Sitting at my desk at work on Monday morning, it was hard to believe that three days ago we started an ambitious 34-mile backpacking trip in the North Cascades National Park. Copper Ridge Loop is a challenging 34-mile journey including a high fire tower boasting incredible views, a gorgeous alpine lake and a tranquil river teeming with sockeye salmon. The natural beauty of this area blew me away, and even though we had to skip the cable car crossing due to wasps, it was one of the most beautiful backpacking trips I have done.
But my poor sweet legs. I have never been so miserable on a backpacking trip as I was on some of the downhill stretches. My knees, shins, and hips were in agony for significant portions of the trail, and our pace of 10-13 miles per day did not allow for a lot of pausing. Completing the Copper Ridge Loop in three days is reasonable when you are in excellent shape, though you will likely want to stay longer for the sheer beauty. It is pure masochism when you are recovering from shin splints. And perhaps, pure stupidity. I can’t say I regret going, but I certainly wish I had more time to recover my shin before attempting this route. The blisters, the sweat, and dirt, never-ending forest drops in elevation where I choked down pain-induced bile. It was a hell of an introduction to multi-night backpacking…
11 miles, ~4000′ elevation gain
We arrived at the Ranger Station, picked up our permit and bear data sheet. I love hikes where rangers ask you to fill out a data sheet, and it seemed like we might actually see bears this trip. We started to get a bit more nervous about the mileage and elevation gain, given that we have mostly done low, flat routes this summer, but the ranger didn’t seem too worried so we carried on.
Shortly after we arrived at the trailhead, we threw on our packs and said goodbye to the car for 3 days. Looking up the valley, we could see Mt. Ruth in the distance, and the pass we needed to reach. It was delightfully cool and overcast, which was excellent as it was a very open trail with minimal shade. The lack of shade became much more relevant on the return trip when it created 100ºF hot spots on the talus slope. As it was, we were able to set a good pace on the gradual climb to Hannegan Pass.
After a mile or so, we caught up with a park ranger and her horse and mules. The lower portion of the loop and trail to Whatcom Pass is stock friendly, and they were heading out for some trail maintenance. We passed the horses feeling quite speedy, only to discover the ranger switched to riding rather than leading and the horses were much faster. We raced the horses up the trail before my side stitches required stepping off-trail and allowing the horses to pass. It was a relief to slow down and enjoy the valley. As a result, I have one picture of the first four miles, and it does not do the view justice. The towering peaks of the Nooksack Range stretch sharply from a narrow river valley. It hurts your neck to strain to see the top and it was simply spectacular.
We hurried through Hannegan Pass, eager to get to the ridge. The trail led down steep switchbacks to Boundary Camp, then began to climb. It was mostly forested and slow, and my shin began to ache. After going down the switchbacks from Hannegan Pass, giving up, turning around and returning to climb those switchbacks sounded worse than continuing another 28 miles (spoiler: it would not have been worse). I took many breaks and we continued through the woods for an unknown amount of time. No pictures from this section either, as I was staring at the ground. I joked that if we wanted an accurate blog post it would be about 100 pictures of dusty trail and 1 picture of the view because I was in push-through-it mode.
Eventually, we broke through the trees onto a high ridge. We could see the fire tower in the far distance as a little white dot and it seemed impossible that we would pass it by nightfall, especially knowing that our campsite was one mile past the fire tower. Egg Lake and Silesia camp looked more and more appealing, and I rather wished we were already at camp. Nevertheless, we continued to put one foot in front of the other, until we had nearly reached the Silesia camp. We heard a branch crack above us and looked to see a sub-adult black bear fleeing. It moved so quickly that I was not able to snag a picture, and it seemed utterly terrified of us. The bear was in a field of ripe blueberries in prime bear habitat, and it felt pretty lucky to have such a chill interaction in an idyllic environment. It was my first black bear sighting that was not seperated by a valley, so I was pretty excited.
We continued to Sileas camp, where I took a nice break in the sunshine for a 15 minutes or so, before pushing on to Egg Lake. We admired Egg Lake from the ridge and scoped out the campsites. Egg Lake was a beautiful little tarn, and I would love to come back and stay for a night. Seeing the lake mounted my excitement for Copper Lake and our campsite, so we pushed on.
My shins began to protest a little more forcefully, and I snapped a quick self-portrait, to catalog the level of misery. I could already tell given the breathtaking vistas and incredible ridge walks that by the time I got home, all I would remember was the sheer beauty of it all. It is an excellent strategy for returning to backpacking, as type 2 fun encourages you to make more type 2 fun, but very inconvenient for rehabbing an injury. We had another 3-day, 37 mile trip to Blue Glacier in the Olympic National Park planned for Labor Day weekend, and this picture reminds me not to go. It is not one of my favorite pictures, and I struggled with posting it, but I feel it is somehow important to acknowledge the parts that aren’t fun sufferfest and type 2 and are instead pain and fear for a future where backpacking always hurts.
The Fire Tower
Back to the trail! We could see the ridge drop again, then climb steeply to the fire tower, so we shifted into focus mode and tackled the steep switchbacks. We were both sore and tired at this point, and it was simultaneously wonderful and terrible to see the fire tower as we climbed. Eventually, we made it the top and were rewarded with spectacular views in all directions.
We spent about 30 minutes at the top with two other groups, discussing how amazing it is in the North Cascades. It was fun to imagine what life would be like stationed at a fire tower. It is easy to imagine a summer here when it is a comfortable temperature and perfect weather, but I did not ever want to leave.
Copper Ridge has relatively few campsites that area heavily permitted, most people that we met were absolutely thrilled to be there. One of my favorite things about backpacking is connecting with others in a beautiful space where everyone has a sort of reverence for the place. It would be difficult to sit at the lookout and not walk away in love with the North Cascades.
After soaking in the views and enjoying the company, we reluctantly packed up and started downhill to Copper Lake. We could see that the lake basin was already shaded over and hoped to make it to the lake before it was dark and freezing.
And down we went. The lake looked so close but after many switchbacks composed of stairs and significant knee pain later, we finally made it to the lake basin. We found a campsite at the base of a rocky peninsula and pitched the tent. Unfortunately, this site also was in the middle of a wind tunnel and our tent protested against the persistent wind. We found a spot out of the wind (basically, everywhere that our tent wasn’t) and cooked some dinner. We enjoyed the sunset then climbed into bed. After 11.4 miles and over 4000′ of elevation gain, we were ready to sleep. I woke up once to stick my head out of the tent and admire the stars at midnight. They were spectacular, yet with all the other things I had seen that day (vistas, towers, bears), stars seemed like an unnecessary distraction from sweet, sweet sleep.
13 miles, ~3000′ elevation loss
The second day of the loop was our day of big elevation loss. Given how the first day went, I was a little apprehensive but felt better after waking up to a beautiful sunrise. The lake was awash with light. When we arrived the previous night, everything was in the shadow of the ridge, but with the sun shining on the lake, the reflections were gorgeous.
We made coffee and took it out to the peninsula to enjoy the lake and filter some water. After relaxing in the sunshine, we returned to our kitchen, made breakfast and started to break down camp. We were aiming to leave at 9, and as the basin got warmer and warmer, Copper Lake looked more and more inviting. I found a perfect swimming rock–not too high of a jump, into a deep, clear pool, and I simply couldn’t help myself. I stripped off all of my hiking clothes and jumped in.
There was a patch of snow on the other side of the lake, so the freezing temperature was not a surprise. I still gasped as I hit the water and the air rushed from my lungs. It felt amazing! I was glad to not relinquish the chance to swim, especially since we had a long day ahead of us. I finished dressing, we packed up our gear and headed back on the trail.
Copper Ridge Traverse
The morning’s travels were extremely beautiful, through alpine fields of blueberries and boulder strewn meadows. We crossed a waterfall and traversed until we came across someone else who also happened to be fond of blueberries: a large black bear. We spotted our second bear of the weekend, and this one significantly larger, on the trail and not too keen to be bothered. The bear about 100 feet ahead of us, and after a few rounds of “hey, bear!” the bear reluctantly turned off the trail and ambled down the hillside. Unfortunately, there were no places for us to step off on the side and allow the bear to pass safely. Luckily, the bear seemed fine with leaving us and finding a new berry patch, though I felt guilty for spooking him away.
Technically, I did get a picture of this bear, though he is out of focus and in the background. I am looking forward to seeing a bear someday in the future when I can actually snap some pictures. I stand by my decision to make sure that our bear interaction was non-confrontational, and get ourselves out of the situation safely rather than take pictures. Mostly…
We continued on the trail, making a lot more noise, and slowing down significantly around corners. That was our last bear of the trip, perhaps because we continued to essentially shout for the next three miles. Luckily, there are so few people on this trail that I don’t feel like I was bothering anyone by our bear warnings. The trail opened up to a large scree field with loose cobble below a snow patch. This area felt pretty sketchy, but we managed to skirt our way around the obstacle.
The trail opened up to a large scree field with a loose cobble detour below a snow patch. This area felt pretty sketchy, and I slipped a few times but we managed to skirt our way around the obstacle.
Soon we came to a high point with a new set of peaks to look at. We could tell the trail would soon start descending rapidly as we made our way to the Chilliwack River. We were sitting at about 5000′ and the river was at 2200′, so we had a long drop ahead of us. It proved to be miserable for me and less than enjoyable for Michael. Which leads me to Copper Ridge Loop Part 2: The Misery. Stay tuned next week to hear about the tears, the endless forest walk and sockeye salmon (it was not all bad!).