The rest of day two at St Helens, hammockless.
So this was a lot snowier than I'd expected. Even for a bad year. I spent weeks waiting for the images from the Volcanocam to start looking right. But when you actually get there you have to deal with the truth.
There was lots and lots of snow. Since this place is bare in long stretches, they melt out early, but that leaves the rest. Ravines, canyons, anywhere with vegetation. And the higher reaches. I was up here last year and wanted to get back and visit a waterfall I heard last year but couldn't see. Last year, also, had blustery weather on the day I got there, so I couldn't camp. Plus many other excuses.
So I was back this year. Same but different. The weather looks nasty in the photos but it was pretty nice. A bit misty now and then but not we enough to notice. There wasn't any waterfall. Little springs on one side of the upper basin were pooling in a mucky low area, and from there the water ran over the edge of the basin, all hidden from view - nothing really worth investigating after all. I would have camped there but given all the water there wasn't any there that I wanted to drink. Lots of elk poo all over, and though the water was technically flowing, it really wasn't.
So shucks. I turned back east and descended. There were a couple of nice streams running down the eastern side of the ridge encircling Castle Lake's basin. Nice enough to drink from. At least the place was empty. I like that. Wind, grass, air, sky, and no people.
Someone who grows up on the plains never feels quite so comfortable as when he can stand on shortgrass and see the horizon in every direction. Not that I'd like to go back and live there, but being in the middle of a few dozen square miles of empty space gives a person a kind of privacy unavailable any other way. If anyone comes by, you see them at least an hour before they're close enough to talk to. Gives a person time to make the appropriate attitude adjustments. Tie the shoelaces. Comb the hair. All of that.
Yes, friends, I was under observation after all. The barking was my first clue. If you haven't been around country full of elk, country that elk know and use as their own, free from humans, then maybe you have seen some now and then but haven't heard them bark. A real extra-special thrill is to wake up around 2 a.m. with something barking at you seemingly within arm's reach, at 160 decibels. Wakes you right up. Clears the sinuses. Fills your diaper.
These guys were indignant. I never did find the first one. It was behind some bushes and just simply would not stop barking at me. I stood there and looked like crazy but never did see a thing. Considering that the available shrubs were only big enough to cover two people at a time, and elk are a bunch bigger than that, I ought to at least have seen an ear twitch but I'm obviously not that good. Looking the other way, though, I caught sight of two of the rascals out in the open. One of them was barking and the other was more or less just along for the show.
If you play dumb and pretend you don't know you're supposed to politely leave, elk finally get frustrated and wander off. These did too. For anyone interested in elk encounters, this is a great place. I've had some wonderful ones on the other side of the mountain while exploring trailless forested canyons there in years past. Once while sitting at lunch by a stream a group of half a dozen elk came down to drink from the other side.
They eventually became aware of me but slowly enough so they just doubled back on themselves and walked away. Later the same day I stopped by the same stream, wondering where I should cross, and when I looked up, there was a cow elk and her elkling on the other side, looking at me. They were downstream maybe 40 feet (10-15m). I stood still. We all looked at each other for some time, and then the two elk crossed the stream to my side and vanished into the willows without a sound. I get full points on that one for being able to look harmless.
I've seen people hunting here, and they're all clueless, stomping around on hiking trails like bulldozers. Even I can hear them half a mile away. It's different when you're not hunting. No deadlines, no goals, no need to perform. You relax and simply wait. Open up to the land while being still and things always come to you. Chase around and you'll never see anything.
So overall I'd rather be a backpacker. I shot a deer once, and since I was young and it was my first, my father showed me how to gut it. I never want back. Any day of any month of any year I'd rather be eating instant goop out of a plastic bag and sipping tea brewed over an alcohol stove, watching things come and go quietly than pulling bloody guts from a carcass. But maybe that's just me. Is OK.
Well, anyway, this was not a bad trip. Later in the year you can't stand to be out in the open because of wind and dust, not to mention constant sun. But at least half the area near St Helens is wide open, so if you're there, you're there, and there isn't much you can do about it other than hiking a few miles farther to get to water and cover. I'll take mostly calm, cool, and even slightly damp weather over howling wind or death waves of heat.
Then, later in the evening the sun began to peek out from time to time. This was due about 12 hours earlier, but I hadn't missed it. Other than getting uncomfortably wet feet from hiking in and out of snow all day I had nothing to complain about. A little bit of evening sun here and there added a little color and showed that the weather might be getting warmer and sunnier rather than going in the opposite direction. My campsite looks bleak in the photos, but as I said, I'm from grassland, and this was reminiscent of that. Homey. Vacant, empty, and bleak. Cozy. Providing plenty of elbow room. I liked it.
The temperatures held in the 50s and 60s, F (10-15 C), while there was an occasional puff of breeze as the sky darkened, and this is how it stayed overnight. All quiet. Every elk in the neighborhood had been alerted and gave me a wide berth, so there were no midnight surprises in the form of outraged, honking quadrupeds. My only problem was sleeping on the ground, which is a huge pain these days. But hey. Part of the deal. You can hammock in this general area but it's hard to find trees that are willing to cooperate.
Partly, the end of the day was time spent waiting for it to end. Nothing much to do. Noodle around, look for photos, dither, listen, wait some more. Finally it got late enough and dark enough to dive into bed. Which was late, since the next day was the summer solstice, and this far north the dusk seems to smear itself across the landscape and simply continue getting dimmer until finally you notice that it's too dark to see anymore. When you get tired of sitting and blinking in the dark you go to bed. Life can be worse.