I set out Saturday morning for a four day trip to Silent Lakes. The weather forecast was pretty good, with some possibility of rain Saturday night. Silent Lakes are off the beaten path, but not hard to get to if you know the route. It starts at the Easy Pass trailhead off the North Cascades Highway. This being Labor Day weekend, there were a fair number of cars at the trailhead, but I was going to be leaving the crowds behind. The weather started glorious and the fall colors were developing nicely, with large patches of scarlet blueberry bushes and the orange and yellow foliage of Sitka mountain-ash. The pods of the fireweed patches had still not opened and were still nice and pink. There were some ripe blueberries, but they were a little past prime. By the time I reached Easy Pass, the sun and most of the blue sky had disappeared. At the bottom, on the other side of the pass, is a junction, with a post with an arrow pointing right, directing traffic to Fisher Camp. I was headed to upper Fisher Creek Basin, so I took a left on the unmarked footpath. The route is unmaintained, but has few obstacles. The path passes through a couple of groves of trees and several clearings until it opens up to a large flat meadow. By this time, it looked like it was going to rain. The meadow was pretty with nice views and I decided to set up camp rather than proceed on up the basin. Nearby were camped two guys who had just returned from Silent Lakes. No sooner had I gotten my tent set up then it started to rain. Light sprinkles on and off for the rest of the evening and then more serious rain for several hours during the night. It was still sprinkling on and off in the morning and the upper basin was in clouds. I decided to stay put, hoping it would clear. Meanwhile, I discussed the route with one of the guys camped nearby.
A friend, who was unavailable for consultation at the time of my departure, had told me NOT to take the first gully from upper Fisher Basin to get to Silent Lakes. Not many go there, but there are three WTA trip reports and one report from NWHikers.net on Silent Lakes, none of which make mention of the second gully. Looking at Google Earth and the maps at my disposal, I could only find ONE gully. The WTA reports make mention of the “obvious gully”, the only one I could find prior to my departure. It was clear that the writer of the NWHikers.net also used that gully. So I told one of the guys camped nearby what my friend told me. He said, yes, my friend was correct, take the second gully. He said it’s not obvious and gave me directions, which I will outline below. As it continued to rain that morning, two other guys who’d passed me on the way in, passed me again in my tent on the way out. They’d camped at the top of the basin but had skipped going to Silent Lakes because it was totally fogged in, but they, too, knew the route and said take the second gully. (Few people usually go to Silent Lakes, but this was Labor Day weekend, after all).
By early afternoon, the weather looked much better, although the vegetation had not dried off. I headed up valley. On the barren talus slopes above, I could hear the cheeping of pikas. Why is it that they most often they are heard calling from spots that are far from any visible vegetation? Surely, there are rocky hiding places in spots that have more plants to eat. Predation isn’t the major threat to survival here. Are the pikas who live in these barren places the losers in the competition for better real estate? I was told that the trail heads up to the left of the waterfall that sits below the top of the basin. I had lost the trail in talus, but found it again as I headed up to the cliff and waterfall in the final stretch. Because I’d started up late in the day, I decided to camp at the top of the falls, which has a beautiful view, and go up to Silent Lakes the following day as a day hike. There are two tent platforms at the cliff edge. I saw the “obvious gully” from my campsite and it perfectly matched the photo of the route from the NWHikers.net report.
The next morning I awoke to dense fog, with about 100 feet of visibility. I said “Great! One of the driest and hottest summers on record and I’ve had four trips with rain and fog at the crucial moment!” Each time, the weather report had given me a green light. Mercifully, however, the fog started clearing as I was cooking breakfast. By the time I was done, it was all gone and there were virtually no clouds. Then I noticed a cloud had appeared down valley and within minutes a huge fog bank was rapidly headed my direction. I hadn’t even finished packing up to leave and suddenly I was totally immersed in fog and could not see any landscape at all. Good thing I always have a book and study flashcards to pass the time during these weather events. Sure helps to keep from fretting about them. And I also have my indispensable Alite Mayfly backpacking chair. It fits inside my one person tent. No lying uncomfortably propped up on one elbow with a flashlight reading in the tent when it gets dark at 7:30 pm, not for me. I have a cozy seat.
But this fog also lifted and I set off about 9:45 for Silent Lakes. The correct “gully”, if you can call it that, is farther to the back of the upper basin. It’s not obvious at all. There’s a small, lens-shaped patch of vegetation at the top of the talus slope which, earlier in the season, was full of blooming fireweed. On the slopes above, you can see a diagonal band of green vegetation, composed of mountain heather and small trees that starts near the fireweed and heads up towards the right. One trip report spoke of “endless” talus and a patch of steep snow at the top of the gully. While the route described here cannot completely avoid talus, it bypasses much of it and there is no snow. I was also told that the other route has a rock wall across it, this one does not. There is a boot-beaten path on the right side of the fireweed patch, but the route towards the green diagonal band is indistinct and I missed it at first. I was told I would see footprints, but the rain had erased them. It goes off to the right and I added a couple of cairns for this section on the way down. Once you reach the green band, the route is obvious. Heather hates trampling and once people have stomped a route through it, that footpath is there forever. No more cairns until you arrive at the end of the first zone of heather. The route zigzags back and forth and the cairns are usually easy to spot. At one place, I would have guessed turning right until I saw a cairn to the left. Once you find the correct starting point, the route is not hard to follow, the ascent not very difficult and has great views the whole way. I saw lower Silent Lake first and had lunch from a high viewpoint above. There’s a campsite overlooking it near the outlet stream from upper Silent Lake. After lunch, I went looking for the upper lake, which is rather austere, with little surrounding vegetation. The water level is low enough that it is broken into two separate bodies of water. I would not have time to scramble the surrounding peaks, so I decided to head down to the lower lake, which had a nice campsite on the far side of its outlet stream. On the way down, I heard and then saw a bird that, for a moment I mistook for a grouse. Then I saw the white in the tail. It was a white-tailed ptarmigan. I had a good look at its feathered feet, designed not just to keep warm but to act as snowshoes on soft snow. This was my first ptarmigan in decades. I had only seen them before in Alaska. It was incredibly tame. I was about six feet away, trying to maneuver on talus for a better photographic angle, when I heard another soft gurgling sound and saw another ptarmigan directly below me, two feet from my own foot. At this point, I decided just to sit down with them and enjoy their company. And they were quite content to sit with me there for the next ten minutes until I decided to move farther down towards the lake. One ptarmigan is pictured below, more photos can be seen at the link at the very bottom. The male has a red eyebrow. Down at the lake, there were some gentians and fringed grass-of-Parnassus in bloom. The signs remained of other flowers earlier in the season: paintbrush, asters and monkeyflowers.
Back at camp in the evening, I watched clouds form, move up and then dissipate on the peaks in the distance. I was not sure whether they would build up over the night or not. The morning dawned with many high clouds, but I was not fogged in and they slowly decreased in number as I prepared to leave camp. I really wanted to get pictures of fall colors in the sun, but sadly, the valley was shaded on the way in and would not receive sun before I passed on my way out. And then it started clouding up again. I stopped to watch a pika gathering plants for its larder. This one was not up on the barren slopes, but down where there were many plants to be gathered. What surprised me was that the pika was clipping California false hellebore (Veratrum californicum) and hauling it back to its midden under a large boulder. This plant has gorgeous corrugated green leaves in the spring, but become very bedraggled-looking by the end of the growing season. It is well-known to be poisonous and its roots, in particular, are among the most poisonous plant material found in Washington state. In the botanical research I do at Mount Rainier, I record what plants species have been grazed on and I have never found any grazing on this plant. It is true that there is at least one species of insect that does eat the plant, which may be a sawfly larva, that gives it the bedraggled appearance it has later in the season, but co-evolution of insects and poisonous plants is well-known in ecology. The relationship between monarch butterfly caterpillars and poisonous milkweeds is one of the better known. Veratrum poses a major risk to domestic livestock and pregnant sheep and goats that graze on it will have offspring with serious birth defects. Upon researching this matter, I read that apparently Veratrum leaves lose much of their toxicity as they age, but this then raises the issue of their nutrient content. As leaves senesce at the end of the season, turning yellow and then brown, the plant is withdrawing the nutrients from its leaves and returning them to the roots to prepare for winter dormancy and next year’s growth. I assume that the pika, as a native species, knows what plants are appropriate for its larder, but it did strike me as peculiar. I read that pikas make fifteen trips an hour stocking their middens, but this little guy made more trips than that in the fifteen minutes I sat watching him. I was tempted to move in closer to get better shots, but pikas are shy and I was afraid of interrupting the very important work he was doing. Sometimes he would clip a few leaves, other times he would cut down the whole plant, several times longer than he was, and run back dragging it behind him. I saw another pika running about in the far distance.
By the time I started the climb back up to Easy Pass, it had started to drizzle. I heard a clap of thunder coming from the direction of Mount Logan. We definitely need the rain and I got some good pictures, despite the weather. The trail up to Easy Pass has been completely cleared of logs this year. One or two remain on the fair side. The footpath up the Fisher Creek valley has a few logs, but nothing major. If you can handle some walking on talus and can find the route, this is a beautiful and rarely-visited destination.