I awoke last night at midnight to flashes of light from a motion sensor floodlight on our deck. I wasn’t thinking of prowlers, because I suspected the flashes of light were triggered by Southern Flying Squirrels coming to visit for the sunflower seeds I had tossed out just before going to bed.
I crept downstairs and carefully opened the sliding door, letting in frigid February air. The deck light came on briefly, enough that I could see the tiny squirrels dashing up through an opening in the deck around a huge Northern Red Oak. Each squirrel would come up, grab a sunflower seed, then dash down the tree trunk out of sight. This happened so fast that I couldn’t see how many squirrels there were, though at one point I saw three. There may have been more. On this night they were nervous and did not stop long enough for any photos.
We’ve had Southern Flying Squirrels at our home in Michigan each winter, and I’ve photographed them at night several times using incandescent lights on the deck. They made for good photographs, with their gray-brown fur and a cuteness factor of huge bulging eyes and little pink lips, but their coloration was subtle to my eyes and essentially no different from most mammals, which are colored for camouflage rather than display.
Then scientific knowledge suddenly changed. About four years ago a Wisconsin forestry professor, Dr. Jonathan Martin at Northland College, was in the woods at night looking up toward the forest canopy with an ultraviolet flashlight for lichens and other fluorescing lifeforms, when a hot pink missile glided overhead. He identified this as a Northern Flying Squirrel, and its normally white belly lit up hot pink in ultraviolet light. He found this astounding, and asked a colleague to investigate flying squirrel skins in a couple of museum collections to see if the phenomenon could be confirmed. It turned out that in those collections, the bellies of all three species of North American flying squirrels–Southern, Northern, and Humboldt’s Flying Squirrels–glowed bright pink under UV light. Even specimens over 100 years old. Male and female, young and old, they nearly all glowed.
Since we have easy access to flying squirrels at our home in Central Michigan, I decided to observe this phenomenon for myself. I obtained a 365 nm UV flashlight that is powerful enough to look almost into the treetops and began looking at these squirrels on nights they chose to come to our feeding station. They don’t come every night, but when they do I often get up in the middle of the night to observe and try to photograph them. It isn’t easy to photograph little nervous squirrels by a relatively dim (to our eyes) UV light, but I’ve had some success represented by the pictures here.
Why do flying squirrels glow? That is still unknown. What is known is that at dusk, dark, and dawn, the air is bathed in proportionately more ultraviolet light and far less light from the visible spectrum than in daytime. This UV light–when converted to visible light by fluorescence–makes the flying squirrels more visible to each other. This is even more true when snow blankets the forest, since snow reflects UV light. It also appears that flying squirrels’ eyes, unlike ours, can see into the UV spectrum, so this ability may also be involved.
Again: why do they use biofluorescence and UV light at night? There are a couple of possibilities that spring to mind. Based upon the three flying squirrels I observed on that recent February night, I think it’s possible that the squirrels use their bubblegum pink undersides to keep track of each other at night. These squirrels are highly social, with reports of 25 to 50 Southern Flying Squirrels roosting communally in a hollow tree. So why wouldn’t they follow each other to food sources? Some of my pictures show them sitting side by side, dining quietly together on the sunflower seeds I put out. They seem to enjoy a more peaceable kingdom among their kind than do the daytime Eastern Gray Squirrels and American Red Squirrels we also get in Central Michigan. Feeding together also means more big eyes to look for predators–much as goldfinches and other songbirds feed communally as a strategy to detect hawks.
There is another tantalizing possibility for the pink color. Three large owls that also live in this region–Barred, Barn, and Great Horned Owls–also have bellies that fluoresce hot pink under UV light, though their coverings are feathers rather than fur. These owls are the chief predators of flying squirrels. Do the flying squirrels mimic the owls to fool the predacious birds into thinking they are seeing other owls when in the air? Maybe. I find this possible. The fluorescing fur is mostly on the belly and undertail of the squirrels, with just a minor hint of color change on the back and virtually none on the tail. Once a flying squirrel lands on a tree trunk, its back and tail make it almost invisible to predators because the glowing belly is nearly hidden.
Alternatively, perhaps the owls are mimicking the flying squirrels, fooling the little squirrels into thinking they are seeing others of their own kind. This would allow the owls to silently approach the flying squirrels and suddenly grab the little creatures.
Or perhaps all three of these mechanisms are in play: bubblegum pink signals the presence of flying squirrels to each other, but also both disguises them from owls and identifies them to owls, if any of that makes sense. Coevolution at work.
Biofluorescence also extends to the Virginia Opossum in this region, but is apparently unknown in other mammals here. It turns out the phenomenon is new enough that the chemical and physical mechanism is still unknown. I suspect this will be studied in coming years, with possible applications for industry. Or not. Knowledge is its own reward.
I will be watching these creatures over the coming weeks and years, both with and without the assistance of UV light. The mysteries of nature are an ingrained part of my life and I find observations and photography endlessly fascinating.
The photographs above are a good representation of the Southern Flying Squirrel in UV vs visible light. The final photograph shows the deck setting at night where all the pictures were taken, and includes one flying squirrel for scale. Click on the photographs to see them larger.
Here are some other sources that examine this discovery:
The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.
We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.
There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there.
Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.
The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.
We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.
We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.
Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.
We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.
As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.
Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year!
A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.
As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.
We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.
I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.
There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.
The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.
To view more of the photographic work by Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com, where you can see thousands of photographs and purchase a special one for your walls.
We were staying in a log hut during a Seattle Mountaineers trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, one of the dramatic high country huts in the Canadian Rockies, when it snowed one night. The next morning, Karen led an effort to create a snowman that reflected the changing seasons. It had a rain hat and a warm woolen scarf, as well as an evergreen mouth, a traditional carrot nose, and eyes of still-flowering purple asters that a Pack Rat had cut in front of our cabin. Making this “Hippy Chick” snowwoman took our minds off the Grizzly Bear tracks that were left overnight on the trail that went right by the hut.
The guy staying in the hut next to ours had been camping about a mile away, but a bear invaded his camp in the night and scared him, so he moved into the cabin. Perhaps our snowman worked as a talisman to ward off hungry grizzlies.
When backpackers unexpectedly encounter a group of, ahem, older hikers, making a snowman along a trail, they are delighted. After all, snowmen take us back to the days of carefree childhood, when playing in the snow was simply what we did in the winter, bundled up in snowsuits, woolen mittens, and warm boots. During those winter days of long ago, those of us growing up in northern climates would also make snow angels and erupt into spontaneous snowball fights–reflecting the sweet and agressive sides of our childhood natures.
Karen Rentz started creating snowmen during backpacking trips at least a decade ago. Gradually her friends came to expect that when they came to a remnant snowfield during a summer hike, they were going to be roped into making a snowman, and that it was a fun distraction from the exertion of hard hiking. Almost everyone pitched in, gathering hemlock cones and fallen lichens and twigs and leaves and whatever other natural materials were at hand, sometimes supplemented–long enough to take pictures–with mittens and hats.
These are sweet-tempered snowmen, unlike the snowmen that sprang from the mind of Bill Watterson’s Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (which I still miss): Calvin and Hobbes. Karen’s snowmen usually smile through a twig mouth and they have funny hats or hair and are gentle spirits, reflecting her soul.
All snowmen are ephemeral, of course, and that is part of their charm. When Karen and friends make a snowman, it some times lasts an hour or two, perhaps for another day or two, with sunshine and gravity taking their inevitable toll. But the short lives are okay, for none of us lasts all that long on this earth, and they are a reminder to stop and smell the roses: for that alone, making a snowman is worthwhile.
On Mount Townsend we built this snowman on the top edge of a very long snow slope that descended several thousand feet at a steep pitch, so we had to be careful not to slide off. On this spot once stood a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout cabin built in 1933 to watch for fires in Olympic National Forest, but it was destroyed in 1962.
This Mount Townsend snowman was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. We found the old spoon at the edge of the snow field, and believe that it was lost when the lookout cabin was destroyed. The eyes, nose, and buttons are made of small rocks that had been broken off the bedrock when water trickled into cracks in the rock, and then froze. These rocks originated millions of years ago on the Pacific Ocean floor, then were thrust up above the ocean to form the rugged Olympic Mountains. But enough of geology. The hair is made of fallen branches of Mountain Hemlock.
Karen Rentz with the Mount Townsend snowman. Cold knee!
While backpacking in The Enchantments of Washington State, there was a bit of remnant snow at the time the golden Alpine Larch needles were falling in October, so we gave this hula snowgirl a Hawaiian skirt, thinking about how much warmer it would be to be hiking in the islands.
There was just enough snow left over on that Enchantments hike to make a snowman’s head about the size of a big man’s fist; cones make up the eyes.
We built this snowman along the Pacific Crest Trail, at the very place we met a hiker who had already come all the way from Mexico and was going all the way to Canada. He was unique in that he was quite a dapper hiker, wearing a Panama hat, a neatly trimmed beard, and a necktie (really!); he said he was between jobs and wanted to be ready in case someone wanted to interview him for a job along the trail. Hey, I’d hire him for his sense of humor!
This Pacific Crest Trail snowman had pretty lupine flowers for hair, Mountain Hemlock cones for a nose and buttons, pine needles for eyebrows, and a happy twiggy smile. This snow field was located in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a place where there once towered a volcano on the scale of Mount Rainier. It sits directly between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the founder of the national forest system who worked in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Karen and I were driving through Yosemite National Park one fine autumn day and came upon a patch of snow that hadn’t yet melted from an early autumn snowfall. So, we just had to make this cute little snowman with Lodgepole Pine cone eyes. One of our photos of this snowman was featured in an article about quirky snowmen on NPR’s website several years ago.
We hiked with two friends around Gold Creek Pond in October of 2012, when the first heavy snows were starting to blanket the Cascade Mountains above Seattle. The last of the autumn leaves were still vivid, but the first major snow of winter had deposited enough snow to make a snowman. Gold Creek was also enjoying a Kokanee Salmon run, so while Karen did most of the work on the snowman, I did some underwater photography of the salmon, which were the color of burgundy. The underwater photography was so cool that I returned the next day to do some more. By then, the snowman was looking a bit under the weather, but I would be too if I had to stand in the same place all night. The second day, a young gold miner walked by and chatted with me (remember, this is GOLD Creek Pond); he carried some mining equipment–as well as having an exposed pistol on his belt. Mining is a serious activity, and that fall the price of gold was shooting upward, so a guy had to be prepared for outlaws.
We used vivid Vine Maple leaves for the hat, and Douglas Fir cones for the eyes. Gold Creek Pond is located near Snoqualmie Pass above Seattle in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest.
Karen and I hiked up to Melakwa Lake at the end of July. It was a cold, foggy backpacking trip to one of the high mountain lakes located closest to Seattle, and at the beginning of the hike the trail leads under a beautiful elevated section of I-90 (it is elevated to allow avalanches to pass safely underneath). We created this handsome snowman, which we named “Misty Melakwa,” atop a remnant snow field. The hair is of a Mountain Hemlock branch that had turned yellow, perhaps after being buried for nine months under the snow, and the buttons and eyes are of hemlock cones. The spiky hat is a piece of old, weathered wood that might have been a hard knot from a rotted tree. “Misty Melakwa” has a bit of the devil in him, or so it looks from the crooked smile. Melakwa was an Indian word for “mosquito,” so we’re glad the weekend wasn’t warmer, allowing those pesky devils to swarm.
Karen Rentz with her creation. Our snowmen are not big, and they don’t live long.
Lee Rentz during one of his occasional beard phases (it would be much whiter today).
During a hike to Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park in August, we started making a snowman a little ways off the trail on a remnant snow field. In this national park, the volunteer park rangers are adamant about staying on the trail, and we were several yards off the trail. I saw a ranger coming up the trail, and figured I would head her off at the pass by chatting with her about the trail. But she saw my comrades making the snowman and wondered what we were up to. I guess she figured that a group of older people making a snowman in late summer was a harmless, though slightly eccentric, activity so she let us off with a warning: “Please make sure you take a giant step onto the snow field to make sure you don’t crush any tiny plants about to emerge at the edge of the snow.” Duly noted. And done. (Though it should also be noted that a group of volunteer rangers was gathered off the trail around the lookout in lawn chairs, where they were having a party.)
With the lovely pink hat and fashionable scarf, this snow lady is definitely a girly-girl.
Karen, Joan, and Junko make up the trio of ladies who built this lovely creature.
A trail shelter at Boulder Camp in Olympic National Forest was our destination for this day hike. The trail shelter must have enjoyed divine intervention, because giant avalanches had frequently thundered down the surrounding mountains, but always seemed to miss the hut. We built this friendly snowman, with his carefully parted lichen hair, as a talisman to bring us good luck during our visit. He certainly looks friendly, and he is standing atop a tree that had been toppled by a long-ago avalanche.
Boulder Camp is located in the deep Upper Dungeness River Valley below Marmot and Buckhorn Passes in the Olympics. There aren’t very many of these shelters in Washington State’s mountains, but they do provide a dry place to get out of the rain when the weather takes a turn.
With hair and arms of Wolf Lichen, this snow woman is dancing atop a precarious snow bridge over a tiny creek. Wherever a creek flows under a snow field in the mountains, it melts the snow from underneath. Careless hikers can plunge through the thinned snow if they’re not careful, and that’s probably what happened to this little snowman after we left. RIP, tiny dancer!
A happy snowman made by Karen Rentz and Linda Moore along the Grassy Knoll trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood points into the sky in the distance. His happy feet look to be made of Douglas Fir branches, with cones for toes.
Our most recent snowman, made in October high in The Enchantments above Horseshoe Lake, was in a meadow that still sported a few late summer wildflowers and lots of Pikas running around gathering winter hay in the meadows around the rocks. Pine hair and chartreuse lichen details make the snow guy look a bit crazy. This was created by Karen, Junko, and me.
Reason #1 for carrying an orange trowel is to scrape hardened snow off snowbanks in order to build a snowman. Reason #2 is, well, digging holes for #2. This happy hiker gal was enjoying the cool snows of summer in Mount Rainier National Park.
Made in Canada, this snowman features a fine rock hat, as well as nice rock body parts.
On Mount Rainier, even snowmen need ropes to climb the 14,410 foot high volcano, and this one has stylish ropes of red and purple.
The hat is made of layers and decorations of volcanic rock, while the scarf was made of flagging tape (removed before we left, of course). This was along the Skyline Trail near Paradise.
The Snowman Project will be continued, as long as there is snow to shape and trails to walk and bodies that can make the journey.
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.
Sometime around 10 p.m., the temperature edged down a degree, and the light rain took on a sharper edge. The cold drops stung a bit more, and the asphalt took on a glossy sheen. The Weather Channel had warned of freezing rain, and it was arriving right on schedule.
Branches began glistening in the headlights, as the cold rain polished every surface in a thin transparent layer of ice. As the night wore on, twigs of the lesser trees began snapping, sending a cascade of crystal to the ground. Power lines sparkled when touched by headlights.
Tree limbs were tugged by gravity as the relentless weight of crystalline water accumulated. As more rain fell and ran down the branches in little rivulets, icicles started to grow at the tips as the water froze faster than it could drip. By the wee hours, the icicles at the branch tips were one centimeter and growing. As the weight gradually sagged the branches, the icicles curved, always seeking gravity’s pull.
At 5:00 a.m., the first massive maple branch collapsed on a power line, blinking out the lights and heat of a hundred homes. Then a sycamore went down, then an elm, then a hickory. All over the region tree limbs fell in the forest, and nobody heard, but when a tree limb fell across the highway the sirens blared and the red lights of emergency vehicles sparkled eerily off the crystal forest.
Our power went out before dawn, and we awoke to a slightly chilled house. It would get ever colder over the next three days, as our veneer of civilization cracked under the weight of the ice.
Meanwhile, I took pictures.
This storm occurred in Michigan just before Christmas; I would like to thank the relatives who took in those of us without power and made the holidays special. After three days, power was restored.
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.
The last light of a clear winter day brings a sculpture of pink and blue to the snows of Mount St. Helens
33 years after the eruption that blew the top off Mount St. Helens, the volcano is quiet, with some visible wisps of smoke and ash coming from the crater. It will probably blow up again, but the next major eruption could be decades or centuries in the future. Nobody knows.
Meanwhile, there are lava fields and pumice plains and cave trails to explore. We have made frequent visits to the popular viewpoints in summer, but we had never ventured to Mount St. Helens in the winter, so we thought it would be a good idea to escape the gray winter clouds of Puget Sound for a day of snowshoeing.
When we drove up from the coastal lowlands of Washington, we emerged from the layer of clouds that so often blankets the region in winter; I stopped here to photograph the godbeams streaming through the trees at this place of transition from murk to sun
I love signs, so I stopped to photograph this amusing juxtaposition of signs along the route to the trailhead
At the parking lot, we saw this colorful glove sticking out of a plowed snowbank; I should have checked to make sure it wasn’t attached to someone
It turned out to be an ideal day in the mountains, with temperatures warm enough that some winter climbers were going shirtless. Not us. And we aren’t climbers–not in the sense of the scores of crampon-and-rope laden men and women we could see as tiny specs moving against the snow, high on the slopes above us. We’ll leave that experience for a younger generation.
We were content with our snowshoe hike to June Lake, a tiny lake fed by a waterfall tucked next to a bouldery lava field part way up the mountain. The first mile of the trail was noisy, as we shared the route with snowmobiles who zipped by at warp speed. Then we diverged, and had a quiet climb to ourselves and other snowshoers.
Tiny June Lake, with its dead trees and waterfall; I ventured out onto the ice to get some photographs and was lucky that I didn’t fall through
Reflections in June Lake
Stream tumbling down the mountain from June Lake
Snow had fallen off the trees in a high wind, so the forest itself didn’t possess the magic of a fresh snowfall, though we did observe some Coyote and Snowshoe Hare tracks. When we went higher, we broke out into the open when we reached June Lake and its waterfall. There we had lunch, with our cheese and crackers and nuts and cookies spread out between us on the snow. An organized group of perhaps a dozen college students was having lunch there as well; except that they were also swirling and sipping Merlot from clear wine glasses.
After lunch, Karen made a snowman, while I snowshoed up a lava field to photograph boulders that were completely covered with snow. It was a glorious afternoon!
Karen’s happy snowman at June Lake
Lee’s self portrait
Volcanic boulders covered with snow, their blue shadows reflecting the blue sky
Mount St. Helens provided a pleasant winter interlude that day, but on many winter days it is much more of a challenge. Recent climbers have talked of whiteout conditions and 40 mph winds and skiing down a sandpapery surface of pumice-covered snow.
Last pink light on the mountain (technically, this is not alpenglow, which occurs after the sun has set)
We started descending the trail in late afternoon. At a place where a vista toward the mountain opened up, we paused, and realized that there was the potential for some great light. The late afternoon light already sculpted the mountain, which was a nice change after the flat light earlier in the day. We decided that it was getting late enough that we might as well stay for the last light on this clear January day. We lingered, and photographed the last magenta light on the mountain as the sun descended. It made for an interesting end to a great day of snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains, a day that had started with a desire to leave the gray skies of our Puget Sound home and get some sunlight.
After we photographed the last light on the mountain, we snowshoed out by headlamp. Snowmobiles whined by us in the darkness and one snowmobiler gave us a thumbs-up as we paused to let him pass.
Karen reaching the parking lot by headlamp
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is administered by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Go to Mount St. Helens for more information. The Washington Trails Association has a trail description and map for this hike; go to June Lake Snowshoe.
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.
Pike Place Market, nearly deserted during a rare snowstorm
I was standing in the middle of the street, intently looking through the viewfinder at a neon sign on the roof of the Pike Place Market, when I heard a shout from inside the market and a fishmonger pointing at me:
My first thought was: “hey, you talkin’ to me?”
Then my brain kicked in and I turned around to face the threat–a dark sedan sliding somewhat sideways down the hill directly toward me. Adrenalin pumping, I backed off the street as the car managed to slide into the turn successfully at the bottom of the hill. Death averted.
Seattle and snow blend about as well as slugs and salt. It just isn’t something that people here deal with very often, so Seattlites don’t have the infrastructure or the driving ability to deal with these snowstorms that happen every few years.
Seattle is so full of kindly liberals that people knit sweaters for the city’s trees (actually, this is part of Suzanne Tidwell’s wonderful exhibit of knitted trees in Occidental Park)
This storm brought perhaps 5″ of snow to downtown Seattle. If you come from a part of the country that experiences macho snowfalls (as I did, coming from Syracuse two decades ago), 5″ will seem puny–hardly worth dragging out the snowblower for. But Seattle has hills … really steep hills right downtown that cause your calves to scream with rage as you hike upslope. And there are few snowplows. During a big storm in the 1990s that took many days to clean up, I remember the mayor saying pitifully that “we only have seven snowplows!”
Cross-country skier commuting to work on 1st Avenue
There is also a Seattle aversion to salting the roads. In the last big snowstorm, several years ago, the city government expressed a horror about the environmental impact of salt and the salty runoff trickling down into Puget Sound. My first reaction was incredulity, as in: “Puget Sound is already … SALTWATER!” Fortunately, the old salts prevailed and the city now uses salt, though not really enough.
Snow affects Seattle politics. In December 2008, then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was the guy who refused to use salt on the roads, so they were icy from December 13-27, causing traffic problems and accidents for the whole two weeks. I remember barely making it to the airport that year for our Christmas flight, after getting ensnared in a traffic jam on back roads that were so completely coated with ice that they looked like skating rinks.
Cyclamens and ferns enduring the snowy day in Waterfall Garden Park
Seattle’s mayor had a second PR problem in the snows that year. I recall a media report that the city’s road maintenance department took it upon themselves to plow a road directly from the mayor’s home to city hall, rather than plowing out major streets first. Of course, citizens were outraged, even after the mayor exclaimed that he had nothing to do with that decision. Largely as a result of the snowstorm problems, the mayor didn’t even make it through the primary elections the next year.
Hammering Man, a sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky to celebrate workers, works 24/7 through the storm
On the morning of the heavy snowfall this year, Karen and I trudged from our Bremerton apartment to the ferry bound for Seattle, wearing waterproof L.L. Bean boots, the parkas we wore on an Antarctic trip a decade ago, heavy mittens, and woolen hats from Kathmandu. Karen was heading to her job in the marble corridors of a law office, and I was going to spend the day documenting the Seattle snowfall. It was a cold and wet day, with constant light snowfall, but I was able to get the selection of photographs you see here.
Seattle was virtually deserted that morning, save for a few hardy office workers who were able to take transit of some sort, since ferries, light rail, heavy rail, and some buses were operational. The buses wore chains, as did most delivery vehicles. That night, when returning home, Karen had trouble descending the steep hills on foot, as the colder evening temperatures turned slush to ice. The problem? Not enough salt to keep the sidewalks safe. So she telecommuted the next day.
The Smith Tower, once the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, rises above one of the old brick buildings of Pioneer Square. The brick building has a faded ad for the Washington State Ferries that says “Have Lunch Over Seas,” which is a playful thing to do when crossing Puget Sound.
The homeless were still on the streets during the storm; after all, where else would they be? I asked one homeless man if I could take his picture; he was wearing a gray snowflake-covered blanket draped over his head, and he was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air in front of his dark face. Alas, he said “No, I don’t think so.” I offered him money, and he said he didn’t need any. So, that one great picture will just have to stay forever etched in my mind.
Space needle with satellite dishes pointed toward space
Alaskan Way, nearly deserted of traffic on this snowy morning
Photograph I was taking while a car silently slid toward me down a hill
Snowboarders hoping to find a steep hill with enough snow downtown
The homeless have it especially tough in this weather; yes, there are warm shelters, but some people choose to sleep in doorways
A woman making her way through the sidewalk slush of Pioneer Square
People out and about in Pioneer Square, enjoying the rare snowy day
Suzanne Tidwell’s exhibit of knitted trees in Occidental Park, looking especially festive against the simple backdrop of snow
Tsonqua sculpture by Chinook Tribe artist Duane Pasco in Seattle’s Occidental Park, with a gull surveying the scene at the top of the totem
To fulfill their delivery mission, UPS trucks wear tire chains on these slippery and hilly streets
Cabs were a good way to get around the city, though it would have been a challenging job to be a taxi driver on a day like this
Cross-country skier on a pier, with container cranes in the distance
Snowman with pansy corsage I observed along the waterfront
Home of The Jetsons–actually, it is the monorail from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair passing through Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s addition to the city–the EMP Museum (think Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana), designed by Frank Gehry
A sign preserved from the Skid Road era of Seattle
Witch Hazel blooming in January, in Waterfall Garden Park
Alley in Pioneer Square
By the way, here are a couple of not-to-be-missed videos of a skier launching off a high park in Seattle:
Karen Rentz snowshoeing through a forest of trees coated with rime ice
Avalanche danger was in the orange to red zone–a high probability of snowy terror and a warning to watch for unattended snowpacks and to be prepared to take action if there were suddenly loud sounds. Terror indeed!
Still, it had been a long winter, with a lot of dangerous weekends in the mountains. We had the special kind of cabin fever that comes only from months of rainy winter Puget Sound weather, when we either turn into lethargic slugs or go screaming madly into the rain.
Weather forecasters back in early autumn predicted a La Niña winter, which would bring colder and wetter conditions to the Pacific Northwest. Nature obliged. Our rain gauge for 2011, so far, was over 20 inches and the snowpack in the mountains was getting thicker by the day. The problem was that there had been alternate patterns of sun, rain, and extreme cold in the mountains, which caused the layers of the snowpack to be unstable (think of a layer cake with the top layer, lubricated by a thin layer of Cool Whip and Jello, avalanching onto the floor in a ’60s sitcom). The avalanche danger everywhere in the mountains was extremely high, weekend after weekend.
We finally decided to head for Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, avalanche danger be damned! Hurricane Ridge is known for treacherous weather and deep snow, so we checked out the forecast, the webcam, and the avalanche danger web sites, and decided that we would be OK if we were careful. The drive to the ridge is about 140 miles from our home, so we left early in the morning, carrying tire chains and extra food and warm clothing.
There was no snow in Port Angeles, gateway to the Olympics, but as we headed up the road, we encountered the first snowbanks and it gradually got thicker as we rose in elevation. Finally, we turned the corner onto Hurricane
Rime ice on the subalpine trees, viewed through icicles on the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center
Ridge, and saw what we had specifically hoped to see: rime ice coating all the conifer trees, making each tree look like it had been created in a fantasy workshop.
Our northwestern conifers are adapted to winters where the accumulated snow seemingly gets as hard and heavy as concrete. The shape of our subalpine firs and spruces, for example, is tall and slender. Longer branches would break off in the heavy snow, so these species have short branches.
Rime ice is a special kind of ice that forms at windy, high elevations. Water droplets in the atmosphere, at temperatures between -4 and +14°F, become supercooled, staying in liquid form until hurtled against an object. Upon striking that object, the supercooled water suddenly freezes solid. The result? Danger, in the case of an airplane. Beauty, in the case of a subalpine forest.
Rime ice on a weather and radio station; note how the ice crystals grow in straight lines out from the metal of the structure and into the prevailing winds
We had never examined rime ice close up before, and we found that it has a distinct pattern. It grows outward from say, a branch, in a long structure that resembles an opaque crystal (I’m not sure if it technically would be considered a crystal). These linear structures can be over a foot long, and face into the wind. As long as the wind carries supercooled water and as long as the wind comes from the same direction, the formations grow outward in a straight line.
Yet rime ice is not soft like snow, despite its fantasyland appearance. It is hard to the touch; when we tapped it with ski poles, it made a rapping sound rather than collapsing like snow would do. And rime ice only occurred at the places along the ridge where wind would funnel. In the forest just below the open ridge, there was no rime ice (and little snow) on the trees. Interesting stuff indeed!
Looking downslope from Hurricane Ridge: the higher trees are entirely coated with rime ice, while the slightly lower trees have much less ice
Karen and I snowshoed through the rime ice forest along the ridge, taking care to avoid cornices at the tops of cliffs and to avoid steep, avalanche-prone slopes. All the alpine skiers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and even a woman in high heels were having a good time on Hurricane Ridge. Well, except, perhaps, for the woman coming down off the slope borne by a snowmobile, whose leg was in a splint. Perhaps she later sought help from Dr. Gouge, an orthopaedic surgeon from Port Angeles who had a sign advertising his services on the side of a van parked at Hurricane Ridge.
The snow depth gauge on Hurricane Ridge measured 14 feet of snow
Olympic National Park is among the few national parks with an alpine ski area; a rope tow leads to the ridge
Note the record snowfall and the accumulated snow this winter (much more has fallen since)
Snow level rising on the windows of the Visitor Center
Tall, thin conifers are the rule here; a tree with a lot of wide branches would pick up too heavy a snow load, and branches would break
Karen Rentz snowshoeing into the rime ice forest
Rime ice coated the structure of this walkway window outside the Visitor Center
Another view showing thick accumulation of rime ice
Young men marveling at and photographing the rime ice
Looking north from Hurricane Ridge toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island in the distance
Wave shape of a cornice atop a cliff on Hurricane Ridge
A pair of conifers covered with ice
Lone tree coated with ice; with a view of the Olympic Range