CLOUDY - MEATBALLS OPTIONAL
by Kristine Lowder
That was the forecast when we packed up kit and caboodle to explore the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Okay, not exactly. But it was close. There may be no better "forecast" for exploring the hidden pleasures, mysterious lore, and endless opportunities for disaster when hiking to places like “Frozen Lake” at Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park.
An idyllic alpine aerie perched at 6,400 feet on the Mountain’s eastern hip, Sunrise is the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle. It’s also a rare treat, open but eight two months a year due to immense quantities of snow. Think Himalayan. So when we hear the Sunrise road is still open in late September, we decide in a nano-second.
We’ve missed Sunrise for the last five years running due to snow, so when Washington weather chokes the sky like steamed spaghetti and clouds dish out rain like overcooked marinara, we figure we’re not gonna let a little water wilt our plans. (Bet they said that on the Titanic.) We soon discover that Sage Son Sam, Boy Wonder, has totally ignored instructions to pack a jacket.
“But it’s sunny outside and I’m dyin’ of heat stroke!”
Right. That was yesterday. Doesn’t mean a thing at Mount Rainier, where the Old Girl stretches 14,410 ft. into the sky, snags moisture-laden air high-tailing it off the Pacific, and routinely creates her own weather. Not to be outsmarted by the O.G., we come outfitted for a Nordic expedition because we KNOW the Mountain. (Which is sort of like claiming to “know” how they make legislation.). Good thing Dad brought extra layers and was willing to part with a few!
Anyway, we reach Sunrise after lunch and find the Visitor’s Center is still open, despite what we’ve been told. A couple of volunteers will “man the fort” for one more week. (They’re native southern Californians, which pretty much explains everything.) Inside the stone-and-log edifice, we hunker down in front of the fireplace and wait for the weather to calm down into a hurricane. It doesn’t. So we don parkas, zip up hoods, double-lace our Itascas, and head out. Oh, and did we mention that it’s 38 degrees outside?
Naturally, we choose the trail to Frozen Lake.. It’s an easy leg stretcher of three miles. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that “easy” on a nice summer day doesn’t quite translate that way on a wind-whipped, rainy, “Mom, I can’t feel my fingers anymore!” afternoon. For one thing, the moon-rock dust of this hike has morphed into an Amazonian clone, complete with ankle-deep mud. The uphill route through alpine tundra is also above the tree-line.
This may not mean anything to you clueless hiking rookies sipping tea in front of your furnace at this very moment, but no tree mean no shade, no cover, and no protection from the elements.
Not to worry as husband Chris points out in his best Clark Griswoldism, “Buck up kids, it’s all part of the adventure.” (Bet Custer said that at the Little Big Horn.)
Earlier in the season, the Frozen Lake/Fremont Lookout trail offers spectacular views of the Mountain to the south and the entire Cascade chain to the north. At one point you stand in a draw on a ridge no wider than a street, and have trouble deciding which way to focus your attention. Unless, of course, you’re hiking during Hurricane Ike, the Mountain is zipped into a pea-soup fog and you can either open your eyes to incoming rain flung sideways like stinging nettle or hike blind. As for vistas, well, we’ll settle for seeing our hands in front of our faces.
But we gamely “batten down the hatches” and continue hiking while winds howl off the Emmons Glacier, the largest single glacier in the lower 48. Chests heaving, boots squishing, we cross a God-forsaken draw that resembles a moonscape. Just over our shoulders is a lake. It’s fenced, with a thick chunk of snow on its chest. Trouble is, there’s no identifying marker. Just a few signs declaring, “Domestic water supply.”
What is this, Final Jeopardy? (We later learn that this deep, aqua pool is in fact Frozen Lake, which serves as the drinking water supply for Sunrise. Nice to know these things ex post facto.)
So, not yet convinced that we’ve reached “Frozen Lake” – on a day like this, what else could it be? - we chug on doggedly in search of our elusive hydrological prey. Son Josiah is just short of full-scale meltdown. Sam has long since abandoned all attempts to ward off frostbite, which is now chowing down on his exposed ears. The standard “I told you …” parental lecture ensues, but seeing as how it falls on frozen ears, there’s not much point.
“Isn’t this fun?” husband Chris grins. The troops aren’t quite convinced, but it’s hard to argue when your jaw is frozen shut. We check map, guidebook, and compass, fuel up the kids on trail mix, granola bars and raw meat (just kidding) so they can make it back to Sunrise sans travois. Man. The rate at which an “exhausted, too cold, too tired, can’t make it, gonna die” kid can race down a homeward bound trail is the stuff of legends.
Back at Sunrise, the Visitor Center resembles Starbucks on Saturday night. It’s packed. Space at the fireplace is hotter than a fifty yard line ticket at the Super Bowl. In their best rendition of drowned rats, a troupe of bicyclists from Enumclaw arrives, sloshing water like bipedal amphibians. These guys have pedaled 65 miles in the rain. They get to turn around and head back as soon as they unclog their gills. So do we.
Speaking of “returns,” we arrive back at the Ohanapecosh campground and and figure when any tent resembles choice Okefenokee real estate it’s time to pack up and skedaddle. Which is another way of saying “cloudy – meatballs optional.”
A multi-published author, Kristine Lowder resides in Washington state with her husband, Chris, their four sons, and one yellow Labrador retriever, Eve. She enjoys hiking, reading, camping (except for the tent part), fishing (except for the fish part) and swimming (except for the water part). Visit her at: http://www.KristineLowder.yolasite.com.