Lost Lake is a gift that lingers through the holidays

Summer Kelnhofer (at left) and cousin Samuel pause for a rest on the way up Strawberry Mountain.

Summer Kelnhofer (at left) and cousin Samuel pause for a rest on the way up Strawberry Mountain. Photo by Sarah Kelnhofer.

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Low clouds slink across the sky as we bounce toward Lost Lake Campground in the Okanogan National Forest. We’re all a little nervous about the prospect of rain, but it’s not often we get to convene a gathering of cousins and we’re not about to back down. The late-summer scenery looks tired and thirsty — the bright green of spring replaced with a dust-covered drab that tells me how welcome the moisture would be.

Oh well, I muse as we turn into the familiar red-building-studded complex. At least we’ll have a rain shelter.

If you go

The Place: From Wenatchee, head north on Highway 97. In Tonasket, head east (right) on State Route 20 East. After 20 miles, take Bonaparte Lake Road (NF-32) for 8.4 miles to a “Y” intersection. Bear left onto FR-33 and go 5.2 miles to an intersection and “Lost Lake” sign. Turn left and go 0.4 miles to campground on right.

The campground itself is quite expansive and home (on occasion) to wandering cows and large family gatherings. You can rent cabins or stay, as we did, in a campsite with water spigots and pit toilet restrooms nearby. The lake offers a decent beach with a boat ramp on one side, and plenty of fantastic water opportunities.

The Hike: Strawberry Mountain trail is only 1.5 miles each way, but there’s also a Big Tree Trail (2.5 miles) that provides a fun destination for children. Don’t expect stellar views, but both trails are fantastic introductions for hiking for kids and grown-ups alike.

The Highlights: Loons seem to prefer Lost Lake, and honestly, this is one of its bigger draws for our family (who happen to be loony anyway, so it’s a match made in heaven). Beyond that, if you’re looking for an easier camping location for folks who need a toilet or even a cabin to rent, this place is perfect. You might consider renting a cabin or the larger facility that includes a big kitchen if you’re having a sizable group event, too.

The Drawbacks: This is a “tame” location. No problem for some, but disappointing for others. Also, any place that charges a fee ($12) nightly goes down slightly in my book. Still, for the services and the water and land play options, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal.

Our Pilot slows to a crawl as we case the expansive campground for vehicles belonging to my brother or parents. At last we spot my folks, just setting up camp, and pull in to claim our own spot. We’re overlooking a small valley, with the bulk of the “civilized” campground behind. It’s a perfect scenario for peace.

“Do you think we’ll find the mushroom house?” I ask my dad as we unload our mountain of gear.

He smiles. “I hope so!”

My memory goes back to the one and only time I encountered the mushroom house. Built years ago by some off-the-grid architect, the house perches on the side of nearby Strawberry Mountain, a mustard-yellow replica of a genuine fungi complete with stairs, windows and at one time, enough amenities to make the home livable.

It’s been deserted for years though and we’re packing six kids on any hiking trip we take. Maybe the mushroom house will have to wait. But other adventures arise in short order. Chris and I stroll down to the lake after sunset and we hear the lonesome cry of a loon on the water. The weather is not cold, but we feel the rain rolling in, and sometime in the night, it descends.

Thunder cascades down the valleys and echoes across the lake. Lightning illuminates our tent like a strobe. Our poor puppy, Josie, shivers just outside the door until we give in and endure her stench (and her wiggles) for the rest of the night in our tent.

Amazingly, in the morning, the kids don’t even know what took place — but the landscape argues the truth. Trees drip a continual stream of residual moisture, and the sun remains hidden for most of the day. But a break in the weather sends us scurrying up Strawberry Mountain all the same — two dogs, six kids, two grandparents and four sleepy parents string out along the main trail and enjoy the fleeting glimpses of sun on the way.

We travel through underbrush and cross the gravel road NF-060 as we make the gentle climb up toward Strawberry itself. The mountain is a legend in my mind — a towering memory of summers gone by when church family and friends would trek to the top in what seemed an endless hiking experience. I imagine our children feel the same, but the journey’s really only a few miles.

We arrive and peer out over the fuzzy hillsides feeling like conquerors of a vast domain. Jared, Ethan and their younger cousins roll countless rocks over the edge, exulting in the crashes their efforts produce. We scan the horizon and the forest, but no fungal home slides into view, and I feel that I’ll probably never see the Mushroom House again. Maybe it’s better that way — it probably hasn’t improved much with age, and I can remember it forever as it once was.

Our journey down proves uneventful other than losing the trail a few times, and we enjoy a peaceful, if wet, evening around the campfire. More guests arrive — with more rain shelters — and our small city of tarps advertises our camp as the place to be in a storm.

The next day, the sogginess factor continues, and while hiking seems out of the question, we can’t resist the allure of the lake. Wearing rain gear and flotation devices, we trundle to the shore with five kids and one dog in tow. I can’t help but wonder how long it’ll be before both our canoes capsize, and I hope the dog can swim to shore on her own.

But somehow we survive, and the paddle around the lake is a gift. Rain dots the water with thousands of ripples, and when it stops, the water is as dark and still as any enchanted pool. Between hollering at the dog and instructing the kids to hold still, there are a few moments of quiet — until the loons start their otherworldly chorus.

We listen, entranced as they call to one another across the lake. Although we don’t discover their nest, we do find a great blue heron and countless other small birds, all using the reeds by the shore as their condos and apartment complexes. We even discover signs of beaver activity, and follow their watery roadways back toward the shore until we bog down in the underbrush and turn back.

The kids are in heaven — the adults are as well — and the dog grows immune to our shouts to behave. At some point, the child with the least amount of body fat decides to swim through the frigid water to a floating platform, and several others develop a penchant for mud-sculpting on shore. Eventually, Chris and I set out alone, and the journey completes our Lost Lake experience. Echoes of children’s laughter blend with the calls on the loons, and I couldn’t be more content. Even if it were to rain the rest of our stay here (and it does), I’ve found the memory I’ll cherish like sun through the long, cold winter ahead. A family at peace, nature in song and the knowledge that some places never change. This is a gift I’ll remember forever.

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, where she and her husband strive to tame their half-acre of wilderness while their children try to reclaim it. Last year, she even grew pansies — in a secret location — hidden from the local wildlife.

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