Porcupine 1

Ptarmigan Creek is about six and a half miles up the North Inlet trail. The creek joins North Inlet after falling about a thousand feet in about half a mile. The creek drains a hanging valley called “The Wonderland”. In this large valley are Bench Lake, perched above War Dance Falls, and three high alpine lakes: Ptarmigan Lake, Snowdrift Lake, and “Wonderland Lake”. (“Wonderland Lake” is not officially named but is widely used.)

I’ve day hiked to Ptarmigan Lake and Bench Lake and know that the other two are well out of my single-day range. Regular readers will recall that I’m a big fan of the North Inlet Trail. My two longest day hikes were on this trail. Gordon and I did a backpacking trip three years ago and on the hike out, I paid particular attention to the locations of each of the campsites near Ptarmigan Creek.

The plan was to spend two nights at Porcupine, a quarter of a mile from Ptarmigan Creek. Hike in on Friday, spend all day Saturday in “The Wonderland” in an attempt to visit Snowdrift Lake and “Wonderland Lake”, and hike out on Sunday. Here’s what Lisa Foster says about reaching Snowdrift and Wonderland:

Reaching the lakes involves slogging through marshland and bushwhacking into stunted forest, then scrambling over rough talus fields to boulder-strewn granite benches.

In the off-season, I bought a new sleeping bag and repaired or replaced equipment due to the squirrel incident last year. I have not fully repaired the backpack – the damn squirrel ate a good amount of the webbing. I might still need to have the webbing repaired, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. I replaced the half-eaten poles with a pair of carbon fiber ones with cam-style locks.

Friday, July 28

I’m starting to get paranoid about how early I need to get to the trailhead in order to get parking. The campsite is seven miles from the trailhead, which is a fair distance, but you only climb 800′, and the trail has many extended sections that allow you to keep a long, steady stride, as if on a sidewalk. I figure three or three and a half hours is all it will take. There’s no point in getting to the trailhead at 7 am. Given an estimate of two and a half hours drive to the trailhead and three and a half hiking to camp, Gordon suggested he pick me up at 9. If we don’t get to park in the lot, we’ll have to add a quarter of a mile each way to the hike. My worries were needless: there was room for five or six more vehicles.

I haven’t hiked the North Inlet trail since the fire. But I have hiked through several recent burn scars so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. What struck me this time was the scale of the fire. I hiked on the western fringes of the fire last summer. The extent of the East Troublesome fire east of the Divide is greater than either the Fern Lake fire or the Big Meadows fire. The area that East Troublesome burned east of the Divide is a tiny fraction of what East Troublesome burned in the Park. And the acreage burned in the Park is a tiny fraction of the total fire.

Wildfires are a natural part of the life cycle of the forest. But, historically, fires never burned such large areas. More than a century ago, we decided it would be a good thing to suppress wildfires. So we have a century’s worth of accumulated fuel piling up on the forest floors, and we have a lot of dead trees due to beetle kill.

The trail begins with a stretch of total devastation. I expect that trees next to lakes or streams will survive these fires. The trees along Fern Creek survived this fire, but even around the much larger North Inlet, the trees were burned. Without the forest, the terrain is revealed. Everything in sight is totally burned.

Totally burned: no trees survive. All the trunks are still standing. The fire only burns a couple of millimeters into the tree, not rendering it to ash but roasting it. The needles are gone as are many of the branches. Over the next thirty years, almost all of these dead tree trunks will fall. Deadfall accumulated prior to the fire burned in a similar way, but often with a thicker layer of charcoal.

Also totally burned: the cabin that was about twenty minutes up the trail from the parking lot. It was well-maintained and looked to see regular service. All that’s left now is the “Private Property: Stay on Trail” sign and the old hand pump for the water well.

Last year, near Fern Lake, fireweed was by far the most common living plant. Today, fireweed is still in abundance, but many of the rest of the cast of wildflowers are present as well. If you can stand a long walk in direct sunlight, this should be a great wildflower hike for many years.

Maybe an hour into the hike, we met a group on horseback heading back to the trailhead. I asked them how much farther until we get some shade. The guy I asked laughed. “Back at camp!” In fact, though, it wasn’t that much farther. The area around Cascade Falls didn’t burn too badly. The fire burned thoroughly on the bank opposite the trail, but nothing on the north side of the stream was burned. We took a break here in the shade of the trees and the spray of the falls and had lunch.

Above Cascade Falls, the trail reenters the burn scar. It’s not a long section, and the burn ends before Big Pool. Above Big Pool, there is still some burn, but it’s not totally burned. In places, it looks like the fire was on the ground rather than in the crowns of the trees. Deadfall is blackened, standing beetle kill trees are charred at the base, but many trees still live.

Porcupine campsite is about a quarter of a mile beyond Ptarmigan Creek and is on the opposite side of North Inlet as the trail. It is reached by crossing a long bridge made out of a tree trunk sawn flat. It bounces when you cross it and bounces oddly when two people are crossing it.

There are two sites here. We took the western one without even looking at the other one. The western one is very close to the bridge and only a few yards from the stream. After we were set up, I decided to find out whether we made the correct choice. The eastern camp is about a hundred paces from the bridge and not anywhere near water. Other than that, they were much the same, down to identical sawn-log benches. Due to our easy proximity to water, I think we made the right choice. That camp was unoccupied when I looked, and we never saw anybody cross the bridge. I’m surprised that a campsite went unused.

We had nice weather all afternoon. Clear skies above us, but threatening weather to our north. We got sprinkled on briefly. We met a group of four backpackers; we caught up to them and we ended up passing each other a couple of times. I passed them when it was starting to rain and they stopped to don their rain gear. I told them that I could guarantee it would stop raining if I went to the effort of putting my rain jacket on. Amusingly, it quit raining before I was out of their sight.

Our camp was visited by a lone doe. She seemed pretty habituated to people. She would come within feet of us or our gear until one of us made eye contact with her. Even then, she only retreated a few yards. She was browsing around our camp for fifteen or twenty minutes before she crossed the river.

The south side of the river near the camp was unburned, but just across the river, the fire had gone through on the ground. Looking across to the other side of the valley: charred deadfall, charred beetle kill, and still quite a few live trees.

Passing through the areas of total devastation we were unmolested by mosquitoes. At camp, though, it was another story. My third application of repellent was finally enough to get the little buggers to not land on me. They hovered persistently, though, much to my annoyance.

As it was getting dark, I asked Gordon what time sunset was. “Astronomical or civil?” I rephrased the question: When will we see our first star? Neither of us offered a guess, which turned out to be the correct answer. It was cloudy and we never saw any stars. I was awakened during the night by a short rain but otherwise slept well.

And what did I forget to pack? Just paper towels. Genae even asked if I had some, and I showed her a Ziploc bag with what turned out to be nothing but toilet paper. If this is my biggest problem, it’ll be a great trip.