Far over the misty mountains bold

Adventures on the West Side Trail, continued

The next morning we awoke (still a bit jetlagged) under cheerfully cloudless blue skies. Amongst the bustle of the morning, I put my contacts in. One of them was torn, due to lack of light when I’d put them away the night before. It was with great relief that I recalled I had actually thought to tuck two new contacts into my pack the night before. No problem! I got the new contact and popped it in.

Or dropped it rather, I thought. Everything was still totally fuzzy, and nothing felt wrong in my eye. I felt all around. I looked everywhere. I called my husband to help. We searched and searched. A tent isn’t that large a place — there was no drain for it to fall down. But we couldn’t find it. I had one spare contact left. If I put it in, I would have no backup, but after fruitless searching, I had no other choice.

I put the second contact in. And I dropped it too, not to be found! But wait! What are the odds of that? I wear contacts every single day. I put them in and take them out no problem. Dropping two in a row and not having them findable? My husband looked at me and said, “Are you SURE it’s not in your eye?” I think you see where this is going. I took one contact of my eye. Then I took a second. I put one back in. I took it out and put the other in. Nothing. Totally out of my element, I left one of the not-helpful contact in and attempted to proceed with my day. It was hard. The information from my bad eye was very confusing. I had trouble judging distances (very bad on the trail with steps down and up, etc.) I kept closing my eye to rest my poor brain. And, in the rush, despite being on the list, I had not packed my glasses.

Disaster. But what could you do? We started hiking anyway.

Between Golden Lakes and North Puyallup is a truly lovely section of trail. There’s an ancient burn area jutting out from the mountain with blueberries, old whitened tree trunks and spectacular views on every side. As we stood with our backs turned to the astonishing mountain that is Rainier and gazed out on the Cascades, I remarked that anywhere else, this Cascade-view would be worthy of its own National Park. The breeze blowed strongly, whisking away the mosquitoes and flies which were our persistent companions this trip. The sun was hot, but the wind blowing off the glaciers was refreshing. It was the sort of trail that seems as though it might go on for many chapters of the story. The only problem was the one-eyedness, and that indeed was a problem, but it couldn’t spoil my delight.

Between Golden Lakes and North Puyallup
Between Golden Lakes and North Puyallup

We stopped for a break at what my mother and I, on one of our previous (failed) attempts at the West Side had called “Almost There” Creek. It is not, for the record, almost to North Puyallup. It is a lovely example of one of the cascades the mountains are named for. The water is cold and crystal clear, crashing down on rocks and crags with the exuberance of youth. There are deeper pools and white shards of water. It is surrounded on all sides by vast trees in the primes of their fir-existence. For all the glory of the mountain, this little crossing is actually one of my favorite spots on the trail.

North Puyallup Campground, on the other hand, is not. For the record, the toilet is out at the campground and you have to cross a very perilous bridge and walk roughly 1/4 mile to get to the toilet that IS functional. It’s buggy, hot, overgrown and unpleasant. The North Puyallup River roils and boils with dangerous intensity under your feet as you cross the bridge. The walk up out of North Puyallup is another toil. The view of Mt. Rainier is lovely. That’s about all that can be said for it. Unlike the other climbs/descents, this one is largely in a vast gash from a 20 year old avalanche. You walk through switchback after switchback of nasty scrub, full of devil’s club and clingy, itchy bracken. The footing is insecure. The bugs are plentiful and determined. It was, therefore, a great delight when we crested the slope to come to Klapatchee Camground and Aurora Lake.

Klapatchee had the worst bugs of our stay. (Travelers the other direction told us that the bugs at aptly named Devil’s Dream campground were epic. One described them as ‘Biblical’.) We had used our head nets before, but they were critical to any enjoyment of that lovely little lake. Our campground looked out past the Park to the West, and there was an amazing view of Mt. Rainier reflected in shallow Aurora Lake, which was teeming with frogs, tadpoles and water beetles. (We had no cell reception. I was hoping we would. We had no cell reception anywhere.) We read each other “The Hobbit” in the quiet of a starlit tent.

We climbed Aurora Peak, to the right
We climbed Aurora Peak, to the right

That night’s dinner was Mexican Style Rice & Chicken by Mountain House. It was bland, but acceptable. The other meals were to be preferred. I also figured out that the spare contact I’d brought with mere were of a prescription +2.75. My prescription is -2.75. I’d ditched the bad contact at Almost There Creek, and things improved.

It took us nearly 2 hours to break camp every morning, but the third day it mattered less. We only had 4 miles to go. Hiking out of Klapatchee Park campground, we saw an enticing trail break away from the Wonderland, without the standard, “This isn’t a trail, don’t walk here” boilerplate that the park service puts up when it doesn’t want you meadow stomping. A careful analysis of the trail even indicated some maintenance, so we decided it would be ok if we checked it out. We dropped our packs on the trail, and headed up Aurora Peak.

Boy, were we glad we dropped them. It was STEEP. It was gorgeous. We walked through fragrant fields of bee-busy lupine in the morning sun. Towards the top, there were dropoffs that made me cling to the trail with all my might. They were likely not survivable. It is a strange thing to do something which is truly perilous — we’re prevented in so much of our lives from doing anything really dangerous (except driving) by guard rails and warning signs. All that was between us and falling to our deaths on the rocks below was our own common sense and a few scraggly flowers. But the view from the top of Aurora Peak was astounding. We could see our paths ahead and behind. We could see as far as the Olympics (sadly it was a bit hazy). It was extremely buggy, so we didn’t linger long. Even our headnets didn’t protect us enough.

The view from Aurora Peak
The view from Aurora Peak

We took our time crossing St. Andrews Park, then headed down to South Puyallup. For a lowland campground, South Puyallup is lovely. The toilet there is set against these amazing basalt cliffs. There were very few bugs there (to our relief and amazement). The forest canopy is high and deep. The campground is delightful, even if the water could be improved. We got in early, so we had plenty of leisure time. At one point, Adam said, “Brenda, what are you doing?” Lying there, my boots off, looking up at the dancing branches, I sighed deeply and happily replied, “Nothing.”

The amazing basalt cliffs
The amazing basalt cliffs

We ate two dinners that night. These backpacker dinners are only 300 – 400 calories a serving, which is less than I eat for dinner when I’m dieting and NOT enough to feed a body that’s been working as hard as ours did. We didn’t bring enough breakfasts, so I wanted to be as full as possible that night, and I knew that with a hard, 11.5 mile day the next day we’d need our strength. They were both excellent: Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce, and Mountain House Chicken a la King with Noodles.

Even pushing hard, it STILL took us 2 hours to break camp on our out day. We woke up early, but somehow found it was 9 by the time we hit the trail. We had 2.5 uphills and 3 major downhills over 11.5 miles to do. Even without having to make camp at the end, that’s tough. The first vista of the day was Emerald Ridge. It’s one of the oddest places on the trail – a place where you become unnervingly aware that Mt. Rainier is an active volcano. A red scree falls of to your left — ferrous stone left behind by a glacier. To your right these strange moraines — long straight ridges like the ominous backs of sleeping giants. No loam underfoot, only slippy rock, clattering against your ankles and making footing treacherous.

The ferrous glacier-foot of Emerald Ridge
The ferrous glacier-foot of Emerald Ridge

Ominous dragon-back ridges at Emerald Ridge
Ominous dragon-back ridges at Emerald Ridge

At the bottom of the downhill comes a vast suspension bridge. This is no section for agoraphobics. It is high. It is narrow. It swings. And there is no 911. It was fun. The uphill afterwards, however, was the most brutal of the trip for me. I knew we needed to make time, so I tried to keep up with Adam’s pace. About halfway I had a litany of why I couldn’t, starting with “I gave birth 9 months ago” and ending with “I have a torn meniscus in my left knee” with a few stops in between.

Not for the faint-hearted
Not for the faint-hearted

The top of THAT uphill is Indian Henry’s. Indian Henry is a gorgeous area. However, at the best of times it’s extremely buggy. In this bumper year for bugs, it was nearly unendurably so. We pelted through the alpine meadows, glancing back over our shoulders at the mountain as we ran. We hiked with our nets on, which was hot but preferable to the alternatives. (At one point on the journey, a woman told me that if she had $100 she would give it to me for my hat/headnet combination. I wouldn’t have taken it.) We kept pushing through Devil’s Dream, which was truly infested.
The iconic cabin at Indian Henry's
The iconic cabin at Indian Henry's

The downhill out of Devil’s Dream was actually not bad. South Puyallup seemed a million years ago. The crossings were tough at Pyramid Creek. The uphill to the top of Rampart Ridge was not so bad. About halfway down Rampart Ridge, we met a couple. I greeted them with the standard backpacker’s greeting, “Where are you headed?” We chatted. Then they said, “Are you Aunt Brenda?” My sweet niece Kay had asked them, they said, if they knew me. The kids were on the trail to meet us. A new wind swept under my weary feet and we fairly flew down the rest of the mountain, until we heard childish voices. My sweet boy Grey ran forward to give (deet-covered, sweaty and smelly) me a big hug. Baz swung his walking stick perilously as he carefully explained what they were doing.

We were home.