Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hiking the Olympic Peninsula: Panoramic Mt. Townsend

When a friend from the East Coast asked me to take her on a Pacific Northwest adventure a few years ago, I wanted to plan a quintessential Northwest experience. We only had a couple days, so it couldn't be too far from Seattle.

Since I consider a ferry ride across the Salish Sea a must for visitors (sometimes you see whales!), I decided an overnight in historic Port Townsend then a hike up Mt. Townsend would be perfect. On a clear day, this mountaintop ridge at the northeastern corner of the Olympic Mountains offers sweeping, magnificent 360 views. 

From the summit, you can see downtown Seattle and the Cascades Mountains across Puget Sound to the east, Mt. Baker floating above foothills and islands to the northeast, Vancouver Island in Canada across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and the craggy Olympics peaks to the west-southwest-south. 

Well....on a cloudy mid-July day, the higher we hiked up the mountain, the thicker the mist and fog. By the time we got to the summit, visibility was only about 20 feet. 

But still, it was lovely in its own damp, enveloping way. We Northwesterners don't cherry pick the nice days to get outdoors.

Fast forward to a recent beautiful September daythe best kind of hiking day around here. It's not too hot, not too cold. Pesky bugs are done for the year. Our days on the trail before the snow flies at higher elevations are numbered, so a fall hike is especially sweet.

And even sweeter if it starts with a ferry ride during a colorful sunrise.

Edmonds to Kingston

From the ferry terminal at Kingston, the drive to the trailhead off Highway 101 near Quilcene took about 90 minutes, some of it on gravel Forest Service Roads. When we arrived at the upper trailhead around 8:30 a.m., a group of volunteers from the Washington Trails Association tried to recruit us to help with trail work. Another time.

Rich green forest thick with rhododendrons encompasses the first mile or two of the hike, although we noticed the rhodies looking droopy, no doubt due our driest summer ever. (Come in May for a spectacular rhododendron blossom display.)

Within a mile or so, the trail starts moving in and out of the woods, revealing views up mountain and down valley. After about 2.5 miles, we cleared most of the forest, and the rest of the hike is through meadows, subalpine trees, and occasional krummholz to the top.

I remember thinking the switchbacks were brutal when I hiked here on a some backpack trips to Silver Lakes, but none of it is very steep. (I think the trail has been regraded a bit since my earlier trips.)

As we crested the up-and-down ridge that runs along the mountain top, we're out in the open, with unobstructed views.

Final push to the summit.
We found some rocks to sit on and eat lunch at the summit, and Betsy and I grabbed extra layers from our packs in the cool breeze.  Then we rambled to the northern end of the ridge for the views north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands/British Columbia beyond.

End of the line. Looking north, Salish Sea.
View northwest. Strait of Juan de Fuca to the right.

On our way back south along the ridge, we saw a low layer of mist rolling in and wondered if it was fog or smoke from our many forest fires. As it got thicker and brownish, we could tell it was obviously smoke.

Looking southeast, smoke to the left.
This is earthquake country. The Olympic Mountains are the result of a large uplifted and folded section of oceanic crust that has smashed into the continent and been thrust upward over the last 40 million years, at the margin of the Cascadia subduction zone

Some seismologists posit that the subduction zone is locked on the eastern side of the Olympics - that is, directly beneath Mt. Townsend. When the stress builds up too much, the plates will slip and produce a megaquake (9.0 or greater).

I'm glad it didn't during our hike. :)

With the smoke and morning clouds, we weren't able to see downtown Seattle nor much of the Cascade Mountains. Mt. Baker was barely visible above the smog. But no matter, it was still an exhilarating hike and workout.

And on the ferry ride back to Edmonds, I was lucky enough to notice something dark just above the waterline not far north from the ferry. Definitely not a boat. As it submerged I saw the unmistakable fluke tail of a humpback whale thrust up out of the water right before it disappeared. I've spent most of my life here and never before have spotted a humpback in my home waters.

Excellent cap to  a splendid day.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
Elevation gain on this hike is just a tad over/under 3,000 feet (depends on whether you trust your GPS or the WTA trail guide), and mileage is about 8 miles roundtrip. There are several trailheads for hiking up Mt. Townsend, but we chose the upper trailhead, accessed from Quilcene to the east. A lower trailhead starts a little over a mile below and goes through some impressive old growth forest, which I did some years ago.There is also access from the western/Sequim side, but it's a steeper trail.

To access the upper trailhead, take US 101 south from the Quilcene Ranger Station 0.9 mile, the take the slight right onto Penny Creek Road. In 1.5 miles, take the left fork onto Forest Road 27 and follow it 13.5 miles before turning left onto FR27-190. The trailhead is at the end of this spur road, and there's a vault toilet there. Since this is in the Buckhorn Wilderness, east of Olympic National Park, no passes are required to park.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

2017 Columbia River Gorge Fire: Grief and Hope

As I write this, the Eagle Creek Fire is still burning and growing in the Columbia River Gorge, threatening towns in eastern Multnomah County, Oregon.

In just one night, it engulfed some of the most unique and verdant landscapes on the planet in a maelstrom of exploding trees and racing flames, fanned by the Gorge's famous East Wind. A friend watched a whole mountainside go up in flames in about one minute.

It's too early and I've yet to see it, so I still can't quite conceive of what has happened. Has this sacred, nourishing, touchstone place for me, where I return as often as possible, been irrevocably changed, denuded, and altered forever (at least in my lifetime)?

This I can't yet comprehend.

Gorge lushness
 As a post on the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge FaceBook page said,   "We're hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst."

The Vista House on Crown Point. Still standing.

I'm having a hard time putting into words how important the Gorge has been to me throughout my life. It is, as they say, in my bones.

When I was three my family moved to the Troutdale area, where our home was just a few miles from the basalt cliffs across the Sandy River that mark the western entrance to the Gorge. I grew up there learning to love nature, waterfalls, and walking in the woods.

On warm summer nights, my mom would pack a picnic dinner and we'd head up to enjoy the particular refreshing cool in the woods near one of the waterfalls. We often had Oneonta Gorge to ourselvesonce my dad featured a shot of my sister and I there on the front page of his newspaper, calling us "woodland sprites" in the caption. (We got teased for that.)

Below Larch Mountain

As a teenager I started hiking/backpacking in earnest and explored the Gorge's trails more extensively.  Maybe it's because I was 17 and all my senses were heightened, but one great backpack trip stands out: 

Towards the end our hike from Mt. Hood down to the Gorge, I vividly remember the soft, forgiving earth underfoot and the richness of the forest as we descended switchbacks nearing Eagle Creek, singing silly trail songs. (Because back then there were no other hikers around to annoy.) To wash away some of the week's grime, we jumped into a pond in the upper creek. Decades later I can still almost feel the bracing, exhilarating chill from jumping into the icy cold water that left my skin tingling afterwards. When we arrived at the Eagle Creek trailhead, our parents had spread out a picnic for us, which we devoured after a week of Top ramen, dried salami, and homemade gorp. Fantastic memories!

Throughout my life the Gorge has been a place of refuge, a soothing balm for my soul. I’m a firm believer that Heaven is here on Earth and that it’s unique for everyone. My version encompasses the verdant western Gorge and its many trails.

At one of my happy places
 After hiking there I feel energized and especially alive. There’s something magical and life-affirming about the abundant and thriving plant life, coursing streams, and cascading falls.

I heard there are pockets of trees spared, and yes, there will be regrowth. But it will take time. A long time. And who knows how climate change will affect the ability of such a unique botanical treasure to return to its former fecund glory.

Lower Multnomah Fall. The cedar to the right appears to have survived the fire
So allow me, us, to grieve while we also carry hope that enough was spared from the flames to allow a quick natural regeneration and healing of the unique collection of ecosystems in the Gorge.

Remnant snags from an early 1990s fire atop Angel's Rest

Eagle Creek, Punchbowl Falls
Bicyclist on the historic Columbia River Highway just below Crown Point
Thanks for "listening." I'd love to hear what the Gorge has meant to you and your experiences there in a comment below.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.