Another post for the rail fans out there. My visit to Steilacoom has yielded posts about the ferry and McNeil Island but it would be remiss to not discuss the rail line that runs along the waterfront. The weekend day I was there, there seemed to be a lot of traffic. This is the BNSF line along the coast but it is also currently used by Amtrak services. That was due to have stopped a while back with the Point Defiance Bypass having opened but, with an accident on the opening run, trains have continued to use the old route. That will transition at some point this year, though.
A bunch of trains came through while I was there. Most of these were freight services but one was an Amtrak Cascades train. It was being operated with a Talgo Series 8 train owned by Oregon DOT and on which I have done a bunch of work over recent years. Since only one train is running per day in each direction as a result of the pandemic, it was a lucky coincidence that I was there when it came through. I did get a nice wave from the engineer.
The Cascades range has a few volcanos. One of the less frequently discussed is Mt Adams. I know of it as a result of something work related but have never thought much about it or where it was. However, from Mt St Helens, you have a good view of Mt Adams off to the east. I wasn’t planning on heading that way but it was hard to miss it from up there.
The drive to Mt St. Helens takes you south passed Mt Rainier. The weather was pretty crummy as I headed south so I didn’t get any views of the mountain as a drove. However, the weather had improved markedly by the time I headed home and the sun angle had come around to illuminate my side of the mountain. Consequently, I stopped a couple of times on my way back north to take some pictures. I want to do some hiking on Mt Rainier at some point but this was as close as I have got – at least on the ground.
Sitting beneath Mt St Helens is Spirit Lake. It was there before the blast but not exactly where it is now. The debris that rushed off the mountain and the side of the volcano collapsed pushed down to the lake and actually raised it up a couple of hundred feet. The water also rushed up the surrounding hills. These had been covered in trees which, as the blast expanded outwards, got snapped off at their bases. These stripped tree trunks got picked up by the water and washed back in to the lake as the water retreated. The result is that there are now thousands of tree trunks floating on the surface of the lake making a raft. This moves with the wind so its location on the lake surface changes all the time but it always covers a substantial portion of the lake.
The lake also covers the previous location of a lodge that used to serve visitors. The owner of the lodge died in the explosion and the raised level of the lake now puts it above the lodge’s original location. The owner had been advised to leave but he had lived there all his life and he wasn’t interested in going. He was one of the many people to die that day.
Long before we moved to the Pacific Northwest or even visited the area, there was one mountain in the area that I knew all about. Mt St Helens exploded in 1980 killing over 50 people and devastating a wide area. The idea that the side of a mountain would just slide away and the exposed volcanic activity would blow out with the force of tens of megatons of explosive was amazing to me then and it still is. I had been thinking of taking a visit for a long time.
The lack of a reason for time off this year means I have built up a balance of PTO that the company wants me to use so I booked a random day off in the middle of the week and, with nothing else planned, I thought a road trip was worthwhile. It is a little over three hours south of us to get to the mountain so I headed off earlier with a good forecast. I was a little skeptical as I drove south in the rain and low cloud but weather changes quickly here and altitude can make things change fast.
The road to Windy Ridge Viewpoint closes in the winter but it was still mild enough and there was almost no trouble on the road. The deep shadows combined with the sun breaking through the trees made for some awkward conditions to drive up while watching out for the sudden deteriorations in the surface which appeared without warning. The majority of the road surface is perfect but every once in the road, a little chasm will appear! Also, while the air temps were in the 50s, the shade meant there was the occasional icy patch on the road which gets your attention on steep sections with big drop offs!
As I got closer to my target, I started coming around corners which provided a view to the mountain. It is a dominant shape even without the 1,600’ or so that got blown off it forty years ago. This was not an ideal time to visit for photography purposes because the sun is so far south so it is a little backlit but the good viewpoints are in the north and, even if I had been there for sunrise, it would still have been a less than ideal sun angle. That would have required an overnight there which I didn’t feel was a great plan.
When I got to Windy Ridge, I was all alone. There were two vehicle parked up near the trailhead but the occupants were obviously off up the trail. It was just me. Consequently, it felt super tranquil. I read up on the disaster and what happened to the area and the people. I spent a lot of time just staring at the mountain. The hollowed out side of the mountain gives you an idea of just what got blown out. There are new bulges in the surface as magma pushes up from underneath which serves to remind you of just what you are looking at. This thing has blown on multiple occasions and will again at some point. Right now it looks benign. The eruption from 1980 continued on and off into the mid 2000s. It is quiet for now but it will cause trouble again at some point. The desolation of the area, even after 40 years, is a stark reminder of the power of a volcano. Some trees have. Grown up but most of the landscape is still barren. Everything was scoured clear by the high speed and burning heat of the blasts. Some areas were sheltered by geography and they are were things have grown back first but they are in the minority. Quite a place. One day I shall go back and do the hike to the summit.
More from our hike on the Iron Goat Trail. I described the snow sheds in this post previously. There were some areas of the route that suffered such regular disruption that an alternative solutions was needed. When the track got taken out, trains could get stuck in the mountains, sometimes for days while things got repaired. One of the trestle bridges was washed away in a land slide and, since this wasn’t the first time, the chosen solution was to cut new tunnels.
A tunnel was also cut at Windy Point to avoid a tight curve on an exposed promontory. These tunnels are still there. They were cut from the rock by hand. Timber linings were inserted to prevent anything falling on to the track but the timbers are no long gone in most areas. However, you do see a few pieces lying at odd angles in places. There are also some access tunnels that were used for the crews to access the tunnel during construction allowing multiple faces to dig at the same time to speed construction. It must have been tough work up on the mountains in all weathers hacking through the rock to build this.
The tunnels are not considered safe to enter these days. Some are blocked by falls. I wasn’t interested in heading in there anyway. I wasn’t equipped for it and the hike was why we were there. However, I did peak in to the entrances of several tunnels to see where they had been cut in to the rock faces. We had made an easy drive to get to this location followed by a simple walk but, when this was all being built, this was the middle of nowhere. The process of picking an alignment and building it all from scratch is most impressive. Ultimately, a new Cascades tunnel was cut and the train no longer needed to take this route. Instead of turning up on to the lower grade, trains now continue up the valley and enter the new tunnel to head east.
When starting up at rocky mountainsides, it is easy to spot trees that seem to be doing an amazing job of growing out of somewhere that looks like it shouldn’t be possible. Normally I am a lot further away that is practical to get a good look at how they do this. However, while hiking in the Cascades, we came across a spot right next to the trail where some trees were growing right out of the rocks next to us. It was so cool to see how they develop a root structure in solid rock from which they can grow and flourish. Here are a couple of shots to show how they have successfully embedded themselves in a rocky surface.
Our hike on the Iron Goat Trail was more than just exercise. It proved to be quite an educational experience. There were many relics of the old railroad and a lot of signs telling the tale of how the railroad was built and why it was abandoned later. The Cascades get a lot of snow and in the early 20th century, the snow depths in winter were a lot more than they are now. It was not uncommon to get 15-20 feet of snow along this part of the alignment in those days.
This snow caused trouble with avalanches as a result of the amount of trees that had been cut for timber when building the railway. Landslides were also a problem in other seasons. To protect from the snow, sheds were built over the track at places most vulnerable to avalanche. This practice is continued to this day in the mountainous areas of US railroads.
These snow sheds had a reinforced concrete wall on the uphill side. A timber structure was then built out over the track to provide cover with concrete bases for the supporting timbers on the downhill side of the structure. Most of the timbers have either been removed for reuse or have decayed after a century up on the mountainside. The concrete walls are still in reasonable shape. Some spalling of the concrete has occurred but otherwise they look solid. A lot of plant life has grown over them and they do have water cascading over the top in many places. The bases for the timber supports are still visible in many places.
There are many of these sections along the trail. The first one you come across is quite a surprise but, after you have seen a few of them, they start to be normal when you get to another section. They are pretty large structures though.
With the weather nice and a holiday weekend upon us, we wanted to get out and get some exercise while staying away from the crowds that seemed to have forgotten about a pesky virus. We took a trip up into the Cascades to check out the Iron Goat Trail. I shared a picture of the caboose at the trailhead a couple of years ago in this post. This time we decided to stretch our legs a bit more. The trail is a pretty straightforward one for a lot of it because it is an old railroad right of way. Consequently, the grade is gentle. However, the connection sections are a different story.
The lower grade section is a lot more clear and wide so makes for a very easy stroll. The upper section was more heavily overgrown when we were there and the trail was a bit of a test of faith at times. The path was probably down there! It also went across some of the old railway infrastructure so a couple of narrow concrete sections were negotiated. However, the upper grade did provide some lovely views of the surrounding mountains.
The railway needed some significant infrastructure elements to make it functional. These will be the source of some follow up posts because they are interesting enough on their own. In the mean time, I shall share some shots here of the run through the wooded areas and the views across the Cascades that we had on a lovely July day. I think a return trip is in order. However, I suspect we won’t do the same route as this time because we ended up covering nearly nine miles and some very steep ascents and descents so were a bit bushed by the end of it. I will pick the route sections a bit more selectively next time!
If I remember – which I frequently don’t – I take my polarizer with me when I am going to photographing scenery. With our trip up into the Cascades, we went to the overlook of Diablo Lake and the sun was reflecting off the surface of the lake waters. I took two shots – one with the polarizer rotated to remove the glare and one with the glare in full effect. I was interested to see which of the shots I preferred when I got home. The color of the lake is very nice but sometimes the reflections are more interesting. I include both here to show just how much of a difference the polarizer makes and for you to decide which is to your taste.