July 7, 2010

Mountains, beer and pizza – What’s not to like?

Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 9:25 pm
The North Fork

The North Fork

On Tuesday, Karen, DJan and I set off for an afternoon hike in the North Cascades. The main reason for trying this radical variation from our usual early morning departure was to take advantage of the sudden appearance of summer after our June of Gloom and to take pictures in the afternoon light. We are usually up in the high country at the very worst time of day, with the sun directly overhead (or what passes for that here on the 49th parallel) or shining right in our eyes; by the time the light softens and the shadows begin to lengthen we are back at the trailhead or on our way back to town.

The immediate impetus for this trip was the partial closure of Canyon Creek Road for the next two months for repaving. On weekdays (M-Th) it is supposed to be closed from 8-5:00 except at lunchtime – our idea was to get up to the base of the road at noon, scoot up to the Damfino Lakes trailhead, hike and enjoy the afternoon light and come back down after 5:00, stopping for dinner at the celebrated North Fork Beer Shrine, Pizzeria and Wedding Chapel on Mount Baker Highway near Kendall.

We all found it a bit disorienting to be leaving for a hike in the middle of the day – we were all double- and triple-checking our gear. But everything was going along fine until I made the mistake of stopping at the Glacier Public Service Center (nee Ranger Station) and asking someone (who actually seemed to know what she was talking about) for an update on the Canyon Creek situation. She was very discouraging: the contractor is “supposed to” open the road from 12-1:00, but they don’t have much direct control over them; it will open again “around 5:00 or maybe later”; there were fresh reports of patchy snow near the lakes (only a half mile into the hike) and solid snow from there to Excelsior Pass. She urged us to give the warm weather at least a week to melt the trail out, and suggested Goat Mountain, where you can get above tree line without snow, as an alternative.

So there we were, all dressed up and no place to go. Goat Mountain did sound like a good choice, even though we just did it a month ago, but it seemed like a better choice for the main group hike on Thursday.

For some reason that I no longer remember, that morning I had read the FS website report on Wells Creek Road: the gate that closes the road to protect elk habitat during the winter just the past Nooksack Falls viewing area had just been opened on July 1, but the road was said to be partially blocked at mile 10.3. If we could drive to that point, a bit over 2 miles from the trailhead, we could perhaps hike up the road and then start up the trail and reach a really nice viewpoint that comes about a half mile up the trail. And the drive up that road, while long (12.5 miles) and difficult, affords some of the best mountain views, especially of Mount Baker, that you can find from any road in the area, with the possible exception of Artist Point at the end of Mount Baker Highway. So even if we couldn’t get a decent hike, there would be a good scenic payoff.

Mount Baker between Ptarmigan & Chowder Ridges

Baker between Ptarmigan & Chowder Ridges

So off we went. And everything I’d remembered about the trip up that road came true in spades. The first four miles is in pretty good shape and gives some great views up the Bar Creek valley to Baker. At that point the road begins to climb rapidly and deteriorates at a similar rate. (The picture at the left was taken from the side of the road about 8 miles in.) Decent stretches of road alternate with some truly dreadful patches. And “patches” is a bit too kind – some are long enough that you begin to forget what normal driving is like. And there are a couple of traverses of rocky faces that are truly scary – maybe not quite as bad as the upper section of Twin Lakes Road, but they are in the same ball park.

I had neither the time nor the inclination to study up close the rocks that were obviously resentful of our presence, but they looked to be volcanic, similar to stuff we see along Ptarmigan Ridge near Mount Baker and different from the mostly sedimentary bedrock along the North Fork of the Nooksack River. (Chowder Ridge, for example, was named for the fossil shellfish found there.) So these would seem to be part of what is called, appropriately enough, the Wells Creek Volcanic Formation, remnants of one of an ancient of volcanic ancestor of Mount Baker,

It was on the worst of these traverses that we passed what we believed to be the advertised “partial” closure – a couple of small boulders 15″-18″ across that were nestled against the uphill side of the already very narrow roadway. I drove as close as I could to the boulders, reasoning that a scrape on the side of the car would be a lot better than the available alternative.

Just a short way further on, at about 4400′ of altitude, we came to patch of snow that had a set of tracks through it, but still looked a little dicey. So we parked and headed up the road – we were now about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, at 4900′ the highest drivable spot in the area except Artist Point (I’m not counting Twin Lakes as drivable). We soon passed a parked car that had made it through the snow patch that had stopped me, and we could see the tracks of two people and a dog.  The hiking was fine for about a mile, with a lot of dry road and occasional snow patches, but suddenly at a fork in the road at about 4700′ the road was solid snow. The road also got steeper at that point. There was very little snow off the road in the woods, and my hope was that when we got to the trail proper the tree cover would give us some bare ground, and we could still make it to the viewpoint. (If not, we couldn’t be too broken-hearted, for there were nice views of Shuksan along the road. But still.)



My stalwart companions were game to continue and we completed the slog to the parking lot none the worse for wear. The ground was completely snow-covered, but not very deeply; the parking area is ringed by some big boulders, about 3 feet across, and these were standing well proud of the snow. But there was no sign of a trail, and I couldn’t remember exactly where it runs. From this point the trail goes right up the ridge, so there’s very little possibility of getting lost – you just head uphill as steeply as you can manage.

Well, we never found the trail but a mild case of summit fever drove us on up the ridge until a stunning view of Baker suddenly jumped out in front of us. This was the place I remembered, but I had forgotten how stunning the views are: 360 degrees of spectacular North Cascades scenery, Mount Shuksan, Church Mountain, Larrabee, Tomyhoi, etc., etc., and so forth.



I did my best to get us lost on the way down – it is harder to go down a ridge in the snow, since gravity wants to pull you off the ridgeline, but we did make it back to the trailhead and on down the road. The limit of the solid snow was right where we’d found it on the way up, but from there on it was hard to believe the amount of melting that had gone on in just a few hours. We all remembered crossing a good number of snow patches, but the road was clear and even dry now, except for those first patches that had stopped the car. And those were seriously depleted.

We have noticed on our recent hikes that we will be going along with no snow visible and all of a sudden we are in deep stuff. During our rainy May and early June (almost 6″ of rainfall in Bellingham) the snow level must have sat at about 5000′ and just dumped a huge amount of snow. We reached an altitude of 5400′ yesterday, and the snow was still not much deeper than it had been at 4700′. I’m taking this as a good omen: Now that we are having some sunshine and genuinely warm weather (life-long residents call it “hot”) I’m betting that the snow is going to disappear in a flash. (I will of course deny that I ever said any such thing when we are still scrambling to find hikable trails in August.)

Baker from Wells Creek road

Baker from Wells Creek road

The North Fork Beer Shrine lived up to its advance billing: we tried 3 of their homemade beers and shared a large Greek pizza. The pizza was truly excellent, and not just because we were ravenous. (I just finished the leftovers an hour ago, and it was even good cold.) The beers got mixed reviews: the India Pale Ale was the unanimous favorite.


1 Comment »

  1. Your description is great, Al! The only thing I would add is that you are too modest in leading us back down through the snow: there is NO WAY that Karen and I would have found our way back down without you. It was fortunate you had your GPS unit to show when we veered too far off the path. The snow was more difficult to navigate on the way back down, with the sun making it either mushy and slushy or hard and icy in the trees, we looked like a trio of drunken sailors going back down. Solid ground never felt so good! Thanks for the great post of our Most Excellent Adventure.

    Comment by DJan — July 8, 2010 @ 5:38 am

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