Sunday, September 8, 2013

Day 9: Conquering the Northern Loop

I woke up to beautiful, clear skies!
The first time I tried to hike the Wonderland Trail, I selected an ambitious route that would do the section between Sunrise and Mowich twice--once along the Wonderland Trail, and once along the Spray Park and Northern Loop Trails. The weather was absolutely dreadful my first day out from Sunrise. The skies poured buckets of rain and thunder crashed through the trees, quickly followed by a surprisingly intense hailstorm.

I all but ran down the trail in an attempt to reach James Lake and take shelter under my tarp, which I did.

But I paid the price for it the next morning. My knees felt positively crippled. I limped onward the next day, every step was agony. Originally I intended to visit a side trail at Windy Gap to a natural arch, but I bagged that. I'd be lucky if I could get to the camp on my permit at the rate I was walking.

I plodded along a few more days eventually completing a figure-8 loop between Sunrise and Mowich, but then came I day when I failed to reach my assigned campsite. I couldn't walk fast enough anymore and every step was pure agony. I quit my thru-hike--the only time I ever failed at a thru-hike.

Of course, I came back the next year and made another go around the Wonderland Trail which was no problem at all, but since I had already done the Northern Loop and Spray Park sections, I didn't feel compelled to actually do them a second time around and skipped them and stayed pure to the Wonderland Trail. No alternates!

I'd never been back to the Northern Loop since that day that they ruined my knees, and there's always been a part of me that feared the Northern Loop ever since. Never before had a trail beaten me so thoroughly. The trail was steep, but I'd done steep trails before. In theory, I saw no reason why I couldn't do this trail and do it right. But it was my Moby Dick, and it made me leary.

I just love watching pure, clean water merging with the
cloudy glacial flour from Winthrop Glacier. =)
But.... I was also taking photos to use on, and I knew that this section was absolutely beautiful. I'd seen it before, and I wanted it on my website. And--there was a part of me that wanted to take revenge on this section of trail. I wanted to beat this trail into submission.

Technically, I was already several miles into the Northern Loop Trail, but my knees hadn't started giving me a problem until the morning after I left camp from James Lake. I hadn't reached James Lake yet, though. Even in the morning, I didn't really remember my knees hurting at first, but by the time I reached Windy Gap, they were in such agony that I bagged the natural arch.

So I kind of saw the natural arch as my finish line today. I wanted to reach the natural arch, and I wanted to do it without any knee pains at all. That would serve just fine as my petty revenge on the Northern Loop. It tried to keep me from seeing the natural arch, but I wouldn't let it succeed this time. No, I was going to see that natural arch. I was going to win. =)

So I woke up at Fire Creek with something of a Rocky theme song running through my head. Today was the day I would finally beat the Northern Loop into submission. Round two was on! =)

By morning, the rain had finally stopped, but nothing had dried out. Tree snot continued to drop from the trees and my tarp was completely soaked. Not a big deal, but if I had the chance, I'd lay it out in the sun to let it dry.

The Northern Loop is infamous for its difficulty, but I don't think it's any worse than other parts of the Wonderland Trail despite it beating me down the first time. It has some steep climbs and some steep drops, but that's what the Wonderland Trail--especially the west side--is also famous for.

An old burn area.
On the steep drops, it's easy to go fast, but I deliberately took it slower than I normally might have to insure I didn't do in my knees again. Eventually, the trail it a large creek fed by Winthrop Glacier immediately followed by a steep 2,500-foot climb to Windy Gap. I passed James Lake, which was a milestone of sorts to me. It was somewhere between James Lake and Windy Gap that the Northern Loop had beaten me. I was in the thick of it now. =)

Onward I continued, eventually breaking above treeline and to the spectacular views I remembered. Clouds covered Mount Rainier, but the views were still awesome around the cliffs surrounding Windy Gap.

When I reached the trail junction for the arch, I pumped my fist into the air. My knees still felt great and I definitely had no reason to visit this rarely seen part of Mount Rainier. =)

The trail out was mostly level until the end where it dropped down a series of switchbacks to a viewpoint of the natural arch. The arch.... was a perhaps a bit underwhelming. It was still cool and definitely an arch, but it didn't really stick out like others I'd seen at Arches NP (for instance). The view around the arch was spectacular which stole some of the thunder from the arch as well. Ethel Lake and James Lake patterned the background far below and the snow-capped Cascade Range could be seen stretching far into the distance. I suspected that Glacier Peak was out there somewhere, but I couldn't pick it out if it was. Perhaps it was covered with clouds like Mount Rainier.

I kicked off my shoes and took a break here for nearly two hours. Today would be a relatively short day of hiking, and this was a wonderful little spot to eat lunch and rest.

Eventually, though, I grew bored reading my Kindle, put my shoes back on, and headed out. I get a little antsy if I stop anywhere for too long. =)

I returned to the Northern Loop Trail--a conqueror. =)

James Lake
The trail headed down to the Yellowstone Cliffs, and I took a side trail to the Yellowstone Campground. Another long break ensued, but this time I did more practical things than just read my Kindle such as use the "facilities," shaved by a creek (don't worry, I didn't use any lather shaving cream or anything that would pollute the water--just my organic skin and hair to pollute the water!), and filled up with water.

The Yellowstone Camp was quite a nice one, really, with a beautiful meadow just outside and a great view of the Yellowstone Cliffs. I wouldn't have minded camping here for the night, but alas.... my permit was for further on at the Ipsut Creek Campground. Onward I would continue....

From the campground, the trail crashed down the hillside dropping about 3,000 feet in just a few miles. Going down, I moved quickly but cautiously--these kind of slopes can be murder on the knees if you aren't careful. I know!

At around 4:00 in the afternoon, I passed the first people I had seen all day. I had been a little surprised that I'd seen absolutely nobody since leaving Fire Creek early in the morning, and those I passed on heading up the slope were seriously sucking in air and clearly exhausted from the hike. "Are we almost to Yellowstone Camp yet?" they asked.

"Maybe another mile or so," I told them, looking at my watch. "I left the campground less than a half hour ago."

This perked them up--less than a half hour away! I tempered their enthusiasm, though: "But I'm hiking downhill and moving pretty fast. You guys are going uphill, and quite a bit slower than me! It's definitely going to take you more than a half hour to get there. Maybe as long as an hour, even."

But they were still happy that they had made it this far--they were, in fact, closer to the top than the bottom which meant a lot to them. =)

Although the skies were sunny, the ground was
still very wet from the rains of yesterday.
That's not dust in the air--that's steam
from the drying ground!
I continued downhill, eventually reaching the Carbon River. I was about a mile downriver from where the suspension bridge crossed the river, but there was no suspension bridge where I intended to cross this time. Just the usual log bridges across the fast-moving waters. Not a problem, but I really did enjoy crossing on the suspension bridge. =)

Once across the Carbon River, I was officially back on the Wonderland Trail again. The Northern Loop was completely behind me. It was beaten, and I only looked forward.

The Wonderland Trail followed two relatively flat miles following along the banks of the Carbon River until I took a short 0.3-mile side trail to the Ipsut Creek Campground. This campground was a large, sprawling place. Each of the sites had a picnic table and the usual bear poles had been replaced with more sturdy bear boxes. The layout of the campground suggested that this used to be open to cars once upon a time but those times were long gone. The Carbon River Road led to the campground washed out regularly and now is only open to bicycles and pedestrians up to the campground. I rather liked it this way, without the loud vehicles, car doors slamming, etc.

I picked the first open site I saw and sat down at the picnic table. A couple at the site next to me almost immediately started moving their stuff from the campsite on one side of me directly to the other side of me, which seemed odd. They had already set up their tent and had clearly settled into their original site. Why the move? I knew it wasn't to get away from me--they were moving from one side of me to the other--not farther away from me, though.

So I asked why they were moving camp.

"The outhouses," they told me. "Wind gusts are occasionally blowing the smell down here and we're trying to get further away from them."

Oh. Hmm.... Well, that was good to know. "When we set up earlier in the afternoon, it was fine, but since it started getting darker, the smells have started blowing in."

I was starting to regret my choice of campsites. However, on the plus side, the only thing I'd done so far as drop my pack. I hadn't actually set up camp at all! "Maybe I should look for another open campsite somewhere else further downstream," I said, and they suggested that that was probably a good idea.

They asked how long I had been out for, and seemed shocked when I told them this would be my ninth night on the trail. "You don't look like you've been out here that long!"

I rubbed my chin. "Well, I did shave today. Maybe that's the reason?" =)

I picked up my pack and headed deeper into the campground, eventually setting up at site #11 and several campsites further downstream than before.

I went ahead and set up my tarp--it still needed to dry some and the weather forecast did call for a 30% chance of rain. I felt a few drops earlier--it was no idle threat. But I cooked dinner at read my Kindle at the picnic table. The tarp was just for sleeping under tonight--not for recreating under. =)

Views near Windy Gap--stunning!

I suspected that Glacier Peak was somewhere out around those
snow-covered mountains far in the distance, but if it is, I couldn't
pick it out. On an unrelated note, look at the patchwork of
clear-cutting that's taken place just outside of the park's boundaries.

The "natural bridge" (as my map calls it) overlooking Lake Ethel. I'd
rather call it an arch, though. A bridge suggests that you can cross it
to the other side. Only an insane idiot would do that with this!

Another photo of the natural arch. That's Ethel Lake on the left and
(part of) James Lake on the right edge of the photo.

Lupines near Windy Gap.

Views from Windy Gap.

Yellowstone Cliffs, straight ahead!

Yellowstone Cliffs

Toilet at Yellowstone Camp. I don't care how often I saw this--these holes in the
ground that didn't even have any walls for privacy just made me laugh. =)

The Northern Loop is infamous for its steep ascents and drops. This section
drops about 3,000 feet in about 3 miles.

Nearing the bottom of the 3,000-foot descent at the Carbon River.

Crossing the Carbon River--totally not as cool as the suspension
bridge a mile upstream, though!

The nice thing about banana slugs.... they're really easy to get photos of.
I struggle to get photos of chipmunks, marmots, birds, butterflies and such.
I don't even try to catch a dragonfly on film--that's just a hopeless task.
But the common banana slug is quite patient and lets me get very close and
take all sorts of photos from all sorts of angles without complaint. =)

Unlike this snake.... See the snake in this photo, quickly slithering off the top of the photo?
I actually found two snakes on the trail that seemed to be... "engaged" in some
sort of activity, but the second they saw me, they both darted into the brush on the side of
the trail. By the time I got my camera out, one of the snakes was gone completely
and this is the only photo I managed to get of the other. Completely uncooperative!

The trees in the Carbon River here fascinate me. They're clearly thriving,
but I wouldn't have expected to see them in the middle of a fast-moving
river. I have a feeling that this river's course changed fairly recently and
that the trees didn't actually "grow up" in the stream--even if that's
where they live now. =)

This was the first campsite I selected, but I soon moved to a different one
due to reports of awful odors from the outhouses wafting to here in the wind.
Fortunately, the move for me was easy--I hadn't even started to unpack yet!

The Carbon River outside my campsite at sunset. While the day
was mostly clear, these clouds came rolling in pretty fast and did
squeeze out a few drops of rain, so I made sure to set up my tarp properly. =)

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