Category: Backpacking trip

23 Aug

In Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness: the cutest warriors ever!


In the Goat Rocks Wilderness of southern Washington, the marmot population is acting particularly feisty these days. During the subalpine area’s brief summer season, the groundhog-like creatures emerge from their rock piles to engage in epic pushing battles atop large boulders. On a recent backpacking trip, I witnessed multiple skirmishes between the pear-shaped creatures, who would stand nose to nose on their hind legs, shoving each other like 8-year-old boys on the playground.

A hoary marmot between fights

The 105,600-acre wilderness between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in the Cascade Mountain Range is absolutely beautiful during the summer. Glaciers melt into creeks and cascade downhill, catching sunlight as they ribbon through the grass. Red columbine, pink mountain heather, long-leaved phlox, lupine, shooting stars and red paintbrushes bloom in the meadows. And packs of musky-smelling mountain goats roam the high hillsides, dipping their large rectangular heads to munch the grass.

We saw around 10 mountain goats grazing on the hillsides above the trail. Here is one, for example.

My friend Tim and I started hiking at the Berry Patch trail head mid-afternoon on a Sunday and spent the following two days exploring. We passed through the flowered Jordan Creek Basin — a.k.a. Paradise! — and climbed up Goat Ridge to Goat Lake, which was still frozen except for a few crescents of melted turquoise water around the edges. We set up a base camp less than a mile down the trail in a hemlock grove overlooking Goat Creek Valley, executing, in the process, a picture-perfect bear-bag hang — high off the ground and far from the tree trunk. We proceeded to take numerous pictures of our work, and we’re pretty sure other hikers did too, when we weren’t in camp. The following day, we hiked across meadows, rock fields and snow pack to the top of Old Snowy, a 7,930-foot peak above our camp that afforded incredible views of Mount Adams to the south and Mount Rainier to the north.

Red columbine and raindrops


The seed pods of the Pasque flower, also known, appropriately, as mop heads

The mop heads kind of resemble furry sea anemones.

Here, the mature Pasque Flower, which likely wants nothing to do with its crazy-headed younger siblings.


The avalanche lily blooms one to two weeks after snow melt.

Tim climbing toward Old Snowy

Mount Adams from the top of Old Snowy. As we stood among the rocks on top of Old Snowy, misty clouds swirled into the valleys below us, where they hung for the remainder of the trip.


Sunset light from our campsite

Mount Adams

Look at that beautiful bear-bag hang! Let me know if you want a copy of this pic.

21 Oct

Close call on Mount LeConte


“DANGER!” read the signs posted around the three-sided wooden shelter atop Mount LeConte. “BEARS ARE ACTIVE IN THIS AREA. DO NOT APPROACH THEM. ATTACKS ON HUMANS HAVE OCCURRED, INFLICTING SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH.”

My friend Cheri and I were aware of our position on the food chain during our backpacking trip through the Smokies last weekend, but we didn’t let it bother us too much. We explored the mountaintop, cooked and ate dinner and watched the sun set from a west-facing lookout, all without giving much thought to the 250-pound mammals that average two per square mile in the national park.

But then, as we were talking with fellow campers outside the shelter after dark, we heard snorting and blowing from the trees nearby. Everyone, immediately, went on edge.

“What was THAT?” whispered Randy from Atlanta.

“I dunno. What WAS it?” responded Tim from Knoxville, a tinge of panic in his voice.

We heard the thick huffing sound again and squinted into the darkness, trying to identify the source of the sound. I shone my headlamp into the blackness and, no more than 30 feet away, made out the silhouette of a head and two ears. A bear.

“I SEE it!” I said. At that, everyone in the group — all men, except Cheri and me — took off running toward the shelter.

Now, when you see a bear, you are NOT supposed to run, because it only activates the animals’ chase instinct, and the odds are pretty much stacked against you (bears can run up to 30 miles per hour). Instead, you’re supposed to speak to the bear in a quiet, monotone voice and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact, which can be interpreted as a challenge.

Rather than be the only one left in the bear’s path, though, I took off with the rest of them. “We’re not supposed to ruuuuuuuun,” I yelled as I sprinted behind the group, determined not to be last.

Once back to the “safety” of the three-walled shelter, a couple of the men started shouting and making guttural noises to threaten the bear. Another banged together his hiking poles (a la The Parent Trap).

Just then, a figure emerged from the trees. It was Sam, a hiker from Jackson, Tenn., back from brushing his teeth and spraying his spit in a wide arc across the ground in true Leave No Trace form. He saw us lined up on defense along the edge of the shelter, posturing at the dark.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked, toothbrush in hand.

We burst out laughing at our mistake and immediately started making fun of each other.

(Check out this Web site and this video to find out what you’re REALLY supposed to do if you encounter a bear.)


Our stuff sacks of food, suspended out of bears’ reach on the ginormous industrial-strength pulley near the shelter

At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Starting from Newfound Gap, Cheri and I hiked 2.7 miles along the Appalachian Trail and 5.4 miles along the Boulevard Trail to arrive at the summit (maps here). In many places along the way, spruce and fir forests scented the air like Christmas, and at the higher elevations, the leaves were just about at the peak of their brilliance.

We contributed stones to the cairn marking the highest point on the mountain.

And watched a spectacular sunset from the Clifftops lookout.

Cheri and I walked through the LeConte Lodge camp to look around, fill our water bottles at the pump and use the composting toilet. LeConte Lodge, which sits on a grassy slope atop the mountain, consists of seven one-room cabins ($75 per person per night) and a dining room that serves homecooked meals ($35 for dinner and breakfast, $9 extra for wine). It’s so popular among hikers who want more than a three-by-six-foot space in the shelter that it’s usually booked a year in advance.

The living spaces are cozy and rustic, with bunks for beds, kerosene lanterns for light, washbasins for sponge baths and rocking chairs for porch sittin’ and great views. Would be a great option if I ever had $120 to drop on a camping trip.

On Sunday morning, we followed the ever-popular Alum Cave Trail down the mountain 5.5 miles and 2,800 feet.

The Alum Cave Bluffs

And now, a few other photos:

Me

Cheri

Neon green lichen

An adelgid-eaten tree

A pretty stream