It’s a Rainier Kind of Year

This summer has been full of Mt Rainier.  We climbed it and hiked around it, so there was really nothing left for me to do except go and work there. I am three-weeks into an Emergency Hire position out of Carbon River that will last until October.  Really, I am just continuing to round out my Mt Rainier year.  My job there has me building a 40ft bridge along the Carbon River Rd (now open only to hiking and biking) with a team of two other people.  From where we work in the Carbon River Valley we cannot see the mountain every day, but what I want to write about is the new parts of Mt Rainier I am coming to love, the parts I didn’t expect to strike me so hard after having witnessed the stunning brilliance of the mountain itself.

Every day, to get to the work site, the three of us pile into an UTV and head up the Carbon River Road.  The road has been closed ever since the 2006 flood (everyone at the park talks about this date with a monumental reverence, seeping this flood in a kind of powerful mystery) and now the only vehicles that access the Ipsut Creek Campground using the road are NPS trucks and our little UTV’s.  Visitors hiking their way back down the road towards their cars often give us dirty looks as we zoom by.  According to the long time park employees it is a serious shame that the road is closed to cars because the Ipsut Creek Campground used to be a hopping popular spot, filled with locals and tourists alike.  Many of them recount their own nostalgic memories of visiting the campground as kids with their whole families and lament that they will never take their own children there some day.  But alas, the road was closed with the sweep of a pen and now only the occasional visitor makes it all the way to Chenuis falls where we are working.  Not knowing the history of the road or having any sort of emotional attachment to “the way things used to be” I relish the quiet little corner of the park we have found ourselves in.

On the way to the work site in the morning the cold wind cuts right through all of our clothes and water streams out of my eyes.  I pull my fleece buff up over my nose and under my visor, causing my visor to fill with condensation and obscure my vision.  Luckily, I am not driving.  But in the afternoon at 6:30pm, when we are returning after a long twelve-hour day of work and the air has had a chance to warm all day, I am able to look around at my surroundings.  This is what I see:

I see an old growth forest.  It is dramatically different from the forest service land across the river, where every tree is identical to the tree next to it.  You can tell this forest, the Carbon River Rainforest, one of the last inland temperate rainforest in the continental United States, is old and healthy because of the variety that is present.  There are giants, huge Doug Firs and Alaskan Yellow Cedars, towering above the rest.  They are draped in moss capes and kimonos.  Moss shrouds their limbs and at 6:30, when we drive through, a golden light is cutting through the quiet air.  We call it the golden hour and look forward to it every day.  The sea-foam greens of the lichen, the pine fresh needles of the trees, the bright translucent huckleberry leaves and the dark leathery green of the Salal are all awash in a yellow glow, filtering the light through them, casting shadows onto the forest floor.  I read an article recently about how people are discovering that the remarkable variety of plants in old growth forests creates unique light that is specifically needed by certain plants to grow.  When you are in this forest at this magic hour, when the sun rays become dancers on the forest floor, you do not need scientific proof to know that this is true.  The light is different here, and it is good for the soul and the chloroplast alike.

But is not just the giants that amaze me as we whip by on our UTVs.  Down on the forest floor the giants have become the mothers.  Bridges of life span the ground where nurse logs rest.  On top of them entire forests grow in a row, Vine Maple and Hemlock twine twigs while Kinikinik, Trillium and Vanilla Bean keep their roots warm.  A sea of Devil’s Club protects the nurse log and there is no doubt in my mind that ferries get down to that boogie beetle jam amongst the Elder Berry and the Blue Berry once the sun goes down.  I never thought that a nurse log could take my breath away until I started whizzing around the Carbon River Rainforest.

Then there is the river itself.  The road draws close to the river at times and then retreats back into the woods, no doubt afraid of what will happen next time the river decides to flood.  When the road does burst from the trees to flirt with its own death near the river bank everything changes.  Our visibility opens up onto the cobbled expanse that the river claims.  The river is only ten, maybe twenty feet wide right now, but its river bed, its comfy cozy bed that it calls home is a hundred, maybe two hundred feet across.  This is because the river is a restless wanderer, just like the rest of us. It has passion and curiosity pent-up in its headwaters. For now though it winds amongst round river rock of grey, green and blue, allowing the Alders to come closer and closer, so that the wind can whisper to the river through the fluttering leaves of the trees.  The river itself is white with silt, white with the melting glacier blood from above, white like liquid ice.  You can tell the days when it is cold on the mountain because the river has a tinge of green, of aquamarine, of blue around its edges.   The rangers say it runs clear in the winter time.

I think all about Rainier while I sit in my folding chair next to my tent, in the field where we all live, watching a coyote chase a rodent and a herd of elk eye me suspiciously from the forest’s edge.  How one place, for so long, meant one thing: a giant mountain in the distance.  In the span of a summer it has come to mean so much more.  It is still a mountain, one that remains a dangerous mystery despite having climbed it, but it has also become parks and tarns and meadows, visitors asking questions, this bridge, that river.  It has become memories and relationships, with my family, my co-workers, Kyle, my climbing team.  Just like that I have become attached, and not to the stasis of it because the mountain is always changing.  I have become attached to the instability of the mountain, how volatile and versatile it is.  Unpredictable and unapologetic.  It seems crazy that it has taken me so long to form this one-sided relationship with a mountain that has overseen my entire existence, but it has finally happened and damn it feels good.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

12 thoughts on “It’s a Rainier Kind of Year

  1. Hi! This is beautiful! I am going to be in the park for two days one night and I was wondering if you recommend anything in particular to do/campsites for the one night!? The help is appreciated 🙂

    1. Of course! Are you looking to car camp or overnight in the backcountry. If you wanna car camp I’d go to white river! It’s stunning and then you can do a day hike up to summerland and sunrise. If you wanna go overnight to somewhere in the backcountry I would suggest trying to get a backcountry permit for summerland. From there you could venture to panhandle and Indian bar. Also, mowich is another great drive in campground. It is technically a walk in campground but you can park your car around 200′ away. Then you can check out spray park!

    1. Thanks Jim! Good luck with your climb, if you need any help with deciding what gear to bring or where to spend time after you summit let me know! I look forward to checking out that post.

  2. My son and I backpacked the Northern Loop Trail last week. It rained and sleeted on us three of the days, snowed 3 inches as we crossed Windy Gap, and taught us that clearly things like weather reports are trifle and silly when it comes to taking on this incredible and giant mountain. We left with a solid respect for Mt. Rainier, an understanding of “the mountain makes its own weather,” and a deep desire to go back again and again. It was truly a difficult yet beautiful experience.

    1. That is wonderful! I think being able to take an experience like that and still yearn for more means magical amazing things are in your future! Only once we reach the edge of our comfort zone do we truly begin to grow!

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