1/30 Of Shortcuts, Lakes, and Hygge

Upper Travers Hut to Upper Constance Lake

19 k

I slept like a rock last night, surprising since the cabins often offer such fitful sleep, finally comfortable once it cooled off enough to tuck into the sleeping bag. Earplugs are key. Prana and I and Super Mario and Princess Peach cook breakfast and chat quietly. “I couldn’t find my sleeping bag when the temperature finally dropped last night,” says Prana. “I looked and looked and eventually gave up. When it cooled off even more, I reasoned that somehow Haiku must have stolen mine in the dark, and sure enough there was hers, still stuffed in its sack far on the other side of her, and she was all snuggled into mine!”

Pete and Cass head out the door to have breakfast on the trail, and Jo comes in, sleepy eyed, while it is still dark out. “Jo!” we tease her, “early start! We are rubbing off on you!” “No you’re not,” she insists back, but there is a smile. The 8-bit duo leaves first, and Prana and I say goodbye to Jo, uncertain if we will see her again. “I might make it to Blue Lake Hut, but maybe not. We’ll see.” I’m a little worried about her, but I am certain she would scoff if she knew that- I’m sure she will be fine. We climb out of the trees almost immediately, and wind our way up through tussock and alpine tundra. The headwaters of the Travers River are a mere trickle up here, jumping and chortling over blocks of stone. It tastes pure and cold.

It’s the perfect weather for hiking uphill, and we reach the saddle in almost no time, a series of broad grassy benches, the views off the other side looking out into steep country of granite peaks. It reminds me of the Sierra Nevada, or maybe of the feeling I got once I realized what the Sierra Nevada were. Pete and Cass had breakfast up here, and they are finishing as we arrive.

The route down the back side of the pass appears forbiddingly steep on the map, but it is not as bad as I expected. Once we are back down in the beech trees, we come upon Peach and Mario and join them for a snack break, watching the little birds flit around the branches and make little songs and cheep. I miss the raucous forest orchestras of the North Island. How funny everyone talks about how visually spectacular the South Island is, but none of the other senses get any billing time. Mario is armed with riddles, and gives us one to chew on for the day: “7 men are on their way to church. It begins to rain. 6 run away and get wet. 1 stays where he is and stays dry. Why?!”

After the main descent, we pick up a branch of the Sabine River to follow down to the main forks. Thick moss carpets everything, and little side creeks trickle in. It’s a fairly unvarying yet pleasant scene that we travel through, as if a beautiful landscape background is playing on a loop. But there are always surprises- at one short (and at first inexplicable) bridge, I am barreling across when Prana says, “whoa! Do you see how deep this goes?!” I stop in my tracks and peer down into the slit the bridge spans. I can hear water thundering up from somewhere far below. I take a few steps back until the convolutions line up, and realize the slot is hundreds of feet deep. Wow!

At the West Sabine Hut the four of us eat lunch and share stories and photos of moments from our respective hikes since we split ways in north Wellington. A pair of sisters we have been hopscotching with catches up, and we chat with them for a bit as well before turning up the other branch of the Sabine River to follow it to the formidable and much-touted Waiua Pass.

The trail is flat with a few ups and downs for awhile, and we all hike spread out. I am lost in my thoughts, and when the path turns out of the trees and begins climbing, the full power of the sun bears down. This valley proves to be beautiful as well, and after picking along rocks for awhile, I see Prana waiting in a deep patch of shade on the far end of the bench.

The breeze is perfectly funneled onto us right here, and we sit and look and drink in the cooling sensations. We carry on up the valley just as Peach and Mario appear behind us. We pass a cave formation that has a stiff frigid wind blowing out of the mouth- a walk in cooler! Just what I’ve dreamed of on these hot days! Unfortunately there is a solid army of sandflies covering the entrance like static, and we hightail it away.

We pick our way along more talus up the incredible valley, and Prana makes a noise and abandons the trail for the river. When I catch up, he is stripping next to a spectacular swimming hole. Yes!!

I follow suit. It is without doubt the coldest water yet. We dunk ourselves, rinse and wring all of our laundry, dunk again. I float in the glacially cold water, practice calm breathing, imagine the upcoming boating season and wonder if all these icy swims will help lessen the anticipatory terror I feel of ending up the in Snake River in the snowy spring runoff. Maybe. Mario and Peach appear on the trail, and we wave them down, try to cajole them into swimming as well. They seem skeptical at best, and it turns out Super Mario is much more adept at wheedling us into things than vice versa; they finally acquiesce by splashing their legs and hair, but hold out against the full swim.

One steep root climb deposits us on the bench of Blue Lake, and the serene trail winds quietly and flatly along the peaceful creek. There are several boardwalks over bogs, one in particular quite striking with a white sand bottom, the water so still it could be glass, the occasional large rock trailing a banner of neon green algae. We reach Blue Lake Hut, and I am glad we aren’t staying- the layout is uninviting, and it is sweltering inside. We sign through in the log book, and I find some route info to photograph, a depiction of the upcoming pass’s route, and a few paragraphs on Thompson Lake, a ‘jewel in the crown’ as it promises. We go down to Blue Lake itself to wait for our friends.

Blue Lake is a spectacular little lagoon of clear water filled with stripes of turquoise, cerulean, green, and dark blue. A sign explains this is the clearest studied water in the world, with visibility to over 80 meters. It is a peaceful spot, and we sit and absorb the calm beauty.

“I have an idea for tomorrow,” announces Mario when he arrives. “If we make Lake Constance tonight, we could get up super early next morning, and hike like maniacs all the way to Anne Hut. Then we can have a full layover day on the bad weather Thursday.” Comically, he presents this plan as though he has never suggested a ‘super early start’ before. “Why is it that whenever we hike with you guys, there always seems to be a plan for ‘hiking like maniacs’?” I tease.

To be fair, the four of us hatched a goal earlier today that if we could make it to the top end of Lake Constance to camp, we would. It’s early enough in the day we decide to go for it, and climb up to the moraine bench that the lake is on, looking back down on Blue Lake as it recedes behind us.

The bench is full of bizarre boulders scattered everywhere, and Lake Constance is an opaque aquamarine green basin filling the neck of the valley.

I had assumed that once we gained this bench we would simply contour along the lakeshore, but for multiple reasons, I should have known better. I am chatting with Mario and Peach about other mountain ranges in the world when I notice Prana is working his way up a steep slide of scree. Hmm. “Check the photo!” He yells across the distance. Oh yeah! I had already forgotten about the hand-dashed route copied from the hut. I look, and indeed, it is a scrambly convolution to bypass what is likely a very short sheer cliff that blocks the shoreline.

Mario and Peach take the high poled route, Prana and I go for the low option, excited to try some exploratory route finding. Plus, it’s a shortcut, right? Riiiight.

Walking sidehill on tussock grass is the exact opposite of a shortcut. I get stabbed by sharp leaves, lose my footing consistently on the slip’n’slides. It is exceptionally fun to navigate trail-less from a photo, a lá Hayduke, but if it was for any farther distance the fun would have worn thin. We regain the main trail far behind Peach and Mario, and hurry to catch up. There are several steep sliding descents between the corrugations of rock, and then we are back down on the open lake shore.

We follow the shore of the lake to its head, and a magnificent flat spot floored with soft spongy moss awaits us. A huge waterfall gushes into the top of the lake which rings the north end of the campsite, and the cirque at the head of the valley decorates the south end with a craggy skyline. A gusting breeze is blowing through, and after trying to figure out which way it is prevailing, we hold the tent out like a kite and stake it out in the direction it unfurls. Mario and Peach do the same, and we all have a good laugh that our tents are set up at entirely different angles. I guess there is no prevailing direction tonight.

The moss feels like the thickest, plushest carpet on my bare feet, and I arrange all the gear in its places in our home while Prana begins cooking the celebratory mashed potato dinner while our dear trail friends do their evening chores. We all eat dinner and chat and watch in awe as this magical secret pocket of the world passes through its twilight ritual. Prana makes a giant pot of hot chocolate that we all share, his back radiating warmth as it leans against mine, and I am filled with a sense of…what is it? Happiness, yes…contentment, joy, gratitude. I consult my list of new words, and there it is. Hygge. ‘The warm feeling one gets while enjoying the company of great friends and all life has to offer.’ Tonight is brimming with Hygge.

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