Thursday, September 13, 2012

Huckleberry Picking a'la Natural-West Cady Ridge, Sept 7th, 2012

Every hike of mine has a highlight of some sort . . . the weather, wildlife, spiritual impact on the senses, even encounters and interactions with other people on the trail.  I often ask myself, "What did you learn from that hike?" . . . "What stood out and made it memorable?"  These highlights go on to become themes in my blog posts to add something more than 'I just hiked nude'.  Nude hiking is not just about taking your clothes off and wandering about naked in the forests . . . it is about deriving something special . . . mystical or spiritual . . . about your interaction with nature without the crux of clothing to immunize and separate you into a closed bubble apart from it.  Although I never envisioned it, picking huckleberries while 'stark-assed naked' atop a mountain certainly become the highlight of this most recent hike onto the ridges of West Cady.

When I manage to get out and up into the mountains for a nude hike I generally start out with a fuzzy idea of where I will go.  Mostly that is because I am looking for solitude and one cannot guess with any certainty just how busy a particular trail may be ahead of time . . . at least, not until you arrive there and count the number of cars already parked at the trail-head.

Having a desire to do a really long hike I found myself gravitating toward a trio of diverging trails deep in the wilderness . . . all sharing a common trailhead and parking area at the end of FS 63.  Any one of the three . . . Quartz Creek, Pass Creek, or West Cady Ridge . . . would give me a shot of getting onto a long wilderness trail and having it to myself.

There is another passion of mine involved with these particular trails, and that is, together, they form a backpacker's ideal dream of a doable loop trail that takes you well into some spectacular scenery and only requires two to three days to accomplish.  As this is also a pack trail route, it is popular with those going in on horseback . . . and I noted the two horse trailers just off the trailhead parking when I arrived. 

The West Cady Ridge-Dishpan Gap-Quartz Creek Loop, 26 miles

I've done the Quartz Creek segment a couple of times nude (and never met a single other person).  In 2005 I backpacked this route as far as Dishpan Gap (clothed, unfortunately) with a couple of other backpackers . . . overnighting in the Blue Lake area.

I've done the Pass Creek trail once in the nude and had to turn back before the steep switchbacks to Dishpan Gap.

And, West Cady Ridge is a trail I've started on a number of times . . . only to turn around for a number of reasons (late start, too many people, bears).  

I prefer ridgelines . . . always have because they get me high above the trees and into the intense sunlight and open air that I love.  However, the ridge of West Cady I had never gained and I was determined to see how far I could get this time.

At the trail parking area which serves three separate trails
Staying nude . . . I had been driving without anything on since leaving Monroe an hour earlier . . . was not a continuing option when I arrived at 9am.  I opted to be discreet and slip on a pair of shorts when I passed a couple of horse trailers and hobbled horses near the parking area. While I was considering if I would have the parking lot to myself and and going about making an educated guess as to where the occupants of all the other vehicles had headed, three ladies on horseback came around from the horse trailers toward the Quartz Trail entrance and that trail got dropped from my consideration.  In retrospect, four miles under the dense canopy of the Quartz Creek trail wasn't what I wanted anyway.

I chatted for a while with the ladies . . . all packing sidearms as they sat upon their horses . . . and got the lowdown on conditions.  Today they were taking Quartz Creek in as far as Curry Pass.  They had gone up West Cady the day before and had seen no one headed in this morning . . . though they did mention that a group of hunters were way up there hunting bear past Benchmark Mountain.  I had no illusions about making it that far on a day hike so I doubted I would run into hunters on the trail.  West Cady seemed like a good prospect.  I bade them farewell as they turned onto the Quartz Creek Trail and, as soon as they were out of sight, off came the the last vestige of clothing . . . my shorts.  Now I was almost ready to enjoy a trail . . . the West Cady Ridge one.

The West Cady Ridge Trail . . . goal today, Benchmark Mountain
Benchmark Mountain is eight miles one way . . . four hours at my normal pace (perhaps a little longer as I tend to dawdle).  A reasonable goal with such an early start.  Packing extra water, it was off, crossing the sturdy wood footbridge over the North Fork of the Skykomish River and onto the well-maintained trail.

The trail starts out pleasantly under wide open canopy
The trail starts out easy enough under old growth and filtered sunlight as the morning heats up but grinds onto steeper and steeper switchbacks that seem to go on forever . . . well past that point where a family of bears spooked me off the mountainside the last time I was up here.  In that first mile you gain most of the elevation of the entire hike . . . almost 2,300 feet.

Along the way I note the well-defined tracks of horseshoes going in and then coming out.  There were a lot of other tracks of boots on the trail but all were overlaid by the more recent indentations of horseshoes.  No one had been on this trail since the day before, and I assumed those would have been the hunters heading in.  I pretty much felt that I had this trail to myself.

The upward grind goes on and on, steepening ...

On the open ridge of West Cady
And then, suddenly, you are out in the open . . . on the ridge with gentle terrain seemingly along the entire ridgeline.    The views of nearby peaks (particularly Kye's and Columbia of the Monte Cristo peaks still patched with snowfields).  Glacier Peak is off in the distance and you can make out significant details of the peaks glaciers and voila!, Guardian Rock, a significant mark on the east face of Glacier.  I can also make out details of Gamma Peak  . . . another one of my long-standing hiking goals.

"Hike Nude" gets advertised wherever I can ...
Remember those hunters.  Well, I met them on their way back out . . . a rather sad thing for me as the lead hiker had a bear's head and skin draped over a piece of plastic atop his backpack while his buddies carried out very modern-looking, scoped hunting rifles.  I had seen them coming and stepped to the side of the trail to let them pass.  One of them quipped, "What happened to your pants?"  which I turned into a joke with, "Pants?  Pants?  I forgot them again?"  They continued on with a chuckle but I felt a little depressed about the bear they had slaughtered.  I have a hard time coming to terms with guns and hunting . . . even though I know there are innumerable folks who love to hunt.  I continued inbound letting the bright sunlight and gentle breezes cheer me up.

In the 90's this entire ridge area suffered a series of wildfires that decimated the old growth atop the ridge.  When the ridge recovered, smaller shrubs and bushes took over . . . and these open meadows take on a riotous melody of color in the summer.  Everywhere, just under the top layer of weathered topsoil, lays an thick carpet of nutrient-rich fire ash . . . and fruiting shrubs have taken to forming massive colonies of interconnected plants . . . . huckleberry shrubs amongst them, burgeoning reddened leaves as the summer ripens their fruits.

Blueberries I had seen lower down on the trail . . . though picked clean by previous hikers and certainly the bears who inhabit these slopes (with one less than the day before).  At first it didn't connect that these short, little shrubs were huckleberry shrubs . . . probably because while on the trail whatever fruit they may have produced had been picked clean.

Picking wild huckleberries
Just before the first significant drop into the saddle onto Benchmark Mountain I came across a huge, gentle meadow with an obvious footpath leading off the main trail . . . the whole meadow guarded by a isolated small grove of trees surrounding a cleared site complete with a campfire ring from past seasons.  Curiosity had me turning down that footpath toward a small rise and some large boulders suitable for taking a break upon . . . and my feet needed to be out of the boots for awhile to breath and un-tighten.

It was getting on in the day and I knew I shouldn't dawdle too long, yet this location was perfect for just enjoying the sun . . . and to boot, it was off the trail but commanding a great view of it a quarter mile away.  I relaxed . . . snacked on GORP . . . and lay back for a snooze.  Sometime later while wandering around in just socks I noticed all the berries on these shrubs.  Everywhere I turned, thousands of bushes laden with ripe huckleberries.  Couldn't pass this up . . .

I'd packed three bottles of water with me . . . two of them empty now.  So I spent the next hour in the middle of those meadows picking huckleberries and hoping I could get them back without turning them to mush.

This was bliss.  I could well imagine myself having pitched a small tent in the grove of trees and then having the entire afternoon to wander about Pollyanna-style and naked without a care in the world except to gingerly roll plump huckleberries between fingers and thumb to release from the shrub and drop into the neck of the filling water bottles.  I really did not have any idea how much time I spent in those meadows until I finally had no more room to stuff any more berries in my full plastic containers.  It was simply enjoyable.

On the saddle before Benchmark Mountain
Eventually you have to shake yourself out of the reverie and remember just how far you are from civilization and that it gets cold up here at this elevation once the sun goes down.  The boots went back on and I headed back to the main trail.  I hiked only a little bit further.  Though Benchmark was close, I still needed at least four hours to get back.  Reluctantly, I turned around.

Muted, filtered sunlight in the late afternoon
Hours later, back on the familiar trail coming off the ridge I slow down, knowing the trail-head is reasonably close.

The footbridge near the end of the hike
 . . . and then it's the foot-bridge across the river and a few moments more before coming out onto the trail-head parking area.  No one there.  It's a nice drive back out of the mountains and back toward Seattle . . . nude most of the way, of course.

Pecan-Caramel Ice Cream with Fresh Wild Huckleberries

... and the reward?  Why a bowl of ice cream topped with the sweet tartness of wild huckleberries. A week later I still have firm, fresh huckleberries in the fridge waiting to top cereal and dessert!

Getting to the trailhead:  Drive US Highway 2 to just west of milepost 50 (located between the town of Skykomish and the Skykomish Ranger Station). Turn north onto Beckler Road #65, toward Beckler River Campground. From US Highway 2 on FS Road #65, drive 15 miles and turn right on FS Road #63. Continue 4.2 miles to the trailhead, on the south side of the parking lot.

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