South Willow Lake Hike

Last weekend we went for a hike. The original plan was to go to the Uintahs, but the end of the year is always a busy time for me at work and I was very, very stressed—almost to the point that I wanted to refuse to go anywhere so I could stay home to catch up. Other people were going to go with us, but they bailed out, so we opted to go somewhere closer to home and went up South Willow Canyon. On Friday afternoon, we went up the canyon, set up and enjoyed an evening around the camp fire.

Every year my husband takes the boys on a wilderness adventure hike. They meet up with Uncle Ken from California and his group and spend a week hiking around 50 miles. In order to whip the boys into shape and to enjoy what nature has to offer in the high mountain desert, he decided we should hike to South Willow Lake.

It is a hike I’ve heard about many times throughout my like, but one I’ve never actually taken. The lake rests at the base of one of the peaks at around 9,000 feet above sea level. Round trip from the trailhead, it is about seven miles with an altitude gain of about 2000 feet.  The website (that I consulted after completing the hike) identifies it in the easier range on the hiking scale. My mind and body would disagree.

As we embarked on our journey, it wasn’t long before I recognized that I wouldn’t make it. I urged my husband to take the kids and go on ahead and that I would go at my own pace. After reaching the intended destination, they would turn back and we would meet up on the trail so I could hike out with them.

I haven’t been hiking in nearly a year, so I wasn’t in the best of shape. This issue was further complicated by the fact that I’m just over three months post-surgery and that the circulation through my legs is significantly reduced due to past issues with blood clots—think asthma, but in my legs. I wore my compression socks, which helped immensely, but did not cure the issues. Initially I would walk about twenty steps and then pause to allow the blood flow in my legs to regulate. I can’t lie and say that was the only issue because as mentioned, my body is not really what could be called “honed” at this stage of my life and with the thinner atmosphere, the journey was a struggle.

I had traveled perhaps three-quarters of a mile when I ran into my husband and kids coming back toward me. I was surprised and a little disappointed over my progress until I discovered that the two youngest had given up and my husband was bringing them back. We chatted for a few minutes before determining that this hike needed to be what we call forced-family-fun. Forced-family-fun is a family activity in which not all participants willingly engage. For example, I didn’t really want to go see the most recent Captain America film, but I did because the rest of the family was going.

Heading off again with the two boys, I kept my daughter with me. She wanted to turn back, but I convinced her to keep going just until we ran into the boys coming back the other way. Unconvinced, she begged to go back to camp until I finally laid it on the line and said that sometimes she needed to do things only because they would challenge her and that she had to finish it. Begrudgingly, we set off again—about 20 paces at a time.

As the trail climbed upward, we set small goals for ourselves. I didn’t want to sunburn and my body struggles to regulate temperature, so we would rest in a patch of shade with our eyes fixed on the next place we could pause beneath a tree. This made it manageable and as we moved onward we were able to enjoy the fields of wildflowers in the lush summer meadows. There was a tiny stream we crossed several times where we were able to splash in water and cool down.

Despite our record slow pace, I felt good about moving and seeing and continuing onward and we were nearing the ridgeline of the mountain—a sure indicator that we were close. We passed some hikers on their descent and asked about the remaining distance. A part of me died when they responded that we were probably only about a third of the way there. I considered finding a shady spot with a comfortable rock and settling in, but my daughter urged me to continue to see what was on the other side of the mountain. So little by little, step by step we moved forward.

Sometime later, having crossed the ridgeline, we again encountered some hikers who told us we were about a mile and three quarters from the lake. I was hot. Our water supply was low. We hadn’t packed for a day hike. But we had already come so very far that it seemed a shame to give up. Unlike many hikes, this one held the promise of a beautiful view and a body of water at the end. So, we continued upward through the switchbacks, over another ridge, and around one of the peaks. We passed another group of hikers who told us we were within ¾ of a mile of the lake, but that the last part was quite steep and the atmosphere very thin. It was shortly thereafter we met up with the boys, who had already been to the lake, taken a dip and were now on their return.

My daughter was done and ready to turn around and head back down.  I, on the other hand, wanted to reach the end. We were so close and it was something I’d never seen. If I didn’t finish, I would have to hike all that distance again just to see what I’d set out to see. Plus, while the compression stockings helped the circulation, it was a lot like wearing woolen underwear in July and I was so very hot. My only thought was of reaching the glacial lake and being able to fully cool off. So, led by my eleven-year-old son, we pushed onward.

At this point I was managing about five footsteps before pausing to rest. The incline was great and I strained at each step. Symptoms of heat exhaustion were setting in. My limbs were shaking and I debated as to whether they would continue to hold me or if I would collapse there on the trail to be picked over by buzzards. My head pounded and nausea crept over me. Five steps more . . . that much closer . . . pause . . . five steps more.

At last, I crested the final hill and there before me was a lake (pond) of snow runoff. It was probably about 25 yards wide, 50 yards across and less than five feet at the deepest point, but it was fresh and cool and I was here. Logic went dormant and impulse took over. Throwing aside any thought of modesty and possible consequences, I stripped off my shoes, socks and pants before stepping into the water. The icy water lapped against my tired, overheated feet. It was invigorating. A few steps more and I was in up to my knees. Within seconds, I found myself submerged up to my waist. The water was shockingly cold and yet my overheated body longed for more, so I sank to my knees allowing the water to cover me up to my shoulders.

And then a strange thing happened. I’ve never had an aneurism, but as the icy water washed over my body, blood suddenly filled my head until I very literally thought it might explode. I imagine it is a lot like Harry Potter felt as he was attacked so frequently by Lord Voldemort. Or, if you prefer a more realistic example, imagine my blood was the citizens of Pompeii and stepping into the water was the explosion of Mount Vesuvius. Suddenly every citizen is attempting to flee and avoid the ash and heat, but they can’t and are immediately consumed by the contents of the volcano.

For a small moment as logic finally caught up to what was happening, I wondered what I would do if indeed a clot had escaped and I died right there in that body of water. I imagine it would have some long-term effects on my witnessing children not to mention the hassle of hiking down the mountain to get a horse or rescue team of some sort, who would have to climb back up the mountain to retrieve my dead body floating like driftwood on the lake. Fortunately, before that could happen, impulse again took control and determined the only way to get rid of the shock was to equalize my temperature, so gasping for air, I slipped beneath the water and covered myself fully.

Sometimes impulse outwits logic and remarkably it worked. For the next ten minutes I paddled around the pond and floated beneath the shade of a lofty pine tree growing on the banks. Then, another group of hikers rounded the bend. The water was clear and there was no explaining away my appearance, so I gently told them they might want to avert their eyes when I climbed out of the water. I swam around a bit longer and then—remembering we still had the three and a half miles to hike back—climbed out to dress.

By this time my husband had climbed back up the trail to tell us we needed to go. He was hot, tired, and nearly out of water. My youngest son was in tears and famished. Dressing quickly, we began the arduous descent.

For the entire hike, there had been something embedded in the soul of my shoe. It didn’t bother me unless I stepped on a rock and it landed in exactly the right place. Then it would jab into my foot. It was tender and an annoyance, but not really problematic until we were about 1/3 of the way back down the trail. Stepping down I landed solidly on a rock that just happened to be precisely beneath the thorn or wood chip or whatever it was jabbing into my foot and I felt it sink through the flesh. Annoyed, I sat down, removed my shoe and tried to force the object out of the sole of my shoe. Without tweezers or pliers, it seemed impossible, so going with plan B, my husband took out his knife and cut off the top. Unfortunately the damage was done and so most of the steps for the remainder of the hike were quite painful.

Nine hours after leaving the trailhead, we returned to camp. My foot was sore, my son was in tears, we were all sunburned, exhausted and dehydrated. Settling in at camp, we ate some lunch and guzzled drinks. That night, as I got ready for bed, I took off my shoes and socks. It was only as I stepped down while barefoot that I noticed the large splinter wedged into the underside of the arch of my foot. Apparently when I had stopped to clean out my shoe I hadn’t considered the fact that the tip of the sharp object might have broken off in my flesh and as I’d walked the last couple miles, each step had gouged at my foot.

There is a sense of accomplishment at having finished something I started and completing something too hard for me to do. Even so, I don’t see myself doing it again any time soon.

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