Thursday, April 10, 2014

Adventures in Wonderland: Part Two, Day 3, 10 miles

"It's not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?"
-Henry David Thoreau 

Leaving Indian Bar was difficult because the beauty of our surroundings compelled us to want to stay forever. The sun shone on our tent and we were engulfed in the tint of green light. The color of the tent was the same color of the moss that adorned the evergreen boughs that speckled the hillside we camped on. The sight of the sun's light was deceptive to one hoping for warm morning air. Outside it was cool and crisp.

My second night's sleep was restless. I woke several times wondering what time it was and once on account of hearing some nocturnal animal in the near vicinity. Breakfast left a lot to be desired. It sounded so good: scrambled egg hash with peppers, onions, sausage and potatoes. It was of the freeze-dried variety and eating the eggs was like eating sponges, the rest was a watery soup-like texture that was hard to stomach. Emily had oatmeal and I envied her like never before!

Before we left we filled up our water supply at Wauhaukaupauken Falls, then we began the steep ascent on a 'staircase to heaven'. Stairs made from dirt and logs led us out of the valley as we climbed and climbed and climbed into the surrounding hills. We stopped frequently to turn around and let the view permeate our spirits. All around we saw evidence of those mountain goats I saw the night before, but this day we saw none.

Upon reaching the top and entering a beautiful meadow, we were treated to 360 degree views of Mt. Rainier, the Cascades and the jagged teeth of the Tatoosh Range. The air smelled of wildfire, however, and a haze obscured our view of the gaping peak of Mt. St. Helens. The wildflowers were in full bloom though and were such a joy that we stopped for a break to soak in the beauty. In the distance we could see how far we had come and Indian Bar Valley was merely a speck in the grand scheme of mountain bliss.

Slowly we began our descent into high alpine meadows that led into a few trees, soon into low alpine forests and eventually, after what seemed like forever, we began to come into forests with trees that rose far above the shady, forest floor. We hiked in silence. My mind wasn't silent, however. I found myself, as I'm sure Emily did, making ways to help the miles pass by more quickly. Praying the Rosary became, for me, a way to make every painful step seem manageable. "Hail Mary...full of grace..." the words were like a metronome helping my legs keep pace to the music of my own breathing.

Aside from prayer, I thought a lot about my children. Around every corner I pictured them bounding off the end of fallen old growth cedars, hanging from endless branches and poking their noses in the holes of rotting trees that could be none other than abandoned gnome homes. Although I was thrilled to be accomplishing a long held goal, I missed them like crazy!

Before long, we reached the Box Canyon area and Stevens Canyon Road. Civilization!? It was an unexpected sight. As it turned out it was a popular place for people visiting the Park for the day and as we emerged from the woods we both felt like indigenous forest people. Here were people well dressed in their slacks, khaki shorts and Hawaiian button down shirts. They were stepping out of their sports cars to take pictures of the deep waterfall and scenic overlook. In contrast, we were dirty, stinky and carried everything we needed to survive on our backs. Some people definitely looked at us with question marks in their eyes.

Looking into Box Canyon from the bridge.
For the most part, we ignored the crowd and made a beeline for the "Comfort Station" as it was appointed by a brown and white sign. Without going into detail, it just felt so good to sit, I didn't want to leave. It also felt great to wash my hands. I was beginning to understand how spoiled we are in our daily lives that these little things seemed like such great luxuries. Leaving the 'comfort station', we felt halfway human again and it was easy to make eye contact with people. One woman in particular, Marcy, was facsinated by our journey thus far and wanted to know every detail. She drove an RV and lived an adventurous life in her younger days. She even offered to give us a ride to wherever we wanted. We showed her our pictures, thanked her, and told her we were set on walking the whole way. We then crossed the road and disappeared into the woods once more.

The Wonderland Trail passed through Box Canyon itself, or rather, over it. We stopped on the bridge and gazed at the Muddy Fork Cowlitz River that raged over one-hundred feet below us. The fascinating part is that the canyon was no more than 25-40 feet wide making it quite a deep, narrow slot that continued for a quarter of a mile. Just on the other side of the bridge we wandered off the trail into the scantilly treed woods that sat right at the edge of the cliff. The roaring water gave us a soundtrack for our lunch break that day. I plopped my pack down next to me and sat on the bedrock. Emily declared I was too close to the edge and refused to join me so near the drop off and so, lost in our own thoughts, we enjoyed a solitary meal. My lunch of German sausage, fruit snacks, and nut mix never tasted so good. I ate my food and drank my water in silence, the loud river below flooded my thoughts.
Time for food and reflection at Box Canyon.

Once again my kids came to mind, this time I was glad they were not there. I would have been a nervous wreck with them sitting anywhere near where I was at that moment. My feet dreaded the inevitable fact that we had to keep going, and my body screamed, "NO!" as I heaved my pack back in its place.

After hiking another 1.5 miles we came to a sign that pointed to Maple Creek where we would be camping for the night. It said only one mile left! We were beyond happy and so ready to be done walking for the day.

Along the way we ran into some women who were out for a day hike. They were excited to talk to us and hear all about what distant hiking was like. I felt like an imposter. Here it was only the third day of my first backcountry backpacking trip and people were asking me what it was like as though I knew what I was doing. Yet, every mile, every turn was something knew and I was learning as I went. Nonetheless, we answered their questions and exchanged joyfull conversation but it was when they offered us fresh, cold cherries that they won a spot in our hearts forever. Never were we so grateful as we were then!

That "mile" was the longest mile we'd ever walked. We were both convinced that the sign was wrong. At last on the southeast side of the Wonderland Trail, we reached the buggy lowland river camp. We were so exhausted that we stopped at the first site available, site #2. Then we decided on #3, but after being attacked by biting flies we settled on site #4 which was sunnier and overlooked a small meadow. As it turned out, there were tons of bugs here as well. We set up the tent as soon as possible making sure to be careful not to let the bugs inside.

Neither of us could stand our own stench so we decided to head down to the creek to bathe and clean our laundry. Maple Creek was freezing but Oh! so refreshing. The sun warmed our backs and the cold water numbed our blisters. Once everything was cleaned with biodegradable, Ph neutral citronella soap we laid our clothes out on rocks to dry. We sat on the rocks, feet in the water, and flapped a towell across our shoulders back and forth to keep the hungry flies from landing. We talked, imagined, and laughed until our stomachs hurt and our eyes watered. It was beautiful and one of the most enjoyable experiences so far.

Back at camp, the dang bugs swarmed! We hung all of our clothes or laid them on rocks to dry. While making dinner, Emily noticed that my pants looked like they were crawling with flies. It turned out they were crawling...with ants! This had to have been my worst nightmare. I am quite seriously myrmecophobic...inexplicably fearful of ants! I think it's the very thought that all the ants in the world outweigh all the humans, not to mention the uncanny intelligence for such small's just a thing to be feared, trust me. And at that moment, exaggeration, were crawling on my pants! Ants IN MY PANTS!

I kept my distance and prepared to leave my pants right there for some pant-less backpacker who would appreciate them. As we ate, the constant army of ants marching over my pants just a short distance away, we noticed that soon they were completely gone! Perplexed, we moved closer to figure out where they went. They were completely gone! We couldn't believe it, and yet, I still wanted nothing to do with the pants. Dinner complete, we began cleaning our dishes when what to our wondering eyes should appear?!!! Thousands of ants climbing back onto my pants this time each one with a small white larva in tow!!!!! Now fear was replaced with fascination. We inched our way closer and even tried unsuccessfully to get the whole escapade on camera. We crouched down and watched until, just as before, the millions of ants were out of sight!

When they were gone again, we stood there dumbfounded. It would be my luck that of all times an entire society of ants would choose to move their nest it would be the time my pants lie in their line of pheromone! After that, I hung my pants on a tree branch overnight in hopes that they would be creature-free by morning.

We locked ourselves in the tent by 6:05 pm. I wrote in my journal and fell fast asleep.

Pictures from Day 3
Amazing view from the Cowlitz Divide
Hazy skies fom a wildfire somewhere near the Park
Taking in the view at the Cowlitz Divide

Sunbathed Maple Creek
Hiking the steep trail near the Cowlitz Divide

Sun shining on the Mouse on a Stick wildflowers.

The Wonderland went along Stevens Road under a tunnel near Box Canyon.

Definitely one of my favorite wildflowers in the Park!


Wildflowers adorn the foothills of Mt. Rainier

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Adventures in Wonderland: Part Two, Day 2, 4.5 miles

View shortly after leaving Summerland Camp

 "Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So go, get on your way!" - Dr. Seuss

Journal entry for day 2: 'Weird night! Woke up at 10:30 pm and could have sworn it was at least 5 in the morning. I'm really not used to going to bed early. Other than that I slept like a baby bear. Emily, on the other hand, swore she heard a herd of elk pass through our camp.'

Waking at 10:30 ended up being one of the greatest blessings of the hike. Lying there in the dark, I decided to open the flap on my side of the tent to see what the night sky looked like from up here on the mountains. (It didn't get dark on the mountain until after 9 pm and usually by this time we were sleeping). The sky was ablaze with stars like I'd never seen before! I stared at the sky in disbelief as I tried to reconcile how it could be so light and so dark all at once. The landscape was black but the sky lit up with so many millions of stars I felt like I was inside a globe and the stars were all around me. It was one of the many great moments on the mountain that made me feel so incredibly grateful to be a part of something much more grandiose than myself. It was a magical moment that I will never forget.

Rereading the above entry made me laugh at the memory. Upon waking, Emily asked if I heard the "elk" passing by our tent during the night. She said she saw the shadow of a elk/deer head fall upon the walls of our tent and that it sounded like a whole herd wandered through the camp. I told her I heard nothing and doubted I could sleep through a herd of large animals walking just a few feet from my head. After we emerged into the cold mountain air, however, we did see one set of deer prints in the soft dusty ground around our tent. To her credit, everything is more intense at night, especially in the wilderness.

Emily's morning view from the tent.
The view from our tent on the morning of Day 2 was something I wouldn't mind waking up to every morning. The sun was shining and our camp looked out over a vast expanse of mountains and river valleys. The air was crisp and cool. We didn't hurry as we knew we only had four and a half miles to hike that day. The warmth of our sleeping bags kept us in the tent for awhile after waking. Shortly, however, the thought of hot coffee helped us endure the thought of being exposed to the chilly outdoors. It was 8:22 when we left our camp.
The hike began easy and very enjoyable. We were surrounded by so many varieties of wildflowers; Indian Paintbrush, Lupine, American bistort and Avalanche lilies to name a few.


The stretch from Summerland to the site of our next camp, Indian Bar, presented us with arguably the most beautiful scenery and the most challenging terrain. Once we left camp we began a steady climb that took us above the tree line and into rocky, snowy territory where oftentimes the trail was barely visible. We had to search for stacks of rocks or red-painted rocks left by rangers to guide us in the right direction. At one point the previous days' footprints of other hikers in the snow was the only way of knowing we were on the Wonderland Trail. It felt as though we were climbing to the summit of Mount Rainier itself!

These pictures show various ways the trail was marked on the way to the Panhandle Gap. Rock stacks, red-painted rocks, footprints...and sometimes with no visible marker (as in the top picture) we had to make an educated guess.
The trail crossed through the Sarvent Glaciers, dotted on either side of the trail, and the Fryingpan Glacier was high above on the flanks of Rainier. We passed by a seasonal lake that was partially frozen. The water reflected the sky above and sparkled an icy turquoise. Up above we commented on a snowy overhang on a steep slope way ahead of us. We speculated about the possibility of someone walking on top of the ridge realizing that there was no support beneath the snow...the only way down a tumultuous slide down a seventy degree slope. The thought was a scary one, made even scarier upon the realization that that snowy overhang was the Panhandle Gap itself....the very place we were heading and the highest elevation on the entire Wonderland Trail.  We hadn't seen anyone all morning and once again it felt like we were the only ones on the trail, so we had no one to confirm the fact that straight ahead (and seemingly straight up) was indeed the Wonderland Trail. Nonetheless, we trudged methodically over the snow fields one foot in front of the other as we began to climb higher and higher.
To our surprise, as we struggled to secure our footing in the hard, icy snow, suddenly there appeared two college-aged men in shorts and running shoes almost directly behind us. We were so concentrated on not slipping that we didn't even hear their approach. They seemed impatient at our slow pace and so I graciously allowed them past. This wasn't easy as the trail was so narrow and the down slope side of the path was just a slight misstep away from what could be a very dangerous fall. First they passed up Emily, then as they passed me and my bulky backpack it became a tricky, personal-space-invading, maneuver of trading places. I was glad when they were ahead because then I would simply have to step in their footsteps until I reached the top of Panhandle Gap. Or so I thought.
The two men, burden free, but lacking trekking poles, struggled with their footing and ended up asking me to go first. They figured if I died trying then they wouldn't attempt it with my hiking boots I might have an easier time stomping footholds in the icy snow. They eventually realized that it was more danger than their day hike was cut out for and they turned around to return to wherever they came from.
Emily followed as I stabbed my trekking pole into the snow, swirled it around a few times to make a decent hole in which to place my foot. I had to do this for each step I took and the whole endeavor took quite some time.

Emily on the "trail" to Panhandle Gap. Beyond her the two hikers who turned away unprepared for the danger.
With deep concentration and meticulous footing, we reached the top of Panhandle Gap. What an accomplishment this was for us! And what a reward! When we climbed over the top of the snow and made our way to the other side it was like we arrived at the first level of heaven. We could see two of the Cascade Range volcanoes, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helen's. While snow still blanketed the ground in patches, flowery meadows began to emerge and it was an instant change from the rocky, treeless distance we just covered. Our spirits soared and I couldn't refuse my souls urge to twirl among the wildflowers like Maria from the Sound of Music. They talk about a 'Rocky Mountain' high...well this was a rocky mountain and I felt like I was on top of the world.
The little is creature is there for scale but even he is a little bigger than we would have looked from this angle. The snowy overhang we were worried about is on the right side of the ridge.
Mt. Rainier summit from just before Panhandle Gap.
From the top of the Gap, the arrow indicates
the direction of the trail.


View from the top of Panhandle Gap, looking at Mt. Adams.

The weather was perfect at this point, but clouds were on the horizon. We left the gorgeous meadows and headed into some light alpine forest to begin our seemingly endless decent into Indian Bar. A park superintendent named this area in 1929. It was a sandbar where Native Americans frequently camped while hunting.

The long downhill trek into the Ohanepecosh Valley was rough on our knees, but we heard a group of hikers a short distance behind us and we were determined to get to the camp site before them so we could snag the coveted site #2 with the amazing views. The trail was a wide, rock and dirt path 'stairway' from which we could spot the Indian Bar shelter long before we reached the valley. The descent was so steep our legs quivered, our knees hurt and I actually fell not once, but twice. Thankfully, both times the only thing that got injured was my pride. Finally, the forest opened up to a huge meadow with a creek meandering through and a large rock river bed (bar). We paralleled the creek for a short way walking right next to the edge.

The wilderness camp at Indian Bar was found up and to the east on a hillside. Our campsite (#2) had unbelievable views of the meadow below and the glaciers above. We both fell in love with this place and decided we could happily stay here the remainder of the week. After setting up our tent (quickly, not like the first night) Emily and I walked down to a bridge with a thin wire handle that crossed over the raging Wauhaukaupauken (wow-HOW-cow-pow-ken) Falls. The waterfall looked like an angry white-water rafting park. From 1:30-5:30 we were the only people around. We enjoyed lunch in the sun atop a large warm rock as our tired feet hung in the cool water. We washed our clothes in the crystal clear stream and purified our water using my SteriPen Adventurer Opti Water Purifier.

Our amazing view from campsite #2

The roaring Wauhaukaupauken Falls

Indian Bar group shelter.

Emily making sure we have water
for the rest of the day.

With all that we had accomplished the day was still young and we had Paradise to ourselves. Even the "John" was in a picturesque location. I called it the 'Loo With a View'. It was, simply put, a toilet set in a box, set in the woods. That was it, no walls, no doors, but an unrivaled view!
The Sign
The Loo

The View
 Around 3:30 I took a nap in the hot tent but I woke up shivering an hour and a half later. Emily and I shared a hot dinner of Chili Mac. Then, because it was Sunday, we said the Mass prayers that I printed onto a sheet of paper the night before we left. After we prayed the Rosary, Emily retired for the day.
I was determined to see a large group of either elk, deer or bears down in the meadow and so I sat outside the tent on a log and watched through my binoculars at the valley below. The only mammals I saw were another group of hikers who seemed to be taking their time getting water by the creek. Not ready to hit the sack, I put on a headlamp and headed down by the stream to see if I could intimidate the group to leave so the animals would feel safe to make their appearance. Apparently, I am not very scary and the people continued their lighthearted conversation as though I weren't there. I stood my ground, however, and set the sights of my binoculars on the rocky cliffs high above the valley floor on the opposite side from where I stood, pretending to be looking for something specific.
It was either sheer determination or a stroke of luck but through the lenses I saw something move. I focused in on one particular area and wah LAH! I spotted a single mountain goat grazing on a grassy patch of ground way, way, way high up on the cliffs. I tried to see it without the binoculars and could only make out a white dot, but with them I could see that it was eating and soon I saw two more!
We had been seeing signs of mountain goats all day; dung and fluffy tufts of hair. In one particular area I could smell the distinct smell of grazing animals and it was then I thought for sure we would see some, but we didn't. I watched the goats until dusk made it difficult to see, then I headed back to the tent and, satisfied, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep. The day that was short on mileage was anything but short on adventure!
Pictures from Day 2
Relaxing on the warm rocks.
This iced tea never tasted so good!
Daisy growing right out of the rock near the falls.


Morning at Summerland
Wildflowers flourish here, even among the rocks!

Emily with the beloved morning Cup o'Joe.

Wearing the mosquito shield becomes second nature.

Fat marmot enjoying some warm rocks.
Waterfalls abound on large cliffs
Bear poles at Indian Bar

Taking in the view from our campsite
Approach to Indian Bar
Celebrating the fact that we just conquered Panhandle Gap

Emily and I coming up to Panhandle Gap