Wilderness Hues

July 2nd, 2020

Climbing the mountainside, the temperature began to drop with the elevation gain. A welcomed change from the 90-plus degree heat in the Walla Walla Valley. In the truck bed lay my frame pack, stuffed to the gills with my pack tent, sleeping bag, spotting scope and scant provisions for an overnight in the wilderness. Glassing elk and locating a suitable fall campsite were the main drivers for the trip, yet these were ancillary opportunities.

A July wilderness pack trip provides an incredible sense of solitude with postcard-worthy scenery. Many of the beautiful blooms of spring and early summer in the lowlands are spent, making way for the future fruit. But higher elevations see a later flush of wildflower color.

Evergreen needles crunched lightly under foot as I softly padded from the trailhead. Exposed tree roots formed a natural staircase entrance into the Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness. The weathered wilderness sign to my left provoked a satisfied grin. The trail winds its way through a series of dark timber and mountain meadows, each boasting its own variety of color and pattern; the wildflowers clinging to the sunlit trail corridor and open spaces.

The first to grab my attention was the subalpine fleabane of the aster family. Its long stem extended a concave lavender flower head with a canary-yellow stamen into the middle of the trail, brushing my legs as I passed. A second purple beauty holding strong as a favorite of mine is the lupine family, to which belongs a variety of species found in the Wenaha. Their palmate, milky-green leaves and popsicle-stick stem of brilliant clustered blooms hummed steadily with the wing action of native pollinators.

The patchwork of meadows offered uniquely-colored ensconcing. Timber opened to a buttery rich blanket of yellow biscuitroot on the drier western slopes. The ground covered with the ornately arranged flowers clustered like a bowl of lollipops with all stems inserted toward the center.

A blanket of biscuitroot paints a vibrant floor in a mountain meadow

Yet another deep violet marvel that appears to be Venus penstemon is dashed among other species. Deeply developed flower heads remind me of catchflies, yet bees and flies are common pollinators of these flowers arranged like a series of tipped vases.  

Spurs of clearing extended into the timber displaying a sea of fiery Indian paintbrush in one meadow and a complimentary mix of fleabane, penstemon and Indian paintbrush in another.  Accents of snowy yarrow clusters poked through with the minor undertones of phlox and spring beauty. Chipmunks and songbirds chirped and scurried through the forest and ruffed grouse flushed from the recovering burns, thick with elderberry.

Stopping to glass the shaded slopes below, an alarmed elk barked its warning yet remained concealed somewhere in the dark timber. Soils softened by pocket gophers compacted underfoot, the already dried early grasses crunching with each step. Coal-black ravens and Oreo magpies drifted on the thermals, high above the deep draws, as hawks scoured the mountaintop, casting a suspicious eye upon the intruding human below.

As the sun stooped to the western horizon, I found a spot to rest on the edge of a meadow, tucked into the shelter of evergreens. With the tent erect and the air again cooling, I took a stroll out the spine of a ridge to see the sun off for another day and welcome the night.

Indian paintbrush sets the small forest alcoves ablaze

The absence of moon ushered in darkness that settled like a heavy quilt, masking all visual recognition from the human eye, save for the magnificent starlight. The atmosphere was thick and stagnant with not a breath of air. The pops and cracks of charred and sunbaked pine skeletons echoed deafeningly through the forest. I lay awake listening for the lonesome howl of a wolf and snickering softly as mule deer skirted my tent, bounding and blowing their distress as they circled downwind. The sleep that finally came was deep and restful.   

Dawn arrived as serenely as night and the cotton candy pink hints of the morning set the horizon ablaze. My pack stove hissed amid peak humidity for the day. Taking my cup to go, I sat and sipped, entranced in the aroma of a steaming cup of go-juice on the edge of an eastern-aspect meadow. The critters of night settled as the critters of day awakened and bustled. The red squirrel being one of the first and more obnoxious inhabitants to greet the day. 

With the sun climbing and coffee mug void of the succulent sunrise nectar, I collapsed my spotting scope and headed for camp. The elk had again evaded detection. With camp on my back, I followed faint deer and elk tracks back to the trailhead, marshaled out by the “good riddance” chatter of the furred and feathered occupants of the forest. The sun now high overhead, blazing atop the kaleidoscope of wildflowers and wildlife, I dropped the truck windows and left the forest to resume its routine, uninterrupted.

Winter Hiking Beats the Blues

Published January 21, 2021

Now in the heart of winter in the Blue Mountains, the days are short and wet in the wheat country, and snowy in the higher timber. Aside from the usual chores neglected over autumn and the holiday season, staying active is important to ward off the suffocating clutches of cabin fever and depression in our short and sometimes foggy days of the early calendar year. Of the myriad ways to entertain oneself, the most popular outdoor activities are rather obvious. Ski Bluewood is a prime option. But what about those of us with a high center of gravity? While a fall is inevitable, some of us are far more skilled at falling than remaining upright, myself in included.

Winter hiking and snowshoeing can be just as exhilarating as a swift flight down the mountain. Every winter activity has its hazards, but meeting inanimate objects at speed is much less of a concern on foot or snowshoes.

Time spent in the snowy forest is far different than any other condition, particularly when the wind is calm, the snow is fresh or soft, and a bluebird sky allows the warmth of the sun through the evergreen canopy. Golden rays dance across delicate ice crystals creating a prismatic experience like walking atop cake frosting scattered with glitter.

Amid the winter stillness of the forest, every sound is significant. The pecking of a nuthatch seeking bugs in flaking tree bark. The chatter of chipmunks and red squirrels as they forage while the weather is favorable. The hollow “snort” of a mule deer as it blows its alarm call. And the echo of the raven, cawing as it rides the thermals above the deep canyons.  

When disturbed, forest life is quick to return to business-as-usual once things settle down. I recall a glorious morning in the Wenaha with 18 inches of snow in the shadows while the southern faces had already melted clean. An alarmed elk barked in the canyon below, so I settled down to try to spot it. The deafening silence of the forest erupted into a bustling community only minutes after I ceased lumbering through the middle of the busy lives scurrying about.

Snowshoe hares are a gem of the Pacific Northwest, residing in our Blue Mountains. Their massive tracks crisscross mountain meadows, seemingly competing with those of the mule deer. They remain motionless amid the dappled shadows of vegetation much of the day, feeding largely at night to avoid detection. But on a lucky occasion, a hare can be seen with a little time and patience in an area where they are active.

A snowshoe hare spends its day hidden behind brush (photo by the National Parks Service).

The American red squirrel is our native chatterbox with the bushy tail. With a tie to evergreens, they are as western as spruce grouse, feeding on cones and other parts of pines and firs. It doesn’t take long for these speedy critters to appear if you take a short break. They have little fear of humans and are quite mischievous. On many occasions, these boisterous rodents have dropped debris on my tent at the first light of dawn, chastising me for camping in their domain. They often clamber closer to cast squirrel obscenities at the intruding human, presenting photo opportunity, perhaps posing atop an overhead limb.

These warm January days with temperature in the mid-40s present a prime opportunity for a family outing or a peaceful solo stroll to gaze upon the grand panoramas visible from some of the local mountaintops. When venturing into the snowy wilderness, its good practice to carry a backpack with water, snacks, and an extra shirt and sweatshirt or jacket, in case you end up wet.

The winter forest is also a prime for photography and journalism to record observations of fur, feather and landscape. Winter photos can be dramatic but are often overexposed due to the snow’s reflectance. If you carry a point-and-shoot or mobile phone, post-editing filters or exposure adjustments are likely needed. If you happen to carry something more sophisticated like a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera with adjustable aperture and shutter speed, be sure to take a few early test photos and dial in your desired exposure before setting up to capture that magazine cover-worthy image of a chipmunk with bulging cheeks or a grouse that flushed onto a nearby limb.

Winter nature hikes are fun for everyone. Exercise, tranquility, and the beauty of our natural world are soothing and refreshing. Grab your camera and boots, and immerse yourself in the soul replenishing inspiration of our natural winter world.

An American red squirrel enjoying an evergreen cone breakfast (photo by the National Parks Service).