In May of 2015, I went on a weekend backpacking trip the seeds of which were planted four years before. I vividly recall sitting in my apartment near Union Square in SF, being a bit homesick of the Pacific Northwest, and reading a book about the geography of southwest Washington state. I learned there was a place named the “Indian Heaven Wilderness”, right in between the volcanic heartland of three impressive volcanoes: Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.
If you’ve ever taken the Alaska Airlines de Havilland Dash 8-4 turboprop from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, you will likely have admired its green landscape without realizing it, down below. It looks a little bit like this:
On the left, you have Mount Rainier, on the right, Mountain Adams, and in the foreground, Mount St.-Helens. The tiny white line you see in the center is the Goat Rocks Wilderness. The Indian Heaven Wilderness would be on the extreme right of the image. A little map courtesy of Google illustrates its location well:
Those who know me a little bit better may be aware that I always seek out forests, whether in movies, fiction or in real life. Spiritually, forests mean a lot to me. They’re places where we’re surrounded by larger, much older living things that just “are”. During my childhood, a small forest that colored pink in Autumn was one of my favorite places.
The Indian Heaven, originally known by its Chinook name “Sahalee Tyee” (High Heavenly Ground) is a protected wilderness area in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near the Columbia River in Washington. It’s filled with over 175 lakes.
I didn’t quite realize how long the drive from Seattle would be, as you have to drive all the way down to Portland, trace the Columbia River, and then drive straight up along Forest Road 30 (the “wind river highway”) for a little over an hour. This gets you to the Thomas Lake Trailhead, where you leave your car behind and start hiking. A mile or so down the trail you enter the wilderness area. The area is very accessible and does not take much effort at all – since the road drops you off in the middle of dense forest, you can find pretty lakes as quickly as half a mile from the trailhead.
This lake, while one of the smaller ones, carries the same original name as the area – Sahalee Tyee. As one of the higher lakes, the way the wind and fog played with the trees was amazing, and I was very lucky, as only one camper is allowed to set up his tent there.
Lake Sahale Tyee was very special. Given its altitude, the weather changed every 30 minutes or so. As the giant trees are around you in a shape similar to an auditorium, with you sitting as the lone spectator on a little grass outcrop, it felt like nature was treating me to a number of shows. I sat here literally three hours straight, first admiring the sun moving shadows through the forest, then the fog being blown left and right, and finally the wind sweeping waves over the small lake.
On the other hand, I also wondered if it was really the other way around. Perhaps the trees were wondering what this tiny human was up to, on the otherwise empty grassy outcrop.
A few weeks before the trip, I was reading a book about Tibetan Beyul, mystical places where the inner and outer worlds connect. It’s said that protective forces manifest themselves as snowstorms, mist and snow leopards. In their real life presence, they tend to be hidden valleys, and they need to be “unlocked” prior to entering, often by gaining energy from other spiritual places ahead of time. Those who force themselves in meet failure, or even death and illness.
Surrounded by trees this magnificent, odd weather patterns and the simple serenity of being in the forests by myself, I felt the Indian Heaven Wilderness was actually a very spiritual place too.
The wilderness is part of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a national forest of over 5300 square kilometers, about twice the size of the country of Luxembourg. It gets abundant rainfall and feeds a large number of rivers across Washington, most especially the White Salmon river, which is used for whitewater adventures all year round.
The forest is the namesake of Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the US Forest Service and a Republican who was once the governor of Pennsylvania. Pinchot was the first person to use the term “conservation ethic” as a goal of the forest service. However, he saw scientific management of the forests as being profitable, and in this sense was seen as a divisive figure — in favor of large scale lumber cutting, he did not see eye to eye with many of the great preservationists, such as his contemporary John Muir.
I was very lucky to be able to put up my little tent in solitude. The only other campers were near the Pacific Crest trail, downhill and beyond the distance that I could hear them.
It didn’t take me very long though to understand why I was by myself. Due to the late snowmelt in the area, during Spring and Summer, the Wilderness is home to endless amounts of little mosquitoes. My regular tricks, such as cooking beans (which worked wonders in the Australian outback), didn’t help much, and in the end I had to resign to the fact that I’d walk around with burning red little mosquito bites for the next few weeks.
One of the highlights of the hike was Blue Lake. It’s not very far into the wilderness, only 3.5 miles from the trailhead, but it’s the largest lake in the area. As it’s right down from a number of hills, exposed only on one side, there’s always a fresh breeze going past the water, and as such it’s a nice place to camp on hotter days. The lake meets on the eastern side with the Pacific Crest Trail, and so sitting here for a few hours I met some very early hikers, including some from Australia that were doing a smaller part of the trail before the crowds hit.
The trees in the wilderness are definitely not unusual for the Pacific Northwest. Due to its altitude at about 4000-6000 feet, the dominant species are all large firs, in particular the Pacific silver, Noble and Subalpine/Rocky Mountain trees.
Historically, the area was a common assembly ground for several native american tribes, in particular the Yakima, Klickitat and Cascades — who would meet for hunting, and berry picking. The area is also popular with black bears when the berries come out, from mid-July through August.
Oregon State University documented a beautiful story, which is attributed to some of the Puyallup tribes that lived in the area. It offers explanation on how three of the big mountains surrounding the area came to be, and perhaps a lovingly explanation of why this area is so rich and beautiful in natural bounty:
“According to the lore of these tribes, long ago a huge landslide of rocks roared into the Columbia River near Cascade Locks and eventually formed a natural stone bridge that spanned the river. The bridge came to be called Tamanawas Bridge, or Bridge of the Gods. In the center of the arch burned the only fire in the world, so of course the site was sacred to Native Americans. They came from north, south, west, and east to get embers for their own fires from the sacred fire.A wrinkled old woman, Loowitlatkla (“Lady of Fire,”) lived in the center of the arch, tending the fire. Loowit, as she was called, was so faithful in her task, and so kind to the Indians who came for fire, that she was noticed by the great chief Tyee Sahale.
He had a gift he had given to very few others — among them his sons Klickitat and Wyeast — and he decided to offer this gift to Loowit as well. The gift he bestowed on Loowit was eternal life. But Loowit wept, because she did not want to live forever as an old woman.Sahale could not take back the gift, but he told Loowit he could grant her one wish. Her wish, to be young and beautiful, was granted, and the fame of her wondrous beauty spread far and wide.One day Wyeast came from the land of the Multnomahs in the south to see Loowit. Just as he arrived at Tamanawas Bridge, his brother Klickitat came thundering down from the north.
Both brothers fell in love with Loowit, but she could not choose between them. Klickitat and Wyeast had a tremendous fight. They burned villages. Whole forests disappeared in flames.Sahale watched all of this fury and became very angry. He frowned. He smote Tamanawas Bridge, and it fell in the river where it still boils in angry protest. He smote the three lovers, too; but, even as he punished them, he loved them. So, where each lover fell, he raised up a mighty mountain. Because Loowit was beautiful her mountain (St. Helens) was a symmetrical cone, dazzling white. Wyeast’s mountain (Mount Hood) still lifts his head in pride. Klickitat , for all his rough ways, had a tender heart. As Mount Adams, he bends his head in sorrow, weeping to see the beautiful maiden Loowit wrapped in snow.”