Crest the mile high ridge, descend down switchbacks, through a stand of mountain Hemlock, and suddenly, sparkling there in the setting sun, lies Heart Lake, glacial blue-green thirteen acre gem of the high country in the high country of Olympic National Park. Months of planning, weeks of shopping, several days of hiking finally bring us to our destination. I have an odd sensation as we hike the last quarter of a mile down the north slope leading to the lake: I’ve been here before. Déjà vu? Not really that. Something like déjà vu, but different, as though I’m returning. This is no first time arrival.
I have few regrets about the physical pain involved in the twenty-five miles of hiking to get to this lake, from near sea-level at the trailhead to sub-alpine high country a mile high in elevation. We set up camp beside the lake and I can’t get the sense out of my mind. I’ve been here before.
Upon closer examination, I see a blue-green glacial lake there in the heart of the mountains within the human soul. With a modest effort and a nose for mountain air, take the trek up and over the ridge into that high country alpine cirque and you too will be dazzled, not only by the golden jewels of sunshine scattered across the surface of cool blue, but by the sense of coming home.
Heart Lake is never dry, ever filled and renewed. Mountain springs well up within the lake, keeping these alpine waters at a constant level. I walk over to the outflow just to see how much water pours over the edge, cascading down the mountain slopes to feed into Marmot Lake, three quarters of a mile below, pressing on into the valley to join with the Duckabush river and flow to the east into Hood Canal. Somehow, up here in the sub-alpine high country, by an unseen design, the amount of evaporation and outflow match the amount of upwelling from deep below the surface.
In the heat of summer Heart Lake water is brisk. My plunge into the lake upon arrival took my breath away with the intensity of the cold. The wind from the surface of the water is always refreshing, balancing the heat of the midday high altitude sun. It is an amazing study in contrasts and balance. The guidebook comments that hikers will often find snowfields around the lake with chunks of ice floating along the north shore well into July. The summer we arrive followed on the heels of a dry winter with little snowpack to show in late July. Still, the lake offers a weary hiker plenty of sources of refreshment.
To find your way to Heart Lake, ask Hazel, the park ranger. We bumped into her twenty miles back, along the East Fork of the Quinault River. When I asked her if there was a sign along the trail directing hikers to the Heart Lake way trail, she thoughtfully described the way: “Follow the O’Neil Pass Trail for several miles until you come to the base of a meadow with a rock outcropping, the kind of place any hiker would consider as a stopping place to enjoy lunch along the trail. Head uphill at a big fallen log. Keep your eyes open and you’ll soon spot the trail, darting up alongside a little creek bed. You can’t miss it.” We nearly missed it. We would have missed it if Hazel hadn’t clued us into the secret of finding the Heart Lake way trail.
You’re invited. Come on up the O’Neil Pass trail a few miles until you come into a broad meadow with a scattered rock outcropping. Take a few moments to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery. Check out the ridge high above. That’s where you’re headed. Find the fallen, rotting log. Step up and up, keeping your eyes out for that elusive ascending trail, making your climb across dry creek beds, into the dense gauntlets of mountain Hemlocks, silver Fir saplings, upward along narrow switchbacks to the ridge, then over the edge and the easy descent along the rocky scree, over the wooded rim of an alpine cirque, and there it is, your soul’s Heart Lake, the high country source of your creative spirit, waiting in all her blue-green wonder to refresh you with a renewed sense of wonder.
The way trail to Heart Lake is for busy people who have sensed there must be more to life than the daily grind. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.[i] So sings the ancient songwriter of the life of the soul. If the depths of your soul call out to the depths of the soul of God, then keep climbing the Heart Lake way trail. The first few visits will seem difficult, even wearisome, leaving you a bit out of breath, dry mouthed and muscle sore. Keep returning and the Heart Lake way trail grows shorter and shorter until you find yourself on the shores of the lake without even noticing how you got there, even in the midst of a hectic stressful day in the middle of Manhattan madness. You’ll settle yourself down among the flowering heather, hear the swallows twittering in quick circles above, smell the sweetness of alpine wildflowers, and feel the cool breeze begin to refresh your whole inner being. Strangely, you’ll sense it too. You’ve not only been here before. You’ve been here all along.