Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pacific Northwest Day 4 - Mount Rainier

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rebecca is pretty busy at work.  As a retired Air Force Major now working on an Army base doing the same nursing stuff she did before she retired, she has long days followed by potential horrible traffic.  (For the record, I was very impressed with the drivers in Washington. Nobody would ever exceed the speed limit, but they knew what they were doing. Boston drivers, take note.)  Getting up at the Washington crack of dawn with her Michigan-based brother is simply not going to happen. 

Knowing this was our day for Rainier, but realizing sitting around in foreign lands is simply impossible for me, I birded her neighborhood while she was still sleepin’.  Hutton’sVireo? Nice.  Fox Sparrows? Sure, I can see those in southeast Michigan, but not fledglings!  American/Northwestern Wacko Crow things. Got ‘em.  It had been a few years since I had seen a Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

By the time we dropped off her truck for maintenance and made the drive, Mount Rainier did not greet us until almost 11:00am.  After quickly checking out Longmire (the information center and museum) we set off for our drive into the Park and some hiking.

A casual walk of 1.5 miles was a piece of cake in sandals.  Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir, some with a 25- foot circumference, gave this place its awesome name: Grove of the Patriarchs.  With some aged to be in excess of 1,000 years old, walking here was truly humbling.  Sadly, the Ohanapecosh River did not produce any American Dippers.

After making our way to Paradise, it was nice to see that Mount Rainier was “showing itself”.  At over 14,000 feet, it generates its own weather.  It is literally a “now you see it, not you don’t” sort of thing.  After a brief spell of clouds sunk our spirits, the clouds wisked away to nothing, showing off the mountain (volcano, actually) in all her glory. Rumors that the Park Service wheeled giant fans into place to blow the clouds away can’t be confirmed.

While the view from the visitor center in Paradise was nice, a hike up the mountain side was much nicer. Hiking up feet of snow and rounding the bend, the mountain was more or less all that could seen. Stunning.  Getting back down on the snow covered hill proved to be a bit of a trick. I can say for certain Becka fell on her ass only once.  Others on the hillside did, too.  I, as sure-footed as a mountain goat, never fell.   As if to make us all feel like uncoordinated boobs, a National Park Service guy ran past us down the hill. Full sprint.  With ski poles for balance, he was moving.  Awesome to watch.

Speaking of boobs, conversation with my sister can go anywhere.  She is not “just a nurse”.   She is a perinatal nurse practitioner.  She has published, testified, consulted and basically done what can be done when it comes to pre-natal care, delivery, post-natal care, etc. etc.  Somehow, some way, our conversation while driving through the park turned to breast-feeding.  As I’m sure some of you know, there are two schools of thought : breast-feeding or bottle-feeding.  It turns out, when you weigh ALL the evidence, one is not better than the other.  It boils down to a personal choice of the mother.  (It is sort of like how you hang your toilet paper.  Some people hang it with the loose end over the top, while others hang it with the loose end coming around the back side.  In the end (ba-dah-boom! Thank you!), you hang it the way you want it. There is not right or wrong.)  Did you know…really, did you know that the militantly, adamant breastfeeding folks are called Nipple Nazis?  Now you do….

One can’t go to a park like this and “go go go go go.” Sure vacations are for that idea as a whole, but you need to just sit and ponder now and then. Pondering mountains is much cooler than pondering TV; I can do that at home.  One of the best ways to ponder a mountain, I learned, is with a glass of the Harmon Pinnacle Peak Pale Ale from the Harmon Brewing Company.  Even Becka, a non-beer drinker, noticed the grapefruit tones in this beer.  Outstanding from front to back, it is a 5-out-of-5 for sure.  Sitting on the deck of the lodge, watching mountains, Violet-green Swallows, Gray Jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers and Juncos, with a cold beer and good company can’t be beat. 

The drive down the mountain was with even more company.  A Park Service guy needed a lift to his cabin.  We said “Jump in!” and chatted up a storm as we took him down the road.  When I wet myself seeing the Varied Thrush land on the road’s shoulder (the only one for the trip, it turned out), the conversation turned to birds. I jokingly asked if he knew where all the Spotted Owl nests were located. He grinned and said “No, but they do….” (pointing to a building near his cabin were the researchers reside). “You should introduce me to them. I would love to see a Spotted Owl…”,  I said jokingly.  He did NOT laugh off my suggestion. His face said “Well, maybe I could…after all, you gave me a ride down the mountain….”

I did not press the issue. The last thing I wanted was to “push the guy” and make the situation uncomfortable. I let it go. 

It turns out the Spotted Owl in Washington is in serious trouble.   Given their status, playing a recording is ILLEGAL (just like playing a recording for Kirtland’sWarbler).  Despite various efforts, numbers are still dropping.  One culprit is the influx of the Barred Owl.  Barred Owls wack Spotteds, believe it or not.  The fewer people tromping in the wood hoping to secure a look at a legendary species, the better.  Besides, I recorded a Spotted Owl in California in 1995. 

(For the record, one of the suggested culprits for Spotted Owl declines in Washington is the birding community itself.  When the ABA Guide to Washington came out in 2003, it detailed many locations for Spotted Owl. Since then, some of these locations have been abandoned. It is strongly suspected, if not confirmed, that birder harassment did them in…)

Dinner was at the Copper Creek Inn just outside the park.  While service was very forgettable, and the pesto was well done, the blackberry pies from this place are legend.  We got one to go. I had a piece for breakfast a day later. Damn good.  (For those of you familiar with the Downriver area, it was a bit like Kate’s Kitchen in Flat Rock, but more rustic and with a gift shop.)

If you ever find yourself in the area, a day at Mount Rainier is well worth the trip.  One of the things that struck me was the complete lack of crap outside the park. I managed two separate entrances.  No water parks, no go-cart tracks, no nonsense. Its visitation falls outside the list of the Top 10 US National Parks (but ranks higher than the National Park of American Samoa) so there does not seem to be the need for “keeping the kids happy” outside the park. The lands outside, for the sake of my point here, are just as nice as the lands inside.  

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