Archive for September 2012

The Maya I: Yucatan   Leave a comment

The beach and aqua Caribe at Sian Ka’an near Tulum, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

This is the first of a series of themed travel articles, based on recent trips.  Central America is certainly not the easiest region to travel through, especially if like me you fall firmly on the budget side of things.  My trip there a couple years ago was alternately relaxing and chaotic, gorgeous and grimy, fascinating and overlong, steamy hot and refreshing.  Central America is a place of contrasts, and this contrast begins with the Maya: past and present.

I’ve always been interested in the Maya.  On my first trip to the Yucatan years ago I visited a couple of ancient Mayan sites (Chichen Itza & Tulum).  The experience of standing on top of the carved stone temples of Tulum, alone as the sun rose over the Caribbean, was truly amazing.  But the main thing that impressed me on that trip was the fact that the Maya have gone nowhere.  They still live in the area, despite what we all learn – that they disappeared along with their ancient culture hundreds of years ago.

A huge Mayan pyramid at the remote site of Calakmul in the southern Yucatan.

Although they are a shadow of their former selves in terms of power and influence, the Maya remain a people relatively unstained by the worst of modern culture.  I found them to be delightful people, even more so on this recent trip, where I visited the current Maya cultural heartland: the Guatemalan Highlands.

Visiting the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan involves leaving the beach resorts of Cancun & the Riviera Maya behind and striking inland.  There is one exception to this rule: Tulum.  The ruins at Tulum, though nowhere near as big or important as other sites, are by virtue of their seaside location spectacular.  Like some other popular Mayan ruins, Tulum is mobbed by tours which arrive starting in late morning and peaking in the hottest part of the day.

A cool inner chamber near the top of a Mayan temple provides a unique perspective.

The Mayan ruins of Xpuhil in the Yucatan, Mexico.



























Arriving when they open is really the only reasonable plan for these popular sites.  With Tulum, you can do as I did and stay at one of the rustic beach “resorts” nearby.  The one in which I stayed in 2003 was the closest to the ruins.  My shack was on the beach (not facing the beach but actually surrounded by sand).  Inside was only a hammock and candle.  It cost me $12, and I was steps from the warm sea.  I don’t know how fancy things have gotten down there, but I imagine it’s suffered to some degree the scourge of “going upscale”.

I woke naturally at dawn, and hiked along the beach toward the ruins.  I clambered over rocks and reached the ruins by skirting around a fence.  The site was not open yet, and I was the only person there for some time, until one other guy, a Mexican, showed up.  He had apparently also walked in along the coast.  We didn’t say much to each other, and didn’t need to.  He just smiled at me in the golden light of sunrise.  We knew how lucky we were to be sharing that moment.  I was thinking about those Mayans who first caught sight of the Spaniards’ ships as they approached the New World.  Then I took a swim at the small sandy cove sitting at the base of Tulum’s walls.

A brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) perches on a branch in Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

I also visited Chichen Itza on my first trip to the Yucatan, in 2003, and like Tulum, I wanted to beat the crowds.  I stayed in the nearby town of Valladolid.  This is the only real town close to the ruins, though there are (spendy) hotels near the gate.  But Vallodolid is a quaint town with good street food.  I’d much rather sit in the zocalo (town square) and people-watch while eating cheap and tasty ceviche than sit in a big hotel’s restaurant trying not to be late for a scheduled tour.  You can catch a cheap van to the ruins starting in the early morning, and easily arrive when the gates open.  This will get you there with hours to spend before the tour buses from Cancun arrive.

Many other Mayan sites pepper the Yucatan Peninsula, and if you rent a car you can do excellent loops using the fine city of Merida as a base.  You can visit ruins like Uxmal south of Merida, taking in some modern Mayan villages along the way.  Or loop north to the Gulf, passing numerous cenotes, most of them swimmable.

As day ends in Mexico, I naturally gravitate toward the Taco stand.

Cenotes were (and are) sacred to the Maya, representing as they do the only sources of fresh water on the sponge-like limestone landscape of the Yucatan.  They are essentially sinkholes, some open to the sky, some more cave-like, filled with fresh cool water.  The cenotes in this area are aligned along a massive structure that is the remnant of an enormous impact crater.  It was formed when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs slammed into Earth 65 million years ago.

Swimming in a cenote is practically a requirement for visiting the Yucatan.  If you’re a diver you can take guided scuba trips into some cenotes.  This way you’ll get a strong feeling (maybe too strong for some) of what underwater cave diving is like.  My cenote dive was a true adventure, fascinating, unique, a little scary…a fantastic dive.

This is a fine trip, exploring the more popular Mayan sites in the northern Yucatan Peninsula.  But if you want a bit more adventure, and also the chance to see wildlife, make the southern Yucatan your goal.  I did this on my more recent trip, visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum on the way.  You can stay right on the reserve in gorgeous tented cabins at Centro Ecologico de Sian Ka’an (Cesiak).  There are reasonably priced boat trips into the wetlands, and the beach is long and empty.  It’s not too expensive, but not backpacker-cheap either.  You might be able to swing a deal in Tulum town, and you’ll be able to catch a ride out there with them in their van.

But the mysterious ruins in the Peten were my destination.  Heading inland just before reaching Chetumal near the Belize border, I arrived in the town of Xpuhil.  Public transport is fairly reliable, since this is the route between Chetumal and Campeche.  There are simple lodgings in this small town, and a great Mayan site (Xpuhil) that you can walk to.  I considered this a warmup to the huge ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, south of Xpuhil.

I was forced to do something I sometimes resort to when I arrive in a place that is relatively untouristed, and without much of a plan.  I walked around looking for the few other tourists in town, and finally found a couple who wanted to visit Calakmul as well.  Then we simply asked around and found a guide to take us.  We left early in the morning, and drove down the lonely road through the flat jungle of the Peten.  We passed our first car and stopped.  They had just seen a jaguar on the road, but when we hurried onward it was already gone.

We arrived at Calakmul and were the only visitors.  A couple workers were using homemade brooms to sweep the stone walkways as we walked through the enormous site.  A large herd of wild pigs roamed the trees between the ruins.  Calakmul was one of the Maya world’s more important cities, rivaling Tikal in size.  In fact, Tikal and Palenque, two other famous sites of the Peten, were Calakmul’s fierce rivals.

The pyramids of Calakmul are truly gigantic, standing well up above the jungle.  The surrounding landscape is so flat that on very clear days you can see some of the pyramids at Mayan sites south across the Guatemalan border.  I imagined standing up there during the height of Mayan power, looking across the jungle to a rival city’s pyramids.  Would they be attacking my city soon?  We spent a few hours wandering about, checking out the ruins.  A few other visitors showed up, but we mostly had the place to ourselves.

A fine thing about being in Central America is the ready availability of fresh jugos (what we would call smoothies).

We ended up staying at a little “eco-resort” (really a campsite) on the way back.  There was a canopy platform there, accessible by hiking trail.  This is a tower with stairs you climb to an observation deck situated near the treetops.  This allows you to do some serious birdwatching.  I saw beautiful parrots, toucans and other birds.  While hiking I also came upon a group of Coatis, curious looking creatures that really don’t look much like any other animal.  The Peten is heaven for a naturalist.

A Mexican woman from southern Yucatan relaxes with her knitting on a perfect afternoon.

That evening we visited a cave where thousands and thousands of bats emerge at sunset.  What a trip!  Clouds of them, flying right past my head in a blur.  The image above is of a woman we met along the road, at a stop for drinks.  She was just sitting there knitting, and was very happy to exchange the local gossip with our guide (who she knew of course).  Typical Mexican flavor, so I had my camera out, and she was a very cooperative subject.

The wild jungle of the Peten stretches toward Guatemala from atop a pyramid at Calakmul in Mexico.

I love Mexico, and will be back there soon I hope.  I would love to go on an archaeological expedition into the Peten, either northern Guatemala or southern Mexico.  There are drug smugglers operating in this remote area, and penetrating it means trekking on foot through rough jungles.  But I know that not only is it a rich hunting ground for fresh discoveries of Mayan cities, but it is also home to Central America’s most diverse and abundant wildlife.  But this trip, in which I visited all the countries in Central America, was only just beginning.  I would visit many more Mayan sites, and also experience their culture in western Guatemala.  That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

The sun goes down behind an island in the lagoon at Sian Kaan Reserve on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Smoke and Photography   Leave a comment

I want to pass on what I’ve found about photographing with smoke – in the skies and otherwise.  Landscape photography in general is better in clear air.  I don’t mean clear skies – clouds are good!  I mean clear air, the kind you get on a cold morning in autumn or winter.  But that clear air will mean a blue bias to the color.  Of course you can color correct if you don’t like that, but that is easily overdone.  Some of the most popular landscape photos on the web were shot in very clear air at golden hour (early or late in the day).  You’re best off with that plan if you want a lot of detail in your shots.

Crater Lake in Oregon is calm as the sun rises.

But those sorts of shots can get old.  So we search for fog, mist, even rain sometimes.  Anything to give the shot some atmosphere.  We rarely go out when skies are smoky from forest fires.  That’s just an ugly look, we think.  But depending on how much smoke is in the air, this can result in some interesting, even great pictures.  The picture above was taken at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon last month while the smoke was drifting in from fires in northern California.  Now there wasn’t that much smoke, and I had the advantage of being at a relatively high elevation.

At the time I was taking this picture, in the early morning, smoke was obvious and not all that great looking.  As you can see, however, it has some nice color and a somewhat unique look.  Whenever you have a warm-looking color tone at sunrise it’s worth going with that – it always looks a bit different than sunset.   This strategy can yield some nice shots, but it’s hard to tell at the time of capture.  You can’t go by what things look like when you’re there.  It’s just too hazy and low contrast to think photos will turn out nicely.

Here are some things that will help:

  • Being far enough away from the fire that the smoke is thin and/or layered across the landscape.
  • Getting to the highest elevation you can, in order to be looking across the top of the ground-hugging smoke.
  • Shooting in the very early morning.  The late afternoon golden hour will likely see the smoke thicker and more obvious, though the winds and progress of the fire will be the major factor.
  • Definitely expose a bit to the right (slightly overexpose).  You want to avoid noise at all costs, since the mixture of the “grain” in the shot from the smoke and noise will not look good.
  • In post-processing you’ll generally want to increase contrast and clarity unless the smoke is providing a lot of atmosphere, and depending on the composition.  It’s a balance, but you generally will be able to use a heavier hand than with other landscape pictures.

Mount Hood and Hood River Valley are shrouded in smoke from a late-season fire.

The smoke in the shot above was heavier (I was closer to the fire), but not too heavy.  Also, I was taking it from a lower spot, more inside the smoke layer than the Crater Lake example.  So the blurry orange typical of smokey sky is much more dominant, effecting the colors of the landscape much more.  The two shots are very different: the first one is better for sure, but the dominating smoke of the second in no way ruins the shot.  It turned out much better than I thought, and gave me hope that a different composition and subject might take better advantage of the smoke.  I even tried that night (image below) from a spot that I love in the spring for its flowers; it’s a short hike, illuminated by a half-moon on this night.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Of course taking pictures of people in smoky conditions normally means they are smoking.  These can obviously be very atmospheric shots, and though I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke, I will accept it in order to bring a real personality to my subject.  Women normally don’t look good smoking in my opinion.  The shot below was not nearly as disagreeable to me as it would be if he was smoking a cigarette.  Though I don’t smoke it anymore, I still love the smell of ganja.  He was quite a willing subject, a Malawian on the shores of that beautiful lake in Africa, Lake Malawi.  It’s easy to believe you’re in Jamaica.

A hard-working woodcarver in Malawi relaxes with his drum, and partakes of his reward.

So when that smoke appears to intrude on your pictures, do what you should always do when you have a camera: go with the flow.  Use the smoke to give your shots an interesting look.

Posted September 8, 2012 by MJF Images in Photography

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Mount Rainier III (the end)   3 comments

Mount Rainier in Washington state.

My last destination at Mount Rainier National Park was Mowich Lake, on the mountain’s northwest side.  Here you’ll find my idea of the perfect photo opportunity in this park, a little slice of alpine heaven called Eunice Lake.  I had never been here before, strangely enough.  You’ll need to travel around the mountain, through the town of Enumclaw, and up a washboard gravel road to Mowich Lake.  Paying your entry fee ($15 per car for 7 days) is on an honor system here.  At Mowich you can sleep at a simple walk-in campsite.  Plenty of people come here, since it is on the Seattle side of the mountain, but 95% of them hike up to Spray Park, leaving Eunice Lake in the opposite direction relatively people-free.

It’s understandable why people flock to Spray Park.  It’s a beautiful area with flower meadows that is not a great distance from the trailhead (3-4 miles).  Spray Falls along this route (and pictured below) is well worth seeing too.  It is big, and has an interesting shape as it skims down a cliff face.  So it’s worth hiking up to Spray Park and beyond if you have energy.  You can even make a large loop out to Mystic Lake, returning via the Wonderland Trail to Mowich Lk.

Spray Falls at Mount Rainier National Park.

I did the Spray Park hike, but when I returned to Mowich I headed up to Eunice Lake, only 2+ miles away, for sunset.  The extra hiking piled onto a week of hiking was worth it.  What a gorgeous place!  An alpine lake of great clarity, Eunice is surrounded by open forest of small spruce and subalpine fir on three sides, with a steep talus slope and cliff below Tolmie Peak on the other side.  What makes it special is its position in relation to Rainier.  If you scramble around the lake to the other side (from the trail), you can look right back onto Rainier’s spectacular NW face.  It’s framed by the lake and its trees, and rises dramatically.  The sun is setting largely behind you, and so alpenglow at sunset is guaranteed.  That is, if the clouds do not drape the mountain too heavily like they did when I hiked up there.

For a few seconds, only the very summit cleared, enough to give me an idea of the kind of picture this spot could yield.  After sunset the mountain came happily out in the clear (of course).  But the light was gone by then.  Hiking back, pictureless in the dark (but with my headlamp this time), I resolved to return here.  I’ll try for when the air is clear yet there are a some clouds around, and (this is really stretching it) no wind.  If all these things line up, I’ll have a “to-die-for” image of of a beautiful ice-capped mountain reflected in a pristine alpine lake.  I know it could very well be much better than anything I saw in the visitor center, shot by pro photographers.  And I will get it.  I’m the right kind of persistent for the job.

So that’s my trip to Rainier.  The Cascade Mountains have other places with gorgeous wildflower meadows (Bird Creek Meadows at Mt Adams, for e.g.), but Rainier has by far the Cascades’ most extensive and diverse such scenery.  Combine that with great hiking, a world-class alpine climb, and fine wildlife sightings, and you have one of our country’s best national parks.  To close, here’s my favorite picture of the trip.  Thanks for reading!

The west face of Rainier is reflected in a pond at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.

Mount Rainier II   Leave a comment

Mount Rainier looks over its extensive subalpine meadows in eveningtime.

Continuing my just-concluded trip to Rainier National Park in Washington, I’ll describe a few of my favorite hiking destinations in the park, including a new one I found that I’ll be sure to return to.  I must, because it presents one of the best photographic opportunities of this iconic Pacific Northwest peak I know of.  But this isn’t really a secret (a trail goes to it) and I don’t really believe in secret spots anyway.  I do have an actual secret spot in the park, one well away from any trail, a paradise where the wildlife looks shocked to see a human being.  But I can’t bring myself to write about it.  Maybe that’s because there was a time when I believed in secret spots.  Uh oh, I believe I feel a tangent coming on…

There was a special (“secret”) fishing hole we knew as young teens.  I had just gotten my driver’s license, and at 16 found myself with a fast silver Pontiac.  We were exploring the rural parts north of my hometown, Baltimore, Maryland.  Sadly, most of it is housing tracts now.  There is a reservoir called Loch Raven, and we had always caught a few crappie, bluegill and maybe a smallmouth at the standard spots near the road, or out in canoes.  It was my uncle, me and a good friend.  My uncle was the same age as me – my mom and grandmom were in the same hospital at the same time – and we were like brothers.  I miss him greatly; he passed away too young a couple years ago.

One morning, on the advice of a relative of my our friend, the three of us arrived before dawn, parked in a questionable place, then hiked in by flashlight.  We were going off verbal directions, and soon were not sure where we were.  But we followed a creek downhill, and soon arrived at a misty cove.  Dawn was just breaking.  I can still see in my mind that mysterious water through the trees, just as the fog was lifting.  It was one of those views of water that shouts out “Great Fishing Here!”.  It was beautiful, peaceful and exciting at the same time.

We picked a spot along the shore of the lonely cove, realizing how lucky we were to find it.  It could only be reached by boat or overland via bushwhacking; no trail.  We proceeded to have the best fishing morning any of us had experienced, and it still ranks in the upper two or three of my life.  We caught about two dozen bass each, both large and smallmouth.  It was a bite & a fight on every cast.  Releasing all but a few, we proceeded to make a fire and cook them up.  Now I’ve had riverside fish that probably had a better taste than these (Alaska on the King Salmon River springs to mind), but nothing can come close to the taste I remember.  Delicious!

Needless to say, this fishing spot remained a closely guarded secret among a very small circle of friends.  That is, until one day we arrived and found a boat already there, with several loud fishermen cracking beers.  The place was never the same, and I believe I only visited once more, catching only one sad looking bluegill.  It was one of my first realizations that change in life, and in this world, is part of its very fabric.  And you tend to notice the changes that aren’t welcome.

Hiking above Paradise at Mount Rainier, the Tatoosh Range in the background.

Now if you’re still reading, Mount Rainier has some pretty special spots, reachable by hiking of course.  Few are secret, but many can be enjoyed all alone if you plan well.  Some involve hiking off-trail, but most are accessed by simply following relatively unpopular trails.  The park can be crowded on weekends, and it’s worth having a good topo map and a sense of adventure if you visit at these times.  I was there during the week before Labor Day, so I headed over to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, a series of meadows on the mountain’s SW side.

This area can be reached via several different trails, but the shortest (and oddly the least hiked) route is to park at the gate across the West Side Road and hike up Tacoma Creek trail.  This trail is not maintained, so it gets a bit rough in spots, but there are absolutely no serious obstacles.  It is a direct route up to the Wonderland Trail (which circles the mountain), where you take a right and hike a couple miles up to the meadows.  All told it is a bit over 4 miles tops, one way.

I had a busy time there, shooting pictures of wildflowers and the mountain reflected in numerous ponds, all the while fighting a losing battle with legions of mosquitoes.  The lupine and paintbrush were near perfect, and even the early-blooming aster, bistort and beargrass was still in fine form.  From this angle, the mountain shows off a very rocky face, with little evidence of the glaciers that dominate most other viewpoints.  I stayed until sundown and then hiked back by headlamp, camping where I had parked.

It’s technically illegal to just park and camp anywhere in a national park, but I do it often.  The high-profile parks like Yellowstone, which actually have night-patrolling cop-rangers make this strategy difficult.  But thankfully Rainier gets nowhere near the funds to field many of these police masquerading as rangers.  They actually rely heavily these days on volunteers, so don’t believe everything you hear from those in uniform; they often hand out misinformation.  But I like them because the first thing out of their mouths is not a rule or regulation.

A mountain goat pauses in a field of lupine in Rainier National Park’s Tatoosh Range.

Next, I hiked up to one of my favorite polar bear swimming spots in the park, Snow Lake.  While the weather was a bit too cool to jump in this time, I made the mistake of looking beyond the lake, at a peak called Unicorn.  Unicorn lies in the Tatoosh Range, a line of jagged peaks that run along the south side of the park.  A long time ago I climbed this peak solo, and I remembered it was not an easy task.  From the lake, it starts out up a steep rocky chute, and then just gets steeper, finally ending with a 5.6 or 7 scramble up the summit pinnacle.

I wandered up that way this time, feeling that familiar magnetic pull of a high peak.  On the way up, a mountain goat appeared (left).  I wanted to see how with all the years I had accumulated it compared in difficulty.  In other words, did I still have it?  Well, I wound up getting up to the summit pinnacle, where one single move, the crux, stymied me.  I was less than 50 feet from the summit.  I felt I could do it easily enough, but then coming back down would be a bit dicey, and if I fell there…

Nobody else was anywhere nearby of course, and nobody knew I was there.  Night was coming on fast, and the weather was beginning to turn ugly.  In fact, on my way down, (in no way ashamed I might add), I became confused when the weather quickly socked in and visibility went to zero.  I couldn’t find the correct route, descending the wrong way on two occasions, only to catch myself and race huffing and puffing back up the mountain to try again.

All this while dusk was descending.  At one point, the clouds cleared for a few seconds, and I happened to be in just the right position to briefly glimpse the way down.  It was hand over hand, facing the mountain, with the rocks slick from a light drizzle.  I tried not to hurry too much, but knew I was nowhere near prepared to spend the night out in weather like that.  Hypothermia was on my mind as I slid and stumbled down the steep talus slopes.

Just at full dark I finally found the trail near Snow Lake, and relaxed a bit – but maybe too much.  I crossed a log bridge slick with the rain and in the darkness slid right off, gashing my shin and twisting my wrist in the fall down to the creek.  I thought I would be crawling and feeling my way back along the 2+ mile trail, but the moonlight seeped through the cloud cover enough to allow me to walk, carefully, back to the van.  My first bit of luck all evening.  Once back and changed out of my damp clothes, I shivered for an hour or so while hugging my little dog, trying to warm up.  I feed him, so I figure he ought to provide some kind of service for that!   A close call once again.  Never again will I forget my headlamp.  Wait a minute, shouldn’t I be promising to never put myself in that position in the first place?  Oh well, the headlamp is  easier to remember.

Mowich Lake at Mount Rainier is lighted by a summer’s blue moon.

I went to Sunrise after that, on the northeast side of the mountain.  This area is like Paradise, with some short hikes, nice flower meadows, and a lot of people.  If you come to this area, and especially if it is September, make sure and hike out the Palisades Trail, which leaves from Sunrise Point, a few miles before you get to road’s end at the visitor center.  On the park map you’ll see two areas, Green Park and Bear Park.  Head to one or both of those areas and you are sure to see elk, rutting and bugling in autumn.  Bear also frequent this area.  It’s one of the park’s premiere wildlife areas, and you’ll see few other people.

The picture below was taken from this trail, at Clover Lake.  A picture in the last post, above the clouds in the moonlight, was taken from Sunrise Point, where I camped for two nights.  This is Washington’s highest paved road, built by those angels of the 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps.  We need something similar in this day and age I think.  It’s funny because the week before, I was on Oregon’s highest paved road.  Must be high summer.

Lupine, lousewort and indian paintbrush bloom around Clover Lake at Mount Rainier National Park.

I have to apologize.  I said I’d share a great photo spot at Rainier, and I will.  But it’ll have to wait ’till tomorrow’s post.  This has gone too long already.  How’s that for suspense, eh?  Thanks for reading!

Mount Rainier I   2 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a pond in the subalpine meadows on the west side of the mountain.

I spent the past week at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, about 3 hours north of here (Portland).  I haven’t spent quality time there for years.  A long time ago I worked a season at Rainier, living in the park cabins at Longmire and hiking out every day to track elk and document their impacts.  I worked with a young biologist, but spent much of my time sketching and describing the glacial features in the park.  That is, when I wasn’t trail running, an addiction I developed at around that time.  We would literally throw a dart at the map of the park on some mornings and just go there looking for elk.  You could count on one hand the number of times we saw our supervisor.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Another interesting part of the job was flying in a light aircraft once a week to count elk and mountain goat.  Of course, I was “green around the gills’ the entire time in the air.  I’m cursed with motion sickness, have been my entire life.  But thankfully it takes some doing.  Flying a light plane close to that mountain was the (easy) doing.  The best part about the job: no ranger uniform.  Yes indeed, we were blessedly incognito! Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet (4265 meters) and heavily glaciated, is probably most famous as one of the finest climbing challenges in the lower 48 states.

I’ve climbed it twice, once from the south and once from the north.  The north side climb was most fun.  It was about five years ago now, three of us (the perfect climbing team size) ascended the Emmons Glacier (the largest glacier in the lower 48).  We started around midnight, and were the first group up.  I led most of the way, being the most comfortable member of our little group with glacier travel.  We skirted crevasses by headlamp and climbing up into the darkness.  I’ll never forget that feeling, like ascending into the starry sky.  I’ve never had a climb precisely like that one.

It’s understandable that Rainier, being the Cascades’ most massive and most heavily glaciated peak, attracts climbers.  Quite a number have died on the mountain, but the dangers it presents are no more than average for a mountain of its size.  As is the case with Mt Hood in Oregon, it comes down to numbers and probability.  More climbers equals more accidents.  It’s that simple.

Rainier is a sleeping giant.  It is a composite volcano, meaning it’s made of layers of ash and lava.  The type of lava that dominates is andesite, named for that great mountain range in South America where this kind of volcano is abundant.  This mixed layered makeup of the mountain, combined with relatively recent glaciation, which scoured (and still scours) the sides of the volcano, means the mountain stands tall and steep.  Acidic gases vent from the summit area on a constant basis, converting much of the rock there to a crumbly mess.  When winter releases its icy grip, and especially during very warm periods in late spring/early summer, there is a very real risk of huge avalanches of rock and ice cutting loose from high up on the mountain.  These can quickly turn into floods or even mudflows lower on the mountain, channeled into furious destruction by the major river drainages.

Mudflows (or lahars, the Indonesian word preferred by geologists) are a sort of dense flood.  A slurry, the consistency of wet concrete, complete with trees, rocks, chunks of ice, cars, buildings, bridges, etc. races down-valley at speeds of 30, 40 or even 50 mph.  A lahar don’t take prisoners.  The reason I mention this mechanism for starting a mudflow is that it does not require a volcanic eruption, just melting.  An earthquake could easily trigger one as well.

Of course Rainier is only sleeping and could erupt.  In that case, you have not only the likelihood of mudflows, but also pyroclastic flows, lava flows and ash falls.  The French term for pyroclastic flow is nuee ardente, which means glowing cloud.  And that’s what they are.  Made of pulverized rock superheated to hundreds of degrees, they race down the mountain at speeds of 100 mph. or more.  The deadliest thing a volcano throws out, they kill even more quickly than mudflows.  Ask the ghost-like corpses at Pompei, the ancient Roman graveyard at the foot of Vesuvius.  They’ll tell you how much time you have to get out of the way.

The stars are reflected in Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

So this park is one of the more geologically dangerous in the country.  Yellowstone is a much bigger volcano, but one that goes ages between eruptions.  Rainier will almost certainly erupt well before Yellowstone’s caldera does.  By the way, Rainier has one of the world’s few warning systems for mudflows.  Sensors high on the mountain are triggered when a probable mudflow starts, sending a signal to loud alarms near towns like Orting down-valley.  Residents are trained to flee to high ground.  And if you visit the park, and hear a loud rumbling sound (especially if an earthquake preceded it), that’s what you should do.  Get out of whatever valley you’re in, and quickly!

High in the Cascade Mountains of Washington gives a heavenly viewpoint on a moonlit night.

What many don’t realize about Mt Rainier is that, despite its great climbing, the park actually has much more to offer hikers than climbers.  You can spend months exploring this park without ever going much above treeline.  If you go to climb the mountain you are essentially exploring a much smaller aspect of the park than if you were to go for a week with no thought of climbing.  Rainier has the most extensive subalpine and alpine meadow system in the Cascades, with the spectacular flower displays that go along with that fact.  I love the park because of this.  For this trip I tried for the peak of the flower bloom (normally mid to late August), and although a week earlier would have been perfect, I was able to hike through and photograph a stunning profusion.

I headed up there late on a Saturday, arriving near midnight. This seems a strange time to go I realize, but I wanted to photograph the mountain under stars, then have it get light with the promise of the park to explore for much of the week.  I love arriving at a place in the dark, and then having the morning light reveal where I am.  Of course, since I’m a photographer and have to shoot at sunrise, doing night photography means I only get a few hours sleep.  But I found a quiet, shady spot to sleep the rest of the morning away.  There is definitely an advantage in having my camper van (it’s an 87 Westphalia).

Blue gentian bloom in the meadows of Mount Rainier National Park.

My faithful companion Charl accompanied me.  He’s my little buddy, a shih tsu with an enormous personality.  Most important, he can sleep for hours and hours, and can hold his pee for an unbelievable period.  When he was young I took him on hikes, many of them long & tough.  But he’s old now (14) and can’t do more than a mile or two, and that only on an easy trail in cool weather.  So I leave him in the van, parked in shade with plenty of ventilation, water and snacks. It was forecast to be fairly cool, and that’s what it was, perfect for hiking.  In fact, one morning it dipped below freezing.  Every day but one had plenty of sunshine.

I already mentioned this is a hiker’s park.  Unlike some parks, where there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve much in the way of strenuous hiking, Rainier rewards the fit.  In fact, it’s hilarious watching people visiting the park.  They don’t know what to do with themselves, and seem confused at the general lack of overlooks.  The National Park overlook is an institution in the U.S.  I believe I should write a post on the psychology behind N.P. overlooks.  There is a definite behavior associated with them. Many parks are inundated with overlooks (Shenandoah, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon are a few examples).  And parks like Yellowstone are chock full of small parking areas where one can stroll along a super-short, flat trail to a geyser or some-such sight.  The same sort of effect applies there as with the simple stop and gawk overlook.

But at Rainier, visitors are forced to drive for miles without pulling over.  They crowd the few short trails, and hang about the smallish visitor centers,  looking a bit lost.  They’ll stop at the smallest wide spot in the road, with no real view, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a National Park.  Like I said, it’s hilarious watching them.  If these same people ever visited parks like Kobuk Valley in Alaska, I think they’d end up insisting that their entry fee be returned.

So Rainier is, generally speaking, lacking in the standard National Park crutches.  (I haven’t mentioned the Disney-esque gateway towns that one must pass through, like a gauntlet, at many parks – think Dollywood on the way into the Great Smokies.)   There are a few stops and sights at Rainier, but they’re generally low-key.  Longmire is one.  It’s a low-elevation meadow among old-growth forest in the SW corner of the park.  A short nature trail circles the meadow, and there is a small gift shop and ranger station, but little else. The two main destinations, however, are Paradise and Sunrise, on opposite sides of the mountain and high up in the subalpine zone.

Paradise, the park’s most popular destination, has some relatively short trails, plus the park’s only real lodge (the Paradise Inn).  There is a great view of the mountain from the large patio in front of the visitor center here, and the crowds on a weekend can be breathtakingly enormous.  The metropolis of Seattle-Tacoma is close-by, after all.  I love the girl watching at Paradise; so many beautiful Asian women (National Parks get many more foreign visitors these days than they did in the past).  It was here at Paradise that I came that Sunday, after my morning sleep.

I soon grew tired of watching the people milling about and struck out on the trail to Panorama Point.  This starts out as a paved trail, then it turns upward through flowery meadows.  It grows steeper and you drop 90% of the other hikers.  I was amazed and surprised when I saw a bear, then another, near the top of the trail.  It was a mother and her older cub, feeding on early season berries.  You could tell she was getting ready to say goodbye to her youngster.  The two never got more than a few hundred, but never closer than 100, yards from each other.  Given their location, these were obviously bears that were used to people, though try as I might, they wouldn’t let me get too close.  And since I was in the park’s most crowded area, I didn’t think of lugging my 100-400 telephoto zoom lens.  So my pictures needed some serious cropping.  I had a lot of fun stalking the two, trying to get close enough for my 200 mm.

A black bear prowls the meadows of Mt Rainier looking for berries.

Note that black bears present no serious danger, so long as you don’t get between a mom and her cubs, nor bother one on a kill.  There is an exception, when a black bear is in a remote wilderness well away from humans, you need to take more care.  In this case they can stalk and kill, treating you as prey.  At Rainier, there has never been a bear fatality, and this indicates how used to, and wary of, humans the ursines are in this and most national parks.  Well, finally the pair of bears gave me the slip, and I still can’t figure out how they got by me.  I thought I had all the “exits” covered!

I ended up spending the whole week at Rainier.  I visited an area where I did many elk surveys years ago, and also went to a place I have never been, Mowich Lake.  I had an adventure climbing Unicorn Peak, nearly having to spend the night in hypothermic conditions, and had a delightful romp (me and a billion mosquitos) in the flower fields of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.  I will do the pics and write on that in my next post. Thanks for reading!

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

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