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!