APPALACHIAN TRAIL MEMOIR

In 1970 I hiked the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a college friend. The trail was filled with adventures that I look back on with nostalgia.

The Appalachian Trail winds through the lush forest of the Great Smoky Mountains

Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.

I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.

We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.

After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.

After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.

After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.

After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”

Memories of the vast forest

One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.

Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial. 

On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!

The high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever

We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical. 

The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.

On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get. 

A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?

These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted. 

We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.

On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked up with three young men. Actually we had seen the young men earlier, and one was pulling a two-wheel golf bag cart up the trail–filled with bottles of beer! That explained all the hootin’ and hollerin’ from their campsite during the night. They had a big and blazing campfire that I’m sure was set in the traditional Appalachian manner: dousing the wet wood with gasoline, standing back, and tossing a match at it to watch it explode!

The next morning, a wet fog had settled over Silers Bald and we couldn’t see a thing through the thick sky soup. Another hiker came up to us while we were on the rock; he was thin and maybe 40 years old. He asked us how much we hiked in a day and we responded that we hiked about eight to ten miles a day. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he averaged over thirty miles a day and that his best day was 43 miles. I’ve never had the ability or the body type to do that kind of hiking, and it wouldn’t work with all the times I stop to take photographs, so in retrospect I’m not impressed, though at the time I thought he was superhuman.

By that time on the trail my feet were sore. Even though we washed our socks and dried them by the nightly fires, the trail had done its job on my tender feet. I had a blood-filled blister the size of a half-dollar on one heel, so I limped my way along the trail to the trailhead. We hitched a ride to a campground, where Dowell made friends with an older woman (she was probably 25) who was a teacher, and she took us the next day to go for a hike to a waterfall. That was fun, and this was a more trusting time in America, when people weren’t as afraid of each other. She drove us to the Gatlinburg bus station the next day, where we caught the bus to Knoxville. I distinctly remember the fat bus driver telling us and a couple of other hikers that he didn’t think backpacking was very sporting, so he wasn’t very impressed by us. Oh well.

In Knoxville we had just enough time to walk to Mary’s apartment for a meal, then walk back to the bus station where we boarded the overnight bus to Cincinnati. The atmosphere on the bus was electric, because many of the rural Kentucky and Tennessee passengers had just come off an experience attending a Billy Graham crusade that took place on May 28, 1970, in Knoxville. They felt inspired and chatty, talking about their churches and children and chickens.

We arrived in Cincinnati the next morning, where Dowell’s mother fussed over and treated my blood-filled blister, then we drove out to the family cabin in rural Ohio, which was a rustic place done in the Appalachian style with a long covered front and back porch. Dowell took me fossil-hunting in the nearby creek. In his high school years, he had been an avid fossil-hunter and actually had at least one scientific paper to his credit. The next day I flew home and began preparing for a summer semester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Epilogue: I just finished writing this a bit over 50 years after the experience, surprised at how much of it still felt fresh in my mind. Early experiences can be like that, imprinting themselves on a still-impressionable young person. I lost track of Dowell a year or two later; I only know that he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I went on to get my degree in Natural Resources, and later worked in that field and in photography for the rest of my adult life.

To see the photography of Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com and follow his work at Lee Rentz Photography on Facebook.

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

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.

MY LAST HIKE IN THE ENCHANTMENTS

An account of an early October trip to Horseshoe Lake in The Enchantments, one of the most sublime experiences we have ever enjoyed, with its stunning mountains, Alpine Larches in rich gold, and unafraid Mountain Goats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Mt. Stuart in Unsettled Weather in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTIMATE LANDSCAPES OF THE ENCHANTMENTS

Photographs and impressions of mountain details from an October backpacking trip to Stuart Lake and Horseshoe Lake in Washington State’s Enchantments, where we observed Alpine Larch at the peak of color.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHuckleberry leaves glowed scarlet against the glacier-rounded granite

When I backpacked to Horseshoe Lake and Lake Stuart in The Enchantments in early October, I knew that I would be photographing lovely landscapes filled with rugged mountains, serene lakes, golden larches, and (hopefully) Mountain Goats. All of those scenes came vividly to life in a landscape so breathtaking, I could hardly bear to leave. I took hundreds of photographs of the Mountain Goats that joyously greeted us, and hundreds of photographs of Alpine Larches and dramatic mountainscapes.

But when I’m out in the wilderness, Big Landscapes are only part of what I seek. I also like the sun on my face, the scent of forest mushrooms in the air, the way scarlet autumn leaves play along a granite surface, the perfect reflections of golden sedges at the edge of a pond. In short, I love the intimate landscapes as much as I love the Big Landscapes, perhaps more. This blog post is a visual celebration of the intimate landscapes that caught my eye. Think of these as haiku, in comparison with the epic poetry of the vast and breathtaking scenes.

Swamp Horsetail Massed along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsSwamp Horsetails thrived in dense colonies along the shore of Stuart Lake; I was astounded at the brilliant yellow-green color when they caught the late afternoon and early evening light

Swamp Horsetail and Waves along Lake Stuart in The EnchantmentsAt the edge of our campsite, I photographed the reflections of the blue sky, mountains, and horsetails on the small waves lapping the shore (while I left Karen to set up the tent on her own)

Swamp Horsetail with Wave-distorted Reflections in Lake StuartLate in the afternoon of the first day, the sun broke out across Lake Stuart; here the waves reflect the sunlit cliffs and forests in a bright abstract pattern

Swamp Horsetail at Edge of Lake Stuart in Predawn LightEarly the next morning, before the sun rose, Lake Stuart was perfectly quiet, with the mountains across the lake reflecting among the horsetails

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAIn a wetland farther up the valley, along the way trail leading to Horseshoe Lake, the clumps of autumn sedges glowed a rich gold among the cottongrass

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe are familiar with Cottongrass from sphagnum bogs in the midwest and vast stretches of Alaskan tundra; it was good to see it again here in the wetland. It actually is a sedge rather than a grass, and the seeds float in the air to new destinations much like dandelion or milkweed seeds.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe climbed the steep trail to Horseshoe Lake, then broke into small huckleberry meadows with granite outcrops and views of the mountains above the lake 

Mushroom Associated with Alpine Larch Trees Near Horseshoe LakeThere were numerous large mushrooms, about four to six inches in diameter, that live in association with the Alpine Larch roots; these relatives of boletes MAY be edible and excellent, but there are two species with similar habits and one is less edible than the other, and we weren’t able to identify them in the field

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAutumn sedges in a wet meadow, in a photograph with an impressionistic feel

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAMany of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color; they stand with the Whitebark Pines as the last bastion of trees at timberline

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpine Larches have exquisitely soft needles that turn golden in the fall, then drop off when October winds scour the basin

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe camped along Horseshoe Lake; the next morning I photographed the granite outcrops and quiet lake before the sun awakened the scene

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAMost trees reach to the sky; this larch bowed down to the granite, apparently in response to heavy winter snows that piled on top of it

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAIt is rare that I see such photogenic sedges in the mountains, and I loved the pattern of the autumn-tinged clumps against a tarn reflecting the blue sky

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAChartreuse Wolfia lichen growing abundantly on a branch, with a selfie of my wrist

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAIn a glacial cirque above Horseshoe Lake, a stream winds gracefully through a meadow that just lost its snows from last winter in the last month or so; this stream flows into Horseshoe Lake

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsIn the cirque, a couple of remnant snow fields remained and, where the tiny creek flowed under the snow, an ice cave formed. Such caves can collapse, so I just crawled into the entrance to take a series of photographs.

Ice Cave Under Remnant Snow Field in The EnchantmentsThe scalloped patterns inside the cave were typical of others I’ve entered … other worldly!

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHere it was October, and there were still some wildflowers blooming because the snow had melted out so recently. Shooting Star is among my favorite mountain flowers; it thrives in wet meadows, and I inevitably get soaked when I lay down to photograph it.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAGentians are more typical of late season wildflowers, but October is even late for them

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe talus slope above the wet meadow was alive with Pikas, those small rabbit-relatives who live among the rocks and put away cut greens in order to get through the long winter under the snow. They don’t hibernate, so they need plenty of food.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe stream through the meadow took a very meandering course; beyond the stream you can see the talus slope where the Pika live, as well as some young Alpine Larches growing among the boulders.

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAGolden Alpine Larches and golden autumn sedges at Jack Lake; the richness of color is the last gasp before the high country is deep in snow

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAClumps of sedges grace the edge of Jack Lake, as if carefully placed by a landscape artist

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne of the sedge clumps gracefully reflecting in Jack Lake

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAJust prior to our hike, a fierce windstorm apparently blasted through The Enchantments, because there were numerous fallen fresh Alpine Larch branches wherever we went

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWhen the granite cracks and weathers, soil accumulates in the cracks, giving huckleberries a habitat to explore 

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAlpine Larches and Whitebark Pines live to a hearty old age in the high country. When they eventually fall, the weathered wood shows one of the secrets of their strength: spiraling twisted grain that can withstand high winds and heavy snows better than perfectly straight grain

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASuch patterns also look good in black-and-white photography

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAI love photographing these fallen warriors, with their tough bones

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USALichens on the granite can be ancient and colorful; this pattern looked like it was left by an ancient civilization

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAHorseshoe Lake is ringed with smooth granite outcrops; the perfect place for a human to dip water for breakfast or a Mountain Goat to take a sip

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAOne windy night the moon was bright behind the trees; I photographed the shadow of one Alpine Larch with the moon glow dancing off the waves around it and got this ethereal result

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAAn impressionistic view of huckleberry leaves and distant larches

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAA cloud catching alpenglow at sunset

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAThe Alpine Larches were awe-inspiring; the equivalent of Vermont’s Sugar Maples or Colorado’s Trembling Aspens

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USASpeaking of aspens: on the hike out, we came upon a couple of Trembling Aspen groves trying to compete with the Alpine Larches for the camera’s attention; aspens are not nearly as common in the Cascade Mountains as they are in the Rocky Mountain West

The Enchantments, Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State, USAWe found these blue-black clumps of mushrooms on the way out; it turns out that they are relatives of the chanterelles, but didn’t taste nearly as good, at least to our palates

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.

I would like to thank my wife, Karen Rentz, and our companion, Junko Waibel, for all their patience during my epic time spent making photographs on this trip.

 

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

Northern Shoveler ducks fed communally in a spiral-like formation on Seattle’s Green Lake.

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

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Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

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Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL: Still Living the Dream

Life is our own personal version of the Pacific Crest Trail, filled with adventures on a long and wandering route through space and time.

Trap_Lake_PCT-198

Hiking down from Trap Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail on a perfect summer day, I saw a single hiker ahead, trudging up the trail toward me. It was a man of roughly my age, carrying a heavy backpack. When we met and exchanged greetings, he asked if I was with the Forest Service. I said no, but I realized that I was wearing a light green shirt and dark shorts, and it did look a bit like a U.S. Forest Service uniform.

Then he remarked on my “Michigan” baseball cap, with its indigo color deeply faded by many days in the high country, but the maize embroidery of my alma mater’s name still bright. He said he had gone to the University of Michigan as well. He asked when I attended and I said I was there from 1968 through 1972. He said he was there from 1970 through 1974. He asked what I had studied, and I said I was in the School of Natural Resources. Turns out, he was too, so our paths would have crossed many times during the two years of overlap. Alas, neither of us recognized the other’s name, but I would have been two years older, and our classes would have been different.

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In the 1960s and early 1970s, most of us entered the School of Natural Resources because we loved being outdoors and dreamed of a career that would keep us close to the forests and lakes and mountains that we loved. I loved hiking and fishing; others loved hunting ducks and deer, but all of us had the wilderness in our souls. The school had a feeling of camaraderie at the time, and I think most of us thought of ourselves as natural resource students first, and University of Michigan students second. In addition, both of us were at the school when the first Earth Day happened, so our environmental interests coincided with the awakening feeling that caring for the environment should become an urgent national priority.

He asked who my favorite professor had been, and I answered S. Ross Tocher, a charismatic man who taught park planning and nature interpretation, and who introduced me to photography and spurred my buying of a good quality camera. Dr. Tocher gave me a start on my careers in interpretation and photography through his classes, and asking me if I would like to participate in an arboretum design for Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, along with a landscape architecture student. This was the first time I participated in a project at a professional level, and it was thrilling. Tocher later moved to the Puget Sound region and spent his retirement years about ten miles from where I now live, though we didn’t get reaquainted in later years, something I now regret, since this great man passed away several years ago.

Trap_Lake_PCT-196

My new trail acquaintance had spent the early part of his career working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Monte Cristo Ranger District in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. He wasn’t a forester, but he recalled asking his forester colleagues if the timber harvest they were hauling out of the woods was sustainable. That would have been in the early 1980s, when logging was increased dramatically on Forest Service lands. They laughed and said absolutely not, but there was nothing they could do about it. One of their agency’s goals at the time was to make sure that all the old-growth timber on the district was harvested by 2010. They didn’t quite reach their goal, despite a valiant effort that left much of the Pacific Northwest with a brush cut, because the increasing scarcity of the Spotted Owl intervened and effectively cut off the harvest. Thank God and his little owl.

I told my new friend about my zigzag career path, having worked as a nature center director in upstate New York and as a freelance nature photographer in the years since, as well as shorter stints with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. I even did three summers of challenging work fighting forest fires in the California mountains.

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He spent the latter part of his career working for Seattle City Light doing environmental projects. And he spent lots of his own time in the mountains, enjoying the glorious yearly summer respite between spring and autumn rains in this moist region.

This conversation got me thinking about others I went to school with and the paths their lives have taken. Most I lost contact with, of course, but I’ve run across the names of some through the years in various ways. My roommate at forestry summer semester went into the Peace Corps and spent five years working on natural resources in Columbia, before the drug trade turned it into a terrifying place for outsiders. He later became a craftsman, creating a company that forged decorative bronze bells. I ran into him at an art show some 15 years ago in Cleveland, where we each had a booth.

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Another friend, for whom I was an usher at his wedding, went to graduate school, and later became a professor in Arizona. I heard him talking on NPR’s All Things Considered a few years back about tourism, his specialty. Another worked at a nature center, then departed for grad school and spent the rest of his career in Wisconsin doing graphics and photography for a university.

I was in college at the peak of the hippie era, and some of the guys I knew followed their passions in completely different directions. One formed a band performing in the style of old western music: they had an NPR program for many years and did a gig at the White House for Ronald Reagan (this guy also started the “Paul is Dead” rumor that swept the USA like wildfire–though Paul McCartney just gave a dynamite performance for 45,000 people in Seattle a week ago, so the report of his death was a bit premature, or else he’s had a great imposter for 40+ years). Another man–a man with a talent for talk–became an agent booking country and bluegrass acts out of Nashville. Still another became a restaurant manager in Cleveland.

Trap_Lake_PCT-178

Our lives and careers have taken many routes. But as my new friend said as we departed: “It’s good to see some of us are still living the dream.” Indeed. I cannot imagine a life without spending a great deal of time outdoors in beautiful country. I invited him to join us on a week-long hike in The Enchantments, but he declined. He had other plans, and another route through life.

One last thing: the man remarked twice to me: “I can’t believe how young you look!” Well, take off the baseball cap and you see the lost hair that once flowed long and blond, while the sunglasses mask skin damage from so many days spent outdoors in the days before sunscreen. I like my disguises and have no illusions of youthfulness.

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We departed. He headed up the trail toward the pass and I headed down the trail to join my wife and our friend on the hike back to the trailhead. Old times and early ambitions were coursing through my head as I thought about forks in the road I’ve taken. Some with regrets, but most just are what they are. At this point in life, I’m as happy as I’m likely to be, and things have turned out pretty well. Life is our own personal version of the Pacific Crest Trail, filled with adventures on a long and wandering route through space and time.

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

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!

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.