Sunday, December 12, 2010

A winter walk in the woods

"A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland."

Gone (seasonally) are the days when one of my biggest concerns in choosing a hike is how many miles I can log. I've reached a point when I appreciate simply being outdoors in the winter to stretch my legs and gulp the fresh air because the opportunities are getting fewer and farther between.

In a brief venture before the wettest storm in two years hit, we bounced down a potholed road to a trail at Middle Fork Snoqualmie River. I hadn't expected to see the forest floor blanketed in several inches of snow - in fact, I figured it was a safe bet at only 1,000 feet elevation - but it made the surroundings that much more beautiful.

After leaping over puddles of slush and mounds of snow, we passed beneath briefly through a second-growth forest before reaching the impressive Gateway Bridge. After crossing the icy bridge (think slip-n-slide), we turned left to follow the main trail along the freezing, fast moving Snoqualmie River.

The shortness of time stopped me from visiting the riverbank but the trail followed alongside it for the first mile, providing a peaceful soundtrack to our winter walk. Recent storms meant something of an obstacle course for us: uprooted trees blocked the narrow pathway, forcing us to shimmy underneath fallen branches and climb over downed trees.

As we parted ways with the river, the granite cliffs of Stegosaurus Butte towered above. On the other side of the river's middle fork were snow-capped mountains hidden behind a curtain of mist.

The trail itself was anything but tough. It zigged and zagged a few times but included no climbs or challenges beyond hoisting myself over wet, snowy logs. If we had continued on for the entire 12 miles, we would have ended up at an array of hot springs. But since nature turns the lights out about 4 p.m. these days, we opted to head back after reaching an old logging field that was primarily used in the 1920s and 1930s.

I've vowed not to duplicate any hikes until I've done them all, but this will likely be an exception.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fog obscures West Tiger Mountain

“All action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which like a fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.” -- Karl von Clausewitz

The weather in Washington presents some interesting challenges for a hiker who is hoping to go year-round. Due to recent snowstorms, I struggled to find a decently long hike that was low enough in elevation to avoid needing special gear. I finally settled on a 7-mile jaunt up West Tiger Mountain in Issaquah. I had driven by it multiple times while en route to bigger, better adventures in the area and thought it was time to give it a go.

My first impression of the trail was not a positive one. While stretching out at the base, I noticed a plethora of posters covering every post and wall. Apparently the trail had been a recent crime scene featuring a creepy jogger who used a taser gun to attack a woman. Not exactly the kind of thing that allows me to relax, but the prettiness of the path beneath a large canopy of evergreens was enough for me to swallow my anxiety and focus on why I was there: Mother Nature.

The trail leading to the top of the 2,200-foot mountain was fairly steep and I had been out of my hiking boots long enough that I periodically had to slow to catch my labored breath. Since the mossy forest has become a common backdrop for me, I found no reason to stop and break so I kept pushing to the top of the summit.

When I finally arrived, I found snow. White powder covered large patches of the trail and surrounding brush. At trail’s end was a big drop-off with a huge boulder that was calling my name. I dropped my pack so I could wander and was immediately engulfed by aggressive gray jays looking for a snack. After safely tucking my banana and granola into the pockets, I turned to survey the views.

I saw fog. And trees. Lingering afternoon fog prevented me from seeing much of anything, though my trail map assured me that the views are lovely. With nothing to stare at in awe, I reluctantly turned and headed back down the mountain.

When I reached the bottom, I convinced myself that it was early enough to squeeze in two last miles so I took a self-guided tour around Tradition Lake.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A paved road to Mother Nature

"If you don't like the road you're walking, start paving another one." -- Dolly Parton

The goal of this hike was to chalk up close to the same mileage but not have to exert extra energy with a body that had not yet recovered from previous abuse on the trail and at the gym. To add to the equation was the fact that a lot of hiking areas have recently been inundated with snow and can’t be accessed. My answer was to start at Carbon River Road in Mount Rainier National Park and end at Green Lake.

The first three miles were flat and easy since it was walking rather than hiking on the road, which has been closed to vehicles since it washed out in 2006. In short, that means what once would have been a 4-mile trip turned into a 10-mile trip, not including the detours I inevitably convince myself to take. Thousands of volunteers have spent countless hours repairing portions of the trail (paving another one) but there's still a lot of work to be done before it can be opened back up to cars.

The road follows Carbon Creek through an old growth forest and I took the first trailhead, which immediately sloped upward. It dawned on me almost immediately that all 1,200 feet of elevation gain I would be making would happen in less than a mile. I initially kept my mind off the ache in ankle and counted the hand-crafted stairs I was climbing but it wasn’t long before I was riveted by the natural beauty of the moss-covered trees and dense underbrush.

After a mile of climbing, I could hear the roar of Ranger Falls and took a side path down to a small patch of dirt near the base of the falls. It was quite an impressive cascade, tumbling hundreds of feet over jagged rocks to crash below, where several couples had carved out declarations of love on the wooden guardrail. The water’s splash may have been refreshing on a normal day but I hadn’t worked up much of a sweat and it was 41 degrees outside so I quickly continued up the trail to the next stop.

In another half mile, a patchwork of melting snow could be seen on the ground among the brush and covering fallen tree limbs. Although there wasn’t enough to make snowballs (not that I was thinking about it…), the ranger had reported four inches on the higher elevation trails.

At the end of my journey was Green Lake, a stunningly gorgeous body of clear water tucked between two mountains. Snow-covered trees provided a wintery backdrop and wisps of lingering mist shrouded the lake in intrigue. It was a huge payoff for the little effort I’d put into that day’s hike.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A walk to water, a sight to see

"You climb to reach the summit, but once there, discover that all roads lead down." -- Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Before moving to Washington, there was nothing I looked forward to seeing on a hike more than water. I was a sucker for the splash of a waterfall, the soothing flow of a river or the tranquility of a still lake. But when you see a subalpine lake on an almost weekly basis, you begin to take them a bit for granted. This hike offered me water and view - an unbeatable combo that only cost me eight miles.

I ventured out toward Lake Helen, which was hidden in a forest apparently popular with hunters willing to brave the potholed backroads of Ashford. It was nine miles on a maze of dirt roads that would have been nerve-racking if a snow-capped Mount Rainier wasn’t making a grand appearance from behind the clouds.

Anticipating the rain would pick back up at any time, I moved swiftly along the narrow trail and navigated the ups and downs of the path. It didn’t take long to reach a junction with a sign pointing me toward Lake West. In a hop, skip and jump over a creek, I found myself peeking through the trees at an unbelievably calm blue lake.

The color of the water alternated between a deep green and brilliant blue depending on how the sunlight streamed through the high-arching branches. Large shadows covered the edges of the lake but tufts of clouds were reflected in the clear water. It was one of those places where you could happily sit for hours and think about the meaning of life or nothing at all.

Unfortunately for me, the thinness of the path meant I had spent hours being thwacked by dripping shrubs and bushes and my pants were soaking wet. I walked the rim of the lake and closed my eyes for a few moments but couldn’t keep the shivers from ruining the serenity. And so, I traded my pants for my thermals (which I’d shoved in my pack – just in case) and turned back for the trailhead.

With two miles or so left on the return, I spotted a side trail with the word “summit” in it and I couldn’t help but veer up the hill. Lakes are a treat but I’ve found that my preference tends toward sprawling views of the mountains and valleys below. After a bit of huffing and puffing and a startling encounter with a huge bird, I found myself on the edge of a cliff with an incredible view of white clouds dancing atop rolling hills.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Beauty not deceptive at this park

"Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it." -- Thomas Jefferson

Deception Pass State Park is the most visited in Washington, and it's easy to see why. The waters are
a brilliant blue against the rugged cliffs that drop down to meet them. There are three lakes and an imposing bridge set against a backdrop of islands and green trees snaking along the shoreline.

Deception Pass derived its name back in 1792. Captain George Vancouver initially dubbed it Port Gardner but later claimed he was deceived after learning that the inlet was actually a narrow passage between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands.

You can camp at the park but I was just there to admire the breathtaking views (and hang out with my parents). To get there, you
must cross over a bridge that towers over the turbulent waters below. There's a thin walkway to stroll along the bridge and snap pictures of the scenery. While it was one of the most beautiful sights I've seen since moving to Washington, I couldn't brave the cold for too long. Standing beneath the bridge, however, blocked the wind enough to admire its engineering.

Just miles past the bridge is the entrance to the 4,134-acre park.
The road winds down to two different beaches but we chose West Beach since we had unknowingly walked to
the other beach from the bridge. The beach itself was a thin strip of wet sand and tiny pebbles, with craggy rocks emerging from the water that seagulls had clearly claimed.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On the Katwalk

"There is no path; paths are made by walking."

The anticipation really built for this hike. I intended for it to be an 11-mile trek uphill to reach Kendall Katwalk, a narrow shelf blasted into the cliff side long ago by dynamite crews. What I couldn’t have known was that I would unknowingly pass right over the Katwalk and keep going for miles, elongating a hike that left me limping with a twisted ankle the last four miles.

I was thrilled to spend the day on the Pacific Crest Trail because for years it’s been a dream of mine to hike the entire thing from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. This section is in the Snoqualmie Pass and started in an old-growth forest. It was a bit of a climb but the trees loomed overhead, protecting me from the sun’s rays.

After two miles or so, I muddled along on the switchbacks and eventually found myself on a massive rock chute. With each step, I could hear rattling sounds surrounding me. Not knowing what they were, I feared the worst: rattlesnakes. (Have I mentioned I’m terrified of the slithery creatures?) I envisioned dozens of rattlesnakes hiding among the rocks, ready to strike if I took a wrong step. It was then that I really started to sweat, though I’m unsure whether it was my snake phobia or the increasingly warm temperatures as I continued up the steep slope.

Ahead of me loomed Red Mountain. The orangish-red bushes lining portions of the path couldn’t have had a better backdrop. To my left was a sprawling valley of trees and rolling hillsides, with Interstate 90 barely visible in the distance.

The trail began narrowing and with each step, I envisioned stepping out onto the Katwalk. I’d read that the path suddenly drops off and only the brave summon the courage to step onto the rock shelf. I came upon several travelers who were poised on boulders, eating lunch and staring out at the wondrous peaks. I pushedon. I carefully studied the trail I was following, observing its thinness and searching for any sign that I was approaching the Katwalk.

After another hour or so, I was sure I’d somehow missed the famous Katwalk. I had left the ridge long ago and reached a lake. I asked a fellow hiker where the Katwalk was and he told me I’d passed it nearly three miles back. I was less than thrilled, but made a U-turn and began a second, more successful, search for Kendall Katwalk.

Yes, it is a challenging hike. Yes, the sights are startling in their enormity and sheer beauty. But if you’re ever looking to dangle precariously on a catwalk, this is not the place.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

An old eruption still visible

"Volcanoes are one way Earth gives birth to itself." -- Robert Gross

With all the forests, lakes and vistas I've explored, it's become a challenge to find something new to see on a hike. Climbing Mount Margaret to gaze out on the devastation from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helen was an ideal change.

It started out on the Northern Boundary Trail, took me over a ridge at Norway Pass and deposited directly into the valley that today still shows the devastated land. The hillsides are littered with flattened trees, about half of the standing trees are blackened and dying and many lie at the bottom of nearby Spirit Lake.

Huckleberries were growing wild along the trails and the view was wide open, revealing the gaping maw where the volcano
spewed three decades ago. The hike was supposed to end after 11 miles but my "honorable mention" friend and I decided it made no sense to end the trail without closure (the trail stopped mid-turn with only a sign to indicate that was it) so we continued on until we were dumped out on the highway. It was then that the clouds slightly parted and we got out first real distant view of the volcano.

It erupted the morning of May 18, 1980, after 5.1 quake rattled the region.
Rocks, ash, volcanic gas and steam blasted north at more than 300 mph. It extended more than 17 miles and the landslide - recorded as the largest on Earth - slid 14 miles west down a nearby river. Lava spread five miles out and strong winds blew 520 million tons of ash eastward.

These are all details I wish I'd known before the hike so I could have truly grasped what happened there. But alas, I did not and my attention returned to my surroundings. We took a detour on the way back to determine whether Ghost Lake truly existed or whether it was a cruel joke nature lovers play on those who are pounding that particular path. Needless to say, I was right.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Drinking happens here

"Drawn by warm nostalgic feelings for the place and by two sweet little words: 'Open Bar.'" -- William E. Geist

Tacoma natives have a hard time understanding why I thought this icon was a coffee shop. My point is this: It's called Java Jive and the building is shaped like a coffee pot. Who would have ever guessed it was a bar?? Turns out, everyone.

A vet designed it as a roadside restaurant when mimetic architecture (buildings that imitate life) was all the rage. It opened in 1927 but switched to a local watering hole where famous folks stopped by for brews after a new owner bought the 25-foot-tall coffee pot in 1955. It's history is spectacular. Yes, it's listed on the registry of historical places but the fun stuff comes from urban legends and myths that old-timers still love to repeat.

It was once a speakeasy, featured a back room accessed through the ladies restroom during Prohibition and graduated to having go-go dancers. For quite a while, two monkeys named Java and Jive beat on drums while the owners' son played the organ. This is no joke. The monkeys lived in a double-paned glass cage in the bar until sometime in the 60s.

Around the same time, late owner Bob Radonich declared that everybody should drink under the stars. So he began handing out paper and plastic stars for patrons to scrawl their name and a personal message and affix to the ceiling. Many folks still come in on their anniversary, looking for the star they put up the night they met their loved one.

It was named after a popular Ink Spots song and music has always played a large role. This is a place that crooner Bing Crosby and film stars Clara Bow and Harold Lloyd once hung out, that was huge on the punk scene in the 90s and attracted Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Two movies have been filmed there - "I Love You to Death," starring Kevin Kline, Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, and Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything."

During a recent visit to the bar, the owner showed me the pool table where Keanu Reeves leaned against and told me stories of how the actor wanted to buy the Jive and move it to Hawaii. Then there were the framed photos hanging on the wall of Alec Baldwin and a local man, Teddy, who is an on-screen double for Baldwin and painted the gorilla mural on the side of Java Jive.

Yes, the place is worn-down and dirty but it's full of fascinating tidbits. You bet I'll be back.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Above the clouds

“A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed...It feels an impulsion...this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons.” -- Richard Bach

A ranger advised against hiking to the summit of Mount Pilchuck, citing a possible turn in weather and a high likelihood of getting lost and becoming a headache for the local search and rescue volunteers. OK, he may not have used those exact words but they were implied. So, of course, the warning became a challenge and the adventure began.

The 5,324-foot peak is perched on the western edge of the Cascades and features panaromic views from an old fire lookout constructed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1991. Starting on a service road to nearby ski slopes, the trail winds through a hemlock forest and jumps over a tiny creek (Pilchuck DOES mean “red creek…”) before entering Mount Pilchuck State Park. There were no fences or other boundaries, just a small wooden sign to advise hikers who are paying enough attention.

Within a half mile, I broke out of the forest into a garden of granite and began picking my way over the boulders. The trail wasn’t particularly strenuous (2,200-feet elevation gain) but it was tedious to constantly step on and over rocks. But the views overlooked distant jagged peaks and soon enough I was higher than the clouds. Blue sky even made an appearance.

The path wrapped around the mountain and ratcheted up the climbing along the ridge, offering brief glimpses of brown water pools below and clusters of yellow cedars. After one last boulder scramble, the lookout came into sight. The building is glass-paneled and was staffed until the 1960s. As I stood at the base of the boulders it sat atop, I could barely see anything but the white roof and the ladder extending down.

Once at the top though, what a view! I could see dozens of mountains I couldn’t identify and some I could, like Rainier and Baker and Three Fingers. It was my first look at the Cascades and Olympics and I was one happy hiker. Outside of the lookout, someone had draped a colorful line of flags. An inquisitive chipmunk scampered inside, hoping for crumbs or maybe just wanting some company.

It was hard to pull myself away from the mystical setting but storm clouds were rolling in and it was more than three miles back down. As it turns out, my timing was impeccable because the sky opened up just as I set foot in the parking lot.