Beautiful Bell Creek

Memorial Day weekend. Normally, by this time, I’ve abandoned the gorge to the hoards of day hikers evident in it’s easy to reach places. Too crowded, too humid, and the higher places are opening up, calling me into the alpine.  

Not this day though. 

Andy, stopping to contemplate some of the giants
Today though, we are looking for something a little different- an unpopular, almost abandoned trail that fits the overcast skies, someplace we’ve never been before.

Bell Creek fits. 

single beargrass on the Oneonta trail

It has a reputation as one of the loneliest trails in the gorge, mostly due to its lack of accessibility. Until the Larch Mountain road opens up, it’s a minimum fifteen mile hike just to walk among these trees. From Larch, it’s what I like to call a reverse hike: all downhill on the way in, all uphill on the way out.

47 ° at the trailhead, the temp has dropped considerably since we left Portland. A reminder not to be too cavalier in the wilderness, even one this close to home. 

We wind our way down, staying in clouds, the trail lined with avalanche lilies and trilliums (little stars), guiding the way. 

trilliums and avalanche lilies

There is a primal, quiet feel among this cathedral of ancient trees, the forest floor hollow and soft. No sounds beyond the quiet noises of water and wind and the occasional owl. The sun was never really present, only offering fleeting glimpses of itself, but it didn't really need to be. When the gorge looks like this, all fog and water and gray, it feels like its true self. It feels secretive, aloof, cocooned and wild. It feels like home.  


Bell Creek trail

Bell Creek

It's almost June. Welcome to the PNW

We only saw six hikers, briefly, their forms appearing out of the fog, exchanged a quick greeting, and disappeared into silence again. For a holiday weekend in Portland less than forty minutes from home, this is an absolute win.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
~10 miles, ~1000 feet elevation gain

The Mountains are Magic

Something happens to the light in the alpine; it becomes fluid, harsh, mesmerizing- something akin to its own entity. We’re sitting at approximately 4200’, roughly 5ish miles into our hike. We’ve just turned on to the Loowit trail after popping out of the lovely and forested Ape Canyon trail. The contrast is stark: no shade, no misconceptions, just the mountain looming before us and the devastated Plains of Abraham to our right. 

sitting at the junctions of the Loowit & Ape Canyon trail, taking it all in

Then, J.B. busts this little brilliant little piece of trail magic out of her pack.  

all this credit must go to J.B.

About that time, a lone mountain goat traverses the pumice butte across from us, winds their way across the trail, and disappears into the mountainscape before us. No one else around to witness.

Pretty perfect lunch stop. The mountains are always magic. 

I haven’t been to the Plains of Abraham via the Ape Canyon trail since 2010. I remember, because it was also a pretty perfect day on the mountain- one spent alone with just me and my dog, when the wind was brisk and cold across the remaining snow and the sun bright and merciless above us as it tends to be in the treeless alpine areas of Helens. Today was reminiscent of that day, except I had the company of a good friend. The hike was J.B.’s proposal and I was all in, needing some mountain time.

2010 was a snowier year (this is taken late June)

I miss my trail boy (love you, Rock-monster)

House selling/hunting has been consuming almost all of my free time lately, and the self-care has been lacking. It always shows in my stress level. And nothing, nothing decompresses me like a day spent traipsing around in the mountains.

So needless to say, it felt really, really good to set my feet on trail. And this is a great trail, one that is a study in contrasts. The first few miles ascend through old growth that miraculously escaped the lahar that tore through the Muddy River valley in 1980. Later, glimpses of the blast zone become evident across the hillsides, toothpick trees following the trajectory of the pyroclastic flow. It’s also a four peak hike on a clear day with Hood, Rainier, Adams and (of course) Helens, all visible and in your face. The Plains themselves are a moonscape, a flat, harsh reality that are supposedly gorgeous in high summer during the lupine bloom, something I have never seen. Somehow, I seem to prefer Helens in the shoulder seasons between the melt-out and the oncoming winter.  

light breaking through the old growth on the Ape Canyon trail

evidence lingers of the Muddy River lahar

After our brilliant lunch of Pinot Gris, yogurt and cheezits (trail food of champions!) we wandered another hour or so along the Plains, taking in the transition of the mountain between spring and summer. We made plans to maybe partake in a Helens climb, J.B. being from Colorado and all which I’m pretty sure translates to summit fever. We’ll see.

beauty & devastation on the Plains of Abraham

Summer is just around the corner.

until next time, Loowit

Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington
~12 miles, ~1400 feet elevation gain

Where the River is More like the Sea

According to one of my kayaking books, the Columbia River is often more like the ocean than a river….”the wind and open waters…best suited to the sea kayak...with strong winds, rains, and tidal currents often present. “

On a gloriously beautiful Sunday in May, Andy and I decide to venture baby kayak paddle steps into the mighty Columbia. With the giant river this close to Astoria, tidal currents caused the river to ebb and flow +/- 8 feet on this particular day. Entire islands within the Lewis and Clark Wildlife refuge off Aldrich Point simply disappear beneath the tide, while the entire area becomes a maze of backway sloughs and channels at low tide. From our launch point, we can see the current is swift and strong, the tide flowing in and east, the late morning sun on our shoulders. At first, I am overly warm in my immersion gear, but quickly become grateful for it once out in the current.

high tide among the islands of Aldrich Point

Over the course of the next four and a half hour paddle, we find no solid ground to land on. Although we skim marshy areas with the ghosts of submerged flower gardens shimmering beneath our boats, the islands never present any feasible landing areas during the high tide. We thought this was probable, but it was good to confirm it. This is exploration, this is the stuff you find out about during new adventures. We paddle down a slough, drifting among cat o’ nine tails and raft up, sharing sandwiches and chips. The afternoon is simply a delight, watching a myriad of bird species flit in an out of the refuge’s waters: pelicans, eagles, herons, and all the smaller species I can’t even hope to identify.

underwater flower delights

By our turnaround time, we’ve ventured far enough north that we enter the Columbia’s main channel. Now comes the fun part, the ”uphill both ways on a kayak” experience: technically, the tide is going out, and flowing with the direction of the river, west, towards the sea. We turn west and downriver but it’s like fighting the current times ten. Why? Oh yeah, that late afternoon wind that flows east has cropped up with a vengeance, moving in contrast to the current, easily kicking up four foot waves with whitecaps. No longer a leisure activity, our bodies are locked in the boats, hips, thighs, knees and feet engaged with the hull, our torsos pulling determined, powerful strokes against an equally determined river.  We are only humored by nature in these moments.

It’s a reminder as we fight our way around the island and back across the myriad of channels not to be too confident out here. Lessons come back to mind: watching the flow of the water, angling the boat against the waves correctly, how to let waves roll under the hull so as not to flip yourself, positioning the boat in such a way to cross a long channel so that you end up where you actually want to instead of 100 feet downriver.

By the time we make it back, we’re pretty beat but grinning ear to ear. And both of us almost fall out of the boats, our now sea-legs unaccustomed to the steady land when we manage to finally detangle ourselves from the kayaks and stand up.

On the way home, we discuss and reminisce- it was a really good day. Not necessarily because we had the most amazing adventure in the world, but rather that sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing your body and learning to another level, storing knowledge, filing information away that is part of the process of learning new activities.

We are sure to have many kayak fails, just as we have had numerous hiking/backpacking fails. Experiences that teach, that build upon one another. Today was not only fun but instructional with some humility learned about how small we are against those waves, against the nature of water.