June 1, 2008 On Edge on the East Side
Spring in the Seattle area alternates between dark, rainy days and bright, sunny ones. When a spell of bad weather descends, we enjoy hiking and camping on the east side of the Cascade Range, where the skies are usually sunny. On this trip we headed east, leaving behind a wall of ominous skies at Snoqualmie Pass. There were three of us: my wife Karen, our friend Sue, and me.
Our goal on this trip was to explore Black Canyon and Bear Canyon in the general area of the Tieton River Canyon, which features dark basalt formations in hexagonal columns, and open Ponderosa Pine and Big Sagebrush landscapes. Most of this area lies within Wenatchee National Forest and the Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area, though there is also some private land. The Nature Conservancy has played a key role in buying and preserving this extraordinary landscape. And it is beautiful in spring to the eyes of a sun-starved Washington mossback.
This region is known for ticks, so we took the dorky-looking precaution of tucking our light-colored long pants inside our white socks. Then some of us also sprayed with a DEET-based repellent. It seemed to work, since we didn’t pick up any ticks all weekend. Plus we applied sunscreen and wore hats so that our fishbelly-white Western Washington bodies wouldn’t be damaged by the glaring sun. But there were other hazards …
After the long drive, when we first emerged from the car to look at some Bitterroot flowers (genus Lewisia, named for the discoverer, Meriwether Lewis), Sue spotted a snake looking limp and dead on the basalt. But it wasn’t dead, only cold. We prodded it awake with a stick and saw the rattles as it slithered into a hole between the rocks: it was a Western Rattlesnake! This discovery reminded us to remain vigilant.
Our first hike was into Black Canyon. The trail lead steadily upward, leading past Trembling Aspen groves and an old settler’s cabin. The cabin was in a pretty setting near a stream, and we could imagine the sounds of horses and cows and chickens and children in the clearing a hundred years ago. The aspens wore evidence of more recent visits. The bark on every tree was covered with marks from the ground to roughly head high. But this graffitti wasn’t made by vandals or lonely shephards: it was made by Elk using their teeth to scrape deep into the bark to get nutients and sugar from the bark’s inner layers. The marks then last for as long as the tree. On the trail itself we saw a scent post used by a Coyote. This is a spot along the trail where a Coyote or Coyotes had deposited scat over time, one layer after another. Interesting stuff, that poop.
The trail led higher, through scattered Ponderosa Pines and hillsides covered with sagebrush and scattered late wildflowers. While walking along the edge of the trail, Karen was startled by a dry rattle within a few feet of her boots. It was another rattlesnake, this one coiled and ready for battle with the towering intruders. At first it rattled almost continuously, but by the time I got there it had quieted down, deciding that Karen wasn’t such a big threat, after all. I photographed the rattlesnake, the thought briefly crossing my mind that I would like to reach down and remove a blade of grass in front of its face. I thought better of it, and decided that Photoshop would be a safer way to cut away the grass. It struck us how well the rattlesnake’s skin blended in with the natural brown and subtle green tones of the landscape. If the snake hadn’t rattled, we would have never known it was there until …
Higher still, we came into open hills, where we examined wildflowers and covered up, because the sky had darkened and big drops of rain sputtered down. At that point we decided to head back down, and drive back to our campsite at the Wenas Campground near Naches. By the way, this is a terrific campground that is also known variously as the Boise-Cascade Campground and the Audubon Campground (there is a yearly spring gathering for birdwatchers here). BYOW (bring your own water) and be prepared to share the campground with ORV users, but the Ponderosa Pine grove here is gorgeous.
The next morning, we packed up our gear and drove to the Bear Canyon trailhead. The trailhead showed promise, with towering Ponderosa Pines framing basalt cliffs. This was a beautiful place, and we learned from another hiker that the Nature Conservancy had preserved this canyon. That hiker later asked if we had seen the scratches at about eye level on a tree along the trail. I had seen the marks, but the source didn’t register until he mentioned that the scratches had been made by a cat–specifically the big cat known variously as Cougar and Mountain Lion. And the scratches were fresh, as if the Cougar had come through just before us. This was a reminder, if another was needed, to be wary and alert in this back country. Unfortunately, we never saw the Cougar, but just knowing it was in that canyon added a whole new dimension to the hike.
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Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.