Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Power of Secret Places


BUTHTAB SELAK (The power of secrets)

The first time I hiked to Bathtub Lakes (buthtab Selak) it was so secret that few hikers knew of it. So why scramble the letters of the lake? Because now too many of us know about these lakes; word gets around fast in the media and The Internet does little to keep secret places secret. Apparently I am also guilty of making the lakes easier to discover.

My first visit was in 1982, a three-day backpack planned by the late Archie Wright, a then-retired Boeing machinist who loved backpacking, his GTO, his wife, Margie, her fresh-baked cookies and strong coffee. This was before cell phones or GPSs existed. If Archie did carry a compass he never needed to use it.

Archie called Bathtub Lakes the “poor man’s Enchantments”, early guidebook writers referred to it as Twenty Lakes Basin. The basin was an elaborate tapestry of meadows, rock gardens and tarns knitted together by dim fishermen’s trails.

There were fewer rules and regulations then; there were also fewer hikers. Backpacking was popular though guidebooks were few other than those authored by Fred Darvill Jr, Harvey Manning, Ira and Bob Spring and the long out-of-print “The Monte Cristo Area” by Harry M. Majors and Richard C. McCollum.

Tents, boots and cameras were heavy and the menu of freeze-dried meals skimpy. Freeze-dried meals came in 2-3 flavors, spaghetti was palatable but the beef stew was nasty. There were no gourmet foods other than Margie’s cookies that Archie savored, saving a few for each day out on the trail.

The last time I returned to the lakes was with my late ex-husband in the early 1990s when I was researching trails for my book “Hidden Hikes”. We’d taken the Iodine Gulch route from Pinnacle Lake; as we climbed the steep path I noted it had become more of a trail than a “route” through boulders daubed with yellow paint. As we entered the basin, he sat down and said he’d gone far enough. Surprised, because he loved mountains as much as I did, I said, “But the best lies ahead” but he would not have any of it. The bugs were biting, he said. He wanted to go down so I followed. It was our last hike.

A year or so later I wrote up the hike for my hiking column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The hike was published on Thursday, September 13, 2001, two days after September 11, the same week I knew our marriage was over. I was still reeling from both events when the telephone rang.

A woman who would not identify herself lashed into me for “daring” to write about one of “their” favorite, secret places. She went on and on about how the place was “ruined” because of my hiking column. Then she hung up. I thought about that for a moment, did a *69 and called her back since she hadn’t revealed who she was.

When she picked up the phone I reminded her that September 11 had just occurred and that whether or not Bathtub Lakes was a secret or not didn’t seem very important under the circumstances. Then I hung up the phone and cried.

Over time the lakes became a “hot” item on hiking websites. I was taken to task again for writing about the lakes in the first place (I was not the first to mention them); others defended the right to share secret places with others. The battle continues on-line as to what places should be kept quiet, what should be shared.

It took me a while to come up with an opinion as to whether it is “right” or “wrong” to write about secret places. Hikers who were attempting to hide “their” secret places by scrambling the letters of the place name so those places couldn’t be Googled only enticed others to seek them out. These same people also published photos of these “sekrit” places so beautiful that other hikers drooled and ferreted out information on how to find them. Go figure.

Those who keep secrets needn’t worry so much – getting to some of these places isn’t a whole lot of fun for most hikers. About half the trails in “Hidden Hikes” required bashing through brush on abandoned trails and roads. Most of the trails were in bad shape then; they’re worse now since most are not maintained.

Most secret places are earned – they are not easily discovered, despite the lure of The Internet. Winter storms tear roads and trails apart on a regular basis, roads are abandoned because there are no funds to repair them. Most hikers are content with maintained trails; that is unlikely to change.

Naively, I wrote about the “trail” to Kamikaze Falls and got taken to task for that too. Recently I hiked to the falls with a DNR employee – they wanted my input on what to do about Kamikaze Falls. Though they didn’t want hikers climbing to the falls, it was getting impossible to keep them out. Too many hikers knew about it (I wasn’t the first to write about that trail either). Rightly, they worried about the impact of hikers on a trail so close to a stream and the dangers to hikers who were getting in over their heads. The trail is steep and can be hazardous to hikers who are strong and nothing else.

Hikers vote with their feet - now a genuine trail will be constructed so hikers can get to Kamikaze Falls without breaking their necks or destroying habitat. The same thing happened with Mailbox Peak. Enough feet on a trail over time can result in a trail being “recognized” by land-management agencies, no longer secret. Mailbox Peak is the “new” Mount Si.

Today I think twice when I find a “secret” place or a “secret” place finds me. Usually I keep mum. I figure if I can find it sooner or later you will too.

Do I have “secret” places? Yes, several. One is a Native American cemetery I have never written about. I know how to find it but I won’t tell you.

5 comments:

Mark-Hendrik said...

An interesting dilemma to be sure. I do wonder if the people who object to sharing secret places also call up the publishers of guidebooks to berate them for sharing lesser know trails?

karen said...

That's a good question. There doesn't seem to be any "one size fits all" answer to this question. However, having worked with publishers, I can tell you that they (editors, etc.) may or may not know whether or they should consider publishing hikes that fall into that "gray area". Not everyone who works for a publishing company is a hiker. Sadly, I can also tell you that there are some guidebooks on the shelves these days where the authors have gleaned their information from other guidebooks rather than hiking the trails. I've made some mistakes - for sure - but I have always done my research on foot first-hand rather than taking someone else's word for the condition or the location of a trail.

Don Geyer said...

Excellent write-up Karen! I have never been to said lakes, but have always been curious about them. Someday.

To tell or not to tell. Quite a dilemma for sure. I also have mixed opinions about such policy. But I won't get into them here.

The internet is a powerful tool. The information is out there if you know where and how to look.

Loving the blog!

stacy marie said...

First of all: YAY! I'm so glad I found your blog. I really enjoyed your trip reports in the PI.

Secondly: I'm on the fence about this topic. Recently I went on the hunt to find Dirty Harry's truck. After two attempts I was wondering why the people who had found it wouldn't just give me the darn GPS coordinates or at least a better description!

Then, on the third attempt; soaking wet up to my waist, exhausted from the heat, and so ready to just turn around and say forget it...We found the truck. It was the most amazing feeling to find something that was so hard for others to find. When I wrote my trip report you can be sure that I wasn't specific on the details. The truck must be earned.

I wish I knew of more secret hikes, but the mountains are out there for me to explore and find them on my own... or maybe I can make friends with someone who knows ;)

Thanks for all your reports. Keep them coming!!

Granny J said...

My LH and I scouted out petroglyph sites in our area here in the Arizoa mountains. We found that very few sites were written up in hiking books or other sources, so we had to figur out our own methods of sniffing them out. The we deplored the way that the anthropologists kept mum, we could understand their reasoning when we hit one of our favorite sites only to find that all the glyphs had been chalked.