PORT TOWNSEND — It is the largest and potentially deadliest volcano in the United States.
It has 25 glaciers clinging to its flanks, the deepest 700 vertical feet of ice. It sits on top of one of the most active geologic faults in the world.
And it’s right on our doorstep.
In his late 20s, author Bruce Barcott decided to take a closer look at Mount Rainier by reading about it, talking with people who know and work on it, hiking on it and ultimately climbing to the summit.
The result is The Measure of a Mountain, the Port Townsend Library’s choice for this year’s community-wide reading program.
“It will remind you about why you live here,” Barcott says of his “biography” of the Northwest icon.
“It may inspire you to go climb it . . . or dissuade you from same.”
The author, who grew up in Everett, is the perfect Jack to the giant that hovers over Puget Sound — he’s afraid of heights, a novice outdoorsman who optimistically sets out in his new boots to complete the Wonderland Trail that circles the mountain’s flank.
His solo excursions fail to dampen his enthusiasm, and provide the reader with a natural progression for the book, Barcott said, taking the reader along..
Along the way, he explores the history, legends, flora and fauna of the mountain — chapter titles include “Aerial Plankton” and “Marmota.”
The reader also learns why Mount Rainier is considered the deadliest volcano in the United States.
But it’s a danger that is masked by familiarity, Barcott said.
Port Townsend Library director Theresa Percy said the book was first brought to her attention by a visiting relative from back East who, wanting to learn about the place she was going to, read the book on the flight West.
Taken for granted
The fact that Northwest residents take the mountain for granted points up the double-edged relationship Puget Sound residents have with it, Percy said.
“It almost seems to be too ordinary — until you hear news reports about people come to climb it and get in trouble,” she said.
“We also become desensitized to its beauty — we don’t see it anymore.”
To make people aware of the beauty and dangers, the library has scheduled several programs leading up to the author’s talk.
One is a presentation by the staff of Wildernest on “Everything You Wanted to Know about Hiking in the Mountains, But Were Afraid to Ask.”
A ranger from Mount Rainier National Park will address issues that cross to the Peninsula, such as how much backcountry access is too much, and how to balance access and preservation.
Related PT events
To kick-off the PT Read schedule of events, NorthWind Arts Center is hosting an exhibit of mountain art on March 7.
The Rose Theatre is showing a feature-length film about Mount Rainier on March 15.
On March 22, the library has invited an expert on the Cascades to lead a “Mountain ID Walkabout” at Fort Worden State Park, followed by storytelling by Jamestown S’Klallam Elaine Grinnell and mountain music by the Stand-Alones in the beach kitchen shelter.
“Each song will be about mountains or have the word “mountain” in it,” said Carol Costello, a library staff member whose husband, Larry, is in the band.
On March 26, the author, who lives on Bainbridge Island, will come to Port Townsend, which happens to overlook the place where Capt. George Vancouver, rounding Marrowstone Island, first spotted the 14,410-foot Mount Rainier in 1792.
Vancouver named the peak for a colleague, British Adm. Peter Rainier, the grandson of Huguenot refugees who made a name for himself by defeating colonists during the American Revolution.
The Port Townsend Library received a $7,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the community read, Percy said, which is used to cover program expenses.
It also covers the cost of 50 copies of Mountain, which will be distributed free starting today.
Librarians hope people will read the book, pass it along this month, then attend a discussion group in March.
The book will also be read and discussed in Port Townsend High School classes.
All Port Townsend Read programs are free. For more information, go to www.cityofpt.us/library or phone 360-385-3831. #
Port Townsend-Jefferson County reporter/columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EXCERPT FROM The Measure of a Mountain:
“Most people who live around the mountain don’t like to think about it, but the bare fact is that Mount Rainier is the most dangerous volcano in the United States of America.
“That doesn’t mean it is the most likely to erupt (it isn’t), or that it has the deadliest history (it doesn’t) or that the day after tomorrow it might go off like Mount St. Helens (it won’t.)
“What that means is that on the matrix of human population and catastrophic event, Mount Rainier sits at the top of the chart. . . .
“The more scientists learn about Mount Rainier, the more nervous they become, because in the last few years they’ve discovered that the danger doesn’t lie, as they thought earlier, in a volcanic eruption.
“What’s got the geologists spooked is the fact that the mountain could collapse at any minute.”