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Volcanoes and Wildflowers

As we walked down the trail, discussing life and the nature around us, I mentioned that I thought I was lucky to have parents who took me out as a kid. My mother didn’t seem to agree. Possibly she thought this because I am an only child; what else would they have done? I think my early time outside was formative. I find it funny that neither of my parents remember our first trip to Rainier. The one where I got a badge from a ranger for staying on trail, for not stomping on the fragile meadows. I couldn’t have been more than five or six but I’ll never forget how proud I was of that regalia. Visiting again with my parents brought all these things to to mind.

This was mid-July, but at 5000 or so feet, it felt like May or June in the lowlands. Through the collision of climate and elevation, 14,410 foot tall Rainier gets absurd amounts of snow. Until Mt. Baker stripped it of its record for snow fall in a season with 1140 inches, it held the world record of 1120 inches. The alpine parklands in the higher and easily accessible areas often aren’t free of snow until late July. When I was editing photos post trip, I looked back to see when I was photographing Avalanche Lilies last year and it was a full week and a half later. I remember plodding through soggy fields of snow to get a view of St. Helens and Adams to the South.

On another front I’m also one of the fortunate few, besides rangers and staff, because as a guide I’ve spent a lot of time on the mountain. That doesn’t mean I know every inch of this monstrous wilderness. I’ve barely scratched the surface. So, understandably I wanted to go somewhere new with my parents on our day out. Knowing they are beyond marathon hikes (no offense guys), I chose something that seemed like it’d be fairly easy, the short 1.1 miles into Snow Lake.

There’s a stack of broken records somewhere that I steadily add to, when I say things like “I just keep learning every time I go out into nature.” With my parents, I could chase after a bird and peer at every peculiar flower so I did just that. Making several stops, once for a gallery of delicate Coralroot blooms I’ve passed by many times while guiding, knowing that I couldn’t stop with a van full of tourists to look at wayside blooms. Higher on the mountain we equivocated about a plant I ultimately misidentified. Had I brought a book (instead of relying on my tablet), we’d have identified the mystery flowering shrub as Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus), which for some reason I’d never put a name to. Peeling to the side of the road to botanize, we were greeted by the shrieks of Varied Thrushes, those less heard utterances that spoil our notions of the perfect whistling thrush of lush forests. As a result I won’t forget Goat’s Beard.

You could probably spend all day at Rainier just meters from the car, but my goal was to get us off the road, to forget cars and electronics (minus my camera). After we got through road work, (remember, when you visit and get frustrated, these hard working folks only have a few months of the year to fix snow free roads that are hammered by millions of tourists), more Bear Grass than I’ve ever seen in one spot, and hearing a Pika, we hit the trailhead. The sun was starting to peel the layers of clouds away from Rainier’s peak as we took off up the path.

The duality of problem and pleasure with the mountain is that you never know exactly what to expect. Sure, seasons are seasons but most don’t realize how much the alpine seasons fluctuate annually. This can be a pleasure too and it turned out that we were lucky to be on the trail we chose, the flowers around Paradise (the main visitor center and a spectacular valley) were still just getting out from under the snow. What would soon become fields of glory were still wet mats of the lank, sickly brown vegetation from the previous season. In August it’ll be almost miraculously buried deep in blooms.

This is a sacred cycle, rising and falling annually for thousands of years. That alone should hold people back from trampling about the fragile alpine. Unfortunately it’s not, but next time you are hiking in an alpine meadow, consider that as you stray off trail, you’re crushing plants only have a few months of the year to grow. Wearing holes into the vegetation is all too easy and difficult to restore. The flowers may rise and die back quickly but collectively things move slow at elevation and it can take decades to grow back where people have taken a shortcut or wandered.

Bird-life was still in full swing, hanging above the rest of the world, where the other songsters have already gone quiet. The drive never gets shorter, so unless you leave Seattle quite early, dawn chorus isn’t a typical experience and mid-morning hikes are an echo of the hours earlier. Warbling vireos, fox sparrows, and hermit thrushes were boisterous. Rufous hummingbirds, massing to take advantage of the ephemeral sustenance dashed about, zitting at one another, taking on any intruders they felt like. An olive-sided flycather, high on a grayed snag, was constantly visited by rufous hummingbirds, laying their steel against a bird at least 10 times their weight. If I had to guess, I’d call them all young males, testing the world in braggadocios dives.

The deep blue colors of our alpine lakes are sometimes hard to comprehend. Most are rocky rimmed bowls lined by conifers, reservoirs where the winter’s snow and ice conglomerate with refracted light. If you didn’t know better, you’d go for a dip, but no one who hiked there seemed too anxious to dive in. We enjoyed what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, despite the dozen other hikers staring into the blue. You don’t visit Rainier in the summer for solitude unless you plan on many hours of hiking. There’s still plenty to go around.

The last time I’d visited the Paradise picnic area was on a glorious day in mid-winter, not to eat but to snowshoe with fellow guides. I was mildly disappointed that the grounds were still closed. What’s more, we didn’t have any Corvid visitors to accompany our dining experience. It’s a rare occasion to eat lunch at Paradise and never see a gray jay or Clark’s nutcracker.  They usually appear within minutes of the cooler being opened.

There’s hundreds of alpine gardens girdling the permanent snowfields of Washington’s tallest mountain. Despite knowing where some spring up annually, (unlike birds, all that’s needed to see the pretty flowers is timing), I’m constantly awestruck by the formidable beauty of a field of blooms. My parents hadn’t been to Mt. Rainier for years and I wanted to give them a good trip, this was the point of going out together. But I couldn’t help leaving them to read in the car while I ran up a sketchy, melting snowfield to revel in the golden glory of an entire half mile slope of glacier lilies. These bulbs lay dormant under many feet of snow for most of the year, but as soon as the melt clears and the weather is warm enough, they push back again en mass.

We are a very self-congratulatory species. We’ve been to the moon, we find ways to live anywhere, and can do almost anything with our ingenuity. Yet, as infant species, we still don’t have anything on tumults of biodiversity, no more than a particularly plastic species in a ocean of supremely adapted ones.  When ever I ponder nature, I often come to this conclusion.  It’s all the more evident at Paradise.

Narada falls is a major drop along the Paradise River. The surging melt-water is eating away at the space where the peak’s andesite meets the underlying Tatoosh pluton’s granodirite, creating a gaping quarry. The falls are powerful throughout the year, but in the heavy melt you can’t expect to experience it without becoming sodden in the aerosolized river as it pounds against the level. The water hurls itself down the crumbling shoot with such force that drops nearly the size of golf balls jump from the fray. This is the embodiment of terrifying elements. Yet a bird that would fit in your hand, the American dipper, lives here quite happily, dancing in the spray and twittering up and down the river.

What makes these wild spaces so important is their irreverence to human life. Sentient or not, the trees do not care what we do, so long as it’s not cutting them down. Set aside by the likes of President Roosevelt and John Muir, the old growth of Rainier (the largest contiguous stand in Washington) is safe from logging, but fire, floods, avalanches, and great storms always threaten them. This merely a part of the forest. When we look at them, we see sliver of eons, most of us utterly disconnected from a continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

The twin firs trail is one of the most spectacular displays of Douglas fir I know of. There are larger trees elsewhere, older and in denser stands, but the giants among the western hemlocks who seek out the light from the understory, are from a different time. Some of them were seedlings over 600 years ago, before Europeans had even considered the land they would soon vanquish. Almost all of them are missing their tops. Massive, standing tall above the rest of the forest, it’s no wonder they get hit by lightning. They crash to the floor, substrate for hemlocks, and are replaced over hundreds of years, until no more Doug firs can grow in the shady understory. The climax forests of the mid to low elevations on the Pacific Slope are dominated by hemlock, but disaster will strike again and leave openings for the Douglas firs to take hold of once more.

When I told my dad that the humongous tree he was oggling was a Western Red Cedar, he immediately said “Oh my god, I need to go hug it.” High stepping through the brush, my mother admonished him for straying from the trail. Yes, I agreed with her (though this wasn’t the fragile alpine), but I couldn’t help but smile. I didn’t say it, but I’ve felt the same strange need to interact with these giants. Everyone who comes here does.

This is a place of primeval feel. Listen as the pileated woodpecker’s thunder echos in the depths. Red crossbills chip overhead, after fresh cones to pry out their seeds with twisting bills. Pacific wrens and varied thrush ghost about the understory. These forests are at once voluminous with sound but silent in a way only seemingly endless forest can be.

I hate the drive back. There’s some farms to appreciate, but it’s hard to not turn around for good. I’m reminded that we’re lucky to have this place so close to any large, vapid city; a place where I can pull off the dusty road, get a coffee from a pretty girl in a strange little shack without even stretching from my car. Could any of us faithfully choose between the civilization we’ve become so a part of and the wilderness we perceive as separate? I doubt it. But should our National Parks become the last bastion of nature as I grow older, I might feel compelled to do so.

As we put less and less emphasis on nature, art, and science (other than the kind that makes lots of money for the medical and tech world) our parks start to dwindle. It’s already happening and the only way they stay afloat is by our support, our speaking out for them, our visiting. So don’t gape at a $15 entry fee, instead buy an annual pass and visit a few times throughout the year, head over the Olympic or maybe Yellowstone. That said, we all need a handout every once in awhile and I’ve got a tip: Sunday August 25th is a free national park day. Get out and enjoy a national treasure.

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: A 2013 (Photographic) Year in Review | Wingtrip

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