colchuck lake (f**k! i almost hit a bear!)

I nearly ran over a black bear cub this morning on Icicle River Road just before Eight Mile Campground, that’s what I yelped out loud in full drama queen fashion: “FUCK! I almost hit a bear! I almost hit a bear!” Boy, the old heart valves sure had a workout. I was only driving about five miles per hour with Diana’s car, so it was in electric mode (whisper quiet): And that little bear was probably groggy after raiding someone’s bread crumbs. I had my camera on the seat next to me, I was killing time while Diana finished at the Sleeping Lady down the road. If my adrenaline hadn’t flushed the wits out of me I’d have pulled over right there and tried to take a picture of the cub dashing up the dusty, piney mountainside. But you know how it is, they disappear pretty fast. I stopped along the river a few times to ogle the mountainside and snap a few pictures to study later. I ended up on Road 7620, which I’d been on the day before to get to the Colchuck Lake trailhead. There was a bend in the road about a mile from the Icicle, with a dramatic view downvalley. The light was poor, but it was worth it to take in the view again. Last night I couldn’t stop at that interesting place in the road. I had to hurry back down to the Sleeping Lady, I missed the rendezvous with Diana by more than an hour (she was reading and resting). She said it was fine, we still went into tiresomely schlocky Leavenworth for dinner. Fortunately it was late enough the hub-bub of sunburned tourists had died down. We enjoyed our meal at Visconti’s, an italian restaurant we chose based on the absence of any German food. The cuisine is passable, what was really nice was the upstairs balcony where we ate. It was a refreshing night and the view of the mountains made the food taste three times better.

Diana had a board meeting all day Friday on the other side of the Cascades at the Sleeping Lady, a mountain resort that aims to be rustic and environmentally-conscious at the same time. The Sleeping Lady is a holding of Seattle’s old Bullitt family (in this case, Harriet, who counts flamenco dancing as one of her interests). Coincidentally, the Bullitt Foundation’s current building project on Madison Street, not far from our house, is being heavily trumpeted as an innovative construction project for its emphasis on environmental sustainability. It’s a worthy project, but I still miss what used to be there before it became a hole-then-concrete-frame in the ground: I was never a patron of CC Attle’s (a popular bear bar) when it was there but I liked the festive atmosphere and friendly chattering that made that part of the Hill feel lived-in. There are more people living along Madison Street in that area with new apartment and condo buildings, but the homey look of the old bar’s covered patio has been replaced by huge plate glass windows.

At any rate, Diana asked me if I’d want to tag along with her. The timing was good: My mom arrived in town this week to help us with Adam during Bambino’s arrival. Grandma and Adam were happy to get rid of us so they could have the house to themselves. Adam was perhaps a little too enthusiastic, haha!  So yesterday after Diana deserted me for her all-day meeting, I left our suitcase in the cabin and headed up the spectacularly scenic Icicle Creek road for a hike. I settled on Colchuck Lake as my destination. To get to the trailhead, you shortly turn off Icicle Creek road and then drive about four miles up dusty Road 7601. It being a weekday, the big dirt parking area for this extremely popular hike was pleasantly mob-free. Hallelujah. I checked the time before setting off: Noon on the dot! Blindingly bright, dry-side Cascades sunshine and blue skies: I was a little worried about my head getting sunburned. I wore my favorite Tacoma Rainiers hat, the red one with mesh in the back.

Colchuck Lake is one of the popular hikes in this neighborhood of the Cascades, it’s an astoundingly scenic destination that deserves to be visited in spite of its popularity. So I have to say I’m very pleased I could visit on a quiet afternoon.  Part of the reason Colchuck is so popular is that increasingly over the years it has become something of a “back-door” route into the fabled Enchantment Lakes area, which otherwise have to be entered by way of the much longer Snow Lakes route. To diehards of the Sierra Nevada the pools and high granite expanses of the Enchantments may seem commonplace, but around here they’re legendary. It seems like everybody won’t shut up about the Enchantments, so it’d be easy to get the impression Colchuck is just a good place to refill your water bottle. Don’t make that mistake: Colchuck is amazing and no drop in the bucket even if all the ninnies marching off to the Enchantments for their bucket lists would have you believe otherwise.

Colchuck Lake is a 9 mile hike, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The first 2.5 miles had me feeling as if I was on the edge of a cliffhanger. It’s a gradual 1,100 feet up through aromatic dusty leeward woods with the ever-present sound of rushing water and one crossing over impressive Mountaineer Creek that left me dying for more and wondering when the mountains of the Stuart Range would really come into earnest view.  Then I reached a junction at the 2.5 mile mark: Lake Stuart was straight ahead. Branching left, in a tenth of a mile I came to another exciting crossing (number two of the sturdy log bridges designed to withstand the torrent of Spring runoff) of Mountaineer Creek with an astounding view south over a humongous jumblefield of boulders. Looming (no, peeking) over a high rim of forest above were incredible rocky ridgelines I knew to be the gateway sentinels of the upper Enchantments. I could tell right away those were the mountains that nestle Colchuck Lake: The sight of them had me thinking I was a lot closer than I really was. Something about “two more miles” didn’t compute and so the final-going was torturously slow. I kept thinking I should be there already and then the trail would take another torturous, albeit scenic, switchback. Torturous, I say.

The lake met my expectations, I couldn’t have asked for a more overwhelming alpine setting. Colchuck is big, but Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks are even bigger. I spotted two flea-sized dots on Colchuck Glacier, climbers preparing for their exciting afternoon glissade.  The sun was still a little too high for at least good documentary shooting, I’d reached the lake in 2.5 hours (it was 2:35). So I rounded the northwest side of the lake and found a good granite bench perched high above the lake whereupon I scarfed a quart of water, two bananas, a granola bar and a Ritter Sport chocolate biscuit. Humongous black ants marching dutifully around my sweaty body made me decide it was time to head to water’s edge, where I tested the temperature with my fingers (too cold for a swim in my underwear, which I was seriously contemplating) and thereafter I did some leisurely shooting.

I got a lot of very interesting (though not necessarily “good”) pictures. The blue skies I hiked in under were already changing to high gauzy white, my arrival to Colchuck was rudely greeted by the dreaded circle sun dog rainbow. There was just barely enough blue in the sky to make shooting the serrated mountaintops above not completely worthless, but yet I enjoyed myself. I spent a couple hours wandering the lakeshore. A chipmunk obviously experienced in the ways of humans broke into my camera backpack like a Las Vegas casino vaultineer, I happened upon him finishing off the last of my chocolate chip granola bar. He’d crawled into the half-zipped backpack and somehow pulled the foil wrapper out through an opening less than a 1/2 inch wide. Thereafter I had to watch my things like a bulldog. But then I said what the heck, there was no food left.

I wish Colchuck had appeared in it’s blue-green of lore, but I felt deeply satisfied to visit on such a nice, quiet day. The way down back to the trailhead was mildy torturous, I was running late to meet Diana back at our cabin so I kept a brisk pace. But it was a fine introduction to this gem of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I’ll share more pictures this week and I promise they’ll get better as I go….

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