Rainier Chautauqua

Reflections on the Mountain, people and places of the Pacific Northwest

Rainier Reflections – Letters

Dear Ken,

I found it! Just a collection of thoughts and sounds and sights on Rainier that I want to share with you. I have a desire to talk about the Rainier that we know, the Mountain experiences that cannot be found in a traveler’s guide or roadside map. So many thoughts on print, photos and drawings define our character of Rainier and the places we’ve been. “This is where we walked, this is where we swam, take a picture here, take a souvenir.” Just a little R.E.M. to bring it on home.

September, 1988

Ohanapecosh. Crying babies, barking dogs and overzealous wood splitters punctuate the cool morning air. I wake up with sunburned warmth in the chill. A stark change from the hot meadow at Indian Henry’s filled with the constant drone and manic buzzing of hornets, bumblebees, flies, wasps and mosquitoes. The weather was oppressive and alien to my recollection of Rainier. The next day we awoke to blazing sunlight. By 10 a.m. the camp was bathed in a washed-out heat that left the forest a pale tired green. Instead of packing our backpacks we jumped in the truck and drove to Paradise to walk around a drink a coke. The Mountain was bare and dry in a hazy leaden sky. Over the radio I heard the announcer say that it reached a 103 degrees in Portland … I slept in the back of the truck that night, tossing …

The next morning we left camp and drove to Kautz Creek, where the trailhead to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground begins. The packs were heavy. We moved slowly in the heat up the trail, through silent breezeless forest. The trail became steep. We had to stop more often. We were sweating ourselves into dehydration. I started to curse Indian Henry. By the time we hit the first ridgeline after a series of steep switchbacks my bota was empty; Ken had drank three liters. Every time we stopped the flied would home in on us, so it became unbearable to remain still for too long. I prayed to Sisyphus.

(Finally) we crested the ridgeline that leads below to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, a large meadow with an old log cabin ranger station. We stopped at the cabin, where two women from Seattle watched us approach as they relaxed in the shade. One offered me some ice from her Thermos. Can the sensation of ice on a sandpapered throat after lugging a 45 pound pack uphill for 6 miles be described?

After driving some water from a still pond (Ken had a Swiss water filter) we pushed on, looking for a camp site. We found a flowing stream and ascended the bank to a small flat spot several yards above the water. Once again, the flies and coworkers came calling…

After setting the tent we crowded in and ate some warm, soggy pizza stuffed in the pack leftover from the Wild Berry. A restless night was spent in the still warm meadow.

Next morning we braved the insects, flailing ourselves awake, packed camp and descended in the heat. The glaciers were evaporating from Rainier’s flanks, and rock slides even few minutes were seen with a far-sounding booming seconds later. The heat seemed to be winning even against the Mountain, reducing it to an alpine rock heap.

Later that afternoon we made it to Ohanapecosh and pitched camp among the Winnebagos, dogs and teenagers with frisbees and bicycles. Unless you’re a weekend warrior or an armchair mountaineer, Labor Day weekend is a poor time to camp at that spot.

Outdoor experience. Sleeping tin the truck that night sore muscles rebelled against the truck bed, yet the heat broke in the middle of the night, and I awoke to the cool morning air and the anticipation of a hot cup of coffee. Later that day we moved rom H-17 to A-4 while the campers packed up and left en masse.

We walked up to Silver Springs from Stevens Canyon and joyously stretched the legs, stiff from the Indian Henry’s trek. Took some pictures of the Falls, scampering around the rocks looking for the right angle. Spent the rest of the afternoon light at the Grove of the Patriarchs, a virgin stand of old-growth timber, mysterious in their awesome creaking in the wind. Stopped to skip rocks in the Ohanapecosh River…a favorite pastime and one that will be mentioned on my next job resume. Back to camp after getting more ice in Packwood. A good do-nothing-in-particular day.

The coolness has returned. Sitting at the picnic table at campsite A-4 in Ohanapecosh listening to the rive and a stream nearby. Shades of green filter down upon me, giving the coolness a visual quality of sensation.

Like so many times in the past, I’ve come to Rainier for a reawakening of the senses, to feel the stark exertion of a 45 pound pack on a steep switchback, to eat crushed gorp with physical hunger born out of exertion, to drink water clear and cold on a hot throat and splashed on a sweating face, to feel the campfire coals on sunburned cheeks at the evening chill draws a tight cloak.

When I was younger, Rainier was a unique challenge and wonderful promise. It captured my should on its steep glaciers and rewarded me with newfound strength in body and spirit. I have walked hundreds of miles through the Park with lifelong friends, drawing strength from the Mountain’s beauty and from within.

Rainier has been the focal point through many changes in my life. When I was 18, it was on Rainier’s slopes that I crystallized my purpose to attain college. While cramming for finals or writing term papers, the thought of each step on the Muir Snowfield made me strive harder to succeed with an all-night paper. When cast by doubts about finalizing my college degree, Rainier was a place to reduce the causal foresight into clear objectives. The preparation of a 14 day trip to Rainier and the daily planning for each successive hike around the Mountain provided valuable lessons in planning, purpose, and the reward of sharing and attaining a goal with a good friend.

While studying in Austria, and later, in Australia, Rainier was a source of strong memories of my homeland in countries that were geographically and culturally alien. And in that unique strangeness of living overseas, Rainier was an enduring and physical symbol of last campfires that never died, to put it in Shurman’s inspiring words. And so throughout the years Rainier has been the rock…

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