Monday, December 29, 2014

Looking Back at 2014

Deception Pass First Day Hike - Lainey Piland photo

2014 is drawing to a close, and the dwindling days that remain are the perfect time to reflect back on the year. In terms of outdoor adventures, 2014 has been a great year for this Nature Nerd: starting with a "first day hike" at Deception Pass on January 1st and ending with a soggy-but-wonderful Black Friday hike to Coal Creek Falls. And let's not forget the spectacular Geminid meteor shower just a few weeks ago.

Here are some of the highlights from 2014: the five most-popular blog posts on A Day Without Rain this year:

1. See America: Reviving New Deal artwork to celebrate our national parks

2. Going Green: Toxins in Your Shampoo?  Clean Up Your Beauty Routine

3. Wanderings: The Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail

4.  Going Green: A Day Without Waste on April 9th

5. Wanderings: Seeking Spring

Thank you to all who take the time to read my blog, and I hope to see you back in 2015 to share even more adventures, "going green" tips, and Nature Nerd musings! 

You can also follow me on Twitter: @LaineyPiland

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wanderings: The Geminid Meteor Shower

Lainey Piland photo

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, 
the silent stars go by...

For as long as I can remember, those have been my favorite lines from a Christmas song.  The image they evoke, of a peaceful world sleeping beneath the watchful gaze of stars wheeling overhead, makes me feel as though I've been wrapped up in all the comforting warmth of the Christmas season.

Those lines were running through my mind over and over last night -- or rather, very early this morning -- as I sat outside on my deck with my head tilted back toward the heavens. Despite the temperature being somewhere in the upper 30's, I didn't feel cold.  This wasn't due to the thick fleece blanket I was burrowed into, or to the several pairs of socks on my feet.  I was too focused, too intent, too hopeful to feel cold.  Tonight was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, and I was bound and determined to catch a glimpse of the show. My breath formed small puffs of vapor as my eyes searched the heavens above, whispering through dry lips "Please let me see just one. Just one."

You see, for most of the year, I've been a frustrated stargazer.  This is a notoriously difficult hobby to maintain in western Washington, where cloudy skies are the norm.  But this year, it just seemed like I couldn't catch a break.  How many supermoons was I blind to this year? Did I get to test out my homemade viewing device during the partial solar eclipse?  Speaking of eclipses, didn't we have a few of those this year, of the lunar variety?  What about those northern lights we were promised?  What about the Perseid, Leonid, and Orionid meteor showers this summer and fall? Clouds, clouds, clouds.

So imagine my delight last night upon finding clear skies as I peeked through the curtains around midnight.  This could be my chance.  I hurried through my tiny condo, switching off lamps, dousing the Christmas lights, and throwing on enough layers of clothing and blankets to keep me warm.  In short order, I was flat on my back on the lounge chair outside, with a sky full of stars blinking overhead.

Unfortunately, I was unable to escape from those much-disdained "city lights," so my prospects for being able to see much of a show were rather dismal.  After allowing a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness, I began to pick out familiar stars from the sky.  Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Rigel in Orion.  The showy Sirius in Canis Major was twinkling violently like a prism twirling in sunlight. I located the Pleiades star cluster, for which I've always had a special affinity. At last the stars Castor and Pollux resolved from the dim starry sky.  Those two stars lay in the constellation Gemini - the radiant for tonight's meteor shower.

Meteor showers are named for the constellations where meteors appear in the night sky.  The meteors radiate outward in all directions from this 'radiant'.  Radiant.  There's a deliciously magical-sounding word for you.  The radiant for the Geminid meteor shower is located in the constellation Gemini, the radiant for the Orionids is in Orion, for the Leonids in Leo... etc.

So I lay there in the cold, staring up at Gemini and anxiously waiting.  Sirens wailed down the street.  The acrid smell of asphalt wafted from overnight work on the nearby freeway. Thankfully, the wind soon shifted and carried with it a sweeter fragrance. The lonely stars blinked. As the moments passed, I began to worry that I wasn't in a dark enough location to see the meteor showers - that I was blind to a spectacular show occurring right in front of my very eyes.

Suddenly, a thin glowing thread of light appeared in my peripheral vision, then disappeared. Wait, was that it?  Was that a meteor? The excitedly whispered words coalescing in clouds around me were now "I saw one.  I SAW ONE!"

This was the first of thirty-one meteors I spotted during the hour spent sitting outdoors in the freezing cold.  Meteors appeared everywhere in the sky, shooting off in all directions.  They animated Orion's bow; they landed in the Pleiades; the brightest of them humbled even the piercing glitter of Sirius.  Most of the meteors were faint, and glimpsed only briefly as thin white trails on the edges of my vision.  I was lucky enough however, to see a few particularly spectacular meteors that blazed bright orange across a few degrees of sky. 

Hands-down the most exciting moment was when two flaming meteors seemed to fall straight down from the sky.  They appeared exactly where my gaze had been resting in the vacant sky, allowing me to follow their side by side progress as they plummeted downward.  Now these were METEORS: blazing orange fireballs, trailing behind them a plume of glowing light and a tail of smoke.  They appeared to be making a beeline for the tops of Doug fir trees a hundred yards in the distance, which caused me to gasp inadvertently even though I knew better: those meteors were still miles away, miles above.  As they burned out, I sat looking at the dark sky with my mouth agape for the briefest moment, before shoving my blanket in my mouth to stifle a delighted shriek that would no doubt have alarmed my neighbors. After this, I'm fairly certain that the duration of my time outdoors was spend with a huge idiot grin on my face.

Eventually, the time between meteor sightings lengthened, and I was forced to crane my neck from one corner of the sky to the other to search them out.  Frowning, I also noticed that the sky seemed to be getting lighter.  Peering over the deck railing toward the ground two stories below, I quickly saw the reason why.  Thick fog was rolling in, creeping upward into the sky and carrying with it the diffused glow of streetlights from below.  After a few more minutes sans meteor sighting, I reluctantly concluded that this magical experience had come to an end.  Plus, I was beginning to lose feeling in my toes.  I tipped my head upward toward the sky, drinking in the midnight blue vista smattered with twinkling stars.  "One more," I whispered, "please, one more..."

And wouldn't you know it, right there in the sky just above Orion's head, a fat orange meteor streaked across my vision and flared out. Number thirty-one. I smiled. Okay, maybe I can forgive the cloudy Washington skies since -- in a benevolent Christmas gesture? -- they've parted tonight and allowed me a glimpse of the stunning show overhead.  Wrapping my dew-damp blanket around my shoulders, I eased back into the house feeling completely full, content, and peaceful; leaving those silent stars to continue their work unseen.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Wanderings: Coal Creek Falls

Rainy day hike to Coal Creek Falls

9.1 billion.  The number of dollars spent by Black Friday shoppers this year.  Also-- I'm pretty sure-- the number of raindrops that splattered against my jacket, ran down my face, and soaked into my jeans on a Black Friday hike with my sister and her pup, Ruby.  Rather than elbowing our way through crowds of people clamoring for the best deals on big-screen TVs and socks, we instead took on a soaking rain, light breeze, and temps in the low forties during a hike to Coal Creek Falls. 

Call us crazy (I prefer 'adventurous'), but we certainly weren't the only people hitting the trails instead of the shopping malls, despite the deplorable weather.  When we arrived at the Lakemont Blvd. entrance to the Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, there were already a handful of other vehicles in the parking area. We bundled up in our jackets, pulled our hoods tight over our heads, and ducked out into the deluge.  Miss Ruby the pitbull was outfitted with her own hiking backpack, which she wasn't too sure about... looking at us with wary, uncertain eyes, she was clearly questioning WHAT in the world we were doing outdoors in the cold rain.

After stopping at the trailhead kiosk to plan our route, I stuffed an already-soaked map into my pocket and off we went.  According to the Washington Trails Association website, Coal Creek Falls is a short 2.5 mile hike, which includes 400 feet of elevation gain.  The elevation gain begins right away, as we quickly discovered.  Huffing and puffing and trying to encourage a reluctant Ruby, we slogged uphill beneath the reaching limbs of bare bigleaf maple and alder branches.  The natural leafy umbrella they would have provided in any other season now lay in a sodden carpet along the trail. Not only did we have the relentless, soaking rain to contend with, we also had the frequent startling splat of absurdly large water droplets dripping from bare branches onto our hoods and shoulders.

Lesson #1: when hiking on a rainy day in winter, make sure it's in a coniferous forest.

The brave hikers setting out. 

About halfway up the incline, we spotted a sign to the side of the trail which reminded us of the history of this place. Cougar Mountain was mined from 1863 to 1963, and the lasting effects of extracting 11 million tons of coal can still be seen in the park today.  This particular sign marked a dangerous "cave hole," where too-shallow mining caused the surface to cave in to the tunnel below, leaving behind large depressions in the earth that are still noticeable today.

Pay attention to those signs!

Obediently staying on the trail and far away from the cave hole (Did you see that sign?? Don't have to tell us twice!) we continued uphill until we reached a junction in the trail. From this point, the Coal Creek Falls trail branches off to the right along the face of the hill, giving our burning lungs and legs respite from the uphill climb.  This section of the trail is much narrower and, thanks to the rain, was slightly muddy.  We wound through a forest of conifers: cedar, hemlock, and Doug fir. The hillside sloped steeply upward to the left of the trail, and steeply downward to the right.  Eventually, the rushing, rumbling sound of fast-moving water rose from the depths to our right.  We must be getting close to the falls.

It sure was green! Sorry for the blurriness... rain on the lens, you know...

Muddy Coal Creek churning down below. 

A few more twists and turns in the trail, a few notched cedar stumps and many raindrops later... the crashing water of the falls came into view on the trail ahead. At only 28 feet high, this isn't a large waterfall by any means, but it was impressive nonetheless. Swollen with rainwater, Coal Creek roared mightily down its small but lovely falls.  This was definitely worth the uphill hike in the rain!  

Lesson #2: to ensure the most impressive waterfall experience, schedule these hikes for extremely, ridiculously, soaking-wet rainy days.

We made it!
Coal Creek Falls

After a few minutes of standing on the bridge over the swollen creek (Ruby, don't fall in!), snapping a few photos with our rain-splattered cameras and admiring the falls, we decided that we were thoroughly soaked and ready to head back.  Although there are other trails that loop back to the parking area, we decided to go back the way we came.  We knew the route, knew what to expect, and figured it would be the quickest way back. As soon as we turned around, Ruby was the one pulling us forward! Smart girl. She knew we were headed back the way we came, which meant a nice warm car and a dry place out of this unrelenting downpour!

At this point, I was frozen and completely drenched to the skin.  I wish I could have looked around, taken a few more photos, and admired the scenery a bit more, but the only thing at the forefront of my mind was to get down this hill. My wilderness survival skills might be at a novice level (okay, I'm limited to what I've seen on Man vs. Wild) but I knew that soaking clothes and cold temperatures were not a good combination! I showed my sister that, by making a tight fist, I could produce streams of water from my sodden gloves. She announced that her hiking pants were no longer waterproof.  Ruby hustled us along.  

Lesson #3: when going for a hike in the rain, make sure that your waterproof gloves, pants, jacket, etc. are actually waterproof.

We made it back to the car, peeling off as many dripping layers of clothing as we could and throwing the garments into the trunk.  Ruby, once freed of her backpack, leap into the backseat and proceeded to dry herself off by rolling back and forth on the cloth seat.  It's a dog car, my sister said with a laugh.

Looking through the trees... there's a view out there somewhere! Yes I know... finger on the lens... hard to tell when you're wearing soggy gloves!

Coal Creek Falls was a great hike.  I'm looking forward to going back to the Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park on drier days to explore more of the trails and enjoy the scenery. Many of the trails are said to boast stunning views, which we got a small glimpse of on the descent as some of the mist cleared out a bit.

Spending time in nature, getting some exercise surrounded by beautiful scenery, and hanging out with your older sis who you don't get to see nearly enough... now that's better than any Black Friday "doorbuster" deal!

Happy Ruby