Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not Every Outdoor Experience Goes Well

Sometimes you are just better off staying home. OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it took me a while to digest the disappointment. Almost nothing, not even the weather cooperated with my attempt to get to the top of Mt. Ellinor.

Yes, that is the mountain that has received a lot of bad press over the last month. A group of three were injured in late May during a glissade (sliding down a mountain on your butt). A week later, a 33 year old woman from Centralia slipped, fell and began an uncontrolled slide down the “chute”.

With all the attention the mountain had been receiving lately, it was still hard to tell if one could hike to the top and back without an ice ax. Many hikers climb Mount St. Helens just for the fun of glissading down the shoot adjacent to Monitor Ridge. That didn’t mean you had to donate your butt to the mountain, you also have a choice to ease your way down the andisite boulders.

The question I couldn’t answer about Mt. Ellinor was if there an option to come back down the mountain without an ice ax and the ability to self arrest (stop)? There was almost no information available on the internet. It was clearly one of those times I would have to learn in person. So with a forecast of breaking clouds in the afternoon, I headed for the mountain in the southeast Olympic Range with the expectation of have a rough, physical day. I went without family members expecting to join others along the way.

The lower trail is very handsome and snow free.

To get there, drive to Hoodsport and take SR119 8 miles passed Lake Cushman to Forest Road 24 and turn right. The way to Mt. Ellinor is well marked. Take a left on FS 2419 and drive as far as you dare. I would suggest going only as far as the lower trailhead. The road deteriorates to the point where only those with ice in the veins want to continue. As it was, I drove as far as I could, turned my car to face down hill and hiked to the upper trailhead when a large part of the road separated into a canyon below. In hindsight, it was the one good choice I made this day.

A well used path was blazed in the snow until I got to the base of the "chute".

All was going well until I reached about 5,000 feet. The snow became very deep and while going uphill was fairly easy, the downhill trip among the trees was going to be a challenge. And the forecast? Those clearing skies that were going to give me an amazing early evening view sitting along side mountain goats never came. At 5,100 feet, I scoped the landscape with my 30 meter visibility looking for a route that wouldn’t require the use of an ice ax.

The view up Mt. Ellinor at the base of the "chute".

It wasn’t worth it. I turned around and completed the one good choice of the day. Since I hiked to the upper trailhead, I was going to be able to complete a loop of about six miles down to the lower trailhead and then back up the road to my car. The last part of the loop went through some wonderful old growth timber, but most of the setting featured clear cuts and fire scars with a mostly cloudy, shrouded view of the Hood Inlet and the eastern slopes of the Olympics.

So here is the information that I really needed. There is a summit trail around the south side of the mountain that was still buried under snow. It is for experienced hikers (read, fearless of heights) even during the best of weather conditions. During the winter, climbers head straight up the chute, an avalanche path on the east face of the peak. It is a route reserved for those with basic winter mountaineering skills and the aforementioned ice ax and the ability to self arrest.

For me, Mt. Ellinor will wait for another day either later in the summer or with an ice ax at my side.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not Surprisingly, Light Rail is Fun!

Photo by Kyle Pohll

My boys and I found ourselves in Portland on Sunday. We were visiting my father-in-law who suffered an aneurism last month. His recover is very slow, and my wife wanted to spend an extended amount of time with him. After about an hour, the boys and I decided to explore the mass-transportation system of Portland.

It seemed like forever before I felt confident enough to actually feed money to a machine for the ability to ride the MAX trains. The concept of copying the actions of others seemed like a good plan, but it appears that most Portlanders know exactly what to do or have the system in their pocket. It may be literal as many folks had one of a variety of passes.

Eventually, I settled in on an all day ticket for $4.25 ($12.75 for the three of us). Man, that has got to be better than a movie for the boys and I! As we got on, and started watching people and the closer we got to the Rose Quarter we got, the more interesting the people watching became. As we crossed the Willamette River into downtown, the variety of people became very apparent. For a couple of boys from a small town, I could just hear what was going through their minds as hair was often more colorful than clothes.

Downtown Portland's Pioneer Square was just one of the beautiful parts of the city.

We rode the MAX as far west as the Sunset Station in Beaverton. The route includes a tunnel that must be about 4 miles long. About halfway through the bore is the subway stop at the Washington Park Zoo. We then climbed aboard a “Blue Line train” to Gresham on the far east end of the metro area.

A MAX train pulls into the Sunset Station in Beaverton. Photo by Kyle Pohll

It is clear that mass transit is going to be a significant part of our future. Many people in metropolitan areas currently enjoy the convenience, but those in rural areas need to realize that cars are not life. If only local governments would start realizing the need is not just in the city anymore.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Tatoosh Wilderness

I was working out in Packwood yesterday and found an unobstructed angle to take a profile photo of the west side of the Tatoosh Wilderness area. It just made me that much more anxious for the snow to melt out!

The view from the top of Tatoosh Peak looking towards the southwest.

One of my favorite wilderness areas is the small Tatoosh area just north of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. It is basically a ridge between the Butter Creek and Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River. The south trailhead begins at the base of Butter Peak and passes just to the right of the peak itself. It is a tough climb of about three miles. You drop modestly to Bum Springs before climbing slowly along the slopes of southern Tatoosh Peak and over a small pass (you can see the trail on the photo now).

The trail continues to a point where it meets the northern trail out of Butter Creek Canyon. The junction is a bout a mile from the Tatoosh Lakes themselves.

Tatoosh Lake fill a glacial canyon among the Tatoosh Peaks.

It is a fantastic wilderness despite being just a dot on a map!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Give Back by Volunteering to Maintain Trails

Ask Henry Panter what is favorite trail is and he will tell you that the Hummocks, a 2.5 mile loop on the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is close to the top. “It is constantly changing” he said. Panter was leading a group of 10 volunteers from the Washington Trails Association in making some repairs on the dramatically altered trail.

A large slide split this portion of the Hummocks trail in two.

For my part, it had been about a year since I had been on the trail as an employee of the U.S. Forest Service, and on this day, I didn’t even recognize large portions of the trail. In early 2007, myself and several others flagged a reroute that was designed after the November storms of 2006 blew out a key portion of the right of way. Another section slid away this year and a beaver has built a dam in the last year that submerged two other sections of the path.

A new beaver dam was displacing the trail with high water.

Because the beaver took out the trail with a rising level of water, a new 50 foot section of trail was constructed higher on the slope.

Washington Trails Association (WTA) along with other groups like the Lewis County Backcountry Horsemen volunteer thousands of hours each year to fix storm damage on state and federal trails each summer. Panter, a mechanic from Stevenson considers himself a “professional volunteer” and has put in nearly 200 days of volunteer time on trails over the last decade. The groups other leader, Kevin Koski from Port Orchard has contributed 87 days since 1999. WTA began volunteer trail work in 1993 with a little over 800 hours and in 2007, over 80,000 hours of time was donated to trails in the state.

The two guides volunteer in doing what used to be the jobs of seasonal workers for the U.S. Forest Service, but in this age of declining budgets, volunteers are being called upon to take care of trails on federal lands.

WTA set up numerous volunteer parties over the weekend of June 7th (National Trails Day) and 8th all over the state. On this morning, 8 strangers were brought together by Panter and Koski to solve issues created by the ever changing Hummocks Trail.

Kevin Koski (left) and Henry Panter introduce the basic tools of trail repair and maintenance to a team of volunteer workers on Sunday.

The team of volunteers were introduced to a handful of tools employed in trail maintenance and then shown some basic techniques in trail design. The first lesson was the design and use of water bars to prevent trails from becoming small creeks. After all, water is the number one enemy of a trail. Later the crew built a short reroute to elevate the trail above a rising beaver ponds and then a rock structure that allowed hikers to step over s small stream without getting their boots wet or damaging the wetland. The most basic action was “grubbing” or moving soil to allow for proper drainage off of the trail.

My son Jared (on the left) and Nalini Nadkami from Olympia "grub" to create a drainage bar.

My son Jared is one of the first to test out an elevated step-crossing of a small drainage.

Among the group of volunteers were two Evergreen State College Instructors, a long-time employee (34 years) of the National Park Service and two volunteers for the Mount. St. Helens institute not to mention myself and my hard working 10 year old son. It should be noted that almost to a person, there was almost no experience in building or maintaining trails outside of our two leaders.

For their troubles and time, each volunteer was given a free pass to use forest service recreation areas (worth $5). After two passes are collected, they can be traded in for a free annual pass (worth $30). After 5 days of volunteer work, WTA gives you your own personalized helmet to use on future projects. Seldom does a week go by in the summer when there are not several work parties occurring all over the state. If you are interested, check the WTA site, but hurry. Work party space is limited and it goes fast!

Our group of volunteers took a moment to take in the scenery of the Toutle River and the volcanic landscape.

I was motivated to join this group because in many places I have hiked this year, fresh work on the trails had been completed. Under my breath I have said "thank you", but it occurred to me that guilt was a feeling erased by effort. It struck me funny that there was no one from Lewis or Cowlitz County (besides myself and my son) to help maintain one of our backyard trails. Which leads me to ask, what are you doing next weekend? Care to grub a little?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Gay Pride Demonstration at Centralia College Evokes Predictable Reaction

Centralia College celebrated "Gay-Pride" week and the local community reacted in fairly predictable fashion. In reality, it was the local newspaper that showed the community what was happening on campus in a normally very conservative community.


Well, what a series of events huh? I am actually proud of our little college forging ahead with some cultural events that may seem a little contrary to the local community. And leave it to The Chronicle to foster what I see as a mob mentality. Its photographers and editors presented a great package that put the subject over the top as some have stated here. Just like last week’s local tribute to hip-hop that made so many of us wheel around and go what-up?, Here we are talking about yet another community that is in our midst, but will bring out the worst in the larger community.

I remember one time when I was involved in a stage production. There in front of hundreds of audience members, I was able to pull off a character that most people could only dream of doing. It was exciting to say the least! I was able to let go of fears and fantasize about being someone I was not and had hundreds of people supporting my efforts to do so. Here you have people trying to portray the fun, perhaps stereotypical side of them that they have to hide 99% of the time in front of an audience that supports them. In real life they may have to be someone that they are not and now they get a chance to show it. They finally get into costume, get an audience in front of them and enjoy presenting to those that were present and supportive. I suspect that none of us in this discussion chose to go take in the spectacle. None of us bought tickets to this production. The Chronicle however, took us there and presented perhaps the most extreme look at the behaviors that took place on a usually sleepy campus.

Now look at our reaction. Seems pretty silly to me, and it was all brought to you by The Chronicle. Journalism at its best, worst or somewhere in between? Pretty clever if you ask me.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mudding and ORV Discussion Begins

The following is a discussion about mudding and ORV (off road vehicle) use in open areas and public lands in Washington between myself and "Town Crier" Writer Paula Collucci. Much is made of the problems by wheeled vehicles in backcountry areas. Whether the action is sanctioned or not, the damage will be in effect for 20 to 40 years in Western Washington and potentially a hundred years on the east side.

Clearly though, humans need to limit their impact and footprint when visiting someone else’s home. This particular hobby does little to respect those ethics.

On the other hand, I feel for the organized recreational groups in this state. As it stands, there are only 9 public ORV sites in all of Washington. Four of them are in Western Washington where the majority of the population lives. There are no official, public ORV sites in Southwestern Washington.

Of the 9 public parks, 4 of them are on DNR lands, 3 are U.S. Forest Service facilities, one is operated by Washington State Parks and one is operated by Grant County.

One of the most successful programs is being operated at Tayhua near Bremerton. A unique permit system is in place where permitees must have a volunteer hour for each participant in a given event.

DNR is finding that some trails have been developed without their consent. As a form of amnesty is granted in many cases when DNR finds illegal trails on their lands. It is at that time when a decision is made whether the trail is an appropriate location. At that point, if a group of enthusiasts are willing to work on the maintenance of the trail, it may be granted the user’s deed. Below is an excerpt from the Washington State 4x4 Symposium Summary

The Olympic Region is working hard to identify existing user-built trails on state trust lands, and determine which trails are in acceptable locations with acceptable use. Region staff work with interested groups to get an adopt-a-trail agreement signed and volunteer work scheduled to bring the trail to appropriate trail standards – or to close the trail. DNR works with the volunteers to set up an appropriate monitoring and maintenance schedule.

To be continued....

Private Land Owners Cutting off Public Treasures

Perhaps I should be totally grateful that the Cape Horn Trail even has a chance to become an official reality. Sure, the U.S. Forest Service wants to water the experience down by rerouting the trail away from the Cape Horn waterfall among other choices. The reason of course is that it passes by a Peregrine Falcon nest just adjacent to the falls themselves; a bird that nests under bridges in the City of Portland.

By far, the most disappointing realization was that private landowners are selfishly keeping the rest of the world from special places. Having traveled modestly, this is probably a common problem, but having grown up in Oregon where special places are uniquely public, the climate here in Washington uniquely supports the landowner.

The most striking example that I have found is a location where the Skykomish River drops its full flow over about a 40 foot waterfall near Index. All access to view the spectacle is on private land.

Such is the case at the base of Cape Horn on the Columbia River. A fantastic basalt rock formation lies at the bottom of the cliff. As it happens, the railroad tracks exit a tunnel and not too long ago, railroad enthusiasts could access the east portal for an amazing photograph.

Photo by Ted Curphy (used with permission)

No longer. A gate blockades the public from the river’s shore and barely allows access to the Cape Horn Trail. It seems that one mistake and the total use of the Cape Horn Trail could be derailed by this landowner.

It seems to me that the even the sign that is posted at the trailhead is illegal. Sure, they could block use of the 50 yard portion of the trail that is on private land. I can even live with the request not to park along the side of cape Horn Road, but to say that nobody can drive to the trailhead on a public road and pick up or drop off a passenger at the trailhead is outrageous.

I wish you guys could have seen the look on my son's face when our plans to eat our packed lunch within view of the tracks and the river so that we could watch a train exit the fabled Cape Horn Tunnel. Instead, we had to settle for lunch on a public road just outside of the private gates that block our access to a very famous portion of a scenic Columbia River. It seemed like a less than fitting protest for such an unjust exclusion.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Shhh...We Hiked Cape Horn

A few weeks ago, while hiking in the Beacon Rock area of the Columbia Gorge, my boys and I came upon a trail at the base Cape Horn that sparked my curiosity. As it turns out, we actually hiked a small part of it near Highway 14 later that afternoon. While there, I determined to return for further explorations.

After doing some research online, I discovered that there was nearly an 8 mile loop available to explore on the Washington side of the gorge. Unfortunately, the trail is still in a clandestine form after near a decade of work by an army of volunteers, unsanctioned by the U.S. Forest Service. Friends of the Columbia Gorge spent 1.5 million for a key piece of private land near Pioneer Point that helped make a true loop trail possible. Most of the trail is on Forest Service lands, but in several locations, delicate agreements with private land owners and a mile stretch on a Skamania County roadway make passage for hikers possible.

Clouds and fog prevented us from seeing the view at Pioneer Point, the highest location on the trail. The fog in the trees made for a great photo.

On many locations along the trail, perches on top of basaltic cliffs create dramatic views if not a fear of heights.

The trail is not for the geographically challenged, or the geologically skittish (fear of heights). In several locations, the trail is not well marked and a little confusing, but I was fortunate to have a map and a well-used description of the trail’s route with me. In many locations, the trail parallels tall basaltic cliffs that cause a case or two of the willies. Those with weak ankles need not apply either. Large scree is a staple on the tread of the lower portion of the loop.

Larkspur were the most common and striking bloom along the trail.

One piece of real-world advice that I would give is to take the trail from the parking area in a counter clock-wise direction so you head uphill initially and then descend to a couple of hundred feet above the Columbia River itself. The opposite route would result in a semi-sadistic, 1,400 feet climb up one of the highest points in the Gorge. As it is, except for the initial climb up to Pioneer Point, the only other significant uphill grade is a gentle walk up Cape Horn Road back to the original starting point.

Columbine was a common sight along the trail.

There are many highlights on the trail including views from Pioneer Point, and the ability to walk behind the Cape Horn waterfall but the pure exhilaration of the rugged trail south of Highway 14 topped my personal list.

Cape Horn Falls is the final highlight in a counter clockwise hike on the trail.

In all, the route took us about 5 hours to complete. I can not emphasize the importance of research on this route. On a nicer day, this would have qualified as one of my two top hikes this summer.

The best resource that I found on the trail is at
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