17 July 2016

Partly to Perfectly Cloudy

A misty morning on Rampart Ridge.
I've seen a lot more of clouds than of mountains this summer, and I couldn't be happier about it.

The Pacific Northwest is known for its clouds. Even the summers, which are normally pretty dry, typically see their fair share of cloudy days. Last summer, that wasn't the case though. The stifling heat that baked the region also burned off the clouds, making for a seemingly endless string of bright, sunny days and clear views of the mountains. Although those views were nice, the unusual weather grew old. That's why I have no complaints about my cloudy experiences with the mountains this year.

The clouds have defined my hikes at, near, and on Mount St. HelensMount Hood, and Mount Rainier in 2016. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they have made those experiences perfect. The most recent hike was on the Rampart Ridge Trail near Longmire at Mount Rainier. We had heavy cloud cover for the whole hike, but the trail and the conditions could not have been better suited for each other.

Rampart Ridge (the Ramparts for short) formed from a lava flow off the mountain, but it is below the tree line, so unlike some other hikes on Mount Rainier, it is covered by forest, including some massive old-growth trees at the lower levels. Even on clear days, the trail along the ridge has only a few clear views of the mountain. That's okay because the forest is the real show. Our cloudy day made sure we remembered that.

Within the trees, we found a lively, colorful ecosystem. The undergrowth, glowing green with moss and vine maple, housed Douglas squirrels and birds. We heard the haunting calls of varied thrushes and saw cute wildflowers and fungi. Then, there were the clouds. We hiked high enough to meet them and were fortunate to walk through their mist. At one of the open areas, we looked across Kautz Creek to see Pyramid Peak shrouded in fog. We also received a visit from a gray jay. As we moved through the old growth sentries near the end of the hike, we came upon a barred owl.

The clouds never let us see Mount Rainier. Instead, they helped us focus on the best of what the Ramparts had to offer, enclosing a magnificent world all its own.

All in all, it's been perfectly wonderful to have the clouds back in the Pacific Northwest this summer.

11 July 2016

One Way or Another

Mount Hood from I-84 in Portland, Oregon.
Outdoor adventures represent a mix of making things happen and letting things happen.

This summer's plan was to visit four volcanoes. Mount Hood in Oregon was one of the four. As it turned out, that trip meshed planning and decision-making with adapting to the environment and circumstances.

Initially, I planned the trip to Mount Hood for late July. However, a few weeks ago, I learned that my brother-in-law was flying into Portland and needed a ride from the airport on July 7. Since the flight arrived at 9:30 p.m., that left plenty of time for an adventure in Oregon during the day, so I moved the Mount Hood trip up and added in dinner reservations for Multnomah Falls. The new plan seemed perfect. It consolidated trips, saved gas, and did not require rushing.

Nature had other plans, however. Checking the forecast the day before the trip, I found that clouds and rain were predicted for July 7. Since I could hike anywhere and not see Mount Hood, it didn't make any sense to drive two hours out of Portland for a hike on a cloudy day, so I changed my plans again. With the dinner reservations at Multnomah Falls set, I moved the hike to that area. That's when things finally clicked.

My mom and I hiked around and between Multnomah Falls and Wahkeena Falls, took in the sights of the Columbia River Gorge, and had an amazing dinner at the Multnomah Falls Lodge Restaurant. As luck would have it, I even got a picture of Mount Hood (at least, most of it). When we drove through Portland on the way to the falls, the cloud cover had lifted enough to see all but the mountain's peak. I snapped a picture of it from the car and felt satisfied that the trip would go down as a success. The experience at the falls confirmed that feeling.

When it comes to spending time outdoors, things don't always go according to plan, but if you put a good strategy in motion, a few adjustments along the way are just fine.

06 July 2016

Taking the Next Step

A view of Mount St. Helens from the hummocks.
My hike near Mount St. Helens 11 days ago began last summer, and it's not over yet.

On a Father's Day trip to the mountain in 2015, my dad and I found some information about the trails in the area. After last year's successful hikes at Mount Rainier, Olympic National Park, and the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, I spent part of the winter planning excursions in the Pacific Northwest for this summer. The details about the Mount St. Helens trails provided a number of great options.

The hike from the hummocks northwest of the mountain to Johnston Ridge seemed particularly interesting, and I quickly settled on it. By Christmas, my mom and my cousin were on board for the hike.

As it moved from the Toutle River Valley up Johnston Ridge, the Boundary-Hummocks Trail displayed a surprising range of features and ecosystem types. The hummocks, formed by deposits left from the massive lahars (mudflows) triggered by the volcano's 1980 eruption, contained lush ponds shaded by alder. The ponds provided homes for beavers and birds and fed thriving thickets of ferns, cattails, and horsetails. Below the hummocks, the Toutle River continued its task of cutting through the sediment deposits.

Johnston Ridge, which received much of the 1980 blast, featured different terrain. A few trees had returned, but much of the land was open, giving us a great view to watch the day's clouds shuffle around the mountain. The clouds became the stars of the hike. They began to clear at about 9:30 a.m. Around noon, they re-formed near the mountain's middle like a Hula-Hoop. By the late afternoon, they covered the summit. Rather than taking away from the view though, the clouds seemed to enhance it with various personalities. Last year, during the hot, dry summer, we saw no clouds around the mountain. The clear view was fantastic, but this year's clouds made for many unique perspectives not possible without them.

When the hiked ended, I felt like I knew Mount St. Helens more intimately. I'd walked in two very different environments in the span of just a few miles, and they had revealed a lot about what has been happening around the mountain in the last 36 years.

In truth, this one trail represents just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the network of paths around the mountain, so an adventure that began in 2015 and continued this year has plenty of next steps.