Monday, August 22, 2011

The lost weekend, part 2

Apparently we didn't have our fill of geocaching on Saturday, because on Sunday after church we drove up to the tiny community of Hyak, Washington to participate in the Washington State Geocaching Association event. This shindig was officially titled "Going APE... All Over Again," the reasons for which should become clear a little later.

We checked in with Fen, who was volunteering for the event. Didn't see Mitch anywhere, though we heard he'd be attending, but there was a tall, silent-but-genial black-furred ape hanging around with Fen. We signed the sandwich board he was wearing, waved goodbye and headed down the trail.

This is the cute little Hyak train station. It's well maintained despite not having any trains to service.

There is no train to Hyak any more because in 1977 the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, whose rail line serviced Hyak, went into bankruptcy. The right of way for this rail line was acquired by the state of Washington. In the 1980s, the state also acquired the property, ripped out the rails and converted the route into a gravel-covered walking and mountain biking trail. The railroad's loss is our gain, since the scenic route over Snoqualmie Pass which was once only visible by train is now available to hikers and bikers.

Because the park is essentially one long rail trail, it's closely bounded in some places by private property, so if you wander off the trail you could end up in someone's back yard.

So down the trail we went, hum-de-dum.

This part of the trail was lined with ferns, mosses and greenery, refreshed by water that dripped from the rocks.

Even before we rounded the bend in the trail, we both noticed the persistent chill breeze that began to blow over us -- odd for such a warm summer day. The breeze smelled of damp, of mosses and old stone.

And pretty soon we could see what was causing it.

This is the east side entrance to the Snoqualmie Tunnel.

Built between 1912 and 1914, the Snoqualmie Tunnel was blasted out of the basalt rock of the mountain. It's about 25 feet tall, about 18 feet wide and over 2 miles long, and it's completely unlit inside.

The Doors of Moria here are closed during the winter for safety. Huge, heavy, fragile icicles form on the tunnel ceiling from water that seeps out of the mountain, and it's dangerous to walk beneath them.

The mountain breathed out its stone cold breath at us. Waiting.

So in we went.

"Aren't you coming?" asked Captain Midnight. Uh... okay.

The light coming in from outside dropped away quickly, and soon we were walking along in near-Stygian darkness. Even with our own faint flashlights and the headlamps and lightsticks of other geocachers visible off in the distance, there was a powerful feeling of solitude. The persistent chilly breathing of the mountain -- about 50 degrees Fahrenheit throughout -- turned our breath to fog and seemed to freeze our sweat. At several places in the tunnel, water trickled from the high ceiling, turning the route to grayish mud and dripping onto our heads or down our backs.

And that was before we found The Fen Dweller. Or more precisely, he found us.

See, The Fen Dweller is a solitary Sasquatch -- possibly a relative of Grendel -- who sometimes hangs out in the tunnel. He has a little stash in one of the tunnel alcoves, where the train signal machinery and junction boxes used to be (and where some leftover bits and pieces of machinery still remain). He leaped out and grunted insistently at us, quite keen to make sure we didn't miss the geocache parked on "the fridge" in his alcove. So after my heart started back up again, CM and I signed the log and continued on our tenebrous journey.

I think it took about an hour, but eventually I began to notice that one of the lights ahead of us was too big to be a flashlight.

Could it be the end of the tunnel? Why yes, it could.

We emerged into the warmth of a beautiful late summer day. Many bikers and geocachers were gamboling about in the sunshine.

A look back at our accomplishment. Woot woot.

You can read the inscription much easier on this side of the tunnel.

After a few moments of satisfied basking, we turned to the task at hand, which was to find more geocaches. And find them we did.

The other side of the tunnel is a beautiful area, with leafy green trees...

...little mountain rivulets...

...and lots of wild flowers which turned out to be common foxglove.

They were pretty enough to deserve a closeup shot.

Foxglove, although it is mortally toxic to humans and horses, is also used to make a heart medication called Digitalin. Beautiful and useful, but deadly! This has been your Useless Trivia Moment for the day.

"This is all fascinating," I hear you say, "but what about the APE thing?" Well, we did already run into The Fen Dweller, and he's sort of a crypto-primate... but he wasn't the primary reason for the event.

See, back in 2001 20th Century Fox and the Groundspeak powers that be got together and released about a dozen themed geocaches associated with the release of the film The Planet of the Apes. Until recently, the last of these caches in the United States was hidden here, in a location just west of the Snoqualmie Tunnel. I say "until recently" because back in June, some chronic mouthbreather stole the cache. (You really have to wonder what motivates cache thieves. Who are they going to brag to? People who don't geocache? "Uh, yeah, you stole a Tupperware box covered in camo tape and filled with three ice-cream-shaped erasers, a pin, a novelty pencil and a spiral notebook. Total showcase value less than $10. Goody gumdrops." They certainly wouldn't brag to other geocachers: "Oh, look, you stole 40 caches and now you're telling me. So you're a thief AND a moron.") Anyway, the point of this get-together was to celebrate the replacement of the original cache with a tribute cache in about the same spot, but with certain safety features in place that would make stealing it both difficult and potentially painful. We found this cache, signed the log, looked over the goodies inside, and pondered the machinations of idiot thieves.

We did NOT look for geocaches down this hidey hole. It would have been a Very Bad Idea.

Before heading back through the tunnel, we had a look at the detritus on the west side.

Any phone that was once here is now long gone. All that's left is some old machinery that's been repeatedly used as target practice.

I'm not sure exactly what this item was used for -- it's probably some kind of junction box -- but it was manufactured by the Union Switch & Signal Company of Swissvale, Pennsylvania. Thank you, Internet, repository of random knowledge!

"Hey, honey, what's for dinner?" asked Captain Midnight. Alas, nothing but graffiti.

All right, once more into the breach, dear friends!

This time we tried walking without flashlights for as long as we could. This experiment came to an end pretty quickly as we discovered we needed the light to keep from being dripped on.

Just out of curiosity I tried taking one shot in the tunnel with my camera flash on. The light didn't penetrate very far. (Those little glimmers in the distance are reflector dots stuck to the tunnel walls.) On either side of the trail are scuppers -- covered ditches that help route the seeping water out of the tunnel. Leftover bits of train wiring and other structural supports line the tunnel walls.

The trip back was just about as eerie as before. Although The Fen Dweller had abandoned his alcove, it was getting late in the day and nearly all the other geocachers had gone home. At several points along our route we felt very alone inside the dark heart of the mountain. We didn't run into any Balrogs, nor wizards shouting "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!", so it was all good.

Fortunately I had Captain Midnight with me, who is fully rated to take down a Balrog if necessary.

By now your humble writer, who is sadly out of shape, was feeling this journey in a big way. In the feet and legs, which was no surprise, but also in the hip joints, which was singularly unwelcome. Ow ow ow ow. Stupid Balrogs better leave me alone if they know what's good for 'em, rassnfrassn.

But wait, what's that light in the distance?

I do believe it's the tunnel entrance!

And so it was.

Captain Midnight spontaneously broke into The Big Fig Newton to celebrate our return to civilization.

We made it! Woot! Ow!

So there was our lost weekend. Speaking of lost, if you see Mitch, won't you let us know?

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