Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Not Sleeping In The Air, 3

The rest of day two at St Helens, hammockless.

From the ridge above Castle Lake.

So this was a lot snowier than I'd expected. Even for a bad year. I spent weeks waiting for the images from the Volcanocam to start looking right. But when you actually get there you have to deal with the truth.

Yep. It's still this bare, after 31 years.

There was lots and lots of snow. Since this place is bare in long stretches, they melt out early, but that leaves the rest. Ravines, canyons, anywhere with vegetation. And the higher reaches. I was up here last year and wanted to get back and visit a waterfall I heard last year but couldn't see. Last year, also, had blustery weather on the day I got there, so I couldn't camp. Plus many other excuses.

Castle Lake, far below to the west.

So I was back this year. Same but different. The weather looks nasty in the photos but it was pretty nice. A bit misty now and then but not we enough to notice. There wasn't any waterfall. Little springs on one side of the upper basin were pooling in a mucky low area, and from there the water ran over the edge of the basin, all hidden from view - nothing really worth investigating after all. I would have camped there but given all the water there wasn't any there that I wanted to drink. Lots of elk poo all over, and though the water was technically flowing, it really wasn't.

Looking back southwest, toward the mountain.

So shucks. I turned back east and descended. There were a couple of nice streams running down the eastern side of the ridge encircling Castle Lake's basin. Nice enough to drink from. At least the place was empty. I like that. Wind, grass, air, sky, and no people.

Looks like someone flew in from the coast, and left again.

Someone who grows up on the plains never feels quite so comfortable as when he can stand on shortgrass and see the horizon in every direction. Not that I'd like to go back and live there, but being in the middle of a few dozen square miles of empty space gives a person a kind of privacy unavailable any other way. If anyone comes by, you see them at least an hour before they're close enough to talk to. Gives a person time to make the appropriate attitude adjustments. Tie the shoelaces. Comb the hair. All of that.

But I did have guests.

Yes, friends, I was under observation after all. The barking was my first clue. If you haven't been around country full of elk, country that elk know and use as their own, free from humans, then maybe you have seen some now and then but haven't heard them bark. A real extra-special thrill is to wake up around 2 a.m. with something barking at you seemingly within arm's reach, at 160 decibels. Wakes you right up. Clears the sinuses. Fills your diaper.


These guys were indignant. I never did find the first one. It was behind some bushes and just simply would not stop barking at me. I stood there and looked like crazy but never did see a thing. Considering that the available shrubs were only big enough to cover two people at a time, and elk are a bunch bigger than that, I ought to at least have seen an ear twitch but I'm obviously not that good. Looking the other way, though, I caught sight of two of the rascals out in the open. One of them was barking and the other was more or less just along for the show.


If you play dumb and pretend you don't know you're supposed to politely leave, elk finally get frustrated and wander off. These did too. For anyone interested in elk encounters, this is a great place. I've had some wonderful ones on the other side of the mountain while exploring trailless forested canyons there in years past. Once while sitting at lunch by a stream a group of half a dozen elk came down to drink from the other side.

They eventually became aware of me but slowly enough so they just doubled back on themselves and walked away. Later the same day I stopped by the same stream, wondering where I should cross, and when I looked up, there was a cow elk and her elkling on the other side, looking at me. They were downstream maybe 40 feet (10-15m). I stood still. We all looked at each other for some time, and then the two elk crossed the stream to my side and vanished into the willows without a sound. I get full points on that one for being able to look harmless.

I don't know, but it's rubbery, green, and seems happy with life.

I've seen people hunting here, and they're all clueless, stomping around on hiking trails like bulldozers. Even I can hear them half a mile away. It's different when you're not hunting. No deadlines, no goals, no need to perform. You relax and simply wait. Open up to the land while being still and things always come to you. Chase around and you'll never see anything.

So overall I'd rather be a backpacker. I shot a deer once, and since I was young and it was my first, my father showed me how to gut it. I never want back. Any day of any month of any year I'd rather be eating instant goop out of a plastic bag and sipping tea brewed over an alcohol stove, watching things come and go quietly than pulling bloody guts from a carcass. But maybe that's just me. Is OK.

The same two suspects after they calmed down.

Well, anyway, this was not a bad trip. Later in the year you can't stand to be out in the open because of wind and dust, not to mention constant sun. But at least half the area near St Helens is wide open, so if you're there, you're there, and there isn't much you can do about it other than hiking a few miles farther to get to water and cover. I'll take mostly calm, cool, and even slightly damp weather over howling wind or death waves of heat.

Camp, right rear.

Then, later in the evening the sun began to peek out from time to time. This was due about 12 hours earlier, but I hadn't missed it. Other than getting uncomfortably wet feet from hiking in and out of snow all day I had nothing to complain about. A little bit of evening sun here and there added a little color and showed that the weather might be getting warmer and sunnier rather than going in the opposite direction. My campsite looks bleak in the photos, but as I said, I'm from grassland, and this was reminiscent of that. Homey. Vacant, empty, and bleak. Cozy. Providing plenty of elbow room. I liked it.

Evening sun on the stumps. What more could you ask?

The temperatures held in the 50s and 60s, F (10-15 C), while there was an occasional puff of breeze as the sky darkened, and this is how it stayed overnight. All quiet. Every elk in the neighborhood had been alerted and gave me a wide berth, so there were no midnight surprises in the form of outraged, honking quadrupeds. My only problem was sleeping on the ground, which is a huge pain these days. But hey. Part of the deal. You can hammock in this general area but it's hard to find trees that are willing to cooperate.

A last kiss of sun on the cinder cone.

Partly, the end of the day was time spent waiting for it to end. Nothing much to do. Noodle around, look for photos, dither, listen, wait some more. Finally it got late enough and dark enough to dive into bed. Which was late, since the next day was the summer solstice, and this far north the dusk seems to smear itself across the landscape and simply continue getting dimmer until finally you notice that it's too dark to see anymore. When you get tired of sitting and blinking in the dark you go to bed. Life can be worse.

Vally of the North Fork, Toutle River to the north, just before sunset.



Not Sleeping In The Air

Not Sleeping In The Air, 2

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Not Sleeping In The Air, 2

Notes from spring at St Helens.

Morning on day two. Still foggy.

Right. Another long, bad year for backpacking. At least I got out toward the end of June when the weather looked ugly but was nice. Knowing that this area was shy of good trees, I left my hammock at home and slept on the ground.

Leaving the valley of the shadow of sleep.

Officially, I spent the first night out of bounds, or in bounds, depending on how you see it, but there was no one backpacking anywhere on my side of the mountain, so hey. Just one guy sleeping in the dirt. No one around to give me a citation.

Stream violets, if I'm not mistaken. Optimistic little cheery things.

The weather was just about the right temperature. Damp but not wet, cool but not cold, warm enough to be comfy but without the sunlight that would have made it hot.

The view after climbing out of the valley.

Overall, too much snow for good hiking, but since this mountain is mostly bare on its west side, and I brought a pair of portable crampon-like thingies, it wasn't that bad.

Somewhat later I met some shrubs calling for help.

The terrain is torn up, but not too badly on the north and northwest sides of the mountain. At least when the soil is damp. Later in the year some of the ravines would have been all but impassable.

Valley of the Toutle River, squeezed by the arms of the mountain.

I know. I've been out there early, late, and in between. At the height of summer the soil turns explosive. Just look at it hard and it crumbles, slides, sheds clouds of dust, sucks at your angles. Starts avalanches.

Panorama looking southwest. Just before the drop to the valley.

Get down in a ravine, if you can, and you won't get out. Not anymore. The trails used to be good, as trails go. Still dusty and rocky, but well graded and easily hiked.

A closer look at the reality of it all.

Years of neglect and heavy winter rains scoured out all the ravines. Some became suicide slots. Others only became dangerous. A couple merely tedious and nasty. But things have changed radically in the last 15 years.

With your back against the drop, you get this panoramic view northeast.

The roads too. When I first hiked at St Helens in 1996 the roads were like an indoor running track: clean, smooth, black, unblemished. And they stayed that way for a while. It was tasty. Close enough to drive to, noodle around for a day, and drive home again, and the roads were all perfect.

Wild strawberry?

Eventually the weather began working at things. The roads got lumpy in spots. Or began to crumble. The trails began to wash away.

Slightly distorted panorama of Toutle River valley

The Toutle River was once the most benign crossing on the mountain and is now the biggest obstacle. Or at least it was about three or four years ago, the last time I walked around the mountain. Coming from the north, you descend in a long, long switchback, puffing up clouds of dust no matter how carefully you walk, and drop 500 feet (150 m) down to the river.

Trail descending to the Toutle River.

Once at the bottom you hit a bench. The last 10 feet (3 m) down were also easy. Then you stepped across the river on stones, and that was it. After the rains a few years ago, I came to this spot and it all seemed the same (from the top). But once down to that last bench, instead of a short trail down a few feet there was a deep trench. It looked as though it was cut by machines. The sides were absolutely vertical and parallel to each other, and the drop was now at least 50 feet (15 m). Crazy. No way across anymore. You have to make a huge detour through a scrubby forest of trees growing so thickly they hardle let air through.

Looking down-valley.

The first time through after this damage, I was able to find a way down, partly by climbing back up a little, and partly by hanging from a couple of saplings, and partly fall-jumping a bit (stupid). Subsequent stormy years have made this route completely impassable.

A bit of the less-rugged part of the valley looking deceptively mild.

It's hard to believe that in 2002 I hiked around the mountain in one day, twice, once in July and once in Otober. It used to be a pleasant, slow three-day backpacking trip, but if I had a hankering to ever do it again I'd plan on at least a week.

Another panorama, up and to the west, where I was going.

And I've been around it at least six times, so I know the way. But I probably wouldn't want to try it again. It simply isn't worth it. Mt Rainier is bigger and better. Mt Adams is amazing, strange, gentle, and crazy wild too. Maybe I'll be able to post pictures of those trips before long. We'll see.

Another glimpse of Toutle Valley from higher up and farther west.

For this trip there was fog and damp and snow. Which was enough. Enough to pretty well screw up my plans. I'll have more photos in a couple of days.

Previously: "Not Sleeping In The Air."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

If Moose Could Fly

They wouldn't need to drink.


Animal type: Mammalian quadruped.

Scientific name: Alces alces. (With seven subspecies.)

Size and weight: Adults are 1.8–2.1 m (6–7 feet) high at the shoulder. Males weigh 380–720 kg (850–1580 pounds), and females weigh 270–360 kg (600–800 pounds).

Geographical distribution: Northern North America and northern Eurasia.

Diet: Plants.

Habitat: Arboreal.

Disposition: Moose-like. Reacts poorly to nose jokes. When harassed or startled by people, moose may charge irresponsibly, which is why they are no longer issued credit cards.

Drug of choice: Alcohol, in naturally fermented fruit.

Favorite animal pals: Flying squirrels.

Favorite hobbies: Getting drunk while perched, napping.

Least likely to succeed at: Being a cavalry mount, which was tried in Sweden, the land of dark mystery. And there are not many things more intimidating than a moose with a heavily-armed Swede on top. But there were problems, like getting into the saddle without a stepladder. And moose were said to get frequently stuck in bogs, and fall over when drunk, so that didn't work.

Second least likely occupation: Delivering mail. Also in Sweden. Moose tended to eat mail rather than deliver it, and spend down time licking stamps and trying to hang by their tongues from trees. How do you get a drunk moose out of a tree when its tongue is like super-glued to the bark?

Scientific questions remaining: What is it about Swedes and moose anyway?


Drunken moose ends up stuck in Swedish apple tree.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bush Menace

Keep one eye on your nuts.

Something tugged at my shorts.

I looked down.

It was a marmot.

He had a gun.

And a glint in his eye. A mean one.

Then he spoke.

"I'm workin' wit' Offshore Flo," he said. "An dis here place is ours, see? You wanta plant youse butt here, you gotta pay."

I looked at him. Other than his gun, he looked like a marmot.

Then I took another look at the gun. It was aimed at my crotch, so I knew he meant business.

This was not a marmot to mess with.

"So, I was just passing through. I only stopped for a sip of water," I said, looking into his one good eye. It was beady. And bloodshot. The way marmot eyes are.

"I was just about to leave."

The eye didn't blink, the way marmot eyes don't.

"An' what's dat dere ting den, youse umbrella?" He tilted his head toward my tent. His fur ruffled in a menacing way, giving off a thin puff of dust. "Ha?"

"Ahhh, my tent," I said. He was no dummy.

And there was that gun pointed at my future.

"My tent... It's new... I thought I'd put it up while I cooled off in the shade here... To see if it worked OK..."

I lied.

He coult tell.

"Ha! You take me for some nitwit woodrat or sumpin', buddy? I been around longern dat. I got fleas smarter dan dat. Youse gonna camp here, right? Witout no permission or nuttin'? Dis here's my territory, an' I say who camps and who don't, see?"

He had me. By the short hairs. Of his trigger finger.

"Now I ain't a real hard guy, but I don't take no screwin' around. You know what I mean?"

No, I didn't, so I nodded. I hoped to look dim. And reasonable. And cuddly.

The muzzle of his gun remained on target.

"OK den," he grunted. "Let me make you a offer den. I'm kinda peckish at da moment and den I feels like takin' a nap. I don't want no fuss right now. I got work to do later. Tell you what."

"What?," I offered.

"Shut up," he suggested.

"You lemme go tru youse food dere an' pick out a coupla tings, an' we call it a deal, 'K?"

I looked into his eye and nodded, hoping it was the good eye. So he could see me being agreeable.

"You wanna camp tonight, OK. I can check back in da mornin' and have a bite a breakfast whitchu, or you can move on now, whatever. You don't cause no trouble, I don't stick dis gun up your butt. So. What's it gonna be?"

"Sure," I said, trying to sound like his pal. He knew better.

I could tell. His ears were good. And he had two of them.

"Help yourself, sure. Take what you want. I have plenty," I said. "And since I don't want to give you any trouble, maybe I'll just move along. Will that work? Take my peanuts."

He farted.


And smiled.

The way only a one-eyed marmot with a gun can smile. When he has plans for your nuts.

Then he looked at my pack and back at me. "Lay it out an' I'll have a look-see," he said.

Marmots are not that big.

They have four legs.

And use all of them just to stand up.

But this guy.

Somehow he rummaged through my gear, and rounded up what he wanted, and carried it off.

While keeping his gun trained on my soft spot. This was one capable shrub bear.

"Tanks. Youse a stand-up guy. Come back again real soon," he chuckled, munching as he waddled off.

"An' if you wants some real good campin' jus' go over dat ridge dere. Nobodys will bodder you dere. Have a nice day, my fren. Hahahaha."

Then he was gone.

I felt weak.

I may have wet myself.

I collected my things, what little food was left, and resumed hiking.

I went up the trail. Might as well see what was over the ridge, I thought. Was headed there anyway. Anywhere but here.

After trudging for I don't know how long I came to the crest of the ridge. It looked good.

No marmots. No guns. All quiet.

I began descending, beginning to relax.

Then I saw the goat. In front of me. His horns were pointed at my crotch.

He grinned.

"Marmot said you'd be along soon," he said.

"Let's talk."


Ranger kills persistent mountain goat in Olympic National Park

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

New Sections Of CDT To Open Soon

Today the wrinkles, tomorrow the flies.

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is the longest of the three north-south trails, and the least used, but nevertheless is beginning to show signs of wear.

Just days before completion crews tied huge cables to each end of the trail and with giant machines they pulled the entire thing taut.

Now, many years later, that same trail is sagging like a worn out T-shirt. Any more pulling would only increase the sagging.

What to do?

There are three possible solutions, all potentially crazy.

(1) Drop anchors into the trail and use bulldozers to drag long sections of it east or west into a mileage-eating zigzag pattern. But this could also scrape away many trailside towns and ranches, and because it's a lot like pulling a string along a carpet, it might attract cats as well.

(2) Send in parties of trail tailors to use up excess mileage by converting it to decorative loops, figure eights, and curlicues. Skeptics wonder if those crews could actually work on such a large project without "getting all foofy on us".

(3) Running a distant, currently impractical third, but also most promising, is shrinkage. Basically you douse the entire trail with really hot water so it shrinks up.

Getting the hot water, dumping it on cue, and controlling the shrinkage are three key problems.

Overdo it and you suddenly yank Canada and Mexico together with a thump. And the trail might pucker something fierce, making it even lumpier.

Following months of high-level meetings, National Park Service bureaucrats, adventurers, slackers, trail bums, concessionaires, and hangers-on finally decided to try option two.

So they signed a trial contract with the CDT Alliance Of Trail Tailors to complete a pilot project.

After months of feverish alterations, hopeful officials last week dedicated a new 1-mile section of the CDT named the Button Connector. It joins the Pocket Treadway to the important but previously little-used route over the top of Jack's Flap.

Now, because of the new Button Connector, hikers will have an easy time getting from the Flap to the Pocket, a sheltered, cozy area with plenty of good camping.

This is only a first step, and work continues. There is lots more to do.

No telling what could happen next.


New section of Continental Divide Trail open at RMNP

Saturday, September 3, 2011

God Set To Punish Pacific Northwest

Weekend to be warm, sunny. Temps in the 70s and 80s. No relief in sight.

Disheartening forecast

Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington was quoted today as saying "It's going to be great."

Dr. Mass, it should be noted, works in an air conditioned bunker, well shielded from direct sunlight by that structure's thick, opaque walls.

"Oh and with all the talk of hurricanes on the East Coast, what about West Coast hurricanes? We get 'em," he continued. But not this weekend, ladies and gentlemen.

We will be nowhere near so lucky.


This weekend temperatures will soar into the danger zone, hitting the 70s (70s Fahrenheit / 20s Celsius).

And that is only the beginning.

No relief in sight

"Computer models show it will climb back into the mid-80s through next week into the following weekend," said Dr. Mass, safe in his cool dim retreat.

Widespread panic is projected throughout the region.

Hordes of locals will stampede into the mountains, flooding trails and campgrounds in a desperate attempt to escape the region's cities, which will all become virtual death traps.

A few still cling to hope. They hope to remain alive and repopulate the area after this holocaust, but most have resigned themselves to their fate.

Mass death almost certain

"Expect these morning clouds to clear out and to have a sweltering long weekend - and through the next week as well."

These are clearly not words to live by.

God, once believed to be responsible for everything, even the bad stuff, could not be reached for comment.

There are rumors afoot that the Deity is at work on entirely new and more robust critters, whole new species capable of withstanding extended exposure to temperatures above 60 degrees F.

Biologists only raise their eyebrows at this, regarding the idea as raving lunacy at best. No known life forms can currently exist at such temperatures, and that capability is almost inconceivable, given our current understanding of biology.

Yes, there may be a slim possibility of life continuing on earth, but it likely will not be us.

So good luck there.

The full report.

Audio file mp3.

Regional weather map.

Video: How Cliff Mass forecasts the weather.