March 30, 2010

South Stewart Lollipop

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 8:24 am

A couple of months ago I wrote about the trails and roads on the south end of Stewart Mountain, east of Lake Whatcom (See Cub Creek). In the meantime we had a Trailblazers planning meeting where we talked about taking on a trail clearing or maintenance project of some kind, and I thought of the one I mentioned at the end of that Cub Creek posting:

Another improvement would be to find a route from this “new” summit back to other summit and back to the fork in the road, giving the trail a “lollipop” form, rather than just out-and-back, and cutting out even more of the road.

Before getting any other suckers volunteers involved, I wanted to go up and see what needs to be done. And given the gentleness of our hike to Goose Rock on Thursday and the forecast of a good weather window on Saturday, I decided to head up there and do some clearing and maybe some exploring.

Existing Roads

At the lower elevations there are some actual hiking trails, but near the top there are only roads, whether newly maintained, decommissioned, abandoned or completely overgrown. The inset map shows shows all the roads we have hiked on in the last few years with the actively maintained roads are shown in dark blue. Last month we came into this map from the upper left and made the big counter-clockwise swing around to the eastern and highest summit, which I’ve marked with an “E”. (You can click on the map to enlarge it.). From there we could see over to the place marked “X”, where a new road (too new for this map) disappeared into the woods.

A year or so earlier we had taken the left-hand fork and slogged mightily through deep snow and thick brush along the long-ago-decommissioned road represented by the red line that trends roughly west to east to a small pass (marked “P”) and on around to the western summit, marked “W”.

The goal was to find a reasonable path from P to E, making it possible to get to the great views at point E without spending so much time on the roads.

It looks tempting to just head cross country, since there isn’t a lot of elevation change, but last month we could see that the valley between the two summits is not only covered with logging debris (or “slash”) but also is densely filled with small evergreens, making the traverse both dangerous and difficult.

But f you look closely at the map you can see a faint dotted line running from point P to point X and on up to the north. These dotted lines usually represent old roads, often very old ones, probably deeply overgrown. So there may be lots of brush and even some pretty good-sized trees in the road bed, but if you can find it and follow it, at least it won’t lead you over a cliff.

By comparing this old USGS map with the much newer aerial photography in Google Maps and Google Earth, it looked like the portion north of the X has been rebuilt for the recent logging operations and the segment just south of the X runs along the edge of the clearcut. In addition, Google showed that a new road has been built from near the X over to the east summit. So if we could just get from P to X, I was sure we could continue on to E and complete the loop.

So I packed up my trusty little pruning saw, a good pruning shears and a small bow saw and set off up the mountain. I planned to start hacking at the brush on the decommissioned road (the red line) and if I made it as far as the pass I would poke around and try to find traces of the lower end of the “dotted-line”. It would probably be easier to find the upper end of it, but that is a very long walk.

When I got to the red line I could see that others had been there before me – quite a lot of clearing had been done, perhaps last fall, maybe even this spring. There were still a lot small shoots and saplings, so I worked at it for awhile; but then I realized that it was getting easier as I went along. Then I noticed what looked like traces of a wheeled vehicle, a narrow dual track in places – my guess is that ATV riders have been working on the trail.

The Pass

So I progressed more quickly than I expected, and got to the pass around noon. I expected to have to clamber over a bunch of medium sized trees that lay across the road there, but apparently the ATV guys had brought up a chain saw and cut a pathway. I sat down one of the logs to have some lunch and assess whether I had the energy for some serious bushwhacking along the old road.

There was never any serious doubt about that, however. I decided to leave my pack, take my GPS (which had about a dozen waypoints taken from the map) and pruning tools and just go a little way into woods in search of the old road. Leaving my pack turned out to be a small mistake (as always) mainly because I didn’t have my camera with me. I ranged along the (newer) road looking for anything that looked like it might have once been an intersection, but there was a drop-off everywhere except right where the logs were piled up. So I climbed over the logs and, sure enough, on the other side the ground was rather level(ish) in a roughly northeasterly direction. It was not at all easy to follow, though, and was leading a bit downhill and to the north, while the waypoints were telling me to more uphill and NE. I probably paid too much attention to the GPS and after a short while I looked down and saw a flat spot that looked very road-like. I dropped back down and followed it until it ran smack into a tree that was almost two feet in diameter – not the sort of thing you expect to find in a road. Maybe this was where the road switched back to the southeast to climb along the flank of the hill?

So I zigged back and kept on toward the southeast. It wasn’t particularly difficult traveling, since it was a pretty open, mature forest, with the occasional giant stump, but nowhere was there anything flat and wide enough to have been a graded roadbed. I was starting to get a little nervous and thinking it might be good to turn back. It’s not that I had gone terribly far, and the GPS batteries were strong, but I was alone and well off anyone’s beaten path.

But just as I was getting to the point where my GPS track zagged back to the northeast, I came up on a stream. (Streams are great when bushwhacking, since they are easy to follow and pretty much stay put.) And this one was coming down very near the old road – if there was a road here, it would have to cross the stream, and maybe there would be remnants of a culvert or bridge. And it was an unusual looking stream channel, almost semicircular in cross section, like a small half-pipe maybe six feet across. I could see quite aways up the channel, and it was headed in my direction, and I could even see a bit of light at the top, and the channel was pretty clear. I took note of a couple of big flat pieces of Chuckanut Sandstone so I could find this spot again, and set off up the creek.

After I had gone a couple of hundred yards up the stream, remarking to myself how straight and even it was, the semicircularity of the channel started to flatten out and widen and it finally dawned on me that this creek was not NEAR the road – it WAS the road! And sure enough, when I got near the top of the hill it was unmistakeable. Apparently they had just run the road straight up the side of the hill and it turned into a river when it was abandoned. In the steepest parts, where I’d come across it, the trees along the sides of the road had held their soil while the water scoured the road down to the sandstone bedrock, forming that odd half-pipe.


And sure enough again, in short order I came out into the new clearcut and a grand view of Baker and the Sisters and on to the new road at point X. There was even one of the “beaver lodges” that we found on the east summit. I walked along the new road just far enough to convince my self that it is the one that connects with point E; I didn’t go further because I didn’t have my camera, or my water, or my food, and the view here was actually a bit better than at the summit, anyways.

On the way back I hoped to find a flat spot where the old road turned to the northwest, but no such luck. When I reached the two flat stones, the road/creek kept on going down the hill, so I followed it on down. I didn’t want to end up in that logging slash aka Xmas tree farm in the valley, but I was now so close to the road (and my pack) that I wasn’t too concerned about it. (The second map shows the GPS tracks of my bushwhack as dashed red lines.) And soon it leveled out and became an obvious roadbed and suddenly was filled small weedish, sapling-like things. They were six or eight feet tall, but thin and reedy, so I could just plow through them without much effort. And as I came out on the road, right near the point where it spurs off to the west summit (W), I remembered noticing this intersection on our snowy hike and wondering where it went.

So I think we have a winner. I would feel comfortable leading a hike as things stand now, either along the zig-zag “road” or straight up the road/creek, but it would be nice to do a little trail work. The zig-zag would be nicer, I think, but would take more work.

Chuckanut Sandstone


I can’t resist a little bit of geology and another photo. A couple of miles from the trailhead There is a outcropping that I hadn’t noticed before, right near where one of the trails comes out onto the road. It is a textbook example of the Chuckanut Sandstone: the lower layers are the natural blueish-gray color of the stone and the upper layers show the light brown that results from the weathering of the rock. My guess is that this rock face was blasted out in the last two or three years to build the new road used for the recent clear-cutting, so the deeper layers have not been exposed long enough to turn brown.

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