Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Lack of Blooms A Sign of a Late Spring

It has been a nasty winter. It has been long and drawn out too. Its effects are at high elevations and here in the valleys too. Even I am beginning to look for the colors of spring.

Sometime over the winter, I wandered into Woodland and followed the signs to the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens. On a cold wet, February day, I said “self, I will return to see the blooming lilacs“.

On a recent Sunday, my boys and I drove to Vancouver on an unrelated adventure, but part of the bargain struck entitled me a chance to stop at the Woodland Tulip Festival and photograph a little spring color. Chief among my curiosities was the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens.

Hulda Klager was 13 when she purchased a farm. Around 1903, she began experimenting with cross breeding apples. By 1910, she was working with lilacs in much the same fashion. She hand pollinated a number of cross-breeds and developed unique refinements in lilacs. In 1948, the gardens were nearly destroyed by a flood of the Columbia River, but people that had purchased some of her most unique samples returned them so that the demonstration garden would continue. Currently, the garden covers 4.5 acres and the house has been turned into a museum.

Getting to the gardens is fairly easy for there is fairly consistent signage from Interstate 5. An admission price of $2.00 is required at the front gate.

So, in late-April, we fully expected to see scenes like the colorful photos on the website. But as we continue to have frosts and just 24 hours earlier, experienced a late-season snowfall, flowers of just about every kind were reluctant to bloom; and frankly could you blame them? I walked the garden grounds and only marveled at the potential.

The grounds of the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens showed potential, but little color.

We also stopped at the center of the Woodland Tulip Festival and walked through some of the tulips that were on display (albeit grudgingly I am sure). We also listened to a band playing music as exhibitors broke down their displays on the last afternoon of the celebration. My son and I couldn’t help purchasing a few tulips of our own to give some additional color to our own expanding flower garden that itself is hesitant to show its colors.

Regardless, spring will come. It has fooled those that schedule the flower blooms and related celebrations, but predictions for a gradual warming trend between now and July 15th, simply can’t be ignored .

Don’t Forget Your Snowshoes on your Early Season Hike

Whenever possible I try to drop in and visit Edie Aydelott at the Destination Packwood office. This last week, we talked about the snow. The massive amounts of it, preventing access onto the traditional trails in the foothills. The question was, how would it impact tourism early this summer? A year ago this weekend, my family and I hiked up to Packwood Lake and crossed just a couple of patches of snow. Those conditions are four to possibly six weeks away. The early season is looking troublesome for anyone that enjoys spending time in the high country. We should all be rejoicing for the above average snowfall and what it means for seasonal water supplies, but clearly, I have a very egotistic frame of mind when it comes to my summer backcountry excursions.

Like a cat needing to get outdoors, I have been scratching my own internal calendar for several weeks. My son and I decided to see what the foothills have to offer at this early season juncture. I picked a simple trip to Cathedral Falls, a 0.5 mile hike toward Tumwater Mountain and Vanson Lake on the Goat Creek Trail. It was a just about a year ago, that I first learned about this gem and stumbled my way to it with not a lick of snow in sight.

The falls are a popular local’s choice, but the Goat Creek area is not exactly the Wonderland Trail that is so heavily traveled or access maintained, at Mount Rainier National Park. Goat Creek drains the north slopes of Goat Mountain in the Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument. It is well outside the blast zone, so coverage of the area in guide books is less than intense and clearly escapes the interest of passing tourists.

To get there, turn onto Kosmos Road between Morton and Glenoma and follow the signs to Taidnapam Park. Cross the bridge over the Cowlitz River and turn right. Continue through an open gate (during fire season, this gate is often closed to protect private lands despite blocking access to public lands) and go for another mile or so, ignoring a couple of minor roads to the left. You will come to a three-way fork in the road, the one to the right has a gate. Take the farthest left fork. This is now USFS road #2750. There is no signage or any indication you are on the right road. Have faith!

Traveling any forest road in the spring, especially in my little Elantra adds an element of heart palpitation. Regular early season users often carry chainsaws so until you run into actual snow, trees are usually cut and shoved off to the side. Nobody reaches the dozen or so trees that blew over and are leaning against other trees and threaten to fall with a wisp of air movement as you pass by it. I kept imagining the trees falling after we drove up hill, trapping us without a saw in my trunk.

About a mile short of the trailhead, the snow became a barrier so I maneuvered my car into a downhill parking spot and started up the trail on foot. Of course there was the annual telltale sign of macho bravado where someone had insisted his truck could make it through the snow, trapping him for what was probably an hour or two until he was able to maneuver free. The scars will show in the road for years to come.

My son and I began our hike in the snow which got deeper and deeper. “My kingdom for a pair of snowshoes” I thought. Nearly an hour later, we had not even reached the trailhead. Disappointed, disgusted and ill-prepared, we turned around and headed back down the hill.

I knew there was a lot of snow in the Cascades this spring, but I am not sure we had reached 2000 feet yet and there was a ton. It may be a month before hikers without special equipment reaches Cathedral Falls, but when they do, the heart of the snow-melt season will put on an awesome display

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Emerging Markets Draining Gas and Oil Supplies

I have to admit that I am certainly more than a little grumpy with gas prices. I hear the news that gives the comparative prices across the country and realize that those in California and Hawaii pay the most. I feel bad for those that live there due to the high price of living there to begin with.

Here in Washington, life is hard with regard to the price of gas. We pay the highest gas tax in the country because we almost exclusively use those funds to build and maintain our thoroughfares and roadways. It is kind of ironic since we have self-service while our neighbor to the south does not and yet we pay more at the pump.

Outside of a few tediously high paid CEOs at the highest levels we will have to trust that at least at the state level, the oil and gas market in Washington State is on the up and up. A recent study by Sate Attorney General Rob McKenna seems to confirm a rather benign situation in Washington.

The first step for Americans is to drive vehicles that can go farther on a tank of gas. Public transportation should be close at hand for all american communities.

The hardest part of all this however is looking at the future. Two of the world’s most populous countries, China and India are developing both economically which in the coming years will bring improvements to their transportation infrastructure. In short, there is going to be more competition for the finite resource of oil.

We as Americans should figure out how to share what we have almost exclusively enjoyed for six decades. The first step is to develop a wider array of public transportation services in rural areas so that the population that depends on gas the most have the most options.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rossi Pandering to those who Least Like Him

Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi is all over the map in his transportation ideas. I can't imagine he is going to win many votes even with a big show of pomp and circumstance. In the GOP manner, we will delete one tax and get the money from somewhere else. Nearly half of that in the form of $7.7 billon from new and used vehicle sales tax over 30 years. He would rather see the Alaskan Way tunnel idea resurface, something both local voters and engineers have soundly dismissed.

Of course he panders to those with an eye on the environmental and energy future with tax breaks on “green” cars, and a redesign of culverts to assist with the migration of salmon.

It sure must sound good to those that least supported Rossi in his last election bid four years ago; those whose top concerns in life are the congestion of urban thoroughfares and the environment in their neighboring playground. At the same time, he may have alienated himself from his most supportive base, the rural population who watch most of their tax dollars spent on infrastructure in urban areas.

Clearly the most bothersome comments came when Rossi accused the Democrats, of diverting people away from their cars. It seems like more selfish thought and talk in a time when all the discussion should be about public transportation and weaning people away from their vehicles. As we approach $4.50 to $5.00 for a gallon in gas, perhaps a little forward thinking is what is needed. Rossi is only proposing a band-aid on a hemorrhaging vein.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Play Ball! for a Month

Do you know how rough the spring weather has been on our local sports teams? I’ll give you one example. Yesterday, I went to cover a high school baseball game between Winlock and Pe Ell. What I found at the field was the baseball team from Rainier. Upon further investigation, I was late for the game even though I arrived at 3:20pm, a full 40 minutes before first pitch. The game had actually stated way back on March 21st. The two teams had played two full innings and then was rained out and re-scheduled. Many fast pitch and baseball teams in the local area are almost caught up with all of their make-up games, but this one struck me as noteworthy. Ironically, Rainier was spotted an 11-0 lead due to their offensive explosion back in March and WIAA rules dictate that a game is called complete if one team has a 10 run lead after 5 full innings. Rainier added a few runs and Winlock was still held scoreless. Three innings of play lasted less than an hour, but the game lasted just short of a month.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

There is More to Sports and Athletes than Meets the Eye

When you think of sports, perhaps you think of fast, agile movement; Pressure-packed moments and amazing feats that often rule the day. At the same time, the bone-heads of athletics also make the headlines but real fans that love sport sweep those guys away in our minds as if they were never there.

What is special about small high school sports and activities is the innocence, all the opportunity in the form of joyous play for student athletes. There are a lot of smiles, laughter and occasionally giggles. Here in Washington, as so many other states, they don’t just make their names on the field of play.

Take for example, Toledo High School Junior Candi Zion. She was one of nine students selected to represent the Washington Interscholastic Activity Association (WIAA) participants to include student-athletes, cheer squads and theater participants all over the state. In all, nine student representatives were chosen to speak for 227,000 participants.

Sure, I was impressed with her 4.0 grade point average, and her participation in Basketball (2nd team Evergreen 1A all-star), Soccer (2nd team all-state) and at one time Fast pitch at Toledo High School. What was most impressive, however, was her skill as an eloquent communicator.

Last fall, Zion applied for a two year term in the Leadership through Education and Personal Development program (or LEAP) through the WIAA and was accepted. Meetings of the committee are held at the WIAA headquarters in Renton. Some of the topics have included student views regarding logistics at the state tournaments, the fairness of private schools competing with public schools, a shot clock in boys basketball and geographic anomalies like Forks competing in the same league with Winlock and Toledo.

As you would expect, with a representative like Candi Zion, the nine students brought together to assist the WIAA in their decision-making will look at issues with an objective and intelligent view. Clearly, there will be 227,000 benefactors.

Greenhouse Gasses Caused By Forest Fire?

So who is to blame for greenhouse gasses on Earth? I would patiently say that everything is. It is a natural part of the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, humans, especially Americans have contributed more than their share. Recently though, I have read several articles that complains about the amount of CO2 being released by forest fires world wide. Calls to once again aggressively fight and prevent fires of every kind are in the news.

I watched this fire of unknown origin for over an hour before fire crews arrived, expecting it to grow into an inferno. Instead, it gently burned debris on the forest floor, doing a job humans are reluctant to do.

First, I want to point out that fire, much like water and air is a natural part of the earth’s system. Could you imagine all the debris, the disease left without the scrubbing qualities of wildfire? Right now, from Colorado to China to Eastern Russia, the wildfire season is in full swing. In Russia, thousands of hectares of land are on fire and nearly none of it threatens any homes, business or infrastructure. There are a few thousand men fighting the highest priority fires with the help of a grand total of two airplanes.

It is the media that describes fires as devastating,. Yes, at times they are, but fire is an earthly tool that helps maintain continuing life. It is responsible for our fear, our respect and some greenhouse gasses, but doesn’t that show us that we joined the earth long after it had some of these gasses? This planet is full of change and changes well. Humans on the other hand are reluctant to vary. Herein lies the basis of our doomsday observations.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

They Need a Taste of (Self) Discipline

There are few outdoor pursuits I distaste more than snowmobiling, but this morning my disdain for the machines and especially their riders was enough to make my blood curl. A rider took his machine to the top of Mount St. Helens, several miles out of bounds and then was stupid enough to stand on top of a snow cornice that gave way. The lucky guy fell only two hundred feet and survived with only minor leg injuries.

Mount St. Helens during the winter.

This is about the stupidly, and discipline of humans, but is more than anything a challenge to taking care of a way of life. Admittedly, it has been a tough year for snowmobiles in Southwest Washington. The road to the Marble Mountain and Cougar Snow Parks have been closed through most of the winter. If you ask me, that is the lack of dedication by the Forest Service to its community. It is also the fault of the Forest Service that he was even on the mountain in a closed area. Most of the people that were on the ground to prevent this kind of intrusion and self-endangerment no longer have jobs in Southwest Washington.

I find it ironic however that the political fever in some of the counties around Mount St. Helens favor less and less government and more freedom to do what they want. Perhaps enough bodies and equipment sacrificed to the local volcano will make them think twice about the current culture. As the Forest Service has cut its management staff, there has been an audible display of glee by local enthusiasts.

Just remember for every one of these guys that get caught there are a significant number not observed putting themselves and our natural areas in peril. Yes, this guy was from Oregon, but as Bill Engvall would say, there are stupid people everywhere. They have to be managed!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Loneliest Newsman in Town

Since moving to Lewis County I have always felt this way; an outsider. The other day, I was covering a track meet in Onalaska and being an old trackster myself, I felt like I would fit in much better than with the baseball teams that I have been covering. It was four hours before I had a significant conversation with a coach from Toledo. Perhaps it is going be a case of credibility that will take months and years before these guys will approach me for a conversation. Only time will tell, when the ice age will end!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Land Ownership Requires Responsibility

Landownership comes with a great deal of responsibility. Here in Western Washington, that may include taxes and a solid relationship with neighbors. Many landowners are absentee caretakers. Perhaps it is recreational land, but in many cases, it is pure speculation. Ground is purchased for the purpose of eventual profit.

The dark green plants you see are young Scotch broom that can be removed in a few hours. This land was logged in 2006, but the Illinois landowner has agreed to a program that will allow high school students to remove the plants for a donation.

Such is the case for one landowner just north of Winlock. The ground is owned by a gentleman that lives in Kelso. The property was logged in late 2006 and now ripe with noxious weeds like Canadian Thistle and Scotch broom. It is part of my job to notify and educate property owners about the problems they face with a lack of maintenance. In this land of one of the most productive climates in the world. I even try to match them up with local F.F.A. Clubs that can help them out for a donation. Small solutions for a small problem.

Every day, I pass this one piece of property, knowing full well, without some maintenance, it will be a Scotch broom infested biological trash heap. That will contribute to an extreme fire danger.

Here, mature Scotch broom presents a fire danger due to resins within the plant not to mention the biological issues of competition. Few native species can compete in these kinds of stands.

Sure, I barely respect private property rights. Logging and harvesting of timber is a necessary evil, but the maintenance and care of the land should take precedence over profit. If there is not going to be any profit, than perhaps there shouldn’t be any logging.

I have worked with numerous landowners to solve simple, long term problems, but it is irresponsible for a landowner to take care our the dirt that is under everyone’s feet.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Searching for Elusive High School Sports in the just as Elusive Western Washington Springtime

I have to wonder, if I am just low on luck or short on connections.

I am new to the newspaper business. I have taken on the role of an outdoors, sports and education writer for a small town weekly newspaper in Southwest Washington. If a guy could make a living at it, it would be a ball. As it is, I combine it with another job and then substitute teach a couple of days a week and call it a living. It is a lot of fun, working a couple of regular days and then several days a week, take a seat at my home computer for my other 20 hours. Several evenings a week, I go to the local high school sporting events.

This time of year, the baseball and fast pitch games have been few and far between. Weather and the general fickle nature of small schools cause the events to be hit or miss at best. These are small town high schools. They mailed a schedule to the regional newspaper months ago and that is what the are paper prints. Of course, until my contacts mature, that is my main information source.

As an example of my good natured frustrations, yesterday, I drove 40 miles to Morton, the site of a scheduled game only to find the field and parking lot completely devoid of players and spectators. I returned via other communities hoping to find something, anything that will afford me a photo of value that might at least pay for the gas I just wasted. I checked In Napavine, 35 miles from the original location, and found the original game I was looking for.

Today was another glaring example of this calamity. Yesterday, I even confirmed with some local ball players in Onalaska that the game was scheduled. When I arrived at the field in Mossyrock, 30 miles away, I found the home team practicing in their uniforms. The game had been canceled in just the last few hours so I began my return trip home, visiting some fishing holes to find photos of value. On my way through Toledo, the closest town to my own, I stumbled onto a Fastpitch Softball game between two local rival schools.
A golden find for a home town newspaper!

I swear that my sources have me on a string and they laugh and giggle as I run all over the region looking for the story. Sometimes, bad luck can turn good just because I make an effort to drive the back roads and look for the elusive spring sporting events in Western Washington.

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Quick Trip to the Trains

Opportunity knocks. Some open the door and some run like hell.

My boys and I have kind of a strange hobby. We photograph trains. Yes, you heard that right, but more importantly, I like to photograph trains in nature.

So after a long winter, tight money and a two day window of amazing weather, I took the boys on an adventure to our favorite train watching location here in Washington State.; Steven’s Pass.
Unlike most of our trips to this country, the weather was perfect and the railroad gods were with us! There were plenty of trains to photograph.

Times are a little lean right now so while my preference would be to stay in a hotel, the boys and I set up a camp out in the woods. It was a very cold 28 degrees which made break down of camp on Thursday morning bordering on painful.

Northwest camping in April is a challenge and I made more than a few mistakes due to it being the first trip of the season. The biggest? I forgot to bring a pan to boil water denying us of hot chocolate on both ends of the stay at our campsite surrounded by patches of left over snow.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Cutting Back

I watched a piece on NBC Nightly News last night about “cutting back”. An expose on how people are saving money in these hard times.

I saw the train wreck coming four years ago. The first to go was my truck. I had a beautiful Dodge Dakota, but even at $2.00 a gallon, it was costing me $50 a fill. At that time, I was commuting 100 miles a day to Mount St. Helens where I worked with the Forest Service. I traded it in for a little manual transmission Hunyadi Elantra. It is still my car. In conversations about gas conversations, I still talk with pride. Not about the car, but my sacrifices.

NBC news talked about other locations where we could save. They included coffee, cigarettes and lunches (Gosh, eating leftovers). As it turns out, I don’t drink coffee. I don’t smoke and average one purchased lunch each month. That is right, I take my lunch almost every day to make sure I save money. Much to my boy’s chagrin, I pack them a lunch four days a week.
By far, our largest “fluff” expense is on television. We have an excellent package of television programming from DirecTV. My wife is a big TV fan and frankly, it allows us a way to kill time…call it cheap entertainment.

Next are the cell phones. We have three phones from Sprint with individual numbers. One for home, one for my wife and one that serves as the main number for the house. My phone is my work phone between my two jobs. Somewhere, somehow, I have to figure out how to provide a budding teenager with a phone….hopefully without a new number. It might be a little much, but I don’t feel as much guilt as with the television package.

Finally, the third potential place to cut is the hi-speed broadband service that I receive from QWEST. Not even negotiable. The internet has landed me my last three jobs, and I currently work as a writer for a small newspaper where I email my photos and stories. This expense more than pays for itself.

What has been cut is travel and experiences. I used to explore almost every weekend. A drive to a location within 60 miles or so and then a hike. It was costing me $20 to $30 a trip for gas X 4. Doesn’t sound like much but it was an easy place to cut. Is that what I have the DirecTV package for? (I say this with a bit of sarcasm).

Now that I am being paid to experience things and write about them, I can add that last item back to the list of things I don’t have to think about saving.. Darkness looms in 2009. I am guessing that my #1 employer that also allows me to buy my family’s insurance for about $600 a month will be cutting my job completely and working for a small-town newspaper won’t pay the bills and buy my luxuries.

Where will I cut next?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Could the Mt. St. Helens Club be a look at the Past and the Future?

The Mt. St. Helens Club has its roots deep in northwest history. The Mazamas, founded in 1894 where among the first clubs to enjoy the great outdoors in groups for social and safety reasons. But now, could outdoor clubs take us fiercely independent outdoor enthusiasts to a more social level?
In the process of writing the “Out and About” column I was well employed making a modest living with a little disposable cash left over. In February, my employer cut my program budget in half and thus my income. Suddenly, I was making a choice between $20 in gas to drive to the other end of the county or for milk, fruit and cereal at IGA. I chose the latter. It was brutal!

Gregg on a solo trip to the top of Coldwater Peak with Beargrass and Mt. Margaret in the background.

I come from a long line of independent outdoorsmen that would much rather explore backcountry by myself or on rare occasions with a friend that had outdoor skills nearly equal to mine, Some would think some of my backpacking trips were a bit foolish, but there are few that I associate with on a regular basis I would expose to such physical exertions or tricky footing. Ironically, there is not a trip that I don’t go home and say “I wish I could have shared this with someone”.
People that live in rural areas may have some hard choices to make in the future due to the rising price of life in general but more specifically, fuel for our transportation. Gone may be the days of the weekend drive, especially solo. Let’s hope that we never have to revert back to a time when a trip from Winlock to Napavine becomes a once a month occurrence.
It is groups like the Mt. St. Helens Club that may continue to make significant outdoor experiences possible in a time of $4 a gallon gasoline. Regardless, we are generally social animals and it is only natural that we share the great outdoors with a friend or two.
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