Inlet stream running down to Mitchell Lake

“She looks like she’s in charge — let’s ask her!”

I immediately feel I am on the spot.  I am out on my first solo “wilderness patrol” as a volunteer with the US Forest Service and Indian Peaks Alliance.  Wanting to make sure this first hike goes well, I choose a trail I have done many times — the trail from the Mitchell Lake Trail head to Blue Lake.  The distance — a mere 6 miles, and not too steep.  This should be a piece of cake.

That is until I start hiking.  The first issue I encounter is a stream of water up to 3 inches deep running down the trail.  Plop, plop, plop.  Good thing I have on my Gore Tex hiking boots.  Every now and then I have to hike over a pile of snow — some up to 3 feet tall.  Still, it’s a gorgeous day — blue sky, temps in the upper 60s — and I’m enjoying being out on the trail again.

I go over the foot bridge, and pause to admire the rushing waters careening down the hillside.  There is a LOT of water frothing and coursing as it goes underneath me.

As soon as I cross the foot bridge, the trouble begins.  First, there is tangle of two trees that have fallen in a mess of limbs and trunks right across where the trail is supposed to be.  I skirt around them, and that’s when I encounter a group of women hikers who exclaim:

“She looks like she’s in charge — let’s ask her!”

My spanking new Forest Service shirt, resplendent with patches on each sleeve and and official looking name tag have given me away.  It’s interesting that although I am a volunteer, most hikers I encounter this day believe I am someone very official and very knowledgeable.

“We are trying to go to Mitchell Lake and we can’t find the trail.  We’ve tried three times, and we’ve decided to head back.  Do you know where it is?”

Full confession — though I’ve hiked this trail several times — it was always in dry conditions with nary a speck of snow anywhere near the trail.  I’m trying to figure out what to say, but don’t want to appear stupid.  I’m trying to remember this trail from last summer, but honestly, I don’t remember much.

I pull out my map, hoping we can orient ourselves using the footbridge and the stream crossing.  It appears the trail makes a hard right, so I decide to forge ahead, hoping I can figure it out.

To make matters worse, the group of woman hikers have decided that I know what I’m doing and instead of turning around are now following me.  Soon, another couple descends upon us and joins the train of people behind me.

I feel like the Pied Piper leading everyone to the promised land — the promised land of Mitchell Lake.  The pressure’s on, and I’m afraid of screwing this up. What if we all end up lost out here, walking in circles?

It’s not like I’m a total neophyte in route finding though.  Having spent several summers working both at Sequoia National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park as a Park Ranger, I’ve had to navigate early summer conditions like these before.

I keep my eyes peeled for openings between trees, old cut logs showing where a tree had been cut from previous seasons, and rock stairs and wooden water bars.  As I scrutinize, I begin to see a way up hill, that I am fairly certain is the trail.

Every now and then, we actually see a bare patch of dirt that is the trail.  We traipse up and down over the drifts of snow and then suddenly I see a sign!

A wooden sign saying “Trail” with an arrow appears — then another sign and miraculously the lake appears.  I heave a sigh of relief — I’ve done it!

I take a short break with the women — and they offer me chocolate and ask me questions about my “official” volunteer position.  Then one of them says, “This is probably the most heroic thing you’ll do all season!”  My day is made — I feel like a hero!

Later that day, making my way back to my car, I’m feeling pretty good about this volunteer position.  I don’t feel as if I have given anything, in fact, I feel as if I have received — received the opportunity to commune with nature, enjoy mountain vistas, and yes, feel like a hero.