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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The scare at Green Lake: Part II

The boys make me uncomfortable. Who knows how long they have been up here before I got here, to Green Lake in Mount Rainier National Park? More than 20 minutes before, anyway, because I stopped at the trailhead and ate an apple and talked with a passing hiker before I started my ascent, and they didn’t pass in that time.

They’re not friendly like are most hikers I’ve encountered. And they don’t look like hikers, or experienced ones anyway, wearing sneakers and skinny jeans. And neither has a pack—no water, no food for this 10-mile hike?

After my quick glance across Green Lake, I retreat up the trail 25 feet, lean against a tree and eat my tuna and crackers, not sitting because the only place to sit is where they are. They’re not looking across the lake, not looking anywhere, just loitering at the water’s edge. What are they up to? Skinny lights a cigarette.

In 15 minutes I’ve finished my lunch and packed my trash. I look out at the lake a last time, and I look at the boys. They’re still just hanging out. Football is sitting on a low stump. Skinny is mindlessly flicking his cigarette and wandering a small area, about four feet by two, like he’s guarding a buried treasure. Although I’d like to sit for a spell to rest my legs after that climb, I think it best to give the boys the privacy to do what they came up here to do, so I amble back down the trail.

In less than a minute, as soon as I’m out of direct view, I start running, just in case what they want to do is ambush an unsuspecting hiker.

After five minutes I stop and put my hiking poles in my pack and take off again. I do slow when going down the natural, twisting staircases formed by exposed tree roots and when crossing the stream. This is the second time hiking in the park that I’ve crossed on a bridge that is a felled tree with the upside chipped off to be somewhat even and a rail at one side only. I cross slowly and carefully, with a slight lean to the railed side so that if I lose my footing, I don’t fall in. Once on soft earth, I’m running again.

What fun running down the trail is! I’m on the road in 25 minutes! Coming down I covered the distance 50 minutes faster than climbing! I am psyched! Stoked! My engines are burning! I want to run more downhill! But, alas, it’s a final, flat three miles from here to the car.

Still, I maintain a fast pace—mostly. I trudge the last 5–10 minutes as my adrenaline high has worn off. I am relieved to collapse in my rental.

I drive away from the park, and as soon as I get phone reception, I pull over and call my husband. I don’t even mention the boys and being scared.

I never gave those boys a second thought until I started writing this article. It was so odd, them not having a pack for food or at least drinking water. Maybe they had a tent set up out of view. Boys will be boys, and there’s no guessing what they were up to. I was scared when I started my descent, and that probably prompted production of adrenaline, which fueled my flight down the trail. That run initiated a runner’s high, my second ever but better than the first. I’m ready for another scare.

The scare at Green Lake: Part I

When I got to my motel room yesterday after my challenging hike at Federation Forest State Park, I got in a hot bath and called my husband on my cell. I told him about the water hazards, the rain that increased in force throughout the morning, about my clothes being supersaturated and making me cold, about how, ironically, the rain stopped once my hike ended. I told him I was abandoning the following day’s plan to hike 9.6 miles in the northwest entrance of Mount Rainier National Park (in Washington state) up to Green Lake; I did not want to be at the mercy of Mother Nature. Then I hung up and soaked until my body temperature rose above what felt like 55 degrees.

Since I’m not hiking today, I take a leisurely start and check out of the motel after breakfast at 8 a.m. I’ll drive south along the western border of Mount Rainier National Park, meander among the small towns, wonder at the lushness of vegetation I’m sure this area sees every spring.

I cannot believe where I end up. With no intended destination or direction to follow, I am at the northwest entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, which is the start of the hike I was intending to take—prior to yesterday’s fiasco.

I park in one of the 16 allotted spaces, half of which are full, and get out. The couple in the SUV next to me take their bikes off the rack and prepare for an 18-mile round-trip ride to Carbon Glacier. That’s where I wanted to go originally, but I didn’t want to chance pooping out after walking 12 miles and being miserable dragging myself the final six.

I enter the visitor center and see that the hike to Green Lake is timed at 5 hours. It’s just after 10 a.m. So, I consider: I feel amazingly fresh, likely because I ended yesterday early and slept in this morning; I’m dressed for hiking—wearing boots, light-weight hiking pants and a long-sleeved thermal top; I have packable food for a mid-hike meal; and, it’s sunny! I’m doing this hike.

At the car I grab the half sandwich I brought back from dinner last night and walk the easy quarter-mile interpretive trail while I eat it. Just after 10 a.m. is early to eat lunch, but I need to fuel up.

Back at my rental I open the trunk, pull out my pack and stuff it with water bottles, an apple, a packet of tuna and crackers. While gearing up, I watch a couple fly-fishermen cast their lines into the Carbon River and reel them in empty. I could spend an hour watching and appreciating the art of fly-fishing—the adeptness of the wrist flip, the languid curve of the line once it’s cast—but now that I’ve committed to this hike, I don’t have a spare hour.

For safety reasons, before my hike I check in with the ranger and give her my license number. She assures me rescue efforts will initiate if my car’s still parked at closing time.

It’s 10:30 a.m. when I walk through the gate and along a paved road closed to traffic. In November 2006 the park flooded, receiving 18 inches of rainfall in 36 hours. The flood wiped out campgrounds, took out utilities and ultimately shut the park down for six months. This entrance has not been reopened to vehicle traffic—thus the gate—and soon I learn why.

The area is crisscrossed with streams and rivers. Running full and overflowing, these waterways buckled the road where they crossed. Sometimes it seems as if the earth burped in one spot, which raised just one side of the road four feet and ripped its edge a foot or two, but other sections look like the warped road was a piece of plastic melted in a microwave over the top of boulder-size popcorn popping. Bikers likely walk their rides through these sections.

Despite my freshness, memories of the previous two days’ hikes make me doubt the ease of this one. The three-mile hike out is level, but I dread the climb to Green Lake. Nor am I looking forward to the three miles back. But, the scenery is beautiful: old trees, thick vegetation, everything green. Same as yesterday in Federation Forest, only because today is sunny, the scene is fairytale-like and I wouldn’t be surprised to see gnomes darting among the moss-covered hillocks or a fairy reclining on a tree stump, drying her wings in one of the few rays that penetrate the canopy.

At the Green Lake trailhead I lean against a guard rail and eat my apple. As I’m finishing, another hiker joins me. He’s making the trek to Carbon Glacier. I tell him I’d personally decided that was too far. He encourages me to join him, but I explain that I just ate half my fuel supply and I’d still have 15 miles to go. He relents and continues east. I head up the rise to Green Lake.

Though I dreaded this climb, it’s not difficult. The exposed, red roots of trees next to the trail form steps in places.

Yesterday’s rains make leaves glisten, and the fallen wood is most beautiful: red like cedar though I’m not sure that’s what it is. The abundance is amazing. Rainier was designated a national park in 1899 or loggers would have decimated this forest long ago.

The 1.8 miles, plus a short spur to an overlook of a powerful waterfall, takes me an hour and a quarter, and with abundant energy, I burst onto the view of Green Lake. I’m spooked by two teenage boys standing near the water’s edge.

The football-player type wears a gray sweatshirt, Levis, sneakers and short hair. The other boy is skinny and wears dark-rinsed skinny jeans, the legs of which hug his skinny sticks down to his skinny ankles. He also wears a black T-shirt under an open plaid shirt and low-top, black Converse. His straight hair is swept over one eye.

I walk to the edge of the lake, sensing that I’ve surprised them too. I try to be cool, nonchalant, as I pass between them: “Wonderful hike, huh?”

Skinny responds with an unintelligible, “Hrm,” while avoiding looking directly at me. I take a cursory view across the water and get a chill—that has nothing to do with the temperature.

To be continued