Posted tagged ‘volcano’

WITNESS TO CREATION: When Lava Battles the Sea

February 19, 2014

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island ofLava greets the sea in a swirling cloud of elemental forces 

I already knew the answer I’d get, but I decided to ask the ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park anyway:

“Where can we go to see lava flowing into the ocean?”

“You can’t. It’s on private property and it’s unsafe to go out there” she replied.

We went anyway, and had one of the most astounding experiences of our lives.

We were fortunate. Our first trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in May 2013 coincided with the awakening of Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. She was sending small rivers of lava down the slopes of Kilauea to the sea, where they sizzled and exploded and steamed and hissed in anger at being awakened. We just HAD to see it, after reading about the experience and seeing photographs of the frequent eruptions over our lifetimes.

We had intended to walk out on our own, but there were some inter-cultural conflicts brewing at the time, and decided it would be culturally and physically safer to go with a guide. Aside from that, the lava beds we would have to cross were indeed on private property, so it was worth going with someone who had permission to pass. We planned a time when we could hike out in late afternoon so that we could see the lava flowing at twilight, then return in the dark, and signed up for just such a trip led by a guide from Kalapana Cultural Tours, a private company that had access to the area.

Our group gathered at the funky cluster of temporary buildings in Kalapana, which now consists of a bar and places to eat and listen to music out in the open. Kalapana was once a thriving little village, but an eruption starting in 1986 buried most of the town under lava, and eruptions in the area have continued sporadically ever since. Houses and subdivisions are no match for Pahoihoi lava.

Group Hiking to View Hot Lava Entering Sea on Big IslandWe started hiking in late afternoon across a lava plain; here we had our first glimpse of the billowing steam

We took a van to the trailhead, then struck off at a fair hiking pace toward the lava. We walked over hard ropy lava and rounded Pahoehoe lava in fanciful shapes, with the last sun of the afternoon glaring down above the slopes. There was no trail at all, so it was comforting to have a guide to lead us over the clanking plains of loose lava rock, not knowing where a river of melted rock might be lurking just below the surface.

The hike out to the cliffs where lava was flowing was roughly two miles over some of the roughest terrain imaginable. Our guide was a native Hawaiian from Kalapana who had lots of extended family in the area, and had stories of the lava’s impacts on village residents. We dressed in long pants, carried two quarts of water each, wore headlamps, took some energy bars, and carried extra batteries and a jacket in case of rain. Not everyone prepared so well. A lot of people wore shorts and were not well prepared for the rough terrain. Alas, most of them were young and resilient and carefree, so what did it matter? Actually, it does matter for some people; while we were in Hawaii, a photographer had a heart attack and died while walking with a friend on the route to see flowing lava. I think he found it harder than expected.

Hiking on lava was not difficult for us, since we are hikers from ‘way back. But we did have to be careful, since the rock was incredibly sharp. Karen used a hiking stick; I didn’t because I was carrying a tripod. Fortunately I didn’t fall, but one older lady in our group (actually, she was about our age) took a nasty stumble, and needed first aid for bloody scrapes on her arms and legs. Fortunately, we didn’t have to carry her out.

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

One aspect of hiking on lava was unexpected, and that was the sound of fragile shreds of lava tinkling underfoot–a sound that reminded me somehow of broken glass.

When we reached the overlook, there was a sensory explosion of lava hitting the sea. There was hissing and arcs of hot orange lava exploding within the steam cloud. Waves crashed into the decending stream of hot and dripping lava and a column of steam billowed up continuously. We wondered how far away from the lava a swimmer would have to be to avoid being cooked. All of us stood mesmerized by the sight, and I took hundreds of photographs, not wanting the experience to stop. It was simply astounding.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

We stayed long enough that we watched early twilight blend into black night with an orange glow. The guide nicely asked me if I had gotten enough pictures, and I replied that I had, so he gathered the group and told us that on the way back he was going to look for a breakout–a place where a small stream of lava comes up through the older, hardened lava and starts oozing out in a bright tongue.

At the first location we stopped, we saw orange lava intermixed with cooled lava, looking like hot coals after a campfire. Then the guide spotted a place where a nature was sticking out a good-sized, Rolling Stones-style lava tongue at us. We walked over to experience the lava from just a few feet away and felt the elemental challenge of Pele. It was extremely hot, of course, and there was the uncertainty of just where it might break out next. At one point, I looked down and saw an orange glow in the narrow cracks just beneath my feet. THAT put me on edge, along with the intense heat of the place. Along with everyone else, I took photographs of Karen standing right in front of an oozing tongue of lava–which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hot Molten Lava at Night on the Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Karen Rentz with Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of

I took photograph after photograph during the hike back, riding on a hot cloud of elation at having experienced this earthly event. At times, I would be taking a photograph and Karen would be next to me, and the group would disappear over a rise. This made us both nervous, because with the danger of the area we really needed to stay with the group. But I needed to photograph. So we were endlessly conflicted. Eventually we would scurry along to catch up with the tag end of the group.

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering Ocea

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering OceaOur group hiking ahead, lit by flashlights and headlamps

Finally, our group’s headlamps found the van, and we boarded for the short ride back to Kalapana. It had been a magnificent experience, reminiscent of the eons of elemental forces that shaped the earth, and which continue to build the planet.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Freshly Hardened Lava Shapes on the Big Island of Hawaii

Volcano Update:  As of this blog post on 19 February 2014, there is no lava entering the sea. The National Park Service advises of the state of the current eruption at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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.

HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

May 26, 2013

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

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.

MOUNT ST. HELENS: Fire and Ice

March 13, 2013

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterThe 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.

Sun Burning through Fog in Conifer Forest near Mount St. HelensWhen 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

Lone Pine Cemetery Has No OutletI love signs, so I stopped to photograph this amusing juxtaposition of signs along the route to the trailhead

Blue Glove in Plowed Snowbank at Mount St. HelensAt 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.

Waterfall at June Lake at Mount St. HelensTiny 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

Dead Trees along Shore of June Lake at Mount St. HelensReflections in June Lake

Lake Creek near June Lake at Mount St. HelensStream 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!

Happy Snowman at Mount St. HelensKaren’s happy snowman at June Lake

Shadow of Photographer on Snow at Mount St. HelensLee’s self portrait

The Worm Flows Lava Field Area of Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. HelensVolcanic 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 Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterLast 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 Rentz with Headlamp at Mount St. HelensKaren 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.

A Night on Mt. Rainier, A Day in Paradise

October 17, 2009

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Mt_Rainier_October-35Sunset view down Nisqually River Valley in Mt. Rainier National Park..

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Night photography beckoned this fall, so I decided to do an overnight trip to Mt. Rainier on what I hoped would be a relatively clear night.  Actually, my first choice had been an overnight backpack on the lower slopes of Mt. Baker, but then I saw a recent trip report for the Railroad Grade area that had a hiker postholing through the deep snow there.  Change in plans!

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I drove to Mt. Rainier just after noon on an early October weekday.  It was cloudy upon my arrival, but I had time to check out possible positions for night photography and to find some great spots for late autumn photography.

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After taking some evening photographs of a vivid sunset, I went to Cougar Rock Campground and was sawing logs (and not for a campfire!) by 8:00 p.m., with the alarm set for 3:00 a.m., when I expected the half-moon would be high in the sky and most of the clouds would have lifted.

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I awoke as planned and drove to Reflection Lakes, drinking the coffee I had wisely made before bed.  The mountain was revealed and everything went as planned, though I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more snow on The Mountain, given the stormy weather of late.  Later, I had hoped for dawn alpenglow on the peak, but just got the littlest bit of faint pink light.

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I spent the rest of the day photographing in the Paradise area, with a classic clear morning at Reflection Lakes, followed by a hike on the Skyline Trail in search of White-tailed Ptarmigans, which I failed to find.  It was a wonderful day with lots of older hikers on the trail.

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Mt_Rainier_October-73A strange cloud emanates from the mountain at night..

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Mt_Rainier_October-107Dawn glow, stars, and clouds..

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Mt_Rainier_October-114At first light, the cloud emanating from The Mountain began to dissipate..

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Mt_Rainier_October-121A touch of alpenglow on the rock and glaciers at dawnpp
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Mt_Rainier_October-150A classic view of Mount Rainier reflected in Reflection Lakes..
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Mt_Rainier_October-163A cedar puncheon boardwalk crosses a small stream..
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Mt_Rainier_October-167Blueberry bushes, scarlet with autumn, share a talus slope with subalpine trees..
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Mt_Rainier_October-199A grand staircase, with a quote from John Muir, leads to the high country..
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Mt_Rainier_October-195A stunning view of The Mountain on a crisp autumn morning in Paradise..
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Mt_Rainier_October-232The lovely colors of blueberry leaves..
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Mt_Rainier_October-249A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel living above timberline..
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Mt_Rainier_October-259A tarn in the raw rock and gravel land above timberline..
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Mt_Rainier_October-268Glacier-gouged and polished rocks with the Tatoosh Range distant..
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Mt_Rainier_October-288A cloud quickly rises like a cresting wave or a geyser..
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Mt_Rainier_October-313Nootka Cypress trees (formerly Alaska Yellow Cedar) with blueberry leaves.’
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Mt_Rainier_October-305The enchanted Skyline Trail winds through a subalpine forest..
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Mt_Rainier_October-316Fuzzy white seed heads among blueberry leaves.
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Mt_Rainier_October-41
Looking down the Nisqually River Valley at sunset
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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

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

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DIAMOND CRATERS: Visions of Hell Quenched

May 16, 2009

 

 

Great Horned Owl at Diamond CratersGreat Horned Owl in Lava Pit Crater

 

 

A time traveler here could see red magma flowing out of deep vents and volcanic bombs tossed through the air as a huge blast forms deep craters.  A version of hell or a terrible war zone.  This is Diamond Craters, a place unexpected in the remoteLava Pit Crater within Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area desert.  Karen and I visited Diamond Craters in late April 2009, in conjunction with our trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which I described in another recent post:  Malheur in April.

 

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land adjacent to Malheur.  One of the wonderful aspects of the experience here is that we can explore on our own; there is a volcanic cinder road and a few short (but poorly marked) trails.  Other than that, we are free to tramp around the craters and cut our boots on jagged lava and watch for rattlesnakes and enjoy the vast blue desert sky.

 

I’ve been here several times over the years, and the first time was terrific, when I climbed down into Lava Pit Crater and observed a family of Great Horned Owls with three nearly mature young.  Karen and I decided this time that we could try and see if the owls still nested there.  While glassing the sheer walls of the crater from the rim, I spotted a mature Great Horned Owl perched on a ledge along the vertical wall.  We decided at that point that we would make a careful descent into the heart of the crater.

 

Lava Pit Crater is not large or deep, but the path down is tricky.  The first time I climbed down it, about 15 years ago, I fell and conked my long lens against a boulder.  My body is getting more fragile as I age, so I have to be more careful now (he says while nursing an ankle sprained while jogging!).  We took our time on this hike, and made it to the bottom without incident.  The broken volcanic rock is unstable underfoot, making a clanking sound when rock hits rock.

 

Inside the crater, we found the nest, which wasn’t too difficult; we just looked for the places with a lot of “whitewash.”  One adult was sitting on the nest, and eventuallyGreat Horned Owl on nest in Diamond Craters we saw a youngster sticking its fuzzy white head out from beneath the mother.  The nestling was too young to hold its head up for long, and it repeatedly wriggled under its parent’s body for shelter and warmth.

 

We spent the rest of the day investigating the craters and scattered wildflowers of Diamond Craters.  We especially enjoyed the sight of Malheur Maar, which is a crater resulting from a volcanic explosion that later filled with water.  The small desert lake has held water for about 7,000 years, according to scientists, and was home to Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coots during our visit.  Its deep sediments have botanical clues to the climate of the geologically recent past.

 

Malheur Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural AreaMalheur Maar is an explosive volcanic crater now filled with water; the tiny, geologically important lake is home to waterfowl and marsh birds

 

The BLM has an outstanding brochure, available online, called the Diamond Craters Tour Brochure that interprets the geological formations of Diamond Craters.  I found this brochure to be among the most informative interpretive guides I’ve ever read; it is endlessly informative and doesn’t “dumb it down” for the general public.  The brochure says that the volcanic activity at Diamond Craters is relatively recent at under 25,000 years.  The hot springs in the region, including the one below Steens Mountain that is such a great place to soak on a cold day, show that geothermal activity is alive and well nearby.

 

Side-blotched Lizard PortraitSide-blotched Lizard in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

 

 

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)Sand Lily growing on volcanic tuff

 

 

East Twin Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

East Twin Maar, a volcanic crater caused by an explosion

 

 

Western Juniper stands alone in the prairieA Western Juniper stands alone on the flanks of a volcanic crater complex

 

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit jawbonesJackrabbit jawbones from animals probably killed by a Great Horned Owl

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

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

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

 

Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, 2008 The Goat Rocks Wilderness

March 28, 2009

2008_wa_11601Backpacker choosing an off-trail route down the snowfield below Elk Pass

There are places on earth to which my mind wanders in quiet moments, thinking back to great hikes through alpine wilderness. The Goat Rocks Wilderness is one of those places. The Goat Rocks are the remains of a 12,000 foot Cascades volcano that blew its top some two million years ago, leaving jagged peaks reaching to over 8,000 feet. Located in Washington State between two “living” volcanoes, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, the Goat Rocks Wilderness is part of the Gifford Pinchot and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. But enough geography. What I want to tell you about is one of the great hikes in America.

Five of us left the North Fork Tieton Trailhead at the start of Labor Day weekend, for a five day backpacking trip. I was the lone male with four ladies, including my wife, Karen, and friends Betty, Sue, and Joan. As we shouldered our packs, a group left just ahead of us on horseback, which would be an easier way to go if we had horses. We don’t. Plus I think my photography of natural details would suffer if I was always looking way down from the high perch of a horse.

The first part of the trail is a long, but gradual ascent to a ridge where the North Fork Tieton Trail meets the 2008_wa_12141Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, also known as Trail 2000). This trail leads through old-growth forest with huge hemlocks and firs; streams trickle down off the high ridges. When we reached the PCT, we turned left and marched toward the McCall Basin, where we planned to camp for four nights. Along this stretch of trail, we encountered a series of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, which I detailed in a previous blog entry Pickles, Seven, Money and More. 

We camped the first night in lower McCall Basin, along a bend in the North Fork Tieton River. In the subalpine meadows here, wildflowers bloomed late. On our previous hike to this basin on the same weekend some six years

2008_wa_10911Tieton Peak catching the last light above McCall Basin

before, we encountered only late gentians in bloom; this time, the wildflowers were at a peak of color. The snow must have melted out late this year. The mountains above McCall Basin were catching the alpenglow on this clear evening. As we drifted off to sleep, the trumpeting cries of a band of Elk drifted down from the nearby mountainsides.

The next morning we decided to move to a different campsite in what we call the Upper McCall Basin. While the lower McCall Basin is gentle and flat with beautiful meadows studded by pointy firs, the upper basin feels raw, as if the glaciers left just yesterday. It is a distinctly different experience to be up there, but it is lonely and has the feeling of real wilderness, where humans can only be visitors. We set up our new camp in a patch of woods, then set off to explore the upper basin.

2008_wa_46661A waterfall plunging into an ice cave in the cirque of Upper McCall Basin

The day was cold and windy with a threat of rain from low, gray clouds overhead, so layers of fleece and down and wind-blocking shells were the rule. With warm woolen hats knitted in Nepal. Again, we were surprised at the lush wildflowers still in bloom. Near a series of cliffs and waterfalls, we found a family of Hoary Marmots, 2008_wa_12261with three youngsters sitting on a big rock while the mother looked on nearby. Unfortunately, that was the only wildlife we saw in the basin, other that the freshly-picked bones of an Elk fawn. When we had hiked here six years ago, we counted 32 Mountain Goats and a band of 10 Elk. Later, back in camp, we met a man who reminded me of Moses; he carried a tall staff, had flowing gray hair, and was leading a flock of fellow hikers on a long day hike. We told him that we were disappointed at the lack of Mountain Goats. He then told us a long story, relating how a rogue hunter had entered the basin in early autumn six years before and had singlehandedly murdered an entire band of 44 Mountain Goats, leaving their carcasses to rot on the cold ground. He said that the authorities were still hoping that the killer would blab in some bar, bragging at what he had done, and would eventually be caught. Moses described this terrible story with such earnestness that we were all bummed for the entire weekend. Well, maybe that’s overstating our degree of bummedness, but we did indeed feel bad. Moses also told of hunters who had killed a 600 pound bear very close to where we made our camp. That put us on edge, so we made sure to hang our food high. Then Moses led his flock out of our basin and back out of the wilderness.

An addendum: When I returned to civilization, I made inquiries to the U.S. Forest Service, to a state DNR biologist, and to a prominent local outdoor writer about the killing of the Mountain Goats. None of them had heard of it. The writer said that he had been hearing stories of massive goat kills in the Goat Rocks Wilderness since he was a teenager, and that once he had even gone up in a helicopter to try and confirm a story. None of these incidents had ever been confirmed, so he thinks they are all merely myths spread by word-of-mouth. While many people are fooled by urban myths on the internet, we were apparently duped by a wilderness myth told by Moses. Anyway, I’m glad it wasn’t true … or was it?

2008_wa_10861The Pacific Crest Trail climbs through high subalpine forests

The next morning we rose early to make breakfast and prepare for our hike to the high and barren ridges crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, the day dawned gray and cold again, so we would have to hope for better weather as the day wore on. It didn’t happen.

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Snowfields and raw rock on a peak hidden by dense clouds

As we walked upward along the PCT, we walked into the clouds and it began snowing. Scraggly fir trees wore a fresh coat of ice, and we wore every layer we had, including mittens. As we approached Elk Pass, I found a high gravel plateau overlooking the valley below. Here Mountain Goats had rested.

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Shallow bed created by a Mountain Goat on a high overlook

We saw where they had used their feet to scape rocks out of the way, forming roughly circular beds where they could comfortably rest. There was also plenty of scattered goat scat. I picked up a piece of chert that looked out of place; about 2.5 inches in diameter, its edges had been worked into a tool by ancient hunters. It may have been used to scrape Mountain Goat hides in this very location several thousand years ago.

2008_wa_09311Chert tool left on a high overlook, perhaps for several thousand years

The sense of timelessness of wilderness came upon me in a rush. Looking around, I also found numerous obsidian flakes that had been made by native Americans long ago. In researching this location later, I found out that early Indians had an obsidian mine site at Elk Pass that archaeologists say was used from 6,500 to 500 years B.P. (before present); they came up here both to hunt and to mine the volcanic stone from which they could create arrowheads and other tools. I can just imagine people looking out from this high ridge for thousands of years. But if they were here on a day like this, they would see only gray clouds.

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Twisted trees enduring fresh snow blowing through the high country

We climbed higher, eventually reaching Elk Pass. We passed hikers coming from the other side of the Goat Rocks, including one young man who had just emerged from the clouds. He said apprehensively that he had never done anything like this before. He may never again, but at least he will have the memory of a solid accomplishment in his life. While resting at the pass, I decided that Elk Pass should be renamed “Dead Elk Pass,” at least for this hiking season. On a snowbank just below the pass lay the carcass of an adult Elk, with the nearby remains of either a very young Elk or an Elk fetus. The bones had been recently picked clean, with Gray Jays still doing their wilderness duty of visiting the bones to get the last remnants of meat as we watched. We don’t know if the Elk may have died in birthing its young, or if it was surprised by a Cougar at the pass. A predator–probably a Cougar but perhaps a Coyote–had left scats right atop the rib cage bones of the younger Elk. I’m not an expert, but the constrictions in the scat would indicate Cougar, which may be more than you wanted to know.

2008_wa_10162Adult Elk skeleton at Elk Pass (above) with skeleton of fawn or fetus about 30′ away (below)

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I spent perhaps an hour at Elk Pass photographing, while some of our group hiked higher into the clouds. They got very cold and soon returned. We decided that the threat of hypothermia from blowing snow on the exposed ridge was too great, and we began our long descent back to camp, regretting that the views weren’t better.

Warming ourselves around a campfire that night, we talked about a strategy for the next day. We decided that if it was once again cold and gray, we would hike out a day early. But if the first person to get up the next morning saw clear skies, at least some of us would again attempt the same hike as we did today. Awakening at 4:00 a.m. to answer nature’s call outside, I saw only a heavy cloud cover. But when I was the first one up two hours later, I was greeted by a sea of blue sky. I woke everyone and suggested we try again. So we ate a quick breakfast and motivated our tired bodies to again begin the long trudge up to Elk Pass. But this day was different, exhilaration was in the air.

As we hiked higher, we encountered several Hoary Marmots who didn’t mind posing for pictures. The views from the ridge were wonderful and became better the 2008_wa_09811higher we climbed, though there were some clouds forming. We went still higher beyond Elk Pass, passing a Mountain Goat chilling out on a snowfield and a couple of Gray-crowned Rosy Finches foraging in the talus–true residents of the high country. We could see for miles on the exposed ridge and felt the exhilaration that always comes in high places. Maybe it’s the thin air!  

This ridge is steep and narrow; there are old, wind-blasted U.S. Forest Service signs dating from way back in the last century that warn travelers that it was only safe to take 30 stock at a time over the next stretch of trail. We met PCT thru-hikers who proclaimed that this was the most magnificent stretch of the long trail since the best of California’s High Sierra mountains. And still higher we climbed, to the highest point along the trail. Then the time caught up with us and we realized that it was time to descend quickly to camp. We arrived back at deep twilight, satisfied with a day well-spent in the mountains. We slept well on our last night, happy after the day’s wonderful experiences.

2008_wa_12011The Pacific Crest Trail winds through subalpine meadows north of Elk Pass

2008_wa_11371Lupine and other wildflowers border an alpine stream

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Mt. Ives viewed from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Goat Rocks

2008_wa_10251The PCT follows a steep ridge near Elk Pass

2008_wa_10651Remnant snowfield with watermelon snow

The highlight on our last morning was when Betty put on her bright magenta camp slippers–a nice complement to the violet-blue lupines around camp. Then we packed up and began the long trek down out of the Goat Rocks, another memorable trip to add to the stories of our lives.

2008_wa_09141Betty’s “Fairy Slippers” for wearing around camp

Trail Statistics:  7.5 miles and 2,000′ elevation gain from North Fork Tieton River Trailhead to our camp in McCall Basin (4.9 miles to PCT, 1.6 miles along PCT, 1 mile along side trail into McCall Basin, where there are plenty of horse and backpacker campsites).  Our camp in the upper McCall Basin was at 5,320′ elevation.  The round-trip hikes to Elk Pass were about 8.5 miles and a 1,500 foot elevation gain.  The highest point we reached above Elk Pass was about 400′ higher and half-a-mile farther.

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