Archive for the ‘hiking’ category

MOUNT ST. HELENS: Fire and Ice

March 13, 2013

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterThe last light of a clear winter day brings a sculpture of pink and blue to the snows of Mount St. Helens

33 years after the eruption that blew the top off Mount St. Helens, the volcano is quiet, with some visible wisps of smoke and ash coming from the crater. It will probably blow up again, but the next major eruption could be decades or centuries in the future. Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, there are lava fields and pumice plains and cave trails to explore. We have made frequent visits to the popular viewpoints in summer, but we had never ventured to Mount St. Helens in the winter, so we thought it would be a good idea to escape the gray winter clouds of Puget Sound for a day of snowshoeing.

Sun Burning through Fog in Conifer Forest near Mount St. HelensWhen we drove up from the coastal lowlands of Washington, we emerged from the layer of clouds that so often blankets the region in winter; I stopped here to photograph the godbeams streaming through the trees at this place of transition from murk to sun

Lone Pine Cemetery Has No OutletI love signs, so I stopped to photograph this amusing juxtaposition of signs along the route to the trailhead

Blue Glove in Plowed Snowbank at Mount St. HelensAt the parking lot, we saw this colorful glove sticking out of a plowed snowbank; I should have checked to make sure it wasn’t attached to someone

It turned out to be an ideal day in the mountains, with temperatures warm enough that some winter climbers were going shirtless. Not us. And we aren’t climbers–not in the sense of the scores of crampon-and-rope laden men and women we could see as tiny specs moving against the snow, high on the slopes above us. We’ll leave that experience for a younger generation.

We were content with our snowshoe hike to June Lake, a tiny lake fed by a waterfall tucked next to a bouldery lava field part way up the mountain. The first mile of the trail was noisy, as we shared the route with snowmobiles who zipped by at warp speed. Then we diverged, and had a quiet climb to ourselves and other snowshoers.

Waterfall at June Lake at Mount St. HelensTiny June Lake, with its dead trees and waterfall; I ventured out onto the ice to get some photographs and was lucky that I didn’t fall through

Dead Trees along Shore of June Lake at Mount St. HelensReflections in June Lake

Lake Creek near June Lake at Mount St. HelensStream tumbling down the mountain from June Lake

Snow had fallen off the trees in a high wind, so the forest itself didn’t possess the magic of a fresh snowfall, though we did observe some Coyote and Snowshoe Hare tracks. When we went higher, we broke out into the open when we reached June Lake and its waterfall. There we had lunch, with our cheese and crackers and nuts and cookies spread out between us on the snow. An organized group of perhaps a dozen college students was having lunch there as well; except that they were also swirling and sipping Merlot from clear wine glasses.

After lunch, Karen made a snowman, while I snowshoed up a lava field to photograph boulders that were completely covered with snow. It was a glorious afternoon!

Happy Snowman at Mount St. HelensKaren’s happy snowman at June Lake

Shadow of Photographer on Snow at Mount St. HelensLee’s self portrait

The Worm Flows Lava Field Area of Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. HelensVolcanic boulders covered with snow, their blue shadows reflecting the blue sky 

Mount St. Helens provided a pleasant winter interlude that day, but on many winter days it is much more of a challenge. Recent climbers have talked of whiteout conditions and 40 mph winds and skiing down a sandpapery surface of pumice-covered snow.

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterLast pink light on the mountain (technically, this is not alpenglow, which occurs after the sun has set)

We started descending the trail in late afternoon. At a place where a vista toward the mountain opened up, we paused, and realized that there was the potential for some great light. The late afternoon light already sculpted the mountain, which was a nice change after the flat light earlier in the day. We decided that it was getting late enough that we might as well stay for the last light on this clear January day. We lingered, and photographed the last magenta light on the mountain as the sun descended. It made for an interesting end to a great day of snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains, a day that had started with a desire to leave the gray skies of our Puget Sound home and get some sunlight.

After we photographed the last light on the mountain, we snowshoed out by headlamp. Snowmobiles whined by us in the darkness and one snowmobiler gave us a thumbs-up as we paused to let him pass.

Karen Rentz with Headlamp at Mount St. HelensKaren reaching the parking lot by headlamp

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is administered by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Go to Mount St. Helens for more information. The Washington Trails Association has a trail description and map for this hike; go to June Lake Snowshoe.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 3: When We Walked through Forests of Gold

January 26, 2013

Backlit Alpine Larches at Crystal Lake in The EnchantmentsGolden Alpine Larches reflecting in the turquoise waters of Crystal Lake

Our goals for the two days in the Lower Enchantments were modest: we wanted to explore the shores of Inspiration Lake and Talisman Lakes, and hike up to Gnome Tarn to get the classic and oft-repeated photograph of Prusik Peak reflecting in the tarn. Distances are not long up here, so our day hikes were to be at a leisurely pace, allowing us to photograph these Indian Summer days to our heart’s content.

One hike took us to Prusik Pass. When we reached the pass, there was a cold torrent of wind funneled over this low place on the ridge. We had to put on extra layers, and we watched as the forest fires on distant ridges blew up in billows of fresh smoke. I was photographing when I heard a sudden shout of horror: one of our group had his camera on a tripod, and a sudden blast of wind tossed it right off a ledge onto the rocks below, damaging an expensive piece of equipment. I learned a quick lesson by his experience, and clung to my gear as the wind howled.

Prusik Peak Viewed from Gnome Tarn in The EnchantmentsPrusik Peak reflecting in Gnome Tarn

From Prusik Pass, we bushwhacked up and over a ridge to get to Gnome Tarn. The tarn was diminished in size by a seasonal drought, so the shores were extensive and muddy. Clouds skittered across the sky in the high winds, sending their shadows racing to keep up. A Peregrine Falcon zoomed overhead. Below us, a pair of male Mountain Bluebirds, the color of sky captured in feathers, were a perfect complement to the golden Alpine Larch needles where they foraged.

Since the shore was so muddy, I laid down atop a plastic bag and waited patiently or impatiently for the sun to light up the peak in between long periods of shadows. I also waited for the wind to subside, so that the ripples on the tarn would diminish, making for a better reflection. With my companions, I waited … and waited … and got chilled almost to the bone. But the peak was finally revealed enough that I got some good pictures of The Enchantments’ iconic peak. Toward dark, the clouds grew thicker, and several of us decided that the peak had passed. The most persistent among us (not me) hung on longer, and got the best pictures of the day. Oh well; it’s always hard to know when to hold em or fold em in poker, and sometimes photography is the same way.

Prusik Peak Viewed from Gnome Tarn in The EnchantmentsPrusik Peak at Gnome Tarn, where sunlight and shadow fleetingly crossed the peak

We cooked a late dinner of Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai and crawled into our tents. Or at least most of us did, I stayed  out in the dark to try and get a few more pictures. The sky had cleared substantially by now, though there were still some clouds racing by. I was struck by the look of all four of our tents lit up by headlamps, so I asked everyone to cooperate for photos of the group of illuminated tents looking like fragile, glowing nylon fairies in the night. Then I noticed the clouds over a distant ridge; a full moon was rising and backlighting the clouds that were racing over the ridge.

Tents Lit Up at Deep Twilight in The EnchantmentsOur tents lit by faeries or headlamps at deep twilight after our cold photo session at Prusik Peak

Corona around Rising Moon in The EnchantmentsThe rising moon created a corona of light on the racing clouds

Corona around Rising Moon in The EnchantmentsThe full moon revealed briefly by a tear in the clouds

Alpine Larch Shadows by Moonlight on Granite in The EnchantmentsLater, the full moon cast larch shadows over smooth granite, and illuminated larches and peaks under the starry sky

The next morning was to be our hike into the Upper Enchantments, which I’ll describe in another blog post, but before beginning that hike we went about our regular morning activities. These included a pre-dawn hike up the rocky slope behind camp to Inspiration Lake, where there was lovely dawn light on the surrounding peaks–and where the outhouse was located. Actually, it was not really an outhouse, since the vault toilet had a seat, but no walls. It was more like a throne with a great view through a sheer curtain of golden larch needles. It was beautiful enough to encourage us to “Skip to the loo …” Sitting there, I knew I was missing some great light, so I tried to speed things along, and eventually finished and ran down to where I had left my camera and tripod. Fortunately, I was not too late and was able to capture the red glow on the ragged peaks towering over the lake.

Morning Light on Enchantment Peaks above Inspiration LakeEarly red light on the peak above Inspiration Lake

Karen Rentz Videotaping Inspiration Lake in The EnchantmentsKaren creating a dawn video of the beautiful light on Inspiration Lake–and thank goodness for that warm layer of down!

Each morning was cold in The Enchantments; after all, we were in the mountains in October, when the golden Alpine Larches were spreading the word that the end of warmth was near. One of our group was a young guy with not much meat on his bones, and he shivered and lay wide awake all night. He said:  “It was almost the worst night of my life.” When I asked him what night had been worse, he replied “Well, I can’t think of any.” He decided he had gotten all the great pictures he needed, and decided to hike out on his own, two days early. It’s a good thing he got out when he did, because the next morning it was 16°F, which makes me shiver just thinking about it. It was so cold that it was painful to brush our teeth, and the water bottles were nearly frozen solid.

Icy Water Bottle with Prusik Peak in The EnchantmentsIce formed overnight in our water bottles when the temperature dipped to 16°F

Mountain Bluebird Feather on Ice in The EnchantmentsMountain Bluebird feather on thin ice at the edge of an inlet stream for Perfection Lake; the ice surface had an almost featherlike texture and there were tiny air bubbles trapped in the ice

Needle Ice Pushing Up Through Soil in The EnchantmentsNeedle ice formed in wet soil on the shore of Perfection Lake

We met occasional hikers in the high country, with more as the days sped by and people realized that The Enchantments weren’t going up in flames. I often wear a University of Michigan baseball cap, which advertises my alma mater. It is amazing how many people I encounter in the Pacific Northwest who grew up in Michigan, went to the University of Michigan, then moved out West for better economic opportunities. It is a real brain drain for Michigan, but that is another story.

Anyway, on one morning near Perfection Lake, there was a pretty, young woman hiking alone. She struck up a conversation when she saw my cap: it turned out that she had grown up in Ann Arbor and had recently gotten her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School and was now doing her emergency room residency at a Seattle hospital. Her mother from Michigan had hiked as far as Snow Lakes with her, but the steep climb from there was too much for her Midwestern legs, so she stayed back in camp. The bad part about meeting a new young doctor, as I get older, is the nagging feeling that “surely she can’t be old enough to be a doctor!”

Old and young Alpine Larches, blazing gold, were everywhere in the Lower Enchantments. As the week wore on and the cold and high winds took their toll, more and more needles lost their color and fell, but there were still concentrations of intense gold.

Hiker with Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake in Autumn in The EnchOne of my companions looking across Perfection Lake toward Prusik Peak, with a vast panorama of golden Alpine Larches

I grew up in the Midwest and have lived in the Northeast and the Rocky Mountains, so I am well-acquainted with autumn colors: Red Maples burn with scarlet intensity in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; Sugar Maples glow brilliantly in Vermont; and Trembling Aspens shiver with golden light in Colorado. Here in the Northwest, autumn color was a bit of a disappointment until I learned about the timberline Alpine Larches. These are unusual, in that larches are a decidious conifer that somewhere along the evolutionary path strayed from the law that conifers are evergreen. Even here in Washington, the Evergreen State, they drop their needles.

Autumn Alpine Larch Needles along Perfection Lake in The EnchantAlpine Larch with golden needles and a cone, with the aqua waters of Perfection Lake forming a beautiful backdrop

For a tree living at timberline, where snow falls by the foot rather than by the inch, there are certain advantages to losing needles. The trees don’t have to carry as heavy a snow load with all the needles gone, so branches are less likely to break. Without needles, the larches don’t have to feed hungry Mountain Goats all winter. The trees don’t suffer as much from the dessicating effects of frigid winter winds. Perhaps most important, the vital amino acids, which are the building blocks for healthy needles, are safely tucked away in the roots and trunks of these trees living on the edge.

Alpine Larches along Leprechaun Lake in The EnchantmentsAlpine Larches along Leprechaun Lake

Autumn Alpine Larches Glowing along Perfection Lake in The EnchaPeak of color along Perfection Lake, aka Rune Lake

Looking up at Alpine Larches in Autumn in The EnchantmentsConvergence

Alpine Larch near Timberline in The EnchantmentsSeemingly growing from granite, this Alpine Larch looks like a bonsai; it has been stunted by the desiccating winds blowing near Prusik Pass

Shield Lake from Prusik Pass in The EnchantmentsShield Lake on the Lost World Plateau, shaped like one of the Red Delicious apples that nearby Wenatchee was always known for, viewed from Prusik Pass

The other trees growing at timberline were the Whitebark Pines. These pines were more scattered than the larches, and have a fascinating co-evolutionary relationship with Clark’s Nutcrackers that I described in an earlier post about Clark’s Nutcrackers in Banff National Park. We observed several of the nutcrackers flying through The Enchantments, commuting to their favorite trees. Whitebark Pines are threatened by White Pine Blister Rust, a disease imported from another part of the world, and by the Pine Bark Beetle, which has exploded in population as our climate has warmed.

Huckleberry leaves were scarlet, but there weren’t many berries to sample: it was another bad year for the bears. Mountain Bog Gentians bloomed in our campsite, and there were occasional purple asters along the trails. I associate these species with the last gasp of the dying summer in the high country, but it’s nice that they provide a bit of vivid purple to the landscape.

Autumn Huckleberry Leaves and Weathered Wood in The EnchantmentsScarlet Huckleberry leaves with a fallen Alpine Larch trunk

"I Love You" Message Made of Twigs in The EnchantmentsAwwww! 

Weathered Wood of an Old, Dead Tree in The EnchantmentsGracefully weathered lines of a very old Alpine Larch trunk

Fallen Alpine Larch Needles at Edge of Perfection Lake in The EnWhen fallen Alpine Larch needles gather at the edge of a tarn, the end of autumn is nigh

We camped on Perfection Lake, or was it Rune Lake? Both names are used. The U.S. Forest Service originally established the place names of The Enchantments, and used such workable but rather dull names such as Perfection Lake, Inspiration Lake, and Isolation Lake. But the names got complicated when Bill and Peg Stark began visiting The Enchantments starting in 1959, and gave new names to the lakes, tarns, and peaks, based upon the legend of King Arthur and Norse mythology. Thus Perfection Lake also became Rune Lake. Inspiration Lake became Talisman Lake. Gnome Tarn is a name of their creation, as is Aasgard Pass. The place names of The Enchantments are now officially a blend of the two naming conventions, and there is enough overlap to cause plenty of confusion. Which makes the experience more fun. Myself: I love all the mythological names.

Karen Rentz Cooking Breakfast in The EnchantmentsKaren cooking breakfast on one of our cold mornings

"Honolulu Girl" Snowman Made by Karen Rentz in The EnchantmentsSnow for snowmen was scarce, but Karen make “Hula Girl” from a remnant snowbank of dirty snow, along with a skirt of fallen larch needles for modesty

Autumn-colored Sedges in The EnchantmentsEven grasses can take up the spirit of the season

Autumn Campsite on Perfection Lake in The EnchantmentsCan you imagine a more beautiful setting for a campsite?

On these golden days in the Lower Enchantments, there was plenty of leisurely time for watching a pair of Meadow Voles leap from their grassy nest, and examining the texture of ice forming on the edge of a pond. Sometimes, people get so wrapped up in hiking long distances in the mountains that they fail to stop and smell the gentians. Not us: we revel in these long days of nature observation and photography.

A highlight was twice seeing a Douglas Squirrel race by, along the shore of Talisman Lake, with a big mushroom in its mouth. Mushrooms are a favorite food of squirrels, and they often store a mushroom among the twigs of a shrub, perhaps to dry it out for later storage or perhaps to let the rain leach out toxins. I’m not sure which, but I find the behavior fascinating. Can it really be instinctive to temporarily store a mushroom in the open? Other wildlife was scarce; the marmots had apparently already entered hibernation. We saw a single Pika and found its stored haypiles near our camp.

Inspiration Lake in Autumn in The EnchantmentsInspiration Lake, aka Talisman Lake, just above our campsite

Karen Rentz Crossing Log over Creek in The EnchantmentsKaren crossing a log bridge over the outlet for Talisman Lake; we had a long stop here while I temporarily repaired my broken pack waist strap with duct tape (the kind young man who gave me the tape laid down on this log while waiting for my time-consuming repair to be completed, and he somehow rolled off the log into the stream and got soaked!).

Autumn Alpine Larch along Inspiration Lake in The EnchantmentsAlpine Larch along Talisman Lake

Mountain Bog Gentian Blooming in The EnchantmentsGentians in bloom near our campsite

Alpine Larches at Peak Color with Perfection Lake in The EnchantRune Lake viewed from a high granite outcrop above the lake

Tree Shadows on Inspiration Lake in The EnchantmentsLarch shadows crossing the beautiful green waters of Talisman Lake

Little Annapurna from Prusik Pass Trail in The EnchantmentsTrail through a subalpine meadow, with Little Annapurna in the distance

Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake in Autumn in The EnchantmentsOne last fond look at the magic of the Lower Enchantments: Prusik Peak, Alpine Larches, and Rune Lake

In the next and final installment of “The Enchantments in Autumn” story, I’ll go above timberline to the Upper Enchantments, which has a stark beauty all its own.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my other blogs about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent and Mountain Goats.  There is also a good web site that is based upon the autumn experiences of the Starks and another couple called 50 Years in the Enchantments.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 2: Sharing Camp with Mountain Goats

January 7, 2013

Mountain Goat with Prusik Peak and Alpine Larch in The EnchantmeThe magic of The Enchantments in one photograph: a Mountain Goat, golden Alpine Larches, and Prusik Peak on a flawless October morning

Mountain Goat Nanny atop Granite in The EnchantmentsA big nanny stares down at our camp from atop a granite boulder

Mountain Goat Nanny Resting on a Snowfield in The EnchantmentsMountain Goats shared our campsite with us each day; this nanny is chewing her cud while relaxing on a snow field, with golden Alpine Larches in the distance

When we awoke on the third morning, one of our companions said “Hey, everyone; there are Mountain Goats out here!” We quickly donned warm layers and grabbed camera gear, then scrambled out of the tent. A nanny and her kid were just outside our tents, and appeared to be waiting for something. A playdate, perhaps, just like a meeting in Green Lake Park of the nannies and kids of Seattle’s high tech wealthy? I’ll get to that later; but for now the wonder of the experience of being so close to these wild creatures was awe-inspiring.

Mountain Goat Seen from Tent Opening in The EnchantmentsLooking out the door of my tent, with a Mountain Goat in the meadow

Mountain Goat Kid Standing atop Rock in The EnchantmentsA young Mountain Goat, just sprouting its horns, standing on a granite boulder with Perfection Lake behind

Mountain Goat Kid Standing atop Rock in The EnchantmentsA Mountain Goat kid often stands on boulders, testing its climbing ability and keeping an eye on Mom

Mountain Goat Kid Grazing among Mountain Bog GentiansThe kid also enjoyed grazing on sedges in the subalpine meadow, but he spared the beautiful gentians (something about them tasting like broccoli!)

The kid was adept at climbing boulders and clinging to steep rock faces where I wouldn’t venture. This early practice gave the little guy–and he was a guy, according to one of the human female members of our merry band of hikers–good preparation for the long winter ahead, when all the humans are long gone from the high country, snow is twenty feet deep atop the frozen lakes, and the winds begin to howl. During that time, the nanny and kid will be high on the cliffs of The Enchantments, using their best tool–their flexible hooves–to cling to sheer faces and dig for dried sedges and other bits of nourishment. It must be a hard life. But these high cliffs are blown almost free of snow by the wind and by their very steepness, which means there are ledges nearly bare of snow where the goats can scratch out a living.

At least the goats stay warm all winter. Their long hair makes a great insulator, and if they can eat enough food, the bacteria in the gut actually keep the animal warm–much as a compost pile’s bacteria heat the whole heap.

Mountain Goat Kid on a Large Granite Boulder in The Enchantments

Mountain Goat Kid Descending Boulder in The Enchantments

Mountain Goat Kid Descending Boulder in The EnchantmentsIn the above sequence of three photographs, the kid walks atop a boulder, then descends a steep face of it  with confidence in its maturing abilities

Mountain Goat Kid Browsing Alpine Larch in The EnchantmentsThe kid is a natural-born rock climber, able to cling to the nearly vertical side of a boulder while browsing the tasty needles of an Alpine Larch

Mother and child like to keep in eye contact with each other, much as humans do. When a pair lost contact with each other, both made soft bleeting sounds that helped them find each other. Frequently, the kid would wander just a bit too far from the mother, and would suddenly break into a run to get closer to her.

Mountain Goat Kid and Nanny Grazing in The EnchantmentsMother and child grazing just below our camp along the shores of Inspiration Lake

Mountain Goat Nanny in Subalpine Meadow in The EnchantmentsNanny Goat photographed while chewing or talking, or both

Mountain Goat Kid Grazing in The EnchantmentsKid grazing a meadow near an Alpine Larch shadow; note the stiff hairs that stand erect along the youngster’s back

Nanny goat wasn’t entirely motherly by human standards. If the little kid got too close while she was feeding, she would give it an aggressive thrust of her head and wickedly sharp horns, and the little kid would back off, seemingly with an expression of “What did I do wrong?” This behavior would serve the little guy well in the future, as there is a hierarchy of dominence among all the bands of goats, and everyone is more content if they know where they belong in the workplace pecking order.

Mountain Goats and Alpine Larch in The EnchantmentsNanny and kid alert to our activities

One morning a band of five female nannies and kids wandered down the mountain into our campsite, where they joined our regular two residents. I’m sure that the regulars and newcomers already knew each other quite well, but just to remind each other just who was the queen and who were the commoners, there was plenty of staring and glaring and thrusts of those deadly horns. Eventually the newcomers moved on, and our regular nanny retained the title of Queen of our Campsite.

Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid Resting on Snowfield in The EnchantmNanny and kid contentedly chewing their cud while resting on a snow field above our camp

Backlit Mountain Goat Grazing in Subalpine Meadow in The EnchantWhite hair beautifully backlit by the morning sun

Mountain Goat Nanny among Granite Boulders in The EnchantmentsBrown eyes and pink tongue

Mountain Goat Nanny Casting Shadow While Grazing in The EnchantmShadows

Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid along Perfection LakeMom and son at the edge of Perfection Lake

Mountain Goat Nanny Portrait in The EnchantmentsClose up and personal

By the way, I said at the beginning of this weblog that I would explain why the Mountain Goats camped with us for four days. I would love to say that it was because they enjoyed our companionship, or that they perceived that they were safer from Mountain Lions when they stayed near us. The truth is much more prosaic and much, much grosser.

You see, Mountain Goats love salt. They are addicted to salt. They dream of lapping the great salt lick in the sky. To them, humans are simply a mobile source of salt. I remember talking to a young female employee in Glacier National Park years ago when I worked for the National Park Service, and she described how Mountain Goats would walk up to her, when she was hiking in summer shorts, and lick the sweat off her bare thighs.

But wait, it gets worse. Mountain Goats have also come to associate people with another source of salt: human urine. Truth is, we all gotta pee, and the goats seek out the places we peed in order to lick the salty fluid from the granite or eat the soft soil saturated with golden liquid. That, and that alone, is the reason they hung around camp.

Each time one of us would quietly leave camp in order to relieve ourselves, the nanny would take notice and follow him or her to a secluded place. Then the rest of us would hear a shout as the horny creatures ventured too close. Karen taught the nanny the meaning of the word “NO!” by pointing her finger at the goat and loudly saying the word. Did you realize that Mountain Goats can learn English?

And on that note, I’ll just say that, whatever the reason we had the company of Mountain Goats, we sure enjoyed them. We enjoyed them even more when they were grazing sedges in the meadows, browsing larch needles, or chewing their cud while resting on a snow field–behaviors that seem seem more natural than following hikers to a private spot.

Mountain Goat and Alpine Larch in The Enchantments

Backlit Mountain Goat Grazing in Subalpine Meadow in The Enchant

The most readable account I’ve read about Mountain Goat behavior is A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed, by Douglas H. Chadwick

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my first blog about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 1: The Long Ascent

November 25, 2012

Alpine Larches reflecting in Leprechaun Lake, with McClellan Peak distant

Reflections of larches on tranquil Leprechaun Lake

Karen and I set up camp by the light of our car headlights, as choking smoke shrouded Eight Mile Campground along Icicle Creek. Lightning had ignited forest fires in Washington State’s western Cascade Range near Wenatchee and Leavenworth; with the year’s dry summer and early fall, conditions were perfect for the fires to run with the wind–which they did. This would have been a good place for a face mask; instead, we coughed the night away.

Our purpose in coming to Icicle Creek was not to car camp–if we had come for that, we would have fled the next morning to fresh horizons with clear air. No, we were here for a seven day backpacking trip into a promised land called The Enchantments. We had won a permit in the yearly lottery for access to The Enchantments, and we were not about to give it up, smoke or no smoke. We planned to meet three other hikers the next morning.

There are two major access routes into The Enchantments: from Aasgard Pass and from Snow Lakes. Unfortunately, the Aasgard Pass route was closed by the U.S. Forest Service, because the Cashmere Mountain Fire had scorched through the forest above the access trail, leaving steep slopes bare and subject to tumbling boulders and falling trees. Our original plan had been to hike in via the Aasgard Pass route and out via the Snow Lakes route, leaving a car at the Snow Lakes trailhead to shuttle us back to the second car. But with the closed trail, our only choice was to go in and out by the Snow Lakes route. That worked for us, and leaves us in anticipation of the even steeper Aasgard route on a future hike.

The next morning, much of the smoke had dissipated, and we went into Leavenworth for breakfast, then back along Icicle Creek road to the trailhead. There we met our hiking companions, and did the last-minute packing for the hike. We are all photographers, so our gear added up to quite a bit of weight, with cameras, lenses, and tripods. Adding the weight of a week’s worth of food, and we all felt like Grand Canyon pack mules. My gear weighted 57 lbs.–enough to make me wish I had been doing weight training.

This is not a trail for wimps. It goes up and up and up, relentlessly for 6,000 vertical feet of gain over about ten miles. There may have been a time in my distant past when I could easily do 6,000 feet in a day, but not any more, and we planned to do the ten miles over two days.

That said, there is a hardy breed of northwestern hikers who do The Enchantments as a day hike, starting at say 3:00 a.m. and going in by headlamp, hiking the beautiful high country in the middle of the day, and then heading down to the second trailhead in the dark. This is unofficially known as the Death March, though it is also called the Enchantments Traverse. Its popularity is partly because it is a really macho hike to brag about, with over 20 miles of steep trails and the huge elevation gain and loss, and partly because a lottery overnight permit is not needed by someone day hiking the whole route. The Death March would kill me in two ways: the physical way, as well as the awful realization that my photography would necessarily be limited to a few snapshops along the way. Though I guess I could strap a GoPro camera to my head and take pictures automatically every half-second of the hike and of everything I turned my head to look at.

Our group included Karen, my partner (to use the preferred PC Seattle term for “wife” or other similarly close or ambiguous relationships), as well as the youngsters with us known as Heidi, Jeremy, and Ed. At the trailhead we discussed the hike and the fires with the wilderness ranger, who arrived as we did our final packing. He also wrote a parking ticket for a car without a proper permit, and later we would see him exiting the wilderness, sick as a dog, then several days later reentering the high country to do his patrol work.

At the trailhead, we also talked with a couple whose car looked like it had been hit by a meteorite, with a smashed front end, hood, and windshield, asking them about what happened to it. They said that while crossing part of Wyoming, they had hit a Moose that suddenly wandered onto the road in the dark. The car hit the Moose dead on, and the Moose went up on the hood and off to one side. It apparently gathered itself up, shook itself off, then walked on, dignity intact. Karen said they should put a sign on the car saying “The Moose Won!”  The car’s front end was being temporarily held together with rope, and the radiator looked like some vital organ that was stuffed back in the body after a knife attack. I shouldda snapped a picture …

Finally done chatting and packing, we shouldered our dead weight and ambled down the trail. We crossed Icicle Creek, then quickly started ascending switchbacks through a conifer forest. Up we hiked, entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness–the huge wilderness area that includes The Enchantments. We stopped to photograph a Douglas Squirrel munching a Douglas Fir cone near trailside Douglas Maples (sometimes not much imagination is used in naming stuff!).

Douglas Squirrel feeding on Douglas Fir cone

Autumn colors along the trail, with the rock climbers’ destination known as Snow Creek Wall towering above

We passed a huge cliff face known as the Snow Creek Wall. We hadn’t heard of it, but apparently it is on some bucket list of 50 best climbs in the world, so there are often climbers dangling off the granite wall. In fact, collison-with-Moose-man was on his way to climb this wall, and not much deters a climber from his targeted climb. We could see climbers on the wall, tiny against the vertical granite, and we could see the tracery of their ropes.

The trail passed through an old burn, with snags of Western White Pines and other conifers standing starkly against the slightly smoky sky. There were open boulder fields, where thousands of years’ worth of tumbling boulders had met their angle of repose. This is steep country, and there were places where a tall pine would be growing up through a boulder field. Such pines inevitably had bark and wood that was smashed to splinters on the uphill side of the tree, where a boulder or two had tumbled down slope and collided with the tree trunk, leaving the tree looking much the worse for wear, but still alive. At least trees have the strength to resist most boulders–not so, flesh and blood. It was a warning to keep our senses alive in the wilderness.

This forest burns frequently, leaving a patchwork of healthy green trees and fire-scorched snags

After a morning of hiking, we stopped for lunch along raging Snow Creek. With the several month absense of rain in these mountains, we couldn’t understand how a creek could be flooding its banks and scouring the roots of trees along its path. There wasn’t even supposed to be much snow left in the mountains, and the glaciers have almost disappeared. We wouldn’t know the answer until the next day.

Snow Creek raging through the forest at the place we chose to have our first trail lunch

For Karen and I, lunch consisted of our regular trail food: crackers and cheese, almonds, dried Michigan cherries, and Canadian maple creme cookies. Two of our group had hot lunches; using their Jetboil equipment, they were able to quickly cook a hot meal. Jetboils use Isobutane-propane canisters and can boil a full container of water in a couple of minutes. There are days in this high country when a hot lunch would help keep a hiker warm, but it was unseasonably warm on this autumn day so we weren’t cold.

After lunch and a short rest, we struggled into our pack straps and again started the long grunt up the trail. We met several groups coming down, and they said it had been really smoky from the forest fires. They said we would probably have The Enchantments much to ourselves, since most of the hikers were leaving. That proved to be true. When we picked up our permit, it seemed that few other hikers had claimed the permits for which they had successfully won the lottery and paid a fee. The Seattle television horror stories about the fires and the limited access to The Enchantments had scared away most of the backpackers. All the better for us!

Bridge spanning Snow Creek in the forest of our ascent

The rest of the day was tiring, but eventually we reached our destination, Nada Lake. Which of course brought up an impromptu Abbott and Costello-style routine.

“Where are we camping tonight?”

“Nada Lake.”

“Not a lake? I thought we were staying at a lake?”

“We are: Nada Lake”

“We’re not at a lake?”

“No. Nada Lake.”

“What?”

And so on, until I collapsed in giggles as if I was eleven years old all over again.

We set up camp on both sides of the trail, with four tents for five people (my partner and I shared a tent, but nobody else wanted to be partners). It was just a few steps to the lake shore of Nada Lake, and we filtered water while sitting on a granite slab sloping into the lake. Tall peaks reflected on the still surface of Nada. Our dinner consisted of a Backpacker’s Pantry meal, in which we simply poured boiling water into a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai, stirred, then waited about 20 minutes for the meal to rehydrate. These meals are amazingly good–far better than our standard Lipton fake beef stroganoff (made with lumps of gas-giving TVP) back in the 1970s, when we started backpacking. Now, we buy Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals when they’re on sale at REI or elsewhere.

We were beat from the hike, so we went to bed soon after dark, our headlamps slicing the darkness as we went about our preparations for bed. I brought my hiking book, “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I usually read for only a few minutes before sleep during a backpacking trip, so the first time I read the book it took me 20 years. Really. Now I’m starting it again and hoping that I can backpack long enough to finish it a second time. This book is about a journey of Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller to try and observe the Snow Leopard (and the more common Blue Sheep) in the Himalayas. It reads like a book of zen discovery of the moment, and although Matthiessen never sees a Snow Leopard throughout the course of the book, it doesn’t matter either to the author or the reader. This is one of the truly great nature and zen books, and I especially enjoy it when I am on my own search for photographs and meaning and perhaps a Cougar along a wilderness trail (I have yet to see one, but it is the search that counts).

The next morning, we awoke early and started breakfast. A couple coming down the trail had gotten an early start, and they said there were two Mountain Goats just around the bend in the trail from camp. And so there were. A nanny and kid, sauntered into camp as if they owned the place. The nanny investigated the edges of our campsite, while the kid promptly ascended big boulders just behind camp.

A Mountain Goat entered camp while we were taking down our tents, leading to an hour-long photographic distraction

The Mountain Goats were not afraid of us–they’ve seen thousands of backpackers coming up this trail and they undoubtedly prefer us to Cougars

Truth be told, the big reason that Mountain Goats like to hang around human campsites is to consume urine-soaked soil that backpackers leave behind–more on this in part 2 of this blog

When you get a pair of Mountain Goats coming into a camp full of photographers, the cameras come out and the photographers start clicking off hundreds of exposures. We got caught up in the moment, which stretched into at least an hour as we photographed. The highlight was seeing mother and child goat come down to drink from Nada Lake in beautiful light.

Mountain Goat drinking from tranquil Nada Lake in morning light

We did our final morning packing, then started up the trail. As we approached Snow Lakes, we heard a thunderous roar from Snow Creek. Drawing closer, we saw a huge jet of water coming hard and fast from the area of the lakes. Then it dawned on us that this was the source of torrential Snow Creek that we had experienced yesterday. Each autumn, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes enormous quantities of water from Upper Snow Lake in order to provide sufficient water to the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery in the valley below. The fish hatchery’s mission is raising Chinook Salmon, which are important to the region’s Indians and sport fisherman. The loss of water from Snow Lakes is necessary and required in order to accomplish the mission of the hatchery. It is an unfortunate tradeoff in terms of the wilderness experience, but I can understand the reasoning.

Torrent of water removed from Snow Lakes to supply the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in autumn

Our route led across a dam between Lower and Upper Snow Lake. Near the dam, we encountered a group of five Mountain Goats, including two kids whose white coats looked like they had been playing down and dirty in the mud along the lakeshore. What’s the matter with kids today?!

Upper Snow Lake looked like it had lost 90% of its water to the fish hatchery, and consisted of steep, bare, terraced banks of raw soil sloping down to the bit of water that was left. It was SO UGLY that I’m glad we decided not to camp there. We hiked the mile to the upper end of the lake as quickly as possible.

Upper Snow Lake is among the ugliest lakes I’ve ever seen, at least in autumn when much of the water is removed for use in a fish hatchery

Then we started the ascent into the real high country. The forest started opening up a bit more, and eventually the first Alpine Larches appeared in all their golden glory. Oh, did I mention that the reason we and every other hiker in Washington want to go to The Enchantments in autumn is simply to see the Alpine Larches at their peak of color? No? Well, it is. We timed our lottery dates to coincide with the peak color, or so we hoped.

As we climbed higher, we hiked over broad expanses of bare granite, sometimes giving each other an assist over a ledge or boulder. It often turned into more of a scramble than a trail, but fortunately it wasn’t icy–sometimes autumn trips into The Enchantments can be icy and snowy. Although these elements can add interest for photographers, they can be treacherous.

Karen crossing an expanse of smooth granite, where trail builders used dynamite to blast small steps in the stone

My left foot hurt! While jogging several weeks previously, I tripped over a sisal door mat (don’t ask!) during a four mile route and fell hard, sprawled on the ground. That night, I got up from my Lazy Boy and almost fell over from the sudden intense pain. It turned out to be Plantar faciitis, an inflammation of the back bottom of the foot. Hiking with the pain was a necessary side effect of getting into The Enchantments, but I did stretching exercises each day–some of them suggested by a woman we talked to at the trailhead who had dealt with Plantar several years before. When we stopped for lunch, I immersed my bandaged foot (protected by a plastic bag) in the icy waters of Snow Creek, and it immediately felt better.

Snow Creek rushing down the granite toward Snow Lakes; this is the spot where we enjoyed lunch on our second day out

After a long lunch break, we began the final ascent to the high country. Eventually, we came over a lip of the granite and were at Lake Viviane, the first of the storied Enchantment Lakes. We photographed the lake and its larches and the towering mountain known as The Temple, with sharp Prusik Peak at one end. It was all so stunning, especially after the two days of grunting and trudging up ten miles of steep trail through dense forest.

From Lake Viviane, we got our first great view of Prusik Peak and The Tower–some of the iconic mountains surrounding the Enchantment Lakes

We could hardly tear ourselves away from Lake Viviane, but we realized that the day was getting a little long in the tooth and we had a mile to go before we could sleep. We hiked over a granite ridge between Lake Viviane and Leprechaun Lake, and were surprised to see a granite slope so treacherous in bad weather that trail makers had put a series of rebar “staples” in the granite so that people could walk without slipping away. Our day was dry, so it was no problem.

Fallen Alpine Larch needles forming a pattern at the edge of Lake Viviane

When we reached Leprechaun Lake, the lighting was so stunning that we all immediately dropped our packs and began photographing with complete focus. The Alpine Larches glowed bright yellow-gold against the smoky blue of the mountains behind. It was some of the most beautiful light I’ve seen in Washington’s mountains.

Our first view of the granite and golden larches surrounding Leprechaun Lake

Late afternoon light on Alpine Larches, reflecting in Leprechaun Lake

Ripples on Leprechaun Lake, colored by reflected deep blue tree shadows, orange reflections of Alpine Larches, and an aquamarine slice of sunlit lake

Eventually the light faded, and we followed the trail toward the place where we wished to camp, Perfection Lake. By that point, I was really tired and ready to be there. Other members of the group went on ahead and found the Perfect Campsite by Perfection Lake, and we set up camp in the fading light. It was getting chilly, but a hot meal revived us. After that, I had half a chocolate bar and felt energetic enough that I was able to prance around in the darkness for nearly an hour taking night pictures of the lake, the stars, and the larches under a full moon. It was a magical time.

Last light on Prusik Peak, the iconic mountain in The Enchantments

Behind our campsite, larches and a boulder field lit by a rising moon, with stars studding the sky overhead

The rising moon reflecting on the wind-rippled surface of Perfection Lake

I used a headlamp to illuminate the Alpine Larches in the foreground, and moonlight lit the granite of Little Annapurna and other peaks in the distance; if the photo here was shown larger, you would see a lot of stars in the sky

Wispy clouds and stars above our campsite

Looking down the length of Perfection Lake toward Little Annapurna on a moonlit night

After that, I read a page or two of The Snow Leopard and drifted off to sleep, shrouded in a cloud of warm down.

You’ll have to wait for the second installment to see what greeted us when we crawled out of bed on the third morning of the hike.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

GOLD CREEK POND: Autumn into Winter

October 23, 2012

Berries with an elegant, almost iridescent look against a background of fallen snow

After a wonderfully dry summer, Seattle and the Cascade Mountains have entered autumn. When I heard a report that snow was falling at Snoqualmie Pass, I organized a hike to Gold Creek Pond to try and photograph snow and autumn leaves. The forecast kept changing, so we didn’t know if we were going to encounter drizzle or fresh snow at the 3,000′ trailhead.

When we arrived, there was indeed fresh snow; not enough to need snowshoes, by any means, but just the perfect amount for a day of leisurely photography. There were still yellow leaves of Douglas Maple, blazingly scarlet leaves of Vine Maple, and multi-hued leaves of Red-osier Dogwood.

Gold Creek Pond is an artificial creation, despite its stunning and seemingly natural location surrounded by snowy peaks. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the stretch of I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass was under construction, and this was the location of a borrow pit for obtaining gravel for the road construction. Since the bulldozers and front-end loaders departed the scene, the pit has filled with water and is now a wonderful place for families to come and walk, fish, and picnic. The U.S. Forest Service has guided the process of revegetating the shores of the little lake, and it has become an excellent destination for Seattleites wanting a taste of nature.

On our visit, dramatic clouds briefly revealed the surrounding peaks. We also enjoyed seeing and photographing Kokanee Salmon, which are landlocked salmon that spend much of their lives in a lake, then migrate up the inlet stream to spawn. These are the same species as the Sockeye Salmon I had photographed in the Adams River of Canada, but those ocean-going fish are much larger. These fish look to be about 10-12″ long, but still sport the red-and-green color combination typical of the species when it swims upstream to spawn.

A paved one-mile trail leads around the lake, allowing easy access

Red-osier Dogwood leaves varied dramatically in coloration

Autumn Vine Maple leaves turn a vivid scarlet, looking as elegant as the Japanese Maples that so many people plant in their yards; here I photographed the leaves against a cloudy sky

Peaks surrounding Gold Creek Pond occasionally revealed themselves from behind their cloud masks

Migrating Kokanee Salmon clustered in quiet pools along Gold Creek

This salmon group was resting just above a Beaver dam; the bottom of the pond is lined with sticks the Beavers are saving as a winter food supply

Kokanee Salmon are silver for most of their lives, but when the time comes for their death swim upstream, the pigment in their flesh migrates to the skin and the fish become an elegant shade of red

Small gray birds known as Dippers would sometimes swim over the salmon, causing the fish to scatter in a panic

We don’t know why the salmon stay in such tight clusters at this point in their upstream quest; they are undoubtedly resting in a well-oxygenated pool, and perhaps the tight cluster gives some protection against predators or serves a role in mating. At some point the fish will scatter and establish breeding territories along the stream or around the shallows of the lake

Viewed from above, with the distortions of ripples and current, the salmon look as if captured in an abstract painting

Karen, my wife, has a tradition of creating wonderful snowmen on our hikes, and her creation “Autumn” uses seasonal styling cues to bring on a smile

Snow atop dogwood leaves

Douglas Maple’s yellow autumn leaves bearing a snow load

Bunchberry, also known as Canada Dogwood, with overnight snow

The pond itself sits in a dramatic location not far from I-90

The evergreen forest with its first major snow of the autumn

Vine Maple leaves against a light gray cloudy sky

When I visited in late October, the conditions were great for a late autumn hike. Be aware that conditions change constantly at Snoqualmie Pass, and be prepared for winter weather. Soon enough it will be snowshoe season at Gold Creek Pond.

For more information about the Gold Creek Pond area, go to Forest Service Gold Creek Trail; or go to trip reports and a trail description at Washington Trails Association.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Raw and Magnificent Royal Basin

September 15, 2012

Corona of the setting moon behind the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin

As evening clouds started leaking, we crawled into our tents early and listened to the staccato pelting of hard rain on taut nylon. I drifted off to sleep within minutes, as usual after a hard day of high country hiking. Later, I awoke to use the facilities (a euphamism if there ever was one), and quickly realized that the lighting was dramatic. The moon had just descended over a ridge and it was dramatically backlighting the clouds that were streaming over the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin. As a bonus, there was a corona of all the colors of the rainbow in those clouds. The contrast of the starkly black and jagged ridge with the ethereal light of moon on clouds was a reminder of what a special and elemental place this is.

Fast-moving clouds and stars above the ridge

I hadn’t hiked to Royal Basin in 22 years. Last time I was there, hiking with Karen, we had shaggy, shedding Mountain Goats come into our campsite uninvited, like party crashers, hoping to score a lick of urine-soaked soil near our tent. Yeah, it was gross, but that’s what Mountain Goats do when there are lots of humans around. They follow hikers hoping to lick the sweat off their thighs or trail after them into the woods, knowing that that’s where humans go to urinate. And why do the goats like our bodily wastes? Because they crave salt. It is apparently an addictive need for them, and these mountains don’t provide enough salt in the soil to satisfy them. The goats can get pesky, and even aggressive, when around humans. In fact, during the fall of 2010, a 370 lb. adult male in breeding craziness gored a hiker about four miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. The hiker died after the goat’s sharp horn penetrated an artery in his thigh. Mountain Goats are not native to the Olympic Mountains, and sometimes it seems that they just don’t belong here.

On that same earlier trip we also observed a marmot murder. Marmots are territorial and can be aggressive toward each other. In this case, one marmot chased another across a subalpine meadow; the one being chased decided that its only option was to go down a steep snowfield, which ended abruptly at a tarn. The marmot hurtled down the mountain, slipped down the snowfield, and splashed into the tarn. It swam for a while, but it was unable to climb back up the steep, icy sides of the tarn. Eventually, it succumbed to the icy water and drowned. In the court of Olympic Marmot behavior, the marmicide was deemed manslaughter, and we suspect that the suspect was unrepentant. A heroic young woman fished the corpse out of the tarn so that future hikers could safely get their water here.

Warm light of sunrise bathing the cirque

Those were my most salient memories of our earlier trip to Royal Basin, but I remembered being impressed by the rugged cirque of the upper basin. What I didn’t recall was how hard the hike was, but even at 22 years older, we were able to hike the 7+ miles and 3,100′ gain with no problems, other than being dead tired by the end of the long march.

The lower trail winds through a mossy forest

The hike starts, like most hikes in the Pacific Northwest, in the deep Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock and Western Redcedar woods. Following Royal Creek, the trail eventually breaks into subalpine forest with small meadows, and after six miles arrives at Royal Lake. We briefly pondered staying at Royal Lake, but there were lots of backpackers there, wearing headnets to protect themselves against an onslaught of mosquitoes, which had hatched in hordes following the melting snow.

Beautiful Royal Lake is the destination for many of the hikers, though it doesn’t have the sublime wild terrain of the upper basin

More impressive here were the clouds of Chironomids, also known as “non-biting midges,” which danced in shafts of sunlight in swarms of thousands. Up close, these creatures look quite a lot like mosquitoes, but they don’t lust after our blood. Hiking through a swarm tickles a bit, and breathing bugs into an open mouth is a coughing and spitting experience, but otherwise these little bugs are benign and bordering on wondrous. When they are backlit by a low, late-summer sun, the effect is spectacular, like a galaxy of dancing stars. I had first seen these columns of dancing chironomids in Grand Valley in the Olympics many years ago, and had photographed them then, but this time I had the advantage of digital photography, so I could check my photographs immediately and adjust exposures accordingly. It was an unforeseen highlight of the hike.

Chironomids dancing in a shaft of sunlight

These non-biting midges are about the size and shape of mosquitoes (with whom they share the shores of Royal Lake), but these little creatures don’t have vampire tendencies

I have never before seen such a concentration of tiny, dancing insects!

I used a time exposure to capture the chaotic flight of these thousands of chironomids

Detail of a time exposure, this one capturing the rhythmic wingbeats of the insects

All good things come to an end, and here thousands of Chironomids have returned in death to fertilize the lake in which they lived as larvae

Wildflowers were late again this year, because of a heavy snowpack in the Olympics. In some years, the flowers would be shriveled and brown by the week before Labor Day, but not in this late summer. There were sky blue lupines and extensive meadows of scarlet paintbrush. Tall Cow Parsnip and Angelica were in the last stage of fowering. Arnicas and Senecios (two yellow flowers in the sunflower family) were at their peak.

Mountain Bog Gentian heralds the end of summer with its bloom

Edible Thistle is a memorable plant of Olympic subalpine meadows

Kneeling Angelica flowering in a mountain meadow

Fireweed blooming along Imperial Tarn in upper Royal Basin

Arnica blooming near our campsite

We climbed still higher beyond Royal Lake, into upper Royal Basin, which is a huge cirque of rugged mountains. We quickly set up camp on the first flat place we could fine, which was a bed of gravel sorted by a stream coming right out of a snowfield. Cold, wonderful water right next to our tents! There were five of us in the group, and we set up three tents. Two climbers had set up their tent before us, but the gravel bed easily accomodated all of us. Peaks glowed red in the setting sun, and the cirque was wild with a sense of unleashed natural forces.

The rocks tell stories of deposition in quiet seas, followed by the incredible power of volcanism as the Pacific plate slid under the North American plate. The rocks tell tales of the earth’s violence over millions of years; pillow lava along the trail was once formed by magma vents on the bottom of the ocean, now these rocks are found a mile high in the mountains in sheer cliffs. Breccia, a combination of jagged stones embedded in a lava matrix, looks like petrified geological pudding.

Breccia and snowfield along Imperial Tarn

Breccia up close, showing rough rocks embedded in a matrix that was once molten

Though the glaciers are gone, Imperial Tarn is still colored a vivid aquamarine by glacial flour that was formed by the scraping of glaciers against rock

Around us that evening, the setting sun caught spires of rock known at The Needles. High ridges surrounded us, separating us from Desolation Basin and other wild Olympic valleys. Not long ago, this was a place of glaciers, and named glaciers are still found on some topographic maps of the area. These tongues of ice shaped this high basin over thousands and thousands of years, leaving massive jumbles of rocks all over the basin. Alas, the days of glaciation are at an end; when we asked the climbers if they had crossed any glaciers, they insisted that there were no longer any glaciers here. I’m inclined to agree. We tried to make cracks across the long snowfields into crevasses, but I think we were just dreaming. There was no breaking end of the snowfield that would indicate glacial movement. So, I’m afraid we can chalk up the loss of still more glaciers to global warming. On the other hand, if we were in an era of growing glaciers, Royal Basin would be a lot less accessible.

The snowfield previously known as a glacier

An unnamed tarn in Royal Basin, with Mt. Clark and The Needles towering above

I explored the stream below this waterfall, where an American Dipper was feeding in the rapids and along the waterfall itself

The next morning, our little stream had largely dried up. During the warm day, snow melts and feeds the streams, while the chill air of night largely stops the melting. One of our group later watched the stream suddenly come to life later in the morning, and followed its progress as it trickled down the mountain.

After our gourmet breakfast of bean soup, instant coffee, and hot chocolate, we set off for a day of exploring upper Royal Basin. We climbed moraines, located hidden tarns filled with aquamarine water, photographed wildflowers, explored a tall waterfall, and enjoyed the company of perhaps 20 Olympic Marmots.

Our BPA-free water bottles colorfully catch the sunrise

The marmots were my favorite part of the day. The young of the year were adolescents at this point, and were out exploring and feeding on their own. One young marmot insisted upon eating False Hellibore–a lily that is poisonous to humans and sheep. I wanted to yell “Don’t eat that!” at the top of my lungs, but like many rebellious teens he probably would have told me to go stick my head in a burrow.

Young Olympic Marmot bending down a False Hellibore for its lunch

The marmots remind me of Teddy Bears; notice the hands built for digging burrows

Olympic Marmots are found nowhere else on earth. They were isolated from Hoary Marmots–the species found in the Cascades–by the ice age. Now these beautiful tawny-haired creatures thrive in the subalpine meadows between Royal Lake and upper Royal Basin. Their piercing cries warn each other of hikers and coyotes and bears and other nasty creatures. They spend much of the year hibernating deep underground, snug in a sedge-lined nest, and the rest of the year mating and eating. Sleep, sex, and food … not such a bad life!

Marmot at its burrow entrance above Royal Creek

These two young marmots are a bit uncertain about the photographic intruder into their lives

After hours of watching the marmots, we returned to camp and enjoyed talking about the adventures of the day during dinner. That was the night that rain came early, where I started this tale.

Shelter Rock near Royal Lake is made of pillow lava that was once extruded from volcanic vents beneath the ocean; the collision of plates shoved immense deposits of pillow lava up onto the continent

In contrast to the giant forces forming mountains; here a tiny stream sprayed water droplets onto a bed of moss

The next morning, we packed up and began the long hike out, stopping for a while at Royal Lake. There was a breeze at the lake, and we wondered where all the midges had gone. One of us, walking into the woods to use the facilities, discovered that the little bugs were all hunkered down on branches, waiting out the wind and hoping for steady sun so they could resume their wild mating dance.

Beautiful light on upper Royal Basin

The National Park Service closely controls the number of backpackers in Royal Basin, following an era of overuse that resulted in trampling of beautiful wildflower meadows. Our permit allowed us to stay in the upper basin, where a total of 12 people in a maximum of four groups could camp. Royal Lake could accommodate more people, and there is a ranger station there (but no ranger during our stay; we wondered if the backcountry ranger had left for college or to fight a forest fire).

The lower trail passes thimbleberries and big firs and hemlocks

Fast hikers can explore Royal Basin as a day hike of 14+ miles, which is more than I would care to do in a day. We watched two guys descending a steep snowfield near the rim of the cirque; they had come from largely snowclad Deception Basin, over the ridge, and down the snowfield. They used crampons on their boots to allow safer passage on the hard snow of morning, and used treking poles to help stabilize themselves on the steep slope. These guys were really tired after a tough hike, and still had a good seven miles to go.

Footbridge crossing the lower reaches of Royal Creek

We enjoyed chatting briefly with a group of young people who had backpacked in. They had come to Royal Basin as part of their freshman college orientation, and were uniformly enthusiastic about the experience. The Puget Sound region is so beautiful that outdoor activities like this are part of the pulse of living here.

Hemlock forest along the trail

An impressionistic view of the hemlock forest

Fireweed against a sky of delicate cirrus clouds

For more information about Royal Basin hiking go to:

Washington Trails Association Hike of the Week

Royal Basin, National Park Service

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK: Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout

August 16, 2012

View from the deck of Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout toward Mount Rainier

When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.

Gobblers Knob Lookout sits atop a rocky promontory with terrific views into Mount Rainier National Park, and back toward the clearcut expanses of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!

Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).

Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!

Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.

Gobblers Knob is no longer staffed during each fire season, and is maintained now for historical reasons rather than fire fighting

When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.

Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.

Sunset reflecting in the Gobblers Knob lookout windows, looking toward Mount Rainier

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.

The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout

Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.

The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.

To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.

Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.

The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.

Sunset on Mount Rainier from the lookout; what a wonderful place it would have been to spend the summer!

Subalpine trees silhouetted by the last light of sunset as we started our descent

After dark, we left the lookout and hiked down the trail 1.6 miles back to camp by headlamp; the only spooky moment was seeing the bright green eyeshine of a hiker’s dog looking back at us

On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.

The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.

The tranquil view from our campsite along Goat Lake; that is, until I disturbed the peace with my yelps upon entering the cold morning water!

The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.

Photographs from the trail:

The trail to Gobblers Knob leads past Lake Christine and through subalpine meadows filled with summer wildflowers

White Avalanche Lilies, which melt almost immediately after snowmelt, were the star wildflower attraction here

I have rarely seen wildflowers packed as densely as these spectacular White Avalanche Lilies; avalanche fields forever

Western Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs are among the big trees in the forest near Goat Lake

The green of Beljica Meadows viewed from Mount Beljica, site of another abandoned lookout that has vanished without a trace into the annals of U.S. Forest Service history

Dark-throated Shooting Star is a spectacular wildflower of these high wet meadows

Magenta Paintbrush blooming along the trail

A close view of White Avalanche Lily

Rare yellow form of the normally red-and-yellow columbine that graces the high forests of Washington State

For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:

National Park Service trail to Gobblers Knob (Note: this is NOT the route we took; the National Park Service route is longer, and much of it follows the West Side Road, which is now closed to vehicles.

Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)

There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


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