Early Winter in the Highlands Part 4 of 4: Reflections in the Frozen Canyon
Shona, Ras and I met in the Whistler Canyon Trail head parking lot on a late November morning to run the 9.5 mile Black Diamond Lake Loop. Starting in the Okanogan River valley, the single track trail climbs quickly up through the canyon walls. The morning was cold and I could hear and see our breath as we all set off up the trail. I warmed up quickly as the climb continued. I took in the deep scent of the sage, the sweet fragrance of the tall, dried grasses and looked all around me at the rock formations. I have heard that there are Native American petroglyphs on some of these rock walls. Rock climbers enjoy some bolted routes in here. Big Horn Mountain Sheep roam year round, rattlesnakes have dens in the crevices and cougar have been seen along the trail.
I like the thrill of going into territory rich with wildlife. Ras and I had been studying the difference between canine and feline tracks in the snow before this run, so as soon as we got to the first set of tracks we could see along the snowy route, we stopped to examine them. Ras drew a big circle around the tracks with his trekking pole, and began the lecture. We could see a distinctive cross mark, separating the pads of the animal's feet. The top pads were nested into the bottom pads. These were all distinguishing marks of a canine footprint. We were likely seeing coyote tracks. We had learned that the prints of a cougar, bobcat or lynx would have an arched pattern to its pads instead. It was fun to talk about the tracks and share any knowledge we all had together. Shona accidentally stepped into the circle of tracks, we all cracked up laughing about how she had ruined our lesson, then we took off running again.
At a little over 2 1/2 miles up the trail, the Black Diamond Lake Loop trail takes off to the left, from the 100 trail/Whistler Canyon trail. It first crosses a small wooden bridge over a creek that flows powerfully in the early spring, trickles in the summer, but was now dry. The trail was covered in snow, but easy to follow. The temperature was cold enough that the snow was dry and not slippery. It didn't make the running any more difficult and we moved along at a good pace. The trail climbed very gently at first and then steep sections were mixed in as it took us closer to the lake.
We all settled into the climb, and soon Ras was out of sight ahead of Shona and I. I thought maybe he was powering up the hill ahead of us, intending to stop at some point and wait for us to catch up to him. Not putting too much more thought into it, Shona and I visited and pushed our way up the steep climb. All of a sudden, Ras appeared from behind us, and as most trail runners might assume, I figured he had to step of the trail for a few minutes because of nature's calling. I was wrong. In studying the differences between canine and feline prints, Ras had learned some interesting things about cougar behavior and he had decided to try it out on Shona and I, unbeknownst to us. He had laid down on the frozen ground, hiding in tall grasses and barely visible behind a trail sign. Lying still, he watched Shona and I pass him, without having any idea that he was there. So yes, his thought that we had probably passed by cougars before on the trail without us realizing it, had now been proven.
|Regular readers should recognize Shona Hilton by now.|
Another set of tracks appeared and our lesson in canine and feline differences did us no good now. These were clearly black bear tracks and it had gone the same way we were headed. It was cool to follow these interesting prints in the snow. Ras went off trail to follow the bear's prints down to the frozen lake. The bear had meandered down to the lake, to frolic around. We were all surprised that this bear was not asleep in its den somewhere. This bear was clearly awake and even seemed to be playing around in the forest. We could see its tracks climbing along downed trees and scrambling over big rocks. Of course, it could have been hunting rodents.
Ras was feeding off the wild animal energy of the bear prints and the joy he was feeling running this fun route on a glorious day. He scampered off trail again to climb to a high point and I whispered to Shona, "He's pretty hyper today!". Sometimes hard of hearing, he had heard this, but didn't bring it up until later in the run at a more opportune time, sneaking it in to the conversation and cracking Shona and I up once again. Having fun with your running partners is awesome. It's distracting, motivating, helps create lasting friendships and most importantly, helps work our abdominal muscles while we are running. Laughing is good therapy any way you look at it.
We ended up following the bear tracks around most of the loop. This may or may not have spawned a conversation between Ras and Shona about their old punk rock days, but it was fun to hear their chatter behind me as I enjoyed running downhill through the soft and forgiving snow. All of the roots and rocks were blanketed over in soft snow and it was a blast to bound downhill over the top. I don't use any traction devices on my Altra Lone Peak 1.5's. The lug pattern on the trail running shoe itself works great. On the trail behind me, I could hear "Bad Brains" this, "Dead Kennedys" and "Seven Seconds" that. Sometimes I heard a lyric being sung by one or the other; Shona's Scottish accent getting thicker with some of her anecdotes; Ras' knowledge going back to a time well before I knew him, when he was a part of his local punk rock scene in Oxnard, California, called "Nardcore".
We completed the 4 mile loop and were now back on the 3 mile descent of the lollipop stick portion of the trail, back through forest, at first alongside a frozen creek and then back into the canyon walls. The terrain gets rocky underfoot as the trail works its way through the canyon again. I like practicing technical footing in this area and I was feeling awesome so it was easy to settle into a comfortable rhythm. Going back to this trail over time, I get to gauge how I am doing on this kind of rocky trail. I am finding that so much of it is how I feel on the inside, my confidence level. If I can relax, it all flows. If I'm nervous, I brake and stumble. Its so fun when it all synchronizes. I'm still slower than many other runners when I'm feeling my best, just cruising downhill through snow, or dancing through the rocks. I remind myself that I'm a unique individual. We are all unique. As trail ultra runners, we all have our specific histories, talents, age, gender, influences, health~so many factors contribute to how we run. After reminding myself of this, I feel blessed to be able to be out on the trail, yet again.
"There has never been another person like you since time began, so there is no one to compare or compete with." Louise L. Hay
The 9 1/2 mile Black Diamond Lake Lollipop Loop offers everything I like in a trail run. It is so scenic that you can run this loop over and over again, each time having something new to see. There are distant views of the river valley and the orchards below. The cliffs and rock formations are intriguing and I like to scan them for wildlife. The route offers a great mix-cruisy, downhill running; technical trail; twisty, curvy paths through the trees; rocky climbs; running alongside deep draws; passing by frozen lakes; a glimpse into the area's history; diverse ecosystems; and all of the solitude one could want on a trail.
Ras and I want to keep this trail open all year by running it once a week. As snow continues to accumulate, we can keep packing a path. It will be worth it. As winter deepens, snow shoe hare will hop around, moose will wander and the elusive lynx that hunts the hare exclusively, may make an appearance. I plan on being out there to see all of the wonders the quiet season of winter will provide.