Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kayaking the Black River: Rain, Ducks, and Guns

We’re driving south on I-5 through sheets of rain so thick you’d think it was a blizzard. “Wow, did you feel the car just hydroplane?” I gasp. Rich slows down.

Our destination is the Black River near Rochester, Washington, about 30 miles southwest of Olympia. Unfortunately we’ve chosen a day with some wild and whacky weather. “Hey, did you see that flash of lightning over to the east?” says Rich. Oh great, I think to myself.

“We’re really intrepid, aren’t we?” I say.

“Yea, or we’re really stupid,” replies Rich.

About 5 minutes later we see a break in the clouds and a patch of blue sky to the southwest, so we banish thoughts of bailing and forge on. “With our raingear on and sprayskirt over the cockpit, we can’t get that cold or wet, right?” says Rich. “Right,” I mumble, knowing full well I’ve gotten very cold and wet while kayaking in raingear before.

After exiting I-5 onto State Route 12, we drive about 5 miles west and find the unmarked gravel turnoff from Moon Road, where we park and launch.

Since the Black River’s main source is a lowland lake rather than snow melt from the mountains, it’s an easy year-round trip for canoers and sea kayakers. This is not where you go for whitewater action.

As we ease our sea kayaks into the placid river and head upstream, as if on cue the rain subsides and the sun streams through the clouds. (This is what Northwesterners call a sunbreak.)

Maybe we really will experience the “fairyland of butterflies and birds,” as a guidebook exuberantly described paddling here. In 1980, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the Black River as one of the most important fish and wildlife habitats in the state, so several miles of the valuable riparian habitat along the river are protected as a wildlife refuge.

We’re surrounded by green, gold, and a tinge of red on this early fall day. Alder, willow, red-osier dogwood, and a profusion of other trees and shrubs almost engulf the narrow river channel here. The unmistakable chatter of a belted kingfisher echoes upriver, and soon we see it swooping from tree to tree on the river’s edge just ahead of us.

Ten minutes later, Rich glances up at the bruised-looking sky and announces, “We’re in for some more rain soon.” Almost as quickly as the sun came out, the rains return. Up go our hoods, and sunglasses get stashed back into our pockets.

And so it goes for the next couple hours. We paddle past forested and pasture-lined river, passing a couple houses along the way and cruising under a railroad bridge. The downpours come and go. We get pretty wet, but it’s not that cold. The current is mild, although kayaking upstream does require a teensy bit of muscle.

I’d hardly call it a fairlyland, though. No butterflies and not that many birds, although we do see some ducks and a few great blue herons. Probably we’ve come too late (or early) in the season or all those creatures are hunkered down because of the rain, like we should be.

It’s peaceful and quiet here on the river until we suddenly hear gunshots. Close by.

“Shotgun,” says Rich, “for hunting waterfowl.”

As we loop around a tree-lined oxbow in the river, the shots get closer and louder, which makes me uncomfortable. Maybe we’ll get mistaken for oversized, Gore-tex clad geese.

“I don’t want to be a headline in the newspaper,” says Rich. He doesn’t need to explain, I can see the headline myself: KAYAKERS ACCIDENTALLY SHOT ON RIVER. So we turn around and head back downriver. The riverside scenery is getting more monotonous anyway the farther upriver we go.

Since we’re heading downstream now, we make better time and even shoot through a couple baby rapids, which is fun. At one point we’re surrounded by buff-bellied swallows flying in circles above and around us in quick speedy spurts. Those little birds move fast!

As we’re hauling our kayaks out of the river and loading up the car, we get a dose of the local wildlife— homo sapiens. Tires spin on gravel in the pullout just above us and a car door opens and slams shut. About 10 yards uphill a guy runs up to the closest fire hydrant, uh, tree and….

When You Go
Don’t go during the fall duck hunting season! To be fair, we hit the Black River on a pretty crummy day. This trip would be better as a one-way car shuttle trip with a couple vehicles, starting up river and paddling the 12 miles downriver to Oakville. And go when it’s not raining!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pacific Northwest Seasons: Has it really been a year?

It seems like just a few months ago that I posted my first piece about a hike to Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. But today is the first anniversary of Pacific Northwest Seasons. Already?

Yea, I was a little hasty in putting up those first posts before I got a better sense of this whole blog thing. Thank goodness I’ve since sought layout and design input from Macenka Design (thanks Mary!) and writing/editing feedback from a few experts (thanks to Lisa, Andy, and Stephanie).

My goal for Pacific Northwest Seasons is to share my love of getting out and enjoying this region—both indoors and outdoors—and to build a consistent body of work. To be honest, I don’t have much patience or time to submit query letters and pitch freelance articles.

So I just do my own thing here. If I motivate you to try some of these “adventures,” so much the better.

And you know what? I’m really enjoying myself. (I hope you enjoy visiting this site too.) Sometimes I just can’t wait to get home from a great kayak trip, hike, tea house, or local event and write about it.

Then sometimes I let adventures simmer for a few months before I’m inspired to write. And, I’m the first to admit, what I write is not always that inspired.

Between juggling almost full-time environmental consulting and contract work, I try to squeeze in a post a week…but sometimes I’ve slipped to almost three weeks between posts. Thanks for hanging with me!

A few of you have suggested a book (you flatter me beyond words)…we’ll see. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear more from you.

Do you find this site a helpful resource for ideas of things to do or when planning to visit the region? Anything else/more you’d like to see (or not) here? What are your favorite (or least favorite) posts here and why? Just click on the Comments link below at the bottom of this post and type away—it’s really easy.

Hope you enjoy some of these random shots from my local adventures over the last couple years. Stay tuned for more sea kayaking and island outings soon. And have a great fall—my favorite time of year.

Happy trails,

(And thanks to Andy and Don for taking a couple of the shots on today's post!)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mount Rainier National Park: Beating the rush to Tolmie Peak

Where there’s a fire lookout on a peak in the Cascades, there’s sure to be amazing views in every direction. If you want a moderate hike through lush green forest, past fresh alpine meadows and lakes, and with stunning close-up views of Mount Rainier, you can’t do much better than Tolmie Peak fire lookout. But with all this splendor, is it a tad crowded on a nice weekend?

The Trip There
We leave Seattle around 8 a.m. on a foggy Sunday morning. I just know we’ll clear the fog by the time we get to Mowich Lake at almost 5,000 feet on the northwest flank of Mount Rainer. Since it takes about 2 hours to drive there, we’ll be lucky to find a parking space and share the peak with the masses, as guide books suggest.

En route to the Carbon River park entrance, we go through the increasingly small towns of Buckley and Wilkeson, passing forest-fringed pastures where horses and livestock roam. After crossing the fragile-looking old bridge over the narrow Carbon River gorge, the last 17 miles or so is unpaved road. Much of this is through extensive clearcuts that resemble a barren war zone of denuded ridges—or what I think a war zone might look like. When we hit the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, thankfully the forest returns.

The Destination
With Julie’s good parking karma, we score a spot near the lake. True, lots of cars are already here, but it’s also the trailhead for the Spray Park hike. When we find the trailhead and start skirting around the translucent blue waters of Mowich Lake, it’s about 10 a.m. We lose the crowd as soon as we leave the parking area.

The Hike
Soon we’re in forest, where the trail winds up a gentle grade and drops on the other side of a ridge. From there it’s another 30 minutes of fairly level traverse. The hiking is pleasant and easy here. We pass a few large columnar basalt outcrops along the trail, reminders that we’re on the fringes of a massive volcano.

At 1.6 miles, we reach a junction and cut off toward Tolmie Peak instead of continuing to Ipsut Pass on the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Rainier. “Wait a minute! We’re not supposed to be going down to go up to the peak are we?” I kvetch as the trail heads downhill. We drop about a hundred feet and then the trail resumes climbing steadily through the mostly Douglas fir and spruce forest.

After another 20 minutes or so we emerge from the forest into a series of rolling alpine meadows, with wildflowers like purple lupine and bright orange Indian paintbrush sprinkled through the native grasses. Beyond the dwarf fir trees I catch a glimpse of another sapphire blue lake. “That must be Eunice Lake,” says Julie. “And that must be the fire lookout.” I squint upward and see a square, two-story wood building at the top of the rock ridge almost 1,000 feet or so above the other side of the lake.

The Summit
At first the thought of climbing up there seems daunting, but it’s really not bad at all. We angle up a few long switchbacks past the meadows and weave in and out of forest. As we ascend, the views down to Eunice Lake and across to Rainier just get better and better.

We scramble up the last incline to the fire lookout, expecting a crowd, only to find there’s nobody else up here.

It’s about 11:30 a.m. on a beautiful late summer weekend. Julie’s hiking book wrote almost derisively about the gobs of people to expect here.

“Hey, where is everybody?” I ask Julie, as if she knows.

Although the wooden steps up to the wraparound lookout balcony look a bit dicey, we clomp up anyway, drop our daypacks, and sit down, legs dangling over the edge.

I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. Mount Rainier is so close that the waterfalls coursing down its crevasse-scarred glaciers are visible. Spectacular!

Within 15 minutes, a couple tromps up and joins us on the balcony. Then another older couple shows up a few minutes later…then a few more.

By the time we’ve relaxed a bit, taken lots of pictures, reveled in the glorious views, munched our lunches, and head down there’s maybe a half a dozen others up here. We beat the rush, but it’s really not that bad anyway. In fact, it’s great.

When You Go
The round trip hike from Mowich Lake is about 5.6 miles (the distance varies on maps, but figure between 5.5 and 6 miles round trip) and climbs a little over 1,000 feet. Go early if you can on a weekend to have the place to yourself. The entrance fee to Mount Rainier National Park is $15/day, which you have to stop and pay at an unmanned entrance pullout. Remember to bring insect repellent since bugs love alpine meadows and the potential sources of food (you) traveling through them.

Thanks to hiking/kayaking/skiing buddy extraordinaire Julie for letting me use a few of her shots on this post!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Along the Cascade Loop: Orchards, Rivers, and Sunshine

With the apple harvest kicking into full gear and the leaves starting to turn gold and scarlet on the mountain passes, September is a brilliant time to head over the Cascade Loop. Take at least three days if you can. This is the third and final installment about my trip around this scenic drive earlier this summer.

Although I’m on the drier, eastern side of the Cascades, much of my drive along the Cascade Loop today is along water: the Methow, Columbia, and Wenatchee rivers, and Lake Chelan. The Columbia River Basin—a land of prolific orchards and farms—was reshaped by irrigation from the mighty Columbia and its tributaries. Not so good for the once abundant wild salmon runs (actually terrible), but a boon to agriculture. It’s all about water rights over here. And lots more sunshine than west of the Cascades.

Day 3
Meandering down the Methow
After two rejuvenating nights at Sun Mountain Lodge above Winthrop, I head south down the Methow Valley. Through a quirk of ice ages past, this lovely valley extends over 60 miles from the North Cascades down to arid upper Columbia River steppes.

Along the way I pass pastoral ranches, shrubby range land, hillsides dotted with orchards, narrow dry gulches, and historical marker signs from the valley’s silver mining days.

My first stop is the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery in “downtown” Twisp, a two-block stretch of low-rise buildings. I knew word had gotten out about this great place when I spotted someone wearing a Cinnamon Twisp T-shirt on a flight from Chicago to Richmond, Virginia. The bakery has expanded since I was here in 2005.

Now they offer cafe fare too: sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, salads, pizza, homemade soup, and more, made using as much organic and local ingredients as possible.

Since I’m in no hurry and it’s a glorious sunny day, my next stop is just outside the town of Methow, where the valley narrows. I wander down to the river, sit on a log, and squish my toes in the cool white sand while some kids splash in the water nearby.

Toward the mouth of the valley, the Methow widens before it flows into the Columbia. The Homestead roadside farm stand looms ahead on my right, so I pull over again. Since I’m a smoothie fanatic, I order one of their berry smoothies made from fresh seasonal fruit. I enjoy the thick and frosty smoothie in the shade of their verdant orchard overlooking the river.

Can you believe that rich berry color?

Swinging through Chelan
I turn south onto State Route 97 and drive along the western bank of the Columbia River. Here the once wild river is basically a series of reservoir lakes between dams. It’s still a dramatic landscape, though, with brown hills rising hundreds of feet on either side of the river. For another scenic diversion, I take the junction just past Chelan Falls up to the town of Chelan at the south end of Lake Chelan.

I’m due in Wenatchee in a few hours, so I just drive through town and stop briefly to visit some friends who live up the First Creek drainage. Chelan used to be primarily an orchard town but now is a major vacation destination, with second homes sprawling farther north up the east side of the long, narrow glacial lake.

From Chelan, I wind back down to the Columbia River via Highway 971, which travels through a lovely ponderosa pine-stippled canyon and past some small farms before descending to the river.

Bicycling the Apple Capitol
Tonight I’m staying in Wenatchee with my friend Lesley, amazing athlete and all-around renaissance woman. So I’m not surprised when she gets home from a long day at work and asks, “Want to go for a hike in the hills above town or go bicycling?” On this warm summer evening a bike ride sounds more refreshing, so I opt for a ride along the 13-mile Apple Capitol Recreation Loop Trail.

We cycle downhill several blocks and hop on the riverfront trail in downtown Wenatchee. On this side of the Columbia, the mostly flat paved trail cuts through neatly landscaped lawn along the river.

As we clear town on the west side of the trail, we peddle furiously up a few switchbacks to a bridge and cross the river to East Wenatchee. Over here the trail passes through more a natural, arid landscape, with nice views of Wenatchee and hills across the river. The whole loop ride takes us about 45 minutes. As we’re cycling back uphill through Wenatchee, we slice through soft, dry evening air. Perfect.

Day 4
Heading over Stevens Pass
My drive back west over Stevens Pass is scenic but faster-paced than my meanderings yesterday. I’m disappointed to find the Anjou Bakery on State Route 2/97 in Cashmere is closed today. Lesley raved about their pear tarts and other wonderful pastries. I stop briefly in Leavenworth, but on a weekday morning this Bavarian-themed tourist town feels like a party that was over hours ago. I slow down while driving through the narrow Tumwater Canyon just beyond Leavenworth, where the mountains rise steeply on either side of the Wenatchee River.

After crossing Stevens Pass and heading back to “the coast,” I make one more stop in Index for another good berry smoothie at the Espresso Chalet. If any of you remember the John Lithgow film Harry and the Hendersons, numerous scenes were shot here. Besides good smoothies and coffee, the view of Mount Index from this spot isn’t too bad either.

When You Go
Here is a map of the Cascade Loop. You can break your trip down into longer stretches; for example, take a few days to soak up the sun and water ski at Lake Chelan. Or stay at Sleeping Lady Resort on the outskirts of Leavenworth and do some rock climbing or hiking on one of the many challenging trails up Icicle Creek Canyon. Detour off the highway west of Stevens Pass into the town of Index and go for a river rafting trip down the Skykomish River with WaveTrek (limited by season of course). There are many possible variations. Enjoy!