Monday, June 22, 2009

Along the Cascade Loop: Hiking to Lake Ann

To celebrate the beginning of summer, I’m taking Pacific Northwest Seasons on the road this week and venturing east of the Cascade Crest on part of the Cascade Loop. This scenic drive includes heading east over the North Cascades Highway, angling southeast/south down the Methow Valley and Columbia River to Wenatchee, and looping back to the Puget Sound region over Stevens Pass. My goal is not to sightsee, since I’ve seen it all before, but to stop when I feel like stopping, move when I feel like moving, read when I feel like reading, and to chill on what turns out to be a somewhat chilly trip.

Day 1

I start my 4-day road trip by driving north from Seattle up I-5 to Mt. Vernon, then heading east/southeast over Highway 20 to the Methow. For a dose of exercise and stunning alpine scenery beyond what I can see from the car, I decide to hike to Lake Ann just east of the Cascade Crest. Yes, June is always an iffy time to hike in higher elevations of the Cascades, but we just had a record-breaking stretch of sunny days without rain (28!) so I decide to go for it. Was it doable?

Kinda sorta.

I figure it’s not the best omen when I pass through miles of downpour in the upper Skagit Valley. After a stop at the Cascadian Farms stand for a basket of sweet, organically grown Hood strawberries, which disappear quickly, I forge on past several lower elevation hikes and onward to Rainy Pass (aptly named today) at almost 5,000 feet. As I pull off the highway, I’m stopped by snow in the parking lot just past the trailhead.

“Are you just taking off or finishing your hike?” I ask three backpackers fiddling with their gear next to a parked car. “Finishing. We’ve just come off five days on the trail. Last night was cold!” says one of the guys. They’re friendly and happy, with that healthy several-days-on-the-trail burnished glow. Of course they’re happy—they’re going to have a hot shower tonight.

Despite a light rain, I throw on a hat, gloves, and shell over my fleece vest and head up the trail. At first I almost turn back when I have to hopscotch over muddy pools on the trail, but the trail dries out after the first switchback.

After about 30 minutes of hiking upward through mature subalpine forest, I emerge from the trees at a small bowl. As I’m crossing a snow-covered slope where the trail should be, I hear the distinct whistle of a marmot close by. Pheeeeeeeeeeet!! I catch a glimpse of movement on the talus slope below.

Just beyond the bowl, the trail turns narrow as it traverses a steep face. I have to step v-e-r-y carefully over the slick compacted snow on the narrow ledge above a 100-foot cliff. Not so wise to be doing this by myself on a quiet day with very few other hikers out.

After crossing more snow patches in the forest, I finally see the glacial cirque in which Lake Ann lies. At the bottom of a bowl a few hundred feet below the trail, Lake Ann is still mostly snow-covered. On the plus side, it’s too cold for mosquitoes. As I slow my pace to take photos and enjoy the rugged, rocky alpine scenery, the light rain turns to wet snowflakes. Time to head back.

Up this high, dwarf alpine fir trees grow sparsely and delicate little wildflowers crop up furtively in patches of whatever soil forms between the talus. I love this zone and the tenacity of the plants and creatures that inhabit it. I take a deep breathe and fill my lungs with the sweet fresh alpine air.

When I near the small bowl where I heard the whistle on the way up, I spot a two-toned marmot perched on a boulder beside the trail 50 yards ahead. Round and furry, it’s golden with a chocolate brown face and tail. I’m surprised at how big it looks even at this distance. With an upward flick of its tail, the marmot scrambles quickly down the rocky slope and under a rock and starts digging in the dirt with its front paws. Through my binoculars, I see it then dash farther down the slope with a mouth overflowing with roots and disappear. Perhaps for some youngsters?

Farther on and back in the forest below, I spy what I think at first is another marmot on the trail ahead. But instead of darting away at the sound of my voice, it lumbers slowly off the trail and into the brush. Although I can’t see it clearly, I think I’ve spotted a porcupine!

On the last snowfield over the trail, which thankfully is on a mild slope, I’m suddenly on my butt, sliding downhill. I go with it and tumble to a stop, then hop up and back on my way. It could have been a lot worse.

I’m back at the car in just under 2 hours from when I started, which was my goal. Overall I hiked about 3 miles and climbed about 1,000 feet. I broke a sweat, which was another goal. I’m happy. And lucky.

When You Go

The Lake Ann trailhead is just off Highway 20 at Rainy Pass, which is at milepost 157. Come August on a weekend day, this trail will be pretty busy. Sneak there on a week day if you can, but wait until late July or August for the trail and lake to clear. As the locals in the Methow Valley say, get a lot of bang for your buck and continue up to the ridge past Lake Ann to Maple Pass for spectacular views of the North Cascades. A Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. Click here to buy one online for $30.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Issaquah Alps: Meandering through the Rainforest

For you hard core hikers who think a hike isn’t a hike without crossing a glacier or a steep talus slope, think again next time you zip past the foothills on your way to higher elevations.

With gas prices shooting up again, I often don’t go all the way into the Cascades for a day hike anymore. The last 2 years I head almost as much to the Issaquah Alps (about 20 miles east of Seattle) for a workout on the trails. Hike through a lush temperate rainforest to get a taste of the forests that used to mantle most of the Puget Sound region.

On a recent Sunday I join Anita for 3 hours of silent hiking on Cougar and Squak Mountains. We start by heading uphill at a moderate but still sweat-inducing pace through the second-growth alder and big-leaf maple forest. Not far along we pass an oddly placed, rusting, moss-covered old car. Hmmm.

As we meander through the forest, we pass sword ferns on steroids, towering Devil’s Club with their elephant-ear sized leaves, and happy nettles that reach as high as my head. Higher up we pass groves of gorgeous western red cedar trees—much used and revered by the Northwest Coast Indians for thousand of years and my favorite tree.

For a few hours we walk up and down through the forest, with few stops. The mosquitoes are out in full force and they are a little too happy to see us. As we get toward the top of the mountain, Anita notices “It’s so quiet up here, I don’t hear any birds.” I suggest it’s because we’re above any streams or water.

Hi!”…solo trail runner with a friendly big dog. “How ya doin’?”…middle aged couple. “Hey.”…three teenaged guys in long baggy shorts. (How do they walk so fast with their pants crotch hovering around their knees?)

We pass a few people over the 3 hours we’re out, but compared to more popular trails in the Cascades like Rattlesnake Ledge, Mt. Si, or the trail to the top of Multnomah Falls, this is sparse. And lovely. We get plenty of the silence we were seeking and a lot of verdant green native plant life.

When You Go
Click here for a map of the Cougar-Squak Mountain corridor. Click here for a trail running map of the Issaquah Alps. For directions, click here and scroll down to find directions. From my home in Crown Hill/north Ballard in Seattle, it takes about 30 minutes to get to Issaquah on a weekend day. Beware of the I-90 closure in July 2009 if you're coming from Seattle! Maybe postpone your trip until August or go early on a weekend morning.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lambz in the Hood

I’m lying in bed on a Saturday morning, thinking it’s about time to drag myself up for the day. Here in my north Seattle neighborhood, the mostly vintage 1940s and 1950s homes are packed pretty close together, so I hear neighbors’ dogs barking, crows chattering, wind chimes tinkling in the breeze, someone mowing the lawn, voices from down the street.


Did I hear what I think I just heard?

Baaaaaa!! Baaaaaaaaa!!! Blecccchhhh!

I scramble to my feet and peer out the window. Of course I just see houses and trees.

After hopping in the shower, I dress and walk down the street to where the sound seems to be coming from. A new fence is up around the side of my neighbor Troy’s small bungalow. And there he is. Bucky the ram.

Of course I didn’t know his name was Bucky at first. But he’s impressive. A big fluffy sheep, with dark horns that curl back to form a tight circle on either side of his head. Sorta like Princess Leia’s hairdo in the first Star Wars movie. Bucky’s standing in the penned-in yard beside Troy’s house looking lonely. (Well, maybe I’m anthropomorphizing.)

Over the next few weeks I get used to Bucky’s cries and bleats blending in with the occasional dog woofs and cat yowls. Then I notice Bucky seems to have developed a multi-toned cry. Walking by Troy’s house one day on the way home from the bus, I notice Bucky has company—Annie and Rose, two fetching, equally fluffy ewes, one white and one dark brown. Diversity!

My next-door neighbor Mike tells me that Troy has property east of the mountains and plans to take the lambs over there after breeding this spring. “At first I thought the other neighbors would be bothered by the sheep cries, but everyone seems to be pitching in and taking over their compostable veggies,” he says.

Within a few months Troy’s herd of lambs has more than doubled. Bucky got some booty and sired four baby lambs--two brown lambs from Rose and two white lambs from Annie. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.)

I go out of my way to walk by the adorable baby lambs. At first they stick close to their moms, and then they stray a bit farther and start cavorting around the pen in cute little leaps. Pretty soon I notice lots of other people stopping by to see the lambs. Parents with small children, hipster twentysomethings, old folks. It’s the Crown Hill scene. I meet neighbors I didn’t know before in front of Troy’s yard. Everybody loves the lambs.

And then I get the sad news. “Troy’s moving all the lambs except Bucky up to Arlington this Saturday to a friend’s place, where they’ll have more room,” Mike tells me. I realize I’ll miss the strangely soothing sound of a bunch of sheep as a neighborhood background noise. Something about their cries made it feel less like a quasi-urban-surburban place around here and more bucolic. It stirs something in me that I can’t quite define. It makes me nostalgic for the farm I didn't grow up on.

So on moving day, my friend Sharia and I join Mike and head over to say goodbye and help Troy. He goes out to the yard, corners and grabs a squirming, heavy Rose and carries her to his pickup truck, where he has a wooden pen set up in the back. “Can you open the gate for me?” he cries. I swing it open so he can pass through quickly and dump Rose in the truck.

Baaa! Baaaaa!! Baaaaaa!!!!!

The little lambs are NOT happy about their moms disappearing. One by one Troy gets the lambs into his truck and nails the pen shut. It’s time for him to leave. I think Troy is slightly bemused that Sharia and I seem so sad to see the lambs go. “These aren’t going to be meat are they?” I ask. Sometimes you shouldn’t ask a question you’d rather not know the answer to. “No,” says Troy.


So now Bucky is alone again. He’s pretty quiet. And probably lonely.

And I’ll think twice next time I start to order lamb kebabs.