Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Mount Rainier Beckons


View of Mt. Rainier National Park from Paradise Inn
With a son living in Olympia, Washington,  I’ve become familiar with the Queen of Washington’s  Cascade Mountains  – Mount Rainier.  Its Native American name of Mount Tacoma was shelved in 1792 when explorer George Vancouver named the mountain after his friend, Pete Rainier, a Rear-Admiral in the British Royal Navy.  Probably few of the two million visitors a year to the Mount Rainier National Park realize they’re climbing on a mountain dedicated to an officer who heartily fought against the United States in the Revolutionary War. 

Wildflowers on the moutain
Despite its British ties, Mount Rainier is beloved in her home state.  When the snow covered peaks appear in late afternoon, many citizens of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia pause to look her way in acknowledgment of her majesty. When our family set out to visit Mt. Rainier National Park, she was covered in clouds.  But since the huge volcano creates its own constantly changing weather patterns, we knew there was always the possibility of seeing the grande dame.




Dining Room in Paradise Inn
What makes Mt. Rainier unique is her 25 glaciers with 36 miles of packed ice - largest remnant of the Ice Age on one mountain in the world.  At 14,411 feet, it’s only the fifth highest peak in the United States but sports more snow than any of the others.  In fact, it’s one of the snowiest places in the world, getting an average annual snowfall of 56 feet. As we ate a late Sunday brunch in the dining room of  100 year old Paradise Inn, the view was of wildflowers, green meadows, and occasional 1,000 year old trees, reminiscent of Switzerland in the summer.  In the winter though, the same large windows would be blocked by deep snow. On a trail, a park ranger pointed out the volcano’s own 18 foot tall weather station that snow would cover in a few months.  

Paved trails in Mr. Rainier Park
Trails began near the Scoop Jackson Visitors Center, a huge gathering place for the many travelers that day.  The crowd reflected America’s welcoming arms, both for immigrants and visitors with a heavy emphasis on Asians.  I thought it a busy day but two employees shrugged and said it was average.  A surprising number of trails were paved – steep but paved.  These paths brought out the families with baby strollers and wheel chairs.  All wanted pictures taken in front of the waterfall, near the wildflowers, or with the big mountain in the background.   Strangers exchanged cameras to take the other’s family photo.  Still, the mountain top had not appeared beneath the clouds.  

Mt Rainier is a popular climbing site with about 1,000 annual attempts at the summit but only half successful.  Occasional deaths are inevitable.  Just in May, six experienced climbers died on the ascent.  Most hike to a cabin built for them, sleep a few hours, and leave about 3 a.m. to make the top before snow begins to melt.  I wondered how many were up there that very day. 
  
River emerging from cave in Misqually Glacier Remains


A second trail through well tended forest ended with a view of the leavings of Nisqually Glacier.  Bare grey rocks disguised the stream running through.  Much of the water appeared to be emerging from a large cave, one of many formed by the geothermal heat from the volcano.  Clouds were lifting but the mountain only teased us with an occasional shrouded peak at the summit. 






Mt. Rainier finally peaks out
The day was waning as we began our descent down the mountain’s side, glancing back often.  It was then that Mt. Rainier threw off enough of her wrap to reveal one of her famous three peaks.  We pulled off on a widened part of the road and were quickly followed by several cars.  They had seen it, too.  Picture taking began anew. 

There are warnings about visiting Mt. Rainier National Park.  It is an active volcano – the second most active in the Cascade Mountains after Mount St. Helens.  Thirty earthquakes a year occur beneath its beautiful veneer.  The last eruption was as recent as the end of the 19th century.  It is one of sixteen on the “Decade Volcano” list that identifies those of most concern in the world.  An eruption or even a steam flow from Mt. Rainier would cause much destruction in the surrounding heavily populated areas.  But still we go, by the millions, to get close to her, to feel her heartbeat, to experience her past.  In John Muir’s words, we go to gaze in awe at that “noble beacon of fire”.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tugboat Races in Olympia, Washington

One of the many tugboats at the Harbor Day Festival in Olympia, Washington

From chariots in the Roman Coliseum to the Indianapolis  500, racing has provided entertainment through the ages.  Faster is better.  Fastest is best.  I’ve seen horses, dogs, and camels rush to the finish line and sailboats and canoes hustle to be first.  Even plastic toy ducks can dawdle on down to raise money for our local Boys and Girls Club.  I just never considered tugboats as racing instruments – a seeming oxymoron- until visiting Olympia, Washington during its 41st Annual Harbor Day Festival.

“Think about it,” 5th generation Olympian Ralph Blankenship explained.  “Large sailboats needed small tugboats to bring them into port.  And before easy communication, the first tugboat out would get the job.  They had to be fast and powerful.”  In this case, fast is relative.   Blankenship agreed the idea of a tugboat race was a seeming contradiction in terms but has loved watching the laid back pursuits that often top out at 11 knots or 12.5 mph.  Fortunately, there are three motor size categories in the race to protect smaller tugs from larger ones. 

Skip Suttmeir, owner of Galene with his wife, Marty
The racing tugboats gather at Olympia’s harbor, where Puget Sound ends under the shadow of Washington’s capitol building.  During  festival week-end, the public can explore the boats, most of which have been working for years or are retired.  One of the oldest and the largest was the Galene, one of 61 boats built by the U.S. Army in 1943 to accompany battleships across the ocean.  Only four remain operational.  Owners Skip and Marty Suttmeir, found the Galene for sale on Craig’s list in 2007, restored it and now live comfortably on it for several months of the year on Seattle’s Lake Union.  

In the over 400 HP category, the Galene came in first, winning by a mere 45 seconds over second place Shannon , owned by Captain Cindy Stahl.  The Shannon is a working tugboat, guiding pulp barges to Canada.  Built in 1957 and refurbished in 1977,  the boat changed ownership four years ago.   Captain Stahl’s    trips take approximately 19 hours to arrive in Canada, making the complete journey a three day adventure.  As a consolation prize, the Shannon did receive the “Spiffy” award for  being the neatest and classiest boat in the race.
Tugboat owners enjoying a tailboat party

Owners of the tugs were available to chat with visitors while their family and friends relaxed at the stern or rear of the boats, creating a kind of “tailboat” party atmosphere.  Large umbrellas shaded the gatherings with ice chests readily available.  Old captain friends caught up with each other. One congratulated a younger captain on his appointment to oversee the Seattle Port tugboats.  He would supervise steel tugs with the needed 2000 HP to guide modern cargo ships.




Steering wheel of the Sandman
Moored permanently at Olympia’s harbor is the Sandman, a 100+ year old tugboat that has been restored and can be explored anytime.  Some of the original wood remains as does its massive steering wheel.  With a 110 HP motor, the Sandman would have accompanied barges of sand and gravel, brought in to use in construction of many of Olympia’s buildings. 

And in case you got carried away with tugboat fever, the 1967 Mary Anne was for sale.  Others could find a selection on Craig’s list.   One owner strongly urged bargaining as he was able to pay $20,000 for a boat originally listed for $80,000. 
Since the debut of the first tugboat in 1802, progress in building has led to stronger, more powerful boats.  As recently as 2008, the first hybrid tugboat was built.  Only two or three tugs are now needed to maneuver even the largest of ships.  They are a far cry from those used to great moral purpose in children’s books such as “Little Toot” or “Scruffy the Tugboat” who discovered there’s no place like home after exploring rivers and lakes. 





The Harbor Festival also included a large assortment of artist booths, many with nautical themes.  Live music entertained all.  And fresh salmon smoked over an open fire was available for purchase.  We knew we were in the Northwest.  Each town wants a unique and appropriate festival.  Olympia found one with their tugboats – our unsung heroes of the waters that slowly and steadily cross the finish line.

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