In search of autumn

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

I found myself looking October in the face with a profound sense that summer had been largely stolen from me.

Obligations and deadlines had kept my nose in close proximity to the grindstone for most of July. When I finally had some free time to disappear in the mountains in August, the smoke rolled in, thwarting several planned adventures.

And then, there it was: the cusp of autumn. Time was running out.

The rains had finally returned, thank god, but once again a planned excursion to the Portals at the end of Ptarmigan Ridge was scrubbed by a forecast of rain, snow and cloud immersion. I spent an hour or two studying the maps and weather situation, and in email consultations with my hiking companions, re-aimed our trip to the east side.

And so it was that we found ourselves driving east on the North Cascades Highway through fierce squalls into the misty, cloud-curtained mountains. After a broiling, smoky summer of oppressive heat and dull gray skies, the North Cascades were back to normal—mysterious and melodramatic.

We pulled into the Colonial Creek Campground, quiet and mostly empty after the summer’s hullabaloo, and established a camp beside the aquamarine waters of Thunder Arm. It rained all night, but the morning dawned in relative dryness with patches of blue, mist rising from Diablo Lake, and fresh snow on Pyramid Mountain.

We headed up the road to Rainy Pass and set off up the Maple Pass Loop Trail through venerable forest, stopping to enjoy the cavorting of marmots in a field of boulders. The trail grew steeper as we approached Heather Pass, traversing rocky slopes that afforded a front-row seat for the cloud ballet above the cirque cradling Lake Ann. Humbling and very welcome.

We’d come looking for the sweet, familiar drama of the North Cascades and had, at long last, found it. We climbed above the pass and stopped for a luscious hour on a rocky parapet, watching the clouds stream through the valleys below. The peaks were isolated in a swirling soup of opaque clouds that fleetingly framed them in a constantly changing spectacle like a scene from Beowulf.

We watched for a long time, enraptured by the drama and cold, clean wind. A steady rain finally sent us back down the trail and, as we descended, the rain became snow, falling lightly like a dream. Instantly, there was a softening, a gentle release, a change in the acoustics of the high meadows.

We paused again to watch the season’s first snow falling softly on the last of the summer’s fireweed.

We’d found what we were looking for—the magical threshold of autumn, a chance to savor the turning of the page. And it was as beautiful as I remembered it.

With exuberant hearts, we headed down the mountain.

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