Friday, February 14, 2020

Frog Lake Non-Snowshoe Hike

Wanting to get a start on my 2020 hiking challenge, I asked my friend Catherine if she was available for a snowshoe hike the Friday immediately after New Year's Day.  Lucky for me, she also had the day off work, so we made plans to explore the area around Mt Hood's Frog Lake.

Foggy morning on Frog Lake

Arriving at the sno-park that morning, we debated whether to use our snowshoes or not.  A few days of warm sun and freezing nights had transformed the snow-covered trail from powdery fluffiness to white concrete.  After much hemming and hawing, Catherine and I finally decided to leave our snowshoes in the car.  We started out, our hiking boots easily traversing the well-packed snow covering the road to Frog Lake.

Photo op with classic Mt Hood view

After a quick mile we reached the turn off to the Frog Lake campground and day use area.  Following a rougher trail, Catherine and I dove into a thick forested lane, sunlight filtering through the tree branches.

Mt Hood looking over Frog Lake

Peeping through the foliage, Catherine glimpsed snow-covered Frog Lake and bushwacked to it's shore.  I followed suit, post-holing through some deep snow pockets until I came out onto the fog-covered lake.  Morning sun shining through the misty clouds made for some great photo ops.

My turn for a photo op!

Both Catherine and I had previous visits to this picturesque lake during warmer times.  Remembering an amazing view of Mt Hood from the far side, we followed the snowy shore in search of our favorite mountain.  Lucky for us, by the time we reached our destination, the fog had lifted to give us picture-perfect mountain views.

Icy lakeshore

After LOTS of photo ops, I packed away my camera and eyed the icy east shore.  A very faint boot-packed trail snaked through the snow up a steep slope.  It looked as though this path was the only way around the lake, so we gingerly climbed over slippery rocks.  The ice got so bad, I pulled out my microspikes and gave one to Catherine, while I put the other over my boot.  Figuring some traction was better than none at all, we slowly made our way up and over the icy track until thankfully reaching flatter, snowier woods.

Beautiful snowy woods

Making our way through the snowy campground, Catherine was happy to discover the outhouse still open - and even had a small amount of tp left on the roll!  Then following the campground road, we located the trail to Frog Lake Butte.  Should we continue?  Of course the answer was yes.

Snow-covered tree trunks

So up, up we climbed, through beautiful snow-sparkled woods.  At one point the trees cleared and I got a great view of Mt Jefferson.  Although the day was cold, the steep climb warmed me enough that I was removing layers trying to cool down.  Finally a junction with the Twin Lake trail came into view.  Catherine and I took a quick snack break, re-donned our jackets, and dusted off the snow-crusted trail signs.

Lower Twin Lake

After climbing for nearly a mile and a half, the downhill trek to Lower Twin Lake was a wonderful change.  However, snow was much deeper on this side of the ridge, and if not for a well-packed base underneath, we would've definitely needed our snowshoes.  The snowy woods here were absolutely gorgeous, and I may have taken a few photo breaks.  :)

Blue sky at Lower Twin Lake

After a lovely mile romp through the beautiful snow and forest, Catherine and I came upon another junction at ice-covered Lower Twin Lake.  Happily, blue sky was breaking through the clouds and sunshine sparkled off the snow.

The locals have noticed our presence

A great place to stop for lunch!  And we were famished.  Catherine found a log near the shore, and we gratefully slipped off our backpacks and readied ourselves for a nice break.

Friendly Gray Jay

But.....Catherine noticed a half dozen gray jays had perched in the tree directly above us.  And they were eyeing our food.  When we didn't immediately produce the goods, the birds flew over to another group of hikers to investigate their lunch offerings.

Catherine makes a new friend

Yes, I know feeding wildlife is a no-no, but the birds were so cute, we couldn't resist crushing up a small handful of trail mix nuts to tempt them back our way.  In no time, Catherine became popular with our feathered friends.  She had an entire flock landing on her outstretched arms.

Very popular with the birds

The birds were so intent on stealing a bite of my lunch, I had several land right on top of my head, just waiting for a chance to grab an apple slice.  It was obvious that these birds were very much used to getting handouts from hikers.

They all liked my hat

After spending a delightful hour eating lunch, enjoying the view, and being entertained by the gray jay's antics, it was time to continue our trek.  We climbed out of the Twin Lake basin up through more thick forest.  The afternoon sun occasionally burst through an opening, creating some nice scenes.

Afternoon light through the trees

For the final mile, Catherine and I followed a hard-packed, snowy Pacific Crest Trail, closing the loop back to the parking area for Frog Lake.  As we were packing up the car, a man with a huge backpack stopped by and asked if snowshoes were necessary to access Lower Twin Lake.  The man said he was planning to spend the weekend at the lake.  Although we'd traversed the entire loop without needing them, since snow was predicted for the weekend I advised the man to bring his snowshoes for the trip out.  Both Catherine and I were a little surprised the man had planned such an ambitious outing without checking the forecast.


It was a fun day exploring a new hiking/snowshoeing loop in the Mt Hood National Forest. And Catherine and I got away with a snowy trek sans snowshoes. 

Hike No. 1 of my 2020 challenge is now in the books!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Wild Waves

How did you spend New Year's Day?  Sleeping in and/or nursing a hangover from the previous night's festivities?  Never one for celebrating in that fashion, I went to bed before midnight and rose early to accompany my neighbor and photography mentor Cheri on a trip to the Washington coast.  High tides and huge waves were predicted at Cape Disappointment - creating a perfect opportunity for some photo ops.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Although I'd visited Cape Disappointment once before, it had been many years ago.  Luckily, Cheri was familiar with this popular state park on Washington's coast, just north of the Columbia River.  She drove right to a parking lot with a fantastic view of the Cape Disappointment lighthouse.

Sunlit wave action

Not only was the lighthouse perched on a tall, rocky cliff photogenic, so were the waves that came crashing at it's base.  A popular place for wave-watchers, we had to jockey our tripods around many other photographers who'd also arrived for the show.

Fan wave

It took a quite bit of practice shots before I got the hang of capturing the tall waves, rising up, curling, and finally crashing into the shoreline.

Green sea water

The day's weather alternated between faint sunshine and dark, rain-spitting clouds.  Luckily we'd brought umbrellas, which were held over tripods when the squalls blew through (we didn't want to lose our places so our cameras stayed put).

Huge splash

It was mesmerizing to sit and watch the waves.  Some rolled over the rocks, while others hit in such a manner they created lovely fan shapes.  Every once and awhile a huge wave would crash into the shore with a fantastically tall splash.

Iconic lighthouse view

Since we never knew when one of the larger waves might hit, Cheri and I constantly stood watch beside our tripods, not wanting to miss the "big one."

Powerful wave curl

We stood at attention most of the day, from 9 am to nearly 3:30 in the afternoon.  Finally, knees and feet tired from standing, we decided to call it quits.  We'd both filled our memory cards with thousands of images.  How many more wave photos did one need?

One of the larger waves

Still, loathe to depart, we sat on a nearby driftwood pile for just a few minutes longer, hoping to witness a huge splash.  With high tide scheduled for 4 pm, by now a large crowd had gathered. 

Wave and fishing boat

But it had been a fun day on the coast, and we finally headed for home.  A different type of photography for me, I'd learned a lot on this outing. 

A great way to ring in the new year - and decade!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Who-o's There?

In case you're wondering, I'm still fitting in my new hobby of wildlife photography (that is, when I'm not hiking or skiing).  A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor and photo-mentor got a tip that two Western Screech Owls were living in a nearby apple tree.  After one unsuccessful trip, we tried again and this time, lo and behold, we found one of the owls nestled into a hole in the tree.   It was so perfectly camouflaged I didn't see it at first.

Western Screech Owl

The owl didn't seem to mind two ladies pointing huge lenses at him.  He (or she, I wasn't really sure) sat in the tree's crevice, eyes closed, trying to sleep.  Then my neighbor got an idea.  She asked her phone to play the call of a Western Screech owl.  When that little owl heard the phone mimicking his call, it's eyes opened wide - and we got our money shots.  As an added bonus, the owl started hooting back a reply.  And although we didn't see the second owl, it also began calling from a nearby tree.  A super-cool experience!

So cute!

Western Screech Owls are small birds.  Weighing only 3.5 to 10.8 ounces, they range from 7.5 -9.8 inches in length, and have wingspans of 21.6 to 24.4 inches.  Although it looks big in my photos, the owl was adorably tiny.  And once we got them to open, I just loved his big, round eyes!


That was first my exciting wildlife photo shoot for the new year.  I'm hoping for many more in the coming months.  I just need to hang out with my neighbor more often!

Bonus backyard bird pic

In the meantime, my backyard bird feeders have been providing my big lens with many feathered photo subjects.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Whittier Ridge Trail - A True Adventure

(I'm going to the "way-back machine" and recapping some of my favorite hikes of 2019.)

As I clung to the side of a cliff, afraid that a slip on the icy snow underneath my feet would send me tumbling to certain death, I kept thinking "What the heck did I get myself into?"

Beautiful fall colors dot the adjacent hills

Over the years, Jenny and I had worked together on several transit projects.  Also an avid hiker and skier, she and I shared common interests.  But despite always chatting about our respective outings, we'd never joined forces for an outdoor adventure.  Then one day Jenny mentioned her favorite place to hike was the Mt Margaret backcountry in October.  High on my hiking bucket list, I asked Jenny to include me next time she planned a trip.

Colorful tree

During the first week of October the stars aligned and Jenny hatched a plan.  We'd drive to the Norway Pass Trailhead on Mt St Helens' northeast side, hike the Boundary Trail to Whittier Ridge, take the Whittier Ridge Trail to the Lakes Trail, and then close the loop by returning to Norway Pass, a grand total of 15 miles.  Sunday's weather looked perfect - sunny and warm.  Since September had gotten off to a cold and wet start, I knew we had to take advantage of this clear, dry weekend.  We might not get another.

Mt St Helens view from Norway Pass

From reading online hiking forums, I knew the Whittier Ridge Trail wasn't for the faint of heart.  Traversing a steep, rocky spine for two miles, one website called it "the scariest hike in southwest Washington."  Other reports described it as a goat path with narrow ledges, steep drop-offs, and rocky scrambles requiring the use of both hands.  Route-finding skills were a necessity, and the most obvious paths were not always the right ones.  The WTA website warned hikers to expect this short section to take 2 to 3 hours to traverse.

Spirit Lake and Mt St Helens

After enduring an unexpected root canal that Friday, I began having second thoughts.  My mouth was still tender and sore.  Reading the dire online warnings about the Whittier Ridge trail made me pause.  And Jenny was 15 years younger than me, much fitter, and way more adventurous.  Could my old, mid-fifties body keep up?

But in the end, FOMO won out - the weather was going to be perfect and I didn't want to miss a chance to finally visit this stunning area. I packed lots of ibuprofen and decided to go for it.

My companions Nick and Jenny

Not only a long demanding trail, the drive to the trailhead was also long and demanding.  From Portland it was an arduous 3-hour trip, the last hour on windy Forest Service roads.  Luckily, Jenny's husband Nick decided to join us and volunteered to do all the driving (my hero!).  Although leaving Jenny's house before sunrise, our arrival at the trailhead was well after 9.

Jenny takes in the scenery

Although the skies were sunny and blue, chilly temps had us grabbing our jackets when we stepped out of Nick's truck.  From the trailhead, an immediate steep climb up the Boundary Trail warmed us quickly.  Colorful huckleberry bushes dressed in their finest autumn hues dotted adjacent hillsides, the predominant vegetation in the blast zone.  Located directly north of Mt St Helens, when the volcano blew in 1980, this area took a direct hit.  Barren slopes stretched far and wide, a sobering reminder of the eruption's tremendous force.

Brightly colored huckleberry bushes

A two-mile climb brought us to Norway Pass and it's iconic views of Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake.  The recently snow-dusted mountain and blue waters of Spirit Lake made great photo subjects for my camera.  As many times as I've seen Spirit Lake, it always amazes me that there are still logs from the eruption floating in it's waters.

Mt Rainier view

Past Norway Pass the  Boundary Trail kept climbing, treating my friends and I to more spectacular views of Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake.  Fall colors continued to impress, coloring the hillsides in red and yellow.  Soon, we noticed Mt Rainier peeping over the northern horizon.  At one point Nick spotted a herd of mountain goats in a valley far below the trail.

We started to see snow on the trail

A tiny pit of dread sat in my stomach as we got closer to the Whittier Ridge Trail.  It didn't help that we ran into snow about a mile before the junction.  Although Jenny assured me we'd turn around if the trail got too gnarly, I suspected my adventurous companion's definition of gnarly was different from mine.

Whittier Ridge trail junction

Five miles from the trailhead we came upon the Whittier Ridge junction, marked with a simple wooden sign.  Decision time - should we continue?  Although the presence of snow made me pause, Jenny and Nick both wanted to try it.  "We'll just go a little ways and check things out" Jenny promised.

Our lunch spot on the side of a cliff

Leaving an open ridgetop, our trail dived into a forested, shady area where the snow had been slow to melt.  Right away we encountered a snowpacked trail that was very slippery.  Gingerly I inched my way across the icy tread.  The trail narrowed and the downslope side began to get steeper, the ground below shrinking farther and farther away.  And I was still on ice.  About this time I was kicking myself for leaving my microspikes in Nick's truck (It didn't occur to me that we'd likely encounter snow and ice at higher elevations).

Fabulous scenery - treacherous trail

Thankfully the trail finally wandered into an open area, where the snow had all melted.  Now we were just traversing a narrow shelf on the side of a steep slope.  Despite the precarious path, the views were amazing.  Rocky, barren mountains stretched out in all directions.  A tiny glacial lake sat nestled in a steep valley far below.

Where's the trail?

By now it was way past noon, and my companions and I were getting hungry.  Not finding a good place to stop for lunch, Jenny and Nick settled on a cliffside ledge.  Although seating was a bit tricky, the views couldn't be beat!  We looked down into a lovely blue lake rimmed by rocky walls.  Mt Rainier anchored the skyline.  We even saw a herd of elk down by the water (but too far away for photos).

More Rainier views

As my friends and I were packing up lunch, two young men hiked by, traveling in the opposite direction.  Inquiring about trail conditions, the men said the trail was tough but do-able.  Resuming our trek, we ran into a solo woman hiker and she echoed the same opinion.  The woman said she'd called the ranger district the day before and they'd warned her the trail was unsafe and recommended not hiking it.  But she said it "wasn't that bad." (However, I noticed microspikes hanging on her backpack)

Photo op on top of the ridge

Buoyed by our fellow hiker's advice, my companions and I soldiered on, following a faint bootpath across the face of another cliff.  We passed the sides of three tall rock pillars, soaring high above our heads.  Here the trail was again a narrow shelf, the ground falling steeply away on the downslope side.  I kept my body as close to the vertical rock wall as possible, grabbing onto occasional handholds when things got a little scary.

Jenny trying to find the route

Jenny, in the lead, came to another pillar, a tumbled mess of rocks, with no discernible trail.  Which way to go?  A few faint footprints in some mud between boulders were our only clue.  Slowly, we wound around the side of this outcrop, only to encounter yet another one.

Picking our way across the ridgetop

And then the trail dived into an area shaded by sparse trees and the rock wall itself.  Un-melted snow covered the route, churned by hiker's footprints and frozen into a lumpy mess.  Directly downhill was a steep, rocky slope.  A slip would not be pretty.  Not wanting to risk sliding, Jenny sat down and butt-scooted across this icy section.  I followed suit, my heart pounding the entire time.  But we both successfully traversed our first icy spot.  Yes, our first - little did we know there was much more to come.

When I wasn't hanging on for dear life, I did enjoy the scenery

About halfway across, our trail deadended on top of a cliff.  The adjacent land dropped away steeply on three sides.  Jenny and I began to freak out - which way did we go now?  She asked Nick, patiently following behind, if he could scout ahead and find the route.  Nick disappeared down one side of the dropoff. A few moments later we heard him call out "this way!"  Jenny and I gingerly lowered ourselves down the rocky cliff, holding on for dear life.  Oh, what did I get myself into?  I had to calm myself by saying a few "Hail Marys" in my head.

Trying not to slip on the icy snow

The "trail" (and by now I was using this term very loosely) continued to wind along the side of another cliff, requiring more scary scrambling.  When would it end?  Although I thought about retracing my steps back the way I came, I also realized it meant negotiating those terrifying dropoffs once again.  Over halfway along Whittier Ridge now, we were past the point of no return.  I had no choice but to carry on and hope for the best.

Oh good, we found the trail!

Much of our time was spent trying to determine the correct route of the trail.  Sometimes we followed footprints in snow or mud, other times it was a faint bootpath hewn into the rock.  Then we came upon the word "trail" and an arrow stenciled on the side of a boulder.  The first direction of any kind, this called for a photo op!

Nick leading the way

The constant climbing up and down, using my hands for balance and stability, and occasionally crab-walking through icy parts started to wear on me.  My legs began to tremble with exhaustion, my arms ached from grabbing rocky handholds.  And yet the ridge stretched onward, with no trail junction in sight.

Tiny lake way, way below us

When I wasn't concentrating on not falling, I did occasionally look up and admire the scenery.  And I even took a few photos now and then.  The surrounding landscapes were stunning.  Ridges stretched in all directions.  Tiny blue glacial lakes nestled in valleys far below.  I even glimpsed Coldwater Lake and it's surrounding mountains spotted with orange hues of fall colors - a place I'd hiked just the week before.

Coldwater Lake and fall colors

And then, just when I thought I couldn't take any more scrambling, the terrain widened out into a broad ridge.  Now the walking was easy - we just followed the very apex.  Instead of rocks, the path wandered through grass and dirt.  According to my gps we'd covered nearly two miles.  The junction with the Lakes Trail (and the end of this trail from hell) wasn't far now.

Can you spot my companions?

One more downslope to cross - the path dived through another steep slope covered in snow (which required a bit more butt-scooting).  But now, thanks to Whittier Ridge, I was an experienced crab-walker and got through this final slippery slope with no issues. 

I was never so happy to see this junction!

And - up ahead was the junction with the Lakes Trail!  It was marked by a lone wooden post, as the signs had fallen onto the ground.  I was never so happy to see a set of wooden signs.  The Whittier Ridge scramble was finally done - thank goodness!  Jenny, Nick and I agreed it had been a tough ramble - we couldn't believe the three hikers we'd spoke with had thought it "wasn't that bad."

Lovely fall color along the Lakes Trail

But it was now 3:30 in the afternoon.  It had taken us 2 1/2 hours to travel the 2-mile Whittier Ridge Trail.  And we still had 7 miles yet to cover.  Could we make it back to the trailhead before dark?  After a very short snack break, my friends and I shouldered our packs and headed down the Lakes Trail.

The hiking was so much easier!

After so much scrambling and route-finding it was a delight to follow a normal trail again.  The Lakes trail meandered through a beautiful meadow full of colorful huckleberry bushes. 

We survived the Whittier Trail!

We even got a few more views of Mt Rainier! 

Checking out Shovel Lake

True to it's name, the Lakes Trail passed by several lovely water bodies.  The first, Shovel Lake, was a deep blue-green color.  We also passed by Panhandle and Obscurity Lakes.  All three were popular backpacking destinations, with designated campsites requiring advance reservations.  I eyed each lake and mentally made a note to try for a camping reservation next year.

Grizzly Lake

Knowing we needed to beat sundown, my friends and I marched through the Lakes Trail, keeping breaks to a minimum.  At one point, Jenny and Nick ran out of water and we stopped by a pretty creek so they could filter more.  Then we began the steep climb out of the Lakes basin up to Bear Pass.  Although I'd already hiked more than 10 miles, adrenaline kept my legs going as I powered up the switchbacks.

Sunset on Norway Pass

Finally we topped out at Bear Pass.  Although the views were spectacular, it was windy and cold.  Jenny discovered she had phone service here, so we all took our phones off of airplane mode.  I sent a quick text to my hubby that all was OK, and I was going to be very late.  Then Jenny got a message that the alarm at her home had gone off.  Worried, she called her alarm company, and spent the next several frantic minutes trying to determine what had happened.  (Luckily she found out it was only her cat that had triggered the alarm)

Amazing light at sunset

The setting sun flooded the landscape with amazing light.  Colors glowed in pink and gold hues.  I stopped so frequently to try and capture it all, I had to run down the trail to catch up with my friends.  We arrived at Norway Pass just as the sun was sinking below the mountains.

Sky colors and Mt Adams

What a great place to capture nightfall!  It was the most amazing sunset I'd seen in a long time.  Witnessing such a scene almost made the scary trek over Whittier Ridge worth it - well, almost.

Glowing sky over Mt St Helens

But now we still had two miles to go, and it was nearly dark.  Although I'd brought my headlamp, I was a little nervous about trying to find my way without daylight.  Jenny and Nick, who had hiked at night many times, assured me that it would be a fun experience.  And it was - although once the sun dropped temps got cold quickly.  We hustled through the final two miles, ready to be done with what had already been a long, strenuous day.

Trying to beat the darkness

Of course once we finally reached Nick's truck we still had a 3-hour trip to get home.  Again, I was thankful for Nick's willingness to drive and kept him well supplied with snacks so he'd stay awake.  We didn't reach Portland until 11 pm - and I finally hit my bed around midnight. What a day!

Day's final light

The next day Jenny and I were in a meeting together at work.  Of course we chatted about the previous day's adventure.  Jenny joked that after that trail, I wouldn't ever want to hike with her and Nick again.  But now with the Whittier Ridge trail experience behind us, we discussed if we'd ever want to hike it again.  Yesterday, in the heat of the moment and scared out of our wits, we both had declared "never again!"  But a day later, with bad memories already fading, Jenny said she might do it again.  Now that I know what to expect, I might do it again too.  But if there is a next time I'm starting earlier - and bringing my microspikes!

Either way, it was a true adventure.  My toughest hike of the year, I logged a grand total of 15 miles and about 3500 feet of cumulative climbing.  And earned bragging rights.