Thursday, June 21, 2012

Palouse Falls

A practice run of sorts is always beneficial in the lessons learned, provided one is open to the learning. Mistakes provide excellent experience and dire reminders. As such, one month before my 9 day trip to Glacier National Park I find myself spending a night camped at Palouse Falls State Park.

Cut out of the arid landscape of south eastern Washington, the Palouse Falls are a vivid reminder of the great glacial floods that shaped the Northwest from Missoula, Montana to Portland, Oregon. The Palouse saws a course through the scrub lined canyons left from the floods before suddenly dropping hundreds of feet into a great bowl at the bottom of which stands a large pool. The falling water creates a star burst spray as it impacts the pool below. The raging water transforms from a green hue back into turquoise clear as it calms into a running river once more. The Palouse resumes its sawtooth journey, now into canyons twice as deep as before.

The existence of the towering bowl and its pool far below seems almost impossible in this barren landscape. At the top of the canyon the world is a dull variation of dusty tans and browns. As the eye follows the cavernous space downward life begins to flourish. The browns become a lush green abundance of plants, feeding off the continuous spray of the falls. Inside the vast empty spaces of the bowl, swallows by the hundreds perform their aerial dance, almost as if the space were carved from the earth just for their kind.

Colorful Falls 

I arrived at Palouse Falls State Park just before mid day. I leisurely claimed a camp site and got my things squared away before beginning the hiking portion of my trip. Once settled I donned my boots, filled a day pack, and got to it.

Generally speaking, I travel to gain experiences. My preferred method of sharing that experience with others is photography. I feel it would not be inaccurate to say that I travel to take pictures. In that sense my trips are planned around photography. Grand landscapes are best shot shortly after sunrise and during sunset. The time in between I fill with hiking, during which I photograph places and things I won't be able to during the previously mentioned opportune moments.

Hiking is an excellent form of exercise and often the sights, sounds, and emotions that accompany the journey pacify the soul. Indeed one of the primary reasons for this trip, aside from the practice, was my own need for a breather from my professional life. After weeks of waiting quite impatiently, the weather and overtime schedule finally consented.


Not knowing the local trails or possessing a trail map, I opted to just wander the established foot paths and see where they took me. I started with some promising bluffs that afforded an excellent view upon the falls below. I tracked these bluffs up the river until the path cut down at a railroad. This led me down to the river proper. Here I found the violent rapids of the upper falls, framed by the canyon walls towering overhead.

I worked my way back up the river, at first hopping from one massive boulder to another before I found the established trail, tucked beneath the canyon wall. Before long I reached Castle Rock, the sentinel rock formation standing a lonely vigil over the falls. From a distance it appears almost delicate, in sharp defiance to the natural forces it has weathered over the millenia. Up close it must appear much stronger, for I clung to it quite earnestly whiling staring at the cool green waters of the pool over 300 feet below. For a few moments I let go of my rocky lifeline to work my way down an outcropping to overlook the falls directly. A moment is all my heart could take and I scurried back up the slope to my anchor.

It is at this juncture that I eyed the trail that circumnavigates the bowl, and continues down the canyon. More a goat track then a trail, it sits precariously on a sloping shelf several hundred feet above the river. I decided to try it and although I was immediately uncomfortable with the height and poor footing, I soldiered on. Suffice to say I spent most of my time concentrating on not losing my footing instead of enjoying the great view of the falls, but such is the life of an acrophobic. Eventually I traced the trail all the way to the other side of the park and was able to work my way up a basalt slide to safety. Test of courage passed.

I spent the rest of the day relaxing, reading, taking some more pictures of the falls. I met Jonathan and Jennifer from Portland and helped them pick a route to Coeur d'Alene for the next day of their travels. As the sun set I tried for some more pictures of the falls, had dinner, and then went to bed. I woke early the next day and after a quick breakfast I took even more pictures of the falls in the early light. I then broke camp and headed home, content with my short stay.

 Falling Flow

So, there were lessons learned, and here they are for posterity.

  1. Always bring all the camera batteries fully charged (I forgot and brought one that was nearly dead)
  2. Less is more. I need a smaller day pack, probably a minimalist CamelBak to cut down on weight on the trail.
  3. Make a checklist before leaving home. I forgot a few items.
  4. Change the batteries in the lamps. Evidently these don't last very long.
  5. Consider buying a 40-50 degree sleeping bag. While my 20 degree bag works great up at Glacier, in the warmer climates its just overbearing.
  6. Bring a pencil.
  7. A watch is very handy.
  8. A 1.5 mile hike in rough terrain and high heat wore me out and gave me sore feet. I need to train more before Glacier.

No problems that can not be over come in the next month. Practice makes perfect after all.

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