Hiking the 4 Lakes Loop: Rain, Snow, Bear and Ibuprofen

June 6

OK, this is a pretty casual way to start a backpacking trip. No early morning alarm. A cup of coffee in the garden with my wife, Darlene, watching the sun rise. A big, leisurely breakfast.

If I were still living in Redding, I would have been on the road while it was still dark, to get to the trailhead early. Living in Lewiston, its only about a 30-minute trip to the Long Canyon trailhead, even driving the old Jeep. My regular hiking partner cannot come, so I will be going solo.

A word about the Jeep. It’s a ’58 Willys CJ5, and it’s been in the family since 1968. I drove it in high school, sometimes. My brother and sister learned to drive in it. My kids learned to drive in it, too. It’s really my Dad’s hunting and fishing rig, but he is dead, now, so I take care of it for him, and use it on my own adventures. I’m pretty sure he approves.

This will be my first extended backpacking trip this year. I did an over-nighter a couple of weeks ago, just to check out my gear and my legs. It turned out they both needed work. I fixed the gear problems. We’ll see about the legs.

At the trailhead, another gear problem arises. Nothing serious. I have brought my mother’s trekking pole for a hiking staff, but it will not open. Pull as hard as I can, it will not budge, so I leave it behind and grab one of the sticks other hikers have left at the trailhead sign.

Other hikers. Oh, yes, there will be plenty of them. There are a dozen cars here, besides mine. Well, that’s just how it is nowadays.

The first 3/4 of a mile of the trail is a gated-off old Jeep road, wide, but moderately steep. Then I get to the wilderness sign, and the trail narrows. This is good trail, mostly dirt, with rocky sections.

I meet my first hikers about here, an older man with his daughter, coming out of 4 Lakes Loop. As we are chatting, two very fit young men come charging up the trail and pass us. They are traveling a lot faster than I, but they are still in sight when I come to the first trail sign; Deer Creek Pass to the right and Bowerman Meadows to the left. They go right, so on impulse I go left. I have been curious to see Bowerman Meadows, and the trail looks less used.

I cross the creek, the East Fork of Stuart’s Fork, and meet a young couple in about a half mile, just at the bottom of the meadows. They are coming down from Lake Anna. He looks at his GPS, attached to a shoulder strap, and tells me they have come 2.84 miles from the lake. Nice to have such a precise calculation. I decide to go take a look at Lake Anna. One nice thing about traveling alone is that you can change your plans on impulse.

Soon, I come to the beginning of the meadows. Grass alternates with willow thickets, slanted uphill. As I go, the meadow gradually widens and opens up into true meadow. The trail gradually disappears. At this point, I stop to look at the map. I see that I will have to bush-whack and cross a ridge or two to get to Lake Anna. That’s fine with me. Trails are convenient, but not necessary, for travel.

I work my way up through the bowl that defines the headwaters of the stream. As I get up underneath the jagged ridge, I see that there is a cirque ahead. Perhaps Lake Anna, but more likely the small tarn that the map shows.

Nope! Neither one. Just an absolutely lovely alpine meadow, tucked up under the ridge.

I put my pack down in a possible camp spot. I am tired, and this place is lovely. I walk around a little to check out the area, and find an even better campsite, a flat grassy area under huge red firs and white pines. A fire ring tells me others have camped here. I like it. I will stay here and tackle the ridge in the morning. I set up camp and take a nap.

When I awake, I look at the map again, and realize that to the south I am looking at the back side of Middle Peak. This is one of the mountains I can see from my home. Nice. There is still some snow on this side. The map shows Lake Anna to be about 3/4 of a mile due north. The climb to the top of the ridge does not look too difficult, but what it may be like after that, I cannot determine. Tomorrow will tell that tale. For now, dinner and a little reading seems like a nice idea. I will sleep under the stars tonite.

June 7

Awake and ache! Some mornings are like that. My stretching routine takes out most of the soreness. Breakfast, pack up and get going as quickly as possible. I am eager to climb to the top of the ridge. Hopefully, there will be a way down to Lake Anna.

The climb is not so bad. Open ground most of the way; only one place to scramble over rocks. I reach the top and look down. Way down; almost vertical rock face. No lake. Maybe I could get down through that chute over there. Or maybe I could break my neck. I decide against trying my luck on those rock faces. I cannot see a safe way down. Then I notice the trail off on the other side of the canyon. That is Long Canyon Trail. Clearly, I have not found the way to Lake Anna, and I am baffled as to where it might be. Oh well, nothing to do but go back down Bowerman Meadows and back to the Long Canyon Trail.

Disappointing. Well, I guess that puts Lake Anna on my bucket list. I’ll do some research, and find it another trip.

Rather than go back the way I came, I decide to follow the ridge down. It is relatively easy going, following open benches as they shelve down toward the meadow. Then the benches run out, and the choice is between fighting thick brush or going down a really steep hillside, through open timber. It is truly steep, over 45 degrees, but the ground is soft, and there are trees to grab onto to hold myself back. I choose the timber.

It’s a long way down, and it’s mighty hard work. Going down steep terrain is just as hard as going up. Eventually, my legs turn to jelly and I have to find a place to rest, above a pair of white fir that have made a small flat spot on the uphill side. There is a lot of bear sign on this slope, and some deer sign, too.

Going downhill on legs made of jelly. I’ve done this before. Most important now is to be careful and go slowly. It would be easy to fall. When we were kids, we used to run downhill yelling at the top of our lungs on slopes like this, after climbing all morning to get to the top. Instead, I hobble along carefully, and finally get down to the meadow.

Gosh, it feels good to walk on actual trail. I make it down past the bottom of the meadow, where the trail runs into the forest, but then my legs take control over my mind, and decide to sit down in the trail to rest. Just plop right down in the middle of the trail. Naturally, it is only a minute or two before I hear voices coming down the trail. It is an older couple, about my age. We exchange greetings and they stop to chat a moment.

“Where are you coming from?” I ask.

” Beautiful but crowded Lake Anna,” replies the man.

“Really? How many people are up there?”

“Well, there are five or six campsites, and they were all full this morning. We left after another couple. You probably met them on the trail.”

“No, I just came down onto the trail. I came down the ridgeline and thru the trees.”

They seem impressed by this. Probably that anyone was dumb enough to do that.

“So,” I say, “I was actually trying to find Lake Anna.”

“Yeah,” he says, “It’s a little hard to find from this side. You got a map?”

So he tries to show me the way on the map, but I cannot visualize it. All of the possible ways that I could see yesterday looked very forbidding. They leave, and after awhile my legs decide that I can go, too. I catch up to the couple at the stream crossing, just before the Bowerman Meadows trail meets the main Long Canyon Trail. They have their packs off. She is changing shoes for the crossing.

OK, this crossing is truly trivial to me. Easy as pie. This is the bragging part of the story. I am very sure-footed. A lifetime of roaming the hills and creeks, etc., etc. I cross easily and take my pack off on the other side. A good time to eat lunch and water up.

Right then, along comes another couple. Its a party at the creekside! They are 40-ish and heavily laden. He is a big, strong, barrel-chested guy, and seems to be carrying everything you could possibly want in the outdoors; a big knife, a hatchet, folding chairs. I’m guessing 60 pounds in his pack. Her pack looks pretty heavy, too. The older couple recognizes them, coming down from Lake Anna. Apparently, everyone can find the place but me.

They cross first. He steps off a rock, gets his feet wet, and almost takes a tumble, but he makes it. Then he takes his pack off and helps her across. She makes it, with difficulty. This is beginning to be quite a show.

Next, the first guy comes across. He does pretty well with trekking poles, but it is still a bit of a challenge for him. Then his wife starts across. From our previous conversation, I know she is tired, and I think of going over and offering to carry her pack across, but I am afraid that might be insulting. One never knows. However, she is in trouble, and no one else sees it, so I go over and take her hand across the worst part. She is not offended in the least.

I secretly congratulate myself on the vast superiority of my woodsmanship. Then I remember that all of these people have carried heavy packs to a place I cannot even find! Well, I guess we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

Safely across the water, they decide to eat, too, so we have a pleasant meal together. They are really nice people. It turns out they are from Arcata, and have been hiking the Alps for a very long time. We have a pleasant talk about different lakes and trails we have been on; which are our favorites, and which we still want to see. We openly speculate on how long we can continue to do this. Then they leave, with me right behind them.

It is 100 yards to the trail split. They go right, headed out, and I go left. The first couple is sitting at the trail split with their packs off. We talk about the fishing in Lake Anna, and how to cook little brook trout, before I head on.

At this point, I’m pretty tired. I think that I will stop at the first decent campsite. It turns out to be quite a ways before I find such a place, but finally I do, and set my pack down. This seems a good spot; flat, with a fire ring. No water, but I don’t care. I just lay down a take a nap in the warmth of the afternoon, with the smell of pine needles all around. When I awake, I feel a little better. After a cup of coffee, I feel up to continuing. That steep slope really kicked my butt.

I would like to get to the edge of the forested part of the trail, so I can hike the open part in the early morning, with the sun low and at my back. I think to myself, “There just has to be a decent campsite ahead.” But the creek is still far below, in rocks and brush, and the trail keeps plodding along relentlessly. I meet a young woman and her dog, and I ask her where she is coming from.

“Diamond Lake.”

“Is it pretty crowded?”

“No. I didn’t see any other campers on the 4 Lakes Loop. I heard that Lake Anna is crowded, though.”

Well, hallelujah! Maybe I got lucky, not finding Anna. Tomorrow will tell. In the meantime, I need to find a campsite. Another half mile of hiking, and – wonder of wonders!- there it is, up ahead. I can see it coming, as the terrain flattens and the creek comes up to meet the trail. There are several flat places to camp, with fire pits and water available. Not only that, but this is the place where the trail leaves the woods and goes out into the open, in a narrow, rocky cut.

Tomorrow I will see what sort of terrain lies ahead. Right now, I am ready for rest, Ibuprofen and dinner.

June 8

Up early, as planned. A good start. Before setting out, I cut a new hiking staff from an alder by the creek. Yesterday, I walked off and forgot the one I had been using, when I stopped for my nap.

Immediately upon setting out, the trail leaves the forest, but then goes back into the woods and up a beautifully constructed stone staircase. I wonder who built it, and when. Does anybody do this sort of work, anymore? Shortly, I am back into the open, and glad the sun is behind me and low in the sky. These sorts of places can get pretty hot. As I go, I watch for the chute I contemplated coming down yesterday, and I find it. I see that there is a safe way down. I could have made it safely, and relatively easily, and saved a lot of time and energy. Still, I do not regret erring on the safe side.

As I am ready to move along, two young men come along. They camped at Summit Lake last night. It looked like a public campground, there were so many tents. They made the same mistake I did, yesterday; went up Bowerman Meadows and could not find the way in to Lake Anna. So they hiked out, and up to Summit Lake for the night. They are obviously in better condition than I. The taller fellow tells me he has been hiking the Alps since he was 10 years old, in 1990. He comments on how much more crowded it is now. It seems like everyone I talk to says the same thing. This is simple economics, really. We are making more people faster than we are making more trails.

After this, I hike through open meadow and brush. I can see the divide way up ahead, like a big wall across the head of the canyon. Get over that, and I will be into the 4 Lakes drainage. As I approach the wall, the trail starts switching back, climbs up to the left- south- through a rocky chute, across the wall, and finally, I am over the top!

Only to see that the wall is a false divide. The true divide is another half mile, but finally I am there. Bee Tree Gap. There is a sign on a big white pine that says so. Another sign points left to Siligo Meadows and right to Deer Lake

The four lakes are Deer Lake, Summit Lake, Diamond Lake, and Lake Louella. I go right. I am eager to see what this loop is like, but I am getting hungry and a little tired, so I stop for lunch and coffee. A young couple and their dog go by, but by then I am off the trail a little way, and they do not see me. It is warm in the sun, so I stretch out for a short rest, just watching the sky and daydreaming. Luxury in the small spaces.

The hiking is easy along here. Level, smooth trail. Shortly, I come to another high pass, and am looking down on Deer Lake. The view is spectacular. In front of me is Siligo Peak. To the southwest, Sawtooth Ridge in its jagged glory. To the northwest I can see Thompson Peak, the highest point in the Alps. In between, the canyons drop away, cut by high ridges.

Looking back, I can see Bee Tree Gap, where three colors of rock come together, right at the pass. The juncture of the rock formations probably created the pass, I suppose. As I look around, I realize that all of these mountains are made up primarily of these three types of rock. The gray rock is granite, I know. I think the dark rock is chert. I wonder what type of rock the red is. Snow seems to stick only on the darker rock, on the north side, in cuts and crevices, but there is still quite a bit of snow, up here, on the back sides of the peaks.

I hear voices. A young man comes up the trail from Deer Lake, followed by an older man. Father and son. Their names are Sahar and Isaiah, and they are very interesting to talk to. In no hurry, surrounded by glorious vistas, we speak on subjects that range from backpacking gear to the nature of time and consciousness. We agree that there is something spiritually uplifting about being in the high places. They are headed for Lake Anna, next.

The actual 4 Lakes Loop takes off about a third of the way down the steep cutaway dropping down to Deer Lake. You can go two ways around the loop; clockwise, to the left, or counterclockwise. I go to the left.

This part of the trail has been blasted out of the mountain. Many of the rocks have drill holes in them. The trail runs horizontally across the face, through red rock, then switch-backs up to the top of a ridge. It runs along the ridge smooth and level for 1/2 mile, and Summit Lake appears across and below, to the southeast. Good campsites in the trees beckon, and I know there are fish in the lake, but I feel like I want to keep moving. Soon the trail hits another pass, and I can see Diamond Lake below. By now, I can see all of Sawtooth Ridge, leading up to the forbidding peak of Sawtooth Mountain. I have looked on this many times from the other side in partial views, but nothing like this!

The wind is cold, and dark clouds are moving in. There is still a lot of day left, but I would like to find a nice sheltered place to pitch my tarp. There are no places like this at Diamond Lake, just a single large white pine. I have no idea what lies along the way to Lake Louella, but I need to find something better than this. By now, I realize a storm is brewing.

Long trail, across and up a broad hillside. No campsites. Maybe on top of the ridge.

Nope, nothing on top, and the wind is strong and cold as I cross the ridge. I can see Lake Louella down below. This side of the ridge, the lee side, will have less wind. There is a grove of trees down by Louella that should have a campsite.

When I get down to Louella, the trail runs away from the grove of trees, and in what seems to be the wrong direction. I am a little confused about how the land lies here, so I stop and get out the map. Aha! That is Deer Creek, far below. This trail runs down to meet the Deer Creek Trail somewhere out in that large meadow. And Deer Creek Trail runs up to meet Deer Lake, of course. It is always nice to feel oriented.

There is still plenty of day, but the sun is sinking and the dark clouds are scudding overhead. One gets a funny feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. No sheltered camp spots here. Keep going. In the meadow there is a sign confirming that I am on the right path. Deer Lake is not so far, but there are no sheltered spots at Deer Lake. I need to find a campsite somewhere among those trees that line the trail as it climbs the small ridge up to Deer Lake.

I pass by three or four places that might do in a pinch, but am hoping for an actual campsite. Finally, the trail starts to go out into open, rocky ground so I turn back downhill. I will have to pick a spot. The storm is coming.

There! Back in that tight little copse of trees. Quite a nice little spot, if you clear off the downed branches and cones; a bed of fir needles, almost level. I pitch my tarp low, because of the wind. This makes for nice, cozy sleeping, but is a pain for everything else, like writing or getting up in the night to take a pee. There is still enough light to cook dinner. Better take advantage of it while I can. It may be too wet to cook tomorrow. Fortunately, I have food that does not require cooking. I finish dinner, tuck everything under the tarp, and crawl in the sack.
In the night, the rain begins.

June 9

In the dim gray morning it is raining, raining. Hard rain, then soft, then hard. Then hail. An interesting variety of precipitation. I am snug and warm under plastic, but achy. Rain always does this, whether in wilderness or civilization. I gratefully thank science for Ibuprofen.

Well, I can’t lie here all day. Let’s figure out how to pack all this stuff in some sort of dry and orderly fashion.

As soon as I get my gear properly stowed, packed and protected by plastic, the sun comes out. This is a form of magic, similar to washing your car to make it rain. It is very welcome. Honestly, I am not particularly fond of hiking in rain gear.

As a bonus, there is enough dry wood under the tarped space to make a small fire for coffee. As I am drinking my coffee, a doe feeds on willow leaves not more than 40 feet from me. I sit still and watch, and she wanders off, never noticing me. The day is starting very well.

I was right about the trail. It leads steeply up through treeless rocks, but it is farther to Deer Lake than I thought. This is normal. It is always farther than you think. There are two tents pitched on the side of the lake and another in the campsite just above.

As I start up the switchbacks that lead up the wall, I notice that one of the men is fly fishing. He handles the rod quite well, methodically working along the side of the lake. I keep an eye on him as I go, pausing to watch as I work my way up. Finally he catches one, which he kills. He will have a nice breakfast.

At the saddle where I talked to Sahar and Isaiah yesterday, I meet a man and a woman, Andrew and Alexa. Young and fit. The vista is amazing here, and we chat for awhile. Andrew is very knowledgeable about packs and tents, tarps and knots and fabrics and such. We have a great discussion, in which I learn about a new fabric for tarps, Silpoly. Like Silnylon, only lighter, with less stretch. OK, maybe we are both a little over the edge.

Alexa may be a little over the edge, herself. She contributes to the conversation, but keeps getting distracted by rocks. She breaks a couple of them open and looks at them. It turns out she is a geologist! Here we are, standing at the spot where I first noticed the three colors of rocks, and I meet a geologist! I must be living right.

So I show her how the three colors come together at Bee Tree Gap. I say the gray is certainly granite. She agrees. “Some kind of a granite,” says she. She is a geologist. They have to talk like that. So we look at the dark rock, and I say I have always thought it was a chert.

“No,” she says. “I did see some metamorhpic rock down below, but that is not. It’s probably a schist or a slate.”

So, I have learned something already. I ask her about the red rock, and she looks chagrined. She does not know, and I can see she feels badly about it. Well, I know two people who will be looking for books on the geology of the Trinity Alps. Now we are hooked, though. She shows me the rock she broke open, with shiny spots.

“Well, that’s mica,” I say.

“Yes, or maybe feldspar.”

She takes me over to show me a thin layer of very light, shiny rocks she has found. She cannot identify it, but shows me how it is stratified in layers in the dark native rock. Now the two of us are bent over, practically on our hands and knees, looking at rocks and lichens. The man is unfazed by this. He knows she is a geologist. It is a relatively benign form of mental aberration.

Then the talk turns to medical kits, a topic on which every serious backpacker has a different opinion. He is very well-informed. So much so, that I suspect he is a medical professional of some sort. Still, there is the issue of weight versus utility. We wind up agreeing on two things; gauze is very light, and Ibuprofen is wonderful.

It is less than a half mile back to Bee Tree Gap. I exchange texts with my wife (ah, technology!), then head down the switchbacks. I take a photo of what I think is the actual route to Lake Anna, from this side.

Further along, I meet a solo hiker, who tells me he just saw a bear in the meadow below. It is the first bear he has ever seen in the wild, and he points it out, far up the same chute I passed up two days ago. It is leisurely making it’s way up, so I put my monocular on it. It’s a pretty big bear. Not huge, but pretty good sized. He tells me this is his first time hiking solo, which makes me like him, since I do it all the time, against the advice of all sensible people. He seems reassured by this. His friends have tried to dissuade him from it. They gave him a can of bear spray, which he is carrying on his belt. I smile- I can’t help it- and he catches it and sort of grins.

“No problem, huh?”

“Nah. These are black bears, and we still hunt them up here. They mostly don’t want anything to do with people. The biggest danger to you is yourself.”

He gets it. Already knew it. I wish him well.

When I get to the spot where I camped two nights ago, I stop for lunch. In about a minute, a couple of guys stop to adjust their packs, tie their shoes and take photos. They are from Salt Lake City, and are dressed in red, yellow and black Spandex. Not matching outfits, but very different from the the general run of blues, browns, grays and greens you usually meet on the trail.

While I am making coffee, it starts to snow. The sky is partly cloudy and partly blue, but it is snowing. Not big, fluffy snow, but snow, nonetheless. How the heck are you supposed to know how to dress on a day like this? I put on my rain jacket. In half a mile, I take it off.

I pass five more sets of hikers going in, 11 people in all, although two of them are probably day-hikers.

Finally, I am back at the Jeep, and ready to go home. Two things I look forward to; my wife and civilized food. But my spirit is still back up among the mountaintops. I just never feel as clear in civilization as I do when I am in the high country.

If you go: Conditions are perfect right now, if you miss the storms. Watch the weather report and pack a tent or tarp. There is little or no firewood at the lakes, so take a stove or food that does not require cooking. This is a popular route. If you are seeking solitude, this is not the hike for you. But if you are looking for a moderately easy three day outing, 4 Lakes Loop is lovely, with incredible views. And you may meet some very nice people. I did.

James Montgomery

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school, got a law degree, and worked as a nonprofit administrator, before retiring. His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing. He is now serving as president of the board of directors of Empire Recovery Center.

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