Monday, July 20, 2015

Day 8: Cameron Basin to Grand Valley, by Alexandra Bradley (Student)

Day 8 - Saturday
Waking up with the sun. Photo credit: Tim Billo

Our night spent cowboy camping in Cameron Basin was memorable for all, and waking up there was itself an experience. Emerging from my sleeping bag I opened my eyes to find that the sun had just started to hit the top of the ridge of the basin, small tan Pipits chirped and bees were whizzing overhead busying themselves as the air warmed up. I didn’t know what time it was, I was used to guessing after 8 days without a watch, an item I purposefully did not bring. I knew it was early because I was the second one awake, of course, the first being Tim who was off taking pictures and letting the sun be our alarm for the day.

One by one, everyone emerged from the warmth of their sleeping bags and shared their excitement of waking up in the middle of the night and groggily opening their eyes to see a magnificent display of stars and the Milky Way in it’s utmost clarity above their heads. With no tents to pack up and the proximity of our camp to each other and the stream we were ready quickly. A breakfast of oatmeal and tea would serve as the fuel for the grueling day ahead.

The source of the Cameron River snaking down the valley, Fireweed flowers in the foreground. Photo credit: Tim Billo
Nick and Tim would rejoin us on the trail later, they were on a mission to find a stand of Engelmann Spruce that was rumored to be a few miles from our location. The rest of us followed the trail that ran alongside the stream that would eventually become the Cameron River. Here it was surrounded by lime green and goldenrod colored moss with tall purple fireweed flowers, later it would be deeper, wider and meander to lower elevations with massive trees and inescapable greenery. The trail lowered into the valley and staying on it became a more mindful task with the meandering stream and thick, overgrown vegetation. About three miles from Cameron Basin we found the trail junction that would take us left up Grand Pass. A moment to relax at the junction quickly became an assault of flies as we tried to eat a snack and reapply sunscreen.

Now the task at hand was a demanding 1.8 miles in which we would gain over 2,000 feet of elevation. I spent most of the ascent of Grand Pass by myself, experiencing what felt like the whole spectrum of human emotion. Switchbacks seemed infinite and the sun felt miles closer to my skin. Nick caught up quickly and charged ahead, I quickened my pace. For a few minutes. As the trail approached a small creek running steeply down the left side of the mountain the trail turned into a two-handed scramble then returned to the familiar high altitude trail we had become accustomed to. The last push traversed the steep mountain and the trail was now small loose rocks along a narrow path, the juxtaposition of the wall of rock to your left and a sharp drop to the valley on your right were enough to test your balance if you dared to stop and look up.

Eva approaching the tree line on Grand Pass. Photo credit: Kiley Sullivan

Piper's Bellflower. Photo credit: Tim Billo
Piper’s Bellflower was growing near the top of the pass, it’s purple flowers and waxy leaves are endemic to the park and found nowhere else. I considered it a prize for reaching the top. After a quick dunk in the tarn atop the pass and a bowl of granola for lunch Tim’s group reached us and led those who could muster the energy to climb Grand Peak. Views from the pass were beautiful, a gradient of rocky bare peaks to the dense forests below and were nothing less than mesmerizing. Atop Grand Peak we stood at attention with 360 degrees of mountain peaks and valleys surrounding us. Tim’s trekking pole became our compass needle as he pointed towards Deer Park where we started then through each mountain pass and valley we had walked through and peaks we had seen. Also visible were familiar features from home but seen from a new perspective - Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, Mount Rainier, the Puget Sound, and Cascades.

The small lake near the top of Grand Pass, dammed behind a glacial moraine (the glacier melted some time ago) welcomed by all for a tall glass of water and to dunk our heads in. Photo credit: Kiley Sullivan

Facing Southwest the remnants of Lillian Glacier can be seen. This historical photo shows the glacier's size in 1905, and below, the photo Tim Billo took shows the glacial retreat back to just a few remaining patches. A visit to the National Park Service site for the park depicts and explains the retreat of glaciers in the park. It is a reminder that our landscape is in constant flux, simultaneously eternal and transient. Throughout the trip we saw the effect of previous climate change as Sub-Alpine Fir creeped down it's range, or Douglas Fir moved up in elevation, now we are seeing the effects of a modern-day changed climate as mountain-sculpting glaciers disappear foot by foot.

Lillian Glacier photographed in 1905, courtesy of the Olympic National Park website,, and researchers Bill Baccus and T.J. Fudge.
Lillian Glacier July 18, 2015, arrows aligned with arrows in the previous photo. Photo Credit: Tim Billo
Photo taken July 18, 2015 shows retreat of Lillian Glacier. Photo Credit: Tim Billo

Remaining glacier ice on Lillian Glacier. Photo Credit: Tim Billo
Even on the finite budget of time our lives are given, the changes happening in this park are observable and being in tune with the natural processes and history was key. Seeing Fir pepper themselves into meadows, standing next to a giant Douglas Fir that persisted after the climate cooled back down, breathing in the smoke of a wildfire in the nearby rainforest and watching a glacier melt under your feet are visceral experiences and learning that is hard to describe to others. Standing on Grand Peak offered a moment to think about the living, breathing, dynamic nature of the park around us.

Gathered on the shore of Moose Lake for dinner and discussion. Photo credit: Tim Billo

It was getting to be late in the afternoon so we cruised the last two miles where six of us made camp at Gladys Lake. Because of the size of the group and the area’s capacity, the other five continued on another half mile to Moose Lake. Gladys Lake was quiet, with a healthy population of flies and mosquitoes that mostly left us alone as we sought to splash some water on ourselves before hiking to Moose Lake for dinner and discussion. Our tent was set up in a stand of sub alpine fir but we left our rain fly off to take advantage of clear skies to stargaze later. Prepared for dinner we set out with headlamps, coats and food to join our classmates on a beach at the lower lake. Dinner was the last half of our spaghetti with Parmesan and tomato paste, curried couscous to share and Gatorade. Before the light got too low Tim spotted a mountain goat perched on the ridge we faced, the stark contrast of it’s white coat added to its mystique, and the next time I glanced up, it was gone. After dinner our discussion was led by Shane and explored the importance of experiential learning and we heard everybody’s highlights of the trip. It was a nice way to wrap up our shared experience and relive the fun moments again before we rejoined civilization.

Alpine plants finding a way to grow. Photo credit: Alexandra Bradley
A deer near the glacier. Photo credit: Alexandra Bradley

I have been thinking a lot about why wilderness is important to me during and after the trip. During the time I spent alone in the meadows beneath Sentinel Peak I wrote so much my hand could hardly keep up. What first came to mind was the escape wilderness offered. It almost sounds selfish now, but Muir and Thoreau said the same thing. I use backpacking as a physical refuge from the responsibilities, demands and fast pace of the city I grew up and live in. Especially after taking several years off before coming to UW, I need a distraction from distractions and I love being away from cell service, emails, chores and bills. Backpacking also offers many levels of connection that often go ignored when going about city life. Connectedness to my emotions, the physical body and it's needs, and awareness of solitude are things that I look forward to when in nature. 

The romantic allure of wilderness resonated with me on this trip every day. Immersing myself in a landscape makes me more able to learn about it's geomorphology, it's plants, it's animals, it's subtleties, and it's liveliness. When it was quiet, it seems effortless to assume the role of invisible spectator and unseen admirer. It is possible to slow down day hikes and revel in nature in a similar way, but being unburdened with a heavy pack and knowing exactly what four walls you will sleep in that night distance you from a more visceral experience. I enjoyed so many moments on the trail during our trip it would be impossible to list them all, but I try and share them with friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances in the hopes of inspiring them to go out of their comfort zone and embrace experiencing nature in a new way. Most importantly, this trip taught me to expand what backpacking can be. It is not the destination, it is not simply getting to a spot and relaxing. It can be so much more if your mindset allows you to learn along the way, discover and try to understand new things, and climb peaks on your rest day then sit and read your book. I am going on a short trip this weekend and hope to do more exploring, writing and sketching.

The blog post author feeling small in a quiet meadow. Photo Credit: Alexandra Bradley
Below the junction of the Grand Pass trail and the Cameron River trail, Nick and Tim went on a running excursion to seek an unusual population of Engelmann Spruce. This species is rare in the Olympics, and may have persisted in this valley in a refugium, through several ice ages. Today, the species is much more common on the east slope of the Cascades and in the Rockies. However, some of the largest specimens in the world of Engelmann Spruce can be found at this locality in the Olympics. Here Nick has climbed up the buttress roots of this tree, found on a bushwhack off of the Cameron River Trail, to give it a hug. Note that Nick is 6'5'' in height himself, so this is no small Engelmann Spruce. The species seemed to be reproducing well at this location, with many saplings on nurselogs, and several small trees encountered along the trail between 3400 ft. and 3600 ft. of elevation.

The bole and crown of the same tree. A gorgeous specimen, worthy of many "points" to big tree hunters!