Our Nation's Treasures

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Spring rains in Washington state dampen hiker’s spirit

Mt. Rainier is the first National Park my husband, Mark, and I experienced together, 10 years ago. We drove in along a curvy road, shaded by leafy trees thick on both sides. After miles and miles of obscured views and no sunlight, a break in the tree-cover revealed the snow-capped mountain directly in front of us, looming so large Mark slammed on the brakes so we wouldn’t crash head-on into it. An illusion. Mt. Rainier was miles away. So breathtaking and unexpected was the scene, I’ll never forget it.

Unfortunately, yesterday, the first day of my solo hiking adventure, the mountain snuggled in amongst low-lying clouds and fog. It’s what I expected, visiting in springtime. In a mist that lasted all day, I hiked three trails in the National Park—which I had mostly to myself—through snow and over fast streams.

Today I plan an easy drive east along the northern border of the park to Crystal Mt. Ski Area just for the views. On the way back to my motel, I’ll stop at Federation Forest State Park for hiking.

The map shows that Federation Forest is small: two miles in length along State Route 410 to the north and the White River, at my estimate, 100 yards south. It looks like less than five miles of trails crisscross the area. This will be the perfect “easy” day between the 10 miles I did through snow yesterday and the 10 planned for tomorrow.

Plans change: I stop to hike at Federation Forest before heading on to Crystal Mountain.

In the visitor center I watch an hour-long program about Mt. Rainier before stepping out to the interpretive trail in a light rain.

After a looping half mile my jacket and boots have kept me dry. I decide to continue along the White River. The rain intensifies.

I’ve never seen such a thick forest. It’s a rain forest. I never consider going off-trail, but in this place, no one could. There’s no hope of progress off trail. Fallen trees and old wood rot beside ferns and flat-leafed, long-stemmed plants that grow from the ground. A thick, frost-green moss covers both fallen and standing trees and their limbs, like the “grass” from every Easter basket in the tri-county is stapled to every surface.

The spongy trail is pleasant in the steady rain—until the water hazards: stretches of 4–8 feet of unknown depth. The forest’s denseness makes getting around most of these impossible. I have to go through. My first two steps sink only an inch, but my laces are under by the next step. Automatically, the other foot steps forward to rescue the first, and it goes even deeper. Ugh. I’m in it now. This is quite the challenging hike, and I’ve probably come less than two miles. I’d rather hike through snow.

Up ahead, at the convergence of paths, is a white-roofed display of the park’s trails. I step under the roof at the same moment that the rain starts a heavier fall. The map shows that all trails circle back to the visitor center, so I continue in my original direction despite the rain.

Water hazards present themselves about every 50 yards, and at one place, a fallen tree blocks the path. These trees are old. I estimate this one to be five feet in diameter as, on its side, it is upper chest high to me. Again, the forest is too thick to make my way around either end, neither of which I can even see—this was a tall (now is a long) tree. Luckily, the tree took out some younger vegetation as it fell, and right next to it is a fallen tree of two-foot diameter. I step both feet onto the smaller tree, turn my backside to the big tree and hoist myself up. I swivel on my butt on the smooth bark and jump down on the other side—and see a water hazard just ahead. Ugh.

As I’m wearing rugged boots and my hooded jacket hangs to my upper thigh area, I’ve managed to stay dry except for my high ankles to just above my knees. But, now that I’ve sat and swiveled on a wet tree, my comfort has been compromised.

Finally, the end of the trail. Wait. What? “I thought all trails circled back to the visitor center,” I whimper to myself. I must have misread. This trail does end near Route 410. I consider taking the trail back for a flash of a second only; I’ve had enough water hazards.

As I’m crawling up to the road, I see a sheriff’s car coming fast from the east. I honestly consider flagging it down, but I don’t. I’m not that bad off.

I start my walk east along the road. My situation is not desperate enough to stop a sheriff in his duties, but I do wave down a Washington State Parks truck when it comes at me. It was the state park that put me in this condition.

The driver pulls over and, rather than roll the passenger-side window down to talk with me, a 40-something Asian man shifts to Park, gets out and walks around his vehicle, looking at me with concern, like I might collapse. I ask if I’m walking in the right direction and how far it is yet. He says it’s about a mile and asks if I want a ride. Boy, do I want a ride, but I’m not as pathetic as I must look, not bad enough to get in a vehicle with someone I don’t know.

I take off with an actual spring to my step; only a mile to go! A quarter mile further and the rains reach a higher gear still. Thank goodness I’m wearing my light-weight hiking pants. Wet jeans are the worst.

I turn my back to cars speeding by so as not to be met with a face full of spray. Soon I realize though that the backs of my legs had been dry. Now they’re wet. And cold.

However, my body, zipped into my jacket up to my chin, is generating too much heat. I unzip from the bottom and remove my arms from the sleeves but keep the hood up and walk with it open like a cape. Two minutes later I feel like I’ve wet myself. I look down to see that the wet line on my hiking pants has crept as far north as my crotch. By unzipping from the bottom, I made vulnerable my only remaining dry area. UGH!

Oh, and I find out what’s more uncomfortable than wet jeans: walking more than a mile with supersaturated undies bunching up at my behind.

Finally, finally! I see the mailbox for Federation Forest, about a half mile beyond where the ranger said it would be.

Still, mine’s the only car in the lot. I sit in it for a minute to catch my breath before backing out of the space, not even happy to be here because it offers me no relief from my wetness.

All plans to visit Crystal Mountain are off. It’s back to the motel for a hot bath and a call to Mark.

As soon as I get on the road, the rain stops—completely. However unbelievable, it’s true. I sigh and think, “Wow. What a day I’ve had.” And I notice the time. It’s not even noon yet.