It was late afternoon when Yvonne and I arrived at Sunrise Campground in Mt. Rainer National Park in September 1974.
We had crossed the continental divide at the Montana Idaho boarder two days early and were impressed with the view, but nothing could have prepared us for the iconic majesty of Mt. Rainier.
Early that afternoon this 14,410 foot peak, which Native Americans call Tahoma, had emerged from the horizon like a small cloud and then steadily filled the sky in front of us as we approached the eastern entrance to the park.
We selected a campsite for our popup tent and lit the Coleman stove to prepare tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for supper. It had been a long drive from Spokane, but we had broken up the day with a lunch stop near Yakima where we purchased some honeycrisp apples that had been picked that same morning. Now we enjoyed them for dessert, which was a deliciously perfect ending to a long day.
It was barely daylight when I was awakened by a muffled grunting nose outside of our tent.
I raised a window flap just enough to see a large black bear standing upright and peering in our car windows. As I reached for my camera, Yvonne started to stir.
I motioned for her to keep still as I pointed toward the door of the tent and softly whispered, “Bear.” Apparently my whisper was not soft enough because we heard the bear suddenly drop to all fours and run away. I dressed quickly and went out to inspect our campsite. There were huge paw prints everywhere. I was disappointed that the bear had run off before I could get his picture but glad that we had locked our food in the car instead of putting it in the tent.
I took a quick shower and then wolfed down some cereal and a peanut butter sandwich. I was anxious to hit the trail. Sunrise Rim Trail was aptly named.
The first few hundred yards of the trail led through an alpine meadow that was still bathed in the colors of late summer flowers. I imagined that they were waiting for a blanket of snow to arrive and put them to bed for the winter.
Yvonne walked across the meadow with me but then turned back, choosing to spend the morning exploring a good book while I explored the mountain. It was a wise choice because we were already at 6,000 feet elevation and this strenuous five mile trail would ascend to over 7,000 feet before looping back to the campground.
Looking back, I’m glad I had the privilege of being alone for this first experience of hiking a high mountain trail.
Almost immediately after leaving the meadow the trail took on an eerie but pleasant quietness that was only broken by a gusting wind and the sound of my hiking boots hitting the ground as I found my way along the rocky trail.
But I hadn’t gone far before the silence was broken by an unexpected sound. It was a shrill whistle and at first I thought it was being made by another hiker trying to see how far the sound would carry, but there were no other hikers close by. After hearing the noise intermittently for several minutes I finally spotted its source. It was a marmot standing guard to warn his fellow marmots that there was a stranger on the trail, and that stranger happened to be me.
The trail map appropriately described Sunrise Rim Trail as a rugged and strenuous hike that would take about three hours to complete, and I suppose I could easily have done so had I not stopped at every turn and outcrop to take in the breathtaking views. At the halfway point I finally reached the snowline and paused to gaze at the snowcapped peak that towered another 7,000 feet above where I stood.
The thought of someday climbing to the top crossed my mind, but for now I was content to find a comfortable spot to rest awhile before completing my day hike.
As I sat there quietly, I suddenly realized that for the first time in my 28 years I was at that moment discovering what it means to truly be one with nature. I wanted very much to do something that would help me capture and remember that moment.
It was then that I noticed right there in front of me the snow was melting, and as it did it formed a trickling stream barely a foot across that sparkled in the sunlight as it started its own journey down the mountain.
I learned later that this little trickle of melting snow would join forces with other tributaries that flow from the southern slopes of Mt. Rainier to give birth to the Nisqually River. But what I didn’t know as I watched the creation of this little stream was that 34 years later I would help scatter my Dad’s ashes from a scenic bluff overlooking the point where the Nisqually River eventually flows into Puget Sound.
And then I had an idea of how I could capture this treasured moment on Sunrise Rim Trail. I sat my camera on the ground beside that little stream and set the shutter on 10 seconds delay. Then I stooped down in front of the camera and enjoyed a refreshing drink of cold water as I and waited for the shutter to click. It is a picture I still have among my old Kodak slides.