There's something to be said about a good ol' stumble-of-a-trudge, the type of hike when your legs begin to complain about bending properly and you refuse to stop for a break in the fear that your legs will rebel against you. When the weather and the terrain and the distance all conspire against you, dragging out the ordeal to an unimaginable length, and there is no Plan B or alternate route or help. As odd as it sounds I rather like these hikes. I enjoy pushing myself farther than I thought I could go, and it is only after I drag myself out of the woods - void of all energy - that I feel complete and ready to retreat back to normalcy. My visit to Echo Lake would be one of these hikes.
Echo Lake is a hidden treasure northwest of Harlow Lake and Sugarloaf. For years it was privately owned by someone distant and frequented only by knowledgable locals. When the lake was sold the surrounding land was chopped up into separate tracts that were gated and difficult to navigate through. Over the last few years a preserve has been slowly buying up and reconsolidating the land and now Echo Lake is even easier to accessible. Huge hemlocks and towering cliffs make this a great place to visit, especially during the winter when you can walk right under the shoreline cliffs.
A road leads up to within a few hundred yards of the lake. The road is not plowed in the winter, much to my dismay. I was forced to pull over on the shoulder of Buckroe Road right in front of two skiers who were just coming out of the woods. I stopped and had a good chat with them, learning a lot about the history of the lake, the condition of the trail, and their general backstories. Then they dropped a few bombshells: they had both been on HMC property (for legitimate purposes, not trespassing) and were taught by Mr. Fred Rydholm himself, even having the chance to go snowshoeing with him out on the Yellow Dog by his cabin! I was reluctant to see them go, extremely interested in their experiences, but they had lives to attend to and I had a hike to tackle.
I don't like ruining ski or snowshoe tracks, or even snowmobile tracks for that matter (though I doubt snowmobilers raise any fuss over a few sunken footprints), but the skiers had assured me that there was a well-beaten path for me to follow. For the first couple hundred yards they were right. A truck had actually attempted the unplowed road, creating wide tire treads for me to easily stroll down. At the first small rise the truck had parked, though, and I was forced to cut over on the human prints.
The road out to Echo Lake had seen a lot of traffic. A wide path in the middle had criss-crossing ski tracks in it, too many layers to get a good count, and snowshoes and boots followed either side of the tracks. After the first rise in the road everything was really flat, making the hike fairly easy (except that I was sinking in about six inches past the tracks with each step). I had to cut across the wide ski tracks multiple times, though, as it seemed like previous visitors couldn't decide which side of the road was easier to follow.
Vehicular noise occassionally drifted through the flat woods, reminding me that County Road 550 was no more than a few miles behind me at any point. The forest around was unremarkable and stark, almost pretty in its bleak plainess. There was one small marsh that shoved the road over from the north, a welcome break in the repetition. It was a long two mile hike to the parking area and gated spot that was followed by a quick uphill twist to the edge of the lake.
By the time I made it to the lake I was pretty worn out. It had been a hard hike out, difficult to get a rhythm down, switching between cutting across the ski tracks, following snowshoe tracks, or just breaking through new snow. When I finally crested the small hill and looked out onto the lake I was torn on my next move. I plopped down in the deep damp snow on the steep shore and tried to make a decision.
My problem had nothing to do with too little to check out at Echo Lake. There was too much. A map near the preserve's parking lot had shown a few trails, one leading to a highpoint promising views of Sugarloaf and Lake Superior, and another winding around on a peninsula through tall hemlocks. From where I sat I could see tempting cliffs rising up on the south shore with sparse tree covers. The most impressive cliffs were out of sight, far to the west, with ponds and ridges perched over a hundred feet above the lake. I could easily spend the better part of an afternoon poking around here and still not catch everything. To make things worse the lake was starting to poke through the snow below me. Wet spots darkened the white in a spreading slush that promised a wet plunge for a clumbsy hikers. If I wanted to explore Echo Lake I'd be confined to the shoreline in huge, roundabout loops.
I lumbered up and brushed the snow off my now-damp rear. Exploring Echo Lake would wait for another day. I knew where it was, how to get there, and had some good ideas of where to go on my next visit, but today I was done. With one last lingering look I backtracked, leaning heavily into the sleet that was just now starting up, and pushed my complaining legs back to the car.
The return trip wasn't easy. I gave myself three breaks at predefined landmarks, and even then waited just long enough for my breath to return to normal before pushing forward again. Sleet came down on an angle, spraying onto my foggy glasses and stinging my cold face. When I broke out of the woods and onto flat, unyeilding ground I stumbled at first like a sailor more familiar with rolling decks than the solid earth. I knew I was ready for home, and yet it felt odd. Echo Lake wasn't finished. Driving away felt like I was driving away from a task that was still calling out to me. I knew that I'd be back here, hopefully sooner rather than later, and that anything less than a full circular exploration wouldn't be doing this lake justice.