Sunday, December 11, 2016

Rainier's Northern Figure 8

My long time hiking friend Michele and I had been toying around with the idea... backpacking the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier in Washington. However neither of us had enough vaca time to hike the whole 125mi Wonderland Trail, so we opted for a 6 day option we called the Northern Figure 8, about 55 miles on the north side of Mt Rainier, its least busy side. This route encompasses the Northern Loop, and includes part of the Wonderland and Spray Park trails.

We talked up a few other friends and faxed our permits in on the first possible day in the spring of 2016. Almost immediately after the document went though, Miche;e phone rings. It was a ranger from Rainier, letting her know the entire permit system went down in a snowstorm, and therefor all permits would be served on a first come, first server basis for the rest of 2016.

Great, now what? Do we take the plunge, flying across the country without a permit, taking our chances and unsure of our possibilities? Or should we make new plans, backpack somewhere where permits are needed, or where it was possible to secure  a permit? This dilemma reminded me of a trip to Glacier National Park, where our group of 4 secured permits for a 6 day dream backpack in the northern edge of the US/Canada border. Despite achieving the difficult task of getting a permit, a rogue bear & poor weather caused us to cancel the backpack, waiting out the storm while visiting Missoula and day hiking Glacier when better weather prevailed. Security couldn't be found in a permit. So we bit out lips and took the plunge.

When we arrived in Seattle in August, Michele and I got our rental car and headed straight to the campgrounds along the east side of the park. By 2pm everything was full, but a free horse camp had lots of available sites in a woodsy spot close to the park's east entrance. After setting up, we then went straight to the permit office to get a sense of the situation. We figured they would laugh us out of the office at 4pm, 1 hour prior ot closing, but the ranger was kind, excited to set up a permit for us, and out Figure 8 route fit perfectly into their scheduling system! Before we knew it, we were hugging the ranger, taking pictures with our permit and skipping out the door, eating burgers and slapping high fives! Rainier her we come!

Lakes & Bear Poles

The next day we started out backpack at Sunshine parking lot, which has a stunning, close up view of Rainier. The day was perfect or packs were weighted down with 6 days of food but you wouldn't have noticed with the lightness in or steps. We did it, permit flapping in the wind on the back of my backpack. Our 11 mile day took us through Berkley Park, Grand Park and finally Lake Eleanor, where we were the only group of backpackers staying the night. We swam in the lake, floated on a thermarest and chatted in the sun for hours until it was time for dinner.

Hanging food on Rainier Bear poles are no joke. Actually they are hilarious. There's a delicate balance between hooking your bag on the end of the pole just right, lifting the pole up and hooking it up, and getting a smacked in the face with a sliding 12 lb food bag. It didnt help that I had a some bruised ribs from a minor bike crash the following week, making lifting and laughing painful. The food bag abuse was just the beginning of a hilarious week with Michele.

Blowdowns & Bears, oh my!
The following morning we would leave Lake Eleanor & our first camp behind us. We walked back through Grand Park with the Rainier peeking over the edge of the field, up and over a moraine, and downhill, thankfully, over 64 blowdowns, from minor step-overs to huge path-blocking trees, pulling along our packs behind us. Just before lunch, we crossed a wide yet shallow rushing river and briefly lost the trail on the other side. We managed to find it and hiked back into the woods, past James's Camp and towards Yellowstone Cliffs, our next camp. Ahead of us in Mist Park, we saw movement in the grass. Sure enough, our first bear sighting, a good size bear, eating away, seeming unaware and no interest in our presence. We kept our distance and watched another hiker see the bear, and quickly and carefully walk on the path around him, running lightly once he got past. The bear paid no mind and continued eating berries. We chatted with the hiker and continued on up the trail, towards the bear, we moved carefully and quickly ,and once past, took out our cameras and got a few pics from a safer distance. He ate, ate some more, and soon carried on, backs turned towards us.

Shortly after this close encounter, we spied a delightful alpine lake and decided to take a swim. There we met a young ranger and talked to him for a while before getting back to our swim.

After a long lovely day, we headed down hill to the stunning Yellowstone Cliffs, a quiet camp perched high in the park and a river, sheltered by trees and just across from the glowing yellow cliffs.

Wilflowers & Glaciers
Spray park is one of the more photographed areas of the park, due to it's wildflowers and views of the snow capped Rainier. Its also one of the highest points on the trail we took. Hiking out of Yellowstone Cliffs took us down, down, down tot eh Carbon River, over the suspension bridge and up Cataract Valley to Spray Park. Up and Up we marched past paintbrush, lupine, waterfalls and green lushness, and soon we found ourselves scuffing on rocks and a barren moonscape. Snow under our feet, we made our way tot he top of the pass,  and continued higher on a smaller footpath and onto the snow. There we found a big sledding hill, where we walked up and slid down on our button and butt pads, whooping it up along the way down, tossing snowballs on a mid-summer day.

In Spray Park, we lay by the flowers taking photos of the ever-present Rainier eventually picking a camp spot at Eagle's Root, where for the first time we had backpacking neighbors. We also walked to a nearby waterfall and cooled off in the summer heat, a perfect way to end a long, rewarding day.

Ranger Randy & Lake Relaxation
Midway through our trip, today was a day of reaching a little civilization in teh form of Mowich Lake. I knew one could drive to this location, but the books made it sound far flung and not too popular. Clearly things have changed! Walking a few miles tot he parking lot, we were greeted with 30 or so camp spots newly improved, the brilliant blue Lake Mowich and cars and people about.

We embraced the chance to dump some backpack trash and use the restrooms, as well as find a ranger to rearrange our next camp spot. We wanted to add a side trip to another lake and camp at Isput Creek, a slightly earlier camp than our original permitted plan. Michele found two rangers, and after some small talk, one revealed that he was in fact, the park Superintendent, Randy King! This news blossomed into another photo-op moment, handshaking and big smiles, Our permits were changed, we met the big cheese, and off we went to another lake, climbing up above to a fire tower for outstanding views of Rainier and the surrounding volcanos.

The lake below the fire tower offered a relaxing and quiet place to eat, so we snacked and soaked in the sun, napping an reading and whatever the moment demanded. But soon we were up again, hiking down the steep Isput Pass, eating Salmonberries all along the way to camp.

Glaciers Galore
Carbon Glacier is the thickest and the longest glacier of Rainer's 14 active glaciers. Today we would walk right past it's toe and up it's side as we walked back along the mountain's most northern edge. Today's hike would also take us back onto the Wonderland Trail, and up to yet another lovely lake, Mystic, where our camp awaited.

Mystic lake was a simple beauty, where we hung out for hours on its shores swimming, drying out, and swimming again. A young couple hurried past us, as they were undertaking a quick, 6 day Wonderland Trail full circle, a 24 mile day ahead of them.

Final Day
Already? Our final day was upon us. We headed out in the morning towards Sunshine, where we started the adventure. The day was short, over to Granite Creek and through Berkley Park again and up to Sunshine. Six amazing days of wildflowers, gurgling water, lakes to swim in, bears, glaciers, snowfields and cliffs glowing in the sunset. It all went off without a hitch, without a permit in advance. With persistence, smarts and a bit of luck, we hiked our own wonderland!

Monday, June 15, 2015

A-Mazing Around In Utah

While there are various mountain ranges within Utah's reach, for me, the Canyon Country is what makes the state so attractive, so special. With 5 National Parks, various National Monuments, National Forests &  BLM land - its truly a year-round hiking/biking/climbing/canyoneering/water & snow sporting kind of paradise. Several years ago I backpacked through the Grand Gulch in Utah's southeast corner. The colors and sights, sounds and silence of the desert surprised me, delighted me, and I and vowed to come back for more...

The Plan
With the web and a few aging Utah guidebooks in hand, I landed on an idea that enticed me: backpacking in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. I had never been to Canyonlands, so that was a plus. The Maze is known as a more remote area than other parts of the park, which generally means it's less frequented and you can choose where & when you want to camp within your permit timeframe, another plus! It's also a big enough area that one can explore for 5-6 days easily, extending my total vacation time to 9 days. So I came up with a map of possibilities and started to shop the idea around to a few friends. After settling on who was interested, I laid out the trip plan a little more carefully, which looked like this:

The Maze - Area of Backpack

Day 0:  Fly in SLC, drive to Green River, camp overnight
Day 1:  Drive from Green River > Goblin Valley SP (day hike Bell & Little Wild Horse Canyon & Goblin SP area)
Day 2:  Drive into GCRA, check in at HF Ranger Station. Drive to North Point, begin backpack:  
North Point Camp > Maze Overlook Camp (14.1 mi )
Day 3: Maze Camp> 1st Interior Maze Camp (3 mi) plus a day hike to Harvest Scene (~2 mi)
Day 4: 1st Interior Maze Camp > Shot/Water Canyon Camp (~9 mi)
Day 5: Shot/Water Camp > 1st Interior Maze Camp (9 mi)
Day 6: 1st Interior Maze Camp > North Point Camp (14.1 mi)
Day 7: Drive out, head home

After revealing the plans to each trip member - the idea was a plan! We bought plane tickets, reserved permits and campgrounds... we were going to Utah:)

Cast of Characters
Sweep: Head of Back-End Tech Support & Can Do Itness (she's got your back!)
My Little Pony: Chief Documentor of Photography, Video & Audio
Tutti Frutti: Head of the Joyusness Dept, Winner of Best Dressed in the West
Hollywood: Trip Instigator/Organizer & Director of Gourmet Foods

Cast of Characters

I like to choose my backpacking partners carefully. I want to be surrounded by those I can trust & rely have strengths in the qualities I lack (details is one, height is another, of many). After thinking a bit and asking around, the end result turned out to be 4 fantastic women backpackers. Never before had we backpacked with only a group of women, so it was a bit of a social experiment. My mind circled around the fact that 1 of these people I had never hiked with, and knew only by name before Skyping by phone about the trip. Would we get along? Sweep and I had only backpacked together once, long ago. Would our paces compliment one another? Would we gel? All were mysteries, bouncing around in our heads, about to be discovered.

Utah has an interesting geological history. Just to give you an idea, it used to have beachfront property on it's west side about 570 million years ago, it later had Inland Sea on it's east side, and the lower right quadrant was lifted up by action under the Earth crust to form a huge, high desert plateau, while many mountain ranges formed on either side. That plateau, many millions of years later, known as Colorado Plateau, is where you can find many of the most interesting slot canyons, arches, goblins, buttes, slick rock, and beautiful desert formations in southeast Utah. Canyonlands National Park, and therefore the Maze, is located right in the middle of this very plateau. Millions of years of erosion by wind and water, has helped to deepen and enlarge the canyons, make new formations, and break down older ones.

Pooling rocks

Dripping Rocks

Terrain + Teamwork
After arriving late on Friday night, we warmed up on Saturday with a 9 mi slot canyon day hike near Goblin Valley State Park, in the San Rafael Swell, which well worth stopping for a day hike or overnight. Bell & Little Wildhorse Canyon is popular loop hike in the area, especially with families, as its the perfect place for kids to explore. Us adults loved it too, with lots of little ups, downs and narrow walls of swirling colors. We also climbed around and over the Goblins closer to the campground, a layer of eroding Entrada sandstone, etched away after years of time by water to form bizarre shapes and characters. Everyone got along swimmingly on the hike, we ate out afterwards and purchased the soon to be known "bling" hats, a trademark on our backpack. We camped overnight at the Goblin Valley SP Campground, which is quite spacious, offering hot showers in the bath house, and little, clear glass shelters with a roof and picnic table for eating at. Free range camping can be had on the west side of the Wildhorse Butte, just outside the state park border.

Little Wild Horse Canyon

Does this Goblin make my Butte look big?

On Sunday morning we made the 1.5 hour drive to Canyonland's Hans Flats Ranger station. Showing our permit with map in hand I asked for a "sanity check" on our itinerary and checked on the water situation. Lucky for us, we arrived Friday night in Salt Lake in a pouring rain. While rain might not be a welcome site on the first day of a vacation, for us it was a true blessing. The Western US has been in a 3 year drought, desert included, and all this recent rain meant plenty of water in our camp locations. This meant we didn't have to carry 6-7 liters of water everyday - just our first our last days.

The ranger listened to my itinerary story carefully, looked us over, and said our plan was doable, and then cautioned us saying "You may not cover all the mileage you think you can" so you just need to be aware of that, and may need to alter your plans. We looked puzzled and started making guesses. "Is it the sand, is it slow to walk in?", a friend asked. "Noooo...", the ranger replied. "Could it be the heat?", I asked. "It might slow us down?". "Nooo...", the ranger said again, her voice trailing off. Another guess or two and we were stumped. "What is it?" we asked. "The terrain", said the older ranger, "it might be a little challenging". She reached under the counter and pulled up a photo book and began flipping through old snapshots of people hiking the Maze Overlook trail, a 0.8 mi section of trail I had read about. "Oh that..." I said, trying not to sound surprised. I had read all about this in the guidebooks and seen photos in other people's blogs. I knew about it, and I had estimated plenty of time to hike that portion already. I had sent my friends writeups of the hike, so they had read about it too, and everyone knew we were bringing rope to help lower our packs in tight spots where we had to take them off. My friends peered at the books. None seemed too surprised, except Tutti Frutti. She stared at the pics, mouth slightly ajar. "You'll be fine, you're with your friends, you'll help each other out", said the ranger directly to TF." You're all experienced backpackers, it will be fine." she said to us all with a smile. True 'dat.

Backpacking into the Maze
Nuts and Bolts formation
In the end, the rangers were right of course. Parts of the hike were a challenge, mentally and physically. The 14 mi hike from North Point, down the steep slope of the North Trail Canyon and onto the flats of the Elaterite Basin, was easy hiking. But the 0.8 mi hike down the Overlook Trail was just as advertised, tricky at times due to the terrain, but very much doable. The size of your backpack could determine your challenge level. If you had a large pack, the more often you needed to remove it for the trickier moves, up or down. The smaller your pack, and the lighter, the less often you need to remove it, and the easier it was to get around. Despite the variation in pack size, we all took of our packs to get through tight squeezes, small "birthing" holes and past some tricky ledges.

A little "scramble"

The Moki steps, hand and foot holds carved into stretches of rounded or hard to friction-click rock faces, were a fun challenge. Going down them, you had to turn around, face the rock, and search around for the first foothold, the second and so on, till you finished. Who made the Moki steps is unknown, the previous canyon dwellers? A desert mystery to ponder.

Series of Moki Steps

The trail up Water Canyon and Shot Canyon were not without it's challenges, from strange stone steps that looked like a native ruin, to a short 5.4 rock climb up and out of Water Canyon.

These moments, while challenging and a cause for pause, were one of the highlights of the trip. Everyone made their way through these moments very well - but not without some hauling up & down of packs, assistance with hands and foot holds, and taping up a few ripped pairs of pants. We learned to work together, smoothly and efficiently, and had a ball doing it!
Shot Canyon staircase, watch that first step!

Shot Canyon staircase
One of my favorite moments came when Tutti Frutti, who often asked for hand and foot directions on the tricky spots, was feeling confident & strong to help direct MLP when she asked for help on a particularly scary ledge. It was nice to see the change in just a matter of days... from needing direction to offering confident directions of her own.

Hollywood lowers the packs to Sweep

UP we go!

MLP and TF in a bowl

TF and her "monster" pack. Time to come off.
All in for The Squeeze
And we're through!

Camp Life
Some of the most beautiful campsites I've had the pleasure of sleeping at have been in the desert. Our favorite camp on this trip, we named it Shangri-La, consisted of a table and 4 chairs made of flat, red rocks from a nearby wash. There was plenty of much-needed shade area, and room for about 4 tents with places to hang our food, tired socks and other items. Someone had time and good fun making that campsite -  and we fully enjoyed the opportunity - twice! We also found a nice campspot in Shot Canyon in a shallow cave, not far from the stream. This site offered the unique opportunity to listen to the evening serenade of frogs, hopping in the water, while chirping loudly at one another for hours. We sat in our own silence as we listened to the frogs, amazing by their volume, too dark to see... but their presence was clear. The quietness of the desert (aside from the frogs) is one of my favorite highlights. In the day, the sudden flap of a raven's wings startles you as it flies above. A rustle in the sage can make you jump with it's sharpness. A rock tumbles a 1/4 mi away and you hear it clearly, clacking crisply to the next ledge and out of sight.

Campsite with a sweet view
Shangri-La Camp
Shangri-La Camp

The lack of dampness is a welcome treat, coming from a place where cloudy skies &  2-3 days of straight rain is not an unusual forecast. The abundance of water at home does have a few advantages, and the need for water carries of 7 liters is unheard of in New England! The desert's lack of water adds to the challenge, as it can limit your period of time out, may alter the timing of your trip, or the trip location, as you search for the most reliable sources. Springs come and go, as they dry up seasonally, or can suddenly appear with a good dose of rain. We were lucky to have water at every spring we planned for. I tried a new gravity filter (Platypus GravityWorks 2L) all all our water spots. I loved the instantaneous clean water, the simplicity and hands-off ease. If you're base camping or prefer not to use chemicals, I would recommend it (for groups, try the 4L version).

Desert Desserts

Molten Chocolate Happiness
A trip with 4 women would not be complete without unusually high amounts of chocolate and/or dessert. From previous trips I knew a decadent treat would serve everyone well, so I picked up a few items from Pack It Gourmet, including Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes. We were able to finagle the Jetboils with river stones to make ourselves a steamer system. In 10-15 minutes time, we had 4 warm & oozing chocolate cupcakes to devour - plus a bunch of leftover batter! Other well-tested items from this fine food maker includes Moonshine Margaritas, salsa and bean dip... and the Shepard's Pie is truly outstanding (and perfectly suited for 2 people).

Flora + The Lizard

Desert Blooms
Spring in the desert is a magical time, full of flowering cactus and other desert blooms. A new flower for me was seeing the Evening Primrose, which stands on it's own, looking fragile as it waves it big, white flower above the dry soil. Its petals are soft, delicate and bright, as smaller, yet-to-bloom heads hang limply from the stem. We saw many Claret Cups, bright red and often seen in huge clusters on top of a cactus. Cryptoboilic soil can be seen everywhere; this soil, crusty and alive with bacteria, lichens and mosses, hold the soil in place, keeping the desert full of sage and flowers, and from becoming a land of sand dunes. Little Northern Plateau lizards were scattering themselves to sun on rocks, or fleeing our presence, dashing into the shade. Much of the wildlife goes unseen here, unless you stand vigil overnight. Kit foxes, coyotes, Bighorn Sheep, rodents, snakes and scorpions all roam this land, though we only saw the traces of them... footprints and burrowing holes in the sand.

Art + Culture

Horseshoe Canyon Rock Art

Fat cat


We also visited areas where the early canyon dwellers made their mark. We saw artwork from the Pueblo and Basketmaker periods, including both pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (drawings/engravings) on the walls using the minerals and materials in the world around them. The size and diversity were a wonder to look at, from the life size figures of the Great Galley, to a funny fat cat on a nearby wall. The Alcove Gallery, a great big amphitheater, was unfortunately marred with lesser-inspired markings of the much later, modern man period (BTW: "Nick was here"). A volunteer ranger stood in the shade by the Great Gallery and helped explain some mysteries of these paintings. A box with heavy binoculars inside allowed for a closer look, as the galleries were almost always far out of reach and hard to see in detail with eyes alone. No one is really sure why the artwork was made, or why it was placed out of reach, or how they got up there in the first place! Yet another series of desert mysteries.

Wrap Up

IN the end, this trip went off without a hitch, which amazed me at times, knowing all the questions and uncertainties of unknown personalities, water availability and terrain. We had an amazing adventure together, and before it was over, was thinking up plans for another week of backpacking together. We were happy to traverse the sometimes challenging terrain without issue and even ahead of schedule! Thank you Utah for having us - hope to be back again soon.

Bling Hats shine in the desert sun

- All photos used by permission, taken by E.Grinnell,  J.LePage &  J.Varney.