Posted tagged ‘outdoors’

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

June 7, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican Jays in Big Bend National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery of hike photographs:

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

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

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

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

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.

June 1, 2008 On Edge on the East Side

November 28, 2008


2008_wa_3790wp

Spring in the Seattle area alternates between dark, rainy days and bright, sunny ones.  When a spell of bad weather descends, we enjoy hiking and camping on the east side of the Cascade Range, where the skies are usually sunny.  On this trip we headed east, leaving behind a wall of ominous skies at Snoqualmie Pass.  There were three of us: my wife Karen, our friend Sue, and me.

Our goal on this trip was to explore Black Canyon and Bear Canyon in the general area of the Tieton River Canyon, which features dark basalt formations in hexagonal columns, and open Ponderosa Pine and Big Sagebrush landscapes.  Most of this area lies within Wenatchee National Forest and the Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area, though there is also some private land.  The Nature Conservancy has played a key role in buying and preserving this extraordinary landscape.  And it is beautiful in spring to the eyes of a sun-starved Washington mossback.

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This region is known for ticks, so we took the dorky-looking precaution of tucking our light-colored long pants inside our white socks.  Then some of us also sprayed with a DEET-based repellent.  It seemed to work, since we didn’t pick up any ticks all weekend.  Plus we applied sunscreen and wore hats so that our fishbelly-white Western Washington bodies wouldn’t be damaged by the glaring sun.  But there were other hazards …

After the long drive, when we first emerged from the car to look at some Bitterroot flowers (genus Lewisia, named for the discoverer, Meriwether Lewis), Sue spotted a snake looking limp and dead on the basalt.  But it wasn’t dead, only cold.  We prodded it awake with a stick and saw the rattles as it slithered into a hole between the rocks: it was a Western Rattlesnake!  This discovery reminded us to remain vigilant.

Our first hike was into Black Canyon.  The trail lead steadily upward, leading past Trembling Aspen groves and an old settler’s cabin. The cabin was in a pretty setting near a stream, and we could 2008_wa_3844wpimagine the sounds of horses and cows and chickens and children in the clearing a hundred years ago.  The aspens wore evidence of more recent visits.  The bark on every tree was covered with marks from the ground to roughly head high.  But this graffitti wasn’t made by vandals or lonely shephards:  2008_wa_3836wpit was made by Elk using their teeth to scrape deep into the bark to get nutients and sugar from the bark’s inner layers.  The marks then last for as long as the tree.  On the trail itself we saw a scent post used by a Coyote.  This is a spot along the trail where a Coyote or Coyotes had deposited scat over time, one layer after another.  Interesting stuff, that poop.  

The trail led higher, through scattered Ponderosa Pines and hillsides covered with sagebrush and scattered late wildflowers.  While walking along the edge of the trail, Karen was startled by a dry rattle within a few feet of her boots.  It was another rattlesnake, this one coiled and ready for battle with the towering intruders.  At first it rattled almost continuously, but by the time I got there it had quieted down, deciding that Karen wasn’t such a big threat, after all.  I photographed the rattlesnake, the thought briefly crossing my mind that I would like to reach down and remove a blade of grass in front of its face.  I thought better of it, and decided that Photoshop would be a safer way to cut away the grass.  It struck us how well the rattlesnake’s skin blended in with the natural brown and subtle green tones of the landscape.  If the snake hadn’t rattled, we would have never known it was there until …

2008_wa_3856wp

Higher still, we came into open hills, where we examined wildflowers and covered up, because the sky had darkened and big drops of rain sputtered down.  At that point we decided to head back down, and drive back to our campsite at the Wenas Campground near Naches.  By the way, this is a terrific campground that is also known variously as the Boise-Cascade Campground and the Audubon Campground (there is a yearly spring gathering for birdwatchers here).  BYOW (bring your own water) and be prepared to share the campground with ORV users, but the Ponderosa Pine grove here is gorgeous.

The next morning, we packed up our gear and drove to the Bear Canyon trailhead.  The trailhead showed promise, with towering Ponderosa Pines framing basalt cliffs.  This was a beautiful place, and we learned from another hiker that the Nature Conservancy had preserved this canyon.  That hiker 2008_wa_3780wplater asked if we had seen the scratches at about eye level on a tree along the trail.  I had seen the marks, but the source didn’t register until he mentioned that the scratches had been made by a cat–specifically the big cat known variously as Cougar and Mountain Lion.  And the scratches were fresh, as if the Cougar had come through just before us.  This was a reminder, if another was needed, to be wary and alert in this back country.  Unfortunately, we never saw the Cougar, but just knowing it was in that canyon added a whole new dimension to the hike.

 

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To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

October 19, 2008 The Owl and the Subaru

October 22, 2008


We heard through the birding grapevine–on a Pacific Northwest internet message board named “Tweeters”–that on 27 September skilled birders Khanh Tran and Tom Mansfield had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.  The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests–think scraggly spruces in endless bogs–across Canada, Alaska, and Russia.  Karen and I had seen one of these owls some half-a-decade previously in Washington, but our views had been fleeting and distant.  This one had been seen in the Okanogan National Forest, specifically in the Meadows Campground near Hart’s Pass, which is located above the stunning Methow Valley of Eastern Washington–in my opinion the most beautiful inhabited mountain valley in the entire state.  It reminds me of the best of Montana, and that’s saying a great deal.

We had camped among the wildflowers and dark spruces of the Meadows Campground twice previously, but several years ago the entire campground was incinerated by the huge Needle Creek Fire, which left over 99% of the spruces and firs as standing skeletons.  The U.S. Forest Service removed many of the dead trees, so now the campground has safe, open areas dotted with short stumps where visitors can camp, and the entire campground is surrounded by tens of thousands of standing dead trees.  It is eerie in the moonlight–just the place to hear the haunting call of an owl or a pack of wolves.

To get to Hart’s Pass and the Methow Valley, it is a 5 1/2 hour journey from our Bremerton apartment.  We started at 4:30 a.m., taking the ferry to Seattle, then driving north on I-5, then east on WA Highway 20, which is a stunning, but seasonal route through the Cascades.  The first heavy snow of the season will close the road until springtime.  But not to worry this weekend, which was forecast to have two days of late autumn sunshine, to be followed by snow after we left on Sunday night.  The Methow Valley was beautiful with brilliant yellow Black Cottonwoods contrasting with hazy blue peaks in the distance.  From there, we climbed the Hart’s Pass Road into the mountains.  This road is accessible to cars, but there is a half-mile stretch where the road is one lane wide, winding around blind curves with a 2,000 foot cliff on the outside of the curve and cliffs rising high on the inside of the curves.  Actually, the road had been originally blasted from solid cliffs with dynamite.  If you don’t like heights, this is not the place to be, especially if you meet a car coming around a blind curve and have to back up your vehicle around a curve to a safe place–which tends to be a wide place in the road a foot away from the cliff on what looks like soft soil.  Did I mention that there are no guard rails whatsoever?  

As we approached 6,200 foot Hart’s Pass, we kept our eyes open for a Spruce Grouse or the Northern Hawk Owl, but found neither.  Most of the vehicles we passed were pickups or SUVs with orange-clad men inside; it is, after all, hunting season up here in God’s country and the hunters are also out enjoying what may be the last great autumn weekend of the year.  At Hart’s Pass we turned toward Meadows Campground, a mile up the mountain at this point.  We soon found ourselves behind two creeping Subaru SUVs, and knew that we had found the birders hoping to see the owl.  We joined the chain as vehicle number three, and began inspecting every bird-shaped lump high in the dead spruces.  Then we pulled into Meadows Campground and almost immediately spotted the owl.  It was about noon at this point, and for the next hour-and-a-half or so we watched the owl flying around the area, zooming down to terrify a small flock of Gray Jays, then flying up to rest atop a dead spruce, bright yellow eyes alert and head turning around to view its domain.  It didn’t seem bothered by the watchers, and had been the star attraction here for several weekends in a row.  We watched the owl flying around, then it flew down to the ground and may have snagged a mouse, because it flew in a beeline away from the campground.  This was at about 2:00 p.m.

 

Meanwhile, more Subarus arrived, with birders eagerly anticipating seeing the owl.  We told them we had seen it just a few minutes ago, but it had flown off.  The patient birders hung around for several hours, their Subarus scattered along the campground road.  But the owl did not appear as the minutes stretched into hours.  Subarus crawled down the road to Hart’s Pass to see what else could be found.  Some birders were thrilled to see a flock of about 100 Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, a bird of high and wild expanses, near Slate Peak.  Someone heard a Northern Pygmy Owl along the road, but didn’t see it.  Karen and I drove to Slate Peak, about four miles away, to see what we could find.  Slate Peak has a fire lookout tower, and the peak itself has an unusual look because it was scalped back in the 1950s to create a Distant Early Warning radar installation for detecting incoming Soviet bombers.  Fortunately the nuclear bombers never came, and the fire lookout is now a lonely sentinel that has lost its original mission.  But the Alpine Larches were brilliant gold against the blue shadows of the mountainsides and it was a gorgeous afternoon.  We chatted with a determined woman who used a walker to trudge up part of the way to the lookout tower. 

When we returned to the campground at 5:30 p.m., two Subarus remained, keeping lonely vigil along the darkening roads.  Then we were the only ones left.  We had set up camp in the Meadows Campground earlier, and were prepared for a long night.  But then at 6:00 p.m. in the twilight, the Northern Hawk Owl flew back into the campground!  It stayed for several minutes atop one tree, then another, then flew off toward a ridge in the distance.  When an owl appears in the forest, and no Subarus are there to see it, does it really exist?

The night was cold and breezy.  We retired into our winter sleeping bags at 7:00 p.m., read for fifteen minutes, then fell asleep, wearing long underwear, an extra layer of fleece, heavy socks, and wool hats.  With all that, we stayed toasty for thirteen hours in the tent, awakening from dreams at 8:00 a.m. and stepping outside to heavy frost on the tent and on the car (it had gotten down to about 25 degrees F overnight).  Shortly thereafter, the first Subaru of the day arrived even before I had made my coffee.  The Subaru birders had stayed down in the Methow Valley at the Mazama Inn and were eager to see the owl this morning.  Alas, it was not to be.  We stood around chatting in small groups and watching the surrounding trees for hours, but no bird came.  Actually, there were birds that came begging, but they were Gray Jays and a Raven hoping for a handout.  Several of us obliged, despite the entreaties on Tweeters recently about how human food is not good for the birds.  But there is an undeniable delight in having a Gray Jay fly in and alight for an instant on your fingers to grab a piece of bread.  

As the day went on, the number of Subarus diminished and one Toyota SUV arrived.  Meanwhile, we decided to go for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads south toward Grasshopper Pass.  It was cold and the trail was icy in places, but the early afternoon was beautiful for our two mile hike.  We saw several Pikas gathering food and sitting atop their lookout rocks, loudly squeaking claim to their territories.  The Pika is a small rabbit-relative of timberline talus slopes that gathers a haystack of drying wildflowers for the winter.  We also saw a Clark’s Nutcracker probing a Whitebark Pine in hopes of getting a tasty pine nut.  Several Mountain Chickadees foraged in the conifers along the trail.  Many of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color, but enough golden needles had fallen that we knew this would be the last fine weekend of the fall.  This parking lot was filled with pickups, SUVs, and a minivan, with not a Subaru in sight.  There were hikers and hunters and trail-runners, and even a foursome of miners with hand tools and headlamps who headed upslope to do some probing in the old Brown Bear Mine.

We drove back down to the campground at 3:00 p.m., and all the Subarus were gone, apparently with no Sunday sightings of the great bird.  Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.  Now, I’ve mentioned Subarus a number of times, and I didn’t make any of it up.  On Saturday, six carloads of birders arrived, other than us, and all six cars were Subarus.  It should be named the official car brand of birders.  Or at least birders from the Seattle area.  We downscale birders from the hinterlands drive an all-wheel-drive Aztek (which, by the way, has been a terrific birding and backpacking vehicle; but alas, it is no longer made).

We then headed down the mountain; little did we know there were going to be two more birdy incidents for us.  I saw a small bird fly rapidly across the road that looked different from the other birds this weekend.  When I raised my binoculars, it looked back with a flat face and yellow eyes.  It was a Northern Pygmy Owl.  The first we had ever seen!  We watched it fly between several perches before it disappeared into the distance.  Unfortunately, it was too far away for a photograph, but I did record it briefly on video.  Then a flock of two dozen Gray-crowned Rosy Finches flew in.  I grabbed my camera and long lens, then headed up the steep hillside to spend a bit of quality time with the birds.  It turned out to be indeed a great experience, with some resulting really good close-up photographs.  A fitting end to a fine weekend.  And a seasonal goodbye to autumn in the mountains. 

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK: Paradise Visitor Center

October 17, 2008

Mt. Rainier National Park was spectacular on this crisp Indian Summer day, and we enjoyed hiking a trail in the subalpine meadows of Paradise (originally named by a woman who thought the exuberant summer wildflower display looked like paradise).  Our wildlife total included two American Black Bears, who were feeding ravenously on blueberry bushes red with autumn color.  Wisps of clouds rose from the mountain’s summit, which was brilliant white with fresh snow.

Our real purpose in visiting Paradise was to see the new $22 million National Park Service visitor center that opened two days ago.  With my long-ago background in parks and nature centers, I enjoy seeing new visitor centers and evaluating their potential for success, so a visit to this new rustic-style center gave me an impression of what planners now believe is “state of the art.”

The old Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise looked like it was designed by an architect for the Jetsons.  Essentially, it was.  In 1962 Seattle hosted its famous World’s Fair, which featured the iconic new Space Needle.  This monument, still the symbol of Seattle, illustrated what was thought to be the American future–and this closely matched the original prime time showing of the animated sitcom, The Jetsons, which favored the same sorts of futuristic design themes.  The National Park Service, in that design climate, approved a visitor center design that echoed the top of the Space Needle–as if the towering base of the structure lay buried in lava oozed by the great mountain.  That structure opened to the public in 1966, an exciting era of growth within the National Park Service and a time when post-war America was at its most optimistic.

Fast backward nearly a hundred years.  Mt. Rainier National Park was the fifth national park in the nation, and the early design of its roads and structures was sublime.  Roads were designed to curve gently around the mountain, winding through a dark tunnel of ancient forest, then coming around a curve to see the massive mountain suddenly emerging in magnificent splendor.  The experience of driving these roads reminds me of a musical score, with low bass chords followed by a brass crescendo.  In the same era, structures were created with logs and stone and cedar shingles, echoing the materials found naturally on the mountain.  This park helped pioneer this rustic style, and today visitors still love the early Paradise Inn and other buildings that were born in that surprisingly sensitive era.

Fast forward to the new century.  The futuristic spacecraft theme of the original visitor center looks as dated as a console television set from the 1960s.  In contrast, the nearby Paradise Inn, built in 1916, is still elegant after all these years.  It is in this context that the National Park Service planned a completely new visitor center, which would fit in with the original historic architecture but which would be built to contemporary “green” standards.  The old visitor center had physical problems of handicapped accessibility–it doesn’t even have an elevator for its multiple floors.  It also had a complex snow melting system to try and deal with the up to 1,000 inches of snow that Paradise receives each year: the concrete roof has a built-in system of tubes carrying hot water to melt the snow.  These are powered by diesel–burning up to 500 gallons of diesel on a cold day in winter!  The windows use old insulation standards and the center just looks “tired” overall.

The new Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, named for a powerful senator representing Washington State when the original visitor center was funded and built, has been planned for several years.  I like the overall look of the Center, though I think the soaring interior is more successful than the exterior.  The natural wood and black metal of the interior work beautifully together in the cathedral ceiling, and the craftsman-style copper light fixtures harken back to the time when the original buildings were erected at Paradise.  The exterior consists of stone and wood and a bank of beautiful windows on each side.  These windows have shutters that are open during the day to let in light and views, but they close when the Visitor Center closes, to conserve energy.  Good idea.

Much of the lobby is open, and visitors can see at a glance the opportunities to see a movie, get information from a desk ranger, visit the exhibits, or browse the bookstore.  The big, multi-paned windows look out in one direction on the great mountain and in the other direction toward the Tatoosh Range.  Circulation patterns for people browsing the center’s features work well.

The exhibits explore the major stories associated with the mountain:  the eruption history, subalpine meadows, volcanic hazards, wildlife, climbing to the summit, and effects of pollution and other outside influences on the plants and wildlife of the park.  Everyone’s favorite exhibit is on the main floor:  this is a scale model orientation map that lights up when a visitor presses a button to show, say, the route of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the mountain.  I once worked as an exhibit designer, and I’ve noticed that every visitor center designed in the last 25 years is described as having “state of the art” exhibits.  This one included.  The exhibits are effective, though probably not as gripping in story or execution as the planners hoped.  I think the problem with exhibits is that even though they have beautiful graphics and some interactive components, they simply can’t compete with today’s everyday interactive gaming and internet computer experiences.  And that’s all right.  Not everything has to dazzle and absorbingly entertain us.  Here the star experience is The Mountain itself, and the trails that lead from the Visitor Center.  Today, for example, the bears feeding on huckleberries are what every visitor is going to remember.  And that’s great!

The most effective part of the Visitor Center was the theater, which featured a spectacular new movie about Mt. Rainier, including stories about climbers, wildlife, and the geologic history and hazards of the great volcano.  It was so beautifully filmed in high-definition video that some visitors stayed in the theater to watch it a second time.  It was as close to perfect as this type of movie can be.

All in all, the National Park Service did a great job on the new Visitor Center; the tax dollars were well spent.  As we left the park, there was a touch of alpenglow on the upper reaches of the massive volcano.  A fitting end to a great day in one of America’s great national parks.

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

Sept 2, 2008: Pickles, Seven, Money, and More

September 5, 2008

Sweat was streaming down my face.  My 51 lb. backpack felt as if it was loaded with rocks. My breath came in short pants as I and my four companions trudged up a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Goat Rocks, an extinct volcano in Washington State.  Then we encountered a breath of fresh air in the form of “Pickles,” the trail name for a glowing young woman who this year had already hiked over 2,000 miles on the PCT–all the way from the Mexican border. 

First, some background about the Pacific Crest Trail, then I’ll return to Pickles and other intrepid hikers we met along the trail.  People who intend to hike the whole trail are known as “thru-hikers;”  in a typical year some 300 start the hike, with about 60% finishing.  The PCT starts at the Mexican border,  leading through the hot Mojave Desert, over the High Sierra and the John Muir Trail and Yosemite National Park, past Mt. Shasta, into the forests of Oregon, through Crater Lake National Park, leading over the flanks of Mt. Hood, descending into the Columbia River Gorge, then into Washington and past the Mt. Adams volcano, up and over the Goat Rocks, through Mt. Rainier National Park, winding over the central Cascades and into North Cascades National Park, and finally, Canada!  2,650 miles of hiking through some of the most beautiful landscapes in America!  Most thru-hikers take five to six months to complete the hike.  

Thru-hikers enjoy the passing scenery, certainly, but I think the main draw of the long hike is the physical and mental challenge of hiking the whole trail.  It is incredibly hard work, involving desert heat, high elevations with thin air, hard rains, cold nights, ticks, mosquitoes, and inevitable autumn snows.  Even the logistics of supplying food is daunting, with pickup points scheduled scores or hundreds of miles apart.  Mostly it’s the young and strong who make it. 

Here are a few success stories of thru-hikers we met on a six mile section of the PCT where it passes through the Goat Rocks Wilderness.  The Goat Rocks, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, are the remains of a volcano that has been dormant for several million years.  Now populated by Mountain Goats, Marmots, Bears, and Elk, the Goat Rocks has alpine landscapes rivaling the High Sierra.

   

Pickles

Thru-hikers each take a distinctive trail name rather than using their real name; I love the name Pickles, but I forgot to ask her why she adopted that moniker.  Pickles is a tall and lean and pretty woman who enthusiastically talked to us about her journey.  Her pack had a base weight of 15 pounds (not including food and water), which is really low.  She said it took about $2,000 in outfitting to get the best lightweight equipment she could, including a good Gregory backpack and two trekking poles.  She wore a short, knit skirt and a pair of knee braces and trail running shoes rather than boots.  On her third pair of shoes, she liked the Montrail and Merrill brands; with her light pack she didn’t need to wear heavy hiking boots (like the ones I use).  She slept under a tarp rather than a tent to save weight.  Averaging 25 miles per day, Pickles hikes with a loose and constantly changing group of people who travel at about the same rate.  I commented that she must be in the best shape of her life; she responded that she didn’t feel that way–that she was starting to feel a bit broken down and her feet were bothering her.  But she looked great, and enchanted our group with her enthusiasm.

 

Seven

Seven was born on 7-7-77, hence his name.  If you do the math, you will realize that Seven turned 31 years old somewhere along the trail in California.  Bearded and thin and handsome, he looked the epitome of health.  I asked Seven what he ate on a typical day: said that he didn’t carry a stove, so all his food was cold.  Breakfast was 600 calories of granola,  During the day he ate meal bars and power bars, which have a good balance of carbs and protein and fat, so these kept him going.  He also found that packets of instant oatmeal, mixed with cold water, was a really effective way of getting carbohydrates that lasted all day.  Seven was averaging 30 miles per day, and he felt he was getting stronger all the time.  He said that whenever he had a physical problem, after a good night’s sleep he could completely recover [blogger’s note: it must be nice to be young and strong!].  

While talking with Seven, Ridgewalker and Accent came along.  It turned out that they knew a PCT-hiking friend of one of our group, whose trail name is Guardian Angel.  58 years old, Guardian Angel had hiked for a month, then was sidelined for eight weeks with a stress fracture in her right foot.  Back on the trail, she traveled on a while, then wrenched her back.  The PCT is an extreme physical challenge, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t get very far.  Guardian Angel is one of the three Pearl Girls, who wear pearl necklaces while hiking the trail.

 

Chinaman and Rambi

Hiking together, this pair of young teachers was doing a big section of the PCT this year; their teaching schedules limited the amount of time they could spend on the trail.  Chinaman was named for the conical hat he wore during the Mojave section of his 2004 thru-hike.  Rambi took her name in New Zealand: Chinaman named her Rambo for her aggressive hiking, but she softened it by combining Rambo with Bambi–hence Rambi!  They had both been sidelined with two illnesses this summer.  They picked up Giardia from untreated water in a wilderness area in southern Oregon and ended up sharing the awful experience of horrendous diarrhea.  Then they picked up the Norwalk Virus in northern Oregon and spent several days of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and body aches.  Which is a terrible thing when you’re stuck in a tent in the wilderness.  They had also been through a raging thunderstorm in central Oregon and the smokes of forest fires near the trail in northern California.  Despite the challenges, they looked happy together and were averaging 20-25 miles per day.

Chinaman also posted his daily trail log to the internet using an electronic gadget called a Mail Writer, which he explained was a kind of precursor to the Blackberry.  They carried a stove and tent, so their base weight was higher than some of the others.  

Super and Visor

At the top of the spectacular Goat Rocks, we encountered Super and Visor.  Young and strong, this married couple had great equipment and appeared to be glowing with health.  Visor wore a visor, of course; I’m not sure where Super got his name, but he worked for the Clif Bar company and was sponsored by them during their hike.  They were from Seattle, so they were getting close to home.

 

Money

Full-bearded and hiking fast, Money stopped only long enough to tell us that the weather was getting cold.  Which we realized, since it was snowing and clouds were blanketing the mountains.  He posed briefly for me to take a quick snapshot.  I should have taken two, since his eyes were closed.  

All the Others

We met 15-20 thru-hikers on our Labor Day weekend hike.  As far as I’m concerned, they are all outstanding Americans who were willing to take on a challenge that most of us could not accomplish.  It was a delight to chat with them for a few minutes before they tore off again in pursuit of those 20-30 miles per day.

To read trail journals by the hikers themselves, with entries constantly updated, explore the site: trailjournals.com  On the home page, go to Journals, then 2008, then Pacific Crest Trail.  There is a lot of good stuff on this site if you are dreaming of hitting the trail.

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.