Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Baker Lake: Take Two

graphic by Ras

photo by Ras
By Kathy Vaughan

     Seeing the Facebook post Race Director Terry Sentinella put up about the Baker Lake 100k Fat Ass Run, I almost immediately got excited. Baker Lake 50k 2011 had been my first ultra trail race and I have a definite fondness for the course. I had run it for the 3rd time in October, initially signing up for the 100k distance. After a couple late-summer bouts of pancreatitis, I had not been able to train to run that distance and instead stuck with the 50k. Now, feeling strong and ready to try the longer distance, I was pleased that I would have the opportunity for a second chance. Terry would give finishers another official Baker Lake Finish (I'm going for my 5 year Hall of Fame status), a buckle, and an official finishing time on Ultrasignup. I mentioned it to Ras and he was on board.

     Runners could run the course on their own any time before Christmas or join him December 7th when he would be running it with a group. Ras and I live about 5 1/2 hours away from Baker Lake Trailhead. I had an appointment scheduled for an endoscopic ultrasound at the University of Washington Medical Center,on November 20th, to continue the follow-up testing I'd been having from the pancreatitis. We knew we would be driving over the Cascade Mountain Range for that appointment. It was easy enough to arrange to do the run on our way over to Seattle, allowing a day of recovery time before the fairly invasive test I would endure under general anesthesia. I couldn't think of a better time to do the run.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     The day before we left I spent cooking and baking some of our favorite post-race food and preparing burritos to take along in our packs which we would eat on the run. I baked vegan banana chocolate chip muffins and a huge tofu scramble dish with onions, green and red bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, fresh garlic, nutritional yeast and lots of yummy seasonings. I also packed an East Indian style curry bean package to have along with the scramble and roasted garlic and herb fingerling potatoes to eat on the trail. These left-over potatoes are good reheated with whatever meal we have post-run also.

     This run took lots of planning because of the self-supported nature of it as well as the forecast of cold temperatures with an 80 % chance of rain, heavy at times. We knew it would get as low as 28 or 29 degrees in the night and being wet in these cold temperatures would take some attention to proper layering and dry clothing being available.  

     We decided to set up our camp at the Kulshan Campground near Baker Dam. This campground has running water and a really nice heated bathroom with hot water, that seems to stay open year round. We knew this bathroom would feel like a luxury. We also decided because of the rain to first set up our Easy-Up shelter, which is completely enclosed. We would set up our camping tent inside of the shelter, put tarps over the top of the shelter and underneath us, and have a large folding table and chairs to complete our little home-away-from-home scene. We also had a nice Coleman camp stove with us and 2 Thermoses to fill with tea and hot water for Starbucks Via instant coffee pouches, for the next day on our run.

     We arrived at the campground just as it got dark. We used our headlamps and the headlights of our car to create the scene we had planned out ahead of time. We were a little surprised to pull up to the camp and see so much snow around, as well as huge puddles of standing water. We set up our shelter under a tree because it seemed to be a way to stay protected from snow if it should hit while we were here. There was no snow under the tree we chose and it was close to the heated bathroom sanctuary. It looked level and it turned out to be a good spot.  We had 2 huge double sleeping bags with us as well as 3 cozy wool blankets and a fuzzy purple blanket. We had everything we needed to stay warm in the cold and damp conditions.

     We had dinner in our shelter.  The tree was dripping although no rain was currently falling at the time. We decided to get some sleep and wake ourselves up at 1:30 so we could get ready, drive to the Baker River end of the trail and get started by about 3 a.m. 

photo by Ras

     It was hard to get out of our warm sleeping bags and walk out into the cold. I got our stove out of the car and made coffee for us. Ras heated the water for our Thermoses. We stocked the shelter with our dry clothes and drop bags we would use when we got back to this spot 15 1/2 miles into our run. We figured we would get  here just as it got light out. We knew we would be wet and the tea and Vias would taste good. We each had a little pastry to enjoy with the hot drink when we got there too. Knowing these treats and dry clothes would be waiting for us, helped us to get into our car and drive on the dark, snowy road towards Baker River Trailhead. There were large branches on the road that had blown down in the autumn storms, and wet, slushy snow was present. It was mystical and exciting driving towards the trailhead, not yet knowing what our day would offer.

     Pulling into the large lot, we could barely see the trail head because of the thick mist. It looked completely different than it had just a month ago. This is where the turn-around aid station had been. The drop bags were on a tarp and friendly volunteers were saying "Hi" and offering to fill my water bottles. I snacked at the table while my bottles were filled and visited with the chatty older couple writing down times and checking off bib numbers. Tim Stroh was making hot grilled cheese sandwiches.

photo by Kathy Vaughan
                                The Baker River Trailhead at the end of our run

     Now, I looked down the dismal trail, covered in about 4 inches of wet snow. The maples looked like giants in the dark, bare of leaves, but thick with moss. The large sign at the trail head said nothing that forced us to turn around and abandon this idea. This is how we had decided to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary.

     We locked up our warm, dry car, turned on our headlamps and sternum lights and we were off. This moment of setting out on the trail  was about as exhilarating as it gets. I was filled with so many differing emotions and sensations. I couldn't see the trail off in the distance, only what I needed to see at my feet. I couldn't hear anything, only my own loud breathing as I got adjusted to the cold air and what it felt like to breath through a merino wool neck warmer. I could hear Ras' breathing and crunchy footsteps behind me in the snow. I remained calm and hopeful about what lie ahead down the trail, both within me and upon the surface on which I was running. 

photo by Ras

     About a 1/2 mile in, the trail crosses the Baker River. We had been following some footsteps up to this point, but here, the couple and their dog had turned around. We continued over the bridge, much easier to run on covered in snow than wet and slick from rain.  There was some excitement in knowing we were now running where no one else had set foot since the snow had fallen here at Baker Lake.

     The forest remained very dark, although the moon had given a lightness to the sky. It was full, but because of the clouds it couldn't be seen. I liked knowing it was full and guiding us south, back to the dam and the campground; back to our Thermoses of hot beverages and our cheap pastries we would enjoy when it got light out. 

     Large trees had fallen over the trail in a number of places. Sometimes it was difficult to work through these sections. My gloves got soaked as I used my hands to climb through these rich, earthy, damp smelling sections, the ground disturbed where the tree uprooted and the huge branches blanketed in moss, sopping wet. Ras pushed a lot of these branches off of the trail when he could. Our plan was to run 2 out n' backs on this trail over the next 18 or so hours, and it would be helpful to get the trail as clear as possible. We also knew Terry and others would be out on the trail within a few weeks and they would appreciate anything we could do to help with the clearing. I kicked off rocks and branches when I could.  One time, I kicked at a big ball of moss thinking it was a piece of a branch and it only fluffed up into the air. Living on the eastern side of the Cascades, I rarely come across the thick moss that exists in this old growth forest along Baker Lake.  I love the dense, underbrush, ferns and the massive old trees full of character that make up these west-side forests.

photo by Ras

     Finally, light returned to the forest and the daylight hours were beginning. We continued along the inviting single track, running faster now that our visibility had improved. The many creek drainages along the trail were swollen with meltwater from early snow and the heavy rains that had been pounding the area for the days leading up to this run. It was now raining persistently. However, as long as we kept moving, we were staying warm. There was no longer snow on the trail. It was mainly covering the trail nearer the Baker River Trailhead. The further we got from that northern end, the less snow we were seeing. The mist still hung heavy in the trees. The lake looked serene in these early morning hours and the distant peaks of Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker were hidden behind heavy clouds.

     It felt good to be warmed up, moving comfortably along the trail and fully awake to our day. We got to the forest service road that leads 1 3/4 miles gently downhill to the Baker Dam crossing. A Puget Sound Energy employee had just arrived to work and was unloading stuff from his van. He had a large white hard hat on with a face mask. This made it hard to see his facial expression as we ran past him on the dam, but I can only imagine he was surprised to see runners out in these conditions, so early in the morning.

     After crossing the dam, we were now on the final paved stretch to the campground. Ahead we could see our tan Easy-Up shelter. I knew in my head everything I would need to do when we got there and I also knew it was important to make this a fast turn-around. The garbage man was there, to pick up garbage. He was now having breakfast in the parking lot by the heated bath room. Other than that, no one was around. 

     The coffee tasted better than I could have imagined it would. I quickly changed into a dry Smartwool sweater, dry gloves, dry knee high Smartwool socks and a dry fleece jacket. I put my wet rainshell back on over the top of these dry layers and stayed mentally focused on getting back out on the trail. I had to fill up my Hammer Perpetuem flasks and drop off my empties. I had a few snacks to restock in my pack and some garbage to drop off. I used the heated haven, as did Ras, and then we were back out on the trail. As quick and efficient as I thought we had been, I looked down at my watch and could see that we had still taken 39 minutes to do everything we had needed to do. A self-supported run in these conditions was just a whole different ball-game to what I had run here in October, surrounded by my ultrarunning buddies and my daughter Angela, there running her first 50k.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     I did not want to overwhelm myself by thinking about how this was only the first time I would be hitting this aid station we had set up for ourselves in our shelter here at Kulshan Campground. We still had the 15 1/2 mile return trip along the lake to our car. When we got there, we would start our second out n'back. We knew we would have light for that full stretch and hopefully most of the next stretch back towards Kulshan for our second time. Breaking the run up into chunks would be how I could handle this distance though, and right now the chunk I would be working on would be running back towards our car at Baker River. More dry clothes and snacks would be waiting there. A cold, energizing Red Bull would be there too. Meanwhile, I had some forest to enjoy running through!

     As we climbed up the forest service road towards the single track, we snacked on bean and rice burritos.  We heard a truck coming up the road, and as we turned and looked, we could see the driver had his window down and was slowing to say something to us.  He was in camo, head to toe, and had his bright orange vest on also. I thought if we saw anyone out here in these conditions, it would be a hunter. He was surprised to see us and said he was pretty impressed we'd be out here in the rain, now mixed with snow. He mentioned to us that there was another trail head at the other end of the lake, Baker River, that we might want to check out. He was again surprised when we told him we had already run from there this morning and were now on our way back to our car at that end.  Silently, Ras and I both knew not to try to explain to him that we were actually attempting to get back to that trail head and then run it one more time.

     It felt good to get off the road and back onto the single track again. I was surprised at how my feet were already feeling sore from Plantar Fasciatis and I wondered if the cold, damp temperatures were making this condition come on quicker. Sometimes I do feel sore feet, but its usually deeper into the mileage. This was worrisome, with so many miles to cover still ahead.

     When we got to Maple Grove Camp, we both thought of Kevin Douglas who had run an aid station at this spot during the official race. He was not here now, but we still called it "Kevin's Spot". We passed through here, the familiarity of the spot having evoked memories for both of us of our runs here the month prior. I had set my own PR on the course and Ras had enjoyed a nice solid 100k finish. He had to pick up some fresh batteries from Kevin at this aid station during the race, having run for about an hour with dead batteries for his headlamp. His duct taped bundle of batteries he had with him that night had actually been dead, rather than fresh. His system of taping only fresh batteries together, had failed him.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     I turned on my Mp3 player as we ran along, needing the distraction of good music playing. The persistent rain, wet, cold feet from the swollen creeks, and the PF were taking its toll. I didn't want to get too pulled down from these factors, so I chose to listen to music to get me pumped up again. It worked its magic and soon I felt like dancing rather than running. I did feel bad though, because Ras had left his Mp3 player in the car to pick up for the second 50k. He assured me to just do what I needed and he wasn't bothered by it.

     The creeks were starting to slow us down a little bit. Each time we got to one now, we had to really look for a good crossing. Rock-hopping was becoming increasingly difficult. I  started looking for the best place to just plow right through. I didn't want to stop and figure it out each time, only to get wet anyway. It just didn't matter anymore; I was soaked all the way through from the rain and perspiration anyway.

     Before we knew it, we were back at the north end of the trail, nearing Baker River again. The rain was heavy and the wind was picking up. We started running through some standing water on the trail and realized all of the snow from the morning had now melted. It had not drained from the trail though, and was just sitting in puddles. It was half water, half slush and it was cold!!  At times, we would come to places where water was running down the trail like a creek. These conditions became more and more intense, the water now covering the entire trail. There was no way to run around it. We just ran right through it, the slushy water splashing up our legs as we lifted our feet as high as we could in these standing puddles of frigid melt.

     Then Ras said it. "I think we are only doing one out n'back." I burst into tears; tears I'd been holding back as the cold from these slush puddles chilled me to the bone. It was what I needed to hear and what was becoming the reality in my head too. It seemed silly to push on in these conditions and the fun was over. In about 2 hours, it would be dark again. The wind was really strong now and the heavy rain had snow mixed in with it. We'd both been wet for 11 hours now and we had at least that much longer to go. I had slowed down and the second out n' back would take even longer in the dark with worsening weather falling on us. Its just what it was.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     When we got to the car, I pulled out the camera for only the third time on the run. It had been too wet to take pictures.  I shot a couple of pictures and climbed in to the car, out of the wind, the rain and the November weather that inhabits Western Washington. Ras turned the key, the car started for us with no problems, and the heat began pouring out of the vents. We put on dry clothes, snacked and reflected on another challenging, yet, fun adventure; shared together, bringing us even closer in our partnership and bonding, celebrating our relationship of so many years in the way we like to celebrate most special days. And as it turns out, Terry will still give us a cool medal for a 50k finish and our time on Ultrasignup. 

photo by Ras

photo by Ras

photo by Kathy Vaughan

photo by Ras


  1. Great story Kathy! Thanks for sharing the details so those of us who dream of doing such a thing in the future know what to expect! I've been hiking on that trail before so I could really picture many of your scenarios!

  2. Thanks E.R.!! May your dreams become a reality some day soon!!