The Columbia River Gorge and Mount Rainier National Park: A Great Pacific Northwest Smoke Out

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The last couple of weeks are exactly why I now find myself living in the Pacific Northwest.

Sort of.

So it's no secret that this region of the country has some of the most incredibly beautiful and inspiring fodder for landscape and nature lovers and overall wanderlusters.

If anything, the region is known for its copious amounts of water and incredibly liberal natural display of every shade of green known to man.

It's what I moved up here to explore and embed with.

Between the forests, the waterfalls, the rivers, the coastlines, the almost-religious focus on sustainability and conservation and nature-worship, and perhaps the world's most concentrated populations of tree-huggers on the planet (myself proudly and unapologetically included), it's enough to occupy infinite lifetimes of discovery.

What we didn't see coming (well actually we did) was the supercharged effects of climate change, not surprisingly, affecting some of the most heavily forested areas in the country.

From Portland all the way up to Seattle, the Pacific Northwest has been covered in a thick layer of smoke and haze from the wild megafires flanking us in every direction from California up to Canada.

It's just marinating over the city like a modern-dust bowl, and oftentimes visibility is no further than the building across the street. In fact, over the past 2 weeks, this has been a recurring news-story:

"Air quality in Portland ranks fourth-worst among major cities worldwide according to a data visualization tool that tracks air quality." -KGW

Think about that for a second...that's worse than Beijing. And that has been the increasing trend for the past half-decade.

And this has now gone on for exactly one month.

Furthermore, we've seen more over-90 degree days this summer than not, which is NOT typical for this region. It's a very disturbing trend that, in speaking to several locals, has increased dramatically over the past several years. Being as how this area is the hub of forestry, I've attended (and worked) several symposiums and talks and panels and events centered around this very topic.

However, not one to spread doom and gloom, I wasn't going to let this hamper my exploration of the region, so while Mother Nature was busy taking care of herself, I figured we'd use the incredible light provided by the fire-smoke-diffused sky for photography and sunsets and sunrises that look like sunsets and over the past couple of weeks, I've been able to put a good dent in my list of 'things to do' up here in the Pacific Northwest. First off, a cousin came to town to escape the big city life of Los Angeles, and wanted some 'nature time.' We only had 48 hours, so figured we'd make the best of it.

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We started off in Beacon Rock State Park along the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, where we hiked by the Pool of the Winds up to the semi-treacherous trek  to the summit of Hamilton Mountain. While it was a fairly decent burner, about 1700 feet elevation over the course of 3 miles, the air quality certainly had a hand in it hurting as much as it did. We did, however, get some pretty incredible views and colors because of it. After that, we made our way through Hood River's fruit loop and picked up some fresh cherries for the ride back down the mountain through Mount Hood to Portland. 

Then, just last week, along with a photographer friend Rob Dweck (check out his stuff...seriously...especially his black & whites!!), I made it up to one of the locations that has been on my photographic bucket list for a decade - Mount Rainier National Park.

Typically known for crystal clear summer skies and crisp contrasted majestic mountain - peak, driving into the park, due to the thick haze, we hardly even knew it was there.

 Legend has it a majestic mountain lies in there somewhere...

Legend has it a majestic mountain lies in there somewhere...

Even at sunrise the following morning, I had to use a polarizer on my lens just to cut through enough haze to identify that a mountain even existed over Mirror Lakes. It eventually cleared enough for her to show off her grand self, but throughout much of the rest of that day, we were avoiding the grand viewpoints because...well there were none.

This did, however allow us to focus on the forests and waterfalls and use the haze to the best of our advantage as we can - contrasty black & white images and landscapes, more focused compositions in heavily forested areas as we hiked down portion of the Nisqually River and up through the forest towards Comet Falls, the park's largest waterfall.

On our final day, we got somewhat lucky. We arose for sunrise again to try to catch Mount Rainier in all her beauty from Paradise. Unfortunately, the fog, mixed with the haze, covered her up completely and we were unable to get a glimpse. That unfortunately turned quickly to fortunately because due to those very conditions, I did manage to capture what turned out to be my favorite images from the trip. They weren't the images I imagined I'd capture from Rainier, but I can't complain at all - with the fog slowly lifting and the tops of the trees ever-so-gingerly monochromatically poking their way through - I feel like they were pretty unique images.

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And, well, it was fun.

Finally, on the day we were leaving, the haze lifted enough to show us Rainier in the glory she was meant to be seen in. We figured we'd hike the Sunrise Loop, a 7-mile loop trail that took us through the forests, above the treelines, almost up to the basecamp of where the crazy-folks that climb the whole mountain prepare and acclimate to the elevation before beginning their awe-inducing ascents up to the summit, and back down through the idyllic meadows and streams and wildflowers caused by the glacier runoff back down to the Paradise Lodge.

Easily one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever done.

And can't wait to do again.

Anyhow, below are some images from that trip up to Mount Rainier National Park. Hope you enjoy: 

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