After an unexpected six months off the road (death of George’s mom, a change in motor homes, our move to MN, my sister’s surgery, etc.) we are finally on to a new adventure across the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. It is so thrilling to be back in the wild, but sadly, we find that we are completely out of practice and stumbling around like newbies…. forgot a bunch of supplies at home, don’t have a stable routine for our setup and takedown, and it’s injected a note of crankiness into the first couple of days while we get our groove on again. But when we think of those who are still working and cannot get away for more than two weeks at a time, it’s a good problem to have.
Day one has been a letting-go of our home territory. Now we see only huge fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa hay that stretch out to the horizon. Gradually noticing still-standing spring wheat fields awaiting harvest. This is not typical in Michigan or Minnesota in early September, but is increasingly frequent as we drive across North Dakota and of a size that leaves one breathless. Harvesting this crop requires multiple gigantic combines, cutting and threshing. These are the behemoths you see on TV shows where the biggest (fill-in-the-blank) is featured. See our later post from a visit to a Montana wheat farm for more mind-blowing statistics on western farming.
Night one was spent boondocking in a Walmart parking lot because we were hellbent to get as far into North Dakota as possible for the inaugural sleep. So far, so good…until 2:30am, when a hard knock came on our door, with an overnight workman asking us to move our rig so that they could finish painting lines on the parking lot surface. In the middle of the night. Are you kidding??? Walmart graciously allows travelers (RVs, truckers) to park in their out-lot for free, so we cannot complain…but we sure did swear a bit! Thank goodness we were so dog-tired that we quickly fell asleep again after the move maneuver.
Day two brought us to the very western side of North Dakota, just outside the southern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. FYI North Dakota seems to suddenly morph from the Upper Midwest to the Cowboy West just after crossing the Missouri River at Bismarck. It leaves behind all of the eastern side’s lovely prairie pothole lakes and ponds created by the glaciers, and becomes the arid, rolling, nearly treeless plains one associates with eastern Montana. The home of buffalo and pronghorns. No more marshes or wetlands, no more dairy farms, and even the cattle herds are few and far between. There are, however, still larger vast fields of bearded wheat and both horse and alfalfa hay still awaiting harvest. Indisputably, we’re in the West now.
After arriving at our campground there was enough left of the day for a hike, so we Jeeped over to the National Park to take the circle scenic drive to the trailhead. We’d hoped to get in a nice 5.8-mile trek across the Little Missouri River and up one of the park buttes, but just as we shed our shoes for the river crossing, a light rain and thunder started up. Behind us lurked an ever-darkening sky with lightning bolts in the distance, so we ran for the car. But not before seeing a crew of trail riders out watering their horses in the river – such an iconic western image.
The rest of the drive around the 38-mile circuit traversed clay and sandstone hoodoos, long vistas of the park’s buttes and rounded monadnocks, around scoria slopes and cottonwood groves next to the river. It might have taken Teddy Roosevelt the better part of a year to fall in love with this region, but not us – we love its stark beauty and abundant wildlife already. Quite comparable to Death Valley in terms of being unforgiving and harsh, but so stunning, and so fragile. To think that the Bakken Shale Formation is right outside the park, and fracking has ruined the landscape just over the horizon for decades to come, it’s just a nightmare. This is land so very worth protecting. A bush torn out here takes decades to regrow.
Quite a few wild horses roam throughout the park and adjacent Grasslands Wilderness, as do restored herds of buffalo, elk, pronghorn antelope, whitetails and mule deer. We saw deer, buffalo, horses and prairie dogs today, can’t wait for more tomorrow, when we drive to the northern unit of the park.
The middle (Sunday) of the Labor Day weekend has been predictably crowded, the campground is wall-to-wall people and the park entrance is backed up 7 cars deep, which seems a lot for a park out on the edge of North Dakota.
After driving the 70 miles from the park’s south unit to the less-visited north unit, we picked out two western-side hikes for the day, starting with a rim walk on the south Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point. An embarrassingly short (1.4 miles) distance, but since we’ve been off the road for 6 months, best to start slow.
Met up with a park ranger in the parking lot, very opinionated individual who urged us to take the north Achenbach Trail, which we did next and it did not disappoint. A very steep descent down hard clay slopes tinged with lignite from the coal veins in the hills. Funny how it’s always easier to hike UP than down a strenuous slope. Gorgeous geology to be seen here. The day had heated up to the mid-80’s by 3pm, our signal to get off the trail and cool down.
We drove into the largest town near the park, Watford City, in search of ice cream and a grocery store. Nothing doing on the ice cream front. Seems this town is nearly as overrun by the Bakken shale oil and gas boom as its neighbor to the north, Williston, and apparently oil-rig workers have little use for ice cream. No one drives anything in this town except pickups. And the lone supermarket seems to have an abundance of he-man foods. Quite a bit like the gold rush era, I’m sure, the incoming workforce has taken over the local culture and it’s no longer a farming-dominant community. Wonder what the town will be like when the oil rush is gone.
We woke up early this morning and sneaked off to a morning hike on the trail the storm shooed us away from two days prior: Big Plateau to Mah-de-Hay to Ekblom Springs, 5.5 miles round trip. What a glorious hike!! It featured two fords over the Little Missouri River, multiple gigantic prairie dog towns, sightings of coyote, wild horses on a high ridge, turkeys, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, and bison, always bison, both singly and in herds.
Just to be clear, Elvis sought us out, we did not stalk him. He is a magnificent bull bison in his prime, probably 2,000 pounds of muscle, hair, horns and attitude. We’d come out of the east across a very large prairie dog town, and we were ready to ascend a rocky slope toward the intersection of two of our trail segments. Elvis was right in the middle of the trail, scratching himself on some large rocks that had recently tumbled onto his path.
We figured he’d go further up the path and we’d then be able to continue. But instead he swung around and headed directly toward us, leaving little time or room to beat any kind of retreat. So we ducked behind our own stash of big rocks and waited for the Big Guy to walk past us, which he did soon enough. We heard his huffing and snorting as he walked by, barely 20 feet from our hiding spot. He turned, looked us squarely in the eyes, seemed to ponder whether we were a threat, judged that we weren’t worth his time or effort, and ambled off, swaying his little rump into the distance (thus earning the name Elvis). What a thrill!!
This National Park is everything we’d hoped for in a vast, restored prairie with hundreds of river-eroded canyons displaying the dozens of colors of clay, loam, bentonite and lignite that make it so unique and impressive. Because we had done some prairie restoration on the farm with native grasses like big and little bluestem, side oats, buffalo grass, wild brome and the like, and native flowers like wild bergamot, purple coneflower, blazing star, wild asters, spiderwort, penstemon, milkweed, etc., we appreciated all the species on display in the park. For the grazing and browsing animals, these plants present a lush variety on which to dine. For now, nature seems in balance here and both flora and fauna are flourishing. Good to see.
For a few days now, we’ve been in the wilds of Montana. Tonight the Moho is parked in Salmon Lake State Park, 45 min east of Missoula (which totally rocks, btw). We’re now resting from today’s hike up the ridgeline of Mount Morrell in the Lolo National Forest. It was a relatively short hike by our standards, 2.5 miles, but with 600 feet elevation gain and ending at 8130, it was challenging for us flatlanders who haven’t acclimated to altitude yet. Got a great 360-degree view of all surrounding peaks, canyons, lakes and valleys. Fall flowers (fireweed, yarrow, wild asters, even some confused lupine!). Despite the smoke from distant forest fires, we saw all the way to the Mission Mountains, nearly to Flathead Lake to the north.
Devastation from last year’s fires throughout the Swan-Seeley area is vast. Lightning strikes ignited a three-month fire that burned through 160,000 acres. The conifers will take 20-50 years to recover. Even bushes take 15 years here, because of the area’s limited topsoil and unpredictable rains.
We’d stopped to see the USFS Forest Ranger at the Fire Tower before hiking to the mountain summit, and chatted him up for 20 min or so. Learned a lot about how they watch over the area and manage the burn probabilities. Nice young man. Jeez, I sound just like my folks.
Apparently, the Forest Service sets up a yurt in the winter for people who want to snowmobile up the fire management road, hike to the mountaintop and then ski down. Good deal.
Today being a sore muscles day from yesterday’s hike to the summit, we decided on a horse ride at a guest ranch operating for the past 60 years in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. Our guide, Tommy Tyler from Georgia, was knowledgeable and very personable. He gave us two lovely steeds and a spectacular ride up and down the mountain. George got a gorgeous painted pony, and I got a roan quarter horse as shiny as a copper penny. My horse responded very well to corrections and gave me a thrill by trotting up every hill. George’s horse definitely had a mind of his own, diverging from every path to forge his own way.
It is always a thrill for us to connect with animals, and even though we’d been warned that they probably wouldn’t like the apples we brought along (can you imagine??), both of our mounts as well as the guide’s horse gobbled them up after the ride. I believe if you take your time to let the horse to get to know you, show only love and no fear, treat them well and give them lots of strokes and cooing, they learn to trust you in short order. At least it’s worked for us.
Tonight we’re in Great Falls, getting ready for my two-day driving lesson with Don, the pro truck driver who works for the RV Driving School franchise operating nationwide. Should be interesting, and I hope, effective!!
I have decided that my daily task while on moho adventures is to clean the front windshield. So necessary. We encounter a multitude of winged insects on the drive, and regrettably, some of them stay with us, stuck to the glass. In the fall, carnivorous hornets and bald-faced yellowjackets swarm over their carcasses like starving mobs — it’s quite the challenge to scrub the glass without being stung. But the weirdest observation of all: after several days of being parked in a cloud of feasting wasps, the bug bodies previously stuck to the radiator grille are….gone! The carnivores made off with every single body part. Amazing.
Well boy-oh-boy, did that RV Driver’s training make a huge difference!! George and I both went through the 14 hours of instruction and practice, me as the driver and he as the co-pilot, and we learned so much. Extremely happy to have that under our belts, and we both have great confidence in our improved ability to handle whatever lies down the road. Check that box with a gold star!!
Don, our instructor, also did us a huge favor by introducing us to a fellow farmer up north of Great Falls who farms at least 6500 acres of wheat, chick peas and barley. We drove up to meet him and his family, learning about how North Central Montana was settled by homesteading farmers like his ancestors from eastern states (ND, NE, MN) in the late 1800s, who each got a grubstake of 360 acres. Third generation grain farmer Jay, his son, daughter-in-law and eldest granddaughter had just finished bringing in 160,000 bushels of wheat and were starting to plant the 2019 crop of winter wheat, at a clip of 300 acres per day. FYI that’s mighty fast.
The scale of farming in Montana is so immense, it’s hard for a midwestern farmer to comprehend. In northwest Michigan, a dairy farmer might grow 400 – 600 acres of corn and other grains per year, both as feedstock and to sell on the commodity market. The Montana grain farmer is at least an order of magnitude larger, with combines and grain drills that are like small houses in size and reach 70 – 90 feet across the field at a time. The tires on the combine alone cost $12,000 each, the combine costs $575,000, and Jay and his son own 2 of those, a huge grain drill and several dump trucks, along with innumerable grain bins and sundry other equipment. Whopping capital investments, and as always, farming is a risky business. Not for the faint of heart.
I just want to say that almost no one in Montana drives anything but a pickup. Ford must be so pleased. Even in Missoula. Remarkable.
Today brought us to the MT-ID border for a much-needed soak in hot springs pools, and two nights at Lolo Hot Springs so that we’d have time to take in at least one area hike.
What can you say about a resort that time forgot? This camping area-cabins-hotel resort has likely had ZERO capital investment since 1960, and if you ever wanted to know what Soviet Russia’s public baths were like back then, this is your holiday spot. It’s quite a mental trip back in time, and we’ve never driven through a bumpier, more rutted parking lot and campground than this one, so the value of yearly maintenance to a campground is now highly appreciated by us and our rig. But the baths are sublime! I’ll be filing a guarded review on Yelp and RVParkReviews.com on this one.
Today brought us a nice 3-mile hike up the Nez Perce/Nimiipuu Trail along the Lolo Creek valley. Heavily forested slopes let us forget the ravages of the area’s forest fires for a while, and we finished out the day with another soak in the hot springs. Sure takes the soreness out of hiking muscles still getting used to the ups and downs of the trails.
After a good sleep, we pushed on to Idaho through the Lolo Pass. Tonight we’re camping at one of the US Forest Service campgrounds that is still open through the end of the month, and it’s a beauty. Took in Diablo Lookout Trail this morning, a verdant and very well vegetated trail that winds through both burn areas and untouched fir forests. Love the very-miniaturized lupine on the slopes and the heathers, as well as the profusion of fir tree starts that cluster along the path, hardly more than one foot high.
This is the start of carrying my bear-bells on our hikes, therefore we don’t expect to see much wildlife on the trail (an ok tradeoff for scaring away grizzly bears), but we did manage to spot a ruffed grouse, a small hawk and a mystery bird (brown-grey, white and red)* that we have yet to ID. Six and a half miles round-trip in less than three hours, which makes us feel we are starting to get our hiking legs back.
Tonight’s menu called for homemade turkey vegetable soup, canned while we were still on the farm, and buttermilk biscuits made in the moho’s convection oven. We waited with baited breath to see how they turned out — it’s all a grand experiment. As is the rest of life.
*We now know this is a grey jay!
This morning’s weather was cool and skies were grey, but we struck out for the Warm Springs Trail anyway, as it promised seven hot springs and much beautiful scenery. Got as far as the first four springs, then the skies opened up for a steady-to-heavy rain. The area needs rain very badly, so we’ve got lots of patience for the wet, but after 20 min of waiting we figured it would be miserable hiking to go the rest of the 7.5 miles in a downpour. Still, the hike was beautiful with the river on the south side of the path. Such clear water, running over small-to-large rockfall…a perfect Norman McLean river. Met up with a bow hunter on foot, also exiting the trail. From what we understand, out here most hunters pursue their prey on horseback, so that they have some means of hauling out the carcass if they get lucky.
Maybe the rain will ease off later in the day and we can attempt another hike along the way. Good weather for reading, in the meantime.
This trip is turning out to be one spontaneous modification after another….figured it made little sense to truck all the way down to Boise from North Idaho….far better to roll on to Moscow, and try to see our good friend Gillian (Program Director for NWPR, Northwest Public Radio, and all-around wicked fun crazy-woman!) To our great good fortune, she was able to make time for us over the weekend and we had non-stop merriment in her hometown! Touring around the beautiful Palouse region was eyeful enough, but she took us to the PieSafe and Creamery in Deary, where we loaded up on pie, pastries and CHEESE, then we swung into Pullman, WA for a quick tour of the WSU Grizzly Bear Research Station (10 bears on site) before going to a fabulous party hosted by advisors to NWPR. Next morning we had a delectable brunch together (just a few “simple” dishes thrown together by G!), then ambled over to the County Fair in search of goats, sheep and rabbits (check, check and check). Had to say fond farewell at noon to be able to drive on to the next destination, but we will be coming back to Moscow, the gorgeous Palouse geography (not my photo, but you see how splendid the landscape is!), and more fun with Gillian.
After four hours of driving through the high plains of eastern WA in a 25-mile headwind, we were ready for a night’s rest in Pendleton, OR. What luck that we spent the weekend in Moscow, as the Pendleton Roundup was also this very weekend. One of the area’s biggest western parades/rodeos, it attracts thousands. Maybe we’ll see it someday, with our grandkids. And maybe not….
Stopped at the Pendleton factory store for a much-needed blanket to go in the moho. My feet have been freezing overnight as the weather turns colder, and I must have more heat on the feet!! I also wanted to do justice to seeing the Pendleton Mill, as it was one of the original providers of trading blankets to the American Indian tribes, an honorable business that was vital to the tribes. The old brick building is a landmark from 1909. Just beautiful.
Today’s drive took us down to John Day, named for the eponymous river that runs through central Oregon. We’re staying here prior to visiting the amazing John Day Fossil Beds national monument tomorrow. Sneaked in a short (2.6 mile) hike up Strawberry Creek Trail to an ethereal mountain lake just beneath Strawberry Mountain. Splendid.
Turns out John Day Fossil Beds are the best place in the US for diversity of fossil species across geologic eras. Starting with plants and small-celled creatures 600 million years ago and rolling forward through multiple glacial periods, this park contains fossils of lizards, dinosaurs and many mammals, together with the foods they ate/animals they preyed upon, giving paleontologists a complete picture of how they lived and died. There has been continuous exploration here since the 1850’s.
We hiked a four-mile trail through the Blue Basin in John Day, which was every bit as colorful as many hikes made through Death Valley’s mineral canyons. Never saw a single rattlesnake. Thank goodness.
By this time, I think we can unequivocally confirm that yes, the National Forest Service owns and manages vast stretches of the western landscape. We can also say with confidence that a very large percentage of the NFS lands are, whenever viable, leased for grazing by private ranchers. So, the claim that the government unfairly controls the West’s land seems bogus to us. Whether lessees are paying for the grazing or not (shades of Cliven Bundy and his ilk), the cattle are out there and eating whatever they can scrounge from the land.
On to Bend, Oregon, to camp near the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. First up: a 7,000-year-old lava field which was barely starting to support life again. The basaltic lava is a harsh environment for plants and trees, and virtually zero humus has accumulated atop it in the millennia since it settled upon/rolled across the landscape. The very sharp rocks are impossible to walk across, so we stuck to the asphalt path through the lava fields.
That afternoon we drove down to see the obsidian flows in the park’s south end. But first we had to get on top of Mount Paulina, an 8,000 ft high crater rim, to see the glassy pool. We climbed for 90 minutes, gaining 1500 feet through heavy forest and emerging onto a windy ridgeline populated only by gnarled whitebark pine, Clark’s Nutcrackers (old friends from our trip through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison), Gray and Stellar Jays. When you’re at the summit you see the impressive view of two glacial lakes and the obsidian bed winding its way between the lakes and around the south side of the smaller lake. A great reward for the effort.
Now onto the Columbia River Gorge, to start working our way toward Portland. The drive north from Bend is a continuously rolling series of ascent-descent-ascent-descent, for 130 miles. Parts of the drive looked like the desolation of central Montana, while one stretch near Mount Hood looked similar to the Palouse. You can see an unbelievable amount of scorched earth from grass fires which have consumed grain crops, wooden fences and grazing land. This tragedy must make farming in the Central Oregon corridor a going-out-of-business proposition.
Nothing on the way prepares one for the likes of the River Gorge itself, as the river is broad, deep and sapphire, swiftly moving (despite the dams) and appears quite clean. The walls of the gorge are nearly vertical or steeply tilted from the Cascades uplifts of past eons. Large vineyards and fruit orchards can be found up the east end of the Gorge. We have driven through the stretch that includes the Eagle River fire from last year, and blessedly, it hasn’t badly scarred the beauty of the Gorge, but it surely was terrifying to those who live here.
Beacon Rock lies just west of the Bonneville Dam, was noted in Lewis and Clarke’s expedition as an outstanding landmark, and is actually a basalt volcanic plug similar to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It towers 900 feet above the Columbia river, and was purchased in the late 1800’s by a philanthropist to avoid local developers from blowing it up to make a pier structure out into the river. We climbed it today, and the view is commanding out toward the dam structure.
It’s not hard to figure out why the Gorge is beloved by Portlanders, Oregonians and anyone who visits, let alone the native Chinookan, Paiute, Multnomah, Klickitat, Umatilla, Umpquah and Warm Springs peoples who lived here starting 10,000 years ago. The geography is impressive, climate is relatively mild and moist, food grows well, and the environment is clean and verdant. People kite-ski and windsurf on the Columbia, and boating as well as sternwheeler cruises are popular. We stopped in a small town near our RV park to purchase fresh caught salmon, smoked and dried salmon for several meals. Baked with a maple mustard glaze, the salmon filet from the center of the fish was the best we’d ever had, no more than 24 hours out of the water. Native line-caught salmon is readily available along the river. Thank goodness.
Took a drive today in the rain showers into Portland….too wet to hike….and stopped at the Alder Street Food Pods in the middle of town to enjoy the fare. I had one of my daughter’s favorite Beijing dishes, binh mi (crispy pancake filled with fried egg and vegetables), while George had five bao (steamed dumplings, Nanjing-style). Washed down our lunch with a fresh mango lassi. Yum! Stopped at Pearl Bakery to pick up fresh artisan bread, and pastries for breakfast. Planned to stop at Portland’s Art Museum…..as did hundreds of other patrons for free-admission-Saturday. The line went around the building, so we passed and will try again tomorrow! A happy accident in Portland’s Chinatown, though….Autumn Moon Festival! We strolled through the grounds, enjoyed the music and dance – just the right capper to a day in the city, and a testimony to the large numbers of Asians who have settled here.
Today was the day for the Portland Art Museum, two hours of native Northwest tribal art and pre-European era crafts, as well as contemporary Indian artistry and Asian antiquities. We are loving the exposure to so many tribal names we’ve never heard of, but which the Pacific Northwest seems determined to reintroduce to the public and to credit for their achievements and culture. This is a very fine museum, thanks to generous donations from private collections (as always in premier museums). Afterwards we drove around north Portland, a fantastically eclectic blend of hipsters, Ethiopians, African Americans and young professionals’ living and working spaces. Saw the Nike Factory Store (mobbed on a Sunday) and the Portland Marina on the Columbia. Feasted on local native-caught and smoked chinook salmon salad in tomato boats for dinner. Singularly delicious!!
Dropped off our motor home today for service tomorrow (steering stabilizer system), so we’re in an industrial neighborhood of Vancouver, WA for the night. First foray today into Washington State Park hiking brought us to Paradise Point and an Ireland-green walk along a small river and through cedar forests. We extended the day’s hiking with a stop at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near the Columbia River outlet to the Pacific Ocean, and walked the refuge’s Oregon White Oak and Cedar forests for several miles. Saw coyote, blue herons, sand cranes, river otters, lots of turtles and nutria, a larger-than-muskrat fur-bearing rat imported from South America in the 1930s as a source of revenue for trappers in the Northwest. Another get-rich-quick scheme that introduced an invasive species, and now they are thick as flies here.
Trees on this stretch of the coastal area get little exposure to harsh elements but plenty of rain, a good amount of sunshine and the kind of undergrowth that creates a lot of moisture-retaining humus. The oaks and cedars are simply immense, in girth and height. One oak, over 400 years old, had dozens of huge branches radiating from its trunk and bent gracefully to the ground. The diameter of the canopy had to be at least 70 yards. And it showed zero signs of slowing down, healthy as could be. Apparently the winds are no problem for these behemoths to handle. Similarly, the cedars are ancient, tall and broad at the base. The trunk of one multi-centennial tree on the way to the refuge occupied 80% of the front yard in which it grew. Hope the house occupants like the view of the bark!! Also, a sycamore-like tree lives out here, producing giant leaves – turns out to be the Bigleaf Maple!
It is so much fun to stop at eateries recommended by those whose taste you respect. In this case, the recommend came from Andrew Zimmern, for Broder Nord in north Portland, one in a family of three authentic but hip Nordic restaurants in the greater PDX area. We caught breakfast there today. Nordic griddlecakes with maple syrup and apple pork sausage, aebleskivers (Danish fritters, light as a feather), and assorted Norwegian pastries. Strong coffee and a Hollander (espresso with a shot of Advocaat), and we’re good to go for the day!!
Portland closed out for us with a drive up to the renowned Japanese Gardens, a visit my parents would have treasured. When my dad was in the Air Force, he was stationed on Hokkaido and we lived on base. He learned and then taught Japanese flower arranging to local women, and this graceful style percolated through our family to be appreciated for a lifetime. The gardens in Portland were originally architected in the early ‘60s and today the plantings are mature and majestic. From bonsai to towering cypress, stone raked gardens, koi ponds, temple gates and breathtaking views of Mt. Hood, the 12 acres are a tranquil refuge from the noise of the city, and they attract birds to complement the quietude of carefully arranged nature.
The setting up in the hills of Portland is perfect not only for the cedars, pines, spruce and cypress of the park, but also plays host to Portland’s 4-acre International Rose Test Gardens. 10,000 rose plantings including Floribunda, Hybrid Tea, David Austin English, Grandiflora, Tree and Miniature Roses entice the nose and the eyes. PDX is called Rose City, because the climate is so very hospitable to the flourishing of this species. Plenty of sun (except for winter), plenty of moisture, and moderate temperatures.
The last escapade of today came late in the afternoon, when we drove up the mountain road to the Silver Star Mountain Loop in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, north of Vancouver, WA. We knew we’d be too late in the day to make it to the top of Silver Star, but we did get up to 3100 feet on the mountain for a total of 2.65 mi round trip. Enough to get us a view of Mt. St. Helen’s from the west side, and to see the Canyon Maple bushes in their glorious coats of blazing orange, red and purple. A very fitting prelude to what’s next in the journey: hiking around Mt. St. Helen’s.
Only two hiking days in Mt St Helen’s Memorial is not enough. We knew that going in. Resolved: from now on, allot the first day in a park or memorial to orientation, watching the location’s preparatory movie, talking to rangers, getting a feel for the place and any other learnings we need to do before hiking. This makes all days to follow so much better prepared, and validates how much time is needed to do justice to the place without rushing around like a bat out of hell.
We did not do this at MSH, and we were sorry afterward. The first day, however, was glorious. A 3.5 hr hike up to Harry’s Ridge, which placed us at a peak to stare right into the bowl of MSH’s crater, and to look down on Spirit Lake, the azure blue waters of which were half-filled with the blowdown trees from the blast occurring 38 years ago.
The rangers have a helpful description of what the MSH eruption really was, for all plants, trees, animals and natural structures there on May 18, 1980: a 600-mph rock and fire wind.
Imagine hot boulders the size of refrigerators and less, airborne lava, ash, burning pumice and liquified glass hurtling through the air at the speed of a rapidly-moving jet. No visibility because of the density of flying matter, temperatures up to 1200 degrees or more in the blast zone (a 15 mile-radius around the crater), and every tree flying like a knife-point projectile because all were sheared off at their bases and splintered, with branches singed off, milliseconds after the blast. Hell on earth.
So much of the memorial ground has been left as-is, testimony to the power of the explosion and available to nature to reclaim, restore and repopulate. No replanting of trees, except by Weyerhauser outside of the memorial. Recovery will take decades, even centuries, because of the desolation and how the earth was scorched to lifelessness by the violence of the eruption.
The good news is that grasses, sub-alpine flowers and a few hardy firs are taking hold. The prairie lupine was the first to come back, two years after the event. Lupine are able to produce nitrogen and phosphorus, fixing them in their root systems, so they make the landscape hospitable for many others and restore the microbes desperately needed in soil that is devoid of humus. Paintbrush, pearly everlasting, heathers and now a sea of sitka and red alder bushes are slowly spreading over the ashen ground. The elk are back, grazing on the alders and grasses. And because elk have returned, the mountain lions are also back. We scared up woodcock on our hikes, and heard many, many birdcalls as well as the bull elk bugeling.
The second hike, Loowit Falls, took us across miles of pumice field and lava beds all the way to the edge of the crater. A 13-mile+ hike on a windless 75-degree day felt like a visit to a blast furnace, because of the reflected heat from the pumice fields. We were shredded by the end of the hike, but still glad to have witnessed the eruption’s remains and to see the snow-fed falls pouring from the jaws of the mountaintop crater. We’ll be back to hike Windy Ridge and the Bivouac to the top of the crater.
Driving back and forth from our campground to the Research Station inside the memorial, we kept seeing an appealing roadside sign promising “homemade meals and cobblers.” After the 13-miler, we stopped to investigate. Indeed, the Fire Mountain Grill serves mountain berry, apple and peach cobblers daily, along with very tasty chicken and dumplings and elk burgers. This being the shoulder season, we had no wait for a table, but in the summer, diners are lined up out to the road awaiting a table. A just reward for any hiker.
We are now at Mt. Rainier National Park for a four-day stay, and the new plan is working well. First day, we enjoyed driving around the southern side of the park, taking in the spacious visitor center and chatting up the rangers for hiking tips.
On day two we embarked on an 8.3 mile hike up the Skyline Trail (a peak experience for views of Mt. Rainier, her glaciers and surrounding peaks) and then down and across the Lakes Trail. We heard and then saw a fat, saucy hoary marmot, as well as multiple bears gorging themselves on the wild blueberries which spangle every slope of the park. Everywhere you see blueberry bushes turning crimson red (and canyon maples in brilliant orange) that create an eye-popping color contrast to the grey of the sheer rock slopes and the dark greens of the lush noble firs and tall cedars. Oohs and ahhs at every turn.
Tomorrow we drive to the park’s Sunrise (east) side for a shorter, but steeper hike on the Burroughs Mountain Trail. It will be the last day of the season for Sunrise, as the east side closes end of September due to uncertain weather.
We unexpectedly took a trip up to the Arctic Circle today. Overnight the weather on Mount Rainier’s east side turned cold and foreboding, and the trail signs warned when we arrived, that we were entering a tundra zone up at 6700 feet on the Burroughs trail. In the span of a 3.5 hour hike we encountered shale-showered slopes, treeless bowls with grazing mountain goats in the distance, a very low cloud ceiling that ringed the mountain like a halo, spruce trees that did not rise above two feet because of chilling winter winds and ice, and rain – in short, a landscape more like Siberia or the very north of Alaska, rather than what we’d seen just a day earlier. It was very likely snowing upslope on the mountain, we just couldn’t see it for the low clouds.
George and I have decided that we really like austere, severe and desolate landscapes, and as long as we dress for the temperatures and precip. conditions, it’s not really hazardous on trail hikes. We keep eyes on the skies, have the latest forecasts before we start, each have a rain slicker in our backpacks at all times, and continually gauge our ability to get back to the car before any weather deteriorations become threatening. The upside of this is that generally, we encounter less traffic on those types of trails, and get to see some dramatic sights, sounds and moods of nature. There were times on today’s hike where it seemed like we were on the surface of the moon, so grey-black and non-vegetated was the ground. The trail crossed through the blast zone of one of Rainier’s eruptions about 5,600 years ago, and the blowdown area is still almost devoid of plants. Yes, it really does take a long time for fragile landscapes to recover. Think about that and consider oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Not a good idea.
Dinner in a Nepali restaurant less than two miles from our campground capped off an adventurous day. The curries, mango lassi, pappadums and huckleberry pie were really good. The very cozy place is run by a Sherpa who also works in mountaineering here in the park as well as in the Himalayas. He holds the fastest time from base camp to the top of Everest: 3.5 hours. How did he do that???
Last hike in this national park: Christine Falls Trail up to Comet Falls. 3.5 miles in 2.5 hours. Part stroll through a cedar and fir rain forest, part rock scramble, it gave us a great workout enjoyable even if it was drizzling. Oh, the terpenes (the volatile compounds in the firs that make the air smell like Christmas) – yum!! The higher we went (1200’ ascent), the more it became clear that we were hiking in the clouds, with precip. getting heavier at every switchback. We decided to end the climb at Comet Falls (135’ vertical drop of a good-sized mountain creek) and head back down for hot soup. Good call.
Now on the west coast of WA, we are near the Pacific but also in the heart of the Olympic Rain Forest. As you would expect, everything grows like there’s no tomorrow with the copious rain, humidity and mild temperatures that predominate. Over 200 inches of precip per year. Lush.
We drove out to La Push tribal area and walked 3 miles of undeveloped beach front (Rialto Beach) out to the Hole in the Wall rock landmark. Had fun looking at tide pools with anemones and small sea cucumbers, as well as both live (in the sea water) and dead kelp (washed ashore). Saw what we think were two white tailed kites (raptors) soaring by the seastacks.
It smells so clean and salty along the coast, what a treat. Centuries of driftwood that has been hurled up onto shore by violent surf, and the original trees must have been giants!
Tomorrow we head into the inland Rainforest, one of only six (along with Alaska, Chile, Japan, China and New Zealand) in the temperate zone worldwide.
Well, we’ve had to do the Rainforest piecemeal, as it’s, er, quite regularly raining. In fact, one of the roads to the famous Hoh Rainforest hikes is out because of flooding. So in fits and starts, along the Hoh and Bogachiel rivers, we’re seeing what it does to flora and fauna to get weekly rain and lots of it, mild temps and lots of sun in between. OMG. Never have we seen such densely packed fir trees, ferns, ground moss and aerial moss anywhere. There’s hardly a speck of dirt that doesn’t have something growing on it or out of it.
In case you’re wondering, a rainforest has a canopy that blocks out 70% of the sun. Perhaps one reason they look so verdant is because most of the light is in fact filtered through the green canopy. And indeed, thousands of shades of green are on display, occasionally some fall color in between. Few plants look at all like they are preparing for winter. According to our reading, we lucked out in selecting Bogachiel (means “muddy after rain” in local native language) State Park for our campground while here. This landing spot is the least visited of Olympic’s Rainforest locales, and we have it almost completely to ourselves!!The ground here is lusciously soft to walk on, and the atmosphere is a muffled but resonant quiet.
I think that we probably prefer these temperate rainforests to those of the tropics, but anywhere there is this plant-dense environment, the air is supercharged with oxygen and moisture. It leaves one feeling cleansed and hugged, nearly overwhelmed, by the energy the flora give off. Even if we weren’t completely thrilled by the all-day rain today, we could readily see that all growing things in the forest were LOVING it. A true garden of Eden.
Another day in the PNW Rainforests – this time it’s out to the furthest northwest point in the continental US, Cape Flattery, as well as a hike across the Makah Indian Rainforest out to Shi Shi Beach. A total of 7.5 miles of pure loveliness.
This is like being in a Tolkien landscape, and reminds me so much of a likely gnome habitat (as if there were such a thing), because I read gnome-themed novels nonstop about little people in forests when I was 9 or 10. It fires the imagination to see such vegetation, so many old and craggy fir trees, ethereal hemlock branches floating on air like a melody, mosses growing up the entire trunks of trees, and many, many plants which are entirely unfamiliar to me. It’s no stretch for me to see gnome-homes in the trees, and tiny footprints everywhere! Although, there is much mud around from frequent rains….the little people would have to have boats or be swinging on vines to stay out of the drink!!
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the GORGEOUS beaches we’ve been seeing: Rialto Beach and Ruby Beach along the southern coastal boundary of Olympic National Park, and Shi Shi Beach here at the northern tip. They seem like quintessential Pacific Ocean beaches (think Malibu), with the stunning sunlight washing each wave as it rolls in, mist hanging over the beach, rocky headlands covered in firs and salal, and plenty of seastacks as mentioned before. We are camped tonight at Cape RV in Neah Bay, listening to the seals barking from the harbor where over 50 fishing boats await tomorrow’s troll out to sea for black cod, the catch of the season. We hope to run over there in the am to see them bobbing in the water while the catch comes in.
Only saw one lone seal today, as we missed the departure and return of the ships. In a steady rain we drove out to Ozette to take in the Sand Point trail through yet another section of rainforest. Maybe it was the rain, but today’s forest seemed to us the lushest yet. Thanks to the National Park Service in cooperation with the Makah tribe (more on them later), the 3.35-mile trail out to the sea was all paved either in cedar boardwalk or cedar-boxed gravel flats to allow for full water drainage, thus we completely avoided the squishy, sticky mud prevalent in yesterday’s hike. This trail was just perfect for a quick sprint. Packed tightly against the path were dozens of species of ferns (sword, maidenhair, licorice, deer, bracken), Oregon oxalis, salal, bunchberry, explorer gentian, salmonberry and beargrass, towering cedars of 6 and 7-foot diameters (as noted in Mt Rainier NP, this means they could be 500 years old or older), many different species of hemlock and firs, mushrooms and epiphytes (plants that grow parasitically on the trees).
This day ended at the Makah Museum and Cultural Research Center, one of the best displayed and documented collections of pre-contact art and artifacts of indigenous life anywhere in North America.
The Makah tribe, which today numbers 2500 people, has existed on the northwest tip of Olympic Peninsula for thousands of years, as a whale and seal-hunting people. Five hundred years ago they numbered as high as 10,000 in five very large villages on the coast. One large settlement was completely buried by a massive mudslide, and except for oral history passed down by survivors, no trace was left of this grouping until 50 years ago, when some of the village began to be uncovered by the tides.
Anthropologists rushed to the scene to preserve the remains, and over eleven years of hard excavation and recovery work by scientists and Makah volunteers resulted in the thousands of tools, baskets, hunting harpoons, boats, oars, garments, bowls, jewelry and Makah art on display today.
The skill of this tribe in predicting weather, understanding animal behavior, making advanced tools, housing, fishing and fish management systems, basketry, inlays and working with metal, bone, wood, plants and hides was not well understood until the buried settlement discovery. It is to the tribe’s credit that it has kept cohesively unified in the face of colonization, revived its language and retained its culture, despite losing 95% of its heritage land.
A stunningly beautiful hike today. Up above Port Angeles in the Hurricane Ridge area, we started on the path toward Klahane Ridge/Mount Angeles already at some altitude (4900 ft), and over 2.5 miles ascended another 500 feet to spectacular views of the entire Hurricane Ridge constellation of mountains, including Mount Olympus at 7980’. On the front side of the path, the clear skies let us see all the way to Victoria on Vancouver Island and a broad sweep of the Straight of Juan de Fuca – glorious!! For a mere 5-mile round trip hike, we got many eyefuls and an eerie stillness that one doesn’t often get on a windy ridge where gusts up to 70 mph are fairly typical. A fantastic natural encounter that makes us want to come back and get all the way to the summit of Mt. Angeles (we’ll need another 4 hours for that).
Also briefly saw Sequim (yes, we picked up lavender) and Port Townsend in the process of running some errands. The latter’s Silverwater Cafe serves the best crabcakes we’ve ever had, from local fresh Dungeness crab. Their sour cherry pie was out of this world. Do go if you have the chance.
Mount Storm King kicked our butts today, and we loved it. 2,032 feet of elevation gain over 2.3 miles….that’s like a 20% grade, man! We summitted in 2 hours, and descended in 1 hour, using seven ropes to aid our ascent in the final ¼ mile. I’ve resolved to march into REI when we get home, in order to better my pretty-shabby technique when I have to rock-scramble up very rough terrain, and to get me ready to do Angel’s Landing in Mount Zion NP and Half Dome in Yosemite. We want to do these challenging hikes for as long as we can. No other hikers encountered along the path who were older than mid-thirties in age. We may hike more slowly (1.5 to 2.5 mph) than younger trekkers, but we do get there, safe and sound. And we have monstrous fun doing it!!
Home now (in the moho) from a quick two-day trip across the Straight to Victoria BC for whale-watching. Peak experience par excellence, highly recommended. Went over on the 10am ferry from Port Angeles (only 2/day at this time of year), toured Butchart Gardens and the First Nations Gallery in the Royal BC Museum thereafter, then dinner at Victoria’s best farm-to-table restaurant, 10 Acres Kitchen.
This morning got us to BC Whale Tour dock for a 10am sailing, weather couldn’t have been better for the trip on a Cousteau-style Zodiac boat with 10 other passengers. The 3.5-hour trip went 35 miles out the Straight of Juan de Fuca separating the US and Canada, and we had probably one of the “best tours of the entire 2018 season” per our captain. Saw TWO humpback whales and TWO separate pods of Orcas, dozens of seals and sea lions, and one of the Orca pods had three successful lunch hunts while we viewed them. This aspect of wildlife observation is not for the faint-hearted, as they pursued, cornered, killed and ate a porpoise and a harbor seal in the waters right in front of our boat. But every living thing has to eat, and the harbor seal and porpoise populations are very healthy and well-stocked. Some animals are born as predators, some as prey. None of them gets to choose which.
Captain Kaegan gave us a super tutorial on the lives of whales and their prey while we were underway. Female Orcas live 80 to 90 years, birthing 4 – 6 calves and running the affairs of the pod. Their sons take direction from them for their whole lives in the pod, and are low guys on the matriarchal totem pole (they eat last). Male Orcas live 30 – 40 years. Why the discrepancy? Because they are much bigger and it takes a lot more energy to run their bodies. They just run out of gas sooner. At least 450 orcas live in the Puget Sound/Straight of Juan de Fuca waters, some are residents and some are transients. Contrast this with 80,000 seals and sea lions. Wow. You may have heard about the J pod of orcas in Puget Sound, who are starving to death because they only eat salmon and there aren’t enough around. According to Kaegan, there are no more 50-lb Chinook salmon in the waters, because we caught them all. It takes 5 times the energy for an Orca to catch and eat a 5-10 lb salmon (the typical size now), and therefore they’re always at a deficit. Why do they only eat salmon and not seal? It’s probably a genetic thing that started millennia ago – they never learned to eat seals, therefore don’t see them as food. J pod will likely go extinct because of this aberration.
Our last day in Olympic National Park was much like our last day in Mt. Rainier NP. We picked a hike that took us to a desolate, bleak, austere landscape high on the rain shadow side of the mountains, and we loved it!
The road from Hurricane Ridge to Obstruction Point was a well-traveled dirt road up to Lillian Ridge, where the winds were blowing at 17 mph and the wind chill was 31 degrees. I stuck cotton in my ears to avoid getting a headsplitting earache from the cold. We set a very brisk pace, let me assure you.
Rain shadow landscapes are obviously more arid than their rainy side counterparts, but this one is routinely punished by 70 mph winds, which means that trees have a very tough time gaining any height, and all other plants grip the earth closely. Lillian Ridge’s junipers and heathers rise mere inches from the ground. The cirques up there still host pockets of snow, and the peaks have NOTHING growing at all. The sharp peaks look like they were born yesterday, so ragged, spiky and honed to razors. The softer mountaintops were tall heaps of slate, obviously uplifted at one time in the past and worn by the wind and ice of the eons. Otherworldly, and yet so beautiful. We could only last for 3 miles, fleeing for hot tea in the valley.
Today’s attraction was found in Bow, WA, where my friend and fellow goat cheesemaker Rhonda Gothberg runs a dairy with 40 beautiful black-and-tan LaMancha goats. We’ve been jonesing for a cuddlefest with goats for months now, and wanted to see her setup, so we eagerly drove the hour north of Seattle to get to her farm in the fertile Skagit Valley, from where you can easily see the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker, as well as the mountains around Vancouver and even the Olympics to the south. And only a couple of miles to her west is Puget Sound. Does it get any better than this?
Rhonda’s does and bucks happily ate our quartered apples and endured our cooing and petting. Then we got down to business, buying one of nearly everything she has in stock at present: Raw milk gouda in several renditions (including cinnamon+beer and roasted chicory+cocoa), gruyere, feta, caerphilly and chevre. That’s a LOT of variety!! We look forward to cracking some of them open when our kids come later in the week for some Seattle fun, with 3-yr-old Mason in tow!!
Just prior to kids’ arrival, we tackled Kendall Katwalk, or rather the 4-mile approach to said famous upper-elevation ridge walk. This trip has been all about getting too late a start to complete our targeted hikes.
KK was another seemingly endless approach through heavily forested switchbacks, but it was a good workout and for a while, we thought we might make at least a mile of the Katwalk up top. But autumn brings ever-shorter days, the skies began to darken somewhat ominously, and we had more than an hour’s drive back to camp, so we turned around before ever glimpsing the rocky spine. It’s ok, the list of to-be-completed thrill-hikes in the Cascades grows, and will be kept close at hand for the return to this area. We’ve decided that Class 3 hikes are our destiny for the time being – thrills, challenges, requiring us to be strong, but minus the risk of falling off the mountain!!
Post-weekend update: Seattle with kids and grandson was TERRIFIC! Aquarium, Whidbey Island, Pacific Science Museum, Pike Place Market (twice!), Bainbridge Island, ferries and beaches, restaurants and food stalls, it was all wonderful. No rain, just mood-setting fog and lovely sunsets. Perfection.
We’re now firmly on the return-to-home path. Made it to Albany, OR tonight, going to Yreka, CA tomorrow and on to Rocklin, CA, where MoJo will be stored over the holidays. George caught the flu from our grandson, so we are minimizing the running-around and will take things slowly from now until the flu departs. No biggie.
A few parting thoughts on the Puget Sound area – a proliferation of man-buns, vertiginous streets (think SF), independent coffee huts by the side of the road, Teslas on the road, heavy traffic on every freeway, seafood everywhere, bikes everywhere, construction cranes everywhere, and shoreline in every view. Not as many Starbucks as expected.
It’s a young city, vibrant and crowded, thickly-treed with firs, bigleaf maples and rhododendron (rhodies), the cost (and quality) of living is high, and residents seem to have a very intimate relationship with both the sea and the mountains. Lots of Indian reservations throughout the Sound, and use of native names for places. NW tribal art is well-incorporated into visual culture (whether the tribes want it or not).
Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon have made their marks on Seattle, but are not so dominant as to be inescapable. The city appears to be highly conscious of its impact on the environment, and is moving toward more and more eco-friendly measures, although in the early November midterm elections, voters did NOT confirm the carbon tax much wanted by WA governor Inslee. We all win some, lose some.
We hope to be back in two years.
Passed briefly through Salt Lake City while on the road home. A very unique metro area, with reminders everywhere of its religious roots and hard-scrabble life in the 1800’s. Everything begins and ends with Temple Square. The city deserves a closer look, and we hope to spend more time here, investigating history and hikes. French bakery alone is worth a return visit!