THE PLACE TO GO WHEN YOU CAN'T GO BACKPACKING

Skunked at Polallie Ridge (Alpine Lakes Wilderness)

in Fireside/Trails by

Take One:

Some trails have a curse on them (or, according to Bob: to be cursed at – if you know what I mean). Alternately, the definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. Like when you keep pulling out the same map, driving to the same trailhead, hiking up the same trail but you never get to your destination. Though Polallie Ridge is one of the best hikes in region could it be that our best places only seem “best” because we’ve forgotten how hard it was to get to them (or find them)?

Having been to Polallie Ridge I wanted to share it with Bob, my partner. Few hikers can resist a strenuous hike to a lookout site with peaks in all directions and flowers as far as the eye can see. Since I’d been there we planned to start at the Pete Lake trailhead I hardly glanced at the road numbers as we drove by Cle Elum Lake.

However when we got to the trailhead it troubled me that the trailhead looked different than I remembered it. For one thing the restrooms had been moved. Whatever; I attributed my memory lapse to old age. We filled out a permit to enter the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and hit the trail but after that first pretty view of the Cooper River. Something didn’t seem quite right about the trail though I didn’t say anything – it seemed steeper than I remembered. I knew the Pete Lake trail wasn’t supposed to go uphill; the Pete Lake trail is mostly level with gentle ups and downs. Yet no one could expect me to remember every up and down on a trail I’d hiked before so I kept mum. (Aside from Bob: If I’d only known the Polallie Ridge trail meant Pete Lake and Tired Creek, and that “the campground” Karen mentioned didn’t refer to the one at the start of the Polallie Ridge Trail, we’d have been okay. Karen, who is an amazing hiker, and very tolerant of me for no discernible reason, said it was okay for me to chime in so we’ll see if any of my comments survive the editing).

As the trail pulled further away from the Cooper River I had to admit something was wrong. Out came the map (which we didn’t think we needed). Sure enough – we’d parked at the wrong trailhead! We stomped in furious silence – yes, stomped – back to the car (no one stomps more furiously than Karen when frustrated). There we pondered the map which I, in my brilliance, didn’t think we needed to consult to get to the trailhead. No wonder the approach to the trailhead looked different – we’d never been there! (I’ve never been there either so when Karen first asked me if the trail seemed right, my reply of “I don’t know” resulted in more furious stomping).

By the time we were on the Pete Lake trail it was already getting late; fortunately days are long and forgiving in early July to compensate for uh, errors. We skipped the view of the Cooper River near the trailhead since it was almost exactly like the view from the other trailhead and heaved a sigh of relief – at last we were on familiar ground, on a trail I’d hiked often over the years. I knew (without looking at the map) how long it would take to get to the Tired Creek trailhead.

polallie ridge

Imagine our surprise when we got to Tired Creek – instead of a friendly stream, a river crossed the trail, deep and fast enough to give us pause. Every hiker has an Achilles heel, mine is stream crossings (I call them scream crossings). I like stream crossings about as much as a cat likes a bath. Of course, we’d left water shoes at home not thinking we’d need them to ford gentle Tired Creek. (I was getting tired of Tired Creek; I don’t like stream crossings either).

There were two choices; neither good. Balance on two slippery logs where the knee-high creek was deep, or ford. As we pondered the crossing a hiker danced across the logs with the grace of a gazelle, followed by two more hikers who deftly dashed across, only one using a trekking pole for balance. As we stared dumbly at Tired Creek, the hiker who’d danced across the logs offered us the use of his trekking pole. I pretended that I didn’t hear him. (I wobbled across, three times actually, once with my pack, then back to get Karen’s pack and then back across again. This isn’t the simple process it would seem as we both carry our share of technology. Karen’s two cameras, my camera and the GPS, all duly wrapped in those much derided plastic bags to keep cameras dry in case we fell in the creek).

Now I’m probably the only hiker in the Pacific Northwest who does not like hiking with trekking poles. Having tried them and tripped over them several times I have developed an intense dislike for them. Also, after many years of leading hikes for an outdoor organization, there have been too many instances the hike out has been delayed by one of the hikers forgetting their trekking pole and having to hike back to get it. Why is it that when a hiker forgets a trekking pole it’s never near the trailhead?

As I pondered my dark fate I looked for an easier crossing, perhaps a spot where I could jump across the stream without getting into the Devils Club. Have you noticed that Devil’s Club only seems to grow where you want to cross a creek? After pondering faking a burst appendix to avoid crossing Tired Creek I gathered up my courage and forded the creek with boots in hand.

The Tired Creek trailhead is not far from the creek – at least the trail sign was where I remembered it: like me, more weathered than ever. It was also the first hot day of the year; we’re heat wimps – but at last we were on the Tired Creek trail!  The first stretch was also steeper than I remembered and the trail showed scant evidence of use; the vegetation is taking over. The trail soon intercepts a road; here we turned right and just before running into Tired Creek again the trail cagily turns left, steeply uphill.

polallie ridge

When we looked at the time our hearts sank – Polallie Ridge was too far away given our late start and the heat. Fortunately, should this happen to you there is a consolation prize. At about 4,350 feet the forest opens up to a great view of Lemah Mountain and Chikamin Ridge. By the time we got to the viewpoint we’d already been fooled several times by “false” views. False views are akin to false summits; a false view is where you see sky through the trees and think you are closer to your objective than you really are. It seems to be a law of hiking that there are usually several “false” views before you get to that heralded view and this trail was no exception. (I’m used to Karen’s mantra of “just one more switchback, we’re almost there”, I’ve learned to take that with a grain of salt).

We did get to the view and yes, it was worth it.

Take Two: 

This time we were prepared for Polallie Ridge. This time we started from the Salmon la Sac trailhead, (don’t ask why we didn’t do that in the first place). This time we not only studied the map before setting foot on the trail, we read the trail signs. No way were we going to be jinxed this time.

Though it was another hot day we optimistically set forth, certain of our objective, only seven miles away. That’s 14 miles round trip but we’d recently hiked 17 miles round-trip and had no doubts we could handle a measly 14 miler. (I must admit here that I was a little more confident of getting to Polallie Ridge this time until I saw a young man jogging around the campground with a young woman carried piggyback. When I mentioned his “funny looking pack” his response was that while it didn’t carry much it did get mad at being left at home – humor is always a good start to a trip).

Other than it being too hot the hike was going well and the trail in good condition. We knew those views from Polallie Ridge were seven miles away with significant elevation gain but we’d pass Diamond Lake on our way and looked forward to that. A vision of a pretty alpine lake was further enticement to take this approach to Polallie Ridge – a new route is always heady stuff! True, there was a chance of thunderstorms later in the day but we’d be out of there before they struck, of course.

polallie ridge

After climbing what seemed an unreasonable amount of “up” the trail dropped, skirting a boulder field before dropping then leveling out in cool, shady forest. That’s when the trouble began; that first snow patch. You’d think by now we’d turn around at the first snow patch. We should know by now that the first snow patch usually heralds the end of snow-free hiking. Sure enough, the further we hiked the more snow patches we encountered and when we came to a stream we could not even see the trail. In retrospect we realize that the stream WAS the trail but given snow-melt it had became a stream. (This was all snowmelt, assuming the map is correct Diamond Lake drains in a very different direction. This always bodes ill for any of our hikes. Our response to encountering snow on a trail is often colorful, usually unprintable and expressed in a manner our mothers would not approve).

Resorting to flagging the route we continued through the pine-needled, dirty snow and it wasn’t long before Bob broke through the snow. That wasn’t a good sign. Bob hates breaking through the snow. He weighs about 100 pounds more than me and I felt guilty as I skittered across the snow like a mosquito. (One of my pet names for Karen is “Dances on Rocks”). When we reached what we hoped to be Diamond Lake it didn’t take long to admit that our lake was only a seasonal pond caused by snow-melt. Nevertheless it was a pretty spot and we lingered taking photographs of marsh marigolds, emerging hellebore and glacier lilies.

polallie ridge

We carried on a little further, lured by a few cut logs and blazes on trees. We could see the ridge above us – it seemed to taunt us and we soon ran out of blazes or any semblance of tread. Confounded by the snow we designated a small outcropping our turnaround (no views), ate a hurried lunch before retracing our route through snow and look-alike trees, taking down flags as we went (flagging is generally frowned on but when we have used it on occasion we take it down on our way out).

Just about the time we were on discernible trail again we stopped in our tracks: a UFO! In this instance a UFO was an unidentified feline object bounding through the forest – we dared not move. The UFO was too large for a bobcat – it was a cougar. (I was surprised and can only assume that my presence kept the cat from approaching Karen and curling up in her lap for a belly rub – she has a way with animals).

Fortunately the UFO was bounding AWAY from us, not toward us so we continued hiking, trying to remember every thing we’ve ever read about what to do should you come face to face with a cougar (never run – a cougar may think you are prey and chase you). Wetting our pants was just one possibility, probably not a good one. Fortunately the cougar wanted nothing to do with us and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The hike out was endless. Another rule of hiking is that the trail is longer on the way back to the trailhead. We also believe there are evil little trolls and elves that take the trail and stretch it out like taffy, one on each end of it, making the hike out longer than the map shows (that we were now surrounded by thunder rolling from the hillsides did not make me comfortable – given how hot it was and how much I sweat I’d been looking forward to rain).

Uh oh, is that headed our way?

By the time we got back to the trailhead Bob looked like he’d had an encounter with the cougar – his legs were covered with scratches from falling through the snow–so we were genuinely surprised when the car started up; something had finally gone right!

Lessons learned: Watch out for those “experienced” hikers like us – they tend to rely too much on memory and not enough on hard data. Do your research BEFORE you get to the trailhead, don’t forget the map, compass and a GPS if you have one.

Will there be a third attempt on Polallie Ridge? Stay tuned.

 

Karen is a Washington native raised near the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. She has been hiking since the early 1980s and hikes year-round. Karen has published articles and photographs in The Seattle Post Intelligencer (she wrote “Hike of the Week” for the Seattle Post Intelligencer for several years) and has also been published in Washington Trails Magazine (formerly Pack and Paddle and Signpost), Enumclaw-PATCH, Sierra and The Seattle Times. Mountaineer Books published her book "Hidden Hikes" (out of print) and she was co-author of "Best Wildflower Hikes, Washington. In addition to hiking Karen scrambles, snowshoes and is also a runner.

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