Monday, October 27, 2008

Mt. Hood Scenic Drive, Part 3: Hood River Valley

If you want a perfect apple, you gotta go to the source. Soil laced with volcanic ash, cool nights, and sunny days create an ideal microclimate for growing succulent pears and apples in Hood River Valley. As far back as the 1850s farmers started planting orchards here. This afternoon we’re sampling the valley’s rich bounty.

After descending from Timberline Lodge, we take Route 35 a few miles east of Government Camp. Soon we’re driving down the arid East Fork Hood River canyon. Here on the east side of Mt. Hood, sparse pine forest lines the canyon slopes instead of the dense undergrowth typical of the west side.

When we emerge from the canyon, the Hood River Valley spreads out below us in shades of green, gold, and brown. Farms, vineyards, and orchards lie mixed among fir and pine forests and rolling ridges.

“I’m ready for some apples,” declares my niece. Our first stop is Kiyokawa Family Orchards in the upper valley, a couple miles off Route 35. After passing rows and rows of trees heavy with apples, we park in front of the well-marked farm stand. Large white plastic bins heaped full of apples and pears are lined up inside. I grab a bag and fill it with my current favorite apple—round and red-streaked Honeycrisp. My niece wants oversized Fujiis. My sister goes for the classic Red Delicious and some Bosc pears. In the car, my niece bites noisily into an apple, and I can smell the sweet pungent ripeness on her satisfied exhale.

Several few miles north on Route 35, I see it. “This is the place!” I tell my sister to pull over at Draper Girls Country Farm, where bales of hay piled with pumpkins and bright yellow sunflowers line the parking area next to an orchard. Mt. Hood looms large in the distance, looking elegant and graceful from this angle.

A few years ago I stopped at Draper Girls and want to stock up on their famous cinnamon and sugar-dried apples. Just sniffing these chewy sweet delicacies takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. Inside the large open-air farm stand, shelves are packed high with jars of pickles, jams and jellies, spicy chutneys, pear and apple butter, and more. My sister nabs several jars of Northwest huckleberry and blackcap jam to take home to Virginia.

By late afternoon, my niece is ready for a snack. Just above Hood River, the highway curves broadly and we sweep down toward the Columbia River. Wind and kite surfers fleck the river below us like big butterflies fluttering on the surface. Hood River has grown much larger and hipper than the small orchard town I remember as a kid, but the downtown retains its historic charm. We dash into Hood River Bagel Company close to the Route 35 junction so my niece can get a PB&J bagel. (Hood River deserves it own whole post...later.)

We’ve run out of time and need to zip the 65 miles back to Portland through the scenic Columbia River Gorge on I-84. Steep forested slopes and basalt cliffs rise 1,000 feet and more on either side of the Columbia until the river widens just east of Troutdale.

Get Active

Want to burn some calories along the way? Drive 10 miles up a dirt road to 6,000 on the northeast side of Mt. Hood and hike to spectacular views above timberline in the Cloud Cap area. Turn off Route 35 onto the Cooper Spur Road before you reach the valley. After you reach the ski area, take Forest Service Road 3512 to Cloud Cap campground . At this old Civilian Conservation Corps camp (and present-day small campground), walk left as you face the mountain and soon you’ll pass an old wooden amphitheater just beyond the campground. Continue through alpine meadows and upward into the exposed rocky slopes and ridges, where you’ll find an old weathered rock and wood shelter. On a clear day you can see the distant brown stretch of eastern Oregon; glacier-studded Mounts Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams to the north in Washington; and the pastoral Hood River Valley below.

Another thigh-burner is a dash to the top of Multnomah Falls in the western Columbia Gorge. As you’re driving west on I-84, get off at the clearly marked Multnomah Falls exit. Park and follow the signs behind Multnomah Falls Lodge to the trail. The paved path switchbacks up 600 feet in 1.2 miles and tops out just above the lip of the waterfall. Catch your breath on the circular deck just above where Multnomah creek plunges off the basalt cliff. Wear shoes with good traction; the asphalt can be slick even on dry days from seeps in the hillside.

When You Go
For a map of this trip, go to Mt. Hood Scenic Byway. The Hood River County Fruit Loop website shows how to get to the farms and their events. Thanks to for letting me download the photo of Mt. Hood above Hood River Valley by Peter Marbach (Digital Media Library © 2008 Multimedia Data Services Corp.).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Mt. Hood Scenic Drive: Part 2, Timberline Lodge

So many vivid memories from my youth belong to Timberline on Mt. Hood. Where do I begin?

A standout was the last day of ski race camp when I was just 15. A group of us racers and coaches climbed to the base of Crater Rock, which juts skyward below the summit like a massive fang, and skied several miles back down the mountain. While I tried to keep up with the mostly stronger skiers, including some former Olympic racers, the cold air tore through my light parka and teared up my eyes beneath my goggles. My teeth and skis chattered as I skidded fast and almost out of control over frozen sun-cupped snow. I was so happy to finally glide to a stop just above the lodge, my thighs and lungs burning. A few decades later, I'm still happy to come back to Timberline.

On this late fall afternoon, it's time to head up to the lodge and check in for the night. Leaving Government Camp, we turn off US 26 onto the Timberline road, which winds six miles up the mountain. As we climb higher, the Douglas fir forest transitions to smaller alpine firs, until we top out at elevation 6,000 feet, timberline at this latitude. A brisk blast of fresh mountain air hits us as we park in front of the lodge and hop out.

I’m in love all over again as we haul our bags into this vintage 1930s-era ski lodge. Timberline is a majestic testament to the artisans and craftsmen who built it as a Worker’s Progress Administration/Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt even came to Timberline to dedicate the lodge in 1938. An enormous circular stone fireplace anchors the central great room, with two wings on either side. Massive timber beams indicate Timberline was built when old growth Douglas fir was plentiful in the Pacific Northwest.

High-paned windows reveal a close up view of the mountain summit looming above. The jagged and imposing rock formations near Mt. Hood’s crown could be the Hall of the Mountain Kings of Norwegian folkore.

Timberline is a bit of an aging movie star itself. Although the lodge isn’t haunted, the outside was featured in the 1980 classic horror movie The Shining, based on a Stephen King novel. As a kid staying at Timberline for ski race camp, I shared the lodge with a Hollywood film crew for a pretty bad and mostly forgotten remake of The Lost Horizon.

“Hey, I’m smallest so I get the smallest bed,” says my niece as I head for the twin in the cute little nook in our room. So my sister and I share the double. With handmade bedspreads, rough-hewn wooden bed frames, and wood-paneled walls, the décor is straight from the 1930s, warm and inviting. We all sleep well.

"Mom, I'm hungry for a real breakfast," says my niece when we wake up to another brilliant fall day. We join other hikers and tourists in the lodge’s rustically elegant main dining room and splurge on the full buffet brunch. Eggs, waffles, muffins, sausage, fruit, pancakes, potatoes, oatmeal, granola, yogurt—it’s all there and all tasty. We don’t need lunch today.

After breakfast we hike up the mountain on the trails above the lodge. In fact, the Pacific Crest Trail skirts behind Timberline along the Timberline Trail that circumnavigates Mt. Hood. When I was 17 I backpacked the 41 miles around the mountain on the trail, starting and ending at Timberline. My badge of honor was a huge blister covering the whole arch of my right foot.

“Snow!” cries my niece as she takes off toward a remnant patch of crusty old snow in a big gully slicing down the slope. An hour later I’m racing her across the heated pool that was a later addition to the lodge. Then it's time to pack up and continue our journey. Next Post: Part 3, Northeast to Hood River.

When You Go
Timberline’s rates are comparable to a nice Portland hotel. We paid $155 for our room—a good deal considering it’s a National Historic Landmark full of beautiful art and craftwork. To view a map of this trip, click on Mt. Hood National Scenic Byway .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mt. Hood Scenic Drive: Part 1, Heading East

Lots of adolescent girls have a passion for horses, but my passion was volcanoes—the glacier-covered, dramatic Cascade volcanoes. My main squeeze was Mt. Hood (or Wy’east as the natives called it), just an hour’s drive east from my childhood home near Portland. I climbed up and skied down its slopes, backpacked around it, slept in its alpine meadows, and floated down rivers sourced from its glaciers. One of my favorite ways to reconnect with “my mountain” is the Mt. Hood Scenic Drive that loops around the mountain.

My sister, niece, and I do the loop on a late September weekend, with an overnight at historic Timberline Lodge high up the mountain. During the fall you pass blazing crimson vine maples up near the mountain, and farm stands full of fresh apples and pears above Hood River. If you go before the ski season kicks into full gear (usually mid to late November), you’ll find fewer crowds. (As of October 12, Timberline already got some new snow, with limited skiing on the Palmer Lift.)

East of Sandy on US 26, we lose the suburban strip malls and developments and drive along mostly tree-lined roadway past the villages of Brightwood, Wemme, Rhododendron, and Zig Zag and into Mt. Hood National Forest. Just past Zig Zag, the road starts climbing towards Government Camp. Soon Hood comes into full view, surprising in its craggy closeness.

My sister is on a mission today. She wants a maple bar at Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp, the ski-focused community of cabins and condos at 3,500 feet on Hood’s south flank. Huckleberry Inn has been here for decades and retains a classic Americana café vibe. Their motto is "A cup of coffee and a slice of that world famous huckleberry pie has drawn visitors up the mountain for years." We grab stools at the counter and order a maple bar and huckleberry shake to share. (This is a definitely a nostalgic, not a nutritious snack.) The maple bar is HUGE (we can’t finish it) but soft and wonderful, without the typical greasy fried dough aftertaste. We spoil our dinner. Next post: Part 2, Topping out at Timberline.

When You Go
To view a map of this trip, click on Mt. Hood National Scenic Byway . I usually start by heading east on U.S. Route 26 in Gresham, turning northeast on Route 35 around the east side of Hood and heading down through the Hood River valley, then returning west toward Portland on I-84 through the Columbia Gorge (a little over 150 miles total). The beginning of this route has variations, and the official Mt. Hood National Scenic Byway starts in Troutdale and joins US 26 in Sandy. You can do this in a day from the Portland area or make it a leisurely overnight. Or two overnights if you want to stay up at the mountain, then stay another night in the Hood River area. Hey, you could even make this a several day trip with all the hiking and sightseeing along the way.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Whidbey Island Winery: Zen and the Art of Grape Harvesting

Autumn has blown in sunny rainy windy cloudy crazy here in the Pacific Northwest as usual. Orchards and vineyards are in full-on harvesting mode, and for some farms that means extra help is needed for short bursts. With many wineries in our region, opportunities to get in on the action are abundant.

I decide to connect with the spirit of my farming ancestors and sign up for this weekend's grape harvest at Whidbey Island Winery near Langley. We spend a morning picking grapes—then we get fed a catered lunch with all the wine we care to drink. I'm good with that. In fact, I'm great with that. I learned a few lessons along the way though.

Lesson #1: Check the ferry schedule—carefully. Duh. This should be a no brainer, right? I live so close to Puget Sound that I can often smell the salty sea air. I ride ferries a lot. Julie and Mary Ann arrive at my house at 6:45 (a 6:00 a.m. alarm is especially brutal on a Sunday morning). We pull into the Mukilteo ferry terminal for the 7:30 ferry. We’re first in line. For good reason. There is no 7:30 ferry on Sunday. We wait 40 minutes for the 8:00 ferry.

Elizabeth Osenbach, who owns the winery with her husband Greg, says of the turnout today, “It’s incredible. We couldn’t do this without the volunteers because we’re a small operation.” Last year I couldn’t get anyone to join me. This year five friends jump at my invite.

Elizabeth instructs our motley band of 20 volunteers to gather ‘round just outside their main building. “Welcome and thanks for coming!” Today we're picking Madeline Sylvaner, the primary grape in their fruity, fragrant Island White blend. We follow Elizabeth down to the lush green rows of grapes and get a quick lesson in harvesting. “A few moldy grapes are okay, but not if it’s over half the bunch.”

Lesson #2: If it rains the night before, bring your rain gear. Double duh. Rain pants and jackets are like a second skin to an outdoorsy Mossback between September and June. And grape leaves full of raindrops shed lots of moisture when you’re rooting around searching for grape clusters. My jeans get soaked.

Three hours pass quickly, and soon we’re hosing down the big plastic buckets and scraping mud off our shoes. Then we mill around patiently while Beth the caterer sets up the wonderful feast on the lawn. The lavish spread includes salads, fruit and cheese (it’s a winery after all!), black bean and chicken burrito fixin’s, and sweet Marion berry pie and brownies. The food is divine. Huge kudos to Beth ! An early fall windstorm knocked out power on Whidbey the day before, and she had to get up before dawn to prepare everything before our noon lunch. And of course the wine with lunch is fabulous

Lesson #3: Just pick grapes. (Okay, this is where the Zen comes in.) When you’re picking grapes, don’t fret about things like getting wet or losing a half an hour of sleep. Just pick. Breathe in the aroma of sweet ripe grapes and rich brown earth beneath your feet. Listen to the toad ribbets echoing from the forest behind the vineyard.
Enjoy the weight of a fat cluster of grapes dropping into your hand as they release from the vine with a thonk of your clippers. And know you’ll enjoy the fruits of previous year’s labors very soon with lunch. Salud!

When You Go
The bigger wineries mostly use paid labor for harvests, but smaller wineries often rely on volunteers. Check out the growers on the Washington State Wine Commission or Oregon websites.