Monday, September 19, 2005

The trail over Polaris Pass receives irregular maintenance, if any, but I don't mind.
It crosses the pass and switches back and forth down a high canyon wall of scree.
Or talus.
Boots often slide there, tipping your attention toward possible skin-scrapping tumbles, or worse, and clogging your breath abruptly in your throat. Jaws tense and teeth grind.
Near the end of the scree, the trail fades away except for a rock pile at a switchback.
But it feels good to finish the touchy talus. It's a sense of accomplishment that you wouldn't feel on better footing. Besides, well-maintained trails draw crowds.
On a one trip, I met another hiker near Anaroid Lake on a Sunday and a group of horsemen near Frazier Lake on a Monday afternoon. So, it's all right to leave some trails in a rough and uncrowded condition.
Anyway, I enjoyed that trip across the scree.
Then, alas, I reached a narrow, bushy section of trail.
``Bushy'' meant oceans of alpine fleeceflowers that submerged the path. I've read that elk graze on the flowering tops of these plants, with their thick stems and lance-point-shaped leaves, and that Nez Perce people roasted or boiled the roots and ground the seeds into flower. Supposedly the plants also serve as a ``soil binder'' at high, tilted elevations.
Well, after a rain, they certainly soak a walker's clothes. Now, I don't mind wet nylon pants, which dry quickly. These fleeceflower seas, however, sopped my pants. They seethed down my legs, across my ankles and into my boots.
Drat. My Vasque Sundowner MX2s never leaked and seldom caused blisters. Yet, as I squished along, more and more water seeped into the boots, and I expected chafed spots at every step.
I was lucky, though, and didn't pause until my watch showed 12:13 p.m. Then I munched a bagel and poured 2.3 pints of water from each boot. I stuffed a small chamois-like polyester PackTowl into each one while I changed socks, finished lunch and slipped into rain pants.
Then, with belated insight, I tugged the pant cuffs to the outside of the gaiters. Then another light clicked: I could have left the nylon pants out of the gaiters, too, and the water would have drained to the outside of the boots, rather than inside them.
A lesson learned late beats a lesson not learned. Maybe.
The rest of the descent to the West Fork Wallowa River Trail passed quickly. I photographed two large bucks and many waterfalls. I reached the trail junction at 1:37 p.m. Too early to camp along the river, so I headed toward Frazier Lake.
While cloud curtains rolled down to obscure granite peaks, I'd set up camp by 3:42 p.m. The rain-soaked tent and damp sleeping bag, from the night before, dried in minutes. I rubbed seam-sealer along the tent's top seam that had dripped the night before (it would prove watertight in that night's deluge). I cooked ham and hash browns, with a bagel and hot chocolate for desert. Then, after exploring for an hour, I hit the sack.
Rain fell heavily during the night. But the sky cleared by morning and, after a two-bagel breakfast, I left the tent to dry somewhat and climbed the two miles to Glacier Lake.
The scenery along the way stopped me often. Then, with clouds capping the granite walls and periodic shafts of sunlight breaking through, I spent 20 minutes taking pictures around the lake.
I hated to leave. But, back at Frazier, my tent had dried. I packed up and started the 3.7 mile trek to Six Mile Meadow.
A mile below Frazier Lake, I passed an outfitters' camp for guests, with two white-walled tents and a large nylon tent.
Then I passed two hikers and one group on horses. The group on horses headed for the outfitters' camp, I supposed, where they would stay several days and day hike to Glacier Pass and into Lakes Basin.
At 1:49 p.m., I reached Six Mile Meadow and counted 16 people parked under a tree, with backpacks and debris spread about them. Then four more young guys showed up and plopped their packs within arm's length of mine. A large one ordered two smaller ones to ``stay here and guard the packs.'' He and another large one put on shorts and went to swim in the river. I sat for 30 minutes, but it was too crowded. I lifted my pack and trundled off toward Wallowa Lake. It would mean a 13.8-mile day, making a 33-mile trip overall, but at 2 mph I would reach the car by 5 or 5:30 p.m.
And I preferred to walk the trail alone than spend the afternoon an night in a crowd.

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