Hiking the Lower Deschutes Canyon, Oregon in Spring

30 05 2017

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The winter of 2016-17 brought record rainfall to many parts of the Pacific Northwest, including Portland and Seattle, which saw all-time records for the October – April periods. It was great for skiers. Great for replenishing reservoirs. But it. Just. Kept. On. Raining. Sometimes, the only way to escape Portland’s gloom is to head east, past the Cascades. There, the clouds part and it’s likely a sunny hike can be had!

There are many good springtime hikes in the eastern Columbia Gorge. Wildflowers start coming out in March and peak sometime in late April. One nice choice are the trails along the Lower Deschutes River Canyon. There are three main trails leading from the mouth of the river. One is an old railroad bed converted to a bike trail. Another follows the riverside, snaking along. And a third is in between these two. It is possible to go many many miles upstream following the old railroad bed.

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To get there, take I-84 east from Portland, past The Dalles, to Deschutes River State Park. Park at the area in the southern part of the park.

Laura and I decided to do this hike as it’s a rolling terrain hike and doesn’t involve lots of elevation gain. A loop is possible by taking the river trail about 3 miles to where it climbs and connects with the railroad bed trail.

We had wonderful weather. It was warm in the sun. A train on the opposite side slowly made its way, stopping for a time.

The river was flowing swiftly, emptying Central Oregon of all the excess water from the spring rains.

We saw the occasional balsam root flowers starting to emerge, plus some others I couldn’t identify.

Total hike mileage was 6.5 miles, a good conditioning hike.

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Laura photographs some emerging flowers

The Deschutes River cuts through some of Oregon’s interesting Geologic features. So the trail offers some natural interest. Along the way one can view layers of basalt and ash laid down over millenia. In some spots natural lava bridges formed.

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Weather plus the river have carved some interesting shapes into the rocks here. For wildlife, we saw mostly ospreys and buzzards. Supposedly there are deer and rattlesnakes in the area as well. It’s popular with anglers for the trout and salmon. And backpacking is possible along this trail, too.

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For me, spring and fall are the best times to hike this canyon. Obviously it offers sun when Portland is cloudy. But in the midst of summer, this canyon has three things I don’t like: Intense heat, little shade and often punishing wind. In the summer, it just bakes here. And that heat, which makes air rise, means something has to displace it. And that is air from the Columbia River and the Pacific. In the summer, by afternoon, it can be like a convection vortex here. I have even seen a kite torn from its string! Rafters cannot make progress against this force – often being forced to spend the night and start off in the morning.

So for me, it’s all about the seasons, and this hike is just GREAT in spring!





Kayaking in the Footsteps of Lewis & Clark

6 09 2016

I have lived in Portland, OR for years, but I’d never visited Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-1806 following their Voyage of Discovery across the American continent. This summer I made plans to see the place. A little research revealed that besides the fort, there is also a free historical kayak tour. So my friend Jessie Bader and I made plans to make a trip out there.

Fort Clatsop lies on the Oregon Coast, near the mouth of the Columbia River and Astoria, Oregon. We decided to overnight at Fort Stevens State Park Campground. Our first day, we arrived in mid afternoon. So we set up camp and, with plenty of time, headed to Astoria to check out the waterfront. Our kayak tour was the following day at 1:00.

First up was ice cream. Cones in hand, we headed down to the riverwalk along the Columbia River. The Columbia River Maritime Museum, with exhibits like a full sized Columbia River Pilot Boat beckoned. We debated and didn’t enter. But behind lay the Columbia Bar Lightship and the Coast Guard Cutter Alert.

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Just a few dozen yards inland we discovered the Astoria Riverfront Trolley. It is super cheap $1 a ride. It glides along the waterfront running to the end of the line east. Then it reverses and goes to the western end of the line, in town. The seats are benches, with a twist – literally. When the train needs to head the other way, passengers get up, move the seat back the opposite way, and sit down facing the new direction.

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The streetcar showed me some new things about the waterfront. It gets much closer to the docks than the road. There are a number of piers with restaurants and recently opened breweries on the piers.

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We got off and took a stroll down the waterfront.

It was a really beautiful August afternoon. A sea breeze blowing. On such a pretty day, it was easy to forget that Astoria spends most of the year in gray stormy conditions.

But on that day, all is forgiven.

Not so for the Lewis and Clark crew in 1805. For they arrived in the winter season. The expedition spent 106 days at Fort Clatsop, it rained every day but 12 and they saw the sun a total of six times. It’s no wonder they gave names like “Dismal Nitch” to landmarks in the area.

Today, Fort Clatsop is administered by the National Park Service. It’s got a museum, gift shop, and dedicated guides to share information on the place.

One of the most popular attractions is the daily loading and shooting of a musket. At 10:00 a.m. a guide gives a talk on the uses of fire arms back in those days, and the way people loaded and fire them.

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After the musket presentation was finished we took advantage of a half mile guided nature walk. And then, it was time for lunch. We found a thoughtfully constructed picnic spot nor far away. On this day it was Euro style, cheese, hard sausage, crackers, fruit, nuts, etc.

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Then we met the tour down at the put in on the Lewis and Clark River. The group would be a family, a couple of individuals, plus Jessie and I. We had two guides, Pat and Cadence.

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A bit of paddling 101 instruction by Cadence got the group started.

The river here is completely tidal. At low tide, much of the area is mud flats. So, the time the tours take place vary all summer, to coincide with high tide. Reservations are required. Our tour was full. We had some lively children, and Pat wasted no time in gaining the upper hand. If they even so much as yawned or stared away, she snapped “A-tten-sion!!!”

On the water, Pat immediately dropped her VHF radio and it was gone, stuck on the bottom. “Well, that’s my second dropped. They’ll fire me!”

With everybody launched we made a three-mile paddle.

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At various points we gathered for a little talk about conservation, or the challenges Lewis and Clark faced.

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The Park Service has purchased additional land adjoining the original site, and has done a good job restoring its property to the way it looked back in 1805. Wildlife has taken note. Many species of birds have returned. Elk and deer are more common.

If you are in Astoria, or camping at Fort Lewis, a stop at Fort Clatsop is definitely worth your time!





North Fork John Day River Backpack

26 08 2016
River Evening Peaceful

The peaceful nirvana of early evening at the Oriental Springs Campground

In July, Laura and I planned to backpack a 10-mile section of the North Fork John Day River in central eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. The entire river is a nationally designated wild and scenic river, so we were very excited! I had hiked the eastern portion back in 2014. This time, the plan was to try hiking from the western end. The whole trail, some 50 miles, is steeped in gold-rush history. Back in the 1870’s gold was struck in the area, and thousands braved the wilds to strike it rich. Today, although the big mines are mostly gone, there are still active mining claims with people panning for gold! I’ll post a blog about that next. But for now, it’s about the backpacking.

This hard-to-reach trailhead and backpack had been on my list for many years. It took about 5 hours from Portland. Even when you get off the state road, the dirt road/4WD track to the last campground and trailhead is many miles. Due to the long drive, we just planned to car camp the first night at Oriental Springs Campground. Arriving about 5:00 p.m., the heat of the day had passed. The river sits in a tight valley, and the shadows were already beginning to lengthen.

Oriental Campground We had the whole place to ourselves. There were lots of puddles on the road – and blow down. There must have been a recent thunderstorm. Though most of the area was dry and dusty, the evidence of rain was there. Despite the standing water, there were no mosquitoes. Lucky us.

Laura found the campfire to her liking! Laura Fire Oriental Campground

In the morning, we sipped coffee, ate breakfast and packed up.

It was a moderately cool morning. Very pleasant!

Not in a hurry, we didn’t plan on hitting the trail until maybe 11:00. Big mistake.

Laura packed for backpack

Packed up and ready!

With the car locked and packs filled, we hit the trail. My research revealed that this is bear and cougar country. So, we both wore jingle bells on our wrists and used trekking poles, which made us very noisy to any hungry or motherly creatures out there! And merry makers to others.

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Bear bells highly suggested!

The trail lies on the northern (i.e. sunniest) side of the river. The forest here is amber-colored bark Ponderosa pine. If you’ve never been in a Ponderosa pine forest – I need to describe. Instead of tightly laced tree branches typical of Douglas fir forests – which are shady and therefore offer a cooling effect, Ponderosa pines are spread farther apart, with not nearly as many branches between trees touching. Hikes in Pondersoa forests are more vulnerable to hot sun. This one is no exception.

The valley slopes reached skyward immediately from the northern side of the trail. Soon,  the place became a convection oven! We had no relief from the sun or the broiler-like hillside next to us. But there was more. There was winter blowdown. Packs on, we climbed over or slithered under fallen trees.

It didn’t take long for signs of large wildlife to appear. The recent rain and puddles left some flat, muddy areas. Anything walking over would leave footprints, betraying its presence. We noticed deer, elk, and then – bear and cougar prints!

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No doubt about what left these prints!

Not long after, and right smack in the middle of the trail, we saw a pile of poop. Not just any pile of poop. Because whatever this creature ate it was full of seeds! Bear scat. Between the trail and the river at this particular point is an area full of blackberries. No doubt this bear was feasting.

Heat aside, it’s a very beautiful river. It winds lazily along, and except for some deeper pools, it’s about 2-3 feet deep. But the heat quickly got to us. We found an open place for lunch and discovered it was a camping spot. It didn’t look like it had been used recently because growth was starting to cover the fire ring. As hard as it was to accept, we actually decided to base camp here. It was a place that offered shade!

 

Feeling guilty and pretty annoyed about the heat and the fact that we’d only covered 2.5 miles, we decided to hike further up the river. What we discovered unexpectedly justified stopping to camp were we did.

We didn’t find anywhere suitable to camp. And grass plus brush had assertively grown across the trail, about knee high. We wore shorts. And I’d heard stories about lots of ticks from other hikers recently. So we pressed on, but were constantly checking our legs for critters.

Eventually we’d had enough and, frustrated, we started back. Just when we began to get cranky, I saw a possible wading spot. We walked down there and waded out into the river. This was the respite we needed. More, we realized, this what this day was all about. Sitting in the river, with it flowing over our overheated souls, we cooled down enough and it became almost meditative. Impossible to get out.

Laura on rock in river

We spent time here, and then back at camp, spent more time just enjoying the water! Well, what to do with the rest of our time out here? We decided to get on the trail early the next day, before the heat picked up, hike out, and then drive over to Anthony Lakes and car camp.

Laura on Anthony Lake

An end-of-day happy hour at Anthony Lakes!

Anthony Lakes is a year-round recreational area. In summer there is camping, hiking, boating, and fishing. And even some sailing. It’s elevation is over 7,000 feet, so it’s got dry powder snow in the winter. The Anthony Lakes Ski Area is popular with locals all winter long. Plus, there are lovely Cross-Country trails all around. The stars were really spectacular. All together, we had a nice trip!

 





Hiking Amongst Siouxon Creek’s Emerald Waters and Waterfalls

6 05 2016

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Siouxon Creek trail is one of the most beautiful places to hike near Vancouver, Washington. Located in a deep valley, it rarely gets hot even during summer heat waves. April, Tatsuro, Monica and I spent a perfect afternoon hiking there last weekend.

Monica Tatsuro Rod

Monica, Tatsuro and myself.

Hiking Siouxon Creek leads you past flumes, towering moss-covered firs and maples, clear green pools and ends with a 45-foot waterfall. It’s about 4.3 miles to the waterfall, making for a full 8+ mile day. The trail continues past the waterfall. And you can connect with a trail leading to Huffman Peak, which would make for 14 miles total.

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There are perhaps ten backpacking campsites along this stretch. And on our hike it seemed most filled up. It would be a Lord of the Rings type experience, I think. I could imagine Orcs coming in the night – perhaps fighting with Cave Trolls. We had expected the area to be muddy because it had rained the day before. But we found only a few spots with mud. Completely delightful. The trail comes almost down to creek level, then climbs sometimes 40 feet above, whilst crossing tributaries. There are lots of small waterfalls and pools to glimpse.

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It might be tempting to jump in that water, but it was May. The temperature is probably 40 degrees! I have seen people swimming in the middle of summer here, though.

Siouxon Creek is also popular for mountain biking. I originally discovered this trail through a mountain biking guidebook. On our hike this time we only saw two bikers.

Although fast-hiking or fast-packing is trendy these days, I find sometimes going extra slow, or even pausing, yields beautiful rewards.

This area is packed with life. But if you are rushing along, you’ll miss the wonder. There are countless species of plants. Every inch is occupied by a form of life competing for food and sunlight.

 

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Moss clinging to a maple.

There were countless “nurse logs.” A nurse log is a fallen tree that has decomposed to the point that it becomes nutrients for new trees. We saw a toppled old-growth tree, with over 100 feet of new trees growing along it.

 

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Super clear water!

The water is impossibly pure and clear. The rocks are gray, brown, rose, green, and speckled colors. In some places the water is so clear you cannot even see it.

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April

Our turnaround point on the hike was the 45-ft waterfall. Also a nice spot to stop for lunch. We lingered quite a while to soak up the tranquility. Then it was another refreshing hike back to the trailhead.20160430_141735_HDR





Journey thru Time at El Morro, New Mexico!

18 10 2015

DSCF1824Experiencing New Mexico’s historical heritage would not be complete without checking out El Morro! Simply put, El Morro is a gem. It’s not big, yet it’s packed with mind bending history, sweet hiking, views, and to top it off, it’s even got an 800-room Ancient Pueblo great house!

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What is El Morro? Well, it’s a bluff with a watering hole. In fact, for over a thousand years, this watering hole was the only known fresh water source for dozens of miles. That made El Morro a camping spot for travelers ranging from Ancient Pueblos to 17th Century Spanish Conquistadors to 19th Century settlers seeking a new life in America’s West.

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Each of these peoples left their mark. The El Morro trail leaves the visitor center, leading to a watering hole at the base of the mesa. From there, the trail winds closely along the base of the mesa. This is where my mind began to get a bit blown away.

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Starting with the Inscription Trail, all along the base of the 250-ft tall mesa I witnessed people’s autographs spanning a thousand years. The oldest scribblings are petroglyphs. There are over 2,000 of them! Some were by now familiar such as the snake. But there were new images – bighorn sheep, along with mythological creatures.

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Then I saw dozens of 19th Century inscriptions by settlers and army officers. But more amazing were Spanish inscriptions – the earliest I saw was 1609. Wow! That beats the founding of Plymouth Massachusetts by 11 years! Most of the names were men. But there was one woman who was in a battle with the Indians, was shot with an arrow, survived, and kept going.

The trail winds around the back of the mesa, connecting to the Headlands Trail, then climbs up to the top – gaining some 250 feet. From there, the view of the valley is unparalleled. Up on top one can see the effects of rain on the geology. There were a few pools of water from recent rain, each one filled with mosquito larvae.

el morro, astinna

Eventually the summit trail leads to Astinna, an Ancient Pueblo great house with hundreds of rooms. Incredible! Even up here, hundreds lived out there lives. Astinna had 875 rooms and was home to 1,500 people! The town peaked about AD 1300.

In total, the hike is probably no more than three and a half miles, and totally worth it!





Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Exploring the Magic and Spiritual

6 10 2015
A view from the trail on the canyon rim!

A view from the trail on the canyon rim!

Chaco Canyon is definitely the most significant example of ancient civilization in New Mexico, and probably the entire Southwest. I was uber excited to witness it! A United Nations World Heritage site, it is 11 miles long and 5 miles wide, and contains dozens of citadels each containing up to 800 rooms with up to 20 Kivas, or religious ceremonial centers. It’s also a nationally registered Dark Skies site. In Chaco, the stars seem an arms length away.

Ancient Puebo peoples from numerous tribes congregated at Chaco for seasonal and spiritual celebrations. None of these cultures had written language, so what we know is from oral traditions, stories, passed down to their ancestors – today’s Hopi, Navajo, etc. Anthropologists tell that Chaco was not a residential city. Although some people did live there temporarily to work on the buildings, they would eventually return to their villages many miles distant. Today’s SW Indian people see Chaco as an important waypoint on their tribal spiritual migration treks.

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At Pueblo Bonito there are hundreds of rooms

Getting to Chaco is not for the faint of heart. While the site is a Federally managed area, with paved roads, the way there is fraught with challenges. The route passes through county, Federal, and tribal lands. It is 33 miles of paved, “maintained dirt,” and “unmaintained” road. It passes over dry river beds. While Chaco has campgrounds, there isn’t water within the park, except at the visitor center. Be prepared.

Chaco is a network of citadels, known as Great Houses, aligned along auspicious astronomical and directional lines. Buildings may constructed to align with the solstice, and Kivas may be aligned north-south, for example. These were built on the valley floor but also up high on ridges. Signal fires were lit to communicate important information up and down the valley. Incredibly, geological features enabled voice communication across the valley!

Building in Chaco is thought to have begun around A.D. 800, with the peak of construction about 1150. By 1050 Chaco was the center of influence in spiritual, economic and administrative matters for an area comprising SE Utah, SW Colorado, eastern Arizona and New Mexico. Advances in building technology is evident in the ruins.

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The trail above, with stunning view, winds along, then climbs to Pueblo Alto Complex, another ancient town

One of my favorite things to do in Chaco is taking a hike. Some of the hikes climb the canyon walls, leading to more trails and citadels up above! The view is incredible. But then you come across a ruin!

We heard about the hike to Pueblo Alto, which is a complex on the canyon summit above. But how could we see it? The Ranger told us there is a trail leading up there.

We drove out to Pueblo del Arroyo, where there is parking and a trailhead. A self-issue back country permit must be completed.

We started the hike. Along the way, there are stakes indicating “trail.” Some of them are in unexpected places, like in rocks 10 or 15 feet above where I stood. So we just scrambled up to get to them.

Along the scramble, we glimpsed a number of petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls. One can see many things illustrated. Like familiar creatures such as snakes, spiders, or elk. But other creatures gone from the canyon are depicted, like bighorn sheep. And spiritual entities are pictured.

chaco canyon,petroglyphschaco canyon,petroglyphsBy far my highlight of the day was taking this hike above the valley floor.

The trail wound its way amongst boulders.

Then, the next “trail” stake was at the wall. I climbed up to it, and then, looking to my right, this “trail” seemed to climb up a crack in the valley wall to somewhere above.

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Scrambling up this slot leads to the top of the canyon, with a freaky beautiful trail up there!

I was in the lead, with Tully behind. I thought, “Well, what the heck!” What I didn’t know was what awaited above.

A careful stepping up the rocks led to the top of the canyon, where a relatively flat hike awaited – with an unlimited view!

One up there my emotions went from nervous to ecstatic. There is a whole world up there, which ancients walked for a thousand years. It is no wonder they held Chaco Canyon in spiritual reverence.

Chaco has Rangers that give informational talks, and we took advantage.

DSCF1820The ranger explained what is known about the Chaco culture, the geology, architecture. He took us amongst the ruins. We looked at Kivas and even wound our way through the multi storied “apartments!”

We spent one and a half days in Chaco. We stayed near Cuba, a town outside the entrance to the area.

My recommendation is to camp in Chaco, if you are up for that. Spend two nights there. That way, you can walk the trails up to the high citadels. The base is 6,200ft. Take full advantage of the night skies opportunities. The Visitor Center has Dark Skies presentations – it has an observatory!

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Learning the Ancient Ways: Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

24 09 2015

bandelier national monument,new mexico,hiking,ancestral puebloI’d never been to New Mexico. So, when my friend Tully moved his family to Albuquerque and he offered to spend a week exploring, I jumped at the chance. We traveled north to Taos, and then west to Cuba, and then on to Grants.

On day one, on the way to Taos, we spent the afternoon in Bandelier National Monument – where you can hike trails to Ancient Pueblo ruins on the Frijoles Canyon floor, and climb inside cliff dwellings!

People have been living in the area for 10,000 years. The earliest peoples followed prey animals in and out of the canyon on a seasonal basis. Later, agriculture was developed, and a more stationary lifestyle ensued. By 1200 AD, construction of 40-room “great houses,” and cliff dwellings was at its peak.

All along the north valley wall there is evidence of many homes. The valley is north-south aligned, and the north wall gets precious warming sun – especially in winter. So all the homes are on the north side. Some are still standing today, and I walked amongst them, and climbed ladders to peek inside. There remains black soot on some of the ceilings from fires.

The Ancestral Pueblo people did not use written language, so there is no written evidence of their culture, other than petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls. petroglyph

The petroglyphs depict Thunderbirds, parrots, bighorn sheep, snakes, and more. The Pueblo people carried on their stories, religion and traditions through singing and story-telling. Much of what we know comes from the oral tradition practiced by today’s Pueblo people. These people lived in villages spread out amongst New Mexico, SW Colorado, and Arizona.

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Tyuonyi Plaza

Archeologists have discovered 3,000 sites here, but these were not occupied at the same time. As time went on, people tended to gather in villages and plazas. The largest is Tyuonyi, which may have had 600 rooms. Special rooms for religious ceremonies are called Kivas. Kivas are built into the ground and are round.

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Bandelier National Monument is about two hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The entire monument is much larger than the valley, however, and has 70 miles of trails for backpacking and hiking.

DSCF1764So whether you are interested in the ancient culture, or want to get out into nature via backpacking, Bandelier offers both.

In the next blog post I’ll cover Chaco Canyon!