Palouse Falls: Official state waterfall

Image

Palouse Falls is on it’s way to becoming Washington State’s official waterfall. The house unanimously passed a bill that would designate Palouse Falls as the state waterfall, and now it’s headed to the senate. So I gathered my photos of Palouse Falls.

It’s a very deserving waterfall. Anyone who is interested in waterfalls (or justice) may have noticed that it is usually missing from lists of best waterfalls in the state or the Pacific Northwest.

In some ways it reminds me of Snoqualmie Falls. At both falls, a boatload of water careens over one huge drop into a round plunge pool with vertical sides. By most rubrics, Palouse Falls is biggerthan Snoqualmie Falls. The surrounding landscape is dry, and relatively flat, making the volume of water and nearly 400-foot plunge all the more breathtaking. The whole watery scene is perfumed with the scent of sage and the awesome feeling of lonely, open space.

I didn’t pass any other cars on the dirt road between the highway and the falls, but I did come around a corner to find a lone cow trotting up the one-lane road. She slowed, stopped, faked left and then juked right around my wagon.

Image

Image

There’s not much hiking to do at Palouse Falls, but if you’re ever nearby it’s a mandatory stop. I hiked a mile or so upstream past the upper falls and into a narrow canyon above the falls. Downstream of the falls, I didn’t find much other than game trails and animal bones.

Image

Yellow-bellied marmots scurry around at the top of the mesa. If you startle them, they sprint toward the edge of the several-hundred-foot-tall cliffs and appear to huck themselves into the watery abyss. I thought I was responsible for the deaths of several marmots until I discovered they nest in the cliffs, and were just scampering back to their homes. Falcons and hawks also dwell in the cliffs and circle high above the plunge pool throughout the day.

Image

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Southeast corner: The beloved Blue Mountains

IMG_4486

“Do you get used to being alone on top a mountain for months?” I wondered aloud.

“It got easier after the first three years,” she said.

For eight summers she has lived on top of a mountain in the heart of the Blue Mountains.  Her bedroom/kitchen/living room is surrounded by air and sky on all four sides. In the time between short summer nights, she scans the horizon for smoke. Even as we talked she pointed out a weird cloud that she was keeping her eye on.

Before I arrived at the sun-baked shack on a high ridge, I didn’t know there were working fire lookouts left in Washington State. Now I was dreaming of becoming one myself. I thought I could handle being alone for so long if it meant waking up on a mountain top. And besides, this wasn’t just any mountain top. From the square wooden room balanced on top of the highest ridge in Washington’s lofty southeast corner you can see halfway across the state.

The immense views are why the Forest Service still hires a lookout at this spot in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. It’s one of just a handful of working fire lookouts left in the state, and it’s still there because it’s cost-effective. When it’s clear, you can see Mount Stuart, and even Umtanum and Manastash Ridges near Ellensburg. A short distance east were spectacular ranges I’d never even heard of, like the Seven Devils in Idaho – a wall of volcanic rock rising from the depths of Hell’s Canyon.

I could get used to this, I thought, as I surveyed the stash of tea, coffee, books, and house plants in the lookout shack, and the empty valleys and remote peaks on the horizon.

I wasn’t the only one intrigued by life atop the mountain. A camo-clad teenager and his mustached uncle who had just finished a three-night trek through the range were also on top of the mountain. The uncle and the fire lookout knew the Blues intimately, and they compared their favorite ridges, peaks, springs and loop trips.

The Blues are composed of porous basalt. The melting snow trickles into the rocky ridge tops, and eventually dribbles back to the surface in countless springs scattered throughout the blue mountains. Earlier that day, I passed the highest elevation spring in the Blues, at nearly 6,000 feet. It’s just a few hundred feet below the top of a long arcing ridge that runs from Oregon Butte to Diamond Peak. Despite it’s height, cold clear water still trickled out of the spring in late August of an especially dry summer.

Because of these springs, its possible to make multi-day trips in the Blues without hardly leaving the tops of the 6,000-foot-high ridges. If you spend enough time in the Blues, the fire lookout said, you’ll decide on which spring has the tastiest water. If you spend even more time there, you’ll have arguments about the best spring.

The fire lookout and the guy with the mustache argued about whether Oregon Butte spring or Panjab spring tasted best. Each acknowledged that the others favorite spring was pretty good, but they stuck with their separate choices.

I had spent months driving all over the state, and sampling the more popular trails in each area. Now, I wanted to explore one spot until I knew every drainage, peak, and spring, like these wizards of the Blue Mountains. Maybe I should become a fire lookout, I thought. Maybe I should move to Dayton and learn the long trails and game tracks that ramble for miles along the ridges in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

I asked the lookout everything I could think to ask about life as a fire lookout. And that’s when she said it got easier after the first three summers. My dreams of drinking from every spring in the Blues dried up.

I stuck to the popular trails and shorter hikes in the Blues while researching my guidebook. I might not make the five-hour drive back to the Blue Mountains any time soon, and I’m probably not going to become a fire lookout either. But the locals and their love of the Blues did inspire me to explore more thoroughly the wild places around me.

IMG_4510

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

High Rock: A long three-mile hike.

IMG_3940

Purgatory must feel like driving on state Route 161 through Puyallup, South Hill, and Graham. Every time I worked my sticky gear stick up to fifth gear, a traffic light blinked into view. A tunnel of strip malls surrounds the straight road and the endless red lights that divide it. I could hardly see the clear cuts beyond the Vern Fonk insurance agencies, Jiffy Lube’s and storage units.

After successfully passing through this vision of purgatory, my beater Subaru hummed up a gravel road in the direction of gathering thunderheads. I was on my way to High Rock, just south of Mount Rainier National Park. High Rock is just what it sounds like. A high rock. And it has a cool view of Mount Rainier. It’s a short hike but I planned on spending a long time on it.

Sometimes I meet people who don’t like hiking. They think hikers like walking and exercise and nothing else. Maybe hiking is about walking and exercise for some people. For me it’s about the views.

My favorite hikes are long, but that’s only because I like to see a lot of views. I must admit, I do find satisfaction in being tired and pushing on until I finally get to camp or return to the parking lot hungry, tired and aching. My girlfriend says people of European descent feel the need to accomplish something, even on their days off. And I think she’s right.

Once on an overnight hike through an obscure patch of Central Washington wilderness, my friends and I picked ticks off our bodies, found animal carcasses, and even stepped on a few bull snakes. The terrain reminded P.J. of the hills surrounding a farm where he once worked on California’s Central Coast. He worked with mostly immigrants and some of them had hiked through the desert for days just to get to America. Thinking they would be interested in hiking, P.J. told them about his plans for a weekend backpacking trip. The immigrants thought it was weird that he hiked for fun.

Halfway up the 1.5-mile trail to High Rock, I lingered at timber line while lightning flashed every 10 minutes. After 40 minutes of crouching in the bushes, I continued up to High Rock, where I saw one of the best views of Mount Rainier I have ever seen. I got comfortable and stared at crevasses and rock faces, and I stared at the incredible difference in height between Mount Rainier and the foothills below it. Even the Tattoosh Range and the Goat Rocks Wilderness – which seem like grand mountains from most vantages – looked inconsequential and hardly worthy of having a name next to The Mountain.

At sunset I headed down. It was a four hour hike but I only walked for an hour.

Relief print of Mount Rainier

Relief print of Mount Rainier

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Navigating the moment of truth: Mountain goats at Flapjack Lakes

On October 16, 2010, a mountain goat stood guard at the top of a rocky, open ridge in the north end of Olympic National Park. The mountain goat had just plunged his long black horns into a man’s thigh and was defending the man from his wife and friend. The hiker died later that day. Park rangers found the goat with blood on his horns later and killed it.

Two years later, on the south end of Olympic National Park, rangers closed the Mount Ellinor trail for three months to “retrain” aggressive mountain goats. The goats saw humans as a source of food. Not only do the bipeds leave crumbs and food scraps in camp sites and on the trail, they also urinate a delicious salty brine, which is scarce in the mountain goats’ alpine environment. To change the mountain goats perspective on people, rangers launched what they called an “aversive conditioning plan.” According to local newspapers, one ranger hiked the trail daily. He hung out on Mount Ellinor’s rocky summit and the cliffs below and threw rocks, shot paintballs, and yelled at goats that approached him. When the trail reopened, rangers told hikers to throw rocks at goats if they felt uncomfortable.

IMG_3531

Mountain goats at Gladys Divide, in the Olympic Mountains.

I love mountain goats. They captured my attention years ago and I see them everywhere. I see them scrambling impossibly steep cliffs, plunging their hooved-feet into frozen snow, bounding over loose talus and rock. I’ve even seen goats in seemingly improbable places, like the gentle meadows of the Indian Heaven Wilderness. But before this summer, I had never seen them in the Olympic Mountains, where – according to the stories – they are more aggressive.

In the Cascades, mountain goats are isolated into tall, cliffy islands of habitat. Low valleys peppered with roads and other human development prohibit mountain goats from easily getting from one island of habitat to another to breed with someone other than their closest relatives. Overhunting reduced their numbers in the first half of the last century, and human development keeps their population small.

IMG_4020

Mountain goats in the Enchantmets.

That is not the case in the Olympics, where mountain goats aren’t native. Hunters introduced the ungulates in the 1920s from a population of goats in British Columbia. In the Olympic alpine terrain, roads don’t divide goat habitat into islands. Even the low green gulfs and rainforest valleys that break up habitat are wild and protected. Also, In 1938 – most of their habitat became a national park, so they hardly learned to fear humans. After being introduced to the Olympics, their populations exploded.

The goring death – the only recorded mountain goat-caused fatality – didn’t make me fear the animals. I made sure to keep my distance when I saw them in the Cascades, and I began to find their confident stares unnerving as they waited for me to finish peeing on rocks.

The possibility of seeing aggressive goats didn’t occur to me on my first foray into the Olympic high country last summer. I was more worried about bears, which are also abundant on the Peninsula

I woke shortly after dawn, leaving my sister and my girlfriend in the tent at Flapjack Lakes, and began the quick hike to Gladys Divide. I planned to explore the divide and scramble around on the steep snow hanging to the shoulders of the Sawtooth Range – some of the craggiest peaks in the Olympics.

On the trail to Flapjack Lakes

On the trail to Flapjack Lakes.

Flapjack Lakes and Mount Lincoln.

Flapjack Lakes and Mount Lincoln.

Nearing the divide, gardens of flowers gave way to patches of ice and lone glacier lilies poked through frozen snow. Views opened up into the upper Hamma Hamma River valley as I crested the gap between the dark spires of Sawtooth Ridge and the gentle hump called Mount Gladys.

A high-pitched call broke the early morning silence. I wondered if it was a marmot whistling. Then I heard it again, accompanied by falling rock. I looked up and saw a white figure sprinting down a cliff face on Mount Gladys. It was a reckless mountain goat moving full speed in my direction. After a series of precise leaps down the rock, it disappeared into the subalpine fir trees below the cliff. Then another goat careened down the cliff and into the patch of trees. Then another and another. It was a whole goat family.

Seconds later, I glimpsed the lead goat sprinting between a lower patch of trees. I had never seen goats moving so quickly, and they seemed to be coming right at me. Thinking the high-pitched bleating was a war cry, or maybe uncontained excitement upon discovering a source of salt (me), I took my ice ax off my pack and grabbed a rock.

Mountain goats are sure-footed and confident in the mountains, But the speed at which they move over rugged terrain is what impresses me most. I have never seen one out of breath. It would have taken me five minutes to scramble from the cliff face on Mount Gladys where I saw the goats down to Gladys Divide. The goats made the trip in less than 30 seconds. In that time, I had retreated from the divide into some bus-sized boulders.

The goats saw me and stopped. I froze. But they continued cautiously through the divide and up the snow toward Mount Alpha. Apparently they hadn’t been pursuing me for a taste of my salty brew. They hadn’t seen me at all. And once they did they were wary. I watched a conga line of shaggy goats walk cautiously past, their black hooves crunching into the ice.

I watched the goats climb until they crested a knoll and went out of sight. I waited another five minutes, and then began climbing a snowy slope, moving diagonally away from the mountain goats. At the top of the snow slope, a gaping moat kept me from climbing onto the bubbly volcanic rock at the base of Mount Alpha. Tired from the climb, I thought about breakfast – we brought pancake mix to cook at Flapjack Lakes.

I turned to take in the view one last time and spotted the goat family on the next ridgeline. Some of them were nibbling at the tiny vegetation growing between the rocks and ice. The younger goats were chasing each other in a steep circuitous route. They live in such a desperate environment, and yet they had the energy to play. The younger goats traversed great distances, scampering down loose cliffs, and crossing icy slopes where a fall could be fatal, and none of it had to do with eating or surviving. At least as far as I could tell.

I like to think that the goats were equally impressed with me. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m an incredible boot-skier. As I slid down the hard snow toward the trail, fighting to stay upright on my hiking boots, I came to a stop at a flat spot in the slope. I glanced at the goats. They had stopped grazing and playing to watch me slide down the snow.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Climbing Mount Daniel

I updated my Recent Work page with a story about climbing Mount Daniel, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. My former employer, the Daily Record in Ellensburg, contacted me on Friday night. They needed a story by Monday for their quarterly magazine. I said I’d do something and began frantically brainstorming, and this is what I came up with. Sorry, it takes forever to load!

Brett Purchase on top of Mount Daniel

Brett Purchase on top of Mount Daniel

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Fine Art of Beach Hiking

I was only a few feet from the parking lot when I saw a hunched figure nearing the end of his journey. He was carrying a big backpack. It looked big enough to carry all the gear for the trek he had just finished – a 20-mile hike from Ozette to Rialto Beach, on the Olympic Peninsula. But apparently it wasn’t big enough. Schussing across the soft sand behind him was a plastic sled piled high with even more stuff.

That’s when I realized beach hikers are a different breed.

Hikers in the mountains tend to pack light, but their beach walking counterparts haul wine, cheese and chocolate to their camps. They build roaring driftwood fires and have a different version of leave-no-trace ethics. Buoys hanging from tree branches mark choice campsites and driftwood shelters dot the wild Olympic coastline.

Hiking on the beach is a different sport than hiking in mountains and valleys. There are no real hills to climb and it’s hard to get lost. But beach hiking does have its own challenges. If the tide is high, beach walkers move slowly and laboriously through deep sand, and then try to sneak in a few quick paces in on the firmer, darker sand before the next wave comes. That’s what I did on Rialto Beach, and soon my feet were wet and salty.

Rialto Beach

Rialto Beach

The scenery changes slower and in a different way on the beach than in the mountains. The ocean sloshing back and forth conceals and reveals colorful tide pools, broad sand bars, and the ripe smell of low-tide. The tide erases campfires, and sand drawings twice a day. 

My parents took me and my sisters on annual beach hiking trips when we were growing up. I liked hiking on the beach, but I really fell in love with hiking and backpacking later on when I started doing more of it in the mountains.

I hadn’t been on a long beach hike in years. So late last summer, with my guidebook deadline approaching, I headed for the coast. I was excited to hang out on the beach, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like the hiking as much. Hiking in the mountains keeps me busy. There’s bends to round; knolls, ridges, and peaks to climb and descend; and every twist in the trail yields a different view. On the beach, the ocean stays on one side and North America stays on the other. Sea stacks and rock walls morph when viewed from slightly different angles and distances, but not much else changes.

After a long hike up the Queets River Valley on a Saturday, I steered my red wagon down a winding gravel road and turned north on U.S. 101 late in the afternoon.

The Queets Valley

The Queets Valley

The Olympic Peninsula’s wild coastline is mostly untouched by roads. U.S. 101 runs along a bluff above the water for just one stretch– 12 miles of relatively straight asphalt between the Queets and Hoh Rivers. I hit this stretch at sunset and pulled over at the first opportunity. After watching the sun disappear beyond the waves, I called home to change my plans; I needed to stay an extra day on the coast.

I spent Sunday getting a last minute camping permit for Shi Shi Beach, and then I went for a day hike at Rialto Beach, south of Shi Shi. That’s where I saw the hunched sled puller. Back at the Rialto Beach parking lot, I cooked some noodles, brewed some tea, and went to the beach to watch surfers riding waves long after sun set. I slept in my car and then drove north toward Shi Shi. But first I stopped in Forks for last minute supplies – I needed wine, chocolate and cheese.

I finally reached the trailhead after driving state Route 112 along the Strait and through Neah Bay. It was Labor Day, and hordes of people were hiking out on the muddy trail to the beach as I hiked in. I found the ultimate campsite near Point of the Arches, at the end of the beach. Driftwood benches lined my flat patch of dirt. In the middle, a piece of plywood stacked on a spool served as a table. A past beach hiker had even left a candle on the table.

IMG_5299

I spent the next 24 hours tidepooling, walking barefoot, reading in the sand, and eating cheese and chocolate. I forgot the wine, but I didn’t have a sled to pull it in anyway.

Point of the Arches at Shi Shi Beach

Point of the Arches at Shi Shi Beach

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Scream in the Dark

Image

Fear brings about more fear. I love watching horror movies, but I think they give fodder to imagination and make it easier to fear the unknown. Maybe that’s why I’m writing about fear again so soon after my last post about bearanoia. Or maybe it’s this Dirtbag Diaries podcast I heard last week about a runner being followed by a cougar for four miles in the darkness at the end of a run around Mount Rainier.

Between riding my bike alone across the Southeast and the last few summers of hiking, I’ve done a lot of solo camping. Sometimes being alone allows more time to appreciate landscapes. I can trace the folds of the horizon and watch the sun sink into the distance without pausing to concentrate on conversation. And sometimes I really wish I had a friend along.

Anyway, here’s something that happened to me in the Indian Heaven Wilderness in September:

Everyone knows the feeling of being in a warm bed with a full bladder; relishing in the soft warm comfort of a bed and suppressing a growing need to pee. In a tent, the cold makes the contrast between a comfortable bed and the world outside of it greater. And there are more obstacles – zippers and a need to put on shoes, for example – between you and the bathroom.

That’s the struggle I awoke to early one morning in the Indian Heaven Wilderness, a high volcanic plateau between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. I was on a solo backpacking trip while researching my upcoming Hiking Washington guidebook.

I ignored my bladder the first couple times I woke up. But by the third time I awoke I knew the urge to pee wouldn’t be cured by rolling over and burrowing deeper into my sleeping bag. I groped around for my headlamp and then went out to relieve myself. I got back in the tent and slept fitfully. I don’t know how much time passed between crawling back into my sleeping bag and being awakened by the shouting – I could have been half asleep for five minutes or it could have been an hour.

My campsite was near the edge of a lake in the northern end of the Indian Heaven Wilderness. The Wilderness is relatively flat and covered in berries, open fir forests interspersed with grassy meadows, and countless lakes. After hiking in the day before I explored a few lakes in search of a private spot, but ultimately settled on the first lake I saw. I had one side of the lake to myself. Across the deep blue water there was another couple tents tucked into the woods next to each other.

I think the shouting came from one of those tents. It was a man yelling at the top of his voice, “Get out, go now, I mean it!”

At first, a little adrenalin pulsed through my body and I immediately decided to ignore the scream. But seconds later I was wracking my brain for a reason why anyone would be screaming four miles from a trailhead in the early morning dark. The cry was just ambiguous enough to not have a clear meaning. Here are some things I thought it could mean:

  • Someone was playing a (really loud) joke on their friend.
  • A violent Sasquatch was attacking and they were warning me, since they had seen my tent across the lake.
  • An axe-wielding psychopath was hacking limbs off backpackers and the survivors across the lake were trying to warn me.

Alone in the dark world of my tent I imagined a few other possibilities. They all involved the campers across the lake trying to warn me about something sinister lurking in the dark. Minutes later I risked giving away my position by clicking on my headlamp and preparing to make a quick escape. I put some extra clothes in the bag that I was using for a pillow and put my wallet in my pocket. Then I turned off my light and waited.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much. I drifted to sleep periodically and woke up with my heart pounding after hearing a stick breaking. After a while, I decided I wasn’t in danger anymore. But I still didn’t sleep much until the sun came up and I finally dozed for an hour.

When I unzipped my tent to peer across the lake at the other campers, their tents were still there and nothing seemed to be wrong. The sun shined on the lake and birds were singing. A calm breeze wafted the smell of ripe huckleberries to my campsite and blew my fear away. I felt a little foolish while walking through the south end of the Indian Heaven that day, passing lake after lake and tramping through meadows of ripe berries.

I still don’t have a good explanation for the scream in the night. Time turned the memory from a terrifying experience to a funny mystery.

Image
Indian Heaven Wilderness in daylight – the opposite of scary.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment