It’s been absolute ages since I’ve hung out around a fire, swapping stories and getting to know new people. The last time was… I’d have to say BCEP, earlier this year? In the beginning of April?
Whoof. Too long.
I arrived at the parking lot late, having accidentally set my GPS to the wrong side of a river tributary, but thankfully I wasn’t the last to arrive, nor did I miss the sunset. I walked up to the Columbia with a dozen donuts and a handful of fire-color packets, twin gifts for my neighbor whose birthday it was.
It was awesome when Bethan and Courtney invited me along – I know I’m a bit of the oddball in their friends group, so it meant a lot to me that I got the opportunity to join in on their birthday adventure.
It was really fun – and also a great change to further test out the night-photography on the new camera, I’ll freely admit!
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever backpacked on the Northern aspect of Mt. Hood.
I don’t know if I’ve even hiked on the Northern aspect!
With a weekend free, some excellent weather (here, at least), and energy in my body… it felt like a good opportunity to look around on Alltrails, pick a route, and get myself up onto Hood! Starting, of course, with a quick brunch… because I’m me, and I like me some brunch.
I picked the Barrett Spur trail, with some input from my friend Bri (who, years back, literally hiked every trail in the “hikes around Portland” book). It wasn’t too long, but has quite a bit of elevation gain – and ends as a nicely exposed spur with excellent views of the mountain.
Keep that “exposed” note in mind… it’ll come in later on in the story.
I drove up, winding the Mustang up, down, and around the deep forest service roads around Hood. The Southern aspect of Hood is easily accessible, as is the Eastern… but the West and North are subtly less paved. Which is to say, they’re not paved.
I drove, carefully, ’till the trailhead. Found quite a few cars, didn’t worry since somehow cars and people don’t seem to correlate out here, and hiked in. As I hiked, my expectations were proven true – I saw maybe half a dozen people the entire trip, and only two backpacking teams, compared to the 12+ cars parked at the trailhead.
Magic cars, I guess?
Anyways it’s a moot point, because look at the pictures of Hood!
I trudged up the trails, made it to camp, and settled in for the evening. I flew the drone to check out some ice caves that I could see in the distance, appreciated the sunset, and was jealous of another team who came by who found a gloriously sheltered campsite up on the ridge, with a beautiful stone wall around it.
I was jealous, but not particularly concerned, since they hadn’t brought a tent (with the full intention of using the mini-shelter), whereas I had my trusty Nemo tent… It’s held up against the rain and snow, I was confident it’d be fine with the wind off the mountain overnight.
I ate dinner, the stars wheeled above, and I even took the chance to test out my new camera in its night-mode. Photos came out pretty well, I think.
That night, I had some intense dreams.
I’d made camp a bit below the exposed spur, in a spot that I’d hoped would get a bit less wind. It may have, but the wind that I got was still quite above the structural plans of my ultralight tent. I slept fitfully, with semi-constant dreams about bears attacking the tent, wind knocking it over, and getting carried away on the gusts coming down from the mountain.
The tent survived the night, as did I, though not without peril – it nearly collapsed a few times overnight, and actually did get blown down in the morning while I was packing up.
Making breakfast was a challenge, in the wind, but thankfully I had the gear (and nearby rocks) to keep the stove lit for just long enough to get some water boiled, breakfast heated, and coffee brewed.
(Ed Note: Ben actually takes a break while writing this to go get some coffee)
Once I was fed, caffeinated, and watered, I headed up the Spur for a bit more of a view. I tested the limits of the camera’s zoom, I flew the drone around the nearby crevasse field and into the ice caves again, and appreciated the clear skies and chill breezes.
It was absolutely lovely.
With my tent already packed, I headed back down the trail once I was done sightseeing. I chatted a little with the team who has camped nearby, but overarchingly I kept to myself – resting and reading when the need hit, pushing onward when it didn’t, and appreciating the fall colors throughout.
Elevation dropped, miles went by, and soon enough I was back at the trailhead. The forest roads fell away, pavement reappeared under the wheels, and I returned to suburbia.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – 14-Sept-2023, 15-Sept-2023, and 16-Sept-2023
I absolutely adore the North Cascades and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Truth be told, I’m not 100% sure what the official boundaries on either of them are… but at this point I’ve come to just assume that everything in the general “North of Mt. Rainier” region is the North Cascades, which I’m pretty sure is accurate. So I’m not going to quibble over details in this case, and simply enjoy the opportunity to explore the wilderness.
I took three days for Spectacle Lake, with Sunday left untouched to unpack and decompress – Leaving on a Thursday morning to help avoid the crowds, and giving me a chance to grab some nice breakfast sandwiches for the drive on my way out of Wilsonville.
The drive itself? Lovely – long, relaxing, and calm… an advantage of heading up toward Seattle in the morning on a Thursday. I drove, listened to music, let my mind wander, and soon enough I was parking at the trailhead and forging into the wilderness.
The first evening I set up camp near what I expected to be a small, unnamed lake on the trail up toward spectacle. I was a bit surprised, looking at the map, that it didn’t have any campsites nearby… but I figured that was because it was fairly close in to the main campsites… or, that people simply didn’t mark the sites down as such.
I arrived a bit before sundown, took the small game-trail off the main route to the lake, and started setting up camp.
Or… trying to set up camp.
I was successful, thankfully, but I did realize why it wasn’t listed as an official campsite – while there were quite a few good spots, the “lake” itself wasn’t really much of an open-water lake, as much as a large mud pit with a small puddle in the middle. And by “mud pit”, I mean “my poles sunk 3+ feet in when I was probing the ground”.
I was careful, making sure to probe and confirm that my campsite was firm and secure, and had myself a nice dinner before heading to the incoming stream to fill up on water for the day ahead.
The incoming stream was where I let my guard down. I hopped down to the stream from the embankment, and found out that the “streambed” that I was hopping to was, in fact, another mud pit. A mud pit that I sunk hip-deep into before I caught myself on the embankment.
Kind of reminds me of that time I slipped into a randkluft on the trail to Elk Meadows…
Thankfully, I did catch myself fairly quickly, and was able to haul myself out of the muck and mire without any major hassle. I was quick enough that the mud didn’t soak fully through my pants, and my boots didn’t get any grime inside them – I stripped the muddy gear off quick, changed into my spare pair of pants, and proceeded to filter my water from higher up on the embankment.
The next morning dawned to frozen mud pants.
I mean, that was the plan, so I’m not unhappy about it at all – by leaving the muddy pants out to freeze, it kinda separated most of the gross and grime off… I was able to roll them up and lash them to the outside of my pack once the morning sun thawed them out (which happened as I snacked on my breakfast and sipped coffee), with them being servicable if not actually clean.
I ascended, slowly but surely, past the lake, through a burn, and up the steep portion to Spectacle Lake itself. I took my time, enjoyed the views… and hustled a little bit, to make sure that I was able to get a good campsite!
The hustling paid off exceptionally well – when I arrived, I passed a group who was just heading out… who mentioned that they’d just left the prime spot on the lake! The campsite right at the end of the peninsula sticking out into the alpine lake, with views on basically every side.
Legitimately, I couldn’t have asked for a better campsite. I set up the tent, had a snack, read my book… and realized that it was still only 11:00 in the morning.
So… I stretched out, and headed upward into the mountain passes surrounding the lake.
Something about that phrase… “into the mountain passes”… it just sounds so excellent, doesn’t it? It sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, or one of a hundred other high fantasy books that I grew up reading. Back then, in middle school, I always wanted to be some grand explorer… maybe a mad scientist some days, maybe a space captain others, and at least once or twice I wished I was a Jedi…
But oftentimes, that explorer forging into “the mountain passes past the cities and above the clouds”.
I’m that explorer, now.
Kind of neat to think about, isn’t it?
Anyways, I forged onward through the passes above Spectacle Lake.
Tying back, I’ll just say this – if there’s a spot in Washington that Mountain Trolls would live, it was that pass. Turns out, part of the Pacific Crest Trail runs past Spectacle. And, that part of the Pacific Crest Trail had actually been blasted out of the rock with dynamite – something I became quite aware of as I noticed blast scars, drill holes, and other beautifully unnatural rocks.
It was neat – and almost tempting to move my camp into the interesting little campsites that’d been literally carved and blasted from the rockfaces surrounding me.
I pressed on – exploring, resting, reading, and noshing on snacks.
I turned around when it felt right, and made my way slowly and carefully back to camp; not wanting to overdo it on my knees by adding an extra rushed thousand feet to my elevation for the day. I got back just before sunset, with the perfect opportunity to watch the sky as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Then? More reading, a bit of a nap, and a long quiet opportunity to stargaze. There were a few teams around me, sure, but thankfully everyone seemed to be on the same page regarding noise (or more accurately the lack thereof). The stars wheeled, I pondered, and then I slept.
The next day broke beautiful, just like the previous day.
Breakfast was lovely, the sun shone perfectly, and the hike out was easy. I took my time, read a bit, and even took the opportunity to pack out some trash – a few hats that I found, some socks… even a partial swimsuit that I found in a pika (sorta like a small gopher) hole!
And, turns out, that “trash” would be pretty impactful to my hike out! As I descended from the lake, I passed a fair number of people – every so often I’d run into a group who seemed like the folks who’d want a new hat, so I’d ask them if they’d like one of the ones that I’d found.
Now, keep in mind that most of the trash I’d accumulated was pretty gross… but the hats themselves were actually quite nice. I’d asked around the lake to make sure they didn’t belong to anyone, and felt bad that they’d probably end up getting tossed when I got home… so hey, why not right? Trail magic!
One of the folks I ran into excitedly accepted the offer – then quickly made her way on up the trail. I didn’t think too much of it, until she caught back up to me a few miles from the trailhead! Turns out, her name was Carmen and she was just doing a quick “up and back” training run… which definitely puts my backpacking speed in context, if anyone was curious.
We chatted on the hike out, which made the remaining mile or three go exceptionally quick. We chatted about work, about adventures, all the fun things – definitely an excellent way to pass the time on the slow portion of the backpacking trip!
The remainder of the adventure was as lovely as the hike itself had been.
I drove out slowly, without a rush, stopping into Cle Elum for a quick dinner before hitting the main highway. I stayed in town for a bit of extra time, having heard some live music as I was eating a glorious hamburger, and was rewarded with a Pacific Northwest rendition of Sweet Caroline… an absolutely lovely callback to the East Coast.