OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Hurricane Ridge in Winter
Common Raven calling from the old trunk of a Whitebark Pine.
At the end of the day of snowshoeing, we were ready to leave the parking lot high atop Hurricane Ridge in Washington state’s Olympic National Park. One car remained, a Volkswagen Jetta that the four occupants couldn’t budge from its parking space. The parking brake cable was frozen. One of the four 20-year-olds crawled under the car and tapped on the cable with a hammer to try and free it, which eventually worked. We waited to make sure they were able to leave successfully, which they finally did. Then we headed down the winding mountain road behind them–the last car off the mountain.
About a third of the way down, the Jetta hit a steep, icy patch and started spinning around, until it was facing uphill. I was too close for comfort on this steep road; when I hit the same icy patch, I found I couldn’t effectively stop the all-wheel drive Pontiac Aztek I was driving and I went into a controlled slide guided by my ABS brakes, which enabled me to pass the Jetta on the left side of the road without hitting it. I was lucky; the Jetta driver was lucky. We both made winter driving mistakes and lived to tell about it. If I hadn’t had ABS brakes, the rangers might have had to haul our broken cars and bodies several thousand feet up the steep, snow-covered mountainside.
Tall, thin conifers designed by nature to carry little snow (a tree with more spreading limbs would have to bear a tremendously heavy burden of western Washington wet snow).
But enough of potential tragedy. The outing was otherwise terrific. Karen and I finally got in a winter snowshoe trip after several winters of medical problems, including my broken ankle of 2008. Fresh snow fell as we walked, drifting over the subalpine patches of firs, spruces, and Whitebark Pines. There were other cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and walkers out on this beautiful day, but not many. More people were using the downhill ski area, which is an old-fashioned facility with two rope tows. Snowshoes and both kinds of skis are available for daily rentals at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
Karen Rentz snowshoeing while snow fell steadily.
I was primarily interested in winter high country photography, so I brought my camera with two zoom lenses and a tele-extender. For just about the first time ever on a mountain trip, I carried no tripod. I wanted to see if I would miss the stable support that I found so important for film photography. I didn’t. Digital photography with image stabilized lenses allows me to work fast and loose at high ISO settings and get remarkably good results. For the future I suspect that the only times I will really need a tripod are for night and macro photography, and for photographing birds for a long period with a very long lens. I am drawn to create graphically clean photographs with no extraneous busyness. Hurricane Ridge was perfect for that approach, with its scattered patches of conifers and clean white snow-covered meadows.
Common Raven pretending to be Darth Vader.
Even the birds cooperated for my photography. Gray Jays and Common Ravens are notorious beggars, so they are not afraid of people and I was able to use my camera at close range. Just don’t tell the National Park Service that I fed the Gray Jays bits of a Toffee Chocolate Chip Power Bar (my emergency food) from my hand. I swear I could hear them sighing with contentment from full bellies.
Actually, the behavior of the ravens and jays around humans is nothing new. Both species are scavengers that feed around the leavings of animals killed by bears, and both species undoubtedly hung around tribal villages because they knew that humans don’t necessarily eat every scrap of food. Native Americans of this region celebrated ravens, using the figure as a symbol in totem poles and other artistic forms of expression and identity.
Gray Jay hoping for a handout.
Gray Jay checking out the colorfully-clothed big mammal.
During the winter the Hurricane Ridge Road is usually open only three days a week, because it is such a big and expensive responsibility for the National Park Service to keep the road plowed. We saw two huge vehicles parked near the road, waiting for the next big snowfall. These weren’t the normal plows that many of us are accustomed to; instead, they are giant snowblowers designed to throw the snow over the road shoulder and down the mountainside. The little boy in me would love to see these machines in operation. By the way, all vehicles are required to carry tire chains on this road during the winter. For more information about Olympic National Park in winter go to: http://www.nps.gov/olym/
Common Raven on a an old snag.
Karen Rentz doing an exercise suggested by the sign.
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