Friday, December 10, 2010

Kamikaze Falls, December 10, 2010

Kamikaze Falls, December 10, 2010

We know that the weather forecasters get a little carried away with their dire predictions but the system coming in this weekend does really appear to be nasty. Lots of snow, followed by a pineapple express (snow level ranging between 7-8,000 feet) – much of the snow that has fallen will melt. Friday was correctly predicted to be mostly dry (at least along the I-90 corridor) with a few showers. We leapt at the opportunity to escape our confines (cabin fever has set in).

After considering and then rejecting a hike (possible snowshoe trip) starting from the Carbon River entrance of Mt Rainier National Park we settled for something closer to home, especially as the cost of gas is going up. Again. Plus, recent trail reports indicated that it would likely be another brown hike (possibly hitting snow at 3,000 feet or above) and the Carbon River Road is much lower than that.

What, you may ask, is a brown hike? It’s a term that hikers have been kicking around for a few years used to describe the time of year when fall color has fled and snow has yet to fall and stay. The ground is a mash of wet leaves the color of meatballs forgotten in the back of the refrigerator and the branches of deciduous trees are bare.

However, knowing that this is the time of year for brown hikes we’ve learned to cope with them in a variety of ways. As a published photographer (nope, I’m not famous and will never put Art Wolfe out of business) on a lean budget and a low-end digital camera I’ve learned to view the mountains in a different way this time of year.

Take today for example – as soon as we got up, we knew where we wanted to go. There was only a slight chance of showers (we are okay with that and prepared) and the trailhead is close to home (Seattle). We could afford hit the road!!

On hiking websites there has been much to-do about the Kamikaze Trail near North Bend – the “old” trail departed from a service road and went up, up, up beside Kamikaze Creek and over the years enough hikers found their way to the boot path that it became the legendary route to not only Kamikaze Falls but a boot-trail went all the way to Mount Teneriffe.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wasn’t happy with all those hikers using the “old” trail and they attempted to keep the hikers out. That didn’t work – not even the signs warning of fines and “THIS IS NOT A TRAIL”.

At that time I was still writing “Hike of the Week” for The Seattle Post Intelligencer (printed version, not on-line). I was still pretty na├»ve about the ins and outs of land-management agencies when I first wrote up lowland trails so when I wrote up Kamikaze Falls for the PI I got some flak from readers. Some suggested that I had “ruined” their “secret” trail while others grumbled about ecological damage to the creek. Humbled, I resolved never to speak of Kamikaze Falls again.

Until I got a call from a DNR employee who said they were considering building a trail to Kamikaze Falls and would I like to accompany them on a hike? They wanted me to hike with them and give them my input on what it was like to hike the “old” trail and where the “new” trail (if they did build a new trail) should go.

As we hiked toward one of the overlooks of the falls on the “old” trail we agreed that nothing was going to keep hikers away from Kamikaze Falls and that perhaps building another trail was some sort of solution. A few years passed. Next thing I knew there was word of a “trail” being built to an overlook of Kamikaze Falls (the old trail would still be discouraged).

Last summer the trail was not finished but we hiked part of it on a quiet weekend and well, we liked the new trail. It wasn’t as dramatic as the original route but it was safer and there were – and are – some gorgeous spots along the trail (besides the die-hards have probably figured out a way to use the “old” trail anyway and at the very least are continuing on to Mount Teneriffe).

Since it had been a while we wanted to see how the new trail was getting on. We drove to the “School bus turnaround” on the Mount Si road and parked – it was a weekday and since it is a school bus turnaround you’d better get back to your car before the school buses turn around – just to be on the safe side). There’s another “way” to get to the new Kamikaze Trail but that’s another story. Let your imagination get to work.

A few other cars were also parked there and the DNR road was gated – as usual. As before we hiked up the road approximately a half-mile to where the signed trail to Kamikaze Falls takes off. As we hiked along the first stretch of the road we were amazed by the number of small trees that had been broken off by high winds earlier this week – some trees looked like they had exploded.

There did not appear to be any wind damage along the Kamikaze Falls trail, though. We had the trail to ourselves and the hike was pleasant, even on a drab day such as this one. It wasn’t a day to take superior photographs but it just felt good to be outside (Hell, it always feels good to be outside, doesn’t it?)

While there aren’t magnificent views along the trail we found beauty along the way. First of all there are the moss-slathered rocks, the ferns, the blue-green lichen and though the light was poor it was fun to photograph some of the quiet beauty as we hiked. Silverback mentioned – more than once and he was correct – that the trail is finely engineered and well built. Frankly – having hiked the old trail in the past – I like the new trail. The trail traverses several open slopes graced with boulders and views to Rattlesnake Ledge (and beyond on a better day). Apparently some hikers don’t like the new trail because the “adventure” has been taken out of it but you find any complaint here. Isn’t it a good thing there are lots of other “secret” places where they (or we) can still experience an adventure?

After contouring across the talus slopes the trail skirts Kamikaze Creek before it turns into dark, quiet forest. A little further along is a mossy outcropping at the end of a switchback; from here is a view you can’t miss nor would you want to.

Beyond the outcropping the trail continues to zigzag mostly through the forest, at one point joining the old trail, then leaving it again. The sound (and the fury too) of the waterfall can be heard and finally a white blur through the dark stands of trees gives a hint that you’ve reached the “first” overlook at the end of another switchback.

Here we were close enough to the waterfall that we were satisfied to make this our turnaround point (about 2,570 feet). We expected the waterfall to be amazing – and it was. Only one small snow patch remained; the rest was a blur of white water cascading over dark, semi-submerged rocks. We took a few gingerly steps down for a closer look, hanging on to trees for balance as we went.

We considered climbing further but beyond the first overlook the path is a little rougher and more of a scramble (we’re not quite sure where the official trail ends and the other begins). It looked like we had about another 150 feet or so to climb before we reached the top of the falls (it also appeared we weren’t far from the snowline). With an earlier start we might have gone on but going to Mount Teneriffe that way was out of the question (no ice axes, lack of time, lack of desire).

As we retraced our route we met a few other hikers coming up – the trail was a wise choice given the weather and the storms to come. We made good time back to the car without feeling we were hurrying – 3 hours up and back. Round trip 6 miles with about 1,600 feet gain.

Silverback enlightened me as to the meaning of “Kamikaze” – in Japanese it translates to “divine wind”.

A good day!

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