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Originally published July 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 1, 2007 at 10:02 PM

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Easy walks, mountain hikes at B.C.'s Manning Park

Picking my way through one last stretch of talus rock, using my hands as well as feet to hike this not-too-gentle slope of granite, jumbo-sized...

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Picking my way through one last stretch of talus rock, using my hands as well as feet to hike this not-too-gentle slope of granite, jumbo-sized corn flakes, I spied a welcome sight: a sign poking up from the summit. My buddy Jim Robbins and I would be there in five minutes. It was in the bag.

And thus, using the powers invested in me, I made an official (not really) international declaration: This, Frosty Mountain, just north of the U.S.-Canada border in Manning Park, has this July day in 2007, been deemed a perfect hike-scramble outing.

Long, but not too long (about seven miles one-way); steep (about 4,000 feet of elevation gain), but not too steep, the gently climbing trail started at the edge of Manning's chain of pristine alpine lakes. Lightning Lake. Strike Lake. Flash Lake. It carried us through dense forest of lodgepole pines — intoxicating us with wonderful dry, eastside forest scent — and followed with an otherworldly high plateau of Alpine larch that are some of the oldest trees in British Columbia. Up to 2,000 years, declared an interpretive sign that, frankly, seemed somewhat out of place this high up on the mountain's shoulder.

"These are my favorite trees in the world," said Jim, who, like me, hails from Bellingham.

From there, we had a clear-shot view of Frosty's multiheaded summit — a prominent, gentle-looking if rocky walk-up hump in the foreground that had our names on it, and a jagged, snow-cloaked, rocky ridge-type affair to the right that was just fun to look at.

An hour from the larch, we'd hiked to our objective's doorstep and couldn't have been happier. Pleasantly surprised, too. It was just a few weeks into summer and, given that we were hiking at close to 8,000 feet, we thought for sure that lingering mountain snow would've turned us back by now. But aside from a few easy-to-cross, soccer-field-size snow patches, the route was clear. Thus, with the summit sign just ahead, practically within spitting distance, I made my declaration, which was quickly seconded by Jim.

"Awesome," he said, his eyes burning with summit fever.

Where's the real sign?

The only problem was — the summit sign wasn't the summit sign. Nor had we reached the top. It was a warning sign on the summit's shoulder advising us to "Use Extreme Caution Past This Point" if we wanted to hike to the actual summit, which was thataway — about a half-mile away, where a 330-foot rock pyramid stood waiting.

After lengthy discussion ("Think we have time?" "Let's go."), Jim and I set out. Twenty minutes later, there we were posing for photographs by the real summit sign. "Frosty Mtn. Elev. 2,408 M." Top of the world, it seemed. Front row center for the spectacular North Cascades show.

Spread out before us to the south was row upon row of jagged, icy, snow-clad peaks. Wave after wave as far as the eye could see. Mount Winthrop in the far-north Pasayten Wilderness. Castle Peak, a stunning massif directly across the border. The 8,000-plus-foot shark-fin summits of Hozomeen Mountain towering over Ross Lake. Even, in the far distance, Mounts Shuksan and Baker.

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"Simply awesome," Jim said, echoing my thoughts.

That's looking south. Turn around, look north and all the craggy, jagged, sky-kissing peaks have disappeared. The Cascades have petered out. It's all rounded hills and ridges, forested valleys and drylands — Canada's Okanagan. At the top of Frosty Mountain, you feel like you're sitting on top of the last remaining peak of the Cascade Mountains.

Awesome.

On Lightning Lake

Located about 90 minutes east (and north) of the U.S.-Canada border crossing at Sumas, E.C. Manning Provincial Park has a well-earned reputation as a cross-country skier's paradise and family-friendly two-chair ski hill that's like something out of Norman Rockwell. But the 175,000-acre wilderness park is also a great place for summer camping, canoeing, swimming, hiking (obviously) and ground-squirrel chasing (more on that later).

Jim's family and mine had headed north for three days of fireworks-less camping during Fourth of July week. It had been maybe 15 years since my last summer visit, and though the park remains spectacularly beautiful, we couldn't help but notice something a bit sad. Rust-colored streaks cascading down forested hillsides — countless dead trees. Lodgepole pines killed by a decade-long infestation of mountain pine beetles.

In winters, the beetle larvae burrow in the trees' bark, and in recent years, milder winters haven't been cold enough to eradicate them. Thus, each year more and more larvae survive and the problem worsens. Two winters of prolonged, severe cold temperatures are needed to kill enough beetles to bring the forest back into balance.

Our families had set up camp at Lightning Lake Campground, one of four in the park, which boasts some 355 campsites in all. Though we were high above it, Lightning Lake itself was less than a stone's throw away. Through the trees we watched as ospreys and eagles made dive after dive attempting to land some of the lake's small rainbow trout that squirt up out of the water from time to time like so many bars of soap. Our first night there, Jim set out from our campsite on the mostly flat Lightning Lake Trail, a five-mile loop that circles the lake.

Squirrel country

The next day, while Jim and I hiked to Frosty, our wives, Deb and Jen, and kids — Emma and Baker, a couple of 8-year-olds — headed to the Lightning Lake day-use area, about a half-mile from our site. There they swam — which, given the low-60s water temps consisted mostly of jumping off a dock into the water and then quickly jumping out — skipped stones and chased ground squirrels. Baker and Emma did the chasing, that is.

The day-use area is overrun with Columbian ground squirrels, which look like half-pint hoary marmots. Holes the size of a pool-table pocket pepper the area's grassy lawn. At any one time, 10 to 12 of them would be out in the open, standing on their hind legs as if eagerly waiting to be called upon and put in the game. "You there, squirrelly, get in there and see if you can get a hit off this guy."

Our last day at Manning, before we headed back to Bellingham, Jim and I decided to share Frosty Mountain with everyone else. From Manning's charmingly small resort (one restaurant and store, cabins and motel-like accommodations), a 10-mile partially paved road leads seemingly straight up a hillside to a couple viewpoints including one, Subalpine Meadows, that's above 6,000 feet.

Similar to Artist Point near Mount Baker, gentle ridge-top trails traverse meadows of wildflowers and lead off in several directions. Interpretive signs point out which are the Sitka Valerian and which are Western Pasque Flowers. And there to the south, looming over all, was Frosty Mountain. A sign said it was the highest mountain in Manning Park, a fact that Jim and I pointed out a couple dozen times to each other and whomever would listen.

One word summed it up best: awesome.

The awesome Mike McQuaide recently finished STP in one day with the aforementioned and equally awesome Jim Robbins. McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). Contact: mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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