July 13, Sunday-
I wake at first light, sore, in need of water. The wind is surging through the trees in force, and when I step outside the sky is overcast.
I figure it will probably rain, but I’m too tired to pack up camp so I lie in my sleeping bag, listening to the encroaching storm.
After a quick breakfast (pop tarts and dried fruit) the rain does begin, first a few teasing drops then torrents. I quickly move everything into the tent, watching the water collect at the edge of the vestibule. I could pack my backpack – but it was going to be hell trying to disassemble the tent in the downpour. And I don’t want to risk my camera getting wet, since it’s stuffed into the center of my bag without the protection of plastic.
The best course of action: hike down to the shelter, drop off the pack, then come back for the tent. The rain is almost refreshing – puddles accumulating on the trail, the leafy fronds tickling my bruised shins.
At the shelter I meet a friendly Canadian couple – Max and Gabrielle – and we share stories, comment on the weather. Turns out, they hiked the trail I’d been looking for just yesterday. They inform me it isn’t too far and there is a well marked sign.
I admit sheepishly that I’d bushwhacked a good bit looking for that trail, and I tried to slog up the wrong stream.
They say it is very difficult. It took them eight hours from Colden to their shelter here, with very steep ascents. And it would be certainly worse in the rain and mud.
After trudging back to get the tent – which ends up getting completely drenched—I pack everything up as watertight as I can manage and bid them farewell.
So off to find that elusive trail.
It isn’t hard. As I guessed I’d quit too soon. It juts off from the main blazes into the deep of the wood, following the brook roughly upstream. At times the trail itself becomes a tributary – waterfalls off the roots and boulders, deep puddles of mud. It also lacks maintenance, and the wet foliage presses close.
Then the trail grows steeper, a long hard haul up the mountain. My muscles are sore form the day previous, red welts and bruises where the hip belt hugs my waist. And even more, my shredded hands arms and legs now filthy.
The trail to Colden is only 3.3 miles, but I don’t get in till 1:30. There are bits of beauty along the way – the tiny white flowers with matching butterflies, flitting between raindrops, or the gray bits of cloud blowing through the trees and along the trail, like beckoning spirits.
But mostly it is physical hardship – aches and jolting landings, near falls and slides. It makes me think of transcendence through pain – something truly spiritual about pushing the body to its limits.
When I finally made it off the hill – a ranger stands there to both greet and interrogate me.
“How are you?”
“Are you planning on staying over night?”
“Have a bear canister? The bears are out in force.”
He leans on his shovel and metal pike and points down the trail.
“The shelters are that way.”
I trudge along, marveling at the elaborate wooden bridge crossing a tiny rivulet. Oh, the priorities.
Lake Colden stretches out before me, wide and grey and shrouded in mist, the black-green outline of conifers angled up from the shore line in the distance, but soon they are swallowed in sky – no indication of the enormity or majesty of the surrounding peaks.
The rain has temporarily stopped, and when I get to the shelter I collapse.
Ten minutes of lying there dripping. I figure it would be a good idea to change out of my wet clothes. I sit on my mat, study my map, eat some lunch. Even brew a cup of tea.
But outside it storms, not a warm summer thunderstorm, but a cold relentless downpour.
I realize now how ill prepared I am for this trip. Another jaunt into the rain will be miserable. It’s only 2, but I may just stay here, looking out over the lake, drying off, reading Conrad.
This is vacation after all.
I drowse, huddled under my damp sleeping bag, hearing the surges of rain out on the lake. There is nothing worse than a damp sleeping bag -yet another thing I can blame on myself.
I doze off – a few soaking travelers stop by, ask about the other lean-tos. They move on.
Around four o clock, a group of five college guys stumbles in. They are drenched, dirty cotton t-shirts sticking to their skin, feet and ankles encased in black mud.
They throw off their packs along front of the lean-to and rest out of the rain. A couple wander off in search of other options, but the three that stay pull out flasks of Southern Comfort and Jack Daniels, swigs of fire in the gut between exhortations and laughs about angering the mountain gods.
When the other two come back they decide to stay after a bit of halfhearted debate and deliberation. Most just want to pull off their wet clothes and rest.
“Do you smoke weed?” they ask. “Sometimes.” “Good.”
They pull out thick bags of tangled bud, little blown-glass pipes. And soon the lean-to is filled with billowing layers of thick smoke, just feet away from the wall of gusting downpour.
They’re a bunch of childhood friends from Maryland on vacation. They have driven seven hours to get here. When they arrived, they honestly looked more miserable than me – most of them in drenched gear, thin ponchos, cotton clothes.
But now they pile in the rectangle of wood, this single dry spot, to warm their chests with whiskey swigs and THC.
We start our stoves and boil up dinner, amid lots of jokes about Smoky the Bear coming to smell what’s up. Shared complaints.
In the early evening the rain lets up and I can see across the metallic lake the rock slops of Mount Colden, streams of white water from the peak, sliding down like white icing. I offer to fill up water bottles and I shoulder my poncho and step into flip-flops.
I wade out to mid-calf in the silken water, resting the bottles on a rock, pumping the filter. Black flies land on the cuts on my legs and knees, and every minute or so I drop my leg to the water to drown them away.
It is gently raining now, not cold or persistent, just tiny drops all across the surface of the water.
They talk about their plans for the next day. They’ll be day hiking up some of the nearby peaks, Algonquin or Marcy. One of the guys vows not to shoulder his backpack until they’re on the way out for good.
It makes me realize that I’m fine with day hiking. I don’t need to complete the crazy route I initially set out on. I can store my stuff here in the lean-to, pack light, and knock out much more.
It reminds me of Europe – jaunting around on a whim, without concrete plans – and how it turned out better that way. As Max said yesterday in his garbled French Canadian: “Not about destination. It’s the journey, right?”
I also realize the serendipity of the moment. If I’d continued on in the afternoon, I wouldn’t have met these guys to give me the day hike idea or the knowledge of Avalanche pass. But even more – the good pot and laughs to lift my spirits.
As the sun sets the clouds cover the peaks and the gap of sky through the valley purples. One of the guys lights a propane lantern, we attempt to play cards with a soggy deck, pack more bowls. Later, we trudge off through the sticks in flip-flops to hide the bear canisters. Then it’s back into the damp sleeping bag, the soggy sweatshirt, the crumple of plastic pillow – and attempt to sleep till morning.