Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Old Rag: Crowds and Ravens

We spent Saturday on Old Rag volunteering with Old Rag Mountain Stewards. It was a beautiful fall Saturday in October, which meant the parking lot was already full when we arrived to start our day. We got to spend a good part of our day with one of the park rangers, which was a rare treat. Fall is in full swing: the leaves are changing and the forest is shutting down for the coming winter.
 Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) blooming along the Saddle Trail
 A Woolly Worm caterpillar.
This is pretty representative of the crowds all over the summit most of the afternoon. There were so.many.people.

Around 4:30, Michael and I were talking about wrapping up for the day. The crowds were starting to thin and we were thinking of dinner. At that moment, a group came over and asked if we could help a member of their party who had an abrasion on their head. We patched the person up (it wasn't serious) and chatted with them for a bit. In the meantime, a thin layer of clouds had rolled in and we realized that we were nearly the last people on the summit of the mountain. It was quiet, the light was stunningly beautiful, and ravens soared and played on the wind. We stayed for another half an hour or so, just enjoying it. Old Rag can be magical under the right conditions and this was one of those times.
 Ravens taking a break on some rocks.
 The sun streaming through the clouds to the west of the mountain.
 A raven landing on a rock
 Soaring over the valley.
 This raven had picked up a bit of food left by a hiker on the summit.
 Looking west.
 Looking northwest towards Hot Short Mountain
 Looking south.
Leaves turning on the Saddle Trail on the way down.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Oregon and Washington, Part Two: North Cascades National Park

Long, picture-heavy post warning:

In Part One, I talked about packing our backpacking gear and that we'd figure it out once we had arrived in Oregon. We kicked around both Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park. Olympic NP would be closer, but we had been there in 2008. North Cascades NP was also north of most of the fires and smoke, so, in spite of the longer drive, it won out. It is a park I had wanted to visit for some time, too.

Now, North Cascades NP isn't on the way to anywhere and the town on the west side of the park, Marblemount, feels like an outpost at the end of the world. The "Next Services 74 miles" sign adds to that feeling. We did find a hotel room and the next morning, we arrived at the North Cascades NP wilderness information office with no plan in hopes of getting a permit. Starting on Sunday helps those odds quite a bit. So does being completely flexible. One of the rangers helped us set up a five day itinerary, issued our permit and we were on our way.

This was our first look at the mountains we were going to hike in. We started at Cascade Pass Trailhead, which is an hour's drive on a gravel road past the end of the world. Actually, the road is in pretty good shape and we managed to snag one of the last parking places in the lot.

The trail heads up from the parking lot in a long series of switchbacks. We stopped about 3/4 of a mile in to have lunch and Michael remembered that his camera was still in the car. He went down to get it and I sat on a log, chatting with a few hikers as they passed.
It was pretty quiet for a bit when this guy came around the corner (click to enlarge). He was actually much closer at first and probably in the neighborhood of 400 lbs. We surprised each other and I yelled at him to go on. He looked at me with all of the disdain of a local being inconvenienced by a tourist and meandered on his way. At that moment, Michael reappeared just in time to see him walk off. This was the first of four bears that we saw on our way up the pass. The rest of them were way to far away to get good pictures.
We also met this marmot near the top of the pass. We were whistled at by marmots at several points during our trip.
The trail near the top of the pass.
At the top of the pass, we got a view of the next valley. We would hike down this valley through the notch near the center left of the photo and down the next valley. There were a lot of dayhikers that just go up to the pass and then back to their cars. It is only a 7.5 mile round trip. Once we left the top of the pass, we left nearly everyone behind. After that notch, we only saw one person in the next two days.
Blueberries. These seriously interfered with our hiking speed.
 A waterfall on the outlet stream from Doubtful lake.
 The evening view from Basin Creek next to our first night's campsite.
Fall is well underway by the second week of September in North Cascades.
 The second day we hiked in the trees for several hours in the morning. This was kind of our first view of the mountains ahead of us.
 We hiked through a small burn from a 2015 fire. It was a bit like hiking through a graveyard.
 Heracleum lanatum (Cow Parsnip) along the Park Creek Trail.
 The sign for night two's campsite.
 Michael eating breakfast on day three.
 Hiking up Park Creek Pass. This is one of the most spectacular trail's I've ever done, which says a lot.
 Looking back down the pass (and straight into the sun) at where we'd come from.
 Mimulus lewisii (Pink Monkeyflower). It is so late in the season that most of the flowers we saw were at the tops of the passes.
 Looking north over Park Creek Pass. This was, hands down, my favorite part of a great trip.
 We descended pretty quickly off the pass (which is just to the right of the center of the photo). At this point, we discovered an error on the National Geographic map. It said it was 5.5 miles from the top of the pass to our campsite. After a few hours of hiking over relatively easy terrain, I started to wonder. When we got into our campsite, I checked the fitness app on my phone and it said 11 miles, not 8. I don't expect those to be super accurate, but they generally aren't off by that much and 11 miles was more consistent with the time it took us to hike that day. The bad thing about that was we had planed a relatively long hike the following day: 13 miles. The extra mileage meant it was going to be a 16 mile day.
 We got up before the sun on day four, so I didn't get great pictures of the old mining equipment near Skagit Queen campsite. This was the best one.
 We were retracing our steps, making our way back to Cascade Pass, which meant we had to hike up to Park Creek Pass again. As we were hiking, fog started rolling in.
 Campanula rotundifolia (Common Harebell).
 By the time we made the pass, this is what it looked like. It was completely socked in, raining lightly, windy, and cold. We were fortunate that the wind was at our backs, which made it less unpleasant.
Half an hour later, on the other side of the pass, it was a different day. Beautiful blue sky. Cool, but not cold.
 Dicentra formosa (Bleeding Heart)
 On day five, we got up early again. On the trail near the campsite, we saw this black bear track (headed away from where we were going).
 The Stehekin River at Flat River Campsite.
 Hiking back up towards Cascade Pass.
 The home stretch: Cascade Pass.
One of the switchbacks on the way back down to the car.
On our last day in the area, we did a little bit of front country sight-seeing. This is Diablo Lake. There are a few scenic overlooks along State Highway 20 and there's a couple of small visitor centers: one for the National Park and one for Seattle City Light, which operates the dams in the area.

North Cascades National Park is a pretty spectacular place. We only saw a little bit of it and I would definitely like to go back. The thing that I think is really cool about it is that you have to walk to see the most spectacular parts. There are some cool things to see from the road there, but to really see the place, you have to leave the pavement. On top of that, once we beyond dayhiker range, we saw very few people. It really is a special place.
After leaving Marbelmount and starting our drive back to Portland, we realized that we were going to hit rush hour on a Friday afternoon in Seattle. I did some quick searching and found Deception Pass State Park, which was only about 20 minutes out of our way. We spent a couple of hours on the beach and ate seafood for dinner instead of staring at taillights on I-5.

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