It was raining, and the sound of water was everywhere as I pulled into the Alpental parking lot at 7:45am in the last-day-of-daylight-savings dark dawn. The swish-swish of the windshield wipers gave way to the drizzle patter of drops on my poncho and, somewhere unseen, the muffled white noise of water falling a long way down a rock face.
As I headed up the trail in the still dark, Water seeking sea level squished and splashed under my boots as it flowed down the bootworn stream bed hikers had inadvertently created for this purpose.
More ambitious flows rushed across the path in several places, taking a more direct path to the Snoqualmie River,
while in other places it was content to puddle in depressions along the trail. I gave up the notion of having dry feet for the next 6 hours, not bothering to rock hop across these puddles and torrents; why delay the inevitable when my boots irreversibly wet out?
Mist stuck in the branches of conifers and left dewey droplets hanging from the needles filled with refracted images of an inverted world.
There is something about being outside when the weather is telling us to stay inside, seek shelter. It feels like being in on a secret, being cold and wet out here when many others are inside choosing warm and dry.
In fact, in this closed-in world, with no long views to distract me as I ambled along, there was plenty of time to think about the impulse to on occasion go against the drive to safety and certainty, shelter and warmth, venturing to inhospitable places where discomfort is a given. Then my phone buzzes, my girlfriend texting my from New York, and I think that it is not so hard to be wet and cold when I know that warm and dry is a choice I could be making. I’m on a popular trail, still despite the surroundings not even out of reach of a data signal. Through breaks in the mist I can see signs of the Alpental Ski resort and hear sounds of the slopes being prepped for the coming season.
There was no grand view as I descended from the saddle into the basin of Snow Lake; no view of Mt Roosevelt or Chair Peak, though I could hear the waterfalls crashing down the face of the latter
But in exchange there was the kind of quiet that doesn’t exist on bright and sunny days and shapes surrounded by subtle tonal scale of grey negative space. And where there was color it was super-saturated in contrast.
I saw a signpost indicating Gem Lake somewhere further along the trail, and consulting my GPS figured it couldn’t be more than 2 miles further on. With the early start and Snow Lake only a round trip of a little over 7 miles, I had tentative aspirations of doing more than one hike today, following this up with the backdoor route to Lake Laura(the trailhead only a 35 minute drive away) and on to Rampart Lakes, which I’d visited in the summer via Rachel Lake, when the mosquitoes were so rampant to stand still for the moment it took to take a picture was to lose a half a pint of blood. But I was here now, and not knowing if I’d ever be back this way, I went on to Gem Lake instead.
My fingertips went periodically numb from the cold, so I drew my hands up in to the sleeves of my poncho and balled them into fists, my fingers wrapped around my thumbs, which suffered the most from the cold. I had gloves, and rain mitts, but they were packed away, I didn’t want to mess with them every time I took a picture.
The trail to Gem Lake went up another 800’, crossing Rock Creek on a log bridge, where I paused and waited as another hiker watched where the creek rushed between a gap in the rocks and roared down the mountainside to the middle fork of the Snoqualmie some 2000’ feet below.
At Gem Lake the persistent rain turned to almost but not quite snow, stinging my face, I followed the trail around the shore, detouring to seek out the campsites as a reference for future trips.
I crossed a rockslide and followed the trail to where it continues to Wildcat Lakes, before turning back along the switchbacks where I could look down and see the 600’ of elevation I would have to lose and then regain to get there. It was still early, not yet noon, but I was cold, and wet and began projecting forward how much longer I would be cold and wet, so I turned back. I’d worn a pair of water resistant but not waterproof soft shell pants, thinking that they’d be okay in the light rain, will to trade a bit of dampness for not being in the swampy steam bath a pair of waterproof pants would create, and they had been fine until I’d had to push through the dewey vegetation as I searched out campsites, dew somehow seeming to be wetter than any other kind if water and soaking me through.
It was on my way down that my camera started to malfunction. It is supposed to be, like my pants, weather resistant but not water proof, and it should have been able to handle the brief times I had it out to take pictures before tucking it back under my rain poncho. I’d had it out in worse. But the only reasonable explanation was water damage. I turned it off and continued hiking, trying to put it out of my mind. There was nothing to be done until I got back to the car, now 7 miles away.
As I passed Snow Lake, I began encountering more hikers. I’d seen a few on my way in, but now I was running into all the people who didn’t want to depart in the dark.
If I was a more chatty person I would’ve stopped and asked them why they were out here today; especially since quite a few of them did not have the ‘look; of a hardcore hiker. On a nice day when pay-off is obvious, I’m used to seeing such people; wearing inappropriate footwear, not carrying water, etc. But today there were no views, the lake and surrounding peaks still hidden in fog and when you walked away from your car, you were committing to be wet and cold for the next 3-4 hours. So why are you here? It was a serious question, but I’m not the kind of person who stops people and aggressively questions their motivations when it was something that I still couldn’t quite answer for myself, so I just continued on my way down and back to the car, where I left the change of shoes and clothes in the grocery bag I’d packed them in and let myself be wet and uncomfortable for an hour longer as I drove home.