Getting lost in the woods
Swarms of voracious mosquitoes. Fallen logs stacked like Pickup Stix. Jagged branches standing out like pikes. No line-of-sight reference points. Nothing on which to take a compass bearing. Daylight fading into dusk. This is getting lost in the woods.
Want to make an already intense physical trial truly memorable? Lose yourself in an endless forest of dark timber and race against the clock to get out. And so it was last weekend with my old buddy Dave.
A good thrash through the woods leaves epidermal souvenirs. Scratches and welts marred our legs: here a gouge from crawling over a log 4 feet off the ground and slipping off a surface honed by the ages; there a multiplicity of scratches from pushing through briars, the thorns snapping off with brittle efficiency and sticking into my calf.
This madcap sojourn started with what seemed an easy challenge: finding a summer hiking route from Margy’s Hut to McNamara Hut. Rather than do the whole crossing in one shot, we began from Lenado on the Woody Creek Trail. Our first hour was spent weaving through the riparian ecosystem amid a tall jungle of foliage both lush and beautiful.
Cow parsnips towered 7 feet high, their canopy of flowers glowing in the sun. White blooms of thimbleberries leaned out on verdant stalks. Wild roses blossomed among a vast array of understory plants that define biodiversity. The air was fragrant with blooms, rich with oxygen, buzzing with pollinators. Summer in the mountains is a feast for the eyes, a balm for the body, a tonic for the soul. We were stoked about reaping good juju that elevated our moods.
The Japanese have an expression: “shinrin-yoku.” The translation is “forest bathing,” an official medical prescription. The deeper we went, the more Dave and I bathed in a vast expanse of shinrin-yoku forests, absorbing a therapeutic shower of natural, organic chemistry that science proves can lower stress and drop blood pressure. (Mosquitoes, we found later, can help drop blood pressure, too!)
As we moved up Woody Creek, we dialed into a fast and efficient pace, floating over the crushed granite trail, our footfalls silent, our voices still, our walking a kind of rhythmic dance. In the nurturing silence, we took in everything we could, really listening to every sound — from the high peep of a nuthatch to the low murmur of the creek, rushing by behind a curtain of willows and alders.
We misjudged a trail connection with the winter route but thought it would be easy to merge with it by contouring up the south ridge. That was a mistake, but also an invitation to an impromptu adventure. At least that’s how we saw it at the time.
Crossing the creek toward our destiny of lostness not only took us off the trail, it took us into mosquito heaven. Where none had bothered us on the lower trail, higher in the woods they swarmed without mercy. They made stopping to eat, drink or look at the map a drain, literally, on our circulatory systems as the stabbing proboscis of anopheles gambiae tenderized our flesh.
Miraculously, we soon discovered a trail deep in the forest; a trail that hadn’t been cleared for decades, a trail so faint it took both set of our eyes to pick it up, a trail built for pack animals to supply the mining camp of Aspen via Hunter Pass over a century ago.
The trail gave us an hour of good progress on reasonable contours — until it disappeared in the fallen timber. Our progress slowed while time seemed to speed up. All of a sudden, we had only an hour before night. We churned through the woods, trying to beat darkness and the rigor of sleeping with mosquitoes, the most unruly of bedfellows. Dave and I were seriously itching to reach the hut.
We finally scrambled up Bald Knob and found the popular winter route to the hut, just in time to watch the sun set purple and gold against the spine of the Elk Range. Mosquitoes buzzed in our eyes and ears. All we could do was laugh at ourselves.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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