Sunday, December 22, 2019

Northwest Holiday Traditions: A Walk in the Woods

On the solstice, the first day of  winter, I was antsy to get outside. After two days of torrential nonstop rain, it was a relief to hit the trails in the woods near my home. Even this Mossback had decided against hiking in the record-breaking deluge.

While the ski season is off to a bumpy start this year with uneven snowpack, we are otherwise always up for a walk in the woods around here. In fact, many celebrate the holidays with a hike or long walk.

With all the those holiday gatherings, cookies, and meals, being active outdoors is especially important. Plus we really need whatever natural daylight we can snatch during the shortest days of the year up here in Upper Left USA (if plants grow better under natural light than artificial light, we must benefit from it too).

So I took to the trail in north Seattle's Carkeek Park, curious to see how things fared under the heavy rains. Surprisingly, I didn't see that much mud or even puddles.

What I did notice is that the ubiquitous sword ferns, western red cedars (thuja plicata), and moss seemed visibly happy for the good, long drink of water after an unseasonably dry November. So maybe I'm anthropomorphizing, but honestly, I felt their vigor.

I've been dismayed at how many cedars have been showing signs of stress the last few months, with more rusty boughs than normal. But when I looked carefully on this walk, I didn't see as much as I thought I had a few weeks ago.

I started walking just an hour after the rains ceased. It felt wonderful to be out in the woods again. A healthy lowland forest in northwest Oregon or Washington is where I feel the most at home. 

As I walked I thought, if my body's not too toxic from pollutants in our environment, I'd like my remains or ashes to nourish a western red cedar in a forest.

In this relatively urban forest, the small streams were coursing full, muddied from stormwater runoff. And small streams flowed where they usually don't most of the year (what biologists call intermittent or ephemeral streams).

Instead of a mucky mess after so much rain, this temperate rainforest I walked through seemed especially alive and refreshed.

After emerging from the woods, I always go down to the beach and dip my fingers in the Salish Sea. I started doing this ritual years ago, and now it seems like my walk isn't complete if I don't. 

My route takes me back into the woods and along Piper's Creek, where just a month ago salmon were swimming upstream to spawn. Surprisingly, I still mostly had the trails to myself except for a few people with dogs anxious to stretch their legs.

I ended up back near my parked car and stopped a moment to revel in the delicate beauty of small streams, cedar boughs, raindrops poised to drop off the bottom of branches, and all the other scents and plant life that create a forest ecosystem.

On Christmas day this year we'll be hiking, farther outside the city in the foothills likely. And if it's like last year, we'll see others out doing the same: families, solo hikers, pairs, hipsters, dogs, and kids. Many will say "Merry Christmas" as they pass by, and Christian or not, I happily respond in kind.

Because it's the spirit of the season.

Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Thanksgiving 2019: Grateful for Framily

While I generally celebrate nature and our environment here at Pacific Northwest Seasons, this year at Thanksgiving I'm feeling especially grateful for my "framily."

Do I need to explain that framily refers to friends who are like family, or, your chosen family? Well there, I just did. :)

Granted, I bonded with many of my good friends because of time we've spent together outdoors skiing, hiking, camping, kayaking, and more. There's nothing quite like outdoors adventures to break down barriers and connect through a shared love of exploring and being active outside. 

From being stranded in a downpour in a tent for several days, to chasing and finding the perfect untracked snow to ski down together, or grinding out the miles on the trail, it all lends itself to a particular lasting camaraderie. 

But then, with some friends I share a pot of tea and just talk. It's a soothing balance to all the running around I do. I have a few regular tea friends (well, sometimes they drink coffee) who I always enjoy sharing a good conversation with across the table.

Or friends with whom I grew up, which in itself creates a deep bond if you cultivate and maintain over the years. As you get on in life, how many of your current friends knew your siblings and parents or shared meals around the table with each other's families?

 And then there are the friends who are no longer alive. I lost a few friends this year, and for their lives and friendship I'm grateful. My friend Denise, in particular, was one of those who relished a long, good, deep conversation. And she really listened, more than pretty much anyone I've ever known.

She was a brilliant, generous, loving, and fun friend. I'm especially grateful to still have a connection with her son and daughter, who have grown into equally smart, funny, and loving young adults. The three of us had dinner together after the memorial, and it was so heartwarming to share stories and know I still have pieces of my dear friend through them.

Denise loved bright, vivid colors

So life is not always fun and in control. But having friends whom you hold close in your heart, just like family, sure can help smooth out the rough spots. Such friends are something to be very grateful for. And for those of you I call friend who aren't pictured here, that doesn't mean I care for you any's mostly about the photos and I didn't have a decent shot of us (or you) to share.

So this Thanksgiving and beyond, I consider my friends (along of course with family) as indispensable to my well-being. Studies show the power of connections throughout life, and especially as we age, to promote well being.

I hope you, too, can count framily among your blessings. Will you have a family or friendsgiving? I'll have a bit of both. Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

Friday, October 18, 2019

On the Trail: What's for Lunch?

What do you usually bring for lunch when you go hiking for the day (or several days)? My hiking buddies find it mildy amusing that I'm seriously interested and enthused about what they bring for noshing. 

I think the current trend is toward more packaged snacks. This seems especially true for long distance hikers, like Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers. But I don't have much of a sample group other than my friends.

I've also wondered if there's a generational shift from middle-aged and older hikers who bring food like sandwiches to Millennial and Gen Y hikers who want the latest and greatest in ultra light food. Or maybe it's more about regional variations?

Back in 2011, I had the fantastic experience of hiking in the Italian Alps.  My gracious and enthusiastic host Mario packed our lunches over two day hikes.

Ciao Mario!

For our first hike up to a mountain hut (Rifugio Barba Ferrero), Mario brought apples, packaged bread sticks, and some tinned meat for lunch. The next day, though, he snagged some local cheese, dried meats, and fresh bread from a deli in the village for an incredible Italian feast al fresco.

I relished tearing off hunks of bread and slathering them with the oozingly ripe cheese and pungent salami or prosciutto.

Wonderful memories.

Meanwhile back here in the Pacific Northwest, my friends Andy and Mark also go for salami and cheese, although not quite as Euro-fresh and rustic.

Dry salami and cheese with mustard on pita.
Often my standby lunch is peanut or almond butter on crackers. Sometimes I buy Justin's squeezable packets of nut butter for the convenience. But to cut down on waste, I usually carry my own in a small container.

Classic peanut butter on pita.
While thru hiking the Washington portion of the PCT this summer, my friend Lisa started with crackers and tubes of peanut butter and jelly. The cheese she brought for the second week didn't work out so well: it melted all over the inside of her pack on a particularly warm day, leaving a greasy, smelly mess.

My friend Julie is an out-of-the-box thinker when it comes to hiking lunches. Usually she grabs whatever is in her fridge (she's a bit of a gourmand), and usually I'm envious of her lunch.

Goat cheese on Italian-style croccantini crackers

Sometimes she has tidy little containers of hummus and crackers, and sometimes it's leftovers, like the argula pizza a few weeks ago.

As for me, I bring healthy salads and fruit or just a bar and fruit (apples are a favorite). Plus lots of dried fruit and nuts.

And a random stranger sitting a few rocks away from me on the shoreline of Mason Lake a few weeks ago was going for a paleo lunch: grass-fed cheeseburger without the bun. She and her hiking mates were good-humored enough to oblige the lady who wanted to take pictures of their lunch. :)

But I gotta love my friend Don, who sticks to his routine meals regardless of whether he's at home or on the trail. Below, his classic ham sandwich and apple.

So grouping lunch preferences by generation or location is surely too simple. I'm sure it's as much about personal preference, taste, and more.

Oh, I haven't mentioned what many consider the most important component of trail food: dessert.  I say there must be good, high-quality chocolate. I'm also becoming partial to the buckwheat fig bars made daily at my local bakeshop, Preserve & Gather, in north Seattle.

And we must not forget the classic American chocolate chip cookie.

 So how about you? Yes, I would seriously love to hear what you favor for trail food in a comment below!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Hiking Mt. Rainier: Glaciers, Meadows, and No Bears

This is the second of two posts about a Labor Day weekend backpack trip in Mt. Rainier National Park. Read the first post here.

Day 2
There's nothing quite like waking up at the edge of an alpine meadow on a mountain as the new day is still gathering. 

After backpacking up above Spray Park on Mt. Rainier, I awaken before sunrise the next morning and crawl out of my tent, camera in hand. Because it's all about the light.

My hiking buddies are still asleep, and the morning quiet is a lovely balm to my city-addled soul. I snap shots as the wispy clouds above turn rosy pink, well before the sun crests the ridge behind our campsite.

By about 8 a.m. we're all up and melting snow for coffee and tea. (The melt stream from the snowfield nearby stopped flowing overnight when the temps dropped.)

Fueled up from breakfast, we head up the rocky slope towards the Flett Glacier for even more expansive views. Not that many years ago, this would have still been snow-covered in late summer.

Echo Rock is the jagged formation to the left.

After an hour+ of scrambling up the sometimes steep incline, we top out at a ridge above the base of the Flett Glacier, where we see a couple hikers making their way down the snowfield above us. We haven't seen anyone else since yesterday afternoon, and we're surprised. So we don't have the mountain to ourselves? :)

Below us, more hikers with skis and boots strapped to their packs are heading up toward the glacier.

Dave, who climbed Rainier from this direction a few decades ago, is shocked at the loss of glacier coverage high on the mountain, compared to when he climbed the route back in the 1980s.

After a snack, we scramble down to the edge of the glacier and relax by the vivid blue melt pool before starting back down to camp. Above us, clouds bunch up, spread out, swirl, and dissipate in a variety of shapes and formations.  At over 7,000 feet high on the mountain, we're literally in the clouds, off and on.

Views north and northeast included Glacier Peak, Mt. Baker, and the Stuart Range

Chilling above the blue pool at the base of Flett Glacier

Observation Rock enshrouded in mist.
The beauty of a layover day is having no set schedule. We scramble leisurely around the rocks, taking in the drama of the stark volcanic landscape above timberline. And although they're not visible in the shot above, a few backcountry skiers were having fun getting late (or really early) season turns on the soft suncupped snow.

As we meander back down the mountain to our camp, numerous other hikers/skiers are just coming up and setting up camps. Up here the rocky "trail" is marked by cairns between snowfields.

Instead of watching the sun set and the stars pop out in the night sky like the night before, a thick fog rolls in, driving us into our tents not long after dinner. A few hours later the wind picks up and blows so hard that it pushes in the walls of my tent during strong gusts.

About 2 a.m. the rain fly starts flapping wildly, and I quickly throw on a parka and dash outside to tighten it up so it won't blow away up the mountain.  But for being outside in the middle of the night, I'm rewarded with a brilliant starry sky, crisscrossed by the Milky Way straight overhead.

Day 3
No sunrise or pink sky shots on our last morning on the mountain. A thick, rain-like mist envelops us while we have breakfast and break camp. Out come rain shells for the first hour of hiking back down to the lower meadows.

As we start passing hikers coming up, everyone tells us about the bears they saw snarfing down low-lying huckleberries near the trail. One guy even shows us some shots on his camera. Sigh, that is the closest we come to seeing any bear.

It's hard to leave the high country meadows and plunge back into the woods below, but nevertheless, the thought of a hot shower when I get home lures me down the mountain.

Good turns, heavy gear

By mid afternoon we're back at Mowich Lake, where the parking lot is much more full on Sunday than when we arrived on Friday morning. I pull a big bag of chips out of the van and share them freely with other hikers in the parking lot who've also just come down the mountain. This is a way to become popular quickly. :)

Many thanks to my friends Andy and Mark for the invite to poach on their backcountry permit obtained months in advance. I've really enjoyed doing more backpacking this past summer than in many years. And Mt. Rainier is an ultimate destination, whether you do the whole 93-mile Wonderland Trail loop, or a quick weekend like we did.

Now I'm already plotting longer trips for next summer...

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 

When You Go 
Yours truly in vintage 1990s Patagonia anorak.

To camp in Mt. Rainier National Park backcountry, you need a permit, which you can read about here. With the explosive growth in our region, and increasing popularity of hiking, be extra careful to avoid trampling fragile alpine vegetation, and always leave no trace that you were there.


Friday, September 13, 2019

Late Season Backpack at Mt. Rainier

 This is the first of two posts about a recent backpacking trip in Mt. Rainier National Park. You can read the second post here.

While the snow can start flying any day now in the high country here in the Pacific Northwest, September is often our best hiking month.

With wildflowers past their peak and cooler nights, mosquitoes and bugs aren't nearly as pesky. There's that particular late summer light that's so lovely. And, perhaps, the crowds have subsided a bit (but not much).

Over Labor Day weekend I joined some friends for a few nights camping and hiking above timberline on Mt. Rainier, the Big Kahuna of Cascade volcanoes and a national park. What a splendid getaway!

My friends Andy and Mark got a backcountry permit for the Spray Park area, where the meadows were covered in a riot of avalanche lilies and other wildflowers not much more than a month earlier.

Not this trip but shot from a late July hike
Day 1
We left Seattle about 5:45 a.m. Friday to drive to Mowich Lake on the northwest side of Rainier. After a stop in Enumclaw en route for fuel, we finally hit the trail about 9:30. 

Near the trailhead, a big open tent was set up as a way station for an organized endurance run on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the mountain. I was tempted to grab a drink, but we walked on past and headed up (actually down) the trail to Spray Park. After dropping almost 100 feet immediately, the first few miles pass through rich, green forest enshrouded in mist.

We hiked just a tad under 2 miles to meet Andy and Mark at Eagle's Roost camp along the trail, where they had camped the night before. Then the four of us continued upward, passing peek-a-boo views of Spray Falls, then finally emerging into the first lower clearings where Rainier comes into view above the subalpine forest.

"Watch for the big bear near the trail" said a descending hiker. With low-lying mountain blueberries ripe, the bears were feasting for the winter ahead.

First view of Rainier
Somehow we managed to not spot the bear everyone else saw, nor the big bull elk. But after emerging more fully out of the forest into the lower meadows, a lunch break was in order. 

Although the trail was never very steep, and we only gained about 1,500 feet in elevation, I was really dragging as we tramped through the gorgeous meadows above timberline. You know how some days you feel like you're running on empty?

I think that several extra pounds from the big plastic bear canister did me in. When we reached a high junction that took us up towards the foot of the Flett Glacier away from the Wonderland Trail, Mark and Dave offloaded some of the weight in my pack. I hate being that person, but I was grateful.

As we continued onward up a ridge above Spray Park toward the snowfield, one of us (not me) got the idea to drop down off the ridge to check out camping at the edge of the meadow below. So down we all went, bushwhacking and scrambling over a jumble of boulders.

But it was worth it because we found an isolated, lovely spot with fresh water from the melting snowfield just above. Of course we were careful to find bare spots and not camp on the fragile meadow. And then we had two beautiful nights of solitude.

Dinner for me was ramen with fresh kale from my garden, while the others just added water to their (expensive) freeze-dried dinners, which seems to be the trend now. 

Not far below us, clouds drifted and slithered around lesser peaks. As the sun slipped below the horizon and the day slowly turned to night, I silently watched the sky above and below as it transitioned.

And then I crawled into my tent, "good" tired, lungs filled with all that mountain fresh air, smartphone turned off. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of a slight breeze rustling the rain fly of my tent.

Check back in a few days for the next post about hiking higher up the mountain, with lots more photos.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 

When You Go 
To camp in Mt. Rainier National Park backcountry, you need a permit, which you can read about here. With the explosive growth in our region, and increasing popularity of hiking, be extra careful to avoid trampling fragile alpine vegetation, and always leave no trace that you were there.