Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wonder Mountain Wilderness and the Wonder Ponds

The Wonder Mountain Wilderness

The Wonder Mountain Wilderness, I’ve had my eyes on it since about 2007.  The Wonder Mountain Wilderness is close to home, but it's a rugged place that has no roads and no built trails.  I was afraid to try going there alone.  Finally this year it all came together for me; I’m in good hiking condition and I found a hiking partner who was game to try to tackle this hike with me.
This 2,349 acre Wilderness is one of the smallest wildernesses in the Western United States. Wonder Mountain Wilderness borders the Olympic National Park and is located west of Lake Cushman in Mason County. Terrain is generally rugged and ranges from a low of 1,740 feet in McKay Creek to the summit of Wonder Mountain at 4,758 feet. The lower slopes are heavily timbered with dense stands of Douglas- fir, western hemlock, and Pacific silver fir. Massive rock outcrops and precipitous pinnacles are common in the higher elevations.
Wonder Mountain is the highest peak in the Wilderness. Wonder Ponds and several other ponds are located in the high headwaters of McKay Creek. There are no rivers or major streams in the Wilderness.
    • Elevation Range: 1,740' to 4,758'
    • Wonder Mountain Wilderness recreation opportunity guide (PDF)
    • Key Access Points: ALERT! Cross-country access only. There are no constructed trails in the Wonder Mountain Wilderness. The two major access roads have seasonal closures from October 1 to May 1 to protect wildlife.
    • _____________________________
Patches is happy and ready to go

crossing Steel Creek
I was not sure about bringing Patches on this hike.  She is getting old and I knew the trip would be hard on her and she might stir up the hornets during hornet season. 

But I also knew that she really wanted to go hiking.  She did manage to step in one hornets’ nest on the way up and I got stung while dragging her away from it.  She also needed help in several spots since she can’t crawl up and over big logs very well anymore.  Now the next day, she is really suffering, but I’m glad I brought her, because she had lots of fun and she did pretty well for her age.  Patches is about 11 years old and she has arthritis in her knees.

My Brooks Cascadia running shoes were perfect for this hike; the traction never once failed me.  I did wear a brace on both ankles, so I would be sure not the sprain them.  Hiking in running shoes and T2 brand active ankle braces is more comfortable and safer for me than hiking in boots.
  I’ve had surgery on both of my ankles and I always wear a brace on my right ankle but never on my left ankle.  But my left ankle was still tired and hurting from my PCT hike and I knew this was going to be a rough “trail”, so I opted to brace both of my ankles.  That turned out to be a good call.  My left ankle felt much better for being braced and both of my feet thanked me for not wearing boots.
We were going to do this hike as a one day hike but a local told us that it was better done as a two night trip.  We did not have two nights free to do the trip, so we opted for a one night trip.  We started our hike at 10:30 in the morning on Labor Day.  We were originally going to start our hike at the end of the Steel Creek road but the same local told me about a better route that starts at the end of one of the switchbacks.  Thanks Deerguy!  We are both very familiar with the logging roads in this area, so we drove straight to the starting point with no problems.
We hiked about a mile down the road and then we went off the road and onto the “trail”.  As soon as we hit the trail we found a coffee percolator. 

Revisiting the coffee percolator at the end, I could not find the lid anywhere
We followed the "trail" as it side hilled towards a creek.  The creek was listed as seasonal on my map but it seemed to have a pretty good flow rate for a seasonal stream.  I think my map got the creeks backwards.  The next creek was just a trickle but it was harder to cross, as we had to cross on a logjam that had notches hacked into it.  The trail was not too bad, it was easy enough to follow and even though I was groggy I felt like we had an easy time reaching the meadow.

And so the fun begins...

Patches at the bottom of the first creek

The climb up out of the first creek coming in

a mildly poison Agaric mushroom

the "trail"

the "trail"

Moss porn?

"the trail"

The "trail"

We went through the woods, into the creeks and up the hogs back, down the hogs back, sidehilling, up another hogs back and through the woods and brush again until we reached an open meadow.

Once I saw the meadow I thought we had it made, this wasn’t such a tough hike after all!  No more brush crashing, no more route finding, and just follow the meadow up to the ridge and then drop right off the ridge and into the lakes.    I was sure that at the top of the ridge the entire Wonder Mountain Wilderness would be in view at my feet.  But I was wrong.
For one thing the meadow was tough going and farther up than it looked.  Also the elevation was just high enough to make me pant a little more than usual.  Then when we topped the meadow there was no view of the lakes, there was only trees.  I had expected a grand view at the top of the meadow, I was so disappointed.   More route finding and brush crashing would be required. 

headed for the notch at the top of the meadow

Looking back from the top of the meadow after we at last climbed it

Patches heads the wrong way down a bear trail

Mushrooms are starting to pop
 Also I think the topo maps for this area are a bit off.  The hill to the south of the lake was much steeper than the topo lines indicated.  This happens from time to time, but in this one case the topo maps seem to be off by a lot more than usual.
Once we topped the ridge we made the mistake of  following a very clear animal path toward the lake, then the path ended at a precipice that happened to have two piles of bear poop on it.  Uh oh!  How the heck were we going to get down to the lakes?  There did not seem to be a way down.
We had to back track and then drop 200 feet below a ridge to the south east to get to another saddle.  We could not walk the ridge due the difficulty of the terrain so we dipped down 200 feet into the woods and brush and then came back up to a saddle.  We looked down into the woods from the saddle. 

our purple track up the meadow then down a bear trail
to the edge of a cliff and then back under a ridge
and up to a saddle and then straight down to the lake.
My topo map just does not show how steep this area really is.
Purple is our track up and yellow is our track down
The hill was steep, very, very steep and the lake was down there somewhere to the north but there seemed to be no way down to it.  We could find no trace of any trail and it was starting to get late and we were running low on water.
We kept creeping down the hill a little bit at a time hoping to find a way and knowing that at some point we would be committed to going down that hill and maybe hitting a sheer cliff and having to go back up.  We were both a bit unnerved by this.  Then we both remembered the scary route to another secret lake and how it was very much the same as this.
So downward we plunged weaving  back and forth down the hill trying to avoid the cliff bands and the worst of the brush.  Finally we found a meadow and a ravine and we saw a little lake. 

Out of the woods again

There is the tarn

I figured that this little lake must be above the bigger lake we are trying to reach.  Getting down to the little lake from the ravine was slippery and Phil fell a few times but we both made it down to the little lake that I will refer to as a tarn for the rest of this post.
It was good to reach the tarn, because we were nearly out of water.  We inspected the tarn for just a minute or two and then began to look for the big lake. 
The tarn was set in a ledge with a sheer drop to the north and we thought that the lake we were looking for was to the north of the little lake, but we could see no good way down into the ravine and now it was just two hours until sunset.  Things were not looking good at all.
We looked and looked and could see  no sign of the big lake.  My GPS kept flipping around and a few times it showed that the big lake was behind us but I figured that was just my GPS acting up.  We had a paper map too and it showed that the big lake was just one or two contours away from us so we should be able to reach it.  So we tried again to go to the big lake but all we saw was a rather steep drop that we did not really want to tackle at this late  hour.  What the heck was going on here?  Nothing was making any sense at all.   Looking back on this I think there is a path somewhere that goes right to the big lake, but we never found it.
At that point it was just one hour until sunset and since nothing was making any sense,  we decided to set up our camp at the tarn and maybe look for the big lake in the morning.  We were too tired to figure it out. 

We both had a GPS(r) and a paper map and Phil had two compasses but we could not find that big lake.  We were just too tired and my GPS(r), it turned out was not working well because the battery was low.  I knew the battery was low, but I forgot how bad the GPS(r) can skip around when the battery is low.

Feeling a bit defeated, we set up camp at the tarn and cooked our dinners. I had a beef and pasta soup that Sonya had left for me at Olallie Lake and Phil had an MRE. Patches had dry dog food and blueberries. She was so hungry that she picked the blueberries herself. 

Patches in her sleeping bag in the night

Our camp was on top of heather and blueberries.  I don’t like to camp on top of heather, but there was no place else.  There were no clearings of any kind at this tarn and the sun was about to set.  My bed was lumpy and bumpy and I was really hungry, even after eating dinner, so I was not sure how I was going to sleep. 
 Then I remembered my blackberry wine.  Two swallows of the wine made my stomach stop hurting and made me forget the lumps and fall asleep.  Too bad it also made me wake up two hours later to answer the call of nature.
Patches slept in a sweetie pie sleeping bag extender, that zipped up into a perfect little sleeping bag for her.  The sky was mostly overcast , so it was not very cold.  It took a lot of love for me to haul that bulky heavy thing all the way up to the Wonder ponds just for my dog to sleep in. 

In the night I put a trash compacter bag over her sleeping bag to help keep the dew off of her.  Patches was so tired that she only crawled out of her sleeping bag one time all night long.   The bag seemed to keep her pretty warm, she did not seem to shiver her  sleeping bag.
Phil slept in an emergency tube tent propped up with a couple of sticks and some string.  It was quite a sight to see.
The stars came out in the night and I took a couple of pictures of them.


My tarp tent in the morning, Patches is still in her sleeping bag
In the morning Phil said that he did not feel well at all, so we took our time packing up.  Phil's had nausea, chills and a headache.  Phil had surgery just two months ago and maybe he had over done it.  When we were almost done packing up I put new batteries in my GPS and tried once again to figure out where the lake was.  Phil pulled out his paper map and he also tried to figure it out. 
Phil out side of  his tube tent in the morning
With both of us fresh from sleeping overnight, finding the big lake on our maps was a breeze.  We could tell that we were just about 400 feet away from it!  Yes, we had spent the night just 400 feet away from the lake we had been looking for! 
We felt kind of silly, but mostly relieved to have figured out where the big lake was after working so hard to get there.  We were also very glad that we had not kept going north down the giant hill into the nothingness right at sunset.  Calling it a night at the tarn was the right thing to do. 

Our campsite after we packed up

  We finished packing up and then set our packs to the side and headed up to where we decided the big lake was and….. there it was, just like that.  We wandered around the big lake for about half an hour and then it was time to go.  It was going to be a long hike out and it looked like it was going to rain.
The big lake at last!
View from an overlook north of the big lake
The first thing we had to do was hike 500 feet back up the saddle on the brushy hill side.  We maybe found some trail blazes on the hill side, but we never found anything that actually looked like a trail.  I think the actual trail goes to the big lake and not the little lake.  The climb up took its toll on me because I was still a bit tired from hiking in the day before, but my pack was light, so it was not too bad.

Heading back into the woods, note our yellow flag

scaly chanterelles, not edible
Next we had to find our way through the brush and back to the top of the meadow.  I was going to take a break at the top meadow to make some coffee and feed one of Phil’s extra MRE’s to Patches.  Phil had two extra MRE's that he did not want to carry out, so I offered to carry one of them out to feed to Patches.
But when we reached the notch above the meadow the wind was blowing and the rain had started.  It was my wish to get down out of the meadow while it was still dry.  The meadow was sure to be very slippery when soaked with rain. 

Back at the bottom of the now wet meadow

Phil at the bottom of the meadow
His camera bag is under his rain coat

Patches is dog tired and wet
We were both a bit surprised at just how steep that meadow was too.  In fact the entire way back down to the Jeep was much steeper and longer than it was on way up.  That happens sometimes, going down can be harder, it’s so easy to slip and fall going down and then there was the rain to deal with.  Everything was wet and slippery for the rest of the hike out and we were not as fresh as we had been the day before.
The hike out was long, very long and we got wet and cold.  I wore my rain jacket all the way out but I opted to just let my pants get wet.  My rain pants would have been shredded by brush crashing and crawling over logs. 

Phil and Patches are in the upper right.  This is the down climb
into the first creek on the way out, not a fun place to be in
the rain with a fully loaded overnight pack on your back

This crossing of the first creek on the way back ( the second creek on the way in)
was very scary as the logs were wet and slippery.  I opted to slide down the
logs on my butt .  I figured that if I was already on my butt it would be
 rather difficult for me to fall down.
When we got back to the top of the hogs back it was 3pm and I had to stop because I was getting faint from hunger.  So I stopped there and shared an MRE with Patches.  I gave her all of the meat  and the soup because it looked and tasted really scary.  I only ate the crackers and the jam.  It was too cold to sit around and make coffee, so we had to get moving again instead.   The only chance we had of staying warm was to keep moving.
One the way out route finding was actually harder, it should have been easier but since we were so tired, it was actually harder.  Also climbing over blow downs and into ravines started to feel very dangerous. Everything was wet and slippery and we were tired and cold and clumsy. 
Yep, we were both more than ready for this hike to end before we reached the Jeep.  Phil kept slipping and falling about twice every mile.  I was lucky, I only fell down one time on the entire hike in and out.  My Brooks Cascadia shoes have wonderful traction.

Niphotrichum moss on the road out

At about 5:30 we reached our parking area and headed home with the heater blasting.  It had taken us 6 hours just to hike down 4.5 miles from the lake, that’s one crazy tough trail. 
 Will I ever go back to the Wonder Ponds?  Ask me next week.  One thing I know for sure is that if I ever do go back I’ll spend more than one night out there and I will not risk going there alone.
Don't let this topo map fool you, this was steep terrain

Same area as above but in Google Earth
(we had no snow)

7.5 miles with about 2,500 feet elevation gain going in and about 500 feet elevation gain going out.

Our track and elevation log to the big lake


Phil takes the high road here and nearly dies falling down the cliff.  He was saved by a tree.

No comments: