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I muttered Fleet Foxes White Winter Hymnal under my breath as we hurried out of the snowy basin that held Melakwa Lake. Its wintery refrain focused my brain away from the ache in my fingers as feeling slowly returned to my gloved hands. Freezing fingers and a lunch scarfed down in less than five minutes meant only one thing: winter hiking season was here. And we didn’t bring a thermos.
I was following the…I was following the…I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats. With scarves of red tied ’round their throats.
I love winter hiking and snowshoeing, partly because of the misery it induces. Summer hiking and backpacking are fantastic, but you usually know the misery level before you make it to the trailhead. You decide if you want to push it for a 17-mile day to climb a bonus peak and most of the time, you can prepare for your adventure. In the winter, the elements can drastically change the difficulty and ease of a trip. The specific weather pattern in a single gully can be impossible to look up beforehand, but make a huge difference in comfort on the trail. When I look back on snowshoe trips of the past, they are punctuated by cold vignettes. Rather than remembering the hike as a whole, or the obvious stand-out features, I remember the moments where it stops being a hobby and starts to feel like survival.
Which is where the Fleet Foxes come in. Having a refrain to focus on tricks my brain into believing that I am having fun. I even have a little dance that goes with it. It works when I am afraid of bears in the summer, when I am worried my shin splints will force me off the trail, and it works when I am miserably cold in the winter. We talk about gear as a way to mitigate the elements in the mountain, but I think sometimes we forget the importance of the mental gear we bring with us on the trail. Not simply grit, though that is a part of it, but the personal things that help you put one foot in front of the other when a snowbank looks like a nice place for a nap. For some that may be a burning goal that propels you to the summit or a comfy bed to return to, maybe a pep-talk that you give yourself or a partner. Maybe it is thinking about how many likes you will get on Instagram the next day (no judgment!).
For me, it is a snowy song that I know by heart; when I sing it, I feel fearless, strong, capable.
Melakwa Lake was our first really snowy hike of this season. Lake Valhalla had snow but the trail was mostly slush. Melakwa Lake felt like a winter snowshoe that we forgot to wear snowshoes for. The forecast had a high of 24°F at the lake basin, and that felt generous. It was cold, icy and beautiful. Given the avalanche chutes this trail crosses, I would not be particularly interested in visiting later in the season. But with a low snow level, fluffy snow in the forecast and a strong desire to be outside, Melakwa Lake was perfect.
Melakwa Lake Trail
The trailhead was partially full at 9:30 am on a Saturday. After peeing in the bushes, I discovered that the trailhead toilets were still open. I laced up my boots, threw on my pack, heavy with winter layers and set out on the flat, gravel path. The first portion of the trail shares the route to the Denny Slabs, a popular summertime destination so the first few miles of the trail is fairly flat and accessible.
The trail wove through some large cedar trees and we continued to hear the roar of traffic from i-90. A light dusting of snow coverd the ground and ours were among the first footprints of the morning. This section of the trail is something I would normally rush past, but in the snow, I couldn’t resist stopping to enjoy the scene.
Eventually, we crossed a large snowy bridge and saw a view of the underside of the freeway. It feels a little strange to have the outside world imposed on your wilderness hike, but again, the snow made it seems pretty. The snow dampened the noise, making it feel almost apocalyptic.
We continued to climb moderately until we heard rushing water. A slight step off of the main trail led to a stunning view of a waterfall tumbling over snowy boulders. We carefully stood on the steep hillside and watched its dramatic show. Shortly after returning to the main trail we arrived at the Denny Slabs/Slides.
While this area can be incredible in the summer, with water rushing over the gentle, tumbling slabs creating a perfect waterslide, in November the water coating these slabs was now ice. Luckily, the water level was fairly low and we were able to hop across the rocks in the river. A tumble would make for cold feet and a short hike, but not significant levels of danger. Still, the rocks were pretty slick and I heard the second crossing had been impassable earlier this month, so I was a little concerned.
We continued up the trail and after entering an open talus field, we spotted Keekwulee falls. I can imagine that it is beautiful in the summer, surrounded by green, but, oh, in the winter! Surrounded by snow but not yet frozen! It was incredible to see it slice dramatically through a landscape of white. Still, our destination called and we continued to switchback up the talus field.
Before long, we reached our second crossing of Denny Creek. In high water levels, I can imagine it to be difficult to pass, but luckily for us, the water was low enough that we could easily wade across. We continued to switchback towards Hemlock Pass and could see thinning trees. With each switchback, we were convinced that we were surely there. The last stretch of the pass seemed to last forever, but at last, the trail began to lose elevation and we could see the lake basin.
We rounded the corner and saw the grey waters and dramatic peaks of Melakwa Lake.
A bank of fog sat on the peaks, crawling down and retreating as we ate, revealing more and more of the rocky cliffs. It was beautiful and I would have loved to sit for an hour and enjoy the scenery, but it was so cold we were unable to sit for more than a few minutes until the cold seeped into our bones.
Hands stiffened and numbed and we began to race the clock to get all of our gear packed up. Given my previous brushes with hypothermia, I knew that the sooner we could get layers on and start moving, the better. I hoped to continue on to upper Melakwa Lake, a mere 0.2 miles from where we sat. Unfortunately, those 0.2 miles included crossing a snow-covered log-jam, which proved to be tricky and navigating the snow-covered boulders next to the lake. Realizing that we would have to move incredibly slow to safely traverse the left side of the lake, we abandoned the idea to continue exploring. We were simply too cold to spend time route-finding that could be spent escaping this godforsaken basin.
We crossed the logjam to scout the route to upper Melakwa lake, and Michael slipped on a log. He soaked his gloves making his hands even colder. Then his backup gloves split. Our handwarmers could not keep up with the cold temperatures, leading to some very cold fingers. After reorganizing some gear it was time to return across the snow-covered logjam. This time it was my turn to fall as I gently slid off the last log into the snow bank.
We quickly set off to Hemlock pass when I began to sing. Anything to take my mind off of the dull ache as my fingers slowly regained feeling. As we reached the pass and exited the basin, things began to warm up. By the time we reached Keekwulee Falls, I was beginning to overheat.
The falling snow had pushed further down the valley, and we had a much clearer shot of the falls. While it was lovely to see it emerging from the mist on our way up, the larger snowscape framing the waterfall was even more impressive. We stopped and admired the falls for a few minutes before continuing to the Denny slabs.
Looking down the valley we could see the snowstorm looming ahead. It was pulling away from us, but we were gaining on it. Sure enough, by the time we entered the forest the snow was falling in earnest. Wet and sticky, it was delightfully wintery. It is still early enough in the season where snow is a fun novelty instead of an annoying difficulty.
We crossed the slabs without incident and shortly made it back to the trailhead. The Subaru had a slight dusting of snow and the drive back was slightly magical.