Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Rolling Hills of Anaheim

North Orange County provides a pretty stark contrast to the wilderness of Mt. Rainier. There is decidedly less snow, substantially fewer trees, and many more housing developments. However, it's also much closer to where I live, and pretty much in the back yard of one of my best friends, so it made for a great Sunday outing.

After powering up with a tasty breakfast, Jon, Christine and I hit the trail at Weir Canyon Park for an easy little 3.4mi, 300' loop. Along the way we saw lots of lizards, chaparral, and wildflowers, including this cool purple plant that we decided must be related to an artichoke:

Eat me?

Update: Blog reader Brian P. positively identifies this plant as an
invasive artichoke thistle.

The best part of the trip for me was a conversation we got into about wilderness survival. I explained that as part of my "Escape to the Wilderness" contingency plan, I needed to become more adept at identifying and capturing food in the wild. I have a cousin who's apparently knowledgeable enough about plants to head out into the wild and forage for himself. That's awesome, and I'm hoping to spend some time with him to learn more. However, he's a vegetarian, and I'm an avid carnivore, so I also need to independently develop catching, killing, and eating stuff skills.

We were in the midst of covering standard approaches such as fishing, less promising plans of rabbit catching (inspired by the enormous lagomorph I saw at Rainier), and various insect- and carrion-based stews...

Not so appetizing

...when Jon came up with an idea. Enlist the assistance of an animal. Brilliant! I was pretty excited about a companion goat who eats grass and provides milk when Jon dropped an even better gem:

"Or you could get a dog to catch stuff for you."

Now we're talking. I flashed back to stories of my friend Kate's childhood family canine - part wolf, part dog - who would venture into the woods near the house, catch squirrels, cats, beaver, and once a deer, then bring it back to the porch for dinner. I love dogs, especially wolf-dogs, and think this is a great plan. Besides food-catching, the pooch also offers companionship, protection, great smelling and hearing, and a big fur coat. I'm not sure (s)he'll fit in the one-man tent though. Alas, a long-term plan...

Future hiking companion?

For now, apartment living in L.A. doesn't support a canine companion, but fortunately I've got some other great hiking buddies in the area.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tales of the Giant, Snowy Volcano

Back from an awesome adventure to Mt. Rainier and the great pacific northwest! This was a really special trip that proved incredibly fulfilling and enlightening in ways I could never have anticipated. I learned so much, felt the strong pull of my home, and throughout it all was captivated by the power of the giant, snowy volcano.

Warning: This is a massive post. Perfect for those of you slowly "working" your way into a day at the office. Maybe best for others in sections...

Day One - Introducing...

After what I'm told was weeks and weeks of endless gray and rain, the clouds broke Saturday morning over Portland to reveal the beauty of the Rose City. I wandered along the shoreline of the Willamette River, along the way taking in a dragon boat race.

Later on I hiked up to Washington Park and the International Rose Test Garden, where I found a nice patch of grass to lie in and look at the blue sky...

...roses amidst evergreens...

...and a spectacular view of a giant, snowy volcano!

Mt. Hood from the Rose Gardens

Later that evening during my friend Celeste's wedding reception at the downtown World Trade Center, I'd look out over the Willamette to see the mountain again, this time covered in the pink and orange glow of a long, northern, summer twilight. Certainly a good omen of things to come...

Day Two - Giant, Snowy Volcanoes Everywhere!

I hit the road Sunday morning and almost immediately from a freeway overpass spotted two giant, snowy volcanoes - Mt. Hood to the east, and Mt. St. Helens to the north. I crossed the great Columbia and hit the evergreen highway, along the way taking in the sights of the big river, big trees, the Columbia River Gorge, and a distant Hood.

Along the Evergreen Highway

Columbia River Gorge

Mt. Hood Over the Columbia

Turning north I climbed up the Wind and Lewis River canyons through Gifford Pinchot National Forest. All was well until I ran into this big gate across the road:

What? Apparently I didn't do enough homework, because as it turned out the 4000' mountain pass ahead was impassibly covered in snow. This required a decidedly inconvenient, 3 hour, 110 mile detour, due in large part to the presence of this giant, snowy volcano:

Mt. St. Helens

Fortunately the scenery was good, including Swift Creek Reservoir to the south:

I arrived early in the evening at Mt. Rainier National Park, set up camp next to the rushing Ohanapecosh River, and settled in for another long twilight under the trees.

Park Entry


Northern Summer Twilight

Day Three - Better To Be Heard Than To Be Seen

After a good night's sleep (thanks to the sounds of the river) I awoke to find that a great fog had arrived. It made for a nice scene as I drove up Stevens Canyon toward the mountain, exploring the forests, rocks, rivers, and waterfalls along the way.

Roadside Waterfall

I learned that glacier-carved rock (of which there is much near giant, snowy volcanoes) is extraordinarily smooth, such that at first only lichen and moss can grow among tiny cracks. In time, the lichen and moss die, combine with wind and water transported dirt, and form a soil from which larger plants and eventually big trees can grow.

Box Canyon - note lichen and moss atop polished glacial rock versus the river-carved canyon

I also learned that even in June there's a crap-ton of snow and ice at Mt. Rainier. Here's the scene at Reflection Lake, elevation 4000':

You may not immediately recognize it compared to pictures like this commonly found on postcards.

I was considering a swim, but fortunately this sign was there to warn me off.

Upon arriving at the Paradise visitor's center, I looked north to this spectacular view of Rainier - at 14,400' the grandest of giant, snowy volcanoes:

The mountain is "in"

Since I couldn't see the mountain, I took off for a hike in the forest, a 5mi/1400' loop along Rampart Ridge on the SW side of the park. The trees, streams, and waterfalls were nice to look at, but what really got my attention was what I heard. Eating lunch in the meadow beside a little mountain lake, I listened intently and found that often only the sounds of birds and flies broke a silence that the low ringing in my ears predominated. I found that airplanes passing overhead at over 20,000 feet were very loud by wilderness standards, but nothing compared to the casual conversations of fellow hikers. People are by far the loudest thing in the wilderness. One can hear them coming from hundreds of yards away, their conversations crystal clear. Now I know why animals hear us so easily - it's just a matter of listening.

Listening intently - note ears outside of hat

Mt. Rainier NP is full of cool footbridges

It occurred to me that we really should spend as much time listening to the wilderness as looking at it. Wilderness is perhaps best defined by its sound rather than its scenery, as absence of human sound seems rarer than that of human sights. What a gift the hiding, giant snowy volcano gave me that afternoon!

Most striking was the sound of the mountain itself. For regular readers, I know what you're thinking:

There he goes listening to mountains again.

I'm telling you, keep listening. As I stood at an overlook staring into the fog, I couldn't escape the fact that though I couldn't see the mountain, I could hear it. It made a constant "whoosh" sound like that of a distant wind, and I wondered what caused it to speak.

When I got back to the parking lot, I looked up and caught a glimpse of a snowy mountain peeking through the clouds:

I rushed back to Paradise and took off on a 2mi hike through deep snow to the Nisqually Glacier overlook, where I hoped the mountain might poke through the clouds. It didn't, but what I found there was even better.

Nisqually Glacier

From this close, the mountain roared, and it soon became clear exactly why. Coming down from the glaciers, from snowfields and icy outcrops, from the tops of ridges and countless ledges was a gushing flow of water. The sound echoed through the canyons and off the trees. The giant snowy volcano was a massive waterfall.

I reveled in this discovery as I hiked back, realizing that had the mountain been out, I may never have been inspired to listen so closely. On the way back to camp I enjoyed views of the Tatoosh Mountains and neighboring valleys.

Tatoosh Mountains from Paradise

I also saw some wildlife, including a Hoary Marmot and a Red Fox who kept chasing my car and posing for pictures (decidedly unfoxy, I thought).

Hoary Marmot

A not-so-foxy Red Fox

Best of all, as I passed Reflection Lake a second time, I glanced to the north to see the giant snowy volcano, poking its head out of the clouds. I could have sworn I heard it say, "Thanks for listening my friend."

Thank you, giant snowy volcano.

Day Four - A Volcano's Defining Feature

Question: What's the most defining feature of a giant, snowy volcano?

If you said "lava" or "rocks" or "grandeur" I really can't blame you. If you said "giant" or "snowy" I'm shaking my head. But here's where I'm gonna go:


Seriously. Aside from an ocean, I don't think I've ever seen a place more shaped and defined by water than a giant, snowy volcano. Here's this big rock poking up 3 miles from the earth. It stops bypassing air and water in its tracks, and forces the formation of clouds that dump rain. At high altitudes rain becomes snow. Snow packs on top of snow and forms dense, permanent ice - glaciers - that creep down the side of the rock and carve canyons. Snow and ice melts and mixes with rainwater, forming mighty streams, rivers, and waterfalls that cover the slopes, providing impetus for plant growth and eventually massive green trees, spurred on by the rain. Animals find lush habitat, food, and water to drink. Water further carves the earth, transports debris, flows to the ocean, and one day evaporates back to the air, where if it's lucky it returns to the mountain to start the cycle anew. Amazing.

When I woke up Tuesday in the middle of a rainstorm, having seen and heard the mountain the day before, all of this became clear. I spent the day hiking along the Ohanapecosh River, tracing the path of water that begun as snow high atop the mountain (round trip 5.5mi/750').

One of the park rangers was nice enough to take me out and teach me to identify the different trees:

Western Red Cedar, note scaly needles

Douglas Fir, note deep grooves in bark and cones with "mouse feet"

Western Hemlock, note smooth needles of varying length

I got lots of practice walking along the trail, where I also found:

A banana slug

A hot spring (good call Joe!)

A tree growing out of a rock

A really cool suspension bridge

...and of course waterfalls. Here's one of a bunch I encountered along the trailside:

An old friend would say, "just an Oregon/Washington waterfall"

And here's the massive Silver Falls:

Listen to it!

I was pretty stoked by the time I got back to the campground. Here's evidence (note the big stupid grin):

Day Five - Volcanoes Operate on Their Own Schedule

This was my last full day in the park, so I was really hoping for a little cooperation from the weather. I wanted to hike up to Shriner Peak, a 5800' mountain on the east side of the park with an old fire tower, and commanding views of Rainier as well as three other Cascade volcanoes (Hood, St. Helens, and Adams). It's a short (4.2mi one way) but steep (3400') ascent, and I knew I'd have snow for about the top third of the trail. Thus a little clearing would be welcome both from scenery and logistic perspectives. When I woke up around 5am, it was still raining, so I slept in, cozy in my little cocoon.

After a while I decided to get up and go play in the rain. Here's a few shots I took near my riverside camp:

Ohanapecosh River

Raindrops in Puddles

Note that the big stupid grin remains

All week, the best weather had been later in the afternoon, so I decided to time my Shriner trip then. In the meantime, I headed back to the visitor's center, where another one of my ranger friends taught me ferns!

Sword Fern, note thin threads attaching the leaflets

Oak Fern, note three-part branch

Lady Fern, note wide middle and lacy appearance

Deer Fern, note distinct inner and outer sections

Maidenhair Fern, note branched, fan shape and black step

Bracken Fern, note branched, triangular shape with >3 parts

Licorice Fern, note leaflet attachments along length of base

After a big lunch and a nap, I hit the Shriner Peak trail at 3pm. It was a beautiful climb through the forest, where I saw lots of now-familiar trees and ferns, as well as evidence of elk. Fortunately, I didn't see the black bear reported by hikers here the previous day:

Elk like to eat the bark of fir trees

The fog got thicker as I climbed, and a little past half way (around 4000') the snow started in earnest. I tied on the crampons and pressed on:

Foggy Evergreen Scene

Unfortunately, there was 3-6" of fresh snow on top of the last set of tracks, and a snowshoe really would have been the proper tool (when I need snowshoes, I've got crampons - when I need crampons, I've got snowshoes, Ai ya!). The real problem though was the fog. Around 4800', staring into this, I decided to call it:

Trail is where?

Though possible to continue, it really would have been foolish, and with conditions deteriorating, there was a much better chance of ending up camped in the snow than seeing the mountain. So down I went, along the way passing another overlook where listening carefully I could heard the mountain far away through the dense fog.

I also heard a strange, low pitched hooting sound, which upon further inspection was coming from a bird sitting up in a nearby tree. The rangers at Ohanapecosh later helped me identify this as a male Blue Grouse. I'm just glad it wasn't a buffalo.

Blue Grouse in a Tree

I must admit I was a bit disappointed never to have gotten that majestic, postcard view of the giant, snowy volcano. It wasn't for lack of effort, preparation, or good intentions. Perhaps like many other aspects of life, the mountain has its own agenda, its own schedule, its own plan that we cannot always - nor should we want to - control. The mountain gave me wonderful, unexpected gifts that I did not anticipate. Likewise it gave me disappointment and sadness I could not avoid. Though it's sometimes our inclination to weigh the good against the bad, to calculate some measure of overall balance, the mountain taught me that this is an error. Cliche as it sounds, the experience is what it is, both for better and for worse. To find the good, anticipated or not, we must not only risk but accept the bad which may come instead, but more often alongside that good. What a smart mountain.

Day Six - Lest We Forget, It's a Volcano

After giving my thanks and goodbyes at the visitor's center (shoutout Ohanapecosh Ranger Crew!), I hit the road back to Portland. Along the way, I saw some early blooming wildflowers amidst the trees.

I also stopped at the Mt. St. Helens visitor's center, and listened to a ranger program about the history of the mountain, in particular the 1980 eruption. Without going into too much detail, I'll leave you simply with this video. It is the largest known landslide in human history. This landslide triggered an eruption that sent volcanic rock flying at 700mph to distances nearly 20mi away, and reduced the height of the mountain by 1300'. It is an incredible testament to the power that lies beneath serenely beautiful, giant, snowy volcanoes.

Back in Portland, the sun had come out again, and made for a lovely scene along the Willamette:

Hawthorne Bridge, downtown Portland

Also enjoying the scene was this Oregon beaver, whom I spotted swimming along the river.

Oregon Beaver

Fittingly, as my plane flew east out of Portland early Friday morning, a glistening, sunrise-lit Mt. Hood appeared out the window.

So long, giant, snowy volcano. See you down the road.