Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Oregon and Washington, Part One: Not the trip we had planned, but we'll take it

Months ago, we signed up for this year's Cycle Oregon on the day the route was announced. This year was the 30th anniversary of the ride and the route was going to include Crater Lake, which I have wanted to ride since we lived out there (I don't know why we didn't do it then, but here we are). We trained, riding the mountains here, and planned to see friends the first week of the trip before the ride started. A couple of weeks before we were supposed to leave, we got an email from the organizers saying that there was a lot of fire activity in the vicinity of the ride and the route may change. I looked at the fire maps and we prepared for the possibility of the ride being canceled. We figured, though, that the ride had happened in bad fire years before and they had never canceled in 30 years, so it was pretty likely we would get to ride, but maybe not at Crater Lake.

Thursday evening, 36 hours before we were to get on a plane, the ride was canceled. This map shows why (link). It was definitely the right decision, but it meant we had to pivot quickly to replan our vacation (which, don't get me wrong, is such a small problem to have compared to all of the people directly affected by these horrible fires). We left the cycling gear on the bed in the guest room and packed backpacking gear. We'd figure it out once we got out there.

So, with that, we arrived in Portland, got what would be our only glance of Mt. Hood for the entire trip, got our car, and drove to Washington to see a woman I was in the Peace Corps with and her family. They generously hosted us and took us hiking on Mount Rainier the next day. A number of fires were burning in Washington, but this would turn out to be the clearest day of our first week of the trip.
 The first waterfalls we encountered on the trail.
 Tiarella unifoliata (Foamflower)
 We were yelled at by a number of little pikas, including this one.
 Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly Everlasting)
 Our first look at Comet Falls
Aster sp. (Aster)
 Gentian calycosa (Bog Gentian)
 Flowers, rainbows, and waterfalls. It doesn't get any better.
 Looking south from below Van Trump Park. Mount Saint Helens is the large, flat-topped mountain in the distance.
 Hiking up to Van Trump Park.
 Looking down from Van Trump Park
 Seedheads of Anemone occidentalis (Western Pasqueflower)

We said goodbye to our friends and drove down to Mount Saint Helens. We had permits to hike to the summit of the mountain, which I had reserved back in the spring.
 We camped at Climbers Bivouac. Remarkably, two groups across from us went ahead and built campfires. Even though it hadn't rained in months. Even though it was windy. Even though it was 80 degrees at 11 pm. Even though there were (still are) wildfires burning all over Washington and Oregon. The mind boggles.
Our first view of Mount Saint Helens. The air quality had deteriorated considerably overnight. We couldn't see the mountain until we were literally on its flanks.
The weather forecast for our hike was pretty tough: highs near 100 further down the mountain and super dry and smoky. We got up at 4:30 so we would be well on our way down before it got too hot. We started hiking at 5:30 a.m. and were nearly to tree line (4,500 feet) before it was light enough to take pictures.
 Then the real climbing began. The posts are the trail markers through the boulders and scree.
 Michael and one of the marker posts. You can see how terrible the air quality is in the valley (it wasn't better where we were).
 A volcano monitoring station. The U.S. Geological Survey keeps tabs on all of the Cascade volcanoes with instruments like these.
 The last scramble to the summit. If you click to enlarge, you'll see two tiny figures on the ridge above us. Hiking up this last bit was tough. It is moderately high (the summit is ~8,300 feet) and last 1,000 feet is through a soft, sandy field of volcanic cinders.
 The view into the crater from the summit. Normally, you could see Mount Rainier from here, but on that day, Spirit Lake wasn't even visible.
 Michael on the summit.

Looking down on the trail from the summit. The black dots are other hikers. We enjoyed the hike, but I'm not sure it was a great idea for our lungs. The air quality was pretty horrible. By the time we made it down to treeline, it was pretty darn hot. We each went through nearly a gallon of water.

After leaving Mount Saint Helens, we visited friends in Portland and Albany. Then we made our way to Sisters where we were generously hosted by someone I used to work for and his wife. We had a great time there. We had hoped to hike South Sister, which we had hiked in 2004, but that whole wilderness was closed due to fires. Instead, we spent a day kayaking in Bend and visiting the High Desert Museum (highly recommend it).
 Paddling upstream from the outfitter on the Deschutes River
 Michael in his boat.
 Mergansers on a rock
 This isn't a great picture, but I love the duck running on the water to take off (click to enlarge)
Sunset near Sisters, Oregon

The first week of our trip was great. The smoke wasn't great, but we got a couple of good hikes in and most importantly, we got to see a lot of friends we hadn't seen in several years.

Next entry: Consolation prize backpacking

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Eclipse 2017

Sometime around the New Year, I read a small article about an eclipse this year. The map showed the path of totality passing right through an area in Missouri where many of my relatives live and just north of where I grew up. I think I bought plane tickets that day, figuring that they wouldn't get cheaper (I was right about that, for sure). We would have gone home to visit family during the summer, anyway, may as well do it when there is an eclipse!

Monday, my aunt and uncle hosted an eclipse part on their farm near the Missouri River. Everyone came in. I saw cousins that I haven't seen in more than 15 years. The day started out questionable, with a fair number of clouds. Totality was going to be at 1:09 p.m. and at 12:30, it was still cloudy at the farm. We could see blue sky just to the south, though, so a bunch of us jumped in cars and headed for clear skies. A couple of miles from the farm, we came over a hill and the sun was shining on some grain bins. Sunlight! We pulled off the road at the top of a hill in a spot that was big enough for everyone who left the party. I was able to get my camera set up, complete with a mylar solar filter sheet held on the lens with rubberbands (I really should have taken a picture of that with my phone). 

The light was already dimming and flat by the time we got there. Then, all of a sudden, it was dark and we could see stars, Venus, and the solar corona. The birds settled down into the trees and crickets started chirping. It wasn't totally pitch dark, more like late twilight. It looked like a 360 degree sunset.  It was pretty incredible. Michael and I talked about how crazy it must have been to experience a total eclipse in the days before one could predict them. All of a sudden, the sun just goes dark. That would be pretty unnerving. It seemed like the totality was over as soon as it started, but looking at my pictures, it actually lasted more than two minutes. 

My pictures are not super sharp, but given the setup, I'm reasonably happy with them. I'm even happier that we got to experience such a rare event.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Peaks of Otter: A weekend of Hiking and Riding

We spent last weekend at Peaks of Otter in Central Virginia. They have a lovely lodge that we stayed at last year when we did our epic Blue Ridge Parkway ride. This year, we were just out for a weekend getaway and some training in serious hills. That section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was my favorite in the Virginia portion of last year's ride.

We took Friday off and made the long drive south. After we arrived and got checked in, we decided to do the signature hike at Peaks of Otter: Sharp Top. There are signs warning that it takes 1.5 hours to hike the 1.5 miles. It is a little steep and I'm sure it does take many people that long, but we made it in 55 minutes. Mostly, it is just a steady uphill hike. There were lots of late-summer flowers blooming on the way up. The top was spectacular with a 360 degree view of the area. On the way down, we encountered a rattlesnake who really wanted to use the trail. Eventually, it figured out where to get away from us. We did get to do a little bit of interpretation about the snake with some visitors from Germany. It is a lovely little hike, which we finished just in time for dinner in the lodge. Overall, we saw just a handful of people, but the trail is six feet wide and the parking lot is large. Clearly, they get a lot of traffic, likely mostly on the weekends. We were pretty happy to have it mostly to ourselves.
 The Sharp Top Summit.
 A cool little caterpillar on some fern fronds.
 Monarda didyma (Wild Bergamot)
 Spirea latifolia (Meadowsweet) near the summit of Sharp Top.
 The view to the south of Sharp Top
 Looking down towards the Peaks of Otter Lodge. I was trying out a new wide-angle lens for my mirrorless camera.
 Michael on the summit
 Flat Top Mountain and the valley below (click to enlarge)
 A directional plate on the summit
 A large shelter just below the summit of Sharp Top.
 The rattlesnake we encountered on the way down (I have a good zoom lens)
 Another view of it as it was moving.

We spent Saturday and Sunday riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. On Saturday, we just rode north out of the lodge, up over Apple Orchard Mountain. The weather was actually chilly enough that I had to put on a windshirt for the twelve-mile descent off of the back of Apple Orchard.  The top third of that descent wound up being a challenge because they had very recently chip and sealed it. There was a lot of gravel, which meant we had to be really, really careful with turns. After about four miles of that, we hit normal pavement and were able to have fun with the downhill. After lunch, we had to pay it all back by riding back up the 12 mile climb. We ended up doing 60 miles by the time we were done. Unfortunately, I didn't take a ton of pictures.
 A couple of miles below the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain.
 My bike taking a break at the top of Apple Orchard.

On Sunday, we drove to our Saturday turnaround point and rode north from there. This is one of the best sections of the Parkway for riding in Virginia: Little traffic, amazing views, and good climbs.
Taking a break just north of US 60.

We had a great weekend, couldn't have asked for better weather, or better riding.