Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mountain Lyin'

Sad to say, the cougar print I thought I found two weeks ago most likely belongs to a far more domestic species in the genus Canis. A handy link made the track identification a little more clear. Some outdoorsman I am.

In the photo (cropped from the photo in the post below), I've drawn a red line to indicate the shape of a cougar's central pad. I'd like to believe that the track belongs to a cougar - the Columbia River Gorge is definitely part of their range - but I'll need to do a bit more hiking to find an authentic print. Excuses, excuses...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Elements of Surprise

Strange things are afoot in the Columbia River Gorge this week.

The Multnomah Falls to Wahkeena Falls loop is a quick, short hike, perfect for spur-of-the-moment excursions and a fairly easy way to get your blood pumping and see some of the best scenery the Gorge has to offer. It starts off crowded, at Multnomah Falls, and climbs past the sightseers and day-trippers through a gorgeous canyon and a nice path through the forest before dropping into the Wahkeena drainage, with two beautiful falls and a great overlook above the Columbia. Add a few connections with other trails and it becomes a jumping-off point for even more exciting hikes. Apparently, the area around this loop attracts far more than just your average day-hiker.

I usually hike this trail in spring or fall, when the weather improves or when the vine and big-leaf maple change colors. It’s too crowded in summer, especially considering all the other hiking options summer offers. Last Monday, a day that was supposed to be cold, overcast, and rainy, a good friend called, woke me up to the nice weather, and put the idea in my head. I grabbed my pack and was on the road within thirty minutes.

Past the top of Multnomah Falls, the trail climbs gradually up the creek, along a steep hillside covered in ferns and moss and cliffs. Sometimes the trail is right next to the creek, rushing past mossy boulders in cataracts and rapids that empty into quiet gravelly pools. Other times the trail is high above the tumbling stream, cut into the canyon wall with views down into the stream-bed and overlooking mossy maples and tall cedars. Snow covered many of these stretches of trail, an old icy snow packed hard by passing boots and covered in places by deadfall and twigs, needles and leaves. All the while the sound of water echoed from the creek and twisted up into the firs manning the slope like sentries guarding the secrets of the canyon, making the steep ascent from the crowds at Multnomah Falls well worth the effort.

I’d left my trekking poles in the truck, much to my chagrin – some of the snow banks were icy and a slip would’ve meant a slide down the hill. The trail was muddy and slick but otherwise passable, though some minor landslides made things interesting just below the intersection with the trail leading to Wahkeena. I waited for a while at the intersection to give two other hikers a little distance, then climbed up the ridge and hiked about half a mile towards the Wahkeena Falls trail. That’s when I saw the clumps of fur.

The fur lay in a small area that extended across the trail and down the slope. The fur was grayish, with darker roots, and I though that maybe a dog or two had gotten in a scuffle. But 20 feet later, as the trail curved around a small ridge leading up to a mossy basalt outcropping, I noticed more fur. Intrigued, I left the trail and followed the clumps up the hillside. The trail curved around about 180 degrees, and on the top of little hill between the curve I found more clumps of hair, clustered around a flat area where a strange green pile lay between deadfall. The green pile looked like horse manure, but horses aren’t allowed on this trail, and even if someone had taken horses up here, there was no other evidence of their presence. The hair lay over this strange green pile, and little depressions on the slope testified to the passing of some animal in the recent past.

What is this mystery? The only plausible solution I can come up with is this unbelievable scenario: the clumps of hair belong to a deer killed by a cougar, and the strange green pile was early-season bear scat, which, when dry, can resemble horse manure. But the odds of finding both a cougar kill-site and bear scat in the same place are astronomical… I continued on up the trail.

At the intersection with the two Wahkeena trails (they join up further down) and the trail to Devil’s Rest, I met the two hikers who’d been in front of me. They were smoking cigarettes and the young woman was trying to figure out where they were from a book that looked to be 20 years old. Since I usually use this intersection as a break-point, I asked if I could join them and I drew a map in the pine needles, recommending the left-hand trail that passes close to Wahkeena Spring. They left, and again I gave them some time before taking the same trail as it descended past the spring and down to Fairy Falls.

I never saw them again.

Just below Fairy Falls, I found an animal print in the muddy trail. Mixed among the many boot-prints were three paw-prints, one very distinct. At first I thought they were from a dog, until I noticed there were no claw marks. Dogs leave claw marks in clearly-defined tracks. Cats, with retractable claws, do not. And the only cat big enough to leave the prints I saw is a cougar:

The weather had been rainy, and I’d heard from other hikers that the trail had been very muddy for two weeks. In the area where I found the prints, the trail was muddy and soft, with many clear boot-prints. Most had washed away, leaving only patterns and shallow depressions in the earth. But these prints were deep, clear, and placed directly over the other prints – clearly, very fresh. And there were no other similar prints along the entire trail – in other words, no obvious dog prints.

I took a few photographs and moved on. Cougars will stalk hikers, and in winter, when food might be a bit scarce, I didn’t want to hang out, especially without trekking poles. Wahkeena canyon is one of those narrow places where a cat might stalk a deer and pounce from above. I didn’t want to be mistaken for a meal.

But I descended without incident the steep switchbacks above the bridge past Wahkeena Falls, and walked through hail along the trail above the historic highway back to my truck.

That was Monday. On Wednesday, I posted a trip report on, asking for confirmation on the cougar track. Within a few hours, someone agreed that the print was a cougar, and then someone posted a reply about a body found on the same trail as I’d hiked. I freaked out a little – I never did see that couple again, and that print was fresh… News was scarce – apparently a young man had been found dead just off the Wahkeena trail. But by 11pm, the media reported that the man was dressed in underwear and nothing else. By Thursday, they reported he’d died of hypothermia.

Also on Thursday, someone posted to that the strange green pile could very well be bear scat, and someone else reported seeing a deer-kill on the same trail a week before. I also read a news report of a hiker on the Washington side of the Gorge who was beaten, carjacked, and left for dead. A second news report described an apparently delusional man who blocked a side road with his car and tried to elude sheriff’s deputies by climbing to the top of a 40 foot waterfall a few miles west of Multnomah Falls.

I think I’ll take cougars any day. And my trekking poles. No more leaving them in the truck. Snow, large predatory mammals, violent criminals and the mentally unstable – next time, I’ll be better prepared for the wild, wild world of the Columbia River Gorge.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I just finished experiencing The Watchmen and I’m thinking about how to talk about it, how to write about it, where to dive in, about the words and images and ideas, the silences and layers of meaning. And all I really want to say is that if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s expansive, gripping, provocative, and smart. If for some reason you think graphic novels are just pop art, not worth your time, well… Let me just say I devoured the book in two sittings, broken only on those frequent occasions when I stood up and walked around my living room shaking my head and trying to come to grips with the madness, intensity, brilliance, and guts of what I’d just read.

And that’s why I’m writing this review – partly to come to a better understanding of the novel’s intentions and partly to come to a better understanding of how it works so damn well. And I'm going to try to do this without giving anything away.

Alan Moore’s writing in The Watchmen is superlative in vision and in execution of that vision, and his writing is equally matched by Dave Gibbons’ illustration, creating a symbiotic work of art that grows increasingly deeper and more intelligent with every midnight flip of the page. The Watchmen develops a complex and self-contained world so remote and yet so similar to our own that it can only be described as genius.

I don’t throw around words like genius lightly. Saying genius means I couldn’t find a better way to say smart, well-crafted, and tightly-written, where each word and image counts and contributes to the whole, where nothing is out of place, except maybe the reader, who follows the story with hawk-like attention: every detail matters, every nuance is laden with meaning, every line and every letter, hung in text blocks or on a city wall, propels the narrative momentum forward, advancing multiple plots and lives and building the story into a dénouement that almost literally explodes from the page. The Watchmen is an emotional, psychological, and sociological tour de force.

It’s the mid-eighties, and someone is killing superheroes. Through Rorschach, a superhero working outside the law, we’re introduced to a brutal world similar to our own. Superheroes helped win the Vietnam War, constitutional amendments allow Nixon to serve additional terms, and nuclear Armageddon is stalemated by the quantum abilities of Dr. Manhattan, a superhero on the government’s payroll. Rorschach’s New York is a city filled with crime, with individual decay, with currents of fear, with social unrest and distrust of people who look or act different – homosexuals, black people, gangs – and against this background Rorschach sets out to find the superhero’s killer.

In this setting, The Watchmen becomes both a story about superheroes in society and culture, and a scathing social commentary critiquing the prevailing mood of the time through the lens of fiction. In both style and subject, The Watchmen is still remarkably relevant, and this explains why the novel is still so popular, and why it’s being adapted into a movie.

As I said previously, Moore’s writing and Gibbons’ art combine symbiotically. It’s impossible to read and understand the novel from only one of these perspectives. Throughout the novel, for example, an older newspaper vendor carries on a monologue while a young black man sits near the newspaper stand and reads comic books about pirates. The pirate comic describes how a shipwrecked sailor fashions a way off an island. Panes from the pirate comic nest between panes featuring the newspaper vendor, and in the telling of the pirate story the vendor’s monologues take on additional layers of meaning. In other panels, perspective lets the reader see the young comic reader from behind, and in his hands, scenes from the comic he’s holding. These scenes, along with the newspaper headlines and the lives of the news-stand’s patrons, add life and weight to the story. They allow development of even the most minor characters, characters that come alive under Moore’s pen and Gibbons’ stroke.

These aren’t action scenes, filled with superheroes beating up the bad guys. They are, rather, the real meat of the book, the scenes that give strength to the overall plot. Like the marooned mariner, there is much that happens beneath the story, much that is as important, or perhaps, even more important, to understanding the many themes explored within The Watchmen.

Like any novel, The Watchmen isn’t easily summarized. But as social commentary, it feels familiar. When The Watchmen was first published, the threat of nuclear Armageddon was ever-present, the war in Vietnam was only a decade past, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and society was perceived to be in decline, reeling from drug use and eroded social morals. Today, the threat of nuclear war looms with Iran’s saber-rattling, our country is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq; the economy is in shambles, and society is still perceived as declining. Technology, what technology represents, and what affect it has on people – in terms of access, knowledge, understanding, and power – are contentious issues in both the novel and in the life of the contemporary reader. The Watchmen portrays and exposes these timeless uncertainties and fears through the motivations and actions of the main characters, who struggle to lead meaningful lives in a mad and seemingly meaningless culture, and through details and nuances embedded in dialogue and background illustrations. Half the fun of reading the novel is drawing out these connections, the moments of surprise and discovery, the sudden insights and flashes of wonder.

And so The Watchmen is all at once a highly developed detective novel with astoundingly complex characters; an acute cultural critique; a literary play on meaning and craft; a triumphant collage of style and technique, of invention, imagination, and bravado. I said it was genius. You’ll have to read it to understand. Read and savor it slowly, because The Watchmen means far more than it says, and it will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Just remember the last thing Dr. Manhattan says, remember his very last words…