Pine Marten 2

Friday, September 25

We awoke to another beautiful day in the neighborhood. That is, I should say “I awoke” because Gordon had a sleepless night.

Last night when I hit the sack, I plugged my phone into my battery. For some reason, the phone insists on being powered on when it’s charging. It read 46%. A few minutes later, it read 47%. Good, it’s charging. When I woke up, the phone was at 0%. The cable had come undone and the phone just ran down.

This is a bit of a problem. The phone is my only camera. The SLR, which failed on the Renegade trip, was still not back from Canon. I plugged the phone back into the battery and set it on a stable base. It got up to 38% by the time we hit the trail a bit before nine.

This might be the time for peak aspen in the Park, I don’t know. There aren’t many aspens in the valley. It’s all pine, so you might not expect much color. You’d be wrong. In this pine forest, the autumn colors are on the ground. The leaves go from green to green and yellow to yellow to gold then a bright red and finally to a dull brown. Sometimes large areas are all one color, sometimes all the colors show up within a few feet.

In a pine forest, autumn colors are on the ground, not in the trees

I’d said that we’d be to Nokoni in an hour (which is what it took yesterday) and to Nanita an hour after that. As expected, it did take an hour to reach Nokoni, but we made it from Nokoni to Nanita in forty minutes. None of that territory was new to me. I had also said it would take another hour to get to Catherine. That turned out to be quite optimistic.

We made our way across Nanita’s outlet and quickly found a game trail. I thought of yesterday’s ranger calling them “moose trails”. I’m not sure why I found it amusing, but I did. You know you’re on a good game trail when you keep finding poo. Elk pellets and moose patties.

It didn’t take us too long to get out in the open. There are three great cirques between Ptarmigan Mountain and Andrews Peak. To our right we had a nice view of the one closest to Andrews. The ramp we were climbing got pretty steep. I took my time, often checking out the view behind me.

Lake Nanita and Ptarmigan Mountain

The top of the saddle is 600′ above Nanita. Catherine is 800′ below us, but out of sight around the corner. Directly in front of us, about a mile away, is a pass, another saddle. There’s a small pond there, a couple of hundred feet below the top. A century ago, there were plans to make a trail connecting Spirit Lake and ‘Lake Catherine’. Presumably, that is where the trail would have gone.

There at the top Gordon and I parted ways. He wanted to take a more direct, slightly steeper route to Catherine. I opted for the longer, shallower arc, out of the trees. It was nice, easy walking for the most part, generally following game trails. Only as I approached the lake did I need to get back to the edge of the trees to avoid giant boulders.

‘Lake Catherine’ from the southwest

I got to Catherine at 12:30, so three and three-quarters hours. I found Gordon, who said he hadn’t been waiting long. But he is a patient man, so he may have been enjoying the wait. We scouted the northwestern shore for a place to snack and relax in the sun but out of the wind.

We spotted a promising place nearly opposite us, but on closer inspection, the trees there were swaying pretty good in the wind. We continued along the shore. The spot we eventually picked was pleasant enough, a few chill gusts excepted.

‘Lake Catherine’ as seen from the outlet

Gordon couldn’t resist pointing out that he put all this effort into getting to one of the least visited lakes in the Park, only to find me there, too.

After our relaxing picnic, we started our bushwhack. I have a good idea that Foster would call it an “arduous bushwhack”.

One of the great things about hiking at this time of year, other than the fantastic colors on the ground, is that everything is much dryer. All the streams are running quite low and are much easier to cross. The grassy marshes are more grass than marsh now. This would be much more difficult earlier in the season when it’s all wet.

According to the map, it didn’t matter which side of the outlet we descended until we came to a pond two hundred feet below the lake. At this pond, we’d need to go down the right side to avoid some steep terrain. We had good game trails and there wasn’t too much deadfall.

Unnamed pond below ‘Lake Catherine’, looking back the way we came

Below this pond, things got interesting. It was easy going when we had game trails to follow, but we started coming across denser deadfall. We didn’t worry too much about staying close to the stream, all we had to do was go downhill. Maybe half an hour after leaving the pond we came across a stream. I thought, “Ah, a tributary!” But checking the map, we’d arrived at the North Inlet. Although the stream we’d been following from Catherine carries about the same volume of water as the stream that flows from Lake Powell, it’s farther to Lake Powell, so that stream is the North Inlet while the one we’d been paralleling has no name.

We didn’t need to cross the North Inlet so we didn’t. Yet. We followed it for just a few yards before returning to our unnamed stream. This we crossed. After a while, we decided that the “grass was greener” on the other side of the North Inlet, so we crossed it. This we did a few times before we were done.

Once, on the north side of the stream, our game trail petered out in a mass of deadfall. We were working our way slowly through here when we heard an elk bugle. I asked Gordon how far away he thought that was. A few minutes later through the trees he spotted a bull and some cows about a hundred yards ahead of us, crossing our path, headed uphill. The bull stopped and bugled. Given how far the sound travels, I expected it to be much louder. Another bull some ways behind us bugled a response. How close was he?

We worked our way through the deadfall and had easy going for only a short distance. We entered another pile of deadfall. This one, though, was different. Instead of the trees lying in random directions, here they were all facing one way. And the dead trunks weren’t still connected to their roots. The roots were still in the ground, with stumps two or three or four feet tall, splintered. This is an avalanche debris field.

Crossing the North Inlet for the last time, we began searching for Lake Solitude (not to be confused with Solitude Lake, in Glacier Gorge). This is a small forest lake with no inlet or outlet. In the proximity of Solitude, the stream meanders through a large open meadow. We wandered around a bit, backtracked a little, made at least a token search for it, but didn’t stumble upon it.

The rest of the way back to camp, there weren’t any serious obstacles. There weren’t that many game trails, either, but so it goes. Before we knew it, we spotted Gordon’s hammock. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig!

We left Catherine a few minutes after one and arrived in camp at 4:30, so we managed about a mile an hour. I’ve done worse. My trip to Julian Lake a couple of months ago had some brutal stretches. And up Spruce Canyon with Gordon last year we could only manage half a mile an hour.

To celebrate the completion of our little odyssey we drank the rest of the beer Gordon carted up and had dinner. The skies weren’t quite clear, just some thin, high clouds; a lacy veil that slightly diffused the light of the gibbous moon.

Before dusk, another helicopter flew over. It followed the trail up the mountain towards the Divide. A few minutes later we heard another chopper, but couldn’t spot it. Maybe it was the same one, on its return trip. This was not the cargo helicopter, I think it was the same kind as the one I saw on my Hunters Creek hike – a rescue chopper.

Not long after, Gordon spotted a blinking light on the mountainside across from us. It was random, intermittent. It didn’t take us long to see that it was not one but several lights. We discussed it: we agreed it probably wasn’t aliens, and elk don’t generally carry lights. It had to be people, right? What were they doing up there, wandering around like that? Was it a search party?

Well, I didn’t print a map of that part of the trail. We weren’t going that way, and I didn’t pay particular attention to the layout of the trail. I knew there were a couple of large switchback sections, but thought they were farther up the valley, out of our sight. I was wrong. The first switchbacks, climbing six hundred feet, were directly in front of us. We’d been watching a group of six or eight hikers work their way down the mountain on the trail.

Tonight, Gordon gave up before I did. I wasn’t as cold as I was last night, so wasn’t in as big of a hurry to climb into the warm sleeping bag.

We didn’t see another person all day.

Saturday, September 26

I took my obligatory excursion at one. The thin veil of clouds was gone, the air was calm.

We were packed up and on the trail a bit before nine. It took us four hours to hike in, we should be able to beat that by a bit on the way out. On most backpacking trips, the pack weighs heavily on my back on the hike out, but today I felt pretty good.

We ran into another ranger. This one was hiking in. When we came upon him, he was talking to a woman backpacker on her way out. We chatted a bit. I asked if there was some search operation last night. There wasn’t, so we were seeing hikers. The woman somehow knew that a group had gotten a late start. They didn’t make it to camp (or out? I’m not sure) until 11:00 pm.

We told him we’d been to Catherine. He said, “People used to walk all through these forests twelve or fifteen years ago. Not as much now; there’s too much deadfall from the pine beetle.” He told us he was working “pre-rescue”. He was on the lookout for people “wearing flip-flops and not carrying any water.”

As we got closer to the trailhead, we encountered more and more hikers. At first, I was counting them. Once they started coming in groups of four or six or more, I switched to counting dozens. In the end, I figured it was 8 or 9 dozen. I couldn’t help but wonder where they all parked. I don’t think there’s room for much more than a dozen cars in the lot. (Most of them were parked on the paved road a quarter-mile below the trailhead.)

I did get a bit of a kick from some of the questions people asked me. “Did you make it all the way? All the way to the falls?” The falls are the first point of interest on the trail. Yes, I made it “all the way”. Another one saw my big backpack and asked, “Are you backpacking?”

Back at the trailhead, I was happy to be done.

But, boy, what a satisfying trip! The weather was great, the scenery awesome. I felt great the whole time. We saw an elk bugle, marveled at mysterious lights, and went to one of the least visited lakes in the Park.

Lake Nanita

Friday, July 17

This hike has been on my list for three years. I decided this spring that I would finally go there. I’ve been psyching myself up for this one for about two weeks. This would be the longest hike I’ve ever attempted – 11.1 miles each way according to Foster. I’m struggling to come up with the right words to describe my feelings. I wasn’t exactly anxious (as in filled with anxiety). Intimidated isn’t the right word either.

I hiked a portion of the North Inlet trail a few years ago when I visited Bench Lake. You go nearly seven miles up that trail to Ptarmigan Creek before heading straight up the slope. Those first seven miles are fairly mellow – you gain only about a thousand feet of elevation. The last few miles to Lakes Nokoni and Nanita are steeper, but the net climb for the eleven miles is only about 2400′.

So even though it’s quite a long hike I expected to be able to make good time. My plan was to arrive at the trailhead by seven and I guessed I could make it to Nanita in five hours. Allow an hour of lounging at the lakes and I should be back to the car by six. The drive to the trailhead is a bit over two hours (I-70 and Berthoud Pass) and the trip home another two and a half hours (over Trail Ridge Road) and it would be a very full day – leave the house before five and return at eight thirty. That was the plan, anyway.

I was out the door at 4:30. Traffic was very light and I made good time, jetting over Berthoud Pass. The sun was beginning to light the sky; the mountains to the north were still in silhouette but the wispy banners of clouds above them were lit pink and periwinkle. It was still fairly chilly and I had the heater on. The Fraser valley was blanketed with a layer of ground fog.

I made the trailhead by 6:30 and was on the trail at 6:40. It was cool enough I could have worn a light jacket but I expected to work into a lather fairly quickly. The first mile or so is more a dirt road than a trail – this provides access to a private cabin that’s on Park land. I started working the math in my head. If I manage the first three miles in an hour (a very quick pace for hiking), I would only need to average two miles an hour for the rest of the hike to maintain my schedule. I couldn’t help but recall than I failed to maintain that rate on my last three hikes.

I passed Cascade Falls in exactly an hour, and was at Big Pool in ninety minutes. I was thinking that Big Pool was five miles in, but that couldn’t be right. That would mean I was averaging well over three miles per hour. (Big Pool is 4.8 miles from the trailhead.) After two and a quarter hours I crossed Ptarmigan Creek. I was making very good time. The trail was every bit as easy as I remembered it.

My hike to Bench Lake was not the most pleasant hike. All was going well until I began my descent from the lake. I have difficulty with steep descents and this one was no exception. At my moment of greatest unease, one of my water bottles came out of its pocket and tumbled out of sight, lost. Of course it was the full bottle and not the half full one. So I had to manage my water on a warm day. Then, back on the trail, my ankle started to hurt. I thought perhaps I had an insect or spider bite. It was swollen and red, but I hadn’t twisted it. So the hike out was warm, thirsty, and somewhat painful.

But that was then.

Passing Ptarmigan Creek I was finally on new trail. From here to the Lake Nanita trail spur the trail remains fairly flat. It’s about a mile from Ptarmigan Creek to the junction. From there the trail descends a bit to cross the stream at North Inlet Falls. It is here that the (modest) climb to the lakes begins.

After about another mile the trail begins a series of widely spaced switchbacks. The slope is quite steep but the trail makes the ascent fairly painless. Up to this point, the hike has been through forest or alongside meadows and featured no views to speak of. About three quarters of a mile before Lake Nokoni, the trail traverses the top of this steep slope and the trees have thinned out considerably, opening the rich vistas of the Continental Divide to the east. Below lies the upper North Inlet valley, one of the more remote areas of the park.

It’s easy to concentrate on the majestic views to the east and overlook the profusion of wildflowers on both sides of the trail.

Ptarmigan Mountain pops into view at Nokoni Lake. The trail runs alongside a large slab of rock ten or fifteen feet high. On the other side of this rock lies Nokoni. According to the map, I figured it would be a bit farther away, but it’s right there. The lake is bigger than I expected; it’s a substantial body of water.

Lake Nanita is another 1.1 miles along. The trail crosses a saddle between Ptarmigan Mountain and point 11218. It zig-zags up the slope, mostly clear of trees, with a nice view of Nokoni below. Here I noticed it was a bit breezy. It is exposed here, and the wind gets an unobstructed run across the lake. The tree tops were swaying six or eight feet.

This is the last two hundred feet of climbing, reaching perhaps 11,050′ of elevation. Both Nanita and Nokoni are just below 10,800′. On the other side of this saddle, the trail descends alongside an open meadow and affords an unobstructed view of the western face of Ptarmigan Mountain. It is the better part of a thousand feet straight up. On the topo map you can’t make out the intervals – it’s a solid brown bar.

Unlike the other side of the saddle, where Nokoni was on full display, here you get only glimpses of Nanita. Only upon arriving at the shores of the lake do you get a good view. Foster says, “Lake Nanita is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful tarns in RMNP.” It is difficult to argue otherwise, but it must be noted that there are many lakes in the area that would easily feature on the list of “most beautiful”.

Lake Nanita, too, is a large lake. It’s bigger than Nokoni. I’m left wondering just how many lakes in the park are bigger. That would be a short list.

It took me four hours forty minutes to arrive here from the trailhead. I exceeded my expectations, and that included a ten minute break for a snack part way up the hill to Nokoni.

I plopped myself down on a rock and tucked in to my lunch. I didn’t bring the tripod, as the mount is broken, but considered making a time lapse by setting the camera on a rock. Unfortunately, the shutter timer is in the tripod’s carrying case, so that was a no go. It was a moot point anyway – the sky was absolutely cloudless. I was about 40 minutes ahead of schedule, and it’s typical that clouds don’t feature in the skies until about noon.

I sat there for an hour, enjoying my lunch and watching the world go by. A large bird (an eagle? too far away to identify) soared over the south end of the lake for a while. Fish were active within a few yards of my rock.

The sky was so clear that jets weren’t leaving contrails. A four engine jet flew over, each engine leaving a trail only for a couple of degrees of arc; the plane like the tip of a white spear. It was on a path that would take it between two of the spires of Ptarmigan Towers; it might make an interesting picture. I fumbled the lens cap when I went to take it off. I grabbed for it as it fell, missed it twice before it landed and bounced off the rock, down four feet into the lake. It was lying under four inches of water, but well out of reach. I missed the shot and lost the cap.

I did manage to find a way to clamber down and get it. It required hanging on to the branch of a bush. Had that branch broken, I’d have fallen into the water and been awarded the trifecta: cold, wet, and miserable. The retrieval was successful; a small drama.

Clouds began bubbling up at noon. I was packed up on on the trail by 12:20. After an hour of inertia, I was glad the climb up the saddle between the lakes was not so steep on this side. Once I had sight of Lake Nokoni, I knew that it was all downhill from here. Looking at the hillside above the north shore of Nokoni I could see a trail. This would be the route to Pettingell Lake on the other side of the ridge. Pettingell is the same distance from Nokoni as Nanita, and the route looks to be clear of trees so it shouldn’t be much more difficult than Nanita. It should be doable.

Back at Nokoni Lake I chatted with a group of four. They were the first people I’d seen since about 9:15. I asked if they were going to Nanita. “We were just there.” They must have been very quiet, as I never saw nor heard them, and I sat right where the trail dumps you on the shore of the lake.

I took my time over the next section of trail, where there were nice vistas to the east, taking in the view before rejoining the forest. After this it wasn’t long before I began encountering more hikers. Several folks asked me where I was staying. I was the only day-tripper out there.

I stopped just above North Inlet Falls, refilled my water bottle and ate some fruit. I stopped on the bridge to snap a photo of the falls. I never get a falls picture I like, but I’ll keep trying. At this moment it started to sprinkle. I was standing in bright sunshine but a gray cloud was immediately to the west, with blue skies beyond.

It didn’t look like it would rain hard or for long. I have a poncho, of course, but I didn’t want to mess with it for sprinkles. The cloud was small, and we were moving in opposite directions. I could manage a few drops. About a mile later it was no longer a light sprinkle, and the clouds looked distinctly bigger. Most of the oncoming hikers had donned their rain gear. At Ptarmigan Creek I put the poncho on. A minute later I was thinking it was the right choice – the rain was now mixed with graupel. Another minute later it stopped.

I took another break at Big Pool. Ate more fruit and put the poncho away. It had taken me ninety minutes to get here in the morning; even though I’d been hiking for nearly eight of the last nine hours, I felt pretty good. It was easily twenty degrees cooler in the morning, and I was fresh then, but I felt like I could match that time. I did.

I’ve never hiked so far before, but I’ve certainly done more strenuous hikes. Clearly, it’s all about the elevation gain. But I’m still a little amazed I hiked over twenty two miles in a day.