Archive for the ‘national parks’ category

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

June 7, 2016

Among birders, the legend lives on of the Colima Warbler, found among oak trees in a remote canyon high in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. The species is mostly found in Mexico, but this region of south Texas has a couple of places where birders can fairly reliably stalk it, and we decided to be warbler stalkers for a day.

Early that May morning, we laced up our hiking boots and smeared on SPF 55, anticipating a long day in the bright sun. The route would take us from the Chisos Basin, where we were camped, to Boot Canyon, about 3.5 miles distant, with a 2,000 foot elevation gain.

As usual, my intention of finding the Colima Warbler got sidetracked almost immediately, when we walked past a dead Havard Century Plant that was cheeping at me. Huh? I looked on the other side of the brown flowering stalk and discovered a perfectly round hole that was clearly a nest with hungry baby birds in it. So, I hunkered down in the dust and waited for a parent to come. It didn’t take long until a wary mother Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed up and ducked quickly into the hole, where it fed the nestlings.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker Nest Hole in Century Plant, in Big Bend

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Picoides scalaris, adult female servicing its young in a nest hole in a dead Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, flowering stalk, in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was there a long time, and Karen had the opportunity to see a pair of Crissal Thrashers trying to thrash each other while waiting interminably for me to finish photographing. So she got a new species and I missed the opportunity entirely. Oh well, at least I got a few pictures of the woodpecker.

Next I got distracted by bugs, specifically some Giant Agave Bugs crawling around the tip of a rapidly growing Havard Century Plant stalk. Creepy? Yes. But I was amazed at the size of these creatures, which are in the scientific category known as “True Bugs.” Yes, that really is a category, though most real scientists would prefer to use the scientific name, Hemiptera, so that they don’t sound like 8-year-old boys with bug nets. These big bugs sip the sap of the century plant, though probably not enough to hurt it.

Giant Agave Bugs on Havard Century Plant in Big Bend National Pa

Giant Agave Bugs, Acanthocephala thomasi, on the expanding flower stalk of a Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, aka Havard Agave, in the Chisos Mountains. This stalk is probably over 3″ in diameter at the bottom

Onward and upward, we came upon our first Mexican Jays, which are loud and travel in gangs and aren’t very afraid of people. If Donald Trump was a birdwatcher, he would probably want to set up a wall, or at least a mist net, to stop these birds from entering the country. Though he might like their gaudy blue color and brash attitude. Seeing these jays was a first for us, as we climbed toward seeing 530 birds on our North American Life Lists.

Higher still, Karen spotted a Painted Redstart, in the oak and maple forest–another first for us and a stunningly beautiful bird. There were also Texas Madrone trees, similar to the Madrone trees of the west coast, but with minor differences that I apparently couldn’t see.

Over the pass with long views into Mexico. There were birdwatchers on their own journeys to see the famous Colima. There were also lots of backpackers heading up to campsites hidden all along the trails. It would be a beautiful place to backpack, except for the lack of water along the way, which means carrying the recommended one gallon of water (8+ lbs!) per person per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for camera equipment, but we all have our priorities. Would I rather photograph little birds or die of thirst in the desert? I’ll have to think about that one.

Mexican Jays in Big Bend National Park

Mexican Jays, Aphelocoma ultramarina, foraging on the ground in the Chisos Mountains

Meanwhile, we finally reached Boot Canyon, where the Colima Warbler had been spotted earlier in the week. We stood around. We listened. We walked a few feet. We scanned the canyon with our binoculars. And … nothing. I’m pretty sure I heard the warbler, but not sure enough to count it on my all-important life list. After an hour or so, we gave up on this location, hoping beyond hope that it had simply wandered down the trail we were taking. It didn’t.

We decided that since we had come this far, we might as well complete the 10+ mile loop, rather than going back the way we came. I busied myself with photographing century plants and cactus, since they can’t fly away and hide, although I am paranoid about poking myself in the eye with a sharp spine, which makes me cringe at the thought even as I write this.

Boot Canyon Trail View in Big Bend National Park
View down into desert from Boot Canyon Trail in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park

By the time we arrived back at the campground, our feet were aching and hot, and we were ready to rest. But that moment brought the best light of the day, with alpenglow or its desert equivalent lighting up Casa Grande with brilliant orange light. So I scurried around the campground trying to get the best angle on the iconic peak until I was bone tired.

We had “dipped” on the warbler: birdwatcher speak for not seeing a desirable bird that we had traveled miles to see, but it was still a great day.

Postscript: We arrived in El Paso late the next day, after passing through a fierce dust storm that sandblasted us with 60 mph winds and near zero visibility. With the temperature at 95 degrees F and the dust storm continuing, we wimped out and stayed in a motel rather than camping for the night. In the cool and quiet lobby of the motel, there was a birding tour group getting their final debriefing for their Texas trip by the trip leaders. It turned out that all these old birders (as in, anyone older than me!) had done the same hike we did, but with expert leadership, they had seen the Colima Warbler. I’ll be back and the punk warbler will make my day.

Gallery of hike photographs:

To see what the Colima Warbler is supposed to look like, go to Colima Warbler

For general information about visiting this stupendous national park, go to Big Bend National Park

Remember that Big Bend National Park is is the Chihuahuan Desert. If you go, make sure you plan your schedule to maximize  your chance to see the warbler and other birds, and make sure to know the hazards of the desert ahead of time.

To see more of my work, read more of my blog entries here or go to my website Lee Rentz Photography.

THE SNOWMAN PROJECT: Ephemeral Trail People by Karen Rentz & Friends; Part 1

January 7, 2015

Snowman at Naiset HutsWe were staying in a log hut during a Seattle Mountaineers trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, one of the dramatic high country huts in the Canadian Rockies, when it snowed one night. The next morning, Karen led an effort to create a snowman that reflected the changing seasons. It had a rain hat and a warm woolen scarf, as well as an evergreen mouth, a traditional carrot nose, and eyes of still-flowering purple asters that a Pack Rat had cut in front of our cabin. Making this “Hippy Chick” snowwoman took our minds off the Grizzly Bear tracks that were left overnight on the trail that went right by the hut. 

Snowman at Naiset Huts in Mount Assiniboine Provincial ParkThe guy staying in the hut next to ours  had been camping about a mile away, but a bear invaded his camp in the night and scared him, so he moved into the cabin. Perhaps our snowman worked as a talisman to ward off hungry grizzlies.

When backpackers unexpectedly encounter a group of, ahem, older hikers, making a snowman along a trail, they are delighted. After all, snowmen take us back to the days of carefree childhood, when playing in the snow was simply what we did in the winter, bundled up in snowsuits, woolen mittens, and warm boots. During those winter days of long ago, those of us growing up in northern climates would also make snow angels and erupt into spontaneous snowball fights–reflecting the sweet and agressive sides of our childhood natures.

Karen Rentz started creating snowmen during backpacking trips at least a decade ago. Gradually her friends came to expect that when they came to a remnant snowfield during a summer hike, they were going to be roped into making a snowman, and that it was a fun distraction from the exertion of hard hiking. Almost everyone pitched in, gathering hemlock cones and fallen lichens and twigs and leaves and whatever other natural materials were at hand, sometimes supplemented–long enough to take pictures–with mittens and hats.

These are sweet-tempered snowmen, unlike the snowmen that sprang from the mind of Bill Watterson’s Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (which I still miss): Calvin and Hobbes. Karen’s snowmen usually smile through a twig mouth and they have funny hats or hair and are gentle spirits, reflecting her soul.

All snowmen are ephemeral, of course, and that is part of their charm. When Karen and friends make a snowman, it some times lasts an hour or two, perhaps for another day or two, with sunshine and gravity taking their inevitable toll. But the short lives are okay, for none of us lasts all that long on this earth, and they are a reminder to stop and smell the roses: for that alone, making a snowman is worthwhile.

Mount_Townsend-12On Mount Townsend we built this snowman on the top edge of a very long snow slope that descended several thousand feet at a steep pitch, so we had to be careful not to slide off. On this spot once stood a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout cabin built in 1933 to watch for fires in Olympic National Forest, but it was destroyed in 1962.

Mount_Townsend-24This Mount Townsend snowman was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. We found the old spoon at the edge of the snow field, and believe that it was lost when the lookout cabin was destroyed. The eyes, nose, and buttons are made of small rocks that had been broken off the bedrock when water trickled into cracks in the rock, and then froze. These rocks originated millions of years ago on the Pacific Ocean floor, then were thrust up above the ocean to form the rugged Olympic Mountains. But enough of geology. The hair is made of fallen branches of Mountain Hemlock.

Mount_Townsend-13Karen Rentz with the Mount Townsend snowman. Cold knee!

IMG_0272While backpacking in The Enchantments of Washington State, there was a bit of remnant snow at the time the golden Alpine Larch needles were falling in October, so we gave this hula snowgirl a Hawaiian skirt, thinking about how much warmer it would be to be hiking in the islands.

IMG_0274There was just enough snow left over on that Enchantments hike to make a snowman’s head about the size of a big man’s fist; cones make up the eyes.

Snowman along Pacific Crest Trail in Goat Rocks WildernessWe built this snowman along the Pacific Crest Trail, at the very place we met a hiker who had already come all the way from Mexico and was going all the way to Canada. He was unique in that he was quite a dapper hiker, wearing a Panama hat, a neatly trimmed beard, and a necktie (really!); he said he was between jobs and wanted to be ready in case someone wanted to interview him for a job along the trail. Hey, I’d hire him for his sense of humor!

Snowman along Pacific Crest Trail in Goat Rocks WildernessThis Pacific Crest Trail snowman had pretty lupine flowers for hair, Mountain Hemlock cones for a nose and buttons, pine needles for eyebrows, and a happy twiggy smile. This snow field was located in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a place where there once towered a volcano on the scale of Mount Rainier. It sits directly between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the founder of the national forest system who worked in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.

IMG_0149Karen and I were driving through Yosemite National Park one fine autumn day and came upon a patch of snow that hadn’t yet melted from an early autumn snowfall. So, we just had to make this cute little snowman with Lodgepole Pine cone eyes. One of our photos of this snowman was featured in an article about quirky snowmen on NPR’s website several years ago.

Gold_Creek_Snoqualmie-44We hiked with two friends around Gold Creek Pond in October of 2012, when the first heavy snows were starting to blanket the Cascade Mountains above Seattle. The last of the autumn leaves were still vivid, but the first major snow of winter had deposited enough snow to make a snowman. Gold Creek was also enjoying a Kokanee Salmon run, so while Karen did most of the work on the snowman, I did some underwater photography of the salmon, which were the color of burgundy. The underwater photography was so cool that I returned the next day to do some more. By then, the snowman was looking a bit under the weather, but I would be too if I had to stand in the same place all night. The second day, a young gold miner walked by and chatted with me (remember, this is GOLD Creek Pond); he carried some mining equipment–as well as having an exposed pistol on his belt. Mining is a serious activity, and that fall the price of gold was shooting upward, so a guy had to be prepared for outlaws.

Gold_Creek_Snoqualmie-50We used vivid Vine Maple leaves for the hat, and Douglas Fir cones for the eyes. Gold Creek Pond is located near Snoqualmie Pass above Seattle in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest.

Snowman at Melakwa LakeKaren and I hiked up to Melakwa Lake at the end of July. It was a cold, foggy backpacking trip to one of the high mountain lakes located closest to Seattle, and at the beginning of the hike the trail leads under a beautiful elevated section of I-90 (it is elevated to allow avalanches to pass safely underneath). We created this handsome snowman, which we named “Misty Melakwa,” atop a remnant snow field. The hair is of a Mountain Hemlock branch that had turned yellow, perhaps after being buried for nine months under the snow, and the buttons and eyes are of hemlock cones. The spiky hat is a piece of old, weathered wood that might have been a hard knot from a rotted tree. “Misty Melakwa” has a bit of the devil in him, or so it looks from the crooked smile. Melakwa was an Indian word for “mosquito,” so we’re glad the weekend wasn’t warmer, allowing those pesky devils to swarm.

Karen Rentz and Snowman at Melakwa LakeKaren Rentz with her creation. Our snowmen are not big, and they don’t live long.

IMG_0162Lee Rentz during one of his occasional beard phases (it would be much whiter today).

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USADuring a hike to Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park in August, we started making a snowman a little ways off the trail on a remnant snow field. In this national park, the volunteer park rangers are adamant about staying on the trail, and we were several yards off the trail. I saw a ranger coming up the trail, and figured I would head her off at the pass by chatting with her about the trail. But she saw my comrades making the snowman and wondered what we were up to. I guess she figured that a group of older people making a snowman in late summer was a harmless, though slightly eccentric, activity so she let us off with a warning: “Please make sure you take a giant step onto the snow field to make sure you don’t crush any tiny plants about to emerge at the edge of the snow.” Duly noted. And done. (Though it should also be noted that a group of volunteer rangers was gathered off the trail around the lookout in lawn chairs, where they were having a party.)

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USAWith the lovely pink hat and fashionable scarf, this snow lady is definitely a girly-girl.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USAKaren, Joan, and Junko make up the trio of ladies who built this lovely creature.

Snowman at Boulder Camp in Olympic National ForestA trail shelter at Boulder Camp in Olympic National Forest was our destination for this day hike. The trail shelter must have enjoyed divine intervention, because giant avalanches had frequently thundered down the surrounding mountains, but always seemed to miss the hut. We built this friendly snowman, with his carefully parted lichen hair, as a talisman to bring us good luck during our visit. He certainly looks friendly, and he is standing atop a tree that had been toppled by a long-ago avalanche.

Snowman at Boulder Camp in Olympic National ForestBoulder Camp is located in the deep Upper Dungeness River Valley below Marmot and Buckhorn Passes in the Olympics. There aren’t very many of these shelters in Washington State’s mountains, but they do provide a dry place to get out of the rain when the weather takes a turn.

Trap_Lake_PCT-264With hair and arms of Wolf Lichen, this snow woman is dancing atop a precarious snow bridge over a tiny creek. Wherever a creek flows under a snow field in the mountains, it melts the snow from underneath. Careless hikers can plunge through the thinned snow if they’re not careful, and that’s probably what happened to this little snowman after we left. RIP, tiny dancer!

rotateIMG_0212A happy snowman made by Karen Rentz and Linda Moore along the Grassy Knoll trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood points into the sky in the distance. His happy feet look to be made of Douglas Fir branches, with cones for toes. 

Snowman Made from Natural Materials in The EnchantmentsOur most recent snowman, made in October high in The Enchantments above Horseshoe Lake, was in a meadow that still sported a few late summer wildflowers and lots of Pikas running around gathering winter hay in the meadows around the rocks. Pine hair and chartreuse lichen details make the snow guy look a bit crazy. This was created by Karen, Junko, and me.

IMG_0110Reason #1 for carrying an orange trowel is to scrape hardened snow off snowbanks in order to build a snowman. Reason #2 is, well, digging holes for #2. This happy hiker gal was enjoying the cool snows of summer in Mount Rainier National Park.

IMG_0107Made in Canada, this snowman features a fine rock hat, as well as nice rock body parts.

Mt_Rainier_NP-89On Mount Rainier, even snowmen need ropes to climb the 14,410 foot high volcano, and this one has stylish ropes of red and purple.

Mt_Rainier_NP-89-BThe hat is made of layers and decorations of volcanic rock, while the scarf was made of flagging tape (removed before we left, of course). This was along the Skyline Trail near Paradise.

Snowman at Naiset Huts in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

The Snowman Project will be continued, as long as there is snow to shape and trails to walk and bodies that can make the journey.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

WITNESS TO CREATION: When Lava Battles the Sea

February 19, 2014

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island ofLava greets the sea in a swirling cloud of elemental forces 

I already knew the answer I’d get, but I decided to ask the ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park anyway:

“Where can we go to see lava flowing into the ocean?”

“You can’t. It’s on private property and it’s unsafe to go out there” she replied.

We went anyway, and had one of the most astounding experiences of our lives.

We were fortunate. Our first trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in May 2013 coincided with the awakening of Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. She was sending small rivers of lava down the slopes of Kilauea to the sea, where they sizzled and exploded and steamed and hissed in anger at being awakened. We just HAD to see it, after reading about the experience and seeing photographs of the frequent eruptions over our lifetimes.

We had intended to walk out on our own, but there were some inter-cultural conflicts brewing at the time, and decided it would be culturally and physically safer to go with a guide. Aside from that, the lava beds we would have to cross were indeed on private property, so it was worth going with someone who had permission to pass. We planned a time when we could hike out in late afternoon so that we could see the lava flowing at twilight, then return in the dark, and signed up for just such a trip led by a guide from Kalapana Cultural Tours, a private company that had access to the area.

Our group gathered at the funky cluster of temporary buildings in Kalapana, which now consists of a bar and places to eat and listen to music out in the open. Kalapana was once a thriving little village, but an eruption starting in 1986 buried most of the town under lava, and eruptions in the area have continued sporadically ever since. Houses and subdivisions are no match for Pahoihoi lava.

Group Hiking to View Hot Lava Entering Sea on Big IslandWe started hiking in late afternoon across a lava plain; here we had our first glimpse of the billowing steam

We took a van to the trailhead, then struck off at a fair hiking pace toward the lava. We walked over hard ropy lava and rounded Pahoehoe lava in fanciful shapes, with the last sun of the afternoon glaring down above the slopes. There was no trail at all, so it was comforting to have a guide to lead us over the clanking plains of loose lava rock, not knowing where a river of melted rock might be lurking just below the surface.

The hike out to the cliffs where lava was flowing was roughly two miles over some of the roughest terrain imaginable. Our guide was a native Hawaiian from Kalapana who had lots of extended family in the area, and had stories of the lava’s impacts on village residents. We dressed in long pants, carried two quarts of water each, wore headlamps, took some energy bars, and carried extra batteries and a jacket in case of rain. Not everyone prepared so well. A lot of people wore shorts and were not well prepared for the rough terrain. Alas, most of them were young and resilient and carefree, so what did it matter? Actually, it does matter for some people; while we were in Hawaii, a photographer had a heart attack and died while walking with a friend on the route to see flowing lava. I think he found it harder than expected.

Hiking on lava was not difficult for us, since we are hikers from ‘way back. But we did have to be careful, since the rock was incredibly sharp. Karen used a hiking stick; I didn’t because I was carrying a tripod. Fortunately I didn’t fall, but one older lady in our group (actually, she was about our age) took a nasty stumble, and needed first aid for bloody scrapes on her arms and legs. Fortunately, we didn’t have to carry her out.

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

One aspect of hiking on lava was unexpected, and that was the sound of fragile shreds of lava tinkling underfoot–a sound that reminded me somehow of broken glass.

When we reached the overlook, there was a sensory explosion of lava hitting the sea. There was hissing and arcs of hot orange lava exploding within the steam cloud. Waves crashed into the decending stream of hot and dripping lava and a column of steam billowed up continuously. We wondered how far away from the lava a swimmer would have to be to avoid being cooked. All of us stood mesmerized by the sight, and I took hundreds of photographs, not wanting the experience to stop. It was simply astounding.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

We stayed long enough that we watched early twilight blend into black night with an orange glow. The guide nicely asked me if I had gotten enough pictures, and I replied that I had, so he gathered the group and told us that on the way back he was going to look for a breakout–a place where a small stream of lava comes up through the older, hardened lava and starts oozing out in a bright tongue.

At the first location we stopped, we saw orange lava intermixed with cooled lava, looking like hot coals after a campfire. Then the guide spotted a place where a nature was sticking out a good-sized, Rolling Stones-style lava tongue at us. We walked over to experience the lava from just a few feet away and felt the elemental challenge of Pele. It was extremely hot, of course, and there was the uncertainty of just where it might break out next. At one point, I looked down and saw an orange glow in the narrow cracks just beneath my feet. THAT put me on edge, along with the intense heat of the place. Along with everyone else, I took photographs of Karen standing right in front of an oozing tongue of lava–which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hot Molten Lava at Night on the Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Karen Rentz with Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of

I took photograph after photograph during the hike back, riding on a hot cloud of elation at having experienced this earthly event. At times, I would be taking a photograph and Karen would be next to me, and the group would disappear over a rise. This made us both nervous, because with the danger of the area we really needed to stay with the group. But I needed to photograph. So we were endlessly conflicted. Eventually we would scurry along to catch up with the tag end of the group.

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering Ocea

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering OceaOur group hiking ahead, lit by flashlights and headlamps

Finally, our group’s headlamps found the van, and we boarded for the short ride back to Kalapana. It had been a magnificent experience, reminiscent of the eons of elemental forces that shaped the earth, and which continue to build the planet.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Freshly Hardened Lava Shapes on the Big Island of Hawaii

Volcano Update:  As of this blog post on 19 February 2014, there is no lava entering the sea. The National Park Service advises of the state of the current eruption at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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 NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

July 16, 2013

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

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.

HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

May 26, 2013

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

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.

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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