Sunday, January 3, 2016

Summer memories: Ross Lake by kayak

I was reminded recently (at Christmastime) about last August's five-day exploration of Ross Lake, and why hadn't I posted anything about it on my blog?
Yours truly approaching Green Point with the Colonial Glacier basin and surrounding peaks above.
Well, the reason is simple: For the second summer in a row, our lives were interrupted by wildfires, which were already wreaking havoc in the area as we rolled back into the valley from our vacation. News reporting duties, an evacuation and a power outage took precedence, and I never got around to sharing our memorable lake adventure.

Ross Lake is a 23-mile-long reservoir within North Cascades National Park. It fills the glacially carved upper Skagit River valley, which was flooded after Ross Dam was completed in 1949. The Canadian border crosses the lake about 20 miles north of the dam. The only road to the lake is accessed from Hope, British Columbia.

"What?" you ask, "There's no road access to the lake in Washington state?" It's true. To access Ross Lake on our side of the border, you must either hike in from several trails in the national park -- the most direct being the Ross Lake Resort trail off Highway 20 -- or boat in from Diablo Lake and pay the resort to portage you and your gear over Ross Dam.

Until last year, my experience of Ross Lake had been limited to views from highway pullouts more than 700 feet above the water. Friends' stories of boating and backpacking trips in the area did not prepare me for the wondrous possibilities of discovery, adventure, and natural beauty on Ross Lake.

Diablo Lake: the beginning and end of the adventure.
Prior to the trip we talked to friends, looked at maps, read trip reports online, and looked at the North Cascades National Park website, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website, and the Ross Lake Resort website. We planned to paddle no more than four hours per day, having learned that wind is often a problem for boaters in the afternoon, and we noted our preferred campsites accordingly: Night 1, Cougar Island; Night 2 & 3, Lightning Creek; Night 4, Big Beaver.
The morning before our departure we were at the Winthrop ranger station at 8 a.m. sharp, where the officer on duty called over to the national park office and was able to reserve our preferred campsites for the nights we requested. We found out later that other parties had been unsuccessful in getting reservations at the Marblemount ranger station on the morning of their planned departure, so they were forced to delay their trip by a day.

Thursday morning, August 13, we drove west on Hwy. 20 over Washington Pass to Colonial Creek campground on Diablo Lake: 60 miles from our home. We had the boats off the car and loaded in no time. We were on the water by 9:30 a.m.

We paddled 3 miles on the famously turquoise water of Diablo Lake and through the narrow river gorge up to the floating park service dock near the foot of the dam. A telephone in a wooden box instructed us to call for shuttle service, which we did. With some effort we muscled the kayaks up the gangway and onto the bank above, and within minutes a flatbed truck crept down the steep service road in low gear.

The driver helped load our boats onto the flatbed and we scrambled up onto bench seats, each steadying a boat with one hand as the truck lurched up the switchbacky gravel road, 520 feet over the dam and back down 120 feet to the level of Ross Lake. We were surprised to see a man and woman carrying their loaded canoe, on foot, up the same mile-long incline. They saved $20, but we heard later that they had to stop every 10 steps, put down the boat, and rest before taking the next 10 steps.

Once over the dam we launched again and headed for our first night's camp on Cougar Island, where we landed around 1 p.m. As predicted, the wind began to blow steadily out of the south, and we were glad to be off the water. It was a hot afternoon -- in the low 90s -- and increasingly smoky from the Wolverine Fire on Lake Chelan, 35 miles away as the crow flies, so we did the only logical thing: jumped in the clear warm water for an exploratory swim around the island.

Paddling into the submerged mouth of Lightning Creek. Several flooded creek canyons invite exploration.
Now, I won't bore you with every excruciating detail of our trip, but a few points deserve mention:

  • A dramatic thunderstorm on Day 2 forced us off the lake early due to wind, waves and lightning, so we felt justified in making camp early at Dry Creek, from which we watched several dramatic beach landings by other boating parties. We found out later that the same storm traveled eastward across the mountains, sparking the Okanogan Complex Fires.
  • We paddled into Lightning Creek camp on Day 3, in the rain, where two brothers invited us to share their tarp-sheltered picnic table. Note to self: pack a portable shelter next time.
  • We took a side trip around Cat Island, where we talked to a boatload of Park Service firefighters who were keeping an eye on a lightning-caused fire above the remote west shore of Ross Lake.

Mergansers on Cat Island didn't seem to mind the rain. Loon calls echoed across the lake at dusk.
Devil's Creek -- my favorite place -- merited two separate explorations, on the way up lake as well as on the return trip.
  • A short hike up the Big Beaver Trail took us along silt-clouded Big Beaver Creek and into an ancient grove of enormous red cedars.
  • We docked at Ross Lake Resort on the return trip in order to walk around and check out its charming floating cabins. Must be reserved a year in advance, but it would be so fun to rent a cabin with a group of friends!
The trip was a delight. We have already begun talking about a repeat visit this summer (2016), hopefully with our pals Lisa and Garrett, with whom we backpacked part of the John Muir Trail two summers ago. They'll be able to rent a nice double kayak at Ross Lake Resort and -- who knows? -- maybe we'll rent a boat too and skip the portage over the dam next time.
Frank approaches Cougar Island from the north on the final morning of the trip.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Death Valley detour

A happy couple take in the breathtaking view from Zabriskie Point.
Note the rare sight of water on the valley floor below the Panamint Range.

Morning light in Golden Canyon

In mid-November, Frank and I took a little detour off US Highway 395 in order to drive through part of Death Valley National Park. I had always wanted to visit there, so, since our itinerary was fairly loose, we hung a left at Lone Pine and drove east toward the Panamint Valley.

Prior to our visit, I had heard about flood damage in the area from what officials are calling a "one-thousand-year rainfall event" that had occurred a month earlier (video footage of the floods may be viewed here). So we weren't surprised to hear that road closures were going to make a good portion of the park - Scotty's Castle, the area south of Badwater, and Artists Drive for starters - inaccessible to us.

But the area is vast, and since we were only going to spend one night in the park, we decided to get a campsite at Furnace Creek and explore the nearby Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop trail the next morning.

Here are some images from our early morning walk in the canyon:

Flowing water over the eons sculpted these canyons in what is the hottest, driest part of North America. And evidence of the most-recent water event is preserved in mud - at least until the next rainfall washes it away.

The sublime quiet of the Mojave Desert paired with the majesty of its geology made me a very happy girl indeed!

Monday, March 23, 2015

A lovely Kauai sojourn

Frank captured the iconic Hanalei pier gilded by the early-morning sun.
Frank and I just returned from a much-needed holiday on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Our vacation spanned the first 18 days of March, and was marked by stormy weather, outdoor adventures and rich cultural experiences.
My new best friend is Petie, an Eclectus parrot.
Luckily for us, our trip dates coordinated with the vacation of Frank's old friend, Ted Hackie, who lives in the community of Princeville, Kauai, with his wife, Josephine. Ted and Josephine were due for a rare trip to the mainland, and were happy to have us stay in their house in exchange for pet care while they were gone.

We were in charge of Petie, a bossy but entertaining Eclectus parrot; Kola, a sweet and smart cream-colored golden retriever; and Kitty Boy, a low-maintenance ragdoll cat. I don't have any images of Kitty Boy, but you can watch a short video clip of the dog-and-bird game.
Petie gives me a kiss.

So, we had use of a comfortable and conveniently located house, a "local's" car (better, in our opinion, than a rental), a variety of recreational toys, and 2 ½ weeks of unscheduled time. What better?!! Adventure ho!

Paddling the Wailua River
One day we paddled Ted's sit-on-top kayak up the Wailua River, stopping for a hike through the jungle to Secret Falls (a bit of a misnomer, but nice), a visit to Fern Grotto (meh), to the upper reaches of the Wailua's paddle-able waters.

Another day we drove three-quarters of the way around the island to Kekaha, where Frank surfed a swell that traveled to us from the South Pacific. Brilliant sunshine and strong offshore winds produced some stunning ocean images.
Kekaha Beach with the island of Niihau barely visible on the left.
Kekaha Beach
Hula students in Hanapepe
On the way home from Kekaha we stopped in the historic town of Hanapepe for its Friday evening art walk, where we nibbled our way through the excellent food vendors, and watched some young hula dancers practicing on the lawn. Hanapepe has retained the Old-West look of a sugar plantation town, while the local economic alliance has encouraged artists, craftspeople and value-added producers like Anahola Granola and Lappert's Ice Cream, to set up shop there.

The famous and photogenic Queen's Bath is just a five-minute walk from Ted's house. Signs are everywhere warning visitors about dangerous surf conditions and rogue waves that will wash people out to sea, yet every year several numbskulls are killed there.
Queen's Bath
Laurelle at Queen's Bath
Frank at Queen's Bath

We hiked the first section of the Kalalau Trail on the roadless Na Pali Coast, stopping at wind-swept Hanakapi'ai Beach and turning up the Hanakapi'ai Valley to the stunning 100-foot falls, where fairy-like white-tailed tropic birds circled before the vertical basalt cliff faces.
Frank and Laurelle on the Kalalau Trail
Hanakapi'ai Falls
On the beach at Hanakapi'ai
Other birds we were pleased to view (but didn't photograph), most of which are not "loggable" in our Sibley app, include the Laysan albatross, red-tailed tropicbird, red-footed booby, and great frigatebird - all at the Kilauea Lighthouse National Wildlife Refuge, a breathtaking spot and the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands. In the wet taro fields around Hanalei we saw the endemic nene goose, the Hawaiian moorhen, also endemic, and the endemic Hawaiian stilt. We encountered the friendly little 'elepaio, a wren-like forest bird, on more than one hike, as well as two kinds of introduced cardinals, several species of doves, cattle egrets and of course, the ubiquitous red junglefowl (aka chickens).
I say goodbye at the airport with a Blue Hawaiian.

Cacao pods (red) growing along with the vanilla orchid
Poi making in Waipa
Two of the major highlights of our Kauai visit were cultural experiences: poi making with a community group dedicated to furthering Hawaiian culture, and a "tour de chocolate," which covered the basics of growing cacao and turning it into chocolate. I have so much to say about those two activities that I'm going to address them in a second blog post: Stay tuned, more to come.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Evolution Valley loop - August 2014

At the start of the trip. Good one, Lisa.
Frank, Laurelle, Garrett and Lisa set out one day on a walk in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They took a boat across a lake, walked through a meadow, traversed a gorge, swam in a lake and took lots of pictures. They climbed up and down. Five days and 45 miles later, the four returned to "civilization" - a little foot sore, but much better off than when they had started.

That's one way of telling the story.

Another way would be regulation travel blog post, with lots of maps, photos, facts and chronological order. Our route is mapped out here. I've stalled almost two months before beginning this blog post, perhaps because I don't want to sully a beautiful experience by taking it apart and looking at it too hard.

So I'm just going to share a lot of pictures with you, and hope you enjoy seeing some of the images we chose to record.

We spent most of the trip on the John Muir Trail.

The South Fork of the San Joaquin River was our trailside companion for two noisy nights and several days. It's a friendly river. It rushes down canyons, swirls around boulders and deepens into pools. I soaked my feet in it. I submerged myself in it. It made me cleaner.

I drank its cold, sweet water thanks to my handy new Oko water bottle. I was grateful many, many times.

This bridge got us across the river. There's a nice rest spot on the other side, and a camp in the trees just downstream.

Lisa and Garrett are great hiking partners. They are the most positive people you'll ever meet. Really. They sing a lot. The two of them somehow survived on half the food Frank and I ate. Honestly.

We ascended Evolution Creek on Day Two and were rewarded by stunning falls.

We were now in the Evolution Valley and around 9,500 feet elevation.
We stopped at the most perfect granite waterslide for lunch. I could have stayed there forever. But we kept on walking. Even more amazing places awaited us.

Evolution Lake

We ascended another thousand feet to Evolution Basin. It looks fake. It's the landscape of my imagination. I can't imagine life without it.

Lunch at Evolution Lake was followed by a bracing swim. I put on all my clothes afterward and warmed myself like a lizard on the in the sun. Nothing better.

Intrepid travelers.

Making our way around Evolution Lake. Our path will take us up through the gap at the far end of the lake and up almost as far as you can see.

We ascend into a landscape of rock and tundra.

Sapphire Lake - 11,000 feet - looking back the way we came.

Late afternoon heading toward No-Name Lake.

Tired. Cross country towards Camp Three - found for us by Frank - on the shore of No-Name Lake. I could climb no further that day.

Wind protection among the rocks at Camp Three - 11,300 feet. It was to be our only frosty night giving us frozen water bottles and 22 degrees Fahrenheit on Lisa's thermometer the next morning.

Alpenglow lit up the peaks before bedtime.

We ascended to Wanda Lake the next morning, our highest point in the Evolution Basin before going off trail for the next day and a half. The John Muir Trail continues over that saddle at the end of the lake and up to Muir Pass.

Garrett looks back over Wanda Lake as we began climbing over the pile of talus that divides the Evolution Basin from - what? - Davis Lake Basin? The headwaters of North Goddard Creek?

Tarn among talus at the highest point of the trip, a saddle at almost 12,000 feet.

Frank slowly descends over talus blocks, our difficult terrain for the rest of the day. The turquoise lake is unnamed and shallow, fed directly by snowfields glistening high on the dark peaks above. 

Lunch break on the way down to Davis Lake. We'll pick our way through the talus around the left side of the lake and across a finger-like peninsula, barely visible in the picture.

I took this photo of Frank, Lisa and Garrett ahead of me on "the trail," as they kindly waited for me to have a little meltdown. After hours of talus under foot, I was basically done. Somehow I kept wobbling along for another hour or so....

Davis Lake is on two levels. The upper level flows through this creek across the peninsula to the lower lake.

This is where we ground to a halt, dumped our packs, soaked our feet and made camp just behind the photographer. The clear lagoon was also the site of my bath before dinner.

Somehow everyone felt a lot perkier the next morning. Looking back the way we came, you can see the peninsula dividing upper and lower Davis lakes. We traversed the steep scree slope to get around the lakeshore on the left side of the picture. The divide leading back to Evolution Basin is visible at the far end of the valley.

Still off trail, we wound around the top end of Loch Davis before climbing over a saddle into the North Goddard Creek canyon.

We descended North Goddard Creek, criss-crossing several times.

Frank's and Garrett's expert and intuitive navigational skills enabled us to find our way back to an actual trail - the Goddard Canyon Trail - by mid afternoon.

We had to go the long way around this waterfall section.

Somehow Lisa and Garrett managed to look as fresh near the end of Day Five as they did at the start of the trip.

At the trail junction where we ended the loop and began retracing our steps, Frank and I looked a little less fresh, but we soldiered on to Camp Five near the steel bridge that evening. The four of us made it back to the ferry at Florence Lake by 2 p.m. the next day.