Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vine maple color; Sitka Mountain-ash berries

Photo of vine maples by Yaquina, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Sunday’s hike was golden in many ways. Its drive was overly long, and a foot was sprained on root-y trails. But it involved an isolated alpine lake, fall color bursting from rocky slopes, and the round, un-glossy delights of farm-stand apples brought from the town of Sultan.

The hike was to Hope Lake, in the Cascades near Stevens Pass. In less than two miles each way, we climbed over 1400 feet in elevation.  This meant it was fairly steep, and traversed narrow stretches of eroding trail above steep hillsides.

The colors were startling, though. On hillsides above us, vine maples raced across the landscape in yellow and red.

Photo of vine maples against forest by David Patte, USFW, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Expecting the dense, dark woods of the typical Northwest hike, I’d forgotten that we might be dazzled by the light and color changes of autumn. Some ferns and airy huckleberry bushes had also turned vividly yellow and orange.

As we hiked the narrow incline, we passed out-of-season bushes bare of thimbleberries and salmonberries, and I noted them for later. That said, those two are nearly everywhere in the region. But the raspberry-like thimbleberries are especially nice. I also like them because they remind me of the flat, wide buttons on 1950s coats.

Along the ground, bunchberry plants bore their red berries atop the four leaves. I ate one – only my second ever – and noted that this time, the grainy taste went down easier. This one tasted deeper and more sun-warmed, and I thought to myself that they'd be fine added to other berries to make jam.

Photo of bunchberries in dew by Pellaea, Flickr Creative Commons license.

In Samuel Thayer’s book Nature’s Garden, one of my favorite foraging guides, he talks fondly of bunchberry. The berries grow in cool, northern forests, including Thayer's native Great Lakes region.

We reached Hope Lake, which is really a pond. It appears shallow, and is backed by tall evergreens  -- probably hemlocks and Douglas-firs. Hope seemed more peaceful than the other lakes I’d seen in the Cascades’ Alpine Lakes Wilderness. This was the first time that the lakeshore was silent; no one was there, nor calling out as they ate their lunches.
Lakes in the backcountry of Yellowstone are quiet like this, too. This pond in the Cascades was like Grebe Lake or others circled by huckleberry bushes that I saw when I was a new hiker, a kid from a hot climate working at the park during college summers.  At the time, my heart raced when I saw fields of berries at a remote lake. Where were the bears? Were they watching?

Photo of Sitka mountain-ash turning color, by heystax, Flickr Creative Commons license.

At Hope Lake, two weeks had passed since I'd been to one of the Alpine Lakes. Before, we'd seen only green and somber woods, but now, red and yellow huckleberry bushes and Sitka mountain-ash crowded the lakeshore, their colors splashed across the water surface.

Even late in the season, when most of the huckleberries had been picked clean of their fairy bushes, the mountain-ash was laden with bunches of red berries.

Sitka mountain-ash berries can make wine, I hear -- alhough I haven't tried it yet. It was great to see such plenty, to know that for every departed salmonberry, thimbleberry, or huckleberry, something new came with fall: something bright and wonderful.

 Photo of Sitka mountain-ash by Tim Green, Flickr Creative Commons.

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