I have found just about everything I sought in the mountains this month; amid the breathtaking panoramas, green vales, flowering meadows, quiet lakes and starlit nights I have nourished my soul with beauty and regained the perspective I lose in the city. I don’t know much about geology (it doesn’t yield easily to amateur study), but the mountains, thrust up millions of years ago and worn down by erosion and glaciers, tell me how short my life really is. The age of the rock making up the mountains is even more mind boggling. Now I need reassurance, some connection to friendlier processes than geologic time.
There are scenic ways to get to Shadow Lake, but they involve significant elevation gain and loss. Then there is Red Earth Creek, an easy and utterly boring route that used to be a fire road. Not wishing to spend ten hours on the trail at my pace, I opt for the road. During five hours of hiking the most interesting thing I see is a spruce grouse, a bird so stupid you almost have to kick it to get it to move.
Shadow Lake Lodge is a set of cabins beside a large meadow, about a kilometre from the lake. It’s comfortable, modern, serves the excellent food one expects in a backcountry lodge and has the best beds I have ever slept in.
Morning sun turns the mountains to burnished gold.
Gradually the meadow comes to life; it’s being taken over by orange hawkweed.
In the full light of day Mt Ball presides over all.
I decide to spend the day at Gibbon Pass, a wonderland of larches and wildflowers which is reached by a steep ascent of 500 metres from the lodge. Lyell’s larches, found only near the tree line, are my favourite trees. They are deciduous conifers with silky green needles that turn a brilliant gold before they are shed in the fall. Unlike firs and spruce, larches have soft, pliable branches; if you’re going to ski into a tree, make sure it’s a larch.
Near the summit cairn I find a delightful pond that has been invaded by cotton grass. I could continue wandering; one can ascend Copper Mountain from the pass or visit one of the Twin Lakes, but I really did not come to Shadow Lake for the scenery. I’m happy this day to lounge in the sun and reflect on all that I have seen and done in the preceding weeks.
On my second day I head for the lake but spend most of my time on the trail. There is no better place to observe the endless cycle of life and death than on the forest floor. Plants take root, grow, die, decay and give life to insects, birds, animals and other plants all in a confined space and in a way that doesn’t offend the senses. The same cycle plays out when a hawk kills a pica to feed its young, but the process is messy, hard to observe, and I tend to sympathize with the pica. I don’t have that problem with a dead tree.
There are wonderful colours, shapes and life forms colonizing the forest floor. I don’t know the names of most of them, but they are old friends. Here are a few of my favourites:
Finally, a fallen tree becomes a nurse log, where baby sub-alpine fir trees and dwarf dogwood take root, and lichens, mosses, fungi and countless insects thrive.
Here on the forest floor I see how lifeforms co-opt their atoms, organizing them into a living system for a while, only to give them back to nourish new life. It’s a cycle that requires only years or centuries to complete, rather than geologic ages. I know that I am part of a similar process and I am at peace with that. I’m ready to return to the city.
Evening at Shadow Lake means wine, good food and warm light.
The forecast for tomorrow is snow and a cold, wet hike back to the trailhead. But tonight there is only the moon and memories of a perfect month.