Thursday, August 6, 2015

Empty mind in misty, rain-pocked pools (Weminuche Wilderness)

Wherever I am, the world comes after me. 
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe 
that I do not want it. Now I understand 
why the old poets of China went so far and high 
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist 
-- Mary Oliver, The Old Poets of China (in Why I Wake Early)

Highland Mary Lake, Weminuche Wilderness
It has become a weekly pattern: hike Friday, walk Saturday, sit Sunday. San Juans, park road, Rock Point; adventure, rhythm, pause.

During a late July “Adventure,” though, I made the mistake of simultaneously seeking “Pause,” or at least a day of restoration and touch of inspiration. After spending the work week clambering around hot, shrubby ridges and taking an informative but long trip to Florissant Fossil Beds, I wanted to escape to a place with cool air, open tundra, and, preferably, a calm, bright pool holding pockets of mirrored sky.  (Mountain lakes are both soothing and profound: according to David Hinton [Hunger Mountain], “ancient [Chinese poets and philosophers] recognized their most essential nature in such pools, for they saw empty mind in still water… an identity expansive as the mountain distances and bottomless skies it mirrors.”)
Island Lake, San Juan National Forest
Friends and guidebooks recommended Ice Lakes Trail, a popular route in the San Juan National Forest that leads hikers up to several of the area’s “most beautiful” blue lakes, nestled in the “most scenic” of tundra-carpeted and waterfall-ringed basins. ( )  Hoping to avoid crowds (and road construction), I left home at dawn and was at the trailhead by 8 a.m.  Although the parking area was, at that point, nearly full, as were the nearby South Mineral Campground and the “dispersed camping” sites alongside the access road, only three couples had signed the trail register ahead of me that morning.  (It turns out that the sign-in sheet is not an accurate count of actual use—I met 13 people in 6 groups on my way up.) Eager to be by the shores of a lake (and needing to warm up a little—the temperature in the shade was an unexpectedly chilly 39 degrees), I zipped right on up a series of forested switchbacks, across a few sunny meadows, and past those other hikers without stopping to chat, appreciate any of the scenic vistas, or contemplate the experience of the climb. Destination-bound: Lower Ice Lake!
Lower Ice Lake Basin

Nearing Upper Ice Lake
Um, I never saw Lower Ice Lake, though.  Sometime after I’d emerged into a wide, calendar-photo-style meadow bursting with wildflowers and ringed with waterfalls, I saw a spot of unnatural color out of the corner of my eye—a tent. A bunch of tents. They drew my attention to a small grove near a small stream that fed into a large, dark pond that I think was the lake, well behind and below.  Rather than backtrack and tromp through those people’s campsites to get to the water, I continued on, following the trail through the lush meadow, across a tumbling brook, and to the base of the falls-forming cliff, catching sight of several more tents along the way. Uncomfortably aware of how visible I was to all the campers in the basin, I hustled and huffed up the next set of switchbacks toward Upper Ice Lake.

I guess I’d presumed that this hike would be similar to Blue Lakes—busy at the lower lake but nearly deserted at the upper. As the trail led me away from the tent-filled meadow and steep, shrubby switchbacks toward a crest of Alpine tundra, I felt a warm mix of relief and anticipation—relief that I'd finally have some solitude and eagerness to see Upper Ice Lake, maybe nestle into a quiet seat for a few hours, watch the clouds and wait for marmots.
Upper Ice Lake
Anticipation and, worse yet, expectation can be ruinous. The lake was undeniably beautiful—turquoise-blue glacial water reflecting moss-carpeted hills, a bowl of rock-and-snow ridges, and, beyond them, a few happy cumulus in a deep summer-blue sky.  The weather was perfect, the day still young, I felt alive, beaming with mountain joy. But a sploosh broke the serenity. A kid had thrown a big rock into the lake, sending out ripples that broke the reflection. Then a dog jumped in after the rock. Then a dad yelled at the kid, another child’s voice chimed in...

I meant to skirt their campsite and find a quiet place to sit, but ran into a couple cooking breakfast outside their tent. Another tent was perched high above the opposite shore—was there nowhere left to go?

Without really knowing where I was heading, I followed a herd path to the south, crossing swells of open tundra and a few small snow patches to what turned out to be Fuller Lake. It was more rugged than serene--chunks of ice floated on its surface; snow and rock were sliding down from sharp peaks; what looked like a deserted miner's cabin sat rusting on its shore.  I should have just stayed there, watched the ravens and hoped for pikas. Instead, though, I got greedy. After spending just a few minutes rock-hopping around for better views, I decided to hit another lake before lunch. (Four in one day! Instead of peak-bagging, I was bent on pond-bagging!) 
Abandoned shack on Fuller Lake
Skim of ice on Fuller Lake
I returned to Upper Ice Lake (already busier) intending to hop the outlet stream and catch the trail to Island Lake.  When I saw a group of 5 begin the climb ahead of me, I was so disappointed that I almost left. 

I can't explain why I don't enjoy wild places when there are other people there. Selfishness? Jealousy? Pride?  Why does the Wilderness Act specifically mention "outstanding opportunities for solitude" as one of the critical components of the wilderness experience; why do wilderness managers focus on "solitude" as one of their key criteria? What is so fundamentally different about enjoying a lake or a mountain or a canyon alone vs. with hordes of other visitors, or even just a few?

Maybe it's that the presence of other people breaks an individual's connection with a place. Instead of getting to dissolve into a landscape, giving undivided attention to the rocks, the water, the brush, the birds, we can't help but be conscious of other humans, losing a little bit of our environmental awareness and getting distracted by a heightened sense of self-consciousness. It's not the same.

In the end, I did decide to go see Island Lake, and it was, hands-down, the most stunning place I’ve seen all summer: a single mound of solid grey rock breaching out of clear, almost-otherworldly blue water; symmetrical snowfields sweeping down to touch the edge of the pool; green moss; grey cliffs; blue blue sky.  I found a nice sunny rock to sit on out of view of the other hikers, took my shoes off and ate my lunch while watching light and shadow bring the scenery to life.
Island Lake
That said, sheer beauty wasn't enough for me.  I did my best to appreciate the place--to recognize if not absorb some of its magic--but those other hikers were hovering at the edge of my mind; I couldn't find a sense of a calm. Didn’t stay long.

On the way down to Upper Ice Lake, I saw dozens of people clustered at its shore. Onward.  I crossed paths with several dozen on the way to Lower Ice Lake. Onward. I must have seen more than a hundred people that day--all friendly, all happy to be there, all of us out looking for a little bit of fresh air, a little bit of adventure. “Beautiful day!” we’d nod to one another. (Strangely, whenever anyone stopped to ask, “how much farther? Is it worth it?,” I advised them to take the extra spur to Island Lake. Even though I’d wanted it all to myself when I was there, I was still eager to share it, maybe hope that someone else would find meaning in its calm waters, its mirrored mountains.)

Crowds on Upper Ice Lake
Now for an unexpected "Pause" that same weekend:

After the thoroughly disappointing day at Ice Lakes, I continued on with my plans to hike a shorter, less scenic and thus less popular trail—Highland Mary Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness. Finding the access road busy and campsites all full, I nearly just went home. (In fact, I did turn around and drive away, then, sigh, turned back around again and stayed, figuring I'd better at least give Colorado a chance to redeem itself.)  After pitching my tent in a quiet corner of the wilderness and packing up at daybreak, I followed the trail through trees and brush alongside a steep, rocky stream up to mossy tundra, meeting no other people en route. I reached the first of the cool, quiet Highland Mary Lakes just in time to see the low blanket of clouds mirrored in the perfectly smooth water before raindrops began to pock and ripple the reflection. I sat for a while, soaking in the muted brilliance of the greens and greys, the quietude, the lonely calm, before continuing onward--more Highland Mary Lakes; Verde Lakes; the Continental Divide Trail--saturated, sated.

Highland Mary Lakes
Tundra before Verde Lakes

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