Thursday, September 1, 2016

Stairway to the Enchantments

Our work crew put in rock steps on the trail to Colchuck Lake

My fifth Volunteer Vacation with the Washington Trail Association involved working on the trail to Colchuck Lake. The Colchuck Lake trail is accessed via Forest Service road 7601, about nine miles west of the town of Leavenworth, Washington.

It involved a three-hour drive from my house near Black Diamond, Washington. I used Google Maps on my iPhone to insure that I didn't make any wrong turns. It worked well. The last four miles to the trail head were over a bumpy and washboard-filled dirt road.

I couldn't believe how many cars were parked at the trail head and all along the road. I parked a good third of a mile away! Fortunately I was early, so I grabbed my pack and waited at the trail for everyone else to arrive. While waiting, I ate my hamburger for lunch.
Cars lined the road at the Colchuck Lake trail head. I had to walk the road 1/3 of a mile! It is a popular trail.

One of the team members, Gary, had arrived the night before, so he had saved a couple of parking spots. One for Claire, our team leader, and one for another person who arrived shortly after. I could have gotten the other one, but didn't want to hike all the way back to my car. As I was eating lunch and waiting for everyone else to arrive, the team of horses and mules came down the trail having left our food, supplies and tools for the week.

Horses and mules return from carrying our food, supplies and tools to the camp site.

We have a team of eight, the maximum allowed on this trip. Claire explained that we would be camped about a mile away from Colchuck Lake, and we would be working on the trail between our camp and the lake.

It was a very warm afternoon, and the hike up to the campsite was fairly strenuous. I tried to keep a good pace, but the constant uphill finally got the better of me. I stopped several times to rest, and drank almost two liters of water.

All of our food, tools and equipment were carried in on horseback. I managed to arrive first, and found a nice tent site right along the stream.

I camped right next to Mountaineer Creek.
We all worked together to set up camp, and to fix dinner. Claire explained that we would be working to build rock steps on the trail, so very little brushing will be done on this trip. Yippee!

Sunday, August 14

Although it was warm when I went to bed, it cooled down significantly overnight. I slept reasonably well since the noise of Mountaineer Creek was soothing.

I awoke before five, but didn't get up until later because it was too dark to see. I made coffee and put on the hot water for tea and cocoa. I helped fix egg McMuffins for breakfast.

After Clair and Richard gave us our safety talk regarding tools and working on the trail, we headed up the trail a little after 8. The trail climbed steadily and we reached our work site within a half hour.

We spent the morning setting stones to make steps in several steep sections of the trail. It is tedious work. At first I was not very enthusiastic because I don't like all of the fitting and refitting of the rocks. I like to stay busy and I did not have the technical understanding to feel I could contribute to the decision-making. But as the day progressed, it was pleasing to see steps that were well designed and effective.

All day long there was a parade of hikers headed up to and down from the lake. Every time they passed we had to pause our work. But, it was very satisfying to hear most of them thank us for our work!

We hauled several heavy rocks requiring four to six people using a rock net.

We used large stones for the steps that required four to six people to move.

After lunch I helped remove rocks and roots further up the trail. We quit at 2:30 and were back to camp by 3:30.

Since I am camped near the creek, I washed up in the cool water, which was refreshing.

I helped cook pulled pork sandwiches and asparagus for dinner. It was difficult to pan fry the asparagus, but I think it turned out OK.

Tom, one of our team members, hiked to his car to get some reading materials, and noticed some bear scat on the trail. Claire took some extra precautions by hanging our trash bags.

It is definitely cooler this evening, so it should be easier to fall asleep.

Monday, August 15
My morning followed yesterday agenda, except we had blueberry pancakes for breakfast. We were on the trail just after eight.

I helped carry two rocks using a rock net before heading up the trail to set some rocks around a small creek. Next we built a small trail reroute were people were going up the hill on two different paths.
We built a re-route of the trail where people were using two paths.

Up the trail we removed more rocks and roots before hitting the 5,000 foot sign, warning hikers that no campfires were allowed above that point.

After lunch we worked on putting in stone steps in an area were there currently was a three-foot high step. We moved two massive stones down the trail and fit them in place. By the end of the day we had just one more step to find and fit.

At camp, I fixed salmon with basil pasta and pan roasted broccoli. I got a lot of good comments that the salmon was very tasty!
I cooked salmon on the grill. It was tasty!
There still have been a lot of hikers using the trail today. I'm still curious why this trail is so popular.
We had to stop working everytime hikers came up the trail. There were a lot of hikers!

Tuesday, August 16

We left for the trail after a breakfast burrito. We hauled a large stone down the hillside. It took six of us to move it into place using a rock net and pry bars. Much of the morning was spent standing around while those with the experience discussed how to set the stone step. I mentioned to Claire that I was frustrated, feeling that I was not really contributing to the day's work. She set me working to put in a stone step, removed roots and rocks, and finished the day getting a stone in place for another step. I felt better about my contribution to the team's efforts.

A group of us walked up to a pretty waterfall. It was nice and cool as the water cascaded down the cliff.

We got back to camp at four. I took a half hour to wash up before fixing chicken Marsala with couscous. It was delicious.

Wednesday, August 17
Midweek is the Volunteer Vacation day off. Everyone is free to take a hike, lay around camp or do whatever they want.

I chose to hike up to Colchuck Lake and possibly beyond. I left camp shortly after six and made it to the lake before seven. The lake is a beautiful turquoise color and is nestled between jagged peaks. It is spectacular!
Colchuck Lake as the morning sun hits Colchuck Peak.

I made my way around to the far end of the lake where I had to rock hop huge boulders. As I took a few pictures I noticed that dropping my iPhone would mean losing it forever. There were many deep, dark holes between the rocks. From here the trail climbed steeply towards Aasgard pass, leading to the Enchantment Lakes. In the video below, you can see the large boulders and I pan up showing the steep slope up to Aasgard Pass.

I pressed on. The climb up the rocky slope was hard. The trail was marked periodically with rock cairns. On the way, I saw a herd of mountain goats. They were not afraid at all!

Mountain goats on the way up to Aasgard Pass. Photo by Richard Mellon.

My goal heading up was to walk from one cairn to the next before stopping to catch my breath!

I made it to the top around 10:30, and then continued on until I reached Tranquility Lake. I had lunch while I admired the fantastic views. It was a perfect day to be here!

Colchuck Lake from the top of Aasgard Pass.

Mountains near Tranquility Lake in the Enchantments

I headed down, realizing that it would be slow going with lots of potential to slide on the loose rocks. Fortunately I managed to keep my footing, although I did foot surf a few times. I met Claire and Richard as they were headed up.

I made it back to camp by 1:30, and immediately washed off in the creek and washed out my shirt and pants. It also felt wonderful to lay in my tent and let my legs and feet recover!

We had flatiron steak and mashed potatoes for dinner, along with a chopped cabbage salad.
Gordon enjoys steak and potatoes.

Tom also enjoys the meal. He made cabbage salad several times which was fantastic!

Thursday, August 18
French toast and bacon fueled us on the trail this morning.
Pat and I prepare french toast for breakfast.

After complaining about not having enough to do yesterday, Claire assigned Tom and I to work with Richard putting in three rock steps. Richard had us find the rocks, move them and fit them into place. We managed to complete the steps by the end of the day. It felt good to be engaged all day. I just wish this had been the case on Tuesday, and oddly it felt like we were being thrown into the thick of things to show us how difficult it is to make all of the decisions.

Each rock requires fitting and adjustment to make it solid. Picture by Richard Mellon

I worked with Tom to fit large stones in a steep section of the trail. Photo by Richard Mellon.

It was hot again today. Steven, who I met on the Pete Lake volunteer vacation, was walking the trail to Colchuck Lake. He brought us two six packs of beer! What an amazing thing to do!

Spent an hour washing up and washing my clothes.

Helped fix burritos for dinner. I somehow got into a foul mood which soured my evening. Went to bed early, hoping to awake in a better mood tomorrow.

Friday, August 19
I slept well last night. The almost full moon lit up the forest in a magical way.

Claire helped me make egg McMuffins for breakfast before we headed back to the work site. I was still in a bad mood as I charged up the trail to our tool cache. I'm not sure what or why I am feeling the way I am. Perhaps I felt that others didn't appreciate how much work goes into prepping for meals? Or maybe I am feeling anxiety that I am not able to do my fair share of the work in setting stone steps? I think it's a combination of things. This likely is my last seven day outing of the year. I love it so much and regret that I don't have more to look forward to.

Claire noticed my displeasure and asked what she could do to help. I felt so embarrassed to have acted like that. But she did the right thing. She gave me a project of chipping away some granite to make a small step in an otherwise smooth rock face. The stone broke away easily as there was an existing fracture in the rock. I noticed that all of the hikers now use my new step!

I then helped Tom and Richard set two more steps in a steep and confined section of the trail. We stopped for lunch at noon and enjoyed the views of the mountains.

Lunchtime and enjoying the view.

This work is tedious, but the steps were solid and should last for years. We quit around two. Several of our group headed up the trail to see Colchuck Lake. Richard, Claire and I headed back to camp. Richard decided to hike up to Lake Stewart. I sat by myself in the shade and enjoyed the moments of solitude.

Everyone was back at camp by 5:30 and Claire fixed chili with cheese Quesadillas. I cut some cherry tomatoes for the chili and spiced it up with some salsa. Tom did his magic in preparing a vegetable salad. For dessert we had the treats that Steven brought up - Oreos, Milano cookies and gummy bears!

I was Patrick's birthday, so Claire gave him one of the beers that Steven brought up yesterday.

In all, it was a good ending to a wonderful trip. Claire is an exceptional leader and I am lucky to have been able to learn from her and everyone else in the group.

L to R: Gary, Pat, Elaine, Gordon, Bob, Tom and Claire. Photo by Richard Mellon.
If you are interested in volunteering for a day, a weekend, or a week, check out the Washington Trail Association web site (