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The High Divide: Walking the Green Horizon

The High Divide, that long sinuous ridge that stretches from Excelsior Peak to Welcome Pass has long been a favorite autumn backpacking destination. I’ve spent some glorious October days and nights on the Divide when the sweeping alpine meadows are positively lurid with the golds, reds and yellows of the season. But my visits in mid-summer flower season have been lamentably far and few between.

On this beautiful summer morning, here at the end of the Canyon Creek Road, I am looking forward to rectifying that situation. My travelling companions and I have allocated the next three days to explore the ridge from one end to the other and to linger in what we hope will be alpine gardens. Time to sharpen the senses and soothe the soul, to stop and smell the flowers. The weather is picture-perfect: blue skies, warm sun – and the forecast is for more of the same.

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From the trailhead we plunge immediately into delightful mature forest, old man’s beard hanging from the trees like prayer flags. The path climbs gently through the trees, shadows and silence combining to quiet the internal jabbering. The beginning of any hike is first and foremost a transition from the over-busy hyper-speed song and dance routines of everyday urban life to a place of quiet. A chance to reduce velocity. Over the years I have learned that hiking uphill is a good way to slow down.

In less than a mile, the trail dips down  to the tiny Damfino Lakes (named, so the story goes, when a ranger of yore was asked what the lakes were called and replied, “damn if I know…”). The marshy basin that cradles them is as green as green gets. Although we’re not tired or hungry, we stop here for a break, just so we can spend a few minutes beside the silent water.

mountain helleboreGreen remains the dominant color as we ascend through thinning forest and patches of lingering snow, emerging eventually above the trees onto steeply pitched meadows of mountain hellebore. These graceful alpine plants are a favorite – their unique beauty is in their elegant spiraling leaves. The bloom, when it comes, is nothing to write home about, but the leaves are a treat for the eyes. Also called corn lilies or Indian hellebore, the plants are poisonous. Not a problem for me so far, I’ve never been tempted to chew on one.

We cross a rambunctious creek on a dubious snow bridge. When the snow is gone, this creek, reduced to a trickle in late summer, is one of the only water sources on the Divide. Looking upward today, we can see patches of lingering snow visible up on the ridge, so we bypass the stream and continue the ascent, climbing the rocky staircase of a trail (Stairway to Heaven?), views widening with each step. Another opportunity to slow down.

IMG_5539At the crest of Excelsior Pass, the view-meter is pegged by the abrupt appearance of Baker, Shuksan, the Border Peaks and countless others rising against the sky, icy summits gleaming in the summer sunshine. We turn left and make the last upward push to the summit of Excelsior Peak with a 360-degree view out over the wild mountains. The catbird’s seat.

We pitch the tents on the dance floor-sized summit plateau and melt snow to fill our water bottles as the sun slides down the western sky, painting the great summits in the rosy hue of alpenglow. A full moon, deep orange, rises above the dark towers of Shuksan and we eat dinner by its soft light.

The night’s chill is vanquished by warm morning sunshine and we waste no time heading off along the green undulating ridge, stopping often to examine the rocks and flowers. A falcon soars past as we traverse meadows lush with lupine, tiger lily, columbine, glacier lily, heather and phlox, the Border Peaks rearing ever higher as we move east. My companions turn back toward camp and I continue along the ridge, enjoying the quiet music of birdsong and the breeze fluttering in the flowers.

At Welcome Pass I climb a snow gully to a notch with a million-dollar view of Tomihoi and Larrabee. A melt-water pool, cradled in the snow gully is an indescribable shade of blue.

I while away the afternoon happily alone, climbing snow gullies, drawing water from snow-melt pools and wandering beside pocket tarns that reflect the elegant peaks. Epic hellebore meadows, sweeping like pitched green seas down the slopes into the valleys far below lead the eye to the valley bottoms where the meandering Nooksack River can be seen, flashing among dark trees.

mt. shuksan & moonI return to camp in early evening and savor another soft summer evening on Excelsior, bathed in moonlight. It’s too nice a night to be in a tent so I toss out my sleeping bag on a tarp and drop off to sleep with a gentle breeze ruffling my hair.

The mosquitoes, doing their duty, wake me shortly before the sun comes up, affording me the opportunity to set up my tripod and photograph the pearly dawn, alabaster light spreading across the high country and working its way down to illuminate the shadows in the valleys.

Today, we opt to head south on the ridge towards the distant tower of Church Mountain, climbing up and over a succession of green bumps, each with its view of the resplendent mountains. The path becomes less distinct and we eventually find a small rocky promontory perfect for lazing in the warm sun.

My friends move on and I linger on a smooth flat rock and contemplate my good fortune, breathing deeply among the flowers that line the edge of the precipice. The air is filled with the sound of insects, buzzing at a hundred different frequencies. When the breeze dies down, spotted orange butterflies appear, dancing the butterfly tango. Ravens gargle in stands of wind-bent trees.

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Back atop Excelsior, we watch as a scrimshaw of wispy clouds crisscrosses the sky like webs spun by cosmic spiders. At sunset, these clouds glow crimson, swirling like smoke above the peaks. Deep in the night, the clouds take their leave, leaving me with the moon and stars and I sit silently, washed by the tender light and memories of summer evenings long past. The moon makes its way across the sky and I wish it well, crawling into my sleeping bag to watch the stars.

Getting There

There are three ways to reach the High Divide Trail. Two of them demand serious sweat equity – the Welcome Pass Trail gains almost 3000 feet in 2.5 miles of relentless switchbacks from Forest Road 3060 to Welcome Pass (5100 feet) and the Excelsior Trail climbs some 3600 feet from the Excelsior Trailhead on the Mount Baker Highway to Excelsior Pass in four miles.

IMG_5497The easiest access is via Damfino Lakes and will cost you just 1500 feet of gain. To reach this trailhead, take the Mount Baker Highway (SR542) two miles past the Glacier Public Service Center and turn left on Canyon Creek Road (Forest Road 31). Follow this road – paved for the first eight miles –  approximately 15 miles (bearing left twice, following the obvious main road) to the trailhead at 4150 feet. From here, the trail ascends three miles to Excelsior Pass (5380 feet). Another third of a mile and 300 feet will get you to the summit of Excelsior Peak (5699 feet). From the pass, you can follow the High Divide Trail east along the ridge top for 4.5 miles to Welcome Pass or wander west in the direction of Church Mountain for as far as you are comfortable (the route gets sketchy). The ridge offers numerous great places to pitch your tent although once the snow is gone, water is in short supply.

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