As with the first park we stopped at in the Lower 48 states (Olympic), Mt. Rainier proved to be one of the biggest surprises for us. Perhaps word of how amazing these Washington State parks are doesn’t spread very far beyond this northwestern corner of the US, or perhaps we just weren’t listening very well when people told us about them. Either way, we were, once again, dazzled.
Leaving the Norris area in Yellowstone, we got caught in a bison jam and stuck on a road under construction. Though we put in a solid 14 hours of driving, we fell short of our goal of Mt. Rainier by just a couple of hours. Exhausted, unable to push on, we made it as far as Yakima, Washington before succumbing to fatigue. We checked into a roachy motel at 10PM and, for want of an open alternative, found ourselves eating at Yakima’s installment of the Red Lobster sea’food’ chain. It was the first time I’d frequented a Red Lobster in all my ten years of living on American soil, and I can safely say it will be the last.
Early the next morning we left for Rainier, and were soon camped and hiking up to a waterfall, when it dawned on us what a great park Rainier is. It isn’t an especially large park — as the name suggests the focal point is the mountain itself, an enormous volcano set in the Cascade range, that sticks out prominently and beautifully from its neighbours — but it’s a striking one.
Towering into the sky, Mount Rainier is so tall and mighty it creates its own weather, and what starts out as a clear crisp day can very quickly become dark, threatening, even dangerous, as we witnessed on our final day in the park. The ever-capricious weather is a feature of Rainier that echoes the treacherous beauty of the volcano itself. Because of what it is, because of where it is, and because it is not extinct, Rainier is one of the most dangerous mountains in the world. Just 50 miles from Seattle, the mountain has the potential to send catastrophic volumes of mud roaring down its sides into heavily populated areas should the volcanic interior warm up enough to suddenly melt the glacial ice that covers it.
This volatility — the mountain’s propensity for destruction and self-destruction — surely contributes to its allure, but there’s a simple aesthetic here in the park that exists independent of its danger. The lush green fields flush with a rainbow of wildflowers on the foothills of Rainier are unlike any other we’ve come across. At every turn in the area known as Paradise, you’re standing in fields of flowers with such abundantly agreeable names as avalanche lilies, pearly everlastings, pink heather, spreading phlox, Indian paintbrush, birds-beak lousewort… not to mention the bees and birds that descend on them to feed and pollenate. Alone, they are worth visiting. But as they slope upwards, small mountain streams trickle through them, and eventually they give way to the rocky, rough scree carried down the mountain by centuries of glacial activity, produced by the star of the show, Mount Rainier itself.
Even the naturalist and explorer John Muir, whose name you cannot escape in the national parks of the western US, in 1889 called the slopes of Rainier “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings”. And he did a lot of mountaintop wanderings.
Surrounded by such beauty, such tranquility, it’s easy to forget that you’re sharing your space with a menacing and perilous volcano. It’s also easy — especially if you were teased in your previous visit to a national park — to forget that certain animals are sharing their home with you, and to ease off on the hey-bearing.
Which is pretty much how it happened.
Meg, who had been so faithful with the “hey bear” warnings in every park and wilderness since Denali, finally gave up on it. The ever-present threat of a bear encounter had been with us since the beginning, and had been in the back (and front) of Meg’s mind on every step of every hike. We’d taken precautions, followed all the advice, carried bear spray everywhere, and talked as we walked, and when we ran out of things to talk about, Meggy hey-beared. Diligently. For more than two months she had waited, expected, prepared — with no small amount of anxiety — to come face-to-face with a bear.
So here we were, on our last full day in Rainier, on our last full day of camping. Walking in silence and in single file along a narrow path, with our backs to the mountain we ascended a small slope and rounded a bend that fed us into a small valley. Suddenly, a crunching, twitching sound made me look over to our left and there, in the waist-high foliage, was the unmistakable jet black fur and huge, powerful stature of a black bear!
I took a breath, turned and signaled Meg to stop, and she knew in an instant — without seeing it herself — what I had seen. I could see the fear widening her eyes and quickening her breath. Knowing not to run, we took a few calm steps back and watched him for a moment. It was soon evident that the bear considered us to be neither interesting nor lunch. It was at this moment that Meg’s fear (and mine but I would never admit it), quite visibly, turned to awe. It had happened. In a single moment of quietude in the final hours of our final day in our final park, we were now in the midst of our first in-the-flesh, on-foot, no-one-else-around bear encounter.
Because we’d reacted appropriately, in the end the experience was neither completely terrifying nor abrupt. On the contrary, it ultimately became peaceful and slowly relaxing. For several minutes we stood and stared at him while he happily fed on every berry he could get his heavy paws on. He knew we were there, he stopped to look at us a few times and sniffed the air (approvingly?); we reached a tacit understanding with him about personal space (20 metres, max, OK? OK), and then continued on the path past him.
Within minutes, the weather changed completely. By the time we reached Reflection Lakes from Paradise, the sky was a dark grey, storm clouds threatened, and visibility was reduced to just a couple of meters — a thick cloud of the mountain’s own making had descended over the mountain, over us, and we scurried the few miles back to our starting point as quickly as we could.
Though our time in the national parks — and this chapter of the trip — was drawing to a close, we had ended in style: we had seen a bear in the wild, on foot, on the slopes of the majestic Mount Rainier. It was, in every way, the perfect ending to a magnificent stint of camping in the great outdoors and experiencing the very best of the American West.