Heavy Clouds and Friendly Scientists Greet Cowlitz Explorers

Editor’s Note: Chronicle Reporter Dameon Pesanti and Visuals Editor Pete Caster have begun their trip down the Cowlitz River. They began on Mount Rainier Tuesday, and will finish at the Columbia River in the next two weeks. The duo plans to begin rafting Friday.

Runoff from the Nisqually Glacier trickles down the mountain side on Tuesday, June 6, 2015 at Mount Rainier National Park.

Runoff from the Nisqually Glacier trickles down the mountain side on Tuesday, June 6, 2015 at Mount Rainier National Park.

Not everything goes as planned, and sometimes that’s for the better.

Visuals Editor Pete Caster and I drove to Mount Rainier National Park early Tuesday morning hoping to see the glacial origins of the Cowlitz River firsthand.

We arranged to meet with a couple scientists working in the park and hike to a spectacular vista of the Cowlitz and Ingraham glaciers — after all what better way to interview someone about a glacier than to actually have said glacier in the backdrop — but the weather had other ideas.

Cold heavy clouds blanketed the mountains and had no intention of coming off. While we planned on a scenic vista, we settled for a government conference room.
Perhaps it’s all for the better.

Hiking in through along the Nisqually Vista Trail Tuesday, June 6, 2015

Hiking in through along the Nisqually Vista Trail
Tuesday, June 6, 2015

The hike to the 7,000-foot-high Cowlitz Rocks would have taken most of the chilly day and brought us through the snow. That would have been fine, probably even fun, had I been dressed for it. I might be slipping in my old age, or this (mostly) desk job is reigning in my wilder side, but I left the house bound for the largest mountain in the lower 48 states dressed in a collared shirt, a stylish jacket and the thinnest running shoes I own.

I didn’t realize how stupid my ensemble actually was until we were less than an hour away from the park and I thought to myself, “Man, it’s kind of cold today.”

Weather permitting, a mix of pride and a foolish commitment to my craft would have forced me up to those damn rocks. After all, what’s a couple frostbitten feet in the name of a good backdrop? Toes grow back … right?

A small creek runs through the high-country meadow along the Nisqually Vista Trail near Paradise on Tuesday afternoon at Mount Rainier National Park.

A small creek runs through the high-country meadow along the Nisqually Vista Trail near Paradise on Tuesday afternoon at Mount Rainier National Park.

If the gods were looking down on me, they probably didn’t smile, but instead rolled their eyes at my foolhardy ways and blew in the clouds to spare Pete from dragging my frostbitten self out of the bush.

So we didn’t get the headwaters for the photos, but we still had an interesting time.

Paul Kennard, a regional geomorphologist working at Mount Rainier, and his intern, Nick Hage, led us up the mountain for a first-hand explanation for how the warming climate has caused the glaciers to recede and thus dramatically alter the landscape.

At one point the Nisqually Glacier extended down far into the valley and the bridge crossing it was much lower than the one there today. Back then, some cheeky genius thought opening an ice cream stand next to a glacier was a solid business model for a national park roadside attraction. For reasons unknown, the ice cream stand didn’t survive, but the old bridge and road were washed away.

Headwaters of the Nisqually River and Nisqually River Bridge (Route 706) as seen from Ricksecker Point on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

Headwaters of the Nisqually River and Nisqually River Bridge (Route 706) as seen from Ricksecker Point on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

We headed for the Glacier Vista near Paradise, which would have put us right up to the glacier, but, again, the weather foiled our plans. The fog (clouds) was so thick that we wouldn’t have been able to see our feet, and that opens up a real possibility for vertigo, Kennard told us.

We settled for the Nisqually Vista, which offers spectacular, if distant, glacial views, but we were greeted by a wall of clouds. None of us were disappointed. Though socked in, the area had an eerie sort of beauty. The fog put kind of a solemn hush over everything.

Today, we’ll go lower and explore the twisting Box Canyon to see what secrets that secluded section of Rainier is hiding.

This time I’ll dress for the weather.

On Friday, it’s time to jump in the raft and head west.

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com

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