Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Backpacking in Indian Heaven Wilderness: Skeeters, Huckleberries, and Lovely Lakes

Ever find yourself craving a night away from the city, unplugged and camping in beautiful nature, but short on time for the whole backpack/camping trip scenario? When I email a friend and grumble about my lack of camping this summer, he comes up with a concise plan, pronto:

“Cruise to Indian Heaven, hike ½ mile to a group of lakes. Leave Portland around 1:30 Sunday. 2hr drive, 1hr hike, make camp, swim, huckleberries, dine, sunset over lake. Monday rise early, on the road by 7:30.”

Sounds perfect.

Indian Heaven Wilderness, which straddles the Cascade crest about 25 miles north of the Columbia River in south-central Washington, encompasses a beautiful forested alpine plateau dappled with over 150 alpine lakes and ponds. Over the past 9,000 years the local Indians, who called the area Sahalee Tyee, came here for hunting, gathering, and horse racing (in a large field known today as the Indian Racetrack). These days it’s a very popular destination and draws hikers, hunters, and horse packers from throughout the Northwest.

The Hike
Matt has been eyeing some lakes in the western edge of the wilderness on a National Geographic map he found online and downloaded. His map doesn’t show a trail to the Thomas Lake area from the west, so the plan is to bushwhack in to the lakes. [Note: We tried right before we left to buy a Green Trails map, but the store was out.]

Turns out we don’t adhere to the plan exactly, but it gets us started. By the time we leave town (3:30), take a few wrong turns en route to our starting point, then get our packs on and ready, we start at 6:30. But we’re only hiking in a half mile.

We drive up a long dirt road (Forest Service Road 65) north of Carson with spectacular views of Mount Saint Helens along the way, and park up a worn turnout in scrubby forest just outside the wilderness. After spraying each other with DEET to ward off the ubiquitous and aggressive mosquitoes, we set off. While carefully watching our step and taking compass bearings often, we scramble along game trails, over downed logs, and through thickets of huckleberries.

For environmental and practical reasons, I’m a stick-to-the-trail kind of gal. But I do enjoy this short adventure, especially when we see a clearing in the forest just uphill after an hour of tramping. Lake!

Night in the Woods
Since it’s Sunday night, we easily find a camping spot near Thomas Lake, the largest of the lakes in this cluster. As the evening wanes to dusk, I cook up a tasty dinner of cous cous with sautéed veggies. Then something catches my eye in the eastern sky.

“Are you at all anxious about backpacking when thunder and lightning is predicted over the Cascades tonight?” I’d asked Matt earlier. After all, it is prime forest fire season now.

“Nah,” he told me with the nonchalant calm of an airline pilot. Us anxiety-prone types look to those around us for calm, and his response assuaged me a few hours ago. Now I get a little worried when I see the huge thunderhead boiling upward in the sky just beyond the eastern ridge of the lake.

Bright flashes light up the sky as we get settled for the night. “That last one was about 28 miles away,” I note after counting until we hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Soon the lapse between lightning and thunder shortens. I get more anxious but, as I say, “Well, here we are.”

Luckily the storm doesn’t draw closer and subsides after a few hours. Then the night becomes incredibly still.

When we venture a peek at the stars, the reward is brilliant. Directly overhead, the Milky Way crisscrosses the night sky, cutting a swath through one of the most vivid starry skies I’ve ever seen, cobalt blue punctured by zillions of white dots. Soon the night shift mosquitoes chase us back into the tent.

Mountain Morning
As often happens camping, we wake up at dawn and go explore. Initially the sky is clear, with mist rising off the lakes like steam rising from a cup of freshly brewed tea. But soon a silver fog descends, then rises again.

Save for a few bird calls here and there and a slight breeze, it’s blissfully, peacefully quiet. No one else is out here.

With several lakes to explore, we’re not on the road by 7:30 as planned. But that’s okay. It’s too beautiful to dash back to civilization, and the huckleberries are starting to ripen.

Wending around Lake Thomas, we find an interstate of a trail back down the way we came, so our hike out the .6 mile to the Thomas Lake trailhead is quick. Then we plod back along the road to where we parked, passing a huckleberry-picking party along the way.

Our quick trip is short but sweet--despite the skeeters.

Have you hiked in Indian Heaven? I'd love to hear about your trip in the Comments below!

When You Go
Here’s a map of Indian Heaven. I've done longer hikes here higher up, where we explored old craters and had stunning views of Mount Adams not far to the east. Although there is no fee for camping here, a Wilderness permit and Northwest Forest Pass are required. I recommend avoiding weekends if you can. I also suggest waiting until later September when the mosquitoes are past their peak because they are abundant and persistent little buggers. But you’ll be sharing the area with hunters then, so stay on the trails and be watchful.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Northwest Flavors: Twin Pines' Soft Serve Cones—A Cle Elum Classic

As much as I love artisan gelato, hand other fancy handmade ice creams available now—I will always adore Twin Pine Burger’s soft serve ice cream cones.

If you grew up in the USA, you know the kind I’m talking about: soft vanilla and/or chocolate ice cream served with a swirly flourish out of a machine into those orangeish-colored cones that taste like Styrofoam. Totally American. And if they’re done right, like Twin Pines does, totally dee-lish.

A few miles east of Cle Elum, Washington, just off I-90 on Highway 97 enroute to Blewett Pass, Twin Pines burger stand is an iconic throwback. No franchise-chain here, just an independent, classic American burger joint, complete with cherry red picnic tables on the back lawn next to a trailer park. So iconic that it has been memorialized in an Edward Hopper-esque oil painting that hangs at the entrance to the Northgate Nordstrom as part of their Northwest art collection.

For years, Twin Pines has been a favorite stop on my way home from hikes in the Teanaway or visiting friends in Chelan or Wenatchee. On weekend afternoons in the summer Twin Pines is always packed. Although I’ve never had their burgers or fries, which Yelpers seem to love, the ice cream cones and shakes are the best. Frosty and creamy, with fragrant vanilla and soft chocolatey flavor. The real deal, like Dairy Queen (which I shamelessly indulge in now and then) used to be.

I stopped by Twin Pines a few weeks ago on a hot Sunday afternoon and got a vanilla-chocolate swirl cone (cash only of course). As I sat in the shade of pine trees behind the burger shack, carefully licking the creamy cold perfection, I felt summer deep in my bones. Eating that cone stirred memories stretching back into my childhood. My dad (chocolate) and step-mom (vanilla) could have been sitting across the picnic table from me, and I could have been 11 again.

Simple flavors, simple pleasures, enjoying an ice cream cone with family and friends—priceless.

When You Go
I read on a Yelp review that Twin Pines is only open during the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend. I can’t confirm that online, but a few years ago I did worry that they were out of business when I stopped by in the autumn and the place was closed.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hiking near Leavenworth, Washington: Sauer’s Mountain 'n Sweet Cherries

Sunday morning at Anjou Bakery in Cashmere, Washington, and I’m ogling the exquisite fruit pastries while trying to decide which type of baguette sandwich to buy for my hike today. “The ham is my favorite,” says the pretty, fresh-scrubbed cashier, “It’s cured in Leavenworth just up the highway.” Sold.

I’m also probing for information about hikes in the area. Above the fertile orchards here in the Wenatchee Valley, the eastern Cascade Mountains that rim the river and creeks are a jumble of craggy granite peaks and steep ridges. This stunning landscape is full of marvelous places to hike, climb, and scramble.

When I ask the cashier directions to the Wedge Mountain trailhead—a hike I did years ago—a lean young guy behind the counter (rock climber, I’d wager) suggests hiking up Sauer’s Mountain instead.

“Sauer’s Mountain is beautiful, and you can hike along the ridge over a mile for fantastic views down to Leavenworth and all over the valley,” he continues, and then gives me directions to the trailhead in Peshashtin. I’m sold again. I love getting tips from locals in the know.

The Hike
With a deadline looming and some hiking shorts to review for FitnessTravelGear.com, I need a decent hike—fairly close to the highway with enough mileage and elevation gain to get a good workout. So I turn off Highway 2 at Peshastin, cross the Wenatchee River into the little orchard town, then drive west, and turn right just before the cemetery. The road dead-ends after about a mile below a few houses and orchards, where I park at the clearly marked trailhead.

This is not your typical trailhead. It’s on private property, with rustic signs and an ice chest full of dark cherries beckoning hikers to grab some for the hike ahead. I choose a small bag and stuff money in the jar as a thank you to the Sauers, whose property I assume we are crossing to start the hike. (Maybe in the fall there will be apples or pears instead?)

Here on the eastern crest of the Cascades, it’s another hot, sunny day. I start switchbacking up the narrow trail past Northwest Coast Indian-style carvings plunked in the tall grass (or stuck on tree trunks). These whimsical wood sculptures make me feel welcome.

For the first mile the trail skirts a small farm and then some exposed rock faces, with little shade to provide relief from the baking sun. I try to conserve water and quickly realize I should have brought two bottles.

Thankfully the grade evens out and passes through stands of pines as it nears the ridgetop. After the initial switchbacks up the slope above the farm, the rest of the hike is just angling along a ridge through Ponderosa pines, rising higher and higher to the 3,100-foot plus summit. And the views!

As I crest the ridge and finally get a view to other side, I see Leavenworth and Icicle Creek valley spread below. Far above the valley, the jagged Stuart Range peaks are still iced with snow (in August!).

At 1.5 miles along the trail, a sign marks the view to Glacier Peak on the northwest horizon. (This “elusive” stratovolcano is closer to Seattle than Mount Rainier, but far enough east that it’s not easily viewed.) I initially thought of turning around here and making it a 3-mile round trip, but it’s only another mile to the top and I can’t stop. It’s too splendid, and the panoramic views keep getting better. Onward and upward.

When I scramble the last hundred feet or so up the dusty, rocky trail to the summit, I’m grateful to find a shady spot beneath the pines where I can rest, gaze at the mountains, sip more cold water, and gobble that incredible Leavenworth ham sandwich. (Note, I continued past the summit sign up to a rock cairn a little higher at the true summit.)

Going down is easier but it has gotten a lot hotter. (I hear later that it’s over 90ᵒF.) Despite it being a summer weekend, I pass only one group of four hikers, two solo women hikers, and a dog (with one of the hikers, not solo.)

By the time I return to the car, I’m ready to dive into the beautiful pond just down the road back toward the cemetery. Alas, as far as I can tell, it’s private property. Instead I settle for some juicy fresh cherries, no doubt plucked from some trees I just passed.

When You Go
Here’s a topo map of the hike. Wooden trail signs mark every half mile or so, which I found quite friendly and helpful. It’s 5 miles roundtrip to the summit, with an elevation gain of 1,800 feet. Just below the summit, be sure and cross the old logging road and continue up past the spray-painted blue dot. Earlier in the spring and early summer, the wildflowers apparently put on quite a display along this trail.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Zen Dog Studio Teahouse: Lunar Magic at the Temple to Tea

A place to escape to when one cannot ease one’s cares in the mountains—the hut beneath the pine within the city. -Toyohara Sumiaki

So Zen Dog Studio Teahouse isn’t exactly a humble hut, but many in Seattle and beyond are finding their way to this magical “Temple to Tea” in Crown Hill to ease their cares, make new friends, and of course sip fabulous tea.

If you’ve already been but haven’t stopped by lately, Zen Dog has been busy transforming his oasis in the city. The man recognizes clearly that life is constant change.

Outside he’s recently installed a beautiful wooden Chinese pagoda in the bamboo grove, traditional Chinese waterwheels, a plant-filled koi pond with a cascading stone waterfall, colorful benches in the garden, stone pathways, and more—which make a perfect setting for Zen Dog’s monthly lunar celebrations.

I was fortunate to attend Zen Dog’s first annual summer festival this past weekend, where I mingled with a happy bunch enjoying over 6 hours of live music on the lawn, artist demonstrations, singing bowls, Chen-style tai ji, and a fantastic feast. Between perfectly grilled miso/ginger-marinated salmon, traditional Chinese roasted pig, summer fresh fruit, and tasty salads, I can’t imagine a better blend of Pacific Northwest-meets-Asia fare. (Thanks to Zen Dog’s son Derek for pulling together most of this sumptuous spread.)

From Jillian Graham Band’s bluesy folk rock to the international folklorica of Satellite by Night (Zen Dog regulars) with Mike Antone, the musicians spun a lively and sometimes mystical spell. As a sunny afternoon slipped into a cool orange dusk, Cittaflow entranced us with their flowing ancient-modern sound. I swear the stripped down, primal sound of the didjeridoo reverberated up and down and throughout my body, just like Shauna’s singing crystal bowls earlier in the evening.

Many of us stayed into the night, wrapped in blankets against the evening chill. Zen Dog, as always, was busy brewing and sharing his tea to take the edge off the cold. As his new sign says, his Temple to Tea is all about hospitality, tranquility, harmony, humility, purity, and simplicity.

Isn’t that a marvelous reminder to slow down in this crazy busy world and savor the moment?

Now go drink tea!

When You Go
Click here for a location map. There’s lots going on and coming up at Zen Dog Studio Teahouse. Future events include a guest speaker from Blue Heron Zen on August 19, a Taoist teacher in the fall, and more lunar gatherings. And while Zen Dog embodies hospitality, it is a business, so if you can, please at least leave a tip for the tea served (in the glass pitcher by the door) if you don’t buy anything.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sailing Seattle’s Elliott Bay: The Rutten Race

I’m sitting on the foredeck aboard the gorgeous Tres Gatos sailboat on a beautiful summer evening, sun in my eyes and wind in my hair. We’re surrounded by dozens of boats at full sail here on Elliott Bay. Behind us downtown Seattle shimmers as the sun starts to slide toward the jagged Olympic Mountains on the western horizon.

It’s breathtaking. It’s so Seattle.

Although I’m just along for the ride, our skilled crew skippered by Bruce Hedrick is busy working the sails and ropes. After a tight turn around the last buoy bobbing in Puget Sound like a giant chocolate chip, we’re solidly in first place with no challengers. Which is just perfect.

You see, this is the Tom Rutten Memorial Race, the last in the 2011 Downtown Seattle Sailing series out of Elliott Bay Marina. Tom, who tragically died way too young 3 years ago, was one of the co-founders and organizers of this series. He was adored in the Seattle sailing community for his wicked sense of humor, incredible knowledge, dedication to the sport, and his, well, Tom-ness.

The man was truly one-of-a-kind. His brother Andy is part of our crew this evening. Tom, who was just 2 months older than me, was my first cousin.

Although I never sailed with Tom, I’m feeling his absence tonight. But how can I be sad with such a glorious backdrop?

Everyone is having a good time. That would have made Tom happy. I’m happy just to be here, to feel the chill in the wind after the sun sets, to see the camaraderie amongst everyone on board even though some of us have just met, to once again be awed by the view of Mount Rainier turning strawberry ice cream pink on the southern horizon.

Life is grand here in the Pacific Northwest. I try to remember that every single minute.

May you, too, wherever you are.