PARADISE, Wash. - By geologic standards, Mount Rainier is little more than an infant - a baby of 840,000 years among peaks hundreds of millions of years older.
But to a vacationing family from Augusta, the volcanic summit, pushing 14,400 feet skyward above the Cascades, is nothing short of surreal.
"It's the biggest thing I've ever seen," said Forrest, one of our twins. "I bet you could see it from space!"
Although its peaks dominate the skyline from Seattle, 90 miles away, climbing Rainier's rugged fringe brings its mass into perspective.
"How long would it take us to climb to the top?" I asked the kind ranger at the visitors center.
He replied that the two-day trip requires - among other things - a guide, a federal permit and a waiver of liability in case you die. There is also a path that winds 93 miles around the base.
For wandering Southerners more accustomed to the hardwood ridges in Sumter National Forest, he recommended a suitably rugged hike along a trail that climbs five miles and 2,000 feet.
Mount Rainier has been called "the most dangerous mountain in America" because of its hidden potential to explode in a catastrophic volcanic eruption.
My wife thought it looked dangerous, too. "I hope nothing eats us," she said.
Despite hundreds of inches of snowfall each winter, the area warms to 80 degrees by August, and melting runoff from Rainier's 26 glaciers creates five rivers and a patchwork of wildflower meadows.
The boys pummeled one another with snowballs once we climbed past the treeline onto the rocky moraine. Blacktail deer grazed nearby.
A few hours of climbing put us high enough to look down on the rest of the Casdades, including Mount St. Helens to the south. And we were barely halfway to the top.
It's no wonder, I thought, that President William McKinley insisted 108 years ago that the area be preserved for the future as the nation's fifth national park.
Even well-traveled visitors say it's the most beautiful place on the planet. For us, it offered the added opportunity to do something Augustans never get to do: throw snowballs in August in a land with no fire ants or cottonmouths.
DEER SEASON ALREADY: Speaking of fire ants and cottonmouths, South Carolina deer hunters will brave triple digit weather when the state's Lowcountry whitettail season gets under way on Wednesday.
The season is the earliest in the nation and is one of few opportunities hunters will have to take a whitetail buck in velvet, before the antlers are rubbed clean for the autumn rut.
According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, 11,728 residents and 17,285 non-residents hunted deer in 2006, when overall hunting success was 74.2 percent.
Although few people actually hunt them until more comfortable autumn weather, the early season is a throwback to the days when deer were scarce across Georgia, and rural families hunted bushytails for the stewpot.
Georgia has a hunting season opening the same day - for squirrels.
RAFT RACE: Organizers of the resurrected Savannah River Raft Race (the new name is Paddlefest) would like a big turnout for the Aug. 25 event, that begins at 10 a.m.
Canoe and kayak racers launch at Savannah Rapids Pavilion, and the Crazy Raft races begin at the North Augusta boat ramp at 10:30 a.m., although participants need to be on hand much earlier.
First prize in each category is $100, and there is an after-party (no alcohol on the water). For details, call Savannah Riverkeeper Inc., at (706) 755-4839.
BOWFISHING CHAMPS: Three Columbia County men finished first in the Bowfishing Association of America's world championship, held July 28-29 at Lake Barkley, Ky.
Robbie Robertson and Bryan Cates, both of Evans, and Martinez resident Ray Fitzgerald, shot 480 rough fish during the 14-hour tournament. A total of 51 teams competed.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: A four-hour plane flight from Atlanta, and a three-hour drive from Seattle will place you at the front gate. Once inside, the park's 368-square mile wilderness offers days of travel and hiking options.
Lodging: The historic inn at Mount Rainier National Park is closed for renovations until 2008, but camping for $10 to $20 per night is abundant in the park and in nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest; cabins and motels nearby range from $55 to $200 per night.
Climbing: A guide and federal permit are needed for the two or three-day climb to the summit. A 93-mile trail network circles the mountain, however, and a four-hour, five-mile hike from the Visitor's Center will take you over glaciers and well above the timber line.
Things to see: Sub-Alpine wildflower meadows, glaciers, giant Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines, rainforests, bear, mountain lion, marmots and evidence of ongoing volcanic activity.
Best time to visit: Mid-June through early September.
- Robert Pavey