Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rainier National Park, WA (AMC August Camp)

Two Trips Our West, August 2014

A Little History
For the past 7 years, I've been leading hiking trips for 1 week with Appalachian Mountain Club's August Camp, a 4-week overnight camp for adults. Each year the AMC relocates to another western state (years past include: Wyoming, Oregon, British Columbia, Canada, and Washington). For the last 5 of those years I've extended my western stay to enjoy a week-long backpack with friends. This year I lead 1 week at the majestic Rainier National Park, WA, and another week in Glacier National Park, MT. Two amazing places in just 2 weeks.

AMC August Camp - A Brief Intro
It all started back when the AMC was first formed in the late 1800s; hikers and their families gathered for the month of August and camped out in Maine to explore new hiking territory. These days August Camp lasts from mid July to mid August, exploring the hiking trails out west. First, the August Camp Committee finds itself a nice place to set up camp for over 80 people: about 60 campers, 8 hike leaders, 8 croo members who cook and feed the campers, a Camp Manager, their Assistant & the Camp Director. Once a camp is found, 30 large, Alaska-style tents with 2 cots in each are set up to house the campers. Second: The rest of camp is set up by the Croo- a college age, vivacious group of mostly New England kids. Other than tents, the Portapottys appear on the campground, along with a large Kitchen Tent where all meals are made, a Dishwashing station, a Lunch Tent, a Dining Tent, a Tea Tent (coffee too), a Circus Tent for Happy Hour gathering and a Leader Tent for hiking trip masterminding. Other amenities include a Mailbox if you have things to mail and a firepit for campfire each night.

The AMC  provides transport from the local airport to the camp itself, and we use those vans to get to our trailheads all month long. Once campers arrive and settle into their tents, we have our first dinner & campfire together. Each evening the activities are announced at campfire, at which point campers sign up for what they want . By the next morning the activity sheets are handed out to the leaders, vans are allocated to each trip, and after breakfast you meet with your leader, hop into a van and drive off to your trail head. Dinner is served upon your return at 6:30pm, campfire starts at 8:00, and it starts all over again.

Mt. Rainier National Park
August Camp has camped at the same Rainier location, near Packwood, WA for several times over the past 20 years or so. Its an excellent camp, just a few miles off the main drag from town, yet hidden away enough to make it a quiet, secluded camp, complete with a cool river running within a 5 min walk away.
The weather was hot in Washington when we arrived (in the 90˚F), and while it rained more than it usually does at that time, it never spoiled our hikes.

For my first trip I took a group of 12 to Comet Falls, an easy day hike within the park, about 3 miles RT. Each hike leader is destined to lead 1-2 easy hikes, 1-2 moderate hikes and 1-2 advanced hikes -s o this was one of my easy days. The falls are tall and beautiful from a distance, but you can get up close and personal, or right in it if you dare! The cold mist and strong breeze from the falling water kept me from approaching it any closer than 15 feet, but it felt great on a hot day. After the hike we want to the Sunshine Visitor Center where you can gaze up at The Mountain and stare into the crevasses ever shifting.
Comet Falls, MRNP

The second hike I led went to Jennings Peak in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a lovely hike to view Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt St. Helens on a clear day. The hike gets you above treeline within a few miles and continues along a ridgeline until you finally decide it's time to turn around. The huckleberries were in full bounty when we were there, so much of the way down we were eating fistfuls of delicious berries, including salmonberries and raspberries.

Views near Jennings Peak, GRW
The third hike I lead was one of my favorites, to Mt. Margaret & Norway Pass, a great place to view Mt St. Helens from, just across from Spirit Lake. The hike is located within the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and very much shows the signs of a mountain that blew back in 1984. While there is some recovery growth, it will be many years before the land looks like it once did in before eruption. Trees still lay like matchsticks all over the hills, miles away from the mountain itself. Dead trees also lay in Spirit Lake, the wind pushing them from one end of the lake to another like a giant white blanket that partially covers the lake. Grass, berries, shrubs and even wildflowers have claimed their stake on the hills amongst the downed trees. The hike took us through it all and quickly up above the trees with excellent views of Mt St Helens and it's blown-open side. The final pitch of the hike was an interesting scamper, and views were magnificent in all directions from the top. After lunch we headed down, hearing thunder in the distance. Lightening came into view just before we finished out hike, and the rain hit just as we jumped into our vans and didn't stop until the following morning, how happy we were to finish when we did!

Mt. St. Helens & Spirit Lake

The following day we took a trip to Yakima. Despite the fact that it's desert,  there are orchards abound for apples, cherries, peaches, you name it, Yakima is growing it! We toured the city and took our first showers in a few days at the local YMCA for only $2 each, with towels:)
Mt. Margaret

Thursday was my day off, so I jumped on the trip to Goat Lake in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Fellow leader and friend Michele and I were supposed to lead a backpacking trip to this location, but the weather was iffy the day it was planned, so we decided to join Phil on a dayhike version instead. It was a 14 mi day and well worth the effort! Hiking up the trail through the clouds, we came to a ridgewalk full of wildflowers and occasional views through the clouds. Upon reaching the bowl, we peered down at Goat Lake, still frozen over even in mid August. We clambered down to the lake side and walked around it, down the hill into SNowgrass Flats and hiked among fields of Bear Grass, Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Hippies on a Stick, Purple Aster and more. Once again we made it to the vans just as the rains began.
Lupine in Goat Rocks Wilderness
View near Goat Lake

Frozen over Goat Lake (and my GG QuikSak)

Hippies on a Stick
My last hike was a highlight for many, to Camp Muir on Mt Rainier. This camp is the stopping point for most mountaineers who attempt the summit of The Mountain. Here they set up camp, acclimate to the 10,188 ft air, and prepare their things for an early morning ascent the next day. The hike starts on the pedestrian, paved walkway that winds tourists from the Paradise Inn & Henry M Jackson Visitor's Center parking lot to a viewpoint on the mountain perfect for viewing the rock and snow ahead, wildflowers and friendly Marmots. Eventually the pavement ends and snow drifts cover the path. Then back to dirt, a stream crossing, and suddenly, the giant Muir Snowfield lays ahead. The trek continues up the snowfield with no markings other than a few snow wands left behind by other mountaineering groups and the National Park Rangers. 
After a brief lunch break along some large rocks in the middle of the snowfield, our group made it to Camp Muir, a jumble of rock buildings for mountaineers, certified alpine guides and their clients. We lounged around, soaking in the sites of their huge packs and specialized technical gear for crossing the gaping crevasses exposed in August. We gathered for a few group pictures and soon said goodbye to Camp Muir. The view was mostly clouded in, though we could see a heavenly view of clouds, the snowfield and smiling-faces of hikers and alpine climbers enjoying their time at Camp. 
Hiking Up to Camp Muir
The best part of descending a snowfield is the butt sledding your way down. I could see the track already forming from parties before us, just to the side of the footsteps we made going up. I taught a few of our group the fine techniques of making your butt into a mode of transport, and while a few were slow to start, there wasn't a single person who wasn't grinning ear to ear down at the bottom, soaked through with snow.
Muir Snowfield
Camp Muir Compound
The colorful gang at Camp Muir hut
Butt-sledding down
All in all, August Camp at Mt. Rainier was a fantastic trip. While it was the busier of the two parks I visited this August (as it's an easy 2.5 hour drive from Seattle), you can avoid the tourist crowds by hiking on weekdays, or by visiting the excellent Goat Rocks Wilderness or Mt. St. Helens.

See the next writeup for my adventures in Glacier National Park...coming soon!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Dixville Notch - Cohos Section Hiking Backpack

A Section Hiking Adventure 
Section #6, August/September 2014

Dixville Notch is known for it's jagged cliffs, flume & waterfall, as well as Table Rock, a lofty outlook over the narrow notch and The Balsams Resort, located across the street. As our group hiked farther and farther away from home (and closer to finishing in Canada), we decide to make this section into a 3-day backpack in two groups (as North and South bounders) with a key swap in the middle. Each member kept one car key for themselves, and gave an an extra key to one person in the other group before departing. By driving each other's cars from our pre-hike campground to either ends of the hike, we were able to hike our sections towards one another, exchange the duplicate keys as we passed each other in the middle of the backpack, and continue on to our respective cars, without the need of car swapping at the end.

Friday night we met up at a Big Rock Campground in North Stratford, NH, which was about a close as we could get to a "middle" location for both north and south-bound group. We had 10 people in all so we split into 2 groups of 5. I took the Southbound group north to Coleman State Park for the beginning of our section, while Mike drove south to start where we last left off on Nash Stream Road.

Coleman State Park was a lovely place, and not all that full despite the long Labor Day Weekend. It has a campground, a few lakes to boat, paddle and swim in, a nice bath house and hiking trails all around - and the Cohos goes right through it! Our group made quick work of the 5 mi hike up to the Panorama Shelter, which was our intended place to camp. The views here were lovely but it was so early we decided to have lunch here carry on to Dixville Notch /RT 26 road crossing, where we had spotted an extra car on our way.

Panaomara lunch spot

Dixville viewpoint
 We soon found ourselves at the Notch looking south at the jagged cliffs with windmills turning behind it on Dixville Peak. We had a few good views of teh Balsams along the way and had a look at Dixville Flume, Whittemore Picnic area and Huntington Falls. A few hardy settlers lived in Dixville Notch long ago and their graves still stand as a reminder of their struggle to survive and  how easy we have it these days.

Notch info sign
Gravestones of the early settlers of Dixville Notch
It was only 4pm and we had the time, so up we went, collecting water and finding a camp spot close to Table Rock itself. The views from Table Rock are lovely and I can see why this is such a popular destination for those visiting the notch. There are 3 different trails that take you up, 2 of which are easy and one is quite steep. The "table" itself is a more like a narrow island that juts out into the notch lending to a very airy feeling, not for the squeamish of heights and edges. The light was perfect and with hardly a breeze, we languished on the ledge, cooking dinner and watching as the sun set behind mountains to our west in Vermont. Chris brought out the cheese the cracker appetizers and everything was good!

The Balsams Resort (closed, planned re-opening in the coming years)
Table Rock
Dinner on Table Rock
View of Notch form Table Rock
The next morning we woke to a light rain shower. Chris and I set up a tarp quickly and saved our group a dry spot to commune for breakfast. Once we were packed up to go, the showers subsided and off we went towards Dixville Peak. We hoped to come across our other half soon and we were wondering how their north-bound trip was going.
Hike/Skiing on Dixville Peak
We hiked past Dixville ski area, stopping to checkout the surroundings and now closed ski hill. The map didn't show anew Dixville Pk bypass, so while we tried heading up to the summit in the clouds and fog, we felt we were off trail and headed down on the CT  where the other half of our group had just stopped for a rest. We exchanged hiking stories, keys, notes and tips for the trails ahead while a group of ATV riders drove by up the road to the clouded in peak. After a brief interlude, we went our separate ways, excited about what lay ahead.
We continued on to Baldhead South Lean To - our intended place for camp. The trail was a slog, a little rough, muddy, but not too hard to find. Once again enjoyed a shelter lunch break, and with the break in the weather we carried on another 11 miles or so to our cars at the end. The trail beyond the shelter was even rougher, and beautiful with fields of wildflowers sometimes as high as our faces. Around 6pm we got to the end adn our cars. We dumped our tent and  slept at Old Hermit Shelter, just one mile south on the trail (we had visited this shelter in a rain storm in July). This turned out to be a brilliant plan...while it didn't rain  from that point on, we enjoyed a new, clean shelter with water nearby and plenty of space to spread out, cook and sleep in. Chris once again thrilled us all with his tomato and onion salad appetizer, cheese and crackers too. We had come a long way so it was well deserved.

The following morning we summited Sugarloaf, and although the weather-gods weren't quite with us, we enjoyed a clouded in summit with the sun shining above us. To finish it off, we washed up & swam in Nash Stream, ate a big lunch at the Woodstock Inn and enjoyed some local ice cream too.

Next summer, we hope to finish up or Cohos adventure by hiking the last 50+/- miles to Canada!