Photos and Writing by Courtney Baxter, Nature Conservancy’s Puget Sound Conservation Coordinator
This was my second attempt to find Lake Isabel — nestled above the Cascades near the town of Gold Bar. It felt promising. We had found a trail report with detailed photos, directions and flagging along the route. My first attempt involved a different trail altogether, a trail full of greenery, creeks and springs. But the greenery became too much – it was unkept. The invasive blackberries became unbearable – along with the mosquitoes – so we decided to head back. This new trail, however, was along an old logging road. No risk of a blackberry bush assault and the mosquitos were dormant.
Like I said, promising.
We made sure to download the trail report, knowing we’d eventually lose cell service. Our springtime journey began by huge, humming powerlines that ushered us into a thick forest of towering trees. As we trekked the logging road, we kept our eyes on the hot pink flagging thoughtfully placed by a previous voyager. As we hiked higher, the trees got shorter and shorter, not because of altitude changes but because of past years of clearcutting.
We eventually made it to the top of the road where we found ourselves in a field of stumps. My heart sinks immediately — hiking up a logging road, I should have seen this coming. I take a moment to collect myself and push my emotions aside. As a hiker, this is something I absolutely abhor seeing, but as a conservationist I know in situations like this I need to think less with my heart and more with my mind.
Being an environmentalist means being willing to take pause when your gut reacts. I am only human, but as a human I must remember that I live in a house made of wood. I write on paper made from trees. The desk upon which my laptop sits as I am typing this very story was once part of the forest. We need resources to live and there are sustainable and non-sustainable ways to retrieve those resources. Looking back, I now know I was on lands managed by the state Department of Natural Resources, a branch of the government that takes excellent care of its forests. I also know that the non-tax revenue from almost 2 million acres of Washington state trust lands goes to our public schools, and that state law requires this land to be replanted. I recognize that my gut-feeling has value, but there is often more to the story than what is visible from the trail.
We weaved our way through an elusive trail amongst the debris of trees from seasons past until we found ourselves in the dense forest yet again, the faint percussion of rushing water in the distance beckoning us. Up the trail we went, following the markers as if they were our personal will-o’-the-wisps guiding us to our destination.
Ahead of us, we saw the trees part and a wall appear, embellished with moss-covered boulders. We referenced the trail report: “the final push is really steep. And there is barely a trail. Just keep looking up and looking for pink and yellow flags.” But colorful chaperones seemed to go no further, and we were stumped. We attempted to bushwhack, using the sound of the river as our audible beacon, but the barrage of Devil’s Clubs was insufferable, so we turned back. Lake Isabel had defeated us yet again.
We marched back through the clear cut, down the logging road and under the subtle hum of the powerlines, tails tucked between our legs. We’ll try again this year –—we’re not ones to give up — but until then Lake Isabel will remain our white whale.
Courtney Baxter is the Puget Sound conservation coordinator for The Nature Conservancy. She is a part-time professional photographer, specializing in outdoor lifestyle and landscape imagery. In her spare time, she explores Washington’s trails and eats too many noodles. You can check out more of what she sees through her lens on her Instagram and her website.