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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 11:03 AM

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Indian Heaven Wilderness is Eden of lakes, fish and huckleberries

Try this Southwest Washington hike in September, after the bugs and crowds are gone.

The Columbian

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CARSON, Skamania County — Will Rossi of Portland was looking to take advantage of the final bits of summer.

So he and his friends decided on Thomas Lake trail No. 111 in Indian Heaven Wilderness.

“This is my first time here,” said Rossi on Labor Day weekend. “I’d heard about Indian Heaven, but had never been here.”

Thomas Lake No. 111 got a thumbs-up review from Rossi.

“The trail is great,” he said. “It goes through meadows, along lakes and isn’t too difficult.”

Indian Heaven is a 20,600-acre wilderness in the southern Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It’s a gentle plateau dotted with 175 small lakes and tarns plus many wildflower meadows.

September can be a great month to hike in Indian Heaven if summer weather persists. The lupine, paintbrush and other wildflowers are gone by September, but so are the mosquitoes. There are huckleberries galore, although this year’s crop is not particularly bountiful and pickers will work for their accumulations of the blue and purple treats.

Thomas Lake trail No. 11 is 3.73 miles from Panther Creek road No. 65 to its junction with Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail No. 2000 at Blue Lake. The elevation gain is just 577 feet from trailhead to the PCT, although the high point of the trail at the Umtux Lakes is 156 feet higher than Blue Lake.

Thomas Lake trail is all about lakes.

At 0.67-mile the route passes Thomas, Heather and Dee lakes. At 2.23 miles is tiny Rock Lake, followed by Lake Salahee-Tyee at 3.36 miles and Blue Lake at 3.73 miles.

“We have some terrific fishing in the Indian Heaven lakes,” said John Weinheimer, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist in Carson. “With the winter kill, they can be a little hard to figure out.”

Weinheimer said it is hard to predict which lakes will lose fish over the long, cold season at 4,300 to 4,600 feet elevation in the southern Cascades.

“I think when they have a nice ice covering and lots of snow, it insulates the lakes,” he said. “We seem to have more problems when it freezes, thaws, then refreezes.”

“Blue Lake, Tombstone, Sahalee-Tyee, they all can be a blast to fish,” he said.

Thomas, Dee, Heather, Eunice, Brader and Tombstone lakes were stocked this summer with brook trout. Rock, Naha, Blue and Sahalee-Tyee got cutthroat.

Over the decades, they’ve all been planted at various times with brook, rainbow and cutthroat,

“We’ve planted these for years and years and have figured out which carries over well in each lake.” Weinheimer said.

Brook trout tend to spawn naturally in many waters and result in a population of stunted fish. The department uses sterile brook trout to make sure they do not reproduce.

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