U.S. Cabins Campground to Whatcom Pass. Sept. 11, 2017
I was stiff and sore when I woke up Monday morning. I felt about 100 years old as I literally crawled out of the tent at first light. Maybe I am not so cut out for backpacking with a heavy pack as I thought! But after walking to the pit toilet, which was a LONG way away, and some stretching, the aches and pains started to dissipate. I settled myself around the huge fire ring, breakfast makings at the ready. I felt more like myself with each breath of clean air…and hot cup of coffee!
The morning was as quiet as the previous night, with only a few birds and the nearby river lending auditory company. I contemplated the day ahead. I knew nothing of the trail up to Whatcom Pass except that it was steep, but I had all day to cover the 7.2 miles. Plenty of time to arrive, get settled, and still get in a day hike from the pass, I reckoned.
U.S. Cabins to Brush Creek Trail Junction
I took my time packing up, and didn’t hit the trail until 9:45. The first mile was flat, the trail loosely paralleling the Chilliwack River. It was wet and brushy, and I was careful not to trip. I was all up in my head about the cable car crossing just ahead. I had a multitude of memories and some concerns about my mode of transportation across the river:
First, I remembered with hilarity this crossing from 20 years ago. On that hike, my ex-husband Rob and I had our dog, Magnum, with us. An 85-pound yellow lab, Magnum was not even supposed to be with us. Dogs are not allowed in National Parks, and, I confess, we snuck him in. Back then it was much more lax than now. Rest assured, I would not do that now!
We had no idea what we were in for with Magnum and the cable car. Somehow, we loaded him into the cable car, with me as his escort. Rob hauled us both across, hand over hand, as I tried to calm a very nervous Magnum in the swaying car, far above the river below. We unloaded at the platform on the other side, and waiting while Rob came over with both packs in the second round.
There we all stood, looking down the straight up ladder, about 12 or 15 feet (see pic) that we had to descend. How do you get a large animal down a steep ladder? Always good problem solvers, we put Magnum “on belay”, such that he was roped up in an improvised chest harness. Rob “lowered” him down from above, as I went down step by step, attempting to calm the flailing (and flying!) Magnum as we went. It was both nerve racking and hysterical, and a true highlight of that trip!
But this time, there was no Magnum. Or Rob. Or anyone. I was on my own, not having seen a soul all morning. The car was “parked” on the other side of the river, so I had to haul it back over before I could entertain my current worry:
The rangers, when I got my permit, said there had been a hornet’s nest in the car, but they didn’t know if it was still there. Stuck in a car with angry hornets would surely be worse than any challenges with Magnum! In that case, I’d have to ford. But once I got the car to my side, I checked it out. Thankfully, no nest.
I loaded in my pack, then myself. I began the slow process of pulling myself and my pack, at least 175 pounds total, back across the river. I wore gloves, and this helped some. But I also had the broken finger to deal with, and the process was tedious and tiring. The rope was that old yellow kind, not super keen on sliding easily through the cables. Each pull was a Herculean effort! Even under the best of circumstances, but the finger (splinted for protection) made it even harder.
When I finally reached the other side, my arms were burning with the effort. It was one of those times when I realized that backpacking alone ain’t always easy! Where was that partner when I needed him? (or her)? BUT, it also gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction to have done it, and I was relieved it was over.
Pack back on, I clamored up the river bank, the trail nearly hidden by the wet and heavy brush. No rest for the weary! Finally, I came to the junction with Brush Creek trail.
Brush Creek Trail to Whatcom Pass
Normally, I don’t haul a heavy pack up to a place like Whatcom pass just to spend the night. Usually, I’d day-hike it instead. But I’d heard great things about the pass itself, with it’s views of Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak, as well as down to Little Beaver Valley, and a collection of lakes above that I also wanted to explore. Since I had time, I decided to camp at the pass and enjoy all that in a leisurely time frame.
Heading up, I had my moments of doubt! Brush Creek trail gained gradual elevation for the first 2.5 miles, but steepened dramatically after that. My pack felt heavier with each upward step. I kept thinking the trail would break out and I’d feel the sunshine I was so craving after yesterday’s forest walk. But the trail stayed mostly in the trees, with peek-a-boo views coming into play only periodically.
But I was in no rush, and took frequent breaks in those rare moments of sunshine when they arrived. Near the top, I encountered two people coming down, the first I’d seen all day. A 60’s-ish man and young woman, who said they had camped two nights at Middle Lakes, one of the day hikes I was coveting. They said it was serenely beautiful and well-worth the effort to get there. That spurred me on to the top.
I reached Whatcom Pass at 3:45. No speed record for sure, but I felt great to finally arrive. I found Derek, the German dynamo, in one of three campsites. His previous night had been much closer to the pass, and he seemed like a go-getter. I asked him when he’d arrived “Oh, about 10:30” he replied.
The site I chose was open and windy, but just what I needed. It overlooked a sprawl of peaks I couldn’t name, and the sunshine I’d been craving was full-on when I arrived. After last night in the forest, I really wanted air and exposure. I dumped my pack in relief. Wanting to explore while the sun was still relatively high, I chose not to set up camp, but took off instead with my coat pockets full of provisions.
Day hike exploration — Little Beaver Trail and Whatcom Arm
I chatted briefly with Derek on my way past his camp. He gave me what I thought were directions to head to the lakes. Said it took him “an hour up, and 45 minutes down” for his day hike to Tapto Lakes. I knew I’d have enough daylight to do that and get back to set up camp. He said something about trying to camp at a different site than he had a permit for, but I only half listened. I wanted to get hiking while daylight was still on my side!
At what I thought was the left hand turn he’d mentioned just over Whatcom Pass, I left the “main trail”. Quickly I realized this trail was dropping down, switchback after switchback, instead of going up toward Tapto and Middle Lakes. I realized I was on the Little Beaver trail, which heads down valley for seven miles to Beaver Pass. I decided I’d follow it for a half hour then turn around. Some views of the glacier appeared, and I was happy enough with my wander. The sun was too low to shine on me, though, so mostly I was back in shade.
After thirty minutes, I took some pics and turned around. Maybe I’d still have time to find the lakes, I thought. Distracted, I didn’t notice the black bear feasting on berries a mere 20 feet away. He (or she) saw me though, and bolted up the steep hill, in the direction I was going (of course!) Scared the crap out of me! I had just seen a bear on Mt. Dickerman 9 days previous, and two bear sightings in 10 days was more than I wanted. I scurried back up the hill just as fast as I could!
At the junction where I turned down, I went straight and headed toward Whatcom Arm. I knew this wasn’t in the direction of the lakes, but I wasn’t ready to head back just yet. I wandered a bit on a ever-diminishing trail that got rockier and rockier as it went, and soon deposited me in a scree field that went straight up. I wasn’t into a scree scramble, so I turned back towards camp.
As I passed Derek’s site on the way to mine, I noticed it was empty. This puzzled me greatly. It also alarmed me. Now I was alone on Whatcom Pass with a bear nearby! I felt a bit anxious, but decided to embrace those feelings and be brave. I recited one of my self-compassion phrases to myself over and over: “May I stand strong and courageous in the face of fear!” I did all my camp set up with a watchful eye, and cooked my dinner as far from my tent as the site would allow. I had great rocks for sitting and cooking, and I let myself relax into contentment.
I was in this reverie of enjoyment, watching the setting sun. Suddenly I heard something moving into my campsite! In a split second, all calm was broken as I turned toward the noise. I thought for sure it was a bear! But instead, it was a burly, bear-like man coming round to my site. “Oh my gosh!” I said, totally startled and rattled. “I thought you were a bear!!”
The guy apologized, said he had just arrived, and wanted to see if anyone else was camping at the pass. Recovering my composure, I told him about my earlier bear encounter. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I’m with the Forest Service, and I will be right next door. If you have a night time visitor, just holler!” Apparently he’d set himself up in Derek’s vacated spot.
My sense of peace returned. I watched the light do it’s last dance on peaks across the valley, the colors of the sky gradually fading from their dramatic oranges and pinks. I settled myself in my tent and prepared for sleep. The wind had died, the night was still, and, admittedly, I was happy not be alone on the pass.Feel free to share!