Sunday, March 27, 2022

Moulton Falls Park

The idea for this hike, like many of the trails I visit, started with a photograph.  Earlier this winter someone posted a photo online of a beautiful arched wooden bridge spanning a jade-colored river.  The entire scene was draped with a blanket of snow.  Such a stunning place, where was this?  The location was identified as Moulton Falls Regional Park in SW Washington.  Hey, I knew where that was!  I'd driven by this place multiple times in the summer on the way to hike Silver Star Mountain.  The place was always packed with people and it didn't look like much of a hike to see the sights.  These two factors are why I'd never before stopped to visit.

The hike started out on this nice paved path

A bit of online research uncovered a 7-mile loop hike around the area, linking Moulton Falls Regional Park to nearby Lucia Falls Regional Park.  Now that was more like it!  If I was going to visit this place, I wanted to at least get in some miles.  So one drizzly Monday morning I threw backpack into car and headed north of the Columbia River.

Soon I was in this fantastic, mossy forest

I planned to cover a loop hike suggested by the Oregon Hikers website.  Parking at the Hantwick Road Trailhead, I was pleased to discover a nice paved parking lot.  The place even had porta-potties!   I started my saunter on a paved path leading to the main trail linking Moulton and Lucia Falls.  But before I reached this path (which would be my return route) I detoured onto a rough, dirt mountain bike trail.  Dubbed the "Bells Mountain North Slope trail" it would take me through the woods for about 3 miles before intersecting back with the main path near Moulton Falls.

Hall of mosses

Portions of this forest were logged and also engulfed in the Yacolt Burn, a massive forest fire that swept through SW Washington in 1902.  Several areas had since been replanted with Douglas fir, but alder and maples trees have also taken root.  Sword ferns dominated the understory, while moss and lichen draped from the trees.

One of many moss-draped branches

The mossy green forest was so beautiful it took some time to meander through this trail!

Old road crossing

Because the route of the Bells Mountain North Trail looked a little tricky to follow, I printed out directions from the Oregon Hikers website and kept the paper copy in my pocket to follow along.  I'm glad I did - there were a couple of intersections with old logging roads that were confusing and a couple of places where user trails branched away.  But the combination of the paper directions and my GPS kept me on track.

Back into the forest

There were a couple of places where the moss/lichen was so thick on the trees, it almost looked like hair!

These trees looked hairy

Although ominous, cloudy skies threatened rain the entire day, I only encountered short bursts of sprinkles.  Just the same, I kept my rain jacket on 'cause I'm not fond of being wet.

Wooden bridges for mountain bikers to cross the creeks

This dirt track I was following was created as more of a mountain bike trail than for hikers.  But I didn't encounter a single soul for the entire length - on foot or on wheels.  (Maybe the fact it was a Monday had something to do with this!)  Near the opposite end of the trail were several small creek crossings.  As a hiker, I could've hopped over each one, but someone had constructed wooden bridges spanning each of these brooklets.  I assumed these were for the benefit of the mountain bikers.

Lotsa green here!

About a half mile from the intersection with the main Moulton-Lucia Falls trail I hit the intersection with the main Bells Mountain Trail.  This trail climbed deeper into the Yacolt Burn area, eventually intersecting with the Tarbell Trail near Silver Star Mountain.  But I was going the opposite direction today, and happily bounded downhill towards my next destination - Moulton Falls Regional Park and that beautiful wooden footbridge.

Junction with the main trail

After following a narrow, dirt track for over 3 miles, the junction with the main Moulton - Lucia Falls trail seemed like a superhighway.  Built on an old railroad grade, it was wide enough for several people to hike abreast, and covered in hard-packed gravel - no rocks or tree roots to trip over.  A large signboard informed me I had a mere half mile to reach Moulton Falls Park.  Alright!  Time to find that bridge!

Moulton Falls and the East Fork of the Lewis River

As I hustled down the wide path, I took in the sights.  On the uphill side of the path was dense, mossy forest.  The downhill side gave glimpses of the green, East Fork Lewis River through the trees.  One small gap in the foliage offered a partially obstructed view of Moulton Falls and it's tiny 10-foot drop.  It looked as through the best views of the falls were on the opposite shore.

Beautiful jade-green water

After seeing no one all morning, at first it was a little bit jarring to encounter hikers again.  But the closer I got to Moulton Falls Park and it's wooden bridge, the more people I met.  Suddenly the bridge appeared before me.  I happily walked partway across and paused to take in the views below.  And they were wonderful.  Forested slopes gave way to steep, rocky banks that sandwiched the deep green waters of the East Fork of the Lewis River.  That water color!  It was such a lovely shade of green-blue-gray.

The famous wooden footbridge

Crossing to the opposite end of the footbridge, I took a user trail to one side and bushwhacked through the bushes to capture a view of the lovely wooden truss.

A massive cedar tree on the riverbank

Now where did folks go to take that stunning photo of the bridge spanning the river?  Continuing on the main path, now on the river's opposite shore, I walked towards what appeared to be a large restroom.  Assuming the parking lot was nearby, I scanned riverbank for paths.  A rock-paved sidewalk took visitors past a huge cedar tree.  Off to the side of the tree, another user path directed me to several flat rocks jutting out into the river.  Looking up, I found my money shot.

The money shot!

There was the bridge, just as I'd seen in the photo.  Spanning a rocky gap between the banks, it reflected perfectly in the green river's water.  Although the sun was nowhere to be found that day, the cloudy skies and foggy forest gave a perfect mood to the shot.

A moss-coated tree I couldn't pass up

By now way past noon, I rested on the rocks and inhaled my sandwich.  Then, after snapping copious photos to memorialize the moment, I headed back across the bridge and onto the Moulton-Lucia Trail once again to close the loop.

A glimpse of the East Fork Lewis River

I thought this flat 2.5 mile trail between Moulton and Lucia Falls Parks would be a boring trudge back to the car.  Well, I couldn't have been more wrong!  The forest was full of huge, mossy trees that I found most interesting.  And the trees parted often to give nice views of the river below.

Boiling river rapids

What I thought would be a quick trek back to the car ended up taking much longer.  There was so much to photograph!  Who knew?

I loved this little red house

Near the western end of the path I began to notice private homes on the opposite side of the river.  It looked like a wonderful place to live.  Imagine seeing this beautiful scenery every day!  I especially loved one particular bright red house.  It's bold color against the green forest made for some great images.

Ferns growing from this tree trunk

Near the end of my trek, I passed by a large pond surrounded by more moss-draped trees.  A picnic table was stationed at one end, and I'm sure on a nice summer day it would've made a great place to have lunch.  But the skies were threatening rain once again, and I was ready to be done, so I didn't linger long.

A small pond near trail's end

The path back to the Hantwick Road trailhead parking area split off before reaching Lucia Falls Park.  I didn't feel like walking any further so Lucia Falls would have to wait for another day.  But that just means I'll have to come back again and do more exploring of this surprisingly beautiful area!

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Groundhog Day Adventure

I really wanted to do a bunch of snowshoe trips this season.  However, despite good intentions my snowshoes have only tasted the white stuff twice thus far.  It's been a weird winter - after a week of snowstorms in early January, the precip pipeline went dry for the rest of the month.  February brought a few small snow events in the mountains, but nothing with huge accumulations.

Snowshoeing is so much better with fresh snow.  Here in the Pacific NW our snow is wet, and it doesn't take much to get packed down and icy.  When conditions are like this, you might as well ditch the snowshoes, don microspikes, and turn things into a hike.  Since icy trails didn't appeal to me, my snowshoes sat idle all of January.  Until a promising forecast the first week of February caught my attention.

Near the trailhead

The mountain snow report on February 2nd looked good - promising several inches of the white stuff.  Although I'd traveled up to Mt Hood for skiing the day before and planned another ski trip for the 3rd, I couldn't pass up the rare chance to showshoe on fresh powder.  So early that morning found me in my car once again heading up the icy roads to Mt. Hood, destination Barlow Pass Trailhead.

Wilderness area sign

Barlow Pass is on the old Barlow Road, an alternative route of the Oregon Trail.  Pioneers not wishing to brave the harrowing journey rafting down the Columbia River often chose to lead their wagons over the imposing Cascade Mountains and follow this road.  Barlow Pass has the distinction of being at the crest of the Cascades, a milestone in the pioneer's travel.  In modern days, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) passes through here, one of several trails hikers can now explore.  (In keeping with the area's past history, there's also a path to the grave of an unknown pioneer woman)

Branches loaded with heavy snow

There were only two other vehicles at the trailhead.  A man with skis emerged from one and promptly took off down one of the trails.  Strapping on my snowshoes, I stomped through the new-fallen snow with delight.  There was a good four inches on the ground and it was light, fluffy powder.  Yeah!  Conditions couldn't have been better.

Everything is white

My plan for the day was to take the PCT southbound for about 2 miles until it intersected with the trail to Upper Twin Lake.  I'd then take this 1.5-ish mile trail to Upper Twin Lake.  A trek I'd done before, it topped out at 7.5 miles round-trip.  

Bunny tracks

Although there was already a set of ski tracks through the snow, I broke my own trail beside them.  Good backcountry etiquette dictates that snowshoers stay out of skier's tracks.  Snowshoes mess up the ski tracks which can be hazardous for cross country skiers.  (I realize that many snowshoers either don't know this or don't care because in some high use areas ski tracks are routinely obliterated by snowshoers)

Nothing to see on Tri-County Ridge

The new snow was plastered on the trunks of trees and covered their branches.  It was quite beautiful, necessitating frequent photo stops.  Besides ski tracks, the only other thing marring this lovely white carpet was a set of animal prints leading off through the forest (probably a bunny, I guessed).

Flocked trees

About a mile southbound on the PCT I'd heard of a side trail branching off that led hikers uphill to a fabulous view of Mt. Hood.  The place was either called Ghost Ridge or Tri-County Ridge, depending on which hiking website you were viewing.  Upon reaching this junction, I noticed the set of ski tracks heading uphill towards the ridge.  Should I venture up there too?  It was a foggy, overcast day so chances of any type of view were nil.  In the end, curiosity got the better of me, so I turned and went up the ridge. 

Looking out over the frozen forest

After a hard climb of nearly 3/4 of a mile I emerged into a clearing.  Heavily snow-flocked trees appeared like ghosts through the thick fog.  Every direction I looked was obscured by a curtain of white.  I'd heard on a clear day views here were stupendous, but right now there was absolutely nothing to see.  I'd huffed and puffed up here for naught. 

Finally the Twin Lakes trail!

At least the journey back downhill to the PCT was much easier.  And once reconnecting with the PCT, I commenced breaking my own trail, as the ski tracks had ended at the uphill path to the ridge.  After a very long half mile (those trail stretchers were at it again!) I finally reached the junction with the Upper Twin Lakes Trail.

Woodpeckers were busy

This new trail took me downhill through more untracked snow.  It was a joy to be able to walk wherever I wanted without worrying about messing up skier tracks.  I passed an old tree full of woodpecker holes that was interesting.  Then I made my way through a large clearing, where at another trail junction, I picked up my skier friend's tracks once again.

Bird Butte summit - high point of my trek

From here the trail switchbacked steeply uphill to the summit of Bird Butte.  At 4,560 feet this was the high point of my trek.  I paused for a photo with the sign for posterity (and also for my 2022 hiking challenge blog page).

Upper Twin Lake was socked in

It was all downhill from here to the lake.  A quick shuffle through the trees and I arrived at the snowy shore.  With the overcast skies there wasn't much to see.  But I snapped a few pics before settling down to a quick lunch break.

Lunchtime view (or lack thereof)

After lunch I donned my backpack and set out once again, retracing my path through the snow.  On the uphill to Bird Butte I met a couple of skiers coming down who thanked me for not walking in their tracks.  However, clomping my way back through the meadow to the place where I had broken a lone path through the snow, I was disappointed to see the skiers had made their tracks right through my snowshoe path.  Guess it doesn't work both ways?

Backcountry etiquette - separate tracks for skis and snowshoes

The boots I use for snowshoeing tend to rub in the heels if I do too much uphill hiking.  I know this, and usually take preventative measures beforehand to ensure blisters don't form.  But today I forgot all about doing this, and as a result, my feet reminded me of my oversight about halfway back.  Although I know very well you're supposed to stop and apply moleskin or some other bandage to prevent further damage and discomfort, I didn't want to take the time to do this.  It would've required not only removing my boots and socks, but also my snowshoes.  This would burn too much time, I reasoned.  I'm almost back, I can make it!

Snowy PCT sign

Onward I limped, reaching the PCT once again.  Only two miles to go!  But, boy were they long miles.  My heels hurt with every step, even more so when I had to plow through snow or go uphill.  But I gritted my teeth and carried on.  By now temperatures had risen to above freezing and the morning's nice fluffy powder had transformed to heavy, wet snow.  

Finally reaching the car, I gratefully pulled off my boots and discovered (surprise!) huge, tender blisters on both heels.  (That's what you get for not stopping and taking care of things.)  The man who had started skiing at the same time as I did this morning finished his journey within five minutes of me.  We chatted at our vehicles for a moment before I bid him goodbye.

The return trip seemed endless

Although this happened to be Groundhog Day, I highly doubt there were any groundhogs in the forest.  Even if there were, with the day's overcast conditions there's no way one would've seen his shadow.  As a lover of snow and cold, I'm probably the only person wishing for a sunny Groundhog Day, because I want 6 more weeks of winter.  Sadly not this year!

Friday, March 11, 2022

Winter Birds of Sauvie Island

At the confluence of Oregon's Willamette and Columbia Rivers lies Sauvie Island.  It's the largest island along the Columbia River, and at 26,000 acres, one of the largest river islands in the United States.  Although farms dot the lowlands here, a large area of this island is also designated as a wildlife refuge.  In the winter, many bird species migrate and spend several months here.  For wildlife photographers such as my neighbor Cheri, it's a great place to find photo subjects.

Young bald eagle

A mid-January break in the weather provided the perfect opportunity to check out the wildlife, and Cheri invited me to accompany her on a visit to the island.  A frequent visitor, she knew all the good places to spot birds.  As we traveled down the island's main road, she made sure to stop at every one.  At the first overlook, we spotted a bunch of juvenile bald eagles.

Lovely scenery on the island

Cheri is so knowledgeable about the birds she photographs.  From Cheri, I learned that bald eagles retain brown feathers for 5 years before getting their distinctive white head.  (I also learned from Cheri that eagles and other birds poop right before alighting from their perches - handy to know if you're trying to capture an in-flight image!)

Sandhill cranes in flight

Driving a little further down the road, we came upon a large flock of sandhill cranes in a farmer's field.  Lucky us - the birds were very close.  As a matter of fact, so close we were able to shoot our photos from the car window.

A flock of cranes right by the road

I've come to enjoy watching these red-headed birds with their distinctive call.  Today some of the males were active - jumping up and down while flapping their wings.  I think they were trying to impress the ladies.

Foraging in a harvested field

Of course, the cranes quickly noticed our vehicle and didn't hang around long.  They slowly began sauntering farther and farther away, while foraging in the remains of a harvested field.

Thousands of snow geese flock to the island

Time to move on!  Our next stop was at a wooden observation structure.  This raised platform was constructed specifically for birdwatching, with views over a nearby body of water.  A very popular stop for waterfowl, we almost always spotted some type of bird hanging out here.

Snow geese in the sky

Today our luck was with us - an enormous flock of snow geese had taken up residence in the water right next to this platform.  

Taking advantage of some good light

The geese were so numerous they colored the ground and water white.  There must've been hundreds, if not thousands, of these waterfowl.  I don't know how they all fit into the water - it seemed like there were birds atop birds.  We kept spotting a few geese flying away and also a small number coming in for a landing.  Although the small groups were fun to photograph, Cheri was hoping for something to spook the entire flock so they'd all rise into the air en masse.  

Then a bald eagle flew by 

It wasn't long before we got our wish.  So intent on photographing the snow geese flock, we nearly missed a bald eagle flying by, so close he was practically under our noses!

This is what happens when a bald eagle flies by a flock of snow geese

Snow geese are a favorite snack of bald eagles, and this guy was intent on capturing one for lunch.  Once the eagle swooped by, the entire flock took to the sky in a noisy wing-beating, honking mass.  The birds were so thick, I don't know how they were able to fly and not run into each other.

Eagle now gone, the geese began to land

We couldn't tell if the eagle had a successful hunt or not.  He flew away before we had a chance to tell.  But once the danger had passed, the entire flock of snow geese began to land back into the same pond.  The huge number of birds landing was also quite a sight - one that was fun, but challenging (for me anyway) to photograph.  Oh well, practice is how I'll get better!  Cheri, who has photographed birds and other wildlife for years, does an outstanding job at catching animals in action.  My goal is to someday be as good as she is!

Sandhill cranes coming in for a landing

Our final stop for the day was at another farmer's field further down the road from the overlook.  Here Cheri spotted a second group of sandhill cranes.  Several cranes kept flying in to join their comrades.  I got plenty of practice capturing birds in flight, and even managed to get a few images that were actually in focus!  What I really liked about this location was the beautiful backdrop of gnarled oak trees and foggy fields.

Beautiful winter scenery

Not only is Sauvie Island a great place to photograph wildlife, it's also mighty scenic.  As we were finishing up, the sun peeked through the clouds, illuminating an adjacent forest with beautiful light.  A perfect way to end what had been an outstanding morning of photography!

Cheri's images can be viewed on her website: Cheri Kanaan Photography  I highly recommend checking it out.  If you see something you like, she also sells prints.