Archive for the ‘adventure’ Tag

Adventuring Grand Canyon ~ Toroweap   7 comments

Ocotillo and barrel cactus in spring green: Lava Falls Trail, Toroweap, AZ.

The Grand Canyon is on the bucket lists of many of us.  Most head to the south rim where all the tourist facilities are.  This little story is about the much less popular north rim, which is worth visiting too.  But wait, it’s not even about the more popular north rim, where the lodge is located.  It’s about a little corner of the park that is a little tough to get to.  Called Toroweap, it’s in the northwestern part of the park, which means it overlooks the lower Colorado River.

On the road to Toroweap, Arizona Strip.

Toroweap, which is little more than a campground and overlook, is a Paiute word meaning “dry valley”.  And that’s what you drive up on a long gravel road from the Arizona Strip.  That’s the narrow, isolated strip of Arizona that stretches along the Utah border and north of the Grand Canyon.  I was in the area visiting Zion and the Grand Staircase and had a few extra days.

I’d been wanting to drive up to the north rim from Kanab.  But being late winter, the main route through Jacob Lake was still closed due to snow.  I thought of Toroweap, which is at a lower elevation than the rest of the north rim.  It was open!  So despite my allergy to washboard gravel roads, that’s where I went.  There were fields of flowers blooming along the way (image above).

Along the trail to Lava Falls.

The last short stretch to the spectacular overlook over the lower Grand Canyon is rocky and recommended for high clearance vehicles.  I babied my van over the rock shelves but still parked a couple hundred yards from the lookout.  I claimed a campsite and took a hike out along the rim to the east.  Recent rains had filled the potholes in the sandstone, adding to the atmosphere.  Toward day’s end the light got awfully nice and I got some nice shots before sunset (below).

A rainstorm leaves full water pockets at Toroweap on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

I know what you’re thinking: not too adventurous.  That’s what I was thinking too.  Why hang around an overlook all day?  So next morning I took a little dirt road I’d spied.  It led down to the trailhead for Lava Falls, which I knew was somewhere nearby.  I decided to see how far down the trail I could get before chickening out and turning around.  The sign isn’t kidding.  The trail is super-steep and rough, though much worse in the heat of summer.  Each few hundred feet you drop down it you become more and more aware of how far back up you’ll be climbing in the heat of the day.

Trailhead to Lava Falls, Grand Canyon N.P.

As I went down I left the cool air of the rim and entered springtime.  I came across some just-blooming wildflowers along the way.  I saw a raft party pull off the Colorado, scout Lava Falls, and then run it.  It seemed as if I was looking straight down on them from the trail above.  After a certain point it was hard to stop; the river pulled me toward it.  On reaching the river I scrambled along the shore to reach one of the Colorado’s most impressive rapid, Lava Falls.  Pulling myself up over a boulder I was surprised by a rattlesnake (or vice versa).  I’d never seen this species.  It turned out to be an endemic (found nowhere else), the Grand Canyon pink.

A Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake, found nowhere else but here.

A blooming prickly pear attracts a pollinator within the lower part of Grand Canyon.

Sitting on the rocks next to Lava Falls is an interesting experience.  The water is so powerful that you can feel and hear large boulders roll with the current along the stream bed.  I got as close to the main rapids as I dared, and got the shot below.  It was remarkably warm at the river, and even though the water was ice cold, I took a swim below the rapids.  I figured I’d need the memory of it about halfway on the climb back up.  It isn’t a very long distance, but it was almost sunset by the time I reached the rim.  That last mile or so was a struggle!

Cactus blooming inside the lower Grand Canyon above Lava Falls.

One of Grand Canyon’s most fearsome rapids, Lava Falls, rumbles and roars.

After some great light and a nice shot of the Toroweap Valley at sunset (below), I was far too exhausted to go anywhere.  I slept right where I’d parked for the hike.  I never saw another soul either at the rim or along the trail.  Just those rafters on the river.  It had been the perfect shooting experience, at least for me.  I love being around people when doing travel photography but prefer shooting alone for landscape and nature photography.

Thanks for checking out the post!  Have a wonderful weekend.

I camped near the trailhead for Lava Falls: Toroweap, Grand Canyon N.P.

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Adventuring Mt. Rainier ~ In the Dark   6 comments

Mt. Rainier and Upper Tipsoo Lake.

There really is no Cascade peak like Mount Rainier.  Mt. Hood is spectacularly beautiful.  Mt. Saint Helens has a dangerous beating heart.  And Glacier Peak is surrounded by the kind of wilderness that reminds of Alaska.  But Rainier is at another scale altogether.  Not only is it broad it’s lofty.  It is flanked by dramatically steep glaciers that drop dramatically down to relatively low-lying forested valleys.

From Seattle, Rainier looks like a normal snow-capped mountain.  But when you approach close to or inside the national park that covers the mountain, it’s a different story.  It’s a massively rugged mountain ringed by high country, like the Tatoosh Range to the south.  Each side of the mountain has its own character, with extensive subalpine meadows a consistent feature.

Last post I related a little bear story from one of these meadow areas:  Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on Rainier’s southwest side.  I was a young buck then; years later I returned to photograph the wildflower display.  The thing about Indian Henry’s that makes it a little challenging is its distance from trailheads.  Most people backpack in.  But if you hike up Tahoma Creek trail from West Side Road, it’s a mostly straightforward, if long, day-hike.  Don’t take it too lightly though.  At over 12 miles round-trip with more than 2500 feet elevation gain, and with parts of the trail sometimes washed out, it isn’t an easy trek.

Mirror Lakes in the center of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mt. Rainier National Park.

Night-Hike

On a photo trip to Rainier five years ago I decided that Indian Henry’s would make a great late-day hike.  It’s the sort of hike only a nature photographer would consider.  The kind where you time it to be someplace awesome to shoot at sunset.   And since your camera gear alone is heavy enough, you really don’t want to schlep the extra gear for camping.  So your shoot is followed by a hike back in the dark.

I started at mid-day from where West Side Road is closed off to vehicle traffic.  After a couple miles on the gravel road-bed you take a trail that follows Tahoma Creek upstream.  This is a powerful glacier-fed stream, and the previous spring’s melt had torn out long sections of the trail.  The lower part of the hike thus featured a few nervous stream crossings.  I’ve been swept away before and felt very close to drowning, and so I respect rapidly moving water as much as I do anything in nature.

After a few long stretches of boulder-hopping I left the creek and climbed steeply to the meadows.  From the photos you can see the light was very nice, despite the cloudless skies.  Best of all the wildflowers were in perfect bloom.  It was late August, which may seem to be late in the season for peak flower bloom.  But Rainier’s subalpine meadows are high and snow lingers well into summer.  On that special day the wildflower close-ups and the grand scale shooting were both sublime.

The pasqueflower is a different sort of bloom: Mt. Rainier, Washington.

After the golden light left the mountain, dusk began to approach rapidly.  I packed my gear into the pack and wasted no time starting my descent.  Not long after crossing timberline and entering the forest night began to come on like a train.  I stopped at a waterfall and grabbed one more shot, confident of my headlamp.  But after only 20 minutes or so my headlamp began to flicker.  I had put what I thought were fresh batteries in before I started out, but they must have been well past expiration.  I should have had spares, but had failed to check my pack before starting out.  I silently cursed my impatience to get going.

Just as I began to hear the roar of Tahoma Creek below my lamp finally gave out and darkness gathered around me.  At first the trail was barely discernible and easy enough to follow.  I was confident of being able to reach and follow the creek bed.  But the night was moonless and exceptionally black.  I missed a turn and struggled to regain the trail, falling a good 10 feet or so between two huge rock outcrops.  I wasn’t hurt, but slowed down considerably after that close call.  Then I reached Tahoma Creek and began to follow it downstream.

Narada Falls at night-fall, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.

I was lucky.  If there had been more dense forest walking ahead I would have been forced to stop and spend a cold night with no shelter.  Luckily, frequent glacial floods had removed most of the trees along the creek, allowing the stars to shine through.  With eyes now fully dark-adapted, and with the normally unnoticed added light from many suns burning far away, I discovered that if I went slow, I could just barely see features before reaching them.

I lost the trail at the first washout and was forced to stumble down the rubbly stream bed for the duration.   I traveled in a sort of slow-motion crouch, using starlight to show me boulders and other obstacles.  I tripped and fell a bunch of times anyway.  And the stream crossings were even more fun than on the way up.  Thankfully by the time I reached them the stream’s flow was lessened because of slower melting from upstream glaciers brought on by the cool of night.

I followed the creek longer than necessary, not noticing the road off to my right beyond some dark trees.  When I finally realized my mistake I climbed the bank and crawled through the trees, where my feet touched something strange.  Flat, even ground, the road!  The feeling that washed over me was pure ecstasy.  But easy walking on the road felt very strange.  Have you experienced this?  Where your legs, after endlessly struggling up, over and around, can finally walk normally.  But it suddenly feels like you’re swinging heavy stone blocks?  My head and torso felt like they were floating above my too-heavy lower half.

My van looked even better than West Side Road had, parked there all alone, patiently waiting as if certain of my safe return.  The little clock on the dash said 2:55 a.m.  I can count on one hand the number of times in life that the cliche’ actually came true.  You know the one, where sleep takes you before your head even hits the pillow.  Going hard for so many hours will do that.

Next morning, it’s needless to say, my body was sore all over and bruised in a dozen places.  But it was worth it.  The photos, which turned out nicely with or without the accompanying adventure, seemed even better for having come at a price, and with a memory.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Low clouds move up the Nisqually River, but the stars are revealed from a high perch on Rainier as night comes on.

 

Adventuring Mt. Rainier: Hiker’s Heaven   8 comments

This is the same face of Rainier that residents of Seattle see every clear day. Much better up close!

The first time I saw Mount Rainier up close I was completely blown away.  I was 19 and had been in the Pacific NW for less than a year.  The Cascade Mountains seemed like the Himalayas to my East Coast eyes.  And Rainier is the biggest and baddest of the entire range.  When I got that first good look I was impressed the way only a young man with far too much energy can be.

Since that first good look at it, Mt. Rainier and its national park have always been a special place of mine.  I’ve spent quite a lot of time rambling the steep trails, climbing it twice.  I even worked for NPS one summer doing wildlife surveys.  So let’s leave the desert for now and continue this Adventuring series with an adventure in Washington’s oldest (and the nation’s 5th) national park:  Mount Rainier.

By the way, I wrote a number of illustrated posts on Rainier that are more travel-guide/documentary in nature than this one.  Check those out if you’re thinking of a visit for pictures or hiking.

Trailside waterfall, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Just below Indian Henry’s, the park’s Wonderland Trail crosses a high suspension bridge over Tacoma Creek.

Camping Where the Bears Are

Rainier hosts the most extensive, and I think finest, subalpine flower meadows in the Cascade Range.  When I was in my 20s I backpacked with a friend to one of Rainier’s best:  a place on the southwest side called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground (see image below).  It’s named for a Tahoma native called So-to-Lick who lived in a cabin there before there was a park.  He straddled the two worlds, guiding the likes of John Muir and assorted climbers up the mountain.  But he never summited himself, holding it sacred like his tribe and thus staying off the glaciated upper reaches.

I tended then, as now, to eschew trail-side camping in popular areas.  So we camped overlooking the meadows, atop a broad peak called Mt. Ararat (had to look that one up it’s been so long).  Toward dusk I took a walk from camp to get a view.  I hadn’t been there long when, from a rocky outcrop facing north, I saw movement on the grassy slope just below.  To my amazement a large bear stepped from behind the nearest trees and slowly foraged across the slope not more than 100 yards away.  It was a cinnamon-colored black bear, and still the largest of that species I’ve ever seen.

As with nearly all my bear encounters over the years, this one mostly ignored me.  But I couldn’t leave well enough alone.  I had a cheap little film camera.  So like a young fool I determined to get closer for a picture.  I waited for him to move a little further away and then climbed down off the rocks.  I slowly stalked after him, keeping the small but dense groups of subalpine firs between us.  I kept moving downslope even though I wasn’t catching glimpses of him anymore.  I thought he’d gone.  Then peering around a shrub, I froze.

This is NOT the bear in the story. This one is much smaller, but also lives on Mt. Rainier.

He was now less than 50 feet away, staring at me hard.  He chuffed once.  There have been other occasions like this in my life, but I believe that was the first.  Despite the differences they all feel the same.  The adrenaline floods in first, immediately followed by the realization of how foolish you’ve been.  You force yourself to breathe, and above all try not to do anything stupid.  Like run.  Those moments stretch time.

Of course the big boy just ended up doing that funny double-take I’ve seen a number of times since then.  Where the animal shifts its attention back to what it was doing, but abruptly turns back and seems to reconsider, and sometimes repeats.  Then finally turns away, apparently deciding you’re not worth it.  And the tension of the moment drops like a stone.  I watched him drift away down the mountain-slope through the tall grass, realizing I had forgotten that picture I wanted.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

Just before dusk, Mount Rainier soars above the flowery meadows of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.

 

Adventuring Baja: Mis-Adventures & Desert Mountains   4 comments

The sun rises over a forest of cirios trees, characteristic of the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula.

I’ve been sharing some of my adventures I’ve had during photography trips.  My goal is to show examples of how good image-making goes hand in hand with a spirit of adventure and spontaneity.  Last time I posted about my first trip down Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula.  This time we’ll continue with the fun down in old Mexico.  I wish I could have kept hold of all the film I shot on that trip (it was lost in a robbery).  The amount of digital image coverage that I have now is really pathetic, but I do like the quality.   One thing’s for sure:  I need travel Baja’s full length again soon in order to fill out my catalog.

Vibrant cactus of Baja California, Mexico.

Solo Soy un Turista Ignorante!

That first time down I was traveling with a friend.  He was planning a longer trip into Mexico proper, and we planned to split up and go our separate ways after finishing our tour of Baja.  Traveling with others is a lot of fun, but for me at least it’s only that way if I can at some point bid them goodbye to continue on my own.  So at the ferry terminal near La Paz we toasted those few fun weeks of road-tripping and he boarded the ferry to the mainland.

Not long after this, I was camped outside of La Paz in a lovely beach-side spot.  Facilities were rustic, so I’d found a nice spot a few miles away to park and use my solar shower.  It was surrounded by trees and felt private, so I showered au naturale.  It worked well for a few days.  Then one day, with shampoo in my hair, I became suddenly aware of the presence of three policia standing there.  One had binoculars around his neck and another was shouting in Spanish.  Hearing the word “imoral” used, emphasis on the last syllable, I hastily explained in my barely passable Spanish that I was only trying to keep the body that God gave me clean.

As the water continued to run over my bare body, I tried my best to reason with them.  I recall using the phrase “Solo soy un turista ignorante” at least twice.  Finally, with exasperated sidelong looks at one other, they apparently decided it wasn’t worth listening to me any further.  After all, they’d have to divide the bribe between them.  And they must have assumed (correctly) that I was hardly the richest gringo they’d ever come across.

Sailboat at harbor: Ensenada, Mexico.

That was not the only time I had run-ins with Mexico’s finest in Baja.  After being pulled over in Baja Norte, I talked a policia from a $100 bribe down to $20.  That young guy, who like so many you meet south of the border had lived in the U.S. for a time and spoke English, said on parting that I should be a lawyer I liked arguing so much.

In Ensenada I was actually cuffed and taken into the station, very close to being held.  A prostitute had been following me on my wandering walk back to my room one night.  On a whim I decided to cross the street and talk to her.  I offered to buy her a couple tacos and a pepsi but declined her desire for a more intimate interaction.  Turns out we were both being watched, and so with not much else going on, she and I presented an opportunity too good to pass up.  I ended up talking myself out of that one too.

By the way, I posted a travel-guide style series on Ensenada you may want to check out.  One of these posts garners a lot of hits.  In it I briefly mention the dance clubs and prostitutes of Ensenada.  I also posted a few shots of pretty senoritas I came across (but who are definitely not working girls).  They were quite young, and it’s a bit creepy that the post keeps getting hits.  I’m probably going to just delete it.

A cave sculpted from the granite of Baja Norte, Mex.

Granite Peaks and Clear Cold Nights

On the way back up the peninsula I decided to explore some of the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Martir.  A narrow road ascends into the mountains from the Pacific side.  Granted it was winter, but no other tourists were around.  It is a beautiful area of ponderosa pine forests, broken by large grassy clearings.  Most of Baja is true desert, but you might be surprised at the amount of green in high parts of the peninsula like this.

Granite mountains rise above the meadows in characteristic giant boulders and spires.  These peaks are a continuation of the intrusions that make up Joshua Tree to the north, and it was so much fun figuring out how to scramble up them.  There are a few trails, but the area just begs for off-trail exploration.

A towering ponderosa pine, with lightning scar, in the high country of Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja, Mex.

The park happens to also be the site of Mexico’s national observatory, and after night fell I could definitely understand why.  I camped in a meadow at the base of the peak that holds the research telescopes.  It was bitter cold, which is a strange feeling in Mexico.  I actually couldn’t use my 8-inch Dobsonian reflector for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before having to retreat to my van and warm up in front of my little propane heater.  I’ve never seen the swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy so clear and distinct!

That’s it for now.  I hope your weekend is fun and relaxing.  Thanks for reading!

The Pacific lives up to its name: Bahia, Ensenada, Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Adventuring Death Valley: Extremes   16 comments

I’ve posted this one before, but it’s worth a repeat. Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from Saratoga Springs in south Death Valley.

More than for most parks, appreciating Death Valley begs you to stop and smell the creosote.  Camp out and take a stroll out into the desert as evening is coming on.  Listen to the silence, perhaps broken by a coyote’s howl.  Wake early and experience day-break from the salt flats as Telescope Peak catches the sun’s first light.  Get off the beaten track and take off on foot up a canyon.  Have an adventure!

LAND OF EXTREMES

One of the main reasons I love this place is all the extremes.  The most obvious one, exemplified by the image above, is the extreme of altitude.  On my first trip to Death Valley as a freshman in a college group learning about its natural history, I found out how much I love extremes.  The instructor, who taught my 200-level series geology course, was also very much a biologist, birder and ecologist.  We learned about how the plants and animals are so perfectly adapted to the harsh realities of desert life.  It’s fascinating how everything here seems to work together as an integrated whole that reflects the park’s extreme heat and aridity, along with its extreme terrain and geology.

You have to be exceptionally clever to survive in Death Valley: coyote.

One day, with our teacher pointing out hawks and rock formations as we went, we drove the van up and out of the desert.  The narrow Wildrose Canyon Road leads to the high country of the Panamint Range, ending at the Charcoal Kilns.  These large stone beehives, perfectly preserved in the desert air, are ovens once used for turning trees into fuel to run smelters during the mining era of the late 1800s.  They’re lined up symmetrically in a forest clearing with views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada (image below).

We hiked from the kilns, heading up to snowy Mahogany Meadows, which lies in a saddle at the crest of the range.  While named for its mountain mahogany, the ancient pinyon pines here are especially impressive.  I remember wondering how we could have, in a few short hours, gone from toasty desert conditions to this other world, a cool, snowy forest.  From the meadows, which are perched at 8133 feet elevation, we peered down into the below-sea-level depths of the valley.  Talk about extremes!  We had a huge snowball fight.

The Charcoal Kilns with snow-capped Mt. Whitney and the Sierras in the distance.

CLIMBING TELESCOPE PEAK

The place impressed me so much I returned with friends a couple years later, again in March.  The three of us were set on climbing Telescope Peak, at 11,043′ the highest point in the park.  It had been a cold, snowy winter, with late storms that left deep powder mantling the high Panamints.   Though just a few inches lay at the Kilns, a couple feet of the white stuff greeted us at Mahogany Meadows, our planned campsite for the night.  And what a cold night it was!

We had an MSR camp stove with us, the kind that was euphemistically called a “blow torch” because there were just two settings:  off and rocket-blast.  It could also accept any kind of fuel, so when we realized we had forgotten to pack extra camping gas we had an idea.  Hiking back down to the car, we backed up onto a curb and tapped a small amount of gas from the carburetor.  Yes I’m old enough to have had a car with a carburetor; and no we didn’t have a hose to siphon from the tank with.

Magnificent old-growth pinyon pine: Mahogany Flats, Death Valley N.P.

After the kind of night where your body burns many calories just keeping warm, we woke just before dawn to find a half-foot of fresh white stuff.  We didn’t know it then, but tapping that unleaded was very smart.  It allowed us to eat a pile of hot oatmeal with raisins that morning, and we’d need all the energy we could get that day.

Telescope Peak is just under 7 miles one-way from Mahogany Meadows, with about 3300 feet of elevation gain.  Without snow it is a difficult but straightforward hike.  Years later when I repeated the ascent in much kinder conditions it was like I was climbing a completely different mountain.

What makes Telescope more difficult than it might seem is the necessity to hike over two large peaks (Rogers and Bennet) before tackling the main ascent.  Up until then I’d never really hiked a distance in deep fresh snow, but struggling that day through hip-deep drifts up steep slopes made a life-long impression (not least that snowshoes were a great invention).  By the time we reached the base of the mountain it was mid-afternoon and we were spent.

Descending into Death Valley.

DEATH VALLEY DATES

It was the dates that saved the day.  With only a PB&J each for lunch, it was lucky that we’d packed Death Valley’s famous dates for trail snacks.  Those dates, which you can buy at Furnace Creek where they’re grown, powered us up the steep, final icy slope to the summit.   A stupendous view, so different than any other in the park, greeted us.  But turning west, where the mountain had blocked our view on the ascent, one glance convinced us that summit time would be ultra-brief.  A compact but dark and angry storm was rapidly approaching from that direction, with lightning bolts shooting out of it at regular intervals.  It was headed straight for us.

We shoved a few more dates into our mouths and prepared for a quick exit.  As I took one last look around, I noticed something strange about my two partners.  We’d all taken our wool hats off to shed heat during the climb, and now their hair was standing straight up, just like in High School science class when you touch that electrified ball.  I heard a faint but very distinct buzzing all around, and growing louder.  It was the first time I’d ever experienced something like that, but it was clear what was taking place.  We were about to see what lightning was like, up close and personal.  That is, if we didn’t get the hell off that mountain but quick!

The two white substances in Death Valley: salt and snow.

The return hike was long and exhausting (those two peaks were again in the way).  We had been going hard since sunup, and the Death Valley dates continued to provide critical energy.  We disagreed on a return route and ended up splitting up.  When Gene and I finally pulled into camp at dusk, Mel was sticking his head out of the tent, puking up dates.

Although on paper Telescope Peak shouldn’t even be in the top 50 hardest climbs I’ve ever done, it sticks out in my mind as one of the toughest, #3 or even #2.  Even after all these years.  We didn’t relish another frigid night at 8100 feet.  So we quickly struck camp and hiked in the dark a few miles more to reach the car.  Then it was down, down, and back to summer.  That warm air felt so good!  Parking at the sand dunes we grabbed sleeping bags and headlamps and stumbled a couple hundred yards into the dunes to crash under a huge night sky.  The stars must have been spectacular that night, but darned if I can remember ever seeing them.

Thanks for reading.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas!

Evening draws near in the dunes at Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park.

Visiting Alaska   20 comments

A cabin in remote bush of Alaska.

A home in the bush:  Alaska

This is follow-up to my post last Thursday on Alaska, sort of a different take on visiting America’s most untamed state.  First a disclaimer: I’m not discounting a cruise up the Inside Passage, or an RV-based road-trip to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula.  Depending on who you are, those may be good options for your first trip, or if you happen to be elderly.  I just know what’s out there, and if I wanted to tour the state in a memorable way I would work in some more adventurous options along with more standard destinations.  So here’s my very biased take on visiting the Great Land.

Flying over a glacier in the Alaska Range.

Flying over a glacier in the Alaska Range.

When to Go

This is a fairly simple question.  If it’s your first time go in summer, which is May through September in the Southeastern Panhandle, mid-June through mid-August in the far north, and something in-between in the rest of the state.  Summer is in full swing throughout Alaska by late May.  In June come the longest days, with no real nighttime in most of the state.

You can have rain, clouds and cool weather at anytime during the summer, but it’s a little more likely late in summer into fall.  Make sure you have good rain gear.  Waterproof hiking boots are worth having as well.  Autumn, though short, is very beautiful in Alaska.  September is a time when wildlife is very active, and the tundra turns a beautiful gold and red.  The mosquitoes are mostly gone, and the few late hatches feature big and slow skeeters.

If it’s your second or third trip consider winter.  Especially if you want to see the northern lights.  I recall seeing them as early as the beginning of October.  If you ski you’ll love the later winter when days get a bit longer.  But in the southern part of the state you’ll have plenty of daylight to ski or snowshoe at any time of  year.  The world-famous Iditarod sled dog race happens in late winter.  But a more spectator-friendly race (actually a series of them) happens during Fur Rendezvous.  “Fur Rondy” is a fun winter festival in Anchorage that takes place each year in late February.  The rest of this post assumes a summertime visit.

Skiing along a creek with sculptures like this is only possible if you visit Alaska in winter.

Skiing along a creek with sculptures like this is only possible if you visit Alaska in winter.

Snowshoeing doesn't have to be a trudge, it can be as fun as you want to make it.

Snowshoeing doesn’t have to be a trudge, it can be as fun as you want to make it.

Visiting the “Real” Alaska

In order to really see Alaska you need to fly.  A helicopter obviously allows you to land in many more places than does a fixed-wing.  But it’s amazing how many unlikely landing spots exist for bush planes.  If money is truly no object, I recommend hiring a chopper and pilot for several days to a week.  If you’re like the rest of us you can probably only afford a scenic flight on a helicopter.  Some even land on glaciers, at predetermined spots.

But this isn’t the same as having control of where a chopper goes and where it lands, having the pilot wait for you or pick you up somewhere else.  That sort of freedom takes real money for someone whose work doesn’t make it necessary.  For most visitors to Alaska, I recommend saving up and budgeting for at least one trip on a bush plane.  This gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

I got to fly with an older bush pilot my first summer there.  He flew a Caribou and was well-known among pilots and long-time Alaskans.  The Caribou was a tail-loading cargo plane used heavily in Vietnam.  It had a very short take-off distance for its size.  His wings would skim the tops of spruce trees on many landings.  In the fall after the field season was over, he crashed and died in the resulting fire.  He must have been somehow trapped, unable to walk away (as many bush pilots do) when the plane caught fire.  He was mourned throughout the state.  Bush pilots:  they’re worth their own post.

Climbing in Alaska presents challenges, even for “small” mountains.

If you make the effort there are bragging rights - just remember the picture!

If you make the effort there are bragging rights – just remember the picture!

Unless you cheat and use one of these!

But you shouldn’t worry.  Given the number of flights there is no significant added hazard to flying in a bush plane compared to jets.  Just hop into one and see Alaska.  Chartering bush flights can be expensive on your own, but the cost can be mitigated by combining with other people.  Even independent travelers have the option of inquiring at the plethora of companies operating out of the sea-plane base at Lake Hood near the Anchorage Airport.  You could hook up with like-minded people to organize a charter trip.  Whether you do it off the cuff or plan ahead of time, take at least one journey into one of the state’s roadless areas.  Don’t skip it.

Views like this one of the Moose's Tooth are available flight-seeing with a bush pilot.

Views like this one of the Moose’s Tooth are available flight-seeing with a bush pilot.

A Non-Touristy Experience

If I did a trip into bush Alaska, I’d give serious consideration to the southwest.  While you’re thinking of joining all the tourists to watch bears fishing at Brooks Camp, think about other options too.  The whole region is chock full of wildlife, and because of the marine influence the mosquitoes tend not to be as abundant as the rest of the state (the interior is where mosquitoes hatch in countless numbers).

One great option for a wilderness experience in SW Alaska is to organize a fly-in camping/fishing trip to Tikchik Lakes (see image).  These are a series of lakes, elongate east-west and strung out in a north-south direction along the front of the little-known Wood River Mountains.  I worked in the region for a couple months and it was some of the wildest country I’ve ever been in.  It also had the best fishing I’ve ever done, hands down.

Tikchik Lakes in SW Alaska has some great scenery and fishing.

Tikchik Lakes in SW Alaska has some great scenery and fishing.

Camping for a week would allow you to decompress in total wilderness.  The lakes to the north of the Tikchik chain have very little tall vegetation surrounding them.  You could roam the mountains, full of wildlife, no trails necessary.  Take a can of bear spray.  Fish to your heart’s content.  Lunker lake trout oblige you anytime of day.

All it would take is a flight from Anchorage to Dillingham, then a bush plane to the lakes.  If you get a group together, hire a Beaver (largish float plane) or Otter to take your group plus camping gear & an inflatable raft.  If it’s just you and one other, maybe a Cessna would do the trick.  The pilot will drop you off and then pick you up on the appointed day.  If you want to double-down on the experience, you could paddle down the length of the lakes, connected by spectacular rivers, through huge Wood-Tikchik State Park, all the way back to Dillingham.  A few companies do guided trips if you don’t feel confident in organizing your own.

Alaska tundra in early autumn.

Alaska tundra in early autumn.

Other Ideas

There are so many places I can recommend during a visit to Alaska.  A drive along the Denali Highway is a great side-trip.  It’s not the paved road to the national park; that’s the Parks Hwy.  Denali Hwy. is a graded gravel road that takes off east of the park with stupendous views of the Alaska Range (see image at bottom).  Also a trip to McCarthy in the Wrangell Mountains is well worthwhile.  Visit the old copper mine, situated right along a glacier.

On the Kenai Peninsula, do a halibut fishing trip out of Homer.  (Don’t drink too much at the Salty Dog Saloon the night before!).  A classic Alaskan experience is sea kayaking out of Seward or Cordoba.  Consider a short cruise in Prince William Sound to see the state’s incredible marine life.  The Kenai Fjord day-trip out of Seward is inexpensive.  And speaking of worthwhile tourist things to do, don’t miss a flight-seeing trip over the Alaska Range.  Drive to the small town of Talkeetna to arrange one in a small bush plane.

Hiking in Alaska is unlimited.  On the way to Denali, consider a hike into Denali State Park before you get to the (relative) tourist mayhem at the national park.  And a hike up into the mountains above Anchorage is a great way to stretch the muscles after your long flight in.  Flat-top Mountain, while extremely popular, is a great introduction to Alaska right off the plane.  It’s a short but steep climb.  There are superb hikes and climbs that take off from the highway south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm.

This remote valley in the Brooks Range may be the furthest from a road I've ever been.

This remote valley in the Brooks Range may be the furthest from a road I’ve ever been.

A Republic of Rivers

A book called A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon features poems by Robert Service (The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Call of the Wild).  I read it when I lived up there.  Reason I mention it here is that while Alaska is a land of mountains, it is even more a republic of rivers.  Before the plane, rivers were the main way to travel into remote areas of the state, and they remain so in the interior (along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers especially).  Boats in the summer, dogsleds and later snow machines in winter.  (Snow machines are called snowmobiles outside the state.)

Once I took a boat trip up the Kuskokwim River out of McGrath.  It was a totally different experience from any other I had in Alaska.  More like traveling upriver in the Amazon or Congo Basins than in the far north.  It was a very “Heart of Darkness” experience.

Mt Drum in the Wrangell Mtns. rises above the Copper River.

Mt Drum in the Wrangell Mtns. rises above the Copper River.

If you like river trips, specifically paddling downriver, Alaska has a life-time’s worth.  In the western Brooks Range, the amazingly clear Salmon is a gorgeous river.  I worked along the Salmon for a summer.  It’s one of the only places I’ve been where you could walk up to a big river, dip your hands in, and drink cold refreshing water with no worries.

In the NW Brooks Range, the Noatak River drains the largest undisturbed watershed in North America.  It’s a great river for canoes. In the central Brooks, the John, the Kilik, Hula Hula and that true gem, the Alatna, are all great arctic wilderness floats.  Research all of these and consider a guiding company; there are several.

In Lake Clark National Park in the southwestern part of Alaska, you can do combination hiking/rafting trips that will take you into wildife country with great fishing and few mosquitoes.  The hard to pronounce Tlikakila is fairly short but extremely scenic.

Hiking in Alaska is often not easy but there are plenty of pay-offs.

Hiking in Alaska is often not easy but there are plenty of pay-offs.

The old copper mine near McCarthy was once the world's largest producer.

The old copper mine near McCarthy was once the world’s largest producer.

Combining Alaska and Canada on a river trip is a fantastic idea since at least two of the world’s greatest river floats cross the boundary.  The Alsek runs through Kluane in Canada and ends in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  It is serious business, involving real skill (and $, a helicopter portage is involved).  The Firth is an extremely remote river trip that starts near Alaska’s border with the Northwest Territory in Canada.  It ends in the Beaufort Sea.

There are guided trips to all these places; do the proper research and pick a company with a good reputation.  Many of the state’s rivers (and most of the above) lack many big rapids.  They’re suitable for beginning paddlers and perfect for canoes or touring kayaks.  If you just want an easy to access but rollicking whitewater ride that does have big rapids, check out the Nenana on the way to Denali National Park.  No planning required; just stop at one of the companies along the banks and go rafting!  Aside from that there are plenty of whitewater options for kayakers and serious rafters.

I really hope you can visit this place one day and experience some of the fun and adventure I had up there.  Or if you’ve been before, I hope you can go back and see more.  Because there is always more to see.  Alaska never stops surprising you, never stops knocking your socks off.  So next spring when you hear that familiar sound and look up, when you see that V-shaped formation of geese flying, stop and think a minute.  They must know something.  Go north!

September along the Denali Hwy. provides colorful views of the eastern Alaska Range.

September along the Denali Hwy. provides colorful views of the eastern Alaska Range.

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!

The Himalaya (Finally)   Leave a comment

Since I just started blogging not long ago, I am going to start an occasional series on recent travels, where I wrote only for myself.  I don’t journal on my laptop while traveling, only with pen and paper.  I carry a small netbook simply for photos and internet acces while traveling, but the idea of burying myself in a computer for my journal is anathema.  I would much rather sit at a cafe and people watch while writing.  I simply can’t do this when on a computer, plus nearly all screens are unsuitable for outdoors.

Alpenglow on Mount Everest from the 5400-meter high viewpoint of Kala Pathar in Nepal.

I’ve traveled pretty extensively over the past few years, at least for me.  As soon as I got the chance, I went to Nepal.  The Himalayas were at the top of my list.  I just did not want to wait until I was too old to see the highest mountains in the world.  Nepal was the obvious choice, but I went to north India as well.  I actually went twice in one year, once in Spring and once in Autumn.

The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal, draws Buddhists from all over Asia.

I traveled to Delhi, then to Kathmandu.  An amazingly chaotic and energetic city is Kathmandu, and I loved it.  My favorite was renting a mountain bike and doing a big loop up into the upper valley.  I definitely recommend this way of seeing the other face of the Kathmandu Valley.  It’s not all traffic and movement, as in the city.  The children run after you yelling Namaste! and if you stop they shyly smile and hide behind each other.  Utterly charming.  And such a great ride.  Do it if you find yourself in Kathmandu.

Another must if  you’re in Kathmandu is the pilgrimage site of Boudhanath (image left).  This is a huge stupa (temple) in a suburb of the city.  Just grab a taxi there and prepare to soak up an absolutely amazing atmosphere.  This could be spiritually transformative for you, it’s that powerful.  I’ve been three times, and will never miss it on any future trip to Nepal’s capital.

I stayed in Thamel (of course) and I found a nice little guiding company.  I just clicked with the woman running things in the office.  I still consider her a friend, and very much hope that she will be able to visit the USA someday, where I will be so happy to show her around.  She has been experiencing much trouble getting a visa to visit, since U.S. immigration assume every person from a 3rd world country wants to come to stay.  Even though she has a company, a family, a life in Nepal, they still think she wants to escape.  Amazing!

I arranged a trip with her company, Equator, now called Himalayan RST Expeditions, to head to western Nepal.  I was to spend a week rafting the Karnali, one of the world’s classic river runs.  Then I would visit Royal Bardia National Park.  I first traveled to Pokhara.  My hikes were only dayhikes, no trekking this time.  Also, I rented a motorbike to head into the rural areas around the touristy Pokhara.

Once you get into rural areas, you start running into folks who have walked in to markets from the surrounding countryside.  Back in the foothills of the Himal, where no roads travel, there are small villages of people who subsist on the edge.  They are very poor and very beautiful people.  Many are Muslim, but the majority of Nepalis are Hindu.  Buddhism is also prevalent.

The bus ride out to western Nepal took two days over the worst roads you can imagine.  It was a bone-jarring ride.  If you do this trip, unless you enjoy bus rides from hell, I would fly.  We arrived on the banks of the upper Karnali in the late afternoon.  Villagers joined us in our preparations, but they barely distracted me from the river.  It was utterly gorgeous, a beautiful turquoise color and cold!  The Karnali originates on one of the world’s most sacred mountains, Mount Kailash, in Tibet.  And this water certainly was heavenly.

What a river trip!  Seven glorious days on a river with huge and fun rapids in its upper stretches.  It calms somewhat in the middle stretch, and wildlife is abundant.  The lower part widens out and there are bigger villages.  We had company at most of our riverside camps.  The children were so adorable.  This was only my second encounter with true mountain people (the first in the Andes), and I was amazed at how hard they have to work to survive.  The women especially!  I saw women of short stature carrying huge, heavy loads of firewood on their heads and a baby in their arms.  Tough to do on any terrain, but they were going straight up extremely steep slopes.

A lone farmstead in Nepal’s HImalayan Mountains lies in spectacularly rugged country.

The effect of these small villages is easy to see.  The entire undergrowth of the surrounding forests iscompletely stripped bare.  The people burn to spur more growth, trying desperately to provide their goats with forage.  The big trees are still intact, thank heavens, but the forest is borderline ugly.  I took hikes every evening after our rafting, and I was the only one of the group to do so.  I will never understand my fellow tourists.  They tend to hang out with other white tourists if at all possible, eschewing real contact with either the local people or with nature.  This of course is a general observation that doesn’t apply to everyone.  But it is true worldwide.

I also visited the Royal Bardia National Park, along with one of my fellow rafters.  The park is very near to the takeout on the Karnali.  This park is beautiful, much more like northern India than Nepal.  It lies on a low, hot plain, and hosts a healthy population of one-horned rhino, elephant, leopard, and best of all, tigers.  I didn’t see the big cat, but I did see the biggest snake I’ve ever seen in my life.  It was a rock python, well over 20 feet long and FAT.  My guide said it was the biggest snake he had ever seen, and he grew up in the area.  It had recently eaten a deer, and that explained its girth.

There was a party our first night at Bardia, and I drank a bit too much wine.  One of the guides, an Indian fellow, was drinking pretty heavily too.  I danced with the local Nepali women, and had a great time.  Later that night, in my tent (I camped in their garden), I was woken by someone unzipping my tent.  I saw the silhouette of a man, and reacted on adrenaline.  I burst out of the tent and caught him by the throat, demanding to know what he wanted.  He either did not or could not speak English.  But he was nonetheless convinced that I did not want any company.

Then, in the middle of the night, I had another visitor.  This time it was the English woman from the rafting trip.  She wanted to take shelter in my tent, because someone had tried to get into her room.  She was pretty sure it was the Indian guide, who had been pursuing her much of the previous day.  She was very frightened, and I let her sleep in my tent.  Next day the manager of the lodge was pretty blase’ about the whole thing.  So I wrote an email to the tour company, and they ended up discontinuing their relationship with that lodge in Bardia.  In this part of the world, women do not have the power they have in the west, and so I felt I had to do some sticking up for her.  It made a big difference, let me tell you.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

So this trip was near its end.  I got stranded for a night in the town of Nepalganj.  I noticed there many men dressed in the peculiar drab green that says “marxist”, and was reminded that this region is often the seat of unrest in the country.  I was the only tourist I saw, and I enjoyed the authentic look at the life of Nepalis.  The people of Nepal are some of the warmest, friendliest and most unaffected folks I’ve ever met.  Though I spent about three weeks there, I felt I did not have enough time to do the country justice, certainly not to take a major trek.  But the rafting trip was definitely the best of my life.  I was to return to Nepal with more time later that year, and that’s the subject for the next post.

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