Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Day 3: The Spray Park Detour

Mystic Lake at sunrise
Despite the ferocious storm that blew in during the night, by morning, it had blown back out and I woke up to sunny, blue skies. That weather--it can change in an instant! This time, it changed for the better.

However, weather forecasts again had called for a 30% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. The clear skies, I was certain, wouldn't last. But maybe, if I were lucky, it wouldn't actually rain. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. =)

The girls I had camped with seemed fascinated with my tarp, amazed that I stayed dry overnight. I flipped half the tarp over on the other half to give myself more headroom and light now that the rain had long since stopped, and the square area that my tarp kept dry contrasted strongly with the wet ground around it.

I didn't longer in camp very long, though. Today would be my longest day so far on the trail--I figured about 13 or 14 miles, and I knew there would be a steep plummit to the Carbon River then a grueling 3,000-foot climb up to Spray Park before descending again to Mowich Lake where I planned to meet Amanda. Today, I wouldn't have to figure out how to kill the hours of the day before making camp. And if I finished early in the afternoon--that would be great. Maybe I'd beat the rain, if there was any.

The girls lingered in camp, though. They only had a leisurely 6.7 miles to the Granite Creek campsite. They'd probably be there in three hours if they rushed, and I'm pretty sure they had no intention of rushing. =) They also hung out their sleeping bag bags to dry. When they arrived, they didn't realize that bear poles were used to hang food, and they didn't have a suitable bag for hanging their food. They improvised and started using the bags that their sleeping bags came in to hang their food, but it meant that those bags had gotten completely soaked during the night, so when I left, they were moving the bags from tree to tree trying to chase the few rays of sunlight that penetrated the trees to dry them out before packing up their sleeping bags.

Moraine Park
I told Sarah that I couldn't wait to find out where we might cross paths in some far-flung unlikely spot again. Truth be told, I really don't think that would happen a third time, but I like the idea of thinking that sometime next summer, I'll be off thru-hiking the Colorado Trail or something and unexpectedly cross paths with her a third time. (If that did happen, though, I might very well start playing the lottery!)

The trail drops steeply by the Carbon Glacier--another glacier that's difficult to see under all the rocks and other debris, but it's also the glacier that gives hikers the best views from the Wonderland Trail. It's the thickest glacier on Mount Rainier--about 700 feet at its thickest. It's hard for me to imagine a layer of snow and ice that's 700 feet thick. This glacier is thicker than the highest point in Florida--TIMES TWO! Think about that for a minute. If you could set this glacier down at sea level right next to Florida, the glacier would be twice as high as the highest point in Florida!

It's also the lowest glacier in the contiguous United States descending as low as 3,500 feet above sea level before it comes to an end.

But, most important for hikers everywhere, it's also the glacier that the trail approaches the closest to. The trails, I suspect, are routed deliberately to stay away from glaciers that can hide dangers such as crevasses. And anyhow, I'm sure the constant moving of the glacier would cause trail maintenance issues on a near daily basis. =)

So it's one of the more visually interesting glaciers to admire, which I did a lot of. I had to be careful to actually stop on the trail then look at the glacier, though. It's easy to start looking around at the incredible scenery and just walk off a cliff if you aren't paying attention to the trail!

The Carbon River was roaring--issuing forth from a large cavern at the bottom of the glacier, a teeming, cloudy mass of water. If you sit and stay still, you can hear giant boulders in it being batted around, and even feel the earth move when one of those giant boulders crashed down the river. You can't see the boulders in the cloudy water, but you can definitely hear them and feel them as they move the ground like a series of small earthquakes.

A wonderful suspension bridge crosses the Carbon River here, and when I arrived, I had to wait as another person walked across from the other side. It's a narrow bridge and only wide enough for a single person, and the tread is anything but solid. It bounces around with every step.

A trail blowout! But this one was rather easy to get around.
As the person got closer, I realized she was wearing a ranger's uniform, and I bet that she was going to check my permit. Which wasn't a problem--my permit was good, but I just knew she was going to check it.

She arrived at my side of the bridge and we talked for about a minute or so, then she asked about my permit. Ha! I knew it! =) I pulled out my permit which she looked down to read which was when I noticed she had on a Crater Lake baseball cap. It looked old and well-worn and the words "Crater Lake" were actually pretty hard to read, but it was definitely a Crater Lake cap.

She finished looking over my permit and made a comment about my going around the mountain 1 1/2 times, seemingly with a bit of surprise. I guess most people just go around Mount Rainier once. The 1 1/2 loop I was doing was probably quite unusual.

But I was more curious about that Crater Lake cap, so I asked her about. "Why are you wearing a Crater Lake hat?" I said, smiling. "Isn't that like.... treason or something?"

The ranger, whose name I never did catch, seemed to laugh it off and said that she had lost her Mount Rainier hat but that she really needed a hat with a visor out here to keep the sun off her face and took what she had. And then followed up with the fact that almost nobody ever seems to notice that the hat is for Crater Lake.

I could easily understand how most people would miss it. The words were pretty faded and the only reason I noticed was because she had her head down to read my permit and I had nothing better to do at the time than read every word on that was on her head. =)

Fields of lupine!
We continued on in our respective directions, which for me meant crossing the galloping Carbon River suspension bridge. Some people, I suppose, might find the bridge a bit harrowing since it feels so unstable, but it wasn't actually all that high and I may have taken some deliberately heavy steps just to enjoy the bounce in the bridge. =)

From there, I quickly detoured off the Wonderland Trail and onto the Spray Park Trail. It's a detour that I think most Wonderland Trail hikers actually prefer. Both lead to Mowich Lake, but Spray Park is a land of incredible views and some of the most incredible wildflower displays you'll ever see. The Wonderland Trail option goes through some virgin forests and is nice, but to be honest, Spray Park steals the show. Unless someone is really a purist about thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail and won't accept any deviation from it, everyone does the Spray Park option instead. (Don't worry, though--because I'm going 1 1/2 times around the mountain, I'll be doing both options before this hike is over! But for the first time around, I'll be following the Spray Park route.)

The climb out from the Carbon River was grueling. Up and up with barely a break. As I neared Seattle Park, the clear skies became partly cloudy. The first sign of afternoon thunderstorms? I didn't know, but it did give the views an even more dramatic look than they otherwise might have had. I took, quite literally, hundreds of photos around Seattle Park and Spray Park.

The trail finally leveled out a bit until I reached a jaw-dropping vista. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. And thank goodness I was finally at the top of the climb. I was exhausted, but what a great finish!

I was looking down into a deep canyon, but I had the presence of mind to stop and turn completely around to admire the surroundings behind me as well. Where Mount Rainier would be if it wasn't now socked in with clouds.

Which is when I noticed it. Two small dots, moving across a snowfield.

Son of a.....

I just love this photo of Carbon Glacier. That long, heaped
pile of rocks is actually the glacier grinding its way down
the valley. It looks like a river of dirt and rocks, but
it's actually a river of ice and snow covered with a very
thin layer of dirt and rocks. =) It's the only photo I got
where the glacier actually looks like a river flowing
down a stream bed!
I couldn't believe it. They were people. People! Which meant two things, neither of which made me happy. First, I wasn't at the top of the trail like I thought--I still had more uphill to tackle. And second, they were crossing a rather large snowfield, and I so did not want to tromp through snow. I had no snowshoes or microspikes or anything to handle snow. I was never so disappointed to see two people I didn't know on the trail ahead me. It was a severe blow!

I admired the views a bit more, then picked up my pack and followed the trail out. It led upwards, where I intersected the two hikers who had just finished crossing the snowfield. This was no mere patch of snow--it was an entire field of it. I couldn't see where exactly the trail went, although plenty of people had certainly left a clear scar across the surface of the snow where I'd likely catch up to the trail on the other side.

I slugged through the snow, which wasn't actually too bad. No postholing, but it was still a very "two steps forward, one step backward" kind of climb which is annoying in its own right. At the top of the pass, the trail magically reappeared from under the snow, but it didn't last long before it was swallowed by another snow field.

I don't think it even took a half hour to get through all the snow, but eventually I did reach the top of the trail and started descending again, safely out from the snow and back into meadows filled with dazzling displays of wildflowers.

Eventually, the trail headed back into the trees and started descending in earnest. I took one detour of the detour to Spray Falls, which somehow I had always missed on my other visits to this area. This time, I wasn't going to miss it.

This is the terminus of the Carbon Glacier. The Carbon River
gushes forth from those caves you see at the bottom of the
glacier (which are probably more than 10 feet tall, even if
they don't look especially big in this photo). And because
the terminus ends in a cliff like this, it's the only place
you can really see any snow and ice showing through
from under all that rock and dirt.
That trail led about 1/10th of a mile off the Spray Park Trail and ended at a creek with a partial view of a spectacular waterfall above. Only a partial view, though, because a group of tall trees rudely blocked the rest of the view. What I could see what stunning, but it just left me wanting more. I wanted to see all of the falls! Not half of it!

I looked at the creek and boulders in front of me trying to decide if it was safe to cross--the other side of the river certainly would have better views, although I wasn't even sure if that would get the trees completely out of the way or not. But there was a lot of water coming down that river, and it didn't really look all that safe to cross. I probably could cross it, but it would be a stupid thing to try. Later in the season when the water level was lower I might have given it a try, but no.... probably not a good idea to try it now.

Then I noticed what looked like a social trail climbing as close to vertical as you could get up the edge of the river without needing technical equipment. It didn't look well-used and appeared a bit sketchy, but it looked like it headed directly into the patch of trees that blocked my view and, presumably, went through it to the other side where the views would be completely unobstructed.

"Yes," I thought, "That trail is definitely doable!" Normally, I don't like to encourage social trails, but after one of the volunteer rangers had suggested I hike up Skyscraper Mountain on a social trail, it occurred to me that they don't actually mind them in some places. The meadows are filled with signs about not going off the main trail, but there was no sign warning people off from this social trail. And it certainly wasn't going through a sensitive meadow habitat.

Yeah, I could do this trail. =) I left my pack where it was. This social trail was going to require the use of my hands just as much as the use of my feet, and I didn't want a heavy pack throwing my weight around.

I scrambled up the slope, grabbing at roots and trees, climbing over tree falls, and eventually into the grove of trees that had been blocking my view to a viewpoint just outside of it where I finally got the unobstructed view I was looking for. Absolutely incredible! Yes!

Looking back, I could see a few people down at the creek where I left my pack. A couple of them looked like some pretty serious photographers with the big, heavy cameras, even bigger and bulkier tripods, and I had seen them trying to take photos of the falls, perched out as far on the rocks as they deemed safe. I had a strong hunch that a couple of them were going to follow me up to the viewpoint I had reached after seeing that I made it okay. =)

From this angle, the sun actually glints off the snow and ice
peaking out from Carbon Glacier. I would not be at all
surprised if that wall of ice was more than a hundred feet tall.
It's truly enormous!
I took the required photos--when you're in a place like this, photos are required! Then I turned around and started working my way back down the hillside. I didn't really like leaving my pack unattended at the bottom where I did. I wasn't too worried about animals or bears getting into it--there were too many people down there for that to be a concern. But who's to say that one of them isn't a thief and might steal some of my gear? Even my wallet was in my pack. They wouldn't have known that, but all the same, I didn't want to leave my pack unattended for too long down there.

So I took a few quick photos then immediately started heading back down again. Near the bottom, as I predicted, I passed two of the photographers already working their way up the steep slope, and they asked me if the viewpoint I was at was misty or wet from the falls. "Nope," I answered. "It's an absolutely terrific, unobstructed view of the falls! Just be careful with your footing.... you slip out here, and you'll likely need to be rescued to get out again!" That was no exaggeration. The slope wasn't technical, but it was steep enough that a slip or fall out here could certainly result in an injury that needed medical attention.

Then I heard thunder rolling down the valley. Lightning. There was lightning somewhere, and it was close enough to hear. Undoubtedly, rain wasn't far behind. I wanted to get to Mowich Lake before any rain started.

I reached my pack, hefted it onto my back, and hiked out quickly. I was in a race now--a race to beat the approaching storm.

I arrived at Mowich Lake about 40 minutes later. I stopped hearing thunder, but the clouds still looked pregnant with rain. Fortunately, the rain continued to hold off and I arrived in Mowich completely dry.

This pika was checking me out! =)
Amanda was already there having already set up the tent and staking out a claim at the campsite. She also brought pizza from Pegasus Pizza--the world's best pizza can be found right in our own neighborhood, along with cold drinks and snacks in an ice chest. This was living the good life! =)

The rain continued to hold off for another hour or so before the first drizzles started, at which point we threw most of my gear into it and cleared the picnic table of anything we didn't want to get wet. The drizzle wasn't so bad that it made us jump into the claustrophobic tent, though--just preparing our gear so when the rain really did start coming down in earnest, we wouldn't have to do anything except jump into the tent.

Which, later in the evening, we eventually had to do. I liked the fact that because Amanda brought the tent, I didn't have to set up my tarp or carry a wet one around in my pack the next morning. =)

In completely unrelated news.... August is once again here, which means it's time for the annual Hike-a-Thon drive! Amanda and I are trying to raise money for the Washington Trails Association which does some great work building and maintaining trails in Washington state, and please, if you can help us out, even if it's just $5 or something, please do so! Sponsor us now!

This year, I've decided that anyone who sponsors me will be in the running to win an autographed copy of my book, A Tale of Two Trails about my exciting adventures on the West Coast Trail and Juan de Fuca Trail. For anyone that donates at least $40 to the cause, I'll send you a free autographed copy! The catch is.... you have to sponsor my page. Yeah, Amanda and I are a team, and everyone likes her more, but we also have separate accounts and I'll only be looking at those who donate under my account. So if you donate $40+, I'll mail you a free copy of my book. If you donate less than $40, I'll put all of your names into the proverbial hat and choose one at random who will get a free book. =)

That $40 also can give you a membership to the WTA which includes a subscription to the Washington Trails magazine. A book, a magazine subscription and all for a good cause--just $40! =)

The ranger who would check my permit is walking across the Carbon River
suspension bridge. You can actually see the bridge "buckle" a bit under
the weight of the person--it's not a very stable platform to walk on!
You can't see it in this photo, but she's wearing a Crater Lake cap. The traitor! =)

Now it's my turn to cross the suspension bridge!

This is actually my favorite photo of the suspension bridge, even though
the bridge itself isn't even in the photo! But you can see the shadow it casts into
the Carbon River, and the big black lump near the left is my shadow. =)

Fungi of the trail!

Not only did the trail keep going up and up, but the clouds
continued to grow more ominous throughout the afternoon.

At this viewpoint, I thought I had finally reached the top of the trail and
my long, exhausting climb was over.

...until I turned around and saw these two people descending the snowfield
behind me. (They actually started up where the fog was and tried
to stay near the edge of the snowfield.)

That small green patch... that's where the view was where I thought I had been
at the "top" of the trail, and I'm now standing approximately where the
two people in the previous photo were when I got their pictures.

Now I've passed the "top" of the trail and get to go downhill! =)

The wildflowers were so thick in places that they quite literally turned the ground
other colors--in this case, yellow!

Even in inclement weather, the wildflowers are still quite a sight to see!

These flowers were trying to use camo to blend in with the snow. =)

Lupines! Lupines! Everywhere were lupines!

This is the view of Spray Falls that most people see. Annoyingly, though,
those trees on the left block much of the view of what is clearly
an incredible display of falling water! If, you know, you like seeing displays
of what gravity can do to water. =)

I, of course, went for the better view, and wound up with this photo.
An improvement, don't you think? =)

This was the first tent I saw when walking up to Mowich, and it looks awfully familiar....

Oh, yeah.... that's just what a hiker wants to see. =)

Amanda checks out Mowich Lake.

The Mowich Lake ranger station.

No comments: