February 21, 2010

Coal Mine Snowshoe

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, Mining, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 1:14 pm

I hadn’t been out on the snowshoes for awhile and was feeling the onset of a case of cabin fever, and the weather forecast was good, so on Monday I went up into the mountains to see what conditions were like on Coal Pass Road. I hadn’t been up there in quite a long time since there has been too much snow at low elevations for the last few years – you have to be able to drive up to an elevation of about 2500′ in order to make it a reasonable hike up to the end of the road in the vicinity of Coal Creek, where there are some great views of Mount Baker.

The road is one of several in the area built back in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I attended a presentation about the CCC several years ago sponsored by the WWU Lifelong Learning program where these roads were discussed. Lately I have seen it referred to as “Coal Creek” Road, but that seems to be another bit of the local geographical silliness – anyone would expect a road with such a name to travel up the valley of the eponymous creek (e.g. Canyon Creek Road) but this road runs up a ridge between Davis Creek and Deep Creek for most of its seven mile length before it even approaches Coal Creek. The road does lead to Coal Pass (or it did at one time) so the old name makes at least some sense.

I was able to drive to 3200′ before the snow covered the entire width of the road. After parking the car I packed up and carried my snowshoes, assuming that this first patch of snow wouldn’t stretch very far. And in fact it extended just beyond the next curve in the road. Aside from one more pretty good snow patch at a creek crossing, it was just bare road for almost a mile, where I was within spitting distance of the end of the road. The snowshoes were still optional at this point, but at least there was enough snow to justify hauling them up the road. (BTW this is at an elevation of 3800′, considerably above the level of the White Salmon lodge at the Ski Area.)

Coleman Glacier Area

The first viewpoint was a bit disappointing. The trees have grown a bit, and although the day was lovely and sunny, Mount Baker was mostly obscured by clouds, with just a few peek-a-boos up into the Heliotrope Ridge / Coleman Glacier area.

I called this “the end of the road” but it is just decommissioned at this point – the old roadway continues on toward the site of the old coal mine that gives the creek and the pass and the road their names. Since it was still quite early and I hadn’t gotten much exercise yet, I headed up toward the mine. It is a bit of a slog since, in addition to the young alder saplings and the occasional fallen tree, the roadway is cut several times by ditches marking the sites of removed culverts.

Chute leading up from mine site

Chute leading up from mine site

A hundred yards or so from the mine, you have to leave the roadway and go downhill for awhile. The tangle of alders gets worse at this point and the trek devolves into a true bushwhack. Not in the sense of getting lost, since you can see the destination all the while – you just have to whack a lot of bushes. And all of a sudden I came across a cleared out channel running right down to the mine site – almost like a mini-half-pipe. (The picture looks back up the “pipe” from the mine.) I have no idea why it it there, but I took advantage of the absence of “bushes” and headed on down.

Part way down the chute the snow had melted from one side, exposing a pile of shiny black rock with brownish-gold frosting on some surfaces. I’m no expert, but I took this to be coal of the high-sulfur persuasion. It didn’t look very much like the stuff we had in our coal bin when I was a kid, but who knows how much that had been processed before I saw it? (And then there is just the remotest possibility that my recollections, sixty-odd years later, might be ever so slightly less than perfect.) I brought home a couple of small pieces with the intention of trying to see if it burns, nut I haven’t gotten around to that.


I had intended to poke around the mine site but it all of a sudden dawned on me what a stupid idea it would be to walking around near a place where there might be very deep holes with the ground obscured by snow, even if seemed to be only a few inches deep.

So I kept to the high ground as I headed back to the old roadway and further on up toward Coal Pass. But the roadway quickly turned into such an impenetrable thicket that I couldn’t be sure if I was still on it. At one point I even circled back onto my own tracks. So I acknowledged defeat and headed back down.

Mount Baker summit in the clouds

Back near the “end of the road” there is a spur that heads up to a logging yard and provides another marvelous viewpoint. By this time the clouds had thinned out a bit but the view was still quite limited.

So the trip was a bit of a bust by a number of objective assessments – very little actual snowshoeing, no exploring the mine, no trip to Coal Pass, not much in the way of photography – it was still wonderful to be out in the sun and the fresh, chilly air. And whenever I stopped clattering around on the crusty snow, the silence was almost perfect, except for a brook here and there or the rare birdsong. That’s something you’re not likely to enjoy at Heather Meadows.

1 Comment »

  1. Well, you SAID the next post would be about geology, I guess this almost qualifies. Glad for the pictures, and glad for a new post to peruse. Sorry your snowshoe wasn’t much of one, but I do know how nice it must have been to have a day in the sun and this incredible PNW air!

    Comment by DJan — February 21, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

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