THE CRYSTAL PALACEby Lance Young
The air crackled with the cold as I walked the half mile of road that took me to the trail head. The sun glistened from the icy road surface and back-lit the few scattered clouds to a brilliant titanium white. Time passed quickly with the enchantments offered by the beautiful day, and soon I was crossing the bridge over the North Fork of the Skykomish River. The cross country ski route I wanted to do was one that I had done once before, but many years ago. I was not sure of the route to follow.
Just across the bridge at a little cluster of cabins (once known as the community of Galena), the road went straight ahead and seemed to be well traveled. But my map showed Silver Creek heading dead straight north, and this road is going west. Then I noticed it, a small overgrown road branching to the right, but this looks like it hasn't been used in a decade or more. Had it been that long since I was here last? That could not be it, so continuing up the main road I soon begin to climb. The road continued west instead of staying down in the valley.
After five minutes it became clear that the main road is not the route. Returning to the fork I began the ski north, weaving a trail around the small alder trees and huckleberry bushes that had begun to sprout on the long abandoned road. Following the road grade up the gentle slope I came to a section where the snow has been washed clean from the rock. There is but a ribbon of snow left on the shoulder of the road where it slopes away into the deep forest. With judicious steps I am clear of this first obstacle.
The washout is from the previous week of warm weather, torrential rains and flooding which had just three days prior turned too cold. It had been an unusual winter that way. The temperature today is cold, maybe in the low twenties. At the time I did not know the significance of these weather changes, nor did I realize the effect they had in creating the sparkling crystal palace I was about to enter.
From the map and vague memories of my previous trip here, I knew that the road traversed a cataract in the earth's crust. One carved by Silver Creek and then invaded by the logging road which would take me into it. Soon the valley began to get steeper, and to look more like the narrow crevice I remembered. Thru the trees ahead is a clearing. Perhaps here would be a chance to reconnoiter the lay of the land.
As I emerged into the clearing the ridges lifted to the sky on either side of me and Silver Creek dropped away below. Ahead is a major landslide, perhaps two hundred yards across. The road grade is gone. I was ready to turn back and find an alternative route to follow, one without all these obstacles. But something made me stand there. As I looked across this gauntlet, something urged me on. Perhaps it was memories of other experiences where Mother Nature had been reluctant to reveal her secrets, or other challenges of endurance, skill or persistence that, if passed, revealed spectacles of unsurpassed beauty and serenity.
So there I was in the middle of the huge landslide, breaking branches off a downed tree that lay across the path. Beyond the fallen tree is a steep bank that must be surmounted. Fortunately the snow is soft and easily compacted into a traverse trail. With several kick turns and short traverses I scaled the bank to a short section of the old road in the middle of the landslide. What a strange phenomenon! An island of road surrounded by landslide. This felt like a haven or refuge, inaccessible from behind or from beyond. It is a last chance to rest and perhaps turn back. Well... it would be just as difficult to turn back as to continue on, so on it is.
The next stretch required gaining some altitude for the lower slope is too steep to traverse. About 100 feet up is the root ball from a huge old growth cedar tree. When standing, this tree must have been a sight to behold, nearly five feet in diameter. A monolith. Attaining the altitude of the root ball I scramble through to find what could almost be called a trail; flat, three to four feet wide and angling back down to the old road. Pointing the skis toward the road and lifting my poles I glide through the sparkling snow toward what lay ahead.
Looking back across the gauntlet I had just passed, the sun broke out from behind a small cloud. The snow glistened with the reflections from the crystals that had grown on the snow's surface overnight. A sample of what lay ahead in this crystal palace?
Skiing ahead the swish of the dry snow, now about five inches deep, is like music. It is almost like each crystal is ringing as it is knocked loose by my ski tips, and fell into the snow-pack. All around me the snow sparkled and the trees glistened with the cold. My breath came out in white clouds warmed by my efforts crossing the landslide. Ahead the road plunged into the depths of the canyon. The road crew had blasted the grade out of the living stone of the canyon walls. As the road continued up the gentle slope the rock walls on my left became covered with ice formed by the excessive ground water from the previous storms. The water seeped out from beneath the snow-pack and then froze on the exposed cliff walls. The ground water had picked up minerals in its travels, and as it froze to greater and greater thickness colors were revealed. There are forest greens, like moss but clear and hard, ambers and tans are revealed, like the colors of the desert on a clear day. Yellows like sulfur, or early fall leaves, show through, and the deep translucent blues of cold solid pure ice. All these colors mixed and separated on the walls forming a stained glass display of such immensity and natural beauty as I have never seen before. I have toured the gothic cathedrals of Paris, and the castles of the Rhine River, but none can compare to the hew and mix of the natural colors displayed here.
Hard as it is to draw my gaze from this display, I looked to my right down into Silver Creek. The cascading water had formed beautiful ice skirts around the rocks that protruded above the surface of the flowing liquid silver. Branches that overhang the stream near the spray from a fountain are coated in glass.
Where there are no ripples or froth from the cascading falls the water is so well filtered by the snow, moss, and soil that it traveled through, it is transparent. The water is so clear it is almost undetectable in the pools it formed. Around these deep clear pools rings of ice have formed. The color of the ice changing from the subtlest pale blue to deep deep blue as it became thicker out toward the edge. Above one pool hung two massive gothic columns. Each made of solid ice and nearly ten feet thick. These columns hung from an undercut cliff forty feet above the river, solid, anchored to the granite. They reminded me of the massive columns of our gothic cathedral in Washington DC. In the basement of the cathedral these stone columns are huge. The weight on them was palpable, the connection to the earth solid like a tree's roots. These ice pillars, however, had no footing. Hanging side by side they stopped eight feet above the river's surface, suspended and unmoving. Cut off level and even, evidently by the river levels of the previous week.
Gazing in wonderment back to the intertwining colors of the stained glass wall to my left there appeared a recess, almost a cave. Approaching this break in the ice revealed free hanging perfectly formed tapered icicles. There dimensions are two to three feet long, by two to three inches at their base. Meticulous in their symmetry, this forest of icicles seemed more dense than should be for the number. On closer inspection I found something that I have never seen before. Out of each of the icicles is growing horizontal needles. Two and three inches long these hares are so fine that they could not be seen from a distance, and just became a density or a fog of elusion surrounding the icicles, at more than a few feet away.
With all the wonder around me, the singing of the snow-pack subsided into the background and is merely an audio embellishment to a visual wonder. I knelt to look and on top of several inches of powder snow flat fern like crystals nearly 3/4 inch in length have grown. This is what mirrored the sun beams back at me, forming the ever changing sparkles. This is also what sang or crinkled as I skied.
Emerging into the upper valley the canyon walls lay back a bit. A small grove of alder trees sprung up from the road in front of me. The tree heights ranged from a short three feet to maybe eight feet tall. Skiing through I noticed that the same crystals which I had observed on the surface of the snow had grown circumferentially around each and every bare branch of the trees in the small grove. This is not rime ice driven by the wind, often seen on mountain tops or windy ridges. Nor is the crystal growth only on one side of the branches. I was very careful not to brush against the trees as this would collapse the delicate crystal growth. Reaching the far side of this, forest in miniature, I turned around to see the trees back lit by the sun. Each tree glowed with a halo of light, surrounding each minute branch uniformly, without disruption. This crystal forest had come alive with a supernatural glow, a halo of light.
It seemed almost before I had started that it was time to turn around and head home. Skiing back through all the wonders I had seen this day I memorized each one for the future to recall in my mind's eye. I crossed the landslide without incident, crossed the bridge over the North Fork of the Skykomish River and began my walk up the road to the bus. Running over the events of the day in my mind, reliving the wonders one by one.