Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter Wonderland - Part 6

It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees, they're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace....

And while I hope for a white Christmas and snow, I think back to the end of October, the North Cascade Mountains, and the magical winter wonderland me and Tim found ourselves in on our quest to see White-tailed Ptarmigan.

We had driven from Ontario, across the prairies, into the Rockies and back out again. Across the forests of Montana we had gone, and through the dry country of western Washington. Finally, we came into North Cascades National Park in Washington, as a light snow was falling. Being dark when we arrived, we took a pre-dawn walk the following morning up the Pacific Crest Trail to search for Boreal Owls. As the sun came up, we were lost in the moment as the shimmering light reflected on the spruce and fir trees covered in snow.

At some point in life, one may think that scenery and the outdoors will get old. That the thrill of seeing snow capped mountains, rolling prairies and rocky hills will wane, replaced by an air of indifference. Clearly that is fool's talk. The beauty, peacefulness and raw power of our planet's landscapes will never cease to amaze and inspire. That morning was no exception.We carefully plodded back down the trail, not wanting to break the stillness. It was as fine a morning as it gets, Boreal Owl or not!

The dawn at Rainy Pass
Back at the car, we cruised the highway, which has to be one of the nicest roads I can recall having driven. Usually I'm not a big fan of the paved way, but if you've got to burn some rubber, this is the road.

Scenery wasn't our only objective though. The North Cascades are home to the Northern Pygmy Owl and with all birds that have eluded me thus far in my life, I was jonesin for a sight of these beauties. So we drove and stopped. We got out of the car, listened, played a few owl toots, got back in the car and repeated. After numerous stops, Tim's fine hearing caught the toot of a responding owl. Sure enough, there it was, perched way up high. However, the views were rather unsatisfactory, and it quickly flew off before we could get the scope on it. We would have to hope for another.

Sure enough we did. But this time around, it was prime time. An owl perched beautifully at the top of a tree down the valley right at our eye level . Then with some tooting of our own, another owl joined the first and we watched in awe as the two dueled with their beaks. What a bird and what a place!

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Wait, what about White-tailed Ptarmigans? Isn't this a tale about Ptarmigans?

What about them indeed! Well that was the second part of our journey.

Driving through old growth rainforest, with Red Cedars as wide as our car and covered in the most ancient looking moss, we arrived at the snowline with a somewhat wild plan. We would hike up the Sahale Arm trail, camp as it got dark, and continue up to the glacier and back down to the car the next day. Hopefully, we'd see the elusive Ptarmigan feasting on willow buds. Or perhaps enjoying being the same color as the snow... white... There was an obvious flaw in this plan. There was snow, it was white, and there was lots of it. Even if we could navigate the trail, would we even see the birds buried in willow thickets covered in snow? We started the trek regardless of the improbability of spying these creatures, and wouldn't you know, more snow began to fall. As 5pm rolled around, it was getting time to camp.

Now in this case we could have easily erected the tent, set up shop, made some hot chocolate and oatmeal, and gone to bed. But Tim, perhaps inspired by the great white north and its inhabitants, or perhaps channeling some of John Muir's spirit, or even perhaps simply delving into slight madness, decided we should build a snow fort right where we stood, half way up the bloody mountain. And so we did. Three hours later, we had an enclosed snow dome. Why we did this still remains a mystery. It was cold, wet, and rough going. We'd whip out the fly tent, drag it up the trail, dump fresh snow on it, and haul it back to our fort to build up the walls. Like I said, after three hours of this, it was done. Crawling into our fort, we snuggled into our sleeping bags, and tried to ignore the bitter cold that night as we dozed in and out of sleep. The next morning, once we were packed up and out, we were no worse for the wear.

Tim lighting a pipe beside our snow fort!
 Too bad we didn't get far. Not long after setting out, and with 3 feet of snow having fallen overnight, we were soon up to our waists and snow blind. With white everywhere and the trail no longer visible, we had to concede defeat and turn back. No Ptarmigans and no glaciers.

No worries though. We had immense Doulas-Firs and Red Cedars to marvel at on the way down, and while Tim hummed the notes and rhythm to some Bob Marley tunes, I sang the lyrics, bringing a little bit of Jamaica to the Cascade Mountains and the Chesnut-backed Chickadees that were listening.

"Don't worry, doo ba doo waaaaaay da, about a thing, doo ba doo waaaaaay da, Because every little thing, is going to be alright, doo ba doo waaaaaay da."

And so on...

And worry, we did not. The Sooty Grouse on the other hand, probably had just cause to worry. Tame as a chicken, and feeding on the road edge about a half click before we made it back to the car, Tim (à la ninja) crouched, crept over to it, and snagged it. After a brief discussion about eating it (I was opposed), he set it on its merry way. After all, you can't eat your lifer Sooty Grouse now can you? In fairness it wasn't my lifer, having gotten the species 20 minutes prior to this incident, but it definitely ups the stakes of the story if this was my lifer bird.


Back at the car, our trip was coming to a close. The ferry to B.C was the next morning and the camping was done. We made a few more birding stops that day, before car camping in the parking lot of a grocery store, and left the next morning thinking it'd be hard to top this trip off.

In fact, the birding wasn't done, as the ferry ride plus the subsequent birding around Victoria, turned out great, and I think I ended with 5 or 6 lifers that day. Regardless, the treks in the Mountains were definitely over. It was back to civilization, Halloween parties and getting a job!

The last stretch out of the Mountains

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Specimen Ridge - Part 5

The Tetons were behind us but the adventures were not. We rolled north into Yellowstone National Park with the idea of hiking Specimen Ridge. In the back country permit office we hammered out a plan. We park at one end of the trail, hitch a ride to the other side, camp 1.5 miles of the trail along the Lamar River, and hit the ridge the next day. The next day we would hike the 32km with all our gear and it would turn out to be one of the best days I've ever had.

It was nearing the end of the day by the time the car was parked and we were ready to rock. Worried we wouldn't be able to catch a ride, we need not fret as a family, decked out in hunting camo and driving a pick-up truck, told us to hop on in. Cruising through the Lamar Valley in the back of a pick-up is DEFINITELY the way to go.
Rolling in the truck

As we set out across the valley floor toward the river the excitement was already building. This IS the spot for Grizzlies and Wolves in the park and we were fully expecting to encounter one of these creatures on foot.

However, we were ready. Pre-trip, I had purchased what my cousin affectionately referred to as the "the bear shank". Yeah, it was a big ass hunting knife and I wasn't going to be afraid to leap on a charging Grizzly and thrust the point of the blade into its neck, thus slaying the beast, saving the day, and being a badass the rest of my life! Ha! ...we also had bear spray so perhaps no heroics would be required...

Tim rocking the bear shank
We had a raging blaze (à la fending off elephants in Kenya size) going at camp by the time the sun set and we were set for the night. We encountered no bear of wolf but did have to shoe away two Bison in order to pitch the tent. Perhaps the morning would be different.

Sun going down over the camp
 And it was. Taking a page from the voyageurs, we worked up an appetite before eating breakfast. Having successfully forded the icy cold Lamar river, we ate oatmeal and drank water which smelled like bison shit, but what's a man to do. Thankfully the filter did the trick, and we were not plagued by any bowel discomfort.

Up the far bank we went, and were just beginning the long steep trek up the mountain side when from the corner of my eye I saw it ambling in our direction. Perched on a little rise, we watched as a very large and old looking Grizzly climbed up over the bank, and proceeded to walk beneath us. I'll admit it, I was very nervous. Tim, he was unfazed! Wishing the bear a fine morning, he fulfilled a long held desire to encounter a Grizzly in the backcountry! We were ecstatic!

Scarface, 21 yrs old!

And then the excitement never faded. As we were pushing ourselves up and almost to the peak, in what truly felt like magical fashion, Tim raises his bins to a nearby tree to behold more awesomeness. Rosy-Finches! Grey-crowned, and to my absolute joy, Black! As I write this two months later, it still brings a huge smile to my face and a wonderful laughter! For a birder from the East, Rosy-Finches hold this mystical status. Elusive denizens of the Mountains, I have been dreaming of seeing these birds since I first opened a bird book of North America!

Grey-crowned Rosy-Finches

With Rosy-Finches and Grizzlies fueling our spirits, we raged the peak and tore across the mountain ridge leaving elk bones and bison in our wake. I yelled out to the world and couldn't have been happier!

With the music of Howard Shore in my head, we hiked, ran and birded the rest of the 32 kms as if we were born to do it.

  Specimen Ridge you were wonderful!


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Over the Divide - Part 4

I woke with the sun, energized and ready to go. In my plaid flannel shirt, I split wood to replace the logs we used the night before, and fired up the oatmeal. Packed up, cabin swept, it was if we had never been there. 

Setting out along the trail, the early morning was as good as it gets; the fresh brisk air, the Tetons with halos rolling over their peaks, and the sun twinkling off the light snow making the world come alive!

Grand Teton Behind us!

Me soaking up the beauty!

This lake was a bit too cold for us!

It was then we tackle the ascent. 2.4 miles and 3000 ft straight up of switchbacks. Pushing ourselves we finally made it up and the world turned to white. 

The ascent

The world in white and blue
Catching our breath we took it all in, though only for a brief moment. Quickly crossing the saddle, we stopped at the edge and the fun began! The whole mountain slope was icy snow. Far below amidst the trees, the trail was visible, but from up top it was nowhere to be found. Perched on the divide, the wind howling its icy song, we were stuck.
Paintbrush divide: bracing myself against the wind

Sliding down was out of the question. The snow was an ice sheet and the slope was littered with jagged rocks. Peeking out here and there was the form of possibly a trail. Taking an initial leap of faith, we jumped down off the divide on to where we presumed the trail to be. Safely landed we attempted to switch back our way down. Somehow we started to make it. At points the snow was light enough to pound out footholes, at other times not so. Thoughts of the Path of Caradhras crept into our heads.”If we cannot pass over the Mountain, why not pass under it”. The fellowship may have had the luxury of turning back and going through Moria, but we did not!

Looking back after our initial leap!
In the cases where the snow was ice hard, Tim, with heavier boots, had to whack away and lay out the holes for us. At one point, I grasped on with my fingers to the footholes, before I would have started an undesired and uncontrolled slide down. Re-distributing my weight, I pulled myself back into a crouch and laughed to the mountains. Tim’s rage meter was off the charts, but at the same time he was in the zone! Focused, we painfully made our way down to the fluffier snow. Then, with alpine meadow underneath, we did our best imitation of kids sliding down the local hill after the first real snowfall of the year, by running, sliding on our butts, and howling with laughter and joy to the trees and the re-emerged trail!

Tim blazing the trail

The outline of the trail on the slope

Almost home free.

Our reward for braving the pass: A Female Ducky Grouse
Having braved the path of Caradhras, the remaining 6 or so miles felt like a piece of cake! Also, having past a ridiculously pretty young women in the company of a bearded hippy dude, made us consider that perhaps we ought to grow beards as well!

Later, Tim told me he had been quite scared up on the slope, where I had to admit that I wasn't scared at any point. However, the next days would bring some fear for me, where Tim would remain cool as a cucumber. At any rate, we came off Paintbrush Divide mountain men at last!

To the Divide – Part 3

Tim called it the hike of death. I just think of it as a hilarious, exhilarating, awesome and completely unexpected adventure. Here is part one of the tale.

 It started out well enough. First though, I needed to summon the spirit of the Rohirrim for our quest!

Summoning the Rohirrim

We hiked along Cascade canyon. With a picturesque river winding down the middle, tall spruce and pine along the valley floor, and high mountain ridges and meadows on either side, we were soaking up the beautiful surroundings. Stopping by a pool in the river, it was time for a bite of oatmeal.

Prepping oatmeal
Now I should let you know at this point that it was not raining, but our tent was wet. So was my sleeping bag and my pad. The reason was the night before it had poured, and well you know the drill. However, I'm thinking that we'll make camp with a few hours of daylight and be able to air out the tent, my bag was only somewhat damp, and the pad dries quick. That's of course when the rain started. We had just finished our food and were just continuing on when the sky let loose. Okay maybe it will let up... Nope! Instead it starts hailing. Disappointment starts to set in. I know that if it doesn't clear soon we'll arrive soaked, with our sleeping shit already wet, and probably freeze that night in the sub zero temperatures. Keeping mental track of how many hours it'll take to return to the car if necessary, we hike diligently onward. It's at this point, in a miserable soaked state, that I practically walked into a moose. The moose was also looking like it was in a miserable soaked state. Without even breaking my stride I quickly turn and walk back down the trail. This was not the time to go moose riding!

This was the right time to ride a moose!
Not a beast we were keen to tangle with, we cut off to the left of the path to out flank it. This is not before Tim attempted to grab a pic, aborting the idea as the moose started towards him looking pissed! Scrambling away we laughed it off, and continued on. The rain finally let up but we were soaked! Right through my coat, boots, rain pants and all.

Still not ready to give up, we continued onward to camp. Then like a holy beacon of light we spotted it. Well Tim saw it first, but I realized quickly what it meant. A cabin. 

Tucked away in the fork of a great canyon, and nestled amongst the towering conifers was shelter. Off the path we went. Popping inside we were greeted to a rustic cabin equipped with the most glorious thing of all, a wood stove, and in the attic, cots! There was no question... we'd take shelter in the cabin for the remainder of the evening and night, and hit the trail the next morning when the weather was supposed to be clear. Firing up the stove, and with hot chocolate on the go, we could not believe our luck! I even found a small guitar with the bottom three strings still on, and rocked out some reggae tunes as our belongings dried. The only thing missing was beer and babes, and sometimes in life you can't have it all! 

A wood stove fire and hot chocolate never felt so nice!

Tetons - Part 2

In a place that literally translates to Big Nipples, you know some fun, wild shit is going to go down! As it happens, in Grand Teton National Park, some fun crazy shit did go down.

The Grand Teton itself!
Driving all night, I pulled us up into the park 2 hours before dawn, not aware of what adventures would befall us as we back-country hiked and camped up mountain canyon, peak and ridge. We had five nights planned. Two nights to go up Open Canyon and down Death Canyon. Spend the night in the National Forest, then back on the trails for another night up Cascade Canyon, and then over Paintbrush Divide and down Paintbrush Canyon.

First though, we wanted wolves. After a two hour snooze we awoke with dawn and scrambled up Yule hill where we had a wide vista. Sitting on the ridge, we warmed to the sights and sounds of the place. Bison and Pronghorn roamed the hills, and of course those pesky wolves. 4 black and grey beasts made an appearance as they wandered by.

From the vista of Yule Hill with the Tetons rising behind in the distance.
 In beer break news, this is the funniest description for a beer ever! My laughter echoed off the hills and mountains for a day!

On to the Mountains though. With bear barrel and permits in hand, we set out up Open Canyon making camp at nightfall after a good 5 mile hike up 3000ft. The next day it was up and over Mount Hunt divide and into Death Canyon. We peaked at about 9700 ft and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. We even decided to take a swim. At something like 9000 ft, Lake Marion presented the option of a bath after many days on the road, but also a challenge to tackle the icy frigid waters. Stripping down I went for it. The first touch of the water on my chest sent me howling. Icy hell! I screamed, scrambled out and put on warm clothes as fast as possible! Tim then tackled the frigid lake while I filmed the madness! Mountain men we may become yet. 

It was bloody cold!
Up some more, and over and down Death Canyon we went. One more night in the wilderness and it was back to the car by noon the following day. Many miles of spectacular scenery, solitude, and fall colours was jiving well with me. I was also wondering if Cascade/Paintbrush could top it. I was about to find out.

Taking a snooze at 10 000ft
A Pika!

Posing fro the cam
The high mountain pass