Sunday, August 24, 2008

A "Perfect" Experience in the Goat Rocks Wilderness

It was just about a year ago when my boys and I stood on the divide between the Jordan Basin and Goat Creek in the Goat Rocks Wilderness and I showed them a fun 1 night 2 day loop from nearly the same place we started a shorter pack trip.

A waterfall drains Goat Lake with the high peaks watching from high above.

The opportunity came about to take my 10 year old on what amounted to a 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip from Snowgrass Flat to Goat Lake and down the Berry Patch route back to our vehicle. Dare I say the entire experience went perfectly? The days prior to the trip featured 1 to 2 inches of rain, but as we began our hike on Thursday afternoon, it drizzled on us for the first 20 minutes and then began the recovery process. No dust, no bugs! Rain does have its advantages!

A carpet of wildfires above Snowgrass Flat sit drenched under departing clouds after a couple days of rain.

Snowgrass Flat and the Lily Basin loop is probably one, if not the most popular trails in the Goat Rocks Wilderness and it doesn’t take much of a hiker to figure out why. There is nearly 10 miles of alpine scenery and views. In addition, it is easy enough that even hikers of a moderate fitness can enjoy its tremendous scenery with a one night stay. We even ran into one couple that began the loop at 8:00am and were on pace to finish it by about 2:00pm on Saturday afternoon. Not very enjoyable, but doable.

The headwaters of Jordan Creek flow west and then north into Johnson Creek and the Cowlitz River. Mt. St. Helens is in the distance.

To get to Snowgrass Flat, take USFS Road #21 off of Highway 12 just west of Packwood. Travel south on the decent forest road for 17 miles and then take a left on the USFS #2150 road. It is well marked by proper signage. There are two trailheads just ½ mile apart from each other and are even connected by a short access path for horses and those that do the complete loop.

Mt. Adams makes an appearance as the clouds begin to clear.

I recommend a counter clockwise loop (start at Snowgrass hikers) for those hiking the full loop for a more gentle introduction to the high country. If you want scenery as soon as possible, I would recommend going the Berry Patch route to at least the summit of the Jordan Basin.

Alpine flowers combine with a waterfall in another dramatic scene of the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

Our first night found us hiking above the flower gardens of Snowgrass Flat where we found a campsite at about 6,400 feet. After setting up base, we got the opportunity to explore “light pack“; an added benefit of arriving early in the backcountry. We stumbled onto a scene of vivid dreams as we meandered onto the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) #2000 from the Snowgrass #96 trail and turned north (left) at the junction. On this evening, the flower display in the first mile rivaled anything I have observed in the northwest. In addition, the rusty hues of the volcanic peaks colored by thousands of years of hydro-thermal activity combined with a moody and variable cloud layer to present an ever changing production before our eyes.

Western Pasque Flowers accent the foreground under Old Snowy Mountain which sports fresh snow in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

Wildflowers carpet the alpine reaches of the Goat Rocks Wilderness while mists cover the upper Cispus River Valley in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

A chilly (frost on the ground and fresh snow above 7,000 feet) Friday morning found us hiking just a few miles to the north on the #86, Lily Basin Trail to Goat Lake. Over each new hillock, lay a new meadow of wildflowers and gurgling stream or streams under the watchful stare of the high peaks above. By noon, we had set up camp and proceeded on a short off-trail adventure to solve a curiosity. As suspected, we sat upon a ridge and overlooked a rugged scene of yet another glacially sculpted, alpine valley. While taking in that splendor, we watched as a family of mountain goats inched closer and closer to the lens of my camera.

Yet another glacial valley greeted us on top of a ridge during on off-trail scramble.

A family of mountain goats moved slowly along the side of a ridge as we watched.

After lunch, we hiked two more miles to the top of another ridge near Hawkeye Point and looked over another glacial basin to not so distant Mt. Rainier.

Wildflowers color the slopes above the Lily Basin Trail in Goat Rocks Wilderness.

Mt. Rainier dominates the landscape to the north of a ridge near Hawkeye Point.

For its part, Goat Lake, at around 6,000 feet in a south facing glacial cirque (or caldera?), was still frozen. In fact, upon waking up on Saturday morning and walking the 100 yards to the lake shore at sunrise, I found a new layer of thin ice covering what little open water existed the night before. I should have known when I felt the stunningly cold breeze blowing into my face from up slope.

A fresh cover of thin ice greeted us in the little open waters of Goat Lake on Saturday morning.

Goat Lake, at just over 6,000 feet in elevation is still mostly frozen in late August.

Mid-morning, we packed up camp and began our accent up and over to the Jordan Basin. A few more miles and we would be back at our car. In all, I gave my son credit for 24 miles over the three days; About 15 of those with a full pack of 20 plus pounds.

My son Jared follows the trail through a hillside of wildflowers on the Goat Ridge Trail.

One thing to consider if you plan on any type of overnight hike in the Snowgrass/Berry Patch areas is that it is very busy, especially on weekends. There is a reason we started on Thursday (6 cars in the parking lot) and finished on Saturday (over 50 cars in the lot). Traditional camping sites are many, but on most weekends, those that arrive early in the day are more likely to have level ground to sleep on. We were the only tent at Goat Lake on noon Friday, but when we returned at about 4:30pm, over a half dozen tents had appeared on the most gentle ground in several miles of trail in either direction.

Mt. Adams is part of the light and color show at sunset as pictured from Goat Lake.

A very respectful moment occurred when we came back from our afternoon hike. A family of 5 from Bellevue had literally been waiting for us. There was a large piece of flat ground just adjacent to our tent and they needed space for two tents. Instead of just setting up camp, they wanted to secure our permission. “It is public land” I said, “I would really be not living by my own words if I said no”. We had many conversations that night and the next morning, next to the broken ice of Goat Lake.

Yours truly taking a brief dip into Goat Lake.

Out there, no matter how close another chooses to camp, everyone should already have their own solace .

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vanson Lake Couldn't Elude us Forever

With temperatures near 90 degrees, hiking 17 miles in the Cascade foothills might seem like a less than reflective choice, but when thought through, it was a pretty good idea. It was the other elements that made our hike to Vanson Lake a fairly uncomfortable experience.

The spur trail to the top of Vanson Ridge featured a nice wildfire garden.

Vanson Lake is a small piece of water in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It is not however, located within the blast zone and three trails converge nearby to make it a central feature in a little known roadless area between the Green River to the south and the Cowlitz to the north.

Mt. Adams could be seen from the top of Vanson Peak. The area in front of Mt. Adams shows signs of the Mt. St. Helens blast zone.

There are several ways to reach Vanson Lake and the trails that form an area of almost complete serenity just south of Taidnaipam Park on the upper end of Riffe Lake. This is an area where you go for peace and solitude. While there is plenty of scenery, especially in the form of cascading creeks and waterfalls, don’t expect to see alpine scenery with picturesque scenes without significant effort.

Vanson Lake is located in a remote location at about 3,800 feet elevation.

That may change if you access the area from the Green River area where the Green River and Goat Mountain Trail junctions with the Goat Creek Trail. The routes out of the Green River Valley are on sout facing slopes in the Mt. St. Helens blast zone and would have been a miserable experience on this day. As it was, my 10 year old son and I hiked in the deep, cool, shaded woods alongside creeks that forced us to cross them on occasion; Sometimes in refreshing, bare feet.

My 10 year old son Jared crosses one of the many creeks along the trail to Vanson Lake.

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 is the main road while the middle fork is gated. Take the farthest turn to the left. This is now USFS road #2750. The Forest Service has placed a sign to clearly mark the way to the trailhead this summer. Drive for 4.5 miles to the trailhead.

Cascading streams are a common sight along the Goat Creek Trail.

For the first 4 miles, the trail follows tributaries of Goat Creek. This late in the summer, water levels are light as creeks tumble over impressive falls. At just under 4,000 feet, we ran into surprisingly large patches of snow, and more impacting, the swarms of bugs that can usually be associated with the woods shortly after snow melt. From some beautiful meadows, we started climbing again to the top of Vanson Ridge where an important junction of trails occurs.

By taking the USFS Road #25 south out of Randle (Hwy 131) and then taking USFS Road #26, to Ryan Lake and the Green River Horse Camp, several trails lead from USFS Road #2612 up Goat Mountain to Tumwater Mountain, Deadmans Lake and of course Vanson lake.

The trip from either location is a long day hike. I would suggest staying at least one night out to make the hike worthwhile.

As for us, the bugs really took away from our experience. Above 3,500 feet, stopping to enjoy scenery, crossing streams or taking a dip into Vanson Lake made for a miserable existence. Of course, that is the nature of dry, hot weather and hiking. While we hoofed what amounted to 17 miles on the hottest day of the year, we barely even noticed the heat in the deeply wooded canyon but we were very careful to drink an incredible amount of water to stay hydrated. A few early season huckleberries, blueberries and salmonberries supplemented what little lunch we ate at the lake.

Haze and smoke prevented a clear view of Mt. Rainier from the top of Vanson Ridge.

As a final insult, we hiked to the point of Vanson Peak at about 4,900 feet elevation. From there, views of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, Riffe Lake and the northern end of the Mount St. Helens blast zone greeted us. The haze and smoke made the entire region almost unrecognizable. Despite almost miserable conditions, you couldn’t help but feel good about the experience as a whole. The fact that we live in a region with such vast playgrounds readily available should make us all beam with pride!

Area Hunter Gives Thoughts on Bear Hunting

Through a variety of conversations over the last couple of weeks, it became apparent that bear hunting is a fairly popular sport in our region. While there are not as many participants as during the elk and deer seasons, it only took a few days to track down an avid bear hunter.

MarioTroche of Mossyrock was glad to share stories and a couple of common sense tricks to find bears in our local area. Troche, who works for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife at the Mossyrock Hatchery also operates his own sideline business as a taxidermist where he has created models for education and outreach events for several state and federal agencies along with the Audubon Society. There is no hiding his affection for wildlife.

Mario Troche with one of his bear hunting prizes at the Southwest Washington Fair.

Troche says that he frequents the Winston Creek game unit just south of Mossyrock some evenings after work and on the weekends. “I like to hunt in the evenings from about 7pm to 11pm. When the birds start to roost, the bears come out”.

One area he likes to frequent are old abandoned homesteads where almost without exception, there are a few apple trees dropping their fruit. The bears of course are attracted by the sweet apples.

A second area is to find an old abandoned logging road that is becoming choked with blackberries. Troche says he tries to find an observation point where he can watch the bears eat a berry or two and then suspiciously look for danger. Hunting pressure has made bears very careful in our area. Troche believes that bears see far more humans than humans see of bears.

As a taxidermist, Troche says that the best pelts are harvested in October after a full season of nutrient gathering, but a quality pelts can also be found after hibernation by an alert and discerning hunter.

Troche had successful hunts in Alaska as bears were completing hibernation. He said that he passed on bears whose hides were less than perfect.

Many October hunts are actually in conjunction with deer season. Hunters looking for a more traditional fall prey, stumble across bear and change their plans. Troche related one such incident while he and a friend were hunting deer in the Blue Mountains. They came across a bear sunning himself on a rock and began stalking him. In the process of using a “predator call”, they attracted 2 other bears to the area within 30 minutes. Even with that success, they walked away empty handed but with a great story to tell.

In 1992, Washington voters passed I165 banning the practice of baiting and hunting with dogs. Troche admits that hunting has been made more challenging, but a bear permit is easy to obtain. The limit is now higher and prices have dropped. There is the potential for more bear hunters than ever in Washington and Troche advises new hunters to live by a “hunter ethic”. One specific to this sport is to make sure that sows with young cubs are left alone.

As much as he disagrees with some of the laws in place, he encourages all hunters to comply with the laws and go steps further and use good hunting ethics. Good words from a man that has made his living managing wildlife.

Monday, August 11, 2008

One Less Tool in the Belt for Firefighters

Bump…there is the sound again of the Bush Administration butting in where they have no business. This time it is in the act of wildland firefighting.

A policy known as “wildland fire use” has been utilized by regionally managed forests based on the determination of local fire managers. It has been successful. Naturally ignited fires in wilderness areas that pose no threat to populations or infrastructure have been allowed to burn as a forest management apparatus. It is no secret that even wildland fire managers regard fire as a cost effective, management tool; one that they would prefer to keep on their belt. These fires are usually well behaved and take a small crew to monitor until natural events extinguish them. They cost about $50 per acre compared to $500 per acres to be fully contained and extinguished by firefighting forces.

Part of this policy was also being used in the name of safety. Some of these wilderness fires are in the most remote and unforgiving places in the west, yet the order by California Regional Forester Randy Moore back in early July says that we will fight and spend $500 an acre on every fire no matter what kind of threat (or not) it poses.

Perhaps vowing to pressure from local communities about smoke and health related problems caused by fires that are not aggressively fought are one of the reasons Moore took this action. He also cited the National preparedness level which is all but depleted after a month and a half of aggressive firefighting in California and other parts of the west. Perhaps he feared that one of the “wildland use fires” would blow up and suddenly threaten a community when there are no additional resources at a key moment. Regardless, rather than laying low on non-threatening fires, he intends on fighting every fire aggressively spending tax payer dollars and placing firefighters in harm’s way on dangerous fires.

Does this sound familiar?

Since 1910 and then especially in the 1930s when we really stared to become good at extinguishing every fire early in its quest to do important ecological work, we squished them. Didn’t that lead too much of the problem we have today?

Small enclaves throughout the west have become serious about fuels mitigation. It has to be a conscious and ethical integrated management plan. Maintaining the forest in the absence of the natural force of fire is a complicated issue with many sides that have little trust for the motives of the other. We must choose however, to allow fire to do its work or step-in as a well funded surrogate wherever fire can not be used. Now doesn’t that open up a Pandora’s political Box?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Woodward Bay Features Solitude Minutes from the Capital

Obviously, I enjoy the high country and between now and mid-October, you will probably read frequently about my upper elevation adventures , but every now and then, I let my curiosity get the best of me.

Morning stillness in a small inlet off Woodward Bay.

If you look at a map, there are several peninsulas just north of Olympia . For years, I have wondered what is out there and this last weekend I solved at least part of the mystery. First and foremost, I visited Woodward Bay to see first hand some of the South Puget Sound views. In addition, I found a recreation community like no other. Kayaks were everywhere. This bay as well as a number of other public properties provide a hub to launch small water craft for exploration.
Several nature trails wander through stands of cedar and fir adjacent Woodward Bay.

There is also a nature trail that allows a walk through the forest adjacent to the bay itself. There are several views and ultimately, that vast amount of wildlife will occasionally pass by. I saw herons and working osprey among others. I could hear the calls of the harbor seals that were being watched by 4 Evergreen State College students. Their project was documenting the seals’ reactions to disturbance which included passing boats and other water craft.

A prominent sea bird takes a moment in Woodward Bay.

One of the most profound moments of the day was early. I completely forgot where I was as I stood and looked over a fog shrouded bay with the call of harbor seals and seagulls in the distance. I watched a beautiful black and silver Gardner snake slither away and then it hit me. I am 5 miles from Downtown Olympia. It felt more like 40.

To get to Woodward Bay , take the Port of Olympia exit off of I5 and turn left onto Plum Street and go straight for about five miles. The road changes names three times in the process, but that is not your concern. Follow the now East Bay Road through Priest Point City Park and continue on what becomes Boston Harbor Road . Take a right on Woodward Bay Rd. NE and continue past where you take quick left onto Libby and then a quick right back onto Woodward Bay Rd. for the last mile. Be aware of the bridge crossing the small bay because there are parking areas and very different opportunities on both sides.

Mt. Rainier towers over recreational craft in the Nisqually Reach at Tolmie State Park.

I was also able to visit a few other areas in the area I would recommend visiting. Try driving out to little Boston Harbor where you can rent a paddle boat, canoe or kayak and explore Budd Inlet. Just south of that location is Burfoot Park which allows beach access to the Inlet. Finally, I also wandered over to the Nisqually Reach and visited Tolmie State Park which also featured beach access.
There was no problem finding some great public spaces along the South Puget Sound beaches, forests and neighboring wetlands just a few miles outside of Washington ’s Capital City .
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