Sunday, August 19, 2012

Buckhorn Wilderness Backpacking: Part 1

Moon like condition on Buckhorn Pass

 At almost 6500 feet, we were growing weary from being weighed down with 45 pounds of gear and the 90 degree temperatures that was quickly dehydrating us. We were miles from anywhere, deep in the rugged, remote, Olympic Mountain range and were only halfway through our days trek. In long hikes and backpacking tours, there always comes a time when your body and mind start to give you doubts, and for me, the heat was starting to make me question my abilities. The pack, rubbing against my quasi-healed fractured clavicle was aching and all I could think about was how I forgot to pack any mild pain killers. Step after step, we staggered out of the forest switchbacks and ended up on a moon like trail with no real signs of life. We were well above the tree line, but we kept trudging along, silently, trying to reach the pass.
Almost to Buckhorn Pass

The bridge out of the Trailhead
                Actually, let us back up a bit. We started out of the Tubal Cain Mine Trailhead a day earlier in high spirits. It isn’t often that I am hired to guide a backpacking tour, and I was eager to get out into the woods after many months of work in a windowless office.   As always, I overloaded my backpack with food and supplies.  I figured, like many of us, that it is better to be prepared for anything than have nothing if disaster strikes. For a 4 day trip, we had enough packed to last over a week. I figured that since the total number of miles we would hike was under 30 that we would be fine. We met in Port Angeles and proceeded to carpool to the trailhead, which is located nearly 30 miles deep in National Forest Service land.

                The first night we were slated to camp at the pretty, yet small alpine Buckhorn Lake. Only 6.5 miles from the trailhead, this was a great place to rest after our first day hiking. Short hikes on the first day of a backpacking trip are important for many reasons. First, it allows you to get used to the weight of your pack and allow it to settle comfortably on your shoulders. Secondly, it gives you the opportunity to quickly return home if there is an accident or injury because of the unfamiliarity. Finally, if hiking with a stranger, it gives you a chance to get to know each other and to make sure that the trip won’t be filled with awkward pauses or stale conversation.

Flipped image of
Lake Buckhorn
                Arriving at Lake Buckhorn (4300ft) after 3.5 miles of steady incline and 3 miles of switchback climbs, we took our packs off, filtered some water to drink and took the short, yet steep animal trail to access the beautiful lake. If you have ever hiked in the summer, you know that heat causes appendages to swell quite a bit, and a cold lake to dip in does wonders not only to the soul, but for your swollen fingers and toes as well. 

Fog Rolling in on Lake Buckhorn
After a dip, we sat around and chatted about nearly every topic under the sun until we looked down the valley and saw what at first looked like the dust raised from a massive rockslide. Paranoia over a disaster soon left and we were covered in a thick fog, leaving our sunny, reflective lake to look uninviting and cold. We hustled up to the campsite, quickly set up the tent and hunkered down for the night. We sat around and talked while eating dinner, battling mosquitos that were immune to all forms of insect repellent. The highlight of these little buggers came when I sprayed Deet on the back of my hand and watched as 2 mosquitos landed directly where I had sprayed and proceeded to bite me. Apparently, around Lake Buckhorn, the smell of Deet is to mosquitos what lower back tattoos are to frat guys: easy targets.  The fog never cleared, and by 9pm it was dark enough to call it a night and head to bed. Sleeping on the ground in my tent, my muscles ached a bit, but I was starting to finally feel alive again after months of inactivity.

Cold Morning at lake Buckhorn
                The next morning was cold, but nothing too bad. Our camp site had survived the night (no real surprise) and after a great oatmeal breakfast, we packed up and left our lakefront home of the evening. Our next camp was 5 miles away at Boulder Shelter, which was over Buckhorn Pass (6500ft) then to Marmot Pass (6000ft) and ending up down in the valley to the campsites at Boulder Shelter, which is at 4500ft. This isn’t a difficult trek, but with highs in the 90s, we needed to beat the heat of the day.

Buckhorn Pass way in the Distance
                This is where the story started, with us slowly working our way up to the crest of Buckhorn Summit. The sun beating down on us, we were silent as Charlie Chaplin films until I lifted my head and saw, for the first time on this hike, the interior of the Olympic Mountains over the ridge. The feeling of excitement that washed over my body took away all the small aches and pains and my pace sped up to nearly a jog, as I was eager to climb out on a rock and see the view for its entire splendor.

Partial view from Buckhorn Pass
                The view from the pass was invigorating, and exactly why I love the Olympic Peninsula and the Olympic Mountain range. This is the place where my soul feels at ease, where all the problems of the world are of no concern, because all that is important is the moment that I am in, the moment where my eyes dart over mountains and valleys and gaze upon waterfalls, rivers and far off peaks that are begging to be climbed. This is the view that I want for eternity, one that while back in the city, I often drift back to and day dream about as a smile crosses my face. 

To be continued....

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