Sun, and more sun, heating up the atmosphere, promising a rain-free day. Some high, white billowing clouds innocent of intent beyond enhancing the beauty of the blue sky. In the mountains, however, one can never tell. Best to pack some minimal rain gear.
It's a Saturday and Welch-Dickey a popular destination. Sunday is forecasted for heavy rain, beginning Saturday night. All-day Sunday rain, no mere occasional cloudbursts. And Monday? Rain. Make trail while the sun shines. So we did. The parking lot held more vehicles than we normally see, but was nowhere near as full as we have seen it in the past on a week-end.
The circuit, up Welch, over the coll to Dickey, then down Dickey and out through the forest can be done in an average time of 3-1/2 hours for the young and the fit. Which we used to do handily, with the children, coming in well under time. That was then. In the last few years it has taken us between 4-1/2 to 5 hours to do the circuit. Mostly my pace, having to stop often, needing to take the ascent slowly.
Riley too is slow. Like me. Unlike my husband, whose stamina, energy level and lung capacity does not yet reflect our chronological age of 72. Or Button, still nimble and active, at 16. As a team, we do very well, however.
At the trailhead, which rises rapidly, we turn to the right, to ascend toward Welch. The fork to the left rises through the extravagantly-treed forest, up to Dickey. Dickey is taller by several hundred fee than Welch. We have, in the past, climbed from left to right, but prefer the right-to-left circuit. At the inception, several hundred yards on, one must cross the mountain stream where the interrupted trail carries on. This year the stream is rampant, full from the week's rain, rushing with a roar of triumph over normally-dry rocks that sit in the stream over which one fords to the opposite side.
We picked little Riley up, knowing he would be fearful of the wildly onrushing water, but figured that normally-intrepid, water-loving Button would manage on her own. Wrong. Not that she did not make the attempt. When Irving first, carrying Riley, made it across, then me, we looked back to witness Button in distress. She had slipped sideways off the largest of the rocks, and the swollen stream was washing her rear legs relentlessly into the stream while she kept attempting to haul herself back onto the rock where her two front paws still held firm. It was a losing battle.
We both turned back, but I was in the lead, reached her and scooped her up in my arms, her body drenched. Good thing she likes water. Good thing the ambient temperature was nudging 65 degrees. She was fine, recovered her aplomb, her independent spirit undaunted. Shook herself, then pitched forward into the continued ascent. We strode uphill alongside the stream, its sound filling the air, flushing down the mountain side. Lots of photographic material there; the occasional small waterfall, when the sound became magnified and frantically beat the air.
The understory of ferns, dogwood and moose maple. And seedlings of hemlock, spruce, pine and fir. blue beech, pock-marked and filled in with moss. Beech trunks, favoured by black bear cubs, leaving the patterns of their clawed ascents on the indelible-marked smooth, grey bark. There are old gnarled, lichen-clad oak, and again, bafflingly, we observe the presence of acorns on the ground. Hear red squirrels bitterly scolding from their posts. And woodland thrushes, singing throughout the forest.
The trail is tortured by old tree roots, increasingly exposed. Some with deadly, foot-grabbing loops for the unwary. In some areas, yellow sand is exposed, sharp tiny bits of gravel, crushed underfoot. Rocks and cut old tree trunks wrestled into place along the trail to form notional 'stairs'. The area is so sodden, rich black muck stands on the trail, so we sink into its gooey presence. Riley, an apricot toy, suddenly acquires fashionable black boots. Button, a black miniature poodle, does not mind the cooling effect of the wet, dark muck in her paws.
We see woodland violets here and there, bright purple. And a richness of wood sorrel, with fiery red tiny berries. Chickadees call from the woods beyond. And we catch sight of a pair of flycatchers, lovely little birds, as beautiful as the chickadees and their symbiotic nuthatches. The dogwoods are past their bloom oddly, the fruit beginning to form. Time has felled huge old yellow birches, resting on the forest floor. Which time also will transform to rotted humus, to further enrich the growing medium.
We are shielded from the sun by the generous canopy of the forest. Mosquitoes and black flies evidence themselves; still they are a minimal nuisance, more for their irritating presence than stinging/biting intent. There presents a series of small switchbacks over rain- and creek-fed tributaries. National Forest volunteers have obviously been working tirelessly to increase the numbers of trail ditches whereby the rain excess can be runnelled off, to spare the trails from further erosion.
We attempt, as much as possible, to avoid the worst depths of muck, not always with success; there is so much of it. A passing group of young hikers is dismayed at the morass. One young woman remarks tartly that the trail is anything but neat and tidy as she and her companions tread nimbly onward. We, sturdily and slowly, wend our way upward, by-passing protuberant roots, slippery logs. As we gained height we moved closer to the stream, and then away from its vicinity again, the sounds of its furious gurgling absorbed by the forest, receding, fading. Then we could hear chickadees again calling from the forest interior.
Soon there were no longer still scenes of dappled sunlight on the monochromatic green screen, as clouds overtook the blue. White, light and all-encompassing, high winds shoving them along, glimpsed now and again as we stopped to rest, to muster our energies to continue. This push to achieve merely the height of the overlook after all, represented only the first one-quarter of the entire circuit. One we had used to complete expeditiously, invigorated by the process, not fatigued by it, as we felt now.
On the other hand, it is invigorating for us to be there, in that environment, to share the pleasure of the venture, to point out to one another our delight in discovering and rediscovering all those elements of nature and endless guises and surprises that so enrapture us and keep us captive to the pursuit. So we plod on, as gracefully as we are able, then rest, then proceed again. This time, however, having agreed that we will aspire no further than to mount to the overlook. We will leave the balance of that adventure now to younger generations.
By the time we had gained three-quarters of the way our physical equilibrium was well restored. We felt good, confident, glad to be there. The remaining 25% of the uphill advance seemed - and now I recalled from memory - an extraordinary physical challenge. But we and the dogs soon reached the flat granite shelf with its branched-off areas of protected alpine growth, signage urging climbers and trekkers to avoid stepping on the fragile botanical specimens.
A superb photo-taking opportunity. Although I had indeed been taking photos intermittently throughout our ascent. Hunkering down to capture the tiny perfect white flowers of an alpine plant, only to be confronted with a warning on my camera's screen. I had overtaken the storage capacity of my camera. My enthusiasm for indiscriminate photo-taking, entranced and enraptured by all of nature's manifestations and ample presentations too extravagant for the capacity of my indefatigable camera. In steps my Sir Galahad to rescue the day, as is his wont.
With his camera in hand, and mine securely in backpack storage, I snapped away. Sky, cloud formations, mountain backdrop, forest, Ladies slippers, Turkey vultures, boulders. Everything was grist for the mill of the camera. Memory is fine, but it cannot and will not faithfully store still replications of what the brain receives through the eyes of our souls. Cameras, and photographs, are great assists. And useful display totems. Security deposit systems for treasured scenes prompting memory.
We approach the cliff edge, acknowledge the presence of hikers resting before embarking on the real treat of their day's jaunt. There are many, stippling the granite ledge, on the cusp of the edge. Two vultures rise between the vastness of the valley below, in its verdant lushness, the mountains above and beyond. The birds drift apart on their hunting foray; rise and effortlessly ride the wind above the chasm, their wide-winged pinions distinct, their coasting pleasure obvious, recognized, almost felt, by those absorbed in watching them.
Button and Riley are eager to ingratiate themselves with those engrossed in having their packed lunch. Those who encourage them to draw near, those who delight in their presence, who enthuse at the small dogs' rugged resolve to close the distance between the trailhead and the stone ledge, between earth and sky. As we do.