Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hiking Multnomah Falls Offseason: Ice, Wind, and Magical Mist

If you're short on time but want a good thigh-burning workout with maximum scenic payback, think about dashing up the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland to Multnomah Falls. True, this set of waterfalls is heavily visited and you'll rarely find solitude on the trail up and down, but stillit's spectacular!

However, if you make this trek in the fall and winter when the East Wind is blowing hard and cold through the Gorge, be careful of ice coating the trail near the base of the upper fall.  It's very slick.

On just such a day recently, I drive east up Interstate 84 along the Columbia River to Multnomah Falls. Originally I wanted to hike Angel's Rest, but with a late start there isn't enough time and daylight left in the day. 

Even on a chilly November weekday afternoon, there are tourists/sightseers taking photos and walking the trails around the falls.  I guess that includes me, too.

Today I bypass the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, where you can get a meal or cup of hot cocoa and enjoy the museum on the bottom level. My goal is exercise and the bracing thrill of the falls.

To reach the viewing platform above the upper fall, it's about 1.2 miles of paved trail up a little over 600 feet (for context, that's comparable to the height of Seattle's Space Needle). After the easy stroll up a couple switchbacks to the Benson Bridge above the lower fall, it's a dozen relentless switchbacks up to the top.

I start by meandering up the path to the bridge, stopping along the way for  photos as water from the falls roils upward in a misty spray.

Lower Multnomah Fall, Benson Bridge

Base of the upper fall

As soon as I pass the bridge and start up, things get wintery quickly. Tubular chunks of ice lie on the trail beneath some of the branches, and the railing is coated in ice. My camera lense gets muddy when I hug the steep slope along the trail to avoid slipping on the icy asphalt.

After I hit the second switchback, the trail is so slick that I decide to abort...until two guys come down and say the trail dries out just a few feet beyond.

I'm so glad I continue. Indeed the trail dries out and angles away from the falls towards the river.  A few pass me on the way down, but I have the trail to myself for most of the way up, with occasional marvelous views of the white-capped river below.

Lest you lose count of the switchbacks, there are signs at every turn indicating your progress ( 7 out of 11, 8 out of 11...). I top out at the ridge above the falls and then drop down a couple more switchbacks to the viewing platform perched just above the lip of the waterfall, where it plunges 500 feet.

It's a long way down!

For more of a workout, I walk up and behind the falls along Multnomah Creek on the Larch Mountain Trail for about a half-mile. Up here the creek runs through moss-covered rocks and forest bracketed by ancient Columbia River basalt walls. As a teenager I used to explore up here (and many other Gorge trails), a Mossback deep in my bones.

On the way down I stop and savor the views in the waning afternoon light. And tread extra carefully when I hit the last two switchbacks before the bridge.

Any time of year, but especially during the chilly season, a hike at Multnomah Falls, and perhaps looping over to Wahkeena Falls, is exhilarating. I'm always drawn to the Gorge and its fabulous waterfalls whenever I return to Oregon.  How about you?

Thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons. I'd love to hear your comments below about this hike or others in the Gorge.

Happy trails!

When You Go
On a warm spring/summer/fall weekend, Multnomah Falls is best avoided except very early in the day (think crowds). In the winter, sometimes the trail to the top is closed due to icy conditions, so check the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area website before heading there. You'll pass through several microclimates as you weave near the falls and then away towards the river, so come prepared for changing conditions.

From Portland take I-84 eastbound for approximately 30 miles. Follow signs and take exit 31 (an unusual left-side exit ramp) to a parking area. Follow the path under the highway to reach the falls viewing area. For a more scenic trip, take I-84 eastbound to the Troutdale exit. Follow signs for the Scenic Loop drive, then follow the loop up to Corbett and down along the old Columbia River Highway (a National Historic Landmark) to Crown Point and ultimately the Multnomah Falls parking area.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November Sunshine

November is generally our stormiest month here in the Pacific Northwest, with epic windstorms that have brought down trees and even a couple floating bridges in years past.  But right now we're blessed with a stretch of brilliant blue skies and crisp chilly days extending into next week.

A couple days ago some transient orcas swung into Puget Sound near Seattle and treated many here to a fantastic show of hunting off Bainbridge Island (although some of seals met their demise in the process). Others were making their first turns of the new ski season up at Crystal Mountain. 

We're blessed here in the Northwest with so many great things to do and see in our natural and urban worlds.

I'm on the road to Oregon and will post more everyday adventures soon.  I hope you, too, get out and enjoy what's looking to be a glorious Northwest weekend over the whole region.

Happy trails!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Beyond the Northwest: Himalayan Dreams

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step - Lao Tzu
Occasionally I stray outside the Pacific Northwest for adventures.  Today's post is dedicated to the late Mary Gales, who helped me immeasurably on this and many other journeys. I hope you read through, enjoy, and share.

I was leaving in less than 3 weeks for my lifelong dream trip to trek in the Himalayas, and my right calf was so irritated that I couldn’t even walk uphill to my San Francisco sublet.  Based on the trip leader’s guidelines, I should have been wrapping up at least 6 months of hard training by now. 
This was not good.

From the first time I read about the Himalayas in National Geographic as a girl, a passion to see the world’s highest peaks grabbed hold and never let go.  In my 20s, I heard about friends’ trips trekking in Nepal and began thinking about my own adventure there. 
But the onset of an autoimmune condition in my early 30s left me limping with debilitating Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis, sedentary and depressed.  
After slowly regaining strength and stamina over several years with the help of my physical therapist Mary, I made plans to celebrate a milestone birthday:  3 weeks in Bhutan, with a rigorous trek.

I planned to spend all fall and winter hiking in the foothills and skiing in the Cascade Mountains as training for the spring trek. But crazy deadlines kept me working long hours at a desk job, with numerous Seattle-San Francisco trips.  
Didn't happen that winter!
And then my Achilles tendinitis flared again, seizing up my right calf muscles as well.
After much agonizing, I called the trip leader a month before the trip and cancelled...but I just couldn't give up that easily. The next day I called back and rejoined—I’d chill in town while the rest of group was trekking.  It wouldn’t be the dream trip, but at least I’d be in the Himalayas.

Ten days before departure, I finished the last deadline and returned to Seattle. At Mary’s urging, I scheduled almost daily physical therapy, massage, and acupuncture treatments. 
“You need to get out and walk," said Mary. “Just go walk around Green Lake.”  So I did.

Green Lake, a flat 3-mile loop in Seattle, near sea level—is not where people go to train for hiking in the Himalayas.  But it felt good to walk outside.
Mary told me to pack my hiking gear and sleeping bag, just in case.  So I did. 

When I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac in Bhutan, I shed tears of joy. After years of anticipation, there were the Himalayas! Sweet fresh mountain air filled my lungs, and the sunshine made me squint. Green forest-covered hills rose up close beyond the runway, bracketing the small airport.
For the warm-up hike the next day, our destination was a small 400-year-old Buddhist temple perched on a cliff. I tagged along, figuring I could handle a shorter hike.  Inside monks were chanting in the wood-beamed, candlelit room, where sweet incense smoke wafted upward in delicate tendrils.  I felt transported back to an earlier and simpler time, so blessed to be there.

Then the magic started to happen. 

After a couple days in Bhutan, the tendinitis stopped bothering me and my calf relaxed. I realized clearly:  There’s no way I’d travel halfway around the world to the Himalayas and not go trekking.  I had to try. And whatever happened, I’d deal with it.
With the group’s encouragement, I joined the trek.  The first day was a fairly level route alongside a river up a forested valley, past villages, occasional clumps of fluttering prayer flags, primitive farms, and rhododendron groves.  I arrived at our campsite feeling good after 9 miles of trekking.

By the third day, I hit my stride. I wasn’t lagging far behind the strongest of the group along the rugged mountain trail.
For 3 days at base camp, heavy dark clouds hovered low in the sky, obscuring Jhomolari just above.  This 24,000-foot+ mountain near the Tibetan border is sacred to the Bhutanese, who don’t allow climbers on her summit.  As I scrambled on hikes above camp, I begged her to show herself.  I’d traveled so far, in many ways, to gasp at the splendor of a Himalayan peak up close.

Jhomolari obliged on our last morning as we rose early to pack and leave.  While I shivered in fleece and Gore-tex in the shadow of lesser peaks rimming our camp, she shimmered in snow and ice, ribbed with massive rock walls and contorted, crevassed glaciers tumbling down her impressive shoulders. 

She was stunning.

As we trekked back the next 3 days, I felt fantastic and savored how wonderful it feels to hike all day in the mountains: like my best and natural self, strong and unstoppable.

On the last day of the trip, I easily hiked 3,000 feet up and down a steep trail to Bhutan’s most famous destination, Taktsang Monastery (commonly known as Tiger’s Nest) on the edge of a sheer rock cliff. As I stood quietly on a terrace at the monastery and gazed at the narrow valley below and the forest-covered mountains beyond, I felt a sense of well-being that I hadn’t experienced for years.

Back home, the tendinitis started bothering me again while hiking the Cascades. Not bad. But I figured I shouldn’t push my miracles for the year.
I can’t explain what happened in Bhutan and why I was so free of the foot problems that have plagued me for years.  Was it sheer willpower?  The oxygen levels in my blood from the high altitude? Or, simply, a magical blessing?

No one can answer for certain, although I’ve asked physicians and physical therapists.
What I do know is this:  With determination, and perhaps a mysterious something extra, longheld dreams can come true.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Down on the Farm: Willamette Valley Walnut Harvest

Sowing and reaping the soil for food, living hard by the seasons: Several generations back, probably most of our ancestors were agrarian. My great uncle had an orchard in Yakima, Washington, where I remember sampling the sweetest, freshest apples ever. How about you?

Maybe that's why I get excited about helping small farmers harvest, like the lavender, wine grapes, and walnuts I've cut and gathered this year. 
It doesn't hurt that there's usually good food involved in exchange for a day here and there helping out, like my recent weekend in pastoral Willamette Valley between Salem and Silverton, Oregon.

When I get invited to spend a weekend on Mary Lou and Benjamin's family farm to harvest walnuts, I say heck yes! Despite the late October damp chill and the roosters crowing at zero dark thirty each morning, I sleep surprisingly well inside my cozy tent pitched behind the old barn. (Well...the walnuts pelting the barn in little explosions when they dropped from the overhanging tree did scare me a bit at first.)

It didn't start raining until the morning I packed up and left.
Our mission is to harvest walnuts dropped on the ground beneath the trees that Benjamin's father planted over 60 years ago.  This used to be part of a much larger farm dating back a couple generations, as are most of the many farms in this part of the central Willamette Valley. Today the family works 2 of the 40 acres, while the rest are leased to a tenant farmer for seed production.

Come Saturday morning,  Mary Lou has been up early fixing breakfast for the crew of friends here to help harvest. Like I said, we'll eat well this weekend.

After stoking up on biscuits, bacon, and coffee, it's time to head out back and search for walnuts. I follow Benjamin out to the edge of the orchard, where he points out some walnuts on the ground beneath a tree.

"This tree has lots of nuts.  If the outer cover comes off easily, that's good. But if it sticks, don't bother."  I didn't know that walnuts grow sheathed in an outer pouch that looks sort of like a green Italian prune on the tree.

On the ground where we gather the nuts, the outer layer is slimy in this damp misty weather.  I pick them up with my surgical-glove covered hands and pull at the covering.  Nuts that pop out easily go into the bucket and later into big canvas bags in the back of Benjamin's pickup.

This manual labor is quiet and methodical.  It gives me time to just be with the trees, the fallen leaves, the mist, and the land.

Benjamin has been harvesting nuts from these trees since he was a boy.
Across the dirt field another small farm.
Some trees aren't as productive, and the search for nuts in the layer of fallen leaves feels like a challenging and sparse East Egg hunt. Sometimes we're bending over, sometimes raking, and sometimes just down on our knees on the ground, scouring the leaves and uncut grass for walnut gold.

Walnut yoga?

Soon enough it's lunch time, and we relax and enjoy another wonderful meal Mary Lou has prepared.  And of course good wine; this is the Willamette Valley, after all, where wineries surround us. Our crew ranges from retirees like Mary Lou and Marilyn to my nephew Alex who lives nearby in Salem.

After lunch we put in several more hours, and I do battle with a particularly infertile tree, raking and combing through leaves carefully.  With each walnut I find, it feels like I've won a mini-lottery.  This tree doesn't yield much, but the nuts are particularly lovely.

Our primary reward for today's toil (but it was truly enjoyable toil!) is a wonderful dinner at the Silver Grille Cafe in nearby Silverton, where Chef Jeff Nizlek features savory Willamette Valley cuisine.  Three thumbs up to this charming and intimate cafĂ©, where the meals feature locally sourced meats, wine, mushrooms, and produce.  (Mary Lou and Benjamin's walnuts from a harvest a few weeks ago are in my green salad.)

When I was a kid Silverton was not a foodie destination, but today it's part of the whole marvelous Willamette Valley wine-cuisine scene. (Of course no one had ever heard of a "foodie" when I was growing up, and a food culture hardly existed here in the Northwest.)

Fresh pasta, incredible sauce.

Too early Sunday morning  it's time to rise (not as early as the roosters though) and head north for the 4-hour drive back to Seattle.  I feel a little wistful leaving the valley and this pastoral landscape, knowing soon I'll be back in the city fighting traffic.

Do you have any harvest stories to share?  Would love to hear your comments below.

Thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons and Like Pacific Northwest Seasons page on FaceBook for more photos and Northwest adventures between blog posts.

When You Go
While my weekend was specific to a private family farm, I say jump at any chance out there to help harvest for a day or two. Small wineries often have an email list sign-up for harvest assistance. The Willamette is a wonderful place for bicycling and exploring farm stands, wineries, and little gems of cafes and such.  Go reconnect with the spirit of your farming ancestors!