Running along the dry, rocky trail strewn with pine needles in the Anacortes Forest Lands, I never expected to see a murder in progress. The perpetrator, Thamnophis sirtalis, lay dead across the trail, its prey having progressed nearly halfway along its digestive tract before it came to an…ahem…dead stop. I grabbed the nearest stick and carefully prodded the snake’s tail to confirm. No movement. So I took a couple of photos and moved on. If encountering a scary snake along Trail 205 was the biggest hazard I would experience (and it was) while trying to figure out a course that looped Little Cranberry, Heart and Whistle Lakes in the ACFL, I knew I was up to the task.
Having spent hours running hundreds of miles along most of the 50 miles of trails in the (2,800 acres of) ACFL over the past seven years with a small group of friends, I’ve wondered why no race exists (save the Dallas Kloke Mt Erie Trail Run, which traverses a mere two miles of trail). Jean Andrich, Development and Outreach Director of Friends of the Forest, explained: No one is allowed to profit from the use of the Anacortes Forest Lands. Unfortunately, not even for a free fun run. Fortunately, while we looked over the maps, she shared the number of her favorite trail, 247, within the Whistle Lake area.
When my friends and I checked it out a few weeks later, we realized why we’d never run it before. From its start just north of Two Big Trees along Heart Lake Road, it climbs about 250′ in the first two-thirds of its 1.5-mile length. This critical section is the toughest and most scenic of the 25K (15.3 mi) Loop the Lakes course. Except for a recently-constructed house visible south of the trail (that led to a newspaper article Neighbors worry about logging near Forest Lands when it was revealed that the owners planned to clear trees), those who traverse this trail should expect to encounter lots of rocks and boulders, see mostly perfectly-spaced trees, and catch a glimpse of Lake Erie as well as a few peekaboo views of Campbell Lake.
Over the next few months, we proceeded to add pieces to this key section using a trial and error approach and a GPS watch to track the distances. I checked in with the City of Anacortes Parks and Forest Lands Manager about the mileage shown on the ACLF maps, which may be purchased locally or downloaded for free. I was disappointed to learn that the maps are to be thought of as “visual representations of the trails.” The distances, shown to the nearest hundredth of a mile, are precise but inaccurate.
In designing the course, the pre-Trail 247 section was obvious as is the one that follows, Trail 22. In generally, ACFL trails numbered with two digits indicates wider trails, three digit indicates single track. From there it continues counterclockwise around Whistle Lake along Trails 205 and 20 (switched to Trail 234 this year because it’s prettier), followed by Trails 21 and 213 in a northwesterly direction and the Heart Lake parking lot.
The route reaches the Heart Lake parking lot at about mile 6.5 and continues along the longest trail (210) within the Heart Lake trails. While the Whistle Lake trails boast the most climb, those around Heart Lake contain the flattest trails within the Forest Lands. This is the section of trail where we’ve observed several dead moles and one live baby mole, probably Scapanus townsendii, the Townsend mole. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife includes these creatures in its list of 23 mammals, “Young moles disperse above ground at night during the month after weaning, forming their own territories within about 30 yards of their birth site.” Tell that to the one I spied scampering around in midday, oblivious to the danger of daylight.
A mile from the Heart Lake parking lot, the course crosses Havekost Road and reaches Trail 226, the link to the Little Cranberry trails. Last year’s fires forced modification of the section that nears the burned area. Heading north along Trail 103, high above the lake, we exit (as it was closed beyond that point) at Trail 133.
The rest of the Little Cranberry area course followed nearly five miles of trails that we run regularly: 104, 100, 127, 128, 105, 11, 109, 110, 115, 12 and past Mitten Pond along Trail 10, where I have occasionally hear the howls of wolves.
Several wolves call Predators of the Heart, an animal sanctuary located just south of the ACFL boundary, home. The place is not without controversy. In April of this year, owner Dave Coleburn won a court battle that allowed him to continue to operate the sanctuary. More recently, on September 29, a man reported that a wolf attacked and killed his leashed dog while walking in the ACFL. The two sides provide very different accounts of what happened. The course passes within about 500 feet of the sanctuary along Trail 10, then, two miles from the finish, the route returns to Trail 126, then Heart Lake trails 241, 224, 210 and 212 to the end.
Once designed, my trail running friends agreed to Loop the Lakes together. On September 5, 2016, five of us: Erin, JoDee, Megan, Michelle, Nina and I, set out from the Mt Erie Parking lot and headed south on Trail 220. Nina led. She was injured and planned to complete only the Whistle Lake section. Michelle took over as the leader along Trail 247 and through the Whistle Lake trails.
Nina left us as planned when we reached Trail 313 and Megan became the new leader. That’s when my sister’s knee started to hurt. Erin led as we crossed Havekost Road and entered the Little Cranberry Lake trails. Within a mile, JoDee’s IT band discomfort turned to pain. We sent the other three ahead and hiked around the lake. Once we crossed Havekost Road for the second time, she insisted I finish and made her way back to my place. Two miles short of the finish, her Loop the Lakes experience ended. Erin, Michelle, and Megan were long done and gone by the time I completed the last couple of miles. My watch read 15.1 miles, within the margin of error of a typical GPS watch used in the forest. Three weeks later, Erin joined Nina as she completed the Looped the Lakes course. Wanda, with part-time help from Erin, Marcy, and Marilyn, was the last of the six runners to complete the course in 2016.
Think you’ve got what it takes to Loop the Lakes? If so, and you want to join our group (or navigate yourself with a set of marked maps) this year (in early November), contact me at email@example.com for more information.
Five of us started at Mt Erie on Sunday, November 12, 2017: Erin, Leylan, JoDee, Nina and me. Two stopped at Heart Lake (as was the plan). The rest of us continued on. JoDee’s knee started hurting with 2.5 miles to go, so we sent Nina off to finish on her own and completed the course together. The trails were wet, but blanketed in maple leaves and flanked by the occasional mushroom. We completed the course just in time to avoid all but the beginnings of rainfall.
In 2018, we’ll Loop the Lakes on Sunday 3, June.