— Traditional Northwest native greeting
I saw two bald eagles circling above Mercer Island as I drove through on the freeway Saturday. While always a welcome sight and a joy, this would not normally be worth writing home about. After all, they live there and I have seen them before. Mercer Island’s original nesting pair of eagles are locally famous, not least because the 300-year-old Douglas fir tree they live in long marked the center, legally among bipeds and unbeknownst to the raptors, of a zone in which no heavy construction might take place (lest their habitat be jeopardized) and also the center of a controversy about the existence of that protected zone, which represented a class A bummer for the people who wished to develop the property the tree stands on.*
Plummeting into the fog wall.
But it happens that these were not the only raptors I saw that day, indeed not even the only eagles I saw that day. The blue skies where I was on Saturday were cut by the graceful arcs and swift vectors of quite a few red-tailed hawks and at least two larger, dark-colored birds that I was told were golden eagles.
That the skies were blue was actually the most noteworthy fact of the day. I and my friend Scott had decided to get one just-us-guys-without-the-kids hike in this year come hell or high water. We were expecting high water that day in the form of more of the clouds and rain that had been dogging the northwest all week. On the way over to Scott’s house in Snoqualmie, in fact, I was not surprised when I entered a fog-bank that seemed to promise that I would not see the sun again that day. Scott and I knew we would not likely get another weekend day this year when both of us could leave our wives and young children to go scampering in the hills, so we decided to take whatever weather we were dealt. But when we pulled into the parking lot at Rattlesnake Lake the last patches of morning fog were drifting away on a slight Octoberish breeze from the south and the sun lit the lake and the flanks of Rattlesnake Mountain, the hike we chose because we are aging and out of shape and weren’t interested in killing ourselves.
In this photo from lake level, the foremost ledge looks higher than the back two but it is actually lower.
Rattlesnake Ledge is an outcropping of rock — one of three, actually — that juts from the eastern end of the mountain of the same name and affords hikers what I have always accounted a bargain vista. For a small investment of time and effort you can look out on a panorama that almost seems like the Pacific Northwest showing off. It’s almost hammy. The jagged peaks of the Cascade Range, often capped with snow, rise directly before you, and in the middle distance is a valley that you never see from any highways with an unbelievably large lake in it, whence comes the drinking water we townies take for granted. This is Chester Morse Lake. Directly below — almost you could toss a buffalo nickel into it, it seems — lies Rattlesnake Lake with its ancient treestumps breaking its surface, stumps so big around you could park a Volkswagen on them. To the right is an expanse of primeval forest stretching away as far as you can see to the south, where lies the old town of Ravensdale.
It has clouded up a little, but ace trailbuster Scott is ready to press on upward. Mt. Si looms behind.
Off to the left, brooding over the towns of North Bend and Snoqualmie, is the imposing mass of Mt. Si, named for Josiah Merritt, a legendary settler often referred to as “Uncle Si”. His cabin long ago sank into decay and was reclaimed by the moss and duff of the forest below his mountain, but I — among relatively few alive — know where it was; at least I did. I haven’t driven that road in many years, and development is so rife out in the Snoqualmie Valley that now I might not recognize the turn in the road, or the patch of woods if it still stands.
When Angela saw this she said it looked like I was Photoshop'd in, like I wasn't really there. I'm here to tell ya, I was really there. Chester Morse Lake is in the high background, Rattlesnake in the low.
When I was younger and hiked a lot I used to drive out to North Bend and scramble up to Rattlesnake Ledge and sit on the rock outcropping there like a desperado, thinking about life, praying sometimes, sometimes writing. There were never many people there, one or two other hikers at most. The trail at that time was not well delineated, but in parts was an organic network of nearly vertical dear tracks, and it was shorter then, too, making a fairly direct ascent to the left and up the ledge’s southern shoulder, which was mostly bare of trees. It only took me about 35 minutes.
Scott and I took our time this day, enjoying the rare freedom of being out and about without our kids (don’t get us wrong, we love being with our families, yadda yadda, & cet.) and involving ourselves in the kind of deep conversation that often happens between old friends on a hike. I have known Scott for more than twenty years. The trail is now longer, having had several of its switchbacks lengthened it seems to me, which makes it also less steep, and it circumvents the ledge’s once-bare shoulder for a gentler last leg (do I confuse body part metaphors? Very well, etc.). Though we were an hour getting to the ledge (joggers and people walking dogs passed us), it seemed like no time at all.
No quiet meditation here today.
The rock outcropping was crowded with people munching the sandwiches they’d brought and tipping back water bottles, fingering almonds out of plastic bags, taking pictures of each other with their phones. I think that years ago, the ledge was relatively far from large populations, and those who lived in the Upper Snoqualmie Valley were people who had always lived and worked there and would not be climbing up Rattlesnake every weekend. But now the upper valley is populated by hundreds or thousands of young families new to the delights of their natural surroundings, and for these people Rattlesnake is an amazing view just a few minutes’ drive from their homes. And with a trail that has been “civilized”, it’s no wonder the rock looked like the checkout line at REI.
A chilly breeze blew off the lake below, and after taking some nourishment we decided to explore the trail that continued up the spine of the mountain, a trail that, surprisingly to myself, I had never before taken. We stopped a few minutes later at a second rock outcropping, from which vantage point I took a photo of the first.
View of the first ledge from the second.
Then we continued further upwards to the third, a veritable aerie atop a sheer cliff, whence I snapped a shot of both the first and second ledges.
View of the first and second ledges from the third.
It was here at the third ledge that we saw the many hawks spiraling far below, yet very high still above the trees, and espied the large dark birds that a fellow hiker identified as golden eagles. I feel blessed when I see large birds like eagles and hawks and ospreys. I am probably a birdwatcher and just don’t know it. We spent about an hour up there, long enough on an autumn day to see the feel of the light change from morning light to afternoon light. The sun had emerged again from the morning clouds while we were at the third ledge and it stayed out for the rest of the day.
On the way down the trail, we passed many many people who were on their way up to the first ledge. Observing the protocol that has been an unwritten rule around here for as long as I can remember, Scott and I said “hi” to every individual hiker we encountered and to at least one person in each group (I usually hit the first and the last if they’re densely clustered, each one if they’re spread out). Less than half of them seemed to be expecting a salutation, and although most returned it, a lot of them seemed a little thrown and some even seemed annoyed, and there were a few who didn’t even look at us but trundled past us without a pause in their intergroup chatter.
This narrow gray bird is nor hawk nor eagle, but it held still long enough for me to photograph it. I have no idea what it is. A jay?
This garred me greet. I have been hiking these hills for decades, and when I was coming up (or going down, badda boom!) you always said hi whenever you encountered another hiker. You didn’t ask yourself whether you wanted to, or whether the approaching forms looked like they might be the kind of people you would want to hang out and play Scrabble with. You just said hi. It was a courtesy, and more than that, it is simple acknowledgement that you are on a mountain, or at least in the woods, and that it is these people who will share water or rope or a jacket with you or haul you out if you get into trouble. It’s a pledge of montane solidarity.
Scott and I took the challenge of educating the steady stream of people by example, greeting every hiker we met, whether they acknowledged us — or even noticed us — or not. We met our match in the guy who passed us talking on his cell phone a few paces ahead of a woman and young boy, whom he seemed to have forgotten about and who trudged solemnly along in silence. I didn’t know whom to feel sorrier for, them or him. In the end, him, because he seemed to be under the delusion that he was communing with the outdoors and with his family, while they at least knew their reality and were able to absorb their surroundings. She looked up and smiled when we said hi.
Another one of my happy place photos. I'll go there in my mind when it's still raining next June.
I thought about the lousy statistics we were reeling in. With so many people passing you the other way on the trail, maybe people didn’t feel the same bond of fellowship as when they only encountered very few souls. Maybe it seemed silly to them to say hi so many times in a row. But I think, too, that I’m just getting older and finding myself increasingly out of step with a culture that values only electronic connections, not spontaneous in-person ones. I would say “their loss”, but it’s mine too, because I have a [n/perhaps romantic] idea that people on trails in my beloved Pacific Northwest are ipso facto cool people, the kind of people I would at the least want to exchange a smile and a word with. I can be ignored on any old sidewalk in downtown Seattle.
I wonder if the amount of time we spend watching faces on screens desensitizes us over time to our innate attraction to real faces that are actually nearby. I wonder if we are in fact beginning to see the entire world, wherever we go, as pixels.
*I don’t know how the story of the Eagle Tree ended because I can find nothing besides an application from 2007 for permission to build a walkway in the wooded area where the eagles have built three nests since 1994, and a website for “Friends of the 300 Year Old Eagle Tree” that has not been updated since 2008 and whose last entry suggests that the “friends” were losing the battle against the developers.