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The sun attempts to penetrate our world over the Hawthorne Bridge in downtown Portland over the Wilamette River.

I maintain a childlike appreciation for the natural forces and landscapes in my world that does not seem to fade as I grow older. The Columbia River holds my awe as a local landscape and a force itself. August reminded me constantly of the forested landscapes, and how they are changing under the force of wildfires.

I have been able to capture some remarkable photos of rivers and smoke from those wildfires, as the two converge.

Mondays I work at a tall building right on the shores of the Wilamette River. The rest of the week I work at home. Monday mornings before work I try to get in a short run before work, and thus have been able to see the effects of smoke from area fires on our city.

Jogging past the marina is always picturesque.

One morning I caught this blurry photo of teams practicing their paddling.

Each week I find the sun at a different place in the sky. Here the red orb peeks through struts on my favourite Portland bridge: Hawthorne.

Smoke was so thick for a few days that I could actually smell it outside. I am pretty sure that most of it is coming south to us from British Columbia, but the smoke is likely worsened by fires in Washington and southern Oregon as well. Every summer the West burns.

A view of the afternoon sun from my house.

All day long the light cast over my world has been orange. From morning, through midday, and into evening, the light is surreal: dimmed, tinted, and seemingly still. Maybe Mother Nature is holding her breath, watching and waiting, like me. I am grateful daily that my own community is not burning, while I see facebook reports of my friends evacuating from their homes in other places. Smoke in the air reminds me that the threat is close to me as well.

Returning across the Lewis & Clark bridge from Longview, Washington, I was startled to notice that from one shore I could not see across the Columbia River to the other shore. Instead of going home, I drove down to the waterfront to take a closer look.

From the Rainier marina, looking toward the Lewis & Clark bridge, the last bridge to cross the river before you get to the coast, and the bridge at Astoria.

The bridge is almost obscured from my viewpoint, a half a mile away.

I moved down river to a spot closer to the bridge, but it remains faded in the murky skies.

While at the Rainier marina, I stopped to read some information signs that talk a little about the Columbia and about my tiny town of Rainier. I’ll reproduce some of it here, because I am so proud of my beautiful river, even when it flows beneath worrisome skies.

The Columbia River is the second longest river on the continent. It will fall more than 2600 feet in elevation as it flows 1270 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. The elevation drop and the large water flow give the Columbia enormous potential to generate electricity. Currently the dams of the Columbia River Basin generate one third of all the hydro-electricity produced in the United States.

The location of Rainier on the Columbia is a primary reason why it was established. Two days were needed to travel from Portland to Astoria before roads were built. Since Rainier is located in the middle, travelers spent one night in Rainier before they completed the second day of their journey.

In 1792 American Captain Robert Gray successfully crossed the Columbia River bar and sailed upstream approximately 13 miles. He named the river after his ship: “Columbia Rediviva.”

In 1805 Lewis and Clark traveled down the Snake River where they entered the Columbia. They finished their journey to the Pacific Ocean traveling down the Columbia.

In 1852 Charles Fox donated 24 acres for a town site that would become Rainier.

For the past two days it has been raining. For folks around here, the rain is a relief.

Update: August 30, 2108. We had clear skies tonight and I stopped by the marina to take another photo so you can compare.

A panoramic view of Mt. St. Helens from the west side.

My friend Vladimir and I have known each other since I lived in Eureka, California. That was right around the turn of the century (makes it sound like the distant past, huh?). So yeah, 18 years or so. At the time we both worked for the National Weather Service. Vlad recently retired from his forecasting job in Honolulu, and decided to move to Portland. Sans car. While Portland has super great public transportation…it still limits a person to the city. He has yet to get a really good look at his surrounds.

It was Vlad’s idea a while back to enlist my help (and the Jeep) to explore the local area. Our plan is a series of mini-road trips (RTs) to see some of the local stuff that a person can’t get to via lightrail.

The view from the north, standing beside the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Monday we drove north into Washington state to see Mt. St. Helens. This is the volcano that blew in May 1980. For Vlad and I, growing up here on the West coast, we clearly remember the news stories and the fear and the awe…not to mention the ash clouds. We went to see what it looks like today, 38 years later. The surrounding beauty is remarkable in that it looks so far along the path of recovery. At the same time, it’s genuinely startling how much has not yet changed since the eruption.

We drove to the Johnston Ridge Observatory in the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and arrived just in time to hear a Ranger talk about the high points of the eruption. First, there was the largest landslide in human recorded history, as the north side of the mountain sloughed off. Right behind that was the explosive blast that blew the whole side and top off the mountain. Then the pyroclastic flow, which is not so much a “flow” but more blasting, of ash, rocks, lava, etc. that hurtled down the mountainside and destroyed everything in its path.

The Ranger talked all the way through the area’s natural recovery, including the giant Roosevelt Elk herd and the mountain goats that live in the crater. He ended on a very interesting tidbit. Due to the characteristics of this particular spot, we have the fastest-forming glacier in North America, possibly the globe. Pretty cool, huh? I didn’t realize glaciers were growing anywhere. Snow falls into the crater, which is sheltered from the sun. The dome is slowly growing inside the crater, compacting the snow up against the walls. Regular showers of rocks and ash coat the top of the ice from tiny eruptions from the mountain. Badda-boom: recipe for glacier.

We hiked a trail in the area, ate a picnic lunch with a fabulous view and a chipmunk that needs to lay off the carbs, and then got home by dark.

Trying to be artistic with the gorgeous wildflowers.

more flowers

Not that I’m the type to judge body shape, but this was one fat chipmunk, begging while we ate our picnic. (He’s standing right now, to make himself look slimmer.)

The view from an overlook about 10 miles from the Observatory. The extent of recovery is impressive.

The view of Death Valley from the southwest.

The view of Death Valley from the western approach on highway 190.

Sunrise view of the pinnacles surrounding our camp.

Sunrise view of the pinnacles surrounding our camp in the morning.

{Disclaimer: forgive the length! This is one of the times when I found it difficult to resist including lots of photos and descriptions.} Arno made us another fabulous breakfast while I took more photos of the stunning and surprising pinnacles. I even did some of my physical therapy exercises, trying to keep Jessica and Tyler from Therapeutic Associates happy.

Hey all my East-Coast friends: get a load of this highway. They don't make roads like this in New England!

Hey all my East-Coast friends: get a load of this highway. They don’t make roads like this in New England!

We drove along very straight and empty desert highways (so typical in the West), and finally made it into Death Valley National Park, the driest, hottest, lowest spot in the United States. One must drive miles into the place before coming to a park office that will allow an entrance fee to be paid.

Isn't this hilarious? We pulled over to take photos of the "Welcome to Death Valley" sign, and these shoes were begging to be photographed.

Isn’t this hilarious? We pulled over to take photos of the “Welcome to Death Valley” sign, and these shoes were begging to be photographed.

At the entrance to the park

At the entrance to the park

At Stovepipe Wells Village we saw our first park campground, which was basically pitching a tent on a gravel parking lot – bleh. Unacceptable. We pulled in at the visitor’s center and Arno headed for the door, while I headed out back because I had spotted a National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Observer (COOP) thermometer shelter. I popped off the latches and opened the door to see what equipment they had. Sadly, only max and min thermometers. Sometimes more interesting equipment will be housed in one of these, such as as barograph, or a thermograph. The shelter made me happy enough though, bringing back memories of my 11 years with NWS, often very active in the COOP program.

Arno bought the year pass for all the parks, hoping we would be able to use it later. I am really hoping to take advantage of that. We are frugal enough to go to a park just because we bought the pass, so it can be a bit of reverse psychology to force me into exploring our amazing United States. How truly fortunate we are to live in a country that wants to, and is able to, set aside humongous areas simply for public enjoyment. If we were a tiny Cyprus or Liechtenstein or Andorra, we could not afford this luxury.

Mesquite Flat sand dunes near the Stovepipe Wells Visitor's Center

Mesquite Flat sand dunes near the Stovepipe Wells Visitor’s Center

Along Harmony Borax Works interpretive trail

Along Harmony Borax Works interpretive trail

Near the office was access to a large area of sand dunes, so off we went across the dunes, and benefited from springtime blossoms to brighten up the view.

After that, we explored some remains of a Borax mining operation, with an old wagon famous for the days when borax was moved from the desert using the famous 20-mule teams. It was getting hot, but neither of us minded much, since desert heat had been part of our goal all along. As we walked through the ruins, I told the story of when I accidentally brushed my teeth with Borax. I come from a remarkable family in many ways, and yes, it turns out to be a family where a teenager could mistake a mason jar of borax for a mason jar of baking soda. I didn’t die, so that proves it wasn’t a poisonous substance, but I did complain to Mom that the soda tasted pretty bad that day. (turns out she had been cleaning, and left the jar of powder on the counter by the sink)

By that time we had finally reached the population center of the park, Furnace Creek. There is a small forest there (startlingly unexpected after all the dried out desolation), with a large visitor’s center and camping, and even a posh resort. Just beside all the touristy stuff is Timbisha Shosone lands, where native Americans continue to inhabit lands they have occupied for more than 10,000 years. At the center we got information on where to camp and not be on a gravel parking lot with hundreds of other tourists. At the general store, we bought ice cream and awesome Tilley hats to protect our skin from the sun.

In our new Tilley hats at the lowest point in the United States

In our new Tilley hats at the lowest point in the United States

The inset shows you what the sign says, high above our truck

The inset shows you what the sign says, high above our truck

Obviously (well, to me at least) the main attraction of Death Valley is the fact that one can stand on dry land below sea level. Moses ain’t got nuthin’ on southern California. So our next stop was to visit the place itself. We got lucky in the parking lot (no, not that kind of lucky…) when we turned around – away from the basin – and spotted a sign mounted waaaay up on the rock face at the point of sea level. It was helpful to understand just how far -282 feet really is.

The path out into Badwater Basin

The path out into Badwater Basin

From the basin, looking back toward the parking lot and the head of the trail

From the basin, looking back toward the parking lot and the head of the trail

Water! Liquid water in Death Valley

Water! Liquid water in Death Valley

New crystallization of the mineral rich environment

New crystallization of the mineral rich environment

We walked out into Badwater Basin and by that time we were suffering from the heat. The temp at the visitor’s center in Furnace Creek stated 91 degrees, but I’ll bet it was hotter than that out in the basin itself. Pedestrians had worn a wide, hard-packed path out away from the parking lot at the base of the mountains. Arno and I lamented that so much of the fascinating mineral formations had been crushed by millions of shoes. We tentatively approached the edges, careful not to crush anything new, and investigated crystalline formations at the edges. In places where people had crushed it flat, new lacy snowflakes were often forming again on top of the flat area. Nature proving that persistence rules. I was reminded of a blog acquaintance who is obsessed with fractals, one of my favourite examples of natural mathematical artistry.

Natural bridge a one-mile hike from the paved road

Natural bridge a one-mile hike from the paved road

Spectacular colours and shapes and drama embedded into the mountains along the Artist's Drive

Spectacular colours and shapes and drama embedded into the mountains along the Artist’s Drive

The wonderful one-lane Artist's Drive as it rodeos around the landscape

The wonderful one-lane Artist’s Drive as it rodeos around the landscape

We headed back toward Furnace Creek, and along the way stopped to hike a short trail to a natural bridge. Then we took a little paved detour called the Artist’s Drive, just to see what we could see. It offered us truly remarkable views of striations in mountain faces, and layers dripping over one another to look like a giant pile of melting ice cream. The road itself was a riot. It was a narrow one-laned twisty, curvy rollercoaster road that was like a theme park ride. Near the end, we passed several vehicles pulled over, and couples in lawn chairs up on the slopes, waiting and watching for the impending sunset. It reminded us to get a move on, since we were hoping to set up camp in daylight.

Our view of Orion as we ate our stir fry chicken and peppers with couscous, and Fetzer wine we had picked up in Lakeport earlier in the week.

Our view of Orion as we ate our stir fry chicken and peppers with couscous, and sipped the Fetzer wine we had picked up in Lakeport earlier in the week.

We had been told at the Visitor’s Center about dispersed camping along the backcountry roads (read: gravel or dirt) on the southeast side of the park. When we were almost to Furnace Creek, we turned right and went south into the Greenwater Valley. It was higher elevation, below Coffin Peak, and the temperature dropped into the 70s up there. MUCH more indicative of a good night’s sleep. And also, with the scattered plant life, a much more scenic valley than the Badwater Basin. We were not quick enough to set up camp in light, but we managed anyhow with headlamps. Arno cooked another in a series of mouthwateringly great meals while I set up the tent and inflated the mattresses  We ate, and watched the stars, and I couldn’t help but take some more night time photos before we were fully exhausted and dropped into our sleeping bags for the night.

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