Paying Our Respects to Granite
Copyright © 2006 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Ward Lake Backpack
Trinity Alps Wilderness
August 2-7, 2005

"Why are you here, old man?"

High atop the Trinity Alps chessboard, the pieces move at a geological pace. Granite plays white, Peridotite red. A white bishop, Caribou Mountain, guards the northeastern flank of Thompson Peak and Wedding Cake, Granite's king and queen. Across the Salmon River Valley looms the red queen, Red Rock Mountain, spearheading the attack of ultramafic forces massed in the Swift Creek drainage. At the head of Swift Creek the Granite king's rook, Black Mountain, wearing a crown of black schist, has broken through into enemy territory and glowers at the red queen across Kidd Creek's stark upper canyon. Beneath them metasedimentary rubble strews the battlefield. If a man could scrabble these massive stone pieces for a thousand lifetimes, then might he begin to perceive the progress of the game.

Red Rock and Black Mountains each cradle an alpine lake. Behind the red mountain's eastern cloak lies 7040-foot Landers Lake. Black Mountain's exposed eastern arm embraces Ward Lake at 7140 feet. The previous month we had climbed more than 3000 feet and eight miles up the rusty rock of Swift and Landers Creeks to Landers Lake. Now it was time to pay our respects to Granite.

I had been to Ward Lake twice, Barbara once. Our trip there together was in 1995, a nine-day expedition up Swift Creek. From our base camp at Mumford Meadow, we dayhiked to Landers, Horseshoe, and Ward Lakes before climbing into Bear Basin (where we encountered a bear), over the Deer Creek divide, around Seven Up Peak, and out through Granite Lake. On the fourth day, tired from the previous day's scramble into Landers Lake, we ascended the granite headwall to Horseshoe Lake, then in late afternoon continued on to Ward. Tired and anxious to return to camp before dark, we sojourned at the water's edge only briefly, watching a bald eagle carve its signature across the blue sky.

My first experience of Ward Lake had been a two-day trudge up Swift Creek with Mr. Popper and Douglas for the 17th Annual Spring Acid Backpack Trip in June 1988. Pressing ahead alone early the second morning, I endured unexpected dizziness and leg cramps as I broke a trail through the drifted snow to the prime campsite on the southwest shore of the lake. I was soon joined by Bruce, another member of the expedition, who "popped over" the short way from Big Flat via Kidd Creek. Stricken with a severe cold, I laid around Ward camp aching and mopping my nose. Ever since, I had yearned to try the "pop-over" route from Big Flat.

In preparation for our July backpack we telephoned the Weaverville Ranger Station to inquire about the Kidd Creek route. The ranger cautioned us that the trail at the head of Kidd Creek lay beneath serious snowpack and Ward might still be frozen. Landers, we were told, thawed quicker, though the trail there might be buried under patches of snow. So Landers became our July destination. We crossed no snow. Those little rangers are courteous and helpful, bless their hearts, but they do tend to err on the side of caution.

By August we were ready to take on Kidd Creek. In the furnace of mid-summer we drove to Big Flat. We bought sandwiches at the Forest Deli before motoring 18 miles up rough, single-lane Coffee Creek Road as it climbed 2500 feet, arcing like a meat hook into the heart of the Trinity Alps. Accessible by passenger car, Big Flat Campground is a popular place, with trails threading out into the wilderness like dendrites from an excited neuron. The campground was pretty full, but we had the good luck of finding a fine campsite on the bluff overlooking the Salmon River. A large trail crew was camped to the west, and we wandered over to ask about the danger of bears in the campground.

"Whut bears?" the crusty trail boss wanted to know as he sharpened his axe on a whetstone.

A host of voices kept screaming "Wally" or "Willy" or "Woody" over and over until the shrieking became needles of irritation. A young woman stopped by our camp to explain that her group had lost her little dog, and had we seen it? She shared elaborate stories of the pet's appearance, character, ancestry, and bowel habits until our neighborly grins had frozen painfully on our faces. The caterwauling finally quieted down when someone captured the cursed little beast around dusk. Fortunately, such loud and clueless persons tend to cluster like suckling piglets around their motor vehicles and do not ordinarily vex the back country. In anticipation of an early start, we loaded our backpacks after dinner and left them under a tarp atop the picnic table, built a small fire, and when it was decently dark, turned in.

On Wednesday we arose early, ate our oatmeal, and finished stuffing our backpacks. We strapped them in place at 7:45 a.m. and, as usual, they seemed inexplicably heavy. A sign marked the trailhead for Ward Lake at the parking area, but we bypassed it. Instead, we crunched up the loose gravel road to a locked steel gate blocking the road to privately owned Josephine Lake. Unpleasant signs warned that passage along the road was WITH PERMISSION ONLY. Apparently the unauthorized were supposed to take the trail from the parking area, which dropped 100 feet to a wet crossing of the Salmon River, meandered along its western bank for two miles, then recrossed the river just before rejoining the road. Two unnecessary river fords was ridiculous. Tyranny less onerous has spurred the meek to insurrection. We opted for the reasonable, even tread of the well-graded road and stepped defiantly around the gate. If our actions bought stern prison sentences, so be it.

The road followed the east bank high above the Salmon River, meandering the valley floor through a tall mixed-fir forest. We had calculated the road to be flat as it rose toward the river's source in the box canyon walled by Black Mountain on the left, Caribou Mountain on the right, and the Sawtooth Ridge dead ahead. Instead, the route undulated irritatingly through shallow valleys, rises, and washes. The Hansel and Gretel forest offered only momentary glimpses of the stark granite of Caribou Mountain across the river. After an hour we were growing weary of our heavy packs.

More than two miles from the gate a cairn of large stones marked the proper trail's return from its watery crossing. We dropped our packs for a short bathroom break and breakfast bar. In the brush near the junction we found a fallen trail sign advertising Kidd Creek to be one mile, Ward Lake four, and Swift Creek five. The trail left the road for good, diverging at a shallow angle as it began to climb the northwest slope of Black Mountain. Another spur road pierced the forest almost to our trail, and here and there we could make out a cabin or small house on the large forested lots scattered below as we gradually withdrew from civilization. The ascent was moderate, and at last we came to a trail junction. The sign pointed left to Ward Lake and straight ahead to the Sawtooth Ridge.

Turning left, we immediately arrived at a wide, rocky gully all strewn with a rich mix of river-rounded metasedimentary boulders and cobbles, many interlaced with cryptic intrusions as indecipherable as ancient runes. Surely this rocky wash was too large for the little stream that babbled happily at the bottom like an infant cooing from a fold in its father's great bed. We easily stepped across Kidd Creek on dry rocks. Boulders and scoured slopes testified to the torrent this creek might become when it grew high and angry. Climbing the south bank of the wash, we at last encountered the wilderness boundary sign.

The trail cut east up the moderate slope of a moraine forested with tall Douglas and white fir. Colorful rocks and cobbles littered the ground. Massive rounded boulders stood sentry among the sturdy trunks. The trail switched-back to the north, almost to the gorge down which we heard, but could not see, Kidd Creek cascading. The canyon was bordered with open meadows scoured clear of trees by avalanches. The path then cut back south to climb increasingly steeply. Behind us, like sunlight on sunburned shoulders, we could feel massive Caribou mountain, and blinding visions of its slickrock granite flashed through the trees. Before long we passed above a steep-roofed cabin and a few outbuildings, the last of the private inholdings on the edge of the wilderness. The trail then got serious, switching back and forth up the steepening moraine.

As the climb become a drudge, we emerged onto an open outcropping of twisted metasedimentary basement rock through which pale intrusions wound like taffy. Across the valley, unveiled at last, majestic Caribou Mountain loomed, its worn and fractured granite sinews bulged like those of a vital beast, a sash of green forest draped from its left shoulder. Pausing for awhile, we traced the Caribou Lakes trail as it climbed to a forested saddle to the north and located the rugged chasm harboring privately-owned Josephine Lake. The lake was for sale. That such beauty could be bought and sold, possessed as a private bauble by the rich, seemed a bizarre obscenity, an offense against nature. We rested awhile and absorbed the vista.

Turning back to the mountainside behind us, we tried to decipher our route. High above the densely forested moraine, just beginning to emerge against the cloudless blue, rose a massive fortress, a sheer vertical wall of gray rock, toward which our trail zig-zagged. The impenetrable massif was the north face of Black Mountain, and Ward Lake lay in its granite embrace on the far, southern flank. Our trail circled east and south into the upper hanging valley of Kidd Creek, carved by glaciers into the seismic interface between Black and Red Rock Mountains to the northeast. On the far side of Red Rock Mountain lay Landers Lake less than two impassable miles away. Small world.

We heard, then reached Kidd Creek as it cascaded down the rock face. It was a lovely spot, with a fine campsite. We looked it over. Unfortunately, the campsite straddled the main trail, and hikers were bound to be drawn to the waterfall. As if in confirmation, a group of three women and two children caught us and nosed around the waterfall. They were dayhiking to Ward from the Josephine Lodge. We decided to press on.

The trail grew steep, and we took frequent breaks. Unburdened by backpacks, the dayhikers soon caught and passed us. In time we climbed out of the enveloping forest into the barren, U-shaped upper canyon of Kidd Creek. The predominant hue before us was red, opposed by a dark sedimentary slope on the west. Down the curving valley floor was painted a broad green sward of willows and grass in the alluvium and glacial till, fed by the matriculating headwaters of Kidd Creek. Only a few small groves of fir, pine, and hemlock dotted the ultramafic slopes like tufts of hair on a mangy red hide. The panorama brought to my mind the long glacial valley that arced up the East Lostine River toward Eagle Cap in northeastern Oregon.

High in the upper valley, we lost the trail in a wet meadow. Just above the meadow we found the trail and an abandoned campsite sheltered beneath a three-trunked mountain hemlock in a grove of hemlock, white fir, and white pine, at 6675 feet (N 41 01' 06.1", W 122 54' 30.8"). Across the trail, fifty feet away, the creek gurgled at the bottom of a shallow rill choked with willows and alders. Lush green meadow spread above and below, spiced with the whites and blues and yellows of abundant wildflowers. The view of the stone-walled canyon was stunning. We had already climbed 1675 feet above our van and 4½ trail miles in and could have pressed on the final two miles, climbing another thousand feet before dropping 400 to Ward Lake. But why? Was not the journey as important as the destination? We cleared an almost-level tent site, dragged away a few fallen branches, dug and lined a small fire pit, and set up the tent and hammocks.

In the late afternoon the dayhikers, returning from Ward Lake, passed our camp. They had spent only a short time at Ward and still had a long way to return before dark. Tired, eyes fixed on the long trail, they passed us by like sleepwalkers.

We had torn the last three chapters out of Harry Potter so we could finish the sixth book on our backpack. Perhaps it was not such a good idea. Hanging in our hammocks, we read with horror of Dumbledore's fate. As evening fell, the fiction cast a lugubrious pall over the once-bright landscape.

Thursday morning, in no great rush to complete the last two miles, we drank our tea and mocha and watched the sunlight and shadow paint the peaks ringing the canyon. After breakfast, we struck camp, strapped on our packs, and began the final ascent. The path rose from bench to bench, with increasingly splendid views, and entered one of several fractures in the headwall of the canyon. In the defile, the climb became serious, rising steeply on a tread of sharp boulders and rocky loose talus pried by ice from the rock face above. We zig-zagged up the steep mountainside above a deep snowfield that still filled the bottom of the sunless gorge. Just below the crest, a drift of snow blocked the trail, but we skirted above it on the precarious slope. A month earlier, this would have been a stopper.

At 7550 the summit offered our first view into the Swift Creek drainage. We dropped our backpacks and rested. A half mile away through the trees and 400 feet below us we saw Ward Lake perched in the granite of Battle Mountain's eastern slope. The near face of Black Mountain was encrusted with dark gray schists and cherts sloughed off by the granitic intrusion. Immediately to the east and north rose red rock domes and spires of peridotite scraped, geologists say, from the ocean floor long ago and uplifted by tectonic forces. In the distance, rimming Swift Creek, rose snow-clad peaks above Bear Basin.

The trail dropped precipitously down the slippery loose dirt and duff of a forested slope before contouring south along exposed rock toward Ward Lake. Our thighs quivered from the steep descent as we arrived at a fine horse camp in a grove of towering red firs above the north end of Ward Lake. A broad green meadow sloped down to the water's edge five hundred feet away. We considered taking off our packs and exploring the lake unencumbered.

Barbara scanned the shoreline through the binoculars. Miraculously, no one seemed to be there. Suddenly I felt the need to press on and secure the premier site in the granite boulders on the southwest shore, where I had camped before, before someone else ambled up the Swift Creek trail and beat us to it. Hitching up our packs, we squished through the wet meadow and out across the glacier-polished granite dike damming the eastern end of the lake.

Halfway across the blinding white slickrock, Barbara spotted color across the lake. She lifted the binoculars and discovered a group of six or seven people swimming near tents at our destination campsite. She sagged beneath the dead weigh of her pack. "Let's turn back," she sighed. "That horse camp was just fine."

But I was loath to return to a camp situated so far from the water. "Maybe they'll be leaving today," I protested. "It's not far around the lake. Why don't we go ask'em."

The path along the north shore turned out to be steep, rocky, and undulating. Sun dazzled off white rock. We were weary and irritable by the time we rounded the last house-sized boulder before the campsite. Barbara hung back by the rock. I approached to palaver.

"Howdy," I called, addressing a wiry young man in wet shorts who was washing a pot near his tent. "Nice campsite."

The man looked up, nodding curtly. Beyond him, several men and women in their early twenties puttered about their affairs, ignoring the interruption. Probably college students.

I suddenly became aware of a young woman sprawled on her back, bare naked, sunning herself on a flat slab of granite a few feet away. She was lean, blond, and showed no reaction to the intrusion. Ah, the insouciance of youth! Glancing away, I blundered on, "How . . . er . . . how long are you folks planning on staying?"

"We'll be leaving tomorrow," the man replied, puffing up. He was the spokesman. The leader. The alpha male. He exuded the invulnerable smugness of youth, and might have added, Why are you here, old man? Get out of our way! You had your day. We are the rolling tide that will drown you.

Of course, I thought, sweat dripping into my eyes, this fine banquet would soon be over. Then this cocky young fellow would crack open his Fortune Cookie and draw out the thin strip of paper. It would read: "On the day you were born, you begin to die." Soon enough he would begin to hear a low drone, like a distant didgeridoo, the underlying base note of his own mortality. Soon enough The Horror would close in.

But not today.

"Tomorrow?" I repeated, feeling a bit lightheaded.

"Yeah. We'll be heading out at eleven o'clock. Shouldn't take us that long to hike out Swift Creek."

"Ah." I glanced at the unclothed young woman, then gazed deliberately away across the water. A puff of breeze ruffled my hair. Somewhere an escapement seemed to slip, a cog spun wildly, and I telescoped back forty years (or perhaps 40,000). With savage certainty I remembered it all.

An invincible warrior god gazes dreamily out across silver ripples, thirsting for hot blood. His fingers tighten on the shaft of his spear . . . .

I shifted my walking stick uneasily. Get a grip on yourself! Fluttering a hand toward the western shore, I asked, "Any good campsites over there?"

"No," Mr. Alpha replied patronizingly. "This lake has only two good campsites. This one, and that one over there in the trees above that meadow." He pointed to the horse camp we just came from, where we should have stashed our packs.

"All right, then," I murmured, turning awkwardly, nearly stumbling as I tried to keep my gaze averted from the naked lady. But she was so palpably there.

From behind the boulder, Barbara never even saw her.

We squished back across the wet meadow to the horse camp in the red firs. The camp was huge with an oversized stone fire ring and several nearly level tent sites. We speculated whether other sites might lie in the trees and slabs to the west where Black Mountain tumbled into the lake. Barbara pumped water and rested while I prowled the western shore and the rocky promontory in the middle of the lake, which pointed like an accusing finger at the college students' camp. On the west shore were a couple of adequate campsites, but they lay too near the college campers. Here and there on the promontory a clearing had been scraped out and rocks stacked in a blackened fire ring, but nothing compared to our red fir grove.

Perched atop the glacier-polished rock, I watched as four new people filed down past our campsite toward the granite dike on the lake's southeast shore. They appeared to be two young couples, probably high school age. The girls wore daypacks, the boys each swung a water bottle. Where the polished granite sloped down offering prime access into deep water, they quickly stripped down to swimming suits and splashed happily into the lake. High-schoolers wore swimming suits, college students skinny-dipped. What could it mean? Was it merely a symptom of maturity? Or was it a sign of changing times? Had the freewheeling spirit of the Sixties been smothered beneath a New Victorianism, begotten by Homeland Security, born of the Patriot Act, and inculcated with the oft repeated mantra of "Just Say No"?

Back at camp, I shared my concerns with Barbara.

"I'm hungry," she wisely rejoined. "Let's eat lunch."

After cheese sticks, dried fruit, cashews, and crackers, we deployed the tent and hammocks and generally moved into our new camp. Then it was time for a swim. I suggested the granite slabs where I had seen the high-schoolers splashing hours earlier. Surely they would be out of the water by now.

But I was wrong. As we approached the fine swimming spot with our towels and foam pads, we came upon one couple, a boy and a girl in wet bathing suits, knee deep in the water, squirming in a steamy embrace as if auditioning for From Here To Eternity. We averted our eyes and redirected our steps further up the shore to a more private cove beneath a solitary red fir and spread out our pads. The sunlight on granite was blinding, the shade above nearly impenetrable. I was about to disrobe when Barbara noticed the second couple crouching in the shadow of the tree just above us.

"Hello," the girl said politely and waved. Her sullen young companion, in the grip of something he longed desperately to understand (but never would), withdrew further into the darkness of his own perplexity.

Once again we relocated, this time to a steep dirt bank sheltered by some low brush, and swam naked. The water was refreshingly cool. Afterwards, we sunned ourselves on the bank. The lake was more popular than we had imagined. Downright crowded, in fact. The place throbbed with youthful passion. The water was slick with pheromones.

Ah, and we remembered what it was like. We had not met until our early forties. Our separate histories were the dark matter in our communal universe. But our journeys had been parallel. Having grown into puberty in the Chicago area during the cold and claustrophobiac Eisenhower years, we had each escaped to the Golden State to join the flower children of the Sixties. In California we tested the limits, and each learned that things were not as we were brought up to believe. In murmurs and giggles we reminisced for a while, then gathered our things and, insubstantial as ghosts, drifted back to camp.

As we prepared dinner, the two high school boys passed sullenly through our camp. The girls waited by the trail and explained that they had hiked in through Kidd Creek from the road and were on their way out. Having brought no water filter, the boys were searching in the rocks on Black Mountain for a clear-water spring that fed the meadow. A boy shouted down for the girls to meet them further up the trail, and they were gone.

We had seen chickadees, nuthatches, a brown creeper, stellar's jays, a yellow-rumped warbler, a red-tailed hawk, and juncos. In the evening we heard the Coughing Deer. As it grew dark, a single woman arrived from the Swift Creek trail and deftly set up a camp hidden in the trees and brush on the west shore of the lake below us. She was as quiet and private as a shadow, and we likely would not have known she was there if we hadn't watched her hike in. The following day we would learn her name was "Eliza."

Friday morning was spent leisurely in the hammocks. As eleven o'clock approached, we waited for the college students to leave. Barbara watched them through the binoculars. They still lounged around the camp unfocused. Ten minutes later, however, a solitary man, head down and determined, toted his backpack briskly along the rocky shore and down the Swift Creek trail. The self-appointed alpha male, we concluded. The better part of an hour passed before the others straggled after him.

Determined to dayhike around the west shore to look over the newly vacated campsite, we crossed the meadow on a path of trampled grass and muddy bogs to Eliza's camp, where we had to search to find her tent in the tall brush. Her camp was lean and efficient. Pressing on, we investigated all evidence of man's presence: yellow and white cardboard sticky aphid and whitefly traps hung from various shrubs, a blackened fire ring here and there, a windbeak of stacked rocks, and at the tip of the stoney promontory, a small solar panel, box, and antenna broadcasting weather conditions to some distant monitor.

The prime campsite was empty. We had the entire lake to ourselves. Massive granite boulders marched down to the water's edge. The site was peaceful. But level spots were scarce. As nice as it was, we decided not to bother relocating.

Back at camp, we packed a lunch and hung our food, then loaded our daypacks for a hike to Horseshoe Lake. The trail was steep and hot, dropping 500 feet in a mile of exposed slickrock and sunbaked chaparral overlooking the Mumford and Swift Creek basins. At the junction with the Horseshoe Lake Trail began a 250-feet climb up the brushy outlet stream in a fir-shaded canyon to the granite cirque that held Horseshoe Lake. As we approached the lake's outlet, I heard what seemed to be a bear thrashing nearby in the brush and braced myself for an attack. The ruckus turned out to be a young man stacking slabs of granite in the undergrowth.

I called out, "I thought you were a bear."

The man looked up. "Nope. Just fixing the trail around the lake."

Horseshoe Lake is a small crescent filling the hole in a Henry Moore sculpture. Voluptuous mounds of glacier-polished granite emerge from the water's edge and rise in slickrock cliffs and benches toward Tri-Forest Peak 700 feet above. Azaleas with tiny white blooms shrouded the shore in places, and tall red firs climbed the slope or grew as bonsai from the narrow seams and cracks in the dazzling basement rock. The only good campsite was perched atop a granite slab above the eastern shore. No one was there, so we dropped our daypacks, took off our clothes, and swam in the refreshingly cool water. Afterwards, we found a little shade, ate lunch, and studied the intricate intrusions crisscrossing a granite face that plunged deep into the lake. It was a fine, intimate place.

After awhile the young man we had seen muscling granite slabs came over the granite lip to chat. He wore a scruffy little red goatee and a USFS T-shirt. "I'm helping Eliza with her trail work," he explained, uttering the name "Eliza" with reverence. He expected that we must certainly know who Eliza was.

"Are you a ranger?" I inquired amicably. I liked to know exactly who I was dealing with.

"No, actually not. I'm a volunteer. In training. Maybe next year they'll be able to hire me on."

Deja vu struck. Suddenly I remembered having this same conversation. "Say, aren't you the same guy we spoke to three weeks ago? Down on Swift Creek?"

The trainee ranger stared blankly.

"You were coming down from Landers Lake? Asked if we had a back country permit, but didn't need to see it?" I prompted. "We asked you if there was snow on the trail to Landers."

"Oh, yeah." He grinned as if reuniting with lost family. "I've been up here all month, helping Eliza. She's camped by herself up at Ward."

Small world.

After the young man returned to work, we packed our things and hiked leisurely back to Ward Lake. Along Horseshoe Lake's outlet stream, Barbara found patches of bright tiger lilies. We paused frequently to gaze at the spectacular Swift Creek basin, from the slopes of Red Rock Mountain in the north to Mumford Peak and the Mumford Basin in the south, where Peridotite and Granite were locked in tectonic battle.

At Ward Lake we found ourselves alone. We swam again from a deserted granite slab on the eastern shore. After dinner I explored the strange metasedimentary rock formations at the edge of the granite. We rested in our hammocks, watching for Eliza to come back. We never saw her return.

On Saturday morning the lake was peaceful and quiet. We took down the tent and hammocks, packed our backpacks, and swam once again before hiking out. Even the fish, swimming in sunlight near shore, seemed sad to see us leave.

The climb to the pass was easier than coming down. The trail down into Kidd Creek Canyon was very steep and rocky. We took it slow. Near the top of the green valley floor, on a steep moraine in a grove of red firs, we located the campsite recommended by Luther Linkhart in his guidebook. Small streams gurgled through the grass and mud on each side. The camp was off the trail and had a good water source, but huge trees had fallen across the only level tent site. A pile of bleaching cow bones raised issues we did not want to confront. We ate lunch and tried to make the campsite work, but it was no longer comfortable.

In the end, we decided to return to the lovely campsite beneath the three-trunked hemlock we had used on the way in. It was a good choice. The camp had the comfort of an old shoe, and the view was stunning. In the afternoon we spoke to five people backpacking in to Ward Lake. Otherwise, we were alone.

The hike down Sunday morning took us through familiar terrain, the soggy meadow, the waterfall campsite, switchbacks down through the tall forest, the metamorphic overlook of Caribou Mountain, the tumbled rock crossing of Kidd Creek, and finally back to the road. We followed the trail across the road to the Salmon River ford, but decided against removing our boots to cross. Instead, we hiked back on the road. It seemed much longer than two miles. We kept waiting to ford a small stream in a rocky wash we had stepped across on the way in, but never found it. The creek had dried up during our five days in the wilderness.

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