Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Wet Day at Stub Stewart

Well, I've been trying to get out hiking and skiing this month, but the weather has not cooperated.  Snowstorms, ice storms, high winds, and torrential rain (I've lost count of all the "atmospheric rivers" we've had this month!) have conspired to keep me home more days than I'd like.

However, the day before all the weather madness began I did manage to sneak in another quick hike at the close-to-home Stub Stewart State Park.

Lovely sunrise to start the day

Rising that morning I was greeted by a lovely sunrise.  The sky was resplendent in pink and orange hues.  The clouds formed into some most unusual shapes - I especially liked the pebbly-textured ones (I refer to them as "popcorn clouds.")  Although the neighborhood trees prevented any sweeping sky views, I was able to capture most of the scene from my second-story bedroom window.

A snowy peak illuminated by the sun

Packing my camera, water, and a few snacks, I threw my hiking boots into the car and headed west for the quick 45-minute drive to nearby Stub Stewart State Park.  Located in the Coast Range foothills, the park is a bit higher in elevation than my neighborhood.  Despite this, I was still surprised to find a thick blanket of snow covering everything as I pulled into the entrance road.

The clouds close in

Driving into the unplowed parking lot at the Hilltop Day Use Area, I was thankful for my car's all wheel drive and snow tires.  Not surprisingly, mine was the only vehicle in the lot.  The highest point in the park, there was at least four inches of snow on the ground here.  On sunny days, this area gives stunning views of the nearby Coast Range.  Today however, thick clouds and fog hung over the forest, obliterating it all.  But preparing to exit my car, I noticed the clouds had momentarily parted over one of the snow-capped summits.  Illuminated by the sun, the mountaintop gleamed bright white.  A heaven-sent glimpse of beauty!  Hurriedly, I grabbed my camera and slogged through the snow to capture it before the clouds closed back in.

Snowy, foggy trail through the forest

Wanting to get some mileage and elevation gain in, I chose to hike a different loop than my usual route.  Heading in the opposite direction, I crossed the entrance road and plodded down N. Caddywhomper Way a short distance to its intersection with Hares Canyon Trail.

Fall leaf remnants

The wide Hares Canyon Trail was snow covered, but not as deeply as the area surrounding the parking lot.  Thick, moss-covered trees framed both sides of the trail.  Although snowy, the above-freezing temperatures created a thick layer of fog that hung in the forest.  It was quite stunning, and I took copious images of the scene.  I didn't see any other hikers, but footprints in the snow indicated someone else had walked through recently.

Mossy branches

The snow was wet and slushy and it didn't take long to soak my boots.  (Luckily they are waterproofed.)   I squished along, admiring the snow-covered ferns that lined the forest floor.  Snow had collected on the mossy tree limbs, adding another level of beauty to everything.

Spooky forest

Although my hike had started out dry, it didn't take long for fat raindrops to begin falling from the sky. The thick forest canopy acted as an umbrella, so I was partially protected as long as I stayed under the trees.  However, water from snowmelt collected on the trail, creating large puddles and mucky spots of mud.  

Lots of ferns line the forest floor

The rain continued to fall as I reached the junction of the Hares Creek Trail with the Banks-Vernonia paved bike path.  A short ramble on this path and I detoured again down a trail called the "Williams Creek Horseshoe."  Lower in elevation, there was less snow, but just as many mudpuddles.  But boy was the forest lovely!

Snow-lined path

I admired an area of bare, mossy tree branches accented by snow.  The trail led me downhill to a creek crossing on a cute bridge.  Then it wound uphill once again to reconnect with the Banks-Vernonia Trail.

Bare, mossy trees

By now, four miles into my trek, the rain was coming down hard enough I decided to pack my camera away in its bag.  My boots were soggy on the outside, as were my pants and rain jacket.  This wasn't fun anymore.  It was time to head back to the parking lot.  The only problem, it was a good two miles away.

A small bridge

Now wet and cold, I put my head down and started walking.  The movement kept me warm enough, and although my gloves were fairly soggy, they still kept my hands from freezing.  I followed the Banks-Vernonia Trail until I came upon the Timber Beast trail.  Knowing this was the quickest way back to my car, I headed uphill through increasingly deep, slushy snow.

Low clouds hug the hilltops

It wasn't pretty, but I got my soggy self back to Hilltop Day use area.  From the vantage point, low clouds still hung in the forest and although I was more than ready to shed my wet outer layer, I couldn't help stopping for a few more photographs of the lovely scenery.

It wasn't the greatest day to be outside, but I survived and got a respectable 6 miles 800 feet of elevation gain.  Outdoor exercise is always the best!

Friday, January 19, 2024

First Hike of 2024

I have two different New Year's Day Traditions.  I either go skiing or go to the beach.  With this winter lacking in the snow department thus far, skiing was out of the picture.  So this January 1st, I pointed my car westward towards the Oregon coast.

Cannon Beach is the closest coastal town from my home.  A tad over an hour's drive gets me to its lovely, rugged beaches.  Upon my arrival, I was psyched to see sunshine streaming over the ocean.  I'd made a good choice!

Foggy view of Cannon Beach

Wanting to get in a good hike to start the new year, I headed to Ecola State Park.  With 9 miles of spectacular coastline, lush forests, and some scenic hiking trails it's my "go-to" state park on the northern Oregon coast.  Parking at Ecola Point, I first walked over to capture the iconic view of Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock.  The ocean and seastacks were cloaked in fog, but that just added a touch of mystery.

Tillamook Head Lighthouse

The opposite direction offered a great view of the abandoned Tillamook Head Lighthouse, nicknamed "Terrible Tilly."  The morning sun illuminated the lighthouse brilliantly that day, and I snapped on a zoom lens to capture it.  We photographers don't ever waste good light!

Lush coastal forest

Photographic obligations complete, I then shouldered my backpack and headed northward along the Oregon Coast Trail. This trail connects some of Ecola State Park's attractions.  From Ecola Point, my plan was to head north for 2 miles through the forest to Indian Beach.  From Indian Beach I'd head another 1.5 miles further north to a place called "Hikers Camp" on Tillamook Head which boasted some great views of the ocean and Terrible Tilly Lighthouse.

First viewpoint had nice views of Tillamook Head and Indian Beach

I always love hiking in the coastal forests.  Due to abundant rainfall they are always full of ferns and the large fir, spruce, and cedar trees drip with moss and lichen.  Trails through these forests often resemble green tunnels.

Sea Lion Rock Arch

About a quarter-mile up this first trail I came upon a stellar view of the mighty Pacific.  Looking to the north gave stunning views of Tillamook Head and Indian Beach.  Southward, the views were of a group of small seastacks, the largest resembling an arch (I later found out it has a name - Sea Lion Rock Arch.)  Foamy waves crashed into the shoreline.  I could've stayed there all day just watching the rolling waves - but the trail was calling!

Beautiful light on the forest

One thing about hiking trails on the Oregon coast - even in midsummer, they are always muddy.  And during winter's rainy season, the muddiness level rachets up to ten.  The further I hiked towards Indian Beach, the higher amount of bogginess I encountered.  Some of the steeper ups and downs required a bit of caution to keep from sliding downhill.  It didn't take long before my boots and pant legs were caked in mud.  But I had on my old hiking boots and pants, so no problem.  However I encountered many hikers clad in clean tennis shoes.  (I'm sure they weren't clean for long.)

Illuminated cedar boughs

Sunlight peeked through the thick forest canopy, creating nice light on the tree boughs and ferns lucky enough to receive this illumination.  It made for some absolutely beautiful scenes.  Many photographs may have been taken!

Grand view of Indian Beach

After two grueling miles of ups and downs and muddy slogs, the forest parted into a lovely viewpoint of Indian Beach.  The blue sky and the white-topped waves made for a stunning sight.  I could see Tillamook Head's steep promontory jutting out into the ocean, the Tillamook Head Lighthouse a short distance off its tip.

I had lunch at this very scenic picnic spot

Time to go check out the beach!  The trail spiraled downhill to the rocky shores of Indian Beach.  I walked along the entire stretch and then climbed up the bluff to the parking lot.  Here several well-situated picnic tables provided great places to enjoy a snack while taking in the marvelous views.  Nabbing a table, that's exactly what I did.

It was fun to watch people enjoying the beach

Today being a holiday, the beach was full of families enjoying themselves.  From my perch, I had fun people-watching while eating my snacks.

The very steep road up Tillamook Head

After a brief break, it was time to tackle part two of today's hike.  A loop trail from Indian Beach took people up Tillamook Head to a group of primitive wooden shelters called Hikers Camp.  Although the Oregon Coast Trail continued past here all the way to the town of Seaside, Hikers Camp was my planned turn-around point.

Hiker camp

From Indian Beach, I followed an old road that rose quite steeply through another lush coastal forest.  Huffing and puffing, I slogged up this arduous path.  Although only a mile and a half to the camp, this portion of the hike seemed to take a long time to traverse.

Hiker camp cabin

But finally I came upon a clearing with three wooden shelters and a covered picnic area.  This was "Hikers Camp," which provided accommodations for people backpacking the Oregon Coast Trail.  The worn down, moss-covered shelters didn't look very cozy to me - and I'd heard rumors of a rodent problem too.  If I was spending the night, I think I'd use a tent.

Up close view of Tillamook Head Lighthouse

From this primitive camp, a side trail led hikers to a nice viewpoint.  Although it had been many years since I'd hiked here, I remembered an impressive vista.  So I covered the extra distance through an extremely muddy path and was rewarded with some of the best views of the Pacific Ocean and Terrible Tilly Lighthouse.

Boardwalk through the muddy trail

The only downside - between my snack break at Indian Beach and arriving here, the sky had clouded up and there was no more fantastic light.  Although I used my zoom lens to snap some great close-up shots of the lighthouse, I was disappointed the sun was no longer shining.

A side note about the Tillamook Head Lighthouse - Built in 1881, due to its location this lighthouse weathered many a terrible storm, sustaining much damage, until being decommissioned in 1957.  It's currently under private ownership, being used as a columbarium.

Nice artwork on an old WWII bunker

But that's not the only history here.  During World War II the U.S. established a radar sight near this viewpoint.  Some of the moss-covered bunkers can still be found in the forest.  On my way back to Hikers Camp, I paid the place a visit.  It was so muddy, I didn't linger long, but did notice someone had painted a very nice mural on one of the bunkers.

These tree boughs were full of ferns!

After paying my respects to the bunkers, Hikers Camp and the ocean viewpoint, it was time to head back.  Instead of taking the steep road, I decided to follow the other part of the loop, a nice woodsy trail that meandered through more ultra-green forest.  It was a good choice, and I enjoyed a mostly downhill ramble past a couple more nice viewpoints on my way back to Indian Beach.

View back towards Ecola Point on my return trip

Returning to Indian Beach once again, the now-cloudy skies didn't make for great light, and I only snapped a couple of images before continuing.  I was beginning to tire and was ready to shed my muddy boots and head home.

Colorful mushroom

But first I had to traverse the 2-mile trail from Indian Beach to Ecola Point.  Back through the worst of the mud, I discovered not only was the trail much more chewed up from the host of hikers that had traipsed through, it was also mostly uphill.  For some reason, this hadn't registered on my outbound trip.  It was an absolute slog!  And it didn't help that I was getting really tired.  But I put just kept putting one foot in front of the other and I eventually got myself back to the car.

Elk right along the park entrance road

As I was hiking this final stretch, I began to hear sirens.  The noise got louder and louder until I could hear emergency vehicles coming down the park road.  Back at my car and heading out of the park, I nearly collided with a red pickup belonging to the local fire department racing down the entrance road.  I later learned that someone's dog had fallen off a steep oceanside cliff.  The lucky pooch was rescued by the Coast Guard and although banged up, was expected to survive.  Here's a great video of the rescue effort from our local newspaper:

The elk were too busy eating to care 

The day had one final surprise for me.  On my way out of the park I noticed a bunch of vehicles stopped ahead.  A small herd of elk was feeding right along the road and everyone had slowed to take pictures.  Of course, I did the same.  It's not everyday you get to see these majestic beasts up close!  The elk were near enough that I didn't even need to use my zoom lens.  And the parade of people waving cameras didn't faze them in the least.

Great way to begin the new year!

Ocean views, dense green forests, a historic lighthouse, muddy slogs, old bunkers, and elk sightings.  Just another great day on the Oregon coast.  What a wonderful way to begin 2024! 

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Montana Winter Sunrise

In late December, my hubby and I journeyed to Montana to visit our son for Christmas.  The western U.S. had been having an unseasonably mild and dry winter thus far, so there was no snow to be found.  I didn't even get to go skiing, since the ski areas that were open didn't have much snow.  However, the clear skies made for some fantastic sunrises and sunsets.  

Color beginning in the east

Too lazy to get out of bed early enough, I usually miss out on photographing the sunrise.  But here in Montana, the winter sun didn't crest the horizon until just after 8 am.  Always awake before 7, I told myself I needed to go out and capture some good sunrise images at least once while I was visiting.  No excuses!

Some pink in the opposite direction too

In daylight, my hubby and I scoped out a deserted campground area on the shores of nearby Canyon Ferry Lake.  It looked like a good, wide-open spot to capture the sky.

Streaks of pink

The following morning, I rose at the appointed time, bundled myself up in winter clothes, and headed out towards the prior day's sunrise spot of choice.

Icy shoreline

It was a bone-chilling 9 degrees F on the lakeshore.  Emerging from my car, it didn't take long for the warmth of the heater to wear off.  Shivering in the frigid pre-dawn, my fingers were already beginning to feel numb.  Hurry up sunrise!  

Sky colors reflected on the lake ice

I noticed the lake's water had partially frozen - only a small amount of open water remained in the middle.  The predawn sky colors began to reflect on the icy surface.

Fog rolling in

The sky was a lovely shade of pink.  Streaky clouds began to fill the eastern horizon.  A small fog bank clung to the opposite lakeshore.  Although cold, it was a breathtakingly beautiful morning.

Lovely pink reflections

The previous night's full moon still hung in the sky.  It's bright orb cut through the pink morning skies, illuminating nearby frosty hills.

Full moon in the pre-sunrise sky

When the sky colors began to fade, I hopped back into my car to warm up.  Although the sun was yet to rise, I'd seen enough already.  Blasting my car heater, I drove to a nearby coffee kiosk for a hot latte.  Success!  What lovely colors - such a beautiful morning sky!    

Maybe this will give me the incentive to get out of bed for sunrise when I'm back home?

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Where the Owls Hang Out

My neighbor Cheri is an amazing wildlife photographer.  A few years ago, she took me under her wing and taught me the basics of photographing birds.  Since then I've followed Cheri to several of her favorite spots.

Last winter, Cheri discovered an area north of Vancouver, Washington where some short-eared owls had taken up residence.  Her Facebook feed became full of stunning images of these cute birds in flight.  I asked Cheri if she'd take me to the owls and she did.  Several times.  But every time I accompanied her the owls were no-shows.  I joked that my presence was bad luck.

Not an owl

Word got out among the local wildlife photographers and they began to congregate at the short-eared owl field.  One day last March, Cheri and I were just about to leave after another unsuccessful trip when an owl was spotted.  I could see it standing on the ground down a gravel road.  The line of photographers set up behind the owl gave its location away.  I walked as close as I dared and got one shot - the image you see below.  The poor little owl looked totally disgusted at being the focus of this paparazzi crowd.  Right after I snapped the shutter, he flew away.

Last year's owl paparazzi

Summer and fall came and went, and I got busy photographing scenery, wildflowers and fall colors.  But early in December Cheri discovered the short-eared owls had returned, this time to Ridgefield Wildlife refuge north of Vancouver, Washington.  Again, her Facebook feed was inundated with more stunning owl photos.  (I began to develop a serious case of owl envy.)  Finally, right before Christmas I asked Cheri if she could take me where these little owls were hanging out.

Barred owl  hiding in a tree

Short-eared owls like to live near meadows and are often active during daylight hours, especially in the late afternoon and evening.  Their diet consists of rodents so they are often seen flying low over fields, searching for their dinner.  A medium-sized owl, "shorties" (as Cheri calls them) have large eyes, big heads, and broad wings.  They're very cute birds!

Tundra swans in flight

The Ridgefield Wildlife refuge has a gravel road that loops through the area.  Visitors are required to stay inside their vehicles, so as not to disturb the wildlife.  On this chilly late December day, that was just fine with me.  I rolled down the car windows and blasted the heater as we slowly traveled around the refuge road, looking for birds.

A shorty on the speed limit sign

First off, we noticed a large flock of Tundra swans floating in the small lake that's located in the middle of the loop road.  Then driving through a wooded area, Cheri spotted a barred owl in a tree, partially hidden by the branches.  Finally, on our first go-round on the refuge road, we got up close and personal with a great egret who was hunting for voles right next to the car.  He was so close, due to my long lens I was only able to get his head in my frame.

Cruising around the field

On our second trip around the road, things began to happen.  Cheri, having made several visits to the refuge in the past weeks, knew exactly where the "shorties" would be flying.  She directed me to park adjacent to a large golden field and explained which direction to begin looking for the owls.

Looking for lunch

Lo and behold, it wasn't long before she spotted one!  A small, brown bird began circling above the field next to my car.  Finally I'd be able to photograph a short-eared owl!  I could hardly contain my excitement.

"Cool it with the camera, ladies!"

Having concentrated on landscape photography most of the summer/fall, my moving bird photography skills were super rusty.  It look several tries to get my camera to lock focus on the little owl and most of my first attempts were blurry.  But I kept trying.  Luckily, the owls were very cooperative and continued to fly around.

This owl loved to perch on the refuge sign

One thing the "shorties" loved to do was perch on the refuge signs.  I think it gave them a good vantage point to spot their prey.  One owl kept landing on a sign quite a distance from where I'd parked.  It made such a good photograph, I was tempted to move closer.  But Cheri assured me that if we stayed put, the owls would start flying near our car.

Well, hello there!

And she was right!  Not only did the owls start soaring in the field directly in front of us, one little owl landed on a nearby sign.  I had to lean out of my car window a bit, but I got my "owl on a sign" image. (Don't you just love his huge, yellow eyes?)

Scouring the fields for prey

Then one of the owls began flying low to the ground, and headed straight towards us.  Oh my gosh!  My camera focus didn't fully cooperate (user error, I'm sure!) but despite this I was able to get a couple of good shots.

Another in-flight photo

After taking copious shots of owls in flight, one fellow decided to land on top of a wooden post about a car length away.  Perfect!

This guy landed on a post and gave himself a good shake

The owl began shaking his feathers.  Lucky for me, I already had the guy in focus and fired away.

Fluffy feathers

Here's the fluffy fella looking poofy after a good feather shaking.

"What's up there?"

Finally, our memory cards full of owls, Cheri and I decided it was time to head for home.  I was so happy - finally I'd been able to not only spot several shorted-eared owls, but also capture some decent photos of these cute little birds.

Those eyes!

A huge thanks to my neighbor Cheri for taking the time to show me where the owls were hanging out.