Filming the Wonderland Trail
"Hey, you're that wonderland trail guy!" With this greeting recently when I was hiking, I was reminded that this is my touchstone place, a place that I return to every season. I may wander to the Olympics or Goat Rocks or Oregon but I always seem to come back here. I've been on the Wonderland almost every year since 1984. I've lost count of how many times I've actually hiked the trail, either all or in part, but I'm guesstimating around 25 thru hikes and even more section hikes. In 2006 I got an idea for producing a DVD about the trail based on my experience at the time. The result was "Mt. Rainier: Hiking the Wonderland Trail." All the footage for that project was captured just prior to the 2006 flood. In 2007 I hiked the trail to record changes that occurred. In 2008 I moved into HD and recorded some trips, one about my then 13 year old daughter hiking the trail in 5 days. It seems every year since 2005 I have acquired footage on the WT and have amassed quite a library. However, in the back of my mind I've always thought about somehow capturing the trail in its entirety on film, but the technical problems seemed insurmountable. Even if I could run the trail in under 36 hours, I could only record in daylight hours. The amount of film would be overwhelming, not to mention almost unwatchable; people holding cameras while moving makes for a very unenjoyable viewing experience. Then there are the logistics involved; camera storage medium, camera weight, batteries, archiving footage, and the sheer time to capture 93 miles on film. So thoughts of this magnitude of project remained just that; thoughts.
Then an interesting development occurred; the advent of "helmet cams." I started experimenting with a Contour HD camera and different mounting options, developing techniques to film on the move using a custom pole mount. Throughout this process I learned what worked and what didn't. Over the next two years I bought 2 more, a Contour Plus and a GoPro Hero 2. This past winter I started seeing the possibilities of my initial idea, but instead of filming the entire trail I postulated that I could use the numerous time lapse functions on the GoPro to time lapse the trail while hiking, and all the cameras simultaneously to record 270 degrees or more of synched video for cool vistas, river crossings and other areas like the backcountry camps. Now all that remained was implementing the idea. How to mount the cameras? How to stabilize them for moving shots? How many stills per minute? What format? After much experimentation I found what I consider the ideal balance of all elements, the hardest being the stabilization problem.
• 2 frames per second allowed for the smoothest stitching of the stills. Anything less was hard to follow as there was too much difference in each frame for the eye to comfortably adjust to. Stitching each still to video format was done at 10 frames per second. What you end up seeing is movement 5 times faster than I was walking.
•Video recorded in "tall" format, or 1440 x 960, allowed for maximum usage of screen real estate while still taking advantage of the wide angle lenses.
• After experimenting with gimbel based stabilizers, I decided on a simple counter balance design. I used a Gossamer Gear two section carbon fiber trekking pole. This pole is extremely lightweight and allows for an optional camera mount screw in the cork handle. I used a short length of aluminum as a mount, securing the two Contour cameras facing sideways with stick on mounts and the GoPro in the center facing forwards with it's screw-on tripod mount, holding the entire assemblage in place. Some additional washers kept everything taut. Now I could use the adjustable lower section of the pole to mount counter weights and find a good balance point. This system allowed for fairly stabilized motion, cutting most of the objectionable camera shake while remaining simple and light: at under 2 pounds total weight I could hold the pole, occasionally switching hands, over the entire 101 miles (I filmed the alternate route over Spray Park also) without undue fatigue.
Now 2 things had to fall into place.....time off and good weather. I was able to get short notice vacation in September and figured no problem, I had it made. However, I didn't quite realize what I had gotten myself into.
As part of my project I also wanted to record all the biking options in the park as they also offer access to parts of the trail. I had already recorded the 5 mile trail to the Ipsut Creek campground (formerly a road now converted to trail use) and today my plan was to record the entire West Side road. I mounted one of the Contours to the frame and the GoPro on the chest. Biking this road brought back fond memories as I used to drive this road for day hikes back in the 80s, actually driving all the way to the North Puyallup camp. At some time shortly after that, the park closed the 3 mile section from Klapatche Point to the North Puyallup and converted it to trail use. As I hiked the trail during this foray I was amazed how fast nature was reclaiming the road due to rockfall, brush and tree growth. Moss covered stone walls are the only reminder that once vehicles ran here. The parking lot at the North Puyallup was now the group site for the back country camp. In any event, I found the road proper in excellent shape (it is still used by park vehicles) and wonder why it has been closed to vehicular traffic all these years....no good explanation has yet to appear from the park. Budget shortfalls really don't enter the equation as all they have to do is open the gate, they already maintain the road for their own vehicles. I recorded the road on the downhill portions so as to expedite real time recording.
Total distance traveled: 28 miles (9.8 hike/18.2 bike)
Total (bike) trail covered: 9.1 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/- 3100'
This would be my first real trail filming. I parked at Longmire and hiked 3.8 miles to the Paradise River camp and started my work, first recording and mapping the camp and then proceeding clockwise back towards Longmire. Continuous bike traffic on the main road made me realize this had to be Ramrod day, when the park allows this 145 mile ride around the mountain event. I took a few minutes to record some riders as the trail is only feet away from the road in some areas. After a lunch break at Longmire I continued clockwise on the trail and eventually stopped at a creek past the Pyramid Creek camp, some 4 miles distance. Progress is slow during my work, as I stop at every year round water source, mark it on the GPS and film it, map and record every backcountry campsite, and backtrack at various points on the trail to capture 3 camera film shots along with the still photo time lapse. Of course I then had to hike back to the vehicle. One thing I learned on this outing: the hardest part of the filming was maintaining pace on the uphills. This was necessary to be consistent in the time lapse, and I had over 21,000 feet of filming uphill to look forward to on this endeavor.
Total distance traveled: 17 miles.
Total trail coverage: 7.8 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/- 2400'
Day 1: This was to be a two day trip where I was base camping at Cougar Rock campground for one night with support help from fellow coworker Cindy Mason. Starting a little later in the day, I was dropped off at Box Canyon where I proceeded to hike in to Nickel Creek camp, mapping it before starting back down the trail clockwise towards Reflection Lakes. The plan was to be picked up at the first intersection crossing the road out of Stevens Canyon at 6:30 PM. I managed to film to a place just short of Martha Falls before running up the trail to make my pickup time. I arrived at the road intersection with minutes to spare and was picked up on time with no unnecessary waiting for either person.
Total distance traveled: 6.5 miles
Total trail coverage: (5.3)miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +1800'/-400'
Day 2: With a little earlier start I was dropped off at the intersection with the Stevens canyon road and hiked down to the place I left off the day before. The remainder of the day was spent covering trail through the busy Reflection Lakes area and on to Paradise River camp, where I hiked back out to Narada Falls for pickup.
Total distance traveled: 5.7 miles
Total trail coverage: (4.3)
Map elevation gain/loss: +600'/- 1500'
When I got home I was surprised how little card space I had used, and soon discovered the reason. My GoPro had malfunctioned, at least in capturing the stills, and I had holes in the coverage for both days. Careful scrutiny revealed that there were no consistent sections to salvage: bottom line, with the exception of the video, I was going to have to redo this entire stretch.
Final total trail coverage: 0
I was just back from a trip, which means my body clock was awry as usual. My alarm was set for 2:30 AM, but after only getting about 45 minutes of sleep and waking up at 2, I hit the road for Sunrise and was on the trail at 4:45 AM. This was to be a more strenuous day, where my plan was to hike 10 miles to Mystic Pass and be filming before 9:00 AM, working my way back to Sunrise before the light diminished too much and mapping Mystic Lake and Granite Creek campgrounds in the process. Armed with a new GoPro exchanged at REI, the day went as expected. The morning saw a little rain shower activity but was crystal clear when I started filming just before 9. When I reached the intersection of trails at Frozen Lake, I decided to close down the operation as light, battery, and card space were all coming to an end. With the sun disappearing behind me at 6 PM, I continued on to Sunrise and drove home.
Total distance traveled: 23 miles
Total trail coverage: 8.5 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/- 2100'
This trip was really a trip for my daughter, her friend and my buddy Craig but it allowed me to cover a portion of the trail. My daughter has wanted to bivy on Curtis Ridge for some years. I took her there when she was 8 on her first overnight backpack. Since then she has wanted to return and bivy so she would be able to look up unencumbered at the mountain and the stars at any time during the night. The 3 of them put up with my slow pace as I filmed from the Ipsut Creek trail intersection up to Mystic Pass, mapping the Carbon River and Dick Creek camps along the way. We enjoyed the continuing glorious weather and solitude on Labor Day weekend on Curtis Ridge for quite an enjoyable foray. Although the star show was meager, a full moon illuminated the mountain and ridge for far reaching views none the less.
Total distance traveled: 30 miles
Total trail covered: 7.2 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/-6000'
On vacation now, my plan for this trip was to film from where I left off at Frozen Lake all the way to Paradise River camp, repeating that section where I had the camera malfunction. With help from base camp coordinator extraordinaire Cindy, I had the equipment to recharge and reload each evening: an inverter allowed me to plug in the 3 cameras to recharge and run a laptop to store and clean the camera cards.
Day 1: After unloading gear at White River campground at a site, I was dropped off at Sunrise and proceeded to hike to the trail intersection and started filming. Enjoying pristine weather, I worked my way to White River campground, had a nice lunch, and continued on the trail towards Summerland. Today's plan was to proceed as far toward Summerland as I could with available light and hike back to the Fryingpan Creek trailhead for a 7 PM pickup. Things worked out great: I stopped at an appropriate landmark and ran back down the trail, waiting only a few minutes for Cindy. Of note today was running into Esther from Australia with whom I had corresponded with earlier in the year about her plans to hike the trail.
Total distance traveled: 12.1 miles
Total trail coverage: 9.1 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +900/-2400'
Day 2: This was slated to be a long day with the plan to continue over Panhandle Gap and make it as far towards Nickel Creek as I could. Highlights of the day: fantastic weather and playing tag with a goat herd descending to Indian Bar. Well aware of the time, I arrived at Indian Bar before 5 PM and filmed the campsite as expeditiously as I could, apparently disturbing the group that occupied the shelter as someone was sleeping already. I departed at 5 and was able to film until after 7 PM thanks to the increased light high on the Cowlitz Divide. The flower fields over the Divide were incredible and in full bloom, as good as I've ever seen them. High thin clouds made for changing light play on the flowers. Although too early for rutting season, occasional elk calls echoed from the ridge, reward enough as a prelude to the tough part of the day. I was supposed to meet Cindy at the Cowlitz Divide trail head at 7:30 and this was not going to happen. I packed up my gear and configured for fast travel (using both poles as they should be) and started running. I had stopped a short distance from the Cowlitz Divide trail intersection but still had 4.3 miles to go. Descending in the dark I finally got to the road at 9 PM. The ever patient Cindy was waiting for me and we had a late great meal of tenderloins, now base camping out of the Ohanapecosh campground.
Total distance traveled: 17.7 miles
Total trail coverage: 10.1 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +3800/-5600'
Day 3: I was tired and ready to go home, but the weather and the closing of the Stevens Canyon road made me fully aware that now was the time to film that section when I had the support. However, I was ready for a short day so slept in and got on the trail late, picking up at my prior stop point at 3 PM. This was a short day indeed as I only went to Box Canyon and packed it in at 5:30.
Total distance traveled: 6.2 miles
Total trail coverage: 3.1 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/- 2000'
Day 4: Today's plan was to recover the Stevens Canyon section I had done before with the malfunctioning camera. After packing up camp I started at Box Canyon and proceeded clockwise. Since I had already filmed the interesting and appropriate points with the 3 camera setup before, today all I had to do was the time lapse. Cindy had to drive around to the Narada Falls pickup site by exiting the park and proceeding through Packwood to the Nisqually entrance. I had the unusual and enjoyable experience of transiting the trail through the usually busy areas as the trail follows the road for much of the distance. Now that the road was closed for construction, all was quiet and I enjoyed a peaceful undisturbed lunch at Reflection Lakes on a beautiful September day. Well ahead of schedule I packed up shop at Paradise River at 3 PM and exited up the trail to Narada Falls despite the trail closed sign that was posted (due to rock fall danger from construction on the road above). With no way to contact Cindy I sheepishly went up the trail anyway and waited among the crowd for pickup.
Total distance covered: 9.6 miles
Total trail coverage: 8.7 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +2900/-1300'
Crunch time. The west side. No easy way to do this, no way to be dropped off and picked up. I decided to tackle the hardest part first, the middle. I drove to the West Side road and parked at the trail head and was on my mountain bike at 7 AM. A 3.8 mile climb to 4000' Round Pass and a short 1.2 mile descent had me at the South Puyallup trail head. I secured my bike by the side of the road and hiked up the trail to be filming the South Puyallup camp shortly after 8. The lingering high pressure system had me enjoying beautiful summer weather once again as I made my way up to St. Andrews park and on to Klapatche park, where I enjoyed lunch after mapping the camp. From there I descended to the North Puyallup river, had another lunch and climbed into Silver Forest, an area I have transited more often in the dark. The blueberry bushes were starting to turn red, contrasting with the stark silver trees still standing after a long ago fire stripped them of bark, limb and life. With still a long day ahead of me I stopped filming past the high point, about 1.9 miles short of the Golden Lakes camp, at 5 PM. Once again I configured for fast moving and started trotting back the way I had come. Descending the 3.1 miles to the North Puyallup, I waited some time there to try to capture the sunset on the rock formations above with limited success, then hit the North Puyallup trail so I could access the West Side road. Not long before I got to the road I finally had to turn on a headlamp a little before 8 PM. From here I trotted the road, frequently stopping to gaze at the star show above. Nights like this, alone with the stars and fresh air, are some of the most enjoyable times I have in the outdoors, and I was in no big hurry to get it done. But the road made for easy trotting with no worries for footing and I finally regained my bike at 9:45 PM. A small disaster was averted earlier in the day when I discovered that I had left my bike light in the charger at home; however, I had a climbing headlight in the bike bag which provided more than enough illumination. All that was left was the short ascent to Round Pass and the bumpy descent back to my vehicle, which I regained at 10:45 PM. Feeling remarkably untrashed, I drove home after my 15:45 hour day awash with the satisfaction of knowing that the hardest part was behind me on my quest to film the entire trail.
Total distance traveled: 36 miles (26 hiking/10 biking)
Total trail coverage: 12.8 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +5300/-5400'leaving Silver Forest
Day 1: The second hardest part, covering the trail clockwise over the main route and the alternate route, meaning I was going to have to do out and backs. Once again base camping, this time at Mowich Lake, both Cindy and Craig came along for this one. I was able to start filming before 8 AM and decided to hit the Spray Park route first in an attempt to get the higher elevations done before the snow levels started to come down. Craig accompanied me into Seattle park and I left him there as I descended down to the Carbon River, mapping Cataract Valley camp in the process after getting Eagle's Roost earlier. A haze layer from smoke migrating from the fires in eastern Washington made the mountain rather indistinct throughout the day. However, this route boasts some stunning scenery away from the mountain proper toward Mother and Chenuis mountains. It also crosses what I consider some of the most picturesque creeks in the park. Eventually I crossed the suspension bridge over the Carbon River, connecting with the prior trip to Curtis Ridge, and packed away my gear. Now all I had to do was get back to Mowich Lake by 7:30 PM, the time I told the guys so they could plan out dinner. I figured that completing the loop by returning via Ipsut Pass would be the most expeditious way back so proceeded to run down to the trail junction that would take me back up to Mowich. I managed to emerge from the trail just in time to avoid using a headlight at 7:40 PM, in time to sit down to a glass of wine after a hot bathing, followed by pork chops and veggies. Not a bad way to end a day.
Total distance traveled: 17 miles
Total trail coverage: 8.6 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/-4000'
Day 2: Today I would do another out and back, hiking out 12 miles to Silver Forest and filming back. I told Cindy that I would try to be out at 8 PM at the Paul Peak trail head, knowing that I wouldn't be able to film all the way back to Mowich Lake. Due to too much wine and partying the night before with Cindy and Craig, and probably disturbing the poor WT hikers who unfortunately decided to camp in probably the worst campsite in the park, I didn't get on the trail until after 9 AM. I did enjoy a hooting owl at 3 AM when I got up to swap out battery packs in the charger. However, after a huge breakfast I was feeling pretty spunky and made good time out to my spot, able to start filming on the return trip before 2. I lingered at Golden Lakes a bit as I ran into an old acquaintance there I hadn't seen in 15 years, reminding both of us it's a small world after all. Further down the trail I talked to our neighbors from the night before at the camp and apologized for our shenanigans. Ultimately I was able to film to the trail intersection above the North Mowich River with good light until 6 PM, when I packed up and proceeded up the very pleasant Paul Peak trail for pickup. On the way the setting sun glowed between the trees in a most intense red, making me marvel at nature's paintbrush. Once again I was able to finish the hike without resorting to artificial light and "ta dah'd" from the wood at 7:40 PM. To my surprise and delight, not only was Cindy there early but she had decided to cook herself dinner. I was able to sit down to a hot meal right in the parking lot immediately as she relinquished her food and cooked another round for herself. The success of my day is owed largely to this support; because I gorged myself on breakfast before venturing out, I was able to go about my business during the longish day on 2 power bars and a handful of gorp. By the time I hit the parking lot, my low chow light was ablaze but was able to replenish right away. This was something I could get used to.
Total distance traveled: 23 miles
Total trail coverage: 8.2 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/-4900'
I was not looking forward to this day. I wanted to cover the section on either side of Mowich Lake, which meant driving that 16 mile washboard road from hell and hiking the "T". I left the house just after 5 and was able to hit the trail at 7:40 AM. The day was clear and cool with just a hint of fall in the air, and although I wore my jacket trotting my way down to the trail intersection above the South Mowich River, I took it off as I configured the camera/pole set up and had a bite to eat. The low angle sun broke through the trees regularly and provided those wonderful splotches of light against wood and trail. Although it seems I have memories of this 2100 foot climb up to Mowich as a real grind, the angle is actually rather gentle and surprisingly, the hike back up was rather enjoyable. Once I reached the lake I took a quick break to grab a tea and some chow at the truck, then was back on the trail well before noon. There was nary a soul in sight and this usually busy place was pleasantly quiet and serene. My hike down Ipsut Pass was equally enjoyable in the perfect weather. The Wonderland boasts some top notch forest walks and this section (once in the forest proper) is one of the best, with wide boulevards, a gentle grade and quite a few bubbly creeks. I passed a construction zone where a trail crew was working on a new bridge but didn't stop to chat as I wanted to keep the filming going. At 2 Pm I turned off the cameras, having reached the trail intersection just above Ipsut Creek. On the way back up I did have a chat with the trail crew and discovered the reason for what looked like gross over engineering: since the park is an historic site, repairs to structures have to be to the original specs. This particular bridge was a stock bridge so a simple log crossing would not suffice; they had to engineer a full stock bridge complete with a bend (stock is no longer allowed on the majority of park trails). However, they were marvelous fellows and after a 20 minute chat I left them to their work and made my way back up to Mowich, still enjoying perfect weather and strong legs. Despite my initial thoughts that this would be a grind sort of a day, it actually turned out to be one of my most enjoyable days of hiking.....except for that teeth rattling washboard horror of a road.
Total distance traveled: 16.6 miles
Total trail coverage: 8.3 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +/-4700'
Taking advantage of probably the best summer/fall season I have seen in my 30 years of living here, I set out to close the circle and do the final link in covering the entire trail. A mere 4 hours of sleep after being up over 24 hours from an overseas trip did not discourage me in the least. Although on the chilly side, the weather was crisp and completely cloudless. Today would be the first time I wore a jacket through most of the day. I set off at 7:34 AM from Longmire. Today's plan was to film clockwise to the South Puyallup and exit via the South Puyallup trail to the West Side road. Once again saving me time, Cindy accompanied and planned to drive my vehicle to the West Side road trail head with a planned meeting time of 6 PM. By now my conditioning was as good as it has been in over a decade; my legs were accustomed to long days with elevation gains and losses and I weighed about the same as when I last ran the Western States 100 12 years ago. I loped easily to my film starting point just past Pyramid Creek and enjoyed beautiful fall weather to Devil's Dream camp, the last camp I had to map. As I ascended over 5000' elevation to gain Indian Henry's, the brisk wind and smell of the air turned from fall to wintery, the higher elevation just had that feel to it. Just a reminder that seasons turn quickly here. So far I had seen no one on the trail and had a quick lunch at Indian Henry's ranger cabin, enjoying the wintery mood and complete solitude. Leaving this area at 11:30 AM, I spent some time trying different filming options crossing the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. In the first of 5 crossings, I ran the time lapse and returned for my usual 3 camera video shot. However, I decided to try something different on this spectacularly lofty bridge and reconfigured the cameras, holding the pole horizontally and pointing the cameras down more. This indeed made for a spectacular shot, especially from the forward facing GoPro. Continuing on, as I approached Emerald Ridge the crisp air seemed to make the different hues of the rock pop. As I reviewed the film I couldn't believe how saturated the colors were in this visually striking area. I spent some time trying different video shots here, lingering in the process and enjoying having the mountain to myself. As in other places around the park, the more interesting views weren't necessarily the mountain proper but the geologically interesting surroundings, especially the golden and yellow rocks below. Now it was just a matter of finishing this section down to the South Puyallup, which I gained at 3:20 PM. I made a note to myself to mention this section of the trail, which I might call the "ball bearing" trail. Small stones prevail, sometimes covering solid rock, and one must be careful about stepping here on the downhill lest your feet suddenly accelerate ahead of your body resulting in coccyx connection with said rocks. Luckily I avoided this embarrassment and shut down the camera at the South Puyallup camp, smiling at the thought of completing filming every foot of the Wonderland Trail. Now I just had to exit so I packed up and trotted down to the Round Pass trail and ran the road to the trail head, seeing the first people of the day walking down the road. I arrived at 5:40 PM where Cindy was waiting. My legs felt like I had another 30 miles left in them at least, the 18 mile day was literally a walk in the park…I just wish I could maintain this kind of fitness. Probably the overriding benefit of not suffering was the feeling of "I'm glad to be alive", something the modern day grind can inhibit. I let these realizations wash through me throughout the day, seeming to come and go with the breezes. Days like today truly remind me why I like the outdoors. Grinning from ear to ear, I enjoyed chips and salsa, bacon and eggs and hash browns with soda water as Cindy and I watched the light fade on this gorgeous fall evening. Although a few high clouds appeared in some of the video taken over the course of this project, for the entire 101 miles of filming the days were essentially crystal clear. People viewing the final results might think it never rains in Seattle……is that false advertising? Not this year.
Total distance traveled: 18 miles
Total trail coverage: 8.5 miles
Map elevation gain/loss: +4500/-4400'
End Note: I've been asked why I am doing this project. To be truthful, the answer really is "because I can." Watching video can't come close to actually being out there. The small focal lengths of the helmet cam wide angle lenses minimize distant objects, so the mountain appears rather puny, not nearly as "in your face" as the reality. Also absent are the smells and the sounds, essential ingredients in the total experience. Then there's the personal element, the satisfaction of finishing a tough hike, of eating pleasures after one's stomach grumbles from lack of fuel, of bedding down for the evening feeling snug from perhaps an exhausting day. When on the trail our eyes are never always straight ahead, we're able to pick out distant views between trees or take in wide ranging vistas. Our eyes are better at processing different light levels than any camera lens. I guess I hope that, whatever final shape this project takes, my efforts will serve in planning one's own hike, or instilling a desire to see these things for oneself, or answering questions about the hike that give one the confidence to get out there. Perhaps, in the throes of winter weather, one might want to put on a certain section of the hike and vicariously travel the trail whilst sipping hot chocolate in front of the fire, thinking that "hey, in just a few months I'll be out there myself." And lastly, perhaps someone would want to take this journey who is physically unable to do it themselves. For whatever reason, I've had an incredible hiking season this year and had a blast undertaking the filming process. I've met wonderful people on the trail. I've marveled at the incredible weather that has defined our summer/fall. I've embraced the challenges of the long days and figuring the logistics. I've enjoyed my loosened belt line and appreciated the gift of being able to undertake such a project, because I can.
Grand total distance traveled: 238 miles
Wonderland Trail coverage: 100%, or 101 miles to include the alternate route over Spray Park
Grand elevation gain/loss: over 50,000' (map totals are 49,500' not counting gains and losses between points)
Total still photos: 316,000
Total video from 3 cameras: 19 hours