Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek Campground — Sept. 12, 2017
As I lay in the tent waiting for daylight, I thought about the elusive trail to the lakes (Tapto and Middle) that I’d failed to find the previous afternoon. Mentally, I retraced my steps from campsite to Whatcom Pass and beyond. I remembered a trail to the left, just at the pass, but blocked off with logs. Universal trail speak for “don’t go that way”. Of course that had to be it! I knew the trail went left, and I knew it went up. The “blockade” only indicated that it wasn’t the main trail. I had to laugh at myself. Sometimes, I miss the most obvious things in my desire to be a rule follower and conscientious hiker.
Inspired with my realization, I grew impatient for first light. Morning light comes earlier on the top of a ridge than in the forest, and I was able to get up and at ’em by 6:10. It was a beautiful dawn, sky mostly clear, last stars fading into the promise of a beautiful day. At least for the morning — Derek, the German, had thought the weather was changing, and I wanted to day-hike the lakes, return to my site, pack up, and get down off the pass before any weather came in.
Day hike to Tapto and Middle Lakes (4 miles total?)
I left my campsite at 8:15, jacket pockets stuffed with provisions as I had no day pack. When I passed Forest Service guy’s campsite, I noticed he wasn’t there, apparently already up and about. I crossed the small creek just beyond, the sun so bright I had to put my sunglasses on to see. The morning air was crisp with the coming of fall only days away. I relinquished fully into the late-summer day that lay before me.
When I reached the “blocked” trail heading left, I saw Forest Service guy coming down. Had he been up to the lakes already? He was holding a cup of coffee, so I gathered not.
“Good morning!” I called, glad to see him and eager to pick his brain about the hike to the lakes. “Have you already been to the lakes?”
He laughed. “No, just out for a morning wander. Are you headed up?”
“Yes!” I replied, my enthusiasm bringing a smile to his scruffy face. “I want to do both Tapto and Middle before heading back down to Indian Creek for the night.”
He introduced himself as Steve, saying he was off duty and camping at the pass for a couple of days. As we chatted it became obvious how well he knew the area, including to the lake region where I was headed.
“Do you think I will see any bears up there?” I asked. Steve had come in late last evening, wandered into my site to see who was there. He’d scared the pants off me, convinced as I was that HE was a bear after my earlier bear sighting. I still had bear on the brain.
“Very possibly”, he drew the words out slowly. “Did you know that from here down Little Beaver Valley to Beaver Pass has the highest concentration of black bears anywhere in the North Cascades?”
“No way.” I replied, alarmed. “Seriously?”
“Yep. Do you have bear spray?”
“No, should I?”
He shrugged. “I don’t carry it. Some do. I am sure you will be fine.” He paused. “But just so you know, you will have to work for the lakes! It’s a steep and rugged trail.” His eyes danced as he said this, even through his sunglasses. I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me or just appropriately cautioning me.
For a brief moment, I reconsidered my plans. But I knew I’d go. “I’m always up for a challenge.” I said. “But hey, are you going to be hanging around for awhile this morning? It would be nice to know that someone knows where I’m going.”
Again he laughed, held up his coffee cup. “I’ll be hanging here all day, gazing at the mountains and sipping coffee and vodka.”
“Together?” I wanted to ask, but instead said, “Ok, I plan to be back by 11:30, noon latest. If I am not back by 1:00, will you come looking for me?”
“Yep, you got it.” Steve answered, glancing at his watch. “I won’t lose track of time, I promise. And have a great hike. It’s really beautiful up there. It’s why we come here.”
I thanked him, wished him a good morning, and headed off.
The first mile of the trail was incredibly steep, requiring hand over hand assistance in places to gain it. I wondered how the two hikers I’d met the previous day, who had camped at Middle Lakes, had done it with backpacks. I was grateful for no pack weight, and for my poles to help with balance and upward mobility.
After a mile or so, the trail split. To the left was Tapto, to the right Middle. I decided to go left first. The views of Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak behind me grew in magnificence the higher I climbed. The route was completely open, the trail faint in places, but easy enough to follow. I ascended a steep section of scree, but the trail didn’t in any way make me nervous. The two large, fresh piles of bear scat that I saw on the the trail? Those definitely made me nervous. And very watchful.
I reached the overlook to Tapto Lakes, and opted to drop part way down into the lake basin. I could see I wasn’t going to gain much by going all the way down. I sat on a rock for 15 minutes, gazing down at the lakes and up to the surrounding mountains, taking it all in. I embraced the feeling of being nestled in while watched over, embraced by the clear mountain air, one with the stillness, and completely at peace.
I retraced my steps back to the junction with Middle Lakes, taking photo after photo as I went. It’s often difficult to capture moments in photos, and I never used to even try. I’d just immerse myself in the experience, believing that photos took me out of the moment. But with time, I’ve accepted that I LIKE to look back at my photos, and they’ve also become a way to visually share with others my adventures in the mountains.
The trail branching toward Middle Lakes was also vague. At first it followed a mostly dry creek bed surrounded by blueberry bushes, then turned upward. On this short section I saw three more piles of bear scat, for a total of five. Same bear, or several? I tried not to think about it.
Soon I reached a large scree and boulder field, the way marked with the sporadic cairn here and there. Just enough to get a sense of where to re-enter trees on the other side. After a brief tree section, I was in a wide expanse of mostly boulders, the early stages of fall color apparent on the slopes of Red Mountain, which I knew guarded the Middle Lakes.
A bit of route finding was required to find the first lake, as the trail disappeared into rocks. I made sure to pay attention to landmarks so I could find my way back. Quickly I dropped down to what clearly was the lower Middle Lake, and, while nice, it wasn’t that spectacular. I returned to my boulder landmark, and headed up to what had to be the upper lake. This lake was much more spectacular, steep snowfields coming right down into it. I sat briefly and gazed, remembering Steve’s comment: “This is why we come here.”
At 10:30 I headed back. I kept a watchful eye, both for potential bears and to make sure I stayed on trail. It was a steep and fast descent, and I was back at camp by 11:15. A few clouds had gathered, and I was eager to get down off the pass while I still had sunshine. I broke camp and was set to leave by noon. Since Steve’s site had been empty on my return, I left him a note, telling him I was back safely, and thanking him for his information on the hikes.
Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek (8.1 miles)
The way down the pass on Brush Creek trail was uneventful. I listened to an audiobook to help pass the steep 5.4 miles. I saw no one. Clearly not many people camp at Whatcom Pass, at least not mid-week in mid-September.
At the junction of Brush Creek and Chilliwack Trail, I continued straight to reach Indian Creek Campground. It was only 2.7 miles from the junction, and I was making decent time. I wasn’t in a hurry as I knew I’d reach camp plenty early. The trail was once again brushy and thick, sometimes hard to see, and, remembering my fall on day one, I was careful with my footing.
Despite my best efforts to stay upright, however, I tripped and fell. Again. This time, I tried to save the fall with my left hand, instinctively protecting the broken finger on the right. In the process, I hyper-extended my left thumb. It hurt, and I instantly remembered my dad dislocating his thumb in a similar type fall skiing once when I was a child. An orthopedic surgeon, Dad put his own thumb back in place right there on the slope, the pain evident on his strong face. The memory made me cringe, as I lay face down in the dirt, pinned once again by my pack, but extremely thankful I wasn’t injured.
It did give me pause, though, two falls in three days. Was I a has-been with heavy pack hiking? I decided not, but I did feel shaky as I unbuckled my pack so I could crawl to my feet. I’d just have to further up my care and vigilance with footing. I hate falling, and twice was more than enough.
I knew I was close to Indian Creek, and I finished out the last half-mile ever so carefully. And humbly. A suspension bridge over Indian Creek brought me to the campground at 3:45. I dumped my pack with relief and went looking for a campsite. There were several, and no one else was there. I chose one close to water and the bathroom.
Chilling in the River!
I felt dirty and tired, and a dunk in Indian Creek was calling. I headed down with a change of clothes plus extra warm clothes, my camp towel, and water bottles to fill. I thought about going in the creek in my dirty clothes, but since no one was there, I stripped down to nothing and waded in. It was cold and invigorating! There was no place deep enough to dunk, and the water was moving rapidly, so I had to make do with cleaning up via bandana, splashing around happily like a bird in a bird bath. I even dunked my head to get the grime out of my hair. I felt cleansed and revived as I dried off on the shore. And glad no one had showed up! I filled up my water bottles, plunked in chlorine tablets, and returned to my campsite.
Back at camp, I set up my tent and prepared my space. It was a large site in which I could sprawl, my favorite. I cooked, ate, and was writing when a couple showed up about 7:00 and took a site up above mine. While I was prepared for solo camping, I’ll admit it was nice to have company. Eased my bear anxiety for sure.
Through my writing I processed the various events of the day. The interaction with Steve, the solo day hike to the lakes, the spectacular views, the fall on the trail, and the rejuvenating bath in the river. Another day that had it all. I reveled in gratitude as I prepared for bed: grateful to be there, uninjured, and ready for a good night’s sleep. I knew I’d need it, as the next day held longer miles with intense elevation gain.