Sunday, April 5, 2020

Surprise Snowy Hike

Oh how I miss the carefree "before COVID-19" days!  Stuck at home for three weeks now, I've been going through photos of my final hikes before everything shut down.  In mid-March news of the spreading pandemic was starting to take over the airwaves.  Although a few cases had been reported in Oregon by then, nothing had changed quite yet.  It was still business as usual.

Blooming tree at the Wahkeena Trailhead

After running a few errands on my Friday off - including navigating a surprisingly packed grocery store full of people panic buying, I needed a break from the madness.  Although rainy weather was predicted all day, I grabbed my waterproof gear anyway and headed to the Gorge.  I was getting a hike in no matter what!

It's starting to snow!

Not only was the day wet, it was also cold.  Temperatures hovered near the freezing mark.  Slushy snowflakes splattered on my car's windshield as I drove towards the Columbia River Gorge.  Was hiking today really a good idea?  Many times during the trip I nearly turned around and headed home.  But physically and mentally I knew a good outdoor workout was necessary.  I kept telling myself to wait and assess the trailhead weather before bailing. 

Big snowflakes against a foggy backdrop

Whenever I need a quick hike, the Multnomah-Wahkeena loop in the Columbia River Gorge always delivers.  A mere 40 minute drive from home and 5.5 mile trek, it's easy to fit into a half day. Traversing the Gorge scenic highway, although cold and wet, I deemed the weather acceptable for hiking and decided to give it a try.  Having to use the restroom, I parked at Multnomah Falls to take advantage of their facilities.  After a pit stop (which included washing my hands really well) I donned full raingear against the drizzly skies and headed towards the Wahkeena Trailhead.

Huge cedar tree

Rain fell steadily as I trudged along the tie trail between Multnomah and Wahkeena Falls.  At Wahkeena Falls, a few soggy tourists posed for photos at the roadside viewing area.  Adjacent to Wahkeena Creek's stair-step cascades, a pink blooming tree gave the only hint that it was nearly spring.  Although my mirrorless DSLR camera is fairly weather-resistant, at this point increasing rainfall forced me to tuck it safely into my backpack.  Being the photo nerd I am, I'd also brought along my pocket point and shoot camera. Having withstood many seasons of skiing photos in all kinds of weather, this little camera was better suited for today's wet conditions.

Snowy view looking up a basalt cliff

So dear readers, photo documentation of the hike was not lacking.  From the road, I began climbing the Wahkeena Trail up a paved path towards the waterfall.  Having taken hundreds of photos of these falls, I snapped a quick selfie as I walked by and kept climbing.

Fairy Falls

From Wahkeena Falls, the paved path climbed steeply through several switchbacks, framed by intricate rock walls.  Although charred trees from the 2017 fire were still prevalent, green ferns and other vegetation indicated the forest was making a comeback.

Snow beginning to accumulate

It was then I began to notice the raindrops were beginning to get heavier.  A few large soggy snowflakes stared to mix with the rain.  As I climbed higher in elevation, the snowflakes became more numerous.

Frosty tree

By the time I reached Lemmon Viewpoint, the precip had almost entirely switched to snow.  Huge, wet flakes fell from foggy skies.  It was so pretty!   With my little point and shoot camera, I made a valiant effort to capture the lovely scene of snow falling.

Trail sign is the only thing that isn't white

Leaving the paved path, I climbed higher through partially-burned forest.  Snow began accumulating in the tree branches and along the trailside.  The snow began transitioning from slushy sleet to drier flakes.

The higher I climb, the larger the snowfall accumulation

I stopped at Fairy Falls and pulled out my good camera to capture this pretty little cascade.  After a few shots, a young couple arrived and asked if I'd take their picture.  I used the man's cell phone to snap a few images, then he offered to take a few photos of me.  Not thinking, I handed the man my phone and he proceeded to snap a dozen pics of me in front of Fairy Falls.  Later I realized not only had I touched a stranger's personal phone, I'd also let him touch my phone.  With the Coronavirus scare just beginning, it made me think about how I needed to change my interactions with others. 

Snow-covered fern

Beyond Fairy Falls, I left the couple behind as I climbed higher up the Wahkeena Trail.  Snow was falling heavily now, coating the forest and trail in a white blanket.

Snow-covered vegetation makes a lumpy texture

At the Wahkeena Springs junction, the surrounding forest was a world of white.  The brown trail sign was the only thing of any color.

The white-flocked trees were beautiful

I continued my trek along the Wakeena Trail, heading for Multnomah Creek.  The snowy weather was a pure delight.  Frosty tree branches and bushes made beautiful photo subjects.  My little point and shoot camera just couldn't do them proper justice.  Since it wasn't raining anymore, I pulled out my good camera and put it to work documenting all this beauty.

Happy hiker with snowflakes on her glasses!

However, the wide angle on my point and shoot camera was good for capturing selfies!

Pussy willows catching the snow

Who would've thought I'd encounter such a snowy wonderland on the trail today?  What a wonderful surprise!

World of white

As I meandered through this winter wonderland snapping copious photos, I temporarily forgot about the impending pandemic, frenzied grocery stores, and potential stranger contaminators.  This is why I hike.

Last autumn leaf

The final half mile of the Wahkeena Trail as it winds downhill to Multnomah Basin is one of my favorite parts of this hike.  Multnomah Creek is visible through the trees, and even with a forest full of charred trees, it is still lovely.

Snow makes this burned-out forest look beautiful

 A fresh coating of snow made it all the more stunning.

Multnomah Creek

After the final trail junction with Larch Mountain Trail, it was a steep downhill ramble along Multnomah Creek.  Numerous fallen trees covered the creek, all casualties of the Eagle Creek fire.

Fallen tree

As I descended in elevation, sadly the snow began to transition back to rain and the snowy landscape from white to green and brown.

Weisendanger Falls

By the time I reached Weisendanger Falls, only a light dusting of snow covered the side slopes.

More snowy ferns

Soon I had reached the paved path once again, this one switchbacking steeply down to the base of Multnomah Falls.  The rain had returned in earnest, and I realized my mirrorless DSLR was quickly getting soaked.

Gloomy Gorge view from Multnomah Falls trail

So I hoofed it down the pathway as quick as I could, only stopping for an occasional photograph.

Top tier of Multnomah Falls

For a wet, crummy day, I was surprised by the large number of people visiting Multnomah Falls.  Of course this was a week before social distancing was mandated.

Multnomah Falls - the Grand Dame of Gorge waterfalls

Despite the dreary weather forecast, it turned out to be a magic day of hiking in a winter wonderland.  Looking back now nearly four weeks later, I'm glad I took a chance and went ahead with my plans.  These images will have to tide me over for the next few months.  I'm missing my beautiful Gorge Trails more than ever.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Before the Flowers

Let's transport ourselves back to the beginning of this month.  A time when Coronavirus was still a far-away illness on the other side of the world.  Back when we could still hike the local trails. 

One sunny, but chilly late winter's day, my friends Young and John invited me for a trek in the far eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Immediate mountain views

Oftentimes when the western Gorge is rainy, driving a mere 60 miles further east produces radically different weather.  Even when Portland weather is gray, the eastern Gorge has a reputation for perpetually sunny skies.

Sweeping panorama

With that in mind, Young and John wanted to hike the trails at Washington's Columbia Hills State Park.  Home of the Dalles Mountain Ranch, it's one of my favorite spring wildflower haunts.  But, since flowers don't usually peak here until mid to late-April, I was surprised my friends wanted to hike in early March.  Having never visited any other time of the year, I had my doubts.  Would there be anything interesting to see right now?

Rocky road

But, desiring to get some hiking miles in and catch up with my friends, I accepted their invitation.

Gnarled oak trees

Despite sunny skies, a chill wind blew as we stepped out of John's truck at the trailhead.  He'd parked at the Crawford Oaks Trailhead off of State Route 14.  All my previous visits to this park, I'd driven straight to the historic ranch buildings, three miles due north from here.  So today I'd be traversing a "new to me" trail!

Small creek cossing

The climbing started right off the bat, as my friends and I huffed and puffed up a steep, rocky abandoned road.  But quickly warmed by our efforts, the rewards came quickly.  We were treated to fabulous Mt Hood and Columbia River views after the first quarter mile.  Tall basalt cliffs rose vertically from the river's edge.

Huge transmission towers from the nearby dam

The first mile was a steep climb up and over those cliffs via an abandoned road.  Then our track dived downhill to cross a tiny creek lined with gnarly oak trees.

Crossing under the powerlines

Past the creek, trails branched out in both directions.  One was a direct path to the famous ranch buildings and spring flower fields.  However, the other featured a wide loop meandering through rolling hills, eventually connecting back to the ranch.  Wanting to get maximum mileage for the day, my friends chose the longer loop.

Late-blooming grass widow

More climbing!  My friends and I ascended another steep slope through barren grasslands.  Huge electrical transmission towers lined the top of the hills.  Transporting power directly from the nearby Dalles Dam, these structures were impressive.  Both Young and John are engineers who work for local power suppliers, so it was interesting to hear their "shop talk" about the powerlines.

Last of the grass widows

Although the big wildflower season was still weeks away, I was delighted to spot a few straggler grass widows pushing up from the prairie.  These delicate purple flowers have the distinction of being the first spring wildflowers in the Eastern Gorge.  Although usually not prevalent until early March, a warmer-than-normal winter caused an especially early grass widow bloom this year, and their season was now already nearly over.

On top of the plateau, views were fantastic

As we climbed, the views kept getting better.  I'd stop to grab a photo, only to find a much better vantage point further up the trail and stop again.  Progress was glacially slow.  I finally had to pack the camera away and hoof it up the rest of the hill to catch up with my friends.

Reading the plaque

At the very apex of the final hill was a stunning viewpoint.  The Columbia River spread out in both directions, framed by stair-stepping basalt cliffs.  A single plaque explained the geology of the region, stating the Gorge was created by massive floods from melting glaciers throughout the ice age.

Mt Hood was our companion all day

Now our trail turned towards the ranch, contouring across rolling beige hills.  Young mentioned these same hills would be covered in yellow balsamroot blooms by mid-April.  

Lone oak on the prairie

Although stark, the emptiness had a beauty all its own.  I enjoyed walking through these wide-open spaces.  They reminded me of the South Dakota prairies of my childhood.

A massive old tree!

We came upon a familiar road and fence line.  This was where I'd come for several years to photograph the wildflowers.  Without the colorful blooms it looked like a totally different place.

Fancy lunch accomodations

Young and John crossed the main ranch road, and hiked up a small hill to the main parking area with a restroom and picnic tables.  Perfect place to stop for lunch!  Normally used to sitting on the ground and eating lunch, my friends and I relished the luxury of having an actual table.

Looking back at the Dalles Mtn Ranch

But oh, was the wind howling!  It forced my friends and I to bundle up.  Lucky for us we'd brought our thermoses of hot tea, which warmed our insides.

Heading back

On our return trek, having not seen anyone except a couple of women all morning (who warned us vehemently about ticks) my friends and I ran into several hiking parties.  We even saw two people on horseback from a distance.

Winding down to the creek crossing

Even with the other hikers, the trails were still mighty empty out here in the Eastern Gorge.  After braving the crowded trails around the Oregon Gorge waterfall corridor, it was a welcome change.  Give it another month though - once the wildflowers start blooming, this place will be crawling with people.

Basalt layers and the Columbia River

Well in a normal year it would have.  Thanks to COVID-19, his state park, along with all the state parks in Oregon and Washington are now closed indefinitely.  In light of current events, I'm glad I decided to join my friends on this hike when I did.

Happy hiker

This year it looks like I'm going to miss the entire Columbia River Gorge wildflower bloom.  Although I've had the privilege to photograph this special event for many years, I'm sad to miss one of my favorite seasons.  Yes, I know it will be there next year and I can always look at past images to tide me over for now.

Want to see what this place looks like when the flowers bloom?  Check out my post from 2016.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Beauty Amidst Chaos

What a crazy, unsettling week it's been.  The coronavirus hit my state and life has changed.  Monday, my office abruptly announced it was closing, and all employees that could had to telework.  What followed was a mad scramble on my part to secure a laptop and learn how to log into my work's computer system remotely.  Friday, it was announced that two employees in my building were exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.  Luckily these folks were not from my floor, but still scary and upsetting all the same.

Thinking a hike would be a great stress reliever, I used my Friday off to explore one of the Columbia River Gorge trails.  Although I picked a less-traveled loop, I still encountered many more people than expected - and some weren't doing a good job of social distancing.

Not wanting to add to the crowds, and keep any germs I may have to myself, I made the decision to stay put at home for the entire weekend.

The weather was gorgeous - warm and sunny.  The flowers and trees here in Western Oregon are in full bloom.  With so much beauty nearby, it's easy to forget about the pandemic looming.

Since I wasn't hiking to any stunning places I instead decided to capture the spring blooms in my own backyard. 

Our plum tree is in full blossom mode, the tulips are just beginning to bloom, and there's still a few daffodils sporting cheerful yellow flowers.

Despite our governor's plea to stay home the Columbia River Gorge and Oregon coast were packed with people this weekend.  I fully expect a lockdown to be announced tomorrow in my metropolitan area, if not statewide.  If it slows the virus spread and saves lives, I'm all for it.

I hope the photos in this post will give my readers some happiness in these scary times.  Stay safe and healthy - but most important, stay home if you can!