Saturday, November 13, 2010

One Shot Wilderness: Indian Heaven in the Rain

Indian Heaven in autumn is absolutely stunning, a rolling wonderland of forest and meadows brilliant with fall color. Old growth firs draped with moss open into crimson, gold, and vermillion huckleberry meadows heavy with plump ripe berries; innumerable lakes become deeply hued mirrors reflecting the depth of the sky; and the rugged peaks – Bird Mountain, Lemei Rock, East Crater – are volcanic balconies overlooking the surrounding wilderness and snowclad Cascade mountains. If you’re lucky, the days and nights will be clear and dry. If you’re lucky, they’ll be filled with rain or snow. Weather that most people consider “bad” simply highlights the softer side of Indian Heaven, and offers glimpses of beauty and solitude not often seen together.

In late September, I backpacked in Indian Heaven with two good friends. Derek and I left from the Thomas Lake trailhead on Saturday morning under clear skies and warm temperatures. We hiked through expansive huckleberry meadows to Blue Lake, set in a bowl below a crumbling ridge, and turned north on the Pacific Crest Trail to Junction Lake, where we set up camp in a small stand of trees. The night was clear, and the moon-rise lit the lake and meadows with shafts of silver, erasing the other stars from the sky. It was so bright that I could follow trails by moonlight, and I had to shade my eyes to keep any semblance of night vision.

Not so much the second night. I woke on Sunday to rain. The forecast called for a 20% chance of precipitation that would clear by 11am. The forecast was wrong. It continued to rain all day, flooding the trails and soaking everything we didn’t keep in our tents. Every other camp but ours packed up and left by noon. Somehow, our friend Mike hiked in and found our camp – we’d hiked to Blue Lake to find him, he’d adventured along an un-maintained trail to short-cut us, and we returned to find him napping in his tent. Our spirited reunion was dampened only slightly by the weather as Mike told tales of his slog through rain and muddy trails, route-finding through trail-less meadows, and fording thigh-deep flooded lakes. As night fell, we tried to start a fire, but it was so wet and humid we couldn’t get paper to burn.

And that brings me to the photograph above. Mike and I wandered down in the rain and mist to the lakeshore at twilight, and talked quietly for a while as the evening light faded. A subtle tint began to gather in the expectedly normal gray fog and mist. As it grew more intense, the atmosphere began to glow a deep, ethereal pink. It washed over everything– the sky, the trees, the lake, the meadows and the huckleberries – and every element of the landscape seemed to become pink: not just appear pink, as through tinted glasses, but glow pink, as though the water, earth, sky and forest were infused with pink light and gave off pink light. There was to be no source: the light was indirect and encompassing. I’ve never seen anything like it, a combination of rain, light, reflection, timing, strange physics and stranger natural lyricism. We ran back to our tents and grabbed our cameras, and raced back in time to take a few photos before the color faded entirely.

The gorgeous pink color lasted only a few minutes before fading into lavender and shadow. And when it was gone, night fell quickly, and it grew dark enough to retreat back to camp and get out headlamps. I can’t explain those few colorful moments of subtlety and intensity in terms of science, and I can’t explain it through poetry, either. I felt like we’d been given a brief moment in time that could not be shared or duplicated, but only held in memory.

The next morning, on Monday, the rain tapered off and the clouds lifted. We packed up our soaked camp and followed Mike down the unofficial trail he’d used the day before. We forded the same lake, where two lakes had actually flooded into one, and by the time we reached the trailhead, we were hiking under blue skies and warm sun, quite the opposite of our experience the day before.

On Sunday morning, the day of rain, I walked down a spur trail from the lake with my camera and a ziplock bag to collect huckleberries for breakfast oatmeal. A couple of backpackers passed me and said hello. The first, a young man, made a comment about the rainy weather. I replied that it was a beautiful day to be in the mountains. He looked startled, but his girlfriend smiled. Rain and mist, shadowy fir, fall color, ripe huckleberries, good friends – and a smile from a girl?

That’s Indian Heaven.

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