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Melting down (and recovering) in the Buckhorn Wilderness
posted by John : August 18-20, 2017

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It's been said we don't do vacations; we do adventures. This applies equally to short trips and summer "vacation." After trips to the East Coast and Central Oregon, Henry and I headed into the Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula for a three day backpacking trip.

For the last three years Henry's annual trips have been multiple night trips. When he was seven we went to Lila Lake and Alta Mountain. At eight we spent two nights at Tuck and Robin Lakes. Last year we tackled Thornton Lakes and Trappers Peak. On each of these trips we had well defined destinations that I'd either visited before or had extensively researched. This time I had only a pretty good idea...

We started fresh from a night in the car near the trailhead. If you've never used your vehicle as a simple bivy before a trip you're missing out. You can separate a long drive from your first day of hiking by getting close (or at closer) to the trailhead the night before. Especially important when hiking with littles, they can sleep while you drive. Just remember to leave some windows open when you call it a night. (Pro-tip: Use your mosquito netting to keep your car bug-free.)

The first several miles of the trail are standard National Forest trail following the Big Quilcene River. The trees are dense and the views are pretty limited. At 4.5 miles from the trailhead we emerged onto open slopes with views across the valley and up to Buckhorn Mountain 1,500 feet above us. We had perfect weather. The sky was blue with just a few puffy clouds and it wasn't too hot. Just perfect.

Perfect right until we got to Marmot Pass. For dayhikers, Marmot Pass is where many turn for home. It's a worthy destination in itself. Great views to the east across the Dungeness River valley and into the heart of the Olympics with Mount Olympus clad in glaciers. Well, supposedly. We saw clouds. Lots and lots of clouds. Not quite as ideal as it had been just a few hours earlier.

One thing we had heard all along was there was no water anywhere above Camp Mystery, half a mile short of Marmot Pass. Had there been water we probably would have found a spot off the trail and made camp. As it was, we had another 3.5 miles and 400 feet of gain. Not much as a hike by itself, but after six miles and 3,500 feet of gain it was a big ask.

As we got to the high point of the hike we could only look down a steep, barren slope that faded into the clouds. That's when Henry stopped. He knows very well that if we dropped 1,200 feet in elevation to Buckhorn Lake we'd have to make it up on the way back. It was too much.

Everybody has their own unique style of meltdown. I go full introvert and find fault in myself. Henry indulges in self-doubt, too, but he also wants to go home. I won't deny the impact it has on me when one of the kids completely loses the hiking love while on the trail. Asking to cut a three day trip down to two is brutal.

At times like these my strategy is to avoid making promises one way or the other. I know these feelings pass. I've tried everything from candy bribes to flattery to the honest truth to keep us moving. I've found no one approach works for every kid or even for a single kid every time. This time I broke out the Swedish Fish and reminded him we had no real option other than to continue until we found water where we could camp. It was a slow and somber march through the monochrome landscape.

The final quarter mile to camp was the hardest. The trail crossed several dry creek beds with short, but steep climbs in and out. At the bottom of each we wiped away tears and climbed slowly out. When we finally found a site with a crystal clear creek running next to it we dropped our packs and I saw the first smile in hours.

Rather than getting right to the chores of making camp we went exploring. Buckhorn Lake is a strange place. The lake itself sits in a depression in the forest. The water is a deep blue-green color and looked like it was about five feet low, but only recently since the shore was muddy. There were lots of fish rising, but otherwise it was a wholly uninspiring lake. Unless you were a 10 year old boy. He was stoked to throw some rocks and climb along the shore. It completely reset his attitude.

We managed to get camp set up, water filtered, and dinner cooked. We read for a little bit and were silly for a lot. Slo-Mo video is a godsend. We wrapped up the evening playing cards and reading. It turned out to be a good night.

Day two of my trips with the kids is effectively a rest day with a mini-adventure thrown in. Our hike was planned to be to the summit of Buckhorn Mountain. However, that would mean climbing the 1,200 feet we had descended in the clouds and then climbing the peak itself only to turn around and descend back to the lake. That was a non-starter for him and me. Instead, we decided to pack up relocate our camp, tagging Buckhorn Mountain on the way.

There was no love lost between us and Buckhorn Lake. It certainly isn't on my list of recommended destinations unless you happen to be climbing to Marmot Pass on the Tubal Cain trail. The blue skies we'd had the morning of our first day returned and we climbed back to the high point with amazing views to the west. It was so pleasant we even stopped to play in a patch of snow.

At the high point (the same high point that was Henry's low point the previous day) we studied the map closely. The trail that led back to Marmot Pass would force us to drop before we could start climbing Buckhorn Mountain. A second trail, not shown on the map, stayed high and looked to be a nearly direct route to the Buckhorn Mountain summit ridge. When the trail disappeared we headed straight up the fall line until we intersected the trail from Marmot Pass. Henry loved the adventure of being off-trail and I was stoked we could drop our big packs for the final ascent.

Compared to the lush growth down in the valleys the summit was desolate. Goats frequent the area, but I can't see why. There's nothing to eat and no shade when it's hot. The trail climbed over a small hill and dropped to a saddle before it wound up through boulders and disappeared in the jumble of rock that made up the summit. We scrambled through and had a great time lounging in the warm sun. Way down in the valley we could see Buckhorn Lake surrounded by trees and the trail that led to where we were. Henry smiled broadly, fully recovered from the previous day's meltdown.

After picking up our packs we made our way steeply down to Marmot Pass. I expected there would be tons of dayhikers there, but before we could see them we could smell them. Not in an, "OMG what is that smell?!?" kind of way, but in a "That is the best thing I have ever smelled in my entire life!" way. The delicious smell of roasted sausage wafted toward us making our protein bars and peanutbutter bagels a lot less interesting. At the pass I told the group with a little hibachi that it wasn't fair unless they had food for everyone. In an honest-to-goodness French accent one of them said, "What? Have you neveer been hiking vith zee French?" I now realize I've been missing an international flavor (literally) on my adventures.

Below Marmot Pass we found a spot to pitch our tent in Camp Mystery. This collection of sites is about five and a half miles from the trailhead. It's nothing special unless you spent the previous night at Buckhorn Lake. Since that just happened to be the case for us we were happy with the spot just off the trail and close to the creek. Night came with no drama and we slept well.

At least until the sun rose. Henry was poking me awake in the wee hours. He wanted to get on the trail to get home to mom as soon as possible. I made him slow down so we could have breakfast and then pack up camp. Then he was off to the races. I figured he'd slow down once we got going a bit, but he kept up the pace. We had averaged about three miles per hour the first two days. To get home he cranked it up to four!

Just like on every other backpacking trip with the kids I crystalized some new knowledge. The first is very practical, but the second is much more important.

Always leave some windows open if you're sleeping in your car. Two people, even if one is only 10, will produce a ton of moisture (and likely a bunch of C02) that needs to be vented. Bring mosquito netting to cover the windows so you don't wake up with bites everywhere. Bring bedding you won't be taking on your hike so you don't have to pack everything that first morning.

Now the important bit. Be prepared for meltdown. Looking back at all my trips over the last 10 years there's been some amount of meltdown on every trip. Everyone handles stress differently. Be sure you know what your kids will do and how you can help them process it. Sometimes that means lots of candy and sometimes it means letting it run its course.

In spite of the trials of our first day, Henry admitted he had a great time and wants to go backpacking again. I must admit, though, it's getting hard to find places we haven't been. At least in our state...

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