Archive for the ‘tree’ category

MY LAST HIKE IN THE ENCHANTMENTS

November 1, 2014

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes WildernessSunlit Alpine Larches with the cloud-shrouded flanks of Mt. Stuart in the distance

The place is profoundly inspiring. Ragged ridges slice the sky. A pale sun dances off aquamarine tarns. Golden larch needles tickle my arm. Towering Mt. Stuart creates its own clouds. Mountain Goats greet us like long-lost friends. Is there anywhere as enchanting?

We drove from the Seattle area to Leavenworth, in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, on an early October day. Our backpacking permit from the Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest allowed us four nights in a lesser-visited part of The Enchantments that included Lake Stuart and Horseshoe Lake. Our goal was to hike to Lake Stuart, camp one night, then hike the unofficial route up to the real high country of Horseshoe Lake, then spend three nights there among the golden Alpine Larches.

We drove up the steep access road to the trailhead, which wound through patches of scarred trees where forest fires had raged in recent years. In fact, two years previously, we had been blocked from this access road by a big wildfire.

At the trailhead, we joined scores of other cars in a big parking lot. When I got out of the warm car, I was immediately struck by the chill in the air. We were used to warmer weather all summer for our hikes, and this was a change. Even so, I started the hike wearing shorts and a nylon shirt, knowing that I would heat up immediately as we climbed the trail toward Horseshoe Lake. After eating a trail lunch of crackers, cheese, cookies, and dried mango at the trailhead, I donned my 47 lb. pack and we headed up the trail.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USACrossing Mountaineer Creek on a high bridge on the way to The Enchantments

It was a long slog upward through the evergreen forest and along Mountaineer Creek. Hikes ascending through dense forest are never my favorites, but they are almost always necessary to get to the more desirable high country. And let’s face it, the long trek through the forest makes the high meadows seem even sweeter by comparison.

The afternoon went by quickly as we climbed the five mile trail toward Lake Stuart. Eventually we reached the shores of the lake. Swaths of bright green horsetails in the lake’s shallows were glowing in the late afternoon light, against the mountainsides in deep shade. I was immediately inspired by the scene, grabbed my camera, and asked Karen if she could set up the tent while I photographed. The downside was that I was chilled in the cold and windy mountain air after the sweaty hike up the trail. This is a time when I should have immediately changed into warmer clothes and ingested some calories but, no, I just HAD to get those photographs! As a result, I was really cold when I eventually got back to camp. Too cold to even fix a tripod that needed repair. In these circumstances I get the symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease, which cuts off blood flow to the fingers and leaves them ghostly white and unable to work properly.

Edge of Lake Stuart on Tranquil Morning in Alpine Lakes WilderneHorsetails at the edge of Lake Stuart, with snowy Mt. Stuart in the distance

Swamp Horsetail Massed along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsThe Swamp Horsetail colony had an incredibly bright yellow-green color

After a good backpacking dinner of dehydrated Pad Thai, I felt revived, but was still a bit chilled, and that’s how I would feel all night. To cut weight on this trip, we brought our lightest weight tent; unfortunately, the tent achieves much of its weight savings by using insect netting instead of solid nylon walls, so the wind on this breezy night blew right through the tent. We also skimped on sleeping bags to save weight, given the favorable forecast, but ended up wearing nearly all our clothing inside the summer-weight sleeping bags. Oh well, the first night was to be the coldest.

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes WildernessStorm light on Mt. Stuart that first evening; the mountain is so high that it makes its own clouds, which dissipate just downwind from the mountain

The next morning, we awoke early, knowing we had a difficult day ahead. Lake Stuart was still. We discovered that our latest technology–a UV blasting Steripen for sterilizing drinking water–had stopped working. Fortunately we had a backup plan: using iodine tablets and an iodine neutralizer that we carry for just such situations. It worked just fine.

Mt. Stuart Viewed from Lake Stuart in the Alpine Lakes WildernesAfter the tumultuous weather of the previous evening, morning dawned cold, clear, and windless

After packing up, we walked to the end of the lake, then started following a route throught the woods. This is not an officially maintained trail, so the hiking was difficult, with lots of fallen trees to climb over or crawl under. Eventually we came to a big open wetland filled with cottongrass and The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWet meadow along the route from Lake Stuart to Horseshoe Lake, with Mt. Stuart towering above

other boggy plants. Skirting the side of it, we began searching for a horseshoe tacked to a tree that would signal the place to start climbing the mountain. We ran into two older (well, older than me!) guys crashing through the woods behind us. One knew exactly where the horseshoe was located, and told us how to get there. He said that he first came to The Enchantments with his older brother (the guy with him) in 1959, when he was 12 years old, so he had a long love of the place.

Stuart_and_Horseshoe_Lakes-126The horseshoe marking the start of the rough route up the mountain to Horseshoe Lake

Upon reaching the horseshoe, we celebrated; after all, some people get lost at this point and never make it up to Horseshoe Lake. The trail ascended. Steeply. Over and under endless fallen trees. Some steps up onto granite were so steep that we had to help pull each other up.

We reached our first golden larch. Then another. The path rose into a huckleberry meadow glowing with red leaves. Sparkle off distant water. We were there!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAApproaching Horseshoe Lake through an autumn huckleberry meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe view from our campsite across the narrow lake to Mt. Stuart

After a brief break, we split up to search for a campsite. The lake was small, and we chose an established campsite on a peninsula jutting into the lake where there were two flat spots for our tents. We set up our tents, established a line to hang our food from a tree branch, and soaked in our good fortune at having an entire high country lake to ourselves. The Alpine Larches were at their peak of color and the granite spires soared above us. No place on earth could be better.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USALast light on one of the mountains surrounding Horseshoe Lake

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpenglow on the flanks of Mt. Stuart

I stayed up well beyond dark watching the fading light, then photographed the scene using my headlamp to illuminate the larches against the deep twilight blue of the sky. A 60% waxing moon gave light to the landscape.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA granite knoll next to our campsite; it had Whitebark Pines and Alpine Larches growing from cracks in the stone. We watched the stars blink on as twilight turned into night.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA waxing moon appeared over Mt. Stuart. On our last night, we saw the headlamps of a pair of climbers high on a cliff below the summit; the climbers were bivouacking high on the mountain for a morning attempt to summit the peak.

The next morning we were again up early; after all, who wants to remain in a cozy sleeping bag in the presence of such beauty? Well, it depends how cold it is outside; fortunately the morning was chilly but not frigid. Karen and I have a typical trail breakfast of dried bean soup spiked with PB2, a powdered peanut butter product, and ground almonds. It is good and gives enough energy for the day of exploring. I don’t function without my morning coffee, and little tubes of freeze-dried work just fine in the wilderness. My companions preferred tea.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOur campsite, which may have been the prettiest campsite we’ve ever had–and that’s saying a lot!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAJunko filtering water along the shore

We made our plan for the day: we would hike along the lake shore as far as we could, then explore toward the base of the ridges surrounding this big glacial cirque. We hiked for a while, then had an early lunch atop a granite outcrop overlooking the lake and Mt. Stuart.

After lunch, we wandered down to a wet meadow that had recently melted out, though first we had to negotiate a boulder field that included a lot of scrambling and climbing over big rocks. When we reached the meadow, we found a beautiful meandering stream, with its banks bordered by a few summer subalpine wildflowers that we didn’t expect to see in October. The Shooting Stars and Red Bell Heathers and White Bell Heathers and Yellow Arnicas brightened the day.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe wet meadow and snowfield where we saw summer wildflowers in October, as well as our first Mountain Goat of the trip

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThis stream meandering through the wet meadow flowed down into Horseshoe Lake

Karen Rentz Picking Huckleberries in The Enchantments in FallKaren and Junko picked a handful of late season huckleberries in the rock field just above the meadow; this rocky area was also home to numerous Pikas

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASummer wildflowers still bloomed in the high meadow, which had melted out late–probably in September

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren exploring a high heather meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren and alpine color

I found that the stream flowed down under a small remnant snowfield. I knew what this meant: there would be a scalloped ice cave where the stream flowed through. I found and photographed the cave. Then we set about building a great little snowman atop the snowfield.

Snowman Made from Natural Materials in The EnchantmentsWe built our traditional snowman atop the remnant snowfield, accessorizing with chartreuse Wolfia lichen and Whitebark Pine twigs–all locally sourced from sustainable and recyclable sources

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsThe sculpted, scalloped interior of an ice cave in the high meadow 

After playtime was over, we walked along the edge of the meadow, at least until I layed down to photograph a vivid magenta Shooting Star. After three shutter clicks, I noticed a white shape moving toward me from the mountainside. It was a female Mountain Goat, and she came down the mountain just to be with me. How sweet! Her presence consumed most ot the rest of the day, but I’ll get to all that in another blog entry.

Mountain GoatThis Mountain Goat came straight down the mountain to join us in the meadow, where it quietly fed as we watched nearby

It was getting late in the day, so we started hiking back to camp, with the Mountain Goat tagging behind like a kid sister. We enjoyed a hot dinner, and repeated the activities of the night before. We watched the stars and planets poke one by one from the deep twilight sky, and the now 70% moon washing the landscape in pale silvery light.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHorseshoe Lake was lovely as we hiked back to camp from the high meadow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThat night, I again photographed the lakeshore with the aid of light from my headlamp

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe moon was at about 70% full above us

We slept well, then awoke the next morning to a cloudless sky. During breakfast, we suddenly spotted a group of four Mountain Goats running and bouncing (really!) along the shoreline toward us. They seemed overjoyed to see us. But, again, more on that experience in an upcoming blog entry.

Mountain GoatOne of a group of four Mountain Goats that came to our campsite early the next morning. There was an adult mother, her kid of the year, and two yearlings; all four constantly challenged other members of the small family for dominance. One time, I even saw the tiny kid try to stand up to one of the yearlings. She had to back down.

Mountain GoatOne of the goats stood atop a granite outcrop in our campsite, with Mt. Stuart in the distance

Hundreds of photographs later, we left camp to search for Jack Lake, the mythological body of water that we thought we had found the day before, but were mistaken. It turned out to be a real lake, small and lovely, ringed with golden sedges and golden larches. We ate our trail lunch on a granite bluff overlooking the lake, where we saw the four Mountain Goats and realized that they had wandered over to the hills where we were exploring. We also saw a couple of groups of hikers enjoying the larch-covered terrain.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USATiny Jack Lake basked in the color around it–the golds of sedges and Alpine Larches

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, going back to the wet meadow of yesterday to check on our snowman–it had fallen into scattered dirty snowballs–and to photographs the Pikas living in the boulder field above the meadow.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThat evening brought a return of the wind and the unsettled weather that can be so glorious in the mountains

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe waxing moon behind a larch at night

That night the weather was unsettled, with some winds and clouds that made it less desirable for night photography, though I did manage to squeeze off a few shots.

The next morning was our last morning on Horseshoe Lake. As happened yesterday, the gang of four Mountain Goats showed up and demanded our attention, so we were late in leaving the lake for our hike out. When the goats lay down to chew their cuds, I finally decided that it was time to give it up, after having taken about 500 photos of the goats over three days.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe next morning dawned clear, still, and stunningly beautiful

Mountain GoatThe gang of four returned that morning for another photo session

Mountain GoatThe kid often fed at its mother’s feet, keeping an eye on the photographer while using its mother’s legs as a barrier from that guy with the camera 

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne last look at the loveliest of all mountain lakes

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAKaren and Junko starting the hike out on our last morning

We hoisted our packs for the seven mile hike out. We knew that the infomal trail back to Lake Stuart was going to be difficult, even though it was all downhill. I asked Karen and Junko to count the logs crossing the trail that we had to climb over, step over, or shimmy under. That gave us something other than the physical difficulty to think about and, by the time we reached Lake Stuart, the total was 137 downed trees over the path!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USA

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAClimbing over and limboing under some of the 137 logs that lay across the “trail”

Beyond Lake Stuart, the forest started smelling like mushrooms, so our attention changed to searching for edibles. We didn’t find any of the Golden Chanterelles like we find in the Puget Sound lowland forests, but we did find some midnight blue-colored relatives of the chanterelles, as well as a few Hedgehog Mushrooms. The former weren’t very good to our palates, but the Hedgehogs were terrific when fried in butter.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne of the Blue Chanterelles that grew in dense clumps on the forest floor

We were tired and sore, but the parking lot came into view earlier than I expected. We encountered a lot of day hikers on our hike out, and the parking lot was still overflowing when we arrived. The drive home was long, but we stopped to get boxes of excellent apples fresh from the orchards.

When I titled this blog post “My Last Hike in the Enchantments,” I was thinking of Karen’s repeated statement that entering The Enchantments is always a hard hike, and she has now done it four times, and that is enough. However, my title also refers to what was simply my most recent hike to The Enchantments. And it was so enchanting, I prefer to think that I might return in the next few years.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA fond look back from the wet meadow just above Lake Stuart toward the high and stunning Enchantments

The Enchantments is a stunning landscape of sharp granite peaks and open country studded with small glacial lakes. With the explosion of backpacking in the 1970s, The Enchantments became overrun with hikers. Hundreds of hikers would be in the high country at one time, trampling the fragile heather meadows and lighting campfires fueled by fallen larch and pine boughs. The area was being loved to death. Eventually the U.S. Forest Service stepped in and established a permit system that controls the number of backpackers. Some freedom was lost in the process, but the beauty of the area was maintained.

We received a permit for our third visit in three years. A lottery is held in the early part of the year to determine who receives most of the permits, although some permits are available every day to hikers who show up at the last minute and a few permits are available immediately after the lottery for days that have not met their quota. This was my third trip here, and I would love to return.

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.

ICE STORM!

April 5, 2014

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

Sometime around 10 p.m., the temperature edged down a degree, and the light rain took on a sharper edge. The cold drops stung a bit more, and the asphalt took on a glossy sheen. The Weather Channel had warned of freezing rain, and it was arriving right on schedule.

Branches began glistening in the headlights, as the cold rain polished every surface in a thin transparent layer of ice. As the night wore on, twigs of the lesser trees began snapping, sending a cascade of crystal to the ground. Power lines sparkled when touched by headlights.

Tree limbs were tugged by gravity as the relentless weight of crystalline water accumulated. As more rain fell and ran down the branches in little rivulets, icicles started to grow at the tips as the water froze faster than it could drip. By the wee hours, the icicles at the branch tips were one centimeter and growing. As the weight gradually sagged the branches, the icicles curved, always seeking gravity’s pull.

At 5:00 a.m., the first massive maple branch collapsed on a power line, blinking out the lights and heat of a hundred homes. Then a sycamore went down, then an elm, then a hickory. All over the region tree limbs fell in the forest, and nobody heard, but when a tree limb fell across the highway the sirens blared and the red lights of emergency vehicles sparkled eerily off the crystal forest.

Our power went out before dawn, and we awoke to a slightly chilled house. It would get ever colder over the next three days, as our veneer of civilization cracked under the weight of the ice.

Meanwhile, I took pictures.

Branches and Old Leaves Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

White Oak Leaves Dripping with Ice from a Freezing Rain

Ice from Freezing Rain on Branch in the Leila Arboretum

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

Eastern White Pine Needles Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Old Apple Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Twigs Coated with Ice From Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

Branches Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Northern Red Oak Leaves Dripping with Ice from Freezing Rain

Branches and Old Leaves Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Branches Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

This storm occurred in Michigan just before Christmas; I would like to thank the relatives who took in those of us without power and made the holidays special. After three days, power was restored.

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.

SILK FROST: Strange Ice Formations on the Olympic Peninsula

January 7, 2014

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaSilk Frost, known more widely as Hair Ice, emerging like fine hair from alder branches; the tiny water droplets show the ice beginning to melt as the temperature rises (an alternate theory is that it is condensation from the photographer’s breathing on this cold morning)

Overnight our Olympic Peninsula skies cleared and the temperature plunged to 28°F. That isn’t very cold by midwestern standards, where this winter is bringing temperatures and wind chills far south of -20°F, but it was cold enough to create something extraordinary and beautiful that I have never seen before.

I walked down the hill to our house, and saw a bright white patch about the size of a discarded Kleenex, which is what I thought it was and I wondered who had been despoiling our yard. I went over to retrieve it, and discovered that it was actually a patch of ice that seemingly sprouted from the ground and looked to be made up of fine hairs of ice. I was curious what it was, and I looked around to see if there were any others. There was a bigger blob of the stuff at the end of an old branch, and then I saw a couple more.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaEach of the above formations was growing from alder wood

This was a cold morning, so there was frost on the Sword Ferns and grasses around our house, but frost has an entirely different look from this hairy ice. I showed Karen, and we agreed that all these patches of hairy ice were sprouting from old branches that were either on the ground or sticking up in the air. It was distinctly different from the frost flowers we’ve seen emerging from the frozen ground around here, which are thicker and look like they are extruded.

I photographed the formations, then used the internet to try and discover more about them. It turns out that these formations are quite rare, and have mostly been observed on the Olympic Peninsula and nearby Vancouver Island, and in parts of Europe. The consensus name is Hair Ice, though the names Frost Beard, Ice Wool, Feather Frost, Silk Frost (my favorite), and Cotton Candy Frost have also been used.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

I don’t keep my yard very neat, especially in the wild patches beyond the mowed lawn and planted rhododendrons. If an alder branch falls in the forest, I’m not likely to hear it and will usually just let it be; as a naturalist, I prefer the chaos of the natural forest to the tidy landscaping around most homes. And that chaos of fallen branches is key to growing Hair Ice.

All of the Hair Ice around here was sprouting from old and decaying branches of Red Alder, a brittle tree that sheds body parts whenever we get snow or freezing rain. But where could the water be coming from that forms these hairs, which look to be as fine as human hair? This has actually been a mystery for a long time, though a German scientist described a possible association between fungus and Hair Ice in 1918. That scientist, Professor Alfred Wegener, became better known for his imaginative and long-controversial theory of Continental Drift, which has become a keystone theory to understanding the geological history of the Earth.

In 2008, two European scientists published a paper called “Hair Ice on Rotten Wood of Broadleaf Trees–a Biophysical Phenomenon.” In this paper they described their tested theory of how Hair Ice is formed. It turns out that fungus is indeed the key, and the Olympic Peninsula is renowned for its fungi. As we all know, fungus in fallen branches is responsible for recycling the nutrients in the wood, and this forest citizen takes its recycling responsibility very seriously. The fungus sets up a factory deep inside the branch, where it sets about decomposing carbohydrates and lipids–just as humans attempt to do with their New Year’s resolutions.

The fungus feasts on the nutrients, leaving water and carbon dioxide gas as waste products (hey, I would drink the carbonated water, but what do I know in comparison with a fungus?). And this is the key: the carbon dioxide forms pressure within the decaying twig that pushes the water outward through microscopic openings in the wood called rays. When the supercooled water meets the freezing temperatures outside, the water freezes into a tiny crystaline structure. Then, as the crystal is pushed by the water behind it, and the emerging water subsequently freezes, hair-like crystalline structures form that appear to be finer than the diameter of human hair. Together, the phenomenon looks a bit like white hairs emerging from an older person’s scalp–though I wish I could sprout that much hair from my bald head.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

We had a stretch of three days of clear nights and freezing temperatures, My photography activities on the first morning had destroyed the fragile formations, and I wasn’t quite satisfied with the pictures, so I hoped to see the phenomenon repeated on the next morning. I awoke to 26°F temperatures, went outside, and saw new Hair Ice at each of the places it had been the day before. I spent a couple more hours photographing, until temperatures rose above freezing and the ice began to melt. The next day, temperatures went down to about 28° overnight, and I repeated the process; once again, the Hair Ice showed up in exactly the same spots. It was wondrous to see something entirely new to us.

Living here on a small patch of forest on the Olympic Peninsula has taught me so much. I’ve seen Flying Squirrels coming to our bird feeders and entering our birdhouses. We have Mountain Beavers living in burrows amongst our ferns; though we’ve never seen one, we see the neatly clipped fern fronds outside their burrows (these are a Pacific Northwest mammal not closely related to the regular Beaver). Last spring I photographed three kinds of salamanders that were living in rotten wood around our property (thanks again to my messy naturalist’s aesthetic). I’ve photographed Bald Eagles, River Otters, Douglas Squirrels, Black-tailed Deer, Western Screech-Owls, and numerous other species here. The gifts of wild land continue to be a source of inspiration in our lives.

The Bigleaf Maple and Red Alder and Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar forest here has taught me a lot, and I like to keep it as wild as possible as a thank you to all the creatures who call this place home. The Silk Ice reminded me once again of how nature continues to amaze and delight.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

For more information about Hair Ice, here are two sources, though for the latter you will need to know German, though an Abstract is in English:

http://my.ilstu.edu/~jrcarter/ice/diurnal/wood/

http://www.iap.unibe.ch/publications/download/3152/de/

UPDATE: About a month later, there have been three more times when Silk Ice has appeared on the same branches in my yard as before; in each case, the overnight temperature dipped to the mid to upper 20s. On two of the days, the formations were well-developed and I took new photographs, but on the other day, there was wind and I think that most of the ice had sublimated away, leaving only one patch hugging the ground, where the wind couldn’t get to it.

On another day, the conditions would seem to have been perfect, with no wind and temperatures below freezing, yet no ice developed. The problem was, the temperature had dipped to 19°F, which was apparently too low for the fungal decomposition to proceed, so water and carbon dioxide could not be produced.

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.

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUGUST Part 2: Lower Enchantment Lakes

September 4, 2013

Enchantments_Little_AnnapurnaWildflower meadow with Little Annapurna towering above

After two nights in the Upper Enchantments, we descended along a stream that ducked in and out of a steep snowfield, eventually reaching Talisman Lake, and then descended further to Perfection Lake (aka Rune Lake). We passed the campsite where we had camped last fall, and the tent area was flooded to perhaps 4″ deep with recent snowmelt. From the placement of the rocks in the campsite, it looked like our camp last fall was the last time it had been occupied (we had used rocks to secure several of the tents).

The_Enchantments_Summer-936Taking a long drink of cool water

The_Enchantments_Summer-963A lone Alpine Larch with Little Annapurna in the distance

The_Enchantments_Summer-843Beautiful aquamarine Talisman Lake, ringed with granite outcrops and Alpine Larches, with Prusik Peak and The Temple in the distance

Then we hiked around the lake toward a campsite on Sprite Lakelet that we hoped would be vacant. Karen had noticed this site last year, and thought it would be a wonderful place to camp. It was indeed vacant, and we set up camp in this beautiful site among the Alpine Larches.

The_Enchantments_Summer-945Our campsite among the larches along Sprite Lakelet

The_Enchantments_Summer-1137As a precaution against possible raids by bears and other hungry creatures, we hung our food each night; on the first night, it took two of us to lift the bags, but they got progressively lighter every day.

The_Enchantments_Summer-859My Lapsang Souchong tea, which Karen says smells like dirty socks, and her Tazo Passion tea; together, they catch the low evening sun

The_Enchantments_Summer-878Phil enjoying a quiet moment along Sprite Lakelet 

The_Enchantments_Summer-1129Larches gracing a point in Perfection Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1109We birthed a snowman on the granite above Sprite Lakelet; the snowman was necessarily created with watermelon snow, since the algae-stained snow was all that was available

The_Enchantments_Summer-1126The snowman then proceeded to preach to the snowy choir

Heather_and_Stream-1Heather blooming near a small waterfall where Perfection Lake empties into Sprite Lakelet

The_Enchantments_Summer-1387

The_Enchantments_Summer-1005Small Cutthroat Trout thrived in the lakes of the Lower Enchantments; I wish I could have carried fishing gear along with all my camera gear

Sprite Lakelet sits just below an extensive snowfield, but we decided to go swimming, and it sure felt good, or at least really, really cold. It was a “one yelp” dive before I was ready to climb out and dry off.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1087Thinking about going for a swim in a snowy mountain lake … don’t do it!

The_Enchantments_Summer-1093Too late, as I whoop with the blast of cold. And, in case you are wondering: no, I wasn’t skinny-dipping!

That night I got up at 12:30 a.m., and climbed the granite hill behind our camp. I stayed up there in the dark for 2 1/2 hours, trying to get night pictures of the stars over iconic Prusik Peak. I succeeded, but there sure are a lot of techical steps to get just right in order for the night pictures to work out. It doesn’t help to be trying it in the middle of the night, after inadequate sleep.

Prusik_Peak_StarsGalaxies and stars looking down on Prusik Peak

The next morning, after breakfast, we took a hike to Crystal Lake, where we explored the lake shore and an ice cave above the lake. Sue, the geomorphologist, interpreted a delta at the head of the lake and how it was formed. I spent quite a bit of time photographing trout along the lake.

Little_Annapurna_Flowers-2Wildflower meadow with Little Annapurna Peak along the hike to Crystal Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-947Little Annapurna reflecting in Perfection Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1072Arctic Fireweed thriving in an unusual place–a crack in a large granite boulder

The_Enchantments_Summer-1017Lunch break along Crystal Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1033Ice cave at the mouth of a snowfield covering the inlet stream to Crystal Lake. I climbed into the mouth of the cave, but just barely, since there is always the threat of a catastrophic roof collapse.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1020The beautiful shore of Crystal Lake with its miniature forest of Alpine Larches

The_Enchantments_Summer-1145Alpine Larch needles up close

The_Enchantments_Summer-1101Crossing an outlet stream

The_Enchantments_Summer-1320Mountain Goat crossing the outlet stream near our camp; goats would often cross streams on stones and logs that people had laid down to create a safer and drier crossing

The_Enchantments_Summer-1302Youngster learning to cross a human bridge

The_Enchantments_Summer-912Goats don’t like to get their feet wet any more than we do

That night, after dinner, I noticed five goats bedding down around our campsite. We had previously noticed that there were goat beds around camp; these are places where Mountain Goats have pawed up the soil to loosen it, effectively making a soft bed. These beds are used repeatedly, and some of them were located just a few feet from Sue’s tent. Once the five goats settled in to chew their cuds, we thought they might be there all night, but then another group of goats came along and that led to a fascinating chain of events that I’ll describe in another blog. Suffice it to say that this was one of our best insights into animal behavior ever.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1172A big male goat using one of the goat beds we had seen before Sue set up her tent

For the first time, I was challenged by a big male as I was taking pictures from atop the tallest rock along that section of the stream. He was coming straight toward me with head a bit lowered and eyes intent on me, so I backed off. Quickly. Never occupy the high ground unless you are prepared to defend it with your life. I wasn’t.

That night, we had cloudy skies for the first time since the brief showers on the first night, meaning that I didn’t have to spend half the night working with my camera gear. That was probably a good thing, because I needed a good rest before the strenuous hike the next day, though Wenatchee Girl  (see previous weblog post) probably covered the distance in two hours and looked fresh as a spring breeze afterwards.

We packed up the next morning for our hike out of the heart of The Enchantments, and down to Snow Lakes. This was not an easy hike, as it led down over numerous steep descents on sloping granite, where we had to use our leg muscles continuously in order to step down safely.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1402Hiking down granite so steep that the trail builders put rebar staples into the rock to improve hikers’ chances of making it down when the weather is rainy or wet

The_Enchantments_Summer-1396Terry was feeling like a Mountain Goat on this narrow granite route

The_Enchantments_Summer-1406We had to lean in close to the granite to make it around this sheer cliff

The_Enchantments_Summer-852Descending a steep snow field; since I carry a tripod in my hands, I don’t use trekking poles and am at a disadvantage in descents like this–which is my excuse for falling more than everyone else. On one snow field descent, Karen fell twice and finally ended up sliding down gleefully on her butt!

The_Enchantments_Summer-1409Self portrait of my legs and feet on a rickety log bridge over a raging creek

The_Enchantments_Summer-1375A big waterfall drops over the glacier-sculpted granite as we descended toward Leprechaun Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1377One of our group wetting her hair in a waterfall on the way to Leprechaun Lake, on our sixth day in the wilderness

The_Enchantments_Summer-1398Phil crossing a stream with Prusik Peak towering above 

When we finally reached Upper Snow Lake late in the afternoon, we were tired, so I started looking for a campsite. All were occupied, but then I noticed a faint trail leading toward the water. I asked the group to stop while I investigated, and quickly found a wonderful place to set up all of our tents on a sandy beach.

We had a cool swim, which reinvigorated us, then we set up our tents. Phil was a bit apprehensive about whether it was safe to camp on sand, after his experiences in New Zealand. There, everyone avoids sandy beaches at all costs because of the sandflies or sand fleas.  In New Zealand, these irritating insects were first called sandflies by Captain James Cook, who said:

The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.

Actually, in reading about the sandflies, I believe that they may be the same as what we in the USA call blackflies. Karen and I have encountered swarms of them in the Adirondacks and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Or they could be more like the no-see-ums that are the scourge of the earth, but you don’t see or feel them when they bite. But several minutes after biting, the itch becomes intense.

Phil’s apprehensiveness here was appropriate. I used Deet on the beach, but I was bitten six times on the forehead–below the baseball cap bill and above my eyeglasses–where I didn’t apply the Deet because I don’t like it going into my eyes. Nearly two weeks later, these six big red bumps still itched like crazy, despite my daily treatments with Benadryl. I suspect that these were no-see-um bites; I’ve always had a really strong reaction to these creatures, and we did get a major rip in the no-see-um proof netting of our tent at Sprite Lakelet, so believe I got the bites overnight, when my face was the only part of my body exposed. Or maybe they’re smallpox.

After dinner on the insect-infested beach, a green-clad Forest Service Ranger suddenly appeared through the brush next to camp. We were apprehensive about whether this was an okay campsite, but he assured us that it was. He checked our permit and I asked him a few questions.

Me: Why are you carrying a shovel?

Ranger: It’s for poop; I don’t like picking it up with my hands. It is also for fighting forest fires.

Me: What’s the weather forecast?

Ranger: There is a 20% chance of thunderstorms tonight, with a greater chance after 11:00 a.m. tomorrow.

Me: Has there been any major news from the outside that we don’t know about after a week out here?

Ranger: It has all gone to hell. If I were you, I would ration whatever food you have left and head straight back into The Enchantments!

With that, he vanished up the lake to warn others of impending doom.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1422Cooking a meal along Upper Snow Lake

After our tough day, I suggested that everyone take their little blue pills. One of the female members of our party said that little blue pills come in several prescriptions, and asked if I was thinking of Wenatchee Girl. I said “I don’t need THAT kind of little blue pill” and Phil said “No guy would ever admit to needing THAT kind of little blue pill.” Okay, so I forgot that Viagra is a little blue pill. I was thinking of Naproxin Sodium, the generic pain pill that is also little and blue with effects that can last all day. I certainly don’t need the other kind of little blue pill. Really.

We went to bed, confident that we could get up early and head out before the thunderstorms hit. Little did we know …

At 10:15 p.m., the first flash of lightning was visible over the High Enchantments. Soon after, the first rain splattered the tent, and I got up and went out to my pack to retrieve delicate photo gear and bring it inside the tent. Karen saw me go outside, then saw the strobing of the lightning and thought that someone had gone outside and had their headlamp on “strobe.” Though why they would do that is beyond me.

A bit later, torrential rains hit our tents, and we endured five long hours of lighting, thunder, and deluge. This was the biggest thunderstorm we’ve endured in the mountains in 20 years. I would try to drift back to sleep, but soon Karen would be up and finding new places in the tent where water had gotten in. It was a REALLY long night.

The next morning, we assessed how our equipment had done. Our tent had let water in at the base and along some of the edges, probably because when nylon gets wet it stretches out and needs to be restaked. But during a torrential rain with lightning crashing doesn’t seem like the best time to go outside and play with tent stakes. So we got a bit wet. Our comrades in their one person tents ranged from completely dry to somewhat wet. We all set out our sodden stuff to dry a bit, but most of the drying would have to be done at home.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1427The morning after the thunderstorm

The_Enchantments_Summer-1424The torrential rain splashed sand up onto our tent

The_Enchantments_Summer-1429I used one of my underpants to clean sand from the tent; it certainly wasn’t comfortable to wear afterward!

The_Enchantments_Summer-1426Drying all our wet stuff

Karen reassessed our hike out, and realized that it was longer and required a steeper drop than we had first thought. It was going to be seven miles with a 4,100′ vertical drop. Doable, but tiring. We left camp by 9:00 a.m. and made good time at first, but then there were a lot of rocky stretches of trail where we necessarily slowed to maintain safe footholds.

When we got down near Nada Lake, Sue and I walked over to see the immense jet of water spraying out of an 18″ pipe, coming out of Snow Lakes and destined for a fish hatchery and irrigation downstream. Near the pipe, I glanced up and saw a Pine Marten staring at us from the sharp granite of a big boulder field. I raised my camera by instinct, and managed one grab shot before the creature vanished. Pine Martens are relatives of weasels, but are much larger. This was only my second or third confirmed sighting of one of these animals, and my first in the Cascades.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1438A quick grab shot of a Pine Marten hunting a boulder field between Snow Lakes and Nada Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1436A butterfly drying its wings and warming up in a shaft of sunlight on this wet and chilly morning after the storm

The_Enchantments_Summer-1444Beautiful and peaceful Nada Lake on a still morning

The_Enchantments_Summer-1451We’re just about at the trail head when we cross Icicle Creek on this long wooden bridge

The rest of the hike out was uneventful until I tripped and fell off the trail, injuring my pride but not my camera or my body. Fortunately, we all got safely down to the car, and then went out for a wonderful milkshake and meal at ’59er Diner, where every waitress is named Flo and every waiter named Joe, and the men’s room is a shrine to Marilyn Monroe.

Driving back to Seattle took us through the heaviest rain I’ve seen in Washington State, and cars were pulling off the road because visibility was so reduced. I didn’t pull off because I didn’t think I needed to: after all, I had taken my little blue pill.

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,  Mountain Goats, Forests of Gold, and Aasgard Pass and the Upper Enchantments.  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

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Hiking the Upper Dungeness Trail on Father’s Day Weekend

June 27, 2013

Dungeness River in Olympic National ForestThe Dungeness River rushing through the forest

Our weekend backpacking trip led into Olympic National Forest, located on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. This is a lush place, with mosses and every shade of green, as well as a river tinted aqua with glacial flour. It is also a place of silence, where the occasional sounds are the rushing of the river and the dreamlike songs of Hermit Thrushes high in the towering Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Our hike took us about three miles in, where we set up our tent at Camp Handy. The next morning, we hiked up 1,800 vertical feet to Boulder Camp, then later hiked back down to camp, packed up, and hiked out. Rather that give a sight-by-sight account of the trail, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Western Hemlock Grove in Olympic National ForestGiant Western Hemlocks tower above the Upper Dungeness Trail

I would, however, like to give a shout out to all the Dads who took their families backpacking on Father’s Day weekend. At Camp Handy, there were four other groups in addition to Karen and me. One was a Dad with a teenage daughter, who stopped and chatted with me about where his daughter could learn photography. The second were two men with four young daughters. The third were two men with two young sons. And the fourth was a father with a pre-teen daughter.

This was wonderful that all these Dads were teaching their daughters and sons about backpacking in a beautiful place. All these kids would have come away with new skills and a healthy attitude about experiencing the great outdoors.

I think back to my own father, and all the weekends he spent on Boy Scout trips with his three sons. He was a scoutmaster for several years, and he influenced scores of boys with his interest in nature and his leadership. Thanks Dad: wherever in heaven you are!

And a hearty thanks to all the Dads we saw bringing their children into the wilderness!

Pacific Rhododendron in bloom in Olympic National Forest

Pacific Rhododendron in bloom in Olympic National Forest

Pacific Rhododendron in bloom in Olympic National ForestBlooming Pacific Rhododendrons line the trail; these are as elegant as the garden varieties that flower so beautifully in the Pacific Northwest

Mossy Rocks Bordering a Tiny Stream in Olympic National Forest

Mossy Rocks Bordering a Tiny Stream in Olympic National ForestThese aren’t rolling stones, because they’ve gathered a great deal of moss

Rustic Boulder Shelter in Olympic National ForestBoulder Shelter is located in a place where giant boulders have tumbled down from the cliffs above (not seen in this picture) and where avalanches have repeatedly mowed down a wide path of trees. It must be a place of uneasy sleep.

"Give me Shelter" Graffiti in Boulder Shelter in Olympic Nationa

Grafitti in Boulder Shelter in Olympic National ForestIn Boulder Shelter: a riff on the old Rolling Stones tune, and an unhappy lady hiker!

Snowman at Boulder Camp in Olympic National ForestKaren led in the making of snowman “Boulder Bob”

Rustic Log Bridge Crossing Dungeness River in Olympic National FA rustic log bridge using a giant Olympic Peninsula tree spans the Dungeness

Oak Fern Thriving on the Floor of Olympic National ForestOak Ferns all turned at precisely the right angle to the available light–like the precision solar collectors that they are

Massive Avalanche Path in Olympic National Forest

Massive Avalanche Path in Olympic National ForestAvalanche path below Boulder Camp, with Mt. Mystery and Mt. Deception distant in the upper picture

Ghoul Creek and Cow-parsnip in Olympic National ForestThe shape of the leaves echoes the shape of the rapids, at least to my eye

Slime Mold, Leocarpus fragilis, in Olympic National ForestSlime mold Leocarpus fragilis growing on the forest floor among hemlock needles; these little yellow sacs will eventually turn brown, crack open like eggs, and release the spores that bring more little slime molds

Moss and Lichen Covered Rotting Log in Olympic National ForestGreen mosses and the bluish wood rot produced by Fairy Barf lichen (lots of little chunks, you know) on an old log

Camp Handy Shelter in Olympic National ForestShelter at Camp Handy; good for those many days of incessant dripping on the Olympic Peninsula

Camp Handy Shelter in Olympic National ForestLooking out from the Camp Handy shelter across the meadow to the willows lining the Dungeness River

Jeffrey's Shooting Star Flowering in Olympic National ForestShooting Stars were in full and glorious bloom

Vanillaleaf Flowering in Olympic National ForestVanillaleaf in bloom; this lovely ground cover is said to have a strong vanilla scent when it dries out; alas, my nose cannot detect this supposedly delicious fragrance

Western White Pine Needles and Cone in Olympic National ForestWestern White Pine

Emerging Leaves of Common Cow-parsnip in Olympic National ForestEmerging leaves of Cow-parsnip

Dungeness River in Olympic National Forest

Dungeness River in Olympic National Forest

Dungeness River in Olympic National Forest

Dungeness River in Olympic National ForestThe Dungeness River plunges rapidly, and with beauty, from the Olympic Mountains toward its desired union with the sea

Royal Creek in Olympic National ForestRoyal Creek rushes down from Royal Basin, where we’ve had some wonderful alpine experiences in the Olympics

The Upper Dungeness Trail Through Woods in Olympic National ForeThe trail leads through the beautiful forest between Camp Handy and the trailhead

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 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 NEBRASKA SANDHILLS: Loving the Great Plains

June 27, 2012

Colt following its mother in the Nebraska Sandhills

I’ll get the embarrassing stuff out of the way first: I got my vehicle stuck in the sand of Nebraska’s Sandhills. I was heading back on a 28 mile paved one lane road (paved so the tourists don’t get stuck!) that was about ten feet wide; after a particularly rewarding stretch of birding and photography, I decided to return to see if I could get any other photographs. Near a cattle guard I swung the van wide right off the pavement and then proceeded to take a wide U-turn. The sand on the other side of the road was softer than I expected, and the van’s rear wheels began spinning, cutting deeper into the sand like a chain saw. Within seconds, the van was resting on its transmission and the back wheels were spinning freely.  At this point, with my hands on my hips and any hint of a smile vanished from my face, I stared at my predicament. I wasn’t going to get out by myself with the equipment I had, yet it was 25 miles back to the main road and cell phone reception.

The thin ribbon of pavement leading out through the Sandhills; is it paved so that the tourists don’t get stuck in the sand?

My van, stuck in sand beside the paved one-lane road to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Here the van was resting on its transmission with the wheels spinning freely … I guess I should have gotten a 4WD van!

This is about as lonely as a road gets, but within a minute or so, I saw a truck towing a horse trailer approaching. As it drew next to me and slowed, I looked up at the driver and was surprised to see a cute teenage cowgirl, blond hair in a pony tail flowing out from behind a baseball cap. I immediately thought of the old “Take it Easy” Eagles’ song lyric:

“It’s a girl my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me …”

Well, not at me, but at my predicament. I told her the obvious, that I was stuck, and asked if she had a way to pull me out.

“Sure.”  she said, “But I have to take care of something first; I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I appreciate your help,” and watched as she drove away. Then I spent the next half hour on hands and knees digging out as much sand from in front of the rear wheels as I could, not that it helped all that much, but it gave me something to do while waiting.

Then I heard the distant drone of a motor across the sandhills, and watched the flat-bed Ford and horse trailer returning. This time the girl brought her dad with her, and he matter-of-factly hooked a heavy tow chain to my rig and I was out in a couple of minutes. He looked like a rugged and handsome 40-something rancher from Central Casting, with a cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and a blue western shirt, deeply tanned with thin wrinkles radiating out from his eyes. I shook his hand and thanked him and his daughter for their help, and I was back on my way–albeit with his friendly admonition to stay on the paved road!

Back on the road again, crossing a cattle guard with a cactus sticking out of it

Western boundary of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and about 25 miles along this sand road to the nearest hamlet

The lonely landscape

The Sandhills of western Nebraska are a place apart, dotted with lonely ranch houses that might be a dozen miles from the nearest neighbor. When meeting a pickup virtually anywhere in the Sandhills, the driver will almost always wave. This happens only in the REALLY rural, sparsely populated parts of America.

The grass-covered sand dunes of the Sandhills

When this region was first settled in a land rush just after the turn of the last century, the new owners got 640 acres of government land under the Kinkaid Act passed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, and set about to raise crops and dairy cattle. Earlier, settlers had gotten 160 acres of land, but that proved to be too little to make a living on, or even to starve decently, so the 640 acres was a better deal. But this is a harsh land, and the story of ranching and farming here has been one of farm failure, followed by gradual consolidation into large ranches.

Two-track road winding over the dunes in the Nebraska National Forest

I’ve loved this region since I first saw it some 20 years ago. It is truly big sky country, with wave after wave of sand dunes stretching far, far beyond what the eye can see. These are not dunes in the sense of barren and blowing beach dunes; these are dunes covered with grasses that wave in the constant winds. The sand dunes are no longer active, since the region gets enough rain now for the dunes to support the grasses that stabilize the sand. The exception is where wind undermines the grass cover on the dunes in a “blowout;” this has happened consistently enough through the eons that one endangered wildflower–the Blowout Penstemon–is actually adapted to colonizing and stabilizing these blowouts.

I rescued this Ornate Box Turtle from the middle of the road, after I took his picture

The Ornate Box Turtle has a hinged lower shell in front, which it draws up to shield its face from intruders; this was one of the few pictures I took after he finally decided I was not much of an adversary and went strolling away

Western Meadowlark viewing its territory from atop a wooden fencepost

Prairie Rose in bloom

Western Spiderwort brightening the landscape with blossoms that seem to reflect the vast blue sky

Winds are constant in this open land. Ranchers catch the winds with old-fashioned windmills, which pump water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer up to tanks for watering cattle. Many of these windmills have seen service for many decades, and the Great Plains would look even emptier without them. The landscape is wonderful for raising cattle, horses, and wildlife–all of which take advantage of the open tanks of water below each windmill.

Windmill pumping water for cattle in the Nebraska Sandhills

Each windmill pumps water, as long as the wind is blowing, into a stock tank; birds and other wildlife also take advantage of the good source of water

Patience is a virtue when waiting for bulls and calves to leave the road

The Ogallala Aquifer is Nebraska’s most precious natural resource, other than the future potential of wind. The aquifer is the reason that the Nebraska Sandhills made the national news for the first time in my memory. A Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., proposed to route the big Keystone XL oil pipeline across the Sandhills, which would bring black gold from Alberta tar sands down to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. When President Obama announced a delay in approval of the pipeline in November 2011, a lot of Americans howled in protest, convinced that the delay was a political move, but not the conservative ranchers of the Sandhills. They know that their livelihood depends upon the health of the Ogallala Aquifer running below these old sand dunes, and that a serious oil spill could ruin the clear liquid gold that lies below the sand. These ranchers vociferously protested the proposed route of the pipeline, and I suspect that they will eventually win in the battle to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills.

Prairie pothole and dramatic cirrus clouds

One area of the Sandhills is dotted by prairie pothole lakes; here the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for ducks and wading birds, as well as songbirds and other wildlife. During my brief visit, I glassed a flock of American White Pelicans; huge birds that were resting on an island in the middle of a small lake. Near them, at a few feet higher in elevation than the pelicans, was a colony of nesting Double-Crested Cormorants. My favorite bird of the refuge was the Long-Billed Curlew, a large wading bird with an impossibly long and slender curved bell. Pairs of curlews were flying wildly above, frantically calling with the urgency of breeding. What an exuberant display of summer life on the prairie!

Prairie pothole lakes dot the landscape in the vicinity of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Upland Sandpiper nervously watching me

Long-billed Curlew opening its impossibly long and curved bill

Juvenile American Avocet foraging among flies along the edge of a prairie pothole

The other sound that I associate with the Great Plains is the call of the meadowlark. The first time I drove across the country, now over 40 years ago, I was on the way from my Michigan home to fight forest fires in the California mountains. I had just read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, about his journey to rediscover America by traveling the back roads. I did some of the same on my trip, and I recall driving through Kansas with the windows open on a hot spring day–this was before air conditioning isolated most of us from the sounds of the outside world–and hearing the constant melodies of meadowlarks perched on fenceposts and telephone poles. I’ll always associate the prairie with that experience.

Western Meadowlark bursting into song

When I first visited the sandhills back in the mid-1990s, I photographed an old gas pump in front of an abandoned building, where an old steel advertising sign faded in the prairie sunlight. On this return trip, I discovered that the pump and old sign have since been removed, presumably by antique collectors, leaving just a sad old building in a row of sad old buildings. In fact, this town of Whitman is trending toward an agricultural ghost town as the Great Plains depopulate.

I photographed the Jewel Diner in Mullen back in the 1990s; there is now just a concrete slab where the diner once stood

When I photographed this building in the 1990s, there was a classic old gas pump and two old metal signs; these are now gone 

Old and abandoned buildings in Whitman, as the village slides toward being an agricultural ghost town during my 2012 visit

Old false-front building in Whitman in 2012

In the nearby village of Mullen, I photographed the Jewel Diner years ago. This abandoned diner was in the classic old tradition of 1930s era art-deco diners, but it was tiny and cute as can be. I remember being thrilled to see and photograph it. Since then, the diner was removed and installed in a steel barn owned by a private collector. Here is what I said about the Jewel Diner after first encountering it a decade-and-a-half ago:

“Just before photographing this ghost of an old diner, I stopped for lunch at a small town restaurant just down the road. After seeing what other patrons were eating, I ordered the local specialty — a dinner plate-sized (really!) slab of breaded and fried pork served with mayo on a huge bun. We’re not going to talk about my cholesterol level right now, thank you.

After rolling out the door and down the road, I immediately stopped to photograph this jewel of a diner. With the art deco details, it would have been the most modern building in this Nebraskan sandhills town back in the late 1940s. When I took the photograph in 1999, the Jewel Diner had sat there closed and empty, probably for several decades.

At an art show in Cincinnati, one woman was thrilled to see this photograph. She told me that she was raised in Mullen and frequently ate at the Jewel Diner all those years ago. Recently she returned to the town and found that the diner had been moved–apparently to restart its career serving up chicken-fried steaks and home fries.” 

I camped one night in the Nebraska National Forest–yes, you heard that right, the Nebraska National Forest. To anyone who has driven the endless miles on Interstate 80 across this prairie state, the notion of a national forest here sounds silly. This is an unusual national forest, however, one that started in the dreams of a University of Nebraska botanist named Dr. Charles E. Bessey. He thought that with the rainfall in the Sandhills, there was enough moisture to support trees. He convinced Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that his idea was sound, and they convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to support the idea. So in the first decade of the 20th century, a small army of planters planted trees in the grasslands of the Nebraska Sandhills. These 25,000 acres of trees became the Nebraska National Forest in 1908.

A segment of the sandy Circle Road leading through the hand-planted trees of the Bessey Ranger District in the Nebraska National Forest

Pine forest along the Circle Road

Junipers scattered at the edge of the national forest

The Scott Lookout Tower, built in 1944, still operates as a fire tower in this land of dangerous range wildfires

Bottlebrush Squirreltail Grasses wave in the wind in the moist landscape around a windmill

The Charles E. Bessey Nursery grows tree seedlings and other plants for reforestation efforts; it is over a century old, having been established during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt

Prickly Poppy looks like an unlikely cross between a thistle and a poppy

Though the Nebraska National Forest never became the supplier of fenceposts and timber than Dr. Bessey had imagined, it is still an iconic and fascinating part of the Great Plains. There is even a fire tower where visitors can climb and look out over the entire expanse of this unit of the forest.

Circle Road leading up and down and around the Sandhills

There is a loop road through the forest, which I decided to drive in my van. I soon discovered that roads through the Sandhills are made of … sand, so they make for interesting driving in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Where I entered the 20+ mile road, there was no sign stating that it was for four-wheel drive vehicles, so I decided to try it. I found that it was awfully iffy going up the sandy dunes in my vehicle, but as long as I kept up my momentum, I was all right. So, I probably crested 150 hills by gunning the engine and maintaining momentum. It was a relief when I finally got to the other end of the loop road and back on gravel–and at that end of the road there was a sign saying “four-wheel drive only.” This was the day before my adventure getting stuck in the Sandhills, so I guess it gave me a false confidence.

To many coastal Americans, this is flyover country, but I just love exploring these remote places

I left the Sandhills late in the day after getting freed from the sand. When I drove into the town of Alliance, I found roads everywhere in the town blocked by police, and it was hard to get through the town to the freeway. Later, I checked the news and found that a man was barricaded inside a pharmacy with an assault rifle and other weapons. He had shot and wounded two police officers and the pharmacy owner (who was a hostage until he made a daring escape) during a botched robbery attempt, and was under suspicion for a murder in a trailer park nearby. He was later found dead after the swat team went in that evening. I was reminded of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s dark song about a murdering rampage across the prairie fittingly called “Nebraska,” in which Springsteen voices the murderer:

“They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”

Yes, there is. But there is also the kindness I found in the Nebraska Sandhills. Thank you, unknown rancher and rancher’s daughter. for helping a stranger in a strange land. And make sure the water below the surface stays clear and clean forever.

Colt nursing in this wide-open and beautiful land, which I think of as the gateway to the American West

For more information about the Nebraska Sandhills, go to the following sources:

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Nebraska National Forest

Keystone XL Pipeline (if you Google this, you will find arguments on all sides of the pipeline issue)

Nebraska Sandhills

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; 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