I have been in 50 states, on three continents, and visited two island nations. And I have been to a small tranquil mountain lake at the foot of Mt. Adams in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, three hours from home. Never have I been to a place more magnificent.
In miles, it’s not so far away. But distance in the wilderness is measured not in miles, but in time it takes to traverse Forest Service roads, including several miles of bone-rattling gravel surface. The lake is ringed by tall, straight Douglas fir, flocked with dripping pale yellow lacy lichen. Spring green grasses grow at water’s edge; and huckleberry bushes, still a month or more from fruiting, fill the forest. The mountain, the trees, the clouds (had there been any), and in the evening the moon, double their glory in lake reflection.
Mist hovers at the surface of the lake as dawn breaks. I sit in my chair on the bank, watching and listening. It is completely, utterly silent. The sun, still hidden behind the trees, dazzles the snow on the side of the mountain peak. The kaflop kaflop kaflop of a young osprey’s wings, or perhaps a female or maybe an eagle, breaks the silence as it circles the lake just above the mist in search of breakfast. It flies, disappointed, into a treetop after failing at instant success, and the lake reclaims silence; save for the plop plop plop of fish jumping for joy.
As sunlight hits the tops of the trees, a lone canoe emerges from the mist and glides into the center of the lake. Another kind of fisher casts a line. Luckier. He reels in his catch as the sun clears the trees and silhouettes the twisting fish in the net.
The reflection of trees and mountain appear in the placid lake and more silent boats with more fishers slide across the water. My red REI coffee mug is empty. With no fishing line of my own—and anyway happy to leave the trout swimming in the crystal clear sunlit water in front of me—I return to my campsite to cook eggs and bacon.
I can’t stay away; I return to the lake to eat. The sun is high, the mist dissipated, more fishers in boats. A woodpecker rata-tats in one of the stark gray snags that punctuate the green forest, a hummingbird drones in the flowers behind me, and a chipmunk nibbles a seed under a huckleberry bush near my chair. The day is wide awake and having breakfast.
A large male osprey is on the scene now, his broad beautiful wings silent as he circles at treetop level—unlike his low-flying predecessor with noisy wings—looking, looking. He circles tirelessly, up and back and across the lake; soaring higher then swooping lower and back up. Suddenly, a quick twist of the body and a flash of white belly, he dives straight down. Milliseconds before impact he aborts and flaps back to its treetop height vantage point as the prey gets away. The pattern continues with several more dives. Only once does he splash into the water, apparently missing the lightening quick fish. The smaller bird returns, but again gives up quickly, chased away by the real hunter not willing to share the territory.
For more than an hour I watch enthralled, not turning away. Not turning away until my eye catches the side show. Mama and baby wood duck paddle back and forth in front of me. Suddenly Mama dives under the water and is gone for about a week. Baby, oblivious to her disappearance, continues to paddle on—not unlike my own children when they were small. She finally resurfaces and quietly, in her throat, calls to her wayward child. The baby turns its head and, possibly, rolls its eyes before turning and with no sense of urgency whatsoever, heads back her way.
In the moment I am distracted by the ducks, the osprey flies over me from behind, a fish in his talons. I heard nothing: no splash, no squeal from the doomed fish, no creee creee creee from the hunter trumpeting his victory. I’m sorry I missed the snatch, and grateful to have born witness to the patient hunt and the reward.
The early morning hours on the lake belong to the mountain, the birds and fish, the misty dawn and the rising sun, a solitary fisher or two in silent boats, and me. Friday afternoon brings an onslaught of recreation seekers, weekend campers, and picnickers—loud ones: children learning to kayak, their double-bladed paddles knocking the sides of their bright yellow or red plastic boats; swimmers, their voices and squeals echoing across the lake from the day-use end; a little boy fishing from the bow of a canoe as his father paddles and instructs in the art of angling; paddle boarders and boaters calling across the lake to each other. I go for a hike to the meadow and the lava flow and leave the lake to them.
Before long, all human presence will be gone. Snow closes the road, and therefore the lake, from October until mid-June. The mist will still be here, but no one will see it. The sun will still rise, but no one will feel its heat. The fish will still move about, sluggishly now, beneath the surface, but no human-made hooks will threaten them. The snow will fall, and only the wild creatures will watch the flakes float silently to the ground.
And the mountain will reign over it all: watching as the sun rises and sets and rises again, as snow covers the land and melts, as humans come and go on the lake. The mountain will keep watch, as it has season after season after season.