Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sand Beach Lake

One of my favorite all-time rides was to Sand Beach Lake. I’ve only been there once; I had the good fortune to take a young couple up there one July. It’s a difficult ride, not one for beginners, so I was lucky that this couple was fairly fearless.

As rides go, it’s not a particularly beautiful ride. There are components of the ride that are breath-taking, but it’s the end result that makes it worth it.

The ride begins by climbing up out of the Wild Basin area on a set of stairs not necessarily made for horses, so it’s a jarring beginning to a long ride, which is approximately nine miles round trip. Immediately after cresting the stairs, the trail begins to follow a ridge overlooking the most amazing network of beaver ponds. Some of the other rides in the Wild Basin area skirt the beaver ponds, but it’s impossible to grasp the sheer magnitude of the beavers’ network until you’re above them, looking out over the valley. It’s a good thing that the view is so captivating, because it lets you forget that you’re riding on a very narrow trail along a ridge that is very, very high and it would be a very, very long, painful fall should your horse take a misstep. After riding along the ridge for a good way, the trial turns back on itself and begins to move deeper into the mountain, off the ridge and away from the view. Once the trail turns away from the ridge, it’s a fairly boring ride, visually and technically, that’s easily forgettable, for a mile or so.

Though the overall elevation gained is just over two thousand feet, which comes at the beginning and end of the ride, so the middle mile is fairly flat, giving the horses time to rest and go easy for a bit. About two and a half miles in, the trail begins a steep ascent into the forest again, leveling off briefly, just enough for the horses to catch their breath. Being my first, and only, ride in to Sand Beach, I heaved a sigh of relief when we leveled off, not realizing that the ascent we’d just completed was just the beginning. We crossed over Hunter’s Creek and started the scramble up the trail.

My Barn Boss had assured me that the ride “wasn’t that bad” and that there were “stairs” at the end of the trail leading into Sand Beach. The look on the Barn Boss’ son’s face should have been warning enough, but I thought I’d misinterpreted his look. Nope. I was right on the money in my interpretation of the look: relief. I thought, wrongly it turned out, that he was relieved that he wasn’t going to be sent out on an eight-hour ride. Nope, he was relieved that he didn’t have to do this rock scramble. As a general rule, I don’t mind going up. Up’s not bad. But like the Law of Physics states: what goes up must come down. The whole way up the scramble, all I could think about was that we’d have to come back down and, frankly, the thought scared me to death. Four hundred forty three feet straight up what appeared to be a rockslide, and if there were stairs, I never saw them. In fact, I began to doubt that we were still even on the trail until we came across some hikers coming down the trail. We hesitated long enough to ask them how much farther we had to go and we were assured that we were more than halfway up the last leg of the trail. My riders and I took deep breaths and bore on, determined to make it to the top and be done with it.

There were audible sighs of relief when we crested the trail and it leveled off. The trees to our left blocked the view of the lake and the sign to the hitch rail pointed us to the right. I swore that if we’d just made that ride for a crappy, half-dried up pond of water, I’d freakin’ lose it. I helped my guests off of their horses and pointed them in the direction of the trail. We’d made better time than I had anticipated and we had almost an hour and a half for lunch before we had to head back. I stripped the saddles off the horses to give them a break, made sure they were tied securely and went to take a look-see at the lake.

I started down the trail toward the lake and pulled up short when the trees opened up and I got my first look at the lake. I’m pretty sure my heart stopped and I forgot to breathe.

The trees opened up and the world’s most perfect beach lay in front of me, leading to the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. I actually reached down to touch the sand to see if it was really as soft as it looked. It was. There were some small rocks mixed in with the sand where I was standing, but closer to the lake, it was pure, perfect sand. I moved forward reverently, afraid to disturb the perfection of the scene. All of the internal cussing that had been going on during the scramble up to the lake seemed to melt away and every step up the cursed trail was suddenly worth it.

I looked around and saw my guests had their lunches spread out on boulder on the east side of the lake, so I headed back to the horses to grab my lunch and my camera, so I could explore the area. Knowing that I was going to break one of the cardinal rules of being a wrangler – never, ever leave your horses unattended - I double checked their ties to make sure they were secure and went back to the lake. There are two reasons for never leaving horses unattended: first, people always want to touch the horses and if there’s no one around, they run the risk of being kicked or bitten; and second, horse thieving still occurs, believe it or not.

The impact of the view was no less the second time the lake came into view. I sat down with my lunch at the base of a tree and just drank in the view, wondering when the cabana boys were going to show up and offer me a frozen drink with an umbrella in it.

That beautiful blue water just called to me and I was itching to ditch my boots and wade in. The siren song was strong enough that I approached the water, boots still on, to see how cold it was. It was in the low eighties that day and I had hoped that the water would be warm enough for a quick toe-dip. I reached down and touched the water. Immediately, my fingers froze and I couldn’t get my hand out of the water fast enough. I’m not talking, it’s-hot-out-and-the-swimming-pool-feels-cold cold, I mean, crap-I-forgot-that-this-is-glacier-melt cold, thirty-four-degrees-Fahrenheit cold. I chose – wisely, I like to believe – to keep my boots on and stay out of the water.

Far too soon, it was time to re-saddle the horses and head back. The ride down the scramble was every bit as bad as I had imagined. Being in the lead, I was aware of every single rock that the horses behind me displaced and prayed that their horses could keep their feet. I encouraged my guests to lean back, hold on to the back of the saddle with their free hands, and let the horses pick their way down. It seemed like hours later that we reached the bottom of the scramble, though it was only twenty minutes or so.

The rest of the ride back was completely boring and uneventful, even the scary ridge ride overlooking the beaver ponds was fairly ho-hum. It’s amazing how quickly perspective can change.


Nathanael Rey said...


this is a really interesting post... what i like most about it is it's reflective of a deeper meaning behind the story on the surface... in my interpretation, at least, it can be interpreted as people's everyday life, and I think alot of people can relate to that.

GunDiva said...

Thanks for finding the unintended deeper meaning, Nate. I knew I liked ya'. Sand Beach, for me, is almost a Holy place. It's like God just deposited this perfect lake and beach right in the middle of the mountains. It's work to get to it, but so worth it.