Yesterday was a brilliantly clear, cold day. It was in the 30s, with a brisk wind that bent the trees and brought in a pure air. The crisp autumnal feeling made us reminisce of past adventures during this time of year. I realized that exactly one year ago today, we were embarking on an overnight backpack to Flapjack Lakes via the North Fork Skokomish river.
This trip has a place forever in my memories because of the beauty, the cold, and the questionable decisions I made. I guess I should explain what I mean —
A year ago, we decided to go on an overnight backpack in the Olympics. As it was a little late in the season, we looked for a lower elevation trail so that we weren’t hiking in snow or ice. I chose Flapjack lakes, which were about an hour away and looked very pretty.
I knew that an alpine lake in late fall would be cold, but I wasn’t too concerned about it as I figured I would just pack extra clothes and carry more weight. Looking back, this was a big mistake. When we arrived at the parking lot around 10 AM, I was immediately freezing. I put on my cold weather gear (hat, puffer jacket and gloves), and we hiked very fast to generate some heat. The trail hugged the Skokomish River for a few miles before climbing up a ridge, and the river dropped the temperature significantly. With clear skies and a brisk wind, it was breathtakingly cold.
The landscape was incredibly beautiful. Fall colors were out in the forest and the river was full and rushing. We saw very few people and basically had the whole trail to ourselves, which felt like a gift.
As the trail bent away from the river, we stopped for lunch. I could feel my muscles tightening up in the cold as I sat on a pad, but I didn’t pay attention or do any stretches to keep loose. After lunch, we worked hard as the trail climbed steeply up a ridge. I noticed that my right hip was feeling a little bit tight and ‘off’. The trail was rocky and slippery, and I stumbled a few times. On one stumble, I felt my hip pop in an uncomfortable way and began to hurt.
The final ascent to Flapjack Lakes was brutal for me. The trail becomes basically vertical. I had a fierce drive to get to the lake, despite my hip’s increasing pain. I wish I had just stopped to assess the situation, but I didn’t and it turned into a much larger (and longer) situation as I am still dealing with the hip injury to this day.
We reached Flapjack lakes in the late afternoon. It was completely quiet and idyllic, with a few ducks out on the water.
It was so beautiful, with soaring views of the Sawtooth Range, their reflection shimmering in the water. We hiked around half of the combined lakes, looking for an area to camp that wasn’t covered in frost or hit by wind. Most of the land around the lakes was frozen and had not been touched by the autumn sun. I was thoroughly chilled by the wind, cooling sweat and alpine temperature.
After circumventing the lakes, we stopped to filter water and eat some dinner. My hip was really hurting and I was worried about having it tighten up overnight, making it difficult to carry a pack down a steep descent the following day. Making decisions can be difficult for me, and I didn’t want to feel like I was a ‘quitter’ if I decided to have us hike back out.
In retrospect, it is pretty silly how wrapped up I was in the idea of being ‘tough’ and capable. As if my self-identity hinged on whether I could grit through some pain and cold. Dumb! Thankfully, I made the decision to hike back out.
The way out took a long time. I leaned heavily on my hiking stick, to help hold the weight off my hurt hip. We picked our way slowly down the trail as it was steep and slippery. Unfortunately, since it had taken me until early evening to decide to hike out, the light was fading fast. Soon enough, we were hiking down a valley wall in the dark. That was when I realized that my headlamp batteries were dead – oops. That hammered home a big, obvious lesson: check to see if your equipment is in working order before hitting the trail.
It is a singular experience to hike at night through a forest with one headlamp and an iPhone flashlight app. I never considered myself afraid of the dark, but it was a bit spooky as the dense trees blotted out the sky overhead, and we could hear the river far below. We were both nervous about losing our footing in the dark, so I walked in front with the headlamp trained on the ground, and Pat followed up directly behind me, placing his feet where mine had previously just been.
After what felt like ages, the trail bottomed out on the valley floor and we reached the bridge that swayed over the river. At this point, we knew we were just a few miles from the trailhead and so we stopped to drink some water and rest for a few minutes. Pat has a heart arrhythmia, and for whatever reason the cold water or change in pressure as he bent over started the arrhythmia. We always carry his medicine in case of situations like this, but we had not previously experienced it starting while we were hiking. I felt so bad for him, as the arrhythmia and the heart medicine make him feel bad. The situation was compounded by the fact that we were hiking in the dark and were cold. But, there was literally no other option except to keep moving. Around 9:30 PM we finally made it to the trailhead after a 17 mile round trip slog, with a heart arrhythmia, a hip injury, and 1 headlamp.
I learned so many lessons. Coming out of the trip, my ego was a little bruised. But I was so thankful that we were safe – we definitely had had an adventure.