Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mission Ridge: Skiing the Dry Side

As I’m slicing smooth turns through sweet corn snow on this brilliant sunny day, I ask myself one question: Why haven’t I skied at Mission Ridge in over a decade?

I can think of answers, but no good reasons. Because today I’m having an absolutely AWESOME time skiing this gem of a ski and snowboard resort in central Washington.

With our dry El Nino winter and warmest January on record, I figured conditions would be icy and the snow coverage marginal. Instead, I can’t stop smiling—on the groomed runs the snow is firm and fast but forgiving. As of the day I ski there, the temperature hasn’t reached above 32 degrees since around Christmas. And of course this far east of the Cascade crest, the climate is more arid anyway. Less moisture = drier snow. Pretty simple equation, huh?

Although I drove alone the 12 miles from Wenatchee, by my second run I’ve been invited to go out hiking on Windy Ridge. But Mission is like that—if you don’t come with friends, you’ll find some soon enough. My guide today is Roger, a French ex-pat who lives in Wenatchee, and his buddy Brent. They’re both funny, friendly, and good skiers.

“Once you hike up here and ski down, you’ll want to buy a season’s pass,” says Roger. Being from “the Coast” doesn’t deter lots of people from doing so. Over half of the people I meet on lift rides are from the Puget Sound region.

At an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, I get a good cardio workout hiking up the ridge. We stop a minute to catch our breath.

Then Brent drops first off the ridge, making a series of tight turns through the sugary snow. My run isn’t quite so pretty, but it’ll do.

“Where next, Roger?” says Brent, ready for more out of bounds exploring. For our next run off the top of the quad, we head the other direction, skirting along the ridge above the Bomber Cliffs before heading down. Roger points out some holes in the snow. “Those are hot spots.”

After a short but steep run down, Roger and I are ready for some cruiser runs. Mission has lots of those.

Every time I get off the chairlift at the top, I have to take in the panoramic views. Today clouds obscure Mt. Rainer and Mt. Adams to the south, but the snowy Cascades stretch north and west like a rumpled quilt of blue and white.

My tired legs unfortunately don’t want to ski as long as I do. I say my goodbyes to Roger and Brent and savor my last run back down the mountain. I really don’t want to stop, but friends beckon.

But I still can’t stop smiling as I’m driving back down to Wenatchee. It’s fantastic days like this that make me remember how much I love to ski, how much I love the mountains, and how fortunate I am to live here in the Pacific Northwest.

When You Go
Mission Ridge is just 12 miles south of Wenatchee in northish-central Washington. If you’re coming from the west side of the Cascades, I recommend driving over to the Wenatchee Valley the night before. I prefer driving I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass from Seattle, then north over Blewett Pass (Highway 97) to State Route 2 and on into Wenatchee. Lift tickets are only $50/day for over 2,250 vertical. And special thanks to Roger and Brent for a fun few hours skiing!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park: Running, Sunning, and Surfing

So much sunshine in February—it’s a little disconcerting for us Mossbacks! We’re used to hunkering down and quaffing generous infusions of caffeine to get through dreary, gray late winter. But with a string of consecutive (!), unusually mild, spring-like days, we’re like hermit crabs crawling out from under our shells, seized with the compulsion to get outside in the sun.

Like moths to a flame, many Seattleites are drawn to our local beaches on bright, blue sky days. I live pretty close to Golden Gardens Park on the western edge of the city, so today I head down to get some exercise and bask in the view of the Olympics across Puget Sound.

For a good quad and glute workout, the stairway trail delivers. Alpine Ascents International even suggests climbing this trail to train for mountain climbing. I start at the tunnel under the railroad tracks across from the parking lot at the southern side of the park.

With a funky combination of old, stone-paved stairs, sidewalk, dirt path, and concrete stairs, the trail ascends 325 feet.

About a third of the way up (before it gets steep), I pass the leash-free dog park. It reminds me of a kindergarten playground with all the dogs big and small checking each other out.

My knees start whining as I top out at the end of 85th Avenue Northwest in the Sunset Hill neighborhood in Ballard. Organic coffeehouse Café Fiore beckons me to stop and grab a quick cup of tea. (I always have time for tea.)

It’s an interesting mix of humanity and canines going up and down these stairs. A few lean runners with zero percent body fat pass me. (I'm dawdling with the camera.)

And regular folks with their dogs.

After my workout, I stroll out to the beach. At first I wonder what the heck all these families with kids are doing out here on a weekday afternoon, then I remember it’s winter break for Seattle schools.

Down here by the water’s edge, a persistent wind whips hair across my face. Not good for keeping my hair in place, but great for the kite flyers and surfers and sailors. With the bracing sea breeze and endorphin buzz from climbing up and down the stairway trail, I head home refreshed. Check out my clip of a kite surfer with the Olympics as the backdrop. (Sorry for the jiggly camera motion at the end!)

When You Go

Here’s a map to Golden Gardens. Parking can be iffy on nice spring and summer afternoons and evenings, but try parking in the lot just south of the park entrance instead of passing through the park gate.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Escape from the Northwest Winter: Hiking Kilauea Iki

Due to the 2018 Kilauea eruption, the part of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park where the Kilauea Iki Trail is accessible is indefinitely closed. However, Volcano Garden Arts and Cafe Ono below Volcano Village is still open for business, and it's worth a visit!

How many places on Earth can you walk across a smoking volcano crater and be home in time for dinner? Not many. In the Pacific Northwest, the closest I’ve come to an active volcano is hiking 4 hours up steep snowfields and peering down 1,500 feet into the gaping, open maw of Mt. Saint Helens from the crater rim. In Hawai’i, we drive and park less than 20 yards from the rim of Kilauea Iki crater in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park for an easy 4-mile hike down into the crater and back. And no snowfields here—although misty and cool today, it’s still the tropics.

We start out walking down a fern-fringed path through a profusion of tropical flora and fauna. Our soundtrack: the sweet, vibrant songs of many Hawaiian birds echoing through the rainforest.

Our sword ferns get pretty big in the Northwest, but nothing like the megaflora here in Hawaii.

After descending 400 feet and switchbacking down the trail for 20 minutes, we emerge from the forest to the edge of the "frozen" lava lake. In 1959 this was a roiling lake of incendiary liquid lava. A mist hovering in the crater heightens the dramatic transition from lush rainforest to desolate landscape.

Rock cairns mark the trail through the crater. Some of them look like carefully planned sculptures. Art is everywhere if you pay attention.

Out of this still steaming crater, ferns and other plants are taking seed and bursting up, bringing life back to this barren landscape.

About halfway across the crater floor, the relatively smooth surface gets more uneven and cracked and it becomes harder to follow the trail. Thank goodness for the cairns.

I pass a rise to my left that appears to be the throat of the ongoing crater activity. I'm not really nervous, but I'm a little anxious to pass by quickly since this vent is actively huffing and puffing in audible whooshes.

Looking around, I see steam escaping from numerous vents throughtout the crater. Signs tell us to stay on the trail to avoid potential dangers. Not that far beneath this hardened surface, molten magma still simmers.

As I near the other side of the crater, a beautiful ohi'a lehua plant brightens the gray surroundings. According to Hawaiian legend, this plant is the joining of two lovers in spite of the jealous goddess Pele. Ohi'a, the man, is the leaves and stems of the plant, and the vivid scarlet-orange flower is Lehua, the woman.

Finally we start climbing steep steps and switchbacks out of the crater and back into the lush forest. I'm glad to be back where birds sing and plants flourish.

And what's a hike without a little shopping on the way home, right? :)
After hiking, we stop at Volcano Garden Arts in the village of Volcano, less than 2 miles from Kilauea crater. Owner and artist Ira Ono has transformed this World Heritage site and historic home set in the cloud forest to an enchanting art gallery/garden center/guest cottage/cafe.

Note the print of the ohi'a lehua plant on display, next to one of Ira's ceramic masks. I almost took that one home.

On our way out, we stroll through the gardens. With Ira's artistic eye and strong sense of place, he's created a magical, little bit mysterious landscape.

There's nothing mysterious, though, about Ira's cute and playful goat Earnest, who keeps the lawn in order. And rubs noses with Ira.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Escape from the Northwest: Mauna Kea Sunset

This is my second “postcard” from my winter trip to the Big Island of Hawai’i.

With the wind chill hovering around freezing, I’m bundled up in five layers of clothing I packed for this tropical getaway. I’m still cold.

We’ve driven through a stark volcanic landscape up to 9,300 feet on Mauna Kea to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy and hope to hitch a ride to the summit for the sunset. The road up to the 13,796-feet-high peak is too steep and rough for our wimpy rental sedan. No luck tonight, though, as all the tour vans are full up.

So instead we hike up to a rise at about 9,500 feet, along with several others, and watch the still awesome sunset against the backdrop of Hualalai, one of the Big Island’s five volcanoes.

At first the clouds above and below us on the horizon start to turn orange and gold.

Then the drama heightens as the sun slips toward the horizon.

Even though my hands are really cold, I can’t resist snapping multiple photos as the clouds take on a fiery hue.

Over to our left, Mauna Loa bears a layer of clouds reflected pink from the sunset.

And the vivid display continues until the sun falls lower and the show winds down.

In this relatively remote location without light pollution from any major metropolitan areas, Mauna Kea is home to several of the most powerful observatory telescopes in the world. After the sunset, multiple telescopes are set up at the Onizuka Center for some stargazing. But, alas, tonight a thick layer of clouds above obscure the heavens.

It's still a worthwhile adventure.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Northwest Winter: Escape to the Big Island

Yes, this is a blog about the Pacific Northwest, but a lot of us here do the same thing for a week or two each winter:


Often for somewhere warmer and, perhaps, tropical. My last tropical vacation was to Belize (which you can read about here), but now I’m chillin’ on the Big Island of Hawai’i. So consider this the first of a few blog postcard equivalents. Short on words and picture-centric.

We’re staying on the wet side of the island, a few miles south of Pahoa. It’s very damp and lush here, unlike home right now.

Since I’m a farmer’s market junkie, on Saturday morning we head to the famous Hilo Farmer’s Market to see the real local food and culture. It doesn’t disappoint. Everyone seems to be happy and smiling and relaxed here. With beautiful produce and soft, warm air, no wonder!

We don’t grow these in the Northwest!

Then we stop at a local glass jewelry maker’s stall and enjoy chatting with Jenny Kempe-Kupka and her husband Alex. And of course buy a few pieces of their beautiful work (notice Jenny's pendant).

Then it’s on to lunch at Café Pesto in funky old downtown Hilo near the market. We just stopped here because it was close to the market and we could sit down. But my lunch is fantastic! I chow down succulent, flaky fresh ono topped with crab and a plum hollandaise sauce, served with a salad of lightly steamed fresh fern shoots and sesame jasmine rice. Everything is fresh and local and perfect.

After lunch we head north of Hilo up the Hamakua coast, where it’s a bit sunnier and drier. We cut off onto a 4-mile scenic drive that follows the route of the old highway and take a quick walk down to Onomea Bay.

About a mile farther up the road we stop for mango smoothies. My smoothie is so thick and tropical sweet that I get a nasty headache from slurping it down too quickly. But life is good as we relax and sip at a covered table next to the Smoothie Shack and take in the expansive ocean view.

Before dark we dash to spectacular but very accessible Akaka Falls along a short paved trail through profusely green and luxuriant native vegetation. It really reminds me of our many plummeting waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Heading back down from the falls, we pass through the sleepy but picturesque old plantation town of Honomu, where some locals sit in lawn chairs in their front yard and watch the tourists.

"Where are you from?" says Woodshop Gallery and Café co-owner Peter McLaren, formerly of Yorkshire. When we say Seattle, he sighs “Ah, beautiful place. Been there many times. Lots of people stopping by today from Seattle.” We get around. Peter chats away for a good 20 minutes, dropping lots of insider’s tips on what to see and do. I'm learning to forget my agenda and listen patiently to what the locals here have to say. My mantra for the rest of the trip:


Dinner tonight at Miyo’s Japanese restaurant in Hilo is just as good as lunch. I’m realizing that everything tastes so wonderful because most of it is all island grown and produced (or fished). I know I’m going to eat very healthfully and well on this trip.