Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sister's Hike

Each city in the Northwest has it’s own mountain in the Cascade range—an icon of the place. Seattle has Mt Rainer, Portland Mt Hood and, to a lesser extent, the rounded dome of Mt St Helen’s, Salem claims the pointed lines of Mt Jefferson and Eugene and Corvallis have The Three Sisters. After that, the Willamette Valley narrows and disappears, and you lose the long flat expanse which allows the mountains to dominate the landscape. The mountains are always to the East, a solid presence in our lives. We watch for them in winter: ”The mountain was out today” indicates a lifting of clouds and a glimpse of white against the grey sky. In the summer, we study how the snow melts and, in autumn, when it comes back. On a strikingly clear day, we count how many of the chain we can see—sometimes we’ll see Mt Hood from the hills around town, occasionally, hiking in the Cascades, I’ll make out Mt Rainer to the north and Diamond peak to the south. That is a good day.

Mark and I just spent a week hiking around the Three Sisters—our Cascade Mountains. We’ve taken dozens of day hikes and several backpacking trips into the area over the years, but never the fifty mile loop around the three dormant volcanoes. The timing is tricky; there is a limited window between three weeks after snow melt (and mosquito hatch) and school starting. We nailed it this year.

The loop starts out at 6000 feet near a small lake on the shoulder of the North Sister—a craggy, glacier ridden peak. The lake—beautiful, but too well loved, really, to allow overnight camping—is on a ridge that the winds dance around all night long. We woke at 6:30, packed, and headed south and east down into Douglas Fir forests and streams. The first day was pretty—walking through the trees—but not extraordinary. A good day to work out snack times and backpack issues. After a night on a green and brown woodland pond, we moved into the extra-ordinary….

First, a lush meadow where three deer stared us down and a dozen marmots frolicked on a warm rock outcropping. Flowers bloomed. Then we climbed to 7000 feet, slowly, steadily, each step bringing more of the mountains into view. Rounded South Sister appeared on one side, the craggy ridge of the aptly named Broken Top on the other. We moved out of Doug Fir and into pine, more twisted and broken as we went. Finally, at the high point, we were on an open pumicy plain, scattered with tough alpine plants. Ten more steps, and the Green Lakes (and lunch) lay before us, 500 feet down. We camped by another lake that third night, on the shoulders of South Sister this time.

The fourth day, we turned the corner of the trail and headed north on the wetter western side of the range. We struggled uphill through Pumice Slog speckled with tough, drought tolerant plants like Dirty Socks (think warm, dry, deep sand with a full pack), crossed ridges, and dropped into lush lupine meadows—waves of bright blue flowers, sparked with pink monkeyflower, red Indian Paintbrush, white Valerian, and yellow groundsel. The warm dry air was sweet with the scent of blooming lupines. Small cool mountain streams threaded their way through the fields. The trail danced between Douglas Fir and Mountain Hemlock; rise out of the majesty of fir into the mystery of hemlock, and then drop back down, depending upon slight changes in elevation and moisture.

At the same time, the view of the mountains to our right shifted. We spent the fourth night staring at the north side of South Sister, sitting in the tent hiding from mosquitoes, wrapped in sleeping bags, with hot tea, as the sun went down, bringing out the rusty reds of the peak and woke the next morning to deep frost and some cat ice on puddles. That day, while we walked, the dark, sparkling cone of the Middle Sister’s south face appeared; a mile later, we saw the glaciers on her north side. These were all new views for us; we were at least a day’s walk in on all sides. Then, the North Sister reappeared.

The final leg of the trail left behind the lush meadows for dramatic lava flows. There were several eruptions a thousand years ago, which is quite recent in geological history. The terrain is rough. The trail climbed over the Opie Dilloc pass at 6900 feet, totally exposed to the sun and wind. We moved slowly, carefully over the rounded pumice stones, red and black mixed together underfoot. They slip and slide and rattle downhill. Last afternoon light, tinged with smoke from a forest fire not too far away, turned everything golden and obscured the peaks around us. We paused at the top, looking for the rounded red butte that rises over South Mathies lake, where we began. The last night, we dropped down to the larger north lake, surrounded on three sides by trees and one by a grey and brown lava flow thirty feet high. We have been here, to this specific campsite, before and felt like we are coming home. The next morning, it was a quick two mile trot down the trail for a second breakfast in the small tourist town of Sisters—the smoke so thick, now, that we could not see any of the mountains—before we drove two hours home.

The trail around the Sisters was the most beautiful and varied hike I have ever taken—and I have walked into the bottom of the Grand Canyon and seen the oldest exposed rock on the planet, crept along the Knife Edge of Mt Katadin at the end of the AT in Maine, and circumnavigated Mt Rainer in Washington. It is in my own backyard. I do not have to fly anywhere, or drive for days, to get there. I can do it all again next year, if I wish. And, on grey winter afternoons, when I am biking out to the dentist—who just happens to have a office located high on a hill, where you can, if you are lucky, glimpse the Cascades—I can see them from town.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Lammastide Light

The light changed on Lammastide morning this year. I woke up and the dawn light was more golden, less clear, and coming into the bedroom from a different angle. High Summer was gone, right on schedule.

When I was a little kid, living in New Hampshire, this shift of the season’s light was the first one I remember. Maybe it was because it always occurred within a few days of my birthday and the acquisition of a new lunchbox and a fall sweater, but it was sad sight. I’d wake up one morning and all of the humidity we’d been living with for months would be blown away, leaving the sky clear, clear, bright blue. Just lovely. Perfect for showing off the changing maple leaves in a few weeks and eating Macintosh apples—but, also, dang. School’s going to start soon. Back inside. As I grew older, it was also a signal to travel, leave town, head for the mountains. Trails empty out the week after school starts, but the days are perfect for walking and the nights tolerable for sleeping without long underwear and a wooly hat.

Here in Oregon, the Lammastide light change is different. It comes, not from a change in weather, but from the field burning and dust stirred up from the grain harvest. It’s a warmer, deeper sunlight and you may see columns of smoke rising on the still air from far away. The result, however, is the same. School’s going to start. Head for the hills one more time. The morning I woke to the change in light, I rode out to Sunbow. We spent several hours pulling pigweed and nightshades from a tangle of winter squash vines, balancing on one foot, hopping over vines that could not be redirected out of the pathways. When we finished, Harry nodded. “Well, that’s it on weeding,” he said. “Let’s shell some dried fava beans.” And that was it. The season shifted from growth to harvest.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


            First Caveat: Greywater is illegal in Oregon.  Always check your local regulations!

            Second Caveat: Do not allow your greywater to overflow onto your neighbor’s veg. patch. It’s not healthy and, here in Oregon, enforcement is on a complaint based system. No one complains, no letter asking you to cease and desist.

            That being said, I’m glad no one measures the outflow of water from our house in the summertime. Very little leaves the property.  I hate to waste things, including water.

            We used to have a fairly complex system of capturing the shower and laundry water based upon some modest changes in plumbing, two fifty five gallon blue plastic barrels that smell faintly of tamari, and a small water pump. After three showers, the water was pumped up from the basement and poured on the  flower beds. It worked, but it had some flaws. The barrels overflowed occasionally, the water smelled a little skuzzy, and Mark was always muttering about the carbon footprint of the pump, as well as the loud, growly, squeally noise it made while pumping. Then, while walking home one afternoon, I spotted an old tub by the side of the road. “Free” the sign proclaimed. We hauled it to the backyard, built a shelter around it using old wood from a shed, plumbed it with a hose that reaches to the basement utility sink, and attached a short drainage hose to the bottom. Total cost—35$ and two trips to Searing Plumbing and Electric, where they did not give me a funny look when I came in with my questions. Hot water shower. Drains directly into the flower beds. No need for the pump. No nasty smell in the basement. As soon as Mark realized that, when he used the outdoor shower, he did not have to clean the indoor tub every week, he was sold. We stuck with the barrel and pump system for the laundry, but, as that works out to one barrel for four loads, I usually drain it while hanging the last load. No smell. The dish water has always been simple. One dish pan. One five gallon bucket. One chart, complete with flamingo fridge magnet, charting where the water is to be poured next.
            There are a few common sense ideas to keep in mind when considering greywater. First, figure out a way for the water to drain quickly into the ground, rather than sitting around, breeding who knows what. Second, don’t pour it directly on plants you plan on eating soon. Third, think about your soaps. They need to biodegrade. Here in Oregon, I don’t worry about build up in the soil; the long slow rains leach everything else out of the soil, so why not a little soap residue? If I lived in a drier climate, I might need  to consider the issue. Finally, watch what the water washes—laundry water that washed diapers might not be ideal for flower beds and fruit trees, even. There is a great, inexpensive  book on greywater systems by Oasis. We poured over it for several years before loaning it out to someone. You can do all kinds of cool things with your household water, establishing wetlands with reeds to filter the water before it seeps into the ground. However, after all of our experiments, the simpler the system, the more likely you are to use it.