Sunday, December 4, 2011

hiking and camping summer 2011

Perry Creek meadows 8/6/11
Summer of 2011 was not that great for hiking in the Cascades because snowpack melted off atleast 6 weeks later than average due to cool, wet weather that persisted into July. Not much snow melted this spring. I only went backpacking once.  In early July I hiked to Lake Ann on about 4 feet of snow ice ax in hand most of the way. Around 4th of July, I skied out to Artist Point from Mt Baker Ski Area. That was the latest in the year I've ever skied. Snow was bumpy corn.

So, we did a lot of car camping with dayhikes up high on to the snowline. We did more hikes off the Mountain Loop "Highway" and around Darrington this summer. We did not drive over to the Methow country to hike in or near the Pasayten like we normally do. Weather finally turned hot and summery in late August and much of September. Wildflowers that normally bloom in late July and early August during a normal year bloomed in late August and September. Flies were bad and persisted well into September. There was so much snow above 4000 feet elevation this year, I filled a cooler with snow from a small patch of snow on the side of a high elevation, old logging road! High elevation hikes like Ptarmigan Ridge on Mt Baker probably didn't even melt out at all.

Since we car camped this year on weekends and on a week off in October, we have our car camping technique worked out. The iron tripod and big pot is great for boiling a lot of water for dishes and washing up. We bought a folding table with a built-in sink, hanging wall and table for camping where there's no picnic table. It's great to use as a portable kitchen. In early October, I bought a Great Northern Camp Stove (wood). We used in under a rainfly with the chimney on the side of the rain fly which seemed safe. I have also used it under the awning of a canvas Baker tent. It needs a hand bellows. Wood must be small and dry.  I could only keep the fuel burning and heat coming with the door open. It requires trial & error and practice to use correctly. I still have yet to use it with the Baker tent in the middle-front. It should work best at that location since heat should get entrapped in the tent.

We saw way too much irresponsible pooping this summer. The lazy, thoughtless pooping in the woods is getting bad. Every place we camped this summer we saw unburied human feces and stained toilet paper on tent pads, behind trees next to campsites and on rocky beaches next to running water. On Segelsen Ridge near Darrington, we turned down an old logging road spur and a guy popped up from squatting on the side of the road and waved us off. This idiot was taking a dump on the side of the road. Someone doing that probably isn't burying it.

Our Australian shepherd died in mid July of old age/cancer. He was 11.  We originally planned on holding off backpacking until late August and September because of lingering snowpack. But, we got a Llewellen setter puppy in late August so had to stick with car camping and day hiking. At about 12-14 weeks the puppy could only hike a few miles. At about 4 months he could hike most of the day. At 5 months he can hike like an adult dog and I've even taken him chukar hunting.

September we hunted grouse in mornings and evenings and hiked during the day. It's been the poorest year for grouse since I started hunting them in 1999. More on that later. I have a rule that I only camp when there's 10 hours of daylight. At the latitude of Washington state, that means no camping from about Halloween until about February 12th. I may bend my 10 hour rule is the wood stove and canvas tent take a bite out of the long winter night. I'm looking forward to camping again in February.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

canoeing the Skagit from Copper Creek to Rockport

Ski touring slushy spring snow under overcast skies and intermittent rain showers sucks.  Normally, I look forward to ski touring on spring snow.  But this spring was been wetter and cooler than average.  It seems every weekend day that is open for skiing the weather forecast is for rain showers with snowlines above 5000 feet elevation.  So, we've been doing more canoe trips.  Most of the canoe trips I want to do in northwest Washington are Vern Huser's write-ups in "Paddling Washington".  Lowland and foothill canoe trips are good for a weather pattern with dry weather down low and clouds and rain in the mountains.

Skagit River near Sutter Creek, Washington
The weather forecast last Memorial Day weekend was for clouds and rain on Saturday with mostly sunny on Sunday and Monday.  So, I chose to canoe the Skagit River from near Copper Creek to Howard Miller Park in Rockport.  The guidebook says it's 16 river miles and 3-4 hours long.

Sunday was sunny in the lowlands near the coast but mostly cloudy in the foothills and North Cascades.  Dark, gray cloudy skies stuck around all day east of Sedro-Woolley.  Huser's description of the put-in on the Ross Lake National Recreation Area needs some improvement.  To reach the put-in you drive 0.7 miles east of Bacon Creek bridge, turn right/south on a dirt road signed "NPS Road 213" and drive for 0.2 miles to the end. 

The paddle to Marblemount only took about an hour and is the easiest stretch of the trip.  I remember 3 areas of frothy water with waves that got a little dicey.  All are downstream from Marblemount.  There were a few areas with sweepers but all were easily avoided.  1 or 2 sharp bends in the river had eddies that complicated avoiding fast water on the outer bank.  Currents come at the canoe from unexpected directions.

There was only 1 other boat on the water with us, a small motorboat.  A GPS unit would've been nice to have so I could've known how fast were were going. We were going faster than it feels in the boat because flowing water changes your perception of speed.  We saw mergansers and a bald eagle.

The paddling portion of the trip took 2 hours and 45 minutes not including lunchtime.  The bike ride back to pick up the car was 15.4 miles and took me 1 hour and 15 minutes.  The road shoulder on SR 20 is narrow in spots in between Rockport and Marblemount.  There's a wide road shoulder on SR 20 east of Marblemount. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

trip to Virginia and West Virginia

Allegheny Mountain from old pasture on the High Meadows trail
Early and mid-May we were in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia visiting family and friends and squeezing in some hiking and camping.  Mostly we hiked parts of the Allegheny Trail in West Virginia and on the Northern Neck of eastern Virginia.  The trip report with pictures and a video is here and here on  I made this 4+ minute video of the trip which is up on YouTube

Below are some conclusions from the trip and what I learned.

It rains a lot in western Washington and western Oregon.  Especially this late winter and spring.  But, Pacific Northwest rain is showers with many overcast days from November to May.  In the eastern US, rain is sometimes very heavy and it's humid.  If I still lived or spent more time in the east I'd use a synthetic fill sleeping bag.  The humidity seems to shrunk my down bag's loft.

Greenbrier River rail-trail, West Virginia
We rented mountain bikes for 2 hours from the store/restaurant/hotel in Cass, West Virginia and went for a ride south on the Greenbrier River rail-trail.  They were cheap and not properly maintained.  The bikes would've been fine with a tune-up.   It was about a 5 hour window of tolerable weather with just a short sprinkle. There's also a rail-trail from Glady to Durbin that would be a good bike ride.  Athough, my favorite activity is hiking on rugged trails in natural areas, a mountain bike is sometimes the best way to go.  There are a lot of interesting places to explore in West Virginia that are rural with scattered forests but do not have trails.  There are a lot of country roads, flat and rolling "double track" national forest gravel roads to explore.  I can't ride a bike for more than a few hours because my ass gets sore and my toes go numb.  So, I ride slowly, soak up the scenery, take lots of breaks and get off the bike to shake off and look at the surroundings more closely.  

The Greenbrier River was raging due to recent heavy rain.  It would've been fun to take a canoe down the river.  Since we took an airplane back east, we did not have our own canoe.  We could've rented a canoe paid for a pick-up but that's frustrating when you own your own.  The same can be said for bikes and cold-weather camping gear that is too big to take on an airplane. 

Flies and gnats were worse than I remember from previous trips back east.  They kamakazied into eyes and ears.  A bandanna was necessary to whip them away.  In western mountains, mosquitoes and flies are worst the first few weeks after snowmelt when it's cooler in the mornings and evenings.  In the east, flies and gnats seemed to come out during the warmest part of the day usually in the afternoon.  

short Potomac River beach in George Washington's Birthplace
There are interesting places to explore in Tidewater Virginia.  We stayed in Colonial Beach and saw some of the Northern Neck.  Much of this area is rural with forests and beaches and coves in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.  Although there is a little bit of hiking, you really need a canoe and bikes to explore this part of Virginia.  It would've been great to have the sail rig on the canoe for the Potomac River at Colonial Beach, Popes Creek and Westmoreland State Park.  Too bad it's practically impossible to get the sail rig and canoe on an airplane and rentals can be non-existent or too expensive.

Speer PeaPod with 8x10 silnylon tarp on hammock
I'm still on the fence about hammock camping.  I slept in a hammock with a Speer PeaPod a few nights.  The eastern US is better for hammocks than the Northwest since trees are smaller and closer together and in the Appalachians, the ground is often rocky.  Since the air is more humid and elevations are lower in the eastern US, nighttime temperatures usually don't fall as much as the western mountains and high deserts.  Site selection can still be a challenge with a hammock.  Trees have to be a right distance apart and a right range of diameters.  Ground brush can't be in the way where the hammock is placed.  Sometimes suitable trees are not in or near designated campsites.  Hammocks are best for areas where campsites are not limited to official designated tentpads.  Free-standing tents or tarps can be more convenient than hammocks in places with designated campsites like national parks and developed car campgrounds.  As for comfort, hammocks feel weird at first.  It's kind of like sleeping in a recliner or couch.  Hammocks are much better for rain than tents or tarps.  A hammock under a tarp gets much less condensation than a tent. 

The Speer PeaPod is warm and cozy but it is bulky in the pack compared to a good sleeping bag.  The PeaPod covers parts of the hammock that you don't come into contact with so some of its bulk and weight is wasted.  I'll have to look into an underquilt.

Sometimes camping in a hammock is not possible.  One night I camped at a developed car campground near Seneca Rocks.  It was walk-in camping with tent pads in a field so the hammock could not be used.  I set the Speer Winter Tarp up with 2 sticks as poles. It kept me dry from the rain shadow.  I pitched it low for privacy and rain protection.  The ends were partially open but a free-standing tent would've been best for an open developed campground with innocent bystanders nearby.  But, you can only carry so much camping gear with you on an airplane.  The duffel bag of camping gear cost me $45 round trip to check with the airline.  The tentpad had anthills but the ants stayed below ground and did not explore me in the sleeping bag.  Humidity and condensation wetted the shell of my thin, ultralight down sleeping bag even though I took every measure to keep it dry. 

I like and miss the central Appalachians of western Virginia and West Virginia.  Compared to the Cascades they are better for the recreationist in some aspects.  The snow-free hiking season is much longer.  There are no avalanches to worry about.  No snowfields to cross, slide down and die to get injured.  Road washouts are rare and get fixed sooner.  Trails are easier to follow even if they haven't been maintained in awhile.  Bridges don't get washed out as much.  This relative lack of obstacles and ease of access makes trips easier and less stressful.  

However, the Cascades are better than the Appalachians in many respects.  First of all, the Cascades and other western mountains are much wilder, more vast and have more grand scenery.  The Pacific Northwest has more trout fishing, more mushrooms and bigger huckleberries.  The Northwest has more diversity.  Within a few hours of Bellingham is sagebrush steppe, eastside pine forests, glaciers and craggy high alpine mountains, lowland conifer forests and islands and coasts which the eastern US does not have.  Each biome in such a small area has a different look and feel to it.  Although the mid-Atlantic has the Chesapeake Bay system and the Appalachians, it all has that green, humid feel to it.  It's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.  And that's not even considering the traffic and suburban sprawl.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

snow, weather, water conditions dictate what to do and where to go

Conditions for choosing between lowland forest hiking, canoeing or snowshoeing and cross country skiing have been challenging for the last few weeks.  Overall, weather in northwest Washington has been cool and wet this spring.  In reality, it's not quite spring but not still winter either.  The sun's rays are too strong to be winter and days too long.  As the Northwest Avalanche Center jokingly put it,

 "...Snowpack Analysis

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Continued cool to cold temperatures with periodic showers has been the weather pattern over the past four days, well a lot longer actually, but we'll focus on this week for now. Last weekend a frontal passage was accompanied by moderate warming and precipitation that caused a fairly extensive avalanche cycle of new storm snow slab avalanches and many wet loose slides..."

Weather guru Cliff Mass's blog entry for 4/15/2011 says

"2011 is clearly the worst year on record with the fewest number of days above 55F!!!...You would have to go back to the 1950s to find the runner up..."

Last weekend, I went up to Racehorse Mountain near Deming to try out a new pair of snowshoes.  Normally, I hate snowshoeing but they're good for crappy snow and on steep, timbered slopes that are un-skiable.  Snow blocked the road at 2300 feet elevation which is unusual for mid-April.  However, all the snow was relatively new not more that a month old in my estimation.  You could probably drive higher last winter when the snowline was higher.  The winter weather was almost-mild until late February or early March and it's been wet and cool ever since.  This is not good for access to the higher mountains.  

When it's topping out at 35 degrees F at Heather Meadows on Mt Baker with a few inches of snow almost daily, that means wet, heavy sticky snow in the afternoon that is difficult to ski and increased avalanche hazard.  Snowlines have been dropping down too.  This is kind of a good thing because it means snow at higher elevations will be lighter and fluffier so better for skiing.  However, that also means low elevation snow (defined as 2-3000 feet) blocks gravel roads that access touring areas.    So, we have not been doing much backcountry skiing or snowshoeing even though there is a lot of snow.

Every year, like most people, I look forward to spring .  In the Cascade mountains, there can be excellent spring ski touring once several freeze-thaw cycles occur and "corn snow" forms. says, 

     "Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with deep winter snows and long cool springs which help preserve the mountain snowpack, making possible year-round skiing. Summer skiing in the Cascades can provide some of the nicest backcountry conditions of the year: a fast, consolidated, and consistent snowpack; warm, sunny weather; and long hours of daylight...".   

Snowpack stabilizes in spring so avalanche hazard drops.  But, this year the North Cascades are currently stuck in between winter and spring.

There's not much freezing and thawing of the snowpack so almost no corn snow so far this April of 2011. Yesterday's forecast says it'll alternate between regular winter snow at night with wet, sticky snow mixed in with rain during the day.

There's a huge snowpack at Mt Baker since it's been snowing almost every day up there.  The snowpack is about 150% of the 30 year average! That's an incredible number when you consider than even an average/100% snowpack is very deep and doesn't melt off until late July.  High elevation trails like Ptarmigan Ridge may not melt off and be hikable for average folk until mid-August.  Whether we get warm, sunny weather this spring and early summer will cause how fast snow melts.

So...for the last few weeks we've been doing low-elevation forest hikes and canoe trips in the partial rain shadow around Anacortes and Bellingham during narrow windows of nice weather.  The edge of the Olympic Mountains rain shadow clips the lowlands around Bellingham.  But you don't have to go very far from Bellingham to reach soggy rainforest.  I consider the forests along the North Fork Nooksack east of Glacier as temperate rainforest. 

Canoeing and kayaking is an option when snow and/or weather conditions in the Cascades are not good.  Besides river rating difficulty (Class 1, etc.) the big issues with canoeing Pacific Northwest rivers are:

1.) tides

2.) river flow and volume.

When canoeing a river, you must check the river flow as measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).  The US Geological Survey has a webpage with past, current and forecasted river flows

Canoeing bodies of water influenced by the tides can be fun.  You can ride the tide out then ride the tide back in.  Tides don't always coincide with when you'll be on the water.  The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has a webpage that forecasts tides.  Below is the tide table for the station closest to the Skagit Delta.  Paddling the Skagit Delta from the wildlife area headquarters requires a put-in and take-out around high tide.  Since the tide is going out quickly starting around 9am and lowest at 5pm, paddling this area from 11am to 4pm is not a good idea so a day-hike would be a better choice.

Monday, April 4, 2011

short spring vacation in Arizona March 2011

Toward the end of every gray, cloudy, rainy western Washington winter, we're going crazy and depressed after months of dreary weather.  The one upside of all the rain is a lot of snow in the Cascade mountains which is good for skiing.  But, we get sick of snow by March and just need to get outside for awhile to enjoy warm weather in shorts and T-shirts.  For the last 10 years or so, I've gone down to the Southwest to hike and camp in the desert and to soak up sun during March or April.  A few weeks ago we flew into Las Vegas, got a rental car and drove east to Arizona which is our usual practice.

Rincon Mountains of Saguaro National Park

The first night we camped at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Burro Creek BLM campground north of Wickenburg, AZ.  A lot of "snowbirds" were camped here long-term in their large RVs.  Retired people are pretty quiet campers.  We were the rowdiest campers there.  We tried hiking up Burro Creek canyon but the creek was too high from recent rains.  The camp host said kayakers from Phoenix ran Burro Creek toward Signal a few days earlier.  I wish I would've had the Sevylor Trail Boat for fording Burro Creek.  That would be fun and I haven't used it yet.  (I wish I would've had the Sevylor Trail Boat in 2009 when I had to swim across a deep pool on the Bill Williams River just down from Alamo Dam).  So we wandered around downstream from the campground then up a desert ridge for a few hours.

Next day, it was cloudy and windy with a few showers in the area so we pushed on to Tucson chasing the sun.  Driving through Phoenix was unpleasant because of the disjointed beltway system.  It was very windy in Tucson but partly sunny.

We began our exploration of Tucson area deserts with an introductory trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  It's a great museum with natural history displays and many live animals like red wolves, javelinas, cougars and much more.  Later in the day we dayhiked the west unit of Saguaro National Park for a few hours.  That night we camped in Tucson Mountain Park's Gilbert Ray Campground.  

Next day we drove back across Tucson to the east unit of Saguaro National Park.  We got a backcountry permit for a 2-night, 33+ mile backpacking trip at the visitor center.  A family of javelinas lives near the visitor center.  We lucked out when they came right up to the window and starting taking dust baths with their babies in their depressions.

            (about 2 miles east of Grass Shack in the juniper/chaparral zone)

I don't have the time to write up a full trip report but I will offer comments and advice from our experiences.

When I chose backcountry campsites at the visitor center, I underestimated the difficulty of huge elevation gains of hiking from basin at Tucson's edge (about 1000 feet elevation) all the way up to 8000 feet at Manning Camp.  That's of course a 7000 foot gain but I figured since it was strung out over so many miles it wouldn't be so bad.   Thank God there were snow patches above 7000 feet.  I smeared snow onto my face, neck and wrists to cool off.  Despite the snow, low humidity was harder on skin and breathing than what I remember from past trips to Arizona.  It was a damn tough hike up to Manning Camp.  I suppose I've grown more accustomed to humid air? Melting snow also provided water.  I recommend staying the first night at Juniper Spring, 2nd at Grass Shack and 3rd at Juniper Spring.  That would leave time for side trips at the Manning Camp area in the high ponderosa pine forests.

Water is heavy.  I carried about 3 quarts since I did not trust water availability at Grass Shack and elsewhere on the trail.  There was much more than expected due to recent snow at high elevations.  It would've been nice to ditch the tent and use a tarp since it was dry weather.  However, it was cold at night.  It dropped down to freezing at Juniper Spring and to about 40 at Grass Shack.  Manning Camp drops down to 22-25 at night this time of the year.  The tent keeps out scorpions, ants and insects and is warmer than a tarp.  Had I known, I would've brought a warmer sleeping bag, a tarp and carried less water.  "Oh well.  Live and learn".

Unlike other March trips to Arizona, there were almost no desert wildflowers.  Locals say winter had a few dry spells followed by recent cold spells.  

My Big Agnes air mattress did not get punctured by a cactus thorn.  My wife's Thermarest developed a leak so she as forced to sleep on 2 cheap, crappy foam pads (1 of which I packed) from Big 5.  Most desert ground is almost as hard as pavement so foam pads aren't comfortable.  A hammock is great in the desert if you can find a place to hang it.  There were trees to hang a hammock at Juniper Basin, Manning Camp and Grass Shack backcountry camps unbeknown to me when packing for this trip. With so much variety in elevation/temperature and ground, comfortable bedding is a challenge. 

I thought I'd like to thru-hike the Arizona Trail.  After this trip, no way.  There's just not enough water and there's too much elevation gain from basin to range. It's not like the Pacific Crest Trail which maintains a mild grade and a lot of water.  Water shortages could foil an AZT thru-hike.  Section hiking the AZT seems doable, more practical and hence, would be more fun.

One problem in exploring Arizona's wild lands is that most hiking areas require a high clearance vehicle to access.  4WD may not be necessary but you do need a vehicle like a small truck or jeep with high clearance.  Most of the roads down there on BLM land were built for mining and ranching not uninsured, Las Vegas airport economy rental cars.  Many roads cross arroyos and washes that flash flood during the summer monsoon thunderstorm season.  Storms wash rocks across many roads and cause erosion. 

Photos of the trip are at Photos at .

Sunday, April 3, 2011

thoughts on canoe sailing

Last Sunday, clouds and rain showers cleared off around the rain shadowed lowlands around Anacortes and Bellingham.  Since I haven't spent much time paddling the Old Town Discovery 119 solo canoe, I took it down to Heart Lake on Anacortes Community Forest.  I also wanted to see if the sailing rig from ( ) would work on the solo canoe. 

I did a loop around the lake mostly for exercise.  It was a pleasant paddle.  I switched back and forth between a Mohawk double bladed paddle and a regular canoe paddle.  If the water is calm I can keep the canoe mostly straight using the canoe paddle with a J-stroke.  

Then I put the sail rig on.  The winds picked up.  Whidbey Air Base reported gusts up to 23 mph unbeknown to me.   With the winds gusting to the upper teens at the back of the canoe, I was able to get a few good runs in.  But, I don't really understand the mechanics of sailing so I don't know how to use the boom and oar to tack (zig-zag into the wind).  One gust that felt like it was over 20 mph hit the sail broadside and nearly caused a capsize.  

I forgot the oar and used one half of the Mohawk double blade paddle.  It fit into the socket but was loose.  Sailing puts a lot of pressure on the oar so control was not very good.  As the wind picked up, the makeshift oar broke loose about time a gust of wind blew the paddle out of my hand, all while blowing the boat into lakeshore brush.  It was very frustrating to have to fumble with the boom line, drop the sail, recover the paddle and reattach a limp oar.  

Canoe sailing is a lot of work and complexity with all the attachments for just a few short periods of downwind fun.  Winds need to be about 15 mph and consistently from one direction and even then, I can only sail with the winds at the stern.  

Canoe sailing doesn't really fit into how I use the canoes for lake touring and river running.  So, I hope to sell the canoe rig.   If I can't sell it, it works much better on the tandem 16 foot canoe.  The tandem canoe has more space for fumbling with all the lines and attachments and it tracks better in wind.  Someone may not buy the sail rig.  Stuff is usually easier to obtain than get rid of unless I want to take a huge loss.  If I can't sell it than maybe I'll stick with it? A sailing lesson would help too.

Since I'm mostly a hiker, I like canoeing that is flatwater and close to swamps and shore where there is more to see.  The sailing rig can't be used in those conditions.