Van Patten Lake

Van Patten Lake on Nov. 17.

The patch of ice looked to me like orthopedic surgery.

Or at least it provoked my imagination to conjure what orthopedic surgery might look like. Although I’ve never wielded a scalpel or been incised by one for the purposes of structural repairs.

This particular piece of ice was no great thing — perhaps the dimensions of a desk chair seat.

But besides lacking the typical cushioning of a desk chair seat, the ice, modestly sized though it was, happened to stretch clear across the trail I was hiking with my wife, Lisa, and our son, Max.

And the trail was the only section of relatively flat ground in sight.

This is precisely the sort of pitfall which ice excels at creating.

Mud can make for some precarious footing, to be sure.

So can rock, especially if it’s pitched at a sharp angle and damp besides.

But ice is uniquely slick — at least in nature, where laboratory concoctions such as Teflon rarely are slathered across hiking trails — and so uniquely troublesome.

Step wrong on a slab of ice and it can send you on a tumbling journey that likely would be worthy of repeated viewings on YouTube.

I wasn’t surprised, on Nov. 17, to be confronted by ice on the trail to Van Patten Lake, a treasure in the Elkhorn Mountains about three miles east of Anthony Lakes.

(Actually all the lakes in the Elkhorns could fairly be called treasures, but such is the nature of these mountains, and the bodies of water that formed in some of their stony glacial gouges.)

Van Patten is truly an alpine lake, its surface just shy of 7,400 feet elevation. This is well above the snow level for a good part of the year at our mid-latitude location.

Quite often by the middle of November the trail’s ice patches are hard to find — but only because they’re beneath several inches of snow.

And indeed, at the moment we came upon the ice, I pined for snow, which, though not the most stable substance, is granitic compared with hard bare ice.

Which this ice certainly was, when I touched a tentative toe to its surface.

This was more surprising than its presence.

The stretch of unseasonably warm, dry weather was on that day in its third week, and at the time of our hike the temperature, even at that elevated place, was in the mid 40s.

Having been pushed to the verge of hypothermia one time too many due to my poor choices in clothing, and thus ever after suspicious of the mountains, I was clad in multiple layers of fleece and goose down. I was also sweating like a man who has just stepped from a sauna.

Max, meanwhile, was pleading for permission to strip off his sweatshirt because, he claimed, he was “burning up.”

Anyway it felt too mild for ice to survive; slush, maybe, but not this ice, which was the proper consistency to chill a soft drink (albeit not up to most hygienic standards).

I suspect this ice maintained its solidity in part because it was in a relatively sheltered spot among the subalpine firs, tamaracks and whitebark pines, but also because it bore a scattering of tamarack needles, which must have at least a minor insulating effect.

At the time, though, I was more focused on getting past the ice without fractures than pondering its survival in balmy weather.

We found slightly better going to the side of the trail, stepped over a couple of fallen logs and continued on our way to the lake.

Where, I was pleased to find, a heavy wind was tumbling down from Van Patten Butte, suddenly making my layering scheme seem wise.

We lingered for only a few minutes, in deference to the chilly gusts.

But I enjoyed the brief visit, largely because the scene looked so different from what I’m accustomed to.

I’ve hiked to Van Patten Lake probably a couple dozen times, all but a handful taking place during late spring or summer.

In summer the lake is a rich azure, several shades darker than the sky. But the season’s palette is much broader — bright white puffs of cumulus sailing above, the deep green of the trees and the lighter hues of grouse huckleberry and Labrador tea, the speckled gray of the granitic rocks that form the lake’s bed.

But by late fall the scene is much more stark, much closer to black and white, the lake leached of color.

The difference wasn’t quite so dramatic the day of our visit, mainly because there was little snow about.

But the lake was frozen, the ice making for a uniform dull gray. It was also much smaller than its summer self, a considerable amount of its volume having been diverted to irrigate crops.

The lake was no less beautiful for the differences, at least to my eye.

I found the experience compelling for its rarity — to see Van Patten Lake in its winter guise only without the deep snow that defines the season and that makes the hike, best done with snowshoes, a much more taxing undertaking.

As we retraced our steps — including the sketchy detour around the icy stretch — it struck me that like as not the next time I came this way I would either have to plunge through fresh snow or clamber over the grainy drifts that often persist near the lake until late June.

Indeed just a few days later the weather turned and when I drove to work around dawn the Elkhorns and the Wallowas were freshly whitened.

(My commute, which hardly deserves the term since it covers scarcely a mile, is doubly enriched by views of both of these great mountain ranges, a much more pleasant sight than a series of bumpers.)

As I drove I thought about the trail, and the lake, and the snow that had covered our tracks, erasing any evidence that we had ever been there at all.

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