Friday, August 29, 2014

Lava, canyons, and losing the trail near Mt St Helens

Mt St Helens from Ape Canyon Trail

When a coworker described the Mt St Helens trail loop she had just spent the weekend hiking as "great for a run," my interest piqued. I told Ann about it and we searched diligently, finding mostly accounts of mountain biking in the area. But the photos had us hooked-- we planned the route for our monthly summer adventure in July.

Mt St Helens lahar path

We were excited when plans aligned and our coach, Willie McBride, could join us-- and even better (for us) he would be tired from running 42 miles on the Olympic National Park only two days before.

First peek of distant mountains

Ann picked me up Monday morning and we were off. She immediately turned to me and let me know that Willie had texted her the night before, saying he was worried about a possible injury and wouldn't make it. We both breathed sighs of disappointment and relief. We were really looking forward to running with Willie and asking him tons of questions... at the same time as being nervous that we wouldn't be fast enough, or that somehow the group dynamic wouldn't work as smoothly as it does when it's just us (ie rest stops and food breaks).

Down the valley to Mt Adams

After eating delicious salt bagels (Ann bought and prepared) during the hour-and-a-half long drive, we arrived at the tiny Ape Canyon trailhead. It always takes a bit of time to make sure you're taking just what you need for an adventure like this, and as we finished adjusting our gear the fourth and last parking spot was filled by a car with a mountain bike on top.

Cliff view of Mt Hood

We took off, headed up the trail (Ape Canyon Trail #234) along a gently inclined, tree-lined ridge with amazing views of an open, rocky valley trailing down from Mt St Helens. Even though it wasn't particularly steep, we felt winded and checked the altitude-- to discover we were only at 2900ft.

Sexy marmot posing

There were a few peeks through the trees to the distant, big mountains-- Hood and Adams. A small group of mountain bikers politely filed past, and a couple of miles later we caught up to them at an incredibly scenic outcropping. They were impressed to hear our running plans, which gave us a good chuckle. Just a few hundred yards later, Ann spotted a marmot sunning on a rock which we stopped and photographed for a good long while, stepping closer and snapping pictures until it ran off.

Plains of Abraham

Down through the Plains of Abraham we ran, through rocky, dusty moonscape as close to St Helens as the day would take us. The views continued to be stunning as we ran up along high ridges and then suddenly down a spine so steep and narrow that wooden ladders bolstered the trail.

Distant Mt Rainier

At this point we could see a road curving away, cutting a flat path along the side of a hill. It was a bit confusing when our ridge trail ended and we took up this road, since quite a number of vehicles were parked on the road at the base of the ridge; there were lots of small groups of scientists out taking all sorts of measurements, and since the road was restricted access all of the cars must have belonged to them.

Mt Adams in blue distance

The dirt road eventually dumped us out at a very nice, built-up trailhead with bathrooms (but no running water) and a little amphitheater viewing area of the blasted-out side of Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake. Ann's map showed us running along the road for a tiny bit, but we couldn't see the next trailhead from peering up the road. Finally a park ranger drove up and we asked her. She didn't know what we were talking about, except that the vast stairs leading away from one side of the parking lot connected through to trail. So up those stairs we went.

The Loowit Trail circles Mt St Helens

At the top was a viewing platform with a sweeping view of Spirit Lake. It was absolutely stunning to see what looked like snow or a glacier on one side of the lake and to realize that it was a log jam, comprised of trees that were pulled down when Mt St Helens blew in 1980 and sent the water in the lake pushing up the sides of the hills before rushing back down with an entire snapped-off forest.

Selfie photobombed by Mt St Helens

We found the trail off to the side, and it was nice to be away from the pack of people again. The trail skirted, narrow and crumbly in places, along the side of hills and cliffs above Spirit Lake. This part was a bit nerve-wracking for me with my scree history, and I certainly wouldn't take kids on it, but I never felt truly unsafe. We came out again to the road and crossed it to stop at the Upper Smith Creek trailhead, where we sat down on a curb to eat.

Denuded hill next to Mt St Helens. Check out the direction of the blown-down tree trunks.

The Smith Creek trail zigzagged dustily down to the valley floor and we enjoyed the faster downhill and sweeping views, despite the sometimes steep and slippery spots. We were finally in view of the creek itself, running along, enjoying ourselves and the beautiful day immensely. But we began to realize that there was not one creek, but two-- on either side of us-- and suddenly the land we were running on ended in their confluence.

View of Mt Adams

So there we were with no trail and no idea where to find it. Checking the map, we saw that the trail kept the creek to its left (it did not, however, show two creeks coming together anywhere), so we knew to cross west and stay on that bank. We searched much longer for a dry way to cross the water than we normally would because it was dirty orange, slimy and stinky. Eventually we just had to go for it and splash across. Ew.

Selfie with Mt Adams

We cast around, looking for clues, staying within the wider riverbed. There was absolutely no sign of a trail, but we would see bike tracks and follow them until they ended in rocky areas where tracks couldn't be made.

Ladders down the steep, sandy ridge

About half a mile later, the canyon walls steadily rose and we came to another stop. The situation was beginning to feel dire. Looking around, Ann saw a piece of pink plastic tape tied to a tree branch just up the bank. And there was evidence of a trail. We scrambled up to it.

Ann racing down the ridge

Narrow, grown over, and fallen down the eroded bank-- we didn't care. It was a trail!

I'm guessing this sign was straight and had writing before the eruption

I pushed through until the path quickly grew fainter and fainter, and disappeared. Disparaged, I yelled to Ann, telling her not to bother. I cast around, looking for anywhere this trail from nowhere to nowhere could possibly have meant to go.

Trail through the blast zone

Straight up the hill, there appeared to be a ledge. The whole hillside and everything in view was covered in three-leaved brambles. I've never been able to identify poison oak (or poison ivy) but I know the rhyme "Leaves of three, beware of me." I didn't care. Climbing with my hands and feet, I rushed up to discover...

The blast zone side of Mt St Helens' crater

The trail! A wide, beautiful, groomed fire-road of a trail. Ann quickly joined me, and just as suddenly as we lost the trail when it disappeared at the confluence of the creeks, we were back on it.

This woman LOVES an uphill

The scare over, we ran easily along the well-graded path, through idyllic deciduous forest. Lined with birch trees perched above Smith Creek, the trail rolled gently and was an absolute pleasure to traipse. We even saw people: a couple standing off the trail in their big backpacking packs. I resisted the urge to query them on the trail insanity we had just experienced; we said hello without breaking stride.

Mt St Helens blast crater and Spirit Lake panorama
The Smith Creek Trail (#225) hit a junction with Lava Canyon Trail (#184) and we turned away from the gentle forest, up along the rocky edge of a deep canyon. The going was tougher, but the change in scenery kept it interesting.

Spirit Lake log jam and Mt Rainier
Deep blue waters of Spirit Lake

We came upon a few unexpected trail junctions, one of which took us up a ladder affixed to the side of a rocky pinnacle. A trail wound carefully along the top until dead-ending at a gorgeous waterfall view. We made our way back to the junction, grateful for the brief but adventurous detour.

Ann crosses the scariest part of the whole route-- scree on a slope after Spirit Lake

As we continued up Lava Canyon, rock walls replaced the trees. At the base of a 40-foot cliff, we waited our turn to use the ladder. A family of seven or eight-- including a baby in a front-carrier strapped to her mother-- were climbing down. 

View from Upper Smith Creek trailhead (Mt Hood)

We each exchanged words expressing surprise and admiration for what the other was doing. They were impressed by how far we had run, and we were impressed by their tenacity with a troupe of kids. While what Ann and I had just traversed wasn't bad, as we pressed on from whence they had come I would become more and more shocked at the absurdity of what these people hiked with four or five kids between maybe 8 and 12 years old. And an infant.

Now that's a narrow ridge
Up from the ladder, the trail soon became a narrow ledge cut into the side of the cliff, following the creek at the bottom of the deepening canyon. At times the extremely dry dust and grit made the path slippery, and at one point-- the only place with a handrail, a cable bolted into the cliff face-- a small waterfall trickled across the trail. Every time my foot slipped I thought of those kids.

Rusty Smith Creek with massive tree trunks stuck in its banks

We reached a plateau where we had a choice to cross the creek or not-- either way was the side of a circle that would take us to the same spot. While looking at the map earlier we had decided not to cross, assuming we'd have to make our own way over the water back and forth, and that side was a little bit longer. But in person, the crossing was a suspension bridge. That's not even a decision to make!

A well-used tree trunk bridge crosses a placid stream

We crossed the single-file suspension bridge, taking tons of photos, passing lots of families out for a casual stroll. Suddenly the trail was very different-- steps carved into the rock, more kids and grandparents, and then an extensive boardwalk. It was a bit bewildering to shift from a day spent in wilderness and getting lost, to dodging around groups of tourists while trying to keep our momentum.

Broken section of bridge in the distance looks like an AT-AT

We knew we must be getting close, and came to a series of long switchbacks on an asphalt path. I wasn't pleased. Road at the end of a long run is my least favorite thing, and I knew that after the Lava Canyon trailhead we still had a little bit of road back to the Ape Canyon trailhead where we had started. Plus I had run out of water.

Susan climbs the detour ladder
Ann climbs the detour ladder
We finally made it to the Lava Canyon trailhead, and it was more built-up than any we had seen that day-- bathrooms, a huge, multi-area parking lot, interpretive signs. I wanted to stop and rest a bit before running the road, but Ann insisted...

The photo Ann took
Ann takes a photo at the end of the detour

So we got on the road, started running, and BOOM. Our trailhead was right there. Seriously, it was about 100 feet away. We were elated, giddy. We changed into our cute, comfortable dresses and took off, chattering about the wonder of the route that took us through such varied ecosystems and magnificent views. And headed straight to the nearest Dairy Queen for our favorite post-adventure-run treat.

Waterfalls along Lava Canyon trail

I can't recommend this route highly enough. At around 26 miles, it's short enough to drive to, casually, from Portland. And be back for a good dinner. The altitude isn't bad, and there's not much climbing (of course, until the end). I highlighted our route, below in purple, on the map that was posted at trailheads throughout the area. Summer is the best time to run this, while the snow level is high and the water is low-- but we needed more than our packs' two liter bags could carry, and there aren't great fresh water sources.

Our route in purple


Ann on suspension bridge
Susan on suspension bridge

More Difficult: you're telling me!

Waterfalls in Lava Canyon

Blue water in narrow canyon channels
View from the Lava Canyon boardwalks

Helpful map of Lava Canyon-- not a family-friendly hike!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Last long run


A blue diamond Wildwood marker becomes a heart
This 24 miler was our last long run before tapering for our race-- the Overlook 50 Miles on Sept 6. It was a nice rambling route in the northern half of Forest Park.

A chain of origami cranes at the bottom of Firelane 15


Saltzman trailhead

FL5 to LE (6.58)-- 1.1 miles 
Leif (6.58) to Canon (le 11.17)-- 4.59 miles (5.69 total)
Canon to WW (24.63)-- .32 miles (6.01 total)
WW (24.63) to FL15 (ww 28.63)-- 4 miles (10.01 total)
FL15 to FL12-- .37 miles (10.38 total)
FL12 to BPA-- .51 miles (10.89 total)
BPA to WW (27.45)-- .25 miles (11.14 total)
WW (27.45) to Newton (ww 26.3)-- 1.15 miles (12.29 total)
Newton to Parking lot-- .6 miles (12.89 total)
Parking lot to WW (25.58)-- .15 miles ( 13.04 total)
WW (25.58) to Saltzman (ww 16.01)-- 9.57 miles (22.61 total)
Saltzman to TH-- 1.12 miles (23.73 total)