Archive for the ‘wildflower’ category

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: 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.

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.

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

THE BOTANY OF EXPIRE

June 15, 2011

The support structure for the gigantic flower of Amorphophallus titanum–an elegant example of plant architecture

Life goes to all lengths to get sex; after all, without sex, we have no birds, bees, or babies. But some sex is just plain weird, as in the case of the Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum). Think about the root meaning of those Latin words for a moment, and you will understand why Sir David Attenborough came up with the less “dirty” name of Titan Arum to use in his BBS television series, The Secret Life of Plants, instead of the scientific name.

Corpse Flower is a gigantic botanical simulation of rotting meat, complete with a fetid odor and a deep burgundy color to help create the illusion. It even raises its own temperature to make the illusion of decomposing meat more real. And who is it trying to attract with all this grossness? Why, carrion beetles and flesh flies, of course, which are its pollinators! Everything it does, it does for sex–kind of like some politicians who make the news, but we won’t go there …

Impressive in size, the Corpse Flower blooms only occasionally through the years, and sports the color, temperature, and fetid smell of a large rotting animal

I went to the University of Washington botany greenhouses in Seattle, after seeing a story in the Seattle Times about how this plant was about to bloom. On that afternoon of June 9, I joined about 60 people in line to wait for our chance to file past the magnificent plant and experience its sensory pleasures. Alas, my sense of smell is not working well because of seasonal allergies, so I couldn’t smell a thing. It’s just as well, based on some of the descriptions of the gag-inducing stink, which is said to be so bad that it can make a person’s eyes water.

Anyway, the plant was gigantic and most impressive; those of us who stood in line were rewarded with the chance to climb a ladder and look down inside the flower. The cutest among us were also rewarded with having pictures taken by a media photographer (he didn’t bother with me).

Climbing a ladder to view the Corpse Flower’s interior

Corpse Flower lives naturally in the Sumatra rainforest, but it has relatives here in North America, including Calla Lily and Skunk Cabbage. The Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which grows in swamps in places I’ve lived, including Michigan and New York, also has a meat color, strong odor, and the ability to generate heat–which helps it melt snow in early spring, AND to spread its wondrous odor better.

Now the flowering event is over, and it is time to patiently wait for that 100+ lb. root to decide that it’s time once again to surprise us with a magnificent bloom. It might happen in a couple of years, or perhaps in a human lifetime. Nobody knows, and that is part of the wonder of its nature.

University of Washington botany greenhouse, with the Corpse Flower visible inside

Virtually everyone took a picture of the gigantic flower

Wikipedia has a good article about the natural history of this amazing plant; go to: Corpse Flower.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

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

WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers

June 9, 2011

This male Mountain Bluebird took a big beetle into the nest box and left it for the nestlings; apparently he realized that he had made a mistake, because next time he came back to the box, he grabbed the beetle back and left the box with it

When I was a boy, my friend across the street loved butterflies, and he ran around the neighborhood with a butterfly net in hand, with one of those intense passions that young boys often develop. I didn’t share his butterfly passion, but I also loved being outdoors. The boys in the neighborhood all had bikes, and we would bike into town or to a park several miles away or to a baseball diamond for a pickup game. The freedom of summer was a wonderful, unstructured time that allowed for childhood exploration and creativity, without today’s parental concerns about evil lurking down the street.

The bright purples and yellows of spring wildflowers attract older people with their beauty–and they attract butterflies and bugs and thus kids who take a natural interest in insects

So it was wonderful to see a mother and her seven year old son–I’ll call him “Tim”–having a wonderful time outdoors at the recent Wenas State Audubon Campout that Karen and I attended. Tim watched Red-Naped Sapsuckers drilling into a tree; found the first Grass Widow flower on a botany hike; and spent a lot of time chasing and catching grasshoppers in the mountain meadows. He and his mother were car-pooling with us for two hikes; at the end of one hike he walked up to me and said that he hoped I didn’t die, because I was the driver to get him back to camp. Kids say the darndest things!

Tim wasn’t the only child on the trip. Among the 120+ Audubon campers, there were roughly a dozen children, all of whom seemed to be having a great time. I wish there had been more. In Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, he stated his mission of “saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.” His thesis is that unstructured time in nature is important for children, for their intellectual and creative development, and that they are not getting this vital childhood experience. He believes that this lack of nature experiences fuels the obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression that have become much more common in recent years.

A young ground squirrel ready to duck into its burrow for safety from the big, mean humans

Let’s face it: we all spend too much time in front of colorful electronic screens. Children are not exempt, and the addictive [I use that word intentionally and from personal experience] nature of activities on computers, game consoles, and smart phones may be especially dangerous for young minds that need broad experiences, not the simple stimulus/reward experiences of gaming, Facebook, instant messaging, and online shopping.

End of rant. Just get you and your kids out there enjoying nature close to home or far away!

The Wenas State Audubon Campout is a great place to spend Memorial Day Weekend. The Wenas Campground, once a Boise Cascade public campground now owned by the State of Washington, is a big, flat Ponderosa Pine forest along Wenas Creek on the drier east side of the Cascade Mountains. People are

Camping at Wenas Campground under Ponderosa Pines and among lupines

Our campsite during a rainy evening in 2010

free to camp anywhere, except within 50′ of the creek, and the place can absorb probably thousands of campers. In the past few years, there have been groups of ATV riders and horse riders, in addition to the Audubon campers. Everyone needs to bring their own food, cooking supplies, and water. This year Karen and I set up a cook tent, in addition to our sleeping tent, because last year it rained while we were cooking.

Who can go?  Anyone.  Arrive any time and leave any time. There is no formal structure, except for meeting at assigned times for particular hikes. And that informal flexibility is part of the beauty of the weekend. There are no fees, except the voluntary donations for portable toilets and for the group camping permit. The weekend is filled with free group hikes to see birds and wildflowers in mountain and sagebrush habitats, plus campfire programs and owl prowls.

Owl Prowl leader Neil Zimmerman called in a tiny Pygmy Owl at the campground’s edge using his voice and recorded sounds; here it is illuminated by flashlight

It is so enjoyable that I’m surprised that many more people don’t take advantage of the experience.

It was wonderful to spend the weekend with people of all levels of knowledge and who are willing to share that knowledge. We saw our second Pygmy Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl on this trip, and last year we saw our first Long-Eared Owls. Don Knoke led some memorable botany hikes, and we had a chance to see an unusual native Brown Peony for the first time. Knoke also sets up plant identification boards around the Larrimer Tree, a big Ponderosa Pine

Plants of the sagebrush-steppe community, identified for we rain forest mossbacks of the Puget Sound area

along the stream, with a wide selection of native plants kept alive in little tube vases and on display so that people can learn about the different wildflowers of the sagebrush-steppe community.

This year we enjoyed a special new experience–visiting and birding 400+ acre Green Ranch in the Wenas Valley, now owned by a woman who had been a part of the Audubon Campout for years. She is dedicated to good stewardship of the land, which consists of riverbank forest, open pastures, and a beautiful old

Classic old barn interior on a Wenas Valley ranch

barn and outbuildings–as well as a collection (inherited from the previous owner) of several dozen old and decaying Volvos lined up near the barns; you may have heard of Cadillac Ranch; some people have called this Volvo Ranch! Note that this ranch is private land, and the visit during the Wenas Campout was by private invitation.

Over 40 of us went birding on Green Ranch, by special invitation of the owner, where we saw a good variety of birds, including Bullock’s Oriole, Western Tanager, lots of warblers, and a Wild Turkey egg

The Wenas Audubon Campout just completed its 48th year, so it is a well-established tradition that I hope will continue for decades to come. Legendary nature-lover Hazel Wolf was instrumental in getting the weekend started all those years ago, and she attended for decades until she passed away in the year 2000, at over 100 years old.

Big-Head Clover, with a flower nearly two inches across, is a lovely part of some sagebrush-steppe meadows

A beautiful meadow bordered by Trembling Aspens along the rutted and Beaver-flooded road to the campground (still, accessible to most cars)

Graceful shapes of slowly decaying sagebrush branches; especially artistic in black & white

In the photographs here you can get a sense of the natural environment and the creatures we saw during the long weekends (we have now attended for two years in a row). Don’t miss this experience next year!

Go to Wenas Audubon Campout for more information about these special weekends.

Western Bluebird male perched in Bitterbrush

Lazuli Bunting testing his lung power in a desert aria

Common Camas, a beautiful blue lily of wet meadows, was a staple food of Indians of the far west, who used the bulbs as a potato-like vegetable

With their elegant red bark contrasting with the green vegetation, the Ponderosa Pines of the Wenas Valley are the dominant large conifer

When the lighting is just right, the intensity of a male Mountain Bluebird’s feathers is extraordinary

An impressionistic view of balsamroot and buckwheat in a high meadow

Bitterbrush displays delicate yellow flowers in the spring

Townsend’s Solitaire in Bitterbrush

A graceful tapestry of Ponderosa Pine needles and branches photographed during our owl prowl

Eastern Kingbird perched on Bitterbrush

A brown cup fungus under the campground’s Ponderosa Pines

Black Canyon Trail through sagebrush-clad slopes

Female Mountain Bluebird examining the birders examining it

A Least Chipmunk feeding atop a fencepost

Pygmy Nuthatch emerging from its nest hole with a fecal sac (diaper) from one of its nestlings

In this dry country, wood weathers slowly and gracefully, as in this old fencepost end

Thompson’s Paintbrush is a creamy paintbrush common to the sagebrush-steppe

Chipping Sparrow singing his head off from atop a Bitterbrush branch

And now for something completely different: an abandoned truck among the Ponderosa Pines that has been on state land for at least two years along the road to a university sky observatory

Bullet holes and rust form a fanciful creature on the side of the blue truck

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