the lake, I may have missed seeing the gray jays land in the trees around us; and had we been staring at the larches on distant peaks, we may have missed seeing how the ones right along the trail grew in such bizarre formation. Or we could have missed the larch covered in ovaries. And really, who wants to miss that?

Here's to the adventures that don't quite turn out as we expect!


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