Monday, September 17, 2012

Day 149: Red Pass to Ridge Above Milk Creek

We watched the sun rise over the rugged eastern horizon from the comfort of our sleeping bags. A female grouse strutted across the ridge against a backdrop of the rising sun.

The trail descended through rolling alpine meadows with mossy shot grass mixed with heather. Within a mile we had dropped into the forest with its rich, green undergrowth of ferns, vines, shrubs, and other green plants. A variety of fungi also grew out of the forest floor and the many dead stumps and logs: mushrooms with gray, white, brown, or red caps and a delicate white fungi with hundreds of tendril-like fingers.

We crossed several streams and creeks in the damp forest. At first the creeks carried clear mountain water. But as we approached Glacier Peak, more and more of the creeks carried milky-white water full of glacial silt.

We spent most of the day climbing over or traversing around the many large ridges that protruded from Glacier Peak like gigantic octopus tentacles. In between each ridge the trail dipped into steep, glacier carved alpine meadows of grass and heather, each with its own wildflower lined creek tumbling down the mountainside. Towering above was Glacier Peak, with large bluish-white glaciers and creamy snowfields contrasting with its dark, rocky ridges.

Progress was slow, and it was late afternoon when we reached Fire Creek Pass (6,350 ft).  From there we descended to Mica Lake, still blanketed with a layer of ice and snow. From there, according to the Data Book, it would be five miles to drop into Milk Creek and then climb to the next campsites on the opposing ridge.

But the Milk Creek Bridge had been relocated a mile downstream of its original location, resulting in additional miles not recorded in our outdated Data Book.  The new trail was overgrown with thick brush in places and washed out to a narrow thread in others. With limited camping options near Milk Creek, two hikers sprawled across the unmaintained Milk Creek Trail (3,800 ft) in a makeshift cowboy camp shortly after crossing the bridge.

With no camping in sight, we pressed on. Unfortunately, the trail on the other side of the creek proved equally challenging. Thick, overgrown brush concealed rocks, roots, and narrow sections of trail that dropped off steeply. Downed trees blocked our path, forcing us to crawl under or clamber over them to pass.

Even when we reached the top of the ridge (5,750 ft), finding camping in the fading light of our dim headlamps proved challenging. We followed several spur trails only to discover they led to viewpoints, marshy land, or someone else's tent. Finally, one of the spur trails led to a small campfire ring and a few patches of level ground. Tossing down our tarp, we fell asleep at last.

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