August 16, 2009
Only a week ago we were setting out from Devils Dream camp on Mt. Rainier’s west side. Following an idyllic stroll through Indian Henry’s, and a brief wrong turn at Tahoma Creek, we walked up the valley towards Tahoma Glacier and Emerald Ridge, sat out on the point overlooking a moonscape below the glacier, waded through knee-high flowers and the foggy forest, across a narrow log over a raging torrent that was the South Puyallup River, and around fairyland cirques up to Klapatche Park camp, where stiff winds and lowering clouds prompted us to batten down our tarp low into the wind in case of a storm. We finished our circle around Mt. Rainier two days later and now, after laundry, goodbyes, and confining airplanes, face our computer screens and the mundanity of modern urban life, already dreaming of our next escape.
Yes, indeed, it was a beautiful trip around the Wonderland Trail! Thanks go to our older son Jeremy (28) who suggested it, all the folks at BPL who offered advice and encouragement, Ranger Daniel Keebler at the Wilderness Station who helped with our permit, our friend Tina who provided a last-minute shuttle, and all the NPS folks and area volunteers who maintain this beautiful path for all of us to enjoy.
We started at Mowich Lake on a Monday morning, with all three of our grown kids (a coup!), two girlfriends, and Tina, who accompanied us as far as lunch at Spray Falls. For the next 3 ½ days the seven of us worked and played hard, up switchbacks, down toe-slamming descents, through vast gardens of colorful meadow flowers, across slippery snowfields, and around deep forest bends. We slapped hordes of slow mosquitoes (and made good use of deet and BPL headnets), slid on snow, brewed gallons of coffee, and snapped dozens of photos of Mt. Rainier, glaciers, the sunshiny scenery all around us, one another, and other marvels. Highlights included swimming (or just sitting) in Mystic Lake, a marmot dodging close to the trail, and not-so-distant booming of snow and rocks cascading down the great disintegrating mountain.
Kat and Robbie, Spray Park
Kids playing on a snowfield, Seattle Park
September 28, 2009
The above was supposed to be the beginning of a full trip report, but I misplaced the notebook for a month, didn’t get back to it, and sank into the press of regular life. Now of course the memory is fading to a colorful, magical haze of joy and worthwhile toil. We were fortunate to have beautiful weather for the four days the kids hiked with us. We had too much food along for this segment, since all the kids were sure if we didn’t bring some more food we would all starve, so hanging it all on the bear poles each night was a considerable chore. We didn’t see any bears but we did see a fair amount of bear scat on the trail. Jeremy’s and Robbie’s girlfriends were beginners at backpacking, but they both took our jaunt in stride. Our daughter Joan (25) has always been a strong hiker, but this time she was hampered a bit because her hiking boot soles delaminated on the first day, and she had to hike with them tied onto her feet with nylon cord. (Moral: don’t move to the big city and throw your hiking shoes in the closet to desiccate for three years!) So while the other four left slowpoke parents in the dust and waltzed ahead, we had the pleasure of Joan’s company for much of the time. Robbie (18) has a fine eye for animal photography and got the best ptarmigan and marmot pictures.
Ptarmigan with chick
Jeremy and Erin are artists, so they spent long intervals posing in turn against unbelievably spectacular backdrops, and experimenting with flower closeups at various exposures and angles. The first night, at Cataract Valley group camp, all the kids were fashioning themselves hiking sticks, having discovered by experience the need for extra balance in this country!
All of us at Mystic Lake Group Camp
Crossing the wide rocky channel of the West Fork of the White River, we visited with a young man who said he, too, had been hiking with his parents, from Box Canyon to where they had departed at Mowich Lake. He told us he was headed on around to Box Canyon again by himself. Interestingly, he was carrying only a large fannypack, wearing shorts and running shoes, and set off again at a brisk jog. Did he plan to run all the way to Box Canyon that day? Did he have friends camped at Sunrise or White River campgrounds? We didn’t think to ask. Sunrise camp has a lot of evidence of overuse, and there were many day hikers in the area, plus a helicopter coming and going to supply some firefighters somewhere to the north of the park. But we also had a giant orange full moon that night, and awoke to, yes, an exquisite early sunrise.
Moon, Sunrise Camp
By this fourth day, though, Robbie had pulled an achilles tendon and his girlfriend Kat had a bit of a sore knee, plus Joan was fed up with her floppy shoes, so it was just as well that their section was nearly done.
The kids’ time was more limited--we older folks get longer vacations from work--so they had an escape car parked at Frying Pan Creek Trailhead on the east side of the park. The car also served as the resupply cache for Robert and me, and we held a grand rummage, out on the road-bank, before changing clothes and repacking our leaner kits for the final six days. With some trepidation we struck out unchaperoned up the four steep miles to Summerland camp, through deep forest and up the mountainside switchbacks past a chasm of rushing water and into flowerland. We had planned longer mileages for the rest of the trip, so we had been anticipating that afternoon as a test of our ability to make the climbs in the allotted time, and felt encouraged by our success at arriving before dusk. The day before we had seen a vast cloudbank way below us out west, and now on the east side, the rising weather caught up with us. Our views from Summerland were exquisite but limited to a misty dreamland close at hand. The water creek, where we stopped to filter in the morning on the way out towards Panhandle Gap, was lined with a most extraordinary cascade of pink-red petunia-like flowers glowing in the mist.
Petunias at Summerland
Over Panhandle Gap we climbed temporarily out of the clouds, and the surrounding ridges and mountaintop appeared for a while, although the legendary views of the countryside to the east remained obscured. Jeremy said later that our photos of the trip over the gap reminded him of the Sierras above treeline, all pale rock, snowfields, cirques, tarns, and distant waterfalls. We passed a couple of artists up there sketching. A lean coyote came loping down a snowfield from above, right past us, over a drop-off down a steep drainage and out of sight.
Coyote at Panhandle Gap
We juggled cameras with trekking poles the whole way, enthralled by everything from the texture of the rocks to the cold water to the red color of the algae in the snow. By lunchtime at Indian Bar camp we were back in thick fog. We saw a lot of hikers in that area--a large boy scout troop, a group of about a dozen hikers with elaborate camera equipment and daypacks (where did these folks hike from? where were they camped? we didn’t ask)--but then we were alone again up along the undulating Cowlitz Divide, where once more the famous views were replaced with misty meadows of flowers in a foggy dreamland. It was so quiet up there. We didn’t see the elk but we saw their tracks. It was a long day and we were mighty tired by the time we arrived at Nickel Creek camp in the valley below. Robert’s Camelbak bladder had sprung a leak in his pack and his down sleeping bag had some wet insulation and a wetter shell. I told him sleeping in the bag would probably dry it out, so for the next couple of nights he wrapped his feet in my small rain jacket inside the bag, and sure enough his body heat dried the bag quite nicely. (I learned this on BPL!) At least it wasn’t dampened by weather conditions, which would have been harder to eliminate.
At most of our camps from Summerland on, the fresh water source--creek or spring--would be a bit of a walk, perhaps ¼ mile or so, from camp. Robert did “yeoman service” going to filter water with the Amigo Pro each evening and often also in the morning. So, while I would be fiddling with a weather-resistant tarp setup, or cooking supper, he would be patiently hanging out with the water sack slowly filling.
After just those couple of days of relative remoteness through Summerland, Panhandle Gap, and the Cowlitz Divide, we felt sensitive to the civilization at Box Canyon and for the gradual climb up Stevens Canyon. But we still marveled at the signs of the natural power of the Cowlitz River, as this valley and its trail experienced the effects of major flooding in recent years. The river valley also offered our first abundant stretch of berry picking, with green tunnels of golden salmonberries and a few huckleberries and especially-flavorful red thimbleberries. All this tasty fruit by the trail was new to Robert, and he sometimes had to be peeled away if we were to make any progress at all. The hillsides became wetter, with many springs and small streams, as we made our way up towards Reflection Lakes and Mazama Ridge. Reflection Lakes reflected nothing at all in the soft mist. By Paradise River camp, all newly rebuilt since the floods, it was looking pretty wet although not actually raining. The following morning we met a park trail crew moving logs around and rebuilding a bridge over the river. The crew supervisor said she was rebuilding crib and plank bridges in the area instead of installing the simple, “disposable,” log and rail ones because of the larger number of day hikers frequenting the south side trails. During the morning we passed many of those day hikers, including several families with small children (yes!) on the wide trail to Longmire. It was drizzling, but hardly anyone was wearing rain protection, so we guessed most folks were from nearby in western Washington (rain? what rain?). At Longmire it was time to call Jeremy to check in--no your aging parents have not gotten lost, broken any limbs, or died of exhaustion or lack of enough coffee out there in the wilds--enjoy the obligatory burgers and blackberry cobbler a la mode, poke around the vertical exaggeration model at the ranger station, and ease ourselves back into the welcoming woods for the now-familiar-feeling workout climbing over the next ridge to Devil’s Dream camp. We peered around trees into the deep green chasm of Devil’s Dream Creek, where the resonating water splashing really does make music, and where it is almost impossible to get a good photo angle from the edge.
At soggy Devil’s Dream camp we were unmistakably back on the west side, with the trees larger, the forest undergrowth thicker, and rocks and ground once again all covered with mosses and ferns. That evening we got our only glimpse of the upper slopes of the mountain after Panhandle Gap, as the sky cleared briefly to the east. Devil’s Dream is a big camp with many sites scattered up and down the hillside, and most of them were occupied that night, perhaps because the area is fairly accessible and sees many backpackers from both directions. A very large deer passed our camp in the morning. As the forest receded around Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground we thought about how much fun it would be not to be on a hiking schedule and to be able to hang out and explore up towards the mountain slopes. When we used to live in Portland we would sometimes mess around on Mt. Hood like that, but those days are long gone, and central Texas has little public land, so we are stuck with structured trips. Down at the Tahoma Creek crossing, mesmerized I suppose by the riparian magic and rushing water, we actually misread the trail sign, didn’t think about the map right away, and wandered down the now-unmaintained Tahoma Creek Trail for about ¼ mile, until I came back awake, compared the terrain to my mental map of where we were going, concluded they didn’t match, and verified from the physical map that we should have turned up the hillside right away, not downstream where we were heading. A reminder to pay attention to what we already know! We laughed at ourselves as we turned around. The rest of that day was a long, grand adventure around ridges and cirques, with lots of climbing up and dropping down again. We passed a strange looking circular formation in the rock on the hillside a ways before St. Andrews Park. You could see the pattern clearly from across the valley but not from where the trail wound right beneath it. Since we don’t know much about geology we couldn’t guess how it was formed.
Circle in the Rock
We were pretty worried about an incoming storm at Klapatche Park; we were getting very strong wind gusts that would blow any overnight rain right in under the tarp, and we do not have bivies. I messed around with the tarp for a while to make it sturdy and closed off from the windward direction. The anticipated rain did not come, but I think we would have stayed dry.
Tarp battened down against the storm
Our day from Klapatche Park to Golden Lakes was short at only 8 miles or so, but was highlighted by a couple of miles of vast open slopes--an old burn area--covered with ripe, exquisitely flavored blueberries and huckleberries. We could have skipped lunch! We arrived at Golden Lakes camp by mid-afternoon, and with the lowering weather I went right to work setting the tarp low and protected at one end. I didn’t have a wind direction to work from this time, but the higher end was set towards a clump of large sheltering trees. We made headroom with collapsed trekking poles inside. Sure enough, real rain finally arrived, and we curled up for a nice afternoon nap listening to it harmlessly drumming on the tarp. The dry area under the trees made a handy kitchen. The steady rain lasted all night, but the trees still kept that one spot dry. Upon arrival in camp I changed out of my soaked muddy hiking pants into long underwear and rain pants. Robert only had the one pair of soaked muddy hiking pants, having opted not to acquire rain pants, and expressed regret at not having brought a second pair of hiking pants, allegedly my fault since I was the one that told him he didn’t need 2 pairs of the same kind of pants. I pointed out that rain pants serve a different function, allowing one to work in camp in chilly rain. Donning a spare pair of hiking pants in wet weather would in short order leave a person with two pairs of uncomfortably wet muddy hiking pants instead of one. But we just stuffed him in his sleeping bag, and after our nap I made him a nice supper and he was fine.
We counted at least nine lakes right along the trail in the Golden Lakes area, and supposedly there are many more in the area, along with spectacular views, which we must return sometime in clear weather to see. Our memory of the last day of our wonderful hike is all about water and forest, enormous fungi and banana slugs, and misty greenery. Robert had his camera out so much it finally got wet inside and stopped working.
Pika, forest above North Mowich River
The vast North and South Mowich Rivers spread and braided themselves through the bottomland forest, and we lingered fascinated on the slim log bridges over their many channels. On the final climb out of the river valley and over the last divide to Mowich Lake, we felt strangely at home walking through gentle rain surrounded by the misty tall forest.
Despite being lots of hard work, this hike was very much not beyond our capacity, and turned out to be a spectacular escape. Had we been on a longer journey, we would definitely have needed a layover day to nurse a couple of sore toes after 10 days out, but we had no serious problems and enjoyed just about every minute of it!
Here is a link (or at least, a URL) to a *lot* more pictures!