Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The mountain that once was - Mount St. Helens

Our second day in Seattle, we headed to Mount St. Helens or as the Native Indians call it, Loowit - Lady of Fire.

Riffe Lake - on way to St. Helens

Sunit and I were both excited. We had first heard about St. Helens in October 2004 when it was all over the news - apparently the mountain was spewing up gas and debri again after a span of almost 25 years. People from all over the country were travelling to see if St. Helens would erupt again. The last time it had erupted in 1980, the whole north side of the mountain had disintegrated and flown down, burning the surrounding forests, killing about 1.5 million animals and 57 people in an already evacuated area.

We were glad we had planned to visit the mountain on the day the Johnston Ridge Observatory (closest to the mountain) was due to open for the season. The Observatory is but 5.5 miles from the mountain.

We drove on towards the mountain. At the lower reaches, we could see forests with fairly young trees and occasional signboards indicating when they were planted after the 1980 eruption. At the higher reaches though, as we got closer to the top of the mountain, there was not much in terms of vegetation. At a distance, we could still see the path of the lava flow during the 1980 eruption.

Path of Lava flow

Johnston Ridge Observatory provided some spectacular views of the mountain at close quarters. There were also lots of Ranger and other educational sessions educating the visitors about the history and the state of the current eruption. Did I mention, the mountain is still throwing up smoke and rock at the rate of 1 sq. yard/second and if it continues to throw up at this rate, it would regain its original height before the 1980 eruption in another 100 years.

Loowit - Lady of Fire - still smoking

At the observatory, we saw a theatre presentation on the history of the 1980 eruption. The Obervatory apparently is named after "David Johnston", a volcanologist, who was on duty and was killed during the eruption. His last words relayed to the USGS base in Vancouver were "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!". Shivers ran down my spine as they showed the eruption through his camera, how the eruption reached him within seconds and I thought about the last moments of this man. The finale of the presentation was a curtain raiser with a spectacular view of the mountain.

The curtain raiser

On our way back, we also visited the Coldwater Observatory - another observatory for St. Helens. This is where Johnston was during the 1980 eruption and was overtaken by the avalanche of debri flow. Today there is a beautiful lake here and marine life is beginning to come back. Nature sure has a way of mending itself.

Coldwater Lake

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The tallest of them all - Mt. Rainier

View of the drive to Mount Rainier

On our first morning in Seattle, a clear sunny day, we set off for THE mountain in the area - Mount Rainier.

Alder Lake - Comes on way to Rainier

Mount Rainier is the 5th oldest Natinal Park in United States. It is classified as one of the most seismically active volcano in the Cascade Range, second to only Mount St. Helens I guess.

National Park Entrance

It was easy to catch glimpses of the mountain from far off. Its height (14400 ft approx) is not much compared to Mount Everest (29000 ft approx). The reason it stands out is because the surrounding peaks and areas are not comparable in height. So it looks like this gargantuan presence standing above everything else in the skyline of Western Washington.

First glimpse of the mountain

Plus it is spanked by glaciers on all sides, actually about 36 miles of glaciers cover the mountain. These glacial valleys further cause the mountain to look even grander.

One good thing is that Mt. Rainier has not been converted to a ski resort and so it has not been commercialized. People can do cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing etc. on their own or some walks with the Rangers, but there are no lifts or marked slopes.

We approached the mountain from the Nisqually Entrance, from Longmire to Paradise. There was still lots of snow en route to Paradise, the snow falls being much more than usual this season. A lot of the trails were still closed but the visitor information centre at Paradise, where one actually gets magnificent views of the mountain, provided interesting information. There was a small documentary on the mountain also being shown.

As seen from Paradise

On way to Paradise, there were numerous lookouts where one could pull over to gaze at the mountain. There were a couple of short-distance trails also that were open and took to some beautiful viewpoints.

View of the opposite side from Paradise

An interesting fact is that the mountain was named so by an explorer Captain George Vancouver after his friend in the navy, Admiral Peter Rainier, but Rainier never visited this mountain named after him.

Another view of Rainier from one of the lookouts

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Alive in Seattle

Sunit and I just got back from a week long trip to Seattle. And what a trip it was. We were lucky to experience sunny weather for the most part of the trip. Days were just beginning to warm up and there were practically no summer crowds yet. Everything was green and the snow was just beginning to melt in the mountains so there were a lot of snow capped peaks to see, and numerous waterfalls had appeared and were really full.

We got to visit 4 National Parks around Seattle and a day trip to Victoria to see the Butchart gardens. And the last day we saw some of the downtown areas of Seattle.

The Seattle skyline on a cloudy day

The city itself has a fairly small downtown - few blocks and you can walk it all on foot. And there is always this towering presence of mountains all around, especially Mt Rainier which is a permanent fixture of the skyline on any clear day.

The Space Needle

The Space Needle stands tall and elegant, a little apart from the downtown and provides wonderful views of the city and the area from the observation deck. Though I did find the entry fee to the observation deck a bit too steep, but the views from the top were fairly good.

Close-up of the observation deck from down below

There was just so much to do and visit in and around Seattle that we really found that a week was not enough for the area. The city seemed alive with art and culture, and it was an invigorating experience just walking the streets of downtown or around the Seattle Centre, the Pike Marketplace or for that matter the University District.

And I am sure the mountains are even more beautiful once all the snow has melted and there are wildflowers all around. I kept telling Sunit on our way back that Seattle seemed to be like a really nice place to stay. He kept reminding me that it rains for more than 6 months in Seattle and hence the beauty of it all.

My next few posts are all going to be on Seattle. I just can't stop thinking about the place.