Longmire Meadows, Rampart Ridge and Mt Rainier

Rampart Ridge rises behind Longmire Meadows. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Rampart Ridge rises behind Longmire Meadows. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I stand in Longmire Meadows looking up the valley toward Mt Rainier first simply enjoying the life here in the valley and the wonder of Mt Rainier towering into the sky. I then try to imagine 1200 feet of ice on top of me and this meadow. I had just seen two mule deer browsing through the horsetail meadow under the alders behind me and I watched a flock of 20 band-tailed pigeons roost in some trees along the edge of the meadow. They flew down to the grass to feed before returning to the branches above. For me, seeing these pigeons was a treat for their numbers have plummeted in the last few decades and finding them is now hard. A dozen barn swallows swished back and forth across the meadow-grabbing insects. Their flight seemed almost effortless and so acrobatic. Hemlock forests lined the side of the meadows in a lush thicket like large pillows surrounding a quilted meadow.

Yet 375,000 years ago, this meadow would have been buried under ice and about that time Mt Rainier erupted, sending molten rock flowing down the side of the mountain. The lava flowed along the edge of the glacier until it came against an ice dam formed where the Nisqually Glacier met the Kautz Glacier. Imagine, a 1200-foot high ice dam. This damn would have been about the height of the emperor state building in New York or twice the height of the Space Needle in Seattle. Imagine that much ice.

I see Rampart Ridge rising 1200-foot at the edge of Longmire Meadow, its vertical basalt columns creating a sheer cliff. To think, this ridge right in front of me once was a lava lake, that entire side of the ridge liquid rock. Scary, maybe awesome. The lava flowed along the edge of the ice, meeting the ice dam, began to back up, filling the lake to the top of the glacier dam. The lava cooled first along the ice. After the eruption ended the lava cooled to form basalt and when the ice melted, it revealed Rampart Ridge. I want to hike the loop trail up and around the ridge to gain a better feel for this lava flow and the size of the glacier but for today, just thinking about it from Longmire Meadow is amazing.

Pilgrimage to see the Milky Way over Mt Rainier

The Milky Way is just east of Mt Rainier at 11:30PM. The lights on Mt Rainier are a base camp and the climbers beginning to start their final ascent.  They have a 4,000 foot climb from base camp and try to reach the summit by day break so they can start down before the warm temperatures open crevasses. A meteor glows through the east side of the Milky Way. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Milky Way was just east of Mt Rainier at 11:30PM. The lights on Mt Rainier were a base camp as the climbers began their final ascent. They have a 4,000 foot climb from base camp and try to reach the summit by day break so they can start down before the warm temperatures open crevasses. A meteor glowed through the east side of the Milky Way. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I hoped that the New Moon would allow the stars to pop in the night sky and that Sourdough Ridge might be the perfect place to watch the Milky Way rise from the east and drift over Mt. Rainier so I headed to Sunrise in Mt Rainier National Park. From Sourdough Ridge, I expected a good view of Mt Rainier to the southwest and should be able to see Emmons Glacier on the left and Winthrop Glacier on the right. Both glaciers have their massive rivers of ice pouring down from the summit.  Little Tahoma Peak rises to 11,138 feet east of the volcano’s summit, well short of 14,410-foot volcano summit. The Milky Way over Mt Rainier was my goal.

At 10:45PM, I hiked in the dark to find a great place to sit on the ridge top and watch the stars twinkle.  A number of 1 – 2 inch crickets crawled on the trail and I stepped carefully around them as I climbed. At the crest, I discovered other pilgrims of the night sky. Two young couples stood at the top chatting and watching the stars.

After we exchanged greetings, they asked, “Do you speak Russian?”

“Unfortunately, no” I replied and asked “are you visiting from Russia.”

They said “no, we are Ukrainian and live in Seattle now and had just come to watch the stars. We will drive back to Seattle later tonight. We don’t like to speak in Russian in front of someone that doesn’t understand Russian”

They stayed for an hour after I arrived and we continued to chat in English. Not 15 minutes after the Ukrainians left, I saw a light working up the trail from Sunrise. This time two young men and one woman climbed to share the ridge with me. Right after they arrived, a large meteor lit the western sky for a split second, the meteor exploded in a brief burst of light mid-way through its light trail. The people drifted to a bench down the way from me and began to chat in Arabic. They stayed until 1:30AM before heading down the trail. Watching the Milky Way and sharing a wilderness setting are an international joy, feeding the soul and stimulating thought.

Two meteor shows occur in late July and early August. The Delta Aquariids shower peaks in late July and can have as many as 20 meteors per hour. The Perseid meteor show just began this week and when it reaches its peak in early August can deliver as many as 100 per hour. It takes 20 minutes for ones eyes to adjust to the dark and become most sensitive to detecting meteors. I checked the back of my camera too often for my eyes to be at a peak for very long and yet I still saw many dart across the sky. My camera detected others that I missed including one shot with three in it.

When I arrived at the ridge at 11PM, the Milky Way rose vertically from a point east of Little Tahoma Peak. During the night it gradually drifted west across the sky passing over Little Tahoma Peak at 1AM and finally reaching the summit of Mt Rainier after 2AM. Mt Rainier covered the lower section of the Milky Way that was visible at 11AM when I first arrived. The dense cloud of gases in the middle of the Milky Way created the dark strip running up the middle of the Milky Way. These gasses absorb light from stars on the far side of the Milky Way so it acts like a dark curtain blocking our ability to see the stars beyond.

The Milky Way is a spiral barrel galaxy and our solar system resides in one of the outer spirals. A spiral barrel galaxy looks much like a pinwheel if we looked down from space onto it. Our galaxy has several billion stars in it and I wondered how many I could see in this night sky. Our solar system is 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way and we spin around that center at 600,000 miles an hour. It will take us 225 million years to go all the way around again. The last time our sun was in our current position in its rotation around the middle of the galaxy, the dinosaurs had just started their evolutionary radiation.

Just to the north of my perch, I could see the Big Dipper and I followed the back of the bowl to find the North Star. Seeing the Little Dipper proved more difficult because so many stars were visible in the moonless night. The North Star sits at the end of the handle for the Little Dipper. I tried to photograph the Big and Little Dipper but all the stars captured by my camera made it impossible to identify them.

As I stood there, climbers across the White River began their awesome pilgrimages. By 11:30PM, I could see lights at Camp Schuman at 9510 feet on Mt Rainier north slope. This is one of the base camps for mountaineers to begin their ascent to the summit and it sits where the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers divide. Climbers begin their ascent in the middle of the night with the goal of reaching the summit around daybreak because they want to descend the mountain before warm temperatures in the day begin to open crevasses. Just after midnight, I began to see lights leaving from Camp Muir (10,188 ft) on the east side of Mt Rainier between Little Tahoma Peak and the summit. As the night progressed, I watched at least three parties leave from Camp Schuman and maybe as many as 5 groups from Camp Muir. Over 10,000 people attempt to climb this volcano each year and the summer is a busy time. I could see the direction of their headlamps, discerning the back and forth motion as they inched upward. A few times the lights became brighter and I guessed that they had pointed their headlamp directly at me. I remained enthralled with their progress; the stamina and endurance it must take to climb over 4,000 feet on their final ascent to the top. I wonder what the view form the top must be like; I am sure it is inspiring.

I spent 4 hours sitting and shivering on the ridge watching the stars, meteors, and the climbers. I found it lovely, mesmerizing and truly inspirational. How lucky we are to be alive, to contemplate life, and to wonder about the universe, the Milky Way and our little planet.

By 2AM the Milky Way is right over the summit of Mt Rainier and looks as though it is coming out of the volcano. Three parties climb the north side of the volcano and at least three more are climbing the ridge along the east side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

By 2AM the Milky Way was right over the summit of Mt Rainier and looked as though it was coming out of the volcano. Three parties climbed the north side of the volcano and at least three more were climbing the ridge along the east side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Hike to Lillian River, Olympic Wilderness

Lillian River flows through a bottomland forest ina step sided the ravine. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Lillian River flows through a bottomland forest in a steep sided ravine. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I stood entranced by the music rising from the rushing water; it seemed like an orchestra in full session. The woodwind instruments twittered in front of me, the strings vibrating just down stream, and the brass-percussion adding tones from upstream. A Pacific wren’s twill sounded like a soprano soloist warbling forth a wonderful song to accompany the orchestra. I felt like I was in a concert hall and decided this was the place to camp for the weekend.

I sat on a rock to listen to the water in the Lillian River. The river ran down through a narrow valley with steep walls that climbed almost a thousand feet on each side. The river, a tributary of the Elwha on the Olympic Peninsula, was more a creek by eastern standards, maybe a dozen yards across. The water tumbled over a series of rocks and small ledges creating continuous rapids for a hundred yards up and down stream. The water ran clear and I could glimpse the bottom between white frothing water. I watched for the flash of a fish running by but never saw one. As the Elwha River becomes recolonized with salmon this tributary should be an ideal place for them to spawn. I wonder how long it will be until we can see salmon moving up this water course looking for gravel beds.

The gentle rapids along Lillian River gave a soft backdrop to my camp. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The gentle rapids along Lillian River gave a soft backdrop to my camp. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I pitched my tent 10-yards from the river under the branches of a western hemlock and red cedar. A large grand fir grew right along the river and two big-leaf maples with leaf buds just beginning to swell grew on the other side of the opening. Light green moss produced a blanket of color  the trunk and branches of the maples. Douglas firs dominated the walls of the valley and red cedars, western hemlocks, grand firs, and Douglas firs covered the narrow valley floor. Many of these trees were close to 3-feet in diameter and rose more than 200 feet into the air. Sword ferns and a carpet of yellow-green moss covered the forest floor. The moss, as soft as a fine feather pillow, gave a damp sweet smell to the air.

Sword Ferns and moss covered the understory along Lillian River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Sword Ferns and soft pillowy moss covered the understory along Lillian River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Damp wood made building a campfire difficult but I finally had one burning. It reminded me of a time I camped with my wife and daughter  in Florida. The mosquitoes buzzed around us but the smoke from the fire helped keep them away. We had a great time adding small sticks to the flame. No mosquitoes on this trip and the heat from the fire was nice in the chilly mountain air. I wish they were here.

I had found the right place — wild and with solitude — to escape the bustle of Seattle and settled for a quiet weekend.

My camp fire at Lillian River camp. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

My camp fire at Lillian River camp. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Lenticular Cloud over Mt Rainier

A lenticular cloud covered Mt Rainier. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A lenticular cloud covered Mt Rainier. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

26 February: I left Longmire, to hike along the Wonderland Trail beside Nisqually River. The trail weaves through a forest of silver firs and bumps up to the edge of the river’s bank. The bank drops precipitously 30 or more feet to the wide bed where the river twists and turns back and forth across the bed. Debris flows and floods from the Nisqually Glacier scraped the bed wider than the normal flow needs.  Leafless red alders cling to gravel bars and create a border between open bed and fir covered higher areas.

Several feet of snow cover the ground and clumps of snow hang on branches in trees. The clumps give way in the warm temperatures, crumbling through branches, giving a little sound to the quiet forest. Water drips from branches almost like a light drizzle. Because the temperature is just above freezing , the snow is heavy and it hangs tight to my snowshoes, making the going tough. About 1.6 miles into my hike, the trail drops down to cross the river where Paradise Creek joins the Nisqually.

I scramble over several hundred feet of snow covered gravel and rocks to reach the water’s edge. The actual flow is about 20-feet wide and a log bridge provides a way for me to cross. As I look upstream, a lenticular cloud clings to Mt Rainier like a winter cap pulled down over its ears. The wind blows strong, gusting to 20 or 30 mph. Twice I almost fall over and end up sitting on the log to watch the clouds blow across Mt Rainier. Lenticular clouds form when moisture-laden air blows over a mountain. As the air rises to cross the mountain it cools and if it drops below the condensation point, a cloud forms. On the lee side of the mountain, the air warms as it descends and the cloud disappears. The lenticular cloud looks much like a lens above or over the mountain. I watch the clouds drift from the northwest toward the southeast for half an hour to see if I can spot more of the mountaintop. It never appears so I decide to head back to my car.

Red Alders dot the higher areas in the Nisqually River bed. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Red Alders dot the higher areas in the Nisqually River bed. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Melting snow formed scupture on top of a leaning log. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Melting snow formed scupture on top of a leaning log. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow, several feet deep, covered the flood plain of Nisqually River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow, several feet deep, covered the flood plain of Nisqually River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

The Nisqually River orginates from the terminal end of the Nisqually Glacier which is just around the left corner of the photo. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Nisqually River orginates from the terminal end of the Nisqually Glacier which is just around the left corner of the photo. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

A lenticular cloud covered Mt Rainier. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A lenticular cloud covered Mt Rainier. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Lake Julius, Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Lake Julius during a snow storm in Alpine Lakes Wilderness (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Lake Julius during a snow storm in Alpine Lakes Wilderness (G. Thomas Bancroft)

At 5,000 feet elevation on the eastside of the Cascades outside of Leavenworth, Scottish High Camp sits beside Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I stayed in an A-frame cabin with a wood stove to heat the place and a propane light and cooking burners.  I wanted to snowshoe into Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  The camp is 3,000 feet above the parking lot along Us 2 and I rode a 4-wheel vehicle up the first half and a snowmobile the second half to the camp.  Almost 2 feet of snow covered the forest floor and snow flurries were drifting down as I moved into my cabin.

I left early in the next morning to snowshoe over the ridge and down to Lake Julius. The trail moved through a forest dominated by large noble firs. This tree, a popular Christmas tree, can grow to 8 feet in diameter and over 275 feet tall. Most of the ones I saw were a foot to 2-feet in diameter but I did find a few with more than 3-foot diameter trunks. These trees do not tolerate shade and need to be first in the regeneration of a forest.  This tree has high strength for its weight making it historically a valuable tree for airplane building and ladders. It still remains a premier timber tree and the Forest Service often replants this tree following timber harvest. Silver firs, Douglas firs, western hemlocks and a few white pines were interspersed with the noble firs.

Scales from fir cone (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Scales from fir cone (G. Thomas Bancroft)

In most years, noble firs produce abundant cones; a favorite food for Douglas squirrels and I saw and heard many squirrels along the trail.  One came down a tree trunk to 10 feet above the ground and let me know that he was not happy that I was walking in his woods.  All fall, Douglas squirrels cache cones under logs, in the leaf litter, and other suitable places for them to dig up later for eating. I watched one race across the snow and behind a trunk as I approached.  I found a number of places where they had retrieved a cone and taken it apart to eat the seeds, scattering the scales across the snow.

Fresh snowshoe hare tracks crossed the trail in many places. I hoped I might flush one but never did.  They are primarily nocturnal and find thick cover to hide during the day. In winter they turn white and hide by freezing in place, blending into the snow, making them difficult to spot. Their hind feet are long, 4-6 inches and have fur extending out to give them broad feet that helps them stay on top of the snow. The footprints suggested that they were moving quickly across my path. The two front feet landed first in the snow and then the hind feet several inches in front and each set of prints was 3 to 4 feet apart. They are agile and can run up to 25 mph and jump as far as 10 feet.

During winter hares eat bark and buds and the young firs and hemlocks with branches close to the ground in this forest would provide abundant food. Hares travel over a 10 to 25 acre area in search of food and shelter. Hares reach their highest densities in young lodgepole pine forests, which have good cover, and these pines are more nutritious than firs and spruce.  But lodgepole pines self prune, loosing low branches after a few years eliminating both cover and food, and hare populations then crash.

In the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska snowshoe hare populations fluctuate through a 10-year cycles.  Winter food and disease seem to drive these cycles. Canada lynx populations track these cycles closely and may play a role in causing the peaks. Snowshoe hares are the primary prey of lynx, which also have broad feet and long legs allowing them to walk on snow. I looked for lynx footprints, hoping that I might find some. Lynx are a threatened species in Washington. Prior to 1947, a $5 bounty on lynx resulted in their populations being decimated. The state implemented a ban on hunting and trapping them but their populations have not fully recovered. Historically they ranged down the eastside of the Cascades above 4,000 feet through Alpine Lakes Wilderness but according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recovery plan, there has been no sightings this far south in recent decades.

At the ridge, I could look down into Roaring Creek Valley. Lake Julius was a mile up the valley. Snow showers moved through the landscape and at times were heavy.  Clouds danced across the hills, on occasion totally blocking my view of the far slope. The dusting of white on the trees made a stunning setting. Fresh snow began to cover my tracks and I headed down the hill toward Lake Julius.

Ice and snow covered Lake Julius but Roaring Creek remained open. The lake lies at the base of a large cirque and the far shore and headwall drifted in and out of the clouds, never reveling the headwall’s top. Firs lined the bank of the lake on its other sides.  As I stood watching the scene, the snow began to build on my shoulders and cap; close to an inch of snow accumulated in the hour I wandered along the shore.

Sigurd Olson in his book, Reflections from the North Country, discussed how before humans dominated the landscape “great silences” permeated the landscape. He defined great silences to “include the temporary physical sounds of wind and falling water, the roar and crashing of prehistoric creatures, natural in origin and always present. The silence itself was beyond the ordinary sounds of nature: it dealt with distance, timelessness, and perception, a sense of being engulfed by something greater where minor sounds were only a part, a hush embedded in our consciousness.” I spent more than an hour along the edge of this subalpine lake and think I came to appreciate what Olson was professing. It is more than just quiet. The tingling of snow was constant on my jacket; a few breezes rustled branches at one point; two ravens squawked as they flew unobserved through the thick clouds, and a few Gray Jays fed in the trees behind me. I spent more than four hours exploring this wilderness and I had not heard or seen a person. It was marvelous to feel I had this vast landscape in front of me in its primordial condition to myself. I stood in silence for a long time along the lakeshore until I realized it was late and I had a trek back to the cabin.

 

Snow storm moves through Roaring Creek valley in Alpine Lakes Wilderness (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow storm moves through Roaring Creek valley in Alpine Lakes Wilderness (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

Roaring Creek drops down through a snow covered forest (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Roaring Creek drops down through a snow covered forest (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

American Dipper at Bagley Creek

Ice formed elaborate designs along the edge of the open water in Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice formed elaborate designs along the edge of the open water in Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Light waist deep and sparkling in morning light
Crust thick with fluffy white top
Ice crystals line the creek like
Lace on a fancy gown or
Maybe feathers growing out from shore
Pools run smooth and quiet.
The water dark, almost black against,
The white reflected in the water.

Sudden movement
Upstream, not water
What might it be.
I inch toward the creek
Senses alert.

Grey-chocolate puffball
With legs and sharp bill
Flies down, Alights on a rock
Water rushes around the perch,
There it bobs up and down
It peers one-way and then the next

Dives right into water which
Must be ice cold right now.
Flies out of water to
Another rock. Swims through
Pool of tumbling water with
Head under, looking for what.
A trout cruises by, both searching
For food. The Dipper flutters to snow bank.

Walks lightly, leaving
Deep foot prints as it goes.
Water droplets roll off back,
Feathers as dry as fresh towels
Scolds loudly at me, leaves
Gliding down stream, on
Stiff steady wing beats.

American Diver, or Water Ouzel, walks through the snow above Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

American Diver, or Water Ouzel, walks through the snow above Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice sheet hung over the quiet pool.1 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice sheet hung over the quiet pool.1 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice dangles above the rapids in the creek forming an intricate design. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice dangles above the rapids in the creek forming an intricate design. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Bagley Creek & Table Top Mountain, Mt Baker Wilderness

Fresh snow sparkled across the mountain while the creek gurgled and bubbled as it flowed along the snow banks. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fresh snow sparkled across the mountain while the creek gurgled and bubbled as it flowed along the snow banks. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

24 November: My Friend from Bellingham and I drove to Mt Baker hoping to hike into Mt Baker Wilderness. After the snows in the last few weeks, the mountains sparkled in the early morning light while the valleys were draped in shadow. At one point we stopped to admire the columnar basalt, the result of the lava cracking to form vertical columns as it cooled. I wondered if this flow on the side of a ridge had formed like the one under Sunrise at Mt Rainier. Had the flow formed during the last glaciation when the lava had to slide along the side of a massive valley glacier, unable to melt the thick ice filling the valley?

We had not brought our snowshoes but hoped the snow would be packed enough from others to be able to walk the Bagley Creek valley from Heather Meadows.  The temperature hung in the 20s and two inches of fluffy snow sat on top of the crust. The snow was at least waist deep in the places I broke through the crust on the way to Table Top Mountain, which loomed in front of us. Parties of two to six people passed us on snowshoes or skis. Some followed the trail or crossed the frozen lake, while others headed directly up the steep slope toward the plateau. A pair of snowboarders traversed down from the top, stopping regularly to plot their next move. We could hear their conversation faintly as they came to the side of an avalanche slope. One of them sat in the snow while the other explored several possible alternate routes. Finally, they backtracked along their path to an open route down.  We could see small places along the slope where the snow slid, forming small snow balls that rolled down the hill. In another month, their route will be prone to avalanches.

Ice formed elaborate designs along the edge of the open water in Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice formed elaborate designs along the edge of the open water in Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

Ice sheet hung over the quiet pool.1 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice sheet hung over the quiet pool. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

The snow bank reflected perfectly in the mirror like creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The snow bank reflected perfectly in the mirror like creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Bagley Creek gurgled along the valley floor, tumbling and bubbling over rocks.  Ice sheet walls paralleled frothy white water. Ice hung in sheets just above quiet pools, indicating that water levels had been higher than they are now. One flat sheet suspended an inch above the water had a network of droplets dripping from the underside; forming intricate designs like Chinese paper cuttings. A large pool contained a perfect reflection of the snow bank on the far side.

American Diver, or Water Ouzel, walks through the snow above Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

American Diver, or Water Ouzel, walked through the snow above Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I spotted an American Dipper working the creek and crept along the trail so as not to spook it.  The bird jumped down to a rock in the creek and then dove into the water.  For 30 seconds, it stood in water up to its belly with its head underwater, looking one way and another. It then swam 3 yards down the stream, looking occasionally down, like a snorkeler, before climbing on another rock. Water droplets beaded up on its back. A brief shake and the bird looked perfectly dry, showing the excellent water proofing on its feathers. From there, it flew over to an ice sheet where it stood on the ice without any concern for how its feet might feel on the ice.  Several times as it worked along the creek, it flew up onto the bank and walked along the snow, leaving wonderful footprints in the fresh snow. Their resistance to cold constantly amazes me. The water must be right at the freezing point with all the ice we saw and yet they can go about their daily lives as if its summer.

My friend spotted a half dozen brook trout resting in a pool 2-feet deep and 10-yards long. Crystal clear water allowed us to watch them suspended stationary in the water column facing up stream, which permitted the current to push water through their gills. Brook trout are native to eastern United States and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife stocked these mountain streams and lakes to provide more fishing opportunities for anglers. I teased my friend that he should wade into the water with his fly rod to catch some. I said “I wanted to see if you can do as well as the dipper with the cold water.” He called my bluff when he said, “I will go fetch my rod from the car but you have to sit and watch while I see what I can catch.” He told me that the Fish and Wildlife Department was encouraging anglers to remove the brook trout they caught in these alpine streams to reduce the population of trout. Brook trout eat the same aquatic insects that dippers consume.

Ptarmigan tracks and mice tracks show that wildlife were out searching for food in this snow covered landscape. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ptarmigan tracks and mice tracks showed that wildlife were out searching for food in this snow covered landscape. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

We spotted tracks of white-tailed ptarmigan in a number of places. The tracks led from bush to bush, and based on the multiple footprints around the stems, they were nibbling on buds.  Below a mountain ash, the snow was trampled and wing feathers brushed the snow. They had jumped repeatedly to grab at the red-orange berries hanging on a branch 3-feet above the snow. Ptarmigan have feathers on their toes and we could see the extra impressions in the snow from them.  At one place a mouse had scurried across the snow at right angles to the ptarmigan tracks. I would have loved to see a ptarmigan but with all the people along the trail this day, I suspected they were hidden high on the slopes in a good resting place. In their white winter plumage, they would blend in perfectly with the snow.

After a few hours, we headed back toward the car. Sigurd Olson in his book “The Singing Wilderness” talks of the joy of immersing oneself in wilderness such that you hear it sing. As we hiked back, I felt we had a good day and had heard this wilderness sing.

Ice dangles above the rapids in the creek forming an intricate design. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice dangled above the rapids in the creek forming an intricate design. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice forms along the edge of the rapids in Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Ice formed along the edge of the rapids in Bagley Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt Shuksan peak was dappled in soft light that helped to highlight the hanging glacier near its peak. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Soft light dappled Mt Shuksan’s peak and highlighted the hanging glacier near its peak. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Fog rose from the subalpine firs and twisted and turned, dancing like a ballerina down the valley. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fog rose from the subalpine firs and twisted and turned, dancing like a ballerina down the valley. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

13 November: I hiked into Commonwealth Basin at first light this morning as mist fell constantly.  Clouds clung tight to the tops of the mountains and drifted down through the valley.  Six inches of snow covered the forest as I passed the wilderness border and the trail had packed wet snow.  The air smelled fresh and damp, and my face tingled with the cold mist.

When I first arrived, I could not see the steep slopes at the far end of the basin. After 30 minutes, the fog in the valley began to rise and gradually I could see more of the sides of the mountains. Water dripped off the needles on the subalpine firs as I walked by.  I passed several avalanche shoots covered with alders and boulders.  As I turned to head back toward the trailhead, a pika scolded from high on the slopes and a flock of 30 pine siskins flew up the valley a hundred feet above treetops chattering away as they went.

Moss clung along a boulder and snow field. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Moss clung along a boulder and snow field. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

Exposed moss and lichens gave color to thw white landscape in the Commonwealth Basin. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Exposed moss and lichens gave color to thw white landscape in the Commonwealth Basin. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Blankets of snow covered the tops of granite boulders and had fallen from the sides, showing the lichen blotches across the boulders.  Under trees, thick moss patches gave a vibrant green color to the white landscape.  In the basin bottom, Mist rose out of the forest of subalpine firs and the mist clouds rose and fell, twisting and turning, like a ballerina dancing, as they drifted south through the valley. I enjoyed watching the every changing scene.

Outside of the wilderness boundary, I found a collection of mushrooms growing on the trunk of a large dead cedar tree. The contrast between the red wood, moss, lichens and color of the mushrooms stood out in the soft understory light. The delicate fairy bonnets, less than an inch across, dotted the trunk. As I sat down on the trail, I almost expected to see something fly out from under a bonnet.  Several other species of mushrooms covered parts of the trunk, including a small yellowish one less than a quarter inch across. The wet weather has made it ideal for the emergence of mushrooms.

Fairy Bonnests grew on the side of a red cedar snag. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fairy Bonnests grew on the side of a red cedar snag. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mushrooms contrast with the red wood of a cedar snag. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mushrooms contrast with the red wood of a cedar snag. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mushrooms contrast with the red wood of a cedar snag. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mushrooms contrast with the red wood of a cedar snag. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Hike on the Shedroof Divide Trail in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness

Fall colors are coming to the fire burn area on the slopes of Round Top Mountain in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fall colors were coming to the fire burn area on the slopes of Round Top Mountain in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

17-18 September: I arrived at Pass Creek Pass at 6:15 P.M. and quickly put on my pack to hike into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. The Shedroof Divide Trail starts along a one-lane Forest Service road and begins climbing immediately toward the ridgeline and Round Top Mountain. The Salmo-Priest Wilderness lies in the northeast corner of Washington. The inverted U-shaped wilderness hugs two ridges in the Selkrick Mountains and provides important habitat for grizzly bears and woodland caribou. It abuts a large roadless area in Idaho that currently is being managed as wilderness. Additional wild habitat is protected just across the border in Canada.  The Selkrick Mountains are built on Precambrian sedimentary rocks, 600 million years old, and some of the oldest rock in Washington.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, this had been the western edge of the continent.

I traveled first through an area that had burned a number of years ago. Young subalpine firs grew among thick clumps of fireweeds, huckleberries, blueberries and mountain ash. A few dead snags still remained as well as some firs that survived the fire. Based on the size of new trees, I suspect the fire was about a decade ago. Rain showers occurred on and off, everything was dripping. I watched a flock of robins drop down into the bushes, disappear for a few minutes and then fly to a new clump.  I suspected they were eating blueberries. I heard some thunder to the west but did not see any lightning.  Just in case it came closer, I headed back down the trail to be out of this open area. I arrived back to my camp at dark and as the rain became heavy and constant.

Water droplets and splider web strands formed a fascinating design on this baneberry clump in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Water droplets and splider web strands formed a fascinating design on this baneberry fruit in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

A large waterdroplet on the white baneberry reflected the vegetation along the slope. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A large waterdroplet on the white baneberry reflected the vegetation along the slope. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I woke at 6:30 A.M. to steady rain and pea soup fog. The fog rolled in and out, creating an eerie feeling to this remote place. I waited until 9 A.M. to head up the trail when the rain began to subside. Water droplets clung to leaves, needles and fruit. After passing through the burn, I entered a forest of subalpine firs, lodgepole pines, and Engelmann spruce. A hairy woodpecker tapped on a tree and I flushed a grouse as I moved through the forest. Waves of fog drifted up the valley from the east and over the ridge, at times blocking my views in all direction. A bald surrounds Round Top Mountain and the trail hugged the steep slope along the east side. Golden grass covered the bald.  Winds had increased to 20 mph and I heard a loud crack as a tree broke in the forest behind me. On the north side of the bald, I descended back into a forest and onto the west side of Shedroof Divide. I flushed a few Oregon juncos as I moved through the forest. Even with the fog, I found the views breath taking.  The forest smelled fresh in the mist and the vegetation looked vibrant. I drifted into harmony with the surroundings and walked for several hours in contemplation.  After awhile, I turned around to head back to the trailhead.

the rain coasted all the vegetation with fascinating droplets.  This subalpine fir glistened in the soft foggy light. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The rain coated all the vegetation with fascinating droplets. This subalpine fir glistened in the soft foggy light. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The fog moved across Shedroof divide in serene waves obscuring and reveiling the landscape.  Fire a decade ago burned part of the mountain. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The fog moved across Shedroof divide in serene waves obscuring and reveiling the landscape. Fire a decade ago burned part of the mountain. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The step sides of Round Top Mountain (6466 ft) are covered in meadows and allowed clear views north along Shedroof Divide into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The steep sides of Round Top Mountain (6466 ft) are covered in meadows and allowed clear views north along Shedroof Divide into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Maple Pass Trail in the Sawtooth Roadless Area of Okanogan National Forest

Whistler Mountain on the left and looking northeast through Sawtooth Roadless area into Liberty Bell Roadless Area. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Whistler Mountain on the left and looking northeast through Sawtooth Roadless area into Liberty Bell Roadless Area. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

4 October: A smattering of snow covered the trees and the ground as I started up the trail through an ancient forest of hemlocks, spruce and firs.  A few inches of snow still clung to many branches and it fell periodically in big clumps and crashed through the branches.  A small clump hit me on the head and it felt like I was hit by an ice ball.  Luckily, no big clumps hit me. Fortunately, I found this trail open in the Sawtooth Roadless Area of the Okanogan National Forest.  The National Park Service closed all the trails in North Cascades National Park because of the shut down of the federal government.

The blueberries leaves had turned a crimson color and stood out against the granite and snow. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The blueberries leaves had turned a crimson color and stood out against the granite and snow. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

For the first mile, the trail climbed through a series of switchbacks up the valley.  Large mountain hemlocks, Engelmann spruce, and subalpine firs created a cathedral atmosphere to the climb. As I started up the trail, a chipmunk scurried across the trail, down a log, and into a hole. The forest smelled sweet and fresh because of the recent snow and this helped with my puffing up the trail.  As I climbed, squirrels scolded from tree branches.  Little piles of shredded cones along the trail showed they were busy harvesting. A short ways up the trail, I came to large talus slope that stretched several hundred feet across and went up and down the mountain for quite a ways.  The mountain ash added color with their red berries and yellowing leaves.  Blueberry leaves were a dark crimson color.  The tops of the boulders were covered with snow.  Several pikas chided me as I passed through.  I spent some time searching for them but could never spot one.  They must be hurrying to pack away food for winter for this seems to be an early snow even at this elevation.   The hillside curved sharply allowing me to look back through the trees at the talus slope.

Lake Ann reflected the sides of the valley. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Lake Ann reflected the sides of the valley. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

Maple Pass towers above Lake Ann in the Sawtooth Roadless Area.  Fresh snow covered the slopes and western larches were beginning to change color (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Maple Pass towers above Lake Ann in the Sawtooth Roadless Area. Fresh snow covered the slopes and western larches were beginning to change color (G. Thomas Bancroft)

After a mile, the woods opened and I hiked across a steep slope. Snow had increased to at least a foot deep and I could hear it dripping everywhere.  Small streams ran down the trail and off the slopes adding to the musical background. Lake Ann sat below in the upper end of a three-sided cirque.  Thousand-foot walls rose from the water’s edge almost straight up.  The cliffs reflected brilliantly in the calm water.  I spotted a person casting along the eastern-forested shore of the lake and could easily hear several people chatting down there.  The view over Lake Ann was breath taking.  The setting sun glowed over the rim.  A scattering of larches dotted the steep bowl and gave a nice contrast to the snow and rock. A ruby-crowned kinglet flew onto a branch 4 feet from me and checked me out.  Several chickadees called farther down the slope.

Black Peak loomed majectically above Lake Lewis.  Western Larches were only just beginning to change color. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Black Peak loomed majectically above Lake Lewis. Western Larches were only just beginning to change color. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I climbed another series of switchbacks to Heather Pass and found the snow over 2-feet deep.  I chatted with two men coming down the trail from Maple Pass and they said the snow was over 3 feet there. The snow crunched under my feet suggesting the temperature had dropped below freezing.  From Heather Pass, Black Peak (8970 ft) stood majestically to the northwest.  A singe ski track crossed the slope toward Lewis Lake that sat below the peak. Larches dotted the slopes.  In another week or two they will turn golden and make this view even prettier.

Cutthroat Peak (left) and Whistler Mountain (right) glow in the evening light.  The Pacific Crest Trail climbs around the left side of Cutthroat Peak (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Cutthroat Peak (left) and Whistler Mountain (right) glow in the evening light. The Pacific Crest Trail climbs around the left side of Cutthroat Peak (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

The sun would set soon so I decided I could not climb to Maple Pass before dark so I turned around and started back down the tail.  The hike back was serene and mellow.  As the sunset, the light gradually warmed and accented the peaks in all directions.  The final half-mile I walked in deep twilight.

Snow had fallen off rocks above and grew to large snow balls as the rolled down the step slope. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow had fallen off rocks above and grew to large snow balls as the rolled down the step slope. (G. Thomas Bancroft)