Reminiscence – Comfort Hike

A comfortable hike, like a well-worn pair of hiking boots or that fleece jacket that you always grab before heading out the door, is always ready, the ‘go to trail,’ the trail that gets chosen on those days when you can’t decide where to go, the trail that you have memorized switchback to switchback, the trail where you know exactly where to look during the right season to find small patches of wildflowers in bloom in a forest clearing, or hiding under an oak, that trail that you’ve hiked in all seasons, the trail you’ve hiked both early in the morning and late into the evening.

Over the years, I have had a few special trails that I’ve hiked throughout the seasons, winter snows permitting – a trail that I’ve become intimately familiar with. For the most part these trails have shared some commonplace traits, such as having at least one spectacular wildflower bloom during the year or having a view that is simply timeless. Birdsong, butterflies, white noise and solitude are other factors that create the relentless draw to return over and over to the same trail.

For many years my favorite spot was a bit of an in between trail. Part of longer loops, but also, for some reason, a trail that was never glamorous or had the reputation that other nearby trails had. Eventually dropped from hiking guides. Which, of course, became part of the attraction for me and my solitude seeking self.

Horseshoe Ridge was one of those trails that perhaps suffered in reputation compared to its nearby Mount Hood wilderness brethren. Perhaps because three quarters of the trail winds through deep wilderness forest, switch backing along the nose of a ridge until reaching the open scree slopes and the views revealed at trails end (although the trail continues along the ridge both east towards Cast Lake and south to West Zigzag Mountain). And perhaps because there are other trails closer to Mt. Hood, or on the slopes of Mt. Hood, those trails always drew more hikers.

An old favorite

An old favorite

The endpoint of the hike, a pile of huge basalty boulders at the high point of Horseshoe Ridge was the perfect place to sit and spend an afternoon. A 360° view, with Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams to the North, with Mount Hood filling the horizon to the East, the alpine attraction was obvious. With views of the Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness to the South and on particularly clear days the distant coastal range far to the West. That westward view was often filled with spectacular sunsets from the longest days of summer to the shortest days of winter, when the snow pack was scarce, always unobstructed, filling the horizon with color, making lingering the right decision.

Sunset from Horseshoe Ridge

Sunset from Horseshoe Ridge

The open meadows that surrounded this part of Horseshoe Ridge were filled with bear grass that bloomed hundreds of cream colored columns of flowers every other year, carefully interspersed with paintbrush, larkspur, sweet smelling Cascade lilies and the occasional tiger lily flashing orange above the greenery and ground covers. The cherry on top, as it were, was that the scree slopes on the ridge were filled with huckleberry bushes that feed both bird and beast, and covered the slopes in a riot of color every fall.

Horseshoe Huckleberries

Horseshoe Huckleberries

Depending on the winter snowfall, the hike was accessible from late spring until mid-fall. Horseshoe Ridge was the perfect place to hike. Never many people on the trail, and I mostly was shocked to see other cars at the trailhead. During the summer Horseshoe Ridge was a great place to view hill topping butterflies and hummingbirds feeding on wildflowers, with raptors often soaring overhead and Osprey nesting on the cliffs below.

The other reason this was such a perfect hike is that it was less than 90 minutes from home or work to the trailhead. There was many a day when I would leave work early on a slow summer day, and drive up to the trailhead, then speed hike to the top of the ridge to decompress and linger – read and write, enjoy the sights and sounds, watch the changing afternoon light drift into evening on the mountains and ridges – and then head back after sunset into the deepening twilight of the forest below. Again, this was one of those trails that I hiked so often that I could hike into the deepest twilight before having to pull flashlight out, and never felt at all lost or unsettled by hiking the trail at night. There was both joy and sadness arriving at the last switch back and heading past the trailhead sign before rejoining the road below. Looking up, there was always a window of stars shining in deepest black, framed by the tall dark firs lining either side of the forest road.

There was one stretch of trail, always in shadow, on the North side of the ridge, where sound simply disappeared. It seemed as if even the birds were complicit with this agreement. Living in an urban environment I always had to stop and absorb the silence for a while. The lack of sound was noticeable, perhaps even unsettling, but for a brief moment my body would also slow and pause in this unexpected void of sound.

Sound of silence at sunset

Sound of silence at sunset

I have an almost endless stream of memories from this hike. During a late, wet summer, I spent an afternoon with a very fat, content marmot who climbed and sat two boulders away from me, not 10 feet away, both of us sunning ourselves on a clear but brisk day. Only an occasional glance of concern whenever I would shift too much on my boulder chair. The time a tiny, Whiteface weasel, came rustling through the huckleberry bushes at sunset, to stop between my boots and peer up at me for a while – me, frozen in speechless joy at the experience. A full moon hike where a friend and I headed up the top of the ridge late in the afternoon, packing a big telescope to watch stars and moon, but also able to see jet skiers flashing on the Columbia River at sunset over 50 miles away! Of course, the full moon rising over the shoulder of Mt. Hood was breathtaking that evening, as was every full moon that rose over Mt. Hood that I experienced from Horseshoe Ridge. Hiking through shadow and light in deep forest.

Moonrise over Mt Hood

Moonrise over Mt Hood

In fall, high meadows of deep crimson and fiery orange, contrasting with the sun-bleached basalts, feasting on huckleberries along with frenzied robins chattering and flirting from bush to bush, as fall rushed to winter. So many timeless hours of alpine-glow on Mount Hood, the same, yet always unique and special. A classic mountain view that made it almost impossible to leave and head back home.

Beargrass & Alpenglow

Beargrass & Alpenglow

Was I ever stalked by a cougar during one of my evening hikes back to the jeep? Maybe. Did I startle deer, who in turn startled me back, rustling away through the darkness? Definitely. The slow shift of senses from sight to sound as the light leached away from the forest around me, and the air turned from warm to cool to cold on my skin, was always part of the experience of this trail.

So, how did my relationship with this trail fall away? The first time a massive winter storm washed away a bridge leading to the trailhead. It took the Forest Service two years to replace. Once the bridge was back in place so was I, but then the next winter another storm washed away part of the road leading to the trailhead. This time, because the road led to wilderness, and not timber sales, the Forest Service decided to retire the road – one of the very few roads leading to the West side of the Mt. Hood wilderness – the much longer, uneven Cast Lake trail mostly used by equestrians. Sadly, the Forest Service has a seemingly endless budget for building and repairing logging roads, but little budget for roads leading to trailheads. Not ironically of course, in later years the Forest Service proposed logging the entire area up to the wilderness boundary which would’ve required them to repair and reopen the forest road leading to Horseshoe Ridge trailhead (that proposal was crushed). I was always sad/mad that the Forest Service suddenly had money to repair and reopen the road for logging but that they were unwilling to do so for the simple pleasures of wilderness hiking. The Mount Hood National Forest is for felling, not for fun, I guess. There are still longer trails, with longer drives, to Horseshoe Ridge, but with this closure I moved on to a new ‘comfort’ trail. Horseshoe Ridge will always remain one of the formative trails for my deep love of the outdoors and hiking.

Classic Mt Hood from Horseshoe Ridge

Classic Mt Hood from Horseshoe Ridge

On New Year’s Day

For the most part, I would like my little blog to be about my experiences hiking and being in the outdoors. However, the truth of the matter is, at least for the last year, there has been an elephant in the room, or perhaps in my yard. I moved from Portland to Bend two summers ago and then into a house later that summer. I have always really loved to garden, mostly in the form of planting bee and butterfly friendly wildflowers – be kind to pollinators – as it were. Monarchs and Milkweed – my motto, if I have to have a motto – is that a motto?

My new house has the most generic of suburban landscaping, featuring a ton of lawn, which I loathe, and very little else. I haven’t owned a lawnmower in years and the first thing that happened with my previous two houses that I owned was that I removed the lawn. Well, suffice to say there was (is) a lot of grass in my current yard, and unlike Portland, I learned the chilling truth that at some point during the winter the ground freezes here in Bend (!!!) and thusly my year-round project of digging up sod came to an untimely end last winter.

The project of digging up grass, and taking it to the landfill, is sadly, mostly never-ending, for both my back and sad Subaru cum pickup. On the other hand, my first summer of planting flowers in the newly opened flower beds ended up with a plethora of different pollinators visiting my new plants, which made me very happy, and made for a successful summer, even if my hiking suffered.

I will be trying my best to balance between yard and trail this year, but my obsessive nature (feed the bees and butterflies) will probably swing more towards the yard again in 2015, at least until the grass is gone and more native and pollinator friendly flowers and shrubs have gone into the yard.

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Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, “It is a pleasure to be the real lover of nature to give winter all the glory he can, for summer will make its own way, and speak its own praises.”

On the first day of 2015, the snow that covers my yard also covers the Badlands wilderness, and a sunny first day on the year is enticing reason to get outside for some fun winter photography while stomping around off-trail in the snow!

After a few days in the teens or below, a day in the upper 20s seems downright balmy. A thermos of hot tea, a few layers of clothing and my camera and we’re off for a little late afternoon wander in the snow!

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My starting point briefly follows the tracks of a fellow human into the wilderness before I veer off in my own direction through the pristine snowscape. The fresh coat of snow may cover the ground like a blank canvas but that snow also reveals that life in the Badlands remains active, with the various types of animal tracks revealed criss-crossing the landscape. The Badlands may be silent on this winter afternoon, but there’s definitely wildlife out here, even in the dead of winter.

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On a sunny winter’s day the fresh snow on the ground turns the Badlands into a land of contrasts. Deep blue sky, dark green junipers, and their brown hued snag brethren, rising above a sea of white. The gibbous moon in the cobalt winter sky becomes another facet of the landscape.

Normally, the Badlands are filled with the scent of juniper and sage. On this day, the brisk air is sterile, cold is the scent of no scent. Juniper, a fantastically prolific pollen producer, shut down. Snow covered sage is sageless.

Every few steps revels another lovely pictorial snowscape. A limited palette of colors nevertheless reveals endless beauty at every turn in the long shadows of a late winter’s afternoon. Snow and ice glisten from junipers and sage; droplets of snow melt and refreeze into silver drops that capture and refract sunlight. Basalt pressure ridges become still foam white waves on the land. On the horizon, snowcapped Cascadian peaks via for attention. The cold moon oversees this snowy expanse through branch and snag.

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One thing I don’t miss about having a film camera is the ability to fire off unlimited photos from various angles and settings to try to get the most intriguing and beautiful shots of what I am experiencing. Cold, clear and silent. Every boot step silenced by the thick layer of snow, as I wander, silently observing light and shadow change as the sun quickly lowers in the southwest. In every season I appreciate the endless size, shape and personality of the junipers of the Badlands. Today, a snowy shawl and icy ornamentation, adds to their character.

On a rise, I watch the sun setting. For a brief period orange and golds add color to the snowy mantle of tree and snowscape, before dropping below the horizon.

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The most important point of today’s little adventure is to try and remember to create as many opportunities as possible to get out and hike, especially in winter and early spring, before the world thaws and I’m back planting in the garden once more.

Get out.

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A Horse Ridge Winter’s Afternoon.

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Dead silent on the ridge top, except for an early fly buzzing by. No bikers, no hikers, well met on the way down. Blue sky, late westering sunshine over Newberry Crater, filling the horizon. Juniper pollen! Oh yes, near 60, today! Trail dry. No snow. No bird song. No whispering breezes.

Blueness, stillness, sunness. Green/gold azure contrasts below deep blue skies surround me.

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Lumpy dark cinder cones and smancy stratovolcanoes in the distance. No rumblings today, though.

A weird flock of 30 to 40 somethings suddenly break the stillness as they flap and cry as they fly down below the ridgeline. Weaving and twisting in the air, going from somewhere to someplace else in the still space below.

Like white foam – skyfoam – an endless procession of contrails, the ceaseless coming and going of planes overhead, glittering and gone. Most so far above as to be soundless. A crow, instead, fills the empty void. Relax for a bit, humanity.

Sun lingers and long shadows spread farther and farther. The horizon fills with gold and then the sun is gone. Like a switch, the air grows rapidly from cool to cold. Don’t be fooled, mid-February it still is! Time to move, longer, lingering twilight, distant hills glow a faint red, Jefferson and Hood silhouettes fade in the dusk. The lands below begin to pool in black.

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Jupiter appears, the first beacon in the sky, high above junipered slopes. Mars and Venus, in a cosmic dance, follow in the fading light. I turn, Orion stands above Horse Ridge. Sirius, as always, a bright, flashing jewel in the deep blue to black twilight. The winter sky becomes breathtaking by degrees. A full panorama of planets and stars on display above darkened ridges. A timeless spectacle, but always breathtaking to me. Far from the city lights, I linger, head craned upwards as the Pleiades comes into focus. Can I get vitamin D from distant starshine? Perhaps. I stand still, facing skyward, absorbing distant D, soaking in a canvas of starry night in the sagebrush desert in silence.

Some Summer Moon

A perfect late summer’s day. But instead of hiking, the obsession I have had all summer of working in the yard continues to takes hold, so instead of hiking, I’m digging up sod this afternoon. I have a completist attitude, and my desire to dig up all the useless grass in my yard, and plant pollinator friendly flowers instead, is almost overwhelming. I want bees and butterflies in my yard, and I want to feed them. Grass, not so much. Every square foot of sod that I replace makes the rest of the yard all that more useless. There is a plan B in the back of my mind, of heading up to Pine Mountain Observatory for a visit, but yes, rock hard sod takes an afternoon of digging, plus the run to the landfill to dispose of it, so watching a Pine Mountain sunset followed by galaxy gazing at the observatory does not happen.

But after dinner, the itch to get outside is still there, and so is a big fat gibbous moon, and so at 10 PM I find I am leaving the house behind, with camera and tripod in tow, heading out to the Badlands to wander around for a while in the moonshine.

When I arrived, I’m actually shocked to see a car at the trailhead. Someone from out of state camping in the wilderness! How wonderful. Living so close by, the Badlands are a great hangout spot for me, but it would never occur to me to camp there. Funny perspective.

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How bright is the evening? I have both a headlamp and flashlight with me, neither of which I use as I wander on and off the trail! The trail is already a clearly defined swath in the sandy bright soil. Off I go. Immediately, mentally, I realize I needed to be out here, and that I have made the right decision.

Silence. No wind. Only the occasional sound of distant traffic. Owls sporadically hoot in the distance as they move both here and there in the darkness. Junipers stand solitary in the moonlight.

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The irony that I am playing around with my camera, by myself, in the middle of nowhere, on a Saturday night, is not lost to me. This is my life. At this moment I am bummed that my friends who were here almost a month ago, didn’t get to see this scene of the moonscape volcanic badlands, swamped in monsoonal rains as we were. In a short period of time that I have lived in Bend, I feel an intimacy with this landscape, as I did with my favorite places in the Columbia River Gorge, and around Mt Hood.

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I am having fun. Enjoying the silence – taking my juniper by moonlight photos – great photographer, I am not. But the junipers make excellent subject matter, and is their wont, infinitely patient as I play with settings on my camera. In fact, both the junipers, and the moon, are living a completely different timeline than I. The moonshine and high clouds rolling on the southern horizon diminish the stars, but 90 minutes of connection to the outdoors is renewing and satisfying. I did get outdoors today, I got my moontan and I was able to enjoy and observe another facet of the Badlands tonight.

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No great tale. No high adventure. But I was outdoors, looking up, as the moon looked down. Saturday night’s alright.

Get out!