Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake

Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Blanca Lake north of US Highway 2, about 90 minutes out of Seattle, is a stunning color caused by glacial sediments from the Columbia Glacier. I chose to do this hike to celebrate a milestone birthday and was surprised by how challenging it was.

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Blanca Lake

Blanca Lake has a ton of things going for it, including:

  • Spectacular scenery to make the effort well worth a hiker’s time
  • A butt-kicking 3300-foot elevation gain in just under four miles; and
  • Ripe wild berries, if you visit in late summer. Add
  • Few people on a late summer weekday and
  • Great conversation about all sorts of topics

and you have a recipe for a great birthday outing. But getting there was not without its challenges.

When Best-Laid Plans Go Wrong

On August 30, I left the house ten minutes earlier than planned, thinking I’d have time to walk Ajax before I met my hiking partner, Cherie, and her dog, Wonder. Ten minutes from home, I glanced at the fuel gauge and realized I didn’t have enough gas to make it back from the trailhead. I pulled into a gas station, reached for the pump handle, stuffed my hand in my pocket … The credit card and license that I’d shoved in my shorts pocket were still at home. At the last possible second, preparing for cooler weather, I’d changed my pants.

Darn it all. So much for best-laid plans.

Lesson Learned: have a secret stash of emergency cash somewhere in the car for emergencies such as this one. {One of the goals of my CourtSchurmanGo.com blog is to supply “tips from the trail,” unexpected things I have discovered with over twenty-five years of climbing experience.}

Plan B

Knowing my husband would not be awake to answer the phone for hours, and with zero cash in the car, my only option was to return home. I reached home without incident, grabbed my wallet, and filled up the tank before starting north again. Heavy northbound traffic, roadwork slow-downs, and a miscalculation of driving time meant I pulled into our meeting place, Beckler River Campground, far later than I’d promised.

I despise being late, especially to hike with a friend who is always punctual and who drives from the opposite side of the Cascades to hike together once a month.

Lesson learned: allow plenty of extra driving time, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area you’re traveling to.

Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Foggy trail to the high point on the ridge. Note roots and steepness.

Delayed Hike Start

Fortunately, Cherie had received my text. When I arrived, she gave me a big hug and convinced me that she can always use downtime to practice Spanish. No harm, no foul, except to my own punctual ego.

I took Ajax on a very short walk to calm my shaking hands. Beckler River Campground looks like a fabulous place to stay overnight for numerous day-hike excursions along US-Highway 2. When we got back, Cherie transferred her dog and pack into my car. She became my chief navigator for the sixteen-mile, half-hour drive to the trailhead.

We started our hike after 9:30 instead of the anticipated 8:30. Fortunately, it was overcast and cool, so heat would not be our primary enemy. I also didn’t notice any bugs, thank goodness. A few minutes from the car, both dogs left us gifts and we almost retraced our steps to look for a missing leash — only to find it behind us on the path a few steps

Lessons learned: Be flexible and extend flexibility and grace toward all party members. Carry an extra rope/baggie or two as part of the Ten Essentials whenever hiking with dogs.

Trailhead to Virgin Lake

The trail to Blanca Lake is one of the toughest approaches I’ve done in the past two years. Think Old Si and Old Mailbox in terms of gnarly root balls and giant steps. It ascends in unrelenting switchbacks that had me checking my dog’s breathing. He seemed fine. In hindsight, perhaps it was my breathing I was worried about.

Fortunately, we had temperatures in the upper 50’s all day, under mostly cloudy skies. By the time we reached the ridge, a light breeze teased us, making me think perhaps the fog and clouds would burn off.

Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Abundant blueberries waiting to be snacked on.

A very unexpected, delicious surprise awaited: huckleberries, salmonberries, and blueberries on just about every bush. We couldn’t resist stopping for a few minutes to pick a handful or two.

Once we attained the fog-covered ridge, the next destination was Virgin Lake. I’ve visited a large number of lakes in the past two years. Compared to most, this small one was not that memorable. Wonder disagreed, however; he jumped right in to take a brief swim while Ajax watched from shore.

Lesson learned: Have a lightweight empty container handy if your destination is likely to include berries. Teen daughters LOVE fresh-picked berries.

Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Just past the high point on the ridge, the trail dips to Virgin Lake which has no drainage outlet. The view was much better on the hike out than in.

Descent to Blanca Lake in Fog

We found the path that bordered the lake and started our 500-foot descent into thick fog and dense clouds. Thank goodness for windbreakers, gloves, and hats.

Neither of us had ever hiked this trail before, but I knew from trip reports that there was a gorgeous-colored glacier-fed lake. Somewhere.

We spotted a couple with a dog sitting on some boulders by what I guessed must be the lake, but we still couldn’t see it. Disappointed, I muttered, “We’ll have to come back sometime when we can see what’s around us.”

Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Cherie and her dog Wonder stop in the fog for a lunch break. Where is the lake I’d read so much about?

A few minutes later, we stopped at a large felled tree for lunch. All that work, and nothing to see. Infuriating!

I pulled out my Thermarest chair and kicked back to enjoy a snack. Then I remembered: this was day three going without nuts, to test my theory that they were causing my congestion, not a summer cold. Munching on carrots and apple slices made me long for the days of chocolate bars, freshly baked cookies, and homemade GORP. So much for a birthday “summit treat.” Carrots and apples just don’t cut it.

Lesson learned: Investigate tasty gluten-free, sugar-free, nut-free, corn-free trail snacks. On this trip, I learned to add hummus and lunch meat as portable options to go with cheese and fruit.

Blanca Lake Reveals Herself

As we snacked, Cherie finally pointed at an opening in the fog and a tiny sliver of the green lake. I jumped up from my spot and whipped out my phone, hoping for a glimpse of green before it clouded over again.

I headed twenty feet down the remainder of the trail with the dogs. The sun burned off more and more of the fog until we could see the entire lake. Trail descriptions that use the word “Gasp-worthy” are right. My jaw dropped.

Blanca Lake is a greenish-gray color that I have only seen in Glacier National Park and New Zealand. Within minutes, we could see across the valley to a hanging glacier where waterfalls drain melt-off from the Columbia Glacier. I recalled part of an earlier conversation Cherie and I had about disappointment. In her words, “It comes when we have such strong expectations that we are unable to appreciate happy accidents.” If I’d been on time, we might not have even seen the lake. Now, I appreciate being late.

Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Cherie, Wonder, and Ajax taking a break on our lunch log as we got the first hint of a lake view.

Lesson Learned: Think outside the box. Look for the silver lining. What’s GOOD about what’s happening right now, and what can I change to make it better?

Happy Accidents

It may sound like a cliche, but I believe things happen for a reason. We may not know what the reason is at the time something happens, but with patience, we can often find the larger meaning or greater life lesson. I found myself pondering the idea of “happy accidents” in light of the late start to Blanca Lake and in the larger picture of the global pandemic.

COVID kicked off eighteen months of disappointments for everyone around the world. Including us. Two days before my husband and I were to chaperone my daughter’s every-four-years high school marching band trip to Ireland (in March 2020), the ten-day trip got canceled. Everything collapsed from there: school closures, my daughter’s sixteenth birthday plans, cancellation of her last summer of horse camp, closure of the Washington State Fair she competes in every year, and the Canadian border shutting us off from a trip to Jasper National Park.

Turning Disappointments into Gratitudes

The series of events that led us to starting an hour later than expected made the tardy reveal at Blanca Lake even more special. More appreciated. And memorable.

So, too, did the pandemic deliver unexpected gifts over the past eighteen months. On my drive back home (three hours later than I’d told my husband,) I realized how grateful I am for recent turns in my life:

  • Visiting over fifty new-to-me hiking trails with my wonderful dog over the past eighteen months;
  • Attending virtual writing conferences in Seattle, New York, and LA that I would not have otherwise attended;
  • Completing online courses in writing, change psychology, and physical therapy that I wouldn’t have taken;
  • Increasing my understanding of and appreciation for the many animals at Woodland Park Zoo that I wouldn’t have had if my Animal Unit Volunteer position with the giraffes had continued as usual;
  • Increasing familiarity with Zoom, a technology I knew absolutely nothing about prior to March 2020, which means I can stay connected with family, writing friends, and others around the world that much more easily;
  • Deepening relationships with a few important people I don’t think would have happened otherwise;
  • And, finally, supplying me with the courage to start my own blog.
Disappointment Becomes Gratitude at Beautiful Blanca Lake
Happy dogs and happy birthday licks at Blanca Lake.

While I would never wish a pandemic or illness on anyone, I have been thinking about what makes people more resilient than others. Is it due primarily to a positive outlook on life? Or, like a growth mindset, can we cultivate a positive outlook? My personal assignment from now on whenever I struggle is to look for what’s going well, even if only a tiny bit.

Lessons Learned: What are your current struggles? Can you find the positives? What is your silver lining?

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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