It would be a challenge to find a place where we could be away from the humans. So I directed us to a little rough hewn camp on the ankles of Mt. Adams, Morrison Creek.
The roads were 3-6” deep with powdery ash and dust in the campgrounds. Descriptions of nearby hikes attributed the fine powder to the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens to the Northeast. Clouds of the dust trailed behind us when we first drove around the grounds.
Only one site was occupied on the creek that first evening, a boisterous couple of fellas around a campfire. We picked a spot on the opposite side, a short walk to the pit toilet, nestled off the road. The forest around the campgrounds is mixed timber, much of it newer growth as the area has been recovering from forest fires. The Forest Service had done some work taking down dead wood and piling up dead branches and debris in an attempt to reduce the risk of a forest fire spreading I suppose. But there was plenty of fuel all around.
|Camp at Morrison Creek|
We made our modest fires in the small stone circle pit from this wood debris surrounding us. Recognizing the risk for fires we were more diligent than I think we had been on past camp adventures, using our filtered camp water to smother coals at the conclusion of our evenings.
Day one we opted to explore Trail #16, Shorthorn. The trail is used by people and horse traffic. Starting off at the northern corner of the camp site the trail goes into more elegant and established forest on a deep rutted path through more ash and lush grasses. Along the way were pretty meadows that were still showing abundant wildflower color even this late in the summer! But the real site was along Morrison Creek further up the trail, where the grasses and wildflowers had found a perfect place to grow and were in full perfect beautiful color, a narrow string of paradise through the otherwise dry, dusty forest.
|Shorthorn Creek (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
Many creek crossings later as we ascended the left leg of Mt. Adams, we came to a deep cut strewn with boulders, probably a mud slide from an ancient eruption. The trail took us across and on the other side, took a sharp right turn seemingly straight up the mountain. About 200 yards we continued like this, on rocky trail, then small switchbacks, until we suddenly climbed out onto another trail with another trailhead sign. We had made it to Trail #9, Round The Mountain. Mt. Adams was right there, within reach. We stopped for a snack, wandered a few hundred yards down the trail before heading back down to camp. That approach was about 5 1/2 miles total; a good warm up.
|Trail #9 Round The Mountain, Mt. Adams Summit (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
The next morning we awoke to the sound of many hooves stomping across the ground through our campsite, elk stampede just outside the tent. We apparently were camped out beside an elk highway, the large hoof marks unmistakable in the dusty road all around the grounds.
It was early and the outside air was frigid. But it was good to be up as the sun was just coming through the trees. I got up first and unloaded the van with coffee and breakfast preparation apparatus. I prepared a small fire in the pit to warm our hands over until the Sun could take over. Coffee first, our insulated french press from home usually accompanies on the car camping trips. I handed a cup to Eli through the tent flap and got to the task of breakfast; scrambled eggs, potatoes, fried toast with ghee. I was fortifying us for an EPIC day.
At breakfast we were once again visited by the famous gray jays who are bold and demanding when it comes to sharing the food. Eli and I were admiring their bravery and entertained watching their movements as they landed on the picnic table and approached our plates. The cute factor faded quickly as a gray jay came in quick and nabbed a piece of fried egg right out of my plate. That’s when we realized we were going to have to employ a plan for dealing with these pesky albeit entertaining birds. The approach was to A) guard our food, and B) offer some bird appropriate food at a nearby spot where we could keep an eye on them. This arrangement seemed to work out well for everyone.
As an experiment, Eli tore a piece of bread off and placed it in her hand and then held her and out fully extended to her side. The birds studied this and were no doubt calculating risk as they eyed that giant piece of sourdough bread. After a minute one flew to her hand, hovering for one hesitant second before landing on her hand to nab at the bread. Eli did this a few times and we were thoroughly entertained. It seemed the bread was well earned by the talents and bravery of the birds.
Once breakfast was consumed, dishes scrubbed, stove and dishes, food put up, we prepared ourselves for epic; water bladder filled, food packed, boots laced tight.
Eli and I walked out of the campsite and on to FS# 050 eastward toward Cold Springs Campground and the trailhead for #183, Mt. Adams Southern Approach.
It was three miles up the road gaining elevation the whole way. At Cold Springs cars were parked wherever they could pull in off the dust and gravel road. Tents were tucked in between groves of trees, between parked cars, wherever there was space. Apparently it was a popular weekend to climb the mountain and this was the most accessible way to reach the Mt. Adams summit. We were not prepared to take on such an effort. But we were going to see just how far we could get before having to consider dealing with glacier crossings.
Up the dusty rocky trail we went, through meadows and small clumps of scrubby pines. Eli and I were feeling pretty good and making rather good time it seemed. Again the wild flowers were stunning and we couldn’t seem to take it all in sufficiently. And then turn around and see the world laid out, south across shorter mountain tops to the Colombia River gorge somewhere down there, and Mt. Hood presiding over it all further down. We were on the side of one of the giants, something I’d imagined and thought about for years. This did not seem possible, access to the higher reaches of the house of gods, as if we were trespassing and yet we seemed to go unnoticed. We were also not without company of other trespassers. Nobody passed us on our ascent. But plenty of folks were coming down from up there. One hiker had a pair of telemark skis strapped to his backpack. There was a sight that posed some questions for me.
|Alpine Flora (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
It wasn’t long before we had again reached the intersection with Trail #9 Round The Mountain, about 2 1/2 miles (supposedly) from where we had reached it the previous day on Shorthorn. After a moment to weigh the options we continued our ascent on #183, pulled ever upward by the lure of the glacier capped giant. The terrain was getting rockier and the trees were fewer. Up we continued until our first patch of snow, or frozen mini-glacier we would cross. Shortly thereafter we began seeing the tent sites, colorful blobs among the small trees and large boulders. A rest was in order to add some calories to the tanks and give feet a break.
|Eli On The Trail, Mt. Hood Behind|
There was more to go before reaching the real glaciers, Crescent still laying ahead. The trail got rockier and soon we were following a narrow gravel path through the boulder field from on cairn to the next. How much farther should we go? I didn’t feel able to stop. I had to get further up the mountain. The view looking out at this point was unreal, looking over Southern Washington, Oregon, way down to distant mountain ranges in the eastern half of Oregon.
|Cairn (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
Just below a ridge line that obscured the bottom lip of the Crescent glacier, we stopped and explored some camp spots in a rocky area shaded by a few trees. THe sites had been leveled and stone walls to block wind erected seemingly long ago. A rest, water, food, Eli and I took some photos. I think we were starting to feel as if we had really gotten somewhere, onto the mountain in a real sense. We could begin our descent and feel satisfied. But as we readied to head back I looked up again and saw that ridge, only about 20 yards above us, and felt the need to see the scene from on top of it. So we climbed, just a little more, to see the Crescent Glacier in entirety. We watched climbers navigate the glaciers. It seemed as if crowds of people were coming down off the mountain now. The time was shortly after 1 pm.
|Crescent Glacier, False Summit Above, True Summit to Left (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
It really was time to drop back down to the Round The Mountian trail. We had only gotten about half way on our EPIC journey for the day. The descent went quicker as we dropped through the rock piles down the trail past the cairns past the tents, over the mini glacier into the flowering meadows and finally back to the intersection. Whether to retrace our steps entirely or follow the Round The Mountain trail back to Shorthorn and back to camp was a short discussion. We wanted more and were not yet fully satiated. So westward on Round The Mountain we headed. Along the trail the flowering meadows became almost dream like, as if created for a fantasy movie, something too amazing to actually exist anywhere on Earth. It matched my images of the Swiss Alps rendered from movie scenes. The miles rolled on and that 2 1/2 mile distance between #183 and #16 seemed doubtful. It felt like at least another mile as we trudged along, wearing down but still enraptured by the world we were passing through.
“Not a bad back yard to have” I told Eli.
|West on the Round The Mountian Trail (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
The trail occasionally would take us across a glacial waterfall where all the various wildflowers would congregate together and the grass was lush and vibrant green. Round every corner we expected to see the rocky scar left from prehistoric eruption that we had seen on our short exploration the previous day. Each time we would find another, smaller waterfall. As we made our way west along the parameter of the mountain it was wild to experience how the vegetation changed from one area to the next. There was a large section of huckleberry bushes, berries not quite ripe yet, and a lush section of taller shrubs packed tightly together. We didn’t run into any other hikers for this entire length of trail until finally we did come to the rocky scar and just on the other side was a scattering of camp sites occupied with a handful of tents. And camp chairs. These backpackers had carried their camp chairs up the mountain to lounge in car camping comfort, way up on the mountain.
|Amazing Flower Display (Photo: Eli Thompson)|
Eli and I pulled over and broke out the last of our quesadillas and boiled eggs. Our water was gone at this point. A man came and asked us if there were any camp sites we had seen nearby and if there was any water sources down the trail from where we had come. We told him what we had seen and he retreated down the path. We saw him again with a young woman and an older couple, right at the intersection with our trail #16 Shorthorn. What a relief! Eli and I were beat. The sun’s rays were stretching long and the light becoming more orange hued. Down we went on the trail of rocks and switchbacks we had visited the previous day. I became uncommunicative. I began to obsess on options for dinner, beer, and water awaiting us at our camp. I thought about my poor feet and the tender care I wanted to bestow on them as soon as I could take my boots off and prop them up.
It was 6:30 when we got back to our camp at Morrison Creek. We had been on the trail for 8 1/2 hours. We calculated we had covered around 13 miles and climbed up to 7500 or 8000’. I made short work of unpacking cooking apparatus to get dinner going. Pasta with peppers and zucchini, onions and cheese. It wasn’t complex but we ate it and loved it as did we the still cold Tacate that washed it down. That night we slept like angels in our microfiber fort beneath the stars. At some late time in the middle of the night I awoke aware of a visitor on the other side of the thin cloth walls. I could hear breathing, deep, vast lungs of a large mammal. I sat up on my air mattress, fully alert, to get a better ear on the matter. I did my best not to make a sound. The nose of our visitor came down to ground level, and gave some deep sniffing sounds at the edge of the tent. In my head a mantra rang out: bear or elk. bear or elk. bear or elk. bear or elk. I started weighing out the odds that the nose belonged to a Roosevelt elk or to a black bear. I was pretty sure it was more likely to be an elk, but couldn’t be certain. So I stayed like that for some time, fighting off exhaustion, listening, wondering if anything would happen next. I think it was Eli who rolled over in her sleep unaware of my watch, who made a soft rustling sound doing so and scared away the beast, whose hooves on the ground as it quickly retreated sounded much more elk like than the heavy paws of a giant bear.
The next day after breakfast it was time to break down camp and say goodbye. One last visit with the gray jays while we ate. One last walk around the campgrounds, a glimpse through the trees at the mountain top, remembering how just the day before, we had been way up there.
I had plans to write the tales of our summer adventures in order of which they took place. But over these past few days I had begun to notice something in the air here in Portland, a certain familiar haze that I couldn’t quite place at first. After two days of the city being blanketed in this orange tinged thick smog, I realized it was probably smoke from forest fires. That night I looked up Northwest forest fires and found out there were a bunch of fires burning in Oregon and Washington over the past few weeks. But the one that got my attention immediately and has not let go, is the Cascade Creek fire, Gifford Pinchot National Forest. All the area we had been just weeks ago is within the fire boundary, right up the mountain side to the Round The Mountain Trail. I’ve been going to the InciWeb site for updates at least once a day. Fire is nearly 50% contained as of September 21, 2012. over 600 firefighters working on quelling the fire, six helicopters. 10,700 acres burned.
I balance the weight of sadness for the beauty we visited being consumed in fires and the gratitude we had the chance to see it before this fire. Equal parts sadness for the loss of such amazing landscape and the realization that this is a natural part of the life of the forest, that the forest needs to burn to get rid of disease and the insects that ravish the trees. This one began from lightening cast down from a storm head that started over 200 fires across Washington state on September 8th. I've included an RSS feed from the InciWeb site with updates regarding the Cascade Fire to the right of this column.
As much as I can’t stand when good things have to go and change, I want to embrace all parts of the natural cycle. It is, after all, the nature, in all it’s wild, beautiful, terrifying, and peaceful attributes, unchanged by the misguided hands of humans, that I have come to love.
As of October 7th the Cascade Fire has been listed as "inactive". Personnel tasked with containing the fire have been reduced to 600+ to around 150. The fire is 75% contained and not expected to spread any further. The fire lasted a month and affected 20,296 acres south and west of Mt. Adams. Because of this status change, there are no more updates via the Inciweb.org site, and so I have removed the RSS feed.