Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Waking up with the forest

I needed my outdoor fix today so I rose at 5 a.m. and drove myself to Charles Lathrop Pack Experimental Forest in Eatonville. The idea of squeezing in seven miles before my work shift had me flying so high that it didn’t dawn on me until I’d parked at the trailhead that it was still pitch black outside and I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me.

Not to be deterred, I headed up Hugo Peak and tried not to wince as I felt my boots slip in the never-ending mud puddles that plagued the narrow path. It was a treat to wake up with the forest. Since I couldn’t see much for the first mile or so, I honed my other senses and listened to a swift breeze rustling the treetops and birds tweeting from nearby bushes. The real treat was hearing the thumb of pheasants in the darkness. Then the first glimmers of light streamed through the trees and I could see that I was surrounded by ferns and widely spaced trees.

The trail steadily climbed, crossing four different forest roads as it wound its way through forest and a wide opening that allowed for a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks and valleys. It was a crisp, clear morning and I managed to stay just ahead of the rain.

It took me about an hour to reach the “summit,” which was two log benches and a wooden box with a notebook to record your name and comment on the hike. I spent a few moments exploring the grass clearing I found myself in before jotting my name, date and the message “There is no better way to wake up than with the forest!” and starting my descent.

Since I had finished the seven miles far before I had anticipated, I opted to poke around the forestry campus, which houses the University of Washington’s Center for Sustainable Forestry on a 4,300-acre plot, before hightailing it to work.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rainforest Surprise

My first venture into the temperate rainforests on the Olympic Peninsula didn’t exactly go as planned. The thought had been to ford the Queets River and conquer a 10-mile trail through some of the remote wilderness that few are willing to explore, rewarding ourselves with a view of the second largest Fir tree around.

All that changed at roughly 1:30 a.m. when, after a 4-hour drive from Tacoma and seven miles down a darkened road, we encountered a chain looped across the Matheny Creek Road. Since we had been greeted by a white spotted owl and two elk on the way in, we decided to hunker down in the bed of a truck and let the sounds of the rushing water lull us to sleep. As I stood brushing my teeth, hoping against rain, I spotted an entire herd of elk crossing the creek about 35 feet away. It may not have been the start I was hoping for, but Mother Nature had opened her arms.

We started out the next morning across the bridge and down the road until we found some fallen trees and a sign warning of a “Dip.” Just around a bend, the road closure became quite clear. A massive chunk of the road had been washed away and the rest was eroding into the churning waters 50 feet below.

Not easily deterred, we slid down sand banks and picked our way over slippery boulders until we reached Queets River. It was a misty morning but the sun was out and my only complaint came after I tried to leap from an enormous tree and ended knee-deep in some of the nastiest mud I’ve ever seen. Still with no trail in sight, my hiking partner suggested we track an elk that had just disappeared from atop the hill in hopes that it would lead us to the other end of the abandoned road.

While I had my doubts and was preparing to gloat when we stumbled into a bog, we eventually found more elk tracks and it led us directly to a once-gravel road that had already been reclaimed by grass and young trees. We meandered through an alder forest, admiring the moss-laden maples, hemlocks and towering firs, and spent most of the afternoon picking our way down a 7-mile stretch of road.

It was afternoon by the time we reached the Queets River trailhead and fording the river seemed no small feat, so we relaxed in a meadow and had lunch before heading back. Faced again with traversing the cliff, we chose to follow elk tracks around the hillside and bushwhack our way back to civilization.

Friday, March 18, 2011

From snow to no

Location: Commonwealth Basin, Little Si

Distance: 9 miles

Commonwealth Basin, which is north of Snoqualmie Pass, follows a section of the Pacific Crest Trail and had far more powder that I had anticipated. The bathroom at the head of the trail was nearly engulfed and no amount of pulling or shoveling was going to open the door.

It was a snowy day and temperatures hovered about 30, which is just about perfect conditions for me. The storm obscured most of my views of Red Mountain and other nearby peaks so I lost myself in the snow-capped trees, some of which looked like ice cream cones. After snaking along a creek for about two miles, we entered a break in the trees and found ourselves staring up an obvious avalanche zone. Although there was evidence of point and release avalanche activity, I convinced my hiking buddy to cross (with a wide distance between us) and keep going another mile or so until we lost the trail. With great disappointment at so quickly giving up on a backcountry trail I’d had earmarked for weeks, but knowing that the avalanche danger that day would complicate our ascent, we turned back.

We decided to cap the afternoon with a quick run up Little Si. It was a bit odd to go from snowfall to no snow and strong winds (especially since I was still dressed in snow gear), but it was a pleasant climb up the mountain with some decent views of the surrounding valleys. All in all, a strong day.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bling in the backcountry

The downfall of my quick transformation from a So Cal girl to a snow-addicted Washington woman is that I don’t have all the gear (read: winter-worthy vehicle) to get me to the trailheads I’d most like to tackle. So on the days when the white stuff is really coming down and I’m going it alone, I have to choose areas with plowed roads for my outings.

Since Mount Rainier National Park has never failed me, I drove up to Paradise with the intent to pick up whatever random path I could find. There were at least two feet of fresh powder and all signage was hidden so I circled the buried lodge and began trekking down a hill.

It wound around a valley full of trees and crossed a hidden bridge, which is where all snowshoe prints and ski tracks disappeared. The snow was falling and the avalanche warning was at its highest for the day but I just couldn’t resist the beckoning of the snow-capped peaks and white glistening hills… I’m reminded every time I’m shoeing alone in the backcountry amid rolling, unblemished hills of an Incubus lyric that references the ocean but could just as easily be applied to the snow: “The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket.” There is more glittery bling in the backcountry than in a jewelry store.

As I trudged through the knee-deep snow for two miles or so, a deep blue sky replaced the all-white scenery and the mountain started to show itself. I kept on for another two miles but had to turn around long before I was ready because I hit a sketchy avalanche slope that just wasn’t safe to cross. On the way back, I lost my footing while gazing in awe at the warm light and mist shrouding the mountains and tumbled into the snow. Shouldn't have been a problem - except there was so much powder that my pole went straight down and was no help at all in lifting me to my feet. Can't say I was sorry for the extra few moments to sit and wonder in my solitary wonderland.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Stopping by snowy woods

I explored the Carbon River when I first arrived in the summer but was curious to see what it would look like covered in snow. The trail is actually a road that was closed years back after floods washed it out. Now, it makes for a mostly flat, easy 11-mile roundtrip hike along the river and ending at a campground. With an achy body and not much energy, I decided to let distance overthrow my need for a challenge, at least for the day.

Snowshoes weren’t necessary for the first 1.5 miles so I left them attached to my pack and kept myself occupied by trying to match my boot prints to the ranger’s who had started out before me. It was a brisk, cold, clear day and rays of sunshine streamed through the tree branches. Gigantic trees blocked the road and I found myself crawling over and under them, occasionally slipping on the damp bark and bending myself into limbo-worthy positions as I tried to get myself and my pack beneath the felled trees without dipping into the pools of melting snow below.

There was less than two feet of snow but it added vivid color against the robin’s egg blue of the sky and muddy brown of the river rushing alongside me. A mini alder forest brought to mind Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

When I was almost five miles in, thunder boomed above me and the heavens opened. A heavy fog rolled in, obscuring my views, and rain soaked me for the next 10 minutes. Then just as quickly as it came, the storm left and was replaced by blue skies.