Striking Hiking Gold on Silver Star Mountain

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. Silver Star13Helens 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.

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Silver Star2The 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.Silver Star15But Moulton was a double-edged sword. 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.Silver Star3The 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.Silver Star14Then 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 silver star lifted truckveterans 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.

silver star duct tapeI’ve always said that a hiking buddy is nice 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 codependent brood in tow.Silver Star24The 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 the view wide open. Even an overcast sky felt huge. There was space enough for the worst case of cabin fever to recover.Silver Star25Silver Star26

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The wildflowers were crazy-thick. I’ve never seen so many red columbine 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.

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Carpets of Creeping phlox, were bejeweled with mist.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrobbing red Harsh Paintbrush, glowed everywhere like embers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAvalanches of Avalanche Lilies, cascaded down hills.

Silver Star17Mounds of a grape colored penstemon erupted from the rocks.Silver Star18If 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!”

Silver Star20The famous arch on Ed’s Trail (#180A) looked unnervingly unstable, like a sudden cough might dislodge 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.Silver Star21

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 who were enjoying the last of winter’s moisture and the first of spring’s bare-legged hikers.Silver Star22silver star mosquitoIf 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. silver star mosquitoThe spur was serenely quiet but required gaiters 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 tight brush, so don’t do that.Silver Star27Sticking 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.Silver Star28The 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. You’ll just have to take my word for it on how cute the little black ones were. No spider petting today.Silver Star29Once the body count on the summit got down to zero, I headed up.Silver Star30The old fire lookout’s remaining foundation at the top probably offered 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 and the Columbia River glinted like a sheet of aluminum in the late day sun. Below is Sturgeon Rock, getting a rain massage.

Silver Star31Instead 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.Silver Star32

The sexy leaves of a corn lily. Hat tip to Curtis Mekemson, who knows his sexy plants.
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Serviceberry decorating a rocky drainage.
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Haven’t ID’d this yet, but those tight little bud helmets are way cool.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An ocean of Western Bistort. Insert Julie Andrews here.Silver Star36

My favorite, a delicate little alpine sculpture called Cliff Beardtongue.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That radioactive shade of fuchsia is on my list of biteable colors.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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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.

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silver star mosquito2Unsurprisingly, 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.

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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.

June 29, 2012

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Special thanks to Bill Gerth, Faculty Research Assistant at the OSU Plant Clinic, for exercising his insect identification superpowers.

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65 thoughts on “Striking Hiking Gold on Silver Star Mountain

    • Thanks, Curtis, your huge brain has been immortalized in the blog.

      I seem to recall wading through Monkshood and corn lilies up to my armpits in Durango, Colorado. I never knew what they were back then but I knew they weren’t skunk cabbage and that was a good thing. Wade through a field of THAT stuff and your hiking buddies will construct you a lean-to fifty yards from camp, no questions asked.

      PS: Wine in your water bottle? Portlanders carry Starbucks.

  1. I’m not sure if I admire your photographic ability or sense of direction more, but that adventure made the three blocks I live 90% of my life in feel shamefully cramped.

  2. I liked your latest post. The image of the bridge making a perfect circle in the water is outstanding. Having watched you compose pictures, I suspect you spent a lot of time getting that perfect. You make me want to walk those trails, but then I remember I have trouble walking up from the garden. Love DA

  3. Amazing post. I’d have to say my favorite blog post of the year. Your writing was spectacular and the photos exceptional. There had to be about a dozen times when I said aloud, “That’s it. I’ve got to get to this hike.” And then you’d mention the mosquitoes. It kills me to have to live vicariously through your words, but if I must, I will be choking with laughter the entire time. Brilliant.

    • Thank you! I will admit it’s one of my top ten favorite hikes in the Pacific Northwest for sheer ambiance. If I could spray for both tourists and mosquitoes, it’d make it to the top three.

  4. Love that columbine carpet – I saw a lot of these columbines here in the Virginia mountains, more than usual. Maybe, I am just tuned in to them more? Beautiful hike, lots of attention to wildfllowers, what’s not to love?! Oh, damn, those pesky mosquitoes. The mosquito sign is hilarious…

  5. I like ‘washing my brain clean of city thoughts’ and I like silence too. I find it it in swimming, long leisurely laps at the pool and in long, solitary walks along the beach or along the river

  6. Awesome! To paraphrase an old commercial, I ate up the whole thing. They don’t make scenery like that here in the midwest….still, Mother Nature has beauty to spare no matter where she is left to do her thing.

  7. I had to take a vitamin just to take this journey with you via internet! Whew! The photos are lovely–I’m so glad you took the time to identify the plants. I’m on the East coast, so many weren’t familiar to me. (I do have a Serviceberry in my garden.)

    I can’t even imagine how much time you spend making your blog so delightful. Love all the witticisms.

    • Answer: about a week. Downloading photographs, reformatting my camera, discarding bad photos, selecting good ones, tweaking light/focus/etc. on each one individually and cropping, renaming photos, downloading and arranging them on WordPress, writing story around them, rewriting story, rewriting story, rewriting story, vodka, editing, more vodka, adding cartoons and comics, more editing. identifying all animals, plants, and key locations and landmarks in photos, adding links, checking links for accuracy, checking white space visual balance, checking photo block visual balance, making sure text blocks are digestible, adding tags and categories, holding finger over “Publish” key for infinite length of time, publishing, celebratory fudge, and then five extra days of rereading and discovering stupid crap I missed the first seven times.

      Because writer.

      And thanks.

    • I love details, too, that’s why I prefer hiking alone in silence. I can focus all of my being on absorbing the sensory nuances around me–it’s like eating a delicious meal and feeling it really satiate me.

      A lot of people get an ego kick out of memorizing the scientific names of things but that’s not why I take the time to look up plants and animals. It’s the weird little facts I learn about them and how they fit into the whole scheme that fascinates me. One time, I met a botanist on the top of an Oregon mountain who was looking for a single flower. She had traveled all the way from England to this one spot just to find a plant that grows here and no place else on Earth. She pointed to it; it was nondescript and almost invisible among the rocks.

      Imagining great time and expense, I asked her why she had endured all that inconvenience. She said this tiny plant had survived the last ice age by growing up high where the rock still poked out above the glaciers. Everywhere else, it had gone extinct. By documenting it, she had visual proof…and she’d met some great people on her journey.

      That sums up my hiking exploits perfectly: I go with a singular intention and end up enjoying serendipity pretty much the entire way.

  8. The pictures speak for themselves. I visited Mt St Helens in the late 1980’s and flew over the caldera in a helicopter. That was one of the most vivid of memories, as well as driving along a mountainside full of charred trees that looked like toothpicks lined up in one direction. It’s humbling to see that kind of power.

      • Probably a lot like a forest fire–but I’m only guessing.

        It was incredible to see inside the caldera.

        I tried to hike up Mt. Lassen once. Thought I was going to have a heart attack. And I was used to hiking up hills. Man, was that EVER embarrassing!

        • I made a side stop to Lassen on an extended road trip once that didn’t leave time to scale it. It was partially snow-covered that month and I didn’t have my winter climbing gear with me, either.

          But it looked freakin’ awesome and the geothermal features nearby were satisfying, too. I called them Little Yellowstone.

    • Thank you for noticing, I’ve been using a new conditioner.

      Yeah, the hills are alive with the sound of music. I’d always rather go up there than download anything. There are places almost overwhelmingly beautiful in the world and you have to sit still for a while to let it all seep into you, to absorb it through all your senses and lock it into memory.

      That’s how I’m able to write up these hiking stories so many years later–they’re stored in my soul’s hard drive.

    • Oh, honey, I wish. That camera is so old, it’s making my taste in music look hip. Def Leppard, anyone?

      The pixels are far from “mega” and you need those for blow-ups. There are programs online that will break down your photos into giant 8.5 x 11 sections that you can print out individually and then affix to your wall for a massive mural effect but when I tried it I just flashed back on my poster-covered college dorm room days, a wave of shame and regret overtook me (frat parties; wine coolers), and I descended into a self-consoling session of You Tube documentaries on gem hunting, plastic surgery, and Australian marsupials.

      So, yeah, I need a nice camera. I plan to marry rich.

  9. “one’s proclivities for bare-cheeked relief in the woods” I actually choked.
    I love your blog! Great writing, hilarious pictures, clean formatting… Had to follow. It wasn’t even a choice. (;

  10. “What are my thoughts?”

    Let’s start with envy, shall we? Add a touch of exasperation that I don’t get chance to do stuff like this as often as I’d like, and then top it off with the thought that later tonight, I will still be chuckling as I try to get to sleep, about a Brazilian soccer commentator and her tinnitus-stricken family.

    Great stuff mate – great stuff.

    • Thanks! But come on, you can make it to the Highlands in a day’s drive. Looks just like this, so our local expat Scots tell me.

      On the other hand, with two teenagers in tow…you may have to tie their smartphones to the ends of two sticks and hold it out in front of them on the trail. And chocolate.

      Wait a minute, that’s Americans.

      • Ha! Not teenagers any more, and No1 son is more adventurous than me. Over the past two years he’s been to Everest base camp, and trekked the Kungsladen in Northern Sweden…. lucky sod.
        My daughter has just returned from a year on your side of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia and Vancouver… also a lucky sod!

        We have some pretty decent walking around home actually – not as grand as the highlands, but still a good place to get out and about with the dogs. Oh, and there are decent pubs….plenty of decent pubs. You’ve go to get your priorities right, haven’t you?

        • Everest Base Camp was a personal goal…then it seemed to become everybody else’s somewhere around the 90s. I lose interest if the hordes are doin’ it.

          Now, it’s Iceland, Mongolia, and New Zealand. Of course, you’d have to medicate me to get me on a plane that long, packed in close to so many other sardine-humans.

          Now, if I can find a guy to date who’s part Russian, Maori, Scottish, and Icelandic….(swoon)

          • Well…. I’m half Scottish, but don’t know of any Russo-Icelandic ancestors who emigrated to New Zealand.
            No1 son loved the Nepal trip, but, like yourself, was a bit disillusioned with the increasingly commercial nature of it all. He was gutted at the devastation caused by the recent earthquakes; he’d stayed in some of the villages and tea-houses that were destroyed. It’s sad how the rest of the world loses interest when it ceases to be newsworthy.

            • I’m glad your son is safe and out of reach of that catastrophe, even if only by the whims of time and date. Holy crap, it was sure something. I’ll bet Tibetans believe the commercialized raping of Sagarmartha is cause for the earthquakes. I’m not superstitious but I wouldn’t argue with them for a second.

              Better than keeping the memory of the horror alive in the news is the engendering of the spirit of renewal for Nepal and Tibet–economically, politically, spiritually. It’s time they had power that relieves them of the need to accept $100,000 tours from clueless foreigners looking for Everest summit selfies.

              Just sayin’.

              In other news…half Scottish? Hubba, hubba.

  11. Wow, your pictures are great and I can imagine the peace you felt while hiking in these beautiful surrounding, sans the Brazilian announcer. We were on a nature trail earlier this fall when two people showed up with their scottish terrier and proceeded to ruin it for us. There goes the birds and any hope of wildlife we had hoped to see. Why would you take a dog someplace like that? It was a bird reserve.

    • I hear ya. Feel free to adopt my system:

      The Four Rules of Wilderness Sanity

      1. I hike alone or with one other person.

      I didn’t come to bitch about life in four part harmony, I don’t explore by committee, and if you are afraid to enter the woods without a group around you, you belong in a movie theater, not hiking boots.

      2. No dogs.

      Dog owners usually require a litany of explanation on this one, the rest of us just exchange knowing looks and move on.

      3. No children.

      Ditto.

      4. No phones or internet.

      If you bring it, I will fling it. If you need a phone to ensure your safety, stick to city parks.

      If any rules are broken, that’s our last hike together, Kemosabe. Now, go look for your phone, I think it landed near the creek.

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