Wednesday, September 28, 2011

South Sister Thunderstorms

In late August I drove up the Cascades Lakes Highway from Bend and the weather turned from fire-ban hot and dry to lightning-strike thunder and rain. I barely had my tent set up at Soda Creek campground when rain began to fall, huge drops that pelted the ground and splashed mud over the base of everything. Lightning strobed through the trees and thunder exploded like a marching band of heavy metal drums. Soon my tent was staked above a puddle, and I was huddled under a tree, trying to stay somewhat dry as thunderstorms broke over Mt. Bachelor and rumbled overhead.

Soda Creek campground is a beautiful place, on the edge of a meadow between Sparks Lake and South Sister. The creek runs clear and strong through the meadow, and from its edge, there are superb views of South Sister and Broken Top, as well lava flows, stars, deer, and storms. The storms didn’t let up – even after I went to bed, my tent lit up with lightning, and I’d count the seconds for the thunder.

When I arrived, I didn’t know that the storms would last all night. I kept a tidy camp and lit a small fire, but kept it hot enough to burn through the rain and cook dinner. The storms passed in waves. One moment the air would be clear, with no rain, and I could wander to the meadow to watch the cells collide over the peaks. At those times, the sun shone through cloud-breaks with rich warmth, drenching the grass and trees with light. The next moment, lightning would flash behind me and I’d retreat to the camp before the next bruising thunderhead raced overhead, bringing rain, darkness, and probing lightning strikes.

Flash. Boom. No time between them – and no sense of security huddled under a tree. At one point I sat inside my truck, but my wet clothes turned the cab into a sauna within minutes, and I went back out in the storm. I thought about the backpackers who were camped up on the mountain at Green Lakes Basin and Moraine Lake, and how it must feel to experience this trapped in a tent in alpine country. I thought about how people throughout time have been inspired by thunder and lightning storms, how those elements have passed into myth, how they’ve inspired gods. I thought about the possible weather the next day, and questioned my plans to hike high on South Sister.

Back in the meadow, the sun set in spectacular fashion. Nature was on display, modeling everything she had. Cells continued to roll through, from Bachelor to South Sister, from Bachelor to Broken Top. Between the storms, light poured through the gap where the highway turned south at Devil’s Lake. The meadows grew golden in the low angled light, then fell into shadow as the peaks hoarded the last sun on their snowy flanks. Behind South Sister, sunset fires burned.

Whiskey burned, too. If you’re standing in a storm you might as well drink right from the bottle. I didn’t have that much, but that’s because I also had beer. And a little liquid courage goes a long way in a liquid downpour. After nightfall I realized that as challenging as the storms had been mentally, they had pushed me to remain positive and to be accepting of the circumstances. And when the storms decreased in intensity, in duration, and in proximity, I started to miss them. I threw more wood on the fire.

The clouds began to thin, the storms became more isolated and infrequent. As night grew deeper, a few stars spackled the breaks between clouds. The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, ploughed through the clouds and poured some sort of cosmic energy onto South Sister. But lightning still flashed on the slopes of Mt. Bachelor, and far behind the jagged summit of Broken Top. I crawled into my tent, shed wet layers, laid out my dry clothes and slipped into my sleeping bag. This would turn out to be a very different trip than I envisioned if the storms kept up through the next evening.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hikes Past: Memaloose Hills

I’m looking at the weather forecast and for the first time in a while, it’s supposed to rain throughout my weekend, all across the state. I’m sure I’ll go hiking, but it won’t be the clear, brisk fall weather I hoped for. Feeling nostalgic, I’ve been thinking about a warm, sunny hike from back in May. At the time, the Memaloose Hills near Mosier were in full bloom, with acres of balsamroot, lupine, and paintbrush splashing the spring grass with color.

Sadly, Russ Jolley, author of the incomparable Wildflowers of the Columbia River Gorge, recently passed away. Along with Friends of the Columbia Gorge founder Nancy Russell, Jolley successfully fought to preserve the Memaloose Hills within the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, and open the land to public access. Today the hills are owned by the Forest Service and yet remain little known, despite a superlative wildflower display without the crowds drawn to nearby Rowena Plateau or McCall Point.

I hiked the Hills for the first time this year, and the wildflowers were incredible. The trail leaves the old Columbia River Highway and meanders through oak to a stream crossing. A side trail leads to an open meadow filled with balsamroot and a view from McCall Point in the east to the cliffs of the Gorge in the west. Back on the main trail, the path approaches private land before heading uphill through flowers to the summit of the southern-most hill.

The air was filled with the scents of spring, the hum of bees, and the shadows of raptors gliding above the fields. Mt. Hood stood on the horizon, mantled in snow. The sky was a dome of deep blue. And the wildflowers were as thick as I’ve ever seen.

When I hiked in, just before the creek, I spotted movement ahead of me. Five deer wandered a nearby meadow, unconcerned with my presence. I watched them for a while, then continued on. On the way back, I walked quietly towards the meadow to see if the deer were still there. They were: four healthy-looking blacktail does, sleek with brown coats and big eyes and ears turned towards me. The fifth doe was sickly and thin with a matted coat, and traumatic eyes. It must’ve been a hell of a winter for that one.

I spent a few hours among the deer and flowers and then jumped in the truck to head to an afternoon hike at Stacker Butte farther east. The weather stayed clear all day – not at all like the gathering clouds this evening. It feels like autumn now, with today’s rain, but though autumn is probably my favorite season, I’m not ready to give up the sun. Fall is a time for ritual and celebration, remembering and reflection. But I’d like a few more nice days in the mountains. There’s nothing quite like hiking Cooper Spur or Indian Heaven when the air is clear and crisp, there’s frost in the shade, and the meadows and alpine trails are lined with amber and scarlet huckleberries and mountain ash. Something to hope for, I guess - though, if it keeps raining, I can always go back to Memaloose, and hoist a beer for Russ.

Trail Info:

Distance: 3 miles

Elevation Gain: 450ft
Region: Columbia River Gorge - East
Information: No fees, no facilities. Watch for poison oak.

Recommended Guidebooks: Curious Gorge, 3rd ed., by Scott Cook; Wildflowers of the Columbia River Gorge, by Russ Jolley.

Directions: Drive I84 to Mosier (exit 69) and continue west on the old Columbia River Highway. After 3 miles, park in the Memaloose Overlook pullout. The unsigned trail begins across the road.

More Photos Here!