Maple leaves fade to yellow and orange. Grey clouds threaten rain but deliver mist. It permeates the air. Gas thickens to liquid until breathing is like drinking. Indian summer still hides like backlight in a cave. A secret escape from the collapse that fills in around us.
Summer has been canned and preserved: peaches, raspberries, blackberries, pickles. But I already want to open the cans for a taste. Sunny memories leave a flavor that makes tongues beg for more. I miss it. The good thing is mushrooms fruit early with August rain. Huckleberries fatten with moisture and ripen blue in afternoon rays. Lake trout are rotund from a buggy July. This is the wild harvest time. You might have to get a bit wet to reap the nutrients of this shoulder season but it’s well worth the trouble.
Five of us—four humans, one dog—head to the National Forest. We have enough food for two nights and we’re expecting to catch and pick some more. It’s Labor Day but we think we know a spot that won’t be busy. This trailhead is stuck deep behind rough roads. The trail itself is steep and unkempt. Maybe there will be some dayhikers but no one spending the night. We’re surprised to find the parking lot completely full of trucks when we arrive. Damn.
There probably isn’t a campsite by the lake. Maybe we’ll find a private spot by one of the smaller lakes. One of the trucks has a bumper sticker that says “How do you like all that Hope and Change now?” And it has an Obama campaign symbol. We’d rather be alone on the trail but if this place is busy then every place will be. We might as well start hiking.
Steep fir roots. Loose basalt. Orange tape tied to baby Hemlocks marks the path. Hard to follow. The trail is surprisingly dry. It gets dryer as we climb. We find chanterelles. We find huckleberries. People are not very observant or they don’t know what to look for. We harvest with mirth. Dirt becomes fungus and fiber and sugar. Branches become shelves in the produce section of a free market. We find things that you would never find in a market. The chanterelles are white. Rare. The low-lying huckleberries are purple and taste like they melt. The weather does not correspond to our mood. We are happily enjoying the edibility that surrounds us and it doesn’t matter that the clouds are grey.
The terrain is so steep that it’s hard to think. Slow and steady. Slow and steady. When you walk slow and steady it’s easier to enjoy yourself. It’s easier to ignore the work and let your mind wander. We’re walking together and it’s nice to be in a group. We share stories if we have enough breath to speak between steps. We share berries and point out interesting sounds and smells. Fungus. There is so much more than just walking. There is an entire world of discovery even though we all know this place already. There is laughter and joking. There is shit talking. There is dew that clings to petals. It is a scientific rule. An absolute. Dew clings to petals. It’s like gravity.
Miles pass easily when distractions are abundant. You don’t need an iPod when the forest speaks to you. You don’t need trailmix when the huckleberries are ripe. Chats between silent contemplative moments. The dog is amazingly agile on the steep terrain. Sometimes I wish I had four legs. The dog carries a pack with enough kibble for three days. She squeezes through roots and flies over rocks. Panting. Our destination comes closer but none of us care how long it takes. Slow and steady. Chats and contemplation.
The lake is the biggest alpine lake in the Olympic Mountains. It is shaped like a whale or a giant fish. One soft-angled inlet like a tail. A pinch where the caudal region meets the trunk. A widening dorsal oval that ends in a pointed head. I used to draw fish like this on placemats in restaurants. Dad would draw the waves above and I’d make bubbles as if the fish were breathing. The lake is the perfect shape considering what it contains.
But before we can fish we have to find a campsite. It’s early afternoon but the flat spots around the lake are already filled with flannels. Folks are from Shelton, Olympia, Tacoma. They all have fishing poles but they leave the huckleberries untouched. They leave garbage. They leave their shit unburied. Toilet paper spinning in the breeze.
We’d rather find a private spot. We search for half an hour and find a site hidden in the fir trees. A trail leads to the end of a rocky spit that cleaves into a smaller neighboring lake. The tent platforms are slanted. There are roots. It’s the best we can do. The spit is a good place to cook. I roll a flat piece of basalt onto its side to make a chair. I set up the stove. Someone ties a lure onto the fishing pole. Sends an arcing cast into the lake.
A brook trout bites the lure on the second cast and someone reels it in and we decide what to do with it.
Should we eat it?
I don’t know.
Seems like there’s a lot. We can catch more for dinner.
But we might not catch more.
But it’s early for dinner.
How are we going to cook it if we kill it?
Build a fire.
You think it’s ok to build a fire here?
Yeah. Everyone else has. It’s been raining and this is a rocky spit.
It would be good cooked over the fire.
It would be.
I think we should eat it.
I think so too. How bout you guys?
Yeah. I’m ok with it. I’ll eat some.
Ok. Pass me that rock.
We get one more trout for dinner and cook it over a fire. We let it burn down to coals before we poke the trout on green sticks and roast them like hot dogs. When the skin is browned and the heads charred we take them off. The smell is amazing. It might attract bears. The trout tastes surprisingly sweet and delicate. The flavor is not overpowering. Clean. Wild. Full.
We eat the trout like dessert after the pasta meal we’ve already had. Our stomachs are comfortably full and the sky is starry. We talk about how important it is for people to be away from their computers. Away from the internet. Away from their cell phones. Completely away from everything except the objects and lives and experiences that are immediate. Absorbed with the moment that surrounds them. The lake. The stars. We are happy to be away from it all.
I’m happy to relax and enjoy the details for once. Usually my pack is filled with climbing rope and carabiners. Usually there is a peak above me that I have to think about climbing and descending. It’s nice to simply be. It’s nice to have room in my pack for extra socks and long johns. Usually I just shiver and make do. It’s nice to be content with relaxation. A few hours of walking each day.
We don’t do much more than that. We bushwhack up the steep hillsides that surround the lake. We can see the fish shape from here. It’s foggy. The clouds move in and out of the basin. There is a rhythm to the way they move. The way they blot out the sun. We enjoy watching them as we eat lunch in a steep meadow.
We fish. We catch more trout. Eat two for breakfast. Eat two for dinner again. We fish our way around the lake. Casts bounce off basalt. We catch the most fish from the spit below our campsite. From the floors of our kitchen. It’s like pulling a trout out of the refrigerator only our refrigerator is a lake. We eventually lose both our lures when we snag them on rocks or logs. We’ve eaten enough fish anyway. Save more for next year.
We pick huckleberries. The girls fill two containers. We heat them for dessert one evening. Mix brown sugar. Nuts. Oats. We have a backpacking version of huckleberry crisp. Soupy. Purple. Unbelievably delicious. We fight over the last few spoonfuls. The dog licks our bowls.
We sleep early; we sleep wonderfully. The sound of water and trees blowing in the wind is soothing. It’s like sleeping next to the ocean. It doesn’t matter that the ground is hard and uneven. It doesn’t matter that our tent floors are slanted. Even with fewer hours of sleep than normal I feel more rested.
And upon waking I don’t care that it’s raining slightly. None of us care. We’ve left those cares behind. Maybe we’ve shed those cares as we’ve harvested the fruits of this forest. Maybe the forest has eaten them up and digested them like we have done to it. I feel refreshed and calm and full as we hike down the slippery roots toward the trailhead. It doesn’t matter that my pants are soaked. They feel lighter than ever.
I’m happy to discover that I can still enjoy these simple little trips. I don’t necessarily have to be climbing to the summit of a peak to have fun. Although I still find myself wanting to do that too. And it doesn’t have to be sunny. The Fall contains its own special promise and magic. The beauty of this season literally grows from the earth and trees. You simply have to know where to look and what to look for. It’s easy when it surrounds you in such abundance. It’s easy to pick and to catch. You just might have to be willing to get a little bit wet.