Monday, December 22, 2014

The Menace of Mason Lake

I'm back again! Did you miss me again? I have had a month or two from hell, one for which I completed one task after another just minutes before it was due. Why did I volunteer for all that stuff right before Christmas, I ask myself. There was a literary contest I volunteered to judge, songs I promised to sing at church, notices I promised to send out to newspapers for a Boy Scout event, photos to take for the sock hop at Nick's school. And I volunteered for all of them. Why? Things will calm down this week coming up. I love that about Christmas. Just about this time of year, everything slows down a bit and I start to enjoy the season. Today, we're going out somewhere to take our Christmas picture. It will be funny, a challenge for Mike to get into the photo before the timer goes off. I wanted pictures of us in the ferns and trees, but Mike doesn't want to do that. He almost always has other plans. But that's not what I'm here to tell you.

I'm here to tell you about the menace of Mason Lake Trail.

Last weekend, Mike and I decided to take Teddy for a walk while Nick was off jumping on trampolines with a friend.

"I'd really like to be in the woods," I told Mike. I picked up Nick's trekking poles. I had meant to try them out in the woods to see if they helped knees or back. Mike nodded his head and went to sit down at the computer. I was busy getting ready, so I didn't see what he was up to. By the time I was good to go and had my day pack in one hand and my canteen in the other, he was printing something.

We walked out to the car. "You drive. I'll navigate," he said.

"Where are we going? Should we take the car or the truck?"

"Yeah, the truck. That sounds like a better plan," he said. We hopped out of my little car and I climbed up into the drivers seat of the Suburban. I hate driving that truck. I alternately call it 'the behemoth' and 'the tank.' I always feel like I'm trying accelerate a building when I put my foot on the gas and to halt an entire army when I put my foot on the brake. I groaned at the thought of it.

"You said you wanted to be In the woods," he said, grinning at me. We drove out to I-90. I'm telling you that any time I drive East past North Bend and feel the rise in elevation, I always feel like I'm heading into the wilderness. There's a place where the houses just stop. I've always wondered if that's where the Cascades National Forest begins or if it's a natural barrier. These are wild mountains with no houses. There are obvious avalanche zones, strips down mountainsides with absolutely no trees. There are rivers and rocky outcroppings. You can, if you're not keeping your eyes on the road, see the thin groove that the railway carved into the ruffle of the mountains where the Snoqualmie Valley Trail now descends from Iron Horse State Park. But this is not a place where humans reside and I love that reckless feeling of venturing into it.

Mike told me to take exit 45 onto the North side of the freeway to forest road 9030. I knew we were in for a beating when the pavement ran out and the truck began to rock in and out of great potholes. Some of them would have high-centered my little car. Mike was excited. He told me I was driving too slowly.

And then, the road ended, just ended. We were here, already half way up the side of the mountain, but only half way. I knew I was in for a hike.

Within minutes, we were deep into the woods. Teddy left me a deposit and I resigned myself to carrying a little bag of poop the entire hike. Mike casually walked about twenty paces ahead of me. That always irks me, but I know it's not superiority but that I'm slowing him down and he needs his own pace to work on his heart rate. Teddy danced up there with him, happy to be on the trail. Within minutes, I had a rhythm with the trekking poles, but I was heaving and going a bit light-headed in my attempt to keep up with Mike. I could hear my heart beating a trill in my ears. I couldn't talk, but barely gasped out any words when they occurred to me. Maybe Mike had planned it this way. Maybe it was the only way he could shut me up.

I trundled on, using the trekking poles to keep my balance where the land dropped away to my right. I was dizzy. That's not a good combination. Eventually, after pretending to tie my boot lace and pretending I needed to put away my gloves and pretending that I needed a drink to grab some extra oxygen, I slowed down a bit and found a pace that didn't send me careening into anaerobic respiration. I could still hear my heart pounding, but it was a fast beat, like heavy metal, instead of a twitter of a classical flute. I stopped being so dizzy.

We crossed a beautifully arranged drainage that had a trickle of water running through it. I hopped from one big stone to another. Nice. Then, a ways up, there was a creek crossing. Mike waited for me and three or four younger people made their way across. Two of them stopped in the middle, holding out their hands to me. Do I really look that old? Nope. I really look that out of shape. I was probably still heaving as I waited for them to cross, shaking my head in a no-thank-you gesture.

I really used those trekking poles for that crossing, but in a couple of places, I put my trusty boots down into shallow water rather than to step on a rocking stone. I'm a big believer in putting my feet as low in a stream as I can for stability.

"Your boots are waterproof?" Mike asked as I placed my pole into a deep spot for balance. The swiftness of the water dragged it downstream a bit. That water was small but mighty. Mike reached a hand out to me as I stepped out of the creek without landing on my ass. I really couldn't grab it because I was still gripping those poles.

"Yup. I love these old boots." I grinned at Mike. We were set to go again.

Something smelled suspicious. Teddy's bag had a little tear in the bottom and a bit of furry poop spooged out. Nice. I wondered if I had poop all over my leg where the bag had banged as I walked. I double-bagged the shit and picked up Nick's trekking poles from the tree where I'd leaned them. Mike looked like I was never going to get going, like a man waiting for his date on New Year's eve.

So, I should tell you that we started our hike in the mid-afternoon. Here in the Pacific Northwest, you start to lose light at about 2:30pm. By 4:17, the sun has set and dusk begins to gather. When I say it gathers, it has a true sense of that. The temperature drops noticeably. Fog gathers among the trees. The vantage points I pretended I needed to study in order to catch my breath really were beautiful as the sun dropped behind them and the sky made colors. I wasn't just faking my awe, just prolonging it a bit.

There's a difference between the way I walk and the way Mike walks. I don't worry about pace. I dawdle, looking at lichen, at the views, stopping to talk to people or take pictures. Mike walks with a purpose and I missed taking the time to really look at stuff, not to mention that I was still on the edge of breathing anaerobically.

Finally, near the top, but nowhere near Mason Lake, Mike stopped and waited for me.

"We're losing light. We need to go down." People crossing our paths with their worn day packs nodded their heads in agreement. Did I really need commentary from those experts?

"I have my head lamp in my backpack," I said hopefully. "And snacks." I'd have loved to dive into a clear pool of water at that point. I was soaked with sweat. But I knew he was right. I didn't want to cross that creek in the dark, not even with my headlamp strapped to my forehead. I have to tell you - I look like a total dork with that headlamp on my head, but I love how much easier it makes fumbling through the dark.

I took another long look out over the valley, and we headed back down the hill.

"At least I'd be able to keep up with you going downhill," I said. Famous last words. Mike strode down the hill, still twenty paces ahead no matter how I tried to catch up with him. I wondered if there was some superiority to it after all. Teddy skipped and danced along side him. I had finally given him Teddy's leash since I was too far away to clip him up when people passed us on the trail. I, on the other hand, still had the little bag of poop Teddy had deposited thirty feet into the woods on our way up the mountain.

My heart rate had slowed, but with this grade, I had to place my feet carefully so I didn't slide. I hate getting old. I gathered a decent pace and stopped trying to catch up with Mike. Apparently, he needed his solitude and to keep his heart rate up.

When the dusk deepened, I realized that we weren't back to the creek crossing yet, but I still didn't quite need my head lamp. The path was wide and not particularly rocky. I liked walking in this low light, but only because I was with Mike. When it's that dark and I'm on my own with Teddy, I start to think about predators. I don't know why. It kind of ruins the experience, but I've learned to trust that feeling.

Eventually, I realized that if Mike weren't thirty feet ahead of me, out of sight, really, I would be stopping to pull out my headlamp. His form, even Teddy's cream-colored coat was only a blur in the distance.

And then, it came on me like a wave. If there were a predator watching us in this light, I would be the one that was picked out of the herd. I imagined all those nature shows where the jaguar hooks his teeth into the rump of the zebra. I tried to walk with strength, not showing that I was still a little dizzy and a little bit tired. The hairs on the back of my neck rose, but I kept up my pace, trying to listen for night sounds in between footfalls.

And suddenly, my body moved as I heard rocks moving on the trail right behind me. I swung the trekking pole in my right hand out to the back and tucked it under my arm for stability in case it hit my target. At the same time I took a deep breath and lunged backward with my right foot, preparing to swing around with the other pole in front of me and face this thing behind me.

Before I quite saw him, a tall skinny kid jumped backward as I lunged. I barely missed poking him in the groin.

"Ahh!" he said. He looked confused.

"Oh, sorry," I said. "I didn't hear you there." But I was not sorry. Hikers do not silently move on a trail in the darkness, approaching an older woman without indicating they are there. It just isn't nice.

"I am sorry. I must have to surprise you," he said. German? Russian? I couldn't tell. He didn't know the rules of the road. Maybe German hikers sneak up on old ladies on the trail in the dark. I don't know.

Suddenly, I started laughing. It was the adrenaline. Mike stopped to find out what was going on. I caught up with him. I couldn't get the words out in between gasping.

"I very nearly gored that man in the nuts," I said, catching my breath. "I didn't hear a thing until he was three feet behind me and I just sort of lunged at him." I laughed uncontrollably for another minute.

"Here's this dorky foreigner," I whispered to Mike, "hiking for the first or second time in our country and as a welcome, I almost gored him in the crotch."

"He shouldn't be sneaking up on people in the dark," Mike said quietly. I started laughing again. Mike didn't get it. I wasn't sure I got it, at first. We went back to hiking on in our separate positions, recrossing the creek, and hopping across the big rocks for the beautifully arranged drainage, nearing the parking lot. I kept bursting out in laughter, not wondering about predators now.

I guess there are times when you don't mess with a little old lady, not certain little old ladies with trekking poles. I like that I'm growing into being that kind of little old lady. I was the menace of Mason Lake.

Thank you for listening, jb

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