Due east of Odessa Lake, on a small shelf two hundred feet up the north slope of Joe Mills Mountain, sits a small puddle of a lake. It has no inlet stream to fill it with snowmelt and no outlet stream to drain it. With an area of about a third of an acre, it’s not much larger than the suburban lot my house sits on.
I suspect it is rarely visited, being somewhat difficult to find. I’ve tried to reach it twice before, without success. The only reason I want to go there is to add it to the list of lakes I’ve been to. I admit that’s probably too much effort to reach a body of water not much more than a puddle that probably doesn’t even merit the designation of “lake”.
Chad told me he wanted to go on a hike so we agreed on a date and I made a plan. I decided we should circumambulate around Joe Mills Mountain as on my first attempt at Marigold. According to CalTopo, the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh was burned. Round Pond sits on that saddle. Based on what I saw on my Spruce Lake hike, I suspect the trees around the pond have survived. Why not find out? It doesn’t add any miles to the trip, but it does exchange trail miles for bushwhacking miles.
Saturday, October 22
The Park was very busy. The shuttle from the Park and Ride to Bear Lake was standing room only. We put boots on the trail at about 8:30.
It was a bit chilly. The forecast for the vicinity was “sunny and breezy, with a high of 46”. There were some thin clouds much of the day, but we could always see our shadows. In the woods, the wind is no big deal, and most of the day we’d be in the woods, so “sunny and breezy” sounds like a nice day.
An hour up the trail, we hit our departure point and headed cross-country. Our route would be to contour around Joe Mills Mountain at more or less 10,400′. From the trail to about the pond, the forest isn’t terribly dense and deadfall isn’t too bad, so the bushwhacking is a fairly pleasant stroll through the woods.
Before long, the ground in front of us started sloping down: we had reached the saddle, a bit west of it’s lowest point. We wandered around here for a short while looking for Round Pond but didn’t spot it. Frankly, it has a half-hearted search. I was more interested in getting to the burn. Missing Round Pond isn’t missing much.
The forest is denser on the north side of the mountain, and soon we’d need to traverse a fairly steep slope for a while, westbound to Marigold Lake. But first we started seeing burnt trees. Just individual trees here and there, all deadfall; burned with almost no damage to the surrounding forest. One was still standing: a hollow tree, like a chimney. After several of these we arrived at the edge of the burn scar.
I was expecting the edge to be “fuzzy”. Indistinct. Maybe a border of trees that didn’t ignite and kept their dead, red needles. But no. Green, apparently healthy trees directly adjacent to scorched earth: charred tree trunks standing like giant whiskers. The hillside won’t get shaved, but almost all those dead tree trunks will fall to the ground over the next several years.
It has been two years since the fire. Two summer growing seasons have passed. On my hike to Spruce Lake, the entire burn scar was carpeted with fireweed. Here, there were large areas where the ground is still black. I was surprised to find occasional piles of ash. I suspect they’re in dried puddles and the ash accumulated here. It’s bone dry now: disturb the frail crust and raise a bloom of ash.
On my hike to Spruce Lake, I noticed that the char on the trees is only a couple of millimeters thick, and it’s starting to flake off the dead wood. Here, I saw many interesting logs where the charred part has come off. The wood burned to different depths in random patterns, creating little topographic maps out of the tree rings.
As I said earlier, as we head west, the slope gets fairly steep for a while until we reach the bench that Marigold sits on. The forest isn’t burned here and is dense and there is much deadfall. It is a challenging route for about a third of a mile.
Chad had taken a little tumble shortly after we left the trail and his ankle was a bit tender. Now he mentioned that he was no longer enjoying the dinner he had so enjoyed last night. Then he asked me how steep I thought this slope was. And he was huffing and puffing.
We found a spot with a couple of flat rocks and a nice view and took a break. He told me later how uncomfortable he was. I had been thoughtless. Almost everyone I hike with is quite happy to go places I’m not comfortable going, so somehow I had the idea that, if I was okay going there, anyone would be okay with it. I know exactly what it’s like to find myself in terrain that makes me uncomfortable. It’s stressful. I should have gone over the route with Chad beforehand.
If we’ve navigated correctly, we’ll exit the steep, dense forest onto the bottom of a talus gully, right next to Marigold Lake. We came out a little bit below the lake but found it soon enough. After the dense forest, I was expecting that this pond would have no view. The view of Little Matterhorn from here is quite nice. In my plans, we were to take a nice break here, but unfortunately, there’s no place to sit. So we pressed on.
From Marigold Lake back to the trail, we’d go up a gully gaining about two hundred feet of elevation, then cross a fair amount of talus until we reached the Fern Lake trail about two-thirds of the way from Odessa Lake to the summit of the pass near Lake Helene. Although it’s a rather large talus field, the rocks are small and easy to cross and there are occasional outcroppings of grass.
Did I mention it was breezy? To now, it hadn’t been an issue. Sure, it was windy, the trees swayed quite a bit. On the forest floor, it wasn’t windy enough to disturb ashes. Crossing the talus was another matter. The wind was howling down from Ptarmigan Point unobstructed. I’d guess sustained winds were twenty miles per hour with gusts over forty or fifty. Several times, I was nearly blown over.
On the way, I came across the oddest thing. I found a solar-powered light. The kind with a stake on the end, so you can drive it into your lawn. Who would bring such a thing to the middle of a talus field? And leave it there? I packed it out. How long could it have been out here? The stickers on it were still intact. It came from WalMart.
Back on the trail, we reach the top of the pass, where the trail returns to the trees and out of the wind and it’s all downhill from here. We stopped for a break on a couple of nice, flat rocks in the sun on the lee side of a slope above what as late as August would be a small pond but is now dry ground.
Today’s beer was a repeat: Palisade Peach.
When we got back to Bear Lake, the line for the shuttle was pretty long. After the first bus loaded, it looked like there was more than a busful of people still in line in front of us. Somehow, we managed to get sardined onto the second bus. We didn’t even stop at the Glacier Gorge trailhead on the way down.
Traffic was bad all the way from the Park to my house. We were back to the car pretty much on my expected schedule, but by the time Chad dropped me off at home, it was half an hour later than expected. Traffic sucks.
I enjoyed my day. I can finally cross Marigold off the list (or, more accurately, put it on the list). Marigold Lake had a nicer view than I expected, but I don’t think I’ll ever bother to return.
The time exploring the burned area was particularly rewarding. It won’t be like this for very long. The ash and black will soon be gone, and grass and wildflowers will soon be here. And I hope this will be the last fire in the Park for an extended period.
I’m sorry that I led Chad into a situation that he didn’t enjoy.