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Hiking to Spray Park OR How We Nearly Got Stuck In The Dark MountainsOvernight With A Mountain Lion

This was an eventful trip to Spray Park.

We'd originally planned to go hiking Friday, but I slept horribly Thursday night and woke up feeling exhausted, so we ended up staying in, then deciding to get the last of our gear at REI on Saturday, and actually heading out on the hike Sunday.

Gurgles enjoyed the bag.
I needed to get some base layers for hiking so I wasn't swimming in my own sweat the whole time, and we wanted to see if we could get Patrick another hiking shirt while their Labor Day sale was still on, so Saturday we went down to the Seattle flagship store and had a look around. I got one each long-sleeved and short-sleeved top, a couple pairs of wonderful moisture-wicking underwear (makes SUCH a difference, you don't even know...), and the sports bra of champions. Patrick did end up getting a shirt, and it worked out well for hiking.

We packed up all our stuff Saturday evening and tried to make sure we had everything. We'd also stopped and gotten a bunch of food to take with us. Cashews, dried fruit, these coconut-banana things that were just delicious but had a surprisingly large calorie load, etc.

Water bottles were packed, along with the knife and fire-making stick that I decided to bring, because who knows? You could suddenly be hiking and find yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse! We went to bed fairly early Saturday night and got up Sunday morning to a lovely sunny day. I put in my contacts, we had a bite of breakfast, and off we went.

It took about 2 hours to get to the trailhead, but there were so many cars that we wound up parking about half a mile down the road from it (this will be fun later, trust me). The last 15 or so miles of road is this awful, dusty, washboard surface. Makes for an incredibly dirty car, ugh. All the cars parked along the side of the road basically looked the same color after having been coated in clouds of dust, and ours joined the line at the very end. People also camp up at the trailhead, so a number of the vehicles in the actual lot were from people who'd gotten there a day or two beforehand.

After a couple false starts (things forgotten in the car that trips had to be made back for), we got ourselves up to the actual trailhead and started down. Yes, down. Not up. In spite of the fact that we were already at 4800 feet and would end up around 6400, this trail went down very abruptly at first. Altitude hiking (even at these lower ranges, it's still a factor) is an entirely different kind of beast from regular hiking, if you aren't used to it. Your heart starts really pounding on climbs, and everything begins aching at once after a pause of a couple seconds. Your head, lungs, throat, back, everything.

We got carried away at first trying to climb up out of the basin fairly rapidly, and learned that that was a bad idea when everything closed up on me and I had a minor panic attack trying to breathe. Stupid anxiety. It's so irritating. You'll be going along, doing just fine, and then you'll start having issues getting air in and out, and suddenly your brain panics. Then your throat closes up, you can't breathe at all, and you sound like you're having a terrible asthma attack. We waited until it went away, and then proceeded more slowly along up the trail again.

Spray Falls
Eventually, past many tree roots and rocks, we found the turnoff for Spray Falls. It was kind of hard to get a picture of these, as there were some people scattered around closer to the water, but I tried. We stopped here and refilled one of our water bottles, then put on sunscreen and had a bite to eat. The meal here was rather decadent, with cheese, grapes, crackers and a couple of those coconut-banana things. There was so much cheese in each little personal tray we'd brought along that I wasn't hungry for the rest of the day.

I had a blister on my left heel at this point, despite having put moleskin on my heel and securing it (or so I thought) with that athletic wrap stuff that's supposed to stick to itself. I readjusted everything and wrapped it all back up, hoping that it would be fine. When we were done eating, we got back up and pushed on for the last gasp. If you look at the picture labeled Spray Falls, you'll see that big cliff near the top of the picture (the rocky thing with the trees on it). That water comes out of Spray Park, so we could see from the falls how far we had yet to climb.

We backtracked up from the viewpoint until we were once again on the regular trail, and continued upward. This series of switchbacks is exhausting. Not being used to the altitude makes it even more difficult. We'd pause every couple of turns to take a breath and make sure we didn't keel over. Finally, after what seemed like forever, we made it to where the trail starts opening out into clearings. Spray Park seems to be a collection of meadows and water sources that are all vaguely connected, which makes for a confusing time when you're trying to figure out exactly where you need to go to get the best view of Rainier. We tried a little offshoot trail, but it seemed to descend into another basin, so we went back to the one with big stones on it and followed it for a time.

Spray Park
I somehow managed to avoid taking an actual close-up picture of wildflowers, despite that being the primary reason most people go on this hike. I guess you can kind of see them in the picture to the left, but they're in shadow. You get the idea, anyway. Alpine meadows with a zillion wildflowers.

When we got to where we had a pretty good view of Mt Rainier, we decided to call it good, and tried to settle down to have a brief rest...

No. Mosquitoes.

I HATE mosquitoes. We slapped on some insect repellent, but you could still hear the little vampires buzzing around your ears. I couldn't really relax while we were there because of them, so we didn't stay very long. I kept smacking mosquitoes off Patrick's back and my arms, and it wasn't exactly calming. It's definitely quiet up there, though, minus the sounds of bugs. You can occasionally hear a little pika chirp from somewhere in the rocks. Very cute. There are marmots and supposedly a bear was sighted by some hikers earlier, but we didn't ever catch a glimpse. I guess the mosquitoes suck on the wildlife when people aren't around.

View from Mosquito Heaven
The mountain looks gigantic up close. Although strangely more attainable than when it's miles away. I guess when you see it from Shoreline, it looks like it must be infinitely high in order to be visible from that far away. Up closer, you can see the rocks and glaciers and appreciate that, while they're enormous, they're still finite. Maybe one day I will climb that beast.

Patrick had evidently done something to his left knee either when we were just arriving in the meadows or shortly thereafter, which did not bode well. We think now it was just a twist or something, nothing serious, but when you're staring down the last half of a total 7.5 mile trek, it is pretty alarming to have pain starting up in your leg. We packed up our stuff and slowly headed back down the trail. As we were going along, it got more and more painful for him.

View out to the right of Rainier
We stopped a couple times to rest it, but that didn't really seem to make it any better. I kept looking around for a stick he could use as a prop, and finally found one that seemed like it would do the job. I broke it off the tree it was attached to, snapped off the spindly end with my foot, and gave it to him.

It did seem to help a little, having something to lean on, but his knee was still very painful. He had to keep it straight when he put weight on it, as if he tried to bend it with any weight on, it was excruciating. Poor guy. I felt so bad for him. I tried to be encouraging as we went along, but there wasn't a lot I could do to help. He's just too big for me to haul him anywhere or be of much use other than trying to catch him if he were to lose his balance. Eventually he got some pretty bad blisters on the hand he was using to hold the stick with, and I had the thought to get some more moleskin out of our bag and put it on his hands, then cover up the stick with the leftover athletic wrap I had brought along. I guess it helped a little. The moleskin didn't stay on very long, but I think the wrap padding cushioned the stick a bit so that at least one of his blisters didn't burst.

The brown area is a boggy sort of place. More mosquitoes!
The switchbacks until we got back to Spray Falls were particularly bad, since they were so steep and covered with rocks. This trail is basically filthy the whole way. I realize that sounds stupid, because it's outside, but most trails we've been on are not this dirty. It's just piles and piles of dirt. I guess it's from all the people? I don't know what the reason is exactly, but it makes for very treacherous footing, even with a stick and good hiking boots.

Fortunately we'd left the park a lot earlier than we'd planned (pre-mosquitoes, we'd thought to eat a bit and relax for an hour once we actually made it to the meadows, but that quickly became an unpleasant option), and that ended up working out really well. Had we left any later than we did, we'd have been trying to hike out of a basin on a bad knee in pitch black. There are no lights around, as you're out in the middle of nowhere. I suppose we could've used the fire stick in a pinch, or the phones we carried.

Looking at the trail home
We went very slowly and carefully, and gradually made our way out. I was so proud of Patrick. He was in pain and had a horrible time of it, but he was determined and got himself out of there. There were a few people camping here and there, but not many. The sun looked like burning fire coming through the trees as we got closer to the trailhead, and the last of the light was fading just as we dragged ourselves up the last climb.

Fortunately there was a restroom at the campground, so we made use of that and then I asked Patrick if he wanted to wait for me to go get the car and come back for him. He wanted to try coming with me, but it was very painful for him, so after a little while he decided he'd wait. I took off for the car (another half mile, UGH) at the quickest pace I could manage. It was getting very dark very quickly, and I couldn't tell which car belonged to us. I found one that I thought was ours, and stopped to get the backpack off myself. I ended up having to cut the waist straps with my keys in order to get them loose enough to step out of, and then tried the key in the car only to find out that it wasn't even our car. No. This dirt-colored thing belonged to someone else. Good thing I didn't set off their alarm...

Okay. So. Pick up the pack again and keep going. More road. More dirt lumps. More cars that weren't ours.... FINALLY. There was our car. Mind you, this was Patrick's car, not mine. So I didn't know where anything was on it. I got it open and threw the pack in, ripped off my boots and foot wrappings to put on sandals, and tried to get it working so I could go get him. I was trying to find the stupid emergency brake release and accidentally popped the hood, so I had to go slam that back down (this must've looked hilarious to any animals watching me). Eventually I got the car going and turned around in what was probably the slowest three-point turn ever. I didn't want to run off a cliff or into a ditch, so I had to be very careful. My car is not an automatic and his is, and I'm not at all used to cars that just start moving forward the second you release the brake. Yikes.

Poor Patrick was waiting for me, and I managed to get up there and fetch him. I guess he'd started walking again after it dawned on him that maybe it wasn't such a good idea for me to go trekking off into the mountain dark on my own, so he was a bit closer than I'd expected. I drove us out, going about 25 on the horrible washboard road so as not to zoom off a cliff and die or run into some gigantic creature...

Speaking of gigantic creatures. We were going along when suddenly something ran across the road. At first I thought it was a deer, because it's always a deer. But then my brain sort of stuttered and fell over itself with this train of thought:

Deer in the road!
Runs funny....
What is

Yep. An absolutely gigantic mountain lion had just run across the road probably 30 feet in front of us. Unfortunately we didn't get any pictures as it happened so quickly, but it was a gorgeous cat! Running so smoothly and fluidly.... It must've been 400-500lbs of apex predator. Such a beautiful coat, complete with the black tip on its tail. We didn't see anything ahead of it, so maybe it was just traveling and not actually after something. That really woke us up. We'd seen signs everywhere telling us that we were in bear country, but nowhere had I seen anything about mountain lions, although I suppose I should've known.

Yep, this is what we saw.
After that, all the stuff we saw in the road (couple of little rodenty things scurrying along, one raccoon looking to hitchhike) seemed like very small potatoes! I'm so glad we weren't going faster. I'd have felt awful if we'd hit the lion. It took about 2 hours to get home, and we dragged ourselves out of the car and into the shower to get rid of the insect repellent and tons of caked on dirt before going to bed. I think we were finally asleep about midnight.

Patrick's knee feels much better after a day of rest, although we are both still really sore. Getting up this morning we basically just hobbled around for a while until the worst of the stiffness wore off. I tried to get a bunch of chores done yesterday while Patrick rested, and I think I got most of them done. I even made a giant pile of roasted veggies! Green beans, rainbow baby potatoes, mushrooms and garlic with smoked salt and a bit of olive oil, along with some Chinese sesame egg noodles. I was totally Domestic Girl, I tell you.

So glad we made it out of there. I wasn't sure what we were going to do if he couldn't have hiked back. Just tell some other hikers to call for a MedEvac when they got back to civilization? There's no reception up where we were. I was glad I thought to bring along the fire stick and knife, though. Just in case.

What a weekend this has been!
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