Mid-October sunshine, I head into the mountains. Previously, before I lived in Central Oregon, the High Cascade Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness were my destination for every summer vacation. Now that I live here, I get to pick and choose when I visit these trails, and I choose to avoid the crowds of tourists that flock to the same trails I once did. Now, I wait. The sun falling southward, the days getting shorter, the tourists long gone, and the bloodsucking mosquitoes, having got their fill, fade away until next year. A perfect time to head into the woods.
Here I am at the trailhead; for mid-October, a later start, but I find sleeping in on a Saturday to sometimes be a desirable priority. Only a couple of cars at the trailhead, and I will likely meet these people heading back down the trail as I hike up. Headed for the lakes and ponds that surround Sister’s Mirror lake, just off the Pacific Crest Trail. Filled with clouds of mosquitoes during the height of summer, and mosquitoes love me oh so well, this is a place that I only visit during the fall season anymore. I might feed a chipmunk, but I won’t feed a mosquito!
In any case, the golden light, the long shadows, the fall colors of huckleberry bushes – mixed with conifer green – and the crispness in the air make this a fine time of the year to visit these lakes. The forest this time of year is also far more silent, less traffic on the trails, bird song faded away, and the cool dense air more seemingly muffling sound as I move through the forest. The temperature, and the light, on the trail changes every hundred feet or so, passing through pools of cool air in deep shadow, or the warming touch of fall sunshine in forest clearings.
Given the shortness of the days I put my head down and hike briskly through the forest, with over 3 miles to go before reaching the Pacific Crest Trail, and the lakes beyond. There is not a lot of elevation gain on this trail, so I move swiftly. I want to make sure that I have plenty of time to linger pond side in the sunshine of this warm afternoon. I still stop to observe the many small lakes and ponds that line this trail, each unique and beautiful in its’ own way. Golden sunshine illuminates fins of basalt rising from the surrounding forest. The ponds reflect both light and shadow on their surface. Both mirror and window on this still afternoon. No big winter storms yet, the trail mostly dry, only occasional sounds of running water trickle in the shadowy distance.
Passing the Pacific Crest Trail, and a small group of hikers, the landscape opens into dun fields of spent grass. Fall sunshine pours onto the surface of Sister’s Mirror lake. Deep blue now, both above and below. High lake solitude sunshine silence abounds.
Payne Pond; perhaps there is an actual name for this small lake, but the few maps I have seen reveal no given name, and so with the arrogance of explorers of a bygone time, I have assigned my last name to this lake – at least for the day – held in a rocky basin, surrounded by trees that push to the shoreline. A simple, beautiful location that most people pass by on the way to the larger, more spectacular lakes in this area. Mostly surrounded by low cliff, weathered basalt boulders, and a tiny beach from which to see furtive trout swimming, and long dead trees, slow to decompose in still, chill waters, covering the bottom of the lake. Happily, minus the clouds of mosquitoes that turn this tranquil scene into a cacophony of death in July. I will gladly take the cooler days, and the ability to linger.
I have been attracted to this pool for many years, but now I also stop here now because on the far side of this lake there is another of our small wilderness shrines. South facing, 10 or 15 feet above the lake itself, built into the rocky shore, like all of the shrines, only visible when you’re staring directly at it from close distance. Purposely inconspicuous. An entire year since my last visit has left the shrine completely filled with hemlock needles! Only a tiny green Buddha and two crystals remain from last year. No doubt they were snug for the winter buried deep beneath a blanket of needles. For today, I clean and reconstruct, and then reposition the Buddha and add new crystals and blessings. The shrine now ready for another winter in the High Cascades.
I like that our shrines, being built in out of the way places, take me off trail, on little rambles where, over repeated years, I see changes I might not otherwise notice in the landscape. I enjoy not being wedded to a trail sometimes. Since my last visit a large spruce has fallen close by. Only evident as I hike around the lake and come across its’ sprawling form, splintered in a array of broken trunk and scattered branches. If a tree falls in the wilderness when no one is around does it still fall? Yes. I can attest this to be true as I scramble through a maze of woody debris.
My shirt off, sitting lakeside in the peaceful sunshine! Stillness but for a few remaining high mountain birds that linger. A pause before winter. Only a few stray clouds break up the deep blue skies above. Barely a hint of a breeze right now. Perfection. In July, with my shirt off, I would be drained of blood by now. Though mosquito free, big colorful dragonflies still patrol the pond looking for food. Fiery red to pale pink huckleberry bushes surround me, but only a few dried white huckleberries remain at this late date.
Two hikers, leaving farther lakes, pass along the far shore, myself unseen, sitting Buddha-like on a boulder, in the sunshine. The day shortens, and the sun moves westward, dropping behind tall trees on the far shore, and so I grab my pack to head back down trail to sit in the sunshine by Sisters Mirror Lake until the light fades.
Sisters Mirror silence
low sun reflections.
I sit alone, absorbing
the warmth of sunshine in
cool mountain air.
A bright golden meadow
of summer grasses
long gone to seed.
Surrounded by dark
Hemlock, spruce and pine
encroaching on the meadow,
a seedling at a time.
Me, not much different than
the birds that live here,
fueled by fruit and seeds.
Silence, so complete.
Stillness and calm,
I absorb that, too.
Sparkling ripples, an
endless procession of
as the Tao, uncaring,
unceasing, their flow
simply knows which way
As with every perfect day, and every perfect hike, the urge to linger is strong. So many of my hikes end in twilight or darkness by the time I reach my car. Certainly, the late start is part of the cause, but finding some wilderness perfection and savoring it, apart from the crowds and noise, is always a strong enticement to sit and watch and wait, to tarry the day away. Plus, the evening light warms the trees and landscape as the day fades. Beams of orange and red filter through the trees. Surprise spotlights of color on trees and low hanging mosses as I wind through the darkening forest.
Maybe someday I might make a bony, crunchy dinner for a cougar as I flow through the dim shadows of the forest, but who’s to say I haven’t been spied many times before? Likely. A humpback traveler moving ghostly through the woods. But I would not give up those quiet moments, sunlight turning golden and orange over an inky forest as the sun hovers and is gone. In a society filled with noise and distraction these tranquil moments are few and far between, and so very precious to me.