Ancient Lakes In The Spring

On the edge of the Columbia River, in central Washington, is a fascinating landscape. Carved by floods of unimaginable proportions, one finds the dry remains of Ancient Lakes sitting in what were once the plunge pools of enormous but brief waterfalls. Standing below the sheer walls of basalt it is hard to comprehend what it must have been like when the Missoula Floods roared across the landscape carving out channels, in some places hundreds of feet deep, in the basalt that covers most of central Washington State. At the base of these dry falls, fed by small streams lies the small lakes named Ancient and Dusty Lakes.

After a long winter and a cold wet spring I was itching to get out on the trail. So with the excuse of having some gear to review, and despite having a tight schedule, I headed out. The plan was to hike the 3 miles into Dusty Lake late on Friday, spend Saturday hiking and exploring, then hike back out Sunday morning in time to pack and head across the mountains (3hrs drive) to start work on a major project by 8PM. Yeah, a recipe for disaster…but I needed to recharge my batteries after a few difficult weeks at work, and in preparation for what I knew was going to be another long and difficult week.

So I get off work a bit early, load up my gear, and head to the trailhead. On a whim, I thought it might be nice to have a few sips of something in the evenings so I picked up a small bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. At the trailhead, the day was warm and clear, one of the few nice days so far this year, and the hike into the lake was mostly uneventful. The terrain was easy to walk, with most of the trail following old jeep roads.

Along the way I spotted one small rattlesnake in the shade of a large sage bush right on the edge of the trail, so when I met up with a couple of folks with a dog, I warned them they should probably keep the dog close as they pass that area. Upon reaching the lake, I found there did not look to be many good campsites. I found a nice spot near a few tents and hung around till the owners returned and asked if they minded if I camp near them. They said they were OK with it, but that they were expecting a few more people and they might get rowdy.

I said I did not mind and set up my camp. As it turned out, I was more tired than I thought and ended up falling asleep rather early, completely missing any roudyness that may have occurred, but not before I discovered a good size rattlesnake not far from our camp area.

I got up late the next day, chatted with the guys in the adjacent camp (mentioning the snake I saw) and headed out for a day of hiking. My only footwear for the trip was my Vibrum Five Fingers Sprint shoes and I was wearing shorts. With a light pack (the Platypus Origin 9 that I was reviewing), minimal gear, and my MP3 player, I was off for a day of easy but fast-paced hiking (about an 8-mile loop down to the Columbia River and back). This trail was much narrower than what I had been on the previous day and in some places partially overgrown.

The day was cooler and slightly overcast, combined with the cold nights it was ideal conditions to encounter rattlesnakes out during the day. It was not long after leaving camp that I decided the MP3 player was probably not such a good idea, so I put it away (probably the only smart thing I did the entire trip). Before long, I encountered my first snake of the day…by almost stepping on it. I was glad I was not wearing my headphones as my first indication was the rattling next to my foot.

During the day I encountered many more snakes, most by almost stepping on them. One particular snake refused to get out of the trail until I prodded it with my trekking pole, and even then it simply coiled up under a sage bush directly adjacent to the trail and started rattling, forcing me to bushwhack around it (praying there were no other snakes in the low growth I was walking through, and contemplating the irony of getting bit by an unknown snake while avoiding a known one). The day remained cool and overcast with a few light showers, quite pleasant for hiking, and despite the snakes was enjoying myself immensely. About 2 miles from camp, the trail I was on reconnected with the old jeep road I had hiked the day before.

Energized by a day of easy hiking, and relieved by the relatively (but false) safety of a more open trail, I decided to run the rest of the way back to camp…but it was not to be. Within about a half a mile I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and looked just in time to see a snake shoot out of the brush and narrowly miss my leg. I let out a few choice words that I can’t print here and decided maybe running in these conditions was another bad idea.

I returned to camp to find a few kids who were searching the area for snakes, spiders, and scorpions (all of which they found in abundance). Not long after I got there, they turned over one of the rocks only yards from my tent and discovered a small rattlesnake! They were nice enough to capture it and move it quite a distance from our camp.

That evening after dinner, I went over to chat with the guys in the adjacent camp. They were drinking and playing a game that one of them invented, and invited me to join them. One thing lead to another and the next thing I know my whisky is gone and I find I am drinking some vodka they poured for me. I have no idea what time we finally turned in for the night, but I am sure it was quite late, and I was feeling no pain.