Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fresh, Fluffy, and Fast: Early Season Skiing at Crystal Mountain

An El Nino winter is staring us in the face here in the Northwest, with a predicted warmer, drier winter. Combined with global warming, for skiers that means one thing:

Carpe Diem!

With an unusually early start to the ski season, I grab my skis and head to the mountains today. How could I not? It snowed over 2 feet in the last two days at Crystal! As hard as it is to get up and get going before dawn on Sunday morning, I’m a skier deep in my bones. When the snow flies thick and fast, it’s time to move.

Although I started out life as a Mount Hood skier, and still love my mountain, Crystal stole my heart when I was a student at the University of Washington. My friend Linda got me better acquainted with Crystal after nights polka dancing and drinking homemade wine with those crazy Estonians at the Billiken Ski Club Lodge. My years teaching for the Crystal Mountain Ski School cemented my passion. This mountain is a treasure trove of off-piste chutes, gulleys, and groves for tree skiing.

So today I drive up with Andy, Mark, and Lena and meet Rich on the hill. We’re taking it easy today (except Rich) and warming up for the season ahead. A cold wind and driving snow blasts our faces as we take our first run down from Forest Queen. Although we get a mid-morning start, it’s snowing so hard that the cut-up snow is filling in fast. It’s cold, and the snow conditions are fabulous.

With the high winds, the High Campbell chair isn’t open, but Rich has some great runs up on Upper and Lower Bull. I’m happy to simply stay close to the trees and take cruisers down CMAC, Mr. Magoo, and Downhill (site of a World Cup downhill many years ago). And find the fluff on the sides of the runs where I can sneak in some fresh tracks.

So skiers, get on up to the Cascades and enjoy it while you can! If the weather guru Cliff Mass is right, by January it could dry up and we’ll be skiing on icy, scraped-off hard pack.

When You Go
Click here for directions to Crystal from Puget Sound region cities, and here for a conditions update. Since I didn’t get any really good pictures today, click here for some shots of Crystal in all its sun-filled glory.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wolves in Washington: They’re Back! (and you can help them stay)

Have you ever heard a wild wolf howling in the night? This possibility is now real again in Washington for the first time since the 1930s. But my brief wolf story starts just over 15 years ago: With unconfirmed reports of gray wolves in Washington’s central Cascades in the early 1990s, it was time to get real proof. During the summer of 1993 I volunteered to participate in a wolf survey for the U. S. Forest Service’s Cle Elum Ranger District.

Based on sighting reports, a very enthusiastic Forest Service wildlife biologist trained a group of willing hikers/tree huggers (self included) in wolf survey protocols. On six weekends spread over the summer, we camped above a remote, larch-filled canyon on Table Mountain above Ellensburg and took turns howling for wolves at different designated “stations” along the rim.


Yes, wolves do howl back to humans if you can fake a good howl. We didn’t get any responses that summer, but I still remember vividly the excitement of the possibility. I loved those warm summer nights. We hiked through subalpine forests to our howling stations, sometimes with just the full silver moon illuminating our way.

Fast forward 16 years. There are now two confirmed breeding pairs of wolves in Washington—one pack is now in the Okanogan region of north-central Washington (the Lookout pack), and another is in the northeast corner of the state (the Diamond pack). These animals have found their way back to Washington 70 years after being decimated by bounty hunters.

Last night I attended a public hearing at REI’s Seattle flagship store on the recently released Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement. The place was packed! Being Seattle, the crowd was heavily pro-wolf, but sprinkled here and there were a few hunters wearing old baseball caps and a few ranchers in HUGE cowboy hats. Did sparks fly?

Yea, a little bit. But we Northwesterners are generally a well-behaved bunch who prefer to avoid conflict. The hearing was one of several around the state sponsored by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who drafted the plan. Anyone and everyone were invited to take their turn and speak for a few minutes about the plan. I was too shy to take the microphone, but comments ranged from heartwarming fluff to substantive biologist opinions to impassioned and angry cattlemen who think any wolf is one too many. “If you’ve ever seen a baby calf that’s been torn apart by a wolf or coyote, it isn’t a pretty sight,” cried one rancher. “We work hard to raise these cattle. If I see a wolf attacking one, I’m going to do something about it.”

“I’ve seen wolf-kill, and it isn’t pretty,” said a woman later, who grew up on a ranch. “But,” she added “a slaughterhouse isn’t too pretty either.”

What YOU Can Do
The upshot of my rambling is this: Biologists I know tell me the plan’s recommendation of 15 breeding pairs to remove legal protection of wolves is not enough to sustain a healthy population. Most ranchers and hunters want a lower threshold. I'd like to think we can have a healthy wolf population and have it work for hunters and ranchers. If you want to see a healthy wolf population back in Washington, comment online here by January 15, 2010. Be as specific as you can when you comment. Wolves are native to the Northwest. They help restore balance to heal a damaged ecosystem, as evidenced in Yellowstone. Help heal the wolf population with your comments. Thanks for caring!

Special Thanks

The lone wolf photo above was taken by Gary Kramer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wolf pups are from the Lookout pack and that photo was taken from Conservation Northwest's webcam.