Notes on the Geology of Mt Rainier

Carpets of vanilla leaf blooming on summer solstice.

After a greeting from blankets of blooming vanilla leaf, shouting, “Hello you, Hello summer!” the ranger at the entry kiosk salutes summer too by waiving our entry fee to the park. Despite free entry and a projected daytime high in the 80s, traffic is light and many turnouts empty. Pulling off the road we’re rewarded by joy in the form of near silence. Only the breeze through the trees, the sound of rapids hundreds of feet below, and the calls of nuthatches and grouse break the quiet.

It’s been a banner year for snow and cool temperatures and as we gain elevation the roadside snow banks gain in height. Tall tunnels of snow striated with dust and grit and tree debris from the hard winter guide us up the mountain. Up among the subalpine trees a gray fox drops into the ditch between the road’s shoulder and the snow, pausing and turning to show a golden-mantled ground squirrel in its jaw. Then he disappears into a hollow in the hem of the snow, perhaps taking the meat to a litter of pups.

A glimpse of a gray fox

At timberline, glare from the glaciers and snow fields doesn’t discourage tourists who fill the parking lot with their cars full of snack food and hiking boots.  The massive mountain above us takes center stage dwarfing the visitor’s center and other attractions.  Nearby peaks, grand in their own right, like the jagged sawtooths of the Tatoosh Mountains, frame the scene.  This still active volcano rules the landscape; itself ruled only by geologic processes.

Most of Mt. Rainier National Park is a reminder of the scope of geology and time. Here are mountains and ridges, valleys, and cols, built by volcanic eruptions and worn over millennia by glaciers, water, wind, mudflows, avalanches, slumps, slides, and floods, and to a lesser extent human development.  The result: steep rocky slopes, waterfalls, and postcard perfect snow-covered peaks. Among them, I find my insignificance reassuring. That brings me peace and solace. It releases one big, deep, pent-up sigh.

Ohanapecosh River with toe of a debris slide on far bank

Then, one night along the Ohanapecosh River, roaring and swollen from snow melt and pounding down the valley is enough to release tension and bring on the most peaceful of sleeps. On this trip, I went to the forest hoping to hear the song of the Swainson’s Thrush. The rising notes of its harmonic trill are my soul song and it’s been too long since I’ve heard its call. I had a dream of its song taking away all of my worries. I had hopes of its song rising above the bending tips of ancient hemlocks and with me on its heels.

Instead, it’s the chaos of the spring snow melt that triggers a shift. Peace seeps into me from the geology, slow and barely perceptible like the carving of a glacial valley and yet sudden like a landslide. I ease into the landscape, changing but constant none the less. It’s as if the steady pace of geologic change has forced my rock of angst to retreat, diminished its power, and freed me for the moment from modern life.

Constant too, is geology’s reminder to me that the earth will endure. It will continue to do what it has done with or without us. Build, erode, build, and erode. And someday, erode all that we have built; erasing our excessive construct of steel and glamour, gadgets and runways.   

Yes, that brings me peace.


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