Tuesday, August 30
I awoke a bit after sunrise after a somewhat chilly night to clear blue skies. It looked to be another marvelous day in the Park.
The first thing I noticed was that my trek poles, which I had leaned up against a long, downed tree, had been knocked over. Maybe the deer (or whatever) that passed through last night knocked them over. On closer inspection, though, the grips of both poles had been munched on and the straps had been eaten completely. Did that passing deer eat my poles?
A few minutes later, we were greeted by a Park Service trail crew. They were here to make a few improvements to the campsite. The ranger in charge asked to see our permit while the crew stowed their shovels and axes not far from where Gordon and I put our bear canisters overnight.
Having established our right to be here, I started asking the ranger questions. How did you get here so early? “We drove along the Ditch from Poudre cabin, so we had a short hike.” What creature did this skull belong to? “I don’t know. Not an ungulate.” What do you suppose ate my trek poles? “Probably a marmot. They want the salt from your sweat.” Did this campsite use to be over there beyond the preservation area sign? “Yes. It was threatened by dead trees so we moved it here.”
Last evening I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what percentage of trees in the area have succumbed to pine beetles. After much study, it became clear to me that all the dead trees were the largest trees. I’d guess nine out of ten of the largest quartile or quintile of trees were dead but very few of the medium and small trees were. I couldn’t help but wonder if all beetle-kill was this way and I just never noticed it before, or if things were different in this area. So I asked the ranger.
While I was correct that these trees had been killed by beetles, they were from the spruce beetle, which is a cousin of the pine beetle. Spruce beetles go after the big trees first, those with trunk diameters greater than ten inches. The victims in this area have been dead for a while – none are brown, they’re all gray.
Before they worked on our campsite, they headed up to Lake of the Clouds. They said it would take them about an hour to get there from here, which is only a bit less than I’d guessed it might take us. They left and we finished our breakfasts and got ready for our hike.
I grabbed my day pack, which is the top part of my backpack. It has a compartment you unzip to reveal the shoulder straps for the day pack. I’d stored this in the atrium of my tent (the space between the tent and the rain cover). It sat all night about six inches from my head, where the rustling noises were last night. It turns out my marmot friend didn’t just dine on my trek poles but worked my day pack over pretty well. Each shoulder strap was half eaten through and much of the fabric at the top was thoroughly chewed up. I wasn’t hearing the breeze rustle my tent, I was hearing a rodent wrecking my stuff. I hope that marmot got a really bad case of diarrhea.
Luckily, it was still intact enough to get me through the day. I hoped. As long as I didn’t put too much weight in the pack.
Anyhow, lunch and water and GoPro in the mangled pack, using my now strapless and heavily gnawed trek poles, we headed up the trail to Lake of the Clouds.
The trail ends well before the lake, where it exits the forest and dumps the hiker on the shore of a sea of talus. To the south, to the north, and to the west, nothing but talus. I vaguely recall writing on this blog some time ago about a large amount of talus. Wherever that was, there is more talus here. (It isn’t only here – our campsite has a view of the north slope of Howard Mountain. It’s all talus. Except for some that looks like scree.)
The first thing I did, once we had the route to the lake in view, was to search for the work party. I found them, but not where I expected them to be. When I was here on my failed day-hike, I thought that if I hadn’t made my 45-minute wrong turn I’d have made it to the lake. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it because I surely wouldn’t have gone the correct way.
We worked our way across the talus between the end of the trail and the base of the slope we’d have to climb. That slope is talus. We worked our way up between a couple of growths of willow and over to a grassy ramp. Once on the ramp, the route of cairns was pretty easy to follow. There may be cairns in the talus we had to cross, but finding a cairn in a talus field is like finding a pile of rocks in a bigger pile of rocks.
The ramp is broken in the middle by another section of talus. Imagine that. Back on the ramp, following the cairns, we crossed the lake’s outlet stream and arrived atop the bench that holds the lake. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to get here from camp.
The slopes of Howard Mountain and Mount Cirrus rise steeply 1400′ above the lake. You guessed it: talus everywhere. The rocks these mountains are made of aren’t the giant granite slabs you see above Black Lake, for example. The rocks on Howard and Cirrus are fractured and full of cracks running in all directions. The freeze-thaw cycle undoubtedly keeps a significant amount of rock falling, endlessly adding to the piles of talus.
As is my wont, I chatted a bit with the members of the work crew. They were celebrating the end of the season (even though they’ll be working another month). The ranger in charge told me she has been doing this for eighteen years. She’s been just about everywhere in the Park but doesn’t visit very many summits. One of the guys will turn 30 in a couple of weeks. He decided that he’d take a dip in 30 lakes by then. Today he got his 23rd and he’s confident that he’ll get the remaining seven without too much difficulty. One day last week, he got six in one day: The Loch, Mills, Jewel, Black, Blue, and Green.
Gordon set off to circumnavigate the lake while I surveyed my surroundings. Looking out over the valley below, my metaphor likening the talus to a sea couldn’t be more apt. This sea of rock is arranged in what looks like storm-tossed waves. The troughs of the waves are lighter in color than the tops due to weathering.
I was surprised the lake was so green. Fluorescent green, nearly.
We stayed at the lake for a bit more than two hours. On the way down, we lost our chain of cairns a couple of times, forcing us to backtrack. And when we went looking for the terminus of the trail, we found we’d gone much too far to the north. Rather than backtracking across the talus, we worked our way back to the forest and followed a game trail back to the main trail.
When we arrived at our campsite, the work crew had already left. They cut a long section out of the tree trunk I’d had my poles leaning on overnight. This expanded the area where one might want to pitch a tent. As I said earlier, I saw an axe and shovels. But they must have had a power saw and something to shred the tree trunk. To level the ground, they didn’t move any dirt around, they just spread a thick layer of shredded tree trunk. It looked like it might be comfy, but I wonder how well it’ll hold tent spikes and suspect it’ll retain a fair amount of water after a rain.
At ten minutes to four, I thought we were going to get a visitor. Pretty much wherever we sat at the campsite, we could see the main trail. I saw a lone hiker come up to the sign, look up at the campsite, then check his map. He had a full backpack – much more than he’d need for a day hike. My first thought was that maybe he had a permit for this site but showed up a day early. But after a short pause, he continued up the trail. If he was a day hiker, he was pretty late. As it takes more than an hour to reach the lake, he’d be looking at passing our site no sooner than 6 pm. We never did see him again, so my guess is he camped at Lake of the Clouds without a permit. I wonder how often that sort of thing happens.
When it came time to bed in for the night, I made sure to keep wearing my headlamp. If that pesky marmot made a return visit, I wanted to be able to scare him away without rummaging around for my light.
Sure enough, sometime around midnight, I heard a rustling noise. I turned the lamp on and found myself eyeball to beady little eyeball with… a squirrel! The little bastard was about four inches away from my face. The light didn’t scare him off – I had to hiss at him. We repeated this little ritual three or four more times before he finally gave up.
I take back all the bad things I was thinking about marmots.