I’d always wanted to do Silver Star Mountain because, you know, it’s there. It’s thereness is pretty undisputed by the Vancouver, Washington, skyline, too, until you get to Mt. St. Helens who, as we all know, is willing to fight dirty.
I like to wash my brain clean of city thoughts during a long, meditative drive to a trailhead and Silver Star did not disappoint. It was a haul. I put some interesting miles on my vehicle, both paved and “other.” An early start mattered because backtracking this route in the dark sucks mightily (more on that later) so gettin’ ‘er done before nightfall was mandatory.
The waterfalls on the way were worth the stop. Moulton Falls has ambiance and restroom facilities–a powerful combination for road trippers. They were the last modern toilets encountered all day, so depending on one’s proclivities for bare-cheeked relief in the woods, this could either be a very good or a very bad thing. Despite the noxious strawberry-scented urinal cakes, there was still loveliness. This delicate Pale Beauty Moth, Campaea perlata, cleverly decided to be born nearly the same shade as the paint.Moulton was a double-edged sword, though. I had gotten there early enough to avoid the disappointing carnival of humanity, so its legendary humidity had not burned off yet under the sun. My stroll to the scenic bridge was as sticky as a high school locker room.The East Fork Lewis River was a wet mirror that admired the sky while concealing a frenetic world of trout and crayfish below. White petals floated down with every breeze and were borne away on a sleepy current. It was like a scene from a medieval romance novel not written by J.K. Rowling.Then the fun began. Every hiking book, every sign, and every person who’s ever been there will tell you the route to the north trailhead is not for low slung vehicles. Silver Star veterans utter the words “Forest Road 4109” with clenched jaws and slitted eyes. After innumerable bottomless potholes, a hairpin turn that made my axles whine, and a gully that could have concealed a small horse, I was inclined to agree. I had to access the dormant Colorado 4x4ing part of my brain just to navigate that gully.
Yet, sitting there at the trailhead, was a red sports car. It was covered in mud and had the look of something that an insurance agent would soon be walking around with a clipboard and a frown.
A hiking buddy is gratifying but a solo hike ensures serenity. Almost. Starting at the same time as I was a family of miscellaneous children, a father figure, and a mother with a voice like a Brazilian soccer announcer. Every topic that crossed her mind–the weather, the time, the location of her backup bottle of sunscreen–was delivered at top decibels. I suddenly decided to fall back and retie my hiking boots for fifteen minutes. I didn’t hear the birds again until she had marched half a mile away, cowering brood in tow.The prime reason Silver Star made my heart go pit-a-pat was its uncanny resemblance to the high tundra of Colorado. In 1902 the largest forest fire in Washington history, the Yacolt Burn, swept over the area and trees failed to reseed. As a result, rocky fields and open meadows now blasted my view wide open. The sky felt huge. There was space enough for the worst case of cabin fever to recover.
And at my feet the wildflowers were crazy-thick. I’ve never seen so many Red columbine, Aquilegia formosa, in one spot. It was as if someone had crop dusted the peak with Miracle-Gro.
**2012 was a phenomenal year for blooms, ask anyone.
Carpets of Creeping phlox, Phlox diffusa, were bejeweled with mist.Throbbing red Harsh Paintbrush, Castilleja hispida, glowed everywhere like embers.Avalanches of Avalanche Lilies, Erythronium montanum, cascaded down hills.
Mounds of a grape colored penstemon erupted from the rocks.If Dorothy were here, she’d have been skipping up the trail with Toto, chirping, “Penstemons, sedums, and phlox, Oh, my! Penstemons, sedums, and phlox, Oh, my!”
The famous arch on Ed’s Trail (#180A) looked unnervingly unstable, like a sudden cough might loosen it. Few hikers lingered directly underneath, selfies happened quickly. It was like the Riddle Gate in The Neverending Story: this rocky guardian was just waiting for someone unworthy to pass underneath so it could rain down cranial injury.
There was a precarious snow drift draped across the steepest drop off on Ed’s that needed to be traversed just when I’d rather not. This was made even more exciting by the hanging cloud of gnats and mosquitoes lingering above it, enjoying the last of winter’s moisture and the first of spring’s bare-legged hikers.If I accelerated to avoid an ass-biting, I tempted a fall straight down into an embarrassing and painful search and rescue scenario: “I was trying to get away from a bug, Sir, and I guess I slipped. Morphine? Yes, please.” If I crossed the snow gingerly, I would be set upon by dozens of mini-vampires determined to change my blood type to Empty. It was a quandary.
I decided to hike the mile-long spur trail (#180E) to the Indian Pits first to wait out the crowd on Silver Star’s summit. The spur was serenely quiet but required gaiters or thick pants to protect one’s shins from sharp-edged grasses, gooseberry, and other things that maim. The trail was so socked in with foliage, it was totally blind in spots. (You can drive yourself apeshit imagining large, ravenous things of the ursine persuasion thundering towards you through the tight brush, so don’t do that.)Sticking to #180E was a navigational nightmare for two reasons. One, it disappeared over rock slabs and outcroppings that made it tough to pick up again on the other side. Two, there were fun rock slabs and outcroppings that made it tough to suppress certain instincts. If you are a climber, that’s all I need to say.The Indian Pits were some of the best and deepest I’d ever seen and were wonderfully stocked with spiders: Arachnophiles, rejoice! Unfortunately, the varieties I spotted were skittish and didn’t hold still for paparazzi, so you’ll just have to take my word for it on how cute the little black ones were. No spider petting today.Once the body count on the summit got down to zero, I headed up.The old fire lookout’s remaining foundation at the top probably offers a spectacular view on a clear day but walls of rain were dragging themselves across my buzz by the time I got there. Still, I could see both Portland and Vancouver shining through holes in the meteorology. The Columbia River glinted like a sheet of aluminum in the late day sun. Below is Sturgeon Rock, getting a rain massage.
Instead of backtracking Ed’s, I made the return hike down Trail #180 so my knees could enjoy a gentler decline and my eyes could devour another enchanting wildflower smorgasbord.
An alpine violet, probably Viola adunca.
The sexy leaves of a corn lily. Hat tip to Curtis Mekemson, who knows his sexy plants.
Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia, decorating a rocky drainage.
An ocean of Western Bistort, Polygonum bistortoides. Insert Julie Andrews here.
My favorite, a delicate little alpine sculpture called Cliff Beardtongue, Penstemon rupicola.
I wasn’t alone in my flora appreciation, either: this beautiful click beetle was inspecting the garden with me. Well, he did more crouching and hiding than sniffing and swooning, but still.
Unique leaves on an anemone.
Unsurprisingly, thick clouds of mosquitoes lined both sides of Trail #180 in the upper, forested section. There was an almost constant whine careening toward my ears like a World War II fighter plane on a strafing run. Just like in the movies, the sudden crescendo of creepy music let me know when I was about to die. That’s another reason why it was better to come down this way rather than go up: in a pinch, it can be jogged to avoid exsanguination. Plus, it afforded a splendid view of any sunset action or, failing that, rainbows and rocks.
Epilogue: Seeing the sun dip below the horizon while still hiking on Silver Star meant my drive back was in pitch blackness through that same maze of axle-eating pits and troughs. I longed for a walking scout or a spotlight. The idiot in the red sports car better keep that insurance card where he can get at it.
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Special thanks to Bill Gerth, Faculty Research Assistant at the OSU Plant Clinic, for exercising his insect identification superpowers.